Monday, May 28, 2012


unfrequently asked questions, and their unfrequent answers

I think about this with writing and books a lot, whether anything radically new is even possible. I mean, occasionally Jonathan Safran Foer will take a pair of scissors to an old novel or something and that might be an interesting one-off, but is there anything left (in writing, music) that could be a firm foundation for widespread work?

It might indeed be finite, a depressing prospect! I tend to think that humans are infinitely ingenious, though, and it seems unlikely that there are no more new musical ideas or sounds to be discovered. New machines will be invented, surely. 

One of the problems with pop/rock is that it’s relatively easy-access as a genre, so multitudes of people can have a go at it and produce decent results. So there’s a hell of a lot of repetition and redundancy, minor differentiation, and then you also get this mad race of droves of people competing to find something that sets them apart or takes the music a little further in whatever direction they’re looking at. Hence the great sense of congestion within genres (particularly genres like dance and metal, but all of the genres really), and of profusion as these genres diverge and splinter and subdivide.  It’s like music started as a white page of virgin possibility and everybody has scribbled lines accross it, and then lines within the lines. In the year 2011, there’s so much ink on the page that it’s almost black.  There’s hardly any white space left.

Of course, the other fluke thing about popular culture was that it was able to maintain for a really long time a significant overlap between the popularly successful and the sonically forward-looking. Maybe that simply wasn’t sustainable indefinitely. The parallel with writing there would be the fact that there’s hardly any readership for experimental fiction. The intelligent audience for novels will only go so far away from stuff like plot, character, readability. It’s probably similar for the intelligent audience for music: it will only go so far away from songs, tunes, steadiness of structure and rhythm, etc.

Is the present producing enough ideas for us to keep hooked to it, or there is not attractive enough for us to believe in it?

I think the problem with such an extensive past having built up for music is that we can do the equivalent of  dirty book-keeping or accounting, where you use past assets to cover over the fact that the present income isn't sufficient. So as fans we don't have a clear picture of how weak the present music scene is because we are filling in the gaps with music from the past -- well-known classic stuff and cool obscurities.  In the past I have been often one of the people complaining that a certain year, like say 2006, was a poor year for music, and then you get people saying, "that's ridiculous, there's been tons of great stuff to listen to this year". Then you look closely at what they're listing as great 2006 music and a lot of it is reissues or "salvage" releases of lost treasure! 

what amazes you most of the current era?

I was amazed by some of the Chicago footwork music on the Bangs & Footwork CD that Planet Mu did. I amazed by certain things that Oneohtronix Point Never has done like "Preyouandi". I am amazed in a different way by things that Ghost Box and Ariel Pink and Dolphins Into the Future and James Ferraro have done, all artists who work very heavily with the past but in a way that I could never have imagined being done until it happened, and results that I often find absolutely beautiful and moving.  

But there is also a lot of negative amazement. You might say that Retromania is born of that feeling of disorientation caused by getting to the 21st Century and finding things like Mumford & Sons and La Roux and Duffy being so huge.  A lot of the time I am looking for a feeling of "ecstastic disorientation" from music, that's what I got from My Bloody Valentine, or from the early rave and jungle tunes. That's what future-music, or never-heard-that-before type music gives me. But from the stuff that inspired Retromania, what I get is a kind of non-ecstatic disorientation, a sort of dysphoria. Like, "Jesus Christ, it's the year 2011, and Mumford & Sons is the biggest British band since Coldplay?  Adele has been Number One in the album charts for 15 weeks?!?"

Replicate-music aesthetics and accurate (especially the 60's) has to do with a sense of security? Those years were undeniably cool, so why risk being clumsy with something new?

I can quite see why young bands look at certain eras of music and think, "this sounds better than anything else that came later, I'm sticking with this".  If I was a musician, perhaps I would want to play like the Rolling Stones, or like Led Zeppelin or Free, or maybe the Buzzcocks. Certain styles of music may possibly have been perfected, taken as far as they can go. And it could be that if you want to make music and do it as an enjoyable process, then these old, established, "finished off" styles are what you would be drawn to. Making new music is hard work and the results may not actually be that entertaining to play or to listen to.

What do you see as the difference, if any, between “preservation as a cultural ideal” and/or “re-enactment art,” as you call it, and simply working within an old form? At what point does working in an old form become a counterproductive act of nostalgia?

I’m not sure I have a problem with people who embrace an out-of-date style of music, master its craft, and put it out there for whoever cares to hear it. Whether it’s people who’ve learned to play bluegrass (these days more likely to be middle class folk from anywhere in America other than the South, and in some cases from outside America altogether, as with Mumford & Sons), or a group of people getting together to play brass band music or Early Music. I don’t know if nostalgia comes into it much: modern blue-grass outfits don’t have any personal memories of that music’s golden ages, nor do they wish they could go back to live as a hillbilly. It’s just a style of music they like. I don’t share or particularly understand the impulse at work, but it’s no more troubling to me than someone who painstakingly teaches himself how to do old-fashioned engraving or any other bygone craft.  There might be a preservation aspect to the motive, “let’s keep this skill, this way of doing things, alive”, but mostly I think it’s done because certain approaches—whether it’s using a letterpress or playing a banjo—produces effects that the practitioner prefers aesthetically. Also the difficulty of mastering these skills is part of the attraction, in contrast to the ethos of convenience and facilitation that presides in digital culture.

I do tend to think of this deliberately cultivated old-timey styles as belonging to the domain of “hobbies” or pastimes, though. Whereas pop and rock can be, and have been, “interventions in the battlefield of culture”. If you put all your energy as a performer or a listener into a style of music that is out-of-time, then you are absenting yourself from the terrain of popular culture as it’s hitherto been known. Of course, now and again something bygone gets to be commercially successful: Harry Connick Jnr, or indeed Mumford and Son.

Who do you see as the 21st century inheritors of the modernist sensibility in rock music?  Or has the genre become too obsessed with rifling through the past for ideas (see: the still-enduring post-punk revival, all these noise pop/C86 wannabes like Vivian Girls and Best Coast) to prevent it from yielding anything truly innovative these days?

What's interesting is that  for so many the innovation issue is not considered urgent. "Is this innovative?" is not a question that people are asking so much. So with Vivian Girls and The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, or the Vaccines in the U.K., what's striking is that these groups have their supporters who don't seem to regard their derivativeness to be a blemish. You couldn’t even talk about apologists for those bands because they're not in the least apologetic: the absence of innovation doesn't bother or embarrass them.

For me what's really startling about those three groups is that they have returned to the same set of mostly Sixties influences that were already seeming rather obvious and played-out when the C86 bands were deploying them. I lived through C86, it was one of the things I wrote about as a cub reporter at Melody Maker, and although there were interesting things about the scene to do with the clothing and the overall vibe and ethos of "cutie" (as it was also known), the music even in 1986 seemed distinctly backward-looking. Twenty-five later we have groups returning to the exact same stagnant pool of influences, and getting a good amount of journalistic hype.

There's a bunch of vaguely rock-aligned groups, what you might call post-indie, who are doing interesting things with the archival overload of music history while also keeping their ears tuned to what's going on with contemporary dance music and black pop, and furthermore in some cases also checking out ideas from outside the Anglo-American rock/pop tradition.  Animal Collective would the key group for that in the last decade, they brought a new vibe to alternative music. Gang Gang Dance also. I actually think Vampire Weekend have done some innovative, or at least very fresh, things.  Micachu and the Shapes made a really cool record with Jewellery and tUnE-YarDs, who I also like, are in some ways the American Micachu and the Shapes.  

Why do you believe bands have more often the pressure to move forward, to come up with something new and fresh, and nobody seems to moan  if scorsese or tarantino do the same film o ver and over again, if fashion designers pull the same tricks again, or even artists keep recreating the same aproach for decades?

It's probably ultimately the legacy of the Sixties, the long shadow that the decade has cast over all that followed. It was a period of incredible acceleration, each year (1964/1965/1966/1967/1968...) had a different feel. And it's exemplified above all by the career of the Beatles, the giant leaps they took with each album. Then by the end of the decade they were the first to look backwards, wistfully, to the innocence and raw energy of early rock'n'roll, and their own early music.

During the Sixties, through the "neophilia" of the era and also the influence of art schools, modernism entered the intellectual discourse of rock culture, the ideal of progression and complexity, of artists who keep changing and moving constantly. Ironically, in areas like architecture and art criticism, the notion of postmodernism was beginning to get formulated towards the end of the Sixties. Just at the point where "progression"  as a post-Beatles ideology was at its strongest in rock.
I think movies have their own value system of originality but it's more about a director's unique vision and approach, and not so much about innovation. If innovation is celebrated within cinema, it's either the very marginal tradition of experimental film making, or the very mainstream one of using new technology, special effects and so forth in Hollywood action blockbusters.  The thing about the ideology of modernism is that it was right in the heart of the rock and pop mainstream, something that was followed by some of the most commercially successful bands of all time -- from the Beatles on down. Figures like Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, The Police.  You also have a kind of modernism in the functional, machine-worshipping realm of dance music from disco onwards.  

1.       Has music completely lost its rebellious and/or political nature? Can you envisage a powerful movement  like punk or the protest songs of the sixties emerging in the modern world?

