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The Plastic Billionaires - Reconstructing of a Modern Classic

The Plastic Billionaires
2 October 2012

You have to love a band that likes a challenge. In the last few years The Cure, Slayer, The Pixies, Tom Waits, Metallica and even the ever-cranky Black Sabbath have all done a similar thing on tour. They each committed themselves to re-learning one of their old records and then going out on tour, playing the record in it’s entirely from start to finish. It’s not a new concept, but it is an easy way to sell tickets, re-invigorate their live sets and to remind their fans that they are still the same group of people and that they are still capable of flooring the audience. Phish has learned and performed entire records at their infamous Halloween shows, including The Beatles White Album, The Who‘s Quadrophenia and the Velvet Underground‘s Loaded. Tons of bands now perform cover sets – entire shows dedicated to another artist. Some bands take it a step further, dressing up like the artists. And let’s not forget the legion of cover bands, dedicating themselves in all the great dive bars in America on a nightly basis. Tirelessly devoted to the back catalog of everything from Neil Diamond and Ace of Base to an all-female version of Iron Maiden. Then you have you cover band mash ups, like The Misfats and Manic Hispanic, who are taking parody to a place that Dread Zeppelin never imagined would exist.

Karaoke, Air Guitar, Rock Band and Guitar Hero have made imitation a professional sport. This is bad news for musicians. Anybody can play a guitar riff using a plastic guitar or a computer program. Anybody can sound like T-Pain using auto-tune, even the tone deaf, because regardless of their actual ability a computer plug-in is now in charge. Some purists see this as a kind of death knell of modern music culture, I would argue that this has kind of pushed musicians into new territory, one where they’re more likely to take chances. The cover song is a passé relic, but the idea behind it is being transformed into something far more interesting. A few years ago The Flaming Lips released their version of Dark Side of The Moon, and it got me thinking more and more about bands that are re-recording entire records. It’s taking the concept of a cover band to an extreme level: one rich in detail that is wide open for interpretation.

For The Plastic Billionaires second release, they undertook a monumental task. They decided to re-record Brian Eno‘s 1974 classic, Taking Tiger Mountain (by strategy). The two piece band describes their sound as “a country techno version of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, a promise they (thankfully) don’t deliver on. On their first release, an LP called Subprime, they experimented with free downloads using the “donation” method (suggested by Thom Yorke as a way to distribute Radiohead‘s In Rainbows LP) with mixed results. The band’s Eno cover record was given it’s own distinct moniker, “Taking Tiger Mountain (by credit default swap)” and is available for download entirely for free. No guilt trip required.

AJ – So Raph, you live in Vermont and Matt lives in Ontario. Where did you record?

Raph – Each of us recorded at home and shot files back and forth online. Matt did the mixing and mastering. During the making of both this and the first album we didn’t speak to each other, even by phone…. everything was done over email. It works really well because you never have to schedule anything. Matt is a bit of a night owl, so I’d often finish up some tracks at 10 or 11 pm, send them off to him, and then wake up to new stuff that he’d done in the wee hours of the morning and could start up again.

Matt – We shuttled files around by FTP and email a lot, and I kept on top of the mixes as they grew bigger. We keep sound quality up but it is amusing to make do with whatever the circumstances are — sometimes recording with just the built-in mic on a laptop, sometimes with expensive condenser mics and good pre-amps. Some guitars were recorded with fancy instruments and nice old tube amps, and some were just cheap beaters recorded direct through amp simulations. Some of the keyboards were actual vintage analog synths, and some were virtual reproductions. I recorded and mixed on the fly, wherever I happened to be. The Eno project was substantially finished while I was in Costa Rica for several weeks. I was down there recording environmental sounds and a number of those crept into the mix — insects, wind and surf. While I was down there I shot some footage for a simple video for Burning Airlines which can be found on Youtube. The whole time we kept sending mixes and new layers of sounds back and forth.

I’ve been trying to make a practice of being able to record and mix excellent sounds almost anywhere under extremely variable conditions. Some of this stuff is coming out now — The Gertrudes and PS I Love You are two other recent recording projects, among others. Soon, Raph is going to actually come up to where I live for some sessions in a proper studio, which will eventually become another Dirtminers album.

AJ – How did you guys meet?

Raph – Matt and I have known each other since high school at the International School of Kenya in Narobi in the early 80’s. Foreign service brats. Even back then we were mucking about with music together, pretty ineptly of course. Well on my part anyway. Like a lot of international school kids we kept in touch over the years and both ended up on the eastern end of the continent in the last decade or so. When I was getting my act together to record some music five or six years ago I asked Matt to play on what became the first Dirtminers cd. That band is more of a straight up rock/pop/americana thing- we’ve done a second cd and we also play out live.

AJ – How did the idea of re-recording the album come about, and how was it put into action?

Raph – The Plastic Billionaires first cd came about from a “record an album in a month” challenge. Its an entirely virtual band, we’ve never really done a live show. I always joke that I don’t even know how to play the songs which in some cases is true.

