The Truth Behind The ‘Record Review’: Young Marco Interviews Philip Sherburne
Me again! So, Philip Sherburne is probably one of the foremost critics in (mostly) electronic music right now, although I might be slightly biased because he did give my band a pretty good review once…
Seeing that this week I am not a DJ, producer or fashion icon but a “journalist” myself, I thought that I would turn the tables (bad pun intended) for once and interview the man himself (who apparently might have me assassinated after this interview). Read on…
Hey Philip! How’s the weather in Barcelona?
Cold! Winter seems to have arrived this week. Our version of winter, anyway, which is probably better than Amsterdam's.
Pretty sure about that. I just found out today whilst doing my "research" (reading your Wikipedia) that you live in Barca. When did you move there?
Yeah! I wanted to come out and see you play a while back when you were in town but it didn't work out.
Ah yeah, the night with Virgo Four?
I think it was a Casa Bonay thing, maybe? I have a 2-year-old, so I don't get out too often any more. I moved out here in 2005, actually, and then moved to Berlin in 2008. Stayed there for four years and then came back here at the end of 2012.
I always wondered why Barcelona never really kicked off as a city to move to like Berlin, even with Sonar and stuff being there. Seems like a pretty sweet place to live, I used to spend a lot of time there skateboarding when I was still “in shape”.
I think part of it comes down to the fact that you sort of need to speak Spanish to live here, whereas it's easy to live in Berlin just speaking English. There is a growing number of artists living here, though. Carl Craig, Maceo Plex… A ton of tech-house type of people who I guess like it because it's close to Ibiza. And yes it's a great skating city, from what I understand. The plaza in front of MACBA has basically been taken over by skaters.
Yeah it's been like that for ages, the city and/or museum allows it which is pretty cool I guess. And rare. Discos Paradiso is right next door, I always pop over to the plaza when I’m there only now I'm the weird lurking guy.
Yeah, Paradiso is wonderful, love that shop.
Do you take siestas? That would probably be my main reason for moving to Barcelona.
I do not! That's actually something I find incredibly annoying about living here – everything pretty much closes from 2pm until 5pm, or later! When I used to live a wilder life, I never woke up until like noon or 1pm, which meant that by the time I was ready to leave the house, everything was closing down. It was impossible to get anything done.
Ha, maybe I should rethink that then… So where are you originally from?
I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and then I bounced around the US for a while – Poughkeepsie, New York; Providence; San Francisco.
Do you go back Stateside a lot?
Not too often. Once a year or so.
How did you get into music?
Good question. I can't really recall a time when I wasn't into music. I was a pretty heavy radio listener as a kid, then got deeply into goth and punk around 1986 or so, and kinda never looked back.
Did you play in bands?
Not really. I mean, I had a little band with friends in high school – I played synths, actually. But we literally just played in each others' basements, and maybe once at 8th grade graduation. I actually found a rehearsal tape not too long ago, need to listen to that.
Maybe I can give that a review ha.
Yeah, I don't think that's ever getting a public airing…
You've also made some records later though right? As Philip Sherburne.
Yeah, I started making music in the early 2000s, maybe, and finally put out a couple of things around 2007 or thereabouts – a couple of 12"s and a few remixes. Then I guess that phase of my life kind of came to a close.
Is that when you started writing about music?
No, I've been writing about music since 1998 or thereabouts.
Did any of your releases get reviewed?
I don't think any of it was reviewed anywhere? It was all just singles or remixes, though, which even back in the late '00s were formats less likely to get reviewed. There may have been a review somewhere (De:bug?) saying that my first single was pretty average, which would have been a totally fair assessment. And one musician once took offense at a review I wrote of his own work, and emailed to say something along the lines of, "Well, I've listened to the music you make, and it's clear that you wouldn't understand my music," or something to that effect – which I didn't think was a fair or accurate assessment at all! But everyone's entitled to their opinion.
How did you start writing about music? Do you prefer writing about music rather than making it?
They're two totally different things, really. If I had more time I'd continue making it as well, and hopefully will return to it someday. I started writing about it because I was in graduate school, studying literature, and kind of bored with my studies. So I started doing the odd review for the university newspaper – Tortoise, maybe Stereolab? I did an interview with Mouse on Mars when they came to town which I never actually published anywhere. And then it just kind of snowballed. I started writing for The Wire in 1998 or 1999, and that opened a lot of doors.
Do you think its possible to both make music, and be an objective music journalist?
Of course, I don't see any conflict there. But the more active you are in music, the more you need to consider drawing certain lines. Like, I wouldn't review something by someone who had put out a record of mine.
Well, I notice I can't particularly listen to certain kinds of electronic music objectively sometimes because I get too caught up in what synths or drum machines or whatever are being used.
Yeah, that's an interesting point. Though I don't know if that necessarily interferes with your ability to judge or interpret the music. For a critic, I suppose the important thing there is not to confuse what the critic is trying to do, musically, with what another musician is doing.
Once you are too deep into the process, you can maybe miss the intention. Because you are comparing it to your own process.
Right, exactly, what you just said there.
