Neil Kulkarni is well-known (but don’t call him (in)famous) as a straight-writing music and culture critic, with caustically acerbic opinions on nearly every aspect of postmodern Britain. Sean Bw Parker tested Kulkarni’s patience, taking in subjects such as UK race-relations, his hometown Coventry and the demise of the Melody Maker (spoiler alert: if you object to the word ‘C*nt’, do not read this article).
In your capacity as a music critic, you are known for your intolerance of reviews you see as ‘boring’. What’s your criteria for boring or engaging?
“Well, that doesn’t come from any ‘capacity as a music critic’ at all; it comes from being a reader and a listener first and foremost. When I wrote that blog about the NME I was totally shocked, (as I’m always genuinely surprised that anyone, particularly successful writers, give a toss what this old knacker writes) by people’s shock – this idea that critics shouldn’t criticize other’s writing but that was exactly how I started out in this malarkey, writing to the music press to criticize them.
I’m still really just another powerless reader. As a reader & listener you develop a taste for writers as you do for music. Simply put – I like writers who feel like friends, who give you a laugh.
Writing that makes you feel better in some way for having read it. Writing that talks to you as an equal, not someone who’s there to be dazzled by the astonishing wit & smartness of the writer (as a rule writers like this tend to be neither smart nor witty). A flaw of mine is that I definitely judge people by what they make, I find writing, in particular music writing, actually reveals a truth behind people way more than any other art-form because music cuts right to who and how we are – it’s the playing out of a person’s moral sense. The expression of taste in music should tell you a lot about the person writing it, for ill or good, in the style of it, and in the generosity – where that’s directed. If it’s directed towards the writer themselves that’s probably going to be terrible clever-clever shit that reveals nothing but the writers own emptiness of thought and overabundance of smarm.
As a reader you have to feel that the writer has a right to his or her opinion and that you want them in your home and head, not that they’re the kind of unfunny wanker you’d want out immediately. The generosity in the writing has to be towards the reader, not by eliminating style in favour of ‘accessibility’, but in not underestimating them or pre-judging them and being honest about everything you think.
I am not some bellyacher about ‘passion’ missing in music writing at the moment – I just miss laffs and mind fuel – passion shouldn’t be used as a mask for inexactitude or wooliness. It’s that crucial thing of finding that point between being informative and imaginative but also expressing WHY you care, what stake you have in the music. Too often in rock writing I get the feeling writers would rather be doing anything else than writing and even more fatally, feel massively superior to the reader. Hate that shit and always have. Writing is a performance. I read too many people who shouldn’t have been allowed near the stage.
Of course, basic editing skills are crucial, being able to not be precious and cut things brutally and being rhythmic with prose is all-important as a writer, and you learn those skills through being a good reader who can absorb other people’s styles but find their own.
I’m not entirely sure I’ve managed that yet. As a reader it comes down to hearing a real persons voice, not just more keyword-heavy content, and wanting to listen to what the writer has to say. Knowing it’s them after a few lines, wanting to be in their company. Because I’m old when I say this stuff I’m accused of harking back but I just think that’s massively condescending to young writers, hugely defensive and defeatist. All writers should want to do more than just pay the rent, and all writers should occasionally question their purpose. I’m sure that for the people within the nexus of buddies that is the London ‘creative sector’ it’s difficult to be aware of how cut off they are – as an outsider it’s just always seemed like a bubble that benefits all within it but that ill-serves British music massively. Even if it’s a fiction to think critics can change the culture they’re criticizing I’d rather read writers who at least partly think they can, not just that they’re at the teat end waiting to get fed.
It saddened me a lot after that Peace review that my perceived inability to make a living from writing was used as a way of dismissing what I said, and I bitterly resent the idea that I can’t turn in copy to word count and deadline. I’m a professional and still getting paid to write as I have been since 1993. I work to tight deadlines and word counts all the time – this notion that I’m just some mad old fucker jabbing at a keyboard until the wee smalls . . . I’ve got to be up every morning to go to work and get the kids to school. Massively patronizing also, I thought, that idea that cos I’ve got a ‘proper job’ I’m not allowed to critique culture anymore or that if I do I’m somehow raging against my unemployability & powerlessness– that response really revealed to me what a lot of those journalists really think about their readership, and what they really think about themselves. I don’t know, it just wouldn’t ever occur to me or anyone I know to criticize someone cos they’re poor, or take the piss out of someone cos they’re not getting as much work as you, or not listen to someone cos they’re too old. I found it quite upsetting but ultimately have to accept that if music writers think everything’s tickety-boo with music journalism at the moment they must be right & I’m probably best off out of it, and it’s confirmed something I’ve been thinking about for a long time about giving up soon and disappearing. What I would say though is that pieces like the Peace review, the NME thing – I would never dream of pitching them to anyone, or hoping for a commission or payment for them, let alone proffer them as some kind of writing model. They are what they are – blogposts.
