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14: Simon Reynolds, futuromaniac

14: Simon Reynolds, futuromaniac

Collapsing history with one of our most influential music critics.

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For millennial music journos such as ourselves, Simon Reynolds is one of the Goats.

He’s a writer best known for his era-defining book on dance music, Energy Flash (or Generation Ecstasy, if you’re in the US) and the ultimate history of post-punk, Rip It Up And Start Again. But there’s barely a genre that Simon hasn’t touched, from his coverage of hip-hop, shoegaze and grunge for Melody Maker back in the day, to his glam rock history Shock And Awe, to pivotal essays on Auto-Tune, “conceptronica” and any number of his own coinages, like post-rock, neurofunk and the hardcore continuum.

Reynolds’ new book is a collection of essays, interviews and reviews (some dating back to the late ‘80s, but most from this century) on the idea of “futuromania” – his word for electronic music’s obsession with the manifesting the future, and an aesthetic urge that’s in obvious contrast to the nostalgic currents of “retromania” he’s previously diagnosed in pop culture. Futuromania kicks off in 1977 with Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ and sweeps up half a century of electronic genius, with writing on household names (Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, Future), underground icons (Acen, The Mover, Omni Trio) and nebulous trends like the 2010s ambient revival.

Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t squeeze all of that in a single episode of No Tags. But we did talk to Simon about the lure of accelerationism, dance music’s middle-aged desires, Daft Punk’s yearning for the “mass synchrony” of the ‘70s, the uncanniness of Boards of Canada, and how he learned to stop worrying about retromania and start loving Dry Cleaning. Plus: he gave us the scoop on his next book! We think it’s an exclusive!!

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While you read, cue up Simon’s playlist for Futuromania.

Chal Ravens: Maybe a good place to start is for you to just very briefly outline what's in Futuromania.

Simon Reynolds: Well, I call it a themed collection. So it's a bunch of pieces that are all unified by the theme of future music. The title Futuromania obviously plays on Retromania, and I had thought of doing a book about the idea of the future in music and popular culture, but it seemed like it could potentially be a very long, laborious thing that would create this sort of semi-scholarly, dry text. And I realised I'd discussed these themes in these journalistic pieces, and they were much more juicy because of being journalistic writing. So I pulled them all together and there's an afterword. There's all these leitmotifs through it to do with music and science fiction, utopia and dystopia, the role of technology.

Most of them are from after Retromania, although some of them are historical, looking back – whether it's Donna Summer or soundtracks for science fiction movies, or another on science fiction writers' attempts to imagine the music of the future. So there's all these sort of leitmotifs running through it, but along the way I start to question this rhetoric of the future that I've used a lot in my career. What are we really talking about when we talk about music being futuristic? If it's music, it's right here, right now. In what sense does it makes sense to say it's somehow from the future? And it's an irresistible rhetoric for music journalists, certainly in my generation, this sort of prophetic mode. Because you and the reader are positioned as somehow being in on the future. There's everybody else behind you, sluggishly listening to indie rock or whatever, but you're part of this vanguard. So as a sort of rhetorical posture, it's kind of irresistible.

Tom Lea: Yeah, there's a great quote in the foreword for the book that's kind of seductive, like, "We're over here, come join quick or we'll be on to the next thing."

Simon Reynolds: Yeah, catch up with us. I've done that a fair few times, especially in the ‘90s. There was some reality to it. You can talk about music that's using the latest technology and is in some way in advance of what the rest of popular music is, maybe previewing the sounds that will become more mainstream. As well as the innovative use of sound and technology, there's also the actual themes of the music. Kraftwerk is a classic example, because in the ‘70s they're making the music that will be popular, or more widespread, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, anticipating rave and electro and all these things that they influence. They also have songs about robots, songs about computer love.

But then you get to a paradox, because actually a lot of Kraftwerk's imagery was from the early 20th century. They were influenced by Fritz Lang movies like Metropolis, or the autobahn when it was a new thing, Trans-Europe Express. So there's this interesting thing where you get to this nostalgia for the future, or nostalgia for modernism. There's a huge number of ways you can talk about it. I'm interested in future music, but also the talk, the sort of rhetoric, the discourse of the future and what it means, and whether it still makes sense to talk about music like that.

Chal Ravens: You start with Donna Summer in 1977, and move through chapters which are labelled by genres, even though the book is not exactly about genres. You're mapping out these vectors of electronic music where new sounds, new effects are being created all the time. And obviously this acceleration is fuelled by new technology – but what else is contributing to this kind of cultural speed run?

Simon Reynolds: Well, there's drugs, I suppose – the sonic engineering and the chemical or neurological engineering people are doing. There's the invention of the discotheque, and then discotheques become raves, there's visual stuff and imagery. I mean, there's certain phases when almost everything about it feels new, almost in a self-conscious, bordering on kitsch way. If you look at, say, the early rave scene, early techno in the early ‘90s, everyone's trying to have every aspect of it be as new as possible. The flyer artwork, album covers, the clothes people are wearing, even fads like smart drinks – there was a time at raves where you've had all these supposedly cognitively enhancing legal beverages you could buy. I can't remember what was in them.

Chal Ravens: I'm just about old enough to remember that the first time I went to Glastonbury there was an oxygen bar. You could go and hook yourself up to one of those tubes, you know, like you'd get if you were in intensive care, and just get some hard, pure oxygen, straight in!

Simon Reynolds: That is very sci-fi. It's not exactly Clockwork Orange where they had the milk bars where you buy a milkshake with speed in it, but yeah, putting tubes up your nose, that's very futuristic. But you can also say there's things going on with fraternisation of social groups, sexual groups who hadn't fraternised [before], racial groups. That seems very progressive.

So there's everything from the way people dance and the shapes they make – particularly in the States there was this whole thing of liquid dancing, which I think then evolved into [gloving] where you wear these gloves that have lights on and you do these sort of amazing dances, so someone who's tripping just sort of stares, entranced. There's this commitment to making everything sort of futuristic, kind of apocalyptic, leaving conventional forms of entertainment behind. I wouldn't say that spirit is gone at all, I mean, a lot of current music, even pop music, has everyone dressed in manmade fabrics and very bright colours and doing weird things with sound.

Obviously, having lived through it, rave does stand out to me. On every front there's people trying to do things in new ways. Even the way people used to name their groups, or the way Autechre would title their tracks, it's meant to be this sort of alien language, all these strange words and unpronounceable track titles. But I think there's still sort of a futurism going on, especially these online micro genres with crazy names that are annoying to type.

Tom Lea: As a young listener, when did you start to realise that this idea of the future was driving your tastes, or at least was becoming a theme of the music that moved you?

Simon Reynolds: I remember being very struck by 'I Feel Love' at the time it came out as [I'd] not heard anything like that. I wasn't buying records at that point. I was very interested in science fiction, that was one of my main passions. But yeah, it was number one for four weeks, I think, in the UK, and it had this sort of mechanistic feel that I don't think had ever been in pop culture. But also the way Donna Summer sang these kind of airy, ascending, etherealised vocals was part of it as well.

I liked a lot of things that, while they were innovative, didn't necessarily have an overtly futuristic vibe. But then you'd have someone like Gary Numan. I really liked 'Are ‘Friends’ Electric?' and rushed out and bought the single. I liked Human League and quite a few things that were synth-oriented and seemed to be futuristic. I really liked Art of Noise, which is another interesting example because they were using the latest technology yet they took all their reference points from the Italian Futurists.

That was another thing, the influence of early 20th century modernism and loving to read the Futurist Manifesto. I mean, they're a dodgy bunch, but the prose and that sort of declarative, bullet point manifesto style of writing, I rather liked and did a few things in that style.1 One of the times I actually did something like that was around Mantronix, I think it was a feature where it had a series of bolded subsections like 'Forget the song, forget the human' – very anti-humanist, very intoxicated with the manifesto format. But you know, the next week I might write about Morrissey, and that would be much more like, 'Remember the human! Remember sensitivity'.

Tom Lea: If only he would, eh?

Simon Reynolds: Yeah, well. The Smiths is about nostalgia isn't it, harking back to Manchester and all that. So I can drop in and out of these modes. I think it was really the rave scene and ecstasy where I switched to that being my main thing, this rhetoric of the future. It became more and more my focus for quite a long while, because I'd never heard anything like a lot of this stuff, it seemed like it was new music, and a whole culture around it that seemed new.

Chal Ravens: In the ‘80s and ‘90s you wrote loads about hip-hop at the time, which would have also sounded new, made with new technology, very much a future-shock sound in its own way. But this book isn't about hip-hop – and you’ve actually already published a collection of your hip-hop writing, Bring The Noise. But I thought it was interesting thing that, although Auto-Tune comes up in one chapter as connected to hip-hop, you have chosen a different lineage here.

