The following interview with Jack Rabid - editor and proprietor of Big Takeover magazine, one of the longest-running independent music publications in the world, as well as drummer in a succession of New York-based bands Even Worse, Springhouse and Burning Embers - was conducted by Alex Ogg, who has been reading Big Takeover since the early 80s, and still believes it to be the most honest, original, entertaining print music publication of them all.
The rare beauty of BT is that it constantly nurtures his enthusiasm for music as the most enthralling and immediate form of artistic communication without sacrificing critical balance. Alex thanks Jack for his time and openness – as we, in turn, thank Alex! The interview was originally undertaken for Ian Canty’s Part Time Punk magazine a couple of years back, but Ian was only able to run a short part of it before folding the zine. So while all the comments still stand, Jack’s a couple of years older now than stated, etc..
trakMARX - I think it would be good to start with the origins of BT. Obviously you started with a magazine largely devoted to the [early New York punk band] the Stimulators, but then became caught up with the whole New York scene at that time, commuting into Manhattan to catch shows, etc. You've managed to convey the excitement of those times in BT’s pages. But my opening question would be, do you think your continuing obsessions/fascination with music would be so ingrained if you'd grown up around a less pulsating musical environment? Do you think your appetite for music was that inherently strong, or was it over-stimulated (!) by what was going on?
Jack - It's always so difficult to postulate how your life would have been different if you'd grown up somewhere else, or if times had been different, or if you hadn't been fortunate enough to stumble on certain people, places, events, and currents that had a profound effect on you. It's even kind of tantalising trying to imagine what other paths your life might have taken. But as best as I can guess, I think my obsessions and fascination would be the same, but I myself would be far less involved. I have to credit the winds of change in the late 1970s New York rock/punk/underground /art movements. Everyone was doing something creative, and living these really vibrant and creative lives, it made me want to do that too! And it made me excited about art and music and expression of many kinds. There's a reason a really hot, non-media exposed scene keeps attracting likeminded people and keeps multiplying and replicating. It's so exciting, especially to a suburban kid like me who hated where I lived because it was so vanilla and dull compared to the big city 20 miles away. And when you get there, and it IS so pulsating, it just blows your mind so thoroughly, it stays blown. Here it is 28 years later, and I can still feel it, touch it, taste it, and it still inspires me. It shields me from the crap of radio and TV, just as it did then. The media barrage of utter bullshit is 1000 times stronger now, because there's so many more outlets for it. But I still feel this burning desire to seek out the better stuff, the more informative news, the more creative and soulful music the whole shebang!
trakMARX - OK, just to give a snapshot of those times. You were bunked up at Allen Ginsberg's apartment, watching Bad Brains play locally and about to form your own band, Even Worse, while setting up Big Takeover ostensibly as a fan magazine for the Stimulators (whom many in Britain will never have heard of because they released so little). Time must have moved very quickly. It seems from your writing that there was a show or something happening just about every night. If you had to single out three or four shows from those times, for their excitement and influence, what would they be? Also, at the same time as this vibrant scene develops in New York, you're already a complete devotee of the Clash and the Buzzcocks, and were now picking up on Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and the Chameleons. The New York Thrash compilation came out in 1982 and featured Even Worse and a clutch of great bands, documenting a scene that was probably already a couple of years old. I find it interesting that you had the same appetite for raw, intense, inventive punk (albeit pre-hardcore) while at the same time loving the way the UK was moving away from that sound and developing something wholly different, but allied, to the punk movement.
