Kavit Sumud knows his music. The Senior Editor of The Sights and Sounds has an ear for important, impassioned, and electric compositions. Though we disagree on some artists – how does Kavit not like TV Girl’s self-deprecating, wistfully technicolor baying? – he has more discerning taste than I do when it comes to the art of listening to songs. Being that we’re both in the maddening trenches of music journalism, I decided that I needed to ask Kavit some pressing questions in a public forum. We exchanged thoughts about everything from the tenuous ebb of music writing to the importance of public relations (seriously, guys).
Rob Patrick: New music is everywhere – in 2016 it’s still difficult to conceptualize. How do you combat that sort of fatigue as a music journalist? I ask because, for a frightful moment in 2008, auto-tune was vogue (even Justin Vernon employed its sound). In 2011 lo-fi was the rage. And then folksy music reared its head. By the end of all that I felt like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, paws to the sand, exhausted.
Kavit Sumud: Well, I listen to 5000+ songs a month. So, heh, I don’t get wore out. I see music as recuperative, its constant innovation relieving in a world that loves to punch you in the head. Humanity backtracks, progress ain’t no universal straight line to nirvana; but music, it never disappoints. It’s always getting better. As a music journalist whose primary mission is to explore, share, and discuss music as a way to recover from trauma–I find that incredibly healing. Coming out of trauma, stasis is suffocation. Breaking through your own bullshit is crucial, so as not to breathe in your own lies. And you work on the smallest parts of yourself for what feels like eons but is maybe six weeks and eventually you’ll break into this whole new exciting atmosphere of self again.
And I think music today mirrors that process. Especially with the rise of the electronic bedroom producer and their monomaniacal approach to the most minute levels of arrangement, lyrics, and emotions in their melodies. That results in what feels like the spontaneous birth of new genres all the time; but is really the result of hundreds of producers being influenced by each other and tweaking that one bit that doesn’t feel right until some beautiful world is created. That is what makes music exciting for me.
Pitchfork: friend or foe?
I love Pitchfork. I’d rather have a strong opinion on music than the displaced personality, everything! is! wonderful! nothingburger writing that makes up 95% of the blogosphere today. A lot of music writers came into being as a reaction to Pitchfork, I came into it as the anti-reaction to their reaction. Now, I never review art I don’t like and I’d never rate music on a numeric scale (those were rightful critiques); but just because I only write about that which I love doesn’t mean I’m not going to give it to you straightforward. Also, music is visceral and connected to the cultural zeitgeist intimately and Pitchfork does a good job of capturing that. Especially articles on The Pitch. I’m thinking of an article called How M.I.A. Is A Lifeline In Times Of Terror from back in November 2015. That was inspired writing and got me thinking about a whole new form of personal op-ed music writing.
Let’s cut straight to the point: are music writers long-winded people that live for esoteric metaphors? What is their true purpose? And can they coexist with musicians?
Well, I won’t say we aren’t long-winded; but there’s value in that. It’s what creates our essentiality in the contemporary music blogosphere. I think the days of blog as music aggregator is dead, despite the continued great work of places like Hypem and Indie Shuffle (full disclosure: I used to write for IS). People are looking for something more. They want you to tell them something about the music that’s not obvious. What does a track mean? What is the artist trying to say? Music writers got in this really bad habit from 2011-2015 where their writing consisted of basically: ‘Here’s a track! It’s [insert positive adjectives]. Don’t you love me for finding this for you? Aren’t I awesome?’ Ain’t nobody got time for that. I got into music journalism because I used to look at all the writing out there and think how depressing it must be for an artist to put so much of yourself, your emotions, and your life into a song, EP or LP and have no one discuss it even though it’s the elephant in the room. I couldn’t believe no one was talking about all the stories of pain, joy and ecstasy that musicians were giving you and practically asking you to comment on.
That’s how we should coexist with musicians. I have a lot of really great, intimate relationships with artists whose work I’ve reviewed. Some of them have told me they’ve printed out my review and taped it to the wall on their tour bus. To re-inspire them when they get down on the road that people are affected by their art. That’s not an egostroke on my part; but rather a clarion call to other music writers that we should be using our platforms to be skilled interpreters of the bits of soul that musicians have splayed out in their songs for the world. Is what they hope to say what actually comes out in the song? What happens to their music when it leaves their minds and interacts with other minds and hearts out there in the world? I think musicians want to know and we’re–as an industry–denying them that.
You’re fantastic at finding great remixes. What is the hallmark of a great song reinterpretation?
1) I like reimaginations over remixes (see: Gryffin’s rework of Maroon 5’s ‘Animals’; Teemid’s take on The Weeknd’s ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ or anything Until The Ribbon Breaks does). Reimaginations are remixes in their technically purest form. They’re exciting because it’s another musician honing in on one–often unheard by your lay listener–emotional thread of a song and exploding it into full track length.
2) I don’t like production that is emotionally manipulative and cliche. That means little EDM or Deep House with its precise drops meant to make you rise up at just the right moment and go ‘yay!’. No, yawn.
