TalonsOfFire here – This is the second of a series of staff on staff interviews. Arcade and I decided to keep things conversational, but in the interest of clarity, my posts are bold. Enjoy!
I’m glad to finally see someone else enjoyed the new LCD Soundsystem as much as I did. Why do you think it got such a mixed reaction from so many fans that were initially excited that the band were back?
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t under the impression American Dream was doing too poorly until they cancelled their Australian tour recently and chalked it up to ‘scheduling conflicts,’ or some other code for ‘nobody’s buying.’ It’s especially jarring considering the hullabaloo around a year or 2 ago that made it seem like this was meant to be the next big comeback. Blogs were hyping this as a bigger deal than the Guns n’ Roses reunion, and now here we are, with what is probably their worst album yet.
But (and I hate to say this because it’s actually the stupidest thing to say and doesn’t articulate very much, but whatever I’ll say it anyway) that’s still pretty good, considering Sound of Silver and This is Happening are meant to be classics of that whole David Byrne soundalike New York thing that was inexplicably big about 15 years ago. In that sense, I think American Dream was sufficient synth bullshit for that audience of guys in their 30s with receding hairlines and a evangelical love of New Order. If I had to poke at why it didn’t do too well then, I’d probably blame it on starry eyes, because it’s pretty much just the same sort of thing James Murphy’s always been doing except slightly less good than before. What was your opinion on that album? Did it seem to you like one of those things that’s really great in the moment and then disposable the next?
I should point out that I don’t think of the first three to be classics, and I find the Talking Heads influence to be a bit much. I enjoy Sound of Silver and think it has some really excellent songs, and honestly American Dream might be tied with it for their best in my opinion. I haven’t listened to it 100 times or anything, but so far it hasn’t seemed disposable to me. It just barely made my top 10 favorites of the year. I think it’s just as good as anything from his first three albums, and it certainly wears its influences on its sleeve like those, but I really enjoy the increased Brian Eno influence and major delay effect on the synths; it sounds gorgeous on songs like “How Do You Sleep?” and “Call the Police.” So as someone who liked but didn’t fall head over heels for their earlier ones, I thought this was just as good as any of those. You sound pretty mixed on it, which is surprising because you have it rated only .2 points lower than me.
Yeah, it’s funny that you brought it up because I went back and was pretty surprised that I gave it a 3.8. I’m honestly not sure; I definitely locked into those grooves at the time, and something like “Tonite” is going to stick with me for a while yet. But as the year went on, Future Islands and Paramore really eclipsed LCD in terms of synthpop I was listening to; by December, I was more occupied with becoming acquainted with Ulver’s album, and American Dream slipped off my radar hard. I have that happen a lot. It’s a bad habit wherein I’ll pick something up, love it for a few days with genuine passion and fascination, and then toss it aside when the new shiny thing moves into my peripheral vision. I don’t know, maybe I’ve got attention problems I need sorted? lmao. Obviously American Dream stuck with you, but what else did you really pick up on last year? I ask because I’m genuinely curious knowing that your taste is a little bit outside of what I ordinarily listen to, but still within my realm of interest.
I was going to ask you that haha, but since you asked first I’d say the new Ulver as you mentioned, that was one of my favorites of the year. I really liked the new Paramore, it’s their best in my opinion. Sleep Well Beast by The National was my AOTY, and some other indie albums that really impressed me was Planetarium by the National guitarist, Sufjan Stevens, and two classical composers, A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs, Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes, and Science Fiction by Brand New. A pretty under-the-radar collaboration between Brian Eno and an improvisational pianist named Tom Rogerson called Finding Shore came out last December, that’s a really nice electronic/classical album that I’d recommend. And I just started listening to The Last Day of June, really enjoyable instrumental interpretations of Steven Wilson’s (frontman of Porcupine Tree) solo music for a soundtrack to a new computer game.
Ahh Steven Wilson, I’m not the biggest fan (I’m pretty hot and cold on prog) but there was some stuff on that new album that peaked my interest; I could hear a lot of Tears for Fears in there, and it felt like it was an album in service to melodies rather than technical prowess, which I liked a lot. I’ll have to give that instrumental album a listen; who knows, maybe that’s what it’ll take to make me a fan lol I liked pretty much all of those albums that you mentioned, and I’m really digging that you mentioned A Deeper Understanding. I love that album, and I’m really excited about that synthesized heartland sound that Granduciel’s been plugging out now for years. Tell me, what draws you to their music? For me, I find it to be nostalgia for a road trip I never took, in that, it’s romantic, warm, and familiar. Does it feel to you like a lackadaisical daydream?
