Interview with Rob Young
Rob Young is a former editor of the Wire magazine and contributes to Uncut, Sight & Sound, Frieze and Art Review. His books include the record label histories Warp and Rough Trade. His latest book is Electric Eden.
Mark Thwaite: When did you start listening to folk music Rob? What made you want to write about it?
Rob Young: To be honest, in the 1990s, if you had asked me to listen to most British traditional music I would have made my excuses. But in spite of that, I’ve been a huge fan of its more electric and creative forms – especially John Martyn, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny – since my late teens back in the 80s. I suppose in some ways, embarking on Electric Eden was my way of trying to reconcile and understand the two aspects – reconstruct the scattered bits of the puzzle.
‘Folk’ has become such a broad term, encompassing the ‘people’s music’ oral tradition as well as utterly new compositions by the likes of Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, etc. In wanting to tell the stories of the later artists I wanted to fully comprehend the landscape of ‘folk’ and other British music undercurrents they emerged from. My ears have really undergone some evolution in the process and certain musics have had a profound impact on me – The Watersons’ Frost And Fire, and Peter Bellamy’s Oak Ash & Thorn are two examples that spring to mind.
Mark Thwaite: Folk music has never really gone away – and is resurgent (in the UK) at the moment. Why is this?
Rob Young: I’m convinced it’ll always be with us - there will always be a tradition, running underneath the more visible forms of pop and rock music. At certain times it comes into focus and is a fairly hip reference point for various artists; at other times – much of the 80s and early 90s, for example – it’s practically invisible and/or unredeemable.
Right now we’re on an upswing, possible as an inevitable reaction to the huge leaps forward in digital and electronic music in the 90s; also because, when making or locating all sorts of music has become so easy and accessible, there’s a certain nostalgia for an indefinable organic quality to the production and a sense that music can be about more than purely formal concerns. This, I’m sure, is connected at some instincive level with the destabilising effects of recent political developments here. It’s very noticeable that folk revivals tend to occur when people are afraid of something being irretrievably lost.
Mark Thwaite: What is distinctive about British folk music?
Rob Young: I could answer this question in two ways. Firstly, on the level of pure sonics, I find a characteristic weightiness, a gravitational pull towards the soil, which manifests via the rhythm and, very often, the lyrical content. Think of the thud of Dave Mattacks’s drumming for Fairport Convention, or the gritty, gouging ploughblade of Richard Thompson’s electric guitar...
The second way of looking at this question is to examine the meaning of folk music in Britain. What other nation so distrusts, even despises, its own folklore as this one? Aside from the United States, I’m not sure any other nation has had its folk tradition co-opted and retooled by so many competing or conflicting factions. That’s what my book is really about: not the traditional canon per se, but about the multifarious uses it’s been put to: Vaughan Williams and the early 20th century composers who saw folk as a key to making a distinctive English art music that drew on Romantic notions of the landscape; the Marxist ‘austerity folk’ revival of Ewan MacColl, Bert Lloyd and the like; the late 60s folk-rockers who turned to local traditions when they realised it was hopeless trying to emulate Dylan or Delta blues singers...
Folk music is a gateway for the perennial British fascination with the antique, and at the same time it has been adopted by both ends of the political spectrum as a badge of allegaince, change, even revolution. There’s this sense of folk as contested territory – reactions and counter-reactions not yet entirely played out– which continues to fascinate.
Mark Thwaite: Can writing about music ever get over the 'dancing about architecture' problematic!?
Rob Young: Like the statement, ‘There’s only good music and bad music’, the ‘dancing about architecture’ schtick is one of those over-used, lazy cliches about music writing that I’ve never had any time for. I don’t see any more problems in writing about music than writing about painting, film, the invasion of Iraq or the adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are so many examples of great writing on the culture of sound and music that it’s obvious the problematics can be overcome by anyone who’s feeling it.
And what’s so futile or misguided about dancing about architecture anyway? That’s something I’d pay to see!
Mark Thwaite: You are the 'editor at large' at the Wire magazine, what does that involve?
Rob Young: Essentially, it means I work part-time. I used to be the full-time editor, now – mainly to give me time to work on projects such as this book - I join the editorial team for the hands-on business of producing each month’s issue, and feed ideas in whenever I can, but don’t take much part in the day-to-day decision making. But I’ve been very closely attached to the magazine for the past 18 years and I’m one of its owners, following our staff buy-out in 2000.
Mark Thwaite: When you're not listening to – and writing about – music, how do you spend your time Rob?
Rob Young: Sleeping.
Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?
Rob Young: Today, this interview and a Jonny Greenwood interview for Uncut. In the longer term, the wheels are grinding on some new book projects which shall be revealed in due course...
Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? On music, and otherwise...
Rob Young: There are loads, but in the context of Electric Eden, I’d really like to mention Ian MacDonald. For a start, his book The New Shostakovich was the one that actually inspired me to start typing up my first ever CD reviews which led to my current career. He was a versatile and open eared critic of a sort you rarely find today, certainly not at titles like NME, of which he was the deputy editor in the early 70s. He could comfortably decode a modernist symphony or write incredibly engaging, magical prose on Dylan, The Beatles (Revolution In The Head), psychedelia, Kraftwerk, the list goes on. And his long essay on Nick Drake, reproduced in The People’s Music, is the best anyone’s written on the subject, capturing the melancholy, the sense of arrested time, the strange, organic, deep-time mindstate Drake’s music seems to inhabit. I hoped MacDonald might attempt a book length study of English music at some point. I have no idea if that was the case, but when he ended his own life in 2003, I began to realise if I wanted to see anything of the sort, I’d have to do it myself.
Apart from music, some of my favourite writers, in no particular order, include WG Sebald, Lawrence Norfolk, Ronald Hutton, Benjamin Markovits, Charles Nicholl, David Jones, Peter Ackroyd, Donald Barthelme, Neal Stephenson and Iain Sinclair. Right now I’m reading Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns, which is excellent.
Mark Thwaite: What/who musically is exciting you at the moment?
Rob Young: This week I’ve been entranced by a new discovery, the electronica of Natalie Beridze, a Georgian woman from Tbilisi who writes and sings very digitized but achingly beautiful songs. I like the new records by Deerhoof and Trembling Bells, plus a very ambient/field recording by German avantist Christoph Heemann, inspired by Sebald’s fiction, called The Rings Of Saturn.
I’ve also been listening to a lot of work by the composer EJ Moeran, who was featured in Electric Eden but whose music has continued to grow on me like moss.
Mark Thwaite: Finally, do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
Rob Young:I don’t mean this to sound cute, but the advice really is to WRITE. (Instead of thinking about writing but not actually writing.)