I’ll Settle For A Steak Dinner With Nick Cave—An Interview With Stuart Berman

Recently, I had the pleasure of catching up with Stuart Berman, online editor at The Grid, regular Pitchfork contributor, author of This Book Is Broken, and proud U of T alumnus . Read on for an insider’s view on the current state of music journalism, Canada’s musical landscape, and the future of indie-noise band Sonic Youth.

ImageDemo: You have done a lot of critical writing for both The Grid and Pitchfork and have been an editor at The Grid (formerly Eye Weekly). How have your academic or extracurricular experiences at U of T informed your career path today?

Stuart Berman: The academic influence was an indirect one. I actually majored in Commerce at UofT, so I have a Bachelors of Commerce degree which doesn’t really factor into my life at all. But because I was studying business, I needed a creative outlet at U of T and decided to answer a call for writers for The Varsity. In my second year I started out just reviewing records, having no real background in writing or journalism; at that point I was emulating my favourite writers. I became Associate Arts Editor for two years and, after I graduated, became the Arts Editor. The Varsity was a good halfway house between university and working life and provided for me a very, very small salary (laughs). It was the first time I really thought “I could make a career out of this!”.

D: How does the music critic in you interact with your musicianship in your band The Two Koreas?

SB: Well, I’m not actually a musician; I’m the singer in the band because I don’t have any musical talent. That’s the great irony in a band, the person who doesn’t know how to play an instrument gets to be the frontman. In the band we have a couple of writers, Kieran Grant and Jason Anderson, both of whom have also worked at Eye Weekly. Naturally, we spend a lot of time thinking about music and culture and that is reflected in our song writing; our music is cheeky and ironic and I think that’s probably an extension of what we do for a living.

D: You are immersed in the Canadian music scene and wrote a book, This Book is Broken, on the history of the popular Canadian band Broken Social Scene. Do you think we have finally formed a Canadian musical identity in the past decade?

SB: I don’t think there’s an actual sonic identity. You have a lot of bands that do a lot of different things but they don’t necessarily come from the same sensibility. In the 90s, there weren’t a lot of outlets for independent music and the music you would hear on MTV would all be filtered through mainstream music labels. There was no way for independent musicians to move their careers forward while staying an independent artist. They had to decide whether to sign with a major label or give up because of the [high] costs of touring the U.S. [trying to reach] people who [otherwise] had no access to your music. There was a lot of Canadian music in the 80s and 90s that was a knock-off  of American music, like Our Lady Peace or The Tea Party; bands that haven’t really stood the test of time.

But now you have a generation of bands who came of age during the Indie renaissance who have models to look up to, bands who follow their own vision, like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who became very popular. Seeing a band like that succeed without any compromises is very inspirational to a new band trying to do their own thing.  There are ways to get your music heard without conforming to traditional industry demands. Musically, there’s not a lot of similarity between bands like Braids or Fucked Up, but they’re both pursuing their own vision outside the major label industry. With resources like the internet and even CBC Radio 3, which didn’t exist fifteen years ago, independent music can have a much larger audience.

D: How do you feel about Pitchfork as a tastemaker? What do you say to accusations of Pitchfork being a “hipster monolith” for taste and style in Toronto?

SB: I would hesitate to use the word monolithic for the site because it’s evolved so much over the years, with different editors and writers and bands. It’s too simplistic to say that it’s uncompromising, that it doesn’t adapt or react to new trends in the culture. It’s funny that people call it a hipster magazine and associate it with the archetype of the young 20-something kid; most of the staff of Pitchfork are in their mid-30s and have been writing for around a decade. I think Pitchfork has done the best job in documenting the shifts in musical culture over the last ten years. Different eras are defined by different publications, like Rolling Stone in the 60’s, NME in the 80’s. In this post-millennial era, where genres are being blurred and the boundary between mainstream and indie is less defined and the line between what’s cool and uncool is very nebulous and subjective, I think Pitchfork’s really done a great job of covering the entire spectrum of popular music, whether it’s dubstep or indie rock or nu-metal.