3) I don’t want you to be respectful of the original. Say something unique.
What about electronic music speaks to you? And do you think that the genre is able to tap into more emotions than other music – rock, pop, country – is able to?
Well, I think rock music died in 2009. And bands that refuse to admit that or think using guitars and live instruments to be ‘innovative’ by being ‘retro’ are sad. Rock music had its multi-decade heyday and I think most of what can be said through it has. I grew up on country. Reba McEntire’s Read My Mind and Martina McBride’s Wild Angels were the first albums I bought. I listened to them hundreds of times. Country has a knack for storytelling as humanity that most genres don’t and you do see some of that carried out in the traditions of Neko Case and First Aid Kit today. Unfortunately, most country music today is barely indistinguishable honky-tonk caterwauling and Miller Lite. Electronic music, with it’s DIY aesthetic, and the way it can stack layer upon layer of production in constantly new ways to create truly emotionally astounding and breathtaking (literally) moments is the future of music. Every time you try to box in electronic music, it finds a way to bust out. I don’t think any other genre has that kind of flexibility or ability for emotional exploration.
We’ve both experienced the odd cat’s cradle of social media. It’s a strange dance between artists, labels, and writers. How can this unlikely hydra work together more efficiently?
Oh, boy. This question. I just want to preface this answer by saying I love this industry but there are so many problems in this regard and I don’t want people to think I’m some horribly negative nancy or whatever. That said: I love musicians, but let me say point blank: most artists these days are total jackfaces to their press.I remember reading this FB post by an Australian artist named Null last year where he whined about how music writing today is so overly positive and dull and then said he’s partly to blame because he only shares posts which are tongue bathing him levels of praise (that’s my paraphrasing). Musicians create their own echo chamber because they’ll only share posts which aren’t critical. But that’s even if they’re acknowledging their press and most don’t. It goes beyond even musicians being size queens over the size of a blog. A good number of artists don’t even thank the people who are promoting them no matter who they write for.
You expect a big name artist to not even be in control of their PR but if you’re an artist with less than 10k Soundcloud followers you have the time. I know so many music writers who became discouraged or dispirited and quit because musicians would never even do something as simple as give them a ‘heart’ on twitter, send a one line note saying ‘thanks for reviewing my work’ or share their post on FB. Most music writers are doing this for free, in addition to their ‘real’ jobs and are putting their professional reputation on the line to promote your music over others. And you can’t even write ‘hey thanks!’? Yeah, no. I’ve started to take a hard line against that. There are hundreds of artists a year to promote. I don’t have to promote you if you can’t appreciate the work people do to make you. So they end up on a ‘do not cover’ list. Be less arrogant, artists.
Also PR companies and labels are their own worst enemy. They’ll nitpick the content of your post endlessly. From photos, to ‘we want this embed over this embed’, to scouring for spelling mistakes, or if ‘you could take this out that’d be great thnx’. Which is totally fine if you’re going to use it and you want it just so; but then they don’t even have the decency to share the post they tasked you with. Like why did you care if you weren’t going to do anything with it? I think a lot of publications need to start coming out and saying to PR companies and labels that we aren’t your e-slaves. We don’t work for you. And if there’s no benefit (if not downright disrespect for our time spent) to promoting your artists, well then we just won’t. And that only hurts their bottom line. At this point I ignore every PR email I get. They really aren’t worth my time.
I’ve noticed, pretty recently, that artists and listeners have turned against simple lyrics. Best Coast has been the recipient of this ire. How could something – or, in Bethany Cosentino’s case, someone – go from endearing to irritating in a short period of time?
I think some of this is a rebellion against the truly godawful simplistic lyricism you were finding in those ‘inspirational’ EDM tracks featuring some female singer cooing cliches over beats you’ve heard a thousand times. For years every track wanted to be Adventure Club’s remix of Foxes’ “Youth” and people got tired of it. I don’t care about simplistic lyrics so long as they aren’t saccharine or insultingly stupid. And I think Bethany Cosentino’s criticism is unfair. I checked out the lyrics on her 2015 LP and they were punchy, yet effective. That said, Fiona Apple really should get an apology for the years of excoriation she got over lyrics like ‘a voice once stentorian’ (from ‘Oh Well’). Like always, she was ahead of the curve.
Tell me about your site, The Sights and Sounds.
We focus on exploring the meaning behind music. We eschew 411, informational writing in favour of getting to the deeper, emotional truth of a track. We organize our music around 10 different emotions and eventually will be developing a radio player designed around being able to pick a combo of those emotions and listen to a constant stream fitting your mood. I’m the Senior Editor there so I develop featured series and mentor up and coming writers. There’s so little support in the music journalism world and no one tells you how you can do better. It’s rewarding but also really frustrating to mentor writers. I think this generation of writers is afraid of having a personality, of being even a modicum polarizing. But when I’ve pushed them to break out of their banal boundaries I’ve gotten amazing work out of them and it’s allowed our site to be a source of some beautiful writing.
