Sasha Frere-Jones: “It’s Pitchfork and NPR; the rest of us are just part of the conversation”
One of the most original voices in music criticism, The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones talks to DOUG WALLEN about his beginnings as a writer, his favourite Australian acts and how Pitchfork and NPR are dominating the American critical landscape.
When a contingent of New Yorker contributors was announced for the Melbourne Writers Festival, a good many music devotees surely perked their ears at the mention of Sasha Frere-Jones. As the iconic magazine’s pop critic since 2004, Frere-Jones has established one of the smartest, freshest, most original voices in music criticism. He has a gift for penetrating the most familiar music from dizzying new angles; he makes music seem miraculous again, even as he approaches it with a fun irreverence and unblunted sharpness of opinion.
Interviewed for FL before his Australian visit, Frere-Jones touches on everything from the music that changed his life to the origin of his run as a critic. He began as a musician, after all, in the bands Dolores and Ui, and now he’s in the DFA-affiliated act Calvinist. He’s also writing his first book, not a moment too soon.
When did you get started with music criticism?
It was sort of an extended accident, really. Well, not an accident. I spent most of my adult life in a band of one kind or another. My band [Ui] had just played and a writer I admired was at the show and asked me if I would basically transcribe an argument I had had with a friend while we were at the bar. We were complaining about people in indie rock recording shit badly. The whole lo-fi movement. Because we were guys who had day jobs essentially so we could save up to record our bands properly. Her name was Ann Marlowe and it was a zine called Pretty Decorating. She wrote for the Village Voice. This was back when people did things utopian and crazy: she started a broadsheet print fanzine. This was around ‘94, and I wrote for her while I was in my band. But it was nothing other than it was entertaining to write. I’d written plays before that, and theory and poetry and stuff, but I’d pretty much made a decision to be a musician.
Then I sort of got into a scrap with Simon Reynolds in the pages of her zine about post-rock, which is what people used to call Ui. Amazingly – this is even weirder – the Voice had an entire post-rock pull-out and Ann Powers asked me to write about my band and a larger “What is post-rock?” piece. I don’t remember what I wrote; I probably said what everyone says when confronted with a genre name they don’t like, which is, “I don’t know what it is. But if it gets people to come see my band, fine.” I just made that up; that’s probably not what it says. Some of the stuff in their archive is online, but it’s very dodgy.
But basically that was the beginning. And Greil Marcus wrote a nice note about something I wrote. I wrote a very insulting piece about [Sonic Youth/Pavement offshoot] Free Kitten. Not insulting; I wrote a very critical, negative piece about Free Kitten. It wasn’t insulting, it was fact-based. They were just terrible and that’s all I said. It’s nice to have Greil Marcus say something nice about you, but … I had a day job writing copy for a company, I was married, I started having kids. I was just a guy in a band. [But] I kept getting invitations – after the Voice, people asked me to write more and more. It became better for a parent than being in a band, logistically. The band broke up organically and, luckily, about a year after, The New Yorker called me.
How acquainted were you with the previous pop critics there?
Well, there weren’t very many. I was very well acquainted with the first one, Ellen Willis. I wrote the introduction for the anthology that came out last year of her rock writing Out of the Vinyl Deeps. But the funny thing about Ellen is that she only republished in her lifetime about eight of the 53 pieces she did. She walked away from music criticism really swiftly, in about ‘75 or so. Feminism and politics were her real passion. After that there’s a very strange history. They had Mark Moses, who was fantastic, but he died very young of AIDs. There were long stretches where they didn’t really have a pop critic. Nick Hornby did it for a minute; I think Elizabeth Wurtzel did it for a second. But the position had gone quiet for a long time, to the point of a question mark hanging around it. It didn’t really occur to me that it was ever going to have anything to do with me, but it ended up landing in my lap.
“The people who mostly move the units is Pitchfork and NPR. They sell records. I don’t sell records; people read The New Yorker and then they move on.”
Are you pretty free with what you can write about? Is anything ever too obscure?
I don’t think there’s any disagreement between any of us about what the gig is. I only get between 15 and 18 columns a year, and the idea is it’s a general-interest magazine. So everybody approaches every topic exactly the same way, which is: if you don’t know about the topic, it will be written clearly enough that you will understand it. So we assume at some level that nobody knows about what we’re talking about. Maybe we assume that you know who the president is, but every piece is written for a general reader.
But occasionally, yeah, it’s a passion piece. Like there’s a column coming up – I can’t tell you what it is; it’s not that exciting – [about] a record that I just love completely. And I think it’s fairly accessible, but I’m not writing about it because I think that it changes the music weather the way that, say, Frank Ocean and Fiona Apple do. Those are releases that matter to a huge number of people. Last year I adored Replica by Oneohtrix Point Never – that’s not a record that our readership is going to necessarily connect with.
I also know that the nature of writing for The New Yorker is, the people who mostly move the units is Pitchfork and NPR. They sell records. I don’t sell records; people read The New Yorker and then they move on. They may read my article about Rick Ross or whoever, but they’re probably not going to buy the record. I don’t think there’s any case in which that’s really the deal. It’s just a thing that they read every week, so I’m part of that stream. There are other people who are much more part of actually making or breaking a record. It’s really just Pitchfork and NPR, and the rest of us are just part of the conversation.
