DaveX interviews Matt Weston, somewhat disgruntled review recipient

Following my reviews of Matt Weston’s “Rashaya,” and “Resistance Cruisers” albums, I contacted him to find out if he would be interested to do a small interview– I had hoped that such an opportunity might provide some balance– and also allow STARTLING MONIKER readers a chance to further pursue some of the ideas raised in the original entry.

If it hasn’t become clear by now, I’m perpetually interested in digging deeper into topics. I have tried to make my approach to reviewing in general not one of simply saying that something is bad or good; and even beyond explaining why. Instead, I always attempt to place the work being reviewed into a greater context for readers, and though I sometimes fail, I hope that this intent at least “colors” my efforts.

While originally listening to Weston’s recordings, it did not take me long to realize that the interesting question was not why I disliked the albums, but how meaningful a review could hope to be, especially given the finite framework of a reviewer’s own experience and taste. I included examples of two reviews, each a dramatically different “take” on Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” as illustration of how a single work could inspire multiple viewpoints.

Naturally, this led me to other questions– how important is external information for reviewer? How much info is a musician expected/needed/wanting to present alongside a work before it overshadows the work itself? If everyone is said to have their own unique vision, at what point in time does it become appropriate to judge this vision? In what way could something completely unique ever be judged?

Today (about a week after writing) I saw a referral page in the STARTLING MONIKER statistics– Matt Weston’s “Tarfumes” blog. He had written an entry reacting to various reviews of his work, mine among them. And while I was happy to read that our e-mail interview was still a “go,” I was a bit disconcerted to see Weston’s appraisal of me as a shallow fellow, apparently more concerned with my popularity, and how it would be affected in relation to my opinion of his album:

“It seemed like the reviewer was more concerned about whether or not he was ‘supposed’ to like or dislike my records…or if it was ‘cool’ to dislike them.”

So much for considering myself well-spoken! It’s obvious my point was missed completely– that there is a generalized fear among many reviewers of not wanting to be the “uncool” guy that drives tepid, wishy-washy writing. In a way, it’s understandable. Taking a strong stance against something has a way of backfiring on folks. Would you want to be known as the guy who passed on the Beatles? Or the guy who said Elvis Presley would never amount to much? Who wants to be Mr. “Shut up! You’re supposed to be a pop group!” Hornby? It is quite possible that every thoughtful critic wonders if a little more information would make the difference between understanding and failing to understand.

When I wrote the “Rashaya” and “Resistance Cruisers” reviews, I was making a small stand against the fearful tendency to allow such possibilities to slant my writing.

With this idea in mind, I present my short e-mail interview with Matt Weston. Because he brings up more than a few interesting concepts, I’ll address them following the transcript:

STARTLING MONIKER: Obviously, you’re not rummaging around in a large box of percussion instruments. I also seriously doubt you’re using hunting calls. What IS your setup?

MATT WESTON: There are two different setups represented on the recordings. On Resistance Cruisers I was using an 18″ floor tom, a bass drum, 3 rototoms, various cymbals, and various metal objects placed on the head of the floor tom. On Rashaya the setup is essentially the same, except I’m using a tympani in place of the floor tom. As for the “hunting call” sound, that’s a contact-miked cymbal fed through various effects pedals and into a small amplifier. I also rub mallets across some of the drum and cymbal surfaces.

SM: Unless you’re rather twisted, its a fair bet we don’t have similar opinions regarding your albums, “Resistance Cruisers” and “Rashaya.” What is your interpretation of these works? What element do you imagine I’m missing (or misunderstanding) as a new Matt Weston listener?

MW: It’s difficult for me to imagine what someone else might get or not get from my work — that wasn’t a consideration when putting these records together. I know one thing that might help is to try not to shoehorn them into an area you may already be familiar with. You wrote that one of my records “doesn’t go far enough to quite become a noise release.” I wasn’t trying to make a “noise” record. I don’t know what “noise” is, in the same way I don’t know what “jazz” or “rock” is. I love Merzbow and Voice Crack and Francisco Lopez, for instance, but they never played “noise.” Similarly, with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bill Dixon, etc. etc. — none of those artists played “jazz.” Or rather, none of the aforementioned artists approached what they did as as explicitly fitting into the predetermined constraints that would connote a “genre” of music. So no, my records aren’t “noise” records, just as they aren’t “improvised music” (or that most useless and idiotic of terms, “free improv”) records. They’re my work. In terms of reference points that might give a listener a “way in,” some of my key influences in making these records were the works of musician- composers like Bill Dixon, Tony Oxley, Keith Moon, and Milford Graves. But I don’t know if any of what I said, or could say, will make up for what you perceive as “missing” — ultimately, that’s out of my control anyway.

