Monday, May 28, 2012


A selection of some of the most interesting and enjoyable interviews I did about Retromania 


interviewed by Steven Hyden for A/V Club 

interviewed by Colin McKean for The Quietus 

interviewed by Lisa Hix for Collector's Weekly

interviewed by Andy Zax for LA Review of Books podcast part 1 and part 2 

interviewed by Matt Diehl for The Daily Swarm

interviewed by Dan Fox for Frieze

interviewed by Mark Richardson for Pitchfork's Paper Trail column

interviewed by Alex Niven for the Oxonian Review

interviewed by John Williams for The Second Pass 

 interviewed by Mark Spitz for Vanity Fair

interviewed by AJ Ramirez for Pop Matters  

interview with Thomas Rogers for Salon

interviewed by Scott Timberg for The Misread City

Q & A for The Guardian for the mass market paperback edition spring 2012 

interview with Daniel Brockman for The Boston Phoenix,  

 dialogue with Tendezroman 

dialogue with Ben Jeffery for The Point (in parallel with the print edition's excellent essay on Retromania by him, which has now gone online

interview with iCrates magazine about analogue versus digital, postproduction culture, etc


and because it is oddly disappeared from the internet, here's an interview I did with Matthew Ingram for FACT, under the misleading title "Five Minutes With" (as one commenter noted, if that's five minutes, Simon Reynolds sure does talk fast"...  look, nobody -- NOBODY - has ever accused me of being a man of few words, let's be honest! Caveat lector....

MI: In "Retromania" one of the many illuminating distinctions you make is between "played" music and "post-production" music. Do you think the post-facto massaging of sound has gone hand-in-hand with a de-energising of music? Is there a connection to be made between "played" music's embrace of the NOW and its seeming durability?

SR: Obviously there's loads of music that's purely programmed and is full of propulsive energy, all the various strands of house and techno.  But perhaps played music has a different kind of energy.  And that's something that electronic music producers are often drawn to. Breakbeats provide something that can't be reached through programming alone: grit, a kind of "breathing" to the rhythm.  Perhaps there's just something about music that was once an event, a willed physical action. The particular drum track being sampled might be one of numerous takes laid down in a session, but there is still a palpable quality of deliberateness that comes from a human being wielding an instrument.  

And yet, paradoxically, musicians are often aspiring to machine-like perfection. The seasoned session player and the well-rehearsed band member want to achieve unerring precision.  Digital music fulfils this tendency within analogue music, the aspiration towards supreme  tightness. But just as the journey can be more interesting than the arrival, likewise total precision once achieved may be a little too sterile.  Which is perhaps why so many electronic producers who have all this computerized accuracy at their disposal, will ironically go to a lot of trouble to inject life back into the music through artificially added  rhythmic discrepancies, swing, etc.

For as long as I've been reading you you have consistently valorised the cutting-edge of new music. In your experience is there a viable distinction between Futuristic music and Original music, or is all Original music Futuristic?  Would it be unfair to characterise people's expectations for the futuristic in music to be set-up by the Sci-Fi literature of the sixties and early seventies? The chrome-plated sonic palate of rocket travel, the electronic bleeping, crushing volumes, yet more sophisticated reverb systems suggestive of impossible spaces - all these seem to be indelibly encoded as futuristic. How else could futuristic music sound?

That's a good distinction. There's tons of highly original music that doesn't sound the least bit "futuristic", while an awful lot of "futuristic" music is corny and clichéd.  Unfortunately, the idea of the Future seemed to get fixed at a certain point, it's become trapped as a set of visual and sonic clichés.  There are actually several different sorts of retro-futurist kitsch that people can play with.  The Matt Groening cartoon series Futurama satirised one set of received ideas about the science fiction future, based around things like the Jetsons.  Add N (To X), electroclash, and Ghost Box all had their own distinct brands of retro-futurism based around completely different touchstones.  You can imagine a retro-futurism to come based around all that Nineties cyber-schlock of virtual reality and smart drinks. 

But going back to your distinction, yes, there's a lot of genuinely innovative music that doesn't have any particular relationship with an idea of the Future. U2 are actually a good example: the Edge was a great innovator with the guitar and the group as a whole were doing something fresh and new in rock, especially when they hooked up with Eno and Daniel Lanois. Yet their music doesn't make you think of robots or interplanetary spacecraft.  

One of the problems with the project of creating "music of the future" is that there was such a huge push after World War Two by the early explorers of tape music and electronics into the realms of an abstraction beyond notes and harmony, that you could almost say  the idea of the Future got completely done with by the early Seventies.  It became a tradition of the future.  There are people in conservatories and university sound-labs all around the world still keeping faith with it.

The "future" I'm always looking for from music is really just a word-- and perhaps an increasingly unhelpful word--- for the not-past, for the never-heard-this-before.  Most likely when it does occur, it'll have nothing to do with all these long established, well-worn ideas of future-music ( bleeps, klangs, etc).  It is unlikely to sound obviously electronic, or computerized.  

In another sense you could say the disorientation I'm  looking to get from music was actually delivered by the phenomenon I've dubbed retromania. I really wasn't expecting to get to 2011 and find things like Mumford & Sons, or Adele, or underground bands imitating Hall & Oates and Windham Hill. Hence "the Shock of the Old", the title of the last chapter in Retromania. It really is a shock!

