In October, 2010, a news post went up on Mess + Noise about a different kind of music interview. I’m a music fan and a writer, but most writing about music follows a pretty straight format. And with the changes in the music industry, and the media, the music media has been hit hardest.
With last.fm, SoundCloud and Hype Machine, Pitchfork and a suite of music blogs, the role of local magazines as arbiters of global music and their knock-on benefits as champions of local music has just about disappeared. Actually M+N grew out of the online message board Mono to counter just that trend, as a defiantly ‘Local Music Magazine’ – and while it was a truly great magazine, it couldn’t hold back the tide.
Anyway, when a writer gets an interview with a band, it’s usually 15-30 minutes on a carousel of phone card numbers. The guy in the band is bored because he’s had the same bunch of questions so many times. The writer is jaded because she’s not paid enough, doesn’t have enough time to prepare or to build up a rapport. The end result is nothing special over and over. When the story plays differently, it’s usually because the writer is doing it for the love.
Andrew Ramadge was one of the original writers at M+N, and he stuck with it when the magazine folded and again when the website was sold to Sound Alliance. He’s a tech reporter at news.com.au, he’s written for Overland, and he also did the great weekly Pop In Print review for The Brag.
He visited Gareth in Yass where The Drones front man was recording his debut solo record Strange Tourist. Andrew’s interview – The World According To Gaz – is a gripping read that suits its subject. And when I got an email from the Da Capo people in New York for suggestions for their annual best music writing tome, it was the story that immediately sprung to mind. But I found myself wondering how the story came together. So I dashed off an email to Andy, and this week he replied.
What came first – the interview opportunity or the idea for publishing it as a stand-alone website?
I had the idea for how to publish it first. I’d wanted to publish a long piece as a standalone website for a year or two before the interview opportunity with Gareth came along. When it did, I knew straight away it was the perfect story.
An online novella inspired by ’90s gonzo journalism and grunge lit – were you reading those things?
Yes I was – however that line was actually just something I came up with at the last minute because I was nervous about what people would think. I knew it was an unusual way of writing a story like that and I felt as if I had to offer some sort of explanation. I was particularly worried I’d cop a lot of flak for writing from such a personal point of view, so I thought: “Why not say it’s a homage?”
Probably a stupid idea in hindsight – but there is some truth to it.
Another story I’ve been working on is about Louise Dickinson, the author of an old music zine from the ’90s called Lemon. One of the things I love most about Lemon is how subjective and over-the-top and unapologetic it is. I looked to that style of writing, and that “fuck what anyone thinks” attitude, as an inspiration to write “Gaz” however I wanted. Also, Praise is my favourite novel.
It’s interesting for the means of publishing as much as the writing. You’re a tech journalist, how would you describe it?
“The World According to Gaz” is an online novella with three chapters and 46 pages. It can be read with any popular web browser – IE, Firefox , Safari, Chrome – on any computer and most mobile devices. You can also bookmark individual pages or chapters using your browser’s bookmark functionality. Because it doesn’t use Flash, it looks and works just the same on an iPhone and iPad as on your computer.
I’m pretty sure “Gaz” is the first of its kind in terms of how many devices you can read it on.
I called it a “novella” because that word suggests a physical book – which is what it’s meant to feel like – but the story isn’t fiction. I’m not sure if you’d call it journalism or creative non-fiction. One of the two.
Had you seen anything similar?
I’ve seen other web-based books, but they all seem to use plug-ins like Flash, so they don’t work across devices. You can’t use Flash on an iPhone, for example. I’m pretty sure “Gaz” is the first of its kind in terms of how many devices you can read it on. It looks the same on a Mac, a PC, an iPhone, an Android tablet or whatever.
How did you think people would respond?
As I said, I was pretty nervous about what people would think of the story. I thought a lot of people would hate it. Making yourself the main character of a story like that is pretty risky business. It’s hard to pull off without sounding like a wanker, for one. And secondly, it leaves you wide open to criticism – not least that you’re self-indulgent. I showed a few drafts to some journo friends of mine before it was published and one or two were a bit taken aback. I really had to tell myself I didn’t care what anyone thought to write it the way I did.
Thankfully, lots of people liked it. Lately I’ve been getting emails from people all over the world saying that they really enjoyed reading it.
Does being a tech journo mean you’re thinking about different ways of doing what you do as a journo?
Yes, all the time – but as “Gaz” shows, it’s got nothing to do with being a tech journalist. You can write about any topic in different ways and be creative. I’ve always been interested in creating new things on the web and I used to work as a web developer so thankfully I’ve got some of the know-how as well. I’m pretty lucky to work at news.com.au during the day because I’m in a team of other journalists who want to try new things as well.
