Monday, July 29, 2019

INTERVIEW: Caroline Sullivan

Caroline Sullivan is a pop critic of several decades standing who has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, Melody Maker to name but a few. Having contributed to various rock and pop documentaries, she has written books on Madonna, Ed Sheeran, Adele and the Bay City Rollers. I caught up with Caroline to talk about Kylie and other heritage acts, live music, Billie Eilish, streaming, radio, Sheeran, the recent acoustic ballad movement and more.

You recently appeared on Top of the Pops: The Story of 1988. Of course, one of the people who dominated the pop scene that year was Kylie. What did you think the chances of her still being around now were thirty-one years ago?


When Kylie first materialised, I had a flatmate who wasn’t working, which meant he spent a lot of time watching daytime TV so Neighbours was always part of his afternoon viewing and that’s where I first saw Kylie. When she came out with her first UK single I Should Be So Lucky, I just thought it was the most rubbish, cheap single that displayed absolutely no effort whatsoever on the part of either Kylie or Stock Aitken Waterman. It just sounded like something absolutely anybody could have written. Of course, in retrospect, we know anybody couldn’t have written it because if anyone could write a massive pop single then everybody would do it. It just seemed incredibly throwaway, and Kylie’s vocal deficiencies weren’t hidden by hyper-production. So of course, if someone said that in thirty years she’d still be around, and not only that but she’d be a national treasure, I’d have chuckled loudly. But now, with the benefits of hindsight and of actually having interviewed her and reviewed some of her records, I adore her as well. Even when I hear I Should Be So Lucky, I feel happy, uplifted and nostalgic. 


I was five when I Should Be So Lucky came out and I loved it.

I can understand why a little kid would like those songs because they’re really happy and bouncy.

What do you think the key to Kylie’s longevity has been?

I think it could have all gone the other way completely if in 2000 she hadn’t had a massive hit with Spinning Around and Can’t Get You Out of My Head the next year. Those two songs revived her career massively, and from that point on she seemed to do everything right. It was as if the nineties were almost a write-off for her in terms of massive hits and stature. There was a huge ten-year gap between her eighties hits and her coming back as a really cool disco queen in those hotpants. She also took on a massive LGBT following. Also, by 2000 she was 32, so she was an adult, and you could tell she wasn’t just a little kid being dictated to by record producers anymore. You could see that she had a hand in her own music. She’s fun to look at, fun to listen to, you feel like you could have a conversation with her and she comes across as a girls’ girl, which is important. And when she got breast cancer, the entire nation united behind her. I think that a lot of her success is down to the influence of events that nobody could have predicted, all contributing to making her very long-lived and much-loved.

Is Kylie’s new material something you are still interested in when it comes out?

I quite enjoyed Golden, the country album. I reviewed her at the
Café de Paris when it came out. I like the fact that even now at the age of 51 or 50 as she was then, she is trying new things. I did read in interviews that the Nashville idea was actually her A&R guy’s, but when she got over there she loved the atmosphere. It all came together really well, but it wasn’t Kylie thinking “I need to do a country album”.

What about Madonna’s recent material?

Not really, no. It interests me in the way that she’s an incredible woman and I closely follow her career to see how she negotiates being an older pop star, but the actual music I’m not so interested in. I know it’s the best-reviewed album since Confessions on a Dance Floor, but as a musician, she doesn’t really interest me that much these days. 


I struggle with most heritage acts. I can’t help but think all their best achievements are behind them, but I still give things a chance to see if they can surprise me. Most of the time it does seem that they’re going through the motions to me.

That is something I’ve always thought and wanted to write an article about, then suddenly I saw an article about it before I had a chance to pitch it. If you go back as far as the sixties and look at artists who had a massive game-changing early career, they always lose it around the age of 35 or possibly 40. Look at any band from the sixties that wrote their own material – The Beatles, the Stones, The Kinks, The Who – everything they put out during that period was incredible, then with everything after, from the seventies onwards, they never recaptured it. It’s true, right up to this current day. The Manics never really improved far as I’m concerned. Their last really good album was This is My Truth Tell Me Yours but they’ve been putting stuff out ever since and they’ve never improved on it. Look at any group that writes their own material - there’s something that happens after a period of massive success. It just seems as if the creative genes that spawned all that music kind of packed up after around ten years and never returned.

The Manics seem to be playing more nostalgia-orientated festivals recently, including one up the road from me. I might have gone but the rest of the bill is putting me off and it looks a bit depressing.

I’m very confused as to why they would do that. They make enough money from their own tours and putting their own albums out, so why would they do that?

Nicky Wire used to criticise acts that lived off the past, saying he didn’t want them to become a “museum band”.

You’re right, in the past, Nicky Wire would have died rather than head a line-up like that. Maybe they just really love festivals, but it is strange.

Do you prefer to watch contemporary or heritage acts?

It completely depends. I reviewed Rita Ora a couple of months ago and she was absolutely fantastic. I think that contemporary female pop stars are fantastic live and I love seeing them. I loved seeing people like Rita and Marina recently, but there are lots of artists I would see from my youth if they were touring. I loved Bananarama but I’ve never been to see them since they regrouped. It’s not an either/or situation for me – I love young female pop stars right now because they’re doing really great shows and have much higher production values. I’ve also been listening to Billie Eilish a lot – I can understand the radio appeal of her because if you’re a 14-year-old girl with your headphones on and you’re feeling gloomy, listening to Billie Eilish would probably make you feel better about yourself. You don’t have to see her live to really understand her. I’ve only seen videos of her on stage and she looks quite slackerish, but I think people are buying into the fact that she’s not perfect, and I do like the fact that she’s not perfect. 


Does pop radio still have a big role to play in 2019? Can it survive in the streaming age and are younger people still interested in it? I am in my mid-thirties and get sick of being told to go to Radio 2 when I am fine with Radio 1.

The only contemporary pop radio station I listen to is Radio 1. As we know, the median listener age of Radio 1 is around 31. BBC Radio have brought in a Controller of Pop Music, Lorna Clarke, they are still trying to get the median age of Radio 1 down and I think around 90% of the UK population still listens to the radio so that would include a large proportion of younger people. Pop music now has no upper age limit – you can be a fan of it whatever age you are, and you don’t suddenly decide to start tuning into Radio 2 because you’ve hit 35 or 40. Even if you did tune into Radio 2 when you hit 30 or 40, you would find that a large percentage of their playlist is identical to Radio 1’s. What Radio 2 do, because their average listener age is about 50 or 51, is play songs from a 50-year-old person’s youth, so we’re talking about songs from the eighties. You’re getting a lot of stuff from the eighties which might include some early dance music but you’re not going to get things like Stormzy’s Vossi Bop because your average 50-year-old isn’t going to relate to that.

I think Radio 1 are trying as hard as they can – they’ve got Maya Jama, Clara Amfo and young presenters. I would imagine lots of younger people hear the station when they are with their parents, especially in the car – I don’t think it’s a lost cause. I know a lot of music industry figures think that playlists have completely replaced listening to the radio, but I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes you just want to hear something that actually includes a human voice talking to you. I think hearing a human voice is a base human need.

