Today we talk with music journalist and ethnomusicologist Eric Harvey about his early love of rap, how he found his way from the world of video documentary making to music writing, and the place of academics in the world of popular music.
Postcard Editor: Are you ready to dance the dance of….desire?
Eric Harvey: Ha.
PE: Ok, so let’s just get to the meat of the matter – you’re a smart guy with a lot of smart ideas that you focus on music.
EH: YES THAT’S ME. Ha.
PE: What is it about music that inspires you on an intellectual level?
EH: Oooh. Hmm. Well, it’s sort of always been a thing for me that I don’t just listen to music, but I sort of do stuff with music
and I’ve never really played it, for whatever reason I never went in that direction. Except for an unfortunate hippie phase where I bought a set of Matador bongos
PE: Wait. Stop. Let’s talk about that.
EH: My hippie phase?
PE: Like bongos from the record label Matador? Are you saying Pavement is Hippie music?
EH: Oh no, a manufacturer. Yeah.
PE: Nice cover.
EH: I still have the drums, in storage.
PE: Ok, so you were a hippie – in undergrad? Playing bongo in the quad?
EH: Yeah, from around 95-97.
PE: …in an attempt to get girls. Did it work?
EH: Seriously, when all my friends were listening to Pavement, I was going deep in the Allman catalog. It did not work.
PE: Well, that’s a shame, and from my viewpoint there is nothing wrong with going deep in the Allman catalog. But I digress.
EH: Totally, but yeah, I started making mixtapes when I got my first two-deck boombox. I was like 8 or 9 and music just became “my thing” and I was a total nerd and loner kid in school, so my first infatuation was keeping spiral notebooks where I created two-column tables to rate individual songs on tapes I had, and then would calculate individual ratings into a rating for the entire album. I honestly did this. There’s a reason Pitchfork appealed to me.
PE: So basically you’re Rivers Cuomo, is what you’re saying.
EH: Ha. Maybe! But yeah, then I just would write papers in undergrad about music-related things, became a snob, etc…
PE: Ok, so in this early, formative period of supreme music snobbery, I have to ask – who were these mix tapes for, and what were some of those songs that at age 8 or 9 made it on several mix tapes?
EH: Oh well, haha, they were, um, for me I would literally rearrange track orders and play songs in the order I wanted them to go
at first. So I’d “remix” the sequence. Ha. So lame.
PE: No, that’s kind of awesome.
EH: Later I’d make comps, but that was during the salad days of my rap phase. Rap was the first genre I went deep with.
PE: So you had a rap phase? Please tell me you rapped.
EH: I wrote one rap. And it went….about going on a date. I have no idea how it went. I think I threw it away so no one would see it. But my “in” was just knowledge-based. I liked digging up obscure stuff, all West Coast.
PE: Surely one or two lines are still nestled away in that big ole brain of yours…
EH: Ha, honestly, I can’t remember. I remember sitting down to write it, but I think I got frustrated and gave up after the first few bars.
PE: So you just went with freestyle from there?
EH: Ha yeah, all off the dome.
PE: Your 13 yr old, pimply dome.
EH: Ha, I was lucky to never get zits
EH: That’s like the only thing I had going for me back then. Good skin. I mean, everything else was horrible.
PE: No. You were tall young right? You seem like you’ve had a while with your tall-ness.
EH: Yeah, I’ve been this tall since about freshman year in high school, give or take.
PE: So you were the center on your basketball team right? I know you love sports.
EH: Yeah, never played competitively very well, mostly just in driveways, but that’s where I’d take my boombox and my resequenced Naughty By Nature tapes! SO ALL COULD ENJOY
PE: Ok, ok, fine, get us back on track. Ok – so what was the lead off track of Naughty by Nature’s album ERIC HARVEY SEQUENCE MIX?
EH: Oh of course it was “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” with the Bob Marley cop. That’s an underated jam if ever there was one.
PE: Ok, so let’s fast forward (because honestly I could do an hour on Young Eric Harvey) – so you make it to college, you start finding yourself writing about music in every undergrad paper you could fit it into – leading you to a graduate degree in Culture in Communications/Ethnomusicology – but what was that undergrad degree you originally went to school for?
