Published on Il Mucchio Selvaggio n. 759 / October 2017 (print and digital)
GZ: Your last book Retromania opened up a conversation on the current state of music culture (stagnant? retrogressive?) and your thesis became sort of ‘inescapable’ for music critics who were trying to champion ideas of ‘newness’ in contemporary music. What prompted you to look back at glam for your next ‘long one’?
SR: I don’t see the two things as contradictory, really. I don’t see writing history as retro in any way. You’re trying to understand the past and often you’re trying to understand things that were new in their own time. What would be retro it would be if I was to form a band that sounded like The Sweet or something and, or went to great trouble to have their drum sound and the wonderful high-pitched vocals… or tried to sound like T. Rex. A bit more retro would be, I suppose, if I was a promoter and I booked a festival that was all old glam bands, but I think history is a whole different project. I don’t see a contradiction, really. When I wrote about post-punk I was not at all trying to encourage people to make music that sounded like post-punk. I thought maybe there were ideas or attitudes at that time that could be maybe reactivated. I enjoyed some of the post-punk revival groups of the 2000s, like The Rapture and Liars, but mostly I thought they kind of missed the point. The point was not to sound like post-punk, it was to have a similar sort of attitude and approach. Rather than sound like a post-punk group who were influenced by Chic and disco and funk, it would be more interesting to be influenced by grime or modern R&B or something. And there’s some groups… like These New Puritans did that, I think. I’ve probably become more and more of an historian so I’m interested in trying to reconstruct what a period was like and what people thought and the horizons of possibility of music in any given time. So that’s sort of what I did with the post-punk book and what I am doing with the glam book. There is this French concept Foucault used of the épistème, like the sort of state of knowledge of any given era, or epoch, so I suppose I’m trying to recreate the glam rock épistème. Sort of like the discourse and the state of knowledge of any given era, the limits within which people were thinking and that’s what I find really fascinating and why I spent a lot of attention on not just the bands, but also the music journalists of that time, the music papers, what critics thought, all of that stuff.
GZ: In your book you point at the difficulty to define glam only in musical terms or encompassing its theatrical manifestations. You refer to it as a ‘sensibility’, a word you used in the past when talking about post-punk and when talking about ‘indie’ in the Afterword of Rip Up and Start Again. What do you think is so helpful about the term ‘sensibility’ when talking about music culture?
SR: I’m not actually sure that I’ve used that word all the time, I’m not actually sure what the precise definition of ‘sensibility’ is, but it’s a word that sort of suggests… sensibility is not the same as ideology, it’s not so much a thought out rigorous set of ideas or principles, but more like a set of attitudes, feelings and almost like what turns you on in a way. If the mind could have erogenous zones then… it’s always the same thing, you know, you talk about an artist having a sensibility when they’re drawn to certain kinds of styles and textures, certain emotional moods or whatever. Morrissey has a very particular sensibility, you tend to think of sensibility more on the terms of the individual, but I suppose you could also say that there’s a sensibility of scenes. Like you were talking of the indie-rock sensibility which would be very much like: “We find guitar solos repulsive, we find macho rock’n’roll behaviour repulsive, we write love songs, but we don’t write love songs that are very explicitly sexual, they’re much more romantic and poetic and bookish in a way, like words-oriented”. So that would be the indie-rock sensibility that people like Morrissey influenced through his very strong individual sensibility. Regarding the glam sensibility there’s various things, there’s a sense of irony, a sense of camp, a sense of enjoying the performativity of pop music and the putting on a show and being almost on the edge of looking ridiculous. There’s that point where glam becomes slightly absurd, I think. And there’s also an elitism to a lot of glam. Roxy Music are very very much elitist, certainly their fans very much thought of themselves as superior to other people. I think with some glam there’s an aristocratic impulse which Bryan Ferry deliberately appealed to when he had that line on the first Roxy album which says: “Should make the cognoscenti think”… it’s almost like trying to construct an audience for Roxy Music of people who think themselves very very tasteful and superior and have better aesthetics than anyone else. There’s a whole bunch of things that are part of the glam sensibility. Pop Art is a big influence, Warhol and that sort of love of advertising and of pop culture image and almost the enjoyment of being a product, the idea that the pop star is actually a product for sale, you know? I think sensibility is one of those vague but useful words, you can sort of crystallise a lot of things in it. Sensibility to me is… vague ideas meet sensuality and what kind of aesthetically turns you on.