I also really relate to several Radio 1 presenters – these are the kind of people I would choose as friends, especially Greg and Scott.

I absolutely adored Greg James’ drivetime show, it’s just sad that he couldn’t bring Chris Smith with the News with him to breakfast.

I’m still in mourning for Greg’s drivetime slot – I like breakfast but I loved the teatime show. His features and general approach seemed a touch more surreal and bizarre. I’m presuming Chris Smith didn’t go over to breakfast due to age, but I’m just speculating.

I know – I loved things like the Mayor of Where. I don’t really listen much on breakfast as I’m normally working, but Grimmy is not really a replacement. I read somewhere that Grimmy isn’t really into it? Why is that? This is presumably someone that’s always wanted it – he seemed to hate getting up for breakfast because it was interfering with his lifestyle, whereas Greg James is a radio man through-and-through, and if he has to get up at 4:30am he will gladly do it. Shouldn’t this be Grimmy’s absolute dream job? Also, why would Chris Smith’s age make a difference? He’s just the news guy. 


Scott was talking about things I’m sure he would never get away with on Radio 2 recently – though he has been covering on there more.

Well, I do have Radio 2 on in my bedroom, and every now and then I will catch a bit of Ken Bruce, and there is some naughtiness and cheekiness to it. Rylan Clark-Neal does do Saturday afternoons on there, and I think he’s possibly the worst professional radio presenter I’ve ever heard. You can see that this is Radio 2 attempting to pull in a younger crowd - he was broadcasting from Ibiza recently and playing a lot of dance music, so the station does see that there are people who want to listen to that. One of the things about being a radio presenter is being able to think on your feet, and he can’t think quickly, and he also has a horrendous feature where he has his mother on. He has no game, chat or banter, whereas Scott Mills does have banter and is quick-witted. This is giving him untold exposure, and I don’t understand what the original thinking was behind getting him on there. He seems to have gone a very long way for someone who doesn’t have the talent for what he’s doing.

What are your feelings on the wave of young, male, acoustic guitar-wielding balladeers in the charts? I call them ‘Tattooed Toms’.


I was going to say that it’s an interesting coincidence that they’re all around, but of course, it’s not a coincidence. Was it Tom Walker who was the first before labels identified similar ones on their roster and decided to promote them?

I’d say it goes back to Ed Sheeran. You have actually written a book about Sheeran – I spend a lot of my time feeling annoyed about his omnipresence, so can you present the case for the defence?

Well, Sheeran’s been around for around eight years now, and this cluster that we’ve got now only popped up in the last couple of years. There’s a lot more to Ed Sheeran than gloomy acoustic music – in fact, he’s generally not gloomy acoustic music. Clearly, Sheeran made his career on seeming ordinary, but he is actually not ordinary. There’s a lot more to him than people actually think. He’s got a huge musical palette, he’s fascinated about music generally and is a huge fan of it, particularly grime and hip-hop. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, even though when people review him it’s like they’re shooting him in a barrel.

You can’t make an Ed Sheeran – he evolved because he loves music. As for these other guys that have followed him in the past couple of years such as Lewis Capaldi, if you are a young male singer-songwriter starting out, the easiest thing to do is to sing ballads with an acoustic guitar and bare your soul. You then get a cluster of people doing it. Also, dance music has reigned supreme for the past fifteen years or so. There’s always a reaction to whatever the current musical phenomenon is, and I think these acoustic guys are that reaction. When they come up with an okay song, I don’t mind listening, but I can’t actually tell them apart and the fact that there are so many of them called ‘Tom’ doesn’t help. 
   


I wrote a book about Ed Sheeran about two years ago so had to do a tonne of research into him and I just got to like him a lot, even becoming slightly jealous that he married his childhood sweetheart rather than me. There’s a real breadth of stuff on Collaborations No. 6 – there’s grime and hip-hop, but there’s Latin, rock and more. He might be benefitting from the rise of Latin music, but Shape of You - which is tropical house - probably had its own impact in popularising Latin music. The other thing you have to ask yourself if you’re going to diss Ed Sheeran is why do so many incredible people want to be on records with him? It’s not because they want to raise their own profile. People like Stormzy do not need to be on his records and yet they are. It’s like the way that Phil Collins is so adored by various R&B stars because they love his drum sound. A lot of grime and hip-hop artists just really like Ed Sheeran and really admire what he’s doing.

Check out some of Caroline's recent reviews and articles here

Thursday, December 14, 2017

LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: Steve Lamacq

Steve Lamacq is a legendary BBC radio presenter that has been championing life-changing bands for thirty years. Affectionately known as 'Lammo', he began his career as a sports journalist and fanzine writer before being recruited by the NME and DJing on the then-pirate radio station XFM prior to moving to BBC Radio 1, where he fronted the hugely-popular Evening Session with Jo Whiley, helping to break Oasis whilst sending acts like Pulp, Blur, Suede, The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy into the mainstream stratosphere. 

Lammo has also been a record label boss, Top of the Pops presenter and Sony Lifetime Achievement Award winner. He has been presenting a daily programme on BBC 6 Music since 2005 and recently completed a tour of his one-man show, Going Deaf For a Living. I caught up with Lammo to talk about the show, presenting Top of the Pops, John Peel, signing Elastica, T-Shirt Day, putting Oasis back into context, the importance of independent venues, the supposed death of guitar bands, remixing Ant and Dec, being more starstruck around Colchester FC players than musical aristocracy, the value of 6 Music and tonnes more. Read The Work Trials Steve Lamacq interview below. 



Was the one-man show something you’ve been wanting to do for a while? Why did now seem the right time? 

I’d never really thought about doing something like this before, but me and my producer Tom were at Latitude a few years ago and I thought ‘that sounds like Stuart Maconie!'. It turned out it was him in the literary tent reading excerpts from his book from a tablet with a whole load of people laughing, and I wondered ‘do people do that?’. Tom said ‘you could do something like that’, and around a year later I thought, if we took the idea, maybe taking some stories and some of my batshit theories about pop music, maybe we could do something like ‘An Evening With...’. I got around to writing it on a week off, and it went from there really. 

So, with thirty years of anecdotes to draw upon, are you planning any more dates?

Well, some bits are patchy and I don’t remember parts that well if I’m being honest, but hopefully we can do another little run in May and an extra one around the end of the year if the demand is there. We’re thinking about possibly doing some shows in some actual venues rather than comedy clubs and theatres – possibly live music venues like the ones I’ve grown up in to give it an extra context, maybe like the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds. I was thinking of doing a series of dates around the south, maybe around York way, possibly going through the east coast, coming back via Sheffield and ending up around Manchester. The agent is the one with the tour map, he’s the one who knows. 

How did T-Shirt Day go and what inspired it? Was it fuelled by seeing Made in Chelsea types wearing Ramones T-shirts and that kind of charade? 

