Tuesday, January 15, 2019

writing about music

an interview with someone called Elodie from about ten years ago about being a music writer, fanzines, the music press, the relationship between journalists and musicians, as well as more lofty themes such as obsession, passion, truth etc

What was the very first article you wrote about? When was it? What do you really write about when you write about music?

The first piece was on Bow Wow Wow for an arts magazine at Oxford called Radical Review. This was the winter of 1981. The editor Paul Oldfield would go on to be my best friend and together with some other people we would do a fanzine called Margin, which then became a kind of polemical wall-poster which we'd stick up all around the university and town. Then after graduating we started a new magazine, Monitor, which was a fanzine that had pretensions to being a pop journal--no interviews or reviews, just thinkpieces, and with a strong design aesthetic. Unlike other fanzines, we had no local element whatsoever - no coverage of Oxford bands. We saw ourselves as national, even international!

 That was 1984.  We did six issues, the last one was summer of 1986.

What do you really write about when you write about music?

That's too big a question. I suppose in a strange way it is autobiography, but only glimpsed through the prism of other things--music and everything it touches. I don't have a lot of time for the memoiristic school of music writing, I don't feel it tells you anything much about the music and how it will affect you the reader. Just because it intersected with the memoirist-critic's life in such and such a way… it's too particular, the meaning that is being written about is not intrinsic to the music, it doesn't inhere to the sound in any real way. It can be interesting when done really, really well--and it helps if you know the writer--but I don't think it has much to offer in the way of truth.

What was your experience like as a fanzine-maker?

Great collaborative excitement and a sense of purpose, coupled with a lot of hard work, which was the appeal, and the point. A life without work is empty; a life of leisure, a permanent vacation, would be horrible. We were on the dole, most of us, but we invented a job for ourselves to do. And it led to a real one for me. Not directly, I didn't get a telegram from a music paper, but in terms of me honing my skills and building up my courage.

Do you remember in which context Monitor was started? Were there something missing, a room you felt you had to inhabit?

Nothing so flowery, just tons of ideas about music, lots to say, a lot of ego and ambition. I knew I wanted to be a music journalist, a certain kind of critic, and this was my training phase, a sort of girding of loins.

As a reader I had been a fan of the side of the NME in the late 70s and early 80s that was high-powered intellectually and did think pieces, as well as thinkpieces/manifestos that masqueraded as record reviews, gig reviews, interviews. Around 1983 the editorship of NME started phasing out those kind of thematic essays gradually while the writers who'd been doing that kind of thing either moved on to other things (Paul Morley started ZTT Records) or were getting marginalised. So as a frustrated consumer I tried to supply my own demand as it were. I don't think the others at Monitor were so much the NME fanatic as I was, but that was certainly the impetus for me: the music press has stopped doing this, so I'll do it. Hence the no interviews, no reviews policy at Monitor, which lasted until someone started sending us free records. We immediately started a record review section!  But we only ever did one interview, and that was fairly abstract and didn't feature any direct quotes, as I recall.

Were you into writing before you were into music?

My parents are both journalists and it was a bookish orientated household. Apart from a brief phase of wanting to be a cricketer and wanting to be a cartoonist, my ambitions were always to write -- satirical and Monty Python type humour at one point, science fiction later, then finally music journalism.

Are writing and music two interdependent activities to you?

For me listening is accompanied by thinking, usually -- and writing is a tidied up form of thinking aloud. And I was a fan of music journalism --again a particular kind of music writing -- almost as much as a fan of music.

Does the reality of the written world (the page) convey the reality of the musical, outer world that’s happening before your eyes (the stage) or are these two different realities as it were? Would you make such a distinction/opposition between the page and the stage?

What were you trying best in your early articles: was it to be faithful to your heart or to your eyes?

Dunno. I always think what I'm saying is the truth, if that' s what you mean. I try and avoid going down the path of qualification and seeing the other point of view, because it leads to weak writing, most of the time.

What is the role of emotion in music writing? What about the role of obsession?

It's all emotion. It may be more abstract and rarefied forms of emotion -- contemplative, the emotion that perfection of  form produces, which is an emotion that has nothing to do with "emo" type emotions, but can be really intense and swoony and rhapsodic, or just a real clarity and acuity of perception.

