Relearning How To Enjoy Music

As I settle down to write, it is already past 3am. I have had to buy myself a lot of wine to compose this particular article because I want it to be honest. I do not want to adopt any sort of false-though-familiar “Dear Reader” persona (tempting though it always is) and I do not want to write too much (again, tempting though it always is!).

I began the Keyhole Observations series as a way of semi-officially chronicling the thoughts/theories that occur to me as I straddle the peculiar line between DIY musician and industry stooge. Sometimes I have been true to that intent, other times I have just been venting spleen. Often the two are inseparable.

But there is one persistently malign element to my work that I am finding difficult to appease.

I am finding it harder and harder to enjoy music the way I used to.

I believe – completely and utterly and sincerely and passionately – in championing new artists. But in my leisure time I mostly listen to old jazz records. My default is Sidney Bechet’s Summertime collection. I absolutely adore it, I know every note. Without a doubt it would be my number one Desert Island Disc.

But I am worried that I have sided with the dead over the living.

When I was younger – before I was in a band or had ambitions to set up a record label – I devoured new music. Most of my favourite artists were on Chemikal Underground: Delgados, Mogwai, Arab Strap. Hypnotic bands that seemed to generate their own weather system when you pressed play. I remember going to All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2000 and seeing Godspeed You Black Emperor! and feeling like I was being swept out to sea by a powerful and deadly undercurrent, as though these tunes were the mantras of some private religion responsible for the glamorous and ghoulish suicide pacts of young lovers in unbelievable (yet irresistible) romances.

When I moved to Philadelphia there was a whole new underground scene to feel my way around. My housemate Rob and I would sit in relative silence taking it in turns to play each other obscure songs. There was a kind of emotional geography at the core of our listening habits, as though we were filling in the blank patches of ancient colonial charts.

And it makes me laugh (though somewhat ironically) to think that ten years ago I had an unquenchable thirst for new music whereas now all I seem to do is create filters to protect myself from the deafening clamour of emerging bands seeking attention. And they do all deserve attention. Even just for a few moments. I have nothing but respect for bloggers like Joe Sparrow (A New Band A Day) who get up at the crack of dawn, write a few hundred enthusiastic words about some obscure musician and then catch the tram to work. EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even the mighty John Peel would have baulked at that routine!

Because now… and I feel ashamed to admit this… Now I just assume that I will not like it (whatever it is). I assume the mp3 sitting in my inbox will be largely derivative or poorly executed or (worst of all) vacuously post-modern. I fail these people before they get a chance to fail themselves. I am like the chemistry teacher I hated at school, the one who told us we wouldn’t amount to anything before we’d even submitted a single piece of work.

But as a rule I do not want to write people off. And that includes myself. I am painfully aware that it is not the artists that are going to suffer from my ignorance, it is me.

So here I go: For the rest of the year I have banished the wonderful Sidney Bechet from my iPod. Thelonious Monk is gone too. And Mingus. I am listening to a lot more radio (for pleasure rather than work) and am trying my hardest not to play “pin the influence on the artist” every time I hear something new (which is a cruel thing to do to anyone – as if being influenced by earlier work in some way undermines your integrity as a songwriter – indeed, the best thing about music is how endlessly fertile it is).

This sounds like some sort of glib new year’s resolution. To me, however, it is an incalculable ordeal, tuning my emotional receptors back to a forgotten frequency, doing my best to ignore the interference of cynicism or nostalgia.

Wish me luck.

Better still: wish me Godspeed…

FIRST PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2011

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