Ben Chasny interviewing…me!

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 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 — 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.

Announcing the start of a four part interview series about music and my writing life, thanks to Scott Woods

A lengthy title for the entry, but hey, it’s my blog so whatever works…

Scott’s put the first part up for listening and the rest will follow this week, so get ready for links as they get posted! But to talk a little about the project:

Scott’s an excellent writer on and about music; he’s based out of Toronto, first caught my eye as one of many writers and posters over at ILM, and then further came to notice given his work via — which as described is “rock critics talking to, about, and with each other.” Check the archives for a variety of detailed pieces and interviews he’s done in the past!

Earlier this year Scott kicked off what’s been a striking series of audio projects that are all well worth investigating. His huge, multipart interview with Alfred Soto on Roxy Music is essential listening, while “In Search of Digital Love,” an hour long presentation on the roots, sonic connections and general impact of Daft Punk’s brilliant song of that name, really is one of the most enjoyable, inspiring music discussions I’ve ever encountered. Combining thoughts from three wonderful writers and thinkers — Michaelangelo Matos, Nate Patrin and Mackro — plus much more besides, I would go so far as to call it one of my tracks of the year.

I said as much to Scott in an email shortly after it came out, and in response he asked if I would be interested in participating in a new project. Needless to say I was all about that, and from that point forward we started figuring out what would happen. I should VERY clearly say that at no point did I go “Hey can we have a huge hours long discussion about my wonderful self?” Scott was the prime mover of the project from the start and it was up to him to shape or direct it as he chose, and what initially was going to be something focused on my MBV Loveless essay became the more wide ranging project linked here.

While it was initially going to be a phone interview straight up, I had already booked a visit to Toronto as part of my East Coast vacation back in June, so I suggested we try and do something face to face there instead. Given the amount of time I had available only the first of the main three parts was done this way, so the audio quality will definitely be at its best here! Scott’s a very good interviewer and I was totally at ease — then again, of course, it’s not like it needs much in the way of prompting to get me to go on a bit! Part of the joy was also wondering how he would produce the final pieces — the various musical dropins scattered throughout are very nice touches!

This first part linked today covers my basic writer’s biography from the start to the present time — not quite everything but a lot of things, in terms of how I came to be a writer about music, who helped inspire me, advice given and received and much more besides. Hope people enjoy it, and I’ll provide further links and notes to the rest as they are posted!

RIP (old) Idolator

A few days ago Maura, one of the sharpest writers of the Internet age, delivered her farewell message at Idolator, which I had been visiting regularly since it began a few years back. She was the sole writer to have made it since the start, starting as the junior editor under Brian Raftery and taking over the main spot after his departure, and lasting through the site’s switch from being hosted on Gawker to being hosted via Buzznet, who are still in charge of the site. Two new writers have been brought on board following Maura’s departure.

I make no bones about the fact that I find this change to be for the worse, and neither will I hide the fact that I’m friends or professional acquaintances of nearly all the writers who had appeared regularly or semi-regularly on the site beforehand. I threw in tips here and there and was a constant — some might say all too constant — commenter on the site, but while I’ll allow for the fact that there’s a first time for everyone, the initial work that’s appeared on the site since Maura’s departure hasn’t compelled me to return, being little more than the dull restatement of received wisdom and wretched humor that trades in moronic stereotypes. And that’s a damn shame.