Jack - Well you know you're talking about a time when I was 17 (1979) to 20 (1982). I think we all change about 1000 percent in that time, even without the changes that take place as we finish high school, move out for the first time, go to college, drop out of college, and go back to college as I did those three years! But one thing that didn't change is that I started with a much more expansive idea of what punk rock was. My first big theater show, for example, was a New Year's Eve 1978 show with Talking Heads supported by XTC, both of whom could be said to be pretty big influences on the English bands of later you mention. (I remember, for example, seeing the Bunnymen cover Talking Heads' "The Big Country" in 1985, the song Talking Heads closed with that night!) And if I was going to a different show every night, it's precisely because when I hit town for good in 1980 (instead of having to sneak out on my parents, as I had, or waiting for weekends to go into New York), I was amazed I could go to a concert every night, and had such a feast of different shows to attend. There was a thriving local scene at the time we blundered into; if the Stimulators' classic 1978-1980 line-up has not been properly documented outside of their "Loud, Fast, Rules" b/w "Run Run Run" 7" single, they and the Bad Brains (who moved into my apartment for three months in 1981) seemed to be playing every week, with the occasional show by The Mad, who were brilliant. The rest of the time, we saw the five-shows-in three nights tri-monthly Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers reunion gigs, Dead Boys, Cramps, and Blessed, The Contortions, and others who played semi regularly. Then we'd get every other band in creation coming. On any given week in 1980-1981, I could see six shows in seven nights, out of Agent Orange, Suicide, Levi & the Rockats, The Senders, Jerry Lee Lewis, X, The Zeros, Bauhaus (supported by Tuxedomoon), Mutants, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, UXA, Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Specials, Protex, Clash, Fats Domino, 999, Stiff Little Fingers, The Professionals, The Cure, Ruts D.C., The Skids, Rank and File, The Fall, Walter Stedding, Suburban Lawns, David Johansen, Misfits, Saccharine Trust, Ramones, Mission of Burma, Link Wray, the dBs, PIL, the Feelies, The Neats, Mekons, Magazine, B52s, Revillos, The Eat, Lyres, Fleshtones, early R.E.M., Gang of Four, Scars, Siouxsie, TSOL, Buzzcocks... man, the list had no end! And I saw it all! I never wanted to be home at night if there was some show somewhere I could experience. Even bands I didn't like, like Polyrock, Revlons, Student Teachers, Voodoo Shoes, and Bush Tetras, all of whom I have more respect for now.
It's true that the early Big Takeover tended to focus on the heavier bands, what we today think of as "punk," but that's just because they got so little coverage in The New York Rocker and Trouser Press, our main sources for local coverage at the time. When both of those magazines folded, we opened up our coverage more to encompass the greater expanse of what used to be called punk; though by then all the various strains had been walled off from each other, it was really too bad! For a while, in fact, I missed out on some of the new British bands because I got so caught up in the emerging second wave American punk rock scene, it was so exciting at first, like the earliest days of hardcore, pre-thrash. And the local scene my band was playing with was really friendly, inclusive, and frequent. I think Even Worse played a dozen times each with Heart Attack and Undead and Kraut, and a bunch with False Prophets and Reagan Youth and Bad Brains and Nihilistics. But when slam-dancing first hit New York in March 1981 (the D.C. kids came up for a Black Flag show), I attacked it viciously in my next issue and I've hated it ever since. That, and the mentality that surrounded it, made my interest in that new scene wane as it was turning to thrash (though I liked some of the early thrash, Minor Threat in particular), and I replaced that with ever more doses of post punk!
But you have to remember, the radio was in love with Journey and Springsteen and Kansas, Boston, Styx, and Chicago at the time. Remember when "Ghost Town" was #1 in England? That week REO Speedwagon was #1 here. Says it all, as that wasn't an oddity at the time. We had the worst music all over the charts, and the bands I mention were mostly unknown outside of a dozen cool cities in North America. So it isn't really that odd to me that a kid who got into punk via the Iggy and Lou Reed Stooges/Velvets archetype (via David Bowie's really weird records of that time) would be interested in all kinds of really cutting edge music that wasn't The Eagles and Bad Company. In my mind, it was all under one umbrella if the really hard fast stuff hit me the hardest (being a teenager, after all!!!).
trakMARX - A couple of points which are more observations than questions. I was someone, like I suspect most of the BT's readers ultimately are, who didn't grow up in a vibrant local music scene, who were economically and geographically, and by accident and timing of birth, unable to make myself part of a city-based scene. The downside of that is obvious. The upside is that, in essence, the records were even more important. You weren't able to make distinctions between bands on the basis that you knew one or two members to be either good guys or arseholes. The sole criterion on which you could form a view was the music. In some ways it was a less informed judgement (if a band made a record that sucked, you didn't have the contrary evidence that they were fantastic live), but in others quite pure. You didn't have a 'context' in which to listen to a record. You just had the record. I find the English/American dividing line quite interesting. Partly, this is because when I met you in New York a few years ago, you seemed to hold back on the issue of where punk really started (I think it cropped up over a couple of gimlets while you were playing Plus 9 Channel 7 on the jukebox). I may have been completely wrong, but I think you were treating me as a guest and therefore didn't let rip on the subject. Did I get that wrong? I ask because I don't know anyone in a better position to judge.
Jack - While your observations are of course true, so many of those bands I heard the record first before I went to see live. The little local bands were just about the only exception. and even all of them had a single or two. I remember not thinking much of Kraut's first single, or them, until the "Unemployed" single came out and totally upped the ante. So records still mattered first with me. I guess cos I was from the suburbs, I was used to buying records first, and investigating it that way. A lot of records I bought I didn't like, stuff that sounded good in reviews, so I never went to see live (from Blotto, to the Reds, to Wazmo Nariz, you know?).
As to the question: I will always think that punk rock started with Professor Longhair in the 1930s, or maybe Robert Johnson and the Delta bluesmen. Isn't it essentially the same music? Who was more "punk" and played wilder music than Big Joe Turner, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Big Mama Thornton, and Screaming Jay Hawkins, well before Elvis Presley and the whites took over? Really, where does a genre start? Every time I alight on a band, there's one that they borrowed from heavily. Maybe it started 300 yards from me in 1965 when the Velvet Underground did their first gig in Summit New Jersey, and did "Venus and Furs" and "Heroin" - that might STILL be punk in 2005, if you've ever seen my old town! I mean, The Saints began in 1973 in Australia playing the same set that they immortalised four years later, based on loving old rock n roll and blues and MC5 and Stooges and Eddie Cochran and Jimmy Reed records, the same formula that The Sex Pistols started on in 1975, having never heard The Saints. Likewise, The Ramones with their girl group stuff, etc.. So I've always found this discussion kind of pointless and needlessly taxing. I think we all agree that American bands started rock n roll in the early 1950s, even though it was called R&B in the 1940s, and the English revived it when it was waning here in the early 1960s (though there were still wild tough acts in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere!) making it possible for Americans like The Velvets, MC5, Stooges and later New York Dolls to get major LPs - even if they were rawer and crazier than most of what was out at the time and struck a deeper chord. They may have stiffed, but those weren't fly-by-night labels they were on! They got heard for a while and they blew just enough minds to ensure their seed would take root in Brisbane, New York, and London all equally a few years later. Maybe New York got its seed to sprout before London, but the English bands didn't really sound like the CBGB bands to me, and none of them at that time really sounded like Television or Talking Heads or Patti Smith, and not really that much like The Ramones. And where do you put Captain Beefheart, 13th Floor Elevators, Seeds, Standells, and Love in America, or the early Pink Floyd, Troggs, Who and Yardbirds and Move in this mix? I don't know! This chicken and the egg thing is just round and round and in the end is impossible to pin down, so why try to make an endlessly moving target stop moving? To me, it was more interesting to notice the various strains that developed in different places, even in different towns in the same country, than to waste time arguing about birth and ownership. The question is the quality, and originality, and creativity in a band, not whether they were first in a type of box we put things in. I wish people would stop letting this side issue fuel their arguments and get to the real point - how all the music from everywhere inspired and spurred more and more people to do more and more limitless music, real, and contrary to the bullshit PR moves of major labels, radio, and TV. I wish there were more of that now. The spread of the MTVs of the world I think probably dulled that edge forever. People watch music now more than they encounter it without visuals, and that's made everything so much worse.
trakMARX - We now have live coverage of American baseball, so I'm watching the Yankees as I type. Thrashing Boston, which I know will make you very happy. Which reminded me to send you the next question. With reference to the last exchange, I was interested in what I suppose I took as reticence on the subject. I'd presumed it was because you held strong opinions, which you do, but not for the reasons I'd imagined - i.e. that you think that it's unimportant, potentially divisive and a distraction. For what it's worth, I don't have particularly strong opinions on it either, but was interested in the fact that it seemed to strike a chord. I can see the reasons why now. Maybe for the next question we could talk a little bit about the way Big Takeover progressed. Obviously, one of the magazine's greatest attributes is its longevity. Throughout those early years, despite going to shows all the time, talking to and interviewing musicians, and playing in your own band, you were dependent on a day job for income, and running the magazine at a loss. However wonderful it is to do something with your life that has real permanence and affects others, we all know the pressures that are out there to build a career. Were there any times when you seriously questioned what you were doing, and maybe considered moving on to doing something (in the most pejorative sense of the word) adult?
