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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: David Stubbs

Yeah, yeah, I know I was supposed to be shutting this down and moving onto bigger things, such as a fully-realised website and all, but it turns out that wasn't meant to happen, so we're stuck with this. 

Nonetheless, I do have a couple of completed interviews up my sleeve, and I am proud and honoured to announce the participation of a journalistic legend and one of the most intelligent men that I have ever encountered. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm humbled to be able to introduce to you the architect of some of the most enthralling writing of the last thirty years. A pin-sharp satirist, a master of his craft, a leading cultural observationist, a man who can make you both weep and enter an incurable state of mirth within the same intoxicating paragraph, and a figure whose writing was a colossal influence upon the teenage me in the bad old nineties...it's only that bloody journalist and legendary music writer David Stubbs - a gentleman in possession of a virtually unsurpassable amount of academic brilliance. I caught up with him a bit ago to talk music, movies, books, football and the bittersweet, arguably suffocating digital age that is accelerating at an increasingly incomprehensible speed.  


Do you think the printed music press has a future?

I think this is the future right now, and I'm gratified that there is still a music press in it! The arrival of the internet was disastrous for the music press on two fronts. Both music and music writing were now available for free. Even prior to the Net, papers like NME and Melody Maker were beginning to suffer because they were no longer the only places you could read about rock music. In the 1970s, even bands like Pink Floyd went entirely unacknowledged by the national press. By the 1990s, however, if you wanted to read about Pulp you could do so everywhere from GQ to the Sunday Telegraph magazine.

Clearly, the printed music press has declined in terms of both sales and clout and its content is over-determined by fretful marketing departments. Magazine covers are increasingly embarrassing on the eye, as if trying to appeal to ten year olds with attention deficit disorder. I saw one strapline recently which read, “Amazing Neil Young interview inside!” 'Amazing'? Please. This was symptomatic of a magazine culture that has lost its cool.

And yet, there remains a need for central agencies like the music papers. I remember back in the 1990s, when the internet was just arriving and there were very sanguine voices on the fringes of the alternative media suggesting that the information superhighway would be a great boon for musicians as they could now deliver their music  directly to fans, bypassing both record companies and the music press. Thing is, without both record companies (in terms of packaging, etc) and the press offering a conceptual framework for new music, it's simply an indefinite blare, a stream of bleeps, riffs and pulses, content without context.

Could you live without new music? What do you look for in new music in 2013?

I've often wondered whether there should be a moratorium on the production of all new music, for a year, maybe five years. Despite the increasingly bleak prospects for making a living, more and more people are having a go at it, encouraged I suppose by the relative ease and wherewithal in terms of production technology these days. What's dismaying isn't that 99% of it is dross but that there is actually so much genuinely decent music worth attending to, far, far more than the market could bear even in the best of all possible worlds. But then, I contradict myself because in fact I'm constantly on the listen-out for new music, a track or piece that'll scratch my itch that I'll obsess over on my headphones for a fortnight, which could be anything from Scuba to a lost Nurse With Wound hour-long set. Indeed, when I do discover something by accident I wonder at the sheer non-inevitable chance that introduced me to it, and go into mourning for all the great bits of music, things that I would love that I'm destined never to hear, despite my extensive foraging and radar.

What advice would you give to a new music journalist starting out?

Don't. Not these days. The last thing old geezers like me need is whippersnappers coming and competing for work. So, don't. And if you take that advice, you certainly should never have embarked on this career. It should be something you frankly can't help, a fatal calling. That's the feeling I get from a Bangs or a Morley or a Reynolds. This was the only thing they could possibly do. Asking them not to be music writers would be almost like asking a panda not to be a panda. I wonder if any teenager coming through would feel that sort of love for music journalism, given the limits on the way it's currently practised. It's harder – but I'm not one of those old fools who imagines that all the talent dried up with his own generation. There are great new voices out there, intimidatingly erudite.

Has the way that we consume music cheapened it?

