February 28th, 2007 4:12pm
Fluxblog Interview With Rob Sheffield, Part One
Rob Sheffield’s witty, thoughtful, and heartbreaking new book Love Is A Mix Tape is technically a memoir, but more accurately, it is a passionate testimonial about the way art is meaningless without life, and life is meaningless without art. Rob tells his story in the context of a series of mix tapes accumulated since his childhood, and in examining the selections and motivations behind each cassette, he digs deep into the music, the culture of his youth, and his own history. At first, he’s a lonely, awkward young man, but he eventually meets a sassy Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renée Crist, and his previously monastic existence is suddenly filled with joy, excitement, and love. They get married, build a life together, and on one horrible day in 1997, she dies suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. Music brought them together, and later, it carried him through his loss.
In this three part interview, Rob and I mainly talk about mix tapes and writing, but along the way we go off on a number of tangents about bands, songs, blogs, zines, and the ’90s. Rob happens to be a fan of this site, and sometimes he’s the one asking me questions, and so it might be better to read this as being more of a conversation than a traditional interview.
Matthew Perpetua: How and when did you decide to tell this very personal story? I mean, music and pop culture critics are seldom required to reveal all that much about themselves in their writing, so was this a deliberate move to put more of yourself into your work?
Rob Sheffield: I started writing it when I moved into a new apartment four years ago. It had this old-fashioned china cabinet built into the wall, and naturally I thought, at last, a place to store all my tapes. Before that, I just had rattly metal Elfa shelves that weren’t any fun at all. Unpacking all my tapes, stacking them together, playing them back to back, it just made me want to write about them. There was no chance it wouldn’t get into personal memories, but I didn’t really worry about that. As Oscar Wilde said, “Criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography.”
MP: How often were you listening to these tapes before this point?
RS: In my previous apartments, I didn’t have so much shelf space, so the tapes were all over the floor and at any given moment I was blasting a tape I just stepped on, which was usually one I just made. In terms of organization, it was pretty deplorable.
MP: So you really kept the faith with tapes, you never really phased them out like most everyone else. Is there any particular reason why?
RS: There’s no sound-bearing medium I DON’T like… but cassettes are my favorite. They have the hum. I love my iPod but it doesn’t hum. Where do you stand on cassettes?
MP: I like tapes, but at a certain point I just gave up on them because I got a discman. I was still making tapes for other people up through 2000, but once I had regular access to a cd burner and a computer, it was all over. CD mixes are so unsatisfying though, so I really don’t make mixes for people anymore, only once in a while.
RS: I do love making CD mixes. (You get to make a 5 x 5 cover, which is nice…) Making tapes is so much more work, but you get a real artifact that way. You make a tape for somebody, you prove you spent 90 minutes thinking about them. Almost any tape I’ve played a lot, I can remember making it. Sometimes, you make a mix tape and it’s stressful or dull to make, and you have to just tape over it or it’ll ruin all the songs on it. I’ll always remember September 4, 1999, because I made a really excellent walking tape that day. (Moby Grape’s “Fall On You,” The Monkees’ “What Am I Doing Hanging Round,” Cornershop’s “Looking For A Way In,” Tom Verlaine’s “Breakin’ In My Heart,” Can’s “Father Cannot Yell,” Buffalo Springfield’s “Out Of My Mind”…)
MP: One of the things I immediately noticed in your book was that your approach to making tapes was a lot more sentimental or whimsical than my own. With mixes for myself or others, I always had strict rules about having an artist only appear once per tape, and some artists that I loved dearly, like R.E.M. and Pavement, were seldom featured on mixes because they were better suited to single artist ‘greatest hits’ compilations. When I made tapes for other people, it was less about communication and more about trying to convert them to a band, or get them to like a set of songs. I was always really obsessed with having really tight flows, and having perfect beginning and ending songs on each side. I still hear new songs and think “oh, that’s a great song #2″ or “that would make a great final song on side A.” I’d make variations on the same tape for different people until I settled on the perfect sequence, and then I’d retire them completely. I’m probably making myself sound like a profoundly uptight guy.
RS: Beginning and ending songs for each side are SO important. I rarely made a tape without a Pavement song; in fact, I had to instigate a one-Pavement-song-per-tape rule. Nowadays, do you make mixes at all? For yourself or others? or is Fluxblog filling that role for you?
MP: The last cd mix I made deliberately aped the style of a tape — it was two discs with distinct but complimentary moods, and I had this gatefold double disc cardboard cd package that I redecorated with art from bad comic books. But yeah, doing the blog every day has replaced the impulse to share music on tapes and cds — it’s more effective, reaches lots of people, it has the written component. Fluxblog is basically all the songs I’d be putting on tapes if this was 1998 instead of 2007.
RS: It’s probably easier to hook people up with songs one track at a time, the way you do on Fluxblog.
MP: Was it hard at all to get into the extremely personal things that you discuss in the book? In my own experience, I have to talk myself into going into any sort of detail, I’m very paranoid and nervous about that sort of thing.