Simon Reynolds: I didn't really have any suitable pieces that hadn't already appeared on that subject! I felt like, in a weird way, the importance of hip-hop and electro comes through some of the writing on jungle, and I have a piece on Acen – I'm not sure if he did graffiti but he certainly was someone who would, you know, breakdance on a piece of lino down the shopping centre. And then I had this big piece on Auto-Tune, which is largely about hip-hop, and that was the last time that a really popular kind of music that you'd hear on the radio just seemed like something completely new. But it wasn't new on the level of beats, it was new on the level of what'd been done to the voice, and the affect, and the fact that it was no longer really rapping but more like rap-singing, this sort of weird, melodious rap with weird vocal textures.

But electro as an era is something that ticks all the boxes in terms of the imagery, that connection to arcade culture and [video] games, the dancing and the clothing with manmade fabrics.  I think for a lot of people in the UK rave scene, [electro] was the beginning for them. Also, it's interesting to think that Detroit techno was really originally electro wasn't it? You know, Cybotron and the very early Model 500 stuff.

Chal Ravens: So when did you first get the sense that this kind of acceleration, this electronic modernism, was slowing down? And that electronic music was either no longer so obsessed with being brand new or incapable of delivering it?

Simon Reynolds: There's this moment that comes in all music cultures when, you know, it's a bit like a human lifetime when they reach middle age and suddenly they've got all this personal history to draw on and look back on. It's the same with a genre or a movement. I first noticed it in 1998, there seemed to be a bunch of things that were kind of harking back. Even Fatboy Slim doing an album called You've Come A Long Way Baby, and the music almost seemed to be like a precis of the previous 14 years – there was a bit of hip-hop in there, there was a bit of acid house and a bit of deep house and all these things that people had loved, all squished together in this very attractive, pop-friendly package.

Round about that time I started to notice that, for all this rhetoric of the future, dance music does have a sense of its own history. I was very into the whole 2-step UK garage moment, and what really struck me as interesting and made me feel very fond of it was that they were remaking tracks from the hardcore and jungle era. It wasn't retro, because they weren't trying to remake them. You get people now doing that, trying to make jungle tracks that sound exactly alike, the same production values and equipment. It was more like taking little elements from these beloved tunes and incorporating them into the latest beats, and I was like, oh, that's interesting. It's continuity.

That's probably where I started thinking about this word continuum. And I was like, oh, they're harking back, or echoing these earlier phases, but in a way that reenergises it in the present. I mean, there's so many of the songs that were remakes, or using the same samples or main melodic riff from some hardcore or jungle classic. So from that I started to think about it as this temporally two-way street. On the one hand, there's still this thing of going forward – we're doing the latest things with the latest technology, we're listening to what's going on in R&B with Timbaland. But also there's the beginnings of a sense of a history, and an ancestral kind of thing. I glommed onto this phrase, which was actually from the hardcore era and this group Phuture Assassins, who had this track, 'Roots N Future'. And that became more and more like an emblematic phrase.

A lot of Black music culture as well, like reggae has its versioning of old rhythms, and hip-hop is constantly dredging up old samples and interpolations of old classic rhymes. I was always amazed that with Dirty South rap you would get a Kraftwerk riff or a sample from ‘Buffalo Gals’, Malcolm McLaren's voice would be heard hollering into the echo chamber in a track that's from New Orleans or something like that, from the 2000s.

Chal Ravens: How does this roots and future concept fit in with what you're talking about in the essay on Boards of Canada and Burial, and the hauntology concept that you were developing? Because that's looking to the past for something slightly different, isn't it? Not necessarily to build something new.

Simon Reynolds: Yes, well, in the mid-2000s, leading up to when I wrote Retromania, there were an awful lot of these kind of hauntological currents actually going into dance music. Burial's the test case really, where it's almost an artist formed in order to be written about by Mark Fisher [laughs]. It's like a hallucination – the deepest longings and unconscious desires of Mark Fisher manifested as this artist that was so perfect for him to write about. I really liked him as well, but not to quite same extent that Mark did, where Burial was almost like his soulmate, or you know, his spiritual twin.

But you mentioned Boards of Canada. Interestingly, I did interview them for that piece, just by email, but they said they never really had any truck with this idea. Well, they said two things – they weren't really interested in dancing, and they weren't really interested in the idea of the future and futurism. They were always more interested in, I don't know, the past... I don't know how they saw people using their music, but for them the key things were melody and emotion.

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Chal Ravens: You talk about the experience of hearing them, and at first, you're not super into the record, and then it kind of burrows into your brain a bit more and you find that it's triggering these memories from your life, or maybe something you've seen in a photograph. Particularly you use the word municipal, which I think is so telling.

