In the ‘oughts, when I was working as an art director at an alt-weekly, I’d often supplement my musical discoveries by raiding the music editor’s stack of unassigned promos. Because we weren’t a particularly undergroundist publication (by then “alt” no longer meant “counterculture”), his rejects often dovetailed rather nicely with my tastes, and one time, some cover art caught my eye well enough that I nabbed the disc though I had no idea who the artist was. It was an abstract painting that put me in mind of that Mid-century moment in art when Surrealism was crossing over into Abstract Expressionism, and the press information that came with it detailed a really charming story about how the music was inspired by AM radio offerings on an overnight drive from L.A. to Las Vegas.
The album was Ben Vaughn Presents Designs in Music, and when I got home and put it on I was transported. The Mid-century visual design affectation was consistent with the music, an utterly mad collision of Duane Eddy/Link Wray reverb guitar twang, orchestral easy listening, Italian film composers, South American pop, Exotica, even commercial bumper music. I have, previously on DM, claimed it as a desert island pick, a call I stand by.
But as it turned out, this wasn’t even close to the first time I’d heard his music. I didn’t catch the connection at the time, but this was the same Ben Vaughn who’d written the theme music for 3rd Rock from the Sun, and who’d transformed the Big Star b-side “In the Street” into “That ‘70s Song,” intro music for guess what show. (He also wrote the theme for the US version of Men Behaving Badly, but I doubt anyone will fault me for never having seen that.) That rather wonderful career was launched when just the right people heard his 1995 Bar/None album Instrumental Stylings. That record’s general vibe isn’t so different from the later Designs—it’s perhaps more guitar-oriented, but it’s no less imaginative. To mark the occasion of its reissue, DM has been given the go-ahead to stream the entire album for our readers, you’re welcome, and Vaughn was kind enough to chat with us about it.
Dangerous Minds: All the different musics you combine into a sort of self-knowing kitsch that’s still really forward thinking and unironic is impressive, and I’m wondering what your inspirations are and what your composing process is like.
Ben Vaughn: I think the difference between homage and parody are lost on me sometimes, maybe more so than for other artists—you mention self-knowing, but I’m not sure how self-knowing it actually is! [laughs] I like to have fun with genres, but I also feel like I’m a part of them. It’s an interesting process for me writing instrumental music, or even writing in general, because I’m such a fan of music from all eras, big-band, folk, blues, jazz, punk rock, The Stooges, everything. So when an idea comes, it kind of comes out of self-education, which is just listening to a lot of music, and the process is hard for me to describe for that reason. Even the way I make records—I come into it on a visceral level, but then there’s a lot of listening and absorbing and data input that goes on.
DM: How did you become such an omnivore? Like what formed those listening habits?
Vaughn: When I was a kid, I was a fan of music before The Beatles came out, that’s how old I am! I was a little kid, but I was tuned in. When I was six years old my uncle gave me a Duane Eddy record, I was at his apartment and he put that on, and this would be around the time when “The Twist” was a craze, so ’62? And Duane Eddy had a record called Twistin’ ’N’ Twangin’, just a guitar instrumental record, and my uncle put it on and I flipped out, so he gave it to me. I’ve probably played it a hundred thousand times.
Then when the Beatles and Stones and the whole British Invasion happened, and Motown happened, I absorbed everything. And AM radio at the time would play Louis Armstrong next to the Beatles, or Roger Miller or Buck Owens next to Wilson Pickett. It wasn’t like that for long, but it was that way when I first started listening to music, so my tastes developed all over the place because radio was all over the place. I never knew that music was supposed to be in compartments until later, and I remember how disappointed I was with such narrow thinking—people who only like hardcore, or people who only like disco but hate punk, or who only like punk but hate disco. I was confused by that. I think about people who only listen to bluegrass—that’s crazy!
DM: Yeah, that to me seems like just listening to one song your whole life.
Vaughn: Bluegrass is kind of the speed-punk of country music! You know what the instruments are going to be, you know the songs are either going to be quick-tempo, fiddle dominated, or you’ll have a waltz. Same thing with punk rock. I’m good with one genre for about three songs, and then I’m looking for something else!