Category Archives: Ideas

Phil Lesh

We all have influences. If you’re doing creative things, you’re constantly doing a dance: trying to have a dialogue with your influences while keeping them just out of sight. There’s nothing more cutting than hearing that you sound like X.

Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead, is my biggest influence. Every note I play is in conversation with his style, which is a problem because Lesh is so distinctive that it’s easy to hear when someone is imitating him.

Lesh is different than every other bassist I’ve ever heard. He isn’t simply holding the groove down, but he’s not really a bass god like Victor Wooten or Stanley Clarke. He doesn’t slap. He hardly ever solos (but he’s always kind of soloing too). He screws with groove and plays with a pick, but everything he does just seems to work. His influences on the electric bass were Bach and 20th century classical music. He has perfect pitch and studied classical composition. Real bassists either hate him or love him.

In other words, Phil Lesh is a pretty formidable influence and he infects your playing if you let him inside you.

I listen to my playing in Not There, which is about as far away from the Dead as you can get, and I still hear Phil Lesh everywhere: the way I like to start with a high note then play something really deep and bass-y or the way I kind of swing everything even when I don’t. Even though my playing is much more repetitive than Phil’s (Marco wants me to write a book called Over and Over and Over Again: My Life in Not There) it still has his imprint.

Recently, some friends and I started a Dead cover band. I don’t know why they’re into it, but for me it’s almost like I’m trying to cast out Phil Lesh’s influence by letting it run wild within certain boundaries. (Spoiler: it won’t work)

At the end of his life Picasso re-painted the old masters, mutilating and cannibalizing them in a vain attempt to make them his own. I’m no Picasso, and if he struggled with the grip exerted on him by his influences maybe we’re all damned to imitate and copy what we love.


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Filed under Ideas, Music, Not There

Riffhard World Cup: KEEF Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Sorry for the delay. I have been plagued by a little bout of Chiang Kai-Shek’s revenge. Now that we’re good it’s time to start separating the wheat from the chaff. So who’s gonna advance from the Keith Richards Group? For a summary of the rules, click here.

Keith Richards Group

Rd. 1

Satisfaction vs. Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Results: In a shocker, Jumpin’ Jack Flash steals a tie. Why? Because it’s the drums that make satisfaction great. 1 point each.

Happy vs. Honky Tonk Woman

Results: Happy wins, pretty easily. Keith’s all about riffs in Open G on a 5 string guitar, that’s his singular sound and Happy is Keith’s song. Gritty, druggy and strangely uplifting.

Rd. 2

Jumpin’ Jack Flash vs. Happy

Results: Happy wins. Happy rules.

Honky Tonk Woman vs. Satisfaction

Results: Satisfaction squeaks out a victory.

Rd. 3

Happy vs. Satisfaction

Results: Just like Sumo Wrestling, Happy lets Satisfaction win so it makes through to the round of 16. Cheating bastards.

Honky Tonk Woman vs. Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Results: A listless, lifeless draw. Being born in a crossfire hurricane isn’t much of a help, apparently. Gin soaked bar-room queens are also crying.

Who Advances?



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From Frankenstein to a Chimera

When a band starts, it’s a lot like Frankenstein. Different inspirations are sewed together and the messy seams are visible. Hopefully, as a band progresses, it becomes more like a Chimera: a mythical beast where the seams have blended into a totally new monster.

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Functional Impurity

When the guys at Bell Labs were fooling around and coming up with semiconductors that worked they discovered that impurity was necessary. In order to get the best results, they had to add a trace of boron to the silicon.

Music needs impurities too. The gravelly tone of a singer’s voice, the slightly out of tune guitar or the out of phase sample. Music needs humanity. Without impurities, the music isn’t alive.

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Mao Would Dig the Juggalos

Chairman Mao and the Insane Clown Posse share something. Both of them understood the power of outsiders, the vast swaths of people that society leaves out. Mao harnessed the power of China’s peasants, who despite being the majority of the population, were scorned and ridiculed by China’s political elite (especially Nationalist Generalisio Chiang Kai-Shek). The ICP created the Juggalos in order to bring together a large group of Americans living in the forgotten cracks of the American Dream. ICP got rich and Mao got a country. Maybe you should consider the power of the scorned too.

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Filed under China, Ideas, Marketing

The Economic and Politcal Function of Nostalgia in China


China is busy consuming it’s past. Need a little proof? Take a walk through Nanluoguxiang and you’ll notice school uniforms for sale straight out of the 1970s, recently revived vintage orange soda Beibingyang (pictured above) and a grab-bag of vintage kitsch too varied to describe here.

Nostalgia is more than just a longing for the past, it serves “harmonious” economic & political functions.

Economic: Doing new things, especially in the cultural space, is risky. If you’re doing something that was successful before, you’re chances of succeeding are raised.

Political: The past isn’t always pleasant and collective memories of past events can cast a negative light on the present. If you turn the icons of the past into commodities, you banalize them, blunting their effect and influence. A few examples: Che the revolutionary became Che the fast-fashion T-shirt and the disjunctive cultural clash of the 1960s became care (etc.) advertising for baby boomers.

In China the commodification of the past into bottles of mediocre orange soda is an attempt to strip the past of its discontents. Nostalgia and the vintage fetish for a reified past exists to monetize and rectify the politically uncomfortable.


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Filed under China, Digital, Ideas

What Tech Can Learn From Zara

There are only 2 kinds of tech brands: leaders & followers. Leaders leverage breakthrough tech through R & D and rely on changing the rules of the game to stay ahead. Followers react to changes and try to keep up, using price and other measures to compete. For a follower to be effective 2 things are incredibly important: time to market & channels. If you’re following, everything is built on speed, and getting there first determines success.

Samsung is a classic follower brand. The Galaxy’s success is primarily built on how quickly it established itself in the android ecosystem and Samsung’s existing sales channels.

“Fast Fashion” brand Zara is also a classic follower but instead of focusing on technical advances, they quickly follow fashion trends and bring them to the market at a more affordable price.

The difference between Zara and the vast majority of follower tech brands is that Zara has a distinctive brand image and positioning: Zara has a look and feel and an image that makes the affordable glamorous. The tech followers (with the possible exception of Samsung) are all the same, searching for differentiation in a bloody sea of similar features.

The Zara lesson is: if you’re going to follow, you better do it with a sense of style.

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