GZ: In the introduction to Shock and Awe you say that glam was radical and reactionary at the same time and you note that “glam principles become ascendant in pop culture during periods when politics move to the right”. As I understand it, on the one hand the “glam impulse” as Mark Fisher called it, has the power to question ideas of authenticity. On the other hand it achieves its goal by celebrating disillusionment and artifice. Do you think glam was ever radical or was it always a balance between the two things?
SR: One of the things… it’s sort of there in the book, maybe I could have pulled it out a bit more clearly and in fact in the talk that I’ve been giving I have pulled it out more clearly… it’s this idea of around about 1971 people in rock – some of the smartest minds in rock, whether it’s Alice Cooper or David Bowie – decided that rock music is really just another form of show business. In the 1960s rock was the opposite of show business, or that’s what it thought, it thought that it was the youth culture, the vanguard, it was bringing in a new society, it was very rough and raw, the opposite of what I think of the three things that make up the idea of show business, certainly in the British-American scheme of things, it would be Hollywood, Broadway – the musical – and Las Vegas, those three things. If you think about Las Vegas… Las Vegas is where Elvis Presley goes when he’s defeated and castrated, he’s sort of more or less dead, Las Vegas it’s where you go when you’re no longer a rock’n’roll rebel. In the 1960s all of those things were very like old and square and boring and middle age and middle of the road. In England we have this thing called variety, cabaret and musicals. All of these things were part of a certain value, that it’s show business, which is where music is just entertainment, it doesn’t have serious messages to distract you from reality, it’s sort of sentimental but it’s also quite cynical. You know, you have a song like Money Makes The World Go Around in Cabaret, it’s like an acceptance of the world as it is. And I think that as the counterculture dream begins to fade, people start to think: “Well actually rock music maybe just is a younger form of show business, with loud amplification and more explicitly sexual lyrics, but it’s basically a show, we go to see a show, you go to see an act”, and the word ‘act’… I don’t think in the 1960s anyone would have called a rock band an act, ‘cause the act is like a showbiz word, it also contains the idea of acting, you’re just pretending. So basically with Bowie and Alice Cooper leading the way, but other people like Elton John and even some progressive rock groups, it all becomes very showbiz in the 1970s, big productions on stage, props, stage sets, even choreographed routines, it’s very much somewhere between rock and musical theatre. I associate that with a loss of the counterculture feeling and a new sort of feeling: rock as… it’s not gonna create a new world, it’s actually just… it has its own star system, it has its own superstars living in luxury, it’s really just there to entertain you and take your mind off problems. I actually cut it out of the introduction, but I had a thing originally where I referred to this concept of Ernst Bloch, who was this Marxist very interested in the idea of utopia, and he talked about, his phrase was the “principle of hope”, he found the principle of hope in all kinds of strange, like in movies and various forms of popular entertainment and books and things. So I said, well, underlying glam, beneath of it all, it’s the “principle of hopelessness”. If you look at what Bowie is saying or Alice Cooper, it’s often very very cynical, there’s a kind of despair underneath it. Bowie’s whole things is: “Everything is going to end and collapse”. He actually says: “Me and Lou Reed are decadents, we are symptoms of a declining society”. It’s great fun music but there is this sort of Cabaret-like bleakness underneath all the fun, the sexual games and the theatre. That’s what I think is going on. And then punk happens, and that’s again a rejection of showbiz and it’s saying: “Actually what is happening on stage is real and we are. You’re seeing reality on stage”. There’s a whole new phase with punk and post-punk where people are trying to be way more than entertainment, they’re trying to spring new messages and they want to change the world. It goes in these phases, phases when rock music accepts that it’s a form of show business and then new phases when it tries to be radical and revolutionary and all of that. Does that make sense?
GZ: It does. That made me think about today’s phase…
SR: I think showbiz values are absolutely dominant and totally ascendant, aren’t they? If you look at pop music anyway. And all these acts play Vegas: The Weeknd plays Vegas, EDM DJs play Vegas. Vegas has become younger and hipper and it’s sort of the dominant model of a good time.
