Saturday, November 16, 2013

an interview with Maxence Grugier for New Noise magazine, done early in 2013, on the occasion of the publication of the French translation of Bring The Noise

1/ You are one of the few who dared to confront the coexistence of black and white music in the vast ecosystem of musical time. It was not supposed to be easy? The subject can lead a lot of false interpretations isn’t it ?

Oh, I wouldn’t say I’m one of the few – not in the least. It’s one of the fundamental aspects of the history of rock and pop. As important as the concept of youth culture and teenage rebellion, or the influence of technology on music, from the electric guitar to sampling, or the effect of drugs on music, or the role of class. Lots of people have written about the relationship between black music and white music. Going back to before rock, with writing on jazz and blues. But yes it is a very complex subject, full of mistaken ideas and misunderstandings. I have made a fair number of mistakes myself, which are collected in the book!

My argument I suppose, or one of my arguments, is that is the white misunderstandings of black music – the getting it wrong – that have led to mutations and creative evolution. If white musicians had only replicated black music, it would have led to a lot of “sonically correct” but redundant music that didn’t take its inspirations or sources anywhere new. And just as bands like the Rolling Stones or Talking Heads or The Police warped black musics like rhythm-and-blues and discofunk and reggae, so too I think the misunderstandings by white critics of black culture have also been “creative” in a sense. You try to get it right, but you always end up with a distortion of one kind or another. But that is more interesting and productive than successfully understanding something “on its own terms”. That job is for academics to do. Rock writing in a sense is about the creation of fictions and myths about music.

2/ In this connection, I thought when I was reading Bring The Noise, that it would be even more difficult now, with the expansion of "politically correct” in all spheres of creation and society. What do you think?

Yes, well the truth is that my original intention was to write a book called White On Black, not a collection but a new book that drew on my older writings in various ways.  But the problem I confronted was precisely the politically correct issue. There is so much critical literature and academic work on questions of music and race, I felt I would be obliged to read it all and as a result I would find myself, however much I resisted, becoming more cautious and wary in my statements. A terrible inhibition would creep in, for fear of accidentally saying something wrong or offensive.  I knew that doing such a book would become a chore, all the fun and life in the writing would be leeched out of it. Also I would be committed to come up with some kind of definitive statement on music and race, and I don’t know if such a position could be reached. So many of these issues are ever-shifting and resist resolution. When it’s in a book you have to go out there and defend your conclusions, and by the time the book appears in print you might have already evolved your views! So I became attracted to the idea of actually presenting my 25 years of journalism on the subject, all the shifts in outlook I’ve gone through. Because the pieces were written for immediate purposes, they had a vitality and energy about them. I was not looking to make a definitive and  conclusive statement on the subject with these pieces, they were written quickly and they were addressing the contingency of that particular moment – an artist, an album, a live show, maybe a genre – and it was through that the issue of music and race was refracted. But there is also a sense, with all the pieces gathered together as one book, of some kind of evolution of thinking.

3/ The very good idea in Bring The Noise, are the small "footnotes page" that you add to the original articles. You make your own self-criticism in this book, you return to your ideas in hindsight. Without them, Bring The Noise might be (maybe) a self-sufficient book (or just "pretentious") in the bad sense of the word ... don’t you think?
4/ When do you have that idea? To add some footnotes to your older texts?

Yes I just thought it would be both fun and essential to add these afterthoughts, where my ideas have changed or become more sophisticated, and also add some contextualization, because some of these pieces were very much interventions in arguments that raged at that particular time, but have since completely faded from memory. I don’t know if it makes the book less pretentious to have these commentaries, some people might say that it was more pretentious or pompous to have them! But they were great fun to write, I had to be quite compressed because you don’t want to have a commentary that is almost as long as the original review. Some of them get quite close to that.

The idea must have occurred to me pretty early in the process.  Looking at stuff that I liked a piece of prose or because of the subject, but aware that it needed to be situated historically in some way.

5/ It must have been a crazy job to read it all. Not too boring?

I’m ashamed to admit I was never once bored during the process. I was mostly just surprised at how much I had actually written. Bring the Noise is a fraction of my total output since November 1985, when I started writing professionally. Partly out of enthusiasm and partly because it’s the only way I make my living yet musical journalism is generally poorly paid, I have churned out millions of words. Selecting for the book, I narrowed it down to the stuff that had some relationship to music and race and the white/black theme, but even out of that stuff, there’s way more writing I didn’t include in Bring the Noise than stuff I included. 

