July 19, 2011
On “jamband,” jamming, and genres

"Whether it wants it or not, Animal Collective could have a long afterlife on the jam band circuit; same goes for the festival performers Battles and Gang Gang Dance, acts that stretch their songs out past melodic relevance into rhythmic trance." - Jon Caramanica, New York Times.

"sick of writers going to the "jam band" kneejerk whenever a band plays a long song. Maybe the band is just into "Sister Ray" or Krautrock?" - Marc Masters, on twitter.

"We ain’t no fucking jamband!!!" - !!! singer Nic Offer, Empty Bottle, 2003, while jamming.

Every critic sent to cover a music festival wants to find a trend to hang their narrative on, be it flutes or tweeting-in-the-VIP-area or offensive lyrics. If I had been writing about the Pitchfork Music Festival last weekend instead of just freeloading shade and Heineken and mostly unobstructed views, I would have picked jamming. I couldn’t see every act or make a fully informed assessment in every case, but I counted at least 5 bands that included some aspect of improvisation in their set at the festival. (As an aside, I also counted three bands on Sunday alone that had at least one member dressed in tie-dye, including Odd Future). That’s at least three more than employed a flautist, so enough for a trend piece, right?

I would have avoided further pigeonholing myself as “the Pitchfork critic who only listens to Phish now” if it wasn’t for the 1-2 punch of Caramanica’s review and Masters’ tweet, which opened the floodgates. I wrote and deleted about 25 @ responses to Marc, RT-ed w/o comment, went to a meeting, then came back and flooded him with a second wave of @s. In the interim, the conversation spiraled off into something else I’m much less interested in (how people into noise got into noise). But here’s the point I want to make about the term “jamband.”

Genre names are (usually) useful, despite everyone claiming to hate them. Musicians are allergic to them, as 99% of them are to any words about their music that aren’t a critic exactly guessing what they were thinking when they made it. But critics, the people who invent and use genre names, hate them the most. So the inevitable life cycle of any genre name is its invention, spread, and then gradual transformation into an insult. For a recent example, look no further than “chillwave.” Or for older audiences, “emo.”

The lifespan of “jamband” is a little different, since it has endured as a useful term among those who listen to the music it describes (and it does describe it plainly and simply, unlike many other genre names) while it almost immediately calcified into an insult for anyone else. Even with the recent re-acceptance of the Grateful Dead, the band for whom the term was arguably invented, the term is still considered an epithet rather than a description. Hence Masters’ (perfectly reasonable) frustration with Caramanica, and Caramanica’s built-in apology (“Whether it wants it or not”), despite the fact that the jamband community factually is very interested in seeing Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, and Battles perform right now.

As I tweeted to Marc, the problem is that jamband-as-insult means mostly “drugged-up hippies playing long, prog-influenced music” instead of what it properly should mean: improvisational rock music. That’s a lot of letters, and in 140-character times, I’d rather type “jamband.” In my head, “jamband” already means both “Dark Star” and “Sister Ray” - two sides of the same late-60s coin, really. It also means Phish or Yo La Tengo, who recently played a show down the street from me than ended with an 17-minute jam on, yup, “Sister Ray.” That’s not the case for most critics or listeners though.

The problem is that I do think we are legitimately moving towards a time when more indie rock bands are attempting to add improvisation into their live shows (god bless ‘em!), and so all this terminology is going to need to be sorted out. It’s one thing for Animal Collective to play around with jamming, but another thing entirely when it comes from more median indie bands like Deerhunter or Woods (both of whom jammed more than AC did this past weekend, I would argue). As Aaron Leitko reported in the Washington Post last year, this is a thing.

Maybe someone is going to come up with a new name for rock music that includes improvisation, something that won’t have the “uncool” taint of jamband. But we already have a perfectly good one, one that has none of the inherent pretension and bloggy smell that would come with yet another hyphenated form of psych-something or something-psych. Why not reclaim jamband? It ain’t perfect, but it’s better than most.

  1. whitperson reblogged this from robmitchum and added:
    great post by robmitchum on the term “jamband" in today’s mashed up musical landscape of jammy indie rock bands and...
  2. mefmarcedwardfishman reblogged this from robmitchum
  3. marathonpacks reblogged this from robmitchum and added:
    months-long festering thing...cycles, hopefully Rob’s swell post will speed
  4. robmitchum posted this