Yes. Teenagers with any amount of technical nous now can either download or rip music from YouTube onto mp3. There was undoubtedly a value in the scarcity of new music in the 70s; the saving up from paper round or dinner money to buy new albums and 12-inches, the huddling over a transistor radio with a tape recorder mic during the John Peel Show. I wanted to hear groups like This Heat and Pere Ubu two years before I did but simply couldn't afford to – they were at the bottom of a long shopping list. No one else had these albums, there was obviously no MTV, they weren't at the record library. Eventually when I did hear them, that wait, that deprivation added immensely to the aura of their already-great albums. That's something I missed when I later got sent everything for free.


To what extent is/was Mr Agreeable a more extreme version of David Stubbs? What do you think it is about him that makes him so enduringly popular after all these years?

Thank you! Mr Agreeable was originally Mr Abusing, who himself was a punning twist on a preceding character called Mr Amusing, a desperately unfunny, cluelessly out of touch columnist character trying to take sidelong glances at the late 80s rock world and failing abysmally. One week I changed the “M” to a “B” and a new character was born, one who expressed himself in jeering sarcasm and direct, minimalist invective. Very bracing. I'm nothing like Mr Agreeable – I'm wet, polite, equivocal, non-confrontational, although occasionally, having created him, I find myself occasionally mutating into him in my ranty old age.

One thing I found helpful about Mr Agreeable as a character to channel some of my thoughts was that as a writer, I'd started to have second thoughts about the joy of slagging off artists. Martin Amis has written about this – as you get a bit older, what seems to be terrific sport when you're first starting out comes to feel like taking cheap shots. On a more mature, civil human level, you feel and understand the hurt of the artists when they take a critical beating after all they've invested in their work. I always felt if you said those things via a character like Mr Agreeable, it wouldn't hurt at much, it would lend a sort of ironic remove to that negative energy.

However, his popularity, as well as being to do with the universal and undying love of foul language, is perhaps also a response to the loss of acerbic edge in the music press, especially towards the bigger artists, who are protected by editors from the critical kickings they often deserve because the magazines they work for are jockeying to land interviews with them. That's why all those abysmal late Oasis albums got five star reviews across the board – reviewers were effectively under instructions to praise them to the skies, so as not alienate Noel and Liam and the record label.

Mr Agreeable's most recent outing was an infliction of critical GBH on Mumford & Sons in The Quietus. I think it was the most read/most liked review they ran in 2012. That could be because his scorn was considered a rare and refreshing thing in this day and age, or a measure of the sheer, untapped, uncatered for loathing for Mumford & Sons out there.

Did your move away from music journalism into other writing channels mean that you had become disheartened with covering music?

I've been focussing on writing my book on Krautrock for Faber & Faber, out next year (2014). When that's done, I'll probably pick back up on the music journalism – but I've always enjoyed writing in other fields – film, TV, sport, comedy.

Please describe the best/worst aspects of being firmly at the helm of the 1990s cultural scene. Is the 1990s a time you look back upon fondly, with disdain or a mixture of the two?

I have to admit, I felt things were slipping away from me personally in the 1990s. I enjoyed the music of the very early part of the decade – MBV, Radiohead, some of the superior shoegazing stuff, Orbital, The Orb, etc. However, I didn't really go to raves – I was married, settled and never a druggie and didn't feel sufficiently independent or mobile to join in with all of that. As someone who had always enjoyed city-based clubs, I suddenly felt a cultural/generation gap. Then came Britpop and the ladmag euphoria of the mid-90s which alienated me entirely. The 90s were the anti-angst decade, the anti-Joy Division decade. The feeling of Caucasian, nostalgic consensus that settled round Oasis, a subconscious, collective need to recreate The Beatles in an era of musical fragmentation; I wasn't mad for it. I receded into a more satirical role, creating various things on the Talk Talk Talk pages which were my domain – not just Mr Agreeable but characters like Pepe Le Punk, Derek Kent, Diary Of A Manics Fan. I was probably more disengaged then, as staff writer at MM from what was going on in the 90s than I am nowadays!

