How We Listen is an interview series where Byta interviews artists, their teams, and everyone else working in music about how they find and listen to music, new and old.
Photo: Sebastian Oskar Kroll
Who are you?
Where are you based?
Berlin, Germany. I moved here from London in late 2004, but it’s Theresa May who made me German. Or half German, at least. Still, right now I’m proud of that: before this, I’d never lived in the same place for more than three years in my life, so it’s definitely home, and I’m only sad that my first country forced me to take this action in order to continue my life, when there are plenty of people in far greater need of the attentions of the German immigration system. I know you didn’t ask that, but I think it needs to be said.
Where do you work? What do you do?
I was once a PR, A&R and manager, but these days I’m a freelance writer and consultant, so I work wherever I am. I published my first book, Lee, Myself & I, (about my time working with singer, songwriter and producer Lee Hazlewood) a few years back, and contribute regularly to Uncut, Classic Pop and Long Live Vinyl, as well as sometimes (not nearly enough) to The Quietus. You’ll also find me hosting panels at music conferences, translating & subtitling German movies like ‘Victoria’, writing travel guides to Norway, directing voice-overs, and I can be seen ‘fronting’ the forthcoming documentary ‘Almost Fashionable: A Film About Travis’.
What are you listening to?
Right now, I’m working my way through the 200 or so albums I’ve been sent for May release so that I can prepare my pitches. In a week or so, I’ll start reviewing some of them. Normally I write about 30 album reviews a month across a huge spectrum of styles. But that Specials album is just what we need right now, and I’ve also been enjoying digging into albums by Giggs, Stubbleman, Prins Thomas, and Dub Sex, whose work’s just being reissued and everyone should hear. ‘Swerve’’s amazing!
How do you find new music?
I open my email inbox. Music gets sent to me – relentlessly – day and night, hour after hour. It’s an awful thing to say, given the fact that most people think music critics should be out there hunting down new music, but my Mac is generally about as far as I go, unless something truly remarkable crosses my path via some other circuitous route. Obviously I’ll come across something on social media from time to time – Kramies and Arvo Party were the last wonderful things I found that way – and friends, especially musicians, will recommend stuff now and then. When I’m at working at conferences, I try to check stuff out in the evening, too. But I rarely hunt stuff out the way I did when I was younger and less deaf: I just wait till my curiosity is piqued, whether it be by a press release, or a name, or a tune in a TV show, or a recommendation from a friend. A man’s gotta sleep.
What formats do you usually listen to? LP, CD, Cassette, Digital, Streaming Service and why?
For my work, I’m almost exclusively digital. I used to love being sent CDs, but my apartment’s full enough I’m now having to get rid of them, and I think it’s a waste of the world’s resources to send them uninvited when most music is average at best and I can simply click a link instead. If I like something, I’ll ask for a download, and if I really like something, I’ll ask for vinyl, a format I use as a way of filtering my collection. If I’ve got it on vinyl, in other words, I must really like it. If I have guests over, too, they enjoy the ritual of vinyl. So few of us play LPs anymore that people really seem to appreciate it when it happens.
Generally, when it comes to new music, I’d far rather check something online, then decide if it needs to become any more physical. As for streaming on services like Spotify, especially for pleasure, I do it as little as possible. I don’t have the spare time for yet more music to justify a subscription, and any extended listening session in the part of the world where I live is interrupted by ads for German or Turkish hip hop. Given my own tastes, that’s quite jarring.
Where do you do most of your music listening?
In my office, where I play stuff via a BOSE speaker (and that also accompanies me to my bedroom sometimes), or my sitting room, where I’ve got a proper old school hi-fi separates set-up, most of it bought at Richer Sounds at the turn of the century. Obviously that’s a more satisfying aural experience, though that Bose is punchy as hell. I invested in a rather smart new record player a few years back, too, and it might be time to spoil myself with some new speakers soon.
I also listen to music when I travel, which is pretty often, for which I use Pioneer Bluetooth headphones, and when I go running, which often allows me to listen to a record really closely before I review it, though those headphones are rather more battered and sweaty, I gotta concede.
How do find and listen to pre-release music?
As I said above, it gets sent to me. Endlessly. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a privilege. But it’s quite an undertaking to try to give everything a chance.
What are your frustrations with listening to music digitally? Any benefits?
I have an unreliable wifi signal which Deutsche Telekom refuse to accept has anything to do with them, so streaming can be frustrating. I also really resent not having credits etc easily to hand. My inclinations are furthered by how large numbers of the streaming systems used by labels for promotion can be a pain in the ass: they stop, or you can’t skip back or forwards easily, or you don’t have label copy, or they lock you out because you’ve maxed out by logging in and out to listen to a record a whole five times while reviewing it.
On the upside, if I listen to something and don’t like it, I’m done. I’d also always rather stream first rather than download without some sense of what I’m putting into my iTunes, because my iTunes already has enough music to play for almost 150 days without a pause and I think it’s going to burst.
I’m not one of those people who thinks digital music sounds terrible compared to vinyl or CD. Worse, sure. But terrible? Nah. I’ll play mp3s happily, and God knows they weigh less. It’s amazing to think I used to travel with 30 or so CDs in my bag…
How do you keep track of everything you are listening to?
I have a geeky side, and keep an Excel spreadsheet with release dates and artist names, plus I try to add a soundbite after I’ve listened to something to remind me why I did or didn’t like it. Many of them just say ‘Blah’ or ‘Nah’. I’ve done this for a decade now, and without it I would have no idea how to manoeuvre. When I need something, I simply search for the artist’s name in my Inbox – if something’s arrived via CD, of course, I try to note this – and the only time this doesn’t work is when a PR fails to include the artist’s name in the subject header, or uses a system that doesn’t bother to include the artist’s name. I’m always amazed by how often that happens, actually. Seriously: if you can’t include the artist’s name in the email header, why are you even bothering to send me music?
Do you tip other people off to new music? How?
Of course! I bloody well hope so! That’s my job! I also do it in person or via social media, though I maybe do it less than I used to, mainly because I’m too busy ranting about Brexit and Trump. But people have enough opportunities to find out what I think without me rambling about it all day and night.
Anything you want to “promote”?
Yeah, since you ask…
Lisa Morgenstern is the best Berlin based singer, writer and musician I’ve seen since I moved here almost 15 years, and the fact no one’s signed her is not to the industry’s credit. She’s putting out her debut album herself in the coming weeks, and you gotta just sit down and let it do its work in one sitting. I got lost in that record for weeks at a time when she first gave it to me. It’s totally spellbinding.
‘Almost Fashionable: A Film About Travis’ will hopefully be out later this year. It’s an hour long documentary I helped make – directed by Fran Healy – about why I didn’t like the band, and more generally how such opinions aren’t always based on the things we think they are. One of the great joys of getting older is having one’s preconceptions and prejudices challenged. I never, ever thought I’d give Bananarama a great review, but wait till you read the next issue of Classic Pop! And that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the current round of Caspar Brotzmann reissues as well. As I like to remind people, it’s all just vibrating air…