GZ: Speaking of Vegas and the US. In the book you talk about the European-ness of glam, the way Alice Cooper could pass for an European band or Slade didn’t have a glitter market to fill in the US, for example. In the Aftershock section American bands and pop stars are prominent. Could it be that glam developed its own form of American-ness over time?
SR: Yes, I mean, the obvious example of that would be hair metal. I think I say in the book, fans of hair metal… I got this from reading the Chuck Klosterman book, his first book (Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta, 2001, NdR), which is about being a fan of hair metal, but in the book he doesn’t call it hair metal, he calls it glam metal, or he just calls it glam, and he’s talking about Poison, Warrant, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe and Ratt, Ratt is one of his favourite bands. All of those bands, a lot of them were from LA – not all of them, Twisted Sister were from New York, I think – a lot of those groups had men wearing lipstick and blusher and eye makeup and long blow-dried hair. It’s very much like a delayed arrival of glam and it’s sort of truly American glam: not really camp, there is no Oscar Wilde element to the Sunset Strip hair metal bands. But they’re wearing loads of makeup… it’s sort of heavy metal but there aren’t very long guitar solos and it’s music you can dance to. One of the groups, Quiet Riot, covered Slade, there are very obvious links between the original glam and glitter music and what happened in LA in the 1980s. And that was such a huge thing in America, it dominated MTV for several years. Guns N’ Roses were a little bit different, but you know, in the early videos Axl Rose has quite a lot of makeup on. One thing that I do like about that music is that it is actually rock ’n’ roll you can dance to. The other thing going on at that time are things like Slayer and Metallica, which is very much… I liked some of that stuff, but it’s very much not dance music, it’s thrash-your-head-around music. The good thing about Guns N’ Roses is that they had a sense of groove to their music. That’s like glam without any of the intellectual stuff, the camp, or the literary references, but it has the ‘men looking like girls’ and the simple, catchy, fun rock ’n’ roll music. And then much later on you have Lady Gaga, and Marilyn Manson in the 1990s I think it’s very much a glam figure, that’s what he was influenced by – Alice Cooper I think it’s part of his mix as well. It did seem to have a delayed reaction. At a certain point America seemed to take a while… things coming out of Britain have followers on the underground level (in America, NdR), but the mass mainstream breakthrough happens later. Like grunge is sort of punk happening in America fifteen years too late behind the schedule. And when punk happened there were American punky groups obviously, ‘cause of the Ramones, but also just groups influenced by the Sex Pistols, but none of them broke through to the mainstream. In some ways America is very slow to pick up on things. Glam sort of filters into the environment, in some way… the soil of rock.
GZ: When I interviewed Sparks two years ago they seemed to dread the association with ‘glam’. We know how most (all?) artists tend to refuse categorisation, but do you think the way glam was talked about in the music press at the time raised specific forms of stigmatisation?
SR: Actually not really. I think most rock critics liked it. I was actually surprised how much good positive comments there were, even about groups like The Sweet. They weren’t taken very seriously, but there were a lot of comments like: “This is really good fun music for the kids”. Slade were taken really really seriously by some critics and obviously Bowie and people like that. But there was a spectrum of opinion and some people in the music press in Britain thought it was kind of insubstantial and it didn’t have the serious musicianship that they valued, so they would have probably been more into… Little Feat were a band that were really huge with critics in Britain, and people like Steely Dan and Ry Cooder, that sort of very musicianly West Coast music and singer-songwriter music and also the German music of that time. There were critics who didn’t respect glam or thought it was just kids stuff. They might take Roxy and Bowie seriously, but they didn’t think that the glam stuff was serious. And I think Sparks probably… they were linked to glam certainly in the UK with their hit records, cause they had a very strong image and the sound was quite sort of glam and there’s a camp element to their whole thing, but I think they don’t like it because they feel they carried on with this long career and did lots of other things. They had the disco phase, which was great, with Giorgio Moroder, they had the new wave stuff they did, and all kinds of other things. I wanted to interview them but they didn’t want to be interviewed just about glam, they wanted me to talk about their whole career and I was like: “Well, this book… I know you’ve had this long career, but this book is only really about this phase of your existence”, but they wouldn’t be interviewed unfortunately. I can see why they probably would want to distance themselves from that category. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel don’t like to be thought of as glam, but when they were written about at the time, they were very much seen as the next wave of glam and they had the very strong image, they had some of the same themes, like decadence, camp, these were all in their music. I thought they were part of it… and they certainly had a lot of teenagers screaming at them, particularly Sparks, they were like the teen sensation of 1974.