Obsession is the aim. You're looking for music that is worthy of obsession, and that can trigger obsession. In the mean time you'll settle for delight, or amusement, or in really lean times, "interesting".

Also, do you consider writing about music as a re-presentation of something that happened before (the report of a story) or a presentation of something new (telling a new, and maybe another, story)?

I don't think about that kind of thing very often, at least not when faced with a specific piece of writing. The goal is more to get it into a shape that works. There's probably a mixture of fact and fiction in the end result, in the sense that leaving stuff out is always going to reduce the complexity of reality. Rip It Up is defined as much by what is left out as what is in there.

Did you feel closer to the bands and their language (The Smiths for example) than you were to other music journalists?

Not really. Most bands are understandably wary of journalists, because whatever they write, however flattering or aggrandising it is, it is going to box them into some kind of corner. I've seen that in a limited way when people interview me or profile me. Just the way a quote is cut down to size can give it an emphasis that is deceptive --and you go, "I didn't mean it like that!" - that emphatically or resoundingly.  

Bands and music journalists are symbiotic life forms, they need each other, and are often working on the same side in the sense of trying to will into existence the perception that something (a band, a scene) is happening. But the relationship is freighted with tension. Bands can be very frustrating for journalists if they don't talk themselves up or are evasive, or if they just refuse to rubber stamp the version of what they are about that you the journo are trying to put out there.  

Bands also don't understand why you don't want to keep on writing about them forever, even if (rare scenario, this!) they keep on making good records. They don't understand that to write about the same subject over and over is for the journalists exactly like if the band had to keep remaking its first album again and again.

Was there a sense of community, of togetherness in the Melody Maker team when you joined in for example?

Not at first, but it built up gradually, partly with Monitor members joining me there like David Stubbs and Paul Oldfield, but also new comrades like the Stud Brothers. And generally there was an affable atmosphere among the writers, riven sometimes by discord over particular bands or scenes that one faction or other favoured/disfavoured. But they were great times. This was back when magazines didn't have emails and even faxing was quite unusual, so people brought their copy into the office and then hung out there all day, leading to all afternoon and all night drinking sessions.

I also met my future wife Joy Press at Melody Maker and she was part of our gang, but I had no idea then that romance would be on the cards!

Can you remember your attitudes towards music writing and the music press before you started to write about music yourself?

I thought that that was the life to live.  I probably imagined something a lot more glamorous than it actually was, although it did have a glamour of its own, and in some ways surpassed my expectations.

To which extent would you consider post-punk or indie pop as literary, movements, created in words?

A lot of the musicians were more like critics than actual muso musicians; if ever there was a period when left-field musicians and the cutting edge of music journalism were really close, that was it. Quite a few musicians were actually journalists, and journos were in bands, or involved in the music business. It was a very discourse-oriented culture. My ideas about music were affected by key critics at that time but also by musician-theorists like Green Gartside, Brian Eno (slightly later on), and Malcolm McLaren (more a manager-theorist although he did "make" some great records)

Do you think there is a link that draws together everything you ever wrote about music?

If there is, I can't see it. There's some kind of quest, maybe, but I couldn't verbalise it. It does relate to the idea of obsession being the highest state of being.  Of true music fandom being essentially bi-polar  -- so that you're either in a state of mania or in the slough of despond.  Those kind of  see-sawing rhythms seem to run through the whole trajectory of my writing.

Is there anything you wish you hadn't written?

There' s a fair few dull-ish pieces, but not that many things that are excruciatingly embarrassing -- mostly odd sentences here and there which make me wince. Journalists can sometimes sell themselves on the idea of a group because it's a good story, and I've done that a lot less often than some writers, but there are a few things where I now think, "nah!".

Does your perception of the past and of the past musical scene(s) (such as post-punk) keep evolving with time?

Yes. At any given point I'm generally rediscovering things I was once into and finding new things about them, or exploring areas I never checked out because of various prejudices or simply not having ever got round to them. 

but even things that I lived through very intensely, like postpunk, or the early days of rave and jungle, they don't seem like closed books at all, I still find them fresh to listen to and new ideas pop up. Which is odd given that I've written books about both, you'd think I'd be sated and sick.  But not yet, not yet....

No comments: