30 May, 2011Issue 16.3MusicThe Arts

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Bind and Heal: An Interview with Simon Reynolds

Alex Niven

Simon Reynolds

Simon Reynolds has been at the centre of British music journalism for nearly 30 years. After studying history at Brasenose College, Oxford in the early 80s (and narrowly missing out on being a contemporary of David Cameron’s), Reynolds starting writing for the pop music weekly Melody Maker, and quickly built up a reputation as an eloquent champion of futuristic genres like post-punk, hip-hop, and acid-house. The author of major studies like Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (1999) and Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (2005), Reynolds is also noted for his ability to venture outside the confines of traditional music journalism and to turn up in unlikely places: his comments feature on the jacket flap of Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism (1991), for example, and he has in the last decade become a driving force in the alternative blogging community that gave rise to the Zer0 Books publishing venture.

Reynolds’s new book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (reviewed by Adam Harper in this issue), surveys the recent vogue for heritage culture and nostalgia in pop music. A voluminous work that ranges over literally hundreds of examples of “retro delirium”, Retromania is a powerful crystallisation of one of the most talked-about discussion topics of the age.

So what was the gestation process for Retromania?

Some of the concepts go back a long way. For example I use this term “record collection rock”. I formulated that in the early 90s in a piece for the New York Times, and it wasn’t that new a phenomenon even then. I could have used it to describe Spacemen 3 or any number of 80s bands. So it’s always been there in the back of my mind, and it’s something I’ve never quite made up my mind about. It’s that mindset of being, on the one hand, obsessed with the future, but also liking a lot of things that are based on the past, and feeling almost ashamed of liking them.

But specifically thinking “there’s a book there” came partly from doing the post-punk book [Rip it Up and Start Again]. I posit this break at the end of the book, this point at which indie music gets more about the 60s, where it abandons synthesizers for guitars. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that actually it went back a lot further.

I can remember one time looking through the back of Uncut for some reason and seeing adverts for all these live performances and festivals, and it was like this totally garbled, mixed-up blend of history. There were bizarre juxtapositions, and it just seemed weird. So the concept for the book arose out of bemusement really, noticing that there was this industry developing, quite a significant money-spinning sector of the music economy that’s based on nostalgia.

This was one of the defining things of the last decade, and I was surprised no one had written a book about it. But at the same time it’s such a diffuse and scattered phenomenon that I can see why no one had written a book about it. And as a topic it doesn’t have that cheerful tone. Usually music books are cheerful. This is the first book I’ve done that isn’t enthusiastic.

You use the phrase “tipping point” in the book. There’s a sense that we’re approaching some kind of crux…

I don’t know if we are; it may just stay like this forever! Obviously I’m making it seem dramatic; and the way the whole book’s framed—it’s designed to be inflammatory. We might just enter a sort of stasis. It may not be a dramatic thing; pop may just get more and more clogged with the past being recycled.

But there is a feeling of “how can this go on?” People are actually murmuring about reviving stuff from the 90s, and you think, “how can you do this? What can you draw on? You can’t revive britpop. How can you do that?”

Do you think it’s a case of an art form wasting its energy? If you look at, say, English theatre in the 18th century, there’s not all that much of note after the high points of the 17th century. Art forms go into recession, sometimes for as long as a century. Do you think that’s what’s happening?

It could be. It could be that rock, specifically rock, like jazz, will carry on as a sort of heritage thing. It could be like in jazz, where young players come forward who do good stuff, but it’s not going anywhere and it doesn’t have any connection to the zeitgeist. But it’s not just rock that’s ailing; it’s everything—including electronic music now, which is in this weird recursive mode of going back to 90s high points and tweaking and tinkering with them.

It’s not just a lack of energy. It’s not to do with a lack of talent. There are loads of talented musicians around, and they all have great technological tools at their hands. So you can’t say everyone’s being crap and unoriginal. It’s much more macro and structural. It’s like musicians don’t have any choice. Some major seismic thing within the whole terrain in which music is produced has shifted, and it’s almost as though you can’t resist these forces.

I suppose my sense is that it has a lot to do with the decline of socialisation and of people thinking in groups, people coming to a consensus about the new modernistic development, through the music press, or through John Peel, or whatever.

People seem very hostile to groupthink, don’t they? Which is bad. I think a bit of groupthink would be good. It happens in journalism. People are very reluctant to get behind each other’s ideas. I totally got behind David Keenan’s hypnagogic pop idea. I don’t care that he thought of it first; it’s a fantastic idea and I like some of that music a lot.

But there’s much more ego value in taking the piss or criticising other people’s stuff. Actually joining together, unifying around things, no one seems to want to do that so much any more. That has a lot to do with the Internet, I think; the people who agree don’t tend to bother to post.

On that note, could you talk a bit about your role in the blogosphere? It seems that you found that galvanizing in the last decade.

It did seem very exciting. The fact that it was very collective was the thing I liked about it—the way that people picked up on each other’s ideas, and disagreed but usually in a fairly civil way. It might be quite heated but usually it didn’t end up in ugliness. Or they agreed and it was like they were adding something more to the discussion—it was like passing the baton. It was very exciting and reminded me a lot of the music press, but on a faster turnaround because in the music press you’d pick up on what someone wrote the previous week or you might argue with another paper. There were trains of thought, conversations going on, and then the letters from the readers would come in.

So the blogosphere was a bit like that feeling. But then it seemed to dissipate quite a bit, and I’m not sure why. Partly, I think, Twitter has drained a lot of brain energy away, and perhaps there aren’t as many music things that people can get worked up about together. But certainly I was very inspired by it, and it was great that you could post something enormously long or enormously short, and that seemed to free things up: you could do some writing that was proper essays, or you could do stuff that was chit-chat really—just an undeveloped thought—and it was liberating. But then there’s the fact that no one’s getting paid for it, and that’s depressing, though it’s inspiring that people are prepared to go to all this effort to write very well written stuff for no remuneration.

Do you see any solution to this problem of payment in music as well?

Perhaps the reason for doing music writing will become completely uncoupled from livelihoods and it will become a different economy. I know a musician, I won’t name him, but he did a record that got quite a lot of critical praise. He told me that he put this record out, and it came out via a very hip label, but he didn’t get any money from it. The label put it out for him and he got 20 free copies and that was it. And this is a record that featured highly on critical polls in left-field music magazines and had features written on it. So it is like vanity publishing, vanity music-making.

On the fringes now, if people are doing it not as their way of living then they tend to release 12 records a year because they can—20 tapes a year or something—so you don’t get the same focusing of energy on the record that’s your statement, on something you want to happen. If it’s a series of micro-events then there’s not that same pressure or focus. And I generally think pressure of some kind or other tends to produce better results. I could have done this book as a series of blogposts, and it might have been freer and I might have gone off on all sorts of tangents, but there’s something about the pressure of having to do it as a book that makes it a stronger statement.

Do you think there might be any artificial means of imposing structure?

People seem to be reaching for the idea that discipline is crucial and makes life better. I did a piece for Wire magazine on [record label] Not Not Fun, who are analogue fanatics. One of the musicians I interviewed was French, and we were talking about why he’s so into vinyl and tape. He said, “you know, in French there’s this word contrainte, I don’t know what it is in English.” And I was like, “well, it’s constraint, I think.” And he said, “Yes! Constraint: constraint is liberating.” Which is like that Holger Czukay idea, you know, that restriction is the mother of invention. It’s very simple stuff, a sort of Zen-type idea, isn’t it?

Nietzschean, perhaps …

It’s a very simple idea of course that lots of people have written about. It’s like in The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow, when the guy joins the army because he’s adrift and he doesn’t have anything to do. Being free or having too many choices is paralysing, dissipating.

I suppose there are two different routes that impulse could take. One is a sort of individualistic ethos of self-discipline, and another one is constraint by way of a group. For example, one interesting thing about hauntology is that it only gains currency as a meme because it develops out of an Internet collective and online discussion.

Yeah, but that’s a good example of how people don’t want to “bind and heel” anymore. Do you know that expression? It’s from rugby I think, like when you form a scrum. It’s a long time since I played rugger, but I think that’s what my dad used to shout at me from the sidelines: “bind and heel!” But people don’t want to form a scrum anymore.

The hauntologists were actually very polite about the label. Very few of them said publicly that the term was bullshit. But most of them said, “well we don’t mind talking about this but we don’t feel like it’s what we’re about.” It was the same with post-rock. Very few people rushed to embrace the term. But these terms have a value. Anything that has a centripetal force, that pulls people together toward a hub, creates power, creates a form of agency, an impact.