Jack - Actually, only once. And you bet I questioned it! It wasn't so much a career question, but a life-fulfilment question that included income to pay the basic bills. Here's the deal. When Springhouse broke up a little over 10 years ago, not long thereafter my girlfriend (that I'd met on tour) and I split up after four years, and I helped her move out (and she took the cat). That was a lot of things one right after another. It really did my head in, to borrow one of your British phrases that's really apt. I turned around and realised that I was a crossroads, and that the part time job I had that had allowed me to leave on tour or to record LPs in other towns really wasn't going to do much for me any more, now that I would be home in New York all the time and should get some kind of better thing to do with my time to make a buck. Then a month later, that job fell through anyway! And my Alternative Press Magazine column was ended as well. All within a few months of each other.
As I've said elsewhere, I was suddenly a country song cliché. The only thing I hadn't lost was my home, and it was a cat instead of a dog that left. In that situation, you can understand why at long last a 13-year-old rock magazine looked like it belonged to this past life ending. I knew I was going to fold it, and my "career" as a musician and rock writer had ended. Oh well. I felt forced by circumstance more than desire, but so be it! It would be a clean break, I guess. So I needed to figure out at age 33 what I should do from here on in that wasn't all about music (look how that had turned out!). I decided to become a High School Social Studies (History) teacher. I went and fetched the information from NYU and Hunter College for getting a graduate degree to augment the bachelors degree I already had from NYU in 1985. Goodbye music, it sure was fun! Hopefully I would turn some heads teaching the next generation.
But as soon as I started looking through those course requirements and began filling in the applications, it seemed like the net exploded and suddenly there was a huge demand for content. (Ah, the good old days!) The very week I got those catalogues, I got offered a column by one of my readers on a web site called JamTV for $750 for just one 1000 word editorial every two weeks that would take me four or five hours to write! I was stunned. Holy cow! You have to be kidding me! I naturally accepted, and it lasted only one year before the site was bought out by Rolling Stone.com, and they fired all the writers. Ha Ha! Don't you just love Rolling Stone?
But I took that $18,000 I made from such little work and lived off it, and with all the rest of my suddenly free time (with no band or steady girlfriend), I poured all of my efforts that year into making the Big Takeover something that would stop breaking even (as it had since 1987 or so) and actually turn a liveable profit. Email and the net, finally became really widely available that year (1995), and really, that was the main differences then and since, as opposed to our 1980-1995 years it was really just a big hobby like you say. I could finally reach advertisers quickly and in bulk without calling them. It made the total difference! I hope it continues!
Now here I am 43 now, 20 issues later, still wondering if I will ever be a History teacher. Or an Economics instructor, my other passion. So long as the mag keeps making money as it has been, however small, I feel good keeping it going. It's better to do this and be creative and feel like I inspire some people this way all over the place, all over the country at 20,000 sales, rather than just 100 desperate kids in one place who are showing up because they have to that I have to grade at some point. I haven't regretted it in that sense, I feel lucky that the same circumstances that had pitched me out of music immediately intervened and threw me back in before I could leave!
Oh, and now I'm married, I got the cat back two years later, got the band back a few years ago and I have a few columns in mags I respect more - and obviously I like my job now, working for myself, a lot better than a BS part time job! So much for the country cliché! And I still don’t have to go on tour any more, unless it's a short jaunt just for fun. Life ganged up on me for a while, but I got lucky, everything got better later, and much better at that.
But I think what I have ALWAYS been doing is converting a "kid" passion into a thoroughly "adult" experience, to finally answer that part of your question. I don't dumb down the mag to appeal to people less than half my age, because when I was a teenage punk rocker, I wanted to come up to the level of people much older and smarter than me, and those were the publications I read and the people I befriended. I always thought of punk as an adult pursuit, worthy of the older people I met then. I know the rest of the industry, both the music and film industry, is all about the kids. But I thought was bankrupt then (I often say that the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the movies is when Rocky and Star Wars became such runaway blockbusters 30 years ago, because the movie bigwigs realised kids would pay to see them several times over and over, condemning the entire biz to fantasy action and car chase shoot em ups forever and ever, and adult films get awards but generate so much less business!). And it's ever more true now that I am getting towards middle age.