D: Could you give an example of the way Pitchfork has shifted in its taste and choice of coverage?

SB: There’s a contingent of Pitchfork writers who have been accused of turning their back on late-90s/early-00s indie rock. But the truth is some bands just aren’t of the same quality as they were ten years ago. You can see Pitchfork’s support clearly in their reviews of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene or Radiohead, but we are not the marketing team for any band. Pitchfork ultimately is a website that judges the quality of the music and whether or not a band has lived up to the standards of its best work.

D: How did the news that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore [of Sonic Youth] broke up affect you?

SB: I can’t really say I’m devastated, not having known them personally. You have to put things into perspective: famine and war are devastating. A beloved musical couple breaking up is just sad news. Sonic Youth were a huge part of my upbringing and certainly a major part of the soundtrack to my university years, I associate much of my U of T time with Sonic Youth. It’s interesting that they’re breaking up so long into their relationship. I feel like marriages fall apart within the first two years or they last forever, so it’s kind of strange timing. But they’ve been together a long time and it’s hard to be the same person to the same people for a long period of time, people change over the years. And that’s sort of the great gamble of marriage–(and I say this as a married person myself) whether the couple will grow alongside one another and have a complementary relationship. Maybe Moore and Gordon are evolving in different ways right now. I don’t necessarily think this is the end of the band. There’s a history of bands sticking together despite romantic relationships falling apart, so I wouldn’t count Sonic Youth out.

D: They might go the way of the Cocteau Twins…

SB: Yeah, or Fleetwood Mac, or Metric… both survived the end of a relationship. Who knows, they might just get separate tour buses.

D: What do you think of the state of music journalism these days, especially with new media giving anyone the opportunity to voice their opinion publicly?

SB: As in any other era of journalism, there are great writers and not-so-great writers, it’s just that the internet has made the latter group a lot more visible. And while writers of my generation were lucky enough to have our earlier, more embarrassing efforts confined to the campus newspaper dustbin, today we have a lot of people taking their first cracks at journalism in a much more accessible forum, so there’s a lot of growing-in-public going on and everything is now preserved for posterity. But just as it’s possible to discover great music amid the glut of mediocre new bands the internet coughs up every day, it’s just as possible to sift through all the blogs and start-up music sites to find great writers whose opinions you can trust: and Twitter makes it a lot easier to keep up on their latest work. Back in my day, you had to schlep to the newsstand and drop $50 for a stack of magazines! I also highly recommend The Daily Swarm as an excellent aggregator of the most interesting, intelligent, and hilarious music writing out there.

D: Many DEMO writers have a passion for music writing. Do you have any advice for them in terms of doing it successfully and being able to secure a career in music editorial writing?

SB: Like anything, you should do your homework – that includes not only listening to a lot of music across different genres and from different eras but also reading up on a lot of music criticism and pop culture history. Because music is the product of a lot of things that exist outside of music: politics, fashion, economics, etc. I think a big part of a critic’s job is positioning a piece of work in its proper context, and assess why or why it doesn’t work in light of what’s come before and what else is happening in the contemporary culture. For example, a budding critic would probably think twice about declaring Florence Welch to be the most daring, original pop singer of our day after hearing Kate Bush, or even Zola Jesus. As for securing a career, that’s the really hard part. Writing about music is only a part of what I do for a living, my actual job is as an editor, assigning and editing stories for The Grid’s website. The days of daily newspapers hiring full-time pop critics are sadly coming to an end. My advice would be to pursue a career that complements music writing – either as an editor at a magazine or website that has a music section, or with a steady, part-time job in the arts and culture sector that would also allow you to pursue music writing as a sideline freelance gig. You’ll need to have a flexible schedule – interviews with musicians never happen on time.

D: To turn the interview on a hypothetical: who would you most like to sit down and have coffee with out of all the musicians you hold dear, dead or alive?

SB: I just watched Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary, and he seems like he would’ve been a cool hang—I’ve always appreciated his dry sense of humour. But seeing as that scenario is impossible, I’ll settle for a steak dinner with Nick Cave.

D: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to DEMO!

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