Behind the blog: The Torture Garden
Like many of you, I first stumbled upon The Torture Garden while in search of hardcore fetish photography. When my disappointment finally subsided, I realized the website I'd found might be even better. Despite its blatant lack of wooden pony torture, here was a MP3 blog that combined lovely music with lyrical writing, captivating imagery, and a clear commitment to quality. You can sense the enthusiasm and passion its author Shane invests into every post. You can hear the evidence of a well-defined aesthetic in his song selections. And you can witness the creativity and thought that so eloquently separate his site from the multitudes of others--both pornographic and otherwise. Here's my conversation with the man behind the blog:
Nerd Litter: Hey.
The Torture Garden: Hey.
NL: So to kick things off, why did you originally start your blog?
TTG: Well, I knew I liked writing, and I thought it might be an interesting outlet (though it took months before I actually started writing properly on it). I was also a fan of several MP3 blogs, and I knew I liked the idea. It was pretty much on a whim.
NL: Which ones were you reading when you started out?
TTG: Most of them are defunct now. I read a lot of You Ain’t No Picasso and Take Your Medicine, the old Nothing But Green Lights, and Gorilla Vs. Bear. Stereogum too, I think. But also lots of little ones that are gone now.
NL: When I started out, I thought there was, like, five music blogs and decided, oh, well I can be the sixth. I really had no idea what I was doing.
TTG: Same here. There was a pretty nice sense of community between ten or so of us, before we realised how many there really were.
NL: What's interesting though is your early posts champion music I could still see you liking today. Do you think your tastes have changed as a result of writing The Torture Garden?
TTG: I'd say so. A bit. I'm definitely more discriminating. There are bands I would have had more time for back then, whereas now I sometimes neglect bands that I feel I've heard before. That isn't always the best move, but I'm happy with the ways my taste has changed.
NL: What would be the best way for a band to get your attention today? What would guarantee a post on your blog?
TTG: It varies. A band that writes an interesting email, has some links or a MySpace page I can check out. It really all depends on the first music I hear from them. Sometimes I know immediately and sometimes I get a feeling I'll like the band before I hear them, based on what they say. They have to be self-deprecatingly witty obviously.
NL: Are there particular genres or styles you find yourself gravitating toward posting? Is there a characteristic sound?
TTG: I think there is. I definitely like slightly Romantic stuff. Emotional without being pompous or overdramatic. The band that comes to mind right now is The Luyas—I loved them the first time I heard them. They’re earnest but fun at the same time and original.
NL: How did you find out about them? And where do you find out about most of your bands?
TTG: I think I downloaded a bunch of music one day, from blogs and emails, and played it all at once at night. Then I searched my inbox to see if The Luyas had written to me, and as I was searching, I got an email from them. That was very nice. I find out about bands I like from friends first—online and off—and blogs.
NL: What blogs are you reading today that you really like?
TTG: Well, Said the Gramophone is probably my favourite in lots of ways—their writing is always interesting and sometimes beautiful—and my taste overlaps with theirs very often. Perhaps suspiciously often. That Luyas MP3 I first heard was from there incidentally. I like blogs that can convince me with good writing to download a song by a band I've never heard. Gorilla vs. Bear can do that and Mike at NBGL and Lost In Your Inbox too.
"It's a real kick in the pants from God."
NL: How has your blogging changed over the last three years? How has your approach to it changed?
TTG: I've gotten both better and lazier. As in, I often try to put more effort into the writing and the music I pick, but I don't seem to post as often.
NL: Well, your house was on fire, right?
TTG: Yeah, that was this week. That's exactly the kind of thing that hinders blogging, man.
NL: Can you elaborate on what happened a little?
TTG: Last Halloween, some kids threw fireworks into my parents' backyard, and the heating system exploded. Three rooms were destroyed. So we tidied up, and renovated the house, and moved a lot of things into the attic. And this last week, some electrical fault in the entirely new attic went wrong and the whole attic went on fire. The smell of smoke here is pretty awful.
NL: Is it possible your mother is really just a pyromaniac?
TTG: I had considered it, but all her matches and fireworks were lost in the last fire, so she's in the clear on this one.
NL: Ha right. Well, I’m sorry to hear about the damage. Did you lose anything irreplaceable?
TTG: Yeah, pretty much everything personal that my parents own. It was their bedroom. The worst bit is that this new room had just been finished the day before. It's a real kick in the pants from God.
NL: That's pretty terrible. I would consider an igloo next.
TTG: Good advice, apart from that whole global warming thing. On the plus side at least, the fire brigade knew their way around the house, and went out of their way to minimise water damage.
NL: I suppose that's a plus.
