OGR No 12: Sasha Frere-Jones
Like I suppose many others, Sasha Frere-Jones first caught my attention when he was the in-house pop music critic at the New Yorker from 2004-2015. But unlike (I assume and hope) many others, I infrequently read him there as I almost never cared about who or what he was writing. But I applauded them for their baby steps into contemporaneity, trusted the editorial decision-making, and appreciated that what he was exposing me to (headline-wise at least) was now on my cultural radar.
An aside: I've always loved recommendation lists from people whose judgment I value and I particularly like valuing the judgment of people whose tastes I don't (at first) share. So in 2014 when I somehow came across a Spotify playlist compiled by Sasha called Perfect Recordings I thought I would like it on the subjective concept alone and because I trusted his thousands of hours of his life spent listening to, contemplating, and writing about music I rarely and/or never put on. Once I saw that it was filled with many musicians I didn't care about I knew I would like it, and I was right. And so was Sasha. It's one song, sometimes two, by one musician or band, it's over 14 hours long at this point, and I don't think there is one selection I disagree with as being "perfect." It's done what discerning recommendation lists are supposed to do: led a person down new paths he didn't know he'd like. There's still a lot on there I don't really care about outside of its inclusion in this specific playlist, but I've made grand discoveries because of it, songs and musicians I'll listen to for the rest of my life, and I want to thank you Sasha for starting it. Now please keep it updated, I'm relying on you parsing through and finding the gems amongst all the genres of music out there I don't care about!
So is there anything Sasha's written about of which I do care? Yes! And here's a recommended list, links to all which you can find on his website: Wayne Koestenbaum, Robert Ashley, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, Stephen O'Malley, ECM and Warp Records, Roland Kayn, John Zorn, Éliane Radigue, Catherine Opie, Mary Halvorson, Barbara Epler, Julius Eastman, Mark E. Smith, Arto Lindsay, and John Cage. Most of these were written about for Bookforum and Artforum the past few years and after reading to this point you'll not be surprised when I say I hope he keeps writing about books and non-popular music for these and other publications. My tiny, insignificant voice cares and I hope other's do as well. -WDV
WDV: For which albums do you wish you had been asked to write the liner notes?
SF-J: The Bad Brains ROIR cassette did not need to be “recorded more professionally” and I would like to point that out somewhere. Kara-Lis Coverdale’s Grafts is the schematic for time and should be taught widely.
While on the subject, which writers wrote liner notes which were the most meaningful to you?
My favorite liner notes are not really liner notes—I’m thinking of the drawings Raymond Pettibon did for Double Nickels on the Dime.
Ralph J. Gleason’s notes for Miles Davis’s E.S.P were claptrap but they opened the door for things like Pettibon illustrating a Minutemen album. A common paradox of the Sixties is that important permissions were granted—accepting loopy B+ beat poetry on the back of a Miles Davis record, for instance—but what resulted from those freedoms was often trash.
Who are some of the best-read musicians you’ve spent time with?
John Zorn gave me the Robert Alter version of the Hebrew bible a year ago. He can discuss the difference between various Bible translations, not to show off, but because the Bible is interesting and translations of ancient languages are up for grabs. (Think of the I-Ching—we read Confucius more than we read the original assemblers.) I think he’d also admit which parts he doesn’t know as well, which is something that people who actually read will do.
If you could read a book of letters between any two musicians who would they be?
Cecil Taylor and Charli XCX. Rosalía and Axl Rose. Joseph Beuys and Doja Cat.
Which producer do you wish had extensive journals that were going to be published at some point in the near future?
Charles Stepney. Max Martin. Mutt Lange. DJ Premier. Mike Dean. All for the same reason: they’ve done remarkable work and little of it has been properly documented.
Speaking of documentation, which musical scene or era would you say has been most adequately written about, and what are the best things (either books, magazine articles, or websites) to read about it?
I’m not sure any musical scene has been covered adequately. That’s fine, because the coverage piles up over time and the historical version of a scene changes as it comes into contact with new generations. Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop covers the beginnings of hip-hop in New York beautifully but that doesn’t mean that the coverage is definitive. You’d have to add films like Stations of the Elevated and Style Wars and Wildstyle to the books, and even all of that would only create a provisional story of one city.
You’re commissioned handsomely to go on the road with a band today (when touring is happening again of course) and then write a book about the experience. Which band and what would make it different than all the other band tour books out there?
I would tour with the most popular K-pop band and report on the media training and NDAs.
Yes, that would be such a unique and engaging angle to take!
Who in your life has consistently given you the best book recommendations?
And what are the best things you’ve read recently as a result?
Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers and Nathaniel Mackey’s Paracritical Hinge.
Which musicians do you know the most about but have never read a book where they were a prominent part of it?
That’s my book.
Tell me more please.
It’s called Flux Cake. It’s an expanded, mulched version of my music writing, and it repurposes more or less the whole lot.
Many people will be eager.
Who were you reading in your formative years that made you fall in love with writing?
Harold Pinter, Franz Kafka, Fran Lebowitz.
When’s the last time a book made you envious of the author’s prowess?
Denis Johnson’s Already Dead. I look up every time I read Johnson or Baldwin or William Gass.
What’s the most difficult book about music you’ve ever read and did you finish it?
Fred Moten’s In The Break, and yes, I did.
What was difficult about it?
Moten packs several ideas into each sentence and he also packs several sentences into each sentence.
You’re given an imprint at a prominent American trade publisher. What are three titles on your first season’s list?
I’d reissue Phyl Garland’s The Sound of Soul. As for the other two, one is a very specific take on genre that might only exist in the mind of the critic. I just listened to a set on Mixcloud that was put together by DJ Larsupreme. It’s more or less his take on what he calls “uptown soul,” which is also called “soft soul” by some. The third one is anything to do with stones or concrete. Original Roman concrete is still a mystery! I’d also ask my smart friends for suggestions.
Are there any genres of music you think you’d be more into if you read the right book about it and does a classic book currently exist, meaning you know it’s out there but for whatever reasons you’ve not gone down that path yet?
I don’t feel well versed in any genre, honestly. Probably ragas and Nashville flatpicking?
Which musician do we know the most about because of an important biography written about him or her?
Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. Their autobiographies are full of hokum and disaster and pain. Miles admits to abusive behavior, openly, in a way that a publisher might not touch now. Mingus tends more to the goofy bluster. Both books made it seem like jazz musicians were willing to discuss the unpleasant parts of their lives; rock musicians seemed more entranced by their own war stories. That’s at least how it seemed to me as a teen in the twentieth century.
Happy to see you end on jazz and those two books. Thanks Sasha!