Lunch with Will Hermes: The Writer Talks Music Journalism, Writing for Rolling Stone, NPR, and his New Book Project: A Biography Of Lou Reed
Will Hermes is a senior critic at Rolling Stone and regular contributor to NPR’s All Song’s Considered. His writing often shows up in The New York Times and has appeared in SPIN, Slate, Salon, The Believer, The Village Voice, City Pages: The Windy City Times, and many others. Hermes co-edited SPIN’s 20th anniversary publication SPIN: 20 Years Of Alternative Music and his writing has appeared in the Da Capo Best Music Writing series.
Will’s 2011 book, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever is a chronicle of the beginning of hip hop and punk, to the loft jazz and salsa scenes, and the beginning of disco and experimental classical music between 1973 through 1977 in New York City.
Will Hermes was also the visiting Non Fiction writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College this past week. He workshopped with students, gave a craft talk about research and reporting, and did a reading. I had the pleasure of having lunch with him to talk about his background, the music writing industry, and his next book project, a biography of Lou Reed.
Sarah Paolantonio: So, tell me about your background.
Will Hermes: Well, I definitely took one journalism class in college. I was a film studies and rhetoric major in college, basically like an English, communications, film studies major as an undergraduate and later did an MFA in graduate school for fiction writing. Although I was always interested in writing about arts and culture, books and music, specifically, and film.
While I was in grad school I was freelancing for a local alt-weekly, basically the Village Voice of Minneapolis, City Pages, in fact it was owned by Village Voice Media. At the time it was an amazing alternative news weekly. It had great local political coverage, great local arts writers, and a job came up there just as I was finishing my MFA. I was thinking about gearing into a PhD program there in English Lit and I took the job because it seemed super fun. I figured I could always re-up the PhD path if I wanted to, but never did.
SP: So, what I want to get into is writing space. The infinite Internet allows writers to go on for miles. In contrast to that, in your Rolling Stone record reviews, you’ve mastered concise criticism without wading into mucky adjectives and bogus phrases. What’s your best advise to keeping it short and informational? How did you learn to do that?
WH: Necessity is the mother of invention. [Laughs.] I am long winded by nature, both verbally and as a writer. I love clauses and hyphenated clauses and semicolons and long paragraphs. I love writers like Harold Brodkey, and you name it…like Russian novelists who just go on… but…if I was writing a review for City Pages, I’d write 800 words. It could even go on to be 1,200 words. And that could be a review, it could be an essay. It was a beautiful thing for a review – it lets you do certain things. It lets you lead with something that might be something completely tangential to the record and then double back to tie in this notion at the topic at hand. What I like about that is you can craft a lead that will draw in people who might not even be interested in listening to the record but might get enjoyment from the essay that you’re writing using that record as a jumping off point. Even though it’s service oriented journalism, in a way, because people read a record review because they want to know if this record is good or not. That is a little bit less important now when anything that comes out, once it’s out, you can hear it easily on the Internet. Any record that’s released, pretty much with the exception of certain jazz records and records by acts who want to keep their stuff OFF OF Spotify, everything else you can hear.
SP: So it’s not as important to deliver the music as news. You’re not telling people “you should find it”, you’re now telling people “this is why you should listen” because the pile of music is so big.
WH: I think, now more than ever, people need gatekeepers. Before it was like “what should I buy?” Now it’s, “I don’t need to buy anything but what should I LISTEN to?”
There’s this infinite amount of stuff, of what’s new. And for me, I write for publications like Rolling Stone, NPR, The New York Times, whose demographics skew old. We’re talking 30, 40, 50, 60 years old. Once people are out of their 20’s, people aren’t generally searching for new music. It’s not a part of people’s daily media diet the way it was when they were younger. So that’s a big part of my mission, to turn people on to new music who aren’t already looking for it and who need some sort of connection to what they already know.