The only boring bit was the early pieces that were only on print, not in my computer or old computer discs. Those I had to transcribe into the machine and that was a bit tedious.

 6/ You must have a goddam prescience to write analyzes such as you wrote in 1985, for exemple for “Younger than yesterday” on Talulah Gosh’s pop, The Pastels, K Records, etc.. How is this possible? Should we not let pass a decade (minimum) to have enough perspective to analyze a situation? You seems to be able to see it all, when you were in the middle of it ... !

Well, it was right there in front of me and certainly while there are benefits to looking at things from hindsight, certain things become clearer, you also have the advantage of being there, witnessing things unfold, and trying to work out what it meant but doing in pretty energetic format of a piece for a weekly music paper. Some of the ideas and even sentences in that piece came out of a couple of years thinking about music prior to that– pieces that I’d done for the fanzine Monitor – but yeah, it was sociological analysis done on the fly, almost in real-time. I think the signs are there for people to read in any genre or movement that’s happening right now, but obviously the long-term significance or consequences, you don’t know what they’ll be. So these kind of overviews or thinkpieces were also manifestos in a way, or acts of prophecy. My stuff in those days fell somewhere between journalism, sociology/anthropology (without any academic qualifications, I should add!), and the messianic mode of rock writing, the “I have seen the future” mode. Of course most times the future turns out completely different.

 7/ In Bring The Noise you talk about the condition of hip hop in 2009. What do you think of this condition today, with the advent of ultra-smooth productions of RnB and those, tasteless and repetitive, of the today rap?

Overall I still kind of wish hip hop would just fade away and something totally new take its place. But there have been some more interesting developments and artists recently. 2007-2009 was kind of the nadir, I think. But recently there have been interesting artists like Kendrick Lamarr, Odd Future/Tyler the Creator, Lil B, Future.... I don’t like Drake really but I concede that he is a new phenomenon in rap. And in 2009 I didn’t see Nicki Minaj coming either. There has been the rise of styles like trap and ratchet which are the same old gangsta modes of materialism and threats and boasts and sexism, but the sound is quite excitingly cold and minimal and hard, as with songs like Tyga’s “Rack City”, produced by DJ Mustard here in Los Angeles. 

As for R&B, the club-ification of R&B and pop rap – the Eurohouse sound that Rihanna and Pitbull and Flo Rida have all adopted – that is a new development, but also for Europeans it feels like a retread of the Nineties.  Rihanna I find a rather depressing phenomenon. I am pleased that in the Destiny’s Child piece in Bring the Noise, written in 2001, I already see the signs of megalomania in Beyonce that have blossomed this year with the Superbowl extravaganza and the biodoc Life Is But A Dream and the video for “Bow Down”.

8/ Bring the Noise also contains the famous (or infamous) article entitled “Post-rock”. In France, the term was sometime taken as an insult by some conservative journalists. I guess it was the same in your country? How do see this name now?

It was never meant as an insult or necessarily a praise word, but a neutral description of a space that had opened in rock in the early Nineties where bands that came out of indie label culture and experimental postpunk music had started to wake up to developments in hip hop and techno. They were listening to the loop-based, sample-based music of Public Enemy and the electronic mindscapes of Aphex Twin and assimilating those ideas into their music, as well as reactivating ideas from dub reggae and from Krautrock. So it was a neutral description of this new musical space, although at the same time I thought it was the right direction for rock to go if it was  to escape the retro pitfall of replicating its own past (which it has largely done, ever since!). And obviously I loved many of those early UK post-rockers, especially Seefeel and Disco Inferno and Insides. But what post-rock evolved into, largely through the influence of Tortoise and Slint, has not been so interesting to me. It’s not really “post” anything, it’s too often today just a form of instrumental rock music that tends to use rather hackneyed loud-quiet dynamics.

I guess “post-rock” could be taken as an insult if you were very attached to the rock that it was trying to be “post” in relation to! If you were happy with the concept of rock staying static and becoming a tradition-bound form of music, then the proposition of a new frontier for the music might very well be taken as a reproach. Oasis responded that way when Radiohead did Kid A, which was very much a post-rock move as far as I can see.