Those are great ways to describe The War on Drugs. I find their music to be very addicting and cathartic; there’s something really powerful about songs like “In Chains,” “Pain,” “Thinking of a Place,” “Disappearing,” and a bunch of others. I only really do this with music that means a lot to me, cause I feel a bit self-conscious due to being a self-taught guitarist and singer, but they’re one of the few bands I’ve been learning on vocals and guitar, which I essentially taught myself after growing up playing piano and bass, and singing in my college’s chorus. It’s this really blissful mix of, like you said, heartland rock and dream pop / shoegazing stuff. It makes for a new sound that’s uniquely theirs. Do you play any instruments? Certain bands for some reason make me compelled to learn their stuff, if I can do it that is.
Man I don’t play anything, and it’s always been one of my biggest regrets that I spent my early teenage years diddling on Guitar Hero rather than learn an actual instrument. Specifically for moments like you describe; I’d love to know what goes into a song like “Up All Night,” and what it takes to bring a melody like that into being. Unfortunately, most of my musical expression is me singing songs badly; I do a mean rendition of OMD’s “If You Leave,” and it’s really awful. But I think there’s an underrated virtue to becoming physically involved in a song you love, whether that be learning to play it or dancing to it. What’s your favourite songs to play? What music just comes to life the second you learn to play it?
It’s never too late to learn! After Guitar Hero and Rock Band I decided to play bass. Learning one instrument can provide shortcuts and strategies to learn other instruments too. I learned to play/fake all of Rust in Peace by Megadeth and random Slayer and Metallica songs (1980s-1991 albums of course) on all three instruments, then my best friend learned them mostly on guitar. We switched instruments for some songs if we were feeling ambitious, then did the same with lots of Nirvana songs, which I played with a buddy in college too. Guitarists love Nirvana and Led Zeppelin; any bass player or drummer who learns those bands’ songs can play with anyone. I recently learned Thrice and Radiohead songs on drums, some of which I jammed with ashcrash9 (a Sputnikmusic user who’s at the same college I recently graduated from). We hung out and jammed during our overlapping years at school. I tried learning Tool on drums a few times, but it was too difficult. I can play Tool, Arctic Monkeys, and a bunch of other bands on guitar, and I have a friend I grew up with that learned them on drums so that we could play together. I’ve been fortunate to learn a lot of stuff on all three main rock band instruments.
Over time I became drawn to music like electronica, progressive rock, post-rock, ambient, indie, but still some heavy metal in the mix. Did you ever have a turning point where you felt like you really came into your own with the kinds of bands you like, or has it always been more of a gradual progression ever since first listening to music? I know Sputnikmusic has been a significant catalyst for discovering new stuff for most users.
You know I think about that musical journey a lot. I think anybody who takes music as seriously as we do would. It’s fascinating to really outline the counters of events and where things were shaped, isn’t it? For me, when I was in high school, I think you and I were in a similar position where a lot of it was about metal, and I think for a lot of people it’s more about a lifestyle and a perspective than it is the music. Which isn’t to say those bands aren’t great — I still love Slayer, I still love Megadeth — but a lot of it felt like a networking thing, or a method of defining taste. So for a lot of my youth, it was all about metal, but then the other big one for me was The Smiths. I have always said and will always maintain that they are the most important band ever. And they’ve always been my band, since I was 12. I always say this to people, but every school had that one kid that listened to The Smiths, and then turned every other kid onto The Smiths, and for my school I was that kid. Again, it was a networking thing. So, in that regard, a lot of music I listened to when I was teenager I feel was mostly music that helped me shape a sense and understanding when all I knew was being an awkward shut-in, whether that be Rust in Peace or The Queen is Dead.
It’s funny that you talk about progression in music taste, because I don’t know if my taste really ever has progressed. A lot of rap music that I listen to these days feels like a very logical progression from metal; it’s got the same ethos, attitude, and feels, except maybe without as much of the pretension and angst that has to weigh down my love for my favourite metal bands. Again, it also helps me network a lot; a Lil Pump song says more in a Club than my neurotic, formulated, and overthought one-liners ever could.
And in regards to The Smiths, they’re always informing what I listen to; I feel that if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have New Order, or R.E.M., of any number of those types of bands. So, again, in that sense, I don’t think much has changed or progressed with my taste; it’s always had times where it’s been different, but it’s pretty much always been the same. Do you think Sputnikmusic has contributed to any great changes in your own music taste? I know a lot of people say it has been for them, but I think it’s served more as a motivating factor to listen to albums, rather than it has anything that’s had an overwhelming influence on my tastes.
