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An Interview with Damon Krukowski

[Musician, Writer]
by Nathan Goldman
October 22nd, 2019

“Total freedom freezes people. They don’t know where to go.”

The Shift from Analog to Digital Sound:
Removes all excess noise from the signal
Strips away inefficiencies
Eliminates many aspects of meaning

Damon Krukowski’s musical career has coincided with major shifts in the industry, spurred by rapid, destabilizing developments in technologies of audio performance, recording, and distribution. Krukowski has watched all this in real time, first as the drummer for the band Galaxie 500 until the group’s dissolution in 1991, and then as half of Damon & Naomi, his band with his extra-musical partner (and Galaxie 500’s bassist), Naomi Yang.

But in recent years, beyond bearing witness to the move from analog to digital, Krukowski has emerged as a leading critic of this transition. In a 2012 article for Pitchfork, he detailed the pitiful royalties that streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora offers artists (using Galaxie 500’s song “Tugboat” as an example) and mused about what this meant for musicians working in the digital age. He continued to develop his ideas about analog and digital media in subsequent articles, and explored them in greater depth in his 2017 book, The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, and then in a six-part podcast on the network Radiotopia, Ways of Hearing. In each of these, Krukowski combines close listening with cultural analysis to explore the true differences—philosophical as well as sonic—between analog and digital sound (and analog and digital media more broadly), asking what the shift from the former to the latter means for our lives.

Now, after a foray into the digital world of podcasting, Krukowski’s thoughts on this subject have returned to the analog world once more, in the form of his latest book, also titled Ways of Hearing, which reimagines the text of the podcast in a new medium.

I spoke to Krukowski in March from his home in Cambridge, MA.

—Nathan Goldman

THE BELIEVER: So, you’re on a landline…

DAMON KRUKOWSKI: Yes.

BLVR: …and I’m calling you from my iPhone.

DK: Yeah, I can tell. [Laughs]

BLVR: Does that mean we’re meeting at the intersection of analog and digital?

DK: [Laughs] No, I think your digital cancels my analog out. Well, I don’t know. I can hear myself really well. That’s why I’m on the landline. The other thing that landlines have is, you hear your own voice through the earpiece. I don’t know why Apple decided not to engineer that. You can’t hear your own voice, and I find it hard to modulate my voice. I don’t know if it’s just from years of singing, or what. But without a monitor, I feel lost.

BLVR: Is that why you keep a landline?

DK: Yeah, for the quality of the sound. Otherwise it’s incredibly inconvenient. We get endless amounts of spam on it, and it’s way harder to block it. It’s a big pain in the neck, actually. But we’re very attached to it. Our phones died recently, so we had to buy new ones. It’s so funny, because they’re so cheap. But they still have this pure quality. It’s the most bizarre thing: Why does this $25 phone have superior sound to the iPhone?

BLVR: That points to some things you discuss in your books, and on the podcast. This book, Ways of Hearing, is about to come out, and you’re about to go on tour for it. How are you feeling at this moment?

DK: I’m very psyched. This book comes out of the podcast, and the podcast was an effort to take some ideas that I had been having about audio and listening, and popularize them—which I mean in the most democratic sense. My music career is not exactly the most commercial, partly because my instincts just don’t lie that way. But at the same time, I have always had a very strong feeling—part of it comes out of punk rock, and part out of leftist politics—of wanting to broadcast ideas and art. We’ve never worked in limited editions. We have a publishing house, also, Naomi and I—Exact Change—and the idea has always been: keep the prices down, keep the production values as high as we can, but not so high that it starts to make it unapproachable. Our music, too—we’ve always worked that way. And yet, I don’t think that the content of Exact Change books or of our music is particularly pop. Kind of the opposite.

But with Ways of Hearing—first the podcast—I really wanted to do the other way around, and say: This is for everybody. I want absolutely no barrier, no prerequisite, no obtuse references, no double entendres. I want to say what I mean and put it in as clear a format as I can. The podcast was meant to contain my most generous, most populist impulses that I could squeeze into twenty-two minutes per episode.