However, I've a book in the works about the 1990s entitled Untroubled Times. It was a rare decade, free of a geopolitical angst post-Berlin Wall (that would resume post-9/11) and an era in which there was at least the illusion of blue sky prosperity and perma-Labour government. I'm interested in how that fed into popular culture generally, not just the top, mad, sorted world of 90s music. 

Is it true that Melody Maker enforced a ‘no negative coverage of Oasis’ rule? Why do you think that came about if so?

Not while I was there. I was allowed to give (What's The Story) Morning Glory the semi-kicking it deserved. After I left in 1998 I've heard it was a different story, for the reasons I've outlined above.

Do you think that avant-garde art, music or cinema still has the potential to win over a mainstream audience? Can you think of any 21st century examples of this?

Avant garde art, yes – this is something I cover in my book Fear Of Music: Why People Get rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen. It concerns the contrasting fates of 20th century visual, non -figurative art (hugely popular, hugely lucrative, as evidenced by The Tate Modern) and its musical equivalent, even though both derived from the same root. Avant garde music has a foothold, just about but it's a victim of its own sheer proliferation to some degree. Plus, the sheer, clinging conservatism of the vast majority of people, when it comes to music, be it dance, rock or classical never ceases to dismay me. All the same, there are tiny signs of progress, little successes and continued activity. Music is also beginning to find its way into the art galleries, which is encouraging.

As for avant garde cinema, it occurs to me that cinema might have been a great deal more avant garde had it not been for the talkies – prior to that, it felt like it had the potential to develop in tandem with all the great, radical movements of the early 20th century. I've enjoyed the recent revival in artists ranging from Gary Lucas to Faust, Pere Ubu to ADF in soundtracking cinema. Good example I like recently was a new soundtrack to the Soviet film Mother (dir: Vseveolod Pudovkin) by Aggie Peterson, Per Martinsen and Sergey Suokas. Recommended!


What do you think about the current state of football? Does it still have a fragment of its heart intact?

Football has become depressingly unequal at club level. The big clubs remind me of corporations who like to think of themselves as prize specimens of successful capitalism, thriving in the ruthless world of free competition – but who, in fact, hate competition, want to tilt the playing field permanently in their favour, hack away the rope ladders that might allow for usurpers. From that point of view, yes, it is a little depressing – the game has become over-monied, predictable, torn away from community bases. Could a Derby County ever win the League again, or a Nottingham Forest or Aston Villa win the European Cup? Could a Wigan win the FA Cup (ah – and there you go – there's the fragment of its heart, still there). It can never be an absolute lockdown and retains its potential to thrill and upset, even now. I'll always be a fan. It remains a common, continuing thread in my life from childhood, preceding music or anything else – from the 1970-71 season onwards. I feel that those who aren't fans of football, or some other sport, are genuinely missing out on a whole dimension of life's spectacle – the cathartic, masochistic, joyful experience of getting involved in and keyed up about something that really doesn't matter at all, yet churns you up and makes you scream and shout the way the truly important things in life fail to.

Traditionally, great art, music, literature and cinema has been produced during times of political and social misery. Is today’s climate the exception to this rule, or do we simply have to dig deeper to find examples of it?

Yes, the Orson Welles “cuckoo clock” theory. I'd always believed that. In music, over the last 30-40 years, I've seen crested and troughs coincide almost exactly with periods of UK boom and recession, especially in the late 80s/early 90s. However, I think the prolonged period of economic fairweather from the mid-90s through to the late noughties broke that cycle. Rock music is no longer providing the soundtrack to Occupy/student demos, etc that we've seen over the last few years. It's not like 1968. That natural relationship no longer exists. Maybe things have to get a little worse before that starts to happen, or maybe music has lost its central role in the counterculture. There is great music, for sure, and yes, you have you dig deep but I don't feel as if its presence/absence is determined by our current state of economic woe. Not yet, anyway . . .

Is the internet changing humanity for the better or the worse? Is the technology advancing so fast that we are becoming unable to identify how to use it in humane ways?

