Art (and music) are personal. Interview with Neil McCormick

Neil McCormick is now is one of the most relevant voices in the music critic around the world. He was born in London in 1961. His journalistic career started at Hot Press music magazine in Dublin, in 1978. He was a contributing editor for GQ magazine from 1990-1996 and rock critic since 1996 for the Telegraph, where nowadays is chief pop and rock music; also is a regular guest on BBC TV and since 2012, has presented his own interview show on Vintage TV, Neil McCormick’s Needle Time. Additionally, he is musician and he has been part of bands as Frankie Corpse & The Undertakers, The Modulators, Yeah! Yeah!, Shook Up!, The Ghost Who Walks and Groovy Dad. 

He was school mate of the members of U2 in Dublin. Also, he is the author of “I was Bono’s Doppelgänger’ (published in the United States as “Killing Bono”). A film version of “Killing Bono” was released in 2011. Neil is additionally the ghostwriter of U2’s autobiography titled U2 by U2. 

The Echo Music interviewed via e-mail about music critic and why is this relevant. 

Question: When and why did you decided become a music critic?

Answer. Neil McCormick: It’s complicated. I never really made that decision, life decided for me. I was a failed rock star, broke and turning 30. Writing for magazines was one of the few options open to me, because I wasn’t really qualified for anything else. But when I got into it, it felt like the right place to be, almost like everything before had been training for this. 

Q. Why it is important the musical critic?

A. Sometimes I think it’s important, sometimes I think it is the most trivial occupation in the world. But there is a vast amount of music being created, too much for individuals to process, so as consumers we need to find cultural gatekeepers with interesting viewpoints who help sift for the real gold.   

Q. Are there standardized criteria to judge the albums or, if this is an art, the criteria are different between group and group and even between song and song of an album? If any, which can be those criteria?

A. There are no standardized criteria. Our reaction to art is subjective (but guided by experience).

Q. How can be objective a music critic when is judging an album?

A. Objectivity is over rated. Art (and music) are personal. But I try not to overvalue my own immediate response and to take into account the album’s place in the wider world, of commerce, fandom, history. And to think about it both within and without the confines of its genre. Just to judge it by as wide a set of criteria as possible.

Q. Which albums have marked in your career of music critic?

A. I have reviewed too many albums to even think about. Lots of good ones. Not so many bad. Fortunately, I am able to be quite choosy, and, unless something is so high profile it demands to be reviewed, I have a lot of latitude to focus on albums and artists that I think have genuine value.  

Q. Which are the albums that have been more difficult to review?

A. It can be hard to review albums by artists who the public likes but I personally find a bit dull, because I don’t want to just dismiss them out of elitist taste, so I have to try and discover why other people like them so much, and judge them on their own criteria. And I sometimes find it hard to review albums in the dance and electronic genres because the lexicon of terms to discuss what they are doing is either too specialist for most readers or too limited. How many ways can you say groove? 

Q. Do you think there are any relationship between critic music and music prizes?

A. Obviously there is, because critics often sit on the panels that judge these things. Personally, I don’t get involved, because I fear it would compromise my right to criticize the prizes themselves (and there’s plenty of fun to be had doing that!). 

Q. Do you think there are any relationship between fame and music critic?

A. Not sure I understand the question. Critics are just one tiny element that helps the wider world decide who it is going to love. Certainly not the most important element. But there are plenty of artists who have benefited from early critical support and gone on to become extremely famous. It is always nice as a critic to identify someone talented early in their career and feel you have helped push them forwards but I don’t think any critic could ever claim to have made someone famous.

Q. Where do you listen music? Do you prefer use vinyl, MP3, cd or cassette?

A. I am listening to music now, on a CD over a good stereo in my office (trying to decide what to review this week, so I’m flipping through a few candidates). But music is music, as long as I can hear it, I’m not too fussy. I listen to CDs in my car, I listen to the radio in the kitchen, I listen to streams on my phone when I’m going for a run in the morning. In my office, it’s mainly either streams from the computer or CDs on the stereo. I’ve got a record player but the only vinyl I ever play tends to be old and much loved records from my youth in occasional nostalgic binges.

Q. Do you use headphones or speakers to listen music?

A. Both. 

Q. Do you use the streaming platforms as Spotify and Apple Music? Which is your opinion about them?

A. I do. I was an early subscriber to Spotify but never signed up for premium and find the ad supported model too irritating to use. I get Apple Music and Tidal provided for free, and sometimes use their playlists but the problem is that I am generally listening to music that hasn’t been released yet, and you don’t find that on streaming services. I think Apple Music is quite badly designed, Tidal is more user friendly. I still like to put the music I am listening to on a dedicated old iPod that is not even connected to the internet, so it is just a music device. One noticeable thing about streaming is how lazy it has made me. I have a room full of CDs and vinyl but, when I want to reference something, it is easier to quickly type it into a search engine and play it on my computer than to get up from my desk and sort through my own collection.

Q. Has sense go to the gigs/festivals nowadays? Is different the critic music between an album live against an studio album?

A. Are you using a translation programme here? I’m afraid this question is quite hard to decipher! 🙂 I certainly go to gigs and review them. I love live music – there is a focus in the presentation, a tangible element that is more immediately involving than just passively listening, and the best home stereo is never going to be as good as a big PA. But it is very different … albums benefit from textured depths, live is much more immediate.  

Q. Are there a natural relation between been a musician and been a musical critic?

A. There are all kind of relationships between musicians and music critics, some good, some bad. I guess it depends how you take criticism. I’ve made friends with musicians through this job … and fallen out with a few too.

Q. How can differentiate a great album against a bad album? Can even apply this concepts to the evaluation of an album?

A. That is the job. There are too many criteria to list here but the real problem is not differentiating between a great album and a bad album, that’s usually quite obvious. The real problem is that most albums have got some worth. Nobody ever went into a studio and said “ let’s make something really shit just to annoy the anyone foolish enough to listen to it.” Everyone is trying their best. The real issue is differentiating between the good and the truly special, and a lot of that is just subjective taste and judgement. But when I review an album, my main concern is finding an entertaining way to write about it that casts some interesting illuminations on the contents. No review is definitive. A whole range of reviews and responses will ultimately decide if an album is great. 

Q. What is your opinion about the criteria that use Pitchfork, NME and other to evaluate the albums?

A. I don’t concern myself with anyone’s criteria but my own.

Q. How do you think the music has changed between the past decade and nowadays?

A. In too many ways to mention… and in some ways not at all. It is still, in essence, melody, rhythm, lyric, sound and performance combining to express aspects of the human condition.

Q. Can you name the 5 albums more relevant released this year?

A. Relevant to who? I would say there are four fascinating albums that have had a significant impact on pop culture this year: David Bowie: Black Star, Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool, Kanye West: The Life of Pablo, Beyonce: Lemonade. But here’s five other albums that have had no significant impact but I love anyway: Christine & The Queens: Chaleur Humaine, Max Jury: Max Jury, The Last Shadow Puppets: Everything You’ve Come to Expect, Paul Simon: Stranger to Stranger, Poliça: United Crushers. 

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