I’m kind of sick of the idea that those pieces have created i.e that all I do is rant. I also write about music I love, and try and listen to pop and write my thoughts, same as always, I’m not always slinging shit at people like some irate gorilla. If I want to write about Nick Drake or HMV or singles reviews of what I’m loving at the moment – something different in tone – I will but it doesn’t seem to register with those who want to caricature and misread me.
My blog is a blog and is precisely where I feel I should be ignoring constraints, yet still pruning where I see fit, it’s my black little garden. I always get a panic attack 2 hours after posting (I always post in a rush, before doubt hits) where I re-read it and think ‘no, you can’t say that’ and that’s normally a tip-off that I might be on the right track. I can’t pay myself a wage for it so why be counting words or watching my lip?
I was genuinely saddened that Dorian Lynskey finds me such an embarrassment cos I’ve liked his writing for a long time, it was his general tone of embarrassment with the sheer fact that I still write, that I didn’t crawl off and die sometime in the last decade – that really upset me. The rest of them . . . if I wasn’t annoying them I’d be worried. Yes, there’s plenty of ‘wry’,
‘illuminating’ writing out there but there’s so much amazing fucking music that needs a little bit more than that, and there’s a government & a pliant silent music industry we have that needs attacking. I see no political purpose or drive in music writing at the moment and that’s a real dereliction of duty I think. That said, judging the health of music writing on what you can find at the NME or newspaper sites is a bit like judging music just by what gets released by labels. It’s not like that anymore. There’s shitloads of genius stuff going on without any of those ancient strictures/structures.
Eventually I hope writers, like musicians, can genuinely find a d.i.y way that pays. Until then I wish the writers I love would get more work than the writers I don’t, just like I wish the bands I love would get more love than the bands I don’t. Because I’m a reader, and a listener.”
Would you say the state of tedious white-boy indie is in even more of a parlous state than when you railed against it while writing for Melody Maker?
“No, it’s not in a parlous state, it’s doing alright, it’s got so much support, it’s doing ‘intimate, homecoming’ gigs and it’s ‘appeal is becoming more selective’ maybe but so long as labels keep signing it and writers keep writing about it it’ll be fine. For me, labels are not my go-to place for music anymore, it’s soundcloud and mixcloud and bandcamp and youtube.
Musically, lyrically, spiritually and politically that Arctic Miles Bugg shit is like fucking kryptonite to me. Until the music press cuts its umbilicus with it, demonstrates some discernment at least, and really starts fairly but firmly engaging with the music made by the whole country and all its people I don’t think the music press will ever attain its true, almost revolutionary, possibility. This is not harking back, it’s harking forward. A diverse music press would be a better, more fit for purpose music press. And the writing and music would improve if more people were willing to read and write outside of their comfort zone.
I certainly hope for a great white rock and roll band again, a unifying force for good like Pulp were, but I also know that a music press that rejects diversity, like Melody Maker did in its final demise, is a music press that’s fatally fucked.
I just don’t see why time and time again we have to keep liking horribly derivative shit and pretending it’s gold, and I don’t see why lame pastiche of such tired flogged-dry sources repeatedly gets so much support and attention.
For me it’s a deliberate shutting out of a whole swathe of British music, British people and British culture in the desire to chase and keep a demographic the music press would be best off challenging a little. Losing a few reactionary lads, of which there are many in the readership of the music press, would be worth it if the music press could be turned into a real vibrant vivid cultural force for all young people into music. I won’t say ‘again’ because I don’t think it’s ever fulfilled that possibility. It’s unlikely at a time where there’s so much fear of risk but until that happens the constant boosting of that shriveled withered bigoted corner of UK music is all just more Mark Sutherland-style racist fuckwittery as far as I’m concerned. Playing to the kind of twats who thought Noel Gallagher was right about Jay-Z. I don’t see why wankers like that should be kowtowed to.”
