Critical Review: An Interview with Pitchfork Managing Editor Mark Richardson on Animal Collective

When we reviewed Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, it seemed unconscionable that the hype around the as-yet-unreleased album could be any bigger (as reviewer Andrew Phillips said, message boards were flooded, blogs were ablaze, and fans had resorted to hacking the band’s email account). That’s when underground powerhouse Pitchfork (kingpin of the love/hate indie-rocker relationship) weighed in, bestowing its hallowed Best New Music designation and a 9.6 rating.

While the review wasn’t an unprecedented event, it did lay down a higher ranking than the publication gave ANY album in ’08. After the jump, the author of the review, Pitchfork Managing Editor Mark Richardson, goes one-on-one with Flavorwire’s resident avant-pop obsessive and Unpopular Opinions aficionado, The Beard, about the album, the band’s ascendancy, the potential pitfalls of extremely high and low rankings, and what can happen when reviewers get it wrong.

[12:08] TheBeard4904: hey mark

[12:08] Mark_Pitchfork-666: hey

[12:08] TheBeard4904: saw your away signal, so i thought i’d give ya a few mins 🙂

[12:09] TheBeard4904: busy morning?

[12:09] Mark_Pitchfork-666: sort of, we are a little short-handed this week, but not too bad

[12:18] TheBeard4904: anyways, on to animal collective

[12:18] TheBeard4904: the hype around this thing out of the gate is sort of unbelievable

[12:18] Mark_Pitchfork-666: yeah, it really is

[12:19] TheBeard4904: I’m secretly a big nerd when it comes to message boards, and I’ve been trolling ateaseweb. Their discussion thread has 1075 PAGES

[12:19] TheBeard4904: not posts

[12:19] TheBeard4904: that’s pages

[12:19] Mark_Pitchfork-666: my god, that’s unreal

[12:20] Mark_Pitchfork-666: I should check that out

[12:20] TheBeard4904: in your review, you mentioned the hype, but i didn’t get a sense of why you think it’s suddenly emerged like this, like in such an unprecedented way

[12:21] Mark_Pitchfork-666: I think part of it probably has to do with the nature of Animal Collective. There [sic] sound has changed so much from album to album, that there’s the added anticipated [sic] that you really don’t know what the next one is going to be like

[12:22] Mark_Pitchfork-666: some bands, you know a new album is coming out, and you wonder if the songs will be good, but you don’t spend as much time wondering at a very base level what it’s going to sound like

[12:22] Mark_Pitchfork-666: but I think with them, you do, which adds to it

[12:24] TheBeard4904: i agree; i think the cult of expectation just builds and builds

[12:25] Mark_Pitchfork-666: that’s one thing they have in common with Radiohead. after Radiohead’s sound took that left turn around the time of Kid A, there has been anticipation whether they will “return to rock” or keep on a more electronic path, etc

[12:26] Mark_Pitchfork-666: although they’ve never diverged that much since

[12:26] Mark_Pitchfork-666: but yeah, blogs and message boards certainly do drive that anticipation

[12:26] TheBeard4904: yeah, i think radiohead is an interesting comparison

[12:27] TheBeard4904: in our review, we said that this record is animal collective’s bid to take things to a radiohead-like level

[12:27] TheBeard4904: this sort of class of acceptable weirdo groups that are allowed into the mainstream, people like bjork, radiohead, beck

[12:28] TheBeard4904: do you think that’s an overreach?

[12:28] Mark_Pitchfork-666: that is something I have wondered about with this one, whether it will cross over to people who don’t follow music as closely

[12:29] Mark_Pitchfork-666: my initial thought is that I’m a little bit skeptical of it happening, because there are still a lot of things about A.C. that are pretty strange

[12:29] Mark_Pitchfork-666: one thing with Radiohead, is that every album had least a few tunes that could fairly be described as “rock songs.” you could tell what all the instruments were, there are guitars, etc., but that’s not really true with this record

[12:31] TheBeard4904: that’s true, but i kind of think some of the songs could reach a similar spectrum. not because they rock, but because, despite their weirdness, they sort of groove.