For better and for worse. I often wish it had never been invented and yet I live on it. It's made my life easier and harder. It's brought me closer to things and detached me from them, ditto people. The world minus the internet, 1994, didn't look and feel so different in terms of cultural/stylistic content from our own and yet, of course, was so massively different. In the 50s/60s, you felt that the revolutions were in the nature of stuff – over the last 20 years, it's been a revolution in the way stuff is conveyed. I think we need to use it as hard and and as well as we can and also get out more, look at trees, tread pavements, step away from the screens, meet real people then stay in touch with them  on Facebook.



You’re the author of books like ‘Eminem: The Story Behind Every Song’. I’m part of generation that has grown up with hip-hop, so have never been in a position where it hasn’t been around. Did its emergence feel bit as revelatory as those around at the time said it to be? Plus, we’ve heard a lot about the music press resisting the genre, and even Peel fans reacting badly when he championed it. Did you experience first-hand bigotry against it in your line of work during the mid-to-late 1980s?

I'm a huge fan of old school hip-hop, loved the way that, as Bowie put it, hip-hop reconfigured the popular song. Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, De La Soul, early NWA, loved it. For me, something happened to hip-hop when it went gangsta, global. At its worst, most popular, it was no longer about fighting the power, or rap skills, but living a sort of bling video fantasy, in which white people were as absent as black people were from 50s/60s pop fantasies of America. In this instance, the absence of white people seemed to be a way of avoiding the humiliating fact of continued white hegemony. It was now more about trite, individualist self-aggrandisement, in which the only victims were other “niggas” – all very black on black, as documented in Ronin Ro's Have Gun, Will Travel.

As for Eminem, I thought he was interesting in the way Hendrix was to rock. As a white kid, he was able to say stuff, adopt stances no African-American hip-hopper would be able to. Same as Hendrix, being one of the relatively few black rockers, was able to contribute something no Clapton, Townshend or Page ever could. Both enriched the respective cultures they invaded as racial outsiders.

Re your point about bigotry, however; the answer's no, maybe because at MM I worked alongside some pretty rarified characters like Simon Reynolds and Frank Owen, who was very early indeed in terms of securing hip-hop interviews. I was right at the edge, by association, as early as '86, '87.

Resurgence of far-right groups, mass unemployment, a press that gets away with everything, payday loans, Ed Sheeran: Is there a way out? Do you have faith in the masses to change things? Or have they been completely neutered?

As a critic/cultural commentator, one thing I've learned is that when change of any kind does occur, it's not as a result of some prescription or suggestion you've thrown out in your writing. These things happen, quite often when you've persuaded yourself that things have become so paralysed and postmodern there's no possibility of anything new under the sun happening. Even when they do happen, there's often a temptation, to which I have certainly succumbed more than once, to pretend that these things aren't really happening, you've seen it all before, it's a flash in the pan, make sense of it according to your tried and trusted critical framework of historical precedents. You see this a lot in the way NME 's older hacks covered punk. They constantly professed a yawning, jaded sense of deja vu and anti-climax but had no idea of what a transformative force it actually was, how it would cleave UK rock history in two. New things have happened, will happen, which I had no idea were coming and will probably under-acknowledge even as they happen under my nose. Helps to be humble and realise this. (My old friend Simon Reynolds, by the way, has always been excellent at bucking this tendency – very early indeed on new movements in club/underground music in particular).

Why do bands go shit?
They don't always but when they do . . . incuriosity, spending too much time in the hermetic confines of the studio and their own work, not lifting their heads up and maintaining a meerkat awareness of what's happening around them. It sometimes depressed me with bands on the road, say in Europe that they spent so much time sound-checking, failing to coordinate and meet up in the hotel lobby that they didn't get it together to spend at least an hour or so in the cities they were travelling through. Sometimes seemed to me that bands were a bit like lighthouse keepers – for all their ostensible roles as Great Illuminators, the very nature of their job kept them somewhat stranded and cut off from the world. Getting bands to talk about things other than How It Went In The Studio could be hard work. My tactic was always to spend the first 20 minutes on How It Went In The Studio just to get them warmed up, then ask the actual questions once we'd dispensed with the stuff which was of immense interest to them but of no interest to the average reader whatsoever.

Thanks, David Stubbs!