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BERNARD FANNING TURNS THE TABLES ON 4 MUSIC SCRIBES

THE FANNING INQUISITION
September 2009. By Bernard Fanning

bernjournFailed groupies or independent arbiters of musical justice? That is the question. Today’s music journalists are an increasingly marginalized lot. Plummeting print media sales, old fashioned formats and the generational move away from regular television and radio to the internet.  Where does this leave the fearless scribes who dare to ask the tough questions?  As a musician who has had to ‘endure’ countless days of inquisition from the media, I thought it might be interesting for the public to get to know a little about the people who sift through the hundreds of releases a month and alert us to “What’s Shite?” and “What Might?”

STAFF DINKUS: DINKUS - Journalist on The Australian, Iain SheddenIAIN SHEDDEN is The Australian’s main music writer.
He also writes a weekly column Spin Doctor in The Weekend Oz.  He is originally from Scotland and refrains from drinking every February. Judging by his answers he has credibility coming out of his ears and is music journalism’s answer to George Negus.

Please list your experience as a musician and/or performer. Please include any experience as a roadie or in management.
I’ve been a drummer and a journalist since I was 17.  I started my first band, The Jolt, with two mates, while I was a junior reporter on the local paper in my home town in Scotland. This was during the birth of the punk scene in Britain in 1976/77. We got signed to Polydor, moved to London, made an album and toured extensively for a couple of years both on our own and with bands like The Jam, Generation X and The Saints.  When The Jolt split up in 1979 I joined another band in London, the Small Hours, which featured the Saints’ original bass player Kym Bradshaw. In 1981 Chris Bailey, by then a close friend, asked me to join the new line-up of the Saints and I spent the next eight or nine years touring the world and recording with them as well as with a few other acts, including American band Giant Sand.

When I moved from Sydney to London in 1992 I was hoping to pick up another gig, but nothing full-time materialised. I returned to journalism after a 15-year break. I have continued to play since then, though, with Sydney band the Stepfords, Irish singer/songwriter Andy White and most recently with Sydney  artist Melanie Horsnell, with whom I have made two albums. I have a series of shows with her in November. Other than the occasional Saints reunion I have lugged my own drums for most of the past 17 years. Singers seem the most willing to assist in this practice, probably through guilt.

What’s your overall philosophy toward being a music critic? Does it differ strongly from your philosophy towards life or is it the same?
Well, the first rule of  criticism is to state clearly what you want to get across, not sit on the fence. I can do that on paper. In life there are other factors involved. I don’t go around judging people on everything they do, as if it were a performance. If you suddenly did a Jim Carrey and started telling people exactly what you thought of them all the time you would be a tosser. I get into a different mindset when I’m reviewing something. It’s a job, and I prepare and consider and reflect. Not much time for that when you’re removing your son’s fingers from a toaster.

Do you have a preference for live or recorded music? Do you feel that you are better qualified to comment on either of these? Why?
I don’t have a preference. Both have taken me to nirvana and hell.

What or who are your influences? What are you reading, watching, listening to?
I’m guessing this isn’t a music question completely. I’ve been listening a lot to the new Sarah Blasko and to the Low Anthem and to most of the remastered Beatles stuff. I only played Please Mr Postman once. I’m reading Irvine Welsh’s novel Crime and watching a lot of snooker on TV in Scotland (the world champion is from my home town, Wishaw).

In 50 words or less describe your career arc for us.
Up your arc. I have been incredibly fortunate in being able to make a living from the two things I love most, music and writing, for the past 35 years (yeeugh), although I did enjoy a couple of years as a truckie somewhere in the middle. In muso terms, my best or at least most successful years are way behind me. In journalism, I think I’m at the top of my game, such as that is.

Just as musicians are widely considered to become less vital or relevant as they age, does that also apply to the music media? Justify your answer.
Age is becoming less of an issue in music, unless you’re at the pop end of the spectrum. As a music journalist there probably comes a point where you can no longer relate to any new music at all. Once that happens it’s just a small walk down to the garden shed with the Luger, metaphorically speaking. I do my best to keep abreast of trends and developments, as any journalist must, but I’m also writing for a slightly older demographic than other journos, so I don’t need to know what Beyonce’s doing with her hair EVERY day. Thank God. As long as you can write knowledgably and informatively about the subject, I don’t think age matters much.