But the whole time I did the podcast, I had this idea for the book. As you probably gathered, the podcast was based on Ways of Seeing, the John Berger book. That came from a BBC television series, which is fantastic. I don’t know if you ever seen any of it…

BLVR: No. I’ve read the book, but I haven’t seen the show.

DK: Yeah, most people haven’t. This speaks to why I wanted to make a book out of Ways of Hearing. With Ways of Seeing, the book lasted, because a book is such a durable medium. It reaches all kinds of places. As formats come and go, books stay. You can see the TV series on YouTube. But that’s pretty much the only way. It hasn’t survived otherwise, because it was for television, and it disappeared. As so many of our media are, they’re built for the moment and not for the longterm.

Anyway, the series is fantastic. It was the early ’70s, a moment when televisions were pretty new in normal British households, with the post-War boom, the middle class expansion, and technology coming to more people. So TVs are in people’s living rooms, and everybody’s living with visual culture all the time. And here comes John Berger, beaming in and using his critical faculties to shock people into thinking critically about what they’re seeing—including his own image on the television and the images he was showing them.

The idea of the podcast was based on that. My thought was: we’re in a moment now that is to audio what the early ’60s, early ’70s was to video. There’s an expansion of people’s use of audio in their lives, through technology. Everyone’s got these earbuds in their heads. Audio itself, as an information artifact, is more present in our lives now than it was 30 years ago. So what I wanted to do was make a podcast—this new audio form—that would be a meta-critique, and alert people to some critical ideas about how they’re listening, and what they’re listening to, and how to judge it.

The book was always there in the back of my mind because Berger had turned his TV show into a book. His book is so useful, even though he was making this media critique through TV, because the book finds its way into all these other cracks in the culture. It finds its way into the classroom, into art students’ hands, into random hands through impulse buys in bookstores. It has this wonderful way of seeping out over a long period. Books very rarely have that kind of sensational blanketing of the culture, but they have this fantastically long-lived lifespan.

It was actually the British office of MIT Press in London that took on this project. Because everybody in that office grew up with the John Berger book. They all immediately got the connection. Then I found a wonderful graphic designer, James Goggin, who also had grown up with the book, and it meant an enormous amount to him.

I’m feeling enormously optimistic and positive, because it came out exactly the way I’d wanted. Which doesn’t always happen when you make things. [Laughs.]

BLVR: Your investigations into these kinds of questions—the analog to digital shift and the relationship between them—have a history. A lot of the ideas in your first book, The New Analog, form the basis for what comes through in the podcast. And now the podcast, as you described, is a book also. I love how this inquiry has gotten translated between digital and analog media.

DK: That’s amazing. It hadn’t even occurred to me. You’re absolutely right. It was created in a digital studio. The sound designer I worked with, Ian Coss—he’s a millennial, and just swimming in the digital editing sea. The podcast is a thoroughly digital artifact. And one that took advantage of the medium, but again, was also designed to be a meta-critique of it. There are aspects of the audio that are meant to call your attention to them. Digital can do so much to mask itself, and I wanted to allow that not to happen.

Each episode is built around a few found sounds that are essentially analog sources, and then Ian built a little synth for each episode out of those sounds, and distorted them—transformed them, using digital tools—into more abstract, digital sound. As each episode progresses, you start with more natural sound, and you end with sound that’s more digital. It accomplished something I really wanted to do in the podcast, aurally, which was to make you aware of the origins of digital sound.

But we were still making a digital artifact. And you’re right, translating to a book is back to analog. I went to James Goggin, the graphic designer, and I was like: I just want us to use the script, but that means we’ve lost all of the sound designer’s work. So I want you now to fill in everything that Ian did in your own way on the page.

