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Presiding/Residing: An Interview With Ben Ratliff

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Dusted's Sam Frank interviews New York Times critic Ben Ratliff.

Presiding/Residing: An Interview With Ben Ratliff

In December, after exchanging preliminary emails, I interviewed Ben Ratliff, jazz critic for the New York Times. I'd read his exemplary book, Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings (popularizing for novices, defamiliarizing for experts; detailed and catholic and gently polemical), but jazz wasn't my cue for inquiring. In all my philistinism, I like rock and, in theory, rock writing; rock writing I loathe as practiced by near everyone, myself included. The metaphor glub, adjective blub, nictitating neologism; references overready, taking lyrics at their word, false context, laundry lists; "-like" and "-esque" and hyphenated ha-ha; slang-slinging, pseudostyle, and attenuated alliteration—so many ways for this writing to be bad, only one way for it to be good: Describe what the music sounds like, and from there to anthropology, sociology, history, politics, dramaturgy, reader-response, what-have-you. But close reading—close listening—first, please. It's hard. Words aren't efficient at catching waves, at differentiating A from B and second to second. And then from waves to particles, physics to biology to journalism, the social science--what music does to us how; and what we do with it when, where, why; and anyway, who are we? And write, well, well qua well? Near never, how hard, we miss the music and mangle the context and cacophony our sentences. Look at the gassy impacted above, a travesty of the debased mode. Lapidary it is not. Rock writing is so hard, rock could be stone. We write with a jackhammer. Lapidary it is not.

Ever since Ratliff reviewed the Boredoms at the '99 Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival—part of an astounding tour I saw the next night at CBGB and thought on even until the piece came out some days later—I've noted his rock and pop sideline, once or twice a month. His first strength is good taste, better than that of his colleagues. Alongside Latin music and R&B, he writes on metal sans smirk and on the conceptual continuum from Ryoji Ikeda through Black Dice to Andrew WK. He in 1996 almost predicted the no-wave revival; he had the confidence to call the Boredoms, in passing, "one of the greatest rock bands ever." But judgment is nothing without reason, and he turns his jazz ear onto the materials of rock concretely, with precise analysis of specific moments within a general context for a general readership. He is, I think, a great explicator, in a limpid journalistic style that heightens, pins down, with lone nouns.

My email contained the following, which I restate below as my first question: "I'm especially interested in talking to you about your (excellent) occasional rock writing: what it means to bring a theory-trained ear to the practice; your apparent if sneaking love for the particular virtuosity of heavy metal; your take on the ways in which virtuosity—from metal, jazz, improv, the recording studio—is fitting back into what, in values at least, is the punk rock underground." I don't know that we covered the ground I'd sketched. I might have taken issue with a few points; my vestigial Marxism should stand on end whenever popular culture is adjoined to "supposed to function." (Consumer capitalism is not natural. It is historical. Culture may be therapeutic, but it is always industrial, never simply utopian. "Supposed to" comes uncomfortably close to the unconscious, reflexive boosting of pleasure practiced by even our better critics. See, for example, three probably not unintelligent men saying uncritical things in spectacular advertorial style throughout Slate’s Year in Music) Ratliff, at least, goes on with a "But" to balance both sides, reasonably. He identifies why and how things happen, and what these things are, and that they happen in a world, not just that things happen.

(Examples of some of Ratliff's best writing can be found here).

Sam Frank: I’m particularly interested in the fact that you’re a jazz critic. Maybe you’re bringing that ear to rock music, so you can partially deal with technical rock music. And maybe you have an idea of how technicality can fit into rock music. But you can also listen more carefully to the Stones, say, or any band that has a group interplay.

But to start off, can you give a summary of your job at the Times and any relevant background in terms of ear training or playing or also college radio—I know you did some time at WKCR [Columbia’s mostly jazz station].

Ben Ratliff: I’ve been at the Times for seven years now, and I’m a staff music critic. Ever since John Rockwell came along in the early or mid ’70s, and then more so when Bob Palmer [author of, most famously, Deep Blues, and creator of an as-I-recall intermittently excellent PBS rock history, in book form as Rock & Roll: An Unruly History] came along, the role of the music critic at the Times has been fluid, so that you don’t have to have only one person writing about rock ’n’ roll, one person writing about jazz, and so forth. When I came in, I really wanted to write about both jazz and other things. I was hired, I think, specifically because I knew about jazz, because that was an area that needed some help, but as soon as I got there I was excited by the idea that I could write about the non-existent no-wave revival.

SF: You wrote about that in ’96, right? About five years before it became an issue again.