Have you ever been tempted to make a review more or less favourable towards an artist, depending on how you feel about them personally? Be honest.
That’s a great question. I know a lot of musicians. I knew a lot of musicians before I was The Australian’s music writer. I have upset some of them with reviews. Others I have been critical of have told me I was correct in doing so. In the end if you have any respect within the industry then I think artists will take it on the chin, as long as it’s not a cheap shot (eek, a double metaphor that could so easily have been mangled!). There have been circumstances where I have asked someone else to review an album, either because I have some connection to the artist that could be perceived as having influenced my judgement or, once or twice because I didn’t want to offend that act with a stinker of a review. But no, I would never give anyone a more favourable or unfavourable review due to my opinion of them personally. And that’s the truth.

Will you read this story about yourself? Do you read your own press?
You bet I’ll read it. I’m a critic and I AM ON YOUR CASE. I don’t get much chance to be on this side of the divide (at least not any more). I do read my own copy, though, after it’s printed. It’s just something you do, a professional tic.

If you weren’t a music journalist what would you be doing?
Sliding down a very slippery slope of trying to maintain a rock career. We all have friends who have gone down that slope and it can get quite ugly. Alternatively I would be quite happy driving semitrailers across the Nullarbor. Your parents always tell you to have something to fall back on. I had journalism and I’m extremely glad I did.

What’s your star sign?
Capricorn.

NEWS: News Limited journalist Kathy McCabe with The Daily Telegraph in Sydney.KATHY McCABE is the Music Editor for the Daily Telegraph, and is syndicated in most of the News Limited daily newspapers. This makes her the most widely read music commentator in the Southern Hemisphere.  She is our Tracey Grimshaw

Please list your experience as a musician and/or performer. Please include any experience as a roadie or in management.
Please? I love that you opened with manners. Rudimentary guitar and piano at high school parties; hours of loungeroom air guitar and drums; Don’t Give Up Your Day Job benefit murdering an adapted You’re So Vain (at the Three Weeds, Rozelle) as an ode to industry identities and annihilating Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (at the Bridge) in a polka version. Thanks Sheddy! Highlight has been performing with two of my best mates at The Basement to the jeers of my peers at the Journo Jam benefit. We sang Rupert, I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life.

What is your overall philosophy towards being a music critic? Does it differ strongly from your philosophy towards life or are they the same?
What? Getting free CDs, tickets, drinks, T-shirts, travel, hotels and hanging out with top people for 20 years? A lifetime of soaring WTF surreality and heartbreaking moments? Shit question, mate. Have I ever used the word philosophy in a Powderfinger interview?

Do you have a preference for live or recorded music? Do you feel that you are better qualified to comment on either of these? Why?
Nope. And nope. Commenting on music is entirely subjective, governed by emotions, hormones, prevailing winds and the resounding echo of the impassioned opinions delivered by your fellow fan or detractor. Therefore, it requires one qualification, to be able to string sentences together. Oh, No. 2 is a pulse. The only reason anyone wants to write about music is because it has to be ever-present in their lives. Or they are really masochistic.

What or who are your influences? What are you reading, watching, listening to?
Mmm, the influences question? Are you just giving us the top 10 questions asked by music writers who already lifted them from the top 10 lazy questions to ask musicians? Oops, answered a question with two questions. Reading: lots of children’s fantasy books so my nephews think I’m cool, Craig Mathieson’s new book Playlisted, Vanity Fair, a pile of music mags. Watching True Blood, Entourage, South Park, Mad Men, Get Smart, The West Wing, Rage, Video Hits. Listening to as many CDs and songs as I can in a week and not that much to my iPod.

In 50 words or less describe your career arc for us.
Boyfriend was doing music column. He left for Europe, I got column, we split up, I kept column. Brief departure into A&R due to bad behaviour. Returned to the devil I knew.

