The Sounds of Northwest London
Black Box

A Very Dark Valentine

A Conversation
Jeff Jackson, Jayson Greene, Paula Mejía, and Jenn Pelly


Jeff Jackson: I want to talk about how format and technology has changed how you listen to music.

Paula Mejía: I definitely remember being a kid who was really interested in music. But the idea that you had to pay eighteen dollars for a CD, where you knew maybe one song, and you’d maybe like the other ones, but don’t know what else is on there — and also, I’m eleven, I don’t have eighteen dollars — what am I going to do with this?

So when file-sharing and peer-to-peer exchanges started to happen, it really blew my mind and opened up my world. It wasn’t just the ability to hear songs individually, it’s that you could go back, you could listen to the evolution of everything someone had made. It was really eye-opening.

Jenn Pelly: Like Paula, I grew up with technology. The computer was completely integral to the way I related to music, and the way I experienced it and discovered it. I can’t detach from that, but especially over the past few years, I’ve tried to be really conscious of what that means.

I feel like a big theme of Destroy All Monsters is the value of music being diminished in our society. It’s kind of impossible to listen to music online today and not be aware of that, if you really care about music and respect it as an art form. Like, how could you go on Spotify and not think about the fact that you’re literally killing music by not paying for it? And that’s sad, but it’s true. So even though I stream music a lot, I try to be really careful and thoughtful about supporting artists in other ways, and listening to music physically, in addition to listening to it digitally. It’s always on my mind, how I can listen to music in a more thoughtful way.

“Like, how could you go on Spotify and not think about the fact that you're literally killing music by not paying for it?”

Jenn Pelly

Jayson Greene: In a certain way, we’re the absolute wrong people [to be asked this question], because we are into music enough that we actually think, “How am I supporting the artist? What kind of format?”

Streaming is so interesting to me because a lot of people are listening to more music than they were before, but they’re also half-listening to it more than ever before. There’s no discrete point of purchase, which means that it’s just something you turn on, like light, like a faucet. It changes people’s conception of what music is for.

You’d go into a coffee shop, which used to be a place where you might hear something that was interesting, or not, or even terrible. But there’d be a soundtrack playing that someone had chosen for some reason. Now you ask the person at the bar, “What are we listening to?” And they’ll say “Oh, I don’t know. Like I put Cat Power Radio on, and I don’t even know what this is.”

JP: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the song “Everything Is Free.” That’s the song that one of my personal favorite songwriters ever, Gillian Welch, wrote about the Napster or Kazaa era of downloading music. The lyrics are very literal, like “Everything is free now.” It’s about how she can’t make a living off of music anymore.

PM: It’s really interesting that you mention that, because I’ve been in an ESG vortex again, and I think a lot about the fact that every hip hop song in history has sampled “UFO.” But they’ve never seen royalties from people like Notorious B.I.G., who are using that song as the base. Even for emerging hip-hop writers, it became a thing like, “Oh, I have to use ‘UFO’ as a sample in order to be taken seriously.” Then they have to release an EP called, like, “Samples Don’t Pay Our Bills,” because it’s so nuts.

At the same time, I do feel hopeful about the fact that people are really curious about discovering different forms of music. I think Bandcamp has completely changed the game, making it so easy to discover new music and also support artists directly.

JJ: I saw Will Oldham, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, talk a couple of weeks ago, and he was talking about how he’s writing a lot of new songs, but has no plans to record them. He believes that with nearly everything available for streaming, the contract between the musician and the listener had been broken. He’s releasing these cover albums, because he’s okay with sort of trying, with other people’s songs, how to navigate this in a way that he could then maybe release his own songs again.

It was really a dire pronouncement, but it was really provocative and interesting to hear him talking about that. And he’s someone who’s clearly thought about this a lot — what it means to have a contract with the listener.

JG: He’s on a label, Drag City, that was one of the last labels to resist Spotify. They just made their stuff available in the last year — but not even all of their catalog, just portions of it. And I remember the announcement, because they kept doing ironic posts like, “Oh we sold out guys, sorry, everything is dying, we’re dying too, here’s music. Yay Spotify!” It was very dark, but, you know…

JJ: Let’s talk about writing books about music, which all of you have done. I’m curious how writing longer pieces about music is different from writing reviews. I’m also curious how you filter your own life, your own experiences, into your writing about music.

JG: I’ve written about music for about fifteen years, and I just wrote a memoir. I think that there’s something there about different forms of writing. To speak to the question you just asked: I feel like the only real compelling reason to show someone words that you write about music is to show them something about yourself and the way that you see the world. I don’t understand what someone’s impulse would be otherwise, if that wasn’t what they wanted out of music writing.

