Simon Reynolds is an English music writer who first came onto my radar in the mid-80′s when he wrote for Melody Maker. His brilliant style of writing challenged the staid and conservative style of Rolling Stone magazine in America. “Hipsters” in the U.S. turned to MM, NME and (sometimes) Sounds to keep up on British/European music at a time when the U.S. was virtually bereft of innovative music. Mr. Reynolds has written several books on a wide variety of topics from hip-hop to ecstasy-fueled electronica. His books on “Post-Rock” have defined an era in a Guralnick-like way, unmatched by his peers. His latest book, “Totally Wired, Post-Punk Interviews & Overviews”, features interviews with the likes of David Byrne, John Peel and Martin Rushent among many others.
As someone who practically “grew up” (actually he’s only a couple of years older than me) reading Simon Reynolds, it was truly a thrill to get an opportunity to ask him a few questions.
TDOA: In both of your books you’ve discussed the intellect of the post-punk of the 80’s versus 76-77 punk. Can you discuss the differences?
SR: Some of the early punk bands were very smart/arty, they just chose to express themselves in the brutality and crudity that at that precise moment was deemed to be what punk was all about. Then a second wave of bands came along who just modeled themselves on the brutality/crudity and a lot of them were genuine hooligans as opposed to faux-hooligans. So the best of the first wave bands went postpunk…. John Rotten turning into John Lydon is the classic example.
TDOA: How do you view the intellect of the late 90’s and 00’s bands that sought to mimic those that came before them? I have long subscribed to the idea that “punk is dead” and died decades ago. Where do bands like Blink-182 with their pseudo-punk fit into your psyche?
SR: The Nineties pop-punk stuff seems completely toothless to me, it lacks the sense of danger and evil and monstrousness that the best 1977 punk rock had. Also you can tell the guys in those bands can really play, they’ve chosen punk rock as a style, as opposed to it being the sound that is produced when you’re straining at the upper limit of your ability (which is what defined the original punk rock).
TDOA: I have a great resentment towards some of the current bands for what appears to be a complete lack of originality. C86 seems to be a popular genre to be mimicking in the US these days. Do you think we’ve really run out of post-punk ideas musically? I love Interpol, but aren’t they just Joy Division with better production?
SR: The postpunk seam does seem pretty exhausted, although amazingly some bands are still coming forward doing that sound. I enjoyed that first Interpol album at the time but I have a feeling it won’t be an album that lives with me.
TDOA: Are you still passionate about the music you would have to write about if you were still writing for Melody Maker?
SR: There was never a “have to write about” with the Melody Maker when I was on it. Some years there was a bit more scrambling around to find things worth writing excitedly about, but mostly there was a superfluity of great stuff — underground rock was in ferment, but also we wrote about whatever we thought was interesting and relevant: it could be metal, industrial, hip hop, dance music, R&B, pop, experimental stuff of all sorts. I had a phase of writing about ECM releases. In those days, meaning the late Eighties and early Nineties the Melody Maker was not the narrow focused Britpop/indie Smash Hits it became in the last few years of the Nineties. By which time I’d long flown the coop. And the Britpop/indie tabloid version of Melody Maker tried so hard to pander to its imagined audience that it lost its real one — the readership shriveled and the magazine was put out of its misery eventually.
But if that shit late Nineties MM did still exist and I somehow was indentured to the magazine and forced to write about what they’ve been calling “landfill indie” in the UK, then… no, I wouldn’t be passionate about it. I’d be miserable as sin. But thankfully those circumstances do not apply and I am indeed free to write about things I like and find interesting!
TDOA: Many bands carry on after the loss of one of their bandmates. Obviously the topic of Joy Division/New Order has been discussed in both of your books. Less popular are the stories about bands that lost people other than their singers. I’ve always felt the Bunnymen never sounded the same with De Freitas. As a music lover, how did you feel about the Bunnymen’s transformation?
SR: I loved them up to and including Ocean Rain. The album after that sounded very perfunctory — I don’t know if that was because of De Freitas’s passing, but
I heard they felt they had to break America, and that was why they went for that very characterless modern rock production. But everything seemed to be failing them at that point, the songwriting too. “Lips Like Sugar” is a great hook in search of a song. Overall you could tell it was a band going through the motions, the zest was no longer there.
TDOA: The Cure have been noticeably absent in both of your books. I wonder how you feel about the band and their place in music history?
