OUTSIDELEFT: Let's start with your new book, Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence: The Oral History. Why Swans? Where were you when you began to think about them. But really, Why, Swans?
NICK SOULSBY: SWANS has been one of my ‘holy trinity’ - alongside Nirvana and Sonic Youth - since 1997. These are the bands that form the ur-text of my taste, that led me to the most new avenues, opened my ears up to hearing in different ways. I interviewed Michael Gira a couple years ago, then interviewed him again for the Thurston Moore book I did, and the man I encountered was a fascinating, insightful and often hilarious raconteur. It made the idea of spending ten hours or more listening to Gira tell stories feel like a pleasure rather than some kinda punishment. That’s when I felt comfortable asking him straight if he would cooperate if I were to do a book of this nature.
But I think you’re asking the more existential question: ‘why should there be a book on Swans?’ Sheer truth: we live in the age of biography and autobiography - it’s deeply annoying. Every shiny-cheeked celebrity nothing winds up with a puff-piece despite rarely having lived a life of any particular fascination. Swans is different: I think the story of Swans is about how far a human being will go to achieve a dream. I think it’s about that rarest of things which is someone truly giving their life to something greater. It’s about all the dozens of moments where a human being might give up, cave in, take a job and opt out of ever leaving anything of uniqueness. You don’t have to love the music to be amazed what Gira, Jarboe and the musicians in Swans were willing to endure in order to enact this vision that they felt was so important. This was a story that, the more I heard, the more I felt sure it was one of the rare tales that deserved to be told.
OUTSIDELEFT: Not to be too churlish about your publisher, but okay i will go ahead, Sacrifice And Transcendence looks like a bit of a departure from their catalog and I was wondering how you connected with them? I guess of the books about the musicians they generally publish, frankly, more of the fans of those bands are probably dead than alive now, that's a numbers assessment coming from one of the oldest people on the planet, so you can begin to see their problems as a publisher?
NICK SOULSBY: Really? I look at their catalogue and I’m seeing Wire, reggae, Bauhaus, Sepultura, Metallica... I was rather impressed that, for a relatively small operation, they were so broad in their approach. The connection came about at the London Book Fair: Omnibus made the Thurston book a key part of their stand presence so I got to go along. A gentleman called Tom Seabrook came over, he’s an editor at Jawbone and he’d seen the Swans proposal hit his desk - he was willing to give it a chance. In a world that’s ever more virtual that kind of personal connect still really matters! There was a good vibe, I was interested to learn more.
As far as my experience of Jawbone: efficient, to the point, got the job done - it’s been really good.
Music publishing in general is a difficult space - why? Because it sits at the intersection of two industries that have been devastated: music and books. Some publishers have compensated by only hitting generic mass-market names/artists, becoming more celebrity-driven - the other option is to target particular niche audiences with specific titles (you can see a publisher like Rocket 88 doing great stuff in that space!)
The creative industries, to me, are flooded with enthusiasts all working for next to no money in persistently fragile financial situations. There’s this fake perception that all musicians and writers are comfortably off millionaire types - horseshit. People spout it because it makes them feel better about ripping off artists and never making any effort to pay them. What I see is a crowd of people in the same hand-to-mouth situation: musicians, writers, publications, websites, PR people, producers, venues, tour personnel, broadcasters - everyone. With so many people offering content, millions of people willing to replace you if you refuse to do it for nothing, it gives all the price/wage power to a very limited group of core power-holders (i.e., Amazon). The creative industries are the cutting edge of winner takes all capitalism while being mostly populated by people who don’t realise it and never intended to be.
OUTSIDELEFT: Do you think the publishing situation is better or worse for writers, for publishers - sure POD and eBooks have democratized publishing, but as ever, writers, contributing important texts, bearing witness to significant cultural moments, as you say, aren't getting paid.