Allowing for the fact that I’m speaking of strictly Anglophonic publications for the rest of my piece: it’s been a little depressing to write RIPs for a number of publications that I contributed to over time — already done that for Stylus and Plan B in the life of my own blog, I should have done that for Metal Edge, and now I’m doing it here, even if things are going to continue at Idolator in a rather different way than before. Inasmuch as the message is that nothing is permanent, fine, inasmuch as it is that times being what they are means there’s less regular spaces to contribute thoughtful discussion and news on a formal (and, let’s not forget, paid) basis, it’s no surprise that the profile of those remaining spaces — such as Pitchfork, the Village Voice/New Times chain, the AMG — will increase by default. Meanwhile as long as sites like Freaky Trigger and The Singles Jukebox and similar ones exist (and yes, I’ll include ILM in that still), labors of love that measure their return in how they’re enjoyed and participated in rather than in ad revenue, the crackle of energy is far from dead. At the same time, especially with regard to Stylus and Plan B and now Idolator, one finds a slow limiting of a burst of spirit that had had a good decade-long run, of balancing out the passion of writing and thoughtful debate via the vehicle of music — and quite often the subjects under discussion reached far beyond the notes heard and the lyrics comprehended — with an appreciation for the here and now, that engaged with music that was six seconds old as much as it was six decades, and sought to do so beyond the realm of simple yeas or nays or presumptions of one particular style of music ruling over all else.

Perspective is perhaps all — all of those sites or journals’ writers and readers were perfectly cognizant that many other fora exist for these kind of debates, and that not every listener would wish to engage in music news and discussion in this fashion. What for some is a gripping, total engagement is for most others merely a very slight indulgence. But even knowing these all too obvious points it remains the case that to lose these places of focus, where much can be brought in under a wider umbrella, is to risk dispersement and lack of inspiration, or else demonstrable consolidation as writers find homes in fewer and fewer sites (no surprise perhaps that most of Stylus’s writers ended up at Pitchfork, for instance). It’s not come to this yet and hopefully never well but if an engaged — and, importantly, youthful — listener is confronted with an Internet of ‘music discussion’ that for the most part consists of seemingly little but random YouTube insults, pure gossip and snark for snark’s sake, set against increasingly dry as dust, decades-old approaches for ever more outmoded consensi (the Rolling Stone aesthetic seems ever more attenuated now), then one wonders what the impact will be.

Admittedly melodramatic as a vision, and perhaps simply reflective of what writer friend has terms the shifting of cultural capital away from music in general in this century. Yet the loss of Idolator — at least in its proudly thoughtful form under Maura’s guidance, where the obscure and the famous in music easily coexisted, where the insightful study of sexual roles and general stereotyping was constant, and where humor provided both the necessary slash of satire and the impact of a simply good laugh — shuts down an alternative, another spot to go to find more and learn more. That some enterprises are unsustainable is life, that so many seem to be going in these last couple of years is still depressing, that the latest should be one where so many good folks worked and contributed beyond the bounds of the basic brief, well, that just plain sucks.

Maura herself is regularly posting via her Tumblr site so check in for updates. Meantime, a number of regular commenters on Idolator have started a new joint blog, Chain of Knives, to send along stories and thoughts that fit into the spirit of the old site. I’ll be posting there myself as I can. And we shall see what the future brings.

RIP Plan B

The word’s been spreading a bit since an initial e-mail a short while ago but Plan B has announced its forthcoming issue on June 1 will be its last.

Plan B was the last of three magazines that were intimately intertwined — Loose Lips Sink Ships was its sister publication of sorts and both were spawned by Careless Talk Costs Lives, founded in the early part of this decade by Everett True and Steve Gullick, who I first knew about as, respectively, a writer and photographer for Melody Maker in the early nineties. As someone who devoured nearly every issue from mid-1991 to late 1994 — getting out right before Britpop-as-such was codified, probably a smart move on my part — both figures were very familiar names, Gullick’s photography being tied up in my head as almost the color equivalent of Charles Peterson’s work (helped by the fact that they photographed many of the same bands thanks to Seattle’s domination of the rock media universe at the time) and True being, well, himself, an intentionally infuriating figure whose aesthetic read as contrarian when it was more accurately just him being himself, more open to admitting his own biases and preferences than most.

Back in 2001 or so True ended up on ILX and somewhere along the way — I forget which thread or where — he noted that he and Gullick were starting a new project, the aforementioned Careless Talk Costs Lives, and were interested in contributors. Taking the ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ approach, I dropped him a line expressing interest and as a result — to my continued surprise — I found myself becoming a regular columnist for the magazine, with a feature piece near the start of the magazine appearing in all but one of the twelve issues. It never had a title, this column, but it was a chance to talk about musical matters and thoughts at the time in a broader sense than simply reviewing an album or the like — each piece had a different theme, from talking about the joys of hearing music from passing cars to how I associated certain songs or pieces of music with the various moves in my life from place to place.