One thing that fascinated me with the student protests in the UK in late 2010, and then the street riots in the summer of 2011, and also with the Occupy movement, is you get journalists writing articles asking “where are the protest songs? What is the musical soundtrack for this moment?”. Well perhaps there isn’t going to be one. Maybe music and politics got decoupled at some point. Certainly it’s hard to imagine what songs could add to the current moment. Whereas during the Sixties or postpunk or the early days of hip hop, message songs did seem to have a certain kind of weight and heft.

Has technology stolen the language of pop?

I think people's "fix" of futurity isn't supplied by music so much anymore, they get it from technology, particularly hand-held devices. Smartphones, iPods, etc - you are really in the science fiction future when you are using them. Unfortunately the outside world you're moving through doesn't really look much different from how it looked in 1983. And the cultural content that you are accessing, sharing, distributing, storing, etc through your devices, the Internet, YouTube.... it hasn't changed much, really, since the 1970s, if we're talking about rock, or the 1990s, if we're talking about rap and rave. 

Specifcally with music, I do think that technology somehow sucked up and monopolised all the excitement-energy of fans during the Noughties– the playback devices, the digital platforms, the online communities, etc simply displaced music as the focus of fandom to a large extent. And particularly in the sense you refer to of the technology having that future-buzz aura. Someone, I can’t remember who now, wrote a piece this year about how Apple was supplying a kind of religiosity with the way that their products have an aura of transcendence and superhuman perfection, a sort of tangible, everyday miraculousness. My son Kieran is excited by new stuff to do with computers and games in the way that people of my generation were excited by new groups or musical movements.  I was a fanatic for science fiction; you could argue that he and his generation are grappling with the stuff of science fiction on a daily basis. At the same time Kieran has been affected by retromania: he’s really into vintage games, or digitally simulated versions of 8-bit games, and he enthuses about their clunkiness and old-fashioned qualities. He is eleven and words like retro and vintage are part of his vocabulary. 

What is your relationship with technology? as a journalist, don't you feel that what enables to make your work easier (information access, downloading, connecting) is the same that might end up destroying the media you work for?

 I have enthusiastically thrown myself into most aspects of digiculture and was a relatively early adopter. I had a website in 1996 which was relatively early for a music journalist, there were only a few others who had them then. I was relatively early as a journalist to start blogging and I went crazy for blogs, I currently have about 20! I was slower getting into downloading but when I did, I went really crazy for it.  So I am not a digi-phobe or a Luddite by any means. I have just become gradually aware that this digitally facilitated lifestyle is not very healthy in psychological and emotional turns. Every benefit is outweighed by a disadvantage, I have come to realise. And certainly the Internet has been disastrous for the print media and for the record industry. There are few places harder hit than music journalism because it's at the exact intersection of two industries (print magazines and the music business) that have both had their business models destroyed. A generation has been born that is convinced that it doesn't need to pay for content. I'm not of that generation but I am just as bad in terms of not buying magazines very often because there's so much free writing on the web, or downloading music for free.

What if it just happened that "the game is over"? That is was impossible to invent something new?

This feeling--that it's all been done, that's there no more possibilities, a feeling of being at the end of history looking back at more dynamic times when people weren't burdened by precedents and knowledge -- this is a predicament that has often been reached before in the history of human culture. It has occurred before in rock and pop as it happens. There's been various points when it felt like rock had reached a point of stasis, when the best days were behind us - 1970 was like that , 1975 also, and I can remember feeling like that in the mid-Eighties when the energy of postpunk had burned out. But of course things kicked off again later in the Eighties with hip hop and house, then in the Nineties you had grunge and rave.

But this current feeling of entropy and stagnation has gone on for a really long time now. I would say almost a decade.  It does feel like a state of deadlock has taken hold and it is hard to imagine breaking out of it.

  I’m every day more convinced that the key to understand almost EVERYTHING is what James Murphy summed up as “...borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered [add decade which applies]”... 

He is talking about the nostalgia-without-nostalgia syndrome I mentioned earlier, the nostalgia that doesn’t have any real sense of longing or loss.  Bands who are “nostalgic” for something they never actually experienced or living through, but have only read about or seen old TV footage of. So perhaps it isn’t really nostalgia, perhaps a different word is needed to describe what is going on here.
 I think what has happened is that the axis of time has flipped – that sounds a little bit mystical, but I think in cultural terms something like this has really happened, a radical transformation in our sense of “culture-time”, and as a result the past has taken the place of the future in the imagination of young music makers. They don’t think about exploring the unknown, like an astronaut or deep space probe.  The Future has lost its libidinal charge. Instead what has romance, what seems mysterious and magical to them, is the past. They have exploratory impulses but it’s not about discovery so much as recovery. They aren’t astronauts but archaeologists.  The idea of “lost treasure” is what they find alluring. So the hip hop idea of “digging in the crates” has become a kind of generalized practice throughout left-field hipster music. Except that often they’re not digging in crates in the record store, they are trawling the web, checking out blogs of obscure music or drifting through YouTube.

Do you think music is particular affected by retromania among other arts, and if it is, why ?

Music does seem particularly susceptible to retromania. Part of this relates to it being so being bound up with recordings. It’s very easy to access the past and it also makes it possible for people to completely turn their back on the present and just live in the past of a particular musical era. Before the Internet, before even the reissue explosion that took off in the Eighties, it was already  possible to do that, just using old records. You had the old music and you could also use the photographs on the covers as a guide on how to dress and style your hair for that out-of-time look.  So you had the mod revival in Britain in the late Seventies, then various rockabilly revivals and garage punk revivals.  If you didn’t like contemporary music, there were ways of escaping the present pop scene and living full-time in the past. But that was a major lifestyle statement, a stance that involved a lot of dedication: hunting down out-of-print records, and if you wanted to make “new old” music you had to hunt down the right instruments and amplifiers. Nowadays with the Internet, the musical past in its entirety is accessible instantly, and all the information is up there thanks to the amateur archivists of the web. You can simulate the period sounds you want more easily too.

After pop music, the two areas that seem most affected by retromania are fashion and design (graphic, interior, etc). They seem to be areas that got postmodernised very quickly, arguably even earlier than music did, and to a much more thorough degree. In fashion and design there’s none of the guilt about recycling ideas that you get still in the music world. Designers think nothing of recycling modernist typography from the early 20th Century or ripping off that famous Constructivist poster by Rodchenko of the Bolshevik woman shouting. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen that copied, from a Franz Ferdinand CD cover to a recent feminist poster demanding equal pay to a business self-help book called Recommended: How To Sell Through Networking and Referrals.

After pop music, fashion, and design, I would say you can see some retromania going on in cinema:  Hollywood is churning out remakes, and there’s plenty of movies with obvious homages and references to earlier films in them. And there are certain directors who are outright pasticheurs like Quentin Tarantino.  

This cinematic season has seen a couple of releases that chime with Retromania. Well more than a couple, if you want to talk about the latest crop of remakes, but specifically Super 8, which is riddled with “dead media” references, has the Spielberg-homage/Eighties-nostalgia aspect, and is, to use a British expression, a load of cobblers. And then Drive, which I’ve not seen, but which sounds like it’s incredibly referential in terms of movie history. Paul Morley on the UK TV show the Late Review said it was a movie all about being cool, and so completely uncool.  That had the ring of truth to me.  I suspect it is coming from the Tarantino school: visually ravishing, narratively thrilling, superbly acted but utterly empty. A meta-movie.

Of all the arts, literature seems the most immune to retro. You don’t really hear about novelists writing in the style of Faulkner or Dickens, or a Mumford & Sons style throwback movement in poetry based around bringing back the sonnet. You would never get a novelist who not only writes in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald but dresses, gestures, and talks like him too, and uses a manual typewriter instead of a computer to write on. But there are plenty of examples of that syndrome in rock music: bands that not only sound the part but look the part and do all the historically-precise performance moves onstage, use the instruments and studio equipment appropriate to the era they worship. 
Then again, maybe things like this are going in literature or other arts on for all I know. In the early phase of working on the book I would always be running into people at parties in New York, being asked what I was up to, and then being surprised when they would say that retro was a big thing in whatever their field was. I recall a poet telling me that “oh yes, we have retro poetry”. It does seem to be a culture-wide paradigm to a great extent. 

Does rock fit with the concept of innovation? Isn't it supposed to be a question of energy and power more than trying to bring something new at any price? 
I think innovation is one of the key things in rock history,  but people will differ on how much they value it. For me it is a very high value, but for others the visceral power of the music, or its expressive, emotive qualities might be more crucial. I value  those qualities too but I set most store on the idea of music moving forward, changing, mutating, being capable of surprising the listener sonically.  So the central eras of music for me are the psychedelic Sixties, the Krautrock and art-rock early Seventies, the postpunk late Seventies, hip hop in the Eighties, rave and techno and post-rock in the 90s, and then in the 2000s right at the start you had some innovative energy in R&B and “street rap” (which would include grime in the U.K.) which then petered out  quickly.

Of course you can also talk about innovation at the level of lyric-writing or persona: PJ Harvey for instance is mostly fairly traditional in her music, her innovations lie with the words and the personae she deploys. 

Do we need new terms for writing about music? Words such as "new" or "original“ become more and more meaningless it seems.

