Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ethnography and interviewing.

So I've been spending some time with Pirahnahead doing some follow-up interviewing, listening to music and talking about it, talking some more about Detroit, racism and segregation in the electronic music scene here. First of all, I want to explain that I have been finally getting a chance to do some different kinds of interviews with musicians here. When I first interview a DJ, a producer, event promoter, or someone else involved in Detroit electronic music, the interview is primarily an oral history kind of interview. I usually start off asking them how they got started with DJing or with techno or house, something pretty general and open like that, and most of the time the person I'm interviewing just takes it from there for the next good while and talks and talks. For me, it's been a great way to allow the person I'm interviewing take the floor and tell me what they know and want to share with me, rather than me show off how much I know by asking pointed, specific questions at first and getting very short answers. Check out this post on Infinite State Machine by Tom Cox, he writes a brief segment about conversational interviewing styles vs. trying to get into your interviewee's mind. Yes, there are differences between a music critic/journalist/music blogger style of interviewing and the ethnographic interviews that I'm doing, but I have enjoyed the overlap that I have recently found with other music writers online. And when I write ethnographic interview, I am referring to a particular type of research and interview style that is more holistic than other kinds of researching or interviewing. And this is the general approach that is guiding my work here in Detroit; I'm living here for an intensive, and extensive period of research so that I can develop an understanding of Detroit, electronic music, and the people who create it and maintain this culture here. This has involved doing lots of lengthy interviews, and sometimes multiple interviews with individuals; going out to all kinds of different events, including weekly and monthly electronic music events, with DJs who are dedicated to Detroit's electronic music scene, and one-offs, or one time events. And, since I've been here since February 2008, I have made a strong effort to head out to all kinds of different clubs, bars, restaurants, to see lots of different kinds of electronic music and a diverse range of DJs. Detroit's quiet the happening place and I had almost no idea before coming here! Thriving is a word that often comes to my mind when I think of electronic music in Detroit.

Ethnographic in Detroit has also come to mean exploring parts of Detroit life that are not immediately associated with techno and house music outside of the city, but I have realized are closely linked for Detroiters. And now here's a humorously disjointed list of things I've been doing: Visiting museums, roller skating, going to all the other summer festivals after DEMF on Memorial Day weekend, the WinterFest (we roasted marshmallows over trash cans that had been transformed into elevated fire pits!), exploring all over the city with friends or on my own, record store visits and some well thought out purchases with my limited funds, listening to lots of different radio shows that Detroit DJs do on a weekly/regular basis, getting to understand the relations between the suburbs and Detroit proper. One thing that has impacted this last point quite a bit for me, besides talking about it with musicians, many of whom live in Detroit, is the fact that aside from doing this research, and working full time at a job completely unrelated to most other things in my life, James and I (mainly James) homeschool our three boys. So we have a whole other circle of friends who are fellow homeschooling families, and all of whom are white, middle class, and live in suburbs - that's just who we have happened to meet! Being involved in multiple circles and communities in the Detroit Metro area is really teaching me a lot about this place.

So, at the beginning of this post, I wrote that I wanted to describe some follow-up interviews that I have been doing that are different from the oral history type of interview...but then I didn't...

I have been doing something that we ethnographers like to call feedback interviews where we present our interviewee with some sort of cultural artifact - a photograph, video or audio of a performance, musical instruments, etc. So my version of the feedback interview at this point relies on the musician to play music and talk with me about it. I ask people if they can play music they have created, or that was influential to them as musicians, or that they think is important to Detroit, and then talk about it with me. I have only done a few of these so far, but they have turned out so fabulously, that I'm going to take some time to do some more of them.

