Okay, so — yesterday I posted a link to the interview I did of Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance for the Quietus. There was a follow-up, though — there was a random suggestion on ILX saying that Ben should interview me, which I passed along to him more as a random joke than anything. But by god if Ben didn’t ask me a set of great questions, so I answered them! Much thanks to him for doing so — it was good to be put under the microscope. (Let me also recommend Scott Woods’s detailed interview series with me from last year if you really want some hyperdetailed talk!)
BC: There’s a lot of talk about a record industry dying – from the squeaking of major label executive’s butt cheeks as they drive their limos to actual indies not being able to fund exciting projects and sometimes even folding. Nobody really talks about the effect on music writing. With a move toward more blogs and more everyone-is-a-critic-man mentality, do you see a difference in music criticism? Is there a decline? Personally I see some atrocious grammar mistakes out there and I don’t even claim to have a basic grasp of English. Do you think that it is important for music critics to have a grasp of basic composition in order to write? What is the state of criticism today?
NR: Mm, where to begin?
I suspect you and I would agree that it’s not necessarily good music writing that’s at stake but good writing — and that immediately leads us into the area of what the rules are and who determines them. The whole balance between descriptive and proscriptive language — does language reflect how we actually talk or think, or are we to use it to set an acceptable standard? — is something that won’t be resolved once and for all. Consider for instance this recent story via the BBC about Patois/Creole as a distinct language in the Caribbean versus English — who is right? (And lord knows, do we even want to get into the issue of America’s educational standards in general, say?)
So let’s take that kind of background as a given, we both assume we’re talking about a standard ‘basic grasp of English’ as an agreed upon baseline and a presumption that those writing aim for that standard, setting aside any blog writer/commenter who freely confesses that English is their second language — there are, at least, two different scenarios I suspect you’re thinking of:
* The professional publication which runs pieces with notable errors and mistakes, on a regular or semi-regular basis — such a publication, like many, likely has faced major reductions in copy/sub-editing staff over recent years, or could well never have employed them to start with, relying on the writers and main editors’ own collective eye — along with spelling/grammar software — to make sure nothing slips through.
* The wing-and-a-prayer site — individual blog, group effort, message board, whatever it might be — where it’s all down to whoever’s writing and what happens when they click save and submit.
In both cases the questions of economics you note are at work — easy access, traditional sources of revenue gone — and they shape the state of things you outline. I do think it is important to do your best — and lord knows I always think I can improve, and have let plenty of mistakes slip through my net over the years — so some basic grasp is needed if you want to not only hold a reader’s attention carefully but make them want to return. If it’s through a blog etc. then it’s up to the writer — if the writer feels passionate enough to say ‘damn the torpedoes’ and plow on no matter what, though, they will do so, regardless of who notices or doesn’t notice. In the professional situation, the editor/publisher ultimately runs a risk of appearing to tolerate mistakes as something to shrug off. If they get the readers — or page views — they want, though, will they feel a need to improve on that?
A decline? Back in 1993, I first ended up on the alt.music.alternative board and even then you could see the differences in posting styles among many participants — from lengthy, well-organized and argued essays, in essence, to hit and run ‘blargh WTF i h8 u’ nonsense. In essence, I’ve been used to the range, and not everyone who had the ‘best’ writing had the best points to offer. I’m always much more comfortable reading the precisely written, certainly, but it’s not everything — but I definitely have self-selected over time, relying either on the voices of people who I know already are worth reading and the recommendations and random discoveries of others that fit within that category. If that means trawling through a mess more, I am prepared to do that, but I’m also lucky to have a long view already in place. A newer reader or writer probably feels more than a little daunted — but I suspect that might just want to make them try harder.
I think there is a TREMENDOUS amount of excellent writing happening at the present time. Both old and new voices, however much the professional upheavals have hit them, are listening to, talking about and exchanging ideas over a huge range of material, certainly not simply musical or solely in some sort of removed ‘music-only’ sphere. I think only a few of those voices have consistently broken out into a wider populace, though, and if people are ultimately less interested in that kind of writing and more about just looking up the YouTube so they can hear the song again without wanting — or needing — to think about it further, then the kind of random comments you see there will define music ‘writing’ for a lot of people over time. And that can be a bit of a mess…
Is it true that it is harder for critics to get paid for writing about music than it once was? I have noticed a lot of publications and webzines are having the artist sort of do the feature, like “Tell us about your favorite records” sort of thing. Surely this has to have an effect on good music writing. Opinions?