GZ: Prince and Grace Jones emerge as two of the most prominent glam-influenced black artists in Shock and Awe. Scholar Francesca T. Royster pointed at the use of theatrics and glamour in black music as controversial tactics, that in many instances were received as forms of “racial unmooring” – the accusation of trying to emulate what white musicians were doing at the time. Grace Jones writes about it in her memoirs as well. What do you think is the relationship between the glam sensibility and black music(s)?
SR: I very deliberately called it “glam rock”, just to sort of say: “I am going to be looking at the historical phenomenon of glam rock, which is a phase in rock music which by the 1970s was pretty much a white form of music. You had Mandrill and a few other black rock groups, but… one of the things about black music is that almost all of it has a sort of base level glamour to it. There are many black performers who dressed down or look shabby, there’s Bill Withers, he was actually originally more of a folky singer-songwriter and he was kind of pushed to make him sound more R&B – but if you look at any black group of that era, whether it’s the Ohio Players or Earth Wind & Fire, they all have almost costumes on and they look very sort of, some look kind of out of space. I feel like it is a separate black tradition of showmanship. I think black music is always a little bit closer to showbiz and entertaining people and taking people out of their realities, it’s perhaps even more pressing and urgent for black audiences than for white working class audiences. And you see in every culture, like for instance there is this great song The Clash did, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, and part of it is about… he goes to a reggae show and he’s expecting it to be all rebel and militant, like Peter Tosh, but it’s more like Four Tops, all these reggae singers, they have smart clothes on and they’re doings stage moves and I think he says like: “All night with encores from stage right”. So he’s going on with his white bohemian expectations of reggae as this militant music and actually these reggae performers, they put on a good show and they look glamorous. Most reggae music even through to dance hall is very very glitzy on the image level. If you look at African performers they had these robes on… King Sunny Ade would put on a great show. It’s a black music thing of: “We are going to perform and we’re going to entertain the hell out of you”. So the sort of dialectic of glam rock as a reaction against this underground music that didn’t put on a show and was very boring to look at, and people wore denim, that isn’t operative in black music, I don’t think. But there were a few examples of black performers who seemed to have to at least taken some influence from some of the glam rock clothes… people say Labelle, the really outrageous clothes. I’ve heard people argue Parliament/Funkadelic as black glam, but I see them as being more on the one hand like Sun Ra and on the other hand maybe more like Hawkwind or a band like that, you know, cosmic space rock. And in the 1970s everyone dressed in these crazy clothes to an extent, if you look at country musicians at that time, they had like crazy loud trousers and wide lapels on their shirts, so there was this sort of Seventies-ness of excessive clothing at that time that is across the board. It’s really Prince where you get not just the image, but you get the gender bending and the androgyny, the kinky sex element and songs where [you ask yourself]: “Is he a boy is he a girl?”, that kinda thing, which you don’t really get with anyone in the 1970s in black music except for Sylvester. Before he was a disco star, Sylvester had a band called Sylvester and His Hot Band, and they were like a rock group, but he had the whole image of androgyny and very glittery clothing. There are probably a few examples of actual real ‘black glam’, but not many I don’t think until Prince. And Grace Jones I think she was really influenced. Certainly Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing, there are covers of songs by Iggy Pop, there’s a cover of a Bryan Ferry song, there’s all these sort of post-punk covers she did. She covered a Gary Newman song that I don’t think was ever released at the time, but later was included on a reissue. She’s clearly… the packaging of that is that sort of black glam/new wave, very arty stylised artist, it’s like a definite break with her… her first three albums are very much the disco diva and then she’s doing something that… certainly the song choices are much more white and sort of new wave.
GZ: When you were doing research for Shock and Awe, were there any first-time discoveries or any records/artists that you found yourself (re)appreciating in a different light?
SR: I really came to rather be fond of and respect Slade, a band that I never really thought about much at the time. I thought actually they did do some great great singles. I grew to like them as people in a weird way. There’s something about their story and their relationship with their fans… they had a really good manager, the guy who used to be in The Animals, Chas Chandler. I also like the fact that they made this movie that blew their career up, but they made this actually really good movie, Slade in Flame, which kind of blew their image ‘cause it was quite depressing: their image was of this fun fun band and everyone let off steam on the weekend and stomps and claps their hands, and kids would go crazy at their concerts, but then they made this really depressing movie that looks a lot like Get Carter, the gangster film with Michael Caine in it. It has the same kind of look, it is shot outdoors in depressing, exterior locations in the North of England. So the fact that they did that and they act quite well in it, they do quite a good job in the movie playing this imaginary rock band, I sort of respected that. But the band that I thought that I really really liked that I never really listened to – musically – I thought were interesting and forgotten, was Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. The first two albums were really really interesting and just odd, just a very strange sound, all based around his very strange voice, which is not a good voice but he manages to use it well, in the way that Dylan uses his not very good voice, its phrasing and stuff. Sort of a ridiculous group in a lot of ways, absurd, but there’s something about the strange sound they came up with and the fact they didn’t have guitar at first, they just had a violin and keyboards. I like these sort of oddball arty groups from this period, when I guess record companies had a lot of money so they would let people make these strange overproduced records in the 1970s. 10cc, who aren’t glam at all, but I think of them as being of that era when the record business was just rolling in money and people would spend a lot on recordings and promotions and everything was done in this crazy lavish way. Doctors of Madness, their managers threw a huge party for them in a casino and they invited Omar Sharif and all these famous people like Peter Sellers and spent a fortune on it to promote them.
GZ: Minimum Fax is picking up on Rip it Up and Retromania too, which made me think about the role of periodisation in your work. Although periodisation can be a messy business your idea of post-punk ending in 1984, for example, ended up being very influential, to the point where it is now accepted as how things went. On your Retromania blog in September 2016 you wrote a post in which you hinted at the fact that the book now works more as a document of a past trend in music culture, rather than the analysis of something which is still ongoing. I was wondering, if you had to write a Preface to the book today, what would you say has changed since then?
SR: A bunch of things. I’d probably write not a preface but a Postscript, an After-Afterword. And I’d say… pretty much everything I’m writing about in the book is still is going on, you still have a crazy reissue culture, even some of the things I was writing about as just new things are still going: the rediscovery of new age music is still going on, and people are putting out compilations of it. There are bands reuniting, reunion tours and festivals that are full of old bands, “legacy acts” they call them in America, there’s even an old people’s version of Coachella that started last year. Pretty much everything I talk about in the book is still a force, it’s still something that’s happening, but it doesn’t feel as dominant somehow, I don’t feel oppressed by it in the way that I did when I was writing the book. I wouldn’t want to say Retromania was influential, but I have noticed amongst young hip people there’s a lot more use of imagery that’s to do with the future. There’s a lot of very digital-sounding music that’s very bright and shiny, sort of “now” in feel. Whereas when I was writing the book the fashion in hip music was to have a deliberately old-sounding production quality, very analogue-sounding, almost like a vintage sound, you know, if you think of everything from Burial to Ariel Pink, the whole hypnagogic/chillwave thing… For instance hauntology amazingly is still going, there’s actually more people doing that kind of music than ever. There are people who have been talking about this thing, “folk horror”… But in general the kind of leftfield underground music a magazine like Tiny Mix Tapes writes about, or a lot of them getting written about in Pitchfork, a lot of them are very very digital-sounding and dense electronic things, you have people like Arca. You still get a lot of records where people say: “The concept with this record is it references these things from the 1980s”, or you have a band like Haim – to me they seem they’re trying to sound like Fleetwood Mac in the mid-1980s rather than the classic 1970s period. That sound that a lot of people compared to Wilson Phillips, they make me think of that woman, Sophie B. Hawkins, Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover was a big hit, there’s a definite retro quality to Haim. There are certain major artists and new leftfield alternative artists come through… they do have a sort of retro set of coordinates, but generally I feel like the future seems to be more in fashion, trying to be futuristic, or contemporary seems to be more of an aim. What do you think, have you heard that more?
