Why the laptop has replaced the acoustic guitar as the entry-level instrument for pop hopefuls and songwriters
From Brooklyn to Glasgow, a new wave of musicians are choosing laptops over guitars as their instruments of choice, says Andy Gill
If there were any doubt that the laptop had replaced the acoustic guitar as the entry-level instrument for pop hopefuls and songwriters, a new wave of synthesiser and computer-toting young electropop acts that has come along in the wake of Hot Chip confirms the ascendancy of a new electronic age.
And unlike many previous waves that have changed the pop landscape, this one is not limited by geographical constraints. It's not a local scene, but a global one: just as the computer technology that has made it possible to record tracks in your bedroom has also made it easy to hook up with like-minded spirits across the world and instantly and cheaply distribute your new music online to potentially millions of listeners. It doesn't matter if you're Miaoux Miaoux in Glasgow, Metric in Canada, Visions of Trees in London's East End, Lemonade in Brooklyn, or Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs in north London, your sound can catch the ear wherever wi-fi can carry it.
"Not only is the laptop the entry-level music-making device, YouTube deejaying off of a laptop is also the go-to medium for providing music at parties," claim pop trio Lemonade, who, hailing from Brooklyn, are in a better position than most to comment on the cutting edge. "The thought of someone pulling out an acoustic guitar at an intimate house party and playing a song that everyone knows feels terribly dated. When we began making music on our laptop to eventually play along with, it felt really novel. I assume this is pretty commonplace today – though not as common as the infinite amount of artists, many really exciting ones at that, that make music on their laptops and share it via soundcloud – most of it never leaving laptops."
"There's so much you can do with a laptop now, or even with a phone," Sara Atalar and Joni Juden, aka Visions of Trees, say, though they acknowledge there are some things you just can't do with a laptop. "It's missing the physical side that you get from strumming a guitar or banging a drum kit: but these days I guess pretty much every kid has got a computer in their home, whereas having instruments is probably getting to be more rare."
In previous electropop eras, there tended to be battle lines drawn between genres. Rock eschewed synths in favour of guitars and tended to be strident and overtly emotional, while electropop acts favoured keyboards and a somewhat cooler, more considered manner. But nowadays, those fences are dissolving. Juden believes there's an element of rawness to the music on VOT's eponymous debut that's traceable to his taste for post-punk and metal, while Julian Corrie, whose album as Miaoux Miaoux, Light of the North, has just been released on Chemikal Underground, thinks the barriers have completely come down.
"Musicians are appropriating influences from loads of different sources these days, both acoustic and electronic," he says. "I don't think people bat an eyelid these days if they hear a rock band using lots of synths, or an electronic musician using a guitar."
But while both Miaoux Miaoux and Visions of Trees are open to all styles and instruments, Lemonade, whose Diver album favours an iridescent, floating form of pop in which the tone of an old M1 synth furnishes an accidentally nostalgic Eighties vibe, still find some worth in the old distinctions.
"Rock is like The Black Keys, right?" they say. "That music is preservationist. We're not saying it's bad in any way, but it's supposed to sound like someone unearthed a time capsule filled with warped old records."
But they do acknowledge a gradual miscegenation of other forms with roughly similar influences and priorities: "There is so much music being made, though, that purposefully blurs barriers. Rap and R&B and dance and other synth music are starting to meet even more than before over their shared similarities."
And certainly, thanks to the innovative efforts of such as The Neptunes and Kanye West in America, and the whole grime/dubstep confluence in the UK, it's increasingly hard to differentiate hip-hop from house and techno, genres whose constituencies rarely used to meet as recently as a decade ago.
Orlando Higginbottom, grey eminence behind the papier mâché dinosaur masks of Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, fundamentally disputes the dichotomy between rock and pop.
"I would disagree with those descriptions – it's just a different way of doing it," he says. "I don't think musicians use one or the other nowadays, they just use whatever sound source that works. "
When he was a teenager, Higginbottom got hooked on break beats and jungle music, attracted to the mystery that surrounded the scene. "It was all on vinyl, very underground, and there were no websites, stuff like that," he recalls. "So in my own music, I always try to capture the way that made me feel; though obviously, I can't make music like that anymore, because that's been done, it's a closed book, really. In dance music, there's always a drive to create the next new thing, which is impossible.
"The broader an idea you have about music, and the longer you've been listening, the smaller the differences seem between different types of electronic music. But people do get obsessive about those small differences. It's incredibly easy to make a passable dance track if you get the right bits of kit together, but some kids make music to fit certain fashionable rules, and if they fulfill these rules of something that's been hot for six months, they feel that they've completed the goal, in terms of writing a track. Sometimes all you need is a particular hi-hat and sub to get the requisite sound, the elements that give you some satisfaction of thinking you've made a passable track. Which is why you get these really anal sub-genres turning up."
Corrie, of Miaoux Miaoux, agrees that computers have made music creation more accessible.
"Laptops and iPads have definitely opened up a huge section of people to music-making and creativity," he says. "The difference here, between guitars and computers, is that the possibilities of a computer are almost limitless. But software isn't a replacement for talent – it's just made things more accessible for people who are talented. People will still make terrible music, there'll just be more of it. But there'll also be lots more good stuff, too."
'Trouble' by Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs is out now on Polydor; 'Diver' by Lemonade is out on True Panther Sounds; 'Visions of Trees' by Visions of Trees is out on Something in Construction; 'Light of the North' by Miaoux Miaoux is out on Chemikal Underground
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