Early in my music career, around the time I began meeting some of my heroes and influences, I discovered a fascinating truth which surprised me a little: None of my favorite dance or hip hop artists spent any time listening to the genres of music they were known for creating.
Producers I knew spent their lives either buried in thrift shop bargain bins searching for obscure library music and jazz LPs to plunder for samples, or marvelling at the clarity of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports or maybe the modular synth madness of Tangerine Dream. Possibly not coincidentally, this was during an incredibly experimental and fertile time for UK music of all shades. For a few years there, it felt like I lived in the musical epicenter of the planet.
In the current climate, utterly dominated and bullied by a mostly-imagined, fully corporatized “electronic scene” in which budding music-makers are encouraged to purchase an expensive piece of kit to generate a chord rather than learning how to play three harmonizing notes on a keyboard, real inspiration is hard to come by. We’re encouraged to remain fully immersed in house music. All the time. House music, all night long. Which is great for loyal genre-fans and party people, but if you want to contribute something original, or even vaguely interesting to the landscape, surely you need to be fishing for ideas in slightly less crowded waters? Genres which become a closed loop turn into a parody of themselves — a facsimile of a written page getting copied over and over again: eventually all meaning is lost.
We’re all here because some weird music we’d never heard before touched us and changed our lives.
For those of us who work in the music industry, it’s easy to get completely sucked into the current, blinkered, way of thinking about all of it, from marketing trends, to the hottest new sub-genres, to carefully tailored playlist pitching and listener demographics. But we all started out as fans. We’re all here because some weird music we’d never heard before touched us and changed our lives.
Recently, I’ve found a wonderful reminder of this fact.It’s a neatly packaged antidote to our horrendously homogeneous musical landscape, in the form of a series of free weekly newsletters by Michael Donaldson, better known to fans of esoteric electronica as Q-Burns Abstract Message.
Ringo Dreams Of Lawn Care is described by Michael as “a newsletter loosely about music-making and music-listening and how technology changes the culture around those things.” But it’s much more than that. Each installment (or episode really) has a witty and enticing title (“Unsuspecting Party People,” “The Hug Of Human Curation” and “The Voice Of Dust” to name but three) and its own specially composed theme tune. Michael has a unique way of listening to, making, and describing music, one which really helps to shift my perspective and think differently about it. Reading his words often feels to me like an artistic self-help guide.
Offering up different approaches and sharp, independent insights, I seem to gain a small spark of inspiration from each of these slightly odd and brilliantly written notes. But simply, these newsletters remind me that music is, above and beyond anything else, the closest thing to magic mankind has ever universally agreed to believe in.
Each episode contains links to great experimental music of all shades, as well as obscure literature tips (Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem anyone?), honest and insightful music industry commentaries and so many ideas and thoughts to help expand our thinking, signposting fresh pathways for listening and creating.
In Episode 022 (“Too Much Information“), Michael writes: “The Industrial Culture Handbook, published in 1983, featured the quote, ‘The next war is the information war and it is being fought now.’ I doubt the author imagined the war would be fought not with information, but against information itself. Music falls under this vast category of ‘information.’ We once accepted there was only so much music we could hear and, frustrating as that was, it guided our listening choices. Now, there isn’t infinite music, but it sure seems like it. Has this affected the way we listen? Have our choices become fleeting and especially impulsive, as music enters and leaves our lives with accelerated frequency? As with the over-saturation of information, should we shield ourselves from ‘so much music?'”
In Episode 007 (“The Comfort In Listening“), released at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, Michael wrote: “I’m not alone in walking a tightrope between ‘now’s the time to get stuff done’ and ‘take it easy for your mental health.’ It’s an unusual juggling act, at least for me. I miss the days — they seem so long ago — when I would get lost entirely in creative tasks, the mind focused straight ahead for hours. It’s been like that for a while, but lately, the distraction dial goes to 11. It’s about reclaiming space, throwing that bellowing inner voice off to the side. It’s a modern ploy to call this act ‘mindfulness,’ and I’ve regularly meditated for years, but that’s not helping right now. We need solace and beauty — something that whispers hope. We need art now more than ever.”
But it’s Michael’s own explanation of the newsletter’s title that perhaps gives the best taste of his beautifully unique thought processes:
“I’m always coming up with song titles and band names and imaginary headlines. These arise from overheard phrases, images that abruptly pop into my head, even sentences that roll through my brain as I wake from a dream. I’ve kept a running list for over a decade. ‘Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care’ was one of those things, a phrase that I thought of without any intention. It’s a play on the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I thought it was amusing. I liked that it didn’t mean anything. And so I grabbed it when naming this newsletter. I enjoy the idea of inserting meaning after the fact — the old ‘concept album without a concept’ trick. I imagined an alternate universe Ringo, one that isn’t a Beatle but instead leads a happy life tending to gardens and lazily steering a riding mower. This reality seeps into the dreams of our world’s Ringo, and he wonders of a less complicated life.”
To receive episodes straight to your inbox, appearing like a welcome message from an incredibly clever new friend, head over to ringodreams.substack.com & subscribe.