When I started writing for SPIN, short reviews would be maybe 300 words or 200 words. Then I started working at Rolling Stone and then they were often only 100 words or 110 words. So I look at it as a puzzle or a haiku or sonnet form. You’re given a certain amount of space and you need to say certain things and I just make it work.
SP: You believe in the gatekeeper? I’ve encountered a lot of people who think that gatekeepers aren’t as relevant. People think that they can be their own gatekeeper. You’re constantly listening to all this new music, how do you that without getting tired or sore about music being better “back in the day”? How do you deal with the huge pile of music in front of you?
WH: First of all, I think things now are as good as they’ve ever been because human beings make art and a lot of it. I don’t find all of it inspiring, but some of it is incredibly inspiring and that just seems to always be the case, give or take golden eras in certain genres and certain communities. I’m drawn to things I know I like. Certain labels are a key signpost. I like the A&R aesthetic of Warp Records, of Matador, of Merge Records and certain other indie labels that I will always listen to what they’re doing, like Thrill Jockey. I’ll always listen to what they put out.
That’s one way. Reading other writers whose work I respect. My peers at Rolling Stone. Ann Powers at NPR; Jody Rosen who is now writing at the Times Style section. There are a lot of writers at Pitchfork, like Brandon Stosuy, I look to them on certain styles of music; Andy Beta who writes for Pitchfork and certain other places; I really like Jenn Pelly’s work. Reading these writers helps me narrow things down and then it’s hit and miss. I still get dozens and dozens of records every week either by email or in the mail.
SP: Do you ever go looking on your own? How do you find the new Merge or Matador? How do you find the new stuff? Do you go looking for it without your own gatekeeping?
WH: That used to be one of my greatest joys, to search out music. I wanted to be the first to flag something that nobody else had flagged, to discover some amazing band that no one has heard and be first to weigh in. Now because of the venues I write for, my job is not the same anymore. I will poke around but there are only so many hours in the day. I write about a lot of reissues. Sometimes really obscure stuff that nobody really noticed the first time around but might be reissued by Light In The Attic, which is an amazing reissue label, and Paradise of Bachelors, they do some reissues of “weird old Americana” – to quote Greil Marcus.
Now I spend less time searching out otherwise unheard music. I leave it up to other people. Plus my beat has evolved. Certain publications, like NPR – they’re usually pretty open, but other places like The New York Times and Rolling Stone, they generally want an artist to have a little bit of a profile. They’re more about weighing in about music that has a cultural resonance already.
SP: You have been a part of the music press over decades while the editorial instinct, want, or need has changed dramatically for certain publications, maybe due to the Internet, due to money, due to business, or advertisers, whatever it may be. As an artist, do you find yourself conflicted that you’re contributing to the step beyond the hype machine?
Discovering new music is no longer Rolling Stone’s M.O. They were originally a publication that broke new ground and now they seem to be content reviewing records – they’re still reviewing interesting records – but now they’re reviewing records that feed into the beast of the hype machine. It’s like they’re not brining anything new to the table.
WH: I disagree. For someone like yourself who is incredibly knowledgeable about new music and who searches out new and unheard stuff on your own, all the time, you don’t need Rolling Stone to search out new music for you. The stuff that I and other people that are writing about for Rolling Stone, for the people who read Rolling Stone, who aren’t otherwise exposed to it, who are more general music listeners, who are listening to pop music, who are fans of classic rock and more mainstream music…those are the readers we’re writing for. I feel that in that context to write about The New Pornographers, that’s exposing people to new music. Writing about The New Pornographers for NPR or writing about William Onyeabor, the 70s Nigerian electro-pop guy whose records, admittedly weren’t released by some weird little reissue label but were reissued by Luaka Bob, which is a slightly larger, more established weird reissue label – that’s still exposing people to totally new music that they might get off on. What we mean by “discovering” or “writing about new music” is different for everyone.