As a historian of music culture writing a book on Retro, it sometimes felt that like Blondin you were walking the high-wire over the Niagara Falls, never once losing balance but nevertheless performing a precarious feat whereby you were able to gently disparage the Retro tendency but in the process use the past as your material. It seems as though a musician engaged in a similar investigation of historicity would quickly teeter off and be swept down the rapids.

Retro is often used as a vague insult for anything considered traditional, nostalgic, derivative. And in Retromania I do use "retro" in that loose, elastic sense to refer to a set of overlapping syndromes: the emergence of a nostalgia industry, the rise of rock heritage, things like the Eighties revival and the unimaginable but seemingly inevitable Nineties revival, the endgame of musical postmodernism in the form of  pastiche and curatorial aesthetics running rife through various  underground genres.  Perhaps forgivably people assume that because I'm criticizing retro culture I'm opposed to anything old and from the past.  Actually  I don't have any problem with history:  people taking an interest in past eras of music, writing books about them, making documentaries. Trying to understand the past and to bring it to life in some way that doesn't diminish it-- that's a noble calling. 

The problem with retro culture is that it is utterly immersed in the past, but it is increasingly 
ahistorical.  Retro is the exploitation of the past-- its history-making exploits,  all the hard work that was put into creating new forms--in a way that never ceases to be  dependent on history but that doesn't illuminate it or reactivate it in a way that gives it any kind of renewed relevance in the present.  It's just simulation, a replication that is depthless, all about surface stylization.

In the book the process of sampling gets a long overdue redress. You make an important point about the ethics of sampling as well as implicitly questioning the sustainability of it as a practise. However what would you say to the Mad Max (or Tina Turner) of Thunderdome? In the light of our imminent environmental catastrophe does the "salvage-punk" vision of the future not seem at all tenable?

Through all my writing about sample-based music, which started way back with Mantronix in 1986, I've been totally pro-sampling.  I just thought it would be interesting this time round to look at it, for once, from this other perspective, that of the musician who gets sampled, and to see sampling not just as  expropriation (surplus value extracted out of other's musical labour) but as what you could call in-appropriation . By which I mean taking someone else's work and inserting into a new artistic context that might be offensive to the original creator or just dissonant with their own aesthetic values.  

In the book I toy with this idea of sampling becoming played-out, a scenario where the audio resources of recorded music have been mined to exhaustion. I'm not sure that's anything more than an analogy, though.  Cultural deposits can't get used up in the same way that fossil fuels or scarce earth elements will one day run out.  Hundreds of people could sample from the exact same song and get different results. The use of the Amen break by jungle producers shows that.  
Equally, I'm not sure ecological soundness can be claimed for the recycling of old music through sampling.  Although there probably is less of a carbon footprint to stealing licks off of old vinyl than going into a studio and recording new drum breaks and string parts, when you factor in the electricity studios use and the transport costs of the musicians!   

Does music matter anymore? Are Games and Movies better, more Wagnerian contexts for it? Are the social networks better and more efficient ways of sopping up our need for a disembodied connectedness? What value music as a discreet cultural form in the 21st century?

There does seem to have been a long moment when music had a particular prestige and and it does feel like that moment has passed.   Music was a sort of sovereign zone: it demanded the listener's complete immersion, you were subjugated to the temporality of the Album.  Now music is much more about being at our disposal, it's become convenient, a backdrop to other activities, a space-filler. Music is ubiquitous today in a way that it actually wasn't in the Sixties and Seventies. It's in the soundtracks of games and movies, it's in TV commercials, it's piped out as Muzak in supermarkets and cafes. We take it wherever we go with our iPods and iPhones.  Yet this omnipresence and superabundance has ultimately led to a depreciation in music's value. 

The other thing is that music had a privileged status where it wasn't just one option in a range of entertainments, or merged with them in various transmedia combinations. Music was rather the central prism through which all other fields of culture were seen,  a glue connecting various disparate zones of progressive culture and politics. Just look at how important rock in the late Sixties/early Sixties sense was to Martin Scorsese-- music ran through all his films, with The Last Waltz he created a memorial to a entire era as it was fading out, decades later he did the Dylan documentary. Or look at how the New York artists of the late Seventies were all in bands and saw rock as the power spot of the culture. Rolling Stone was defined by its founder Jann Wenner as being a magazine not just about the music, but all the things and attitudes that music embraced and was about.  There was a long moment when there seemed to be hardly any limits to the things that music could be about.

I'm not sure that movies and games have taken over the role that music once had. Movies are so expensive in terms of entry level that cinema can never be the kind of democratic popular art form that rock, rap, rave, etc, were.  Perhaps the kind of movie-making programs that kids use on their computers will lead to a kind of DIY movie-making underground, but it'll always be lagging way behind the level of spectacle and immersive intensity that Hollywood offers. As for games, people have been talking them up as the New Rock'n'Roll since at least the early 90s. What they seem to supply is the same reptilian-brain thrills that rock, rap, rave, etc provided, but none of the "higher" functions.  Games have been in existence for several decades now but they've yet to create a discourse around them as ambitious as rock criticism (which sprang up within a few years of the Beatles).  It's hard to imagine a magazine that could describe itself as being "not just about games, but about all the things that games are about".  Because there is no "about" with games.   Their whole point is to get away from Life and the Real World.

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