Eventually I’m going to get over how great Kickstarter is, and stop yapping about it. But not yet.
A few weeks ago, I led this column with a plea to support spiritual pop legends Daniel Amos in their quest to raise $12,000 for a new album. It’s been 11 years since the last DA record, and even though they’re justly lauded as pioneers in a particular corner of the music world, their fans number in the thousands, not the millions. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition – if DA did not raise 12 grand by the appointed time, they would get nothing, and we would not get a new record.
And here’s another way that Kickstarter has proved to be an incredible innovation – it serves as proof to artists that their fans love and support them. I’m not sure that knowledge is even quantifiable to a band like DA, whose members all work day jobs, and who, despite a phenomenal catalog stretching back more than 30 years, remains unjustly obscure. To know that there are hundreds of people willing to pony up to hear more music from you, well, I don’t know that you could put a price to that.
But you can quantify how much they ended up raising: $32,277. I gave them $20 of that, but some fans really bellied up to the bar. More than 100 people gave $100 or more. Several pledged $700, and one kicked in $1,000. The prizes were pretty great, including an autographed copy of the long-out-of-print Alarma Chronicles book set and a phone call from the band, but even so, that’s some true generosity. The fans love DA, and we’re excited to hear new material, especially since we know this is pretty much the only way it could possibly happen.
This outpouring of support is happening more and more lately, as relatively unknown bands take to Kickstarter to fund new projects, and find out they had more fans than they expected. I mentioned some a few weeks ago, like the Brothers Martin: Jason’s Starflyer 59 asked for $10,000 to make their first independent record, and got $24,302, while his brother Ronnie sought $6,000 to make his own new record as Joy Electric, and brought in $12,701. With this money, the Martins are free to make the music they want, the way they want, for people who already love what they do. That’s kind of a miracle.
And then there’s Amanda Palmer – or, as she prefers to be called, Amanda Fucking Palmer. She’s one of the most fascinating artists of the past decade, and in fact it wouldn’t be a lie to say she’s made an entire career out of being fascinating. As one half of the Dresden Dolls, she played theatrical cabaret punk with a dangerous edge, and as a solo artist, she’s proven herself a songwriter with a unique voice. She’s a walking melodrama, a mess of captivating contradictions, a puzzling and compelling personality – and that was before she married Neil Gaiman.
Earlier this year, she left the labels in the dust and took to Kickstarter, hoping her cadre of rabid fans would help her finance her first big independent album. She asked for $100,000. She got about $1.2 million.
I’m going to say that again. She asked for $100,000. She got about $1.2 million. $1,192,793, to be precise. That’s simply insane, and is a testament to a number of things. First, it’s obviously a sign that Palmer is doing something right artistically – her dramatic-yet-fragile confessions are striking a chord with people. But second, it’s not just the art. Palmer uses the Internet to connect with fans like few other artists, and she’s built up a strong following using all forms of social media. People feel like they know her, and they’re much more willing to give money to someone they know. She’s definitely done that right.
And third, I think people just wanted to see what someone like Palmer would do with $1.2 million. If Kickstarter is an experiment in funding unfettered creativity, Amanda Palmer is exactly the kind of artist I want to see benefit from it. She does whatever the hell she wants anyway – no label executive could have invented AFP, and none of them have been able to change or mold her. I’ve seen what she can do within the system, and in the main, it was fantastic. The idea of allowing an artist like Palmer total control and oodles of cash is just delicious.
What did she end up doing with that money? She only made the best and most over-the-top record of her life. It’s called Theatre is Evil, and it’s nothing less than the ultimate Amanda Palmer album. It’s excessive and intimate in equal measure, it’s dramatic and disturbing, masked-up and massive, and yet deeply felt and moving. Its 15 tracks sprawl out over 72 minutes, and nimbly jump genres like frogs jump puddles. Whatever you were hoping for when you handed your money to Kickstarter for this project, it’s in here somewhere. And I can’t imagine any of her fans being disappointed with this thing.