With a band like Grizzly Bear by your measure and my measure, we see them as a band that’s been covered to death, everybody knows them, and you like them or don’t like them, but they’re not unknown music. But there was a great article that Nitsuh Abebe wrote in a New York Magazine cover story about the economics of being Grizzly Bear – how you make a living as a musician, as an artist, as for all of their critical acclaim, and touring – these guys have a hard time holding down health insurance and a decent place to live. So the whole idea of “what is success” … I can see it in a couple of different ways. I am utterly glad that my peers at Pitchfork are digging up people who are producing bedroom pop and electronic music and noise recordings that are absolutely fucking killer. I look to them and read them and often. I’ll say, “Wow this is awesome, I want to try and write about this somewhere else.” Just the fact that Pitchfork or Stereogum or SPIN, even, are writing about a band and can validate them enough and give them enough of a profile so that when I’m pitching my editors at NPR or The New York Times or Rolling Stone, they’ll go for it. If those bands are on their radar, they’ll try to get a review in if there’s room in the book.
SP: In the Foreward of the SPIN 20th Anniversary compilation, that you co-edited, that I brought with me…it’s a book I bought in high school and always revisit. I always look back to the writing. There are so many voices in this book that are now everywhere: Ann Powers [at NPR], Jon Caramanica [at NYT], I just read Marc Spitz’s memoir, Poseur; you’re in here; Chris Norris; Chuck Klosterman’s in here; Dave Eggers; mostly men, but, what are you going to do?
WH: SPIN was better than most.
SP: But we do have Sia Michel [the co-edtior], she was the editor of SPIN for many years.
WH: Now she edits the New York Times Arts & Leisure section.
SP: Right. That’s awesome. So, in this foreward, you say, “These “alternative” things are usually distinguished by innovation (ie: they do stuff no things before them have done in quite the same way) and/or by extreme passion (the do familiar stuff with unfamiliar intensity).”
So what do you think is 2014’s alternative in music writing? What is our alternative now, now that we have the Internet, which seems so normal?
WH: I think there are all sorts of people doing all sorts of different things. I still love to read The Wire, which really doesn’t have much of an online presence because they’re still built on the model of trying to sell magazines. I love The Quietus, which is also a British publication. I definitely think Pitchfork…their writing has gotten consistently better over the years and I think right now they have some of the best music writers. You can love or hate or chide their aesthetic. But its’ unquestionable that they embedded in music that is new that has not been done been done. That is an aesthetic yardstick for them. I don’t know this for a fact but I just know it from reading it, reading between the lines, and their championing of alternative metal, electronic music, and interesting pop. And then you get into all the sub genre publications.
SP: That’s such an interesting phrase, “sub genre publications.”
WH: I think about print publications, they don’t even really exist anymore.
SP: SPIN doesn’t exist anymore.
WH: Right. In print, Paste is gone. No Depression, gone. But I still read them all online. I look now, in terms of music journalism, to books; because a lot of people who are ambitious music writers, because there are now fewer outlets where you can actually get paid or write more adventurous formal stuff, the logical place to do it is in a book. People have been knocking out titles in the 33 1/3 series. They’re uneven but some of them are pretty great. Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion book is freaking brilliant. I think its one of the best pieces of music journalism slash criticism that’s been written in the last ten years.
SP: As a listener, what are your “ah-ha!” listening moments? What do you wait for in a song, or in a piece of writing, to show you that whoever created it, knows what they’re doing?
WH: It’s so many things. I definitely remember having that with the last tUnE-yArDs record. Having listened to the first one, which was kind of lo-fi and didn’t really click with me, but I still think she’s one of the greatest musicians of this generation. I mean, just phenomenal. That was a moment where everything – the beats, the melodies, the traditional inflected African vocal work – I could pick apart influences.
SP: So it’s more something that’s unique?