Last year Matt suggested we do the Eno cover and I was throughly into it. Both of us are Eno fans since ancient days. I first got into Eno when I was in 8th grade at the International School of Islamabad, in Pakistan, and there was this funny Eno cult where people ran around spray painting ENO 801 on walls and so forth. Not sure what the origins of all that was, its not like he was a superstar. I got a couple of his albums right around then, 1979 or 80 and I was really into his work all through high school and college. The pictures on the cover are from a photo booth in Basel, Switzerland where my uncle lives, sometime in 1981 I think. You can see I have on a “Before and After Science” t-shirt which is not photoshopped in, I was really wearing it!

Matt – Raph and I recorded the first Plastic Billionaires CD of original songs using the file shuttling method, and a year went by before I proposed doing the Eno album. I always loved Tiger Mountain — Raph actually introduced me to Eno when we were teenagers in East Africa, along with The Clash, Kraftwerk, The Residents, and lots of other music.

Tiger Mountain has got great melodies and harmonies, interesting arrangements, and it’s fun to sing along with. I can’t really explain though, why I thought a start to end cover version would be a good thing to tackle. It’s a bit of a folly. I thought of it partly as an homage, and our version pays tribute to a lot of the harmony singing and the arrangements — some of the tunes are even a little too slavish to the original, perhaps. But then there are some tracks that go in a completely different direction, like Fat Lady of Limbourg, which has become a chipper little number thanks to Raph! And we made a fun video for that tune too. Anyone who is quite familiar with the original LP will find a few in-jokes they might appreciate. I’ll leave those for people to discover on their own. It was slightly disappointing to discover half way through our production, that another duo had already made a cover version of Taking Tiger Mountain! But that didn’t make me want to abandon doing it. I hope Mr Eno would regard our effort as more than fanwork — we wanted it to have legs of its own.

AJ – Has anyone representing Eno contacted you?

Matt – No, but we aspire to getting an invitation to attend Mr Eno’s singing circle. We read in a recent interview that they meet weekly to sing songs like “Nine Pound Hammer” and so on. The closest I have got to meeting Brian Eno was nearly bumping into him — literally — in a giant bouncy castle art installation some years ago in London. I came bouncing in and narrowly missed him. It seemed like he was there with his kids and a nanny, who were bouncing all over, but he was just leaning against the wall of the bouncy castle with his slightly ironic smile. I didn’t talk to him.

Raph – No lawsuits, not even a phone call! He’s notoriously hard to get in touch with. I found some contact info for some of his family members online, but it felt too stalkerish to try to get to him that way. We’d love to get him a copy. I did get an email for Phil Manzanera’s management and sent them a note, but never heard anything back. Halfway through recording Matt discovered that some other folks had done a TTM album cover a few years back, and apparently Eno heard that one and sent them a nice note. We were too far along with ours to be dissuaded and anyway their version is totally different than ours. I think we emailed them and never heard back either. Maybe there’s something wrong with our email.

AJ – What made you decide to give away the record for free?

Matt – We have to give it away because we didn’t ask permission to record or release it! But giving stuff away seems to be the best policy anyway.

Raph – We’ve been trying to sell out but no one was buying.

AJ – Which was the hardest song to translate into your own piece of work?

Raph – Both The Great Pretender and Mother Whale Eyeless threw me for something of a loop. They both have that sort of off kilter feel and I kept mishearing what key we were in or feeling like I was straightening out the time. I think they both came out really great in the end though.

Matt – For me, it was Third Uncle. The original has such great energy, it was hard to imagine achieving anything close. In the end we did a sort of dance take on it, which is completely different from the sound of the rest of the songs.

Raph – The cool thing about doing this sort of project is that it really makes you listen to what actually makes up the song. Some parts turn out to be critically important and others you can just throw out the window, and its not always what you’d expect. I think its a really good exercise as a songwriter or producer to do this sort of reconstruction because you get a window into how someone else’s brain works in terms of building a song.

AJ – That’s a great word to describe that process – reconstruction. Speaking of reconstruction, do you think that the traditional record company model will survive this decade?

Raph – I think its already dead, in the sense of companies that had artist development and were looking for long term career artists. While there’s a lot of excitement about the new economic model for musicians, I think its pretty grim in a lot of ways. No one wants to pay for recorded music anymore. I think Eno is a prime example of the kind of musician that would have a very hard time getting noticed these days- most of his best work took place hunkered in a studio rather than onstage. If he had been forced to tour and sell t-shirts to have a career I don’t think it would have lasted long.

Matt – Undoubtedly it will, but there is a lot of room for cottage industry production now which seems like a bit of fresh air. I admire the smaller labels which are making a big impact, like Paper Bag, Arts and Crafts, or rat-drifting.

AJ – Did you make any money from your first record’s release online using the “donation” method and if so, what was the average contribution and the largest single contribution?

Matt – Nobody pressed the $10,000 button, that’s all I can say! Not even once! We live in hope.

Raph – $25 or something. I mean the total! Good thing we’re billionaires.


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