Today The Spinoff assesses the state of the professional critic in New Zealand with four pieces – two new, two older – which reflect on the challenges the form faces.
The final piece is a reissue of an interview which was originally published on Pantograph Punch in 2012. It features a conversation between The Spinoff editor Duncan Greive and Chip Matthews, bassist of Open Souls, dreamed up and facilitated by Rosabel Tan. The trio discuss ‘The Critic’ an ancient Open Souls song written, recorded and serviced to radio in response to a brutal review by Greive. It’s pretty good stuff.
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Editor’s note: I was just a snotty nosed shitbird when I blundered into Albert Park in 2003, looking to call out any band with a horn section. The poor old Open Souls took the stage at the bFM Summer Series that day and played to an adoring crowd. Except me. I saw them as everything wrong with New Zealand music at the time – too friendly, too earnest, too reverent. I furiously wrote up my dumb thoughts, transferred them to a 3.5″ floppy disk and took them in to my editor at Real Groove. The published review would lead to a song named ‘The Critic’ being recorded by the Open Souls. Many years later it also lead to the Pantograph Punch’s Rosabel Tan engineering a meeting between myself and the band’s bassist, Chip Matthews. It was to this day one of the more interesting and illuminating conversations I’ve been a part of, thanks mainly to Chip’s generosity of spirit and Rosabel’s subtle facilitation. We republish it below, with permission from our best friends and sometime office-mates at the Pantograph Punch.
A few weeks ago, Autozamm came out of hiatus with ‘The Review’, a song that aims to makes an example of Simon Sweetman “on behalf of every fucking band in the country.” Asides from the dystopian vision where Autozamm have the power to speak for all of New Zealand music, it’s a pitiable l’esprit de l’escalier: a delayed reaction to a post Sweetman wrote two years ago in which he expressed his disbelief that “a nothing band, an awful collection of not-quite-garage-rock sounds clashing with not-quite-pub-rock and not-quite-indie-chic” had received over $200,000 of NZ on Air funding since 2003.
The song is neither clever nor good, and mostly serves to strengthen Sweetman’s original comments. Furthermore, the impetus behind it, tongue-in-cheek or no, is patently outrageous: the idea that being a critic, and doing your job, is a punishable offense.
As I mentioned in Part I, this isn’t the first time critics and artists have crossed swords in this way – and certainly it’s been done with more style. In 2003, Duncan Greive wrote a damning review of Opensouls’ performance at the 95bFM Summer Series which resulted in ‘The Critic’, a song that passionately slates him and asks, “What’s with all the criticism?”
The defensive hostility that comes with receiving a bad review is understandable, but the question posed in the song is like asking a chef, “Hey what’s with all the cooking?” Answer: It’s their job, and responses like this often stem from the sentiment that a reviewer should support rather than criticise local art, as though the two are mutually exclusive, and this is a dangerous thing.
But whether it was a sentiment held by the band is another question altogether, so a couple of weeks ago we sat down for a beer with Chip Matthews (the bassist for the now-defunct Opensouls) and The Critic himself in what would be their first ever encounter to discuss the review, the song, and how they feel about it nine years on.
Chip Matthews: It was a really immature time for [Open Souls] because we were so unsure about where we were going and where our voice was and there was a sense of fragility in those days. And when that review came out, I think Jeremy and Bjorn just didn’t know how to react. I mean, how do you – when you’ve come through this period where New Zealand music had suddenly became recognised and appreciated? And there was this lovely bubble around New Zealand music that kind of got popped. But it was the beginning of dialogues that are supposed to be healthy about our music – and isn’t it a sign of maturity in your scene when you can take the negative with the good and turn it around and use it?
I think ‘The Critic’ is still a great song.
Duncan Greive: I think it was the best song of the Open Souls’ early career by far. It felt like it was about a specific thing, and there was a lot of venom and feeling in it that I wasn’t detecting elsewhere. I remember we had a show on bFM at the time and it would get playlisted and it was this bizarre situation where I was playing a song that was partially about me and I would be talking positively about that song as the band’s best work. It was really quite a strange era but I think through that kind of awakening and the kind of arousing of tempers, good things came out of it.
CM: Totally, and pre- that era, criticism was rare. I remember trying to track down Grant Smithies after I got a bad review for something. I don’t know what it was but I tried tracking him down. I started emailing people. I think I rang whoever he was working for. And I wanted to know where he lived. He was negative about Loungehead probably – because Grant Smithies was never a Loungehead fan. Kind of thought we were overrated ad-makers. As a band. Which in some ways he was right. But I was going to go and fuckin’ – but then I found out he lived in Nelson.