How have the combined effects of the London riots a couple of years ago and this years’ killing of Lee Rixby affected race relations culturally speaking in the UK, in your view?
“In both cases, beyond the people directly affected, life was made more difficult for minorities in the UK. Race relations, between the overwhelming majority of people, are fine. Race relations, as reported by the right wing press and believed by the divide-and-rule likes of the Tories, UKIP and the EDL are at constant breaking point, something that incidents like 7/7 & the killing of Lee Rixby provide ‘back-up’ for.
All I have to go on is my experience and in the main, at work and in the street and among friends, race-relations are fine and not adversarial. I will say though that the constant pitch of rhetoric against immigration and the endless promotion of spurious notions of Britishness is creating an atmosphere and environment whereby minorities in this country are being told louder and louder that they’re a ‘problem’ to be dealt with and ironed out. Music and art can perform a vital function in answering some of the questions young people have about their senses of identity and self, or at least in providing an equally confused mirror wherein anger can find its reflection. That kind of music is absolutely marginalized at the moment and a lot of young people will find those answers and those questions about their past, present and future being answered by other, far more dangerous people. That worries me quite a lot, because I remember how angry and confused I was growing up and how much writers like Ralph Ellison and A.Sivanandan and bands like Public Enemy, Fugazi, Consolidated meant to me, helped me and sent me onwards to learn more.
Music, because it’s essentially suggestive rather than dictatorial can perform a vital function by raising more questions, encouraging wider reading and understanding – it’s essentially communication over divisions of time, race, class etc and I would argue essentially an anti-racist activity apart from extremist exceptions. I’d rather people schooled themselves with the indefinite, inspirational answers of music than have their anger answered by the definite, dead-end rhetoric of gurus, imams, priests, politicians and other dangerous psychopaths.”
You have a fair claim to be Coventry’s most (in)famous resident. What’s your opinion on one of the city’s past Great White Hopes, indie-rock trio The Enemy?
“Firstly, no way am I ‘famous’, I’m some guy with a blog and a tiny toehold in the media. The writers I’ve criticized, the bands I’ve criticized are all winners really and far more famous than I could ever dream of being. Bar the tiny tiny world of music writing no-one in Cov or anywhere else has a clue or gives a shit about anything I do.
For what it’s worth, I militantly chose to remain in Coventry when all kinds of people in London were telling me that if I wanted to stay in ‘this business’ I’d have to move down to the big smoke. Part of that decision to stay here was down to shyness and sheer fear, partly down to a dim awareness that if all my friends were other journalists, PR people, people in bands, my writing would go down the tubes.
I think I’d feel utterly paralyzed as a writer if I ever felt I was ‘part’ of anything. Coventry’s home, the one place on earth I feel comfortable in, I have family and friends here and as technology’s changed it’s become increasingly irrelevant I think, living in London. If anything in terms of work outside of London, live reviews all over the country and elsewhere it was actually a benefit not being from London. As for the Enemy, like most Coventry people I’d just think they were rubbish knobs if they didn’t so consistently try and use their Coventry connection as proof of some kind of bullshit ‘mean streets of Cov’ attitude.
It shows a total lack of understanding and a cynical exploitation of the city and so I’ve mentally downgraded them from just being twats to actually being cunts. They’re playing shows and making money and their false narrow portrayal of ‘working class life’ is going to continue to be boosted and supported by the press. But don’t expect anyone who knows jack shit about music to take them seriously. They’re just consistently stolidly dull as fuck, that’s the main thing to remember. That kind of music is just so fucking boring.”
Could you respond to these cues with some one-word answers?
Westboro Baptist Church: cunts
Anders Brevich: cunt
Syrian rebels: dunno sir
Nick Clegg: cunt
A pleasing symmetry there. Although actually all them could be summed up with the same 5 words. “Future Vice Magazine Cover Stars”
You have written a good many words about music in your time. Could you give your top five desert island discs – five singles, and five albums…
1. Upside Down – Diana Ross
2. Teardrops – Womack And Womack
3. Ghost Town/Why?/Friday Night Saturday Morning – The Specials
4. Give It Up Turn It Loose 7” version – James Brown
5. Good Times (full 12” mix if possible) – Chic
ALBUMS (impossible but these 5 would somehow remind me of all the others I’d have to leave behind)
1. Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers
2. Throwing Muses – House Tornado
3. Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet
4. Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure
5. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew