Matt Colquhoun Interview

Matt Colquhoun has a wonderful new book out about one of the best music writers of the past twenty years, Mark Fisher. Mark was a music writer, but he was also much more; some have called him a cultural critic, cult academic, or philosopher. Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher addresses all of these roles. It’s a deeply personal book. Matt had just started taking classes at Goldsmiths, where Mark taught, less than a year before Mark took his own life in 2017. 

How did you get to where you are today, professionally?

I initially started out wanting to be a photographer. I grew up in Hull, UK, and used to be heavily involved with the music scene there. At first I was on the open mic circuit but I wasn't writing any original material so once everyone else I knew graduated to being in bands, I started taking their pictures. I was a blogger, essentially. I'd post pictures, song demos and journal entries multiple times a week. That was my way of getting to know people and connecting with people: just putting everything I was doing out into the world.

I went on to study photography at university and wanted to make interesting music photography more than anything. I met Jason Evans whilst I was there—perhaps best known as the man behind all of Caribou and Four Tet's album covers, among many other things—and learnt a great deal from him. I failed to learn any real business skills, however. I also got a perverse amount of joy out of writing my dissertation. I had no desire to be a writer at that point, I just had a general wannabe-artist's interest in ideas. I learned that I like expressing them through writing as much as I did with photography. Once I graduated, I mostly just kept blogging.

Interesting things came out of this. Highlights include being the official photographer for Beacons Festival in Skipton, UK, in 2014 and shooting a Vatican Shadow gig once for The Quietus. Most recently, I shot the cover art for William Doyle's 2019 album, Your Wilderness Revisited. Initially, the visual component of that project was considerable. I was along for the ride with Will for the entire length of the album's gestation and we made hundreds of images. Initially, our intention was to tour the album alongside a touring exhibition. It was great to collaborate on a project like that that attempted to break the mould of the usual album --> touring cycle by affirming the other creative practices that went into the process. We had a dry run at the East London Film Festival in 2017, but our lives were changing rapidly and it felt like it would be far too expensive an endeavour in the end which we struggled to get funding for, but it was an amazing experience.

The main change, for me personally, was that I was shifting in how I was working. After almost ten years of trying to make it in the photography industry, finding little enjoyment in the "my lens is bigger than your lens" attitude in the pit at shows, and discovering the music press had little interest in someone who wanted to take a more experimental approach to image making anyway, I was getting more and more into writing and wanted to get better at it. So, I spent a few years saving up money and building up confidence before moving to London to 2016 to go back to school to do a Master's degree. I was terrified of London and would have preferred to go anywhere else, but Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun—two of my heroes who I'd been reading since my initial university days—were teaching a course at Goldsmiths, University of London, and no other course could possibly compete with that, as far as I was concerned.

Much to my surprise, I felt like I'd finally found my people when I got there. Despite having no formal training in philosophy and only a half-formed political consciousness, it was liberating to be encouraged to engage with ideas and ways of working that no one on the outside world seemed interested in supporting. Once there, I decided to write about what I'd spent the last ten years getting annoyed about—ethics in curatorial and photographic practices, and the increasingly conservative attitudes towards photography in the music press—but I soon fell into a new rabbit hole, looking at philosophies of "community", of being-together, in our present moment; what Mark Fisher would called our "mandatory individualism". I'd always been more of a team player growing up and lacked any real competitive drive and this hadn't got me anywhere in life. I became fascinated with much of the thought that came along with that, from Jewish ethicists like Emmanuel Levinas to the more transgressive writings of Georges Bataille. I started writing about these philosophies in the context of my favourite Hull band, Throbbing Gristle, and their prior incarnation, COUM Transmissions.

Then Mark Fisher died and, once again, everything changed.

How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you? 

My new book, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher, is basically an account of everything that happened next. Everyone at Goldsmiths at that time was so distraught when we heard the news. It dominated the entire year and, in many ways, continues to dominate a lot of our lives. Mark was so incredibly loved and admired and he had a close relationship with a lot of his students. I didn't know Mark half as well as I would have liked. Although he was one half of the reason I was there in the first place, I was quite starstruck. I didn't want to follow him around like a fanboy. It wasn't like he was going anywhere, so I assumed the influence would be a passive osmosis over the course of the year.

