Thursday, January 17, 2008

KQED Music: Black Kids, Cool Kids ... What's in a name?

Record sales rise and fall, entire genres of music come and go, even interminable Las Vegas concert runs occasionally come to an end. But one constant remains in the strange world that is the music industry -- bands with rubbish names.

And there are two entirely separate, fun things you can do this month to remind yourself of this consistent source of both amusement and bemusement: download the excellent and totally free Wizzard of Ahhhs EP by knowingly cool indie-pop outfit Black Kids, and go to The Independent on January 17, 2008 to see the similarly titled Cool Kids perform their much-lauded retro-infused hip-hop.

One only needs to remember the middle-aged members of Sonic Youth to know why both Black Kids and Cool Kids have names that suck, and that's before we cast our eyes over the other, troublesome parts of their titles. What makes the situation even more bewildering is that, while their music may be quite different, they share at least one other important trait less obvious than their names: they both seem to be savvy media operators.

For example, Black Kids are offering their debut as a free download, which is so painfully right now that it might even be in the future. And in a similarly up-to-the-minute move, The Cool Kids' most recent step toward wider recognition was made by appearing in someone else's TV advert. (You know the one: it features some dweeby guy dressed in a towel dancing around his living room, oblivious to the fact that a bizarrely contradictory bunch of musicians appear to have crept into his house while he wasn't looking.) Such canny marketing moves make it hard to believe they arrived at the most important elements of their brand identities by accident.

What is hardest to fathom is why they have both appeared at the same time. Add the recently surfaced Cold War Kids and you virtually have a movement. Not so long ago, the same thing happened when proto-metallers Wolfmother, indie rockers Wolf Parade and the largely uncategorizable Patrick Wolf all began bothering the music scene at around the same time, which is not to mention the similarly named psychedelic Krautrockers Lupine Howl. Coincidence? Weirdly, there doesn't seem to be any more logical explanation on offer.

However, it is also important to remember that even the worst epithet is rarely a barrier to sales success, at least not on its own. From the terrible pun that no one ever seems to notice on the cover of every Beatles record onwards, music history is littered with examples of acts who have sold many more records than their names ever deserved. So why not close your eyes and give the "kids" a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Future Laboratory: Fixing Up

Bad ass cycling without brakes, by Keith Laidlaw.

Fixed-wheel bikes originally designed for use on velodrome-style tracks have become a defining fashion accessory for a new tribe of young urbanites on the streets of US cities such as New York, Chicago, Portland and San Francisco.

Also known as fixed-gear bikes, or simply "fixies", these are bicycles stripped down to their barest essentials. They have no sprockets or derailleur gears, and can't freewheel, so the pedals are always turning whenever the bike is in motion. Traditional drop handlebars are often replaced with an ultra-narrow straight grip; even the brakes are removed. "It's acceptable to have a front brake, but it's totally unacceptable to have a back one," explains London-based art director and fixed-wheel rider Ben Brannan. Riders use the pedals to slow the back wheel instead, something which San Francisco scenester Gary Bishop calls the "tough factor" of thinking, "I don't have any brakes on my bike, I'm bad-ass."

Fixed-gear bikes first became popular with bike couriers attracted by their low weight and minimal maintenance needs. Now that cycling has become a mode of transport for a generation which is fed up with costly trains, doesn't want to own a car and can't afford a scooter, the fixie has become the must-have accompaniment to the arty kid's city lifestyle.

Three-quarter-length skinny-fit jeans are obligatory, but helmets are rejected in favour of retro Campagnolo cycling caps. U-Locks are carried in the back pocket; attaching a bracket to the frame is totally verboten. "It's like a stylized aspect of cycling," says Laurie X, who works in a a popular Portland bike shop. "The bikes are a little like show ponies with a whole culture that ties into other youth sub-cultures, like graffiti and punk rock."

The bikes may be fiercely minimalist in build, but not necessarily in looks. Riders match or mismatch DayGlo paint jobs with lurid rims, spokes and handlebar tape. And they have a retro appeal, as most riders opt for old-fashioned pencil-thin steel frames.

The trend is spreading. Brick Lane Bikes, opened last year in London's Shoreditch by lawyer-turned-bike-courier Jan Milewski, specialises in fixed-wheel bikes built around vintage Italian frames. Fixie fans from around the word congregate online at sites such as and can be found hanging out at bike polo events in London or New York.

Published by The Future Laboratory in 'The' magazine, issue 2, 08:01:2008