DG: That’s a long way to go to beat someone up.
CM: I was down there on Che Fu’s tour and he tried to get backstage. Our manager at the time gave him a big fuck off and I only found out later. I was so close to getting my goal – but then a few years later I realised how stupid I was. Because it just – you know. (pause) But I remember the Summer Series review was extra painful because we came offstage thinking we’d played so well.
DG: That would have been upsetting for you guys.
CM: Totally. And Bjorn talked about it in the song, you know, the fact the crowd were enjoying it. And for a band still trying to decide what we were going to do – I think that was pre- our first 12 inch release as well, it was –
DG: – It was really early in your career for you guys –
CM: – Yeah and it was really formative days – Isaac had just joined, we had a revolving line-up, and we thought we fuckin’ –
DG: – killed it.
CM: It was one of those gigs you think, “Fuck, this is it. This is a step up. Next one’s going to be awesome.” And then suddenly: BOOM. Fuckin’ boom. Kneecapped by a dude we didn’t know, and it was just like: Fuckin’ cunt. Fuckin’ asshole.
[Duncan laughs, a little nervously]
And then ‘The Critic’ came about. And those were the days when Simon Sweetman was still writing glowing reviews about everything and then it was almost like he went into a hole and realised he could do this other stuff – I love Simon. He adds a lot to the music conversation. It’s a typical kind of dialectic where you have to have the thesis to have the antithesis to have the synthesis and he’s that guy – the Whale Oil of music blogging.
DG: (laughs) I would agree with that
CM: He goes exactly one way, he says it completely, and he puts it out there. But I don’t mind it.
DG: I think it’s good that that presence exists. I can’t really stand him because I feel like he’s being reactionary for reactionary’s sake. It doesn’t feel like a deeply-held opinion. I remember that famous thing he wrote about New Zealand hip hop basically sucking and from the way it was written you could tell that to make such a deep and sweeping statement there was nowhere near the listening that had gone on to be able to do that, and to a certain extent I defend a critic’s right to do that, but if you’re going to do that without research, (a) you better fuckin’ hope like hell you happen to be right and he wasn’t, and (b) just do it in a fun and stylish way and because he just bangs shit out – he just churns and churns and churns – I don’t find his writing particularly artful.
Occasionally I’ll agree with him – like the Fat Freddy’s Drop thing he wrote. I enjoy some elements of what they do and I fuckin’ love that they exist because they set such a powerful example in the way they went about things, but the stuff that was being said about them got ridiculous and I think it was good that somebody went out there and popped their balloon, but generally if you’re going to play the role of provocateur I think part of what’s important is to do it in an artful way. Do it in a fun way. It feels like he’s pushing the same buttons over and over.
CM: He is, but he’s playing to the Stuff crowd – this marketplace that he has – and in that regards he’s doing a fantastic job. And you know with the Freddy’s thing: I’m an unashamed fan of Freddy’s. I love them, and that’s because I know them. I’ve seen them develop. I’ve worked with them. I’ve recorded with them. And I’m also a huge fan of their music. But I really appreciated the fact that someone wrote that in a period where they could do no wrong.
DG: It’s not healthy for them or for music generally
CM: It’s really not healthy. And maybe it’s a sign of our progression that Simon can start from this extreme point, so that people can filter away the shit and bring it into a serious dialogue.
DG: You do need someone at an endpoint – you’ve got Fat Freddy’s here and Simon here and the truth is probably somewhere in between.
CM: You gotta have those kinds of polarising factors to try and at least start engaging the population. Because you realise when you read these things that we become so enmeshed in our work that we forget that the majority of New Zealanders don’t really give a fuck. They don’t care about the dialogue we’re having. They listen to New Zealand music in the sense they’ll hear Dave playing on The Breeze and that’s as much as they’ll engage with New Zealand music – and I don’t mind that because I fuckin’ love Dave. He’s the soundtrack to my life. But it’s a process of maturation. A lot of cats don’t give a shit still. They’re not engaged.
I think we, in the industry, suffer from having our heads up our asses sometimes. We go to all these industry events and we look at the half-sold-out Vector top section while we’re having our piss-up at the fuckin’ music awards and we think we’ve somehow made it because people want to come and watch us in the gladiatorial den as we get absolutely pissed and embarrass ourselves. But it doesn’t mean we’ve reached any kind of zenith with regards to our musical history. If anything the dialogue is only just beginning so the role of the critic is vital for me at the moment. It’s vital.
Rosabel Tan: With critics like Sweetman, who are writing for mainstream audiences in ways that are reactionary for the sake of it – don’t you think they have a responsibility that they’re not taking on?
