Lunch with Will Hermes

Will Hermes is a senior critic at Rolling Stone and regular contributor to NPR’s All Songs Considered. His writing often shows up in the New York Times and has appeared in SPIN, Slate, Salon, The Believer, The Village Voice, City Pages: The Windy City Times, and many others. He is the author of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever.

Will Hermes was also the visiting Non Fiction Writer-in-Residence at Sarah Lawrence College this past week. I had the pleasure of having lunch with him to talk about his background, the music writing industry, and his next book project, a biography of Lou Reed.

– Sarah Paolantonio

Sarah Paolantonio: So, tell me about your background. 

Will Hermes: Well, I definitely took one journalism class in college. I was a Film Studies and Rhetoric major in college, basically like an English, Communications, Film Studies major as an undergraduate and later did an MFA in graduate school for fiction writing. Although I was always interested in writing about arts and culture, books and music, specifically, and film.

While I was in grad school I was freelancing for a local alt-weekly, basically the Village Voice of Minneapolis, City Pages, in fact it was owned by Village Voice Media. At the time it was an amazing alternative news weekly. It had great local political coverage, great local arts writers, and a job came up there just as I was finishing my MFA. I was thinking about gearing into a PhD program there in English Lit and I took the job because it seemed super fun. I figured I could always re-up the PhD path if I wanted to, but never did.

SP: So, what I want to get into is writing space. The infinite Internet allows writers to go on for miles. In contrast to that, in your Rolling Stone record reviews, youve mastered concise criticism. Whats your best advice to keeping it short and informational?  How did you learn to do that?

WH: Necessity is the mother of invention. [Laughs.] I am long winded by nature, both verbally and as a writer. I love clauses and hyphenated clauses and semicolons and long paragraphs. I love writers like Harold Brodkey, and you name it…like Russian novelists who just go on… but…if I was writing a review for City Pages, I’d write 800 words. It could even go on to be 1,200 words. And that could be a review, it could be an essay. It was a beautiful thing for a review – it lets you do certain things. It lets you lead with something that might be something completely tangential to the record and then double back to tie in this notion at the topic at hand. What I like about that is you can craft a lead that will draw in people who might not even be interested in listening to the record but might get enjoyment from the essay that you’re writing using that record as a jumping off point. Even though it’s service oriented journalism, in a way, because people read a record review because they want to know if this record is good or not. That is a little bit less important now when anything that comes out, once it’s out, you can hear it easily on the Internet. Any record that’s released, pretty much with the exception of certain jazz records and records by acts who want to keep their stuff off of Spotify, everything else you can hear.

SP: So it’s not as important to deliver the music as news. You’re not telling people “you should find it,” you’re now telling people “this is why you should listen” because the pile of music is so big.

WH: I think, now more than ever, people need gatekeepers. Before it was like “what should I buy?” Now it’s, “I don’t need to buy anything, but what should I LISTEN to?”

When I started writing for SPIN, short reviews would be maybe 300 words or 200 words. Then I started working at Rolling Stone and then they were often only 100 words or 110 words. So I look at it as a puzzle or a haiku or sonnet form. You’re given a certain amount of space and you need to say certain things and I just make it work.

SP: You believe in the gatekeeper? I’ve encountered a lot of people who think that gatekeepers aren’t as relevant. People think that they can be their own gatekeeper. You’re constantly listening to all this new music, how do you that without getting tired or sore about music being better “back in the day”? How do you deal with the huge pile of music in front of you?

WH: First of all, I think things now are as good as they’ve ever been because human beings make art and a lot of it. I don’t find all of it inspiring, but some of it is incredibly inspiring and that just seems to always be the case, give or take golden eras in certain genres and certain communities. I’m drawn to things I know I like.

That’s one way. Reading other writers whose work I respect. My peers at Rolling Stone. Ann Powers at NPR; Jody Rosen who is now writing at the Times Style section. There are a lot of writers at Pitchfork, like Brandon Stosuy, I look to them on certain styles of music; Andy Beta who writes for Pitchfork and certain other places; I really like Jenn Pelly’s work. Reading these writers helps me narrow things down and then it’s hit and miss. I still get dozens and dozens of records every week either by email or in the mail.

