Sex, Politics and Religion w/Null Device
By Erika J. Bock
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 whatnot.
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 us.
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. for refinement.
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 and relationships.
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…