EH: Oh, I started wanting to do radio (I was working as a DJ at Franklin College’s radio station WFCI since junior year), so I did Telecommunications. Then I quickly realized that radio sucked, so I went the video route, doubled up with history, and set out to do documentaries. That was my first job out of college.
PE: Yeah, that’s true, not a lot of people know that you spent a while in the video.doc scene doing mini-features for the Discovery Channel – completely non-music related stuff. How did that experience inform your current work as an ethnomusicologist?
EH: Well, in sort of a roundabout way. 1) It gave me substantial expendable income to spend on music, and my collection expanded about 10 fold over those years. But really, I was there for 2.5 years and then 2) the company I worked for went out of business, which led me to sprint back toward academia. I taught video for a few years at DePauw and started taking grad classes. I started out wanting to write about film music, but quickly moved to writing about music technologies/media not coincidentally, that’s also when I started writing a music blog and exploring what fans were doing with music on their own.
PE: So, let’s talk about that – what was the original impetus to write about (academically) film music and how did that transform into this interest in music technologies and the exploding blogosphere (what fans were doing)?
EH: Well, the first grad class I took was a seminar on Hitchcock and Hitchcock was sort of legendary for how he used music as a plot device in his films and so I wrote a thing on Rear Window, and how music was used in that film, which I had a ton of fun writing, and which introduced me to the literature on film music, which i was really loving. I republished that paper, rewritten, here: http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/6572-the-soundtrack-of-our-lives/
But the thing that really changed me from that track was taking a class called Ethnographic Research Methods where I learned that careful observations and interviews with people–not just watching a film and writing about it–was a bonafide form of academic research and I remember telling my girlfriend at the time that my research from then on out was going to be talking to people about how they listen to music which I just have so much fun doing.
PE: Ok, that brings us up to now – how has that development in your research technique changed your writing? Because at a certain level you’re a bit like a reporter on the streets no?
EH: Yeah, that’s a good comparison. I wrote criticism for a few years, but my passion’s always been more academic in a way, considering the social and cultural implications of music, not just “it sounds like this.” It’s much easier for me to think about music as a form of social life or a cultural phenomenon than as an aesthetic object but the latter gives me beer money.
PE: Ha. Priorities.
EH: But I really nerd out talking to musicians and label people and fans about music.
PE: But there is the argument for criticism over abject social implication yes? It isn’t out of place to say “this band of the moment owes a huge debt to the bands X and Y and Z who they ripped off and recreated in their own work.” is it?
EH: No, definitely not. Criticism is great, I love reading great writers and think that critics are a necessary part of any art culture
no matter what fans or musicians say.
PE: Rather than “this band is making kids pay attention to guitar rock again” – and to anchor this argument in something concrete “Yuck is a great band but they owe EVERYTHING THEY ARE DOING to Dinosaur Jr.”
EH: Ha yeah, and that’s why I love Yuck so much.
PE: And also, why you shouldn’t. Dinosaur Jr. is still making albums.
EH: They’re like a bubblegum Dinosaur Jr/Daydream Nation. Ha, but not as good as Yuck’s! BOOM! CRITICISM! Don’t get me wrong, Bug is tremendous.
PE: We’ll see if I’m skateboarding to Yuck in the past or “Green Mind” in my all-inclusive grade of what is good.
EH: Ha. But if it’s so easy to be Yuck, if all they need to do is copy Dino Jr., then why aren’t there like, 100 Yucks?
PE: The same reason there aren’t a million fake Picasso’s. It takes a special skill to copy possibly autistic/”special” genius.
EH: But yeah, I think it’s easy to draw a firm line between criticism and academic writing, but there’s a lot more crossover than there is separation.
PE: Ok, so let’s get back to the academic.
PE: What do you hope to accomplish with your career as an academic writer?
EH: Well, the idea is to get a good teaching gig and then keep publishing articles and books. The track I want to take is one where the teaching subsidizes the writing. You get paid to teach, but you want to keep being productive.
