If you want to know about pop music, ask a pop star. Jyoti Mishra, in his guise as a regular poster on uk.music.alternative, is friendly, intelligent, enthusiastic and a pop savant of considerable taste. Jyoti Mishra, in his guise as White Town, is a pop star: for a week or so in 1997 his “Your Woman” single (you remember – music-hall trumpet line, synthpop, treated vocals, black and white video of gent chasing flapper) was at Number One in the singles chart. For me, that’s about the highest honour these times allow.
So I asked Jyoti for an interview – Freaky Trigger‘s first ever – and as it turns out I couldn’t have picked a better subject. He answered my e-mailed questions quickly and cheerfully, and the results are below, as amusing and thought-provoking as I could ever have hoped. Thanks a lot, Jyoti!
Before you read the interview, vital information. Jyoti’s own website lives at http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/elejyo, and the White Town webpages (with more information on the upcoming Peek & Poke album) are at http://www.k1m.com/wt.
And now the questions…
What does ‘pop’ mean to you?
Ha! – this is a fucking minefield. Pop, for me, is any music that is popular or has the potential to be, if it was widely enough heard. Of course, the second part is the nebulous bugger. What I think is potentially a pop hit, few other people ever agree with. For instance, I think if Sonic Youth’s ‘Teenage Riot’ was ever used on a big advertising campaign, it would go to No.1 in the pop charts since it’s a brilliant pop song (they’d probably have to do a radio edit, though). The same goes for McCarthy’s ‘Governing Takes Brains’,, The Fieldmice’s ‘Fabulous Friend’ or A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘We Can Get Down.’
The first part means that even if I don’t like them, Britney and Christina, Steps and S Club 7 are undeniably pop stars. Because they are popular. They make popular music. Here, popular doesn’t automatically equate with good. For me they’re bad pop acts. They make popular music which I don’t like. But I like Five and the Backstreet Boys (seriously, not in a crappy ironic way) so they, for me, are good pop acts.
Ultimately, I think pop music is any music which is outward looking, striving to make a connection. Unafraid to say banal or commonplace things and which doesn’t hide behind layers of fake experimentalism. I hate fucking avant-garde/underground bands. All they’re doing is making music which they think will gain them respect amongst a small group of chin-rubbing likeminded twats. They’ve taken the huge scope and reach of pop music and narrowed it down to a few thousand kids around the world who write to each other in green crayon. If they really do like the sound of raccoons falling down the stairs and that fulfills them musically, then that’s brilliant. But I suspect the truth is that they just want to be cool. Pop’s not about being cool – one week you may be, the next you’re in the bargain bins.
Is being a No.1 pop star on your CV?
Yep. Of course. I’m not proud of signing to shitheads like EMI but I am proud of writing a song which got millions of people around the world humming along, even if they didn’t know what the hell it was about.
Why do you think a liking for pop is generally assumed to be ironic?
Because most people are snivelling fucking cowards, afraid to feel, love or live for themsleves. I agree with Wilhelm Reich on this one, Listen Little Man sums it up better than I could. The only reason I don’t give a shit what other people think about my music taste is that I had years of being laughed at at school. When you grow up a fat geek, it liberates you from large swathes of societal conformity.
What I especially despise is the “it’s so shit it’s good” kind of weak irony you mostly find at student nights. Kids dancing ironically to the Bee Gees or Abba. Fuck that. They were both great pop bands who changed the face of music . Where’s the comedy in that?
The flipside is that people only like pop ironically because ROCK (spit) is meant to be the “serious” music. Which is bollocks because the best rock becomes, of course, pop music.
Can the Top 40 learn anything from the kind of music you talk about on uk.m.a.? And vice versa?
Well, bear in mind that I was ranting away on ukma well before I had my one big pop hit. I didn’t suddenly morph overnight into a different musician. So for that brief period, the spirit of ukma was at number one.
Conversely, I don’t see ukma as a snobby, antipop newsgroup, otherwise I wouldn’t be there. I think when someone on ukma likes a band, they think that band is quite “poppy” and they want to convert other people to their nascent greatness. Ukma was one of the first ngs to go mad on Belle & Sebastian and Boards of Canada, two very different bands who both have made sublime pop records.
Girl groups or boy bands?
At the minute, I’d have to go with boy bands. I didn’t like any of the Spice Girls songs and their descendents are even wanker. Whereas, I’ve definitely got a soft spot for ‘I Want It That Way’ and ‘Keep On Moving’ (the latter being the last decent UK number one I can think of).
What’s your earliest pop memory?
I remember when I first heard ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ I absolutely loved it. I think I was nine or ten when it came out. So I taped it (the first song I ever taped) and then replayed it loads of times till I had all the lyrics written down. And then I’d plug my two-quid mic into the tape recorder and try and sing along, even though it didn’t work.
Were the charts important to you when you were a kid?
Oh god, yeah! The BBC chart show was massive with kids. I used to sit there, finger hovering over the pause button, waiting for Adam & The Ants, ACDC or REO Speedwagon to come on.
Later, when I was a teen, I remember when Kraftwerk got to No.1 with ‘The Model’ and that started an obsession which has lasted till today.
What do you think it’s like being a pop fan nowadays?
Well, judging by record sales, it’s not as crucial a part of youth culture. That’s why the majors are aiming at younger kids and the pester-mummy factor becomes important. But if you’re writing for pre-pubescents, you have to steer clear of so many areas which they won’t understand or won’t yet be interested in. Perhaps that explains the idiomatic change in contemporary manufactured band pop lyrics where even the hint of physical sexuality is avoided. It’s all sugary lovey-dovey shite.
In the booklet for the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt describes “Your Woman” as one of his favourite pop songs of the last few years. Do you think you’re working in similar areas? And what are some of your favourite pop songs of the last few years?
That’s very nice of Stephin. I met him very briefly in London with the gorgeous Claudia. I don’t think we share creative aesthetics (he didn’t like my last album at all :-) ) but I do think we have similar outlooks on pop music. He seems to genuinely love pop music and be on a jihad against the unholy forces of rock. I think it’s indicative of a world gone mad that not many people know Stephin’s songs. He’s undoubtedly one of the finest songwriters of the 20th (and I guess 21st) century.
Favourite recent pop songs? I assume here you’re meaning songs that were actually hit records rather than potential pop classics. Ahhh…
Five – Keep On Moving
Backstreet Boys – I Want It That Way
Mos Def – Miss Fat Booty
and that’s all I can think of at the moment.
Is what you do pop at all?!
I think so, as far as I can tell. One of my songs was undeniably pop in that it sold shitloads but I do think the rest of the stuff I do has some pop potential. The basic thing is that I like tunes, I like to sing along to things and bop around. I make music that makes me feel that way so hopefully others will too.
What’s your new record like?
It’s a pop record :-) I assume you mean my new album, Peek & Poke? Well, lyrically, it’s quite bitter and nasty in places cos I was feeling particularly fucked-off when I wrote a lot of the songs. It’s also a bit mad and, er, surreal, for much the same reasons.
Sonically, I’ve tried to push myself further. I’m learning all the time about performing and production and now I’ve finally got the studio environment I’ve dreamed of since I was twelve. This album doesn’t sound like much else around, which pleases me.
How can you buy it?
It’s coming out in the US on Parasol and in the UK I’m starting my own label to release it, Bzangy Groink. It should be in good record shops (I love that phrase) by March.