I think it was some kind of terrible magazine that was left lying around like Heat! with some bright young thing in America next to someone else wearing a Nirvana T-shirt, and I thought ‘you’ve probably not even heard a note of their music, never mind having any understanding of what these bands stood for'. Then Top Shop started selling band T-shirts, and I started thinking ‘you do realise that the band T-shirt means a lot more to us than being some sort of fashion accessory?’. In that kind of irritated mood I sometimes find myself in, I just thought ‘let’s stand up for the rights of the T-shirt, let’s make sure people actually know what a band T-shirt really means to a music fan’. It was a moment of ire, stood outside the pub where I’m standing outside right now. I went back in and told my team about the idea. We had about 40 T-shirt photographs the first year, but then it just grew and grew and started resonating with more people. It’s nice to see and get the listeners involved, throwing out the playlist and playing the music that relates to the T-shirts people are wearing. It puts us, as a network, back in touch with our listeners. When 6 Music is good, its strength is understanding and being close to its audience. 
Lammo celebrates T-Shirt Day
I think 6 Music plays a lot of things commercial radio would never touch. When you look at the Radio X playlist, it’s laughable in the way that it playlists multiple songs by the same veteran bands rather than taking a risk with something new, which definitely highlights the value of what the BBC and 6 Music do. 

Obviously, commercial networks need to reach out to as many people as possible, but it’s important that we never underestimate just how inquisitive how some music fans are. 6 Music listeners are always interested in what else is out there, so it’s our job to give them a reasonable representation of things they might not always come across. 

You appear to be more active on social media recently. What are your opinions on social media in general? 

It think it’s alright if you’ve got the time. I do have a quick shufty, but I don’t always have the time. It offers another avenue for artists to send you music, which is good, but it’s another addition to the pile of stuff to listen to, so there’s a lot of things to listen to at the end of the week. You have to listen in bursts or your ears go tired. You either start to think that things that are half-good are really good, or you begin to think that things that are good are rubbish, so you have to do around two hours or so at a time. The only time I went to Peel Acres, John’s office consisted of a typewriter and a turntable, with a whole binful of demos. Obviously the bin was full of things that he was going to listen to rather than throw away, but right behind him were all the Fall albums. He said that, if he lost the idea of where the bar was set, he could put a Fall album on and remember where the barometer was, which determined what the right music was about, so you could listen to a record and decide whether it went higher or lower than that. 

What are your favourite memories of John Peel? 

Really just being able to knock around with him. We had two or three outside broadcasts, including a Radio 1 event in Brighton where we were staying in the same hotel. We’d do the gig and shows then have a late one in the bar before we got a bottle of wine and put it in front of John, not letting him go to bed until he’d told us a bunch of excellent stories. Those were excellent nights. We’d also bump into each other at Glastonbury and so on. When I was first told the Evening Session was going to be axed, we went into Needles wine bar round the corner from the studio and he gave us a bit of a pep talk, and I think that was one of the things that helped me clarify what to do and stopped me going slightly mad. You really appreciated his presence, and I think the thing that we’ll never get over is the fact that we don’t quite have the same moral compass or stamp of authority even with 6 Music that we all should aspire to, which John set merely just by being there. With him gone, I’m not sure what there is for some people to aspire to really, as much as he has left an amazing legacy.
With John Peel in 1995
Whilst we’re on the subject of unlikely Top of the Pops presenters, you fronted the show several times in the mid-nineties. Before you were recruited, was the idea something you’d even thought about? 

Ric Blaxill was a producer at Radio 1 before he moved to Top of the Pops, and he phoned up out of the blue to ask if me and Jo Whiley wanted to give it a go. It was a surreal time anyway, but I remember bumping into my former NME colleague, Fierce Panda boss Simon Williams, and he asked me ‘are you coming to the Bull and Gate on Wednesday? and I said ‘oh no, I can’t, I’m presenting Top of the Pops’. And at that moment, it suddenly sank in, and I thought ‘I’M PRESENTING TOP OF THE POPS?!!! How’s that happened, this can’t be right?!!’. It was very odd, going into the dressing room and make-up, standing next to Jo, and thinking ‘I’m presenting Top of the Pops, here's the Spice Girls'. 

I recently watched the one you presented when Simply Red were number one with Fairground on YouTube. 

Oh my, oh my. I remember one episode where I had to back-announce Menswe@r, and then introduce Cher, and I never thought that would happen to a kid from the sticks. 

A lot of people say that when Top of the Pops was at its best, it was just an insanely bizarre variety show. 

It absolutely was - you should have seen the bar! A lot of people used to hang about, the mix of musicians on any one show put in a room together was just very odd and surreal. It was great, but a very nerve-wracking thing to do. 

I may be a bit of an Oasis-sceptic myself, but it must have been very exciting to play them for the first time just a few weeks or months after you took over the Evening Session. They are obviously divisive and get slagged off a lot, but can you remind us why they were such a breath of fresh air at the time? 

It was an odd time for music. The UK was producing a lot of interesting bands, Ride were making a few interesting records but didn’t seem to know where they fitted in, there was the wave of shoegaze that didn’t seem to have much direction and we’d been in thrall to grunge for a while, with a lot of grunge-influenced bands from the UK coming along. I think one thing to put it into context is the fact that the first two Evening Session sessions in 1994 were Eugenius then Oasis, with Oasis being the new and the former being good but clearly not getting any further. Another thing about Oasis and other bands is that they had a lot more ambition than some of the previous wave of indie bands, and I think that form of boldness and swagger was really necessary to push us on. When I was talking to Noel the other day, I recalled the time when I had a pre-release cassette of the second album and I couldn’t stop listening to Don’t Look Back in Anger. Me and Jo were at the bar at the 1995 Mercury Music Prize and Noel came along, and I just bored him senseless for minutes about how it was such a brilliant song that was going to mean so much to so many people. He just looked at me as if to say ‘shut up, man!’. At the time, they were just very important. 

Even I must admit 1994-97 Oasis had their moments. I even like bits of Who Built the Moon?, especially Holy Mountain. 

Yeah, there’s some belters on this new record. There’s parts where you think ‘I understand how you’ve got to that because that’s the thing you would have expected from the first High Flying Birds record’, but there’s things like If Love is the Law, which is a really powerful and emotive sort of soul track. There’s a mixture of things which he’s attempted and managed to pull off, and I like the way he’s done something different and created an environment where he’s out of a safe, sit-at-home, knock-out-a-song-a-day means of working. 
Steve and Noel Gallagher
Did you always have broadcasting in mind even when you were a sports journalist? 

I had it in mind when I was 11! In the second week of high school, my arts teacher told us to draw what we wanted to be, and I drew a man with two record players and said I wanted to be a DJ, but she just shook her head and said ‘you’ll grow out of it!’. Obviously I did for a bit, thinking there was no way someone from a tiny Essex village was going to be a DJ, so I instead decided writing about music was the only way I was going to get into the industry. I started writing a fanzine when I was at school and carried on through college and into my time at the Harlow Gazette until I got my break at the NME. I really started thinking about radio again when I interviewed Sammy Jacob who ran the indie pirate station and soon afterwards asked me to do a show. I did three hours each Saturday on Q102, which eventually turned into XFM. 