TTG: Yeah, we’ll be okay.
NL: I hope so. While we're talking about home, tell me a little about Berlin and Ireland. What brought you to Berlin first of all?
TTG: Well, the course I'm just finishing at university here required a year spent at a uni abroad and my girlfriend lives in Berlin, so I got to live there for a year while studying. That was until last summer. It was such a great year, I'm planning on moving back there in October or so.
NL: What about it attracts you?
TTG: It's very far away from Ireland. That can be pretty attractive. My girlfriend lives there. And I get to do so many more things: go to concerts every week, stay in pubs as late as I like, speak German which I can actually do these days.
NL: Why can't you do those things in Ireland? Other than the speaking German.
TTG: Well, I go/went to college in the second biggest city here, Cork, which is really great but just can't compete. Bands on tour very, very rarely stop there, though it has a pretty fine music scene for its size.
NL: Oh, I see. Yeah, I guess that's the advantage of New York. Although the amount of choice can be pretty stultifying sometimes.
TTG: That's what I miss about Berlin. Stultification.
NL: This band I went to see was telling me this rule that bad towns make for great shows. Because the kids are just so happy to have them there. Whereas in a big city, everyone’s too busy to care.
TTG: That sounds very familiar. Cork is a lot like that. Sometimes I would go see a band I half-knew just because a good gig was rare, whereas in Berlin I would get lazy. “Meh, Low will come around again.” And I still haven't seen Low.
NL: What are you studying at uni?
TTG: Language and Cultural Studies, which basically means German and History with the emphasis on German. I quite like it. Liked it.
NL: Are you ready for school to be over?
TTG: That's a tough question really. I'm definitely going to miss it, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. Whatever that is.
NL: Plus, God is telling you to leave home. That's a pretty strong endorsement.
TTG: Yeah, he's getting ever less subtle.
NL: What’s something you think your readers would be surprised to learn about you?
TTG: That's a good question actually. I don't really know. Umm… fuck. I swear a lot, but maybe that's not a surprise.
NL: I had a sense.
TTG: Shit, really?
NL: Yeah, I’ve always imagined you foul-mouthed, but maybe that's because I picture every Irishman that way.
TTG: It's a fairly accurate stereotype, I must admit.
NL: And I never did before, but I've just decided you look like Conan O'Brien.
TTG: Ha. Way off. Only in the way that all slightly Irish men look distinctly rough. Rough diamonds. Hmm… I have a beard.
NL: That’s somewhat surprising.
TTG: Although, considering the Nietzsche and Mirbeau thing, maybe not.
NL: I have a moustache. It started out ironic, but now I can't even tell anymore. Maybe it's the most sincere part of me at this point.
TTG: Wow, irony can get really confusing sometimes. I honestly don't know why I have a beard. I've had it for years. Maybe I couldn't afford a razor.
NL: Is it a Nietzsche-esque affair? I kind of want a Nietzsche moustache, but my follicles won’t oblige.
TTG: Good god, no. Well, it depends what I've been up to. There was a moment mid-studies where I looked pretty haggard. I get called different names depending where I am. In Berlin, I'm told I resemble the young Marx. Here, it's Jesus or Bobby Sands. I'm not convinced.
NL: Okay, I've Googled Bobby Sands and I now know what that means. You have to keep in mind I’m an ignorant American.
TTG: They're all dead, hated, and followed by weirdos. I mistakenly turned up to a fancy-dress party one night. I got a bit of a speech from a drunken nationalist. Oh, Ireland. Drink and nationalism don't mix very well. Maybe that's why I like Berlin. Much easier.
"Yeah, I'm nostalgic for a country
that can't exist anymore."
NL: Tell me about some of your favorite albums this year.
TTG: One CD I just bought is Samamidon's album. It's a fine CD. Actually, it's brilliant. And I love Michael Knight's new record. Samamidon plays new arrangements of old folk songs. A lot of immigrant songs. They're amazing. Michael Knight is an Irish musician living in Berlin. His album is pretty spectacular. It's a little epic in a pop brokenhearted way.
NL: Let's talk about Shearwater for a minute.
NL: Holy shit, it's good. Okay, now you say something.
TTG: It really, really is. I hadn't even heard the last record.
NL: I wasn't that into Palo Santo. I loved the first few songs, but then it trailed off for me at the tail-end. Whereas this one, I can't break its hold on me.
TTG: I know. It just keeps turning up in my head. Various bits of different songs on the album.
NL: Now that I think about it, Rook fits pretty neatly into your description of The Torture Garden's sound. How did your interview with them come about?
