SMILEfest 2015: Interview with John Robb from Louder Than War

Sofia Gerganova from the BA (Hons) Popular Music Journalism course at Southampton Solent University interviewed Louder Than War boss John Robb after his panel with Viv Albertine at the SMILEfest Music Industries Conference (click here to watch full video).


Zombiecat Reviews: How did you get involved with music journalism in the first place?

John Robb: For me, it started back in the punk days, because punk’s really empowering. It was all about doing stuff. It wasn’t just about reviewing bands and records; it was about making your own record label and brag about it. We came to school with a copy of a fanzine, called ‘Sniffing Glue’. We thought, “fucking hell, this has just been typed out in biro.” It wasn’t even like a proper paper; I’d never seen anything like it. If you look it up now, all fanzines are now made like that, but at the time it was shocking seeing a paper that looked that rudimentary.  A bit like the first Buzzcocks’ single – it sounded like it was recorded in a shed, but it was magical. Also, you realise you could do it yourself and for me, that’s the most important thing from punk.  The stuff Viv was saying was fantastic, but she was in London and it was a lot easier. In agro towns like Blackpool, where I’m from,  y’know, it’s a fuckall seaside town, no music heritage at all. Punk for us was trying to create something out of nothing. The people in London, at least they could go to a sex shop, at least they had this and that, we had to make it all up ourselves. So, Sniffing Gluecame and it was great, so we just copied that, basically – we did our own magazine. Then the band started getting bigger and we started touring around the country, selling the fanzine. Then the fanzine got pretty well-known from that and it got in the music papers.  It’s not a standard route, because nowadays you have Journalism courses. But I’ve never done a Journalism course – I don’t even know what proper journalism is meant to do, really.[laughs] In a way, I’m more than a writer than a journalist. I don’t do proper journalism. If I was going to write for a local evening paper, I wouldn’t be qualified, I wouldn’t be able to do it. And I hate the way they write about music anyway – it’s such a dead, structured way. First paragraph is always about who’s in the band, second where they’re from and how old they are, you know, boring stuff. I like writing about what music makes you feel like, which proper journalism is not, it’s more fact-based.

ZR: What’s the fastest way, would you say, to get noticed in the media industry?

JR: I’ve got two things to tell you. One, is to like really wishy-washy posh indie music, that’s what most music media is and that will get you a job straight away. If you went to theGuardian and wanted to do a piece on the Sisters of Mercy, you you’ve got no chance, because they don’t write about them bands. But for me, I’m more interested in people who write about what they like. You either make a name for yourself with writing about something idiosyncratic, that people will actually listen to you then, because you’re telling your own truth, they’re the best writers. The people who say, “I like this, this and this – I don’t even know why I like it, it’s so random. But I like this stuff and I can articulate why I like it, and I can contextualise why it exists.” Those are the best writers. The worst writers are people who just follow the party line, but they’re people who want to get paid. There’s two totally conflicting pieces of advice. So, if you want to get on, be boring! [laughs]  The people I respect more are the people who make their own path, really.  Eventually, you’d find your own level and your own space. In practical terms, you do your own blog, that’s how you do it nowadays.  Maybe you get ten people read it, but it’s okay,  you’re holding down the scales and learning how to write; learn how to articulate your own voice, really. [By having a blog] you learn how to do interviews and I never had a list of questions like you do. I prefer to have a vague idea of what I want people to say and mainly go on a tangent, thinking, “that’s a cool fucking tangent and I’m going with it.” I think that a bit of free form is good. Like in music, you know, free-form jazz is more interesting than people playing the same song over and over. Also, you have to think on your feet. Ideas are always very important. If you’re trying to get work off people, you can’t just go and say, “give me some work!” You have to convince them why they should let you cover the news. So, websites, blogs, probably start writing for a website, because you’re not gonna get paid much as a music journalist.

When I started, there were 50 music journalists in the entire country, five music papers – it was spread out and there was work. Nowadays, there’s less space to write, usually get the staff people to write it and they write about certain bands. There’s less space to make money out of it, but don’t let that put you off.