BR: Or write about whatever—Pantera. That’s been a lot of fun, and that’s exactly the way I want it to be, because that just reflects the way I listen to things at home. It’s a funny position to be in, because almost everybody I know who pays really close attention to jazz feels very proprietary about it and feels that the less you pay attention to jazz, the more you’re betraying it; the less you support jazz, the more you’re throwing your weight behind these other gross commercial entities that don’t need your support in the first place. Jazz is in such an embattled state all the time—it’s well known what a low market share it has, and it’s well known how young listeners are losing touch with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong and everything; that’s what the whole Ken Burns show was about, to blitz people in the most seductive way possible, to bring in all kinds of new listeners, and so forth—so it’s sort of a funny position to be, to support rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop and actually popular music at the same time. But I just figure, why not. If that’s the way I listen to things at home, then writing about music any other way would be sort of a lie.

SF: I know you’re an advocate of Jason Moran [a youngish jazz pianist who experiments with tapes, hip-hop, etc.]. Is there a generation now that, is what’s happening in jazz now—that younger people are acknowledging these different musics, or are there still a lot of young jazz players who just want to play jazz, nothing else?

BR: Well, there’s an equal amount of both. But we’re still dealing with a very small number of people. Here’s the funny thing: Lots and lots of people learn jazz in school and in college. Unprofessional jazz playing is really widespread. But the number of people who actually make it to any sort of position of prominence, whether that’s playing in a club that promotes itself decently or making a record that anybody hears, is just very small. So, yeah, new jazz musicians are coming along who are in tune with more modern music that’s all over the spectrum, as well as being very schooled in bebop and whatever else, but it’s just a small number of people. We’re talking about people like Jason; Reed Anderson, the bass player in the Bad Plus—he’s a good example of a really superb jazz musician who also has this deep interest in rock ’n’ roll and all sorts of other things.

People listen widely, you know? Sometimes musicians will let on things that they’re listening to that just can be fascinating. I was reading an interview recently where Jeff Watts—the drummer, he’s in his 40s now, he was the drummer in Wynton Marsalis’s small groups back in the ’80s, and now he leads his own group; this is a totally great mainstream jazz drummer—apparently was listening to Meshuggah lately, and he heard some beat on one of their recent records, some kind of odd-metered beat, that inspired him to write something. Jazz musicians do listen to lots of different things. They’re just maybe not quite so wide ranging in the way they publicize what they listen to. They’re more apt to tell you that they’re really, really studying their Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins records than the fact that they’ve maybe been secretly checking out Bright Eyes.

SF: Do you have background taking music theory classes?

BR: I played various instruments growing up, clarinet and guitar and piano. The technical schooling I’ve had in music is just through private teachers. In college I took music classes, but they were history, music history. I studied Latin and Greek. But at the same time I was working at the college radio station, and that was a very intense community of people.

SF: Does Phil Schaap [WKCR eminence; prolix on mic] preside, or does he just come in and do his show?

BR: You mean does he actually live there? He spends a lot of time there. It was common to see him around the place. It was a social hub, and if you did a show there, it was likely that you were going to spend a lot of time in the station. So you just had very close proximity to an enormous record library that you could borrow from all the time, and that was something I did. They had an incredible, huge library of jazz records, and I got to know it. That helped a lot. I don’t know how I would have gotten that knowledge otherwise, the money I would have had to spend—scary thought. Then I got into writing, and for some reason, I don’t know why, I really wanted to write about jazz. I think because I was checking out cultural criticism, American cultural criticism, writing about movies and art and jazz, and I really locked into writing about jazz as a great way to deal with subjects bigger than the music itself. Dealing with jazz is a decent way of dealing with a lot of American issues and larger cultural issues.

SF: The reason I wanted to talk to you is, I’m just struck by the different ways in which the Times critics, for example, who have to cover such a range of things, the different ways they tend to approach it. I don’t want to generalize too much, but I notice that Kelefa Sanneh puts a frame around every show he attends, to give people a way in, whereas Neil Strauss is more reportorial, and Jon Pareles gives global descriptions of bands. What I’m struck by about your writing—I assume in jazz writing for the Times, you pick and choose which technical things that happen in the music to call people’s attention to, because most readers don’t have ear training, so you might talk about one technique, but you don’t have time, obviously, to do a full analysis, and that’s not the point of the review. That little, specific dropping-in of technical knowledge, and also a focus on what individual players are doing at specific moments—does that come out of your jazz writing, that kind of ear, being able to give specific descriptions as well as global ones?