People will tell you that new and original and innovation are obsolete concepts nowadays, that they were always myths. I have a whole chapter added for the German edition of Retromania arguing with this viewpoint. I would like to revitalize terms like new and original, or define them in a way where you can actually calibrate the extent to which a current artist has these qualities.  But also I think what’s important is to break with the mode of criticism that analyses things in terms of sources, influenes, references points.  You can’t abandon that altogether, but it is used I think to avoid talking about what is actually new in an artist’s work. (If there is anything new, of course). Rather than tell you that a certain band sound like, or draw on, the Velvet Underground or Neu! or Gang of Four, try instead to pinpoint the way they don’t resemble those bands, or twist it some way, or take it further. It’s much harder to do that, of course. And more often with current bands they’re not trying to add anything new. Their interest is in trying to get the vintage sound as exactly as possible.

Let’s try a more positive approach: What can you say in favor of nostalgia?

Well, you could say the past is all we really have, in a sense. The future is intangible, it’s very vague. So thinking about the past is very attractive, whether it’s your own life or history. You can explore the depths and textures of things much more than when you were actually living through it. 

Nostalgia is a fine and necessary component of any individual’s life. My issue is more with the general malaise in pop culture of thinking that things were better in some earlier era. Even if they were objectively better, it’s still something to resist and to try to alleviate if you can.

Quentin Tarantino is called “a filmmaker dj”, because he mix different cultural elements doing a process of post-production. Don’t you think that it’s the sign of the times?

Yes. I wish I had written more in Retromania about Tarantino and about film in general. I hadn’t realized that he had done those “grindhouse” movies, as a double bill with another film maker, and with fake trailers for other grindhouse movies in between.  Which they then went on to actually film. And these films (like the Artist) have a lot of attention to formal properties of 70s pulp movies, the quality of the lighting, the film stock, the typography in the credits, camera angles. So a total retro-cinema aesthetic.  But just generally he is as you say ‘film maker as DJ”, sampling and recombining. 
The obvious parallel is with a group like Pavement. Members of Pavement worked in a record store, just as Tarantino was a clerk in a video rental store.  People who work in record stores or video rental –  if they are hip stores with a lot of esoteric and old records or movies – are able to build up a huge education in music or film. And this would have been in the Eighties and early Nineties, before the Internet and the vast archive of music and film that is freely accessible on YouTube, filehosting sites, etc etc.  So, both through listening to records and watching movies in the store while you work and also taking stuff home with you, taping it secretly, getting first pick at stuff that has been brought in by people to be sold – these people who work in the hip stores get to build up a huge knowledge of their art form. And it breeds a kind of referential, ironic sensibility.  You can pick up this sensibility through going to film school I expect too, but I think in Tarantino’s case it clearly comes from working as a video clerk.

Nowadays with the Internet, and archives like UbuWeb, and fan sites, and YouTube, anyone can give themselves this kind of schooling.  The whole culture has become nerd-ified and geek-ified.

In some way, the advances in history of music are related with drugs (and their influence in the creative process: MDMA in house, LSD in psichedelia, etc.) and technology (new instruments and ways of recording: synthetisers, auto-tune, ProTools, etc.). Do you think that the future of music depends on new drugs and new technical discoveries?

And I would say that the Sixties and amphetamines are very connected – a sense of speed, acceleration, restless energy. Amphetamines were legal then, all kinds of ordinary people took them, and they were just very commonly used by musicians to keep up with the rigours of touring and recording.  There is an argument for amphetamines being connected to “up”, forward-focused eras – they were widely used during punk and postpunk, and I think a lot of the febrile cerebral energy and “talkiness” of those times was caused by speed. That’s why I titled my book of postpunk interviews Totally Wired, after the Fall’s song about being a speedfreak.  And speed and Ecstasy (which is considered a psychedelic amphetamine in its effects if not chemistry) obviously had a lot to do with the Nineties rave energy and the feeling of surging into the future.

Yes it’s about time there was a new drug and ideally a new technology for it to interface with.

Do you think that there are countries, cultures, aesthetics more prone than others to the retromania, the nostalgia, the revision of the past?

Possibly. Retromania was written by someone who grew up in Britain and has now spent most of his adult life in America, so it has the perspective of someone in the Anglo-American realm.  It may well be that other countries through having a more distanced relationship to rock have a different perspective. However I’m told by people in Italy and France that their scenes are rife with retro. And certainly as I explore in the book the sensibility of music culture in Japan made that country a pioneer of retro consciousness. You certainly have retro and revivalist movements in many other countries – there is a rockabilly/psychobilly culture in Brazil, and in the Ukraine they call it  “ukrabilly”!  I suspect it is a generalized condition in the developed world. And then in Eastern Europe you have the curious phenomenon of “Ostalgie”, a nostalgia for Communist days – for the crap confectionery and the ludicrous TV commercials and bad products they had  before the collapse of the Soviet Empire.    

A lot of Spanish indie singers use nostalgia at a very early age, looking, for example, their childhood with nostalgia when they are twenty years old. Is that typical of a social and political conservative society?

No, actually it is quite common everywhere, I think. In fact, it is a hallmark of indie rock.  When it first emerged in the mid-Eighties, indie culture in the UK was very much bound up with nostalgia, both in the sense of wistfully harking back to the Sixties and also in terms of childhood. The very first piece I wrote for a music paper that got me attention as a critic was in 1986 for Melody Maker and it was called “Younger Than Yesterday”. It was an analysis of this whole scene in Britain of indie bands where the imagery was to do with childhood – the girls dressed like schoolgirls, with pigtails and satchels, the boys looked really fresh-faced (no beards then) and they wore these anoraks that were associated with the kind of clothes that your mother would buy you (i.e. before you get to be a teenager and take an interest in style and choosing your own clothes). The images on the record covers were often of children and the lyrics to the songs were mostly about love but very innocent and asexual. I interpreted this “innocence” as actually a highly sophisticated, middle class bohemian rejection of mainstream pop, which was hyper-sexual “body music”, influenced by black funk and soul’s adult sexuality.  That scene, which include groups like Talulah Gosh and The Shop Assistants and BMX Bandits, was sometimes known as “cutie pop” and it is the origin of todays “twee pop” (bands like Belle & Sebastian).  The Smiths weren’t really part of cutie-pop but shared some of the hallmarks: they had a similar nostalgic orientation towards 1960s films and TV and pop: the covers of their singles are all that kind of iconography.

So I think there is a kind of  inherent nostalgia in indie culture, it relates perhaps to the middle class, student composition of the demographic. It is quite a common syndrome for people that age, on the edge between school and the grown-up world of careers, responsibility etc, to find themselves harking back to lost innocence, all the things they are about to leave behind forever.  You have similar syndrome with today’s underground indie rock in America—styles like beach pop and hypnagogic pop-- where a lot of groups make reference to 1980s and early 90s pop culture. There’s a group called Ducktails named after an animated cartoon TV show of that era, for instance.

In which moments of the history of rock and pop the music was not looking to the past, and why do you guess that happened?

Well, obviously the Sixties. A whole bunch of things were happening simultaneously. Technological developments with music were occurring, such as the rapid development in the art of recording, as it went from live takes recorded on two track machines to four track to eight track and so on, plus the development of all kinds techniques of “phonography”, like overdubbing, tape treatments, use of effects. Guitarists were developing all kinds of effects and exploring the potential of amplification, which was increasingly exponentially as the decade proceeded. You had the new sense of rock as art, through the Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, and as a form that self-consciously evolved and innovated. The new idea that artists should develop and change and keep moving, also introduced by the Beatles 

Rock was also hungrily grabbing onto influences and inputs from all over the place, from musique concrete and electronic composition, people like Stockhausen, to the new directions in jazz (the influence of Coltrane on the Byrds, or of AMM on Pink Floyd), to things like Indian raga, African music, you name it. Some of the ideas drawn on were from the past, from classical music or Medieval instrumentation like the harpsichord, or folk and country, or English music hall – but there was no nostalgia involved, it was all about making current pop music as wild and exotic and far out as possible. And then rock was connected to all the currents in society and politics and contemporary culture that were progressive, radical, forward-looking. It was an era when the general sensibility and ethos of the Zeitgeist was an obsession with change, the new, breaking with tradition, on all fronts from sex and gender relations, to racial politics, to fashion and clothing. All the art forms from painting to fiction to film were in a white heat of innovation and upheaval. And it was all underwritten by relative prosperity, which gave the youth a sense of confidence and a feeling that they couldn’t be stopped, that they would sweep away the old. Drugs played their part here as well: LSD but also amphetamines and pot.

Another period that had a similar kind of feeling of forward-looking energy was postpunk in the late Seventies and early Eighties, as I wrote about in Rip It Up and Start AGain. Punk had given musicians a feeling that music had a renewed power to change the world, or to raise consciousness, or to challenge authority. So there was a responsibility to build on that momentum that punk had started and to keep on radicalizing music. Innovation and constant change were the key words of that time. It was a darker, more anxious, less confident period than the Sixties, but that didn’t encourage people to fall back into nostalgia or to retreat from the challenges.  That period of innovation in rock music was also helped by the great advances made in black music, from reggae with its rhythms and dub production (an influence on everybody from Public Image Ltd and the Slits to The Police and the Specials) to funk and disco, from the early hip hop and electro records to sounds coming from Africa like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade. Nearly all the great groups of this era, like PiL, Talking Heads, New Order, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, etc were influenced by black music and by dance music. 

Another factor was technological advances – the emergence of cheap, portable synthesisers onto the market, then drum machines and sequencers, and by the end of the postpunk period you also had  sampling technology coming in, although it was too expensive for most people to use at that point. Again I would say drugs are a factor – particularly amphetamines, because speed gives you nervous energy and a feeling of acceleration. And also self-belief.