I think Sputnikmusic really helped me articulate my opinions through reviewing, discussions, and discovering bands like Thrice, Brand New, Isis, Intronaut, Ulver, and plenty of others. But it’s true, I think my tastes and favorite bands mostly came from just growing up and my inner drive of discovering music. I remember spending a lot of time reading about genres on Wikipedia, which is how I discovered Opeth, Swallow the Sun, Insomnium, and other bands like that years before finding Sputnik. I was also fortunate to have musically informed parents to tell me about the Sabbath and Floyd, old prog bands, 80s indie rock like The Smiths, and even Porcupine Tree and A Perfect Circle like a decade ago. I remember growing up my step-brother and one of my best friends got me into a lot of my current favorite bands like Tool, Queens of the Stone Age, The National, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and others. It was cool to find all my favorite music at a consistent rate over time, and Sputnik was just one source of many. Like you said, it’s certainly been a motivating factor in trying out new stuff. There are dozens of bands I enjoy that I probably never would’ve known about if not for this site.
Constructive criticism about my reviews has helped my writing a lot too. Let me ask you, what drove you to review consistently? Do you find that you write your best when you feel passionately enough to write about an album you feel strongly about, whether positive or negative?
I think that most of it is to do with the ease with which I can write. I know a lot of people who tell me they couldn’t write more than 50 words about any one thing, let alone music, so I feel that being able to have open-ended dialogues about albums and songs is something I can actually offer to others; I don’t mind writing ~1000 words every few weeks if it in any way helps the discussions we have about music. And that’s true of whether or not it’s a positive, negative, neutral opinion I hold; so long as there’s an angle, or something worth saying, I’ll write. For me, it’s as simple as that.
I’m curious; how do you approach writing reviews? Like, what’s your planning and method like? How do you get over writer’s block, or inarticulateness, and when do you feel the inspiration hit you?
I used to sort of wing it, at least when I begin a review. I definitely let passion take over when it comes to how I select what album to write about, and it worked out that around 3 years ago I was at a point where I liked enough bands to where there was at least one album released per month by a band that I was interested in covering. Maintaining that consistency of writing once a month or more is expected of users who realistically want to be a Contributor and eventually Staff, so it’s worked out well and I’m fortunate that a site like this exists to where I can express myself this way.
I’ve definitely encountered writer’s block at times, but I think I’ve gotten better at listening to an album many times, letting it sink in, and letting my ideas gestate before beginning to write so that writer’s block happens less often. I used to sometimes write after only hearing the album once or twice, which is almost never enough preparation. I find when it comes to writer’s block, or maybe when you want the inspiration to be there more than it is, really helps to slow your thinking down and just listen to the music without overthinking it. It’s easier said than done, and some reviews that you start just won’t work, and I’ve found that in any case it’s helpful to take a break and do something else to clear the mind.
Do you find that your time on Sputnik helps with writing in other contexts like high school and college? It definitely helped me with articulating my ideas in a general sense, which is essential in a field like philosophy (my major) and my current job as an editor.
To some extent, I think a lot of criticism I received was very frank and direct, as opposed to some of the criticism I received throughout university that was often cushioned with praise. I think that, as a virtue, that aspect of the site can’t be underrated; the fact that you have these people who, liberated by not having to be as balanced in their appraisals, can be a lot more open and honest about reviews. I wrote some real trash a while back there — Gerard Way, Lamb of God — and I’m glad people felt they could openly tell me their thoughts about that.
Are there any writers that you aspire to be like? Or, who influence your writing and expression?
If you mean writers on Sput I’d say med57 and Channing Freeman are two of my favorites. Med57 even pulled off track-by-track reviews. One thing I’d like is to be able to integrate some kind of seemingly unrelated topic or funny anecdote throughout the review and keep it related, there were more of those on this site in the earlier days. I might make that a goal moving forward to try that out. If you meant authors, I’d say J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, H.P. Lovecraft, and Poe. They influence my short stories a little more than my reviews. Who are your favorite writers, on Sputnik or who are authors? Do you write any stories or poetry outside of reviewing?
I’ve tried writing stories and I’m a bit shit at it. That’s just what it is I guess; I might try again, but I often feel embarrassed and critical of anything I write that’s meant to be creative.
