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Flavorwire Interview: Michael Azerrad on The Talkhouse and the Future of Music Writing

One of the most interesting new music-related websites to emerge of late is the Talkhouse, a site based around the idea of musicians writing about other musicians. It’s already hosted some fascinating writing — who wouldn’t want to read Laurie Anderson on Animal Collective, or JD Samson on Bat for Lashes? — and there’s the promise of more to come, with a new piece published every day. The Talkhouse is edited by Michael Azerrad, who wrote the fantastic Our Band Could Be Your Life, as well as the Nirvana biography Come as You Are. We spoke to him about the idea behind the site, the state of music writing in 2013, and whether musicians or writers have more fragile egos.

What attracted you to the idea of the Talkhouse? What did you find compelling about the idea of musicians writing about other musicians?

There are so many voices out there in web-land, all venturing an opinion about music. The thing is not all of them are terribly interesting. But a musician offering insights on another musician, that’s inherently interesting. I want to read that! And I figured a lot of other people would too. So that’s why we have Laurie Anderson on Animal Collective, or Andrew W.K. on Robert Pollard, or — coming up — Bob Mould on Phoenix, and Tony Award winner Stew on Ghostface Killah/Adrian Younge. That’s just automatically going to be interesting.

And I just know a lot of musicians, and they talk really well about music, probably because they have so much practice at talking about it. The thing is, they usually only get to talk about their own music, in interviews. But they have so much more to say than that. So I knew that would be a really great source. And sure enough, we’ve featured some really strong writers, people who are as good — or better — than most of the pros out there. Vijay Iyer, Amy Klein, Greg Saunier, Jonathan Meiburg, Mish Way, and tons more… those people are bad-ass writers by any measure.

Also, I just figured it would be fun to put the shoe on the other foot and have musicians see what it’s like to write about music. As Randy Blythe, the singer from the awesome metal band Lamb of God, wrote in his Talkhouse piece about the new album from Crime and the City Solution, “This is my first stab at being a ‘rock critic,’ a profession that normally makes me think of stabbing in an entirely different way.”

People occasionally like to complain in our comments section along the lines that, “Well, I’d like to hear your music before you criticize others.” As someone who’s edited a lot of music writing, do you find that musicians approach the task of criticism any differently to people who are writers first and foremost?

The thing about the Talkhouse is, it’s not criticism. I don’t even call them reviews, I call them pieces. I tell every single one of our writers that I don’t want them to write like critics or offer a thumbs-up/thumbs-down type of assessment. It’s just a musician’s-eye view of a given album, using the insights and wisdom they’ve gained by writing, performing and recording music, not to mention sitting in a van for weeks on end, listening to music and debating it ad infinitum.

And yes, most Talkhouse contributors do listen to me and offer a musician’s-eye view of the music. Because they know what it’s like to make music. A great example is Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater’s take on the new David Bowie album. Jonathan is a singer, and an exceptional one, as well as a brilliant guy, and he looked at the album through the prism of how Bowie’s voice has changed over the years. Nobody but a musician would have thought of that, and it’s one of the most brilliant pieces we’ve run.

Do you worry that musicians might be reluctant to be too harsh on their peers?

The idea of the Talkhouse isn’t to be harsh. Or lenient either. Musicians tend to have a huge degree of empathy for other musicians. They know the blood, sweat and tears involved in writing music, practicing it, and recording it. So there’s a baseline respect for the effort involved, and an appreciation of the craft of it — things that are so often missing in music criticism. We’ve had some indifferent and even negative pieces, though, for sure, but the great thing is, nobody has ever said anything that they couldn’t have said to the other musician’s face. Well, except for maybe Dapwell’s take on the new Wiz Khalifa album.

On the topic of comments sections, can you explain a little bit about the ideas behind the Talkhouse’s approach, limiting comments to reviewer and reviewee only?

I realize I keep saying this over and over, but we’re really interested in a musician’s take on things. And the way we’ve set up the comments section is that only the musicians who are being written about can offer comments on the piece. That allows both the writer of the piece and the musician being written about to interact and have a unique conversation. Often it’s between two people who otherwise never would have met, much less talked about the other’s music. It’s already happened a few times and the results have been fascinating, and even kind of moving. Look at Anika’s adorable response to EMA’s piece on her EP. It’s priceless, you’re not going to get that anywhere else.

Michael-Azerrad_BLOG

Photo credit: Haley Dekle

There’s a lot of pessimism about the state of music criticism these days — from the fact that there’s no money in it, to the tyranny of the listicle, to the instant availability of albums obviating the need for pre-release reviews. Do you have any thoughts to share regarding the state of music writing in 2013?

The fact that there’s no money in reviewing music is strictly the concern of people who write reviews for, ostensibly, a living. It’s a classic example of supply and demand — there’s now such an overwhelmingly huge supply of music writing that the price for it has plummeted to nothing. (I should point out here that the Talkhouse does pay for pieces, and we pay better than most online outlets. And the high quality of the writing on the site proves that you get what you pay for.)

However, good writing is in short supply. That’s because good writing comes from good thinking, and good thinkers will always be in short supply. That’s why most people can write, but not everyone can write well — just like most people can cook or draw, but not everyone can cook well or draw well. So there’s still plenty of room for writing that illuminates music in ways you never thought of, and musicians are perfect for that.

You told MTV recently that your site and Maura Johnston’s new project were “just the beginning of a revolution.” Could you maybe expand a little on what you meant by this?

New technologies always enable new kinds of communication. The thing is, you can’t predict what will happen. Look at Facebook — it started as a way for college students to network and now it’s this global behemoth with all sorts of applications that nobody ever anticipated. And although we already have one generation that’s grown up with the internet, the invention itself is still very young — more things are going to come out of it, but no one yet knows what they will be. I’m sure the Talkhouse itself will evolve in ways that no one anticipated.

Do you see this as a purely online venture, or might there one day be a print component?

The Talkhouse is like the revolution in online communication I mentioned earlier: it’s still in its infancy. Who knows where it will lead!

Ultimately, what do you hope for the site to achieve?

Looking back on my own body of work, I see that I’m really interested in showing that musicians are people, not caricatured myths, and that revealing that fact only makes music more magical, not less. And that’s one thing I hope the site will accomplish. I hope the Talkhouse will introduce people to different kinds of music. I hope the site will help stimulate people to think and talk more about music, and become a go-to destination for people who want to read interesting writing about all kinds of music. And, like I said, I hope it becomes something that nobody ever anticipated.

And finally, who has a more fragile ego: music writers or musicians?

I think that music writers’ egos about writing are as fragile as musicians’ egos are about making music. But when musicians write, they’re pretty egoless. You can see it in the writing on the Talkhouse — they respect their peers, it’s very cool. And on a practical level, virtually every musician I’ve worked with so far has asked me to work closely with them on edits, and that’s been incredibly rewarding on both ends — the pieces on the site have never been less than good, and some of them have been truly great. I’m really touched whenever anybody turns in a piece, and I think I’ll always feel that way. Writing is really hard — believe me, I know that first-hand — so when somebody who isn’t a professional writer turns in a piece, I’m just so proud of them, I can’t even begin to tell you.

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