Simon Reynolds: I can remember the specific memories that were returned to me by hearing Boards of Canada. I didn't like it at first, because I was so into jungle. I think I was working at Spin at the time and I got someone to review it, and they were raving about it and I couldn't quite see it. But then for some reason, peer pressure or something, I gave them another go and I started playing it over and over again. It had this uncanny effect of sort of triggering these memories. I specifically pictured a particular park I'd walked through as a child on a winter morning on the way to school, with mist draped across it. And then, I don't know, some February morning, looking at the back garden and seeing a mother in the next garden pegging sheets to a line, flapping in this cold wintry but sunny weather.

I don't know, it's odd but it's very specific memory imprints that were triggered by just the sound, and I guess the kind of melodies they used. They aren't really a dance act, it's like IDM without the D[ance]. I mean, they have beats, these sort of trudging breakbeats, but it isn't really music that's pulling at your body. I find it hard to imagine them being played in clubs. It seems like music to listen to on your own or with a few close people. They're sort of outliers in a way, in terms of dance culture.

But yeah, they certainly were one of the first groups to have this harking-back thing, pulling on memories of the kind of music that would be played on educational programmes in the 1970s. And even the name, Boards of Canada, comes from educational films that were shown on school TV. There's all this hauntological type stuff happening in the late 2000s and suddenly, having sort of forgotten about them a little bit, they seemed to veer up to me as the ancestors of it, the first people to do use these analogue synth tones. They pioneered looking back, in a weird sort of way, sonically.

Chal Ravens: That leads me to what I think is a really crucial essay in the book, which is the one about Daft Punk. It's possibly the best demonstration of this whole concept, because their career is like a microcosm of this whole problem. You write, “How to go forward? Daft Punk decided the only way was to go back”. If you don't mind, I just want to read out a small bit, because I think it's crucial.

Simon Reynolds: Oh god, how embarrassing. [Laughter]

Chal Ravens: You write about Random Access Memories, and in particular this idea, which I think you credit to music journalist Geeta Dayal, about Daft Punk wanting to sample the zeitgeist of the ‘70s and ‘80s. So they're not just sampling the songs of the ‘70s and ‘80s like they did on their earlier albums, it's something bigger.

You write: “They attempted to reconstruct the entire cultural matrix that once produced albums like Rumours and Off The Wall, not just the analogue means of production, but the analogue sense of temporality. In particular, the Event, the mass, synchronised experience of 'the whole world' tuning into some kind of cultural artefact – movies like Star Wars, records like Thriller. There's a nostalgia here, not just for the monoculture, but for monotemporality, a shared experience of time. This feeling of mass synchrony is inseparable, I think, from concepts like progress and the future.”

To me that's such a fundamental part of what this whole collection is trying to dig out. Maybe can we press you a bit more on what you think about this connection between mass synchrony and the concept of progress and the future?

Simon Reynolds: Yeah. I mean, nowadays, I have to say, when I think about Retromania, I am proud of the book and I think it raises a lot of interesting questions, but a period of retrogression and revivalism in music seems very small – it barely counts as a crisis when you compare it to what's going on politically in the world. Okay, some people are making some slightly lame, backward-looking music, but that's nothing compared to the rollback of our rights, and beyond that, what's happening with the environment.

Clearly there are still some artists who are so big that they do seem to commandeer the attention of everyone [though]. I mean, Taylor Swift doesn't play a very big role in my life, but she seems to be the nearest thing to something that everyone... isn't it the New York Times, or one of those papers, who has a reporter whose job is covering Taylor Swift?

Chal Ravens: I almost want to say it's like the Houston something or other.2 And at the Guardian, Laura Snapes is their Taylor Swift beat reporter.

Tom Lea: Yeah, the Guardian has a Swift-specific newsletter, which I noticed that was sent out to everyone that already subscribes to the Guardian music newsletter. I saw a lot of angry tweets about it.

Simon Reynolds: Yeah, and there's Taylor Swift studies at various colleges. There's still a few things like that. But it seemed like that's what Daft Punk were nostalgic for, and the fact that they had this enormous rollout – I mean, they had billboards, and these old-fashioned forms of trying to publicise it.

Chal Ravens: Yeah, the posters looked super retro, didn't they.

Tom Lea: The billboard on the way to Coachella was the way they initially announced ‘Get Lucky’, I think.

Simon Reynolds: I mean, it's not as though there isn't any monoculture. And probably, unfortunately, the one thing everyone follows is politics. It's almost politics and entertainment fused into this terrifying thing. I don't know. What do you think?

Chal Ravens: Well, I guess I was thinking about mass synchrony and the idea that our ability to conceive of progress is somehow wrapped up in an experience of mass synchrony. Do we live in a time where we're maybe in mass asynchrony? And does that affect our ability to conceive of progress and have a different kind of future?