And then finally I think the Nineties was a great period of not looking backwards, with rave culture and all the various forms of house, techno and electronic dance (and non-dance) music. Again, it was underwritten by technology: cheap samplers, the early digital audio software programs like Cubase, etc etc. And the engine of all the change started with black music and the post-disco undergrounds of the Eighties such as Chicago house and various sounds out of New York and Detroit. That then was picked up by the UK and Europe, leading to jungle, trance, gabber, IDM and a dozen more sounds. A mad mutational rush of new styles splintering off in every conceivable direction. You also had spin-off sounds that were basically indie rock that had been affected by techno and house and rave, like the Manchester scene (Stone Roses, Happy Mondays), you had postrock (the UK end of it, anyway, bands like Seefeel and Techno Animal and Disco Inferno). But this was counter-acted to some extent by the retro effects of phenomena like Britpop, Sixties-nostalgics like Oasis.  Also with the Nineties techno-rave futurism, there was again a strong influence from drugs. Ecstasy and amphetamines created a feeling of unstoppable energy, confidence, optimism, and “living for the future” euphoria.

You mention your son in the book. How is his relation with recorded music? How did he reaches the music? Wich are the big and definitive differences between growing today and growing when you were a kid, in this aspect?

Kieran doesn’t have much interest in music yet. He is really invested in computers, social media and games. If he likes a song it’s usually through hearing it in game or on YouTube. Sometimes he’ll get into a song he hears on the radio when we’re in the car. But he is 12 so it is perhaps early for music to be part of his socialization at school. And when he starts to get into grown  up emotions like love and so on, I expect music will start to become important. However I don’t think for his generation music will ever have the central role it did in terms of identity-formation that it did for my generation or for people who grew up in the Eighties and Nineties.  It’s part of the cultural landscape but it is interfaced with so many other things, from games to films to celebrity culture. And in terms of the attention economy, music has to compete with all these other entertainment forms.  For my generation, music was a way of defining yourself but it was also a way of filling the emptiness – the tremendous boredom of growing up in the 70s with not much to do, and also the psychological and emotional holes that you might have through either just being an adolescent, or through the particular problems in your life, your family etc. I don’t think people experience boredom in the same way today, there are so many distractions. And probably they deal with loneliness and alienation in different ways now, through the addictiveness of social media, texting, and other forms of “connectivity”.

My daughter, Tasmin, who is six, is really into music though. She likes Justin Bieber and she has a little tiny Ipod with a speaker. And she is really into dancing. She likes any kind of rhythmic music and does her own version of breakdancing to it. She loves to sing and is particularly into national anthems. She knows all the words to the various American anthems and she has been making me sing “God Save the Queen” and the bits I can remember of “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory”

Hipsterism, when will it end? And what comes next?

I don’t know if the hipster is on the way out yet.  HIpsterism is our modern version of bohemia, but without the belief in itself as a project that bohemia had; a sort of faithless or always-already disillusioned bohemia, that still clings to the idea of being different or expressing some kind of marginal identity through consumption choices or lifestyle choices, but has lost any sense of why that would matter.  Taste and art-making as the expression of a deviance that never reaches the point of being properly politicized.  Unconventional taste and style as a stance that is undercut by its own self-irony and sense of futility.

 Whatever structurally—in terms of society, the class structure, the contradictions of capitalism etc-- required the existence of first bohemianism, and then hipsterism, hasn’t changed, so something like it will continue to exist, I expect. Maybe this phase of whatever hipsterism is is coming to an end, if its characteristics are so identifiable that it has reached the point of being mocked in the mainstream.  But some new formation of compromised and self-contradictory pseudo-rebellion will doubtless emerge in the same space. 

So yeah, I doubt it will ever end, just mutate into something that is slightly different,  but essentially the same.   There is a certain strand of young and young-ish people who will always want to differentiate themselves through their choices in music, style, etc. And that central irresolvable conflict in hipster culture between the desire for authenticity and a sense of irony and meta-awareness, that will surely perpetuate itself for a long while. The two things are bound together because irony creates a sense of hollowness, a feeling that real life is elsewhere, that other people are leading realer, more urgent, grounded lives and that you can connect yourself to them by consuming the same things as them. The original hipsters were white bourgeois types who looked to black music and black style as both realer and cooler than their own parent culture. The modern hipster has uncoupled from black culture as its primary focus and now looks all over the place for authenticity (increasingly the “realness” is lost realness, it can be found in the archives, the flea market of pop cultural memory). Unless there is some massive rejection of the consumer culture, people will still be trying to express their individuality and nonconformism through these increasingly rarified games with taste.

 It’s been two years since you finished the book. Do you still agree with everything you wrote – or is there anything else in your argumentation that you would change now?

I wouldn’t change the overall slant, but through doing so many interviews and public appearances I have thought of hundreds of things I should have said, different angles and avenues, or clearer ways of making the argument, and certain assumptions that needed to be examined and justified more. I do a bit of that in the extra chapter for the German edition, which grapples with some of the counter-arguments and critiques the book received. Basically I would have liked to define innovation and originality more clearly, and to explore the conditions in which they occur and the strategies for pursuing them.  I do that to an extent in the new German end-chapter but there’s more that could be said.  Of course people have written books and books about these questions.

Any personal consideration on what Steve Jobs has done to music? Does he deserve the tag of genius who really mastered pop culture in the last decade?

When he died and everyone around me seemed to go into intense mourning, it struck me how little Steve Jobs impinged directly on my life. I don’t have a Mac, just a Dell PC, so in fact I own just one of his products—a small iPod, which I hardly ever use it, because I was never that big a fan of the Walkman (basically I spend all day at home working and listening to music, so when I go outside I am happy to not listen to music but to hear the sounds of the city and my surroundings). But indirectly, of course, Jobs impinged hugely on the world I inhabit, in so far as the iPod and iTunes—and the general digitized culture of music, MP3s, filesharing etc—had a huge effect on the way people listen to music. Particularly the Shuffle seems to encapsulate the way people listen to music now, drifting across genres, across history, liking lots of things but not being obsessed or fanatical about particular zones of music. So I would say that, in large part because of Jobs and Apple and its products, the 2000s saw a revolution in listening habits, but no revolution in music itself. And the two things are connected.  It’s almost though all the upheaval and constant change and future-buzz that we once got from music, we now got from the devices and platforms through which we heard music. We got the future-buzz of those groovy little machines and the rush of accessing, sharing, storing, organizing, at this incredibly accelerated speed, the thrill of frictionless convenience. 

-          Do you feel that current music is, in some way, devaluated because of the facility fans have in obtaining music?

People who are from a left-wing background often have a kind of reflexive anti-capitalist thing where they feel obliged to say “it’s great that music is free now, that it’s no longer making the corporations rich”.  But I would have to say that the de-commodification of music hasn’t worked out so well for music. Obviously it’s been a disaster for bands, for the record industry. But also for listeners and fans. See, it turns out that when music cost money and came in a solid form – so that getting hold of it involved expense and effort (going to a record store) – people valued it more. It stands to reason: if you’ve spent money on a cultural product (book, magazine, record, whatever), you are going to spend time trying to extract value from that artifact. If you pay money for a CD, you will pay attention to the CD when you play it, and you’ll also play it more than once I think getting music for free, in the form of demateralised downloads, it makes it more likely you will listen just once and that  you will listen in a distracted, disengaged way.  You  will listen while doing other things on your computer (partial attention syndrome they call this, also known as multi-tasking), and you may not even listen all the way through. 

Also, if you are downloading lots and lots of music, as people tend to when they get music for free, it is just mathematically less likely you will listen to the record more than once. And so many records don’t open out to the listener fully until they’ve been played several times.

So yes, I would say that digiculture is all about facilitation, and that facility of access and the minimal cost of acquisition have led to both a depreciation of the value of music and a degradation of the listening experience.  In my experience, observing my own relationship with music. But I’ve heard from many other people who have the same experience. 

The trouble with listening to music via a computer or by an iPhone or any other device or platform that is wired to the Internet is this: the portal that is connecting you to the music is also, simultaneously, a portal to a million other things.  So there is a terrible temptation to click onto something else, as soon as you get bored. Or, even if you keep the music running, it is almost irresistible to do something else at the same time – check your emails, surf the web, download some more music.  So you are rarely fully present, immersed in the musical now.   This applies to almost anything you do on the web. Web magazines are overtly designed to encourage you not to finish the piece you are reading, because you have all the other brightly-coloured, eye catching stories and podcasts trying to grab your attention. The magazines don’t even want to you finish the stories, because they want as many clicks as possible, so the more you jump around within their magazine the better.   

As a writer, and someone who depends on the books and articles you write, how do you see file-sharing? Has it helped, or made your life harder?

Well it’s great to be able to find all these obscure records, things that are very hard to find and impossibly expensive, and in some cases, things that were never really released at all. But overall, filesharing has been bad for my enjoyment of music. I think the problem is for people like me who lived through the scarcity economy era when music cost money, you have this mentality towards music of greed: “gimme gimme gimme”. And then all of a sudden, with music for free on the internet,  it’s like you’ve got the keys to the ultimate music megastore and you can have everything. So you try to have everything. But the problem is that the one thing you don’t have an infinite supply of is time. And having all that music prevents you from focusing on, immersing yourself in, and falling in love with specific examples of music. So the abundance interferes with the process of emotional bonding with music that comes with playing an album over and over and over again until it is entwined around your life. That still happens for me but it is harder because you’re always thinking “I should check out this, I need to keep moving on, I’ve got all this music to process and keep up with”.