Is there a switch that turns on in your mind when you write about music, where you listen to music in "review" mode? Or are you always reviewing stuff when you listen to music?
That's a good question. I'd say there is kind of a switch, but it's unpredictable. Sometimes I'm listening for pleasure, and I find myself beginning to unpack the music, dig into it, whatever metaphor you want to use, almost involuntarily. (And of course sometimes I listen to something and have a very hard time actually locating that switch that turns on the critical part of my brain.) But I'd say that more than being an off/on switch, it's more like a dimmer switch, which sort of slides back and forth.
Does that annoy you?
No, not really! I've always had a critical predilection, I think. I like sort of mentally disassembling things to see how they work. (When I say "things," I mean music, writing, photography. Not actual things. I am no good with machines, bicycles, tools, anything like that.)
Funny, I used to disassemble machines as a kid, like old computers or VCRs and stuff to see how they worked.
And did that end up translating into your interest in electronic music?
Yeah somewhat, because of that, people or family would give me their old computers like Amigas, Atari STs, Commodore 64s, early Macs and whatnot, and there would be tracker software on there, and that's how I made my first music. Even though they were pretty dated by that time.
I always hear about musicians that got started using tracker programs, but I never really experienced them firsthand.
And coincidentally, come to think of it, around the same time one of my first jobs – well, unpaid job – was being a music journalist. I wrote for a small zine, run by our local band venue. I was like 11 maybe? I was interviewing Suicidal Tendencies and stuff like that as this little kid, it was kind of like Almost Famous, only I didn't get laid.
You have come full circle!
Anyway, back to you, haha. Do you do mostly do reviews?
Mostly reviews, the occasional interview, and then the occasional article that isn't really categorizable.
Is that because you enjoy doing reviews more than other writing?
Yeah, in part. I like reviewing a lot. Plus, interviews are tougher to find a home for, I find. You have to find the right combination of artist + angle + publication + timing; you need to be lucky, basically.
Is this the first time you have been interviewed by the way?
No, I occasionally get interviewed. A Ukrainian journalist interviewed me in Warsaw a month or two ago. Doesn't happen too often, though!
I kind of stopped doing interviews, because I found I was mostly being asked the same questions over and over. But I can imagine it's hard to find a good angle…
Yeah, I wouldn't want to endure the interviews that musicians so often have to do. I mean, from the musician's point of view – just getting asked the same questions over and over.
DJ Sotofett made a diss record about you in response to an article you did on him. I thought that was quite refreshing actually, dance music is already boring enough as it is. How did you perceive that whole incident? I'd be flattered personally.
It was all a little bit surreal, compounded by the fact that I was out of town and away from the internet when it all went down, so it was a case of checking Twitter on my phone and thinking, "Oh my." I won't get into the backstory of it, but I do have a certain respect for his maneuver. At the very least, it was a creative way of voicing a disagreement. Dance music could definitely use more beef.
Yes please. Do you “review” reviews by fellow music journos when you read them?
I don't think I've ever written about another journo's review, but sure, in my head, all the time. "Oh, that's great," or "That's absurd," or "Fuck, I really wish I'd written that."
So I think you reviewed the first Gaussian Curve album for Pitchfork if I'm not mistaken.
I've always been pretty intrigued by how that process works. Do you have your own process?
Yeah. Do you listen to the record on repeat whilst writing or something? Or listen to it once and make notes?
Sort of. It's been changing lately… I do my best to spend quite a long time living with an album before I sit down to write, though that really depends on a lot of things. But when it is finally writing time, I'll sit down and listen to it on repeat while I research all the background, etc. Then I'll go through and make detailed notes, track by track, for every song. At that point, I start to identify the main ideas I want to pursue, maybe try coming up with an introduction, and I just go from there. I find I like to do that work one day, often in the evening, and then wake up and do the actual writing of the review the next day. It helps to sleep on it, somehow.
And then, here it comes, you have to grade it 🙂
Right. Pitchfork does run scores with album reviews, as does RA (and SPIN and Rolling Stone, now that I come to think of it).
Was Pitchfork the first one to do decimal point scores?
I think it may have been, but I'm not sure.
It's the first one I can remember anyway, and now RA have been doing it too. So… how does that work? For instance you gave that Gaussian Curve album a score of 7.8 if I remember correctly, why wasn't it a 7.7?
I actually can't talk about the process; that's something Pitchfork keeps to itself, and I have to respect that.
Wow that's interesting. Like a secret recipe?
Sort of! It involves lots of cumin, that's all I'll say.
So there is some sort of formula? Like cool artwork + originality divided by lyrical content + production equals: ?
No, definitely nothing like that.
So would you say the review and the score don't necessarily correlate?
No, I wouldn't say that either. But it's not a formula. Beyond that, I can't really say any more.
Would you have to kill me if you told me? Actually… don't answer that.
Something like that! Or give your next album a 1.0…
Oh man… So Philip… what score would you give this interview?
*fire emoji*.9 🙂
Wow that’s pretty good (I think???) Well hey man, thanks for your time!
Yeah thank you! This was fun.
Lead photograph courtesy of Native Instruments.