The other reason I love James as a designer is he pays attention to every bit of the physical object. He actually got MIT to print the book in the Netherlands purely for the sake of a type of binding—a type of glue used in the binding. It’s called cold glue binding. Used to be standard for commercial books. But the last cold glue binder is gone in North America, and there was one left in the UK, and it closed. But James knew one that was still operating in the Netherlands. Cold glue is more flexible than hot glue, so the book lies more flat, and you can open it more fully, and the spine will show wear in a different way. And it won’t break. These are old-fashioned, analog values of durability, flexibility, and a desire to have the full page show and to be able to print tight into the margin.

BLVR: It makes sense, given your project with respect to thinking about analog and digital—a critical project, but not a binary or oppositional one—that you take such care with both of them.

DK: I’ve always been comfortable with work flowing into different formats. I’m not the type of person who insists that our records must be heard on LP. But at the same time, the difference of the LP—like having an A-side and B-side—is enormously crucial to how we sequenced our records. When CDs came in, we had to rethink how we were planning our records. But I’ve never been doctrinaire about, oh, it must be this way, it must be that way. So with this project, I have these ideas. My articles, the previous book, the podcast—I don’t feel like I’m breaking new ground with each of these, but I do feel like the manner in which I’m communicating dictates its own necessities.

The podcast, for example, was originally meant to be based on my book The New Analog. But when I started looking at how a podcast works, I had to throw the book away. I rewrote the script from scratch, because I couldn’t take the text from a discursive nonfiction book and put it in broadcast form. I didn’t start all over again, like, I’ve got to come up with a whole new idea. It was just, I’ve got to come up with a new way to express myself in this specific form. That’s something I’m very comfortable with: letting the form have its own demands.

BLVR: You have an insightful and elegant way of encapsulating the analog to digital shift: stripping away the “noise” from the “signal.” Could you summarize how you think of those concepts and what those do for you?

DK: Digital media are—and this is the argument that I made more extensively in my first book—100% signal. It’s very difficult to even include the concept of noise in digital media—noise being sound that you’re not intended to focus on, sound that you choose to focus on that’s other than the signal. In analog media, that is unavoidable. You cannot eliminate it. I’m not saying that people have embraced it—actually, engineers have all been striving to eliminate it all this time. Everyone’s always looking for the least amount of surface noise on the LP: your perfect pressing, your perfect hi-fi stereo equipment. The whole idea was to deliver the signal without noise. But you cannot do it.

That imperfection—from an engineer’s point of view—was, I think, to the listener’s and the artist’s benefit, because noise is communicative. Noise has meaning. Meaning that the listener assigns to it. That’s a fundamental switch that I’ve experienced with digital media, where you don’t have the opportunity to step around the signal within the medium itself. I still feel a little confused by the experience. I vividly remember when CDs came in, and listening to the first Feelies record on CD. It was a record that we knew backwards and forwards. But we knew our analog, scratched copy, with skips and pops. We heard it clean, and it was unnerving. The idea was that now we were hearing it in a better state. But even at that moment, I remember feeling like, there’s something weird about this. It doesn’t feel better, you know? [Laughs.]

Everybody said, at the beginning, when CDs came out, “They sound cold.” It’s one of these vague terms that people latch onto to describe sound. But then there was a coldness, I think, that was accurate to the experience—not necessarily to the tone, but to the experience, which was that you left no mark on it, and it left no mark on you. It’s the same every time you play it, and everybody’s copy is identical. That feeling is easy for me to conjure up. I can picture the room I was in listening to it. Right away, there’s something weird here, something new. Part of what this whole project has been is trying to put my finger on what that was. What was that feeling? What was so different? And the difference in the use of noise is what I kept hitting on.

Signal is what you intend to hear, or what you’re intended to hear by someone else, and noise is everything else. And our definition of what’s signal and what’s noise is shifting all the time. The other thing I wanted to communicate in all these projects is how good we are at that. It just comes with the territory of being human. We know the difference between what we want to hear and what we don’t want to hear. You can see children do it constantly. You shift your focus and your attention. Our analog media mimic that better than our digital media. Our digital media represent…

[Ed. At this point—speaking of digital media—the call dropped, thanks to the interviewer’s iPhone, and had to be re-established.]

BLVR: I’m so sorry.