SM: I have the impression that more information (liner notes, for example) might have been helpful in understanding your musical direction. Still, if it HAS to be stated in text, perhaps something is musically lacking. How far do think an artist has to go to “meet” the listener on these terms?

MW: In terms of my approach, I would say that I’m working on areas that a drummer or percussionist wouldn’t normally delve into; or, more accurately, wouldn’t *want* to delve into. For the most part, I despise liner notes. There are only a handful of instances in which I’ve felt that liner notes actually aided in my appreciation of a work (a few off the top of my head: Bill Dixon’s liner notes for Franz Hautzinger’s “Gomberg,” Pete Townshend’s liner notes for the Who’s “Odds and Sods,” Berk Noglik’s notes for Cecil Taylor’s “Looking: The Feel Trio,” and pretty much anything written by Dave Marsh or Ben Young), but generally I find them to be superfluous, almost embarrassingly so. I don’t feel that an artist necessarily *has* to try to explain or elucidate what they do; but I don’t feel that they necessarily *don’t* have to. I like answering questions, but I’m not good at anticipating what the questions might be, especially since I have no way of knowing what points of reference may or may not be helpful for any listeners. It’s like what the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said about why he doesn’t “recommend” movies: without knowing each audience member personally, how can he possibly know what they may or may not like? Is it the reviewer’s responsibility to try to broaden their own perspectives, or the musician’s responsibility to somehow anticipate what the reviewer’s tastes and background are, and alter their approach accordingly?

SM: I have read that these are re-releases. What label(s) did “Resistance Cruisers” and “Rashaya” originally appear on, and when?

MW: These were originally privately issued limited-editions, sold only at my concerts. Each copy was signed and numbered, with artwork unique to that copy.

SM: What are your personal plans for the near future? Tour, etc?

MW: I have a few solo percussion concerts coming up: March 29 at the Tank in New York; a house concert in Florence, MA on April 1; April 27 at Strange Maine in Portland; and May 6 at ABC-No Rio in New York (also in duo with saxophonist-composer Blaise Siwula). My trio Barn Owl has a concert coming up on April 16 at the American Legion Hall in Florence, MA. And Thrillpillow, a band I play guitar in, is working on new songs. I recently finished a single called “Holler” that will be out in the spring, and my solo album “Not To Be Taken Away” will be released in the fall, at which point I will most likely undertake a tour of the northeast/midwest.

SM: What’s on the radar for 7272Music?

MW: We’ll be putting out “Holler” and “Not To Be Taken Away” (the latter despite our strict no-albums policy). We may also release new EPs by Thrillpillow and Tizzy. Tizzy was a mainstay of the Western Massachusetts scene, and was reportedly a big influence on Sleater-Kinney. They recently retired after 13 years, but not before finishing a 3-song EP.

Weston has a lot of interesting things to say, especially in his answers to my second and third questions. Without trying to debate him in print (which would be really unfair, seeing as how I’m doing the writing here!) I’d like to sort of add my voice to the mix– let the readers sort all this out and take away what they will.

First off, Weston makes good points along the lines of Miles Davis’ old quote, “I don’t play jazz, I play music.” For a musician, that’s a great attitude to have, and one which I tend to share in regards to my own creations. Here’s a quote from an interview I did with a local entertainment newspaper a few years back:

“‘For example, according to Dave X, there’s no fundamental difference between music and noise.

“Semantics, nothing more.” he said. “It’s the same with nations of the world. Some recognize Taiwan, some don’t. But it’s the same place for the people who live there.'”