NICK SOULSBY: The most insidious image in the world, that most people hold even subconsciously, is ‘the scales of justice’. There’s a tendency to weigh bad and good against one another to come to this idea that something is, on balance, good OR bad - nonsense. The attraction of the idea is unity and simplicity. The reality is that everything is good AND bad simultaneously and one doesn’t cancel out or balance the other at all, they just coexist. An example that sticks in my mind is Jimmy Savile raising money for the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Hundreds of people are alive today because of the cash he raised – that’s good... And it doesn’t in anyway mitigate or blot out or balance the fact he was also a horrendously destructive predatory paedophile - that’s bad but it is separate to the good, neither erases the reality of the other. So, when it comes to our glorious new age of online, smartphone, social, connected blah-blah-blah people are desperate to get to over-simplistic and tedious answers. Is it better? Sure. Is it worse? Yep. It all depends who you are, what we’re talking about, when and where.
The democratisation of content creation has opened up a door meaning anyone can say anything - but it has entrenched the massive power held by a tiny number of companies holding the greatest concentration of global wealth and influence ever seen.
When it comes to music, people can in theory find more music than ever before, but in reality the number of artists commanding charts is dwindling measurably. This is the greatest era of mass literacy ever while also being the era where less people than ever read for pleasure and where video content is supplanting literature.
When it comes to publishing, the industry always consisted of a lot of small players, and its technological standards lagged years behind most other businesses, meaning it was ripe for a big firm like Amazon to blow a hole right through it. Authors, in general, are not bound together in any way, they’re essentially subcontractors in the same way an Uber driver or anyone else paid per gig is, so their ability to press for a wage increase is almost zero. Established writers, with a pre-peak-Internet-era record of success, have increased their ability to command big figures. New writers will work for near nothing for years, with the occasional exceptional being plucked from obscurity to the heights – the existence of the latter is exalted and overexposed by most of the media while the majority see their earnings shrink ever further and writing becomes a hobby not a vocation. Some will argue that writers aren’t owed a living, that they can write for nothing, but if the time available to a writer to create and practice their craft is squeezed out by the need to earn the daily crust, then we’re obviously reducing that writer’s time at their peak, reducing the quantity they can write, reducing the depth of their research and the quality they can create...
OUTSIDELEFT: How do you work? I wanted to say you can write it all in your study, make a few phone calls, find press clips then track down the protagonist to approve a quote... But somehow I doubt it, it feels like there are a lot of hard yards and a labor of love, what are the hurdles and the barriers, you're like Woodward and Bernstein - do people insist on meeting you in underground car parks, only backlit in dingy motels, 24 hour diners in Donald Trump masks, what? How does it work? How to get so many to dare to dish the dirt.
NICK SOULSBY: I tend to buy an Ikea desk, hump it to an underground car park, unpack it, assemble it, then scrawl away on discarded crisp wrappers and the remains of the packaging until I spy my target emerging from a dimly-lit elevator then I pounce... No. But thanks for the image, that’s beautiful! People are people: approach with respect, be courteous and just be honest - I think people can detect manipulation and bad intentions a mile off.
I’ve always looked at people who have paranoid, suspicious or just plain ugly personalities and thought “it must take so much energy to live like that.” I’m lazy, my life is easier because I’m gentle and I want it to be full of people who walk away smiling after we’ve spoken. It helps that I’m writing music books not some kinda crushing exposé. I call it ‘the hunt’: I spend hours sat at my desk tracking people down across the Internet – is there a still active band they were part of? Are they still performing and where can I find their contact details? Did they recently use a studio or someone’s production services? Most of the time it isn’t hard: most people in a public-facing commercial industry need to be contactable one way or another even if it winds up I have to go to their agent. I start with a vast spreadsheet listing names visible on records or that I found in old interviews – whatever. Each time I find a person and we interview I’m increasingly unashamed of asking if they might know how to get hold of another person I need to find or if they might know a name I haven’t thought of.
I just act with gratitude and appreciation for people’s efforts on my behalf and take it that the best respect I can show them is to work hard to make the book everything it could be and to write questions – like yours – that have obviously had some blood and energy put into them.
After an interview, I transcribe it (that’s the part I hate but it’s essential I do it myself because it allows me to live with the words and really sink into it all), then I give the interviewee their transcript and allow them to cut or amend as they see fit. What they hand back is what I then work with. It reassures me that transcription errors have been caught, that they’re comfortable with what I’m doing, that they get a chance to expand where necessary because everything looks so different when it’s on a page.