I believe that a publication is supposed to expand people's horizons, not cater to their current borders like colouring in between the lines. And the writing I do on historic music like Charlie Poole, Louis Armstrong, Mississippi John Hurt, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams, etc. etc. and on political and social issues, and the references to art and culture and literature and science I make in my interviews is just as important I think, as an adult pursuit, than thinking we're just some kind of escape oriented entertainment mag. We're not. I think we are just as adult as the other publications I subscribe to, like The Economist, The New Yorker, and Time Out New York. What does it mean to be adult, but to find things that inspire you and immerse yourself in them and share them with others? I treat music as being a completely crucial element of a mature experience. It's everyone else that wants rock to be about banging chicks and taking drugs and acting like an asshole well past your 20s. I say fuck off to all of that. That was boring when it was Led Zeppelin in the mid 1970s and I was a kid, and it's even more boring 30 years later.
trakMARX - Enjoyed your last answer. I don't think there's much in life that has value unless it's strived for, in whatever form that takes. One of the great things about your BT interviews is that you deliberately avoid 'harmonising' your discussions into some overview, where you selectively quote the artist and place those quotes within some overbearing hypothesis or theory. For those unfamiliar with the magazine, what you offer instead is, on most occasions, complete transcripts of your conversations. Warts and all, to use another British expression. Most music journalists, in my experience, are acutely conscious of the way that they, rather than the interview subjects, are projected. It's a very natural human temptation to want to make yourself look good and I don't think anyone is ever completely innocent, or unaware, of that. However, the reason I think BT more often than not gets to the heart of its subjects is to do with the honesty of the exchange and the resulting unshackled dialogue. To me, the straightforwardness of this approach is one of the essential strengths of the magazine. I have often wondered, however, whether this style became established simply because it evolved, or whether you actually thought about it beforehand and had decided that you wanted to escape the 'article' based format that still endures today.
Jack - Actually, what you refer to in other magazines has always frustrated me, both as a fan reading other people's interviews, and most of all, as a musician or writer reading the interviews I've seen it done to me. Where I said much more interesting or germane things and they only print some flippant joke I made or something and the writer goes on and on about Zeus knows what. But you bet it was deliberate. When I was 15 or so, I'd find the occasional Playboy mag, and, excited about the pictures, I'd eventually get to reading the other parts of the mag, and man, their interviews were three-hour knockouts! Maybe it was because it was a high-class girlie mag, but a sex mag just the same, the people who did the interviews (I remember reading over the next few years John Lennon, Lee Iacoca, the former prince of Cambodia, and other such genuinely thoughtful and unusual people who really benefited from the long form) really would loosen up and try to be unusually honest. Some of the best punk rock mags I grew up reading like Search and Destroy and Slash would print really digging Q&A's as well. There was one of Devo in 1978 in Search and Destroy that totally turned my head, I couldn't believe how smart these people were! (That's been totally lost, by the way, in the cartoon new wave image they got marketed with a few years later when they signed to Warner Bros.) Ditto, Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu's David Thomas and Howard Devoto and William Burroughs. God it was really inspiring to see just how brilliant, cutting age thinkers these people were if given proper time and space to express themselves completely on a variety of topics germane to them and their work, or just that impacted them somehow.
I totally try to achieve that, by basically getting a long discussion going where it becomes clear early that the atmosphere is relaxed but the idea is to get their full personality on paper. I think it's clear that the people being interviewed appreciate it, especially if they get questions that actually make them think first, because that turns you on whether you are doing an interview or just having a go with your friends in a pub. That's why I'm really enjoying this interview! It's great when the shoe is on the other foot, and I'm totally into this for example! I don't think it's rocket science or that I am some kind of unique person in this idea, I just think other people are lazy, uniformed, or too cost-conscious, or, as you say, too self-centric to present someone else as they really are.
