What does it mean to make it in the rock business today? Is it selling a million records? Is it playing a grueling tour of sold out sets? Is it making enough money so that you can devote your life to music? Or is it simply playing music and the rest is window dressing? It's one of the most basic questions of performing music. If you want to be a musician for a living, when can you say you made it? Danish-American alt-rockers Ex-Cops gave us some insight into that question.
Ladies and gentleman, this is the Rock Geek -- a new video interview series where we dive into the deep questions of music today with the artists helping to shape the answer to these questions moving forward. And in episode 1, the Rock Geek sets his sites on Ex-Cops (Baeble favorites who played a killer set at our SXSW Day Party). Digging into everything from working with Billy Corgan on their new record, their very public fight with McDonalds, and what it means to succeed in music today, this interview will draw you deeper into what it means to be a musician in 2015.
- I'm waiting under the arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn to meet Amalie Bruun and Bryan Harding of Ex Cops. The Danish-American duo is known for their electro pop 90s alt-rock fusion working with the legendary Billy Corgan and for their face off with one of the world's biggest corporations. I have some questions about the future of the music business and I have a suspicion Ex Cops can help me find some answers. For over a decade the music industry has been in chaos. A world where record sales made artist millionaires has gone the way of flannel shirts and Discman players, and artists and executives alike have been scrambling to find a new business model for getting paid. In the age of streaming and no-hassle illegal downloads, song placement in car commercials and TV Licensing has become an almost mandatory pit stop for being able to make it as a band. Ex Cops recently squared of with a major corporation who wanted something for nothing, and the band's open letter on Facebook set off an internet firestorm. And so I had to know, in today's world of digital distribution, how does a band make it? And what does making it even mean anymore? If you go into the city Dry your eyes, you cry so pretty Naked hearts and imitation Take your picture, congratulations Stay so clean, but you're so obscene Black soap, black soap... After an exceptionally brutal winter New York, I decided that Prospect Park in Brooklyn would be the ideal place to get to know Ex Cops on such a gorgeous spring day. It's a gorgeous morning here in New York City, and you're from upstate New York, or you're based out of upstate New York right now, you're from North Carolina, you're from Denmark. What role do you think the cities that you guys have called home over the years played in inspiring you as artists? New York City, that has a certain freedom to it. I think everyone who moves here or goes here, you know you can meet a lot of people, you're maybe a little bit more open minded than if you were somewhere else you sort of looking for new friends or new people to play with, and we did that. under a pressure cooker for a few years really influenced our earlier sound, and you can kinda hear that I think. And then I think this particular album, Daggers, is really something that we...the songs go across the world. She wrote some stuff in Denmark, I wrote some stuff in North Carolina and New York, and I think that kind of creates more colorful palate. - I can't hear songs like Black Soap without thinking about another sort of Scandinavian electronic pop act, in this case that would be the Knife. - I think I know why you're saying, that because of this, the pre-chorus, right? Like that style, and that is something that I brought to the song which is sort of a Scandinavian, like playful vibe or something. But it was a very natural process of writing, we didn't particularly think of each song I guess should sound like this band or anything, it's just like the true sort of what we came with. - That was our one true, like super half and half collaboration where just different pieces of everything put together. And we wrote that together in the basement. ...congratulations - Amalie and Bryan had plenty of interesting things to say and I had a lot of questions about their sound, their tour and the production of their latest LP, but I felt like I had to dig into the question of survival and success in the modern music scene. You guys recently had to call out a major brand because they didn't want to pay you to perform. And without wanting to talk about that incident specifically, there's this sort of devaluation of music happening right now, whether that's streaming services paying bands hundredths on a penny to play a song, or U2 giving away their entire album for free. - I think unfortunately a piece of you has to understand that that might not change. That once the access is there to get whatever you want for free, people aren't going to back away from that and stop doing it. In that sense you have to say, "Okay, I understand that," and you have to find other ways to make your living. In another sense, it's sad that you're not viewed as a worker just because you're playing rock and roll and wearing t-shirts, you're not given that deserved credit. - You can't live today without having a roof over your head and food. This is very hard to do, so then you won't get that and then you'll have to stop making music which is okay, but then I just don't think that that's what really what the world wants. They don't want the people, only the people who can afford to go into debt to be making music, back in the days they would look in the gutter for the fucking artists. - Yeah, I've seen lots of good bands who've had to hang it up because they have to keep their apartment or job, and that's what people should think about when they're considering payments or no payments. - At the same time, paid, I guess, cooperation with these brands has become kind of an inescapable reality of modern music. I've lost track of the number of times that I've joked that band A is one well-placed car commercial away from superstardom, and so what role is it that you think that...how do I say this, that working with these sort of brands or bigger business entities can have in sort of helping push young artists careers forward? - I think it's fine, I think it's something that we have to just kind of go with. That's the venue where the most people will hear your music and that's every artists goal, I think. So some car company wants to put a song on a commercial I think it's not even a thought, it's fine. - I think it's risky to just accept, like, "Oh yeah well from now on, an artist goal in order to make money, is to be placed in commercials or work with