In terms of writers generally, Nabokov, and specifically his method of working outwards from slogans and adjectives, is where I draw the greatest inspiration in my planning stage. I definitely think his writing has helped me attend to the beauty of a sentence, and how it can illustrate a point articulately. There’s a whole bunch of other authors that inspire certain prosaic choices I make, like Hunter S. Thompson’s capitalizing of random words, or Wilde’s flamboyancy, or Joyce’s diatribe delivery, but I think most of it is super unconscious. There are music critics I admire, like Christgau and Bangs, who I actively try to emulate, and journalists who inspire my inquisitiveness, like Jon Ronson. But at the end of the day, I try to draw from enough people that there’s no one person that can be seen as emblematic of my style.
Bringing it back to Sput, I really do admire a lot of different writers – klap, Johnny, robin, etc. – but I think all of our contributors and staff have their own style I can learn from. Tell me, how would you describe your style of writing? To me, I think you’re a very clear and articulate writer, whose nevertheless sincere and articulate in your expression. Is that something you consciously try to exude? Or is it just a thing that naturally arises from your expression?
I think my styles of writing are descriptive and persuasive. I’d say one of the biggest challenges a lot of reviewers have is being convincing enough about how you feel about an album (unless you gave it a 5 or 6 range of a score out of 10, which essentially amounts to “meh”), without coming across as hyperbolic or biased one way or the other. Over the past year or two I’ve tried to really crack down on my use of hyperbole while still being convincing and passionate, and it’s a fine line. Thanks for saying I’m articulate and sincere, I try to avoid sounding pretentious or going overboard with flowery language needlessly. What would you say your writing style is? I’ve noticed your reviews have really excellent syntax and your thoughts are organized very well.
I definitely try to be concise and sharp with at least 2 or 3 thoughts, and then if those thoughts sprawl, or if they end at themselves, then I try and let them do that. I try to not think too much about things and let the flow be what it is, trying to feel around for what it is I’m thinking, as opposed to finding something to say.
I think we’ve done a lot of big questions; let’s move onto some smaller ones – what’s your favourite album of the year so far?
Yeah we got deep haha, I was getting pretty nostalgic there. It’s close between Sleep Well Beast by The National and To the Bone by Steven Wilson, but my #1 would have to go to The National. I’m happy that I got to review both of my favorites of the year for the site. The National are such an amazing band, I think all three of their releases this decade would make my top 20 favorite albums released since 2010, with High Violet being #1. What’s your favorite record of 2017?
DAMN., by far. I liked To Pimp a Butterfly a lot, but to me, that was Kendrick’s worst album. There was too much dalliance in boom bap that becomes tiring song after song, especially when an album goes for 80 minutes. I liked that with this one he snapped and went in over more accessible and commercial beats and proved he can do trends better than anyone. On top of that, he had a year of great features, whether on the U2 album or Rich the Kid’s “New Freezer,” that prove that he’s just that man of the moment.
Has anything stuck out in 2018 already for you?
I haven’t jammed anything from this year yet, mostly been getting into ambient stuff like Brian Eno, the new instrumental Steven Wilson, and his drone/ambient project Bass Communion. Any recs from 2018? I don’t know of much that’s been released over the past month.
JPEGMAFIA’s new album is great. I’m not sure if it’s your sort of thing, but for people that are into Death Grips, clipping., or Brockhampton, it’s really impressive political rap with a cynical and jaded humour to it. It’s also free, so who can complain?
Maxo Kream and Rich Brian’s new albums were pretty good, and I didn’t mind that tune-yards album, either. In terms of stuff I think you’d be interested in, I think this Watain album is really great stuff. I’m not sure though, are you into black metal?
I listened to a lot more heavy metal in high school, both the mainstream and more inaccessible. The past couple years I’ve been listening to other stuff though. I’ve been meaning to get into metal again; I’ve probably missed out on some good stuff the past couple years. Black metal has always really stood out to me. It has potential for amazing atmosphere that bands like (early) Ulver, Burzum, WITTR, and plenty of others had. These aren’t exactly original insights I know, but it got me thinking.
True. I don’t know much about metal these days but I’m always down for death metal or black metal, or heavier and stupider stuff mostly. Any writers you want to give a shout-out to?
I’ll say another congratulationss to the guys that got promoted recently, that was well deserved. It was nice to see NocteDominum come back. It’s fun when a vet of Sput reappears to update the community on how their life is going, along with time again to review. Do you have any shoutouts?
Big shoutout to ScuroFantasma, I think he really deserved his staff promotion this year; coming up with him on the site (going back about 5 years now) really gave me a warm feeling to finally see him on the staff roster. Otherwise, I have lots of love for all our new contributors, and good words for those that are out there just trying to rave about the music they love.
I think I’ve run out of things to say. Have you got anything else to add?
I think we covered a lot. It’s been a pleasure, and shoutout to Trebor aka Robert Lowe for the idea of this series.