Just as musicians are widely considered to become less vital or relevant as they age, does that also apply to the music media? Justify your answer.
I disagree with the assertion that vitality and relevance are “widely considered” to diminish with age. Maybe by commercial radio people and the blogerati. Jimmy Barnes has just been No.1 again. And he had heart surgery. And still tours relentlessly. I believe the majority of music critics with “life experience” do not subscribe to that view and their younger peers are just as likely to be invested in the historical relevance of now. But you’re right in the respect that the internet has changed the playing field by offering more voices which could be considered more relevant than those of us who continue to dwell in the print realm. But hey, we can still blog.

Have you ever been tempted to make a review more or less favourable towards an artist, depending on how you feel about them personally? Be honest.
Yes. Have been tempted and ate the apple.

Will you read this story about yourself? Do you read your own press?
Yes because I read Australian Musician and it’s a Q&A, so unless you rewrite my answers or creatively edit them, there’s no issue. As for reading my own press, I don’t have a Google Alert on myself. I would caution everybody never to read their own press. Until they are retired and have time to reply. With vehemence and a better vocabulary.

If you weren’t a music journalist what would you be doing?
Finishing the damn book.

What’s your star sign?
My favourite colour is bluey green. Or greeny blue.

bernardzuelBERNARD ZUEL is the Sydney Morning Herald’s music editor and is seemingly the most ‘died- in- the- wool’ traditionally hard nosed journo of all our victims in this story. He is our Richard Carleton.

Please list your experience as a musician and/or performer. Please include any experience as a roadie or in management.
My pathetic career as a musician didn’t make it out of the school band where I parped on tuba and euphonium. Two chords on the guitar were learnt but I could not play them sequentially. Manually challenged is the nicest way to put it. I spent more productive, though more physically damaging, years as a roadie and so-called sound engineer for a couple of bands. Both bands also recorded songs I co-wrote – I have the vinyl and CDs to prove it. The royalty cheques are bound to come in any day now. Any day.

What is your overall philosophy towards being a music critic?  Does it differ strongly from your philosophy towards life or are they the same?
My intention is to get passionate, stay passionate and convey that passion to readers so that they are inspired to explore what has interested me. It’s ideally how I’d like to approach life. The thing I dislike most is that which inspires neither a strong positive nor a strong negative response and nothing kills my enjoyment of life more than boredom.

Do you have a preference for live or recorded music? Do you feel that you are better qualified to comment on either of these? Why?
I don’t have a preference, both live and recorded are important to me. The experiences are so different that they complement rather than contradict each other. Likewise I feel equally qualified or unqualified to comment on them. The only advantage recorded music has over live music for me is the greater time I have to think about/write about it.

What or who are your influences? What are you reading, watching, listening to?
My influences are now almost ancient, the people who got me excited about music 25-30 years ago, mostly local like many who wrote for RAM and later John Clare and Bruce Elder at the SMH. I read reasonably widely now but, strangely for a journalist who lives and dies by the byline, I don’t usually recall which individual writer wrote the review I was reading. I’m more likely to take a magazine or website approach, for example Mojo is regularly read as a starting point for my own explorations. Greil Marcus would be one I read, not for reviews but his books for inspiration to think harder.

In 50 words or less describe your career arc for us.
Freelance writer for RAM and street mags; freelance contributor to Rolling Stone and Sydney Morning Herald; senior writer for Penrith Press; on staff, general reporter at the SMH; editor of Metro; music critic – CD, DVD and live reviews; features writer; senior writer/music editor

Just as musicians are widely considered to become less vital or relevant as they age, does that also apply to the music media? Justify your answer.
The question is faulty from the start: musicians don’t become less vital or relevant as they age, at least in that age isn’t the issue. Some people run out of things to say but that can happen on album two when they’re 23. Other people just keep creating because they’re still interested and excited and passionate.

Why should it be different for critics?
Have you ever been tempted to make a review more or less favourable towards an artist, depending on how you feel about them personally? Be honest.
Yes, there have been times when I’ve struggled with saying the harsher things because of a personal connection with an artist and the thought that a history of giving me pleasure deserves something better. One review essentially was saying “his voice is shot” and with that circumstance I did something I rarely do and sought other opinions, to confirm it wasn’t just my imagination and the voice really was a shadow of its former glory. I have at times used more ambiguous words for the same reason, either leaving it open to interpretation that I’m being more positive than I feel or the reverse.

