Everett True’s Electrical Storm and Deconstructing Rock Criticism
The Legendary Critic Discusses the Gofundme Effort for His Newest Book and the State of Music Journalism in 2016
"Is Everett True here? I think I can smell him," said Stephen Malkmus, circa 1999 at a Seattle Pavement gig, paraphrased from, and captured for posterity, on director Lance Bangs' The Slow Century Pavement documentary. Invoking Everett True's name from the stage in such a context was part and parcel of the indie scene throughout the '90s, where he was simultaneously infamous and beloved, most notably for his close relationship with Nirvana, while he worked as an editor at the NME, and also for a good part of the '00s, when he published the great Careless Talk Costs Lives and Plan B magazines. True moved to Australia in the late '00s, and vanished to some degree from the rock criticism landscape, but managed to run the outstanding Collapse Board website, which never seemed to get its due. He's back now with myriad projects in the pipeline, including the one he's presently raising funds to promote, The Electrical Storm, via indiegogo. The book promises to tell True's stories in a manner that blurs fact and fiction, and given his track record, promises to be endlessly fascinating. He's long been a polarizing figure within music and journalism circles, and that's unlikely to change. What hopefully will change is that his distinctly idiosyncratic voice, unafraid to challenge commonly held assumptions about the nature of music and criticism, will be heard again. Music criticism needs Everett True back in a more prominent position. Does Everett True need music criticism and an audience? Judging by this interview, yes. You can contribute to fund the publishing, while also purchasing Electrical Storm via indiegogo here.
Under the Radar: You've stated in the past, "Believe in me and I have power like a God. Quit believing in me and I no longer exist." Is this a statement germane to The Electrical Storm?
Everett True: Yes, and my sales figures prove. There was an old cliché musicians used to spout that would regularly do the rounds at Melody Maker in the 1990s: "We only do this for ourselves and if anyone else likes it, it's a bonus." Bullshit. If that's the case, stay in your fucking bedroom and don't play your music to anyone, ever. The audience is crucial. The audience is only crucial to a certain extent, however: it needs to like what I like and if it doesn't it can bugger off. The Electrical Storm is a continuation of the process that began when I took several giant steps down the corporate ladder by moving to Seattle to edit The Stranger's music section. The most obvious manifestation is my recently published PhD thesis The Slow Death of Everett True: a Metacriticism, wherein I theorise my own non-existence. I have been attempting a most audacious experiment for several years now: an erosion of my own authority as critic while remaining a critic. Many would argue the second is not possible without the first. So it might yet prove. In The Electrical Storm - which is supposed to be the money-raking memoir stage of my career, wherein I reveal where the dead bodies are buried and the treasure maps hidden - I attempt to remove the famous names from the stories in an attempt to prove (to myself) if the stories can exist and be thoroughly engaging without. Will my audience - any audience - enjoy this? Not from the look of my Indiegogo crowdfunding page. I am not so much the JD Salinger of music criticism as the JD Salinger of sailing.UTR: What was your impetus for blurring the lines between fact and fiction? Obviously, the truth is subjective, but are you seeking to challenge a reader's conception of their relationship to music and how it's shaped by a "journalist's" opinion? My only impetus is this weird belief my writing should reflect my thoughts. I have long been aware of my tendency to over-exaggerate - both in the bar, and in print - and have never really seen a necessity to pursue 'truth' when truth itself is such a slippery beast, and I am mostly concerned with furthering the mythology of rock'n'roll. Or whatever you want to call it in 2016. I love the fact no one can work out whether Beyoncé's new album is about herself. I always viewed entertainment as the most important part of the entertainment industry. I am honest in my blur, although I see no reason to be. I am honest inasmuch as other writers when writing biographies will present half-remembered anecdotes and hearsay as The Truth, whereas I admit my failings and the failings of memory. Also, I like to have fun when writing. I think that much is apparent.
UTR: You obviously are very opinionated with what you like and what you don't like. Over the years, have you ever been particularly critical of a band and later regretted it after a reappraisal?
ET: Yes. And here, just for you and (I guess) your readers alone, is a story which I wrote two nights ago and might yet go into The Electrical Storm.
I called them out for being too easily manipulated by men.
The irony of it was that, at the time, I was being manipulated by women; more specifically one woman, a friend and fellow critic. I often disparagingly referred to myself during the 1990s as a conduit, a cipher, a chameleon, a blank canvas...something for other people to paint their personality upon. I had a low opinion of myself sure, but is there not an element of truth even in low self-opinion? Many music journalists just go where they are pointed, where the trail of alcohol and free plane tickets leads...or maybe not many. Maybe just one.