9/ Which brings us (obligatory step) to Retromania: Wouldn’t you do your own Retromania? Is Simon Reynolds "best before"? ;)

That’s for others to say. Writers always think they get better (so do musicians and artists, generally).  I know people who say their favorite book of mine is Blissed Out, which is the collection of late Eighties writing.  Personally while I can feel the passion and urgency in the early stuff, as actual writing I think it gets better with each passing year.  The early stuff can be a bit clunky and strains a bit in terms of bringing in the theory and the high culture references.

10/ How old are you now Simon (if it’s not a secret) ? How age influe on the music perception at your advice ?

It’s no secret, it’s on Wikipedia! Most of my bios on my books reference me being born in 1963. And since the first piece in Bring the Noise is from 1984, or perhaps 1985... Well you can work it yourself.

Age changes your perspective on everything, not just music. It would take a small book, or long essay at least, to discuss all that, but let’s say that some of the urgency and obsessive fixation inevitably fades away. You tend to have a better sense of proportion about things. When I wrote my early stuff, my life was empty in lots of ways. I was involved in relationships at various points, but the writing and the music took precedence. Nowadays my life is full – I’m a couple of decades into a very happy marriage, I have two children, a 7 year old daughter and a 13 year old son who is becoming a teenager. I don’t have the huge space of spare time or of unattached emotional energy that I used to fill up with music-obsession. When you are young, music plays a major role in identity formation but as you got older, your identity is (hopefully) formed. You’re not looking to music to explain yourself to yourself, or be a savior, or even  the primary source of excitement and solace in your existence. Music remains my major passion and interest but it competes with other passions and interests much more than it did when I was 22 and starting out as a music critic.

I also know a lot more about the history of music and have heard so much more, so things become more contextualized and perhaps I have sense of how cycles repeat in rock culture. By the age of 49 you’ve seen so many hype cycles kick off and then exhaust themselves. You are also less easily impressed. But that’s good I think.

11/ Are you aware that some journalists (including me) are not fully agree with your opinion about how pop culture sometime still to the old to create the new? I mean, like you say in Retromania, it's always been like that. All decades borrows to the oldest one…

Oh yes I’m very aware about that. People have not hesitated to express that opinion, both in print and to my face! But I think you perhaps misunderstand the argument of Retromania  -- it’s not that this kind of revivalism and pastiche is a completely new, unique to the 21st Century phenomenon, nor is it asserting that it is a completely barren field.

There are examples of revivliasm in pop going back to the very end of the Sixties. What is different is the degree and intensity of the recycling in the 2000s, and the absence of a strong force of musical innovation to counter it. The only contenders I can see are dubstep, which I underestimated in the book, and perhaps the AutoTune phenomenon in pop, which has been used as a creative or at least an extreme tool in terms of vocal manipulation. But overall it’s undeniable that the last 13 years or so have been inundated with retro-pastiche, revivalism, nostalgia marketing, reissues, archival culture, vintage aesthetics – all to a degree never before seen, and converging in such a way as to make for a depressingly muddled and undynamic spectrum of music whether in the pop mainstream or in the various undergrounds. That there have been some original interventions within this field of “recreativity’ is undeniable, and something I acknowledge in the book, but it doesn’t compare to the modernistic self-renewing drive of the Beatles/Kate Bush/Talking Heads model of the rock artist, or the emergence of new genres (prog rock, postpunk, techno, etc).
Talking of inundation, to me the analogy is with climate change and global warming. The phenomenon has been building for decades, it didn’t just come about overnight. There have been voices warning about it for a long time. But there’s no doubt that the situation with global warming is reaching a crisis point, you can see it in the changes in the weather systems. Same with retro. People (including myself!) have been complaining about it for years and years. But the situation gets worse and there had never been a book-length exploration of the phenomenon and the issues it raises.

12/ On Bring The Noise we count a lot of reviews, articles, essays (we can’t count in fact, ahaha), about this mass of information, I guess it must have been difficult narrowing to made a choice. How do you made the final cut?

I got rid of the pieces that I felt were overlapping with each other or repeating the same points. Difficult, because you get attached to various pieces of writing. But for example there was a super in-depth piece on Grime I did for the Wire on the best grime tracks ever that we left out of Bring the NOise, because there had already been several other pieces on Grime, Dizzee etc. The vivid description of these tracks I love was painful to leave out of the book but the larger points had already been made in the earlier pieces.

