Last week, we discussed categorization of music, pro and con, and the inevitable subcategorization of it. It was my suggestion that, rather than resist it, as musicians long to do (“it’s just my music, man, you dig?”), we should embrace it and learn to subcategorize our own music before someone else does it for us.
Perhaps it’s helpful before coming up with your own sub (or sub-sub) genre to attempt to do what we all hate doing: describe your own music as best you can. We don’t like it, but it’s something we have to try to do, because the question is inevitable when you’re being interviewed. “How would you describe your music?” asks the well-intentioned DJ, not realizing that he or she is about to throw a normally cool and collected musician into a fit of confused stammering.
The resulting answer often goes something like this: “Well, it’s . . . uh . . . just the way I feel it.” Or perhaps, “It’s sort of, you know, just our style. We have some CDs for sale over at the table. We’ll be there in just a few minutes, and we’d love to have you stop by.” The CD plug is just a sign that this artist has panicked, and that’s just the brain going right back to its default mode after short-circuiting. It doesn’t matter if it’s a phone interview and there is no “table.” That’s just a cry for help.
It’s best to avoid this by coming to interviews prepared with your description. “We play with a lot of drive and feeling” no longer cuts it, I’m afraid, because in bluegrass music everyone would like to think they play “with a lot of drive and feeling.”
As a starting point, you might consider reading what writers and people who work in publicity write about other artists. I would caution you, though, that some of this stuff gets pretty flowery and overdramatic. In one single press release for an Americana-ish artist, I gleaned the following phrases and descriptions (quoted from various critics, apparently): “juiced-up backwoods country blues (injected) with a dose of desert-rock psychedelia,” “a riotous, rocking roadkill stew,” and “Hell’s Angels meet the Amish,” (that one I wish I’d thought of, and may still use).
I think you get the idea. Be creative, possibly to an extreme. I would have just gone with “Americana-ish” and left it at that, but clearly that lacks genre-defining zip. “Something” meets “something else” is always a good place to start. Using “Hell’s Angels meet the Amish” as a guide, you might consider “Flatt & Scruggs meet Leonard Cohen,” or incorporating non-musical elements to give it that flair of the vague and hard-to-pin-down: “The Stanley Brothers meet Scooby-doo,” or “Thor meets Amway.” If an interviewer actually follows that up by asking, “what does that mean exactly?” that’s when you can come back to, “we just play it how we feel it.”
From there, you can begin to craft your sub-genre description. I would first avoid the attempt to present your music as a fusion of a whole string of genres, as I’ve sometimes seen in folk festival lineups: “A heady blend of folk, classic country, bluegrass, cajun, swing, bebop, and Gregorian chant.” This comes off as a jack-of-all-trades band.
You need something concise and catchy. I remember a friend of mine commenting on a band whose music was particularly dark, saying they sounded like “David Lynch bluegrass” (and it was meant as a compliment). This is related to the “Larry Sparks meets Tiger Woods” approach, but is stated in a more concise and original way. David Lynch is the director who brought us dark and creepy pieces like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and that description captured the band’s sound very well.
The habit of relying on restaurant menu descriptions is tempting, but it gets old very quickly (like the restaurant dishes themselves). You can only use “drizzled,” “infused,” “garnished,” and “steeped” so many times before your band seems less like a bluegrass band, and more like a serving of tiramisu: “Festering Rydge offers a high-powered blend of bluegrass infused with elements of western swing, drizzled with an old time stringband flavor” ($5.95 – ask for an extra spoon for sharing!).
I notice that one of the descriptions of the Americana-ish act above used drug or medical imagery, which I thought showed originality (‘injected with . . .”). This opens the door to verbs like “anesthetized,” “sutured,” “x-rayed,” and “admitted,” which might add spice to your genre description.
As for my band, I’m planning to go with “a blend of traditional bluegrass, intravenously fed with original material, with semi-stable arrangements surgically attached, i.e. The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers meet Dr. Oz.”
I just realized that we’re now playing Mad Libs, and I’m okay with that.