[12:31] TheBeard4904: “My Girls” for instance, is a real head bopper

[12:31] TheBeard4904: i mean, i could actually see people dancing to that

[12:32] Mark_Pitchfork-666: yeah, that’s true – very easy to imagine that having wide appeal, no doubt about it

[12:32] Mark_Pitchfork-666: I think part of it is, these days, it’s harder to say what “crossing over” means exactly

[12:36] Mark_Pitchfork-666: that seems like the venue for a larger breakthrough – a commercial, a movie, a TV show, yeah, and it’s not hard to imagine but it’s hard to say if the band is interested in that

[12:39] TheBeard4904: well, i think that’ll depend in large part on who offers. i think the move to domino indicates at least an interest in taking things to a slightly less indie level

[12:39] Mark_Pitchfork-666: yeah, that’s true, you’re right

[12:41] TheBeard4904: you gave this record a 9.6, which, as far as I can tell, is higher than any record review you guys ran in 2008

[12:41] TheBeard4904: what exactly does that mean?

[12:42] TheBeard4904: is it a classic?

[12:42] Mark_Pitchfork-666: yeah, we didn’t have a rating that high in 2008.

[12:45] Mark_Pitchfork-666: I should point out here really quick just to clarify that with something like that, I’m speaking more from my position as the guy who reviewed the album than as a representative of Pitchfork as a whole. There are some lines there for sure, and as the guy who write the review, not everything I say should be interpreted as “Pitchfork says…”

[12:46] TheBeard4904: that’s fair

[12:46] TheBeard4904: you did ultimately recommend the rating though?

[12:46] Mark_Pitchfork-666: yes, it is my rating

[12:46] Mark_Pitchfork-666: but yes, to me, this album does feel like a classic. Of course, saying such things after listening to it for six weeks or however long I’ve had it, inevitably is pretty risky

[12:47] Mark_Pitchfork-666: but it stood out for me in a huge way from the first time I heard it

[12:48] TheBeard4904: do you have reservations when you give something a high rating? I noticed that you’ve doled out a few in your time at p-fork

[12:49] Mark_Pitchfork-666: yeah, I’ve given a few 10s for things that were reissues, and in those cases, I don’t have as many reservations because you’ve lived with an album for so long and really understand its worth

[12:50] Mark_Pitchfork-666: it can be more difficult with something that is brand new, because you really have to think hard about whether this album is just scratching a very personal itch for you or if its quality extends just beyond your own biases – that will never be an exact science, but it’s something I think about a lot for a rating

[12:52] Mark_Pitchfork-666: for example, in the past I’ve written about a lot of abstract electronic music, and there are certain kinds of sounds, like combinations of drones and distortion that’s very specific, that have a big effect on me, and I can listen to them over and over, but other people just hear a bunch of noise

[12:52] Mark_Pitchfork-666: but over time I’ve had to temper that by thinking of whether my attraction to this specific sound extends beyond my own tastes or not, that comes into it with a rating

[12:56] TheBeard4904: that makes sense; it’s drawing a line between what you like and what you think others will like

[12:57] Mark_Pitchfork-666: right – I don’t worry about that very much in the text, but for the rating that’s where it enters into it. It’s an attempt to step back and think of it in broader terms

[12:57] TheBeard4904: do you worry, conversely, about the danger of over hyping?

[12:58] TheBeard4904: i mean, it seems pitchfork endorsement, more than perhaps anyone else out there right now, creates a massive expectation

[12:58] Mark_Pitchfork-666: sure, there are always moments where you look back at something later and think, “That wasn’t as good as I thought,” and that never feels good.

[12:59] Mark_Pitchfork-666: yeah, it does, but here’s an interesting thing about that

[13:00] Mark_Pitchfork-666: from a writer’s perspective, you really need to do everything you can to try and put that out of your mind. This is something Klosterman mentioned in your interview that I really connected with, is that you want to write something that people will connect with, that will broaden the understanding of the music, but at the same time, you really don’t want to think about what the effect of that will be

[13:01] TheBeard4904: i see what you mean, but i wonder if that sort of boxing off isn’t a potentially slippery slope

[13:03] TheBeard4904: for me the danger some in when it’s read a different way. in the case of arcade fire’s first record, i remember reading [Pitchfork’s review] years ago, seeing something like this, a 9.6, 9.7, something like that and going into the record with such high expectations that i ended up being disappointed.