DK: No, I’m totally into it. That is exactly what… I mean, I included that moment even in my podcast at one point.

BLVR: Right.

DK: …where I was in your position, I was engineering someone, and I lost the signal.

Anyway, I was saying that digital media—for reasons I’m not qualified to explain, because it’s an engineering issue—treat noise differently. It enables us to eliminate noise, which means it’s an apotheosis of deliberate communication. But at the same time, we’re losing all these other inefficient parts of our speech, of our sound. It happens in digital written communication, too. You get through what you mean to, but the recipient only gets what you were able to give them through that strict definition, and they can’t step around it. So it’s a loss of information. And that’s really the fundamental thing that I wanted to communicate to people: just because we have more information now, through digital media, doesn’t mean we have better, fuller information. It depends on eliminating a whole lot of aspects of meaning.

To go back to sound: very simply, we have lossy compression. So the MP3, for example—but really all the formats that we use, bluetooth especially—engineers call lossy, meaning that we’ve lost information. They’re doing it deliberately, because the loss of information increases the efficiency of the communication. We’re able to stream music online because we’ve narrowed the amount of information that the music has in it. Then they go through these elaborate and ever-improving ways of trying to make the loss as unnoticeable as possible. Like, you’re not going to hear anything above this threshold or below this threshold, so we’ll just lop those off. But the thing is, I can hear the difference. And if you focus, anybody will. People generally don’t focus. But if you’re mixing your own record, and you’re sitting there glued to every detail in it, you hear the loss. A very clear way to do it is to listen to the vocals as the reverb trails go off and the ends of the cymbal hits. They disappear.

The danger with a lot of these things—and this gets to economics and politics right now—is that we willingly settle for less and less. That’s happening with so many of our information streams. Like, where are the liner notes? Just gone. And now nobody even misses them. It certainly would be easy enough to digitize them and put them online. But nobody does, for efficiency’s sake. Apple and Spotify don’t want their interfaces clogged up with that stuff. It’s a version of lossy compression.

So, there are the little things like that. And then there are the big things. Like losing our local newspapers, which is a version of context, too—of noise.

BLVR: Could you speak more to how you see these technical or industry-specific issues as related to broader interpersonal and societal and political concerns?

DK: With lossy communication, what we lose, generally, is context. The noise around the signal, which carries meaning, and also changes the meaning of the signal. And you can see this reflected in so many aspects of our contemporary moment. I think about the town I live in: Cambridge, MA. Like so many places, we’re losing our local stores, and what’s replacing them are chains. So our town center has the same stores that every other town center has. That’s not literally digital media, but it’s a reflection of the same treatment of information and exchange of information. You don’t go through this contextualized, localized version of your drug store. You have CVS, where it’s standardized, and you’re in their system, and your doctor can send the prescription to any CVS you want.

There’s a gain in efficiency and a loss of context—in our physical landscape, our economic landscape, our work lives, and even our person-to-person exchanges. You start to depend on more transactional behaviors, where we’re sending messages to each other that are brief and intended to communicate exactly what we need at that moment from one another. Rather than: you run into your neighbor on the street and it’s a whole song and dance, you talk about the weather.

Again, it’s not like, oh, we should have the old way. It’s a very different kind of exchange. I love the thing that Elaine Katzenberger from City Lights Books says in the podcast and in the book, something like: “I’m not asking you to come to the bookstore because it’s a poverty case, like it needs your support for some moral reason. It’s just a different experience. Don’t shut yourself off from it.” Like, go ahead, use Amazon. But go into a bookstore, too. Because they’re radically different experiences. They satisfy different needs. You go into a physical store, and you walk out with something you didn’t go in to buy, because you find something at random, by chance. Not entirely by chance, because there’s advertising involved and all that kind of stuff. But still. You’re going to be affected by the haphazard nature of analog experience.