Another thing is, being able to produce different types of media. If you could do radio programmes and you could film as well, that’s great. Also, keep an archive. Every time you do an interview, keep the interview, film everything you do.

ZR: How much experience does someone need to start writing for Louder Than War?

JR: You don’t need any experience. A good writer is a good writer. If you said to me now that you wanted to write a piece about how much you love Sisters of Mercy from the perspective of a 22-year old, that would be perfect for me, because they’re a band so rooted in a generation, I’m interested why you’d like them. I’m also interested in the writers themselves, I like to know why they like particular music or not and the culture around it. What if I were to be the only fan of a certain band in your whole circle of friends? I know the story of my generation inside out and how we went from glam rock to punk rock, to this and that. It’s such a well-trodden story, I know it backwards and I know why everybody likes stuff. But then the next generation comes along with utterly different reference points, which makes it quite fascinating for me to read.  If you went to theGuardian with that, they wouldn’t be interested, but in my website, it’s different. We’re music fanatics and we love music and its surrounding culture. My favourite interviews are like that. I’ve interviewed Johnny Marr in a four-hour interview where he goes on about the quest to get a certain pair of socks in 1982, because Johnny Thunders had a pair of those same socks. You couldn’t buy them anywhere in the north of England, but he found a pair in London in the end. That sort of stuff to me is gold. That’s the pop culture factor and the music’s part of it, but the surrounding culture is an equally important part. Rock’n’roll writing is like normal journalism – it’s telling stories, great stories.

Fame gets in the way of culture. Some of the best culture out there was created by people noone’s ever heard of.

ZR: What do you think about the so-called ‘hipster movement’? Is it a movement or is it a fashion?

JR: All movements are fashion and all fashion’s a movement. I don’t mind, some people look good with beards and some people look terrible, don’t they? I was on a plane the other day and they had this exhibition of hipster beards. They had this woman who’s got a disease that makes her grow facial hair. She’d grown a really long beard and she had eyeliner on. It was quite weird, because she had really pretty eyes and a beard. And I thought that that’s really cool, because it’s really freaky. Anything that’s freaky is interesting. I thought that of all the people I paid, she was by far the most interesting, because she was a woman with a really long beard! That’s not really hipster culture, but she was a part of that scene of people. In the hipster scene, some people are insufferably twats and others do really good stuff, just like in any other scene, y’know. I hate it when people say that there’s not youth culture anymore and that that died out years ago. I go, “God, don’t you sound like your parents now!” I mean, you go out there, and there’s indie kids, there’s metal kids, there’s emo kids, goths kids, hipsters. There’s indie kids that likeOasis, there’s indie kids who like post-rock, there’s always slightly different locks for each one. It’s probably bigger now, youth culture, than it was. When I arrived at my college in 1980, I was the only person into punk in the whole of the college. Everyone else wore rumpy pullovers and had blue denim flares on. Noone was interested in any kind of culture. But now you come here, and I bet that if you walked from here to the other side of the building, there’d probably be about ten or eleven people into different kinds of underground cultures. There’s so many people into underground cultures now, that people don’t notice anymore – it just disappears. Walking around as a punk in the late 1970s, early 1980s, you stood out a mile long. If you saw anybody with spiky hair, you got to them and you spoke to them, they’d be into punk as well, because noone else had spiky hair. Nowadays, footballers have spiky hair. Footballers are more freaky than people in the pop culture, it’s quite weird, ain’t it? Try and just imagine how small it [the underground culture] was – it was tiny! If you walked around like that in England in ‘82, you’d probably get spat at, whereas now people don’t do that anymore.

ZR: Are hipsters the new punks?