Which I imagine was a very different XFM to the one that is now Radio X? 

Yeah, very different. We had to pay him £10 a week to go on air. The money went into a kitty because every six weeks Ragga FM would nick our aerial. 

Can you tell us about running Deceptive Records and signing Elastica and Idlewild? 

I did do that for a while, but eventually I had to pack it in after Idlewild because there was a bit of a conflict of interest with the Evening Session. With Elastica, I’d been hanging around with a lot of A&R people including people in publishing, and there was a really nice guy called Mike Smith who’d heard about them and agreed that they were really exciting. We went to see them at the Falcon in Camden, and they were already playing to massive crowds. They were then forced to perform out of town just so they could basically learn how to play live properly without loads of people turning up. One of the reasons it was so exciting was that we’d made the conscious decision to go vinyl-only to remind people how thrilling records like Teenage Kicks and (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais were. We thought we would make a record that sounded like Hammersmith Palais with a picture label that looked like Teenage Kicks. That’s how we sold it to Justine and the rest of the band and thankfully they said yes. 

I think Elastica are one of the Britpop bands that has aged the best. 

Yeah, I think the impact it had on girls as well as boys was very important. Within a year, you’d go to an Elastica gig and the entire crowd would look like Justine or Justin, and you just thought ‘the charity shops round here must have no stock left!’, being absolutely pillaged by people trying to find old granddad jackets and collarless shirts. The whole movement suddenly gained its own momentum, and I think the 1993 changes at Radio 1 helped, giving a lot more airtime to things that were trying to come through. 
Early Evening Session press shot with Jo Whiley
Speaking of live venues, you have done a lot of work to promote and save smaller venues over recent years. 

I’m a supporter of live venues as much for the music as the fact they are a place where people who don’t really fit in anywhere else can go. It really is about community – I used to go to the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town about three times a week, not just for the music but to meet other people and talk about it and discuss other stuff. The Harlow Square, which was my local when I was at college and the local paper, was a place where I did a lot of my growing up and met so many people. It’s important to remember that I came from a tiny village in the north east of Essex which has a current population of 1,003, and I knew very little but learned so much hanging around these venues. 

As much as it was terrifically exciting watching bands, which I love, you could turn up on your tod and get chatting to someone about records, and you’d come home with lists and notes of albums and books people had suggested. It was an education to me, and I would hate it if the next generation didn’t have a place, now that we have lost a lot of record shops, to meet like-minded people. I know you can do it online, but there’s something different and more engaging about actually being in a room full of people who think like you do that you can have a decent conversation with. The idea that local councils don’t understand this and the fact there is ongoing gentrification in major cities, allowing these venues to close down, is very narrow-minded and it makes me quite angry, as you can probably tell!

You’ve been interviewing musical aristocracy for decades, but do you ever still find yourself starstruck? Is there anyone on your wish list? 

I think I’ve done everyone that I want to do. I have been offered John Lydon a couple of times but I didn’t want to ‘break the spell’ really as he can be quite awkward so I turned it down. It sounds incredibly arrogant to say it, but I was lucky in that I interviewed a lot of people on the way up like Nirvana at the NME. I think the only people that really make me starstruck are the players from Colchester United FC as they do something I can’t do, and there’s just something about them being out on a pitch. These are League Two players, but for some reason I absolutely clam up. If I see the goalkeeper Sam Walker, I think 'oh my God, what am I gonna say?!!'. I'm far more fanboy with them than I am if I bump into Jarvis Cocker in the street. 

Over the past decade, there’s been a lot of talk about the ‘death’ of indie-rock, and I suspect a lot of it is to do with guitar bands rarely denting or being within close reach of the Top 40. What is your response to this? 

Indie obviously doesn’t have the profile it used to have, but you can see that it is healthy just by all the bands that are out there. I think there is a weird North-South divide at the moment – if you were to go north of Watford, a lot of people would tell you that guitar music was thriving. It may not be in the charts – there is a lot of it around but it’s not hugely represented in the mainstream media down here in London, I don’t think. I think we are still getting bands coming along that are doing interesting things. There are a lot of parallels with the post-Britpop era, where bands like Mogwai and Belle and Sebastian were given more space to move, and it brought us Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, OK Computer and all those sort of records, with that style moving closer to the periphery, so in that way we’re still getting a lot of interesting stuff like Nadine Shah and IDLES for instance. They may not have a mass audience at the moment, but they really mean something to the people that listen to them. 

Guitar-led music can’t be doing too badly considering Liam’s first-week album success. 

Yeah, that album’s fine, isn’t it? He’s done well!

It’s better than I expected it to be! You’re obviously heavily-associated with guitars, but your tastes don’t end there – you even played Kerncraft 400 the other day. Do you have any favourite non-indie records? 

There’s an amazing disco record from 1978 called Shame by Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King – the greatest disco track ever made and the first single to make the UK Top 40 on twelve-inch sales alone. There’s all sorts of things – I really love the Glasgow reggae collective Mungo’s Hi-Fi at the moment because I adore old-school-sounding reggae. I was very lucky to attend that for the first time at the 6 Music Festival in Glasgow. It was just full of young people dancing to old records and new ones with an old-school feel. 

I was very intrigued to find out you remixed Ant and Dec back in 1997 – how did that come about? 

Ha ha ha! When Jo was on holiday, we used to do co-hosts, but we decided to carry on doing the odd one here and there after she left the Evening Session in 1997. At the time, I think they’d just changed from PJ and Duncan to Ant and Dec and had released their single Better Watch Out, which was a terrific pop record, and I do like a decent pop song. They seemed like fun lads and I’d heard they were quite into their alternative bands – in fact, one of the first things that first tied them together was their mutual love for the Inspiral Carpets. So, we got them onto co-host – they were heading off to do a PA in Bruges or somewhere but they had half an hour to kill, so we went to the pub afterwards and had a very enjoyable evening, and I jokingly said 'I’ll remix your next record for you, boys!'. I am still stunned when I think about when a man from their record label phoned me up and said 'apparently you’ve offered to remix Ant and Dec'. I didn’t think that would get any further!

What did the remix entail? Did you do any new instrumentation or was it just a simple EQ job? 

They gave us all the bits on a load of DATs and I went to a studio near Elephant and Castle where we took it apart and put a new drumbeat on it, making it a lot faster. It was essentially pop jungle, and great fun. 

There was a Sleeper remix too, I don’t know if there were any others? 

No, that’s it. That was my remixing career. Statuesque by Sleeper and Shout by Ant and Dec, that’s the entire catalogue.  

Finally, a lot of people reading this might have lost touch with you since the Evening Session and Lamacq Live, or they might not have a digital radio or listen online. What can they expect from your 6 Music show? 

