I think I love music for the same reason I love geography. It takes me to a place, the place where a musician brings all of his experience, his life and his environment to produce a kind of lyric poetry. Heralding a homeland, for all its faults and glories, to a tune I identify with. I have loved the differences in this world since I was quite young. My mother, a geography major as well, would take me to her Cal State Northridge geography courses when I was a baby. Maybe that’s why maps, travelogues and glossy magazines with ‘geographic’ in the name have always felt like home.
From an early age, my mother would point to canyons in the distance, painted in the California sun. She would look at me querulously and I always knew the next question. ‘What kind of valley is it? Was it formed by a river or a glacier?’ I would squint at the bottom of the valley, trying to discern the slope of its walls, thinking “‘U’ for glacial, ‘V’ for river”. Or sometimes, driving along a high desert, my mother would point to some far off mountain range with its rippled skirts, and say ‘what is that?’ “An alluvial fan, Mom.” I remember Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow on the 8-track during these conversations.
It’s no wonder we lived for road trips, with the long stretches of ribbon asphalt, never knowing what would be around the next bend. Our coach was a small RV (aptly produced under the name ‘Dreamer’). And that Dreamer took us from adventure to adventure, around the Western States and eventually across the country.
I would like to think those questions drilled into me, or the professorial harangues in the background as I snoozed in my snuggy, would spark a love of geography nearly as great as the true loves in my life. Why do I ache for experiencing new places like some women would a new lover? Why I feel at peace when I experience a foreign stillness and beauty around me, even in this chaotic world? Why do I immediately look up where a band is from when I hear a song I like?
I categorize almost all things geographically, and that includes musicians and bands. I especially listen for differences when bands move. How small town sounds, raw and inviting, become removed or aloof when the band moves to New York or Los Angeles. Or here in Canada how bands from the Prairies or Maritimes move to Vancouver or Toronto and the focus of the music changes.
I came to this realization while listening to The Local Natives on Austin City Limits last night, a band from Los Angeles (of which I am a local native). In a place as big as Los Angeles, there is no one particular sound or music type. But what I loved the most about my formative years was the raw music and power of my favorite bands. X, Bad Religion, Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the beginning they were twangy and beautiful and raw. And what I realize now is that when I hear a band from Los Angeles like the Local Natives or Deap Vally, it makes me feel like home in the same way a photograph does or the smell of the ocean. I feel so drawn in during those moments of listening, drawn to that sprawl of vapidness that I found so beautiful and yet so heartbreaking.
This connection of geography and music has spurred on a new love of festivals, which bring together musicians from around the globe. I am excited for SXSW this year (my first year), with my interest especially piqued by the ‘Four on the Floor’ spotlights of bands by geographical location, as well as the geographical listings next to each band on the artist roster. To make the experience even more personal, I recently found out that the punk band Side Effect wants to be the first band to come out from behind the curtain of Myanmar to try to make it to SXSW. It boggles my mind to think of what the journey and experience would do to their music, and for that reason I’m helping to support their quest on PledgeMusic. I can’t wait to see if they make it, so I can hopefully check them out in person (and of course, report back here).
So what will a geography nerd do at a music festival this year? Why, map the bands I see (of course)! So stay tuned this late March, as I create my first ever musician map of the bands I see at SXSW.