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Interview: Hamish MacBain, NME reviews editor

2017 February 13
by admin

Hamish MacBain, reviews editor for the NME, has been something of a household name round our way lately – we were offered an interview with him by a PR company, only for it to fall through twice. We decided he was obviously far too busy living the showbiz NME lifestyle to talk to the likes of us – too busy punching celebrity pack-mule Mark Ronson in the small of his back to try and rupture the coke balloons that are stuck up there, dipping Iggy Pop’s hand in warm water during his afternoon nap, and other such larks – and we said so on our website. Imagine our surprise when he contacted us himself, having found our page – completely and legitimately unaware that he was ever meant to be interviewed – offering us his personal number and a sincere interview. Ah.

I called him, and there was no Ronson, no Iggy Pop, no PJ Harvey eating twigs with Jarvis Cocker – just a perfectly affable young man who’d just had painful-sounding dental surgery, but was happy to talk to us anyway. So here’s Hamish MacBain, finally, on record reviews, the changing face of music, and where he sees the NME fitting in with it all.

You said you’re happy to talk to anybody about the NME because you think it has a stigma. Do you think the NME needs defending?

I don’t necessarily think that it needs defending, but you know… I find it frustrating that people always always come back to this supposedly superior era of the 70s, with the likes of Julie Birchill, Tony Parsons, people like that… I’m not saying it’s better or worse now, but the future was full of possibilities then. It’s a different ballgame now, everybody’s into music now, it used to be an alternative thing. I don’t know what alternative is now. I remember listening to Nirvana as a kid and now you’ve got the broadsheets writing about new bands the second they come out. The landscape’s changed.

Is that because music’s big business now?

Not just that, but there’s so much advertising now, and you turn on channel 4 and see four boys with haircuts playing guitars, and everyone on Coronation Street has a Beatles haircut. And the NME’s duty as the only national weekly music paper is to reflect what’s going on in the mainstream as well as the stuff we like.

Is it still as important a supplement to music as it was in the 80s?

Well, when we had Beth Ditto on the cover naked, that’s when the Gossip went from being an underground act to a band that everyone was talking about. Obviously there are umpteen billion blogs, people who are far quicker at getting onto new music than we do, which is fine – some guy blogging in the middle of Canada is obviously going to be onto new Canadian bands quicker than we are. It’s harder and harder to be first on new stuff. But for a lot of stuff, when the NME puts it on the cover, that’s kind of a sign that it’s ready to be considered by people at large.


“That cover” – The Gossip’s Beth Ditto

Blogs are getting bigger now, though; acts like Broken Social Scene owe a lot of their success to Pitchfork.

Pitchfork have done very well for carving out a niche – the NME will always, to me, be associated with Oasis, Blur, Nirvana, mainstream guitar acts, that kind of thing. Pitchfork are all about the likes of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Bonnie Prince Billy, what I would loosely term All Tomorrow’s Parties music. Very “indie”. And they’re the magazine to deal with that kind of stuff, they’ve been responsible for breaking a lot of bands – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sold about thirty thousand records off the back of a Pitchfork review. And that’s great, there’s certainly room for things like that to blossom and co-exist alongside things like the NME.

It is a bit snobbish, though.

Yeah, but they’re kind of willfully snobbish. Just like we’re willfully a bit kiddie and a bit Smash Hits sometimes, Pitchfork know that that’s what people want from them. Even the people who don’t like Pitchfork read it to be wound up by how snobbish it is.

I do that.

Exactly. It’s not my cup of tea, reading massive dissertations on music, but they do that very well. I’m really happy it exists, because for a long time all those kind of bands – that weren’t mainstream enough to make the NME or Spin or Rolling Stone – were just kind of getting overlooked, and the only place you’d find them would be fanzines and stuff like that. It’s great that there’s a place that people know they can go to for that. But they are a bit too snobbish for my taste.

Do you find bands get better coverage from a review or from a cover story?

Well, all press coverage is good press coverage – if a record gets 1/10 I’m just as inclined to have a listen. If you write about the band rather than just review them, there’s so much more to consider about bands than just the records they make. It’s about the look, and what you’ve got to say. A lot of people say it should be all about the music, but if that’s your stance you shouldn’t really be reading music magazines. Music magazines are all about mythologizing, creating pop stars, it’s much more interesting.

If you listen to an Elvis Presley record now you’d think it was a good record, but the only time you’d find it really, really exciting would be if you had the context of it, when they had to move move the camera so they wouldn’t see his hips on screen, that’s something that makes music magical and inspiring. The piece that contextualizes a band can push them to that next level, into the mainstream.

The Elvis example is an interesting one – listening to Nirvana as a kid, did they provide you with the equivalent of that?