OUTSIDELEFT: So far it's clear you seem to be enamoured with your subject but what if you weren't... How would that work with the Nick Soulsby style? Throw out reams of quotes that weren't bitchy?
NICK SOULSBY: If I didn’t want to write about a topic or individual, then it wouldn’t work. Why would I dedicate my nights and weekends – the limited time I have around my actual job – to someone or something I hated? What a waste of a life. I don’t have any particular desire to be a professional writer – it looks a hard way to live and a very isolated way of life – it’s good to go to work and to escape the echo chamber of one’s own head.
As I’m not writing to make money, as I write regardless of whether someone is reading the results, there’s nothing anyone can say to make me do something I don’t want to. Do I think I could write a book about someone I hated? Sure, but why would I? There used to be hagiographies, books written purely to account the beatific deeds of a saint and why they should be worshipped – I’m not writing that, I think page after page of praise is a dreadful read and kills the humanity of a person. My feeling is that PR releases tend to dehumanise and damage their subjects because no one can feel this is someone real at the core of it.
By the same virtue, I’m not writing hatchet-jobs: I’m not into cruelty or taking vicarious pleasure in someone else’s pain. I’m into truth. The book should account for why the people who appreciate the art, or who made their lives a part of it, love that thing at it’s centre – it’s about their love, not mine. So it’s not a case of being enamoured, it’s more a case of respecting and appreciating someone for who they are, I don’t need to feel some utter approval for everything a person does or says – I just need to feel I can make them real to someone reading.
In the past six years there are only two people who have been aggressive toward me (I believe they were both high) which is a real comment on humanity: I’ve interviewed over 600 people and, just by being decent to people and not treating them like a convenience, and literally 99.9% (go check the math, 2 divided by 600) have been a pleasure.
OUTSIDELEFT: Did anyone ever ask to be paid to speak with you, to be included in the book? A friend wrote what was an authorised, I think, biography that became unauthorized i the process, when the artists management changed, there were threats to his limbs, lets say... But also, people would speak, but they would ask to be paid, I remember meeting him at the Chateau Marmont and he'd just had to get his check book out, well cheque book for him to get an interview with a famed Hollywood Historian... I am concatenating his entire life story, but something like that, and you probably know him so guess I won't mention him by name, but want to. But it's your question so over to you...
NICK SOULSBY: That’s remarkable - your friend must have been paid a LOT more cash than I am.
I can understand that it may be required in some situations but I’m mainly writing about artists, or writing in ways that involve more normal people or people who aren’t at some crazy commercial strata of the industry.
Most people are just amazed anyone would care about what they do – heck, I’m always really delighted when people take a shot on something I’ve written because I don’t expect people to give a damn about me, why would they? It’s an honour!
I don’t have the money to pay people so, if someone asks, then I’m just honest about that. There’s a world-class photographer who, I get it, they’ve probably had to have sharp elbows to ensure they haven’t been taken advantage of and spit on all these years, but they wanted hundreds just for the use of one image in the book – like that one picture was going to sell so many books it was worth me handing over hundreds, sheesh! If I was writing about teenage wizards having poorly written bondage sex then maybe I’d be able to spray a bit of a cash around but it’s not a thing I can do. Most of the ‘pay’ of music writing comes in the form of getting to speak to people who have done amazing things, getting on the phone with your idols and heroines, swapping music and books with people – one of my best moments in 2016 was Thurston Moore dedicating a song to me at the Bristol show his band did. Magic!
OUTSIDELEFT: Have you read that Oral history of the rebirth of rock n roll in NYC Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011?
NICK SOULSBY: I confess I haven’t. I hear it’s an amazing book but, being blunt, I thought that ‘rebirth of rock’ shtick was over-hyped nonsense and that there was barely a band worth listening to in that scene – Yeah Yeah Yeahs are an exception (but they seem to have this cycle of good record-meh record-good record-meh record.)
