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40th Anniversary

In Conversation: Debbie Harry and Santogold


NY: So that made it easier to create a unique identity?

DH: I don’t want to see everybody dressed the same. I want to see somebody who’s got some color, who makes a statement about who they are, and is prepared to be sneered at. When I used to go uptown, before punk became acceptable and fashionable, it was a rough trip, with people staring and making nasty remarks.

S: It’s not necessarily enjoyable.

DH: They’re the ones who are wearing the stuff now, man. That’s all I can say.

S: Last winter, when I toured with Coldplay, I got this e-mail that said, “I hate your lesbian techno rap!” People are afraid of women who aren’t, like, naked onstage. People are afraid of anybody who looks different or has anything to say. The key is to understand the mainstream enough to open a door for yourself. To make a record that people can get on the underground level, and that somebody who just hears it on the radio can say, “I love this song!”

NY: There was a big drug element to music back then, too, right?

DH: At first, no one had any money for drugs. They came later, in the late seventies. We always thought it was political, because all of a sudden there was this flood of unbelievably cheap, strong drugs. It felt like the sort of thing to keep everybody quiet.

‘You can’t live here and just be an artist unless you’re gonna be so broke.’

S: No, it’s documented that they were doing that. Anybody who was anti-American, communist, or, like, anything—give them some heroin and keep them over there. And now, honestly, I think hip-hop is suffering from that. It’s the “keep the people a mess” idea. Let them stay in their little area and be all fucked up and destroy themselves.

DH: But even before then, everything was stripped down, and the music reflected that struggle to survive. You were forced to be creative.

S: Unfortunately, I don’t think that struggle makes it into music much anymore. Something happened where the industry got so big that it started dictating what music was allowed to be heard, and people gave up on making honest, real music.

DH: I think that’s what the Internet has maybe opened back up.

S: It is. Now people don’t have to pay a lot for a studio, and they’re doing more creative stuff. There’s no longer the feeling that, “Man, what’s the point in making it, ’cause no one will ever hear it?” Now you’re like, “I don’t care if I ever get a record deal; I’m going to make it, put it up on MySpace, and people will hear it.” Most new bands do this now. The whole way that A&R people find new bands now is based on their MySpace hits.

NY: So the Internet makes it easier to get your music heard. Does it make it harder to get paid?

S: They keep you broke. The first year of touring, you’re doing festivals and stuff that don’t make any money. Even when you get an advance, you have to spend it on touring. Plus, do you know about the 360 deals?

DH: What’s 360?

S: When you sign with the major labels, they get a percentage of all your ancillary income—your tour, your merchandise, your publishing.

NY: New York could be at the beginning of a seventies-style financial crisis. Would that be good or bad for the New York music scene?

S: I’m not sure how that would affect the music scene. But I assume if everyone was broke and struggling and really feeling the effects of all the bad decisions that have been made, it would make it harder to hide from things that are a mess in our world. And that sense of urgency would most likely find its way into art.

NY: In the first half of this decade, a lot of New York bands explicitly mimicked the seventies punk sound. Was that just nostalgia?

S: I think bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were more straight-up retro than people are doing now, but they started something. The really grimy amps and the stripped-down rock sounds. And as bands like myself, LCD Soundsystem, the Death Set, and Late of the Pier tried to twist it into something new, we moved into adding more electronic sounds alongside the grime.

DH: Punk is sort of irrelevant today. As a style of music, it still has relevance, but not as a social trend. Originally punk was about going against the mainstream grain. These days bands like Goon Squad, who tip their wigs to old styles, stand out as new, mainstream punk.

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