BR: Yes, definitely, I think that’s a byproduct of training myself as a jazz critic. In jazz, you are dealing with minute changes as the music goes along that can be very profound and fascinating. It’s not just one texture, one key, one groove, for the whole time. It’s a daily newspaper; people read it in 15 minutes over their scrambled eggs. So you can’t get too technical and deep, it just doesn’t make sense, and it can lead to very lumpy writing, too. When I go see a performance, what I try to retain is how the music felt in my ear, a kind of sense-memory of how the music felt, and pretty often I will latch onto some particular element inside the music. So the best way for me to start writing a review is to focus on one of these little details, and to show how that little detail was actually an important detail. Once I found that that was a decent way to write about jazz, I started using it writing about different kinds of music as well, and I found that it works for me; this is the way I like to think about subtleties in music.

Also, you know, jazz is quite intellectual and deep and demands some concentration and so forth—we all know that—but I think that music in general is fascinating and deep, even music that is primarily listened to by teenagers. And if you respect the situation of a performance, if you respect the basic fact that this band is getting on stage to bravely play something that they want to play, and a whole audience has convened because they’re interested in it, and that this is a two-way thing, a ritual that both sides are taking part in, then you might as well get specific, you might as well pay close attention to what’s going on here, because it’s not just about commerce, and it’s not just trends, and it’s not just about whether your hair is cut at the right length to be a fan of this particular kind of music. There actually are musical issues here. So if I’m going to write a review of a metal band and actually get into musical issues, I feel like I’m trying to pay a certain amount of respect to the music that it deserves but doesn’t often get.

SF: Maybe I’m just struck by the contrast between your writing and just any writing for any of the music monthlies or pretty much anywhere. Just a few things, like your online review of Deerhoof, where you called attention to the New Orleans rhythm in one song; or you wrote a Deftones review where you talked about “a new-style Deftones song starts gently with an unusual chord, leaving a few strings open to ring with dissonance, and suddenly detonates with distortion.” That attention to a few open strings and what that does musically—it fits into a larger review for a general reader. I’m kind of unclear, but no one—I mean, Palmer, probably, and a few others were able to on that level hear that rhythm or see those open strings. There’s very little technical rock writing.

BR: There’s a lot of different ways to approach these things. A band like the Deftones, you could write about persuasively and well without dealing with any musical issues—I guess. You’d probably have to mention something about their tempo or the quality of the guy’s singing voice, maybe. I guess I would prefer it if my writing were a little bit different.

SF: I’m not criticizing your writing.

BR: I understand. There’s a certain facility, and even at times a glibness, that you can fall into writing about pop music. And at the risk of coming off a little bit academic, I think that it’s a good idea to focus on some of these musical issues. I’m not a musicologist, and there are huge areas about harmony that I don’t understand. I’m not a jazz musician. I’ve played in lots of bands, and I know my way around several instruments and things like that. On the other hand, writing for the New York Times, I really don’t think you have to have deep, thorough knowledge of some of these things. But whatever you have can help—I really do think that. And certainly whatever experience you have performing can help a lot, because when you go review these concerts, you’re dealing with this audience situation—it’s not just alone with the music as if you’re hearing it through headphones, you know you’re dealing with an audience—and you start to develop a kind of audience theory. For instance, I think that’s something K., Kelefa Sanneh, has developed really well since he’s been writing for the Times. Like in today’s review of Wyclef, he dealt mostly with the crowd and how Wyclef interacted with it by telling it repeatedly that he had to go. So he set up this funny system of expectation and denial and all that kind of stuff.

SF: I saw him play at my school a few years ago, and it was one of the weirder shows I’ve ever seen. He was like, “I was pulled over by the cops, and the cop’s like, ‘You can rap okay, but can you rap in Japanese?’” And then he broke into this Japanese “freestyle” that was, just, prewritten. And then he’s like, “You can rap pretty well, but can you play guitar?” And then he played “Rock Around the Clock.” And then he said, “We’re going to have a block party. A Harlem block party.” And then he had a DJ play DMX records for 20 minutes while he danced on stage. It was very, very, very weird, and just odd and lazy.

BR: And yet all that stuff is very important. If you’re going to talk about what the performance was like, you really have to talk about that. It’s not just stuff to ignore. In a certain way, that was the meat of the show, right? You have to take what’s given to you. A good piece of advice given to me early on by another critic was “Let the gig do the work for you, as much as possible.” In other words, even if it’s a terrible show, so terrible and badly executed and badly conceived that you don’t even want to write about it, think about what was going on and think about what naturally happened and start from there. Try not to create your own fancy conclusion ahead of what actually happened. So that’s another important thing.

