Generation Pop

    To some, electronic pop act Elite Gymnastics’ James Brooks will always be known as “j_brooks.” That’s his username on the forum Hipinion — an invite-only virtual Mecca for music nerds across the world. As of press time, his last post was on the thread “Taylor Swift – Red (10/22) HYPE THREAD.” It reads, “this song fucking RULES,” and it’s about “I Knew You Were Trouble” — the country star’s so-called dubstep track produced by pop stalwart Max Martin.

    That might be a surprising declaration to those unfamiliar with the artist. Brooks’ long Neil Young coif doesn’t scream Taylor Swift fan, yet the dude makes one thing clear: He loves pop music. The sample-based work of the critically acclaimed Ruins series (released last year) draws inspiration from K-pop, hip-hop, house music, ’90s female singer-songwriters and more.

    But the moniker wasn’t always a mask for one. Elite Gymnastics was a duo until visual artist Josh Clancy left earlier this year. Though Brooks writes all of the songs, at the time of Clancy’s departure, the group had already booked a tour with like-minded pop auteur Grimes. As a result, Brooks had to find the confidence to perform solo and rework his live show.

    That show will play to a sold-out crowd at UCSD’s own Porter’s Pub tonight. Brooks gave us an idea of what to expect from a phone call at a tour stop in Arizona, in which he discussed these changes to the project, “Gangnam Style” and his unwavering dedication to pop music — Korean or otherwise.

    Guardian: How’s the tour going?

    James Brooks: It’s been great — the best possible tour. We’re in a big van that has Wi-Fi and I’m the only guy on the tour, which will probably never happen again given how the music industry is.  

    Whenever we have time off, we end up going to fabric stores and load up on fake moss and fake flowers and all this crafty stuff we don’t really need to try to make the presentation look prettier. And we have big stuffed replicas of the main character from the movie “My Neighbor Totoro” and they sit on the stage and are basically part of the band.

    G: How has performing without Josh affected your stage confidence?

    JB: The first show in Montreal was my first time being by myself in front of a large group of people, so I kind of had a minor Fiona Apple breakdown on stage. But after that, everything’s been fine. The specific kind of show that I do is really kind of performance art-y, because with the kind of music it is, there’s not a lot of space for me to get up on stage and play an instrument. That’s not how I make the records anyway, so it would be kind of dishonest for me.

    Even logistically, I don’t know how I would create a live show based on Elite Gymnastics music that was about musicianship. That’s not anything that happens during the project. It’s more about thinking about music in interesting ways and arranging simple component pieces of music into something hopefully more interesting.

    G: In terms of the live performance then, do you feel liberated by Josh’s departure?

    JB: Josh is much more aesthetically minded than I am. I’m definitely concerned with visual stuff or whatever, but for him it’s a more militantly aestheticized outlook on performance. Like we would play in the dark and the projections would be more prevalent on stage than either of us. He’d not be super into the idea of me talking to the audience, so you wouldn’t get a sense of the human beings behind the music.

    It improves the entire thing a great deal when I don’t have to accommodate for what makes him comfortable on stage. It’s not that I don’t value his view on things. It’s just that at the end of the day I’m the one making the music and it’s sort of like it’s better if I cut out all the extraneous stuff so it can become what it actually is. It’s just me on a stage presenting the things that I made as opposed to trying to invent this larger idea of it that includes this other person’s very specific and very deliberate sensibilities.

    G: With the changes to the live show, do you think the music will follow suit?

    JB: I’m a big fan of the video games, and with the Final Fantasy series each installment of it is very different from the last one. There are little constant elements that make cameos, but in general, it’s a completely different self-contained world and self-contained story each time. Even when Josh was still around, when we were talking about the next thing, we both agreed that it should be different than the stuff before. Every time an Elite Gymnastics album comes out, it should be a very deliberately self-contained entity. Like all the Ruins stuff. There was a lot of continuity aesthetically and musically and lyrically. So the plan has been for a while that the next thing will be a clear break from that and a completely new self-contained set of sounds and emotional content. Josh leaving sort of draws a line under that even more forcefully.

    G: You told Pitchfork that you were interested in exploring more feminine influences on the next record. Could you elaborate a bit more on that?

    JB: One of the reasons it was so hard for me to listen to pop music [as a kid] was just because the aggression of grunge rock and the stuff that was going on at the time really put me off. I’ve always been sort of uncomfortable around adult men — like extreme aggressive masculinity is kind of off putting to me. So when I started getting into music a lot of the things that appealed to me the most were things like Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple and stuff.

    There was something so great about the ’90s, when those artists were operating and you had things like “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman getting popular. It was very honest and very real. You compare that to what the female artists in pop music today are saying, and it’s just infinitely more sophisticated and healthier. I feel like something got lost with the role of the female singer songwriter. It fell out of fashion and people started to become ashamed of it. It got to the point where like that archetype… the Fiona Apple archetype of the girl who went to college and is mad at the establishment — that sort of became a joke, like the Julia Stiles character in “10 Things I Hate About You.” I miss pop culture putting forth the idea that the experience of being a woman in society is something worth talking about. More than anything else, that’s the stuff that inspires me. It feels like what I want to be hearing from pop music.

    G: In what you’ve written on the Internet, you’ve sort of become the de facto ambassador to K-pop for the American indie scene. What drew you to that particular kind of pop music?

    JB: One thing that I run into when I’m having conversations with people about this is that people are under the impression that I’m in favor of K-pop in opposition to pop music from other parts of the world. I think the reason why K-pop deserves to be paid attention to is that it’s just as good as anything being made anywhere else in the world. There are things I appreciate about it that are unique that you can’t find anywhere else, but the main thing that I wanted to get across to people isn’t that they’re doing it better than the U.S. What I wanted to get across was that this thing you might not be aware of is really cool.

    Because the platforms where I talked about it were Pitchfork and outlets that cover non-mainstream music it became a weird thing, because Pitchfork doesn’t cover Katy Perry, so why would they cover the Korean equivalent to Katy Perry? A lot of people got confused by that. I genuinely like Katy Perry. I like Rihanna. I like Lana Del Rey. I might not like them as much as I like Fiona Apple and Tori Amos, but I think all of them make great music.

    G: And with “Gangnam Style” blowing up, you see K-pop finally reaching an international audience.

    JB: “Gangnam Style” becoming a hit is really a fulfillment of everything that I wanted when I was trying to evangelize K-pop to people. “Gangnam Style” is, if you go and find out what the lyrics mean, a critique of a specific cultural thing in South Korea. It’s like, PSY wasn’t trying to make something that Westerners would understand. He was saying something that was very specifically Korean, whereas other groups like Girls’ Generation are hiring American producers and partnering up with and trying as hard as possible to change themselves to appeal to an American audience. So the fact that the dude that actually broke through and got into the Billboard Top 10 and did it was this dude who was not even trying to — who was actually just trying to make something that was good — that’s like the ultimate fulfillment of everything I could have hoped for with how K-pop entered the world stage. It’s so beautiful it makes me want to cry. I’m very happy that that’s how it ended up happening.

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