Pirahnahead is one of the musicians with whom I have done this kind of interview. One of the things he talked about while hanging out before doing the interview is the impact of 80's hard rock music on him growing up. He loved Black Sabbath and other hard rock bands and told me that this interest made him too Black for white people, but not Black enough for Black people. I’m almost positive that is exactly what he said, but I was driving and didn’t have my mic out, so I’m paraphrasing. It reminds me of anthropologist, Maureen Mahon’s, book on Black rock music titled Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Duke University Press, 2004). She writes about how being Black and being a rock musician don’t mesh in most people’s minds, and she writes about this same sentiment in her book, that the musicians she worked with in NYC felt that they were not Black enough for Black people because they played rock music and not r&b or hip hop or jazz or something that was obviously and decidedly African American; and that they were too Black for other white rock musicians and other white people because the mainstream, public image of rock musicians does not include Black people. So that’s how Pirahnahead feels/or felt. This is also the perception of Black DJs and techno music, but also other forms of electronic music outside of Detroit – inside Detroit, it’s the norm, it’s everyday to see Black people make electronic music; but beyond Detroit’s boundaries of 8 Mile, Telegraph Road, and the Detroit River, this is not the norm. The assumption is that usually white guys are DJs, usually white guys make electronic music, techno music and electronic music is not soulful enough for Black people to enjoy, let alone actually spend enough time on to produce or create.

It’s fascinating because in Detroit, there is a great deal of isolation from the surrounding areas and from the rest of the country/world. I have seen this first hand and have had other people tell me this. Mike Banks actually wrote this in an interview:

Where do you see the biggest problems/challenges and the most promising developments in your community? How is the situation in Detroit?

"We need our city and manufacturing leaders to travel overseas and to realize what Mass Transit means to a city. We don't have it and we have land locked communities, with land locked thoughts and values. There is no interaction unless you have the luxury of a car which a lot of people can't afford. The situation is grey."

It’s really true, some who live in Detroit proper don’t like to go past 8 Mile Road heading north and people in the suburbs, primarily white middle to upper class people, don’t like to go past 8 Mile Road heading south into Detroit. There is a lot of segregation of people, of culture, and of resources.

So anyway, back once again to the feedback interviews...It’s fascinating the differences between this interview with Pirahnahead and the similar type of interview that I did with Todd Osborn. Clearly it’s about differences in personality and styles of communication. Pirahna is way more boisterous and outgoing and extroverted with me while Todd, still very generous with his information and story telling, was more introverted and quiet, even a bit shy, which matches my personality, quiet and shy. Todd quickly shifted from track to track on his computer, dragging audio files to his player on his desktop and flipping through most things pretty quickly. He played radio shows – Mojo, Mills, Dan Bell. Dilla tracks, humorous things that he and friends worked on, and some of his own music, but flipped through it really quickly. He also played a wide variety of other peoples’ music that has been influential to him. The connections he made between his own productions and things he realized to be influential after the fact were really clear and profound to my ears. He would play his own track and then tell me that a particular track was influential, even though he didn’t realize it at the time of production. I could hear the connections so clearly and it was interesting to see how he went about producing – having a huge catalog of sounds and tracks in his head, producing his own track, and then hearing a specific connection in something else.

Pirahnahead, on the other hand, played mainly music that he produced. He played a jazz piece that had almost the exact same drum intro that Van Halen has on “Hot For Teacher.” It was very cool to hear that, I don’t know what the song was, but I have it on the recording, so I can look it up later. He played most of the tracks all the way through for me, things he produced with Minx, with Diviniti. And he went into detail about their specific contributions, told me stories about what he does in the recording studio, about working with other musicians, playing the guitar on tracks, keyboards. He’s very demonstrative when he talks and mimics the music with his body movements, sings lyrics, etc. He’s very generous with information and seems really intent on giving me full and honest accounts of what Detroit culture and Detroit music is really all about. Which also means he talks the shit out of an interview, some of my longest interviews are with him.

Well, that's it for now...


Jacob said...

I notice the majority of your posts mention race. Is it the topic of your thesis? From my experience in Chicago and Detroit, most clubs that play old-school underground house or techno are fairly welcoming no matter your race or sexuality. While I'm sure race and economics and a variety of other factors inform the music (and especially affect music sales in America) it must be hard to draw general conclusions.

pipecock said...

"Welcoming" is different from what actually goes down in the scenes. i can't speak for chicago, but in detroit when i've gone out even during the festival weekend at times my wife and i were the only non-black folks in attendance. there's a big divide, i would say.

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