DG: Do you think there’s a responsibility?
CM: I don’t know if there is. He’s a blogger. He doesn’t need to justify shit. He’s just blogging. And I’m not diminishing the role of the blogger because it’s so important.
DG: He’s beholden to no one but himself and his employer, who pays his rent. The problem is that he’s got this little community around him who broadly agree with his stance so it becomes quite self-reinforcing. The other thing about the hip-hop thing that bothered me was basically you’re a semi middle-aged white dude taking about predominantly historically black music and it’s race-baiting a little bit – you’re asking a very conservative audience that you’ve built up over time talking about lots of safe white music to comment on ‘other’ music.
CM: Oh, absolutely.
DG: And of course they’re going to come out and say a bunch of racist shit and you can’t be surprised by that and you’ve got to ask yourself: Is this something I want to bring into the world?
CM: He’s playing to a regular bunch of commenters who in the first instance have little or no respect for New Zealand music in the first place, and when he tries to bring in something else like hip-hop, he knows what he’s doing. But I kind of like that too. Because then I can message him and say, You’re being a cunt. And he can say, Yeah I know.
DG: He does respond really well to it. I’ve quite frequently and publicly said that he’s the worst of the major critics, which I don’t really think – because I have some weird bit of me that has an affection for him. But he doesn’t take offence in the way that I want musicians not to take offence if I write something bad about them. Or to think I’m their mate if I write something good about them.
CM: Absolutely. I like the fact that I can talk to Simon and have things we don’t agree on, but you respect that difference, and there is so much we do agree on. And he actually has a really good knowledge of hip hop and he loves really good hip hop. He hates a lot of New Zealand hip hop, which I don’t agree with because I think some of it’s fantastic, but I hate quite a lot of what he hates.
And you also can’t be the other thing – which is sucking cock all over the place. You can’t automatically start slurping away because if it’s shit, it’s shit regardless. It’s really hard sometimes being a musician in that regards too, because you have people who you love as individuals and they’ll send you their music that they want you to play on the radio, but you fuckin’ hate it. And what do you do then? As a musician I don’t know where to go, because I don’t know if us musicians have reached that point yet where we can –
DG: Well that’s the great thing about being a critic – people expect you to sully their thing. But musicians, when they ask one another what they think, most of the time what they’re really asking is, “Can you say something nice about my music please, and then I’ll say something nice about yours.”
RT: How about I read you the review.
DG: I feel like this is going to be super embarrassing. This was probably the fifth thing I ever had published and I did not know a goddamn thing about the world except that I wanted desperately to have a little place in it. I’m sure I was crazy wrong sometimes and this could be one of them.
CM: In a sense, that could be Opensouls as well. We were a little too precious and thought we were doing the right thing. Our bolshiness as a music group – “we’re taking this to a new level, we’re the new fuckin’ roots, it’s un-fuckin-believable, we’re live, we’re in your face” – but you know, you gave us the bitch-slap down we needed.
This was probably the fifth thing I ever had published and I did not know a goddamn thing about the world except that I wanted desperately to have a little place in it.
RT: Here we go. “The Opensouls follow, a late replacement for Verse 2, and while they’re attempting to plough a similar furrow, they’re just not in the same league, either instrumentally or lyrically. Where Verse 2 strip everything back to its essence, the Opensouls pile on the instrumentation, trying to be a genre-breaking fusion of black musical history – ”
CM: Fucken’ hell.
RT: “– Their hearts are doubtless in the right place, but it’s too sloppy to really excite. The MC has got a nice flow, but talks garbage, all this fatuous unity crap that’s really self-serving and all too prevalent in parts of our indigenous hip-hop culture. Ladi 6 gets up to raise the occasion, but even her considerable talents can’t save this.”
CM: Holy fuck, that’s worse than I remember.
DG: (laughing) That’s pretty harsh.
CM: Holy shit. I – woah. I can see how we took that hard. (pause) Looking back, it’s probably a true comment to say that we were trying to pile on so many things because we didn’t know our voice back then. So it was probably a fair comment, but fuuuuuuuckin’ hell bro. That’s fuckin’ hard eh.
DG: Well also, I think you’d come straight after the Mint Chicks and I was such an unashamed fanboy that I probably felt the contrast, especially given that the crowd for the Mint Chicks was totally indifferent to them, and as you correctly recall, they liked you guys and something in me would have found that irritating and probably spurred things on. The thing that really strikes me about it is that I’m saying you’re not tight enough? I haven’t listened to Verse 2 in a long time but I can’t imagine they were tighter than – well, whatever the fuck that even means – than Open Souls were at the time.
