Roni Sarig has recently added the publication of of his recent tome THE SECRET HISTORY OF ROCK to his credentials, alongside a list of regional music publications. This conversation followed a short set that I performed with Michael Bradley to help announce and celebrate the recent publication.
JARBOE : First of all, I enjoyed the book – The Secret History Of Rock – could you tell the readers in your own words what gave you the idea for the book and tell us something about your own background?
Roni: I’ve been working professionally as a music critic since 1992, when I was 21 years old. Until last year, I was a freelance writers. I’ve contributed to a bunch of the big music magazines (Spin, Rolling Stone), and I also used to self-syndicate my reviews and features to alternative weeklies around the country (including Atlanta’s alt-weekly, Creative Loafing, where I’m now the music editor). I wrote the book before I started working at CL, when I was freelancing full-time. The first germs of the idea came many years ago.I’d always wanted to write a book that somehow addressed the music of my generation (that is, ’90s music, when I came of age as a music writer); something that would add perspective to the music. Early on in the decade, it occurred to me that a lot of relatively obscure acts from the past were getting name-dropped by newly mainstreamed bands (best example is Nirvana, of course), and that it was the integration of these obscure acts into mainstream music (through their influence on bands like Nirvana or Nine Inch Nails) that, in part, define ’90s rock and separated it from “classic rock.”
J: What kind of problems if any did you have approaching or gaining access to any of the artists profiled or interviewed as ‘references’? I noticed more lesser known artists than huge MTV stars citing their ‘influences’ and was curious if access was a factor for this?
Roni: Access was part of the issue. There were a few bands that I would’ve liked to have interviewed about their influences, including Beck, REM, Nirvana, U2 and the Beastie Boys, that I wasn’t able to get an interview with. Thankfully, though, I was able to get at least one second-hand quote (lifted from magazines, etc.) from each of these acts, so they do have a presence in the book. Beyond those groups I mentioned, though, I wasn’t really trying to interview a lot of the biggest groups on the charts. The reason: I had no illusions that Matchbox 20 would be influenced by Can, to say nothing of the Backstreet Boys’ influences. That is, the most mainstream acts I didn’t even approach, because I knew they didn’t really have any obscure influences. It was a real balancing act to find groups large enough that people would recognize them and want to know about their influences, but groups that weren’t so mainstream that they didn’t have any interesting influences.
J: You list Captain Beefheart- one of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever seen btw and I think Beefheart’s influence is vast…- What do you think about the recent issue of archival Beefheart recordings that focuses on the music more than Don Van Vliet’s presence?
Roni: The recent spate of Beefheart reissues really runs the gamut. The Rhino anthology is cool as an overview, but not of much use if you already know all the music. The Revenent box set, on the other hand, is only good for Beefheart obsessives, since it’s mostly alternate takes and fragments.There were also some other reissues that are generally unimpressive. As to Van Vliet’s presence, I think he was an incredible figure, but I think his band tends to get overlooked when everyone calls him a genius. My suspicion is that the band has a lot more to do with creating that whacked music than they get credit for. So I don’t mind focusing on the music at certain points.
J: To me- that is yet another book worth writing- the important ideas of the musicians BEHIND the ‘leader’ /singer of the band without whom evolution of the sound would not have happened at all or in the same way. Sometimes ‘new blood’ in a band has actually kept the band from dissolving altogether.
Roni: Exactly. Beefheart was the face of the band, and the conceptualist, and deserves a lot of credit. But many of his band members were absolutely incredible, probably more visionary musically than Beefheart himself was. You could say the same for Swans, which Michael Gira sort of does in the Swans’ section in my book. At one point, he seems to credit you for bringing a whole new dimension to the band, and allowing it to reach a whole other level. And I’m sure other Swans members were critical as well.
J: What do you think about hierarchy in the marketplace where artistic merit is overridden by hype?
Roni: I think that everything in life seems to be a give and take. Living in this democratic/capitalistic society, we have relatively a lot of freedom and security, which is great. But in return, capitalism means that “whatever sells goes.” So in exchange for your right to choose what you want to hear/see/read, you get inundated with a lot of lowest common denominator stuff that’s geared to appeal to as many people as possible, and offend the fewest possible. But luckily, there are a lot of avenues to discover stuff that exists outside the mainstream marketplace, so anyone who’s interested in finding it, can find it.
J: As a music writer/editor, can you list and describe/elaborate on 3 things you’ve learned about dealing with people?
Roni: Writing and editing are pretty solitary jobs, so I can’t say I’ve learned particularly much about other people (though I’ve learned about my own capacity/lack of capacity for solitude at work). Most of what I’ve learned about others has probably been outside of work, just in life in general. But I guess, when considering specifically interviewing artists, what I’ve learned is that creativity is manifested in a lot of different ways. Some people are so eloquent and can elucidate their ideas and motivations so well, and some people can’t string together a cohesive explanation for anything they do. But whether they can or not, it really doesn’t have much bearing on how good their art is; both types of people are capable of creating great work.
J: Is popular culture/music cyclical? Where do you see college radio or even commercial ‘alternative’ stations (themselves ironically products born out of the commercial success of one time obscure fringe values) format heading in the 2000’s?…
Roni: Culture and music are as cyclical as anything in history. Some things keep reappearing, and others evolve into something else. It seems commercial alternative is such a lame format that it will die soon. But it’ll just evolve into whatever the next hot format is. College radio will continue as it has for so long now. But what’s most exciting about radio is Internet streaming. The ability to get stations from all over the world, in real time, is incredible, and really breaks down a lot of doors to getting underground music out. I think that’s going to grow a lot in the near future.
J: What will give MTV real competition? ( Admittedly, I don’t watch television so really have no idea what MTV is like these days!) …..Web TV? The internet? (And even the one time ‘alternative’ 120 Minutes MTV program got to where it wouldn’t touch a video unless it was major label driven. This changed it seemed with the one-time ‘King Of Independence’ Dave Kendall leaving.) What about music retail/ and or the corporate record labels? Programming our OWN c.d.s from MP3 downloads?
Roni: MTV has already given up on being a video channel, so if anyone steps in to fill that void, it won’t even be a competition, really. In some cities, there’s The Box, which is a cool station that actually shows videos (not much underground stuff, but some). But again, the Internet is the place to find videos. You can get them any time you want, and as obscure as you want. As for MP3 and downloadable music, I have to admit I’m a bit at a loss to figure it out. Everyone keeps talking about how it’s going to take over, and I’m sure it will some day, but I’ve yet to really feel the appeal personally. It seems so unruly right now. I don’t really want to program my own CDs. That’s what I want artists to do; to create a full package that I can enjoy. But yeah, clearly MP3 is another way to get non-commercial music out to people.
J: What has the reaction been to Secret History…? Can you offer any advice to persons out there who have an idea for a book on contemporary culture? Did you approach publishers? What was that experience like?
Roni: The reaction has been really terrific. It’s very gratifying, though at the same time, I realized going in that this book would be an easy thing for people to applaud. It’s all about “the underdog” and about those who sacrificed for their art; all the romantic notions that people love to applaud (even if they don’t necessarily live it themselves). My experience with the publisher was atypically smooth. Generally, if you have an idea for a non-fiction book, you need to write a detailed proposal, and maybe even a sample chapter, then get an agent to represent you, and then send it around to many publishing companies until someone bites. In my case, it was really informal. I was aleardy working with an agent, and she had just sold a book to Billboard Books (my publisher), so she recommended that I just call up the editor and pitch my idea over the phone. I did, and he gave me the go-ahead. I was lucky, and it went very smoothly.