PE: Well yes, I understand the thing that helps continue you that is The You, but what of the writing? What do you want to leave bahind in the ages, the infinite scroll if you will, eh?
EH: Hmmm. It’s hard to predict what’s going to be appealing to me 5-10 years down the line.
PE: No, no. Now. Why do you write words down?
EH: Because it’s fun!
PE: Fair enough.
EH: It’s hard to put into words, ironically enough, but the same joy that people get out of, say, cooking, or sculpting, or performing.
The ultimate irony, enough, I get out of trying to craft a compelling argument or trying to entertain people with thoughts I have about something which when it comes down to it is the point of the whole thing hoping people like what you write or “get something” from it or “don’t feel like they wasted their time” reading it.
PE: So in the end, just another opinion to consider?
EH: Hmm, well, hopefully not!
PE: Some logical argument to consider?
EH: Yeah I mean the drive is mainly selfish, you know.
PE: I don’t think that’s a paltry entry.
EH: It’s something I love doing, and getting responses in whatever form is always very gratifying
PE: Fair enough. Well let’s wrap this rambling thing up with three questions. Bob Seger?
EH: Of course! I karaoke “Still the Same.” He and Mellencamp are my Springsteens.
PE: You …. have passed…. the first question.
EH: Ha, score!
PE: Vampire Weekend. Defend or Prosecute.
EH: Sorry? Defend 1000% Ha. I bet you’re on the “prosecute” end.
PE: Not about me, and you have a weak defense if you can only attack the prosecution.
PE: Okay, you have reopened an argument here. Tell me Mr. Harvey of the many quick-linked articles. Whatver happened to peace, love and understanding? And to that – rock & roll free of academic examination? At what point do we start just enjoying the forest and not run an anthropological study of the trees? And yes, I understand this is in direct contrast to my earlier point, but just curious on your take of both sides of it.
EH: Can’t we have both? Rock criticism’s always had its academic roots, too: Christgau and Meltzer were both very bookish, and a lot of the early UK critics went off and joined Cultural Studies programs, or vice-versa. Criticism’s one way we argue through music, and I think it’s mostly a healthy endeavor.
PE: Fair enough.
EH: And anthropologists would study the people in the forest, and leave the trees to the botanists.
PE: Leaving two very different stories about the same place – three if you count the sociologists, four if you count the archaelogogists, and so on and so on. Let’s end it with this, two silly questions for you.
PE: 1) Who are three bands/artists/acts we should be paying attention to right now?
EH: Whoa, give me a sec on that one.
PE: Doesn’t have to be three air-tight examples, just three from the gut. I’ll stick with those who are going to put out albums this year, or who already have.
EH: 1) Mike Adams at his Honest Weight
EH: Tremendous record. 2) Das Racist, who blow my mind and let’s say 3) Wild Beasts, who make sexy, squirmy music in a very British way.
PE: Ok, and my own wordpress.com authorized opinon on each 1) yes. Mike Adams is the kind of undersung hero that music needs smart/pop/smart/pop/infinity 2) nope – hacky and shitty and done better a thousand times before and better on the same themes they speak to – as TMZ is to news reporting Das Racist is to hip-hop 3) No idea, I’ll check it out – God bless the academic bloggers.
PE: You are a 2010/2011 Mellon Graduate Fellow, what are your three favorite melons, and why?
EH: Ha, you expect me to take the Das Racist thing lying down?
PE: It’s not an attack, just my opinion, but yes. Fuck them.
EH: I think most of the hip-hop fans I know would disagree with that. But hey, we all need our Golden Era heroes Right? Something from Public Enemy or KRS One or are you more a Def Jux guy?
PE: No, none of that angle. The golden era is now, in Minneapolis.
EH: Aha, a Rhymesayers bro. Brother Ali, Slug.
PE: Compare anything they are saying to Brother Ali.
EH: Completely different! Seriously, like, opposite ends of the spectrum. I really like Brother Ali, too.
PE: Ok fine, put Das Racist with Fresh Prince & Jazzy Jeff. Because that is about how deep they go. Rapping about th pizza-hut/taco-bell = parents just not understanding. Sorry.