When Mark died, it was like a lightning bolt. It intensified what was already a pervasive mental health crisis on campus, but the response from the staff and student bodies was one of action. We were seldom out of each other's company for the rest of the year, navigating our grief together, organising events of remembrance and support and celebration. We held reading groups, lecture series, gigs, club nights. We celebrated Mark's writings and his love of music in equal measure. 

Mark was who we thought about all day, every day. As we mourned, I got to know his work, reading everything. My grief response was essentially an intensification of my photographer's documentation habit and, despite all that was going on, I was still a student. I had a dissertation to write. One book that was particularly inspirational to me before I arrived at the university was Jane Gallop's Anecdotal Theory. I thought, if I have to jump through this academic hoop, I want to write about what is going on here right now. It already fit into my research on "community" but it also raised the stakes of that research, making it to have a real impact on my ongoing lived experience. 

I submitted the dissertation in 2017 but the experience didn't end. I kept writing and documenting. Initially, this energy went into a new blog, xenogothic.com, but by mid-2019 enough people had suggested I should let this thing see the light of day that I decided to hammer it into shape and try and make it into a Book.

What did the research process look like? How did you go about putting the book together?

Egress is as much an exploration of grief and community as it is the work of Mark Fisher. Mark's writings are the background and the backbone of the book but it also wanders far from this starting point, exploring the broader political and philosophical stakes of our present moment. In a way, it's a written reflection of what was felt during the book's gestation. When we lost Mark, our connections to one another multiplied at an alarming rate. I made so many new friends, based on nothing other than we felt this same pain. The book approaches philosophy, politics and music in much the same way, always seeking new connections, between artists and writers who seek answers to the same questions I had. 

Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.

It was really important to me that this book wasn't just an excuse to capitalise on Mark's legacy. In fact, I wanted it to challenge the legacy that had begun to coalesce around Mark's work after his death. There was a "popular" Mark emerging, a Mark reduced to his "hits" and his catchphrases, but this felt like a second death for Mark to me. There was far more left in his work than the truisms of "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism" or the fact that we live in so many "lost futures". It was infuriating for many of us at Goldsmiths, and many of Mark's friends outside the university also, to see the stakes of his writings diminished and closed off so arbitrarily in order to service the production of obituaries. His work was more than this and that is the Mark I wanted to represent.

This was not a task taken on lightly, of course. I did not want to elect myself as a Mark Fisher expert but rather fight for the Mark the rest of us had known, not simply Mark the academic but Mark the teacher, the movement-maker, who was as passionate about the lives of those in his immediate vicinity as he was about music cultures around the world. 

With this in mind, it seemed to me that there was no other place to submit the manuscript than Repeater Books, the publishing house set up by Mark and Tariq Goddard. If it didn't get their stamp of approval, I didn't think it would be worth pursuing. Thankfully, Tariq has been a great believer in the book from the start, as were many more friends of Mark's along the way. Tariq's last comment on the final manuscript is one that will long stay with me and which perhaps says something to its occasionally contentious moments: "There will always be people that query the Mark you have in your text, but for what it’s worth, he is recognisable to me, and I think you have done him justice here." 

There are many Mark's—perhaps a different one for every one of his readers—and a good handful of them make an appearance in Egress but not all. I hope others who read it find a Mark they recognise, but I also hope this book challenges the popular assumptions about who Mark was. There is nothing more difficult than representing the complexity of a life but that complexity is something that I think should always be affirmed. It is only through that affirmation that we are able to expand the communities of which we are apart and welcome in new ones.

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?

Read Mark Fisher. Mark is a joy to read and he was so incredibly prolific that it often feels like there is an essay or blogpost for every occasion. The three books Mark published whilst he was alive are very thin volumes, but they are also strangely complex. To unfold every reference and sensibility is to discover an incredibly complex world of philosophy and political imagination. Starting with Mark's books is obvious but, if you like them, poke your head into the rabbit hole that is his k-punk blog. For those who are aware of the weight of the collected k-punk volume published by Repeater in 2018, many more volumes of that size could be produced with the material still left over. It's a real journey if you want to take it.

The Unavowable Community by Maurice Blanchot. I've been coming back to this book a lot recently. It's a very, very short but also densely packed book that considers what "community" means in a world after the apparent "death" of communism. It is poetic, philosophical, but also life-affirming. It is a book that asks what it means to be together and support each other and what kind of "work" is involved in that endeavour that eludes the "labour" of capitalism. That's what communism is for Blanchot and I'm inclined to agree with him. It is a name given to the work of community that cannot be commodified, and the dream of its political ascendency. This is something that is implicitly relevant to music making, I think, particularly right now. The suppression of online music sharing communities and the pressure to make what you're doing profitable have had unforeseen consequences since the dawn of the 21st century. This kind of philosophy has a lot to teach us about how to recover what we've lost. They're not easy works but the work ahead isn't easy either. Accepting that a great deal of effort must be made to imagine, never mind manifest, alternatives is part of the lesson of Mark's work too. He was accessible, but I think the last thing he would have wanted was for the accessibility of his writing to encourage a complacent thinking. That is a torch I think he picked up—albeit indirectly—from the likes of Blanchot.

A Victim of Stars 1982-2012 by David Sylvian. I've been listening to this compilation a lot whilst under quarantine. It opens with Sylvian's 2000 remix of the Japan track, "Ghosts"—well known as Mark's favourite song—but the music that follows it has been a welcome breath of fresh air for me, following the publication of this book. We had the book launch at the ICA in early March, for which I was in conversation with Kodwo Eshun, and Kodwo requested that we play "Bamboo Houses", one of Sylvian's collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto, as people came in. I hadn't heard that track before and it blew my mind—as did Kodwo's air-synth performance on stage whilst people filed into the theatre. Sylvian is an artist very much like Kodwo and Mark—always seeking more connections.

Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?

I've not always been the most technically skilled writer or artist but I have found that pursuing original ideas is worth far more than a polished style of presentation. That being said, I wouldn't have achieved anything in life were it not for a succession of people who have believed in me and my ideas over all else. Jason Evans was undoubtedly the first person to really affirm my outlook on life in this way. He is an artist who embodies what he is doing absolutely. Photography is merely the outlet he's chosen to articulate his life—a life of ideas. I also think that is why he is a genius photographer, capable of working within fashion, music, reportage and as an artist in his own right. He is open so that other ways of working can plug directly into what he's working on. The results are never not beautiful, captivating and challenging.

I think that same outlook on life is shared by all the people who have "mentored" me, officially or unofficially, over the years. That's certainly true of Kodwo Eshun, who is capable of wearing any number of hats, plugging himself into philosophy and pop culture, music and filmmaking. The form he is working with is ultimately unimportant. It's about the function. What is this song doing? What is this film doing? How does it affect the world in which it appears? How does the world, in turn, affect it?

He hasn't been a mentor of mine, but I have a long running obsession with Jim O'Rourke, and he's the perfect example of an artist who excels at this. Genres are not forms to play with for him, necessarily. They have a function that he explores in their own language, whether making a pop album about pop albums or, more recently, his ambient albums about ambient albums. They're not navel-gazing approaches to music but explorations of music's innate function. What he's produced over the course of his career is so singular, in this regard, and that's no easy feat considering he works with some of the most over-coded genres we have at our disposal.

What's one tip that you'd give someone looking to write a music book right now?

Write about what the music you like is doing, and what it continues to do beyond the context of its initial creation. Don't write biographies of musicians, write biologies of music.

An example: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album that, in the moment of its conception, revolutionised the function of the studio in pop music. That's pretty cool. However, considering the shift in Western politics from 1967 to 1968—particularly in light of May '68 in Paris—it's an album that becomes more or less dead and impotent, less than a year after its release. Its persistent place on the pedestal of best-albums-of-all-time lists is a time warp, and an apolitical one at that. The only way our cultures survive and continue to adapt is if we favour the shifting life of an album over its historicisation. That's where the actual history lesson lies. As well-trodden an album as it is, I'd happily read a book about what Sgt. Pepper's means now, given our current perspective on the twentieth century—or lack thereof. Anything else is redundant. 

I'm sure saying this here, in the context of your newsletter, is preaching to the converted, but I think vocalising this can help change our present landscape and shift the presumed function of music writing in itself—a function that has seemingly been diminished in the minds of those who fund the creation of content.

Anything you want to plug?

Read my book! Then read my blog: xenogothic.com. Then read other people's blogs. Then start your own. The blogosphere 2.0 is alive and well.