Constructive Disruption: On Derek Webb’s Mind Ctrl Part One

On his 2009 album, Stockholm Syndrome, in a song titled “Freddie Please,” singer-songwriter Derek Webb addresses the head of a certain Kansan family known for hoisting hateful signs aloft and picketing the funerals of soldiers.

Over a disposable bed of music that sounds like an electronic retread of the Penguins’ “Earth-Angel,” Webb pleads from the perspective of the risen Christ with Freddie, who is picketing the empty tomb.

When I interviewed Webb in Leawood, Kansas on October 20 prior to his performance in support of his new album, Ctrl, I felt I had a geographic obligation to ask him if anyone from Freddie’s family had contacted him about the song. Freddie lives in Topeka, after all—a scant seventy miles west of the concert venue.

“(Freddie’s) granddaughter reached out to me on Twitter,” Webb explained. “She thought the song was great.” The communication remained courteous, and culminated in Webb inviting the family to protest at one of his shows.

“I know I’m kind of a small fish,” he told her, “but it would be like winning a Grammy if you could get some protesters to my show. She said, ‘Oh, we would love to—if you would just forward me a copy of your itinerary, we’ll see what we can do.’ I said, ‘Well, fantastic. I will!’”

While Webb claims to be a small fish, he founded a whale of a website in NoiseTrade.com. The site allows artists to supply listeners with free music, and encourages listeners to tip artists. It has become planetary enough in power to pull the likes of Aimee Mann, Neil Halstead (Slowdive, Mojave 3), and Andrew Bird into orbit with its gravity.

In addition to his success with NoiseTrade, Webb boasts over thirty thousand Twitter followers as a singer-songwriter. One would think Freddie would be eager to borrow Webb’s spotlight for his own purposes, but neither he nor his family members have materialized at any of Webb’s concerts. He continues to supply Freddie with his itinerary.

That Webb would invite one of the most reviled families in America to protest at his concert would seem strange were it not for his Twitter profile. In addition to identifying himself as singer, songwriter, producer, remixer, and noisetrader, he also lists agitator among his descriptors.

“In whatever situation I am in, I have instincts for disruption—constructive disruption,” he replies when I ask him about his attraction to agitation. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I spent the first half of my life as a spiritually awake person believing I was on my way to being rewired because the way I was wired wasn’t constructive or good. Now I believe I’m wired the way I am for a reason—that I just need to identify the right things to rebel against.”

I initially dismissed Webb’s solo music because of his affiliations with the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) act Caedmon’s Call. While many of my collegiate colleagues heeded the call in 1997 when the band released its self-titled debut, the music was too polished and pretty for me.

I preferred far more fractious fare—Radiohead’s OK Computer, Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, and Jeremy Enigk’s Return of the Frog Queen, to be precise.

Webb would remain stranded on a CCM isle in my imagination if not for the first of his two 2012 releases: The Sola-Mi EP. I downloaded the free, nine-song record, which was billed as the self-titled work of a trio known as Sola-Mi, following an endorsement on Twitter by Relevant magazine founder Cameron Strang.

Upon hearing it and becoming aware of Webb’s involvement in the project, I realized I needed to reevaluate him as an artist. Sola-Mi was a brief but dense electronic work that owed its aesthetics to acts like Portishead, Four Tet, Squarepusher, and perhaps even Brian Eno.

When Webb identifies Sola-Mi as the name of the EP’s female protagonist in the interview, I cannot help but think of her as the sister of Radiohead’s Kid A.

According to Webb, the EP is “about the first machine ‘waking up’ and asking a series of questions, trying to identify itself—contextualize itself.” When he speaks of machines awakening, he treads on the territory of futurist Ray Kurzweil.

The EP opens with a track titled “Keynote,” which features samples from Transcendent Man, Barry Ptolemy’s 2009 documentary on Kurzweil.

“We’ll have reverse-engineered all the regions of the brain, and that will provide us with the software to simulate all the brain’s capabilities, including our emotional intelligence,” Kurzweil explains before his voice disappears into a crowd of cloned Kurzweils speaking in stereo.

If I understand the significance of the sample in the context of Webb’s creation, it stands to reason that an artificial life form that thinks like a human might become conscious like one as well.

Webb likens the first conscious machine—which would awaken and know everything, but not know why—to a baby entering the world with the intellect of Einstein as an adult. “It asks all the big philosophical questions—which are my questions, and our questions. It thinks it’s human because its memories are human. It’s connected to YouTube. It’s connected to Facebook.”

The band’s website describes the EP as “the official motion picture soundtrack for (Solomon) Mente’s NEXUS.” Mente and NEXUS appear to be as imaginary as most of the films U2 and Brian Eno scored on Original Soundtracks 1—the collaborative album they released under the name Passengers. 

In the Sola-Mi EP, I stumbled upon one of the best records of 2012. Four months later—two months after the release of Webb’s new solo record, Ctrl—I learned that Sola-Mi was not alone in the world. Webb’s musical twins were separated at birth, leaving his listeners to figure out their common ancestry.

Tomorrow, I will write about Sola-Mi’s musical sibling. In the meantime, download free music and your musical cup will overflow with sonic eggnog:

The Sola-Mi EP from the band’s official website.

Webb and his wife, singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken, have made the single “From You to Me” from their TN EP available at NoiseTrade.com.

Three songs from Sandra McCracken’s new album, Desire like Dynamite, are available through NoiseTrade.com. Purchase her album through her website.

Try the Choir’s O How the Mighty Have Fallen album from NoiseTrade.com. The bundle includes a song from the band’s 2012 The Loudest Sound Ever Heard. The outtake, titled “After All,” features Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash and Matt Slocum.


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