I was just the right age when Nevermind came out, 12 or 13, y’know, you’re beginning to find out who you are, start going out and all that.

Yeah, I had that, except it was ten years later. And I always wished I could have experienced it at the time. For context, I suppose.

Well I was 15 – when did he die, 94? – I must have been 15 when Cobain died, and this was ages before the internet so it wasn’t like you knew. You didn’t get a text or anything. My mum and dad were watching the news, and of course I didn’t fucking watch the news because I was too busy listening to records in my room and being miserable. And they shouted up and said “that guy you like has died”. And you thought, wow, he really meant it when he said he was down and out.

But it was such a big thing when I was in school, literally everyone was into Nirvana. It transcended the alternative. You had kids who were into Sonic Youth, real alternative kids and all that, but even, like, the football lads at our school, or people who liked Happy Hardcore, they all loved it. And when he died it did kind of put a black cloud over young people at that time. And I remember buying the NME when he died – and it can still be a hugely iconic part of musical history, the NME, because I remember buying that issue even now.

But do you think that could happen now? If that happened now, you’d almost definitely know about it the same day.

Well this is the problem with making a music magazine that’s weekly, you have to develop ways of making something that’s unique and exciting. We can turn things around quicker than anyone because we’re weekly, but if you’re reading a gig review in our magazine, that gig happened probably ten days ago. And if something spectacular happened like a fight or a singer storming off, you probably know already. So you need to make sure that you put an angle on it, so that it’s a piece of writing, rather than just reportage. Whether it’s what the gig means for the band at this stage of their career, or just – not critical analysis, that sounds wanky – talking about what it means rather than saying “this is what happened”.

But it is a real challenge. Let’s say Pete Doherty died on Thursday – our print deadline’s Friday, so it wouldn’t be out until the following Wednesday, which would be a week after the event. By which time there’d be fucking acres and acres of coverage and tributes, so it would be really hard. But there are things we can do that you can’t do online – you can’t have a beautiful double-page spread of an image. There’s still something striking about that. You just have to play to your strengths as a print medium – although we do online stuff as well, you just need to find a way that a magazine can still be a strong means of communication.

Do you think music magazines should “say something” rather than just printing blow-by-blow accounts of albums and shows? I tried to review Animal Collective’s new one but it was pointless because everybody’s already decided it’s album of the year, and I found that much easier to write about.

That’s the sort of thing that’s more interesting to write, like why it’s suddenly been decided that it’s a great album that’s going to push them into the mainstream. It’s almost pointless writing about the album itself, because whatever you said, “it’s a hunk of shit” or whatever, it’s kind of already been decided that this is going to push them forward. To me it’s more interesting to read and write about that, rather than read “track one sounds like this, track two sounds like this” – writing about a phenomenon surrounding a record is a lot more interesting.

I did say it was a hunk of shit, mind.

Well, they’re kind of the archetypal Pitchfork band. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them play, but you get the feeling there’s a lot of people trying a bit too hard to like it. I’m not a simpleton, y’know, but I think there does need to be some primal connection with music. If you need to sit down and try and understand it for too long you’re missing the point of it. If you’re talking about The Ramones or Elvis or early Stones, it’s very primal and instantaneous, and the minute you hear it, bang, you get it. Things like Animal Collective… they have their moments, don’t get me wrong, but it’s baffling to me that so many people are trying so hard to like it.

And of course it’s harder to write reviews now because rather than seeing what you think, people can go on the internet, download it, and find out what they think, for nothing.

Well when I’d read a review as a kid and it would say “this is the greatest live band ever”, and I was living in Darbyshire so I couldn’t go and see them, so I’d mail-order their single from a shop and of course, three weeks later it would get here, and it would be crap. Whereas now you can’t aggrandize bands in that way because people can make their own minds up really quickly. You do have to be a bit more honest than you could be in the old days – if you see a band on paper and you think they look great, you can very quickly find out if they actually are.

Which makes it difficult for people like you.

It makes it more challenging, to see how you can still make it exciting. It’s challenging for everyone – it’s a transitional period. It’s exciting in that nobody really knows what to do, and it’s been in a state of flux for two or three years and I don’t see any end to that for time being. But it’s exciting, it’s exciting at the NME going to a meeting and instead of saying “right, who are we going to put on the cover?”, it’s “how are we going to put them on the cover?”. How do you make it interesting?

Say we wanted to put the Killers on the cover – do people really want to read another interview with the Killers? What can we do to make it exciting or weird? And the labels, the bands, they’re all are doing the same thing, seeing how they can make things more exciting to people. But there’s no guarantees anymore. It’s not like the 70s where you’d put a Led Zeppelin album out and it would sell millions without having to lift a finger. You have to work harder. Which is kind of cool.

John Tucker

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