So I called them out for being too easily manipulated: irony heaped upon irony. I was disappointed, had higher expectations. Wanted them to change the world, not just my drinking patterns. Weak. Wasn't even my words or thoughts. I was trying to help kick start a feminist agenda that didn't belong to me. Stereotypical patriarch. Should have said it to their faces, they were mates. Good mates, as it happens: interlinked through fanzines and shared experience, me and Emma had a habit of turning of turning up at railway stations and taking the first train leaving to its destination. Made jokes about bald heads. Her fellow singer ate raw bacon with me on the Underground during rush hour, laughing in the faces of grossed-out commuters.
"You only ever gave her a copy of your first single because you fancied her," Emma would repeat to me, hurt. I wrote a song about her too, long before they formed the band. She seemed like the saddest person I knew. We attended a GLC free open air concert where a fellow conspirator fired his water pistol at skinhead fascist supporters from behind the fanzine stall: he later apologised for eating my remaining slice of bread in my walk-up shared Peckham bedsit.
After I wrote the review, Miki responded in an end-of-year questionnaire by stating she'd like to place my balls in a vice and "squeeze it very slowly". Fellow critics were scared of her acerbic tongue but...well, I knew her. She knew that indifference hurt more than words, or punches.
All I was trying to prove was that my words on music could not be influenced by my friendships that occurred everywhere within the music I loved. Fool. Should have told them to their faces first, questioned them. All I was trying to point out was that the "male" production did not tally with my vision of their "female" music, changed their direction and ended their dalliance with "crappy Riot Grrrl anthems" effectively. Idiot.
We never spoke or drank together after that.
UTR: You cover a lot of unheralded bands, and have covered a lot of mega-stars. Do you still feel the same thrill in championing the bands the hive mind sites don't cover (they seem to extensively exalt the same five acts)? And with more music available to us than ever, is it frustrating to you that the smaller bands you covered in Australia, or anywhere for that matter, that you love and attempt to expose to a broader audience aren't appreciated by many? Or really any number of great bands covered by writers on the Collapse Board that never seemed to take off?
ET: Frustrating? Always. I do not deliberately champion bands that other critics do not like but crucially neither do I deliberately champion bands that other critics like. I suspect some of this is down to discovery channels: for years now - possibly forever - I do not use the same channels as most other critics (in my experience) to discover new music through. I prefer to trust my own taste, that of people whose taste I am familiar with - not that of people whose taste I am unfamiliar with. I have never had a problem with validation, as far as my musical taste goes. I am more than happy when my taste coincides with the hive mind, or the general population: I am more likely to be commissioned then. Ultimately, I consider myself a fair and open-minded critic. If U2 ever released a good song I would be among the first to praise them.
UTR: You seem morbidly allergic to repeating yourself and your own creative endeavors (see Careless Talk Costs Lives and the countdown). Has The Electrical Storm been a challenge, in that it rearranges past experiences of yours perhaps in a manner that isn't nostalgic, to maybe look back while being in the moment in 2016, as you've always had a strong imperative to cover new artists?
ET: It's not deliberate. I am insecure however, and just figure that critics or whomever I have formerly worked with who are now established will no longer want to work with me, so I have this need to keep discovering new and fresh voices. Feminism: what is left out of history is more important than what is included. I have never been a fan of men, generally - and that, of course, includes myself. However when I do the odd spot of looking around and reading music what-is-called-criticism, I cannot but help notice a vast yawning divide. I am not answering your question: I wrote these stories mostly two years ago during a summer lull in Brisbane, and so do not necessarily have the immediate emotional connection necessary to be able to do that. And I also pull in older pieces of writing, some of which date back to my fanzine days in the 1980s... when I mentioned this over coffee to Alexis Petridis of The Guardian (one of the few male critics I rate, hence the namedrop), he raised his eyebrows and said, not sarcastically, "You are being brave with this book". I hold little or no truck with nostalgia, which is why I am still attempting to wipe the slate of the past clean and expunge the names so they could be anyone anytime anywhere.
UTR: As you get older and continue, at least to me, attempting to figuratively rip out the sink the way Jack Nicholson tried in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is there a sense of frustration, given how difficult it is to fund these sorts of things? And do you ever regret alienating people or making them uncomfortable? You never seemed to care what people thought about you, and over the long haul, that can perhaps burn some bridges, as people are rather sensitive about their art and don't like being criticized.