The album is laid out like a stage show, with an intermission in the middle, and you’re going to need it. Because Theatre is Evil is intense. Some of it will make you gasp and recoil in horror, some of it will make you laugh with recognition, and some of it will move you to tears. Her three-piece backing band this time is called the Grand Theft Orchestra, and they’re able to go as widescreen or as pinpoint as Palmer needs. Some of the songs here, like the opening epic “Smile (Pictures or it Didn’t Happen),” are massive, horns and strings blaring. But some, like the brilliant and chilling “The Bed Song,” are as delicate as freshly-fallen snow.
And yes, Palmer has retained her penchant for dramatic shock value. Take “The Killing Type,” which comes complete with an incredibly gory video. The lyrics are an expertly crafted slow build of rage – Palmer insists again and again that she’s “not the killing type,” but the song is aimed at someone she’d like to kill, and it grows more and more unsettling as it goes. “I once stepped on a dying bird, it was a mercy killing, I couldn’t sleep for a week, I kept feeling its breaking bones,” she confesses, before shouting, “I want to stick my fist into your mouth and twist your arctic heart.” The music is similarly chilly, building to an explosion. “I’m saying it now, I’m saying it so even if you never hear this song somebody else will know,” she spits.
Also chilling in a different way is “Grown Man Cry,” which sounds like an ‘80s Pretenders song, all clean guitars and shimmering keyboards. Palmer paints a picture of a woman bored with her sensitive, nice guy: “For a while it was touching, it was almost even comforting, before it became typical, and now it really is not interesting to see a grown man cry…” As the song progresses, though, the man’s behavior becomes harder to rationalize, and Palmer’s coldness makes more sense by the abrupt, striking end.
And yet, here she is one song later, on the gorgeous “Trout Heart Replica,” lamenting the overflow of emotions she feels. “It’s hurting that’s the hardest part, and when the wizard gets to me, I’m asking for a smaller heart,” she sings. On the winning, Cars-like “Massachusetts Avenue,” Palmer lays her complexities bare – it’s a song of memories returning, triggered by the street on which Palmer lives, but it’s also a song of a failed relationship, and the reasons why: “Do you remember loving me more than I could be loved? I chased you for so long and when I caught you, I gave up.”
The album’s finest lyric is also its most devastating portrait. “The Bed Song” traces the life of a couple by the beds they’ve owned and shared. It begins with the young pair sharing a sleeping bag, “splitting the heat, we have one filthy pillow to share, and your lips are in my hair.” They move in together, first in an apartment with a futon on the floor, then in a condo with a bed. By this time, they’ve grown silent, drifted apart: “All the money in the world won’t buy a bed so big and wide to guarantee that you won’t accidentally touch me in the night…”
And still they never talk – the singer of the song never asks her partner what’s wrong, or why they don’t speak. The last scene takes us to their final resting place, a joint grave beneath a cherry tree, and the sadness just pours out of those final lines. It just hurts, in a way only a good story well told can do, and it’s proof that Palmer is a born songwriter. Others, like the tremendous “Berlin” and the delightfully pathetic “Do It With a Rockstar,” just provide even more evidence.
This is exactly the kind of record I was hoping Palmer would make with her Kickstarter cash – one that captures her essence while exploding her potential. When your album’s a $1.2 million success before you even start making it, you’re free to be who you are, and write what you want. I don’t think this is an album Palmer’s former label, Roadrunner Records, would have been too pleased with – it’s too long, there are no obvious singles, it’s messy and complicated. But it’s precisely what Palmer’s legion of fans will want, and now that she’s dealing directly with them, that’s all that matters. Theatre is Evil is hopefully just the first in a long series of spectacular records from an artist taking full advantage of her freedom.
The other thing Kickstarter does well is connect idiosyncratic artists with the music fans who will appreciate them. Under the record label system, A&R executives were the gatekeepers, the ones who decided what you would hear, which is why many quirkier projects never quite found their audiences. I mentioned Joy Electric earlier – Ronnie Martin’s analog synth-pop project has spent the past 20 years on Tooth and Nail Records, releasing album after album to a dedicated, yet incredibly small group of fans. And each time out, the label had to decide whether it was worth it to print up copies, considering how many they would sell. That they did, again and again, for two decades is a real testament to the label.