Simon Reynolds: If you look at the era of when these sort of expectations or hopes for popular culture started, it was the era of figures like The Beatles, where not only is everyone paying attention to them, but they're also plugged into every progressive thing going on at any given time, whether it's the Eastern spirituality thing that they're getting into, or when '68 happens and they kind of feel they have to make a comment on it, which is ‘Revolution’, which is a bit of a sitting-on-the-fence song, but you know, they're enmeshed in everything that's happening. And punk would be another thing where there's that feeling of it [being] more than music, and it's protesting against the Queen's Royal Jubilee and this whole structure of things. Rave in a different way had that feeling. Hip-hop too, in another way – it's more than music and it's a movement, it's going forward.

I feel like everything's so fractured now and I don't feel like we're on the same timeline. And just anecdotally, when I meet people, it's harder to find something you've all listened to or watched. But there are still [events], like award ceremonies, oddly – which I don't remember ever having any interest in as a young person – which become these enormous convergences of attention. And I think part of the appeal is that everyone is paying attention.

Of course not everyone is the same, just as not everyone was interested in the Beatles. But the narrative is certainly that The Beatles was this huge thing that everyone knew about, same with punks, same with rave, but now I feel like we're fragmented on our own timelines. Maybe it's time to say goodbye to all that. Obviously it's important to get involved in elections and social movements, but in terms of culture, maybe it's more about little scenes being where the changes are. Changing the energy in a room has value, it doesn't have to be a mass movement. It can be just a micro-culture or a haven. An enclave, really. The subculture as an enclave.

Tom Lea: You've talked about how there used to be a kind of unified visual idea of what the future actually looks like – less so in music, but particularly in media, film and television. That idea of what the future looks like was really prominent, and it felt unified, it had its own tropes and cliches and imagery that everyone recognised. But I actually don't know that visual idea has really evolved in the last 20 years.

Simon Reynolds: In one of the essays in the book, I talk about this period where science fiction films switch from everything being sort of sterile looking and brightly lit and shadowless, and then suddenly, people decide the future is gonna look shit and you have Alien, where they're in a spaceship but no one can afford more than 40 watt bulbs, and there's dripping condensation everywhere. Or you have Escape From New York, where admittedly Manhattan is a giant prison, but everything's decayed and falling apart. So there's two modes, the everything's gone to shit, shabby future, which is a kind of cyberpunk future, and films like THX 1138 or The Andromeda Strain, that are often set in scientific locations.

Chal Ravens: Are you still into sci-fi?

Simon Reynolds: Not to the same extent, but I did recently read a really good book by Kim Stanley Robinson called The Ministry for the Future, which was unusual in that it was vaguely optimistic and about having faith in people who are planners and working on solutions, which is nice. But there's some disturbing bits. There's one short chapter about an atmospheric river landing on the LA region, and in one scene a girl canoes down this road that's actually very near us, and it's flooded. So a huge amount of water is dropped on LA and the LA basin turns into a giant lake. That was a little alarming. But overall, the general vibe of it is trying to work out ways of dealing with the planet overheating and stuff like that.

Chal Ravens: So it seems to me that music doesn't any longer provide young people with a sense of subcultural or tribal identity in the way that I think it did for me, and I think probably for you and a lot of people who take music really seriously as adults. Do you agree with that?

Simon Reynolds: Actually, I think it does really matter to young people, just judging by the two human young people in my vicinity, my two sons. But also I teach in the music school at CalArts. And so most of the students are music students, some of them are from other departments, like animation or criticism or acting. They all really care about music, but there's just a bewildering variety of ways it matters to them. Some are really into punk and the idea of DIY and scenes around clubs that are sort of self-organised. They're interested in elements of history, but in a weird, jumbled-up way where the chronology of music history is somewhat confused, just from the way they use streaming, I think, and how they find out about things. It seems very lateral. None of them read music criticism. That's one of the most alarming things I've discovered, in terms of the future of what I care about.

Tom Lea: Do they listen to podcasts about music criticism? Just asking for a friend.

Simon Reynolds: I don't know. A few of them seem to watch YouTube critics, but mostly it's word of mouth, I think. If they get really into something they might read a book, usually a biography or a memoir of a particular artist. They seem to be passionately excited about music, and some of them are involved in subcultures, like industrial music seems to be a perennial thing that people are getting into, early landmark stuff like Swans but also current music in that vein. You know, I'm not doing a survey, it's just based on three years of hanging out with quite a large number of young people. But yeah, they don't seem to have the political belief in music's power to change things that would have been something I grew into, and then started to become more confused about, at the time.