You make amazing playlists. What, in your mind, goes into making an effective and emotionally satisfactory mix?
I believe you’re talking about the monthly playlists I post on my Soundcloud page. A lot of people don’t know how much work goes into those. I put about 70-80 hours a month into them. I think of them as my therapy. I’ve lived overseas for the past three years in places where sometimes for weeks I might be the only English speaker I meet. At the same time I’ve been working through some intense trauma that piled up in my early 20s. Since I have no distractions or anyone to speak to, I let the music released in the last month speak to me and apply it to some part of my trauma I need to recover from—almost always centered around being less closed off and more human. This year I’m doing a running 12 month theme on what my socially awkward Mr. Robot alterego does when he meets warm humanity. Each playlist is a self-contained emotional thematic of what I’ve been working on in the last month. That said, I think the themes are universal enough to be appreciated and hope people get some healing energy out of them as well.
I hate playlists that are just a collection of songs. It’s like, ‘hooray for you! you have good taste’. Playlists should be so much more. Every single one of my playlists is meant to be listened to from beginning to end. There’s a story that starts on the first track and comes to some kind of a conclusion by the closing song. Every song builds off the last lyrically, sonically and emotionally. I want each list to feel like a weird orgasmic mix of exhaustion, ecstasy and exhilaration. I’ve been making playlists since I was 8 (back when you had to tape music off the radio) and so I never need mixing software to transition my tracks. I think its really important to pay attention to the intrinsic energy of each song. I nerd out and map a sine wave of the energy of the entire playlist so that everything flows and is never jarring.
What artist is making the most important music right now?
I have to give a few. Grimes, hands down. Art Angels was a feminist/queer masterpiece and the entire ardent and unapologetic promotion she did around that LP was a gamechanger for how women/queer people can represent their work in the public eye. FKA Twigs: I can’t even with the beauty that is the tw-ache video. I watch it at least once a week. There’s a 10 second section from 2:13-2:23 that’s so violently and intimately human that it breaks me down to tears every time. Everything that woman does is so inventive. Lady Gaga: she had a bad album but she continues to be a pioneer for making space safe for all us weirdos out there. I have faith she’ll rebound. Dan Deacon has been making experimental music for years that busts through binary and doesn’t get enough credit. And there’s an up and coming Portuguese artist named Mira, Un Lobo! whose debut LP comes out this April or May that makes incredibly intellectual and emotionally devastating electronica. You can listen to one track, Serotonin, now; but I’ve been listening to the LP for months and it’s really, truly beautiful.
What do you think about film scores leaning toward musicians like Cliff Martinez, Trent Reznor, and Nick Cave? It seems like traditional composers are losing ground.
Good, I’m glad traditional composers are losing out. A lot of people look up to sports heroes or whatever. But my hero was the music editor for Season 6 of Skins UK or the early seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. Especially S6 of Skins UK. What that music editor did to combine color, character personality and music selections to soundtrack each episode was revolutionary and taught me so much about using music to soundtrack my own life. I always think of songs as associated with very specific moments in my life, much as if my life is one never ending reel of a movie. And there’s a lot of potential power for indie music to have there. And who listened to those soundtracks featuring bizarre, out of context classical compositions anyways?
What happened to Kid Cudi?
I don’t know, man. Last I heard from him he made that stellar anti-suicide anthem with Dia Frampton ‘Don’t Kick The Chair‘ and then disappeared off the scene. I’d say put out a search party for him except that the Dallas Observer just said that he’s alive and well. I, for one, am looking forward to his latest reflections on being a loner.
What’s your take on the reemergence of vinyl? Part of me thinks it’s a necessity for musicians, financially, at live shows. But the other part says, “this surge in popularity cannot sustain itself.”
Whenever someone tries to exhort to me the value of vinyl I laugh at them. Look, I’m too nomadic to lug around some player and a whole vinyl collection (seriously, I moved 16 times last year); but even if I wasn’t the whole concept seems really stupid to me. Sound quality cannot trump the freedom of movement that comes with digital recordings. Vinyl’s resurgence seems to me like some white privileged superiority complex that says ‘Yeah, man, I know quality sound and you don’t’ and ‘I can spend exorbitant amounts of money on an LP that I can only play in my living room’. Ok, playa. Have fun lugging all those LPs with you everywhere you go. I’m sure your smugness serves as a great suitcase. Artists absolutely need to have new revenue streams, but I don’t think vinyl should be it.
Finally, what are you looking forward to in music this year?
Admittedly, not very much. I try to tamp down my expectations on releases. I don’t keep track of release schedules. But I’m excited for Lady Gaga’s still untitled LG: 5. The producers she’s working with are top notch. Also, I can’t wait to see Grimes’ ‘California’ video. That seems minor but it was my favorite track on Art Angels and the videos for ‘Kill V Maim’ and ‘Flesh Without Blood’ have been really stellar.