SF: It seems—you mentioned Meshuggah and Pantera—that you are most of the time the de facto metal critic for the Times. I’ve read pretty persuasive arguments in various places, I guess most of all in a book by Joe Carducci [Rock and the Pop Narcotic], which say that metal for a long time was ignored by critics or tossed off for very basic sociological reasons. People who go to college and write about music are more interested in REM than in this, that, the other thing. But at the same time, metal does have inscribed in it this value on formal innovation. And at the same time, you’re fighting—you had a New York Times headline [for a Dillinger Escape Plan review] that said, “The Mental Challenges of Metal (Really).” What interests you about that music? Are you just the only person on the staff who’s interested, or are you interested in particular?

BR: No, I think all of us are interested to an extent. In terms of why for a long time rock critics ignored metal, there’s a class issue in there, which is a very, very big thing. Compare it to the way well-to-do white kids in high school walk around with their shirts untucked. I think that that’s the sensibility that became alternative rock. Whereas metal came out of, traditionally, a lower middle class sensibility, which may have been more truly fatalistic and also more focused on succeeding in life, in a funny way. In other words, there’s a tradition of virtuosity in metal that I think could never be a part of alternative rock, because alternative rock was all about pretending that virtuosity didn’t matter. So there was this basic stratification of audience, one kind of teenager listened to Black Sabbath and another kind of teenager listened to Devo. And now things are getting all mixed up. And I actually think that’s fantastic. That’s one of the things that’s happened since I’ve been doing this job that I’m really happy about.

SF: Are you talking on the pop level or on the college rock level?

BR: On the pop level. There’s still—obviously, when you go to see a death metal show, three quarters of the audience is going to be not very happy-looking South American kids. And that kind of music is just not going to cross over to MTV2. But, everything’s changing. Who knows what’s going to next? Lamb of God is, as things go, fairly close to that really dark growled vocals kind of thing, and they’re doing it with such, they’re putting it across with such power and charisma that who knows what’s going to come through the pipe next.

SF: I mentioned Orthrelm in that email [in which I proposed the interview]. These sort of sons and some daughters of Sonic Youth have been—Lightning Bolt. These bands that on one level are handmade—

BR: —and the Ruins, right?

SF: The Ruins I’d say are an influence on those bands, too. The Boredoms, any number of bands. —And then [besides being handmade] there are these really technical players playing next to people who are just making their crappy noisemakers out of little circuits they find. Where virtuosity is celebrated but also anti-virtuosity is celebrated—in the same band, even, sometimes.

BR: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That’s something new as well, unless I’m forgetting something. I remember reading, right when Nirvana broke, an interview with Steve Vai—you know him, the guitar virtuoso?—in which he said that he’d been thinking a lot about what alternative meant, and he’d finally came up with the conclusion that alternative means that most but not all of the players in the band suck. And I thought that was really funny and actually very perceptive. Of course, maybe what Steve Vai doesn’t appreciate is that musicians who suck on a technical level can make fairly profound records.

SF: Well someone like Dinosaur Jr., right, that was also the guitar hero band of ’80s [indie] rock, but if you listen to him [J. Mascis], he had a really distinctive voice on guitar, but he wasn’t a great player.

BR: No, he wasn’t a great player. Right. He gave himself the license to perform like one. His limitations were obvious, but he was maybe the only one playing like that in the field. So he got this persona as the guitar hero.

There were a lot of really good bands on a musical level back then. You can’t just look at the guitar heroes. Bill Stevenson, the drummer for the Descendents, and he was in Black Flag for a while, is just a great drummer. And, what the fuck, Dave Grohl is an incredible musician. There are lots of people like that who didn’t at the time have a reputation as a great musician; the emphasis was always more on the sheer expressive power.

[tape gap]

SF: I think what’s happening now is an even deeper kind of cross-breeding, where you have someone like Nels Cline or these improvisers—again a Sonic Youth thing—people who—I’d say that the Minutemen were great musicians but at the same time—they could play like the Minutemen but I don’t think they could play like just anyone, they’re not trained. But now you have these people who have a different kind of range, maybe, entering these same situations.

BR: There’s so many different kinds of musicianship, and this thing about what is a great musician, it’s very tricky. There’s so few musicians out there—let’s just limit it to jazz, or rock, or let’s just call it popular music—there’s so few musicians out there in popular music who are truly incredible in a well-rounded way. They’re either technique geeks or sloppy geniuses, but very few who find a convincing middle ground.