ET: I always care, and in 2016 I care so much it burns like fuck so much I can barely speak to people or go out or be on the phone or do anything except dumb conversation on social media. I am a FUCKING GENIUS at my craft, all false modesty aside, BEST FUCKING MUSIC CRITIC ALIVE (or at least male music critic)...and I cannot get any paid work doing what I do best ANYWHERE. Because I have made people uncomfortable, because I am on a deliberate mission to erode my own authority, because I feel guilty about what when down back whenever, because I no longer socialise. I am a great untapped resource, and it BOTHERS ME. But then I think that it's as much as I deserve and I should just feel grateful that I've been so lucky in my life, and have so many great experiences to remember...except I CAN'T FUCKING REMEMBER MOST OF THEM, and I hold little or no truck with nostalgia anywhere and all I really want to do is hear the next great piece of music which is going to rise me so high and send my head spinning. The Electrical Storm and Rejected Unknown itself is yet in another in a long line of attempts to try and make some sort of even meagre living from it, and at the time of typing IT IS NOT WORKING.Everett True is dead. And the fuck I know what to do with his remains. Also: I am not the only one like this. Not by any stretch.
UTR: Can you briefly discuss 101 Albums You Should Die Before You Hear? There's obviously a lot of humor there, but is there also a desire to impart in the reader a desire to seek out great music and avoid what's maybe shoved down their throats?
ET: I can only quote you what Lucy Cage wrote for that. I am like Johnny Ramone in that respect: do not see the point in playing guitar on my own albums if there is someone out there who can do (or has done) it better. It came from an idea I had when I first encountered Twitter = that it is easily possible to do criticism-by-association without any descriptive or analytical or useless words altogether: Make no mistake about this, 101 Albums You Should Die Before You Hear is all about love. Love for music, love for writing and, most importantly, love for life. Here's a book to prevent you wasting a single second of that precious life listening to dross. Here's a book to challenge the canonical lists of dead white males and their guitarry wank, a book that wants you to know how much else there is out there and is fierce in its condemnation of the mediocre, the obvious, the boring, the reactionary and the bigoted. A book to move, provoke, inspire and our age. Yeah, sure, it's also an exercise in trollery. There aren't 101 reviews, for a start. A fair number of those reviews are in haiku form. One is a comic. One a letter. One a poem. One a confessional. Some...oh yes, Mr Abusing is back!...are pure vitriolic rant entirely guaranteed to infuriate. As much as this book is about bad, bad music, it is also about objectivity or lack of in music criticism; about how music is received, especially by the young; about how hearing a great or a terrible record at a key point in one's life can be epiphanic. It's about how music stays with one. How it changes lives and attitudes for better or worse. About how some albums get elevated beyond their capability to sustain such reverence and some are forgotten about altogether. It's about offence, the giving and the taking thereof. Yes, it was our press release - but unlike most music critics, I admit when I lift from one.
UTR: I've heard you want to cover every Fall album in a book also, each by a different writer. If this is the case, have you had difficulty finding female writers to cover them? I've found that not a lot of my women friends like The Fall a whole lot, and you, more than almost any male writer, fete female artists and writers who are deserving of it but don't receive attention at most of the major media outlets, indie or otherwise.
ET: A problem, but the book (if it happens) has been inherited from another editor, Karren Ablaze! - and I believe she has already found several. Most commonly, I find it is male editors who find it difficult to find female writers. Female editors don't usually suffer from the same malaise. Coincidental? Perhaps not. Also, I have not even started looking at the idea for this book: it's still a (great) concept (thanks Karren), floating round the ether, You want to start a crowdfunding site for it, and make it real? Go ahead. I will back you up.
UTR: Is the Daniel Johnston book you proposed to 33 1/3 still a possibility? Mike Turner at HHHBTM Records had said you were looking into publishing it yourself or through another publisher (in which case it obviously wouldn't be 33 1/3)?
ET: Yes. And no. Yes, because I actually have done about 80 hours (or more, I really wasn't counting) of interviews for a previous Daniel Johnston book that never occurred because my second son Daniel was born around that time. And yes, because I really hate doing work that does not have a tangible outcome. And yes, because it would be funny to stick it to Bloomsbury Publishing (unless they want to make me a better offer). No, because I would need to be paid for finishing off that work and right now I am really struggling with how to make money from Rejected Unknown with zero distribution, a core base of perhaps 100 readers and little or no support from the mainstream. Or underground. Or social network users. If I could build that core into 500-1,000 readers, on a regular subscription base, releasing a book a month... then I, and my contributors, could actually make a living from this. Content and ideas, and publishing the ideas, is never a problem: visibility and sales are.I am not averse to using established outlets - indeed, I welcome any publishers who have plenty of visibility and money but little on the ideas or content side reading these words to get in touch immediately: this could be the start of a wonderful relationship. However, I am not willing to prostrate or prostitute myself to do so. Well, unless I have fun...