Is it possible that the next revolutionary moment will arrive in the 2060s or ’70s, when 2100 is looming, or was the millennium a singular inspiration?

There is something about the shift of that single numeral, from a 1 to a 2 – from 1999 to 2000 – that felt like it should be a movement across a threshold. It’s only a year’s difference, no different than the time that separates 1985 from 1986, but it seemed to have this looming momentousness. I don’t know when it first became a big beckoning yet ominous thing in the culture – probably well before 2001, A Space Odyssey – but I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t that sense of expectation about the 21st Century. I was a big science fiction fan as a teenager so that intensified it, but I think most people felt more or less the same way. Nothing like that exists now, in terms of a date that seems like a precipice. I wonder also if the younger generation even have the same relationship to temporality? The Future doesn’t seem to have the same libidinized aura around it as a concept. Possibly because it seems to promise so much less: there is a real prospect that there’ll be less wealthy than their parents, be living in countries whose infrastructure grows ever more decrepit.

You mention this in the book but don’t take it further: it seems chavs are more in the present and even in the future than middle class white educated kids are. Chavs are horrified to wear retro garment and are extremely aware about new tendencies in clubbing… how does this cope with retromaniacs being for progress in politics while chavs are usually retro in the thing that matters? It’s funny the way social classes, music and culture are being re-framed

I don’t really know what the politics of chavs as a class are, I imagine they are either apolitical or easily manipulateable by the media (scares about immigrants and so forth). There is probably a raw sense of injustice but also a fatalism – this is the way the world is, and the best you can do is struggle hard to make money, enjoy it while you can. When I was a history of student, a professor said that there was research that suggested that the working classes have a different sense of temporality than the bourgeoise.  They didn’t think long-term, they were oriented towards the immediate future – the weekend, for the young working class.  Whereas your bourgeoisie had long term life plans, a sense of providence, investment for their futures etc. So anti-smoking adverts didn’t work as effectively  on the workers because they didn’t project far enough ahead into the future to when they’d get cancer or heart disease. I don’t know if that research was accurate or whether it still applies, but it was certainly true that working class dance culture in the UK was locked into what they call a “weekender” mentality.  You can see an echo of that in a lot of pop in the charts at the moment, a lot of songs about partying like there’s no tomorrow, maxing out credit cards and drinking and sexing recklessly.  So a lack of interest in the past (or in ideas like heritage) would also relate to a lack of concern about the future I think. Instead there’s a kind of present-mindedness, an interest in the now and in the latest style, gadgets, sounds.

According to  you, how a great opinion leader like Lester Bangs, would tell the loss of this era music?

It’s hard to say. Towards the end of his life Bangs was utterly despairing about modern music, which he felt had lost touch with human emotion and vitality.  One of his favourite bands towards the end of his life was a band from Texas, Joe 'King' Carrasco and the Crowns, that was overtly retro and harked back to the Sixties sounds that he’d loved—the lost shindig spirit of “Wooly Bully” and “Louie Louie”, mixed in with Tex-Mex and rockabilly and polka.  So it’s quite likely that as modern music got more and more distant from the things he’d loved, he might have become a reactionary.  He would probably have despised MTV and been equally alienated by the Internet and its transformations to music culture .

Rock critics do tend to get attached to the substance of a specific sound, and, as they get older,  stick with that music long after the original spirit of it has faded away. And the spirit itself never dies, it just moves somewhere else – it always rematerialises in a different sonic context. So you have to keep looking in the least obvious place I think. I’d like to believek Bangs would have recognised a certain spirit in the early rave culture that was wild and punky, but who knows? 

So I suspect that  Bangs would have probably found the current organization of music culture both abhorrent and bewildering. I don’t think he would have critiqued in the way I have in Retromania, though – he’d be more in favor of going back to the past and trying to revive the old values and probably the old sounds too.

I do think that in the past there was a connection between the artists and a particular environment – they could actually take a picture of a social and cultural background, recreate an atmosphere. can we find a song, or an album, that perfectly describes our times – my generation – I feel present-day artistss, with the exception of some local ones, seem or pretend to be to be just out of time – and some of them produce ephemeral songs, lasting the space of an eyeblink – and maybe that’s the answer (consume it and throw it away, post it on twitter and forget about it after 2 hours). Or can we consider Amon Tobin or Wolfgang Voigt’ experiments in the field of cross-medial musical experience the future

Maybe the music that takes a picture of now would be one that reflects or absorbs the way that we live in an augmented reality, in the sense that we are so often engaged with the Internet and digiculture even as we are going about our daily business. So if you think of the way that people use their phones with GPS apps to find their way around an unfamiliar town or area, or people sitting in cafes absorbed in their laptops or iPads – a sense that people are not fully present in their here-and-now, but always networked.  So a music that reflects both the exhilarating weightlessness of that kind of augmented, digitally enhanced existence, but also its anxieties, its creeping unreality, its disembodiment – and the fact that all this connectivity is not the same as actual face-to-face, physical connection with other human beings. So it’s a new space in which anomie and isolation are simply rearranged and redistributed, rather than left behind.  So what would that music sound like? I don’t know but I think artists like Oneohtrix Point Never and James Ferraro are pointing in that direction. James Ferraro described his last album Far Side Virtual as “the still life of now”, a sound painting of current mode of existence.

I also think a lot of modern rap has something of that quality of abjectly-leaking subjectivity that characterizes the era of social media and personality-display – something about the strange ballad-raps of Drake and Lil Wayne, I find them almost psychotic. They make me think of simulation and hyper-reality and all those Baudrillard concepts. That’s why Ferraro’s attempt to weird-ify current rap with his Bebetunes project is redundant: mainstream hip hop is already the Simulacrum.

You seem recently to have been championing some of the rave/pop music which dominates the radio, so I was wondering where you think this fits into the scheme of things in our retro minded culture? Do you think there is still a sense of "monoculture" in the mainstream? A sense that there is a public space which can be contested? Here I'm referring specifically to the rave hip hop end of the world party music, which is derivative of earlier dance music forms but doesn't seem to be outwardly retro; it is not referential and it's not knowingly playing with the past, there doesn't seem to be much irony there, it is about living to the fullest in the present.  Or do you think this space is the most loaded with potential for something new, a modern glam, based on the past but disposable and not intrinsically locked into the past?

I’m not sure championing is quite the word, but I do like some of that stuff a lot – Black Eyed peas, Ke$ha, Dev, ‘Good Feeling’ etc.   It’s partly to do with being in car a lot in LA and it sounds good as you’re whizzing along the freeways. And my kids are into it (“Play contemporary, Daddy” they say, meaning don’t put it on a classic rock station) so that gives me an added layer of enjoyment.

I go back and forth on it – initially I was like ‘but this sounds just like music from Ibiza in the mid-late 90s’.

The paradox that is a little disquieting if you think about is that it does actually sound ‘modern’ – but it is a kind of modern-ness that has become stabilized, it hasn’t changed in about 15 years, maybe longer.  In the book I talk about “arrested futurisim” or “frozen futurism”.

My wife and I were chatting about it in the car last week, about how in the 90s that kind of music seemed to about the future, pointing towards the 21st Century. And now we’re here, and it’s still the future. The people in the 90s were right! It was the future sound and now it’s just the now-sound. We’re here.

The only really new element is the dubsteppy stuff that has crept in here and there. And the AutoTune element has been taken further. But then Cher’s ‘Believe’ came out 1999 so...

So you're right, it’s not retro in any respect,  it’s not harking back to the 90s – it’s just reiterating, it seems to be stuck in some way.

It’s not exactly the same as the late 90s club–trance-Eurohouse sound but the basic architecture of it as music is the same It just sounds better produced, glossier, bigger, richer.

(The same thing applies to a lot of rap –  the trap sound, or what they're now calling ratchet. Things like Tyga, ‘Rack City’. It  doesn't sound much different from early 2000s hip hop, the Dirty South, Cash Money, Lil Jon, Ludacris sound. It's an incremental step in that ten year old (or longer ) sound. But it sounds bigger, sharper, clearer, cleaner.

Dancepop does seem to be the closest thing to a monoculture in pop – the R&B/rap meets club/house sound. When I check to see what's in the UK top 40, that's what almost all of the chart comprises, give or take the Lumineers or Mumford.  Same goes for the Billboard top 100.

I don’t know if there’s a potential for something to come out of it that’s more interesting or challenging or content-full. Right now it seems to have an Adorno-nightmare quality  - it's completely assembled and part-interchangeable. Tthe average song has about four to six writers. If you look at the credits for a Ke$ha or Bieber album it’s like a movie  - so many writers, engineers, producers, mixers, studios.  So we're talking about the perfect -- or even perfected - functional product.  It hits those pleasure centers in a vaguely controlling way.   It’s hard to see that being repurposed for something expressive either on the individual level or in terms of social energy.  Ke$ha was about the realest thing in that whole realm: you had the sense of an actual personality there, concrete details from a life. Some lyrical resonance with what was going on in the outside world, possibly inadvertent. I'm talking about Animal-Cannibal, though. But on Warrior they turned her into a Ke$habot, it's like having fun is a job for her. There's hardly any jokes in the lyrics. The joie de vivre is palpably diminished.