TTG: I was lucky enough to get help with some answers to the questions from a very nice woman at Matador. Not a very romantic answer, I'm afraid… I did send the questions by carrier pigeon to the Falklands though. The carrier pigeon was named John. I think that's important.
NL: It will be noted. I hope Jonathan Meiburg sent back a parrot that squawked all his responses.
TTG: Nah, he sent a fuckin’ albatross with a CD strapped to its back. It looked kind of painful.
NL: He sounds like a supervillain. An indie version of the Penguin.
TTG: He does have a song about the fall of mankind due to birds. Unless “Rooks” isn't about avian flu.
NL: It only confirms what I’ve suspected all along. All birds are evil and want to peck out our souls.
TTG: Wow, this interview really went off track.
NL: Not really. I had all these observations written in advance. Tell me about some of the books you've been reading lately.
TTG: I've been catching up on reading since I finished college, though I am going through the last of Victor Klemperer's diaries. He was a German Jew living in Dresden during the Third Reich. His books are phenomenal. His best one is called LTI. It's about the Nazi abuse of the German language. I did my history dissertation on it. I also just finished The Gathering by Anne Enright. She won the Booker this year. It's really great. Very bleak but very good and reassuringly Irish. I also recently read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, which is brilliant.
NL: What does reassuringly Irish mean?
TTG: Sometimes when I was reading it, whatever little detail she mentioned reminded me of something I had always seen but never noticed. Especially stuff from my childhood that no one sees anymore. A lot of it is set in the past. The country has changed quite a bit. My friends and I get pretty nostalgic sometimes. I think it's a lot more like that than it was twenty years ago.
NL: Sounds like America. Except I'm not nostalgic for Reagan either. I’m probably nostalgic for an America that never existed.
TTG: Yeah, I'm nostalgic for a country that can't exist anymore.
NL: Have you been to the US?
TTG: I have. A super tourist holiday about seven years ago to Florida. It was weird. It was November and Disney World was pretty quiet and the airports were very surreal. The atmosphere was odd somehow, but I really liked it. I'd love to go back, especially to New York. Never seen it.
NL: Yeah, Orlando is probably not the best encapsulation of America. Though I'm not sure what the hell would be.
TTG: I think I'd like New York. It's probably the most like Berlin anyway. Maybe more conservative.
NL: There are few places on this planet less conservative than Berlin.
TTG: Yeah, I really loved that aspect of it.
NL: But New York and San Francisco are certainly our great liberal bastions. We’re like Europe’s ears taped to America’s face. What is Cork like, other than unexciting?
TTG: It's not that bad. It suffers from being just a bit too far from Dublin. I had some great times there, and there is a lot of fun to be had. It's spectacularly multicultural, more so than most Irish towns or cities, Dublin aside. And it's beautiful in a lot of places. Apart from the lack of gigs, and the general issues with Irish cities, it's great. I guess I just often compare it to Berlin.
"I just think that song is great enough
to conceivably shake all your opinions
about music. Or at least this music."
NL: Right. Speaking of Berlin attitudes, the first Google result for "torture garden" is something that bills itself as "the world's largest fetish club."
TTG: Yep. Sometimes, I worry. Living in the small town I am in right now for the summer, where my parents live, I worry the people in the post office will start Googling it, and form a bad opinion of me.
NL: I imagine a lot of people get misdirected trying to find you.
TTG: Oh, they do. The search terms can be brilliant sometimes. I now know what wooden pony torture means. I don't think I'm any better off for it though.
NL: In that case, I'm not going to ask.
TTG: Please don't.
NL: What are some of the most gratifying responses you've gotten from musicians or readers?
TTG: Well, whenever anyone writes to let me know they liked something, that's really great. And when I posted about Samamidon, I made some pun like “the unbearable lightness of being apart,” which is kind of awful but also kind of nice. And sometimes he draws cartoons on his site, so he drew one about the unbearable lightness of being a duck and left the link in the comments. That was pretty cool.
NL: Didn't Grizzly Bear also put up your girlfriend's artwork on their MySpace photos?
TTG: Yes, they did! Ed really liked it. Her artwork is a big hit on various MySpace pages. Timothy Dick loved the one she did for “Florence." That was his MySpace image for a while.
NL: That's impressive. I like creative people approaching other creativity. It’s like one big Kumbaya circle at an artist’s retreat.
TTG: Quite like what MP3 blogging can be about.
NL: Yep, it’s one big circle-jerk of back-pats. What do you think The Torture Garden has in store for the future?
TTG: I'm looking forward to having more time for it. Much more time. And more stories maybe. I had my 600th post recently and kinda forgot about it. I've just been so busy.
NL: Congrats on the milestone. What got you this far?