Outside of work I love pop music and do-it-yourself culture and stuff, so it’s all kind of perfect for me. I have lots of opportunities to be creative.
Everyone’s looking for different ways of doing media and, I guess, making money from it. Do you think this is part of that? Or is it more like a crafty, zine kind of project?
The technical side of “Gaz” was an experiment in finding new ways to publish long stories on the web. It was a love project for me, but some parts of it may be useful to commercial outlets as well.
When I got back from Yass and started writing, I started having ideas for how the site would look as well. I sat down and scribbled some designs on a piece of paper.
As for the story, well… it’s not really the sort of story you’d ever have expected to make money from. I don’t think any major magazine or newspaper in Australia would ever have published “Gaz” the way I wrote it. Not in 2010, not in 1990, not in 1970. So in that sense, it’s definitely more of a zine.
I certainly didn’t make any money from it.
After “Gaz” was published, I did have a young journalist email me to say that perhaps it should have been behind a paywall or have a PayPal button for donations. Maybe she was right.
Do you think we’ll see more spot.us/kickstarter type funded projects in music writing – and is this the kind of stand-alone project that could work?
It’s funny you ask that. One of the people in the story, who was staying at the mansion while Gaz recorded, was in the middle of using Fundbreak to fund her next project. I should get in touch and ask how it went. I haven’t used it myself. If I do, I’ll get back to you and tell you how it went.
Was the interview offered to M+N or was it a personal connection?
The opportunity to send someone to Yass to interview Gareth was offered to Mess+Noise. I’d been working with Mess+Noise for years and I’m a big fan of The Drones, so the editor Darren Levin asked if I’d like to do it. After that I kind of took it off in my own direction.
As I said, I already knew I wanted to do something special with a standalone website. When I got back from Yass and started writing, I started having ideas for how the site would look as well. I sat down and scribbled some designs on a piece of paper and asked a good friend of mine, Danny Bos, to build it. I sent him the designs in an express envelope, which he thought was quaint. I wanted him to have something to hold in his hands, not just a digital image. Anyway, from there, Danny started building the site while I finished writing the story and then we put it all together.
Kristy Milliken, a painter and illustrator, made the book cover and the chapter titles. The finished website is hosted independently and presented by Mess+Noise.
Was it a creative process thinking about how you could do this, or did the pages idea come fully formed?
I’d been thinking about different ways to do it for years, but in the end the final design for “Gaz” came to me all of a sudden while I was writing. It’s hardly that original, though. It just looks like a book.
Rock journalism here is usually about 30 min interviews on a carousel, how different was this one?
The other journos in Sydney got half an hour or so with Gareth at a pub down the road from my house. I got a weekend away with him – though if you’ve read the story you’ll know it was only meant to be one night. The results speak for themselves. A half-page article in a newspaper, or a 46-page novella.
I actually think it was really brave of Gareth and Fiona to invite us down there. Not many bands do that nowadays. Everything is so stage managed. Sometimes I think interviews are so short nowadays not only so publicists can fit in a lot of journalists, but so that no-one sees anything embarrassing. You can’t get anything too scandalous out of a 15-minute phone call, which is what the norm is nowadays. When you’re hanging out with someone in person, it’s much more revealing. That’s why I think it was a brave invitation.
I have no idea if Gareth and Fiona like what I wrote. I haven’t spoken to them since it was published.
I realise this is the story itself, but in brief how did the interview play out?
Exactly the way it does in the story. I’m not sure Gareth was expecting some of those questions, and at times he was a bit taken aback – but you can figure that out from the transcript.
Did you approach this interview knowing you’d be presenting it in this different way?
All I knew was I was going to get drunk with Gareth and ask him the meaning of life. That’s all I had planned.
You’ve taken such a literary approach to the writing – again, pretty foreign in music writing – how did that affect the way you took notes and made observations?
Actually, it’s the other way around. I didn’t mean to take a literary approach to writing. It was the experience, and the notes I took while drunk, that dictated how the story was written. I certainly didn’t sit down and think “I want to write something literary”. I just sat down and the only way I could get it from inside me to the keyboard was to write it the way it happened. That’s why, more than any other reason, it’s in the first-person and I’m such a big character in it. I couldn’t have done it any other way. As for the fragmentation, how it’s written in lots of little scenes strung together, that’s probably to do with my notes.
I had a small notebook, enough for about 40 words per page. I was drinking a fair bit, so I took notes as I went, just writing down everything that happened every hour or so. I’ve attached a scan of two of the pages. As you can see, they appear almost exactly the same way in the finished story. I can’t remember writing them.
Would you do something like this again?
Definitely. I’m already planning my next few projects.