GZ: Yeah. Actually while you were saying that I couldn’t help but think at the recent Guardian feature on Jlin you did… the blurb says: “Is Jerrilynn Patton the future of electronica?”
SR: I didn’t say that! [Laughs]
SR: Those things are always written by the editors and the newspapers, and sometimes they come up with things that I’m like: “Oh, I didn’t really… It’s not the point of the piece”. But, I think she’s trying to do new things, definitely. I don’t know if she’s the future of electronica. She seems to be one of the only things coming out of footwork that is actually going somewhere. It’s kinda funny, ‘cause there was a lot of excitement around footwork and I was very excited about it, but it seems to have become a bit stuck, isn’t it? It’s not developing, but she’s certainly doing interesting things….
GZ: I mean, personally, I felt a sense of futurity or future-ness with stuff like Holly Herndon, if anything because she makes digital-sounding music that incorporates issues and technologies of the ‘now’. And another thing I associate with the future is the attempt of people like Arca, Lotic or Chino Amobi to dismantle ideas of “good taste”. They’d absorb a Rihanna track into their own punishing, nearly undanceable aesthetic, for example…
SR: Yeah and also if you look at pop music tracks that someone like Rihanna makes or a lot of the rap stuff that’s coming out at the moment – very mainstream rap – it sounds pretty modern. Something like this song Goosebumps by Travis Scott, it’s pretty interesting sounding stuff, it almost sounds like something Radiohead might have done around Kid A, some of the sounds in it. I’m a big fan of Future, I love the fact that his name is Future, that’s good in itself. His stuff, whenever I hear that on the radio, I’m like: “Yeah, this is 2017, this feels modern!”. When you hear Adele or Meghan Trainor or Bruno Mars, you can hear the past in it and the referencing of early kinds of music, but a lot of the stuff, especially on the rap radio stations, it feels modern. It’s not jumping wildly ahead, but it’s sort of steadily moving forward, in a way that not much else is. I don’t think rap is going to make any giant leaps. One of the reasons it does keep on changing is that all the producers are all competing to have a fresher sound, there’s almost commercial pressure to come up with new noises and beats and stuff.
GZ: Speaking of rap. There was this piece by David Keenan on The Wire in 2015, where he basically declared the underground dead, blaming the idea of being liked and the interconnectedness facilitated by social media as some of the factors. He wrote that we need a new art that “is almost sociopathic in its willingness not to be liked” and he added, which I find very interesting, “Critics should know better claiming than to take the temperature of the time by reading the work of Kanye West and Drake as cultural prophecy”. It makes me wonder whether magazines like The Wire, which I love and read, are struggling to champion an idea of the underground like that, considering that they are also trying to keep an eye on what is coming out of the mainstream. As someone who wrote about Kanye West for the magazine, what is your take on that tension right there?
SR: I think it’s great when The Wire covers mainstream stuff, I think probably they should do it more often, because a lot of the stuff happening right on Top 40 radio and certainly on the rap radio is doing newer stuff than a lot of the things… you know, a lot of experimental music is very settled traditions: drone, improv… a lot of the things that The Wire would routinely cover are fairly stable forms, and it’s people adding little tweaks to giants steps that were made by La Monte Young and by whoever else. Noise music is a conservative art form as far as I can see. I don’t follow it that closely, but I don’t see who is going any further than Whitehouse did or Throbbing Gristle or whatever. So, I think clearly some of records that Kanye West has done have been newer than a lot of of so-called experimental music or so-called leftfield music. And if you want to talk about “sociopathic” expression, what could be more sociopathic or deranged than Kanye West? You know, consciousness… which is public. I think there is something about things happening in public that makes them interesting. The idea of a “public culture” and people that everyone knows and talks about, these figures that inhabit our minds whether we want them to or not, that’s interesting stuff. David Keenan I think he’s a great writer, but he’s got this obsession with obscurity and nothing could be too obscure for him. But at a certain point if no one’s noticing, does it matter, these gestures? But also I find a lot of this music that is supposed to be extreme and out there it’s just not particularly new, it’s become like ritualised repetitions of gestures that were once incredibly powerful and innovative and genuinely were steps into the unknown when they were originally made by The Velvet Underground or Can or Neu! or La Monte Young or the early industrial people, but now they just seem like… not only are they very marginal and not having effect in the world, they’re just not that new. And they go up to an audience that couldn’t possibly be disrupted or shocked by them, because they’re people like me [laughs], people who know too much and have seen too much and thought too much to actually be disrupted. When things go out in the world and they encounter people who are changed by them ‘cause they’ve never experienced it before, that’s exciting I think. I still have… my interest is that sort of thing that is disruptive or new occurring in a public sphere or the mainstream, and I like when social energy attaches itself to new sounds. When the EDM explosion happened in America, I thought: “I don’t like a lot of the music, but at least it’s a new mass youth phenomenon, it’s more radical musically”… A lot of it is familiar to me having lived through the 1990s, but at least it’s a step ahead of what’s going on in America. And Skrillex makes some exciting records.