brands, " because whenever you start taking money from people, they start telling you what to do. And that's okay, but then what happens to the art, what happens to the music, how much is that going to be shaped so that it can fit into this car commercial, or so that you have to wear this Pepsi t-shirt on at your show, and compromise with what you were trying to do in first place. So I think we have to be a little bit careful with just accepting that. - I think a lot of people are writing for that now. As opposed to a few years ago like, like they would, it would be cool song in a commercial 'cause it's a cool song, but they weren't even thinking about that aspect, now people are saying that okay this is good for a shoe commercial, it's good for...yeah kind of...it is what it is. - It's safe to say Ex Cops have shed some light on the topic of compensation and digital distribution, but as a music lover, I can't deny that I'm excited to hear more about their new album and working with Billy Corgan. - Right now at this stage, we really love 90's but we love pushing things forward, so the whole plan of this album was to be a futuristic, organic message from the past sort of thing. We love that whole 90's thing, don't wanna be a throwback thing, that's why we chose to work with Justin Razon who's futuristic in his own way, and work with Billy who's 90's. - You brought Billy Corgan up, and he helped executive produce your record. What was it like having basically a titan of alternative rock around for this new album? - It was a blessing. I said this a million times, it was like it felt the closest to college to me, because we'd get up at 9 a. m. and work till 10 p. m. And have like a real mentor that we love, you know? Like it wasn't just like some studio producer dude. We were obsessed with Smashing Pumpkins, so to have that much respect and to wanna listen to every word that he's saying to you, was amazing, and that was two weeks. - Daggers was...it seemed like a significant stylistic departure from True Hallucinations. You kinda traded in your more low-fi roots for this sort of more ornate electronic pop sound. What were the conversations like as a band when you decided to changed sort of the artistic direction you guys were taking? - True Hallucinations is really like, a 'me' thing, and it was the influences that I listened to at the time. And Amalie and I decided that it would be really great to...she has amazing pop roots in a very Scandinavians pop sense, we wanted introduce that in the sound. - Yeah, I mean really it was... I didn't write anything for the first album, and we sort of had a conversation like do we still want to be a band? Are we trying to make more music... I mean start writing together? And in which case then, then we're going to be writing together so that's a totally different sound already there when I start stepping into it. - We just want to do what we loved as kids too. And that was pop music. - Songs, like real songs. - Yeah, like we listened to Abba and Michael Jackson, like Nirvana, because we liked as kids, and we wanted to kind bring that back to our sound. - Ex Cops have firm convictions about the business and art of making music. They already shared some ideas about how to make a buck, but what does it take to make a name? You said that the indie space is kind of multiplying like a virus. So what does it take to distinguish yourself as a pop band these days? - A vaccine. - Yeah you cannot listen to what writers or anyone is saying, they don't...they're like very disloyal crowd, they like the next band the next week, so you have to just write what you believe is good. - I just...there's this band called Chastity Belt I think is really awesome and I followed them on Facebook and they just like got a kind of bad review from a certain big blog, and they wrote like that big blog's name and a frowny face. And I just wanted to write to them, like, "Fuck that, who cares, it's a really good album, you guys are great, don't even like think about this kind of stuff. " I think that's a problem... - Reviews are not important anymore, they've lost they're significance, and they know that too. What child grows up wanting to be a reviewer and criticize other people all day long? Nobody dreams about that, but it happens to certain people, and it's okay for them. But people can... Billy always talked about that too, like the rock and roll band should take back its power like it used to have in the 90s. You were being rewarded for being different, now you're being rewarded for being totally the same, so we should take back this power. - The path forward for artists is clearer than it was when Napster first dropped a bomb on the industry, but there's still plenty of uncertainties and hazards for young musicians. Artists like Ex Cops who have a strong sense of self and a unique vision can make a path of streaming compensation, live gigs and commercial licensing, but can it work for everyone? Feeling a bit chastened, but not deterred, I'm ready to continue seeking the answers to the big questions facing music today. Who knows if I'll ever find all the answers, but I have to ask, and that's what makes me the Rock Geek.
Ex Cops, a nomadic duo featuring Amalie Bruun and Brian Harding, brings the hook-heavy blast of '90s alt-rock into a new era on their second album Daggers. Executive produced by icon-of-form Billy Corgan and produced by Justin Raisen (Sky Ferriera, Charli XCX, Kylie Minogue), the record rescues guitar-pop from the bedroom, returning it to the stage it deserves.
Formed in 2011, the groups first album True Hallucinations, released in early 2013, was a critically-acclaimed collection of sprawling indie-pop. From the exuberant Spring Break (Birthday Song) to the bands dreamy debut You Are A Lion, I Am A Lamb, the John Siket-produced record (Blonde Redhead, Yo La Tengo) was a genre-jumping opening salvo and its wall-to-wall guitars set the tone for their new album.
Daggers is a musical about-face, though. We are not afraid of our favorite music anymore, says Harding. Its pop.
Billy Corgan, in addition to sharing the bands love of ABBA and taking them to their first wrestling match, provided form and texture to the new tracks over a two-week period in Chicago. The band then took the material to LA for tracking with Raisen and continued collaborating with artists like Ariel Pink, who co-wrote Burnt Out Love and features on Tragically Alright.
The result reinvents modern rock. White Noise, with its addictive chorus, merges guitars that could make your teeth ache and a motorik electronic pop pulse. The impeccably-produced Teenagers brings club-ready downtown pop to an anthemic peak, while Black Soap shifts shoegaze textures to stadium status and Rooms, one of the albums emotionally-resonant ballads, packs a substantial punch.