Sex, Politics and Religion w/Null Device
The first time I heard Null Device was in March of 2009. My friend and local DJ/promoter Gary (known to frequenters of Club ? as DJ Garz ) had suffered the misfortune of a house fire. So, like any strong community, we – DJs, promoters, bands, friends – banded together to throw a benefit show at The Miramar. Standing in the back of the main staging area, after months of planning, trying in vain to steal an open internet connection to post just a few more bulletins about the event before doors opened, I was suddenly rendered completely immobile. Null Device – the name a nod to the two Erics in the band, founding members and both employed in what some might consider rather nerdy professions – had begun their soundcheck, and I’d never heard anything like it. Thus began a strong love affair with this Madison-based group that “blends electronic pop with Indian and Arabic classical and folk traditions.” Here, we post their eagerly-awaited responses to our regular Sex, Politics and Religion segment.
1. How does Sex influence your music?
2. How do politics influence your music?
3. How does religion influence your music?
Eric Goedken: What, no personal questions to ask? Actually, this is
bit more interesting that naming your ten desert island albums or
Eric Oehler: For a lot of this, I’ll have to defer to Eric G, as he
writes the lyrics.
EG: There are only so many things that good songs can be really be
about and those are three of the best subjects.
Let me start by saying that I feel pretty strongly that ambiguity is
almost essential to good lyrics. I don’t want people to listen to our
songs and feel like they’re being told what to think. Lyrics should
be a way to provoke an emotion or two and ask some questions— and
maybe inspire some thinking.
This definitely affects how I incorporate my political views in my
writing. I’m a real national news junkie and I follow Washington
politics pretty closely.
Friends know that I’m not shy about offering my opinion about current
events. But I’m also pretty firmly against putting too much of that
explicitly into my lyrics. This is partly because I don’t want to tie
the songs to any one time or viewpoint, but also because we’ve tried
to be more overtly “political” before and it just *didn’t* work for
EO: That’s a real danger. Many political issues are transient, and
nothing says “this song is dated” like lyrics about Margaret Thatcher.
Additionally, a 3-minute pop song isn’t going to be able to do more
than scratch the surface, unless you’re writing about something very,
very specific. And who’s going to want to listen to songs about
local commercial zoning policy? Most songs take such nuanced stances
as “war bad” or “freedom good” which I don’t think generally do their
concepts any justice.
EG: One example was while writing our third album “Excursions.” So
we tried to make a big strong statement in a song called “Think It
Over.” The whole track was a rather thinly veiled indictment of
George W, who really got under my skin with the way his presidency
trashed our national reputation. That seemed to be about the time that
every album from Muse to Rufus Wainwright to Tori Amos had at least
one “I can’t stand this president” song.
EO: Stromkern had just released a pretty great and very political
album, and I remember thinking “why don’t we do that?” I suggested
we try it to Eric G, and he came back with lyrics. But I could never
get it to sound convincing.
EG: Anyway, I still think the idea for the song was okay in principle
and some of the lyrics weren’t that over the top in their
obvious-ness. When I heard “Capital G” a few years later, I remember
thinking that Trent Reznor had said everything that I wanted to get
into in “Think it Over”. When it comes down to it, I don’t think my
lyrical style or Eric’s voice lend themselves very well to angry
stuff, and if you’re going to write political songs in this day and
age, I think you need to have some outrage. We’ll stick to heartfelt,
sensitive music; it seems to be what we do best.
EO: I think for me, some of the problems I have with the delivery is
that there’s always a nagging feeling of hypocrisy that plagues me. I
keep thinking that it’s a cinch for me to talk about the plight of
the downtrodden when I’m standing in a studio’s worth of expensive
gear. If I really wanted to make a difference, I’d sell my
microphones and feed Bangladesh for a month or something, not write
songs and feel smug about it.
EG: Moving to religion, the title of our new album is Suspending
Belief. This for me came from the way a few of the tracks probe the
ideas of god and faith. I think Eric and I are both quite skeptical of
organized religions and the dogma they inspire in their followers.
