Distancing #18: Future Teenage Cave Artists


It was the fall of 2008 and I was making my usual rounds at a Parisian record store, looking for fresh music. There it was, at a listening station in the middle of a row: a strange sort of Bruce Lee bodybuilder figure, left foot planted on a chair and a hole where the face should be. I put the headphones over my ears and bang! I fell instantly in love. Appropriately, the song was called “The Tears of Music and Love.” The album: Offend Maggie. The group: Deerhoof.

At almost thirty-six, I became a fan of a group whose name is difficult for the average Frenchman to pronounce: “dire… ouf?” I bought everything I could find. And each album was a shock, a different bang each time. There had been the Beatles when I was nine, Queen at thirteen, Led Zeppelin at fifteen, Tom Waits at eighteen; since then, I imagined I had outgrown the fanboy look. But in a sense Deerhoof crystallized everything that our generation—we belong to the same one, they and I—had listened to from the music at our disposal. And I don’t just mean Anglo-Saxon pop-rock; I mean all music, digested and incorporated and remodeled by this band in an idiosyncratic DIY way. It’s as if, listening to their songs, multiple parts of the brain (of my brain, in any case) began blinking at once, awakening memories of past musical experiences but also—and this is what makes the group truly brilliant—activating a “downstream memory” that hadn’t existed before. 

This was no doubt what inspired me to write a book of poems called Dire ouf, published in France in 2016: a way of packing into my poetry everything the group had given me. It was also an opportunity to exchange a few words with them, from time to time, after their concerts—the sort of thing fans go crazy for, right? Thanks to this little connection, and a great deal of generosity on their part, John and Greg agreed to create a piece of music for a reading I gave in 2017. And the following year I collaborated with Greg on a combinatorial song project, which we’re still working on to this day. 

Which brings us to the present, Saturday, May 9, 2020: social distancing and confinement. On February 18, when Covid-19 was but a distant and exotic problem in our minds, Greg sent me Future Teenage Cave Artists, the group’s fifteenth album, which came out at the end of May. Perhaps I should reproduce the email I sent him that day, in my halting English: “Oh Greg, what a marvel of an album! It’s your Exile On Main Street, your Trout Mask Replica. And I feel it’s directly connected to your first album. In these dark times, I hear it as a pure act of resistance. It’s a warm place where to shelter, where one can try to think to the future but in a completely different way. It’s so coherent with your political thoughts. But it’s only my first listen and I just barely scratched the surface. And oh… Future Teenage Cave Artists is the perfect title. Thank you for that, it gives me strength for my own work!” 

I planned to include that email before I even started writing this piece, but it’s only now, rereading it, that I’m struck by the two comparisons that came to my mind. Exile On Main Street is just what my family and I, like so many others, have experienced over the past several weeks in our Parisian apartment, six stories above Avenue de Saint-Ouen. The trout mask replica—otherwise known as the FFP2 mask—is the one I see on people’s faces every day when I go out to buy bread.

In all of these situations, outside for a quick walk or, like now, at home typing on my computer, I listen to music, usually with headphones on. And these days I’m often listening to Future Teenage Cave Artists. Rightly or wrongly, I imagine Satomi, Ed, John, and Greg recording it in the same small room, each at his or her instrument, with a minimum of technology. In a way, I’m there with them. And together in this sonic shelter, teenage cave artists of times to come, we keep each other warm and try to imagine a different future. 

“Gonna paint an animal on a cave wall / Gonna leave it there forever while empires fall,” Satomi sings on the title track. This is obviously a moment when many of our certainties are coming into question. But from the very first guitar notes of Future Teenage Cave Artists, which sound as though they were scratched into the walls of a grotto, until the last measures of piano, a heartbreaking Bach chorale, I have the feeling that this album is an answer. And that it’s helping me find my own. 

— Frédéric Forte
Paris, day 54

Translated by Daniel Levin Becker

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