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Isolation; Being in a Band

December 9, 2011 | by

This week our friend Sasha Frere-Jones was kind enough to share his good counsel. By day, Sasha is the pop critic for The New Yorker, and by night he is a member of the bands Calvinist and Piñata. By day or night, he gives darn good advice.

My family members are music lovers. They are obsessed with rare albums (dad), Internet radio (older brother), and attending live performances (mom; anything “spiritual” or classical). I’m done giving them novels because they don’t read them. Can you recommend any books for the music enthusiast’s library, or, even better, DVDs?

Both volumes of the The Old Grey Whistle Test DVD collection are fantastic. It’s all pop music from the seventies, played live and immaculately filmed for the BBC. I have no idea where the BBC got such fancy, high-res cameras: the footage looks a decade ahead of whatever the Americans were producing. The performances are uniformly great. (If these linked clips of Bill Withers performing “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Talking Heads playing “Psycho Killer” don’t move you, I’m out of DVD ideas.) As for books, Christopher Small’s Musicking is appropriate for any music lover, irrelevant of preferred genre. Small’s openness and attention to the social aspects of music are unmatched by any other music writer.

What’s your opinion on job-interview etiquette? Is it sufficient to send thank-you e-mails? The handwritten note seems to me a thoughtful gesture, but it takes a day or so to arrive. Is it overkill to send the e-mail, as well as the old-fashioned note?

The handwritten note is a red flag; it’s really only a charming move when the two parties already know each other. A brief, cheerful e-mail is best. Nothing startles like an e-mail that blooms open into several screens’ worth of type. I have not hired people on the basis of e-mail length, as it usually corresponds to loopy behavior (as do multiple e-mails sent within the space of an hour).

Do you ever use a thesaurus? My favorite teacher had nothing but negative things to say about it, she thought it made students into lazy writers. What do you think?

If you are bad with words, using a thesaurus won’t help, as you’ll just choose a clumsy word to replace whatever clumsy word you started with. If you have an ear, everything helps.

What author captures the experience of being in a band the best?

Franzen captured a common band-member type in Freedom, with the Richard Katz character. I have been meeting black-hole narcissists like Katz since I started playing, though I have never found myself with a Katz in a rehearsal space. Franzen imagined a pretty great playlist for Katz, though, so if he made mixtapes for you and stayed out of your house, you’d be fine with a Katz in your life.

Bob Mould’s See A Little Light is a healthy and self-aware take on the miserable politics of being in a band, where people spend ninety-nine percent of their time alleging that other people are getting too much credit for their work, facts be damned. Mark E. Smith’s Renegade is an unreliable and utterly oblivious account of leading a band, and is probably the best book about being in a band that I’ve ever read. It doesn’t matter if Smith is fudging the facts half the time—when you’re in a band, you feel as right as Smith asserts that he usually has been.

As for being in a band, no book can capture the tedious parts. Perhaps Chantal Ackerman could do it, in film. The good parts are much shorter in length but equally impossible to record. Mostly, they begin and then, some time later, you’re on the other side of the stage and you have little idea how you arrived there and the good moment is over. You do the tedious bits just to get to those lovely lapses of memory and reason.

What do isolation and insularity teach us?

Insularity produces blind spots we may not be able to discover. Isolation is essential for finding those blind spots.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.



  1. Lorin Stein | December 9, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    For the person who wants a novel about being in a band: check out Christopher Sorrentino’s unforgettable first novel, SOUND ON SOUND. By “unforgettable'” I mean you won’t forget it.

  2. Lorin Stein | December 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    P.S. Thanks, Sasha, for the great advice. (Must, must learn to follow the one e-mail rule.)

  3. Bertilak Ritter von Green Chapel | December 9, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Vikram Seth isn’t a favorite at the Paris Review, but his novel An Equal Music, is an excellent piece about the joys and sorrows of being in a band (well really a string quartet)

  4. Lorin Stein | December 9, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    P.P.S. I think a handwritten thank-you note is still the way to go, if not at The New Yorker, then still here on White Street — where the one e-mail rule is routinely thrown to the floor and danced on … as they are dancing, while I type, in the downstairs office of our neighbors RoAndCo, to the strains of “Be My Baby.”

  5. Bill Peterson | December 10, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Back in 1972, the BBC was using huge EMI 2001 studio cameras with 4 30mm Plumbicon tubes and recording with 2 inch tape. The resolution was actually much higher than the transmitters of the day could handle – and in any case the quality of the PAL system the British used was much superior to the NTSC system being used in North America. The Brits always were sticklers for quality – and it shows.

  6. Sasha Frere-Jones | December 11, 2011 at 1:36 am

    I love the internet because I do not think there is any other way right now—certainly not by calling the BBC—to get an answer like Bill Peterson’s. Wow.

  7. Bill Peterson | December 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    “Wow” is frequently my reaction to your music reviews in the New Yorker. But once in a while I do happen to read something that’s applicable to some area of my own expertise – and I’m happy to be able to add my 2 cents worth.

  8. Irene | December 12, 2011 at 7:59 am

    “Those lovely lapses of memory and reason” is a good description of any creative work. One minute you’re struggling with a difficult transition and the next it’s 2 pm and you haven’t had lunch.

  9. Facebook Fans | December 12, 2011 at 11:19 am

    The “Old Grey Whistle Test” fantastic progamme, ran for about 20 years. I think the presenter was Bob Harris.

  10. Michael Atallah | December 12, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I enjoyed Roxy Music’s performance inre the Old Grey Whistle Test DVD. Ladytron.

  11. Michael Atallah | December 13, 2011 at 2:02 am

    PS. I agree with you Sasha. Thank you Bill. Quite rare to participate in discussions of live music performance cinema. One of my favorite vernaculars hands down.

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