EH: Ha dude, you know they put out two full-length LPs of actual rapping last year and that Pizza Hut and Taco Bell is a novelty song designed to get attention. They’re really smart guys! Wesleyan grads.
PE: Ooooh Wesleyan? Well I look forward to seeing them on the next Lillith Fair.
EH: Well, though it doesn’t seem you’re willing to bend at all, I’d recommend I’d recommend “Fake Patois,” “Who’s That? Brooown!”, “Amazing,” and “Rapping 2 U”
PE: Nope, nope, aaaaaand nope. Also, nope.
EH: Well you seem genuinely curious!
PE: Ha. I’m fine being close-minded about some things. You have to have a scientific constant to compare things to.
But seriously in closing, from one middle class white guy arguing about rap with another middle class white guy, thanks for the interview. It was cool getting inside your head a bit for the blog.
EH: No prob (and middle class white guys are allowed to like–and “know”– rap!)
PE: Because your very thoughtful approach to music may not always jive with what we think of said music, but you always give us pause for thought. And that’s what it’s all about. You make us reconsider, and defend our own thoughts, and the sometimes we line up on Bob Seger and its all the sweeter.
EH: Well, real quick, because you brought it up, and it fits with what we’re talking about – I think that one of the things that people often “get wrong” about criticism, and it’s often the fault of critics themselves, is that critics are prescribing something. The best criticism, and readers of criticism, should always strive to start a conversation about music, not a “right/wrong” dichotomy, which I don’t think really goes anywhere very quickly. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people telling me how wrong I am about an album, and often how stupid I am, without really arguing anything else aside from “it’s all subjective,” which is the end of any dialogue.
PE: True, or just being bullheaded as I am on the Das Racist issue.
EH: Granted, a thing like Pitchfork can seem like a behemoth and something that’s impossible to argue with without getting shitty or feeling resentful, which I totally understand but I always try to encourage people to look at the argument and the writing as much as the RIYL and the score. some of my favorite music writers are the guys/girls whose tastes I share the least, but who I steal from all the time, which i think is the point you made earlier. Ha. ANYWAY.
PE: I will take the credit.
EH: Ha, do it.
PE: Ok, so in closing, let’s get back to melons.
EH: Yes. Watermelon, Cantelope, Honeydew. Sorry, I don’t actually know any other melons.
PE: Those are three delicious melons, no need to apologize.
EH: I honestly don’t think there are any other melons. Watermelon, Cantelope, Honeydew. What else could there possibly be?
PE: What is the one thing you want all other humans on the planet to know about?
PE: One more.
PE: One more thing rocking your world.
EH: Alice Echols’ history of disco: http://www.amazon.com/Hot-Stuff-Remaking-American-Culture/dp/0393066754
PE: I welcome you closing out our interview with questions of your sexuality. Very Kinsian of you.
EH: I’ll leave that one alone
PE: Yes…..but will it leave you alone? Will it Eric? Will it?
EH: Just make sure it’s clear that you are the one making the gay jokes
PE: I will clearly edit this to make things seem the way I want.
EH: Ha, I’m doomed.
PE: Ok, but seriously, thank you. I wish we could have dug more into your big brain.
EH: Hey, anytime.
PE: Maybe a follow up is required.
EH: I’m happy to do so.
Eric Harvey is a PhD candidate at Indiana University, in the departments of Communication and Culture and Ethnomusicology focusing on the ways in which new technologies have impacted music circulation and value. A Mellon Graduate Fellow for IU’s Sawyer Seminar, he has written extensively for Pitchfork.com as well as had pieces appear in the academic journal New Media and Society, the newspaper Arizona Republic, the Village Voice, North Carolina’s Indyweek, Stylus (RIP), Idolator (RIP), and a smattering of blogs, most notably his own – the wonderful Marathon Packs. He recently presented at the 2011 EMP Pop Conference at UCLA, and you can check it out here (track 55). He is also a very nice guy, a great sport and a hell of a karaoke singer.