One Reason to Live: Conversations About Music with Julius Nil
The Blindfold Test is one of the most surefire interviewing devices known to music journalism. Developed in the 1940s by the jazz magazine Down Beat, the concept is simple: play the subject a series of recordings, have them figure out what’s playing, and then let discussion ensue. The Wire--the British avant-music magazine, not the HBO series--has done this especially well; under the name Invisible Jukebox, it tailors the tracks to the interviewee’s history and background, yielding the magazine’s most consistently readable feature.
Seth Kim-Cohen further tweaked the blindfold blueprint for London’s Resonance FM. A musician (in the bands Number One Cup and the Fire Show), sound artist who’s exhibited at London’s Tate Modern, and lecturer at Yale’s art school, Kim-Cohen hosted One Reason to Live under the alias Julius Nil from February 2004 to April 2005. On each episode, a different guest played one piece of music he or she held dear and spent the remainder of the hour discussing it with the host. Those transcripts make up this book, and like the best of The Wire’s Jukeboxes, they go further into--and away from--the songs than most journalism, or even criticism, tends to allow.
Most of the subjects and their choices stay close to The Wire’s usual suspects, actually: Ocean of Sound author David Toop discusses ambient pioneer Harold Budd; jazz saxophonist Ken Vandermark picks Louis Armstrong’s "West End Blues"; Ben Watson, author of a couple of Frank Zappa books, picks "Andy" from Zappa’s 1975 album One Size Fits All. But while the conversations generally stay focused on the music, they’re seldom jargony--Kim-Cohen admits, while discussing his own choice, the Birthday Party’s "Mutiny in Heaven," that he has "a very limited grasp of theory"--and usually they range into more general territory.
That’s where the meat of many of the interviews lies. The personal favorite is Andrew McGettigan, who runs the London conference series NOISETHEORYNOISE. He uses Schneider TM and Kpt. Michigan’s "The Light 3000," an electro-pop version of the Smiths’ "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," as a jump-off into the way cover songs do and don’t work, as well as insightful offhand analyses of the emotional pull of particular recording technique, and of Prince: "‘I Would Die 4 U’ . . . expresses an emotion not too many miles away from ‘There Is a Light,’ but at the same time being much more sexual. And in some ways, the decision, as an adolescent music listener, is whether you find the one who seems closest to you or the one that seems furthest away, the most escapist. Perhaps this Schneider TM version is the nearest equivalent we have to a Prince cover version of ‘There Is a Light.’"
Kim-Cohen is clearly talking with friends, though a couple of times he basically chides his guests about their picks: see Vandermark on Armstrong, or John Parish on Tom Petty’s "American Girl." Still, Kim-Cohen’s genuine enthusiasm gives the project its push. He seeks to understand, even if he doesn’t always.