Probably the best performance I heard of anything this past year was Neil Young with Crazy Horse at Bonaroo. Because they did these 25-minute versions of old Crazy Horse songs that I’d heard a million times, and Neil is the only soloist in the group, and he went on at length in every single tune, and everything he did was so logical and beautiful. It really made me think, God, it’s really hard to think of five people in American music who are better than this guy. I don’t care what kind of music it is. It sort of astonished me to get to that point in thinking about him, because you always file Neil Young away under Sloppy but Good. But, boy, what he was doing was so perfectly conceived.

SF: Have you noticed—I know you gave a positive review to Black Dice—an interest in a new kind of group sound? And you also mentioned, with Lamb of God, “the end of the metal solo” or “the post-solo era in metal.” More emphasis on group playing in interesting music, interesting rock music?

BR: A strong ensemble sound?

SF: Either that or on album, through studio what’s-its.

BR: It’s always that elusive goal, and lots of bands get it over time, mostly through playing gigs.

SF: You also mentioned “droning sound architecture,” comparing Radiohead to My Morning Jacket. Maybe this is mostly a studio thing, actually, with a few bands that can do it live. Is there some new emphasis on just total sound, without individual players?

BR: I see what you’re getting at. Sure, I’d think so. But how did we get there?

SF: Maybe bands that once were interested in naturalistic recordings, like the SST bands, now they don’t have those hang-ups and are willing to go in and screw with the studio, and they’ve heard hip-hop and they like that, and they like electronic music, and they’re curious about that kind of processing.

BR: Well, it’s a complicated question, because on one level you’ve got a band’s ability to create a bigger sound in and of itself without any studio process, and then on the other hand you’ve got, I don’t know, the widening eclecticism of all kinds of musicians. I hear popular music advancing all the time in really encouraging way, both getting simpler and more complicated, and more melodic and less melodic.

I think it’s a shame that what we’re losing are truly, truly genius—we, no, there are people who love Stephin Merritt and even Conor Oberst as songwriters, full stop—I don’t really consider myself among those people. But I think what we’re losing are the songwriting tradition and something that we had in jazz earlier in the century in people like Ellington and Monk who were all-around geniuses of harmony, melody, and rhythm, who were also superb bandleaders, who could just keep this thing going for decades and making really profound music. That kind of thing I’m not seeing too much of. It just seems to be beyond, it just seems to be almost impossible these days to pull that off.

SF: Certain kinds of classical craft issues?

BR: Yeah, classical craft issues, and also making a music that finally really does infiltrate the national musical culture and alter it. It’s getting harder and harder to do that, I think.

SF: Maybe through hip-hop’s influence, or whatever, but there is this absolutely almost formal emphasis on innovation, this newness. It’s hard to get a hip-hop hit without some new hook that sounds different—and that’s great.

BR: And that is great. But.

SF: But, yeah.

BR: The thing about hip-hop is, hip-hop functions the way popular culture is supposed to function: it’s a really healthy thing, people consume it and then it becomes waste. And then you forget about it and it’s gone. And that’s good. That’s what people are supposed to do with popular culture. And if somebody like Timbaland comes along who can shake you up and challenge you all the time with new hits that sound completely bizarre, fantastic.

But there’s this certain longevity that doesn’t happen so much anymore. And that’s not necessarily the fault of the musicians. That’s also to do with how we receive music, and how many options we have in entertainment and also the fact the we don’t, as a nation, go see live music so much anymore, so those really transformative experiences you can have taking in somebody’s music in person are far less common now. Instead you get it from the radio or records, which is good but, I think, more limited.

One of the weird things about my job is the emphasis on live shows. A lot of people have trouble reading about concerts that have already happened and won’t repeat, because they’re irritated. If we say it’s good, their reaction is, Oh, well, thanks a lot, you should have told me before it happened. The fact is, this is cultural news, something happened and it was really impressive and maybe 1,000, 1,500 people saw it, and maybe somehow it changed the balance slightly within the band or whatever. Through doing this for seven years, seeing four or five shows a week, I’ve gotten to the point where I can really only take the full measure of a band or a musician by seeing them live. I find it so much harder to listen to records and to really get what’s going on at this point. And that’s a weird position to get into, but that’s where it’s gotten to for me. I really like seeing what a musician can do as a performer, and I like seeing the way the audience responds, and I like seeing the expectations that get set up between performer and audience, I find all that incredibly relevant, even now, when lots of people are arguing that live music doesn’t really matter much anymore. Just on my own collected evidence I would say that it does.

By Sam Frank

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