Hey there, denizen of Nowheresville, USA, (population: 2) — have you ever dreamed of hanging with your favorite bands? Lurking at an exclusive salon-like affair, listening to Melissa Auf der Maur (of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins fame) having a musical love fest with her new favorite act, Buke and Gase; sitting back while multimedia artist Laurie Anderson waxes poetic about Animal Collective; laughing as Sean Yeaton from Parquet Courts yammers on about peyote cacti and They Might Be Giants? Well, now you can — thanks to a newly launched website from music journalist Michael Azerrad (author of music obsesso must-read Our Band Could Be Your Life).
Azerrad’s newest venture, The Talkhouse, is a kind of Interview magazine for music — a website that features a musician-penned album review each day, and, on weekends, a long-read piece. The site had a soft launch in early March and has racked up the contributors since, hosting stories by Matthew Dear, Kip Berman (of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart), Dapwell (formerly of Das Racist) and more.
So what separates The Talkhouse from the plethora of other music review sites out there? Well, as we said, all of the reviewers are fellow musicians. That means that when you read Dean Wareham’s (of Galaxie 500) piece about Richard Hell’s book I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, you not only get Wareham’s assessment of the coming-of-age story, you get glimpses of Wareham’s own life as a musician and how they relate to Hell’s experiences.
The Talkhouse also distinguishes itself by doing away with your usual comments section: The only people who can comment on reviews are the musicians being reviewed, opening up a fascinating dialogue to the public. Yup, The Talkhouse takes that whole distasteful trend of musicians waging dirty-laundry battles via Twitter and whatnot (a trend that has become the fodder of many a breathless gossip piece) and turns it on its head. Instead of watching artists beat each other up, on The Talkhouse, you’re more often than not seeing musicians opening up to each other (unless, of course, Wiz Khalifa chooses to strike back at Dapwell’s pretty damning review of his new album).
As Azerrad and his team continue to grow their new venture, The O Music Awards caught up with the journalist to find out more about how the idea came about, what it’s like to edit musicians, and the future of online music writing. Check out our Q&A below:
So, where did this idea come from?
Tim Putnam and Ian Wheeler — who run Partisan Records, Knitting Factory Records and Figure Eight Media — came up with the idea and approached me about it last year. They knew that over the course of a 28-year career, I’ve gotten to know a whole lot of musicians, and a lot of other musicians are familiar with my articles and books and things, and maybe through those they get the sense that I understand and respect them. And then we brought in managing editor Michael Tedder and site designer Adrianne De Loia to help develop the site over the last year or so.
I liked the idea because I really enjoy hearing musicians’ takes on music. And while musicians often talk about their own music, very few people get to hear them talk about other people’s music. So the Talkhouse is a way for those great, unique insights to finally find an outlet. And musicians totally get it — everyone wants to write for us!
How did you decide which writers/musicians to pull in?
As far as which musicians can write, it’s pretty clear from their music and the way they speak in interviews. And some Talkhouse writers, like Rosanne Cash or Dean Wareham, have actually written very good books, so they’re ringers. Also, I know a lot of Talkhouse writers personally, so I have the inside scoop on their writing chops. I’m pleased to say I haven’t been wrong yet — the level of the writing is astonishingly high and rivals any music site written by professional writers. Sometimes the pieces are so good that I actually get a little verklempt.
How much editing do you do? It seems like you keep the musician’s voice intact — IE, the inexorable nature of Matthew Friedberger is going strong. Also, do the bands choose the albums?
The musicians choose the albums they write about — the whole idea is for them to explore music they have something to say about. That’s one thing that really differentiates the Talkhouse from your usual music review site: it’s not someone just doing their job by writing about a particular piece of music, it comes from passion and hard-won insight.
I do surprisingly little editing — virtually all the people who have written for the Talkhouse are wonderful writers. Also, it’s absolutely essential to preserve their writerly voice, so I use a light touch. I will, however, reveal that almost no musician knows to put periods and commas inside quotation marks!
Do you have enough musicians on the docket to keep this going each day? Will some musicians be “staff writers”?
The editorial schedule of the Talkhouse is one piece by one musician about one new album every day. And that is a challenge, because we’re not dealing with professional writers here, we’re dealing with people who have another job. But I’m happy to say that our editorial schedule is pretty stacked up. I know tons of smart musicians. And once word got out about the Talkhouse, musicians and publicists and managers started approaching me, asking if they could contribute, which makes my job a bit easier.
Some musicians are super-enthusiastic about the site and have already written several pieces: Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dapwell), formerly of Das Racist, has done a few droll pieces for us, and Mish Way, the singer from the acclaimed punk band White Lung, is a gifted writer and has done some fine stuff for us. I’m sure there will be more regulars. Especially since we just can’t have 365 different writers a year.
How did you come up with the idea that the only people who can comment are the bands being written about?
The only people who can comment on Talkhouse pieces are the writer and the musicians being written about. That’s to prompt interesting dialogue between two artists who may never have interacted otherwise. It’s just part of the whole Talkhouse idea of musicians showing how they hear music. And it’s been fascinating — Jana Hunter from Lower Dens and Bobby Matador from Oneida have a really great back-and-forth going right now; Sean Ragon from Cult of Youth came back with a profound reply to former Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly’s piece; Buke and Gase wrote something really thoughtful in response to former Hole and Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf der Maur’s piece. That’s another aspect of the Talkhouse that’s going even better than we ever hoped.
What do you think of the state of online music writing today? It seems like a cadre of writers are splitting off from the fold with projects like this (you and Maura Johnston included). Do you think we’re going to see a sea change in the way that this genre of writing is handled?
New technologies always give rise to unanticipated new forms of communication. For instance, Thomas Edison invented his cylinder recording device for business dictation, but then someone else realized you could sing into it too, and then… a lot of stuff happened. So things like the Talkhouse and Maura’s project are just the beginning of a revolution. I can’t wait to see what else comes out of it. There’s that famous Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ We definitely live in interesting times. But it’s not always a curse. Sometimes it’s really cool.
Is this a passion project, or do you plan to monetize?
Well, it’s both — it’s a passion project that we plan to make a living at. To me, that is the absolute ideal, to work at something you love. I’ve done that for my entire career, which makes me a very lucky person.
Which musician — in your experience — is the deftest music writer?
Well, I might be able to tell you that a few years from now, when the Talkhouse has run pieces by hundreds of musicians. It’s too soon to tell at the moment. But right now, you could pick any Talkhouse piece at random and find really good writing.
Will you ever bring fans into the conversation fold? If not, why?
We just launched. It’s too soon to answer a question like that.
By the way, this site is pretty awesome. I’ll have a hard time getting any work done today.
Thanks! The response has been so positive, it really feels like we’re on the right track. And exactly: The Talkhouse is meant to be kind of a rabbit-hole that you disappear into because there’s so much intriguing stuff in there. I mean, a lot of people are going to wonder what Laurie Anderson has to say about Animal Collective, but then, look, there’s Duff McKagan writing about Kiss, gotta read that! And then, huh, Melissa Auf Der Maur from Hole and Smashing Pumpkins is writing about that band that’s supposed to be awesome, Buke and Gase, might as well check that out, etc.