Still as a dance anthem  ‘We R Who We R” still stands as  better than anything that “proper” dance music has produced in the last 5 years.

You said you couldn't listen to certain new artists because you immediately spot in their music all their previous influences. Don’t you think that the new generations can experience the other way around - I mean, discover the bands of the past through the contemporary ones?

Yes you can be led to great earlier music by the signposts and clues in the music of a current band. That’s always gone on, it’s just nowadays it’s spelled out a lot more clearly, through bands talking about their influences and sources. The problem I have with this approach, in terms of the way bands get written about, is that it is reductive, the group becomes the sum of its sources, and nobody really writes about all the ways they are not like their precursors. The artist becomes seen as a sort of gigantic orifice attached to a similarly sized anus – eating all this input and then shitting it out. The bit that matters though is the bit in the middle: the digestion and transmutation of the sources into something else

When I read Retromania with all the references, I thought it was a pitty not to have an interactive audio-video version of your book on ipad and not in such a retro thing than a book ;)

Every book has an interactive audio version of itself now – it’s called YouTube, or the Internet!

People have said to me, why don’t you put out a sort of e-book version of Rip It Up or Retromania, with music and video formatted into it, but the cost of clearing all the uses would be enormous. And the logistics of getting them would be a bureaucratic nightmare, all the permissions you’d have to get. This is why nobody does it: it costs too much and it is too labor-intensive.

Are mainstream and underground different in the way they deal with retromania?

The mainstream doesn’t really care about innovation or originality to the same extent, because that ideology of progression that developed in the Sixties and continued into the Seventies and Eighties has largely faded from popular memory. Nonetheless because a lot of mainstream music has a relationship with black music, the dance imperative, and with high end studio technology, you could say that on a formal level, mainstream music is sometimes more advanced than underground/alternative music. That was very clearly the case in the Eighties, when the records being made by Janet Jackson or Steve Winwood were way more “modern” than the music in the indie scene, which was looking back to the Sixties and refused things like drum machines and sequencers and samplers and synths.

In some ways, alternative music is the home of retro, or at least of being behind the times.

The underground has a complicated relationship with retro, in that there is still quite a lot of lip service to the notion of innovation, but also it is naturally prone to irony and pastiche and a scholarly knowledge of rock’s past. That is why in the book I say that retromania is even more chronic in the hip underground than in the mainstream – the very class of people who were once (during the Sixties or postpunk) into being the vanguard, are now the arriere-garde, or retro-garde.

In the 2000s, one can observe also a strange comeback of analogic media (tapes, vinyles, Vhs, Super8, lomo, polaroid, even xerox fanzines) used by those very same « digital natives »?

Yes it seems to be partly to do with their associations with particular romantic periods of subculture (zines and cassettes are associated with punk, postpunk, and early industrial music) and partly because of the tangible nature of these formats and techniques, which have satisfactions compared to the more digital-era ways of making and communicating.  They look good and feel good.

How do you explain this nostalgia for a time they did not even know?

It might be a sort of unarticulated frustration with certain aspects of digital existence, which can be quite lonely and alienating. Digital life can also be disruptive, or “interruptive”,  in the sense that you are constantly connected and juggling all these different streams of stimuli. Analogue formats seem to go hand in hand with a more immersive, concentrated form of cultural experience.   A better kind of flow.

 In his Vanity Fair article, Kurt Andersen also talks about « devolution », pretending that there is almost no difference between 2012 and 1992.That movies, literature, music has never changed less over a 20 year period. Why is that?

Well, this is a rather large question, and obviously some of the answers are in my book.  One thing I should have looked at more closely in Retromania is the possibility that if cultural progress has slowed down, it has a lot to do with declining rates of economic growth and a sense of social and political deadlock.  Really, ever since the early Seventies, growth in the West has slowed down and become fitful; where it has existed, it’s come about in large part through financial speculation, real estate speculation, and information technology. In other words, it’s not been linked to an increase in manufacturing; the wealth has been vaporous.  And then from the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan onwards, there’s been a sense of deadlock, or even outright regression in politics and related things like social mobility.  I’m not a card-carrying Marxist but I do think that culture and the economy tend to go together. The Sixties music revolution and what they called the “youthquake” was underwritten by prosperity, which gave youth—and especially working class youth--a sense of confidence and dynamism. Since the early Seventies, that feeling has been fitful at best, and has often gone into reverse. So that may have something to do with a kind of slow-down in the rate of stylistic change.  If everything else is slowing down and stagnating, how can we expect culture to keep moving fast?

We’re all complicit in retromania. What’s the habit we most need to drop, then, to become a highly progressive people?  

Ooh, I don’t know. I certainly think critics could stop making excuses for “noncreative garbage” (to borrow a line from Monty Python). They could be a bit more stern and judgemental. But the problem starts at an earlier stage than mediation or critical filtration.  Obviously the problem is not that people are less talented these days. It’s much more macro and structural, a change in the base-line conditions in which culture is made.  In an essay I did for the Wire that paralleled the book and expanded on its themes, I wrote in near-mystical terms about how the axis of time has flipped and the past has displaced the future in the cultural imagination. I do think something like that has happened in terms of the archival universe that is the Internet. This is why Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have been riffing on “atemporality” as a byproduct or effect of network culture.  The Internet and digital culture has interfered with our very sense of culture-time. It’s no longer uni-linear, heading into the future, the unknown.

Have you been following the controversy following Ubu Web founder’s Epiphany on The Wire? If so, how significant do you think his position is in connection with emerging attitudes about the value of music (and, by extension, art)?

I was very struck by that piece of writing because the syndromes he’s describing are similar to what I write about in Retromania in the chapter on record collecting and how it’s changed in the age of the MP3 and filesharing. Except that where I find it depressing and write about this shameful phase when I got completely addicted to downloading music in such vast amounts that I could never hope to listen to it, Goldsmith is gleeful about it! He seems to think it’s glorious that he’s swapped the hunt for music for actually listening to and experiencing music. To me it’s an empty rush, that blind, almost insane compulsiĆ³n to acquire music that you’ll never listen to. It’s consumerism’s purchase of the moment, but without even the buzz of actually spending money. It’s the opposite of true music love, the spiritual immersion of deep listening.

And of course it’s absolutely devastated music at precisely the experimental and left-field end of things that someone like Goldsmith ought to be concerned about, seeing as he’s the founder of UbuWeb, this archive of avant-garde text and music and film. It’s not so much the mainstream record labels who’ve been hit worst by filesharing, it’s the small labels and the cult artists, who once might have hoped to make a small income from their records but now are reduced to doing it as vanity projects. I know from people in bands and small labels how low the sales are now and how hard it is to stay business – even labels that get hailed as the Record Label of the Year, or musicians whose records get high in the Wire magazine’s list of albums of the year, they are finding it very hard to even recoup their costs when they do a record.

One of the village voice critic musical resolution for 2012 is get off the internet... do you share its view?

I linked to Maura Johnston’s  New Year’s resolutions on my blog and said I agreed with all of them, but that I lack the will power to actually do them. I am addicted to the internet. I wish I could get off it, or at least ration the time I spend on it.  Because I know it’s not real life and really about 80 percent of the time I spent on it is literally killing time.  I have made good and real friends through the internet, people I’ve never met but we have great correspondences. I’ve read many amazing things on blogs, and found music that would have been very hard to find, or old TV things that are wonderful to see again. But there’s a lot of negatives to the wired lifestyle.

How has DIY changed in the digital era?

I recently came up with a pun: the concept of DIYstopia, that is to say, the do-it-yourself principle, which in punk days was utopian and liberating, has now inverted and created a dystopia. By which I mean to say, through digital technology it is so easy to create music at home with minimal cost, and so easy to disseminate it through the internet, that the problem now is not access but excess.  There is a shortage of consumers, not creators.  We actually need people to be passive, uncreative, content not to do it themselves but to absorb, admire and support the work of the really creative, really visionary! That sounds elitist but in the DIYstopia, democraticisation of the means of cultural production has become the opposite of emancipation. It’s a nightmare!  A leftfield musician in the U.K. came up with the term “the no-audience underground” to describe himself and similar musicians – he didn’t seem that bothered by the idea of making music and putting it out to an audience of zero, but to me it speaks of a terrible futility and absurdity.  The scarcity issue with music and culture now is to do with the economy of attention.

Doing it yourself is fine if you’re just literally doing it FOR yourself, to amuse yourself or learn an musical skill.  I’ve no problem with the legions of amateurs bands who play bluegrass in America, or get together to do covers of punk songs.  That is craft. But when you release a record you are putting your activity into the context of art, of public culture – so you become judged by the criteria of art, become subject to the judgements of the public, if you can find one.  The DIY explosion has led to the release of a lot of music that never rises above craft, i.e. pastiche i.e. doing it the correct way, as opposed to an original way.

What is the role of the music critic in a media where everything is readily available?

We’re waiting to find out. It’s less to do with turning people on to things they’ve yet to hear, because they usually can hear it, check it out on YouTube. But the old roles of creating meaning and value, bringing insight and judgement, and pattern recognition (seeing trends and connections) still remain. It’s just that more people are doing those things on an amateur basis than before.  And often better than the paid professionals.

What do you think is the future of printed magazines?