Will you read this story about yourself? Do you read your own press?
I sometimes trawl the web to read blogs, though it’s usually too dispiriting, less for what they say about me than the vitriolic and humourless way things are said and where puerility is the norm rather than the exception. But as a critic it’s been enlightening to read better written and thought through material about us in general and me in particular – partly to see some other ways of thinking and partly to understand how it feels to be on the end of a critique.

If you weren’t a music journalist what would you be doing?
Writing about something else for the paper. And spending a hell of a lot more money on CDs, vinyl and concerts than I already do.

What’s your star sign?
Ziggy

 

yumiStynes-013683YUMI STYNES is a music and film critic for Music Max. As a competition winner on Channel V, Yumi grew from novice to respected critic very quickly. She is clearly our Jana Wendt.

Please list your experience as a musician and/or performer. Please include any experience as a roadie or in management.
I am bass player in the second-worst band in Sydney called The Punisherz.  We have been around for about 4 years and sing about c*nts, being Asian and food.

What is your overall philosophy towards being a music critic?  Does it differ strongly from your philosophy towards life or are they the same?
You have to come at music criticism with a basic respect for the artist who goes to the trouble of writing, recording, and marketing their music. It takes a lot of guts, and even the shittiest, most loathsome music is the product of intense labor and a fair bit of self-belief.  My approach is to never assume I know more than the viewer or the artist, and to try to show respect to both.  I quickly realised in this business that my job is not about reflecting my own personal tastes.  It’s about conveying information and providing anchors to help other people form their own opinions.

Do you have a preference for live or recorded music? Do you feel that you are better qualified to comment on either of these? Why?
I like all kinds of music but am fairly intolerant of drunk people which sometimes makes going out to shows a bit of an ordeal.

What or who are your influences? What are you reading, watching, listening to?
I am listening to everything at the moment.  I have to review all kinds of bullshit – from Mariah Carey to Michael Buble.  My secret pleasure though is creating jogging playlists – in the past year I’ve become a distance runner and when I’m in the zone of running the only thing I think about is making tweaks and adjustments in my ongoing quest to create the perfect running playlist.  This is very different from, say, a driving playlist or a break-up mixtape.  There are many guilty secrets on a jogging playlist.  Needless to say Iron Maiden feature heavily and ‘Nitroglycerine’ by the Supersuckers continues to have the ability to make me double my speed.  But there’s some magnificent shit on there too that makes me grin to myself while I’m pounding pavement.

In 50 words or less describe your career arc for us.
Became a Channel [V] presenter after nationwide search yielding nothing better than me and James Mathison.  After 6-years of countless near-misses I switched across to [V]’s older sister channel MAX where I’ve been happily reviewing music and films for 3 years.

Just as musicians are widely considered to become less vital or relevant as they age, does that also apply to the music media? Justify your answer.
No.  Music media are allowed to get as old, craggy and disgraceful as they like, the only thing they truly need to retain is their hearing – and even then…  Most music critics work in print media and no one cares what they look like.  A wise man once said that music critics are not failed musicians; they’re failed groupies.  I like that.  I like that a lot.  As I work in television, a small amount of attention is paid to my appearance but as looks have never been my calling card, their gradual disintegration is no one’s business but my own.  I think.

Have you ever been tempted to make a review more or less favourable towards an artist, depending on how you feel about them personally? Be honest.
Of course I have been tortured by feelings of treachery and guilt when I have not liked material released by friends.  There have been other occasions when I’ve felt I could not be as candid with a scathing review because it might jeapoardise a relationship carefully erected between my TV channel and an artist.  In both instances I feel obliged to be honest with my viewer, with whom I have spent more than 9 years building up trust and rapport.  It’s just that in my 9 years on television I have learnt how to be honest using language, gesture and facial expression, that the enemy don’t understand.

Will you read this story about yourself? Do you read your own press?
No, but I would look at a photo.

If you weren’t a music journalist what would you be doing?
I would be a chef.  That’s what I was doing when I landed this job 9 years ago.  I am an excellent cook.  One day I’ll be a terrific wife too.

What’s your star sign?
Is that a gag?

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