But that’s to talk about my own contributions — CTCL itself was founded as a response to what True and Gullick feared (correctly, as it turned out) was an irrevocable change in music journalism, more specifically from a UK context but with broader implications. The demise of Melody Maker shortly beforehand resulted in the NME taking up the fairly tattered brand of weekly music journalism in the UK from there on in as sole provider — keep in mind twenty years previously there had been four weeklies — and Napster’s explosion in use was just the further harbringer of what’s been the key concern for music writers since: relevance in a world when you don’t have to take a writer’s word for how something sounds, you can just go ahead and hear it, and not pay anything for it if you choose.

As such CTCL was, in many ways, about comfort and retrospection, a reverence for print over the digital world that, for instance, the also-UK based Freaky Trigger had already found itself fully established in from the start, intentionally. To say that CTCL was to an extent backwards looking sounds a touch harsh, but in its way it too was a predictor of future trends — the increasing worship of the ‘real,’ the idea that vinyl is the only way to hear music correctly, that earnestness rather than irony is a key factor. A broad brief and I don’t pretend that CTCL was somehow either codifying or intentionally pointing the way towards these now more commonplace conclusions, but even in things like the quality of the paper it was printed on, CTCL sought to preserve a certain historical moment into a new century, finding a new way to potentially inspire.

One thing I liked about CTCL was its planned obsolescence as well — it started with issue 12 and counted down, the idea being that True and Gullick were doing this as an experiment with a specific end date. When that was reached they announced that two new magazines would be the result. Gullick and my friend and fellow writer Stevie Chick founded Loose Lips Sink Ships, which I ended up writing more for at the start — done more irregularly than CTCL, it emphasized Gullick’s eye for design very well and I had a good time contributing some features and a couple of reviews to its short run, but it went on hiatus after a bit and that turned out to be that, as everyone involved concentrated on other work closer to hand.

Plan B (which, to correct my earlier and too-hasty assertion, both Joseph and Everett have rightly stated below in comments was ultimately the brainchild of the wonderful Frances Morgan, and she was with it from start to finish — more can be found at Everett’s own retrospective post) in contrast thrived — getting itself locked into a steady month by month publication schedule helped, and if not always as visually beautiful as Loose Lips (though many excellent photographers contributed and over time the magazine codified its own fine look and approach), every issue was crammed with detailed thoughts about music and more besides — artists, authors, filmmakers and more were often featured. After a while I was able to start adding bits and pieces here and there — never anything big, the largest story I ever did was a brief interview with Blonde Redhead — but it was always fun and I ended up establishing a new slew of contacts as a result, never a bad thing.

Plan B to a large extent was always a bit ad hoc, at least as seen from the outside — going up against established publications was always going to be part of the struggle, and like its forebear and counterpart it relied on the good graces of the contributors as much as anything else. Also, despite many excellent pieces on a wide range of musicians, by understandable default it presented life through an indie-rock lens to a large degree — by no means as limited as other publications have done (or continue to do), and with an eye to expand the possibilities of what ‘indie rock’ as such means, yet even so, that was the larger framework. But it did find and fill a niche devoted to it, and of the three magazines seemed the most comfortable with the Web in general, with a good site and discussion forum to its credit. This kind of balance remains essential, I think, and will do for anyone still interested in the primacy of print — simply shutting oneself off completely from the Net strikes me as ultimately limiting, but this ties in with my larger thought that the goal is to attract more readers and writers rather than less.

