How did you two come together?
I had done the radio show initially with Bill Wyman, who is the critic at The Reader. When I first came to Chicago to work at the Sun Times, it was in large part because I admired Ebert, and it just seemed natural to do on radio what he was doing with Siskel on TV. The one thing you can’t do with a book, magazine article or the newspaper is say, “Listen to this now.” So we originally started on The Loop and then moved to Q101. And then I left to go to Rolling Stone and Bill eventually left to go to San Francisco, right around 1994-5. When I came back to Chicago in 1997, Bill was gone and it just seemed completely natural to do it with Kot, because there was that natural Siskel & Ebert symmetry. We were on XRT for seven years, and were frustrated with their complete lack of interest in helping us grow the show and to bring it national, even though they were owned by CBS Infinity, who also owns Westwood One the syndicator.
Commercial radio is really conservative. The guy who is playing Dave Matthews once an hour does not want to hear about the Strokes, and the guy who is playing the Strokes does not want to hear about Kanye West, and the guy who is playing Dave Matthews does not want to hear negative comments about Dave Matthews, even though when we were live and it was two hours and we took calls, we would take calls from Dave Matthews fans defending Dave Matthews or Dave Matthews himself defending Dave Matthews, so it’s a very narrow slice n’ dice world in mainstream radio. It always seemed to us that what Chicago Public Radio had done with This American Life or Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!; it’s a smarter place, and you have a lot more creative freedom. So to be able to go there and have their studio facilities and bring guests in and focus the show at an hour that was produced and wasn’t just two guys talking in-between commercials, because there are no commercials, was nice. And we’ve been able to go national. Now we’re on like 80 stations and it’s great.
What was the best concert you saw in 2009?
I really liked the Jesus Lizard at Pitchfork. I was blown away by Ida Maria at Lollapalooza. I despise Lolla though. It’s just a corporate suck-fest. Even the things that you see there that happen to be great like Ida Maria would have been a million times better at Metro.
There’s just no danger.
Exactly. It’s Wal-Mart.
I like the way Pitchfork Fest is run.
There’s a real sense of community. It’s hard to walk ten feet at Pitchfork without running into someone you know. It’s much more a music community vibe where Lollapalooza is a shopping mall. But rock and roll should happen indoors at night. The live experience at at a fest is never as good as a focused club experience.
What do you think of the proliferation of festivals becoming the only way some people experience live music?
I think it’s a bad thing. The recurring question I always get when I’m in the crowd is, “Hey, do you know who this is onstage right now?” Which tells me that the people are not even there for the music necessarily. They’re there to make the scene. That’s always going to be inferior to people who are going to see a particular band because they’re there to see that band.
When I think of blog music journalism, is everyone just a gossip queen now? Do people have such a short attention span that gossip headlines are the only thing that will draw readers in? If it’s not a splashy headline, are people still interested?
Pitchfork is really old fashioned in a lot of ways, obviously I’m not talking about the new site, but you have these guys or girls sitting in their basement writing 2,500 or 3,000 words about some album they love and getting paid shit to do it. I think it’s coming from a noble place. These people are fans and they have ideas they want to share. Unfortunately, a lot of the writing tends to be indulgent and not very good, but I can’t fault Pitchfork as much as your mainstream magazines. If we were to cut out a review of the same album from Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone or even Harp, you put them on the same typeface and line them up side by side, and they all read the same. It’s the same “buy this new product now” kind of journalism. There’s very little thought or originality. There’s a million blogs that are offering unique perspectives, but they’re not edited or written as well.
I think it’s a transitional period, and I would hope that the best voices and writers will eventually find their audience and those are the writers that people will turn to. It would be nice if those writers could actually get paid to do what they’re doing. At the moment, if you’re interested in reading good writing about music, you probably have a hundred bookmarks and none of them deliver consistently every day, and you just have to ferret and search out where the good stuff is, which is exactly what we’re doing with music. There is no central repository where once every city had an inventive radio station, so you have to go fishing now, half the time stumbling around in the dark.
Which can be some of the fun of it ...
Yeah, but if you look at what made Creem magazine great throughout the Seventies was to be able to pick up the magazine and Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, and Nick Tosches would tell you what to pick up, and there was no way you could miss an issue of that magazine. A young kid in Ireland John Lydon is reading it, and a young woman in New Jersey Patti Smith, and a weird fat guy in Cleveland David Thomas were all drawing inspiration from it to go on and make history. I think we miss something now for not having that one central resource. Pitchfork is just really inconsistent in terms of good writers, and what I find really interesting is that everyone talks about Pitchfork the brand, but go ahead and name your five favorite Pitchfork writers.
It is pretty faceless.
Yeah, and what does that say about good writing? It’s all kind of indistinguishable and it’s not necessarily serving as an incubator for strong voices, which is what I think great rock publications should do.
When you first started out, did you always identify with Bangs and so-called “outlaw journalism”? You’ve never been afraid to take shots.
You know, I admired the people who were writing about rock and roll in a really powerful way as much as I admired the artist. To me, there wasn’t that much difference between what Lester Bangs was doing and what Lou Reed was doing. They were both offering that lifeline out of stultifying conformity. I was a sheltered kid growing up in Jersey City. I didn’t want to be there and Lester Bangs showed me a different world and so did the Velvet Underground.
Five years ago, you spoke at DePaul University about music journalism, and your last piece of advice was “Don’t do it.” Would you say the same thing today?
I probably was facetious when I was saying that because what I usually say is that unless you have an overwhelming desire to do this, where you can’t imagine not doing it and someone might as well say to you “Why don’t you give up breathing?,” then don’t do it.
Basically the same burning passion that it takes to stick it out in a rock band.
Exactly. That’s what we’re seeing a lot of writing become. To say I want to be a journalist or a cultural critic today is potentially the same as saying “I want to be a poet.” God bless you, and good luck doing it in between shifts at Starbucks. Much of the best music of the last 25 years has come from people who are happy to work as a plumber’s assistant or a junior electrician, or whatever their day job may be. They do it because they have this burning desire to make this music, and they’re freer to be more creative because they’re not beholden to worrying about selling it. It’s the same thing with writing, except that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be paid to do good work. With great indie rock bands, many of them have day jobs and they take a three week vacation and go on tour and they should be paid to play. I don’t see the problem with them not being paid to record their music, because they still have that ability to come to your city and play for you and that’s when they can collect. Whereas, you or I can’t go to someone’s house to review something for them and get paid. Yet, potentially a piece of criticism that opens your eyes to a new world of music is every bit as valuable.