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.
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…
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!’