Plan B, RIP

There’s now a substantial section of my music bookshelf consisting of nothing but Plan B issues, a large amount of which I have very small appearances in, a review or two here and there, no more, but it’s about the totality of the issues rather than one’s own work as I mentioned, and like any publication it will be seen through the lens of retrospection with different eyes than at the time. Features on bands that never went anywhere will be puzzled over, ads listing acts and performers yet to be massively famous will be noted with ‘so that’s where they started!’ surprise, critical judgments will either be seen to be incredibly prescient or completely out of sync with future consensus — it’s a bit like Melody Maker, then, and I still have those issues from my time of regular reading as well. It will all make for thoughtful contemplation in the future.

But the future will contain something else in turn too. This isn’t the end of music writing or journalism by any means — it’s a product of time and place, the realities of this current economy and the nature of music and business all coming together once again. I’ve already seen one publication I wrote for disappear this year, Metal Edge, and now here’s another. One hopes for the best that others won’t go as well, but one also thinks of newer possibilities now in turn — and I’d be willing to bet one of the writers will be an Everett True of the future, looking at the state of things and thinking, “I wonder if we can do something like Plan B now, just to see what could happen?”

Also, in conclusion, it was fun to visit their offices during my last visit to London, my friend Hina and I wandering around a slightly nondescript parking lot/courtyard, wondering if we had missed it, stepping back out to the main road and having Louis Pattison chase me down saying, “Wait, we’re back here!,” directing us to the distant corner where the amazingly crammed offices were found. Everett was out that day, preparatory to his eventual move to Australia, but it was fun — after all those days years before wondering what the Melody Maker offices were actually like — seeing what Plan B‘s were like. About what I expected — publications and press kits and discs and little space. I loved it, of course.

Thanks for the opportunities and thanks to all involved from the start with CTCL and onward through Plan B and Loose Lips, particularly Everett, Steve, Stevie, Louis, Frances, Kick and Lauren, and all my fellow writers and participants. It was a blast.

The Village Voice Pazz and Jop 2008 poll is up and…

…to my considerable surprise, part of my commentary with my (non-)ballot was quoted at length. Very kind of them, especially since, as noted, I chose not to submit any ballot at all — you can find my full comment here.

It was neat to see similar sentiments expressed, though, and without trying to say there’s been a specifically universal alteration, Charles Aaron’s quote just before mine got right to the point:

Considering 2008’s daily fuckery (the election, the economy, the Internet’s continued destruction of journalism as a viable career option), I’ve never felt less inclined to make some head-up-ass editorial case that pop music plays a pivotal role in the development of modern society.

Blunt but apt and accurate. I don’t think music’s importance as something cultural — as something commonly human, at base — has changed in the grand scheme of things, but I do think the massive sea change in how it’s listened to, created, shared, talked about and more has taken the wind out of the idea that Aaron identifies. On a day when Idolator’s been having well-deserved fun with expressions of inherited ideas from the 1960s about music and relevance — check out this post and this one, and I’ve a couple of things to say in the comments section of the latter — the inherited idea that Aaron notes, comforting as it is, deserves some harsh scrutiny too. This is obliquely addressed in the first Idolator post I linked, not about music critics trying to advance grand unified theories of pop music, culture and society but about MTV’s attempt to advance their own, so to quote Mike Barthel from that:

If the kids watching MTV now have an interest in politics, they’re certainly not getting any information about it from the channel. Until now, to do so would be unhip, an awful incursion of seriousness into a glittery world. Obama’s glamour did an end-run by showing up all that as tacky, embracing understatement and dignity. And now, MTV’s trying to rub up against that in hopes of catching the energy Obama summons, and pop music lacks.

But, MTV being MTV, the channel failed even in this. Obama’s call for collective action was not really a request for more volunteerism. It was, rather, an effort to restore government to its true position: the solution to our collective needs. This doesn’t require conscious effort on the part of citizens so much as a realization that the government is not an entity that steals your money and forces you to do things you don’t want to do, but instead a tool we use to pool our resources and produce results we could not have come up with on our own. What’s required for this is to have everyone—or almost everyone—on board. Pop music, you may recall, was like this in 1993; in 2009, someone admits on national television that he hasn’t even heard of one of the biggest-selling rock bands in the country. With decreased participation comes decreased benefits, and even as MTV tried to recapture an era it had long since abandoned, so did the country move on to an era that didn’t need its efforts anymore.

