1 1/ You note that on a personal level you find something slightly shameful and lame about retro. Perhaps such a reaction relates to your own obvious fascination and immersion in music. Do you believe that retro invokes the same emotions in most listeners?
It comes from my own history as a listener – growing up during the postpunk era, when music was constantly changing and innovation was the generally held ideal, and then in the 90s being heavily involved in rave culture, when music was constantly changing and innovation was the generally held ideal. So those eras have created a benchmark for me of what I think pop culture should be. And not just those periods alone, but things like hip hop in the Eighties and much of the Nineties, things like Timbaland and the future-R&B revolution from the late 90s, and even in the last decade things like grime and elements within dubstep – they have maintained my belief in innovation, futurism, a music scene that keeps moving and mutating. That’s my big buzz. But equally when I listen to music made before when I first got into it seriously circa 1978, the stuff I most admire is Sixties psychedelia, Seventies Krautrock, dub reggae, the arty end of glam like Roxy Music, electric jazz of the Miles Davis kind... all about pushing the envelope, exploration, strange hybrids.
At the same time I obviously enjoy quite a bit of retro-oriented music that’s heavily inspired by the past and plays games with history. But I tend to believe deep-down that these are lesser pleasures. They’re not really taking us forward.
2/ Is there much conscious recognition of the prevalence of retro, particularly among a younger generation for whom recycling of material is considered standard practice?
I think a lot of them think not only that this is normality, but that it has always been like this. People who disagree with the book have said “oh bands have always recycled” . Or even “originality and innovation” are myths. The point of Retromania is to defamiliarise the musical present, to show that retro is not the norm historically, but it is an accumulating cultural syndrome that has built up over the decades until the current predicament. I’m sowing seeds of discontent and rekindling the hope that it doesn’t have to be this way.
3/ Is retro not an inevitable consequence of changes in the way music is listened to. Instead of music that belongs primarily to a specific teenage generation and which is then jettisoned it now remains endlessly available within popular culture?
There’s nothing wrong with listening to old music, or even being influenced by it, but I think it is more productive to use the past as a springboard to go somewhere new. Too much of the current music scene is either adding to an established tradition without extending it in any significant way (Adelle) or it is involved in pastiche and citation and referentiality (most hipster music today).
4/ Is there a finite number of ways to express the same emotions, create a functional building or write a script. Even Shakespeare borrowed his plots after all. Is it possible that there is very little innovative material left to discover?
Well it is true that a lot of experimental avant-garde music – and art and literature and film – heads into a zone which is abstract and anti-emotional. If you have expressive needs, stuff you wish to vent emotionally, you might well be drawn to established modes of songwriting that do that job very well. The equivalent of certain kinds of narrative structure in novels or Hollywood movies. The challenge for pop was to keep innovating in terms of sound, structure, delivery, lyrics, while still expressing emotions that are human and possibly eternal. Perhaps the range in which that can be done has been almost filled up.
5/ You suggest that the download culture has depreciated the value of music. Is there any way back from this? Can it regain its original significance for people when so little effort is required to get it?
I think the problem with the downloading culture is that it has decommodified music, which sounds very anti-capitalistic and “hooray, we’re kicking the corporations in the groin”. But it hasn’t returned music to any kind of “sacred” or communally ritual function that it might have had before it was commodified as recordings that you bought and used at home privately. It’s the worst of both worlds: value-less, virtually abject in its sheer overabundance, something to treat very casually, like water from your tap. When it was a commodity there was still the possibility of commodity fetishism, of some kind of desire or mystical investment in the record-as-object.
6/ Is it possible the same fate will befall books?
Possibly, although the sheer length of books and time required to read them agitates against the kind of senseless downloading and hoarding that I write about confessionally in Retromania. With books you know you’ll never get around to reading them, whereas with downloaded music there seems more likelihood. But certainly with the rise of e-books and reading tablets, there could be a mass traffic in illegally shared books, which would be the ruination of publishing.
7/ Has music completely lost its rebellious and/or political nature? Can you envisage a powerful movement like punk or the protest songs of the sixties emerging in the modern world?
One thing that fascinated me with the student protests in the UK in late 2010, and then the street riots in the summer of 2011, and also with the Occupy movement, is you get journalists writing articles asking “where are the protest songs? What is the musical soundtrack for this moment?”. Well perhaps there isn’t going to be one. Maybe music and politics got decoupled at some point. Certainly it’s hard to imagine what songs could add to the current moment. Whereas during the Sixties or postpunk or the early days of hip hop, message songs did seem to have a certain kind of weight and heft.
8/ Finally, having explored the issued in depth, do you fear for the future of something that you obviously care for deeply. Are there things coming down the tracks with the power to startle and maybe even shock us or should we settle for comfortable, recycled entertainment?
I hear a lot of things every year that are really cool and interesting, and quite a few that are genuinely new and startling. However they tend to be singular occurrences – artists as opposed to genres, and sometimes just particular tracks within a record or oevure – and these artists are also nearly all very marginal in the scheme of things, they operate a long way from the mainstream. There’s no shortage of talent out there, genius levels have not gone down... the problem is the process by which these occurrences gather momentum and become movements, pop cultural events, rifts in History. That used to work during the Analogue era – what people call the monoculture – but the nature of digital culture, which its fragmentation and overproduction, seems to prevent things on the same level as punk or hip hop or rave from occurring.