Word Interview #8 – Rhodri Marsden

While I was interviewing Rhodri for a book I’m writing about fanzines it seemed like a good opportunity to briefly talk to him about his recollections of Word. We met in March 2018 at the British Library, a place Rhodri had never been to before. This made me feel like a street-wise Londoner.

We discussed his writing career following his days as a fanzine editor.

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RM: When I left university in 1992 I had no idea what I was going to do. I ended up working for Nick Hobbs, who was the manager of Pere Ubu, Laibach and others. He used to manage Henry Cow, he’d been an agent at Rough Trade for many years, he’d set up Recommended Records with Chris Cutler and organised pioneering tours of Eastern Europe with acts like Billy Bragg and Misty In Roots over there. I knew him as the singer with the Shrubs, a C86 band who I’d been to see a few times. I was round at his house to tap him for gig contacts in Eastern Europe for my band at the time, The Keatons, when he asked if I wanted a job as his assistant. It was another one of those moments when someone recognised that I was enthusiastic and reasonably conscientious. He was hugely influential for me in that he was making a living, albeit a chaotic one, out of doing stuff that he thought was important. All of his decisions were motivated by enthusiasm, rather than financial gain; if he needed to buy a thing he would do and worry about it later. He was really good at creating work and making it happen. He was this completely self-contained unit of creativity.

He sounds like a fascinating character.

Absolutely, I still see him occasionally. He lives in Istanbul now, doing the same kind of work. He’s a real eccentric.

Another thing I got from him was that he was an absolute stickler for clarity of communication, whether we were dealing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ rider requirements in the Ukraine or communicating with Pere Ubu’s record label. He would write these beautiful, concise letters. He drilled into me that there was no room in this business for omitting detail or not communicating exactly how things are. He wasn’t a writer as such, but he made me good at organising my thoughts in a coherent way. I remember some friends asking me if I’d considered writing for a living, and I thought yeah, maybe I could.

I got to a point with Nick where the job was getting too stressful. It was taking up weekends and I was getting calls from angry people on the other side of the world at 3 a.m. I quit on Christmas Day in 2000. My idea was that I would leave the job and get into writing, but I didn’t have a strategy. I decided to give it six months, and very early on I got a job working on a website for a BBC drama series called Attachments. Then I got to know a few people, pitched a feature for Time Out and it went from there. Bearing in mind how the media has changed in the last 20 years, I was very lucky timing-wise. I just sneaked in under the wire.

How did you first get involved in doing some work for Word magazine?

I can’t quite remember… I’m not sure how David and Mark became aware I existed. It might have been because I was friends with Michèle Noach, the artist, who used to be married to Robyn Hitchcock. Robyn and Michèle were part of a kind of Chiswick social scene with Peter Blake and various others. Mark Ellen was central to all that, so I’d met him a few times. Also, I suppose by that time I’d amassed a lot of Twitter followers, so David might have been aware of me through that.

I’ve never written very much about music. In around 2003 I’d had a column in the Observer Music Monthly called ‘Guitarist Wanted’. The idea was they sent me undercover to audition for bands I had no intention of joining and then write about the experience. It was really stressful because it involved deception, which I’m not very good at. I also remember that my remit was to be mildly amusing but they took all the jokes out – a very common thing, I’ve discovered since, but at the time it left me highly distressed. I remember the editor and deputy editor took me for lunch after six months of this and I thought ‘Ooh, this is a good sign’. But they told me they weren’t going to do the column anymore and asked if I wanted to review some records instead. I didn’t really want to, but I thought I should show willing. They sent me to review ‘You Are the Quarry’ by Morrissey. I had to go to a plush office and spend an hour and a half with this album, and I remember writing a review which could be summed up as ‘Well, I think it’s alright but who cares what I think?’ And that was the only time I got paid to review a record.

But while I’m not very good at writing about music, I think I’m quite good at writing about the making of it. I think the first thing I wrote for Word was about the art of songwriting. It was looking at how a song emerges, how do people prepare mentally, do they sit down with a guitar or a keyboard, do they have a special room, what comes first, words or music and so on.

And you went on to write some other pieces for them?

I think the main one, which ended up being a three-parter, was about the noises that made pop music. It was looking at the building blocks of pop, things like the Beach Boys’ use of theremin, Big Muff distortion pedal, Motown tambourine…

The cowbell?

Exactly, like ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’! More cowbell! Also the 808 cowbell on ‘Dance With Somebody’. Over the three issues it became quite a sizeable piece of work. I remember there was some interest from Radio 2 about doing a documentary but it never happened. I also went on a Word podcast to talk about it.

Were they fun to do?

Yeah! I think I ended up doing two of those podcasts. Green and also I did some Scritti songs in the broom cupboard at the office.

Were you a fan of the magazine?

Yes, mainly because I really liked the people that made it – Andrew Harrison, Fraser Lewry, Kate Mossman… And Mark is such an extraordinary force of nature. I know him quite well now through Michèle. She does these festivals in the Arctic, in a small town in Norway called Vadsø. She invites some of her favourite musicians to go up there, and we put together a show over the course of a week and then perform it. The most recent one involved me, Terry Edwards, half of REM, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip – a very improbable collection. Mark came on the first one and he’s just great. I don’t know anyone as enthusiastic as him. When you enter a room and see him there you just think ‘Oh, brilliant, Mark’s here!’

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Word #52

Cover star – Nick Cave

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June 2007

Word shuffle

1) P68 – 4 page feature by Graeme Thomson about the continuing careers of dead musicians in the digital age. “In the decade since the internet began influencing the way we discover and consume music, a number of previously low-lying artists have seen their posthumous profiles enhanced by online activity. The net is, after all, the perfect foil for compulsive fandom: the essential pulse of obsession has always been about unearthing the new before anyone else, and a medium that combines technology and community in the eternal now of cyberspace provides the perfect vehicle for expanding the reach of those who died without a platinum album or a Time magazine cover.”

2) P117 – reviews of new albums by Travis (“a fine, cynic-slaying return to the fray”), Wiley (“he’s already contemplating retirement – in the unlikely event he means it, his valediction is a fitting memorial”) and Wilco (“full of melancholy and world-weariness”).

3) P128 – from the book reviews section. David Quantick summarises ‘London Pub Reviews’ by Paul Ewen. “It’s a voyage through the perpetual dark afternoon of a man’s soul, where each pub visit ends like this: ‘I was scooped out of the cushioned waves and thrust onto the dry, safe streets of Chelsea’ (The Surprise in Chelsea) or this: ‘When I came to a barman from the Three Kings was dabbing my face with an ice-cold cloth’ (The Three Kings of Clerkenwell). Impressionistic and possibly even made up, this tour of drinks and drunkeness gives a much more accurate impression of London pub life than some drab star-ratingy guide to ales and facilities.”

4) P19 – After the Only Ones decide to reform after 26 years apart, Graeme Thomson lists some of the bands who could be tempted to get back together again, such as The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Abba. He concludes that it’s unlikely for The Jam. “Previous comments from Weller suggest a certain reticence – ‘It will never happen. Me and my children would have to be starving and in the gutter before I’d even consider that.’ A couple more albums like Studio 150 should do the trick.”

5) P23 – John Naughton interviews Armando Iannucci for the ‘Facetime’ section.

“JN: You went to Oxford, after which I understand you almost had a career in the Civil Service.

AI:  I was doing my Finals and I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I sat the Civil Service exams. Before I knew it, I was up in front of the final board of the Treasury, but eventually they said, ‘We don’t think you’ll take this seriously’, which was probably correct.”

Interesting – Eamonn Forde wonders if Apple and EMI’s recent deal will mean the end of Digital Rights Management. “In the face of profit warnings and a declining market share, EMI is punch drunk and in need of a fix – quick or otherwise. It’s rumoured EMI got a $5M advance by Apple to go down the DRM-free route, but the other, less vulnerable majors won’t be so easily swayed. Both Warner and Universal are implacably opposed to dropping DRM.”

Simon Day reveals his taste in music (“I love rappers, particularly Biggie Smalls, Grandmaster Flash, Aesop Rock, Dr Octagon and all those who don’t make porn films and eat liqeur chocolates with their pants showing and their shoes undone”), TV (“just watched season one of The Wire again on DVD – its dissection of the Baltimore drugs scene is like looking at one of those ant farms in the National History Museum – it shows you everything from the bottom to the top”) and books (“Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller is impossible to describe, read it now please”).

An interesting letter from Stephen Brown: “Just to let you know that since that article you ran last summer about my old band The Trees being sampled by Gnarls Barkley, our album On The Shore has been reissued and is doing well. Very well considering it was recorded 37 years ago! And to think the ball started rolling because of The Word. Thanks to all at the magazine.”

Sinead O’Connor talks about her place in the music business. “I had the Bono chat; he came round to my flat in north London with an Ella Fitzgerald LP. I just wish I could remember what he had to to say.

In England and Ireland I’m still perceived as this crazy woman. If you’re too honest you just get crucified. Your label tell you it’s your fault. You’re in rehab, they’re on a yacht. Really, no-one gives a flying fuck about you. My advice to a young person going into the music business would be this: don’t. Find something else to do because the price it exacts is too fucking high.”

In the same article, Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit says “I’ve never thought much about the music industry because I don’t feel that I’m part of it. There’s been no career plan and a distinct lack of ambition. It was a happy accident. I’m the last person to give advice, but once it got to a point where I thought I could do this for a living, the less-is-more thing seemed like a good idea. Don’t saturate people.”

Longer article

Jude Rogers interviews Fountains Of Wayne – the most Word band of all Word bands.

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