When they get there, they can expect all types of stuff. Loads of stuff I grew up with – it’s basically framed over forty years, although we go a bit further back with The Who and the Stones and that kind of thing sometimes. It’s mainly records which I think have stood the test of time and some oddities which I think will surprise some people. There’s nothing better than someone e-mailing you and telling you they’ve never heard a track you’ve just played on the radio or saying it’s been 20 years since they heard a song you've played – the other good thing is when you play a new band and somebody hears it and buys the record or goes to one of their gigs and thanks you for introducing to them. 
Recent press shot
I went to see IDLES the other week and four or five people came up to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they’d first heard them on your show – you still just think ‘that’s really what it’s all about’ - taking somebody that’s been overlooked elsewhere, giving them a platform and letting people decide. That’s exactly the same mentality as I had when I started my fanzine when I was 17. In terms of the music you hear on the show, it’s probably about 65% stuff you’re given and 35% free plays but it can vary from day-to-day. You get far more leeway than you would anywhere else. 

Cheers, Lammo!

You can hear Lammo on weekdays between 4-7pm on BBC Radio 6 Music. Visit his website, Going Deaf For a Living, by clicking here

Oh, and all images copyright of their respective owners.


MORE LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: 


Fxxk Explosion and former Menswe@r man Johnny Dean

Simon Reynolds, arguably the world's finest music writer


Everything Everything frontman Jonathan Higgs

Hacienda legend, DJ and writer Dave Haslam


Repeater Books' author and writer Carl Neville

Shadow Fire Minister Chris Williamson MP

Cult BBC Tees broadcaster Bob Fischer










































Thursday, October 26, 2017

LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: Johnny Dean

Johnny Dean is the former frontman of 1990s indie-poppers Menswe@r, who famously appeared on the cover of the Melody Maker prior to releasing a note of music. The band scored five UK Top 30 hits and released two albums before splitting in 1998. He is now making music as Fxxk Explosion, a glam-tinged electro-pop project that released its first EP, In the Beginning, in summer 2017. He has taken part in numerous autism awareness campaigns since his diagnosis with Pervasive Development Disorder in 2009. I caught up with Johnny to talk about Britpop, the 90s music press, raising autism awareness, the reality of the music industry and his current music project. 




Did you have any pre-conceived ideas about what life in a successful chart band would be like? If so, how did they compare with the reality?

I didn’t really expect Menswe@r to be successful. It was a whirlwind. Everything happened very quickly. From the point of deciding to form a band to being signed to being cover stars to having hit singles. I didn’t expect all that to happen. But it did. So I guess it was nothing like I thought it would be like, because it happened far too easily. But that came at a cost. It wasn’t all plain sailing. This seemingly effortless rise put a fair few noses out of joint. And that caused us plenty of problems once the dust had settled. 

What goes up has gotta come down. And we crashed in spectacular fashion, which is what people remember. The British love to see people fail, I think. At the same time they seem to love the underdog bite back. It’s OK to do well after you’ve had a good kicking first. We are a confused and often cruel people.

I guess it was exciting. Which was the intention, I think. We were just kids really. I think people forget that.

What were your thoughts on other so-called Britpop bands? Whose music has aged the most gracefully? Is there anything that sounds particular woeful today? 

Ah. The “B” word. I don’t think an awful lot about those bands at all. Not anymore. And indeed, not very much at the time. I guess it all depends what your definition of the “B” word is? Because everybody seems to have their own. 

I think Suede still sound good. That’s all I can really say about it. A great deal of it leaves me cold. Now, as well as then.

I’m not going to start slagging other bands off. That isn’t a position I want to take. It’s undignified and ugly. It’s not my job. I’ll let critics do that. They get paid for it. Well…they used to.

What stopped Hay Tiempo! getting a UK release? 

No record deal. That simple. We left London Records. We weren’t dropped. We spent ridiculous amounts of money making that record and they hated it. Their position was that we could put it out with them, but they wouldn’t promote it. So, we left and took the record with us, which was a bit silly really. Nobody wanted to sign us by that point. Especially with that record. That whole episode was a bit…ill-advised. It’s a regret of mine now that I didn’t call it a day after Being Brave made top ten. And try something else. Because everything pretty much turned into shit from then on. But at that point the fucks I could give were very much in low numbers. Practically barren.

How did you feel about the music press’ treatment of Menswe@r? Did you make any specific journalist enemies? Are there any feuds that continue to this day?  

Well the whole thing was pretty much down to them. The press. They hyped us to the heavens and then criticised us for being hyped. It’s a frustrating position to find yourself in. A lot of it seemed to be down to feuding journalists and feuding publications. A lot of that kind of thing was happening at the time. It was very political. And of course, just about everybody involved was on drugs.  

There were a couple of journalists I thought were cast iron dickheads. But the feeling was mutual. You can’t be friends with everyone, unless you’re being dishonest. I bear no person ill will particularly. Nobody in the press in any case. It would be pointless.


                                                     
  Menswe@r, Stardust

You have often expressed a great deal of affection for mainstream 80s pop and rock, much of which was mocked relentlessly by the music media and certain Mancunian songwriters during the 90s. However, acts like Fleetwood Mac, Kate Bush and Tears for Fears are revered in indie circles now. Were you surprised to see such acts being reappraised? Why would you say they received such sneering treatment in the first place? 

I just think the 80s were the decade where pop music peaked. The earlier half was so incredibly varied and rich with three-minute, bona fide bangers. The British indie movement of the 90s (or Britpop if you like) was so hung up on trying to appear cool. Its collective head was jammed right up its arse. 

The amount of shade I would catch for openly liking Japan and Duran Duran was idiotic. This was before being uncool was perceived as cool. It was all very affected. People gabbing on like they were born wearing a Smiths t-shirt and quoting Leonard Cohen. It was bullshit. Like those fucking album lists people post on Facebook. It’s a bit infantile, isn’t it? That you would consider yourself somehow superior because of your musical predilections? I’ll take a gated snare over that claptrap any day of the week. 

But yes. It’s more acceptable now. I was ahead of my time. Haha! I’m not at all surprised that the 80s have been reappraised. Good songs are good songs.

Some people have suggested that the death of Princess Diana, with a bit of help from Be Here Now, killed Britpop – is this something that you would agree with? Would you say there were other specific factors involved in the decline of British indie-rock in the late nineties? 

I don’t think Diana dying had anything to do with it. At all. I don’t see a connection that wouldn’t be extremely tenuous. Or Be Here Now, quite frankly. The scene was dead before both of those things happened as far as I was concerned. I would say around 96, just about the time everything peaked, that was it. 

As soon as something takes hold in the public consciousness it’s over. The scene setters have moved on or died or are in rehab. Popularity killed Britpop. Success. But…if anything could be blamed, or indeed congratulated, for killing it then as someone who was in the thick of it, I would have to point my trusty index at cocaine and heroin.

How were the Menswe@r reunion shows? Are further dates definitely ruled out? Do you ever listen back to your old material?

Not really a reunion. As I was the only original member. More of a fuckabout. The whole idea, for me personally, was to mark twenty years. And have fun. Nothing was really organised. Shows were added if people wanted to see it. There was no grandiose scheme. It was a laugh. The only ulterior motive was to ease me back into music. There will not be any more dates. I don’t see the point or foresee a demand. I think revisionism has well and truly done for Menswe@r.

I don’t listen to old Menswe@r stuff at all. I did, as a refresher for those shows, but otherwise never. 

Can you tell us about the work you have done for the National Autistic Society

Just little things. Like awareness. The odd talk. Handing a petition into number ten. Advice. Nothing major. I’m stepping back a little from it all because there’s a lot of noise coming from certain areas that I don’t really deem helpful or healthy. It seems to be turning into a who can shout the loudest thing. That’s not my bag. The internet has enough arguments. 

I think the best way for me to communicate any ideas I have about my autism (mine because everybody’s is different) is through my music. The In the Beginning EP tackles it, in places.

What was the inspiration for Fxxk Explosion? Are you working towards an album? 

The inspiration? I’m not sure I was inspired. Motivated maybe? Definitely compelled. Mainly by death, disease, the End of Times, you know? The little things. I had a back log of stuff building up for roughly sixteen years. In my head. Constipated with melodies. Fxxk Explosion is a creative enema as well as my way of dealing with my impending demise.

I’m not sure about an album. I heard the album was dead. I’m only releasing digitally. An album would be fair enough if I was putting out physical product. But I’m not, as yet. I think four or five songs at a time is nice. There’s more chance of people listening to them all.



                                                             Fxxk Explosion, In the Beginning EP

What are you listening to in 2017? Does any of it involve contemporary British guitar music? 

I pretty much stopped listening to contemporary guitar music in 2006. Mainly because I felt it had reached its limit. It had got to the point where it wasn’t just eating itself anymore. It was eating its own shit as well, ad infinitum. I don’t have the time. I guess I got bored of it. As well as many of the people who make it.

I basically listen to Absolute 80s and a bit of EDM. They fulfil my requirements. I don’t feel the need to be informed on new guitar music anymore. It’s not so much an age thing as a comfort thing. I know what I like. I don’t write about music so there’s no need. I make it. For me there’s a difference. It would still come out of me even if I never heard another note of someone else’s music. It just…is.

Thanks, Johnny!

You can follow Johnny on Twitter here


Click here to visit the Fxxk Explosion website.  



MORE LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: 

Simon Reynolds, arguably the world's finest music writer

Everything Everything frontman Jonathan Higgs

Hacienda legend, DJ and writer Dave Haslam


Repeater Books' author and writer Carl Neville

Shadow Fire Minister Chris Williamson MP

Cult BBC Tees broadcaster Bob Fischer



Sunday, September 24, 2017

LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: Simon Reynolds

Simon Reynolds is one of the most celebrated writers and critics in the music world and the author of some of its most fervently acclaimed and notable books, including Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984, Bring The Noise: 20 Years of writing about Hip Rock and Hip-Hop, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past and last year's Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century. Known for his innovative and distinctive blend of cultural and music criticism, he began his long career at the Melody Maker in the 1980s and moved to the U.S. in the 1994, when he is said to have first coined the term "post-rock". In a huge coup for Lichfield Interrogates, I caught up with Simon to discuss glam, contemporary hip-hop, poptimism, the past's current grip on the musical present, life in the US and Trump. 




Image courtesy of Adriana Bianchedi

What are your main musical and cultural memories of the early seventies and the glam rock era? 

They’re really all from Top of the Pops, I think. Where I lived, in Berkhamsted in west Hertfordshire, I don’t think you saw that much in the way of people dressing like David Bowie. I guess some of the basic fashion things filtered through – I remember seeing platform boots and hot pants, certainly. It was mostly TV, I think. That’s why I started the book with references to television and specifically Top of the Pops performances that I remembered. And they crop up throughout the book. That was how I experienced pop music. I didn’t listen to the radio until quite a bit later. One of the things about these glam TV memories is that Top of the Pops was a context that was very variable – you had the really middle-of-the-road performers, you had novelty singles, singles by comedians, you had sort of generic pop groups, then you’d have hairy groups like Hawkwind on there. Then suddenly you’d have weird teenage-oriented groups all covered in spangles. 

One of the things I didn’t actually discuss in the book but was in an early draft, was how Top of the Pops had certain visual special effects – I think one of them was called howlround - things that probably now look really cheap but at the time looked mind-blowing. For instance, the whole screen would go this metallic purple, and Marc Bolan would become this sort of purple haze figure. They would use these effects a lot, specifically on glam groups. They seemed to know it wouldn’t really work on the Brotherhood of Man or Tony Orlando – the MOR groups would be filmed flat, but T-Rex and The Sweet would get all these plastic-fantastic effects on them where suddenly the screen would go all trippy. That had a pretty big impression on me as a child. It seemed like a really suitable effect to use on these bands, with it being very psychedelic but also plastic and artificial-looking, with a cheap sci-fi feel. They would also use it on people like Gary Glitter to fit their sort of trashy, bubblegum sound. That’s really the main thing I remember from that era, seeing these bands swathed with those special effects on Top of the Pops. 




The Sweet, Blockbuster, Top of the Pops, 1973

Do you think that glam has been unfairly ridiculed and been turned into a caricature over the years? 

Well, it’s difficult to say because I operate in a rarefied area of rock criticism, and in those circles ridiculing glam is not something that would have occurred for a long time. Me and my friends at Melody Maker including David Stubbs and Paul Oldfield, we had rediscovered glam in the mid-1980s when were doing the fanzine Monitor. They seemed amazing to us, particularly Gary Glitter’s music. For someone like Bob Stanley or someone with that sort of sensibility, the idea that glam is ridiculous has not been an idea ever – Bob was one of the first people I met that would talk about how amazing David Essex records were. So, in those rarefied British music critic circles, glam rock has always had a lot of cred. However, you don’t need to go too far beyond that little world to encounter people dismissing the whole era. There was an issue of The Face in the eighties, an issue dedicated to the Seventies called “The decade that taste forgot”. That was the general view of the seventies, as a benighted era before the 1980s itself, when you had style magazines and when groups all looked sharply-dressed and there was the true birth of the video as an art form. Of course it’s the Eighties that now look like a decade that taste forgot, just as dated and absurd. 

People looked back on the seventies as this era of daft hair, platform boots, ridiculously wide lapels and a sartorial lack of taste on an epic level. There was a general cliché of the seventies that said Bowie, T-Rex and Roxy Music were the only ones that deserved to be considered “cool”, with the rest being written off. Some journalist came up with a cliché I was determined not to use – “bricklayers in Bacofoil” – one of the clichés about Gary Glitter and The Sweet is that they were these beefy blokes that weren’t in the least bit androgynous but were trying to copy Bowie whilst wrapped up in silver foil. There were variations like “plumbers in Bacofoil”, “hodcarriers in Bacofoil” and various other derogatory terms, but if you actually look at Glitter’s performances, they’re pretty strange and excessive, and The Sweet looked hilarious whilst having a great deal of fun, essentially mocking glamour more than trying to be glamorous. Even Slade looked pretty remarkable and the music was just fantastic. 

Even back during the 1970s, there were a few serious rock critics who were saying “this Gary Glitter phenomenon is pretty fucking strange” -  that there was something mind-blowing about the tackiness of it. Tackiness taken into this almost extreme performance art area.  So even in the seventies there were a few critics taking all this stuff pretty seriously. With The Sweet, critics would acknowledge that they were a pretty good hard rock band underneath all the bubblegum. If I’d been around then as a critic, I would hope I’d have been amongst this minority of people that thought glam may have lacked substance in a conventional album kind of sense but it had all these other things going for it. 

Would you agree glam’s influence stretches way beyond rock (OutKast, Prince)? Has its reputation improved over the years? 

I don’t really know to be honest. Prince was certainly aware of Bowie’s work and I think you can hear T-Rex in there. I think black music has its own tradition of fabulousness, whether it’s Little Richard’s pomp and how he wore a jacket with tiny mirrors, which is said to have influenced Gary Glitter, or Sun Ra Arkestra’s robes and costumes. I think a lot of black music had its own separate tradition of image excess. OutKast  - the influence of glam is probably in there, but if you think about the way Earth, Wind and Fire and Parliament and Funkadelic dressed, the black entertainment of the era fully embraced the 1970s norms of extremely wide lapels, bell-bottoms and spangly man-made fabrics. 

That sort of razzle dazzle is probably an innate base-level part of the black music tradition, and we don’t need to give glam too much credit for it. Labelle supposedly got some ideas for their outfits from glam, and Chic were very taken with the Roxy elegance, but I think it’s the norm in black music to look extremely glamourous and dazzling. If you think about it, there aren’t that many black performers that do the dress-down thing. I suppose if you look at Bill Withers with his cardigans and the early days of rap with its hoodies and sneakers, it’s the opposite of Diana Ross and other mainstream black pop, but generally speaking, black music tends to go fully towards razzle dazzle. So I don’t think it needed to be influenced by glam. 

Which contemporary artists have the most in common with glam rock?

Lady Gaga is very overt about having a glam influence – she has made a point of referencing Warhol, Bowie, Klaus Nomi and Leigh Bowery and other extreme clothing figures. Kesha is another one – glitter is a huge part of her image. When I interviewed her, she talked a lot about Marc Bolan, she’s worked with Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, and her stage performance is very theatrical with lots of props, including a dancing phallus. In the last part of Shock and Awe, a section called Aftershocks, I see all sorts of echoes of glam in a lot of contemporary artists who have songs around fame and stardom. A lot of glam was self-reflexive and you get the same thing with Kanye West, Drake and many other rappers and R&B performers where their own fame or rise to fame is the subject matter of the music itself. I thought this was interesting and possibly a form of decadence in a way. 



Kesha, Take it Off

What were your thoughts on Blackstar? 

I thought it was great – I thought The Next Day was good too, though there seemed to be a bit of timidity in the sound, some of it was clearly mixed and produced in the hope of getting on the radio, but Blackstar is just completely full-blown, undaunted self-expression from someone who has got nothing to lose and has just decided to try and do something really different. You can hear traces of old interests like jazz and drum ‘n’ bass but it doesn’t really sound like anything he’d done before. I must admit it’s not a record that’s easy to integrate into everyday life. 

I think I heard it after his death – I couldn’t rank it alongside other records from last year so I put it into a category on its own on my blog when I did my faves of the year in December. It is hard to objectively assess it because of the effect of his death and hard to say where it ranks compared to his other masterpieces. But there was no holding back in the artwork or videos. The project was possibly a strange thing to be doing when you’re about to shuffle off this mortal coil – most people in that situation would probably spend all their time with loved ones -  but perhaps Bowie felt that he belonged to the whole world and wanted to make a final, ambitious artistic statement. 



David Bowie, Lazarus

What are you currently listening to? Do you listen to more contemporary music than old music? 

Like most people, it’s probably a mix of both. There was a period over 2016 where I was obsessed with playing The Hissing of Summer Lawns by Joni Mitchell – I’m not really sure why. But mostly I listen to the radio here in LA, especially the rap stations. Some of the tunes turned out to be on many people’s albums of the year, but I can’t seem to get into the mind-frame of listening to the whole record by YG, for instance. 

There are so many records I listen to once. Schoolboy Q had a great single, but I just haven’t had a chance to go back to the album. From 2016, records I have gone back to repeatedly included Let’s Eat Grandma’s – I was amazed to see how that hadn’t appeared in any magazine’s best of lists, and eMMplekz, an amazing spacey-techno-grime-dubstep record – a kind of “ghost music” version of Sleaford Mods that didn’t get mentioned anywhere. It seems odd how people can go off into completely different paths – very few people listen to the same things. I look at lists from FACT or The Quietus and most of the things I’ve never even heard of, let alone actually heard. 




Let's Eat Grandma, Eat Shiitake Mushrooms

Records by SchoolboyQ, Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown and Kanye West have been ecstatically-received over the last few years. Would you say we are living in a golden age for hip-hop?

I’m not sure – it seems like it’s a pretty good age. Every year since I’ve moved here, the radio has seemed to have a lot of “bangers” on it. There’s a certain LA sound that includes local stuff and things from Atlanta. The composite of those sounds is fantastic – people like Rae Sremmurd, Future, Migos, Travis Scott, Schoolboy Q. Clearly the greatest and most popular song of last year - judging by what I heard on the radio - would have been Low Life by Future and The Weeknd. It was played once an hour for most of 2016 on the radio here. I’ve never once tired of listening to it. But “Low Life” didn’t appear on a single magazine list or critics’s list of the best tracks of 2016. Either the music critics are out of touch or the radio listeners like me in LA are completely in their own delusional zone. It’s very odd – there’s a huge gulf between what the critics are calling the best rap records and what the punters seem to like. Rap’s probably one of the only genres where I turn on the radio and hear something and I think “yes, we’re in the present – maybe even the future”. 



Future feat. The Weeknd, Low Life

It seems like hip-hop has gone really interesting sonically again in recent years. I love the way 2010s hip-hop seamlessly shifts back and forth between rapping and singing - I suppose Drake pioneered that. The other thing I really like is the way that you hear sort of whooping and choking noises behind the main vocal in a lot of modern rap records or just sounds of unclassifiable emotion like exultant or vaguely disturbing effects. I’m not sure who did it first but tracks that do that quite substantially are Bad and Boujee by Migos and Panda by Designer. It’s more the commercial end of rap than the “credible” side of it that’s been keeping me interested recently. 




Migos ft Lil Uzi Vert, Bad and Boujee 


Is rock dead? 

It certainly seems to have died as a major force in the charts – it doesn’t seem like it’s terribly vital as an art form that’s going anywhere or has the ear of a mass audience. You still have groups doing interesting things – the most recent Radiohead album was good, but they’ve been around forever, you can’t really deduce the vitality of rock from Radiohead knocking out a pretty good record. There are probably quite a few people doing interesting things – I listened to a Finnish psychedelic metal group called Oranssi Pazuzu and thought they were pretty amazing. But groups like that operate in such a marginal cordoned-off zone. I think rock has long since been like jazz was. In the 1980s, you still got interesting players and new directions, but jazz was already well on its way to being an old person’s museum culture or minority interest. I think rock’s now well down that path. You can see it on the festival bills that have (that horrible term) “legacy acts” from the era where rock was more central. I wouldn’t say it was “dead”, but it’s probably somewhere in-between middle-age and old age, and its best days are behind it. 




