When I saw that Dave Allen–the original bassist for the seminal post-punk band Gang of Four and the digital anthropologist at the Portland-based ad agency/production shop North–was involved in The Influence Project, I knew he should talk to Jason Harris. Harris is the president of the SF-based ad agency/production shop Mekanism–the company producing The Influence Project with Fast Company–and a bassist who plays with the band Slumberparty. Though Slumberparty is no Gang of Four (yet, who knows?), I thought each would admire in the other their kindred spirits and have an interesting conversation about social media, rock and roll and how the punk rock ethos exists on the Internet. The exchange doesn’t disappoint and even reveals a sultry definition of the word pampelmoose. A nice little bonus.
Jason Harris: Dave, your currently rank 478 out of 24,000 sign ups and you are in the top 98%. Why did you sign up for the Influence Project?
Dave Allen: I found out about it on twitter and I signed up for it because it seemed like a cool experiment.
Why do you think this project has been controversial?
Well, the experiment part is interesting to me. It is about the wisdom of the crowd and it all depends on who your crowd is and how you get your crowd to respond to this project. I think the controversy is around how influence is measured. Maybe some folks are chapped because they can’t necessarily dial their way up to the top. It’s a cliché but the only thing that’s scarce on the Web is a lack of attention and some folks might feel they aren’t getting enough. But look, does it really matter who wins this thing? The experiment is the interesting thing. This is just an anthropological experiment. I don’t need to be number one, I am just glad to be part of it.
As an original member of Gang of Four, your band’s musical sound in the late ’70s and early ’80s clearly influenced modern punk/dance bands like The Rapture and Bloc Party, to name a couple. Do you think influence can be pinpointed and credited?
Well for me, I am excited to hear the sound of these bands borrowing our sound after more than two decades. As a bass player, I was heavily influenced by the sound of dub-reggae, of instruments dropping in and out of the song. The start and stopping really appealed to me. So everyone is influenced no matter what they do for a living. Influence is a little more fluid than just giving direct credit to a band or individual, influence is much more of a collective unconscious and the conscious digesting of what sparks you. I’m looking forward to future collaborations like a potential one I’m working on with Aesop Rock, where I can influence more musicians and they can influence me.
Gang of Four was launched by EMI in 1978, and with the breakout hit Damaged Goods, gained immediate notoriety. If you launched the band today, how would digital and social tools change your marketing of Gang of Four?
Well for one, we would want to control all copyrights and not sell any of our rights to anyone. We would want to own our work. The ability for bands to reach vast audiences in DIY ways really proves that this is an amazing period for bands. It now comes down to content and band as brand vs. record company shoving the band through the system. You can control your image in new ways.
Was there less competition for bands in the ’70s?
There were just as many bands back then as there are now–the greatest thing about punk is that anyone can start a band. The punk rock ethos allows anyone to pick up an instrument and pound on it and put themselves out there. We had something to say and we found a way to say it. Naturals Not In It, for example, was about how every damn day you have to be involved at some level or you are just sailing down the river. Today you can have something to say online and that is punk rock, your instrument can be your computer.
You call yourself a digital anthropologist at North. And your slogan is Brand Engagement For The Natural Worlds. How does nature influence your work?
I believe that living in the Northwest helps. There’s an organic and natural feel to the company. At North we strive to help our clients transition their brand from what we call the “natural” world to the digital world, or the Web. We don’t believe that the two are separate when it comes to telling brand stories. We are media agnostic.
Working in digital or attempting to embrace digital, is still hard for some agencies. When they attempt to transfer a brand campaign to the Web, they often forget how they use the Web themselves. I’m often asked, ‘What is an example of a beautiful Web site?’ Without being pedantic I say Craigslist. Think about how influential that site has been in connecting people together. It’s a beautiful Web site because it is fantastically simple and utilitarian, intuitive and natural to use. To some though, they see only ugliness in Craigslist.
You run the music blog Pampelmoose.com. What the hell is a Pampelmoose? It sounds messy.
In 1978 we were playing in a former gay bath-house in Paris. It was fashion week or something and we were getting feverishly drunk, drinking champagne with models and listening to them speak French. My mate asked this very pretty model how to say grapefruit in French. She licked her lips and said very slowly “Pampelmoose”. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Read more about The Influence Project.