What was your first musical love?
My first musical love would be things I heard through my parents, so Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, musicals like High Society and West Side Story. And things heard off the radio like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Yellow Submarine.” The first musical love I made for myself, though, would be punk—specifically, the Sex Pistols, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, X Ray Spex, the Slits.
What’s the difference between listening as a fan and listening as a critic?
I’ve been doing it as a critic for so long I’m not sure I can remember. I was listening like a critic before I actually was one, because I was such an ardent reader of the British music press and already half-knew that’s what I was going to be when I grew up. As far as I can tell, the main difference is that you listen not just for pleasure but always with the formation of new ideas as a goal. You want the music not just to satisfy but to give you new thoughts and new sensations. So this inevitably creates a bias, a distortion of sensibility.
For instance whenever I have written really rampantly about a new form of music—like, say, grime in the early 2000s, at a certain point I’ll have said everything I’m capable of saying on the subject. Unless the music keeps moving ever onwards, it won’t be able to stimulate new ideas in me. Most genres settle down after a while—even the most exciting and fast-moving ones can’t sustain that pace forever.
People who are just fans, who purely enjoy the genre, will probably stick around longer than a critic-obsessive. But for someone like me, the way I’m wired, I will want to move on. It may well be that genre continues to generate quality tunes, but if the broader contours of the genre or scene aren’t evolving or mutating, then there’s nothing more to say about it. So that is kind of occupational hazard or limitation—that you are not that interested in genres, or individual artists for that matter, who just solidly plug away churning out good-to-great stuff. A critic—or at least critic of the kind I am—is always looking for the next leap forward, the new development. Because it forces your mind to come up with new ideas, new language.
How has technology (LPs vs. MP3s, studio vs. laptop, whatever) changed the way we experience music?
A book could be written about this subject. Well, books have been. And indeed my book Retromania is partly about that. The short answer is that listening has become a lot more convenience-oriented. Our ability to move it around, pause and restart it, share it, make playlists of it, acquire it, check it out without paying for it, has astronomically increased, through mp3s, iPods, Soundcloud, Youtube, etc etc. But something of its aura has been damaged; it has been depreciated, like a currency that’s too common. The idea of the album as a whole work that you reverently listen to, an aesthetic experience that you submit to—that is something that you have to make a really conscious effort to recreate. Especially if you’re listening on the same machine that you also access the internet, social media, etc, on. The temptation is always to multitask and do something else while you listen. Partial-attention syndrome.
Any observations on the link between music and the visual arts?
Again, books have been written, etc. A very good one is Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s Art Into Pop, which is all about the British art school tradition of forming bands. And I explore the same kind of connections in my own books like Rip It Up and Start Again, about postpunk, where so many of those groups, in the UK and in America, were formed by art school graduates. Ian Dury is a great example of this—a pupil of Peter Blake (of Sgt. Pepper’s cover fame), Dury did art teaching himself in his pre-fame days.
However I would flip the question and argue that music—or at least pop music—is a visual art in itself. The instances of popular youth music that are purely about the music are quite rare instances—even Deadhead culture, which would seem to be not very style oriented, has a lot to do with light shows and trippy colors (not forgetting the whole tie-dye thing). But specifically in terms of capital A “Art,” pop music has always been as much about clothes, stage moves, theatricality, spectacle… about packaging, album covers, posters, T-shirts, logos, promotional campaigns … about videos and films too.
Pop is a messy hybrid of music, visuals, lyrics, business, discourse. In the early decades of pop and rock, pop stars usually had teams of experts providing these elements: a group would have favorite photographers, or fashion designers they worked with, promo directors, graphic artists doing the logo and the album covers. Groups that took a very active and informed direct involvement in directing all of that were quite unusual—the David Bowies and Roxy Musics and Talking Heads. However as the years have gone by it’s more and more the case that bands involve themselves intensely in all the para-musical aspects of the band. Look at a group like Vampire Weekend, who design their own record covers and clearly have firm opinions about typography and such like. The new DIY artists in underground music often create the whole package themselves—the music, but also the record covers and the little abstract or weird promos they put on YouTube. I guess the software used in all these processes is not only affordable, but the skills required are transferable.
In your recent New York Times piece on David Bowie’s new album, you wrote, “The Bowie-esque has been omnipresent.” How would you describe Bowie’s influence on the visual arts? Is there another recording artist with a comparable influence?
I don’t know much about any direct influence on artists he’s had. But he’s really beloved in the art world, as he is in the fashion world, in part because he’s paid so much attention to that side of pop—he’s really knowledgeable. Bowie was actually a critic for a while at Modern Painters in the Nineties, wasn’t he? But he’s also written songs about artists—“Andy Warhol,” “Joe the Lion”—which is partly about Chris Burden. So there’s a kind of mutual admiration pact between Bowie and the art world. Same with Roxy Music.
The recent Corcoran exhibition Pump Me Up celebrates DIY DC subculture of the 80s—hardcore and go-go music. How can today’s art school students profit by the lessons of untrained artists and musicians?
My talk is going to be about the history of DIY and how it’s changed in the digital age. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is a polemical argument and one of the things I will be suggesting is that there is no special virtue to be claimed for doing-it-yourself. Simply doing-it-yourself doesn’t guarantee that the “it” you’re doing is worthwhile or significant.
I’m also not sure that the equation between “do it yourself” and “untrained” holds anymore, if “untrained” is meant to signify amateurish, messy, raw, etc. Because digital facilitation software means that you can produce really glossy, polished, professional sounding and looking stuff at minimal cost. To be lo-fi, ragged, etc. is a deliberate aesthetic choice, a refusal of professionalism—in some ways more contrived than just letting your progams tidy up your work. The kind of “brut”-like authenticity or raw power that was once attributed to unfinished or messy, defective music/art/etc.—that equation no longer works, I don’t think. If you listen to a lot of “underground” (another word that is increasingly vaporous and unstable these days) music, it’s actually pretty slick and shiny.
Favorite artists, graphic designers, photojournalists?
I don’t have a mental list of favorite artists like I do with music. I can tell you a few things in recent years that I’ve found powerful. Mark Leckey’s “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore.” Phil Collins’s “The World Won’t Listen.” Paul Chan’s “7 Lights”…. I’m sure there must be others.
Graphic designers, I tend to think of ‘music,’ and in that category I do like the obvious postpunk ones (Malcolm Garrett, Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville, etc.), the obvious techno-rave ones (like Designers Republic, others where I don’t know the designer as such but I just like the label’s look, e.g., Reinforced Records, PCP, Underground Resistance).
Then more recently I really like the work of Julian House of Intro, who has done sleeves for Broadcast and Stereolab, but also is the co-founder of the label Ghost Box, for whom he does all the artwork as well as recording under the name The Focus Group. I also really like the look of the releases put out by Ian Hodgson as Moon Wiring Club, an example of the syndrome of the contemporary musician who handles the audio-visual output in its entirety.