trakMARX - The second thing I think distinguishes BT from other magazines is its choice of subject matter. Most of the UK rock press are tied up with product-related features. Band releases album, band gets interview, etc. Although artists are obviously keen to shop-window their latest material, I feel less of a direct link between product and feature in BT, more that you grab people when you can. I still think there's a causal equation between reading about an artist in BT and wanting to purchase or explore their music, but I think it's a lot more natural because of the fact you're not just hyping their latest disc. The second part of this observation is that BT features a more interesting range of voices because you're not stuck in the fashion loop of UK music magazines. You are particularly good at looking at artists who are otherwise dismissed or passed over. For example, if we take the punk thing, there's a haughty attitude towards anything that isn't Pistols/Clash/Banshees etc in the UK, or possibly Wire, Gang Of Four and Subway Sect. You're more than happy to celebrate the careers of people like Generation X, the Ruts, the (early) UK Subs, Stiff Little Fingers, ATV, 999, etc. And that's refreshing, because they all made great records. Similarly, those bands that emerged out of the Thames Valley/Shoegazing scene, with the singular exception of My Bloody Valentine, received an even worse mauling in the UK. To the extent that bands like Slowdive, Catherine Wheel and Swervedriver have become practically invisible. And again, this goes back to my earlier comments about not using interviews as a means of conveying the journo's own cultural cool. It kind of reaffirms the fact that you're not being dragged around by the nose by a PR to give something your seal of approval, you're just talking to people whose music you like.
Jack - This one touches a small nerve! I never read the Brit press much any more, and it's their own fault! I¹ve always had a different approach to a music magazine because I know what I myself am looking for in other mags. When I was a teenager in the late 1970s, and listening to David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, these guys had been making LPs for a decade or so, and I don¹t think I even was particularly aware of which were their newest ones, nor did I much care since I was just diving in off the deep end. Their whole career interested me and still does! In fact, their oldest records were clearly their best although I was also inspired by their much different newer stuff once I did determine which were which! So I do my interviews the same way. People buy older LPs all the time, not just an artist¹s brand new one on the racks. They just want good music; they don¹t care so much about those things. The newer the better, of course, but it¹s not the be all/end all imperative that the press thinks it is for most people!
In fact, the music industry as a whole is sucked into the "in/out," "current/old," "critically approved/critically dismissed" dichotomy to an unhealthy degree, whereas what I have always looked for are art and artists I would love to a more broad and timeless degree for decades! I still listen to those Bowie/Eno/Reed/Pop records, 28 years later and clearly others are too. And I¹ve obviously added so many more to my shelves of music I love forever from those more clueless kid days. I have a lot of amazing music to pass on to anyone who wants to know, bereft of those irrelevant considerations, and others I know share what they¹ve found with me and I pass that along too! Whereas some cute-boy NME cover band making some retro noise that won¹t last beyond the initial helping prop of temporary press hysteria has never interested me much, unless their music is really transcendent in some way. Not surprisingly, those artists typically have the least to say of interest, anyway.
And in the end, all the mags end up doing their silly "cat chasing its own tail," "monkey see monkey do" dance where they only seem to act on and react to a narrow, short-list of groups that they’ve together arbitrarily decided are worth being talked about this month - to the exclusion of the entire wide field of great artists working who might be doing something actually of greater long-term interest, and who will actually be more feted and canonised 10 or 20 years later when all those stupid fashionability things disappear and only the music remains. (Look at how those Thames Valley/Shoegazing bands are now the subjects of new double-CD retrospectives and are now racking up great reviews and respect they were unfairly denied when they stopped being brand new circa 1989!!!) The writers over there I have admired over the years, like Andrew Mueller and Matt Snow, were/are people who often wrote about great bands that seemed to have missed this ephemeral hallelujah chorus. If they could do it, what¹s everybody else¹s excuse.
Here¹s a good example of what is wrong with that approach. I remember someone from China Drum telling me that for six months, everything they did was reported in the weeklies, like if they showed up at a party or if they barfed in the streets, or attended someone else¹s gig, and the press would call for quotes on news issues having nothing to do with their band, per se. And then thereafter, when they weren’t the new flavour any more, they¹d put out an LP and it would barely rate a mention! It¹s so transparently fashion-driven, that the Brit press often inspires a temporary readership that ultimately outgrows them when it gets old enough to see it¹s been had, or a less intelligent remnants not smart enough to see through the way they¹ve been manipulated. I predicted the demise of the Sounds/Melody Maker/NME trio long before two of them went out of business. They made themselves so trendy, that they lost their readers¹ loyalty and belief. People swallow that lie whole for a while, but not forever, and then they want no part of it, or they just become cynical to every artist whose intentions might be more forward thinking.