Tom Lea: I wanted to ask about YouTube music criticism and video essays. Do you absorb a lot of that stuff?

Simon Reynolds: Not really. My bandwidth for this stuff is very limited. I still prefer reading. I've never really watched YouTube critics. I love the written word and I love what can be done with sentences, and even though the sentences in music criticism can be quite colloquial and chatty, it's still writing, it's still different than speech. And I love the very writerly kind as well, with extravagant images and things you wouldn't say in speech.

Tom Lea: We examine the collapse of music media quite a lot on this podcast, and I do have moments where I worry that it’s a little bit perverse that we're constantly focusing on the written word, and often just talking about the same platforms we've been talking about for 20 years. It seems that there is this thriving ecosystem of YouTube or TikTok-based music criticism that falls under our radar a lot of the time.

Simon Reynolds: Yeah. I did a class on fanzines – I do a course on DIY and so one of the classes is on fanzines – and I always ask at the start, 'what's your media diet?' And between when I first did it and this year, there's a decline in the number of people who read magazines. It does seem like they're getting the information from elsewhere. They're often very informed and hip and have an unusual taste, but they don't seem to be reading places like Pitchfork or Resident Advisor. So it's a little alarming.

But music remains deeply meaningful. Just looking at my own kids, my younger son loves indie and singer-songwriter music, it's all about emotion, about lyrics, very important. My older son is a music journalist himself – by the way, with no steering from my point of view, I was sure he was going to do something completely different, like coding. But he's obsessed with genres and weird sounds and crazy effects on vocals, and much less about the lyrics side of it and the feelings side of it. So I think that those two functions, you know, the excitement about music, and going out dancing to crazy beats, still seems to be widespread. And then the thing of music as a personal lifesaver, or something that helps you clarify your feelings or helps you through loneliness, or confusion – that still functions.

Chal Ravens: One of the best examples of new music criticism we have at the moment is the No Bells blog, which we both love, and which your son Kieran writes for. And interestingly, your sons pop up in the essays at different ages, and they're into different things. There's the Minecraft era, and you're sort of observing how they engage with technology and music and culture. One part which really struck me, I think in the Daft Punk essay, was this sense that everything that your son is observing is inside – it's literally indoors, but also inside the non-space or post-space in which things like Minecraft take place. And I think there's something quite important there for us to reckon with about the loss of physical space as part of musical culture as well.

Simon Reynolds: That's how I felt about it at the time. Now I think, well, a lot of time he was playing games with his best friend from New York after we moved to LA. He was remotely playing with this friend, which I thought was amazing. But I think in one way it wasn't that different, actually. I did spend a lot of time outdoors, just because we lived in this town that had countryside near it, but I also spent a lot of time indoors. But I used books. I read like five books a week, and a lot of science fiction, I was daydreaming constantly. So there's a kind of interiority that adolescence just goes with, I think, withdrawing into yourself. And actually, Kieran now, one of the things he's really into is going to clubs. He lives in Bushwick and he goes to all these micro raves and little clubs and things that are under bridges.

One of the best things that he wrote, or that I really enjoyed anyway, partly because I was like, 'I'm glad he's having this fun youth', was about his favourite live music experiences, or DJ experiences he's had in 2023. And it's full of all this stuff, which I think is the stuff I more and more really like in music writing – the experiential, the physical, almost the smell of a room and the kind of weird ephemeral encounters you have with people in clubs. So I think people are still having that and I'm glad Kieran is having that. I had a bit of that in Energy Flash, but I wish I had more of it.

As I've grown older, I more and more admire reporting, actual reported journalism, stuff that's on the ground. People who could describe a space or clothing, how people danced. In the ‘90s I did do some of that stuff and I liked to describe how people danced and stuff, but there was a lot of genre mapping and prophetic, manifesto-like utterances. But yeah, to your point, I mean, I think people still love to get together socially. The same with going to indie shows, a lot of it is the crush of the bodies and being with your kind as well, I think that's part of it, isn't it?

Tom Lea: A common thread in a lot of the dance music evolutions that you've covered throughout your career is that they often boil down to people simply speeding music up and slowing music down. It's there in hardcore producers sampling and pitching up techno records, it's in jungle's evolution to drum ‘n’ bass. It's grime DJs like Slimzee pitching down jungle records to then fit in their sets. And so much of the evolution of the continuum, or whatever, is actually just down to people changing the tempo on pre-existing music.

It made me curious to get your take on the explosion of sped up and slowed down versions of songs that we've seen in recent years. The sped-up versions original came to prominence through TikTok and are now becoming so popular that I've heard stories of major labels hiring kids to go through their back catalogue and speed up as much of it as possible [to re-release as alternate versions].