13/ What also captures the reader's attention in Bring The Noise, it’s the incredible quality of the texts. Work on words, the links (sometimes awkward, but at least they exist) between sociology and music, poetry also ... Were you aware when you wrote all these articles, to be a real writer?

Well, thank you. I’m trying to do something that works as prose that might be enjoyable or potent as a reading experience even if you’ve no interest in the music in question. And sometimes people have said to me, I really like your writing but I don’t follow music at all these days.  I remember one guy who was a big fan of all the late Eighties writing that I and my comrades were doing in the Melody Maker, enjoying it as discourse. But he said the last record he’d really loved was Grace Jones’s Nightclubbing album of 1981. He had no attraction to Husker Du or Pixies or My Bloody Valentine or Public Enemy as something to listen to, but he really enjoyed our arguments and claims for those groups. 

I think what I do is a continuation of the messy hybrid nature of rock writing, which at its best has always combined different registers – journalistic reporting, manifesto, the prose-poem, the personal /memoristic/ confessional register.... you would get  the clash of aspects of gossip or frivolity with great seriousness. 

A lot of rock writing in the music press in the UK back in the old days involved shoehorning philosophical or political concerns into various standard formats – the album review, the live gig review, the page-length column of singles reviews, the interview, even into the letters page where you would take your turn to be the official responder to letters of complaint or comment or (rarely) praise from the readers. 

If there is a poetic dimension it comes from trying to convey something of the intensity and power – even the violence – of music as it impacts your body and your senses. It is difficult to do and often it can result in embarrassing writing.

14/ Your interview with Chuck D of Public Enemy is a great time Bring The Noise. What do you think of it now? Once again you ask challenging questions about confrontation between black and white music, you speculate on the reasons why Public Enemy say what they say about the way they say ... You speak of "strike" after the publication of this paper, but it is also a great time for you right? A revealing moment ...

I’m not sure about the word “strike”, how it’s used or what I meant, or what you think I’m mean by it.  Probably it refers to just being surprised, retrospectively, at how I anticipated in 1987 some of the difficulties with the Public Enemy worldview that would get them into trouble the next year – Griff’s anti-Semitic comments that led him to being kicked out the group, and also some of the really odd racial theories that Public Enemy seemed to at least entertain if not outright believe. Yes, I’m pretty pleased with this piece. It was more of a dialogue than a confrontation. I respected them as a musical force immensely, and as a political one, I respected to some degree while having obvious concerns and doubts. At that point I wasn’t hugely aware of Farrakhan’s ideology or the exact nature of the Nation of Islam movement. I only had a vague sense about what it stood for. You have to remember that in those days there was no way of finding out this information easily. No internet. I had picked up bits and pieces of information here and there, but at that point, there wasn’t much info out there if you lived outside America. And this was also one of the very first Public Enemy features. So what I learned from Chuck D about their philosophy was as big a surprise to me as it was to the readers. I also lacked a context for understanding where they were coming from: I wasn’t aware at that point that Nation of Islam ideas were part of a larger tradition of black capitalism in America, that included more conventional figures like Booker T. Washington. At any rate, Chuck D’s comments were fantastic material to present in the way I did, a double-edged celebration of Public Enemy as a musical force but a critique of them politically. Nowadays I would probably write something more circumspect and less judgemental, because living in America for two decades, I have a much better sense of racial politics in this country.  When I met Chuck D in 1987 I think it was only my third visit to the USA. I interviewed him again a couple of years later and we had a possibly more fruitful dialogue in which his ideas seemed a lot more reasonable to me, although it’s possible he had become more cautious with talking to the rock press after all the controversy!

15/ About your new book, Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews, the companion book to Rip it & Start Again, do you think it will be publish in France soon ?

Well it’s not new because it came out in 2008, but yes I would love it to come out in France.  There is more likelihood, though that Energy Flash, the techno/rave book, would come out in  a French edition.

16/ Rip it Up and Start Again is focused on post-punk, the (real) rich era of the 1978-1984 years, how was born the idea of a companion book combining the raw interviews that were used to achieve the first one?