RS: For me it’s usually hard to listen to (or write about) music without getting personally involved. Like I was writing last week–I love the way you write about these songs that have meant something to you, and you write about the song in a way that expresses where you’re coming from, even if you’re not getting into personal narrative details. I never noticed that Malkmus song “Malediction” until you wrote about it.
MP: I’ve been trying to do more of that as I go along, but there’s still this feeling that my life is so boring and uneventful that it would just bore the hell out of the readers if I indulged in that too often. There was one part in your book that I identified with very strongly — it’s when you’re writing about your life in the time just before you first met Renée, and you’re stuck in these monastic habits and lamenting that all of the romance and excitement in your life is vicarious. But at that point, you’re a few years younger than I am now. Do you feel like you ever really got over that? It seems l
ike you kind of went off on another course once you met Renée.
RS: I definitely did go off on another course. It’s funny, when I was 24, I felt so old and used up. I thought life had passed me by and I was going to have to be ok with that. I don’t ever think I’ll feel older than I did when I was 24. I was lucky that I had music, and that music led me to people, specifically to Renée. I really learned to write by listening to her talk. Do you know the Kinks song “Waterloo Sunset”?
RS: When I was in my teens, I totally identified with the old guy who narrates the song. And then when I was in my late 20s, I realized I’d turned into Terry-and-Julie, and I missed being the old guy, on some level. But then in my mid-30s, I felt like I’d turned back into the old guy, and I was like, shit, well, that’s fine, I had my Terry-and-Julie window of time, and it was grand, and I’m glad I appreciated it while I had it, and now I’ll just stare out the window and look at the train station, etc. And now I’m in Terry-and-Julie mode again. It’s weird, there’s no way to predict these things.
My natural inclination is definitely to be monastic. I have to really force myself to get out of the door sometimes. I am hardwired to stay in and listen to records and wonder whether the Yardbirds were better than I thought they were but why they didn’t make Jeff Beck play bass more often and why his post-Yardbirds records were so bad and why they influenced so much post-punk and then I look at the clock and a couple of years have gone by. I really have to push myself out of the house and when I do I am almost always glad. My natural inclination is to be a hermit but I’m just not satisfied that way. When I was 19 and my favorite song in the history of the world was “Waterloo Sunset,” I felt really superior to the Terry-and-Julies… but I had a lot more to learn from them than they had to learn from me. At least that’s my opinion now.
MP: There was a really good line about the Yardbirds in the book — something to the effect of Jeff Beck being the kind of guy who controlled every situation and produced very little great work as a result. I think there’s some kind of universal truth in there somewhere.
RS: It’s funny, Jeff Beck was somebody I just noticed a few years ago, a guitarist friend of mine convinced me Beck was a genius, but he never got to the point where he could play with other people. The way he plays bass on “Over Under Sideways Down” — phenomenal. But here I am getting off on a tangent. Bill James has a funny essay about why left fielders are bigger jerks than third basemen–the skills of the position reflect different personality types. I wonder if that’s why bassists tend to be the likable ones, as opposed to lead guitar whizzes?
MP: Unless you’re in Fall Out Boy. Or the Police.
RS: This ain’t Synchronicity, it’s a goddamn arms race. Ron Wood would be the counter example to Beck–he can barely play guitar, but he’s a famously friendly and nice guy, and as a result, he’s gotten to play on (and add to?) a lot of phenomenal music. Keith Richards had a funny line about how Ry Cooder was a much better guitarist than Ron Wood, but nobody would want to be in a band with Ry Cooder. Having Ron Wood around, even if he was no great shakes instrumentally, made everybody around him more relaxed and increased the quality of the music, the will to work, etc.
MP: He’s the Bob Nastanovich of the Stones.
MP: Who wouldn’t want to be in a band with Bob Nastanovich?
RS: Renee called Bob Nastanovich the “lurker.”
MP: It’s no joke, sometimes you really need there to be this friendly guy who cools everyone out. Sometimes they are a good musician in their own right — Ringo, for example.
RS: I’m a hardcore Ringo fan. That break on “Drive My Car”!
MP: Yeah! I distrust people who put down Ringo. How many other drummers have such a distinct, instantly recognizable sound like that?
RS: It was the sweater tucked in the bass drum! (Supposedly.)
MP: Well, that, and he had these great, easygoing fills. He made everything sound casual and easy.
RS: He was also the only one who’d ever SEEN the band. As Christgau used to say, “Ringo is our man in the Beatles.” Remember the first Malkmus solo tour, when Nastanovich was at the merch table and people were lining up to shake his hand and take photos? He made the whole room hum. I can’t believe that isn’t an essentially musical skill.
(to be continued…)
Elsewhere: I have a brief review of the new album by Arcade Fire up on the Artistdirect site. I also wrote a review of the new Dean & Britta, but I can’t seem to find it.