There are people who write about music because they want to demonstrate knowledge, or they want to demonstrate some sort of mastery. That’s always very boring to the reader, because first of all, mastery is very easy to achieve. It’s also just not that emotionally compelling.

If there’s too much of someone’s personality in it, it’s oppressive, and if there’s none of it, it’s lifeless, and so it becomes, to me, about balance. You have to feel like you’re learning something about the artist that someone else would tell you just as easily. You also have to learn something about the person who’s telling you. Otherwise, you don’t care about what you’re reading. Writing about music is in some ways writing about yourself, in the same way that it’s a performance about belief.

PM: Inevitably, when you’re writing about something as subjective as music, you have to imbue yourself into it. There’s no two ways about it. Early on, when I started out writing about music, I was going to shows four or five nights a week. I was obsessed with going to see shows with my friends, and I did college radio, and that was my shit. Everything that I was doing was through the lens of the fan experience and being so excited to discover new artists. I’d see all four openers of this one show, or stand in line for an hour to wait and see this artist that I’ve never seen before.

Early on in my writing career, I was really discouraged from including myself, and I wonder why that is. Maybe it has to do with a kind of trend in music writing. There is a double standard with women writing about music — it’s often viewed as strictly confessional writing, which is bullshit.

“There is a double standard with women writing about music — it’s often viewed as strictly confessional writing, which is bullshit. ”

Paula Mejía

JP: I reflect directly on this idea in my book that I wrote about The Raincoats for the 33 ⅓ series. The record that I wrote about came out in 1979. I was born in 1989 — so, like, very before my time — and I came to their music around 2009, decades after it was released. There was a point at which one of the members of the band asked me, “How much of yourself do you intend to put in the book? Are you going to talk about yourself? Will you be narrating in the first person?” I hadn’t really considered it. I wanted it to be about the band, about the music, and criticism.

But I realized there was nothing I could do to take myself out of it. No matter what I write, to a certain extent, it’s about me, it’s my perspective. With that book, I was writing about music that I felt completely reflected in. I had never heard a record that resonated more with my experience of being a woman, or maybe just kind of a scrappy, imperfect person, which is why I gravitate towards punk, I think. At a certain point, I realized the whole book is kind of about me, because that record broadcast my experiences back at me.

Most of the most passionate music criticism is like that. Even though you might not be directly narrating your experience, it would be impossible to take yourself out of it. There’s really no point in taking yourself out of it, because it makes for interesting writing.

In the case of the book that I wrote, even though I wasn’t putting myself into it that much, I knew the connections I was making are ones only I would have made. In that sense, I was creating this world for their music to exist in, and that felt very particular. Someone else would have written a different book.

“But I realized there was nothing I could do to take myself out of it. No matter what I write, to a certain extent, it’s about me, it’s my perspective.”

Jenn Pelly

JJ: One of the reasons I started writing about music was because I was listening to it so much. I was going to clubs all the time, three or four shows a week. I didn’t play an instrument, I wasn’t in a band or anything, and I really started to feel like my relationship to music was sort of vampiric. I was taking all this stuff from music, and I wanted, in a weird way, to give something back, even if it was just my opinion my passion for it.

Part of the reason for writing Destroy All Monsters was that, even though it’s a very dark book, it’s still a very dark valentine to rock and roll. It’s a way to repaying a lot of debts I have to music. It’s a very extreme book, and so much of the music that I love is so extreme; that music is made with a lot of love. Maybe some people will read it and think, “Do you really hate music, man?” But it’s just the opposite.

JP: I always think of the Fugazi documentary, Instrument — there’s this scene where Ian MacKaye is like, “Music just gave me so much, and I want to give something back.” It’s echoed in my head almost daily.

JG: Funny you would think that your relationship to music is vampiric, when you spent many nights giving money to bands directly to see them play. That was nice of you.

JJ: Yeah, well, you know. When you’re young, you have all sorts of different ideas about what actually constitutes a healthy relationship.

Destroy All Monsters book cover

Destroy All Monsters

FSG Originals, 2018

"A wild roar of a novel . . . Writing about music is tricky. Ninety-nine percent of the time hearing the actual song or going to the actual concert is far more revealing than any paragraph describing it. But Jackson pulls off this near-impossible feat, pulling the reader past the velvet ropes into the black-box theaters and sweaty, sticky-floored stadiums." —Marisha Pessl, The New York Times Book Review

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