Still, I have to note something anecdotal in turn about this: I distinctly remember a commentary on a local LA news station from one of the behind-the-set producers back in 1994 when Kurt Cobain passed on — this was about a week or so after it happened — and while I don’t recall much about what was said, the point the commenter made was that he didn’t know anything about Nirvana until Cobain died, hadn’t even had heard of the name of either band or singer. So pop music was not necessarily ‘like that’ even at that time, though I’m sure I snorted a bit and wondered how he couldn’t’ve known — but that was my own bias coming into play.

There’s way more I could say about these subjects all being intertwined right now, but just a little something to chew over for now. Anyway, it was, again, surprising and admittedly flattering to be singled out like that in the Pazz and Jop section given that my piece was ultimately questioning the rationale of the ballot in the first place, as least from my point of view, and I do thank Rob Harvilla and crew for it.

EDIT — Mike is actually on fire today at Idolator with all this, thanks to a new story he just added talking about the well-worn ‘where are all the protest songs of this decade?’ hobbyhorse, using Carrie Brownstein’s NPR piece today as a starting point. Both well worth reading in full, and Mike’s stellar conclusion is almost a manifesto:

The dominant view of the ’60s always forgets all the bubblegum and parent-pop that was even more popular than the politically engaged stuff, and overstates the reach and importance of the artists we’ve come to value. It seems more likely that music wasn’t more politically engaged in the ’60s; rather, it was more culturally prominent, more of a megaphone for the values of the majority, and thus more representative of public opinion. When music is smaller, why should politics pay attention to it?

The funny thing about all this, of course, is that the election of Barack Obama represents a rejection of “the ’60s,” or at least its dominance over our political and cultural dialogue. By picking Obama over Hillary Clinton during the primaries, Democratic voters seemed to indicate a desire to move away from arguments about culture war and identity politics. Music, on the other hand, still seems stuck in the boomer mire; even the supposedly transformative album of 2009 can be legitimately described as “psychedelic.” There seems a disconnect here.

(And as someone who is now quite thoroughly sick of all the talk around said album, I can’t applaud that final touch enough.)

The Quietus fully redesigns and launches

The site had earlier renamed itself to the Quietus but had kept its initial design; now, however, it’s fully up with a design overhaul. It’s been fun to be a small part of it so far — I’ll be working on a piece next week that’s going to be a main feature if it all shakes down properly, so we’ll see how that goes! Jarvis Cocker talking about Sheffield hometown heroes of a time, Artery, is there for the reading in the meantime, among numerous other pieces.

For music today, it’s off to Idolator and Tim Finney’s latest piece

Sparks are taking the first of their well-deserved breaks during the concert series and I’m currently embracing my Billy Mackenzie fetish once more, so better instead to read Tim’s latest piece over at Idolator on funky house. As ever, the man sums up both the appeal of what’s going on, with a couple of links to boot, as well as actualizes the dilemma of describing a scene and style that is evolving without restraint of expectation even as he types. A quick sample:

In an odd way, it’s the relative conservatism of the music’s starting premises that allow this to happen. House always seems so timeless and perfected that it’s easy to assume it’s also creatively exhausted; and admittedly the specific appeals of this brand of “funky house” are clustered around the style’s gross distortions of its original house template. But, as with speed garage in 1997 or so, it’s precisely that obvious, unthreatening universality that is key here: the phrase “funky house” acts a reset button, opening up a musical space that is shorn of the biases, pretensions and presumptions that inevitably grow up around any established genre and narrow its field of possibility. Few people expect anything in particular of funky house, beyond vague notions of good times and female-friendly singalong tunes; it’s even lost the veneer of glamour it might have once had. Freed from the weight of expectation, producers can get away with a great deal more.

Read, listen, enjoy the present before it becomes the retrospective future.