There’s also the dread word so many people will say these days — ‘listicles’ (Think of how many ’15 things you’ve seen that you laughed at five years ago’ pieces you’ve seen where a still photo and a caption — followed by an invitation to click over not simply to a new slide but a new *page* — makes up the article.) Horrifying, really.
When you are semi-pro like I am — and I am, I will never deny it, writing on the side rather than as my full employment — the issue has been less close to home for me than it has for others. But I could tell you horror stories from friends involving publications that folded up leaving good, incredible writers hanging with articles never paid for, coverage amounts rapidly shrinking, review space going from hundreds of words to maybe 150 — maybe even less — and much more besides. The presumption has increasingly been that space to essentially ruminate — to turn over ideas in public rather than meet a release or tour schedule — is something many publications will not pay for, or see as secondary at best, something for ‘the blog’ (or exiled to a writer’s personal blog).
Now, those personal projects can and in many cases do produce excellence in their own right. But motivation is key — and money, quite simply, does not hurt. Recently I took a hiatus from working on a blog project I knew would never get published anywhere, talking over all the shows I’ve had tickets from over the years. I did so in large part because I was stressing myself out over an unsustainable schedule where I had to balance out my regular job, my regular paid writing work and this side work of mine as well — it got to the point where it was actually affecting my health to a degree. (Seriously, you don’t want to be told you’re running high blood pressure for months on end for the first time in your life.) Realizing that what had to be cut back on was the most personal and reflective work was a terrible thing, but at the same time, it was also the work that wasn’t providing any immediate sustenance, for all that I had enjoyed the irregular feedback I was receiving. That may not be very artistic — but when push comes to shove, what would any of us do in similar circumstances?
That’s just one story of one writer, not a true portrait — and it is not that there aren’t spaces for excellent writers still to thrive doing that kind of perceptive and reflective work that says more than the basics. But those spaces are now more limited when it comes to sustaining a career, and how that’s being negotiated by us all is a story not yet fully understood.
Who are some of your favorite music writers?
Where to begin with an endless list! Or seemingly endless — I am very fortunate in that a number of my favorite writers are also people who I consider friends. I’m pretty much open about the fact that the one/two punch of reading Chuck Eddy and Simon Reynolds in around 1990/91 specifically got me on my larger path, if only because they had such an apt knack in talking — in very different ways — about albums I loved (and also albums I hated!). Meantime to have befriended such astonishing, consistently skilled writers like Maura Johnston, Tom Ewing and Tim Finney back in the nineties via alt.music.alternative — and to see their evident writing and thinking skills then only grow more with time, to the point where I think I’d have to name them essential, among English language writers, for understanding, in different but no less perceptive ways, how the function of ‘pop’ works and what it can mean — has been an undiluted pleasure. Tom’s own work in founding the Freaky Trigger site as a prototypical web publication for the music obsessed — not to mention his endless stamp on a variety of projects, from the amazing Popular blog, working through every last number one UK chart single from then to now, to his now regular pieces for both the Guardian and Pitchfork — is the kind of active, creative work that leaves me in awe. And — it should be noted! — he does all this while also holding down his own ‘regular’ job in market research, not to mention raising a family! Even I haven’t gone that far, and it does leave me wondering where in the world he has the time! But I’m glad he does, we are all the better for it.
This of course only scratches the surface — other wonderful writers and thinkers I could name include George Thomas Parsons, Nitsuh Abebe, Karen Tongson, Michaelangelo Matos, Daphne Carr and many, many more with a special nod to Tony Dale, the tragically departed writer and founder of the Camera Obscura label. Meantime I learn more about older writers as I go — a particular thanks to Ann Powers and many more via the EMP Pop Music Conference for introducing me to the work of Ellen Willis — as well as appreciating those musicians who themselves are great writers, such as John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, or authors who talk about music in intelligent and thoughtful ways as part of their larger overall work, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But I’d also have to name those ‘private writers’ I know who have never published or who have only done at most so via blog posts and discussion boards and other thoughts, but who I consistently enjoy hearing from on music, especially my friends Mackro, DJP and Stripey — in Stripey’s case, she still surprises me after all these years with how thoughtful even just a quick email about a new musical discovery can be, putting it into a larger context I wouldn’t have thought of or otherwise generating interest in something I would have otherwise ignored. She’s never once wanted to formally publish her work, even via a blog, and I do think that’s a great loss, but I count myself lucky to be an audience for her writing — I hope we all have someone like that.
