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SCREEDS:

ON CIRCLE, ROCK’N’ROLL, AND THE DANGER OF DEFAULT THINKING*

“IIIIIII LOOOOOVE ROCK-N-ROLL!”, goes the insanely singable chorus of Joan Jett’s justifiably massive 1982 hit. And when you find yourself singing along, at that moment, if pressed, you’d probably say that yeah, sure, you love rock’n’roll.
But the truth is you probably don’t.
Why would you? Rock’n’roll is a tough thing to love–even when it’s done well (i.e. almost never), it’s generally far too much or not nearly enough for any situation. If you actually think of yourself as “loving” it, it’s probably because of a couple bands that galvanized you when you were very, very young, and not the handful of rock bands you’ve found yourself in front of since, almost all of whom were probably tolerable at best, unbearably awful at worst.
As a practicing rock musician for…Christ, nearly 30 years now, I can’t imagine that anyone is more acutely aware of this than me. I have endured countless (>>>…countless!…<<<) tortuously mediocre rock bands on this particular life journey, and like most people, I just can’t fucking stand them. Seriously, my threshold for even “hey, not bad” bands long ago plummeted to zero.
And yet.
And yet, I love rock’n’roll. Unabashedly. Because: every blue moon or so, I see a band like Circle.
Circle are from Finland, of all places. They’ve been at it for over 20 years. Not ‘at it’ in the classic sense, as in ‘trying to make it’. They’re not trying to make it–they just make it. They played at the Bottom Of The Hill here in San Francisco back in 2007, which is a while ago at this point, and yet…
And yet…
I can guarantee you that everyone who was there remembers that night vividly.
Where most rock bands are sonically oppressive, they made me feel lighter than air. Where most rock bands are painfully unimaginative (though those bands undoubtedly see themselves as ‘carrying on traditions’), they were bursting with ideas. Where most bands’ attempts at incorporating theatricality are charmingly schticky at best, painfully awkward at worst, Circle’s deft, subtle use of it enhanced the fuck out of what was already utterly transcendent. Where most bands seem to outstay their welcome by atleast 15 minutes, I seriously could’ve watched them for days.
And most importantly, where most bands get called “rock” bands because they sport some of the superficial characteristics we’ve come to associate with the genre, Circle actually fucking ROCKED. As in: made you wanna jump up and down, and dance, and sing, and shout, and jump out of bed the next day, with a big smile on your face, spiritually nourished and rejuvenated, and psyched to put as much beauty into the world as you possibly could. I don’t know about you, but the list of things that have that kind of an effect on me–especially first thing in the morning–is pretty fucking short.
And that’s why I, personally, love rock’n’roll. Because, despite every valid argument against it, there is occasionally a band like Circle who are ninja enough to not only grab hold of that bursting, outta-control firehose that is rock’n’roll, but focus it, with laser precision, on the points that need it most. And it’s the best fucking thing ever.
The key to Circle’s success, where so many others fail, when it all comes down to it? (And THIS is where this applies to any artistic discipline, be it music or not…)
NO DEFAULT THINKING.
None. Zero. Zilch.
The problem with most rock bands these days is that they’re “just kind of a rock band.” Most, if not all, of what they do (or don’t do) is not because they made a definite, clear choice about it, but because they just didn’t make a choice at all. In other words, the answer to “Why are you doing that?” would be “Uhhh…because that’s what rock bands do…?”
Default thinking.
That is the polar opposite of what Circle does. Of all the various, innumerable possibilities available to a rock band, they cherry-pick, with clinical, surgical precision, what they will (and will not!) incorporate into what they do. Not a single aspect of their art is “just cuz”. Their artistic choices were clear and precise (not to mention inspired) all the way down the line, and as a result they were THEE PERFECT live rock’n’roll band—they did, imho, every single thing a rock band should do, and (almost more importantly) DIDN’T do every single thing a rock band shouldn’t do, and the results were cosmic. The specifics (which happen to jive with my particular aesthetic) are less important here than the method, which was a COMPLETE, THOROUGH absence of default thinking. In addition to rocking my motherfucking world, they gave me an invaluable lesson in quality art that applies across the board: whatever you’re doing, don’t “just do it”. Question every assumption, every rule, and especially every “tradition”. That doesn’t mean reject tropes or tradition, it means don’t just unthinkingly embrace them. And if you are going to embrace them, embrace the FUCK out of them, clearly, passionately, unmistakably. Make sure there isn’t a single aspect of what you’re doing that is just because “that’s what’s done”. In addition to almost single-handedly restoring my faith in rock’n’roll after decades of bands so soul-crushingly mediocre that they seriously made me wonder if I ever really liked music in the first place, Circle reinforced this: default thinking is cancer to great art.
Artists, no matter the aesthetic, no matter the discipline: do the world, and yourselves, a huge favor and avoid it like the plague.

(Epilogue: Had I just read this, my first impulse would be to check out Circle’s records or youtube clips to get an idea of what I was talking about. Although there are Circle records and clips that i enjoy, you won’t find any of what I’m talking about there. Ya gotta be there.)

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