I think the thing that printed magazines can do – if they still have financial resources – is to fund people to go out and do researched pieces. Scene reports, or interviews that involve hanging out with the bands. The trouble with internet outlets is that because there is so little money, people are tempted to do the least labor-intensive thing which is the email interview – the result is that the musicians never reveal anything they don’t want to, and that there’s no spontaneity or vibe or connection. So you get interviews that are very ideas-oriented and clear-cut but no sense of the musicians as human beings or physical presences.  So while they can afford to do that, music magazines should pursue the old fashioned idea of the profile – a real portrait of the musician, catching them doing stuff, revealing who they are whether they intend to or not.

Why do you think we still have a thriving collectors' market for vinyl?

When it comes to current releases, there seems to be a certain degree of faddishness and hipster-consumerist format fetishism. I was talking to young musician who is quite highly regarded in that whole realm of “hypnagogic pop”, and he had just received a test pressing of his new album on vinyl, which he is also putting out as a CD. And he said, “to be honest, this kind of music” –meaning home-studio recorded, do-it-yourself,  music—“works better on compact disc”, by which he meant the sound quality. “But the Kids want it on vinyl, so what can you do.” He said he would send me both versions but advised me to listen to the CD as the vinyl was much inferior, sound-wise.

I thought that was an interesting admission, and it suggests that to get a good result on vinyl, you need top quality mastering, but also the original recordings have to be to a certain standard. If you think of the classic, great-sounding vinyl albums of rock/pop/jazz history – everything from Fleetwood Mac to Miles Davis to The Beatles – they were recorded in great studios, at tremendous expense, with a team of expert sound engineers. The best people in the business, at every stage of the process.  That doesn’t apply to today’s indie music, or indeed most dance music, so maybe this young musician is right: in terms of capturing and transmitting the sonics, they’d all be better off using compact disc, it’s cleaner and cleaer. I’ve certainly noticed that a lot of hypnagogic pop type post-indie music, and a lot of recent dance music, when I get sent it on vinyl, the sound quality is really poor – the music sounds weak and indistinct. There is a real art to mastering and cutting. But clearly for a lot of young fans, their ideological (or fashion) commitment to vinyl over-rides what their ears are actually hearing.  Vinyl seems to symbolize do-it-yourself whereas CDs (or even CD-Rs) don’t, it has a kind of aura that relates to the Analogue Era of music maybe, to the reverence for “golden ages” like psychedelia, Krautrock, punk, postpunk and DIY.  There is also the tactility and tangibility of vinyl compared to downloaded music.

In terms of second-hand, old vinyl...  it has probably been affected by the fact that you can get the music, the sound itself, so easily on the internet. But there are still enough people, including myself, who like the solid object, with the warmer analogue sound, the heft of the weight of the record itself, and all the para-cultural data that you get from the label, the period typography, the sleevenotes. Not forgetting the full-scale artwork of the LP cover.  There are also enough real differences of sound to getting the analogue form of the recording, especially when you further get into things like mono versions, the original pressings (as opposed to later pressings and reprints) which are supposed to be closer to how the masters sound, etc.   I think the second hand market will continue for a long time until perhaps the last of the analogue generation dies off, but after a certain point not much more will be added to the pool of used vinyl that circulates. It will be primarily Sixties, Seventies, Eighties releases (not many from the 90s, when the CD prevailed over vinyl). Happily for second hand dealers, so much music was released during that period that it can go on for a long while, especially as people are now moving into the vinyl stocks of non-Western countries.

Do you think that a kind of brain-drain might have occurred in that the “best minds of my generation” do not venture into music anymore but into more “applied” areas such as programming or design so that music is left to the copycats and those whose aspiration it is to become successful by a struggling industry’s standards?

The thought has occurred to me at certain points that music has simply been eclipsed by other forms of entertainment (game culture, for instance) and no longer attracts the brightest minds. I’m not 100 percent convinced: surely the innately musical will always feel the pull of that particular art form? Then again, pop has always been a hybrid form as much to do with lyrics, persona and visuals as with sound alone; it is often pushed forward by conceptualist non-musicians. Perhaps it’s these sort of people who aren’t becoming involved in music, either as the ideas-catalyst in bands or in roles within the record industry, management, etc.  You’d have thought that the glamour and “cool” that pop/rock still has would still draw people. But then again the woes of the record industry and the declining ability of musicians to make a living, let alone make a fortune... that might direct people towards other avenues of wealth-power-status-fame creation. In black American music, I think that might explain why hip hop’s rate of innovation has stalled: it’s much less likely you’ll make money in that field now.  There does also seem in Britain to be an embourgeoisment of the music industry: it’s not functioning as a working class escape route like it used too, and more and more bands seem to be middle class and university educated.  The middle classes generally tend to have more an interest in history, notions of preservation and heritage, so that might account for some of the retro tendencies in current music.

Overall, if pop’s preeminence in the culture is slipping, a vicious circle will set in of declining prestige followed by a decreased intake of lively minds, on and on in ever-depleting cycles.

I loved your book, but I have to confess it made me pretty sad, because the future of art, at least from my viewpoint, doesn’t look too promising. How did the experience of researching it and writing it affect your view as a music fan?

I started out being perplexed and anxious about the state of music, and although I found many explanations along the way through my research and thinking about the subject, I ended up being in the same place: perplexed, anxious.  I actually find most years that there’s plenty of cool stuff to listen to but a very large proportion of it involves in some way or another the reworking of the past. I don’t often hear things that seem as radically new as, say, Talking Heads’s Remain In Light, where particularly on the second side every song is like a whole new future for music. I’ve kept following the techno-rave-electronic side of music but the first decade of the 21st Century seem to reach a kind of plateau where the major forms of the music were defined and what we saw was people either tinkering with those forms or making hybrids by combining different things from dance music’s own history. So again the kind of sensation of absolute novelty and runaway mutational energy that I got from hearing jungle or gabba or minimal techno in the Nineties has been hard to find in the 2000s.  Elsewhere in the culture, there are brilliant things here and there in TV and film but also a lot of rehashing, recycling, the fall back on old narratives or hybrids (there’s a movie out now called Cowboys and Aliens). So I would say that the outlook doesn’t seem too promising. However often periods of stagnation and deadlock are the prequel to some kind of cultural irruption. I am guardedly optimistic about the new generation of musicians who’ve only known the Internet and super-abundance and the state of atemporality. At very least, I’m curious about what’s going to happen next. It seems like we live through interesting times. The old analogue way of doing things – the way culture worked, the channels it went through – has collapsed, but out of the ruins of that something new is going to form.

You write  “Isn’t there something deeply wrong in the fact that some of the most interesting music of the last ten years could have been made exactly the same 20, 30, 40 years ago?”. Did you figure out a concise answer? Like, yes or no?

That’s what  we in England call a “rhetorical question”, where the answer to the question is implicit in the form of the asking. So obviously I think there’s something wrong with this state of affairs. Not morally wrong, of course, but wrong in the sense of “this isn’t how it should be.” I’m asking the question, rather than making a statement (“there is something profoundly wrong”) because there is always the possibility that some people don’t feel like that. The whole book is a rhetorical question, in a sense:  a probe I’m sending out to see how many people share my view of things, my sense of alarm and concern and disquiet. And I’m finding that quite a few people do, but a surprisingly large number don’t. They don’t find it “deeply wrong” or troubling in the least when bands are making music that sounds exactly like styles from 30 or 40 years ago. They are quite happy for the current situation of muddled directionlessness to continue. 

Why do I think it’s “wrong”? Well, for a start, I think repetition and sameness is simply boring. I like change and surprises and a sense of cultural momentum, a feeling of “going somewhere”. I also think it is wrong in another sense, a kind of sterility and parasitism. 

A young journalist reviewed the new album by the Horrors, an British band whose new album – like its two precedessors – is heavily signposted in terms of its influences (and each album has a different set  of influences).  On the latest records, they’ve gone from influences like the Cramps, Goth and Krautrock, towards things like Manchester circa 1989 “baggy’, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, Jesus Jones, and Britpop. This young journalist talked about they belonged to a genre called “the Past”, but she argued that it wasn’t a problem, that the Horrors were producing something rich and distinctive out of the wealth of all this stuff they drew on. Her final rhetorical flourish was that “the past is ours for the reaping”. Which is fine, as far as it goes.  But what about the simple agricultural common-sense wisdom that you  don’t just reap, you plant seeds for a future harvest. It is all very well these young bands harvesting all the brilliant ideas that others in the past have brought into being and developed and perfected. What it means is that they’ve skipped the hard work, the strife and struggle it took to create new forms.   What are bands like the Horrors actually laying down that others in the future will be inspired by and want to draw on?  

So my book is not just a critique of an addiction and dependency on the past, it is addressing a kind of parasitic exploitation of all this amazing past work. That’s why I use Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of postproduction art, but not celebrating it in the way he does. I’m pointing out that all this music that is dependent on earlier decades of dynamic production (in terms of new forms, new ideas), all it amounts to in the end  is the rearrangement of past elements,  a tinkering with established forms.   To reap without sowing is to take without giving anything back.

Something curious occurs in Coldplay’s “Talk”: the band do samplers of “Computer love”’s electronic riff playing just with organic instruments. What did you think when you listened to that song? What to do you think was Coldplay’s intention?

I was fairly appalled -- firstly that Coldplay would just recycle another band's chords, and also that Coldplay, a band I don't care for or respect much, had managed to leave this stain on one of my absolute favourite Kraftwerk songs.  But then I was further appalled when I found that Kraftwerk had given them permission to use the chords.  I've no idea what Coldplay were thinking -- they don't seem to have any problem coming up with melodies, that's one thing they're actually pretty good at, writing tunes. So why did they want to reuse someone else's chord sequence? Okay it's sublime, you really admire it-- but why not just leave it alone? There's loads of passages of writing that I admire but I wouldn't just take them and recycle them!