JR: No, it’s a different kind of thing, but then, there’s no such thing as punk, in a sense. Nobody ever admitted they were a punk back then. If someone said to me, “you’re a punk,” I’d normally go, “no, I’m not.” You don’t wanna join a ‘gang’, because instantly when someone says ‘punk’, everyone goes, “well, punks don’t do that.” It always felt like, obviously the London people, like Viv, they were before us, they were the ‘76 and we were from ‘77. It always felt like it was kind of their thing and you’re joining in. But who wants to join in that shit, y’know? And We’re from the north, the north’s different from the south. We have a different take on music and we liked a different kind of music. Like any kind of music scene that ever makes a version of it, that becomes a micro-scene.  We kind of struggled between punk and post-punk, but post-punk didn’t exist then, noone called it that way. We thought that’s what punk was, we thought it was more experimental. Very quickly, that post-punk shattered into what people call goth now, I’m actually writing a book on that now, because there’s Simon Reynolds in that book of post-punk and he missed out all the goth bands, because he didn’t like them, so I’m gonna put them all back in again. I’m just saying that, because those bands don’t get a good ride off the media, because people make fun of them and are like, “oh yeah, pasty-faced goths, ha, ha, ha! The music’s all rubbish!” Well, actually, no, it’s not – Bauhaus’ early records are fantastic! They’re experimental – they’re like dark dub records. Daniel Ash is one amazing guitar player – he never plays anything boring, not a riff or a solo. He’s a really original guitar player, but he never got any credit for it. It’s kinda weird, because he wore eyeliner and girls fancy him. Most journalists are male, even today and they only like bands that look like them – bands that look like music journalists – blokes with pullovers on. [laughs]Adam Ant’s first record was astonishing! But because he was pretty and girls fancied him, he can’t be an artist. For male journalists, Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys is like the God, ‘cause he’s a fat bloke with a beard, so they don’t feel that awkward about him. But someone like Bauhaus can’t make a great record, because Peter Murphy is a good-looking guy, therefore he doesn’t fit. The band had eyeliner on, therefore they wouldn’t be that serious. That’s the thing about goth gigs, and the same goes about metal: the audience and the gigs are the closest you’d get to a balance between men and women. It’s probably a 60-40 male-female split, but you go to an indie gig, there’s about 80% of blokes, ain’t it?

ZR: Do you think that there’s still kind of a lad culture in rock music?

JR: Yeah, there is, but the bands who are really laddish, say like Oasis, aren’t that laddish. Have you ever heard them say anything sexist or racist? Because they never, ever would. If someone in his band made a sexist comment, Noel Gallagher’d probably sack them from the band. Not because he’s a mister good-guy, it’s just not done. You don’t do that kind of shit. You don’t say anti-gay stuff, that’s just not on. So, people always assume that as a northerner, he’s a bit thick, y’know, [puts on a southern accent]they’re not clever like we are in the south. [laughs] That’s what they’d think about the north. But Oasis, actually, without ever saying it, are probably more political than political bands 30 years ago, because they’ve grown up in that culture.

ZR: You and Viv earlier said that punk is about deconstructing, rather than building legends. Don’t you think that that’s what happened to Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious?

JR: Well, yeah, but it’s not their fault. The more you deconstruct a legend, the more of a legend it becomes. It’s like Viv’s story of the blowjob with Johnny Rotten –  smelly sex in a dirty cold room – it actually makes it seem even mroe legendary. The blowjob with Johnny Rotten, which is one of the key stories in her book, actually in the end, becomes a great story. Instead of debunking a myth, it becomes myth, but that’s what happens with anyone slightly famous. It’s just weird how people think like that. But then, on the other hand, maybe Johnny Rotten had an amazing presence about him for once in his life and he said really cool stuff. He was quite normal, but on another level, he’s got something other people don’t have. It doesn’t make him a god, it makes him someone who has magnetism. When you debunk stuff, it’s great, because everyone should be invited to party. It’s not about someone being better than you, but some people naturally have a specific gift or a talent. Someone like Jimi Hendrix, who played guitar when he came to London in 1966, you can’t just say that he was just a normal bloke. A black guy, dressed in exotic clothes, playing incredible guitar, noone’d ever heard before – that was like nothing anybody’d ever seen before. On a lot of levels, of course he’s a flawed, fucked-up neurotic human being, but that’s the bit people get wrong – when they think that famous people are perfect. When people went to see the Sex Pistols and they saw John Lydon, they said the same thing. They’d never seen anyone dress or act like that at that stage and that’s what inspired people. That’s the interesting part, isn’t it? Fame gets in the way of culture. Some of the best culture out there was created by people noone’s ever heard of.

