I’ve decided to interview a tiny handful of music curators who continually blow my mind with new discoveries. I’ve written in the past about curation and its crucial role in separating wheat from chaff; my entire music appreciation history has been spent following the superlative taste of others, while attempting to position myself in a similar space. The aim of the interview series is to figure out how music is curated in the digital space, and how things have evolved in finding music for others to listen to just in the last four or five years alone.
To kick off this project, I sent over a few questions to Matt Thornton, aka UrbanKill. You’re already following UrbanKill on Tumblr, right? If not, you’re missing the most dedicated, lightning-quick curation zealot out there, a guy who digs deeper than just about anyone to find you the obscure and intense. His tastes are, shall we say, “sub-underground” – just the way we like it. UrbanKill has turned Dynamite Hemorrhage onto a good dozen or more bands just in the past year alone; we thought it only appropriate that we kick off this series with a few questions for him. It’s long – but you’ve got the time.
DH: What’s your true, non-internet name; where do you reside; and how long have you been in the sub-underground rocknroll curation game (and where/how, if you’ve been online or offline elsewhere)?
UrbanKill, aka Matt Thornton: Matt Thornton. I was named after the first governor of New Hampshire, who was also the last signer of the Declaration of Independence. According to my aunts I am his decedent. They apparently did “rigorous research”, but I do not believe them, at all. One of them has a business designing Nutcrackers, and the other cried for three days when JFK Jr. died. Untrustworthy people if you ask me.
I’ve bounced around quite a bit, but I grew up in North Kingstown, RI, and I live in Rhode Island currently. Also lived in Ohio, San Francisco, and Italy. I have been obsessive about music since I was little. My sister would play lots of Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett. For whatever reason, I took to some of that, as well as The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, etc, early on, which also stemmed from my dad always having classic rock radio playing. My parents were separated, so when I visited my dad on the weekends he’d let me explore music and comedy and lots of things that were probably not suitable for a child. He’d tape Letterman segments and SNL for me, and take me to Providence to buy records on Thayer St (an important place due to its proximity to RISD and Brown University). I owned a lot of vinyl when I was a kid.
As far as the impulse to share music, the kids in my neighborhood didn’t really appreciate me putting my “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy” tape in their boomboxes. I managed to make a single kid laugh once by playing him a song from Roger Waters’ “Music From The Body” that solely consisted of flatulence. I remember that being very calculated on my part. I wanted to connect my musical world to the kids around me, and actually borrowed that record from a sister as a way to lay down a path for them. But after the farting noises ceased, so did the interest.
DH: Are you, or were you, a physical “record collector” at any point? What insight can you offer into the state of music accumulation and curation in the digital age, how it’s evolved in the last 15 years of wide mp3 availability, and what it’s done to any taste for vinyl or other formats you may have had or still have?
Matt Thornton: I was a collector as a kid. I had a rough few years going into adolescence that included my mother dying, getting kicked out of school, getting arrested multiple times, drugs, etc. Suddenly rock and roll music didn’t speak to me at all, nor did punk or hardcore, and I think a lot of teens felt that way in the 90s – specifically those who were financially disadvantaged. All of the punks I knew seemed to live in nice houses, in nice neighborhoods, and I couldn’t understand what any of them were angry about. I think by the age of 15 or 16 I started to straighten out, and ended up getting a job at a restaurant. All my money from work went towards vinyl – entirely Hip-Hop 12” singles and LPs, aside from the one token Portishead album that every Hip-Hop kid seemed to have. Skippy Whites in North Providence and Newbury Comics in Warwick were two stores I spent a great deal of time in. Hip-Hop was my primary thing from about 11 all the way until early adulthood. I had a few years after that of blindly buying rock, punk, and indie records, and I think by the time I was 23 I figured out exactly what I liked. Hearing Cheater Slicks for the first time, with no knowledge of their history or fanbase, kind of kicked down some doors for me too. Hip-Hop is still the music that has the greatest effect on me emotionally though.
Vinyl remained constant in my life until a few years ago. It was always an unhealthy addiction for me personally. I never had the kind of money to afford the habit, but I’d drop ridiculous money on a single record and end up short on rent. It was foolish. I’ve spent the last few years trying to break bad habits and unhealthy behavior. I’m not suggesting that record collecting is unhealthy in general, but it was for me. I still buy records but I try to keep it within reason.
DH: Tell me a little about the process you go through to find obscurities from across the web: key sites you use; other curators you trust; links you follow; how quickly you post stuff; where you post it and so on.
Matt Thornton: My RSS feed is my main source. I add record label and band sites to it. Sometimes local city blogs that will post upcoming concerts also include stream links alongside artists, so I’ll add those. And then I just listen when records pop up. I try to keep reviews and opinions out of the way, at least with new music. Not because they shouldn’t be valued, but because I don’t want the interference in the process. The great writers will alter how I experience a record. I tend to want to make up my mind first and then see what they have to say. I end up being influenced by regular, short-form blogs more than critics, but there are definitely writers I love.
There are people who offer quite a bit, on Tumblr specifically. Arturo from Convulsive Records aka isitanart has turned me on to quite a bit, beyond just music. He’s posted art and poetry that have changed how I think about the world. There’s fuckinrecordreviews, who is a gateway to a world that I know little about, and has access to history that is incredibly valuable. Ozkar-Krapo is a genius at sorting through life’s oddities and the obscure. I have always enjoyed your various blogs. You’ve turned me on to a lot of music. There are tons of people. But I’ll just stop there because I’d end up forgetting people.
I never set out to be a curator with Tumblr. I would do this whole routine on my own, for my own satisfaction. Tumblr was just a service that kept me properly distracted and amused during work. But if that’s how others are going to regard me – if they do in fact see me that way – then great! I’ll go ahead and use that. To maybe help some band get a chance to tour and visit other cities, countries. These are experiences we should all have and they are valuable and life-changing. Living in Italy for six months was the greatest experience of my life and it stays with me every day. So if I can play a very small role in a system that enables this culture to keep moving, while the infrastructure around us is crumbling and making it harder than ever to dedicate yourself to art or travel, then I’m happy. To dedicate yourself to music isn’t easy or inexpensive, and I respect anyone who wants to go down that path, especially if they are talented, and have good intentions. If they’re being overshadowed by hype, I want to help.
I absolutely enjoy turning people on to new music. But the idea of being curator is more complicated. When I noticed I was becoming an “mp3 blogging personality”, I started to throw down more roadblocks in between the music posts, to avoid branding myself. The idea of branding is weird and uncomfortable. I don’t want to have a fake version of myself online, and I’m not a good enough writer to take the more esteemed route. I avoid aesthetic consistency as much as I can.
I want people to have to get used to me, because I’m not an easy sell in real life. To have a version of myself online, that everybody could hypothetically like, wouldn’t actually be that hard at all. It would also be a lie. And if I can’t hold my own simply as a writer, then there’s no reason to present myself as an expert. All I have is taste. Beyond that, I can maybe be entertaining and honest.
It doesn’t take much time for me to want to post a song. Whether or not I like a record is pretty immediate. It’s all pop to some degree, or at least what I’m drawn to has that basic structure. I certainly like when people experiment with it, or subvert it, but I’m not listening to drone records. I’ve had great experiences at both drone and noise shows though. But I can’t sit down and listen to either genre, no. And especially not on drugs. I used to listen to Trick Daddy when I did hallucinogens.
DH: What modern tools do you use to turn streams into mp3s – and can you say a few words about your personal ethical stance on doing so?
Matt Thornton: I use add-ons in my browser that auto-download streams. If a band has the stream up on bandcamp, the only reason I’d want to grab it with an add-on is due to presentation. I rotate how I’ll present music, for reasons I mentioned previously. So in that specific case, it makes no difference. Maybe the difference is arbitrary when you’re talking about a record streaming for free online, that people are accessing from their phones on their way to work vs something being shared on slsk. But just support the bands you love when you can. I can’t take a moral high ground or talk about what’s ethical. I haven’t always been a completely ethical person.
Perhaps it’s unethical to rip records and make the decision for the label on your own, yes. But there’s a communal aspect outside of labels, between fans, and I understand where people are coming from when they share new music. It’s not vampirism entirely. There were times when I was dead broke and dying to hear a new record, and certain people always had it there, waiting for me to hear. I love those people. I always wanted to give back to those people. I stopped ripping vinyl some years back, but my motive was always to return the favor.
DH: What musical sub-genres do you explore to find the rare and weird stuff you’re frequently posting, and what have been some of the best “finds” you’ve come across via what I assume is some pretty relentless digging?
Matt Thornton: I don’t necessarily look for specific genres, and certainly try to avoid adherents to genre. Hardcore has weirdly grown on me in the last few years, but it’s usually the groups that have a distinct worldview or sound and can dodge the clichés. Whatever outfit you have on doesn’t matter. Go ahead, wear stained white jeggings, I’ve gotten over my judgment of your filthy white pants. I just want to know how you interpret the world, and not from within an isolated bubble of reality. Stand outside of your comfort zone and tell me what you see and how you feel about it, or put that feeling into the music. Whether you’re serious, funny, ironic, doesn’t matter, but just have a point of view. It doesn’t matter if we agree, I just want to know who you are, and I want you to put your own stamp on the music your making. Dress it up however you like but the foundation is what’s important. You can also, you know, just write a good song, and I’ll be happy too. After years of digging around, you tend just develop the ability to zoom in on the right bands.
Right now I’m obsessed with BnP from New Zealand. Lowercase ‘n’. They’ve maybe a small but loyal following over there. No one cares stateside. I haven’t had any luck getting people to pay attention to them anyway. They’re a punk band. Maybe hardcore roots. A great combination of reckless and smart. Legit and morbid sense of humor. They have a song called “In The Key of Love”, that sounds like something people slow danced at the prom to in 1971 – until they start screaming at the end of the song, anyway. The live clips of them on YouTube are mayhem. Wild energy being let loose with no one trying to control it, with maybe everyone in attendance having a basic trust in each other that things won’t get ugly. They have two full-lengths, two singles, and a live album on Bandcamp. All free.
Other recent discoveries? I’ve gone on and on about Human Abfall from Germany on tumblr. Positive Disintegration from Germany are promising, although they’ve only a couple of songs on Soundcloud. One, “Ruby Cabernet”, is mind blowing and begging for a 7” release. Also: Ivan The Tolerable (UK), Telstar Drugs (Calgary), Taulard (France), Ralph (NZ), Expert Alterations (Baltimore). Not recent, but I still listen to a tape from 2012 by a short-lived Polish noise-punk band, Pustostany, pretty regularly. think people would have – and still would – love that record over here and elsewhere. I’ve listened to Sleaford Mods and Schoolboy Q more than anything recently, though, which places me in the same boat as a lot of folks.
DH: What parallels do you see to the days of flipping through stacks of records in crates, if any – and what sort of mindset does a modern digital curator need to bring to the search for the best obscurities?
Matt Thornton: There’s no real parallel. Digging through music online is not on par with being in a record store, flipping through records, interacting with people, etc. Real life anything wins over the online replacement. But whether one is better as an experience doesn’t mean much to me. We can allow the digital world to replace real-life, or we can grow up and juggle both and use everything to our advantage.
The hype cycles that were built by the record industry still linger and it’s annoying. Everyone can go find music on their own, and I think the music world specifically would be better if we all went down our own paths and brought things back for each other. There’s no need for a fucking chorus line of bloggers pushing some Burger rock, that we all know is going to be rendered worthless within months. And they’re not even making any money. It’s for blog hits. Who cares? Go look around! The internet NEVER ENDS! Find something on your own and develop your own experience with it and share it with the few people that matter to you.
I have total and complete sympathy for people who have busy lives and can’t dedicate time to finding new music, or just have different priorities. But there’s no industry machine for music bloggers to be a part of any more. I don’t get why 300 of them are competing with each other to tell me the same exact thing. I understand why large record companies assault the public with a barrage of advertisements and hype. But why are we willingly trying to replace that system on our own with one that acts the same way, and feeds off people the same way?
As much as I despise most music blogs, good music critics will always be important. If you’re not equipped with the tools to be one, develop a different approach. There’s no shame in that. More people should experiment with how they present music, instead of writing a generic paragraph-per-record where they claim their face gets melted by every record they hear. But good music critics are generally valuable to me because they’re good writers, first and foremost. I can read Daniel Stewart no matter what record he’s talking about, and I’ll generally be more interested in how he presents his ideas than the record he’s talking about. There’s always going to be a place for writers like that, right?