Please explain hyperstasis?

Hyper-stasis is a term I came up with when listening to a bunch of electronic albums that were getting a lot of praise and finding myself with these mixed sensations: on the one hand, responding to the intelligence in the music and the artful way it was constructed, but at the same time frustrated because I wasn't getting that buzz, that future-rush of "never heard anything like this before". It was too easy to map out in terms of its precedents and sources and pre-existing coordinates. And maybe I started projecting my own frustration onto the music, but it started to feel like the music itself was frustrated, like it was restlessly struggling to find a path to the Future but couldn't get to the next level of the game. Hence the paradox of hyper-stasis: music that is hyper-active with energy and the impulse to innovate, but stasis because there is a fundamental deadlock, an impasse, blocking it from creating something unprecedented.

See, the key to understanding hyper-stasis is to realise that is a churlish concept.  It does what we English call: "look a gift horse in the mouth".  Basically, it looks beyond the outward health and vitality of the current music scene (in this case post-dubstep) at the long term prospects for this field of music.  It is a long-term view. Whereas people who are involved in the scene on a weekly basis, as bloggers and DJs and on-the-ground reviewers of the latest releases, can see only motion and constant flow of new tracks, I'm taking this sort of aerial, long-term view and seeing a looming crisis.

Hyperstasis can apply to an individual artists's work and to genres. But I would even argue, when I'm feeling pessimistic. that the whole of popular music is caught in a kind of hyper-static field. What would jolt it into new sonic spaces would be some kind of technological breakthrough, or perhaps a drug. Or even better combination of technology and drug to make a drug-tech interface, a synergy.

What is wrong about reunion tours?

I can see why everybody does it, really. The musicians probably need the money, and it is also nice for them to get the decent payment and good treatment they probably didn't get at the time. Bands who've reunited often tour in much better conditions than they did in their early days, get paid better, and use much superior sound systems. And of course if they've been out of the public eye for a long time it is very affirming to reconnect with their audience and get a sense of how their legend and stature has grown over time. I can't blame them at all.  Listeners have their reasons -- sometimes people want to have a guaranteed good time, sometimes they want to remember a period of their life when they really were passionate about music. There's also that feeling, "if I don't see this band when they tour again, it might be my last chance -- who knows, some of they might be dead in a few years time." 

With the bands, I often think the music business can be a really cruel place -- a group can be incredibly hip and get a load of attention for a short time, that  then just whizzes by, and before they know it, people have moved on to newer bands, the band itself is exhausted by the whirlwind of success, it is probably fragmenting because being in each other's company constantly is exhausting and drives people mad. And then suddenly they are yesterday's news and...  there they are, with decades of their lives ahead of them, with this aura of "has been" around them. And some of them might feel they've still got plenty to say, musically, and quite a few actually believe they've got better as artists and players. So it's tough, the cycles of music business capitalism and media hype churn very fast and it's quite ruthless in terms of this in-built obsolescence syndrome -- but these are human beings we're talking about, and also talents. So bands who stick around, or who don't stick around but then are tempted to reunite for a second taste of the piece -- I quite sympathise with them.

1.       Is there a finite number of  ways to express the same emotions,  create a  functional building or write a script. Even Shakespeare borrowed his plots after all. Is it possible that there is very little innovative material left to discover?

Well it is true that a lot of experimental avant-garde music – and art and literature and film – heads into a zone which is abstract and anti-emotional. If you have expressive needs, stuff you wish to vent emotionally, you might well be drawn to established modes of songwriting that do that job very well. The equivalent of certain kinds of narrative structure in novels or Hollywood movies.  The challenge for pop was to keep innovating in terms of sound, structure, delivery, lyrics, while still expressing emotions that are human and possibly eternal.  Perhaps the range in which that can be done has been almost filled up.

Declaring that pop music has basically slowed to a standstill must drum up a lot of negative reaction, particularly in younger music fans.

 Oh, good lord, yes….I’ve had some very annoyed responses on blogs, and they reel out counterevidence, and some of them are quite funny. One person reeled out 10 young, exciting punk bands. These bands doing a 30-year-old style of music are supposed to disprove my argument? And then another person said, “There’s loads of great bands around that disprove the argument”—but in her own description she said that a current band was doing an ’80s-style New Order–ish thing. So even the examples some of these people have proffered are very easy to pinpoint as being retreads. So the people who are annoyed or who dismiss my argument, they have empty hands—they don’t have any evidence, any counterexamples. They just have their own annoyance.

do you think the culture can absorb this avalanche of unburied material from the past?

At the moment, it seems like the answer would be "no", the channels are choked, causing a sluggishness to set in. But who knows? The coming generation clearly has the ability to process information and manipulate it a lot faster than those that came before. Perhaps one just has to have faith that the really musical people will find a way to swim in this clogged data ocean and to make meaningful new patterns out of all this stuff once it's completely lost all anchoring in history and geography. 


Your journalistic career began in the 1980s, the age when the British music weeklies (NME, Melody Maker, Sounds) were the prime movers in musical critical discourse. Aside from the obvious game-changing nature of the advent of the Internet and the mass diffusion of critical voices that has resulted, how has the art (so to speak) of music criticism evolved from those days?  What ideas and approaches to music writing have come and gone since then?

It would take a small book to track that story.  The main change I've noticed, partly related to the erosion of the gatekeeper function of music critics, is that the messianic or prophetic mode of rockwriting has faded away. Because the critic is rarely introducing readers to something for the first time, the whole "I have heard the future" approach is no longer called for.  But also the idea of "the future" of music has eroded for all the reasons I explore in Retromania. We don't really think so much anymore of a style of music being more advanced than other music forms, or a particular genre or artist being a herald of how music will be.  That idea of an axis extending from the past into the future, and which certain artists, records, genres, are further along than others are -- who thinks like that anymore? It's precisely this linear model of time as having a direction that seems to have collapsed under digiculture.

How has your own approach to music criticism changed due to the advent of digiculture?  One thing that's readily apparent is that the army of blogs you run devoted to various functions including short off-the-cuff thoughts, footnotes to your books, and archives of old print articles--all functioning as a sort of "public notepad", shall we say--certainly wouldn't have existed pre-Internet.

I have definitely allowed myself to succumb to the logic of digiculture and its facilitation of everything: the instantaneity and impulsiveness it incites, the sheer volume of material you can put "out there".   I don't know why it took me several years to realise it but I suddenly realized, having been blogging for a while, that there was no reason why you couldn't have multiple blogs simultaneously and from there I just went wild with the idea. I enjoy the way you can write a small book if you want, or a blog post of just a few words. The thing about having a blog is that it is not just providing an outlet for the thoughts you'd otherwise not express. The existence of a blog incites the mind to generate bloggish thoughts.  For every post that makes it on to one of my blogs there's 19 that never leave my head.  So there's a joyous hyper-generative aspect to blogs, but also an element of insidiousness and out-of-controlness. That applies across the board to digiculture. All these platforms have worked their way into our lives and wrapped themselves around our mental and emotional functioning in a slightly alarming way.. 

What do you think of Frank Zappa’s famous phrase about musical journalism? (“Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read”).

One of those sayings that seems very funny and has the ring of truth simply because of the rhythm of the sentence. Its "truth effect" is totally caused by the language and the structure of the sentence. 

When you inspect it more closely, it's complete rubbish. 

Some of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th Century  -- as prose stylists, as well as thinkers -- happened to write about pop music. Pop music was their prism for writing about society, culture, the human condition, you name it. As Greil Marcus said, with Lester Bangs you had to accept the idea that the greatest writer in America was someone who primarily wrote record reviews. And of course Greil Marcus himself is no slouch as a thinker and prose stylist. 

Equally, some of the sharpest thinkers and about music and culture happen to be musicians: incredibly articulate, eloquent, lucid and witty figures such as  Brian Eno, Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, Morrissey, David Byrne, Patti Smith, Robert Wyatt, Lydia Lunch, David Bowie, Malcolm McLaren, Momus, Bjork ....  I mean the list is endless really, isn't it? Right now we are enjoying a total boom of musician-conceptualists  -- the guys in Vampire Weekend, Dan Lopatin from Oneohtrix Point Never, the aforementioned Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, the guy in Dirty Projectors. There is a lot of music around at the moment that is "music of ideas" in the same way that people talk about "literature of ideas".

And finally, "for people who can't read".... well there are certainly people who've left comments in the comments section of pieces I've done for online newspapers who would appear to have difficulty reading!  I think it is partly because people are reading too fast these days, they are skimming through text because there's so much to check out and they're always in a hurry. But you know, I think the existence of the music press -- particularly the UK music press in its heyday -- and the existence nowadays of this huge network of music blogs, it shows there is and has always been a lot of people who are attentive readers who really think hard about what they're reading. They get turned out, like an electric switch being turned on. Their brains light up. That's what the blog boom is -- a whole movement of readers who became commentators themselves.

What is the great secret of rock'n'roll that still we don’t know?

There's loads, I think -- still so many mysteries. This is why this is a golden age for books about music-- and mostly about the past of music--even if the current state of music is directionless. There is still so much to find out, informationally, and so much to discover, in terms of truth and revelation.

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