Oranssi Pazuzu - Lahja

What are your thoughts on contemporary dance music? I feel like we have seen a nadir when it comes to mainstream electronic pop music over the last couple of years, and I couldn’t wait to see the back of tropical house. What are your thoughts? 

I haven’t heard much from mainstream or marginal dance music that really makes me feel like it’s got much of a new direction in it. Looking at various lists, it seems that there has been a lot of quality, intelligently-made yet banging techno but that’s not really enough in 2017 to really get me paying attention. 

What do you think about the reputation of pop? Has it improved with the likes of Charli XCX, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé now being seen as credible songwriters? 

Yes, I think recently we’ve seen a lot of serious artistic statements being made and written about endlessly with think pieces and highly serious, intense analyses of things like Lemonade and the Solange record for instance. You could say pop has become the new rock, with a somewhat didactic, improving, rather worthy form of writing being produced around it, in exactly the same way critics would have written about Bruce Springsteen or U2, using a language and a tone that makes you feel like you’re in school basically. The other thing I noticed was that, amongst the people some of us call “poptimists”, is that they saw 2016 as the worst year for pop music ever. 

Drake’s “One Dance” was divisive – I think you need to hear that song in a car to appreciate it better, it just sounds great in that context, the beat sounds huge. It tickles me that he has taken things from London pirate radio culture like funky house and made them work as global pop. I never got tired of that song. It amuses me that people who were waving the banner for pop five or six years ago are now seeing it as being at an absolute nadir, when I don’t think the quality has dropped. I see what you are saying about the slowness of the charts but in terms of actual content it doesn’t seem like pop music has declined that much from 2011-2012 to me. 

The charts haven’t really been exciting since Top of the Pops was something to watch or since the early 2000s when you had Timbaland coming through or newish pop stars like Britney Spears and Girls Aloud. I wasn’t in the UK then but from what I did see on MTV, it seemed like there was a lot of great pop and rap in the mix. But I still don’t think there has been a marked decline. I didn’t mind those Justin Bieber songs at all though I know people find them annoying.  



Drake feat Wizkid and Kyla, One Dance 

Do you think the past’s grip on the present has weakened at all since you penned Retromania? 

Things don’t seem to be as extreme in terms of Retromania as they were when I wrote the book. In the charts, there’s a lot of flashy, contemporary-sounding pop music that doesn’t have a retro element. There are certain figures with nostalgic sounds like Bruno Mars, Meghan Trainor and Adele, but the old doesn’t seem as dominant as it was at the time I wrote Retromania, which was 2010 when I finished it. I think the re-issue mania, the bands reforming, the legacy acts, the festivals dominated by acts from other eras and digging up of things that didn’t deserve to be dug up by reissue labels – all that is still there.  The hipster retro aesthetic thing of flicking through the past and piecing together of old sounds is still going on, but it doesn’t feel as prominent, both in the mainstream and in the underground (which can seem almost exaggeratingly futuristic – there isn’t a retro element to people like Arca at all). 

There are quite a lot of retro-tinged things I find enjoyable, and a few futuristic things I admire from a distance but don’t ever have a desire to listen to them, which puts me in quite an odd position. I ought to be loudly in favour of someone like Arca, but in practice I don’t find the music that easy to listen to or enjoyable, whereas something that’s in a retro style might be much more pleasing to the ears, even though I disapprove it – it’s a tricky one. Ariel Pink is a winner for me, even though if I was being strict, I should disapprove of what he does because it’s so bound up with pastiche. 

How does life in the US compare to life in the UK? 

I haven’t lived for any length of time in Britain for many years, so it’s difficult to say. When I go back for any length of time it’s always a great deal of fun, because I’m seeing people I haven’t seen, whizzing around and it’s not like living a normal life there. If I was in the UK full-time, I might find it a bit depressing, I don’t know. Emigrating wasn’t an easy or a hard decision to make – it’s just what happened. I married an American and it was easier for me to work in the US for various reasons. Before long, you realise you’ve spent almost 25 years in a country that’s not your homeland. Initially especially it was very exciting to move – I was living in New York at first, where there’s always something going on or someone coming through town like bands and deejays. As well as this stream of visitors, New York has its own rich traditions of music, art, writing that are constantly going on, just never flag. Tons of cultural energy. LA is exciting in different ways. I do feel a little unplugged from the UK culture that formed me, but I don’t even know if a lot of it is there anymore, such as the music press for instance. 



Image courtesy of Adriana Bianchedi


Finally, no interview with anyone living in the US in 2017 would be complete without a Trump question, so I thought I would ask about your reaction to his election victory. 

As you might expect, just horrified disbelief. It’s a scary moment when truth and facts don’t seem to matter at all, and the media will carry on writing diatribes and exposes that have zero purchase or effect on the people who support Trump. They are just immune to it, have closed their eyes and have made their decision. They have made their emotional investment in this figure and nothing at all is going to dislodge him from their affections until he starts betraying the things he has promised to do for them. So, it’s just unbelievable. 

The thing that is probably the most interesting or revealing to me is this ineffectuality of words. In the year-and-a-half before the election, there was a feast of brilliant analyses, beautifully-written, high-minded rhetoric, editorials, New Yorker articles and well-researched investigations into Trump’s past. A downpour of eloquence that still goes on, to the point where it feels exhausting keeping up with it. We’re in a golden age of investigative journalism. But all those passionate and beautifully written denunciations of Trump before the election had no effect at all on the result. You have a guy elected who is the absolute polar opposite of the previous President. Obama was very skilled with language, could talk like a book, was erudite, eloquent, could string together a series of connected thoughts, and was deeply involved in formulating policy and knowing his shit inside out. He is replaced by a guy who thinks in Tweets, who is talking about something completely different within three sentences  - sometimes within a single sentence - and has the vocabulary of an eight-year-old. 

The people who voted for Trump clearly voted for an inarticulate, irrational, non-thinking, non-linear and anti-intellectual person as a deliberate choice. Especially anti-intellectual. They hated Obama for the very reasons that he is great – his ability to communicate, his eloquence, his oratory, his great clarity of mind and instead picked someone who was impulsive and inarticulate even before you get to his arbitrary, ill-chosen policies and values. He doesn’t have any fixed principles. 

As a thinker and a speaker, Trump is so vastly Obama’s inferior, and that and his mental mediocrity was what was attractive to his fans. Also his emotional immaturity. People talk about EQ as well as IQ – emotional intelligence. This is a person who isn’t wise, who is unskilled in language and thought, who blurts out his emotions. They deliberately picked this immature and impulsive brat. What struck me is how it was very much a revolt of the ignorant, picking someone made in their image. It’s a revolt against expertise and clear rational thought itself. 

Thanks, Simon! 

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