EO: For me, that’s an understatement. I’m often rather outspoken
about these issues. I don’t expect, or even want, religion to stop
being part of the cultural landscape, nor can I deny that despite the
many things I don’t like about it either historically or
epistemologically, a lot of really fantastic art and music can be
traced back to religious traditions. But I have a lot of problems
with how most religions are applied to modern society.
EG: “Blades of Grass” features some beautiful Arabic vocals that Eric
& our collaborator Raya Wolfsun selected from Sufi poetry. My
interpretation of the translation was that they expressed a strong
devotion to god, so when Eric asked to write some English lyrics to
complement these, I tried to write a counterpoint from my perspective
as a nonbeliever. I’m not sure that it comes across in “Blades” as
strongly as it might, but this same theme also continues in the next
song “Teapots Orbiting.”
EO: “Blades” is back to the ambiguity thing a bit, but I think there’s
a pretty strong argument for that reading. I love the juxtaposition.
“Teapots Orbiting” grew out of my attempts to frame a song around
Bertrand Russell’s teapot analogy.
EG: That is, if you say there’s a teapot out in space that no one can
detect, should it really be my responsibility to disprove this idea?
EO: Russell was challenging head-on the idea that it was up to
science and philosophy to disprove religion, instead of theology’s
responsibility to prove it. I wondered if anyone had ever written a
song about it. I didn’t know if this was a good idea or not, but it
could be interesting to try and blend it with a love song. I tried to
hack something out along these lines and I passed them on to Eric G.
EG: I took this concept and some of Eric’s early lyrics and tried to
tie them more into the typical territory for us—uncertainty in love
EO: Another track, “Many Forms” features lyrics in classical Greek
from Euripides, roughly translated “the gods manifest themselves in
many different forms” which I’m sure in ancient Athens was meant a lot
more literally than I interpret it. I almost take it facetiously.
EG: And really I think love, sex, & relationships are pretty much the
heart of most songwriters’ inspiration. They certainly have been for
mine. If not for heartbroken days of yore, I probably never would
have started writing lyrics in the mid 90s.
EO: For that matter, I probably wouldn’t have started recording
music. Or at least not good music.
EG: I’ve been happily married for some years now, and the lovelorn
songs have slowed from my pen.
EO: I can’t even write lyrics anymore. I used to write a song or two
for each album, but I just don’t have the mental anguish. Happy
relationships make things tricky that way. I’ve suggested to my
fiancé that she act crazy periodically so I can have more material to
work with, but she just rolls her eyes at me.
EG: In fact, some of songs on the new album like “Breathe You in” come
from a very different, contented place that I didn’t have back then.
EO: I’ve also had one person tell me that my delivery on that track
made it sound slightly insincere, like some guy using fancy words to
put the moves on someone. I’m not sure I agree with that, but then
again that’s sort of the beauty of it.
EG: But I don’t think anyone wants to listen to ten Null Device songs
about happiness. I sure don’t!
EO: I think it’d be difficult for me to write that. I have a hard
time writing in a major key!
EG: One thing I’m very fond of doing is using sexual metaphors in
songs that weren’t originally about sex. “The Hourglass” from our
second album A Million Different Moments has that, I think. “Blow My
Mind” is a great example from the new disc. There’s definitely some
imagery in that one that could be suggestive, but the thrust of the
track (*ahem*) wasn’t inspired by sex. The original concept was more
like a John Woo movie rather than a John Holmes movie. You know, a
killer on the run, facing an old adversary.
EO: Although I still giggle at the lyric “overtaken from behind.”
Every. Single. Time.
EG: But then again, I did intentionally lace it with words that
suggest sex acts so it certainly could be taken that way. I’m happy to
let the listener decide…
Madison, Friday June 25th @ The Frequency
Milwaukee, Saturday June 26th @ Club Anything
Chicago, Sunday June 26th @ The Darkroom
(and points onward from there)