It’s like the passing of the torch from jazz to pop/rock: a lot of the established taste-makers and writers and DJs and business types clung onto something whose time had passed. Jazz split into the artists who were milking the same ol’, same ol’ to ever declining effect and the wild cards who were pushing it into incredible new shapes but would never go near mass appeal. The same happened with rock music: it died. Those who made it to a mass audience tended to be recycling a slightly shinier version of something that had been heard before, while a vast sea of underground artists breathed life into it and created some of the most startling new music but would never in a million years command a pop audience.
Doesn’t mean I’m saying anyone else couldn’t find something to love in The Strokes or their ilk. But the conversion of all culture into a form of gossipy soap opera is stultifying, it’s like everything just became a different shade of Hello magazine’s vapid notion of life. OK, so now I have to read the book! Because I have heard it’s good. It’s just the idea that the early 2000s were some creative resurgence that makes me hurl.
OUTSIDELEFT: Your writing I'd hazard a guess, is at least as inspired by music books and writers as it is by music... By the art of writing about music... Favorite music books or authors?
NICK SOULSBY: I’d have to confess most of my reading is an outgrowth of doing history at university and reading a lot of fiction. I read a lot of works on American politics (Gary Younge’s Another Day In The Death Of America would be a recommendation), when I want breathing space I read stuff about World War Two (Adam Tooze’s The Wages Of Destruction is one of those few works to spin my head around). I sometimes get fixated on a topic so, for example, I had a spell reading about cults and terrorism (Raven by John Jacobs and Time Reiterman is a classic). Everyone should read VIZ, the comic! It’s classic stuff.
Music book-wise, The New Analog by Damon Krukowski is genius, John Savage’s England’s Dreaming is the most intelligent analysis of a scene and of a band I’ve ever encountered, Painful But Fabulous: The Lives & Art Of Genesis P-Orridge is a great volume... I’m about to re-read The Death Archives and Kris Needs’ Dream Baby Dream volume on Suicide is next up.
OUTSIDELEFT: You are an intense and long time blogger. I've never liked that type of thing! What's the future of blogging look like, it so often seems to me that the internet while it is not over, ever since everyone started using it, the measure of success is not the content, its whether you're attracting the eyeballs of people you'd be better off not worrying too much about. That's not the internet from when I was a boy.
NICK SOULSBY: The aspect of ‘being British’ that annoys me the most is that there’s a tendency to say “everything is rubbish” – it’s this really common kneejerk default. The other extreme, the kind of tub-thumping “this is the best country on Earth and you’re a traitor if you say otherwise!” triumphalism is equally annoying. Both are defensive postures: it’s all great so I don’t need to bother doing anything/everything is awful and always will be so there’s no point in trying to make it better. So, when it comes to something like blogging, yep, I agree, some people are all about the eyeballs. But just because some people are doesn’t mean that everyone is – the existence of one angle doesn’t negate the existence of the other.
As a life-mantra I always come back to Minor Threat’s song ‘In My Eyes’: “you tell me that I make no difference – at least I’m fucking trying! What the fuck have you done?”
I think Outsideleft is a fair example of people standing up and doing something that might matter to a hundred-a thousand-tens of thousands-who cares how many people? I doesn’t have to be something of any particular scale, it just has to be something, screaming into the void is a righteous activity in and of itself.
When I started off blogging it became this bizarre (possibly pathological) outpouring of material on the band Nirvana and on Kurt Cobain. What I felt distinguished it was that I was trying to use data to say something about a band, to break something down in different ways whether that meant making spreadsheets that showed when a song was first/last played, showing which songs were the set-opener/finisher at certain points in their career, even showing how crazily disjointed Cobain’s living arrangements were (Life Long Latchkey Kid Part 1 and Part 2 are two of my favourite and simplest pieces) – I enjoyed it.
My blogging deteriorated massively as I had to devote more time to books and other writing. I certainly don’t have any great interest in just telling the world how I feel over and over – bleugh, who cares about me? But I do think, for whatever time they last, there’s the potential for interesting commentary and information that might never otherwise have been considered. It might only impact a tiny number of people but the numbers don’t matter.
People can have the type of world they want if they’re game to do the work for it - I think that IS the Internet that existed when you were a boy?