It’s true in person-to-person relations, too. If you physically go to a place with other people, you are going to end up meeting or talking to different people than you would’ve intended. The fact that it’s unavoidable is what a lot of engineers involved in digital are working against. You’re going to go into a meeting, and you’re going to have to deal with all these people that you don’t need to talk to. Let’s strip it away so that we have a meeting across continents where only the people you really need to communicate to are involved, and we’ll have a Slack channel. You start to strip away all the inefficiencies and try and get it to the most convenient form possible.

But there’s something to be said for the accidental encounter. All these recommendation algorithms and everything, they cannot replace the accident of physical space. And that comes back to noise. What is the accident that we have in physical space? It’s noise. That you go to the library to get a book, and it’s not on the shelf, and you take something else that’s there. That’s a completely inefficient, frustrating experience. But you’re going to end up with something else that you could not get online.

It connects to politics, too. You think about all these questions right now about information failures in our political environment. The Brexit campaign happens, and they manage to get it through by not explaining the full situation. It’s just propaganda, to some degree. But propaganda is so much more efficient through digital means, for the same reasons as all the other efficiencies. The anti-vaccine network, all this disinformation that’s happening online. It’s always been there. It’s not an invention of the digital medium. But like all our communications, it is more efficient through digital media, because the signal goes like mercury—it flashes through the system. And the noise is lost. And the noise is everything that would make you suspicious of that information. I have more faith in people being able to see through things when they’re given enough context. But you see the charlatan delivering the snake oil speech, or you see the guy playing three-card monte on the street. There’s a lot of context around it that should tip you off, or that tips off most people, that this is a scam. But when you get just the information through, it looks much more like a real thing.

BLVR: There’s a refrain in a lot of your work that what we might think of as the utopian, or at least optimistic promises of digital media—to provide us more intimacy and democratization and community—often find a kind of perverse fulfillment in their opposites: in disconnection and privatization and isolation.

DK: At the same time, I do feel the idealism of it. That’s why I’m not an anti-digital spokesperson. The idea of being able to get your hands on any music in the world—that is fantastic to me. Daily I reach out for music online that I still can’t believe I can find. And I don’t want to give that up any more than anybody else. In fact, I would like it to be even more democratic and random and anarchic. The problem, to me, all starts—to get to music—with corporate control of the information, where it starts to limit our access. Again, it’s the lossy thing. It’s in the interest of a profit-making corporation to limit your use of the information that’s out there. So yes, Spotify has a huge catalogue, but not everything. And it’s in their interest to make sure that you make them the center of your musical life, because they want you on the platform. Facebook wants you on the platform. Everyone wants you on their platform. And you’d think that the way to keep people engaged would be to give them total freedom. But that’s not the situation. Total freedom freezes people. They don’t know where to go.

So if you literally have all the music in the world in the platform—well that’s just the internet, that’s what we had with Napster. That’s the basis of it, pre-profit-making corporation. And then when you get to these corporations staking out their control over this free space, it’s all about limitation. Spotify’s channeling you into what they want you to be listening to. Netflix only has a limited range of what you can watch. It’s a narrowing. It’s always lossy information. And that is hooked, I think, not to the internet itself, but to the profit-making use of it, and our surrendering of this free space to corporate power. That’s the political conclusion of a lot of the podcast and the book.

BLVR: Are there areas in which you see hope for reclaiming that original egalitarian and radical potential of digital media?

DK: Oh yeah. I think it can’t be stopped. The system tends toward crazy chaos of information. It’s there. What’s so frustrating is how we surrender this, we trade it for corporate control, and it’s incredible how willingly everybody does this. But the chaos is still there. Look at the leaks of information from the government, for example. It feels like nothing can be secret, really, to the degree that it used to be. Growing up during the Vietnam War, it felt like there were government secrets that’ll never, ever be revealed. And now it feels like, well, it’s on somebody’s computer—of course it can be revealed. It’s like trying to stop an advance of a record from getting out. It’s going to leak. You cannot stop it.

But we are capable, as a society, of surrendering our freedoms, as we see over and over and over again. I don’t think information is controllable. People are controllable, though—that’s the scary bit. But if I had to bet on which side wins, it would be chaos.

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