An interview with
Beppe Colli (2012)

By Beppe Colli
Mar. 24, 2012

So it appears that by now the end is near, the sky's about to fall on our heads. Is there anything we can do to avoid this sad destiny?

We'd already listened to critics Mark Jenkins and Barney Hoskyns talk in calm, though realistic, tones. It was now time to quiz Mr. Apocalypse himself. Just seven questions, the interview being conducted via e-mail.

If you had to choose just one item from the basket as the thing that you regard as being in the worst possible shape these days, what would it be?

Language. I fully understand that as an "item to worry about a lot" this is not new, nor original, and as Frank Zappa's biggest fan I can remember perfectly well that his song that goes "You can't even speak your own fucking language/You can't read it anymore/You can't write it anymore", The Blue Light, is on an album, Tinsel Town Rebellion, that was released more than thirty years ago. But I really believe that things have gotten a lot worse since then, and anyway the conditions of things have to be measured against those goals and tasks we are confronted with.

When it comes to language the usual culprit is something such as Twitter. But a simplified language is perfectly OK as a tool for communication, within its limits. The real problems arise when a language is too poor to incorporate a certain type of information, so that that part of reality that is not adequately represented by that language formulation gets excluded from it. But that portion of reality that is left outside that language doesn't disappear, and sooner or later it will bite your ass. We have to remember that one doesn't get reality by opening a window, but through language.

Then, there are those areas where a bad use of language may appear on the surface as being less harmful, but whose consequences can be of great importance. For instance, we consider the growing use of computers in so many areas of our life as something good for society's growth and development, and rightly so. But let's suppose that somebody's surname - say, Cucè - is written into a database by three different people in different moments as: Cucè, Cucé, Cuce'. Come the time to check, or add to, this person's database, what will be retrieved will be dependent upon the way operators will type that name, and consequences are easy to predict. In cases like this one usually thinks about poor literacy as being the culprit, but what if all the people involved are MDs?

What about today's media?

All media are suffering from declining revenues. But there are important "cultural" differences between, say, different newspapers. If newspaper X employs, say, thirty people to cover politics, and as a consequence of this has no workforce left to check facts (not talking about proofreaders, but fact checkers), we have a poor quality newspaper which quite often will carry false information. The same goes when people in upper positions writing about "cultural" items have nobody above them to check their texts, with a self-correcting practice as the only hope left for readers; but what if those people are busy working five different jobs? If paper X has two comment pages to fill every day, maybe it won't look too closely into those writings coming from University (a field not at all spared, it goes without saying, from a declining quality when it comes to language).

There are many different ways, of course, to rank newspapers when it comes to their quality, the same being true of their different sections, but it's not usual for the average reader to possess useful criteria, and when it comes to this it appears that things are getting worse and worse.

There's a useful demarcation rule that separates all those who correct their mistakes openly, and add corrections, out of their own will, and those who do so only when absolutely forced to do. A poor quality paper will fear that any mistake it makes will make the paper less believable, and so it will do all it can to avoid drawing attention to those mistakes that would have gone unnoticed by most readers.

Of course, this could make for a strange paradox: that papers drawing attention to more mistakes could be mistaken for being the worst ones, but I think this is dependent on a lack of awareness, not on my demarcation criterion being faulty.

What do you think about when you see the sentence that goes: "Kicks Just Keep Getting Harder to Find"?

This is easy: This is the title to an interview with Richard Meltzer by Scott Woods which appeared on the Rock Critics website about ten years ago. But I think here it is just an excuse to start a debate about "In time, one gets deaf to all things new".

This puts me in a difficult position. On one hand, I am aware of the fact that fine albums are (still) released, but most of the time this is because I find them in my mailbox - one good recent item in this regards being Alicia Hansen's Fractography - not because I am made aware of them by media.

Sometimes it happens that, totally by chance, I come to appreciate things that I've read about and which were described in enthusiastic words, but using such criteria that to me were so repellent as to discourage my sincere efforts (and which were not conductive to appropriate descriptions anyway).

But let's be frank: What kind of people in their right minds would attempt creating a new, personal, difficult language in the current climate?

Personally speaking, I have no trouble admitting that I would greatly prefer listening to a "surprise radio program" broadcasting music from the 60s and 70s that from the 80s: those qualities one associates with certain rooms and devices - what could be called "acoustic fingerprints" - are greatly superior, I think, to those 8bit Fairlight samples and to those reverbs whose brand one can easily read while listening, not to mention the gap in ingenuity when it comes to producers and engineers.

These are difficult times: having ProTools as a de facto standard frees musicians from the constraints of being in the same place at the same time, and so it makes it possible for them to overcome a certain kind of financial restrictions. On the other hand, a lot is lost (somewhere on the Net, there's a fine interview with bass celebrity Les Sklar by esteemed bassist Mike Visceglia that's a good read when it comes to this kind of topics).