UTR: Are you still attempting to figure out where you fit into the equation in 2016 as a music writer? There's obviously been a seismic shift in the past few decades. Are there writers and sites you admire outside of the ones you've personally edited in the case of writers and created in the case of Collapse Board/Careless Talk Costs Lives/Plan B?
ET: No. Yes. Find your own, although I will give a shout out to non-English critics.
UTR: How important is the visual end of the presentation to you? This book obviously features illustrations by Vincent Vanoli, but even Careless Talk Costs Lives had amazing photographs by Steve Gullick and illustrations by amazing people like Tae Won Yu.
ET: Incredibly so. I have said this on several occasions now, so I have no objection to saying it once again: working alongside Vincent for these books, and knowing he can work so fast and so brilliantly, and so poignantly, really inspires me on to write and write more stories to a higher standard of writing simply so I can see more of his own illustrations. I am so honoured to have him working with me, be inspired (presumably) by me - and in this, the feeling is near identical to when I worked alongside Steve Gullick at Careless Talk Costs Lives. It was sobering, humbling indeed to realise that these wonderful creative talents were working alongside you and going to make your words look so special, so magical. It is the one thing I have missed above all else about the Internet, much as I love the immediacy and cut-and-thrust and ability to experiment in whatever way you see fit in online environments. I worked (and designed) the book mostly around Vincent. He is the real talent here. Not me. Never me.
UTR: Looking back on Careless Talk, does it ever bother you that bands and acts you covered so frequently didn't really get their due from most? I'm thinking most specifically of Scout Niblett and Young People, although Emma continues to make great music. What is it about those artists that capped their audience ceiling so low, and by placing them on the cover, did you feel as though you perhaps didn't sell as many issues as you could've if you'd put a more commercial artist on the cover? You were one of the first to feature The Kills prominently, and they obviously went on to be massive.
ET: Plan B Magazine was the magazine designed to sell copies and pay its core team enough money to keep them off the dole. It managed that. Large or unknown artists on the cover made no difference as far as that was concerned, not really. Careless Talk was never concerned with that; we went with our favourite bands and artists at the time. That was it. We had arguments, ferocious arguments, me and Steve. But that is because we cared so fucking much.
UTR: Who are you hoping to reach with The Electrical Storm? Does it transcend "music" writing to you? It seems as though a great many musicians and older music journalists will be interested in reading it, but would you like for it to be read by people who perhaps aren't familiar with you or the artists inhabiting the stories and appreciated by people who like to read unorthodox literature, be it fiction or non-fiction?
ET: Good music writing is Neil Kulkarni or Jake Cleland or Alexis Petridis or Jessica Hopper or Lucy Cage. I cannot compete with them, and so I have never tried to. All I do is write about my own life. I feel that there is a market for the book - I like it, personally - but it might be among people who would not normally read rock biographies and will never encounter it. So I guess I am on to a hiding from the start.
UTR: Do you feel like giving this up more frequently in 2016, or have you been inspired by The Electrical Storm and 101 Records? It seems as though it's been a fairly good year for you, and one that can only get better (well, hopefully I guess). As a Facebook follower of yours, I know you've been frustrated at times in the past few years, as we all have.
ET: Every day I feel like giving this up. Every fucking day. For real, not some "oh isn't life so hard" bullshit. I might yet.
UTR: Last question(s): as a music fan and writer, who are the bands, old or new, that you've found yourself listening to the most in 2016? And, as someone with a family and a lot of other obligations outside of writing, do you find yourself getting as excited about music in 2016 as you did in 2002, or 1992? You can't be out all night now gathering "color" for stories the way you did then I'm assuming, but is the way you listen to music now and attend gigs equally fulfilling?
ET: Porridge Radio. Beyoncé. The School. Estelle. Dexys (always, but not the travesty of a 'new' album). Slum of Legs. Bent. The Goon Sax. Katy B. Hinds. Billie. Sarah Blasko. Jenny Hval. PJ Harvey. La Roux. Laughing Clowns. Mariza. Snatch. Lady Leshurr. Young Fathers. Scrabble. Kitchen's Floor. Crayola Lectern. Bastards of Fate. Rattle. Music gets better every year. Every year.
UTR: Really last question: when you're interviewed, as a writer or The Legend or anything, what should people be asking you that they're not?
ET: Do you use your writing as a tool of seduction?
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