But Ronnie on his own, through Kickstarter, won’t have to worry about that. He’s proven that the audience is there, and with the freedom now afforded him, he can do what he wants – which is burbling keyboard fantasias sung in a breathy whisper – without fear. I don’t expect Joy E to change very much, but Ronnie can now just focus on making a great album the way he wants to, without worrying about how to market and sell it.
Another good example is Tourniquet. You couldn’t make up Tourniquet if you tried. They’re a technical metal band obsessed with medical imagery, standing up against animal cruelty, and singing about Jesus. They’re more classically-inspired than most metal acts, incorporating strings and flutes and orchestral movements into their work, and they’re thoroughly unafraid to do as many un-metal things as they can think up, while still remaining astonishingly heavy.
The audience for complex Christian metal with violins isn’t nearly as huge as it ought to be, and Tourniquet has been without a record label for almost a decade. But they still have fans, as they discovered when they took to Kickstarter last year. They asked for $22,000 – an enormous amount for a band like this – and got $28,476. With that money, they hired producer Bill Metoyer and a host of guest artists, and made the best record of their career.
It’s called Antiseptic Bloodbath, and the front cover depicts the skeleton of Jesus on the cross behind a disemboweled animal carcass. It’s perfectly Tourniquet, as is the music within. You’ll know you’re not listening to a typical metal disc right away – the record begins with kids chanting out names from the periodic table in a strange cheer, which leads into singer Luke Easter shouting the song’s title (“Chart of the Elements”) and whooping like a loon after each repetition. Yeah, there’s a bone-crunching riff after that, but you’d be forgiven for wondering just what the hell you’re listening to before that arrives.
Tourniquet’s not-so-secret weapon is drummer Ted Kirkpatrick, who writes the lion’s share of the music. The classical influences are his – he’s pictured on the back of Antiseptic Bloodbath wearing a Chopin shirt – but he’s also one of the fastest and most precise metal drummers alive. This album’s title track is a full-on thrash nightmare, but it shifts tempo and time signatures every few seconds too, and Kirkpatrick just obliterates it. The song is about our tendency to sanitize brutality to make ourselves feel better about it, and Kirkpatrick’s lyrics somehow work in the crucifixion and slaughterhouses.
Throughout this record, Kirkpatrick’s penchant for interesting, unexpected riffs and melodies never lets him down. Check out the seven-minute “The Maiden Who Slept in the Glass Coffin,” which glides in on violins (over downtuned, crunchy guitars), leaves a wide expanse of space for guest Marty Friedman to solo, and then charges back in with the heaviness. Just listen to the middle section, in which the band emulates the more classically-driven opening with guitars and drums. It’s head-spinning.
Easter and guitarist Aaron Guerra contribute two songs as a writing team, and like always, their pieces are the shorter, more immediate ones. “Duplicitous Endeavor” fits the bill nicely, shimmying from a harmony guitar opening to a groovy stomp worthy of Countdown to Extinction-era Megadeth. But it’s Kirkpatrick’s epics that keep me coming back. The final track here is a monster – the eight-minute “Fed By Ravens, Eaten By Vultures” is a classic, somehow building from a spare violin to a full-on screamfest organically in its opening two minutes. This song is everything you want a Tourniquet piece to be.
The same can be said for all of Antiseptic Bloodbath, perhaps the purest distillation of what this band’s about. I think it’s amazing stuff, but I thoroughly understand that the audience for this kind of thing is limited. Since I’m in that audience, though, I’m thankful that we now have a mechanism to fund bands and projects like these directly. If Tourniquet asks for my money again, I’m gladly going to give it to them, especially now that I’ve heard what they’re likely to do with it. Trust builds trust. And if this new system we have can keep bands like Tourniquet making albums like Antiseptic Bloodbath, without fear, then I think it’s a keeper.
Buy Antiseptic Bloodbath here.
Next week, the ultimate Kickstarter band, the mighty Marillion. After that, Ben Folds and Aimee Mann. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.