What do you think about every music writer comparing every acoustic guitar player to John Fahey as if he had the greatest influence on everyone? Isn’t this the same sort of critical reductionism that would not be allowed in any sort of serious art journal? Wouldn’t that be the equivalent of comparing every abstract artist to Picasso? Or closer to home, perhaps comparing every single music writer to Lester Bangs? Does this sort of non-crtitcal thinking have a detrimental effect on how others view the importance of music criticism? Am I leading the witness? What do you think?
Here’s a damn good point — and it touches on something I know I’ve been guilty of as well, thinking back a bit. Your comparative examples regarding Picasso and Bangs are well observed, leading into the area not simply of expertise but perceived expertise — and presumed, or perhaps assumed, knowledge.
A good writer, I’d like to think, will have the ability to address many subjects — not all, I should note, and that’s key. When you combine that with the fact that we presumably would want any listener, any person out there, to enjoy and respond to the music we enjoy — or more accurately, we hope that that possibility is there, that they might be similarly moved — then a potential dilemma rises: how do you talk about something that you know and like but — consciously or not — you cannot fully put into a context beyond that appreciation? How much do you know of the background of the artist? Do you know more than what’s provided in the PR sheet with an album? Do you allow for the fact that just because a name is mentioned that doesn’t mean it sums up everything about an album? (A quick example, invoking the Mountain Goats again — one of their albums has a song mentioning Jamaican singer Dennis Brown in its title, another one references the band Marduk in another title. Does this mean that the one song or album is a reggae or rocksteady album and the other is all about thrash-informed black metal intensity? Does that mean these are the only artists in that field the Mountain Goats can or should be compared to if you’re going to make that comparison in the first place?)
In my case, there are a wide variety of things I do enjoy that I do not feel comfortable in fully talking about, others where I would regard my knowledge as passable if not hyperdetailed, still others I know cold. I hope that when I do make a comparison of any sort that it is both apt and, if the question ever came up, explainable. Note I say “I hope” — I am allowing for the fact I probably stumble more often than I realize, and I wish I didn’t, both on a professional level and on a personal one (it’s very unsatisfying to realize that you struggled for a comparison or framed things in such a way that can miss something either totally obvious or skipped over a potentially deeper appreciation of what the artist is trying to do).
Fahey’s role is so singular that he does become a kind of fallback — in the same way that Miles Davis seems to be someone similar for what a lot of people say when they mean ‘jazz,’ as if an entire ethos could be reduced not merely to one person but one instrument as well. At the same time, when there are direct, overt nods to Fahey at play, then it makes sense to bring up his name. Someone like Glenn Jones, who worked with Fahey and who explored his work both with Cul de Sac and on his own, is a classic example of this; at the same time, it’s of course not the only thing he’s ever done, and he would be startled and not a little revolted at the idea that this would sum up everything he did. When you look at the DVD he recorded with the late Jack Rose, whose own work also draws some inspiration from Fahey’s example but who clearly has a different sound and approach than Jones does, you get a sense of how generalities are really problematic.
And again, I say this having committed the type of sins you inveigle against. Working against this is key, or at least keeping it in mind as much as possible — sometimes the one-off invocation meant to sum up everything is simply not enough. One of the most satisfying moments I ever had as a writer involved my reviewing of an album released by a musician and singer who was more well known for her work appearing with other bands or in one-off recordings — I’ll leave her anonymous to spare her blushes, but it was a very enjoyable album, and I wrote the review taking careful care to not once mention those bands/acts she had made her name with, in that her solo work was clearly of a different kind that needed to be judged on its own merits. Some weeks after the review ran, she wrote me directly to thank me for the review and, in essence, for essentially doing just that step I mentioned — she mentioned being a very private person in general but she wanted to underscore how gratified she was to read a review that wasn’t simply positive but didn’t place her in a context which clearly would have been at best limiting, at most highly inaccurate. It remains a gold standard I try to aim for.