Being from New York, I imagine New York music has special significance for you.
Some does. Not in any general sense. The city itself means a lot to me, and some of the music from the city was very important to me. I don’t think it’s particularly important to me now. And I don’t like or not like bands because of where they’re from. But I think I happened to be a kid at a moment where New York was still pretty relevant. I don’t think, in the last 20 years, New York has exactly been on fire in terms of putting out music. Not compared to what it once was. That’s because it became so fucking expensive. And good music is almost always going to be correlated with reasonable rents. That’s just not something you can find almost anywhere in New York City now. We do have some good bands, but a lot of them came from other places. We used to have bands from people who grew up here, like Beastie Boys and Liquid Liquid. It used to be you could all live together in a loft.
But your question was about New York music: I would say probably not more than anything else. When I think of the records that changed my life, they’re spread all over the map. I mean, Grace Jones was massive for me as a kid. Killing Joke. Bad Brains are New York sort of, but they’re really from D.C. I think the most important New York band was probably Liquid Liquid, to me.
How much history do you have with Australian music?
[Dryly] Umm … I like AD/DC.
You’ll have to do better than that.
I do? [Laughs] I don’t think I have to do better than AC/DC at all, frankly. [Thinks about it] I love The Go-Betweens. I’m not as passionate as some people about them, but I love them both as songwriters. It was really terrible to lose Grant [McLennan] so early. I love Feedtime. There are probably a bunch of Australian bands that I didn’t realise were Australian. There are probably a bunch of Australian bands that I don’t know. I do remember, when I was in Melbourne for my brother’s wedding, looking at the charts and saying, “Who are these people?” Half of them I didn’t know.
Does your brother live in Australia?
No, his wife is Australian. They live here in Brooklyn. But they had the wedding in Melbourne, which is why I’m completely terrified of the flight. Because I’ve done it.
Do you still play music? I saw on your Tumblr that you sold most of your gear last year.
Yeah, I have a new thing. DFA put out our first single. You can download it for free on Soundcloud. We’re called Calvinist. The song that’s there is a cover of a Pylon song called ‘Yo-Yo’. We’re making a record now. I just sold all my gear because I’d been in Ui for 20 years and I just wanted to … force [myself] to work differently. I just wanted the language to change, so I just took everything that was familiar to me and got rid of it. I literally took it out of my hands so I couldn’t make the same sounds. So I’m now using an iPad and whatever other things I’m working with; new people. The record’s only a tiny bit done, but it’s pretty exciting.
Was it always bass, mostly, that you played?
Come the revolution, if I have to pick something up, it would be a bass. But I started playing guitar. I can play those plausibly in bands, and I have. When we made the Ui records, I ended up playing bongos, keyboards, whatever I had to play. Now that we’re making a record in this backwards, half-electronic way, I’m just pressing a bunch of buttons and then probably later I’ll end up replacing a bunch of samples by playing things live. I think that’s common now. People are so accustomed to having a huge variety of sounds that they end up becoming amateur keyboardists and drummers when they’re not really any of that.
A lot of the music you’ve mentioned has been very rhythmically focused, more so than critics who are really focused on songwriting.
I’m definitely a rhythm man. I’ve been accused of that, and I think it’s true. Many of my big moments finding music have been about drumming or a bass line. Like the first Killing Joke record [1980’s Killing Joke], which … basically invents both Metallica and LCD Soundsystem on the same record. Which both of them would probably have admitted repeatedly in public. It’s phenomenal that a band could do so many different things on one record. That’s a record where whatever happens on it is very rhythmically unified, whether they’re doing dance-y stuff like ‘Change’ or the more sort of metal stuff like ‘Requiem’.
Stuff like that was of the moment when I was teenager, so that made a huge impact on me. Like listening to Sly and Robbie. I think that made me a pattern guy. It was a time of patterns in music, whereas now it’s very much a harmonic, kind of cloudy time for a lot of indie bands. People like that wash of sound. I think it’s interesting how different times gravitate towards different sounds. I think it’s just the luck of chronology that I was where I was born when I was born. Ten years later or earlier, it could have been garage rock or something else.
You mentioned a book you were writing. Is that your first?
That’s the first. There was going to be a Michael Jackson book, but that fell apart for various reasons. So now I’m writing a book [that’s] changed over the course of the last year. It’s roughly a memoir but it’s also about cohorts and affinity groups and how people bond through music and how that’s changed over time. I think it’s much less a thing now. It’s sort of like tattoos. When I was a kid, you didn’t just have a tattoo. You were in a gang or you did something. You needed a real reason to have a tattoo. Then it just became a thing everyone did. Affinity groups are like that. Like, you were into hip-hop or you were into punk and that was it. That was very much part of your identity. Now I think probably – all to the better – kids don’t feel like they’re necessarily part of one gang or another gang. They listen to all kinds of things. It used to be a fairly territorial thing.
It’s not really what the book is about, but it’s sort of what the book is about. And then it’s also just about growing up and being a musician and criticism and writing weird plays and making really terrible 11-minute-long movies. Which thank God nobody will ever see. It’s the beauty of coming up in the analogue age: all of my embarrassing moments, pretty much, are in a drawer in my house. Before my death, hopefully I will destroy them.
Read Sasha Frere-Jones’s writing for The New Yorker here.