And while I admit this is a great position for musicians, its not a very helpful track for reviewers or critics to take, is it? Being able to place an artist’s work in some sort of context is critical– can you imagine how unhelpful it would be to read reviews of unfamiliar albums, and only finding out that they “made music?” Saying:

“…(Resistance Cruisers) doesn’t go far enough to quite become a noise release…”

isn’t the same as claiming “Resistance Cruisers” to BE a failed noise album– it is saying that it does not have this intent, to clarify to readers that they should not be considering the album in these terms. There is no effort here to “shoehorn” Weston into any genre– I think that all but the most juvenile of writers understands that genres and labels are not the rigid boxes Weston despises. But let’s not get too cute with just calling everything “music,” either. When you take the word “jazz” away from Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Bill Dixon you remove one of the key tools listeners use to understand and frame this music.

As amorphous as the word “jazz” can be (covering everything from Louis Armstrong to John Zorn!) it is still valuable; categorization can highlight the path of music’s development, and allow readers to use familiar artists as reference points for unfamiliar ones. We know Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis are not the same artist, but how does using one to partially describe the other differ from any other way in which humans approach an unknown? Don’t we always compare it to that which we know while learning more?

What Weston surely knows, but overlooks, is that reviews aren’t the final “say” on an album. They’re the first step (and even then, just one of many possible first steps) toward learning more about music. It is a recommendation, an observation, and maybe even a trusted opinion– but as everyone knows who loved a movie that got bad reviews– its no substitute for personal taste.

update: I forgot my manners, and neglected to link anywhere! This is fixed now. 

8 Responses to “DaveX interviews Matt Weston, somewhat disgruntled review recipient”

  1. howsthatsound Says:

    i think i agree with weston on the labels thing. labels don’t communicate, they oversimplify. especially in “serious” music. the problem is, you hear something and you say “jazz”… YOUR interpretation of what jazz is, not a universal one (if such things exist). then i hear you say “jazz”… i think of MY interpretation of what jazz is. we could easily be far enough away in our interpretations for me to tune you out (if i don’t like what i perceive as jazz). i think there is a better way. can’t we describe the “music” on a “musical level” to a certain extent? if you are reviewing a record of people playing metal sheets with powertools and describe it as an overwhelming, full tilt, maelstrom of sound, do you ever really need to say “noise”?
    of course i understand your position and i am prone to use labels sometimes myself, but admittedly when i am at my most lazy or when the situation is not critical enough for it to make a difference.

  2. startlingmoniker Says:

    I’m not sure if I’m proving your point by mentioning this, or if I’m challenging it– but while I understand what you mean about labels, I tend to see the purely descriptive reviews as being fairly worthless. It’s like you said about “jazz”, we might have different concepts of what this is. However, I think a term like “overwhelming” might be even more prone to such problems. Clearly, what is overwhelming to one person is always so for another. I don’t pretend that the labels are perfect, but communication rarely is. Attempting to find a common ground on which to discuss something as ethereal and wonderful as music is always going to be difficult– but I think the labels help when we understand them to be tools for understanding rather than guidelines for creation. No artist should have a set of rules hanging over them.

  3. howsthatsound Says:

    I understand what you’re getting at, but I could argue that “overwhelming” implies a linear scale that can be further understood within the context of a review. While what overwhelms you, may not overwhelm me, I can learn where your baseline is in that scale, by the rest of your review and get a good idea of where I stand. “Jazz” on the other hand is not a scale of any kind. It is completely amorphous and unlike the one-dimensionality of the term “overwhelming”, is multi-dimensional.
    I have found that some of the most telling reviews come from reviewers who have no context for what they are reviewing, and thus, nothing to compare. I find that when they are forced to think about how the sound can be described they escape the trap of easy categorization, and even if they slam the reviewee, I still get a good idea of how I might feel about it. Which to me is more important that a category or a reviewers opinion.
    Of course I agree with you that categories are of no use to a creator, but why then should we subject them to categories after the fact?

  4. startlingmoniker Says:

    Excellent point about the use of scale! Still, am I to believe that we can only disagree on the meaning of “jazz”? Look at where this continuum leads– is Metallica jazz? Could Metallica’s work (as presented so far) ever be mistaken for jazz? Are there NO common elements jazz works might share?

    And not to try to weasel out of a terrific discussion here, but I should mention that I didn’t classify Weston’s album in the original review at all. I said that it “doesn’t go far enough to quite become a noise release, nor congeal sufficiently to convince me of any real sense of direction.” If anything, I took it OUT of at least one genre!