Is there simply too much new music for music writers to listen to nowadays? Or is it ok?
Yes to both! There’s no two ways around it — the amount of music out there is utterly, totally overwhelming, and as the era of recorded sound gets longer and longer and the amount of old and new music now floating around builds and builds…it’s just too much. It is, simply, too much. And that IS ok.
I used to have some anxiety about the subject but I was reminded of another comment in a different context — when I went to grad school in English lit in 1992, my then-advisor said by way of initial advice “Remember — you’ll never have enough time to read everything you’re supposed to read.” Reading, music, art, movies — and that’s just cultural products, and by no means all of them, that one is presumed to supposed to know. But even in the area of what you’re supposed to know given the job — what my advisor was talking about, after all — there’s just too much. You can either sweat over it or you can say, “You know, I can’t do everything, but at least I can talk about something.” I’m more than happy with that — can’t speak for others but it’s a similar struggle for them I’m sure.
There are so many times that a record’s real brilliance only shines through after I work through it, perhaps even after I don’t enjoy it the first time. My father always talked about how the records he ended up enjoying the most are the ones he didn’t particularly like the first time he heard it. Is this something you think about when writing a review? Is there a way to compensate for it? Or do you not ever feel that?
It really can depend — sometimes an album makes itself completely plain to you first time through, and any relistening merely underscores that. Other times you hear an album first time through and any notes you take, mental or otherwise, don’t hang together — you don’t have any sense over whether it was good, bad, a mix, something else. It can be as simple as to how you heard the album the first time — after a rough day? During one? On the fly? At home via a preferred sound setup? A second listen, or more, can bring more out in a way that you just couldn’t hear the first time, and if you allow yourself that time then the end result will be a richer piece in response to it.
But in the long term, there can be those albums that you did hear enough the first time through that you feel completely different about many months — years! — later. I can’t predict what my future self will think, though — and plenty of times I look back at an older review or piece and think ‘Sheesh, THAT was a misfire on my part.’ But that’s life.
You worked with Ryan Hildebrand, who was an integral part of the Dark Noontide record (In fact, on one song on there i didn’t even play a single note, and nobody even knows that!) Any immediate remembrances?
Hahah, into the personal sphere! Or personal/professional — he and I worked in different areas of an academic library and it’s a big enough institution that you can go for weeks or months without seeing someone else who might even be in the same building as you, or seeing them at most a couple of seconds per day. So my memories are more ‘hey, he always seemed like an okay guy’ — I just didn’t realize how okay he was, I would have been amazed to learn about the Six Organs connection at the time.
But there’s a larger truth that libraries can very easily be a home for the artistically inclined or inspired — I can name a slew of people in the library at present or who recently worked there who are fairly active music listeners like myself, or in some cases regular or past performers. One current librarian has a slew of great photos of him as a young teen working in the original Washington DC punk/hardcore scene, keeping an eye on Minor Threat’s gear and the like. I think this kind of background is a result of a thirst for knowledge that the artistic drive can and hopefully always does provoke combined with libraries’ non-profit nature, heavily tested by the current economic and political climate as they are.
Last thing: word association time — write a quick and short response without thinking too much:
a – Scaruffi
Not Durutti. And I should know more but I won’t cheat and use Wikipedia.
b – Wah Wah
An album wherein James and Brian Eno made noises. Not bad noises per se.
c – Disintegration Street
Kind of a brilliant way to telescope an excellent Cure album and a song from that album into one phrase.
d – Wayne Rogers
“Won’t you be my neighbor?” *feedback* The great thing about him is seeing how he and Kate throw themselves bodily into every show I’ve seen them do, hair flying in the breeze.
e – Cassette Tapes
A recorded medium, one of many. Not a be-all or end-all, not something to fetishize. Is it about the music or is it the format? If your sole or chief concern is the latter then I have to wonder.
f – Happiness
Being at peace with yourself with the choices you have made and the factors you can control — and sharing what you can, even in the abstract, with others to help them towards their own goals in that realm.