It seems like Baby Boomers have spent the last forty years saying that things are not as good as when they were young, don't dare say it ain't so!

Let's get rid of those banal accusations first. Yes, it's true that quite often boomers will say that music was a million times better in those days, and sometimes this rubs me the wrong way, given the fact that quite often those very people have not listened to a single new artist or group in the last twenty or thirty years. There are also people who were already familiar with the work of artists such as John Martyn, Nick Drake, and The Incredible String Band forty years ago, and if their only crime is not being enamored of an album that a reviewer with "selective knowledge" called "a freak-folk masterpiece", well, I really can't blame them.

Boomers saw three factors add up: all that happened at the time they were teens, from a biographical point of view; the innovative, social importance of those events; the sheer size of the number of those who were born between '46 and '64 ("the pig through the python").

Boomers were a giant social laboratory, too, from the Fifties revival celebrated on a mass scale (from the movie American Graffiti, 1973, to the sitcom Happy Days) to the "second youth" from all those ads featuring somebody at last driving a sport car, their sons and daughters finally gone to college, to that "perpetual fountain of youth" represented by the use of products such as Viagra on a mass scale.

Sure, maybe it could be said that boomers' love of music was not just the outcome of their good taste, but also a secondary effect of what, compared to now, looks like a scarcity of stimuli. But who'll love music as much, and as strongly, as those boomers did?

Your opinion about (Italian) music papers.

Well, by now I'm used at not receiving any promos from labels and distributors, but do you really want me to wake up only to find a horse's head in my bed? I hope I'm allowed to stay silent about my opinion of Italian music papers. They are widely available anyway, both on paper and on the Web.

What about abroad? Well, I still regard Mojo as being a fine specimen of a semi-industrial type of creature, the same still being true, within stricter confines, of Down Beat.

My personal problem when it comes to magazines like Mojo is their "narrative" approach when it comes to music, which for them for the most part means writing about musicians' lives, which makes writing about colourful, and quite often tragic, characters, absolutely compulsory. But this has the unpleasant consequence of excluding more "normal" types, or those people who "disappear" behind the music.

My "ideal" when it comes to the proper way of dealing with "old" musicians is still perfectly represented by those excellent articles written by people such as Andy Widders-Ellis for Guitar Player, where Mike Bloomfield's nervous, microtonal vibrato "was" Mike Bloomfield, but I don't think that fine degree of quality is really possible in today's marketplace.

Hope I'm allowed a personal question: will Clouds and Clocks remain operative, or will it cease operating in the near future?

I have to confess I have yet to determine if it's more stressful for me to keep it open, or closed.

The main problem is that the triangle made up of musicians/critics/listeners - which was far from being trouble-free even in those times when people customarily paid for what they listened to - is nowadays quite aleatoric.

Quite a few people appear having great difficulty understanding that my work here is not the simple public transposition of private passions, as the following example should make clear.

In order to read Simon Reynolds's book Retromania - about five hundred pages written in good English - I need about twenty hours. In order to write a review, I need to read it more than once, this new estimate being in the neighborhood of one hundred hours. The reason why is easy to see: when operating in a private dimension, I don't need to discuss every point of contention with impeccable logic, the opposite being true, of course, of the public sphere. In this case, after stopping for the third time at about page 100, I stopped reading the book, thinking that no measure of altruism could ever justify my vomiting (not metaphorical, but it was 40° in the shade) as a result of trying to read carefully through such a shoddy work.

Think kind of work is based on the implicit assumption that there are people, somewhere, who are interest in a honest appreciation of a book like the one written by Reynolds. But do these people still exist?

You own a record player. What do you use it for?

I have to confess I don't use it that often. Being a boomer I have to avoid being sucked into the past. If I have to listen to an old album just to check something, I listen to the CD.

In recent times I've listened to MP3 files and recently-released CDs on my computer + speakers combo for the first time, which was a great lesson learned when it comes to the "smile curve", and to the illusory acoustic perception on the part of those who have never listened to music on a good specimen on a decent system - i.e., today's reviewers!

The chance of buying a lot of stuff cheaply was a deciding factor in convincing me that getting a few DVD-Vs could help me get a better understanding of music - if I only had the time to watch them!

The only exception being Regina Spektor's Live in London DVD-V. I hope readers won't consider this as an endorsement of Spektor's whole studio oeuvre, my knowledge in this respect being still at an embryonic stage. But I have to confess the lack of attention given to this music performed this way on such an occasion is a bit of a mystery to me, or maybe is not.

© Beppe Colli 2012 | Mar. 24, 2012