SR: I really liked “A Forest” and Seventeen Seconds, and still do. The next two incredibly gloomy and claustrophobic albums I could never get into. It was partly timing — the UK scene had gone “New Pop” with groups like ABC and Human League and The Cure were still stuck in the Joy Division angst mode. They really cleaned up with that audience who’d loved Joy Division and who didn’t go with the shift towards pop. But I was one of the ones who went with the New Pop. Then ironically the Cure belatedly went pop themselves — that was an odd phase, some really nice singles there, some really botched and daft ones. But nothing, if I’m honest, that really hit me that deep. I do associate The Head On the Door with a girlfriend who was a huge fan and so feel well-disposed towards that era of The Cure, without them having particularly earned it! They’re a bit like New Order for me, every so often there’s a really lovely single, but a lot of it I can take or leave. Overall, it’s a bit of a half-measuressound. I interviewed Robert Smith once and found him a charming and interesting chap, though.
TDOA: If you could interview one person, living or deceased, who would it be?
I’ll stick to music, as otherwise it’s too vast a subject. Tim Buckley, maybe. I would say John Martyn, but I gather he was something of a frustrating interviewee. But Buckley seems like he’d have been very open and would probably live up to all your expectations. Hang on a minute, I’ve forgotten someone who I’ve always regretted not interviewing while he was still around. Two people actually: Billy Mackenzie and Ian Dury.
TDOA: While I’d like to think that you’re listening to a variety of old and new music, I’d like to validate my theory. There are a number of websites (lastfm.com for instance) that track what songs you listen to. I can look back over the past week, months, year to see what bands I listen to the most. If you had tracked you music listening in 2008, what bands would we see in your top 10?
SR: I actually did this on my blog, but by genre. And it was a guess, since I’ve not been tracking it in any kind of mathematical way. This is the link to the post
If it was by band, Vampire Weekend would win by a long distance. But they are a band whose music has an intense playability to it, you can just listen to it over and over, day after day.
There are other groups who are very impressive and have a powerful effect on you but are harder to integrate into everyday life. I really liked the Portishead album and admired it tremendously but it’s a little too heavy and intense for that kind of heavy rotation listening. You have to be in a certain mood.
But going along with your old/new mix-up idea, after Vampire Weekend, would be Ian Dury and the Blockheads, followed by The Blackout Crew (based on just one song, or rather video
followed by The Backyardigans (songs by Evan Lurie and Doug Wieselman for a kids show; not my choice, when it comes to playing the CDs, but always heard with great enjoyment, the music is fantastic), followed by Giggs (a gangsta rapper from South London), followed by Elvis Costello, followed by Gang Gang Dance, followed by The Smiths, followed by Fox (for just one song, “S-S-Single Bed”, again on Youtube –
followed by Henri Sauguet (for just one song, “Aspect Sentimental”, 1950s musique concrete of uncommon magical-nesss), followed by High Places.
For 2009, it’s The Sweet, by a huge distance. And then John Martyn. And then The Advisory Circle, who are on that label Ghost Box I mentioned.
TDOA: Does Simon Reynolds listen to current “alternative” music? Can you give us a glimpse into what you think is new and interesting now?
SR: I listen to all sorts, including a lot of what would be considered “alternative” I guess (although I wonder if that word have any meaning anymore?).
There’s a cluster of energy in Brooklyn, kind of “ecstatic/experimental” is my shorthand for it — Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, High Places — groups that are all quite distinctive but have certain things in common, a ritualistic, tribal, often percussive aspect; an interest in combining folksiness or ethnic-ness with technology and modern dance rhythms…. I really enjoyed the Gang Gang Dance and High Places records from last year, and the new AC is lovely. But Gang Gang Dance are on their sixth album or something and AC have been going since about 2001 if not before and are on their, what, ninth? So it’s not exactly “new”.
Otherwise I love the hauntology/ memoradelia type bands in the UK, but again that’s something that goes back to 2004 with the Ghost Box label, they just celebrated their fifth anniversary. Other ones from that area I rate highly are Moon Wiring Club and Mordant Music.
“New” is not such a stringent or strident concern of mine these days. I don’t know if anyone really knows what “new” would look like these days. I will settle for rapture!
Bliss and delight. Accordingly my favorite record from last year was Vampire Weekend. Although I actually think their sound is “new”, it just doesn’t correspond to any of our existing stereotypes of “new”, it’s not extreme. But extreme is old hat and predictable and meaningless, really. “Extreme” only signifies if something has an intense aesthetic or emotional effect you. And often the softest, gentlest, most euphonious music can do that. Nothing could be more extreme than being brought to tears or made to feel like you’re about to swoon, and most “extreme” music fails in that area. Rapture is the true rupture.
Simon Reynolds new book is available for purchase at Amazon.co.uk, here.