WH: It’s a unique combination of things. Very often for me because I’m such a crate digger and such a listener, things will push my buttons and something will conjure something that I really like that I don’t hear that much. Like I’m not the biggest Strokes fan and when I heard Julian Casablancas [their front man] was putting out a second solo album I was like, “Oh is there anything I could care less about?” [Laughs.] But he has this amazing band who has this guitarist who obviously really digs Robert Klein and has mad chops and he’s playing this bizarre Pere Ubu, Voidoids, kind of angular punk guitar on it; and there’s this one song that has these crazy distorted beats that really recalled the Congotronics record – which is sort of this junkyard, Zairian, percussion based band that built their own amplifiers, sound systems, and instruments out of stuff they found in scrap yards. So it’s kind of like an industrial variation of high life music, it was really well produced, and became pretty popular. Bjork even got a crew of the musicians from Kinshasa to do some tour dates with her. To hear that music, that was basically a street band, amplified through huge bass bins was killer. And when I realized the Julian Casablancas is totally riffing on this, that was kind of an “ah- ha!” moment.
Sometimes it’s lyrics because I’m a words guy, like the Tove Lo record. I’m not the biggest poptimist. I find a lot of stuff that is mass marketed pop music shrill, dumb, and not that compelling. But Tove Lo’s way of turning a phrase and she uses –
WH: Tove Lo is a Swedish pop singer. She’s in her twenties and I think she went to school with the girls in Icona Pop, which is the same school Robyn went to – although Robyn is either eight or ten years older than her. But Tove Lo can be so funny and poignant and sad. I don’t even think English is her first language but her verses just KILL me. And the production was great. The beats are interesting; there are these snyth-pop textures, and samba beats. Instead of the 4/4 time house thing, or insipid jackhammer techno thing, they were pretty dubby and samba-ish and polyrhythmic and interesting. It could be anything for that “ah-ha!”
SP: I know we don’t have much time left. I want to ask you about your new project. You’re writing a biography of Lou Reed. You were approached to do this?
WH: I was approached but approached after [Reed] passed. I had my editor at Farrar Straus Giroux saying, “Are you thinking of doing a biography of him? Because you should. There are no good biographies of him. No up to date, good, authoritative biographies of him.”
And my agent, who is also very good at these things, called me about this to tell me I should think about it. And I did. I never really had any aspirations to write anybody’s biography. My thing is, and I think my first book [Love Goes To Buildings On Fire] and the SPIN book shows this that I’ve got a short attention span. I’m dysfunctional in that way. I like information overload, I like a whole lot of ideas that I can play with. I like a whole lot of narrative strings that I can thread together; even in the music I listen to, I like the sound of a whole lot of disparate things coming together. So the biography never seemed like something I would lock into.
I revere his song writing, the [Velvet Underground] material first and foremost. As an artist, he’s an amazing guy, but he’s a difficult character. As a gay or bi-sexual pop star, there was NOBODY out like he was out in the 1970s, there was nobody writing stuff LIKE he was writing in the 1960s. None of that would’ve sealed the deal. But the most important thing, and the thing that sealed the deal for me, was when I thought about how he connected the entire post-war arc of New York arts; both visual arts through his association with Warhol, poetry and creative writing with his studying with Delmore Schwartz [at Syracuse in undergrad], and his identification as a poet first and foremost beyond being a musician.
And then Lou came back into the New York art world when he connected with Laurie Anderson in the 1990s. He started doing much more pointedly avant-garde stuff, non-commercial stuff that I found very compelling. They became the King and Queen of downtown New York arts. It made for a story that was much bigger than just the story of one guy, even though the story of that one guy is incredibly huge and incredibly interesting in and of itself. It connected to New York in a way that’s not all that dissimilar to Love Goes To Buildings on Fire. With a focus of one person as a through line, one life, and more than five years, we have a sweep of the ‘50s through the 21st century so that was also super appealing.
SP: OK. I know we are short on time. You have to get to the second master workshop class you’re doing on campus with students. We could probably go on forever. Thank you so much for your time, this has been so great.
WH: Thank you for this. I had a great time talking with you.