An Interview with Rob Shapiro of Populuxe

“Without music, life would be a mistake”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

I’ve been fortunate enough to interview some pretty big names in music on this site. Neil Peart, Steven Wilson, and the Marillion guys come to mind. From time to time, we’ve touched upon the subject of the music industry. Today I broach the same topic with Rob Shapiro of Populuxe.

Here are excerpts from our conversation.

PS: Tell me a bit about the history of the band.

RS: The band started in 1995 in NYC/Brooklyn, initially under the name Blisster—in January, Mark Pardy (drums) joined, by that June we were Populuxe. The band’s undergone numerous personnel changes over the years—some 25+ members at last count, all tremendous. We had a long break from around the end of 2005 until 2010 or so, then re-grouped with Mike Mallory on bass, and suddenly—boom—the band was the best it had ever been—the current lineup is both the longest lasting, and the most powerful. It’s everything I’ve always looked for in a group—facile, loose, ready, and deeply musical. You can throw just about anything at this band, and Mike and Mark make one of those extraordinary rhythm sections—just feel for days. Case in point—we cut the basic tracks for the last two records in two days each. We’ve released three full-length LPs—1998’s “a foggy day in brooklyn”, 2005’s “deep in an american evening…” and 2014’s “Populuxe/3”, plus one mini-opera EP, 2005’s “Daphne”. A new LP titled “Lumiere” is due in March; the first two singles “Garage Sale” and “Lady Liberty” were released this year.

PS: What are some of the band’s influences?

RS: We were all raised primarily on radio during a great age of popular music, so our tastes were formed by sounds far and wide. Plus, we’re all from different worlds. Mark’s from Bournemouth, UK and Mike comes from a little town in upstate NY. I’m from all over the states, lucky enough to have lived in LA during the Paisley Underground era (my first band was a small entry into that scene) and then Minneapolis in ‘84, to be part of, and bear witness to, the great Minneapolis explosion of the ‘80s. So DIY, the importance of style (LA) and the primacy of making work for the work’s sake (Minneapolis) are all deeply ingrained in my art DNA. Musically, Mike and Mark are well-studied players and both hail more from the rock and prog end of the spectrum—Mike’s fave is probably old Genesis, and you know Mark’s love of Marillion.

Beyond that, we all love King Crimson, XTC, Miles, The Police, Bowie, and your grain-and-rice staples Beatles, Stones, James Brown, Motown, Stax, etc. I’ve also got a healthy amount of Gershwin, Chopin, Sondheim and other stuff my pianist mother played when I was a kid, and I absolutely love Brian Wilson. Between us, we have a good near century of show-business experience (loud, self-satisfied sniff), and a wide palette.

PS: Any plans to tour in 2018?

RS: If we can find a way to pay for it! We’ve all got families and bills and such. We would love to come out everywhere and play, it’s a matter of not losing money (as opposed to making some). But, good lord, this is a band that should be seen. We love playing; it’s what we raised and primed ourselves to do for our entire lives. And we’ve got really good implements of sonic glory at our disposal—another benefit of years of acquisition and experience. I’d love to do a tour of house parties—such an interesting, intimate development. Readers? Interested?

PS: What are your thoughts on the music industry?

RS: Short answer: what music industry?

Long(er) answer: music is no longer the central fact of our lives as a culture. It’s as simple as that.

For the better part of the 20th century Popular Music was the artform of our world, and with money able to be made, a giant industry grew up around it. It was how we sorted ourselves socially, how we explained our emotions, how we celebrated, how we grieved, etc. It was everywhere. And so we had huge, vibrant, interesting and adventurous stars, each breaking new ground, from Louis Armstrong and Charlie Christian to Sinatra to Miles, to The Beatles to Bowie et al. But, like all good things, it tipped; at a certain point, it fell victim to its own success, bloated, over-saturated, and repetitive, and then became just pale imitation upon pale imitation, until all that was left was a pile of barely sentient cocaine angrily waving around dollar bills, insisting that this latest completely empty style was actually substance. Don’t mistake this as knocking anything that’s out now—there’s plenty of good stuff, and the ability to make music has never been more easily available. And I have no complaints—I get to make my work as I want and fling it out there. It’s just that there’s no more music industry per se—it’s largely “you’re on your own, Jack.” Music has returned to simply being an artform, no more, no less. There are casualties—good studios and engineers are having a hell of a time, for instance—and there are different opportunities. As for us, we push forward and keep making new work. We still get excited about a good song, or a really good sound. Hell, I can still spend a day wandering around a guitar store. I love making music and everything that goes into it, and the great thing about being older is that I know just how little I know, and how much more there is to learn. It’s like an incredibly difficult, endlessly fascinating, never-ending puzzle that I can’t wait to try to solve. Or a flesh-eating disease.

The jury’s still out.

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