Commentary

In search of the meaning of post-rock

Originally Published: November 10, 2009
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

I'm at a tiny club in Kansas City, drinking cheap beer and lamenting the fact that, as usual, I wasn't able to find someone to accompany me on a late Monday night to the live show of a rock band that most people have never heard of. But as the opener finishes, I'm less worried about loneliness and more concerned with confirming that I'll have a good spot to watch the headliner.

[+] EnlargeMark Smith
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty ImagesMark Smith says Explosions in The Sky want to compose pieces that "change your world for an hour, transport you somewhere else for the time that you are listening to our show."

I'm here to watch Pelican, a veteran of the post-rock scene and a band to which I never would have given any thought until I fell in love with post-rock music.

If your brain is as simple as mine, adding the prefix post- to a word only serves to confuse. I was 28 before I figured out what postmodern meant. And my definition remains vague. Fittingly, my favorite use of the prefix occurs in the nonsensical name of the Japandroids' debut album, the excellent "Post-Nothing."

As Pelican starts their set, I am struck, once again, with how much I like the brand of music they pour forth. I'm not surprised. My reactions at the post-rock shows I've seen have ranged from ecstatic (Mono) to almost literally blown from my perch (Mogwai) to bouncing around and sure I was going to burst out of my skin (Holy F---). Post-rock concerts have been the blue-chip stocks of my live music portfolio.

But, while I am pleased that the streak continues -- that Pelican is delivering, just as I had hoped -- I am confused. What is this "post-rock"? And why do I like it so much?

I decide to dig deeper.

After watching Mono in New York, and then mentioning in these very pages how transcendental I'd thought the show to be, I'd been in touch with the band's label, which also works with Explosions In The Sky. Because Mono is made up of Japanese people, and because I don't speak Japanese, I bypassed contacting the band I'd actually seen, and asked if I could get in touch with someone from Explosions In The Sky, who I've never seen live, but who I've long enjoyed in recorded form. Someone who might be able to answer some of the embryonic questions gestating in my brain.

I put my questions to Mark Smith from Explosions, first asking him how he defined the genre, a genre, incidentally, that his band doesn't necessarily love being categorized under, as they -- like many artists -- don't love being categorized at all. He responded with his definition of the origins of the term "post-rock" and what it has come to mean:

"I think it was supposed to signify that this music was adventurous, and of the future, and not confined to the strictures of regular rock music. I think it then came to describe a grouping of bands that play rock music with no vocals and an emphasis on repetition. When it's done well, it can be uniquely amazing, that this type of emotion and dynamics can be drawn from a handful of instruments (the best in my opinion were Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who were astonishingly good for the first few albums)."

I liked his definition, because it echoed some of my own thoughts. In my experience with the genre, which, admittedly, isn't all-encompassing, I too have thought that it sounded a little like the future of music. But I once thought that Third Eye Blind sounded a little like the future of music. So like an 11th grader finishing a late-semester paper, I sought out another source. I asked Matt McQuaid, bassist of Holy F---, for an attempt at a definition. His response:

"I think in its simplest terms post-rock refers to music made using traditional elements of rock music -- guitar, bass, drums -- to achieve non-traditional results in the form of instrumental, droney, noisy and electronic songs and non-songs."

With apologies to Smith, who had no idea I was going to pit him against a fellow musician in an attempt to define a term he doesn't even like all that much, I liked McQuaid's response even more. It touched on something that has consistently struck me at post-rock shows. Of course, musically, I'm an idiot, so I couldn't figure out completely what was different. But there it is: post-rockers use the same instruments as regular rock bands; they just come up with different results. When I watched ISIS open for Tool, I kept waiting for the chorus that never came. Because there was no chorus. When I watched Maserati, my brain thought it wanted a verse, but it wasn't there. And, come to find out -- there was something better. Something like classical music. Something grander.

When I listen to post-rock, it feels like I'm listening to something important. At no time is that more evident than during the experience of taking in one of the softest post-rock bands at work, Eluvium. Their album "Copia" is as beautiful as anything I've heard in the past year. And not in the sense that I think Nine Inch Nails is beautiful. Eluvium's music is beautiful in the traditional sense, the way sunsets seen reflected in mountain lakes are beautiful. Like lilies are beautiful. Like Scandinavian girls are beautiful. Strange, then, that their music is so untraditional. Then again, is it untraditional? Or is it actually as traditional as it comes. Because to me, Eluvium sounds as much like classical music as does Handel.

Which is all well and good. The only problem: I doubt I would have felt like someone was hooking a car battery into every neural receptor in my body at a Handel concert. I have felt like that at a Mogwai show. I had a theory, of course, and I put it to test with Smith and McQuaid.

Me: A theory: Because post-rock musicians are often not as worried about singing, they're able to concentrate on building a piece of music together, like jazz or classical artists. Am I being stupid, or this there something to my theory?

McQuaid:

"It could be that there are no words to distract you as a listener, although in a live setting words are often muddled. It could be that the non-traditional and 'zany' instrumentation and set-ups of these bands add a different visual element to the show. It could be that the non-traditional songs and song structures pique your interest (consciously or not). If anything, I would guess that the absence of a "front-man" or leader of some kind, and the absence of instrumental solos creates a different performance experience and thus a different watching and listening experience.

But, to make a long story short, I don't think there is anything to your theory."

And just when I was starting to like him …

I put the same question to Mark Smith. He said:

"I think part of your theory is correct -- the thought that because no one is worried about singing, we can spend more energy on creating a wholly integrated piece. For us, that is what it is all about. We've often said we want to compose pieces that just change your world for an hour, transport you somewhere else for the time that you are listening to our show. The movements and the guitar interplay and dynamics are all (hopefully) integrated into a song that (hopefully) can bring up a feeling, an image, and experience (I apologize -- it is difficult to talk about this stuff without sounding kind of pretentious).