Simon Reynolds: I haven't really heard much of this stuff. I know about it because Kieran wrote something about it, and I was interested in it, but it's quite an old trick, really. And wasn't there a phase in rap when people were speeding up vocals?

Tom Lea: There's obviously DJ Screw and chopped and screwed.

Chal Ravens: There was early Kanye, the chipmunk vocals.

Simon Reynolds: There's something perennially childishly appealing about it, isn't there? I had a friend in college who made a point of playing every record he got at all the available speeds, and I think he had a turntable with 78 RPM as an option on it, and maybe even 16 RPM, because you used to be able to get these records that would have, like, Shakespeare's tragedies on, that would have to play at an even slower speed than 33 RPM just to get them on to a disc. And then 78 RPM because a lot of people still had shellac jazz discs, you know, this the ‘70s. But yeah, [it was] just for fun, almost to extract the maximum enjoyment potential out of the record.

I don't know if I have a theoretical take on it. In the ‘90s I would have written about it being sort of beyond the human or something. Actually, what interests me, and this relates to the class I'm teaching tomorrow, is that I have this thing with the word continuum, as everyone knows [laughs], and I've been thinking about this idea of a cartoon continuum, which is a sort of cartoon-y thing in pop music. Think about Parliament-Funkadelic, Gorillaz, where there is actually an animation element to it, The Archies with 'Sugar Sugar', where there wasn't a real group but there was this animated group, the Jackson Five had an animation series. Then you have Daft Punk with anime videos, and Missy Elliott's videos, especially early on, had this sort of cartoony quality to them. And Busta Rhymes. There's endless evidence for this link between cartoons, comic strips, animation and pop music – the idea of the popstar as this sort of two-dimensional, unreal being. Nicki Minaj, another figure. But somehow I feel like speeding up the voice is part of that. It sort of takes some of the human dimension out of it, and just makes it this joyous, wacky effect.

Tom Lea: That's a good point. It's funny you mentioned Missy Elliott and Nicki, because I feel like when Missy raps, she has a whole handful of different accents and tonalities that she goes through. And then Nicki Minaj will literally rap in a British accent.

Simon Reynolds: And there's this bit in 'Starships' where her voice kind of wooshes off, like it's kind of sped up and wooshes off as if she's becoming pure spirit. So I think maybe it relates to that. Sometimes when I would write about the first sped up stuff I noticed, which was hardcore, I would occasionally refer to things like Hanna-Barbera, or Tom and Jerry. A friend of mine, [music writer] Kit Mackintosh, talks about cartoon physics – he's talking less about the voice but more about how the beats are so sped up and chopped up that they make your body want to respond, and the normal rules of gravity and physics are kind of suspended. Rhythmically you're in this sort of cartoon space. So it feels like that's a dimension in pop music. And you know, Japanese and Korean pop music have this thing where, even though they're real people, they're so covered in makeup and glossily dressed that they almost are like two-dimensional creatures.

For me it was a real interesting head-swerve when everything slowed down after drum ‘n’ bass was getting really hard and punishing, and then you have this dropping down to 2-step, and then dubstep was even more torpid. The idea that people would be like, 'We've gone too far, let's drastically decelerate,' I thought was really interesting. And then all these sort of screwed techniques... there's a great video someone did with all this Belgian hardcore techno, but they played it much slower, and suddenly it became very sensual. It was kind of weird, because that technique of slowing house records down was what New Beat in Belgium was based around, you took a house record and played it slower. So they kind of did that technique on the later Belgian music that originally seemed very, very fast and apocalyptic. But then you slow it down and it becomes this much more sludgy, sensual music. It's just fascinating, things you can do with the tempo, how it makes you move and how your feeling of your own body is changed.

Chal Ravens: We wondered if you were hearing anything right now that you felt seemed new in any sense, but also if you look for newness in other places? This is something that comes up towards the end of the book, that you're not really listening for the future in sound anymore – you notice other ways that the future, or newness, bubbles up.

Simon Reynolds: After I did Retromania I did a lot of interviews and appearances, and you know, you get asked a lot of challenging questions, and by the end of it you start to have better ideas than when you actually handed the book in [laughs]. And then you start to self-critique, and one of the things that I realised, one of many biases in the argument, is that I was entirely fixated on sound, on form rather than content. And you can have innovation in content, or the way people perform, or even the kind of personalities you get in pop music. For instance, one of my favourite groups of the last few years was Dry Cleaning, particularly their first album. And though the music is really good, it's a fairly traditional kind of post-punk template they're using. Really the newness of it was the lyrics, the words that they delivered, the sort of emotional affect. So I suppose I widened my sense of what could be new.