Whereas I still have so many readers that started out with us over 20 years ago in addition to the ones we’ve picked up since. And if you think that¹s easy, it¹s not. Needless to say, people who get into their later 30s and 40s tend to pay far less attention to what a bunch of music artists might be up to, in addition to most other forms of art and entertainment culture that one has to work harder to follow. But older readers who get a trust for a writer or publication stick around because they still want to know, if only peripherally, what is out there and what they might actually peruse with their more limited time. And the younger ones become aware that you¹re not pandering to that scenester mentality; that you exist as a fellow fan with a certain heightened level of expertise that wants to enlighten; and they become far more involved in the music scene as a result and become readers/music buyers to a greater, and longer degree as a result!
The Brit press has done itself no favours in the long run worrying about being on some kind of phoney, brief tip that they can kill off for the next one, instead of just listening with their own ears and avoiding such secondary school-level herd mentality, while only worrying about an artist¹s current marketability in style points and sales level. They should worry about serving music fans and cultivating that kind of reader loyalty and trust instead, and ultimately they, and their artists they favour, would sell more and mean more. They really squander the natural advantage of having Glasgow a day’s ride from Brighton.
It’s so much harder here with a 3000 miles by 1500 miles country where it¹s harder to have a national magazine/consensus. I sometimes wish we were a British publication. You¹re right, I interview people when I can. I like it if it is in person, as you get such better responses. And it¹s such a huge country, it¹s hard to get them and I in the same city let alone the same room!
trakMARX - OK, last question. I think we've covered a fair amount of ground. However, another aspect of the magazine that I think is distinctive is that there's a blurring of the boundaries between interviewer and musician, because you're actually a musician yourself. In the rock/pop world these tend to be very segregated activities, whereas, say in jazz, I don't know a single writer in the field who doesn't play as well. Throughout Big Takeover, you've played in Even Worse who were on that thrilling early 80s New York scene alongside Bad Brains, Kraut, etc, documented in New York Thrash, Springhouse, who were more influenced by the Chameleons and Comsat Angels, etc, and more recently Last Burning Embers, who, to me at least, continue in that Springhouse tradition. I think often that this shows through in the interviews - when you're talking to musicians, you appreciate the technical difficulties, the rigour of playing gigs and getting music out, rather than just having a relationship with a final product, i.e. the CD or record they've produced. And I think that having that insight gives you a better understanding, and basis for conversation, with your subjects.
Jack - Oh, yes, that is so true! I lack some training in music theory; I can't tell a b flat from a b minor. Or a major seventh for that matter. It's the one pity about being a drummer rather than a musician that plays an instrument that plays songs, per se. Too bad! But having so much live and recording experience is something I can put out there when I talk to other musicians, either to empathise or to try to cut through whiny b.s. when someone isn't taking proper responsibility for his or her music or actions. And I think it really influences the way I approach music, too, as I hear individual parts and arrangements more than most laymen fans, or more than I did when I was younger. I pick out a McCartney bassline when I listen to the Beatles, you know? That seems simple enough, but few people who aren't musicians do that.
But it's a double-edged sword. It accords me some extra credibility as a writer, perhaps, but it seems to detract from people's perception of me as a musician, since it has proved easier for me to make a small mark as a writer, where there are less of us, than as a musician, where there is an endless ocean. And even recently when I was interviewed for "Modern Drummer" mag of all things, the piece ended up focusing on my writing activities more than my playing, and that was frustrating! I know it's a good hook for an editor or for a writer to pitch, but it's been totally overshadowed, and there have been times I thought it would be better to give up the writing gig (as did Morrissey, Chrissie Hynde, Ira Kaplan, and others who started out as writers) as it seemed to hurt the bands I was in more than helped them. It made it sound as if we were dabbling, or moonlighting, or some kind of writers' band, whereas if my day job had been something unconnected, like housepainter or waiter, no one would care, paradoxically!
That said, it's always nice that anyone takes any interest in anything I do, so I really shouldn't and can't ultimately complain. But I say it more on behalf of my bandmates, who have continually watched half of our reviews taken up with some summation of my writer career, which of course has nothing to do with them, when that space could have been devoted to the music or the band in general. Good point about jazz, too. Maybe jazz is just a more dedicated pursuit, and less of a populist one, so those people can fly under the radar and be thought of as serious artists/writers instead of one or the other like in rock.
OK folks, we’ll have to wrap up this one - not because I couldn’t go on talking to Jack for the next year or two – but because of time & its inherent restraints. If you’re in any way inspired by Jack’s knowledge and candour, check out details of subscribing to the Big Takeover. You won’t regret it . . .
Alex Ogg – tMx 29 – 04/07