SP: In the foreword of the SPIN 20th Anniversary compilation, that you co-edited, that I brought with me…it’s a book I bought in high school and always revisit. I always look back to the writing. There are so many voices in this book that are now everywhere: Ann Powers [at NPR], Jon Caramanica [at NYT], I just read Marc Spitz’s memoir, Poseur; youre in here; Chris Norris; Chuck Klosterman’s in here; Dave Eggers; mostly men, but, what are you going to do?

WH: SPIN was better than most.

SP: But we do have Sia Michel [the co-editor], she was the editor of SPIN for many years.

WH: Now she edits the New York Times Arts & Leisure section.

SP: Right. That’s awesome. So, in this foreword, you say, “These “alternative” things are usually distinguished by innovation (ie: they do stuff no things before them have done in quite the same way) and/or by extreme passion (the do familiar stuff with unfamiliar intensity).”

So what do you think is 2014’s alternative in music writing? What is our alternative now, now that we have the Internet, which seems so normal?

WH: I think there are all sorts of people doing all sorts of different things. I still love to read The Wire, which really doesn’t have much of an online presence because they’re still built on the model of trying to sell magazines. I love The Quietus, which is also a British publication. I definitely think Pitchfork…their writing has gotten consistently better over the years and I think right now they have some of the best music writers. You can love or hate or chide their aesthetic. But its’ unquestionable that they embedded in music that is new that has not been done been done. That is an aesthetic yardstick for them. I don’t know this for a fact but I just know it from reading it, reading between the lines, and their championing of alternative metal, electronic music, and interesting pop. And then you get into all the sub-genre publications.

SP: That’s such an interesting phrase, “sub-genre publications.”

WH: I think about print publications, they don’t even really exist anymore.

SP: SPIN doesn’t exist anymore.

WH: Right. In print, Paste is gone. No Depression, gone. But I still read them all online. I look now, in terms of music journalism, to books; because a lot of people who are ambitious music writers, because there are now fewer outlets where you can actually get paid or write more adventurous formal stuff, the logical place to do it is in a book. People have been knocking out titles in the 33 1/3 series. They’re uneven but some of them are pretty great. Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion book is freaking brilliant. I think its one of the best pieces of music journalism slash criticism that’s been written in the last ten years.

SP: I know we don’t have much time left. I want to ask you about your new project. You’re writing a biography of Lou Reed. You were approached to do this?

WH: I was approached but approached after [Reed] passed. I had my editor at Farrar Straus Giroux saying, “Are you thinking of doing a biography of him? Because you should. There are no good biographies of him. No up to date, good, authoritative biographies of him.”

And my agent, who is also very good at these things, called me about this to tell me I should think about it. And I did. I never really had any aspirations to write anybody’s biography. My thing is, and I think my first book [Love Goes To Buildings On Fire] and the SPIN book shows this, that I’ve got a short attention span. I’m dysfunctional in that way. I like information overload, I like a whole lot of ideas that I can play with. I like a whole lot of narrative strings that I can thread together; even in the music I listen to, I like the sound of a whole lot of disparate things coming together. So the biography never seemed like something I would lock into.

I revere his song writing, the [Velvet Underground] material first and foremost. As an artist, he’s an amazing guy, but he’s a difficult character. As a gay or bi-sexual pop star, there was NOBODY out like he was out in the 1970s, there was nobody writing stuff LIKE he was writing in the 1960s. None of that would’ve sealed the deal. But the most important thing, and the thing that sealed the deal for me, was when I thought about how he connected the entire post-war arc of New York arts; both visual arts through his association with Warhol, poetry and creative writing with his studying with Delmore Schwartz [at Syracuse in undergrad], and his identification as a poet first and foremost beyond being a musician.

And then Lou came back into the New York art world when he connected with Laurie Anderson in the 1990s. He started doing much more pointedly avant-garde stuff, non-commercial stuff that I found very compelling. They became the King and Queen of downtown New York arts. It made for a story that was much bigger than just the story of one guy, even though the story of that one guy is incredibly huge and incredibly interesting in and of itself. It connected to New York in a way that’s not all that dissimilar to Love Goes To Buildings on Fire. With a focus of one person as a through line, one life, and more than five years, we have a sweep of the ‘50s through the 21st century so that was also super appealing.

SP: OK. I know we are short on time. You have to get to the second master workshop class you’re doing on campus with students. We could probably go on forever. Thank you so much for your time, this has been so great.

WH: Thank you for this. I had a great time talking with you.

You can read an extended version of Sarah Paolantonio’s interview with Will Hermes on her blog.