Amapiano, that's the one dance thing where I'm like, ‘oh, the whole structure of the beats is really different and I've not heard anything quite like this before.’ It doesn't necessarily have trappings of futurity around it in the same way that gabber or drum ‘n’ bass or electro had, but the way the bass comes in, the funny sounds and the sort of feeling it gives you – it's kind of a feeling of weightless suspension, is what I get from it. But you know, I've only heard it through my computer. In a live situation, or in a club, I'm sure the bass rocks the foundations of the building. But I don't really know if there are auteur figures who are doing more interesting stuff than other people – are there UK spins on it coming through?

Tom Lea: Definitely. We're hopefully gonna have an episode on it soon with some of the key players. I was also curious, have you checked out much of the new Brazilian funk stuff?

Simon Reynolds: I heard a bit of it. Actually it was one of those things where I was like, 'oh, this is a bit much for me' [Laughter].

Tom Lea: Some of the clips are just so intense.

Simon Reynolds: I heard about it for the first time from Kode9. He mentioned it as this new sound and he said the side-chaining is why it's so abrasive to ears of a certain generation. I've quite a strong tolerance for people pushing technology or production to the edge of likeability – this was a bit much, but I saluted it, I saluted the spirit behind it. I didn't necessarily want to spend many hours listening to it.

Chal Ravens: So I gather that you are working on another proper book project. Can you tell us anything about that?

Simon Reynolds: I have been coy and secretive about it when people ask me, but I might as well say! It's actually about the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s, and it's about this period when I was kind of on the frontlines of writing about it. We didn't really use the word shoegaze at the time, but that would be a big element of it – My Bloody Valentine and those sort of groups, A. R. Kane, Cocteau Twins, but also quite a lot of American music, REM will be in there, Sonic Youth. Slacker is another word that sort of sums up a lot of the vibe, and the beginnings of grunge.

I wrote about it at the time and it turned into my first book, Blissed Out, but I think if you read Blissed Out now you'd get a very odd sense of what was going on. I mean, I think it's fine for what it was. I'd read a lot of French theory and stuff and it's very prose-poetical. But I feel like I understand what's going on much better now, and I'm trying to get more of the actual story behind the music, what the people were doing. I tended in those days to use music as my launchpad into prose excess and not ask basic questions like, you know, 'how did you form?' [Laughs] That was the last thing I was interested in. I would have quite intense conversations with artists about music and philosophy, aesthetic stuff.

I'm actually lot more interested in how sounds are made now, as a sort of byproduct of having gone through rave. I am interested now in how these sounds were made using a guitar, which is something I'd never written about. Everyone who knows about shoegaze knows that it's all made on this one guitar called the Jazzmaster. A lot of music of that era is defined by this one guitar that has particular properties. But I would never have thought to ask a musician what kind of guitar they were using, or what effects they were using. It just was not where my head was at. But now I think it's very interesting. And there'll be stuff about the music press as well, and what it was like to be in the music press and what that meant as a machine, as a kind of engine of cultural excitement.

Tom Lea: Last question. We always ask our guests to recommend a film.

Simon Reynolds: Oh, god. It seems a bit late to recommend one that everyone knows about because it was up for the Oscars, but I was very impressed with Anatomy of A Fall. In terms of a film that maybe people don't know, I was really blown away by this film that I saw a few years ago for the first time called Point Blank, a ‘60s film by John Boorman. It's a very strange film because ostensibly it's a crime world thriller, a guy getting revenge because he's been betrayed. But the whole thing has his feverish, hallucinatory quality. And there is a theory about the film – I don't want to say, because it'll spoil it, you should find out after you've watched it. It’s so stylized and it's so beautifully filmed. It's Lee Marvin as the lead character and he's just got so much energy, and there's so many strange little scenes in it. It's the sort of film you can feel you can watch many, many times, a bit like Blow Up, another favourite film of mine from the ‘60s, or Walkabout or Performance, the sort of classic films where there's so much going on in every scene, and the camera work...  you could just endlessly rewatch them.

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The Italian Futurists were proto-fascist aesthetes with a knack for grabby slogans. In their 1909 manifesto they celebrated speed, machines, youth and violence, a macho creed best summed up in this section: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” Bastards.


Close! It was The Tennessean and USA Today who hired a Taylor Swift reporter.

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No Tags is a podcast and newsletter from Chal Ravens and Tom Lea chronicling underground music culture.