"As for the second part of your theory, however -- and I can't speak for other similar bands -- but for us we do not have the jazz/classical attitude that you speak of. A lot of people come see us and think that we're improvising, and making stuff up on the spot, and like you say introducing themes and coming back to them. We do a little of that in the transitions between songs (when we play live, we like for all the songs to be a continuous piece, with no silence, so we make up little transitions to connect them). But the songs themselves are very composed, and change little from the time we write them and then decide that they're songs and then record them. We spend a lot of time writing the songs, figuring out how long each part or melody should go, or how heavy each part should be played, etc. So if we were to improvise during shows, I think that would probably weaken the songs quite a bit, because for one thing we're not very good at improvising."

Basically, I was about one-fourth correct.

And, for all my efforts, I was rewarded with most of an effective definition, but no real explanation for why, exactly, I enjoy post-rock so much.

My personal history with the genre goes back several years. One summer during college, my brother Dan and I were sitting on the couch at our parents' home, debating why it was that we had nothing to do on a Friday night. While we talked, I was perusing a guide to the Lawrence, Kan., nightlife and noticed that a band called Mogwai was playing in a few hours. I'd heard of Mogwai, or at least pretended that I had for Dan's sake, and we agreed that we should shell out the $12 necessary to go.

One-third of the way into Mogwai's first song, we were thinking the same thought, "When is somebody going to sing?"

Ten minutes later, after the band had executed its third or fourth crescendo into a melodic buzz saw of the three guitars and one bass on stage, we weren't worried about lyrics anymore. To this day, I mark it as one of the top three concerts I've ever seen.

Over the years, I was introduced to Sigur Ros, the Icelandic post-rockers who do sing, but who do so sometimes in a made-up language and sometimes in Icelandic, which might as well be a made-up language. I found their work to be a lullaby to Mogwai's chain-gang chant, but I approved nonetheless. In fact, because Sigur Ros seems better able to transfer their music into albums, I've listened to more Sigur Ros than Mogwai over the years.

Then it was ISIS, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Holy F---. Along the way, there was lots of Explosions In The Sky, which, I found, accompanied writing nicely. But I hadn't made the link between the bands. I thought I was sometimes seeing and hearing electronica, or that I was sometimes seeing rock bands that just didn't like to sing. And, in truth, the latter is exactly what all of these bands are. But my brain, like the brain of many, needs labels. Mogwai might not like to be a part of these labels. (The band, arguably the best example of the genre, has rejected the use of the term in interviews, saying that post-rock means a beer after the show.) And I understand that, from the musicians' point of view. As Smith put it:

"Except for maybe people who identify with and proudly play country, or black metal, or hip-hop, I think it's just human nature to not want to be labeled with a classification. I think most people want to feel that they're doing something different and unique. We don't really get annoyed by it -- it's more like we just try to play something else, something hopefully more colorful, something that doesn't sound like what has come to be known as 'post-rock.' Although, and maybe this is obvious, we don't at all mind simply being classified as a rock band. We play rock instruments and we try to rock. If a narrower description of our music (or similar bands) is needed, I think 'instrumental rock' does just fine. I also don't really mind some of the other less-used phrases, like 'expeditionary rock' or 'atmospheric rock.' But probably only because you don't hear them all the time."

In other words, Explosions In The Sky isn't going to argue the point, because they're a band made up of musically gifted individuals. They don't need to classify things. I do; I'm musically stupid. (For the record, McQuaid noted that he doesn't mind being labeled post-rock because at least it keeps people from lumping them in with electronica.)

After watching Maserati and Mono in quick succession, it dawned on me that what I was seeing and, so often, liking very much, was its own animal, different in form from the music of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or Wolfmother or Santigold.

Which is how I ended up at Pelican, debating what in the hell it was that I was watching.

And right there, in the middle of Pelican's set, I came up with my own definition, one that I kind of like:

You know how, sometimes, a rock song starts with a great intro? Someone has found a cool beat and worked out a timeless bass line and added a guitar part at just the right moment … and then all of that beauty is ruined because some guy starts singing? Well, post-rock is like that, only instead of a bad lyricist crashing the party, imagine if the band kept working out more intricate interplay among their instruments. Sometimes that interplay means the song gets very loud and complex, and sometimes that interplay means the song gets very fragile and simple.

In either case, the result is often beautiful.

None of this is to say that vocals are always bad, or that post-rock is necessarily superior to standard-structure rock 'n' roll music. Sometimes, we need poetry. But not every vocalist has the pipes of Chris Cornell. Sometimes, it's better to keep the humans quiet, and let the instruments do the talking.

That's post-rock.

You might have noticed that it sounded like I was explaining a musical genre to a third-grader. Fitting, really, because when it comes to music, I'm like a third-grader. I need simplicity. I need labels. I need an elementary definition.

So, with apologies to McQuaid and Smith (and many thanks for their time), I've taken the products of their Ph.D. level brains and created a third-grade level definition. "A really long, really cool rock intro that never ends" probably won't make it into Webster's, but when I'm listening to Mono, and I'm completely overwhelmed by the majesty of what I'm hearing, at least I'll be able to return to that sentence fragment and calm my simple mind.

(Author's note: Hours after turning in this piece, I learned that Jerry Fuchs, drummer for Maserati, died this weekend in Brooklyn. My condolences to his family and to his band.)

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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