TTG: I guess I just like writing. That's why I post less: I try to keep the writing interesting, which isn't as easy as just talking about some song and how you found it.
NL: I can relate. Not to sound like an old man, but blogging's current state is getting depressing. Blogs should be about isolating what's special, but with the twenty thousand out there, there's less selectivity and more noise than ever.
TTG: It's probably as easy to get people to read a blog that's basically just an aggregator, or an echo of what people like than one that could stand without the music if it had to.
NL: That’d be an interesting experiment. If MP3 blogs couldn't post MP3s. Which ones would still be worth reading? I’d still read yours for instance. I've been migrating away from those genres more lately, but I still often enjoy the stuff you post.
TTG: I'm glad. I like the fact that I never necessarily know what I might download from yours.
NL: Right, although I wonder if that’s detrimental to readership. Sometimes, I think I should just cover one thing very narrowly. Like, say, all Bryan Adams all the time.
TTG: That would get you a very dedicated readership. And it would take the pressure off with regard to writing clever stuff.
NL: I really have an urge to post that Three Musketeers song with Sting and Rod Stewart: “All For One, All for Love.”
TTG: God, I think that was #1 here for half the year.
NL: If that is not the greatest song of the ’90s, I will eat my hat. I’ll eat my moustache. On that note, do people in Ireland generally like good music? Or is the radio complete shite like it is here?
TTG: It's pretty shite here too, I'm afraid. Probably mostly the same stuff. There are a lot of good Irish bands, though we also have a pretty shameful tradition of hugely successful manufactured bands to excise. I'm hopeful.
NL: Who are some of the good ones?
TTG: Cathy Davey, for one. Her album is phenomenal.
NL: I knew you were going to say that! And next, you’re going to make a case that Arcade Fire is somehow Irish.
TTG: Well, Richard Reed Parry does have quite a lot of red hair. You can't argue with science. Also, they’re freakishly popular here, like more than anywhere else possibly.
NL: One day, you'll have to explain to me why Neon Bible isn’t crappy.
TTG: Three words: “Ocean of Noise.”
NL: So you concede the rest of the album is crappy?
TTG: I do not. That song is just spectacular.
NL: Hold on, let me listen to it right now.
TTG: I just think that song is great enough to conceivably shake all your opinions about music. Or at least this music.
NL: The other day, I listened to Funeral, because I'm currently in Montreal. I wanted to see if it made more sense out here.
NL: Surprisingly underwhelming. The hype has somewhat destroyed it for me, although I was never that wowed to begin with. Some albums that everyone loves, I just feel strangely little for.
TTG: I can't listen to it that much anymore, because when I first had it, I played it for about six months straight before getting sick of it.
NL: Okay, after refreshing my memory, I’m reluctant to tell you what I think of this song. But I’ll also give you three words, one of which is hyphenated: late-era Springsteen Xerox.
NL: I know, I'm sorry. I mean, they did make their Springsteen adulation pretty explicit and maybe that’s colored my impression of the album.
TTG: I don't hear it on this song really. It's the brass that gets me.
NL: No, I will say the music isn’t bad. It’s the lyrics and vocals that make it tough for me. Maybe we shouldn’t have gone down this road.
TTG: Maybe not. It could end badly.
NL: At heart, I just hate whatever's popular, so you can take solace in that. Ask my roommate how sad I was when The National started getting glowing reviews for Boxer.
TTG: But man, I can't bash Boxer or even Alligator.
NL: Yeah, it’s best not touch Alligator in my presence.
TTG: Their new DVD did leave a bit to be desired, though I love La Blogothèque. It was just too much of nothing going on.
NL: Agreed on both counts. As for Vincent Moon, I like when two things I really like also like each other. Like the fact that the guys in Menomena and The National are friends also makes me happy. And I’m sure this Nerd Litter/Torture Garden crossover will send some hearts aflutter. So one more question, Shane: what's the best part of doing what you do? What still makes it worthwhile?
TTG: Well, I really, really, really like it when I do it well. When I write something good, something I would read again. There are about ten posts I’m quite very fond of (1, 2, 3), just because I think I wrote something nice. When that happens, the feeling I get is exactly why I enjoy it so much.
* MP3: "Saro" - Samamidon from All is Well [Buy it]
* MP3: "Dumb Blood" - The Luyas from Faker Blood [Buy it]
* MP3: "And The Party Was My Suggestion" - Michael Knight from I'm Not Entirely Clear How I Ended Up Like This [Buy it]
* Previously: Behind the blog: Blogs are for Dogs
* Previously: Behind the blog: Shake Your Fist
* Previously: Behind the blog: The Passion of the Weiss