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Powell Billboard

Why Powell put his email address on a billboard

UK electronic artist Powell has promised to reply to every email he receives after inviting the public to message him – we asked him why

Earlier this week, two large, plain white billboards appeared in New York and London bearing nothing but a single email address: Those who took up the implicit invitation to get in touch were put through to Oscar Powell, a musician from London signed to, you guessed it, XL Recordings (home of Adele, Radiohead, and Sigur Rós) who makes music that’s been described as everything from EBM to a blend of industrial techno, post-punk, and noise. Powell promised he’d respond to every email (he’s apparently received over 1000), and also sent back a guide on how best to interview him, complete with a blacklist of words not to be used when talking about his music and a sardonic critique of electronic music journalism.

If this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it isn’t an isolated incident: last year, similar billboards went up from Powell after he messaged legendary noise rock producer Steve Albini to ask about using a sample from a Big Black gig on one of his tracks. Albini responded with a tirade against club music and everything it stood for, and Powell plastered the rant on a billboard.

I’d heard murmurings online that Powell was giving away unreleased tracks to people that got in touch – none came my way, but I did manage to hit him up for a chat to find out what this was all in aid of.

Let’s begin on your terms as per the tips to maximise your interview time with Powell. What is your favourite fruit? Is it melon? (I’ve done my research!)

Powell: It’s definitely melon mate, yeah – but watermelon, not so into the yellow/greeny sort of ones.

I’m sure watermelon is divine on a day as hot as today. Which is your least favourite ‘online music content publication’? 

Powell: I don’t read any.

That leads nicely into my next question, actually. Your guide to interviewing Powell is pretty disparaging towards (music) journalism. Am I proving your point by adding to the mound of content that already exists about your billboard?

Powell: No, because you’re actually taking the time to engage with an idea rather than recycling a bunch of shit that’s already been recycled. Also, we’re going swimming at the lido later. If you were a brilliant journalist, and Dazed wasn’t my least favourite online music publication, they’d send you to eat ice cream with us.

I’m an intern, it’s my second day – not sure I’ve earned swimming and ice cream privileges yet. You’re not the first to break down barriers between artists and fans – bands like Real Lies have given out their phone numbers. Isn’t email a bit of a cop-out in comparison? Or was there something about this medium in particular that did it for you? 

Powell: This isn’t about doing something new or different to what’s been before, and it wasn’t about breaking down barriers. I barely have any fans in the grand scheme of things. I didn’t expect anyone to really email, it was just a better way of talking about my record than via the usual ‘social channels’ or press things. I mean, people equate things like ‘social’ and ‘community’ with Facebook and all that crap, but what’s happened the last 24 hours has been properly social I think. At least the kind of social I like – having real conversations with real people. I always loved the social side of music, the shared sense of purpose, of believing in the same things. Nice to feel that, I think.

“We’re going swimming at the lido later. If you were a brilliant journalist, and Dazed wasn’t my least favourite online music publication, they’d send you to eat ice cream with us” — Powell

That’s true, I imagine most of your fans would probably just come up to you in the club and say hi. It’s been positive so far then? I kind of imagined it to be a big, digital version of worse for wear smoking area chats.

Powell: You don’t really get ‘fans’, I don’t think. You get people who like the same things as you. Maybe as an artist you’re a bigger part of that, but what I’ve been involved in from the beginning is real people doing real things and doing it with conviction. Some people don’t like to talk so much, but I like to talk about what I do because if you don’t people will talk on your behalf, put your music in certain brackets and describe it in a way that has nothing to do with what you think about 24 hours a day.

This seems like an appropriate juncture to move onto the new record. Sounds like I’d better let you do the talking?

Powell: There’s not much to say right now. Next week there will be more. People know it’s called Sport and I called it that because I wanted it to be fun and playful, hence the games we’ve been having via these billboards. People think of my music in certain terms I think, but I don’t agree with them most of the time. I wanted to make that clear with this record. Also, like sport, I think of this record as being something for both mind and body. You’re shit at sport if you don’t bring both things to it so yeah, the music is physical and you can dance to it, but I want it to drag people’s brains along for the ride too. I don’t make music for people to dance to. I make music that people can dance to. I’m not a piece of meat or a gun for hire, on stage to fulfill people’s desire to be moved along for two hours. That’s fuckin’ boring to me. I would never want to be complicit in someone else’s needs like that. There are so few ideas in dance music today it’s depressing. I’ve always liked music that people can dance to, but was never created with that in mind.

Hasn’t that always been the mission statement for you though? Is this just an attempt to ram it home?

Powell: I never had a mission statement. I just do what I think sounds good – and it’s nice (that) people care. The problem is more to do with audiences than it is to do with organisers. People are thick and unwilling to engage with things that make them feel uncomfortable. If you’re not willing to explore then you’re holding everyone else back. Audiences want quick fixes. Hell, when I play some bigger festivals, people leave. They don’t give a fuck. That’s why I will always prefer to play with friends in small environments for people who care deeply about music. Big festivals suck for the most part. If I play ‘em, I’m lumped into a one-size-fits-all category where I’m expected to deliver something they expect. I hate one-size-fits-all anything. The more contrast and diversity there is in music, the better.

Is this what you’ve been telling everyone who’s been emailing in? Have most been receptive or are there a lot of people like the ‘fake punk bitch’ guy you tweeted about? 

Powell: That’s the only troll I’ve had, which is baffling but also interesting. Take things off a public internet space and people behave like human beings again. Comment threads, Facebook, forums – maybe it's the public nature of these places rather than anonymity that turns people into idiots.

“You should always be imaginative with anything you do... Just do what you like in a way that you like. If that means pissing about with billboards, fine” — Powell

To bring it back to the billboard again and the realm of promo, obviously regurgitated, unimaginative journalism and “train wreck” mixes are necessary for some artists. What should people without access to a massive billboard to do be a bit more imaginative?

Powell: You make it sound like an attack on online journalism. I wouldn’t be doing this without the journalists who’ve supported me over the years, and I know some brilliant people who do that in a very brilliant way. Also, it’s not about access to a billboard. You should always be imaginative with anything you do, right from when you start making music until you die. Just do what you like in a way that you like. If that means pissing about with billboards, fine.

Was the guide to maximising your interview time with Powell not an attack on online journalism? It was funny and self-deprecating in places but it also definitely looked like it was taking a few pot shots to me.

Powell: Well sure. Any industry has its weak points. I was just playing off some of ‘em. 95 per cent of online journalism is dire, but I’m very grateful for the other five per cent. It’s okay to point the finger occasionally. We have to put up with it as artists. Maybe it’s a good thing to reverse the tide once in a while.

Just wanted to expand on this point I just re-read – you think the billboard was advertising niche music? I dunno man – was there any mention of a release or a record or any kind of music at all? I wasn’t trying to sell anything with this. Okay, there’s a record coming, but for me there is not much distinction between the music I make and the things I like to do with communication. For me it’s just a part of what I do, like making the music, performing it, running a label etc. It’s another opportunity to say stuff and communicate some personality and humour in a world that takes itself way too seriously. I want my music to be properly understood. That means you have to set some context around it before other people define it for you. Hopefully when the record does come out now, a few more people will understand a little bit more about what the music is meant to be about. Context is good.