Musicians are understandably worried about those terms because of course there’s the fashion economy of music, and when the trend is passé they don’t want to go down with it, so I understand why they resist being lumped into these categories. But when things are grouped together, there’s a lot more visibility, a lot more impact—once there’s a word.

Returning to hauntology. Do you think it’s time to lay it to rest?

I think the basic operational idea may come forward in different versions in different generations. But I think they’ve used up that particular set of references now, that particular era. Although the main artists keep coming up with things that I like: Mordant Music came up with that great piece for the British Film Institute about public safety films.

I think the principal artists will carry on doing interesting things. But it’s pretty mapped out. I don’t think they’ve got any surprises up their sleeves. But who knows?

Do you see anything more forward-looking right now?

I mean there are definitely musicians who are slightly innovative or relatively innovative. It’s not like innovation has disappeared off the face of the Earth. But it’s more as if the odds against it are stacked, and when it does occur, it’s usually very peripheral to the mainstream. It doesn’t seem to gain any kind of momentum, in the way that something like jungle created momentum. Jungle went somewhere. It didn’t really conquer the mainstream but it filtered into the mainstream in all kinds of odd ways. Like in America there was a period when it was on commercials, and it was a kind of weird semi-victory for music in the sense that it was on TV all the time as interstitial music—at the start of a news programme you’d have this platter of rapid breakbeats. It was odd. It wasn’t quite what I’d imagined for jungle, but it did get into the mainstream culture.

The thing about all this is that in some senses I’m not a dissatisfied consumer because every year I hear loads of records I like. It’s just that very few of them seem to be new enough; they seem like rearrangements of existing things. There’s not that shock of the new.

For instance, in pop music right now. If you put pop radio on in America, you hear all these big Billboard-topping songs, and they have autotuned vocals on, but the basic fabric of the music is like Ibiza in the late 90s, or the Love Parade. A Ke$ha song, or a Gaga song, or a Black Eyed Peas song, it’s like pop-trance, all the tricks they use, the way the music is organized, and the way it moves internally within the structure of the song. It’s all like a peak hour song at a club in Ibiza. It hasn’t particularly evolved from the late 90s.

Is that not the case with any foundational record of any genre? Like “Rapper’s Delight” could just have been a disco curiosity, but it comes with this whole narrative context that turns it into a big leap forward.

Yeah, maybe there’s something going on now where the new feature is concealed by its attachment outwardly to something that’s quite old. I don’t know what that would be.

The only thing in the mainstream that says “2011” is the use of autotune. It actually goes back to the late 90s as a machine, but [it took till now] to use it creatively as a distortion tool. If you try to imagine 20 years ahead when people are trying to think of what the hallmark of pop music is now, it would be autotune and its weird effects. People like Black Eyed Peas actually use it quite creatively.

So I suppose you can imagine something like that being the site around which a subculture organizes itself, one formal detail.

It could be. I mean that does seem to be the one interesting area across the board: doing stuff with vocals, vocal science. Autotune and weird treatments of the voice. Black Eyed Peas are doing it, and James Blake is, and I suppose in a funny sort of way Salem and those sorts of groups. Weird stuff with the voice seems to be one of the areas where there’s some kind of invention going on.

And one thing I thought was really innovative was all this stuff from Chicago, the footwork stuff. Some of it’s horrible because it is quite primitive mechanistic music. But the best of it is really eerie and graceful. And a lot of that is based around weirdness with the vocals: sped-up vocals and slowed-down vocals at the same time, two vocals paralleling each other that are both aberrant from the norm. That’s one of the few things in recent years that has made my jaw drop a little bit—the Bangs and Works CD that [record label] Planet Mu put out. I put on one of my blogs that Mike Paradinas [who compiled the CD] deserves a knighthood for this, because he went through a lot of stuff, and there must have been a lot of quite indifferent material. It’s very functional music in that scene because they make beats for people to do the weird dancing to, so a lot of it’s very functional and probably a bit uninteresting. A lot of it is sub-music. But every once in a while someone will come up with functional yet really eerie and elegant music that you can listen to on headphones. It’s great pop.

The funny thing is, when I signed the contract for this book, the premise was: nothing new is happening. But of course I realised there’s a fatal flaw, which is that it’s going to take me two or three years to write the book and for it to come out, and what if something innovative happens in that time? Fuck! But of course that’s what I most want; that’s my deepest wish as a fan of music, that something innovative will come along, some massive wave of innovation.

Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Alex is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.