We’re losing a generation of musicians who can’t afford to get in.

ZR: Finally, in your manifesto, you say that noone owns music. What do you think about sharing music on the Internet?

JR: It works on two levels. On one level, it’s great, because people get to hear your stuff and because media in a way censors music. 6 Music – a great radio station, but they wouldn’t play Sisters of Mercy and that’s bullshit, ain’t it? What’s going about the Internet now, it’s fans posting and saying, “check that music video out, check that album out.” Those bands, who have that kind of support, are twice as big now than they were 10 years ago. But on the other hand, the bit on the panel was a bit about the Pirate Party. I fucking can’t stand them! They’re arrogant and they’re so irritating! They sit there and go, “we’re doing you a favour, because in the old days, you used to sign to a record label and they’d rip you off.” But bands who are signed to a record label are given £10, 000 to go and call it a record and thenthey rip them off! What do you do? They go, “well, we just take music and give it away.” Who’s paying to make this stuff? Record sales now are completely low. I own a record label and you wait until you get to 200 sales, and you think, “when it gets to 200, I break even and thank God for that!” I can’t pay to be in the studio! So, now what you get is, only rich kids can afford to be in a band. If you were just a normal kid, you can’t borrow a grand off your parents and go in the studio, because they haven’t got a grand. Then they go, “why don’t they record it in a spare room in your house?” We haven’t got a fucking spare room![laughs] You live in the real world. Some people can’t afford laptops or drum kits to make records. We’re losing a generation of musicians who can’t afford to get in.  That’s wrong on that level. I’ve never known any musicians to apologise for getting paid. This thing has gone on for years, where people would turn around to musicians and go, “oh, you’re a sell-out, you’re getting paid!” What’s that meant to mean? So, what, I’m gonna go to the shop on a Monday, pick up a cabbage and walk out. When someone stops you and goes, “no, no, you gotta pay for that, mate,” you can say, “no, it’s fine, I’m a musician, I’m just downloading your cabbage.” [laughs] Some people think that’s it’s a luxurious thing being a musician, but someone’s gotta do it. It makes things better, it’s good, it’s art, it’s creative stuff. I don’t wanna get subsidised by the state and I don’t wanna have to get on my knees and get money off beer and whisky companies, just because people won’t pay for records. The thing is, I’d never pay for music ever again. So, there’s no point even complaining about it. That’s the way it is, nobody will pay for music, it’s just changed.

ZR: Those are two conflicting views.

JR: There’s a lot of conflicting views and there’s nothing wrong with conflicting views, because everything’s contradictory. I’d prefer, if I put a record out of one of my bands, or put some music out, that people would pay for it, so I can pay the rest of my bands and I could pay to go to a studio to make the next one. That’s how DIY bands exist; the margins are small. File-sharing is good, because people can hear your music all around the world. It’s an utter, total contradiction, ain’t it? [laughs] But then, having a contradictory stance is okay. Especially when you’re an artist and not a politician. I’m an artist and we’re contradictory people. You can hold two opposing views at the same time.

ZR: Well, a lot of politicians do exactly the same.

JR: [laughs] I know quite a lot of politicians and some of them are alright. They’re trying really hard to be idealistic in a very un-idealistic situation. Probably the best religion in the world is the Jains in India. They say that no idea is a perfect idea, unless you’re gonna have seven different views on that idea. Or something like that. They say that you could have all the different shades and the same views in the same argument. I think that’s a cool way to think, isn’t it? They also don’t kill any animals. If you walk down the streets, they sweep the streets, so you don’t tread on bacteria and the priests wear little white masks so they don’t breathe flies or bacteria in. I went to a Jain temple in Mumbai and at 3:45, 10, 000 pigeons turned up. I was like, “what’s going on,” and they went, “at 4 o’clock we feed the pigeons.” They turn up every day. They have animal hospitals where people bring their pets and they fix them up and it’s not for money, it’s because they love all animals. My soppy side really likes that. [laughs]

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