Once I became aware of it, I always wanted to write for The Wire, which probably explains a lot more about my high school years than I’d care to admit. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to be able to present an interview with its editor Derek Walmsley. The magazine “celebrates and interrogates the most visionary and inspiring, subversive and radical, marginalised and undervalued musicians on the planet, past and present, in the realms of avant rock, electronica, hiphop, new jazz, modern composition, traditional musics and beyond.” But, as anyone who has read it will tell you, it’s much more than that.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I started writing about music on message boards in the late 1990s, particularly the One Touch Football board which had a lot of former Melody Maker journalists hanging out. Then I did a blog, Pop Life, focusing on various stuff and then primarily grime. David Stubbs, then of The Wire, knew me a bit online and asked me to try out some reviews. Started freelancing for The Wire, writing my first big pieces about grime, dubstep, etc, then in 2007 they needed a new Reviews Editor and suggested I do it. Became Editor (commissioning mostly features) in 2015. I’ve been lucky, and I think about that every day I’m at my desk.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
Back when I just loved music and writing, I sent a random, unsolicited long email about music in London to Simon Reynolds who was then doing Blissblog. Old school letter writing fanboy style! After an age he sent a wonderful and encouraging reply, and suggested I was good at describing stuff. Also, in the very early days, TV writer Jack Seale gave me some good pointers on structure and argument, things which I had no sense of at that time.
Later, colleagues at The Wire and particularly Chris Bohn and Tony Herrington were instrumental in teaching me countless crucial lessons which I try to pass on to others as much as I can. eg, music journalism is still essentially journalism, and you must do the basics and those five ws to create the launch pad for the creative, philosophical stuff; if you are talking about complex matters, make the language as simple as possible to get the message across; you can say anything you want, but you must be able to back it up; and always make sure you answer the question: “why should I care?”
Walk me through a typical day-to-day.
No typical day, like they all say. In commissioning weeks, researching to see what’s happening when, what records, books, people might be around, sketching ideas on a blank sheet of paper to see what might provide the magic mix of disparate subject matters and writing approaches. Emailing contributors and artists with proposals to see what it might spark. Longer term projects mixed in, where I send out ideas into the void and see if they might be possible somewhere, somehow. Trying to balance monthly commitments with life goal-type projects. Looking at pitches. Realising those pitches aren’t possible but the pitch(er) is brilliant and filing it away to do something later. Trying to meet people in person because that’s where you start talking about projects you hadn’t even thought of. In production weeks, chasing people up, and making sure I’m either editing or proofing as many hours of the day as possible.
What's the best way to pitch you on things?
Keep it concise but say something meaningful. A few short paragraphs is about right, telling me why you want to do something and what you will bring to it. Write enough so I can get a sense of how your mind works. Send samples of your writing. Try and make it timely, which—if it’s an album release—means pitching it around two months at least before it’s due to come out. Try not to pitch stuff that loads of people will have done already. Bear in mind 95% of pitches I can’t act upon, so make it good enough that I will think of getting you on something else instead. Tell me stories I don’t already know. Don’t bother with anniversaries unless they are earth-shaking.
Describe your basic approach to editing a typical piece.
Read it away from a keyboard. Reflect on a handful of things that could fill out angles and areas of the piece. Put those to a writer in a short-ish email and asking them to respond in their own way. Do more detailed edits on a second draft. Try to avoid Track Changes or Google Docs because it can feel laborious, officious and passive aggressive. Ask the writer to add reportage and real-time exchanges when they are nervous to do it. Carve out space in the piece for the writer to add their own ideas and thoughts outside from the brief of the assignment. Tell them not to worry about word counts as we can figure that out. Try to focus on the emotional truth of the piece rather than the industry narrative. More emails. Hope there’s joy at the end.
What's your favorite part of the job?
When I get towards the end of proofing a piece that we’ve built towards for a long time, and it has the closure and conclusion I hope to get, it’s an emotional moment. That sense of resolution and finding out or proposing something new about the music culture that we inhabit feels like it’s all been worthwhile.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
I think this is a good time for music journalism, so I am not here to gripe. There are many voices, many stories, many outlets. But, I would like to see more people talking about books or magazines as well as online pieces. If you’re a young writer, and you know what you’re talking about with print media, it instantly gives you an edge on 99% of writers out there who ignore it.
What's one tip that you'd give a music journalist (or editor) starting out right now?
The Beatles are the most influential band in popular music, and recorded around 200 songs, most of them fairly short. You can listen to them all in chronological order of recording about six or seven hours. Spend a day with them and see what you learn. This is not about The Beatles: it’s about how easy it is to research these days, how much you can learn from the past and apply to the present, how preparation is the root of almost all good writing, and how good journalists are the ones who know about stuff outside their immediate purview.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
The trend in certain drone, krautrock, improvisation bands to move away from electronic instruments and re-embrace acoustic ones as if they were new and strange tools that offered fresh possibilities. I’ve half-jokingly tagged bands like La Tene, etc as medieval motorik but there is something really fresh in groups like them and Pancrace; also, they are implicitly embracing the model of the band or group again, at a time when many artists are moving away from this kind of real-time interaction.
What was the best track / video or film / book you've consumed in the past year?
The recent Midland EP The Alchemy Of Circumstance was playful, experimental, immediate, innovative, intuitive… and as fun as anything I’ve heard this year.
Anything you want to plug?
If you value print media, buy it. The model ultimately depends on it.