We saw the possibility of demand being there for a supplementary book because Rip It Up was so successful in the UK. For that kind of serious music book, it was something of a phenomenon, so it seemed likely that some people would want more. I had also heard that Jon Savage was doing an England’s Dreaming book for Faber based on his copious interview transcripts. So I suggested to my editor at Faber that we could do the same thing for Rip it Up. I assumed Jon’s book was just about to come out and mine would follow two years later, but as it happened, he took longer to pull his one together and in the event they put mine out a few months earlier than the England’s Dreaming Tapes.  

17/ Since 1984, you have contributed to a lot of magazine, What is the period that you preferred ?

My happiest period as a writer was probably the late Eighties at Melody Maker because I was part of a team of people who were all operating at full energy and at their height of their abilities, and were crusading for all this great music, trying to present our time as a golden age. And it was a great lifestyle, working for the weekly music press – going to gigs constantly, hanging out with other writers, getting drunk, drinking coffee in the centre of London and discoursing endlessly. Going on my first trips to the USA and to parts of Europe I’d not been to before. But mostly it was about the collective energy that we had there, a real corps d’esprit (is that the correct term?). Also, anything that feels like it’s happening for the first time, whether it’s an obsession or a love affair, is always going to be more electric. 

But, probably as exciting in terms of the writing, even though I was operating more solo than as part of a team, was all the 1991-1998 phase of writing about rave, hardcore, jungle, gabba, techno, Aphex, etc etc – the pieces that went into Energy Flash. Apart from hip hop, most of the stuff we were writing about at Melody Maker in the late Eighties was rock that did have some kind of relationship to the past, mostly to the Sixties and early Seventies. But in the Nineties with rave and electronic music, it felt like the future was coming into shape before your ears.  Rave felt like a real movement, a cultural emergence. A new thing. So it was very exciting to pay witness to that in print and attempt to explain its unfolding significance in real-time.

18/ And which mag ?

Well, Melody Maker obviously, was the most fun. But I’ve also always enjoyed contributing to The Wire – that’s probably the longest continuous contributorship I’ve had now, over 20 years. I’ve done some really enjoyable work for Artforum and Frieze. In recent years I did some fun columns for the Guardian online. But really almost all the places I write for, I enjoy doing because whether it’s a unconstrained environment like the Wire or whether it’s more formatted, as with a mainstream newspaper, the challenge is getting your ideas across to that particular readership. Finding the mode of address.

I do also love the completely freeform nature of blogging. The early days of doing Blissblog when I was conversing and arguing with a whole bunch of kindred blogs, that was as close as I’ve got to the vibe of being on Melody Maker, when I was arguing with the other writers and also with writers on other music papers like NME.

19/ In Chronic City, writer Jonathan Lethem wrote that there is nothing worse than being a "rock critic". What do you think about it ? With all these works for years, you can prove that this is not necessarily true. That writing, serious and solid writing, can be married with the exercise of criticism. No?

He says that ? I know Jonathan, I always thought he believed rock criticism to be quite a high calling, something he would quite like to have done, and has done, in fact, extremely well (with that Talking Heads ‘Fear of Music’ book, for instance).  But maybe he meant the lifestyle is not a good one, that it leads to psychological distortions, through the obsessiveness. He may have a point. It’s quite an isolated life, these days, because no one brings their copy into magazines anymore, so there’s no hanging out with the other writers. And that’s caused magazines not to have any kind of « vibe ».  But no, I would have to say that overall I consider myself very lucky to have been able to make a living this way. The books, the journalism, some talks and lectures --  basically thinking publicly about music is how I’ve made my livelihood.  There are downsides to being your own boss – to an extent being freelance means having many, many bosses – but being able to manage your own time and work from home is a wonderful thing. I just wish I was more disciplined and didn’t spend so much time procrastinating and wasting time. I have about six more books in me I think, but I need to get on with it. 

20/ What is the greater pleasure in the activity of writing on popular culture and music ?

There’s many pleasures. The struggle to produce something that’s good and then finally, as time is running out, it all comes together – that is pretty satisfying. Right up to the last minute, you think it’s a disaster, and then it all comes together right at the end.

But mainly it’s being confronted by some new musical experience that you can’t quite account for or fully figure out why it excites you or moves, how it works on you --  and then managing to come up with some answers that make a least provisional sense for you and hopefully for others.  Encountering an overpowering force of newness or originality in music and being forced to come up with new thoughts – that to me is a kind of bliss.