    But look at my review of Tom Nunn’s “Identity” album. (see the Index of Music Reviews) I take quite a bit of time to describe it– but for me, the real payoff for readers is in the last few lines, where I describe him IN RELATION TO other instrument builders who improvise with their instruments. You can see that its a vital component of the review, and certainly has its use.

    As for your question: “…categories are of no use to a creator, but why then should we subject them to categories after the fact?” All I can say is that for those writing about music, our purpose is simply not the same as those creating it. It seems to me that what is good for one process is not necessarily good for the other, despite sharing a common bond.

    If a reviewer can do little more than react to a work on their own personal level, what is the purpose of reviewing at all? Can’t any person accomplish this solely on their own? Why then, would Matt Weston have ever sent these discs to be reviewed in the first place?

    Now THAT’S an interesting question!

  5. howsthatsound Says:

    I was merely using jazz as an example of a category that could have different interpretations and one that could invoke certain predjuduces in readers depending on their musical and cultural background and their exposure to previous musical theorizing and categorization.

    To give an example of how such terminology could lead one away from a potentially rewarding experience, I’ll use an example from my own life…

    I have never been what I would call a “fan” of jazz. I’ll go as far as to say that at times I have said things like “I HATE JAZZ!!!”. Now you could assail me for my close-mindedness, but that is beside the point. Some time ago a friend of mine introduced me to the Ethiopiques collection of recordings. Specifically, volumes 1,4, and 8. Now, my friend is an exceptional thinker and an exceptional communicator and in his description he managed to neglect (perhaps with intent) the overt “jazziness” that some of these recordings possess. Instead he went into detail about the way they sounded and the way they made him feel. When I did hear them, (vol. 4 specifically) I was disarmed by their pleasant vibrations before I realized that what I was hearing was essentially “jazz”, and I fell immediately in love.

    Now if he had just told me they were “jazz” I probably wouldn’t have listened to them. In my mind, I knew what “jazz” was, and did not like it. Therefore why would I subject myself to it? This experience was a revelation for me. It made me realize not only how poor a practice easy categorization is, but that I do (gasp!) like “jazz”! I just happen to like “jazz” played a certain way as opposed to certain other ways. So THIS version of “jazz” differed from my definition as drastically as love differs from hate! That is pretty significant.

    Sure you could say I was closed minded, I was. But if we seek in our knowledge of other things to persuade others to enjoy them as well, shouldn’t our communications be made with the utmost care? Of course this gets into who our audience is vs. who we think it is, and I don’t mean to get into that now. My point is that communication if it is to be effective must be as specific and refined as it’s subject matter dictates.

    Now, this does not have to fall into the realm of the overtly “personal” as you state, as that would also be less specific to the public, since it is specific to you. However, I feel that a bit of personal color in reviews helps you to get to know the reviewer and in tandem understand how closely your taste is aligned to theirs and thusly how much credence you should give to their opinion.

    Side note: This discussion is by no means to be seen as a criticism of DaveX specifically, or any of his reviews. Nor is it’s content a standard I feel I could be held to, even though it IS one to which I aspire. However, I do think these are important concepts for anyone to ponder and I for one am having great fun pondering them here.

    DaveX, cheers for being such a willing participant. Keep up the good work!

  6. startlingmoniker Says:

    Ironically, it sounds like your friend could have used a more specific term, and possibly gotten your interest as well– I guess the moral of the story is that you’ll always have to check it out yourself to be sure.

    Blogging really blurs a lot of lines, which is why its interesting to me. While there is an element of journalism to my reviewing, I don’t think its necessary for it to be purely so– because an integral element of blogging seems to be the individual quality of it. It is journalism through an individual human “filter.” By getting to know the author, you’re more apt to understand where they are coming from with their opinions– and also to understand a bit more about yours in relation to theirs.

  7. howsthatsound Says:

    Yes. I agree. And it was that experience that really got me away from rejecting anything based solely on a review or categorization. i have been way more open minded since. However, not everyone is.

    Blogging is an interesting thing because of that. I like how people are a bit more opinionated at times. I also like how it sort of allows people to make mistakes in a way. With my blog it is the first time I’ve really written anything, and I think you can tell hahahaha, but hell I think of it as a documentary in a way. Its like John Cage said (paraphrased, sorry) it’s not whether something is good or bad as long as it is interesting.

  8. P. from Weston MA Says:

    HAHAHAH dude. I wonder if Matt Weston has ever been to Weston, MA?

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