GZ: Many argue that one of the byproducts of digitalisation is the celebration of eclecticism in music, in terms of music taste being more likely to be open to everything. I think that looking back at your career and work as a music critic the impression is that you’ve always been omnivorous and interested in different genres and sounds at the same time, even in pre-digital times. Do you remember a time when you had more of a “tribalistic” allegiance to a genre or sound? If yes, do you think we are potentially missing out on something by celebrating eclecticism so much?
SR: I think there are obviously positive aspects to listening widely. What I don’t believe is that there is any ethical imperative to do it, I don’t think it makes you a better person. I reject the idea that there’s something virtuous about listening widely, and I don’t necessarily even think it’s the best thing in terms of someone’s enjoyment of music. There are people who are very focused and have fantastic musical existences: all they listen to is metal and they hear a universe of variety in all these different kinds of metal. There are probably some people who only listen to a single artist and just have fantastic depth and knowledge of their Dylan bootlegs or their Grateful Dead live tapes. And I don’t feel like you should say to these people: “But why don’t you listen to African music or why don’t you listen to this or that”? There’s no morality about listening. I do particularly enjoy the feeling of a fanatical involvement with a single sound and also, conversely, there’s a certain kind of psychological relief you get when you find something you don’t like: “I don’t like this I don’t need to check it out, I’m done with this”, it clears some kind of mental emotional space and you can focus on things you do like. So for instance, I am very very uninterested in modern country music – I like some old country music, George Jones or whatever – but modern country music I am quite convinced there’s nothing there for me. That frees me up enormously to just concentrate on other things. For a long while I wasn’t very interested in African music, it didn’t appeal to me, I thought it was very light on the whole and then later, as I got older, I fell in love with it and I think the lightness of it actually became something that I liked about it, but when I was younger I liked music with aggression and intensity and I couldn’t feel what was interesting in African music. Later I would be like: “Oh, there are all these amazing rhythms and textures” and I didn’t have my adolescent angst that I needed to release, so I enjoyed it just for its pure sound. And when I was pretty fanatical about post-punk, there were musics that I would have dismissed completely – heavy metal music I would have dismissed completely. But probably the real time I was fanatically focussed on one kind of music was the jungle era: I did listen to and write about post rock and lo-fi music and hip hop and dancehall and R&B and other kinds of electronic music as well, but a lot of my energy was devoted to jungle. And that was a period when I kind of had a second adolescence, I was almost living like a teenager even though I was in my late 20s and 30s – this was the 1990s – I was kind of a member of a subculture. I wasn’t really dressing like a junglist or living entirely in that world, but a lot of my energy was going into buying jungle records, going to jungle raves and that kind of thing, I really believed that was the vanguard music of its time. I enjoyed that, there’s something about that sort of immersion, where you really know the music inside out and you start to sort of get to know who all the producers are, different kinds of breakbeats, you really start to understand the music in depth. There’s something emotional about that feeling of: “ This is the thing, I’m in the right place at the right time”. It’s a great feeling, and I haven’t had that for a lot. Probably the last time was grime, I was very fanatical about grime, also the shouting of people: “Pay attention to this”! But I don’t really feel like that about anything in the last ten years. I’ve become a typical middle aged omnivore.
