In the middle of music blogging's golden years, it seemed that every smart music fan with a thirst for the unheard and underexplored had a platform of their own, a place to share the strange sounds they've stumbled upon or sought out. Before the algorithm dictated how the vast majority of people found new music, small blogs run by passionate fans allowed communities to flourish around new sounds.
The Fader recently published a mix by my friend Sam that looked back to some of the rare and special finds that the era allowed—I cherish all those songs, as well as the sense of new-ness that discovering them offered at the time. It's still the rush that I'm looking for, even as part of a decidedly more corporate music writing ecosystem (and I recognize the great irony in penning that sentence from a desk in an office as big as the one I work in.) I want to find things I've never heard before and share them with my friends. That's the base reason why I do what I do.
Stadiums & Shrines—founded by Dave Sutton—was one of the great voices of that era, part of an ecosystem of low-key geniuses who orbited around the blog-community that became known as Portals (which is still operating in a more relaxed form; if for some reason you've never encountered them, please go listen to their monthly mixes). They began in the mid 2000s, operating through Myspace blogs and bulletins, before moving to a Blogspot page and pairing songs with imagery that they found and creative writing miniatures that provided little context but plenty of emotion. It was, as you might imagine, stridently uncommercial and creatively oriented—a space for people who wanted their music commentary abstruse, thoughtful, and slow. It's antithetical to the ways that music publications have been forced to work by corporately owned platforms of distribution, but that's what makes Stadiums & Shrines and their friends stand out—an oasis in the desert of Twitter discourse.
On June 15, the label Cascine will release S&S Presents: Dreams, a compilation that serves as the culmination of one of the blogs long-running projects, which has been percolating underneath the high-speed world of more mainstream music journalism since 2012. The project started as a multi-media collaboration, wherein artists could musically reimagine a series of black and white collages by visual artist Nathaniel Whitcomb drawn from old tourism manuals, which were then published alongside a series of abstract writings from Sutton and the artist Matthew Sage, a thoughtful musician and labelhead of the imprint Patient Sounds.
Over the years they collected a number of pieces, each a visionary artist providing a soundtrack to impossible places, chopped up landscapes of places they've never been. Dreams will collect 21 such tracks, along with a 20-page booklet of the collages, drawing together a number of acts from their ecosystem, including Bing & Ruth, Julie Byrne, Yumi Zouma (whose contribution is streaming below), and a whole lot more. Today, they're premiering Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's contribution to the compilation, a handmade feeling synth piece called "Yugoslavia" that feels collagist in its own way, different skyward synth lines spliced together in this wonderful way that feels like looking at a cloudy summer sky through a kaleidoscope. It's both brilliant and illustrative of the sort of thing Stadiums & Shrines have made their specialty—idiosyncratic pieces from auteurist types who treat boundary-pushing sounds in an approachable way. You can listen to it up above, alongside an interview with Sutton below.
Noisey: Can you give me the potted history of Stadiums & Shrines, when and how did you come to the idea of “music blogging” and to what end? What prompted the site to morph into its current form?
Dave Sutton: The earliest days were on Myspace, using the blog and bulletin areas. 2005 or so. My cousin Travis Egedy (Pictureplane) was really active on there, through him I found all kinds of music, and eventually the sites 20jazzfunkgreats and Gorilla vs. Bear. To realize the eccentricity of 20jazz, the aesthetic of GvB, how deeply they were digging, that opened up a new universe, rabbit holes of blogrolls and forums. S&S moved to a Blogspot in 2007, at first following the usual template, album art plus mp3. Then I started pairing songs with found photos and old scans, which evolved into composing imagery and writing little abstract vignettes to interact with the tracks.
That process was really freeing, it also took time and forced me to step back and let go of that impulse to post and participate in everything. Artists were emailing music, which led to mixtapes, collaborations, shows, some real friendships, like Matthew Sage who has guided the voice of site since. I met Nathaniel Whitcomb in 2010; he was making motion collages, animating scanned layers of cutouts into slow-moving, nuanced patterns. He did a few early Mutual Benefit visuals, “Stargazer” and “Desert Island Feeling.” Together we decided to rethink S&S, with Dreams at its core, an open-ended project focused on the things that kept us interested in this medium.
What can you tell me about the, like, heyday of the blogosphere? It seems like there was a really vibrant community that doesn’t really exist anymore. Do you have any way, outside of gestures like this compilation, of preserving that feeling of sharing something brand new with people who haven’t experienced it before?
Indeed, vibrant, special, ephemeral. I do miss it, but I’m also at peace with the moment having passed. S&S identified with a certain wave of sites like Delicious Scopitone, Road Goes Ever On, No Fear of Pop, Verb/re/verb, Flashlight Tag, who later started Portals. These were discernible personalities and voices, we supported each other’s work. That era gave young artists a platform; we were accessible, someone was listening, often before or instead of labels but also alongside independent ones engaging with the format. This collective shift in perspective kind of dissembled the previous dynamic between music website and artist and listener.
Fragments of that feeling remain, especially around younger people. I feel it inside DIY spaces, within handmade zines and cassette tapes, at stores like Commend in New York and smaller-scale live experiences like FORM Arcosanti, in conversations outside the internet.
Is there any way to have a future doing this within corporately mediated platforms? How do we establish a place for thoughtful enjoyment of music and art on the internet? Is anyone else doing it right now?
We’re definitely limited in the current landscape, it’s far more instant and centralized. But there’s a lot of thoughtful work happening at hubs like The Creative Independent, Talkhouse, Portals, and Bandcamp Daily. The sincerity of GoldFlakePaint and Dimestore Saints. Passion of The Weiss. The energy of some podcasts and internet stations—NTS, The Lot, Newtown, Dublab, etc.—is similar to what we used to have. As for corporate platforms, I don’t know, pockets of Twitter make for good dialogue.
To establish something new, maybe we look back at why the subculture of blogging existed. Blogs served a need and presented an enthusiasm and care not found anywhere else, then they got swept up and distorted by opportunism and monetized content. I think that same need, to find and share the music we love, still exists and will never be fully satisfied by streaming and playlisting. We’ll have to identify it or create it elsewhere, probably off the internet. Liz Pelly’s writings on this topic are crucial.
Is there anything that spiritually or emotionally links the music that Stadium & Shrines is drawn to. Obviously this compilation goes a lot of places in terms of genre, but I’m curious if there’s anything in approach or disposition that immediately catches your ear?
Hard to articulate but there’s a homespun quality to the music on Dreams that feels linked by the intimate exchanges themselves. That’s been present in much of S&S over the years. We’re drawn to projects that come through slightly understated; honest, modest, and mindful sounds that feel like they were made outside of expectations.
The musicians here were given no parameters and I think the project invited them to stretch out and consider the surreal and the sublime, in Nathaniel’s collages and their own subconscious. To take an active break. The group reflects some of the most meaningful connections we’ve made, artists we believe in and felt compelled to reach out to. It’s a real honor to have dreamed with them.