CM: But it’s an interesting thing as well because we remember it being a good gig – you know, you have those good gigs where you have those trade-off moments – where technically as a band you’re not all there, but the trade-off is that the audience loved it, and it helps you gloss over the imperfections of your band. I think you captured – in your way there – the excitement we obviously felt about how we performed. In 2003 we were still pretty idealistic about what we were trying to do and roots were starting to pop off then as well, in a commercial sense, and we thought we were the next logical step in New Zealand music’s hip-hop evolution. (pause) We weren’t.
DG: But it’s good you had enough swagger to think you were, because at the time, and probably still now, there’s a real excessive tolerance for mediocrity – like, “hey, that sounds a lot like something that’s quite good.” Well, that’s not good enough. Since then, I’ve come to view sins of overreach as much more forgivable than sins of laziness or complacency and whatever your faults it was because you were reaching beyond your grasp at the time.
I’m actually pleasantly surprised by how coherent it is. It sounds like a reasonable argument even thought it was way too harsh.
RT: And Duncan, how did you feel when you first heard the song?
DG: I was kind of amazed, because to that point I’d probably been in the critic’s version of the musician’s shell, so I’d only had people around me saying, “This is really good that somebody is writing this stuff,” and I was 22 years old and psyched to be published. I’d written negative reviews prior to that one, but I don’t think I’d had anything ever come back to me. It was early-internet so there wasn’t really any commenting or social media. It was hard for people to respond. And weirdly that was probably the easiest way for a band to do it, albeit an extremely hard easy way.
But I remember being shocked, because one of the first lines was something about “probably because your day job’s delivering the mail”, because I was a postie at the time and it was like, “Shit, how did these guys find this stuff out?” It was journalism – they had to go around doing research, and that part blew me away, because I could imagine getting real mad about it and I could imagine writing a song about it, but to be like – I guess they’d gone up to bFM –
CM: Wow. I never knew that connection.
DG: Yeah. It’s one of the first lines.
CM: I might go home and listen to it again. That’s fantastic.
DG: Yeah, and I remember thinking, “Don’t we all have shit jobs?” But mostly I remember listening to it and going, “Fuck, if all your songs were like this I’d probably like you.”
CM: That’s great man.
DG: Because it’s quite moody and menacing and there’s a lot to it – even the way it lurches into life –
CM: It’s a creepy intro.
DG: Yeah, it is.
(they start humming it together)
It stutters to life, rather than just roaring like most songs do.
CM: It’s almost like the music’s taking a breath before it’s like – okay, ready, let’s just fuckin’ serve on this cat. Let’s serve on him right now.
CM: Did you, in those early days of reviewing pre-internet, feel that there was a buffer zone between the reviewer and the artist? And when ‘The Critic’ came out, did it break any buffer zone that existed, or did you think the relationship was always that close between the reviewer and the reviewed?
DG: I remember feeling tremendously excited that it existed. It felt like a critic’s stripes. And I remember a few years later, Grant Smithies wrote a piece about amazing stuff that had happened to critics from people they’d criticised and none of them were anything as cool as that. It was like – “Dude, come on!” Even if you look around, there aren’t many critics who’ve had songs written about them. There are three, four famous examples, so it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me as a critic. It’s fuckin’ amazing.
CM: I think even at the time we loved it. Because it was just our way of replying. There was no point bitching about it to people, there was no point texting, so why not write a song?
DG: It was amazing! Responding in kind.
CM: And it brought out a lot of passion. It did. It was a great provoking thing for us. And you need to have those reality checks – you can’t just live in this bubble all the time. It’s not realistic – and I think at the time it was really good for us.
DG: Yeah, definitely, and – you know, in terms of a buffer zone between critics – I think I just hadn’t considered it. I knew people read things and got pissed off but I – I remember when I first started writing about music, Chris Heazlewood from King Loser went up to John Russell at a party and was like, “Don’t you think it’s ironic that you get paid heaps to write about music and I make music and I’m poor as shit?” And they had a scuffle and Chris Heazlewood ended up breaking his collarbone. And, you know, that was the only thing I’d heard about as far as that, so I thought the peak it could possibly get to was a scuffle at a party. So this blew my mind.
But since then, I think it’s kind of sad, because now, you would just write a blog post or bitch about it on Facebook or something. Because it was so hard to make any kind of noise – you had to be in a magazine, or write a song, or some kind of thing, it meant that because of that barrier – the fact you had to do that – there was a lot more thought and care.
CM: Totally. It’s so much easier now to just log on and start ranting.
DG: Exactly. You vent, and then it’s gone.
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.