GZ: When I met James Ferraro recently he mentioned receiving a copy of Retromania and he said that when he read the bits about his work, although he couldn’t always see himself in your interpretations, as someone who is interested in theory he thought they added layers of meaning to his music. So I wanted to ask you about music criticism today, especially in light of the fact that you often mentioned the 1970s and 1980s inkies, NME and Melody Maker as examples of a great music journalism capable to engage with theory. Do you still find that approach alive in the music press today. Do you think we lack an imaginative approach to music writing or are we actually in a good place in that respect?
SR: There seem to be people doing that. I mentioned earlier Tiny Mix Tapes, they do articles about music that are formidably dense, I think I’d compare the articles they do… some of them are like this art magazine October, which had this critic Rosalind Krauss, I think she still writes for them, it’s incredibly dense, rigorous writing about modern art. Some of the stuff in Tiny Mix Tapes is very very theoretical and high powered, people like Adam Harper doing very very culturally widely informed [articles]… He’s studied musicology I think, but he also knows about modern art and he knows these subcultures inside out and tracks every minute move within them. There are people doing that kind of work on The Wire, and some Pitchfork writers too, and The Quietus. That approach is still out there, I don’t know whether it has quite the same impact on people growing up as say reading NME and later Melody Maker did to me or someone like Mark Fisher. I do know that there’s a lot of music – I use this term “conceptronica” – around that is very inseparable form the theorisation and sometimes the theorisation is coming directly from the artist or maybe from the label as well. There are certain labels where the press release is like an article in Tiny Mix Tapes or something you’d read in an art gallery, when you go to an exhibition and there’s that big block of text right at the entrance of the room which explains what the artist is trying to do. A lot of the press releases are like that. Tim Hecker probably has huge concepts behind what he does, obviously James Ferraro, so many of these vaporware people. Probably a lot of these artists are friendly with these other younger writers and there’s a lot of ideas going around. There does seem to be an intellectual, hyper-theory scene. In some ways what I miss a bit, actually… since I’ve sort of done the theory thing myself, in a funny way what I kind of miss and what I am trying to get better at is the storytelling side of journalism, the reporting. You get a lot of writing on the internet where it’s completely disembodied – people have never met the artists, they never interacted with them in the real world, there’d be a interview and it’s lumps of ideas, pure thought being exchanged and pure information and ideas. And one of the things – through doing history but also even with journalism now – is I’m quite interested in the more conventional side of journalism, which is describing how people look, how they behave, their physical being, their personality and their story. You can see that to an extent in Shock and Awe, which is probably the book where I have more descriptions of how people look and how they smile and so on than anything else I’ve ever written. It’s about these strange people, they’re all strange individuals, strange characters. So rather than the impersonal theoretical ideas of music, I’ve got more interested recently in personalities, I suppose, without it being personality journalism in the “profile of Taylor Swift” way. Certainly in the British pop tradition there’s a lot of really oddball people who end up pop stars, think about someone like Kevin Rowland, Jarvis Cocker or Kate Bush – these are strange people! Because I’ve so done the theory thing very in depth, I’ve got more interested in actually telling a story. It’s a new thing for me to do. If you read my early work there’s very little… if you see my first book Blissed Out, you read about My Bloody Valentine and it’s very good on their sound and various ideas and concepts, but you wouldn’t be able to get any sense of how the band formed or who they were as people, any of that stuff. What the problem is now is because you don’t have a music press in the old way you don’t get reported journalism really, you don’t get people going on the road with the band. And even the writing about dance music rarely has the sense of what’s going on in the club, how people are behaving on the dance floor, that sort of real world research element doesn’t seem to exist. It’s very high powered on ideas, but the empirical side is not there. Do you think that’s fair?
GZ: I think so.
SR: There was one guy I really liked. What’s his name, Clive Martin, who was writing for Vice, who did some really great pieces about going out in clubs and it was very well observed. Rather than these sort of breakdowns of dubstep and the various musical influences in it and all that kind of stuff, it was actually like: “These dance music subcultures are people taking all these drugs and behaving in these way, and dancing wearing these clothes”, and they were very vividly described.
GZ: Almost like ‘participant observation’…
SR: Yeah, somewhere right in “the thick” of something. So I think that element, “journalistic reportage” has been lost with the decline of the weekly music papers in some way.