[13:04] TheBeard4904: it took about a year before i could listen on its own terms and come to the conclusion that it was a very good record, just perhaps not, in my mind, a classic

[13:05] Mark_Pitchfork-666: yeah, that makes a lot of sense, I understand what you’re saying. there is a danger in that, for sure, and I think there is a tendency sometimes to pull back a little when someone says something is that massively great. You get these ideas in your head of how great it’s going to sound, and sometimes that can be disappointing

[13:07] Mark_Pitchfork-666: I think, as a writer, there is also the hope that a review will be interesting even after someone has listened to album for a while, which gets at the earlier points about the different between a review and criticism

[13:10] Mark_Pitchfork-666: but the upper end of the scale is used very sparingly, so we think hard on whether an album is that good

[13:19] TheBeard4904: do you guys have a review process or like an informal board or anything when things get that high?

[13:19] TheBeard4904: what happens when say, a new writer, gives you something inflated?

[13:24] Mark_Pitchfork-666: it’s not always easy when we have so many freelancers, but we do try and have a least a general idea of: 1) what writers think about things; and 2) what the editors think about things well in advance of when a review is filed. Part of what keeps editors so busy is listening to everything we can to get an idea of what it’s all about so that there aren’t as many surprises when a review is filed. So yeah, editors and writers do have conversations on ratings, and staff writers also talk to us and each other about records. So there are compromises sometimes, since part of our job is to try and make sure the ratings are as consistent and meaningful as possible, since our readers pay close attention to them.

[13:30] TheBeard4904: do you guys have the same discussions with low reviews? seems like those are perhaps more controversial

[13:30] TheBeard4904: does everyone have to be on board?

[13:32] Mark_Pitchfork-666: no, it’s more of a case-by-case thing, but a really low review. Yeah, we’d definitely talk about that. I wouldn’t say everyone has to be on board, but hopefully the case is being made by the writer and his or her position makes sense

[13:33] Mark_Pitchfork-666: but we do take a lot of care with low ratings too, no question

[13:37] TheBeard4904: just one last sort of follow-up on that point, and i’ll let you go

[13:40] TheBeard4904: we talked about separation a bit, sort of criticism vs review. In the case of pitchfork though, I’d imagine whatever is written, good or bad, has a pretty tangible effect on a band’s sales. with low reviews, is there a concern about marginalizing bands when you really just want to attack an album?

[13:40] TheBeard4904: i’d ask the opposite, but [bands aren’t] as concerned about a bump in sales

[13:47] Mark_Pitchfork-666: Yeah, this is another big question. A few things go into it. One, there are of course any number of records that we don’t review that probably aren’t very good, and may in fact be awful, but we only have 25 reviews a week and so we don’t have the space for everything (nor would we want to cover everything, of course). So when we do review something that turns out to be pretty lousy, it’s because the band is important enough to be discussed. And once that is the case, if the writer really thinks the album is terrible and has reasons why, and the editor(s) agree, it would be dishonest not to run the review.

[13:47] Mark_Pitchfork-666: Reviews would lose some meaning if we only focused on what we think is good, there are also a lot of interesting things about music as a whole that can come from listening to music that isn’t nec. great. When you think of music and the culture around it in big picture terms, as far as trends and cultural shifts and so on, you need to pay attention to things that you don’t nec. love too. So that’s the rationale for reviewing something in the first place that would strike someone as lousy.

[13:49] Mark_Pitchfork-666: it definitely doesn’t feel good if a review has a bad effect on someone, but unfortunately that’s an aspect of what we do and you have to live with it and, to go back to something way upthread, to try and disengage yourself from the effect of a review and what the band will think and to talk directly to the readers.

[13:49] Mark_Pitchfork-666: not saying it’s easy, but that’s the goal.

Related post: Advance Notice: Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion