October 18, 2010

Peter Robinson: The PJ Almighty Talks About Music

As these deals often go, Peter Robinson [this is him - impish!] is an enigma to a legion of diehard pop music fans and a total unknown to the rest of the world. Not only is he the founder of, arguably, the finest pop music website/forum in the world - Popjustice - he is also an award-winning music journalist. He's the type that gets called to be a media talking head on all issues POP, like the Pet Shop Boys documentary, appropriately titled A Life In Pop. His writing is equal measures of wit, enthusiasm, pop scholarship and ballsy snark. He's famous for his fearless questions in interviews - you think, "Did he really just ask that?" but it's often the question you wanted answered.

In Twitter terms, the man is Famous: he has over 47,000 followers. So he's taking that brand and doing what any bright pop obsessive wishes s/he could do: starting a label called Popjustice Hi-Fi. Launched with this charmer of a manifesto, PJ Hi-Fi has just released its first two singles: Rosanna's Waterfall and Bright Light Bright Light's Love Part II, with Japayork's Teenagers on the way soon.

It's the provenance of Popjustice Forum members to bitch about anything and everything, including the site itself. But it is certain that, if Popjustice ceased to exist, you'd have a zombie planet of frustrated music fans scratching to debate unsuspecting cabbies and train passengers about whether Lady Gaga is or is not the heir to Madonna's throne.

As a sort of "disclosure," I should say that I have met Peter and communicated on and off with him for years. He's always been supportive of bloggers, fans, the love/hate relationships they cultivate with each other and the characters that make up pop music at any given moment. To start this interview, I addressed an event so cataclysmic it threatened, for a hot minute, to tear apart the foundation of modern music: The awarding of the Popjustice Twenty Quid Music Prize to a group (Example) and song (Kickstarts) that a huge number of pop fans had never once heard...

XO/Steve: Example? EXAMPLE? I heard there was talk of genuine artists who write their own songs etc at the Twenty Quid. That's not very Popjustice. Going into it, did you have a guess as to what might win?

Peter Robinson: There was talk of 'writing your own music' during the judging, yes. I thought the Example vs Mini Viva round was really interesting. Does a song being performed by its writer make it somehow better? Not always but not never. I would be a bit of a hypocrite if as part of some sort of ludicrous agenda in which I fetishised the anti-organic I dismissed out of hand the idea of people writing their own music - Abba, Pet Shop Boys, Magnetic Fields and lots of my favourite acts all wrote or write their own music. Equally, of course, loads of my favourite songs have been sung by people who had nothing at all to do with the creative process. Example was an interesting case because Kickstarts (by coincidence - the two songs' names were picked out of a pint glass) and I Wish shared a certain poignant sentiment, a bit of a winsome factor which was a little bit sad and a bit optimistic, etc etc. A lot of people felt (and I shared their opinion) that the Example song was unusually romantic and thoughtful for a dance record (which some people thought it was) performed by a blokey sort of rapper/singer/whatever he is. So I suppose from that point of view the fact that this guy just had to somehow express himself was something people found affecting and for that reason the fact that he wrote this song himself was important.

Britt Love - one of the two women who make up Mini Viva - was a judge and didn't even vote for herself because.... well, she tweeted something to the effect that she felt uncomfortable with that, like it would be boastful.

What lost it, I think, for Mini Viva, was when I asked Britt what I Wish was about and she shrugged and said, "You'll have to ask Brian." I think at that point the idea that Mini Viva were remotely connected with the emotional essence of that song went out of the window. Things might have gone differently had she, for instance, replied, "Well as you know we didn't write the song but the moment I heard it I knew exactly what emotion it was about - it took me straight back to last Christmas when I found myself wondering if I would ever be able to love or whether I was destined to live a life of solitude," and I know Britt had her own take on the song. As the singer of someone else's song, it's easy to be on autopilot, but to really nail it - like an actor reading a playwright's words - you need to step inside the words, live inside them, find a way that they connect to your own emotions then communicate that connection to your audience'. Anyway the discussion over 'real artist' vs 'pop puppet' was one part of a lengthy dissection of the songs' relative merits. I didn't expect Kickstarts to win, but I'm pleased that it did. I would have been pleased for any of the songs to win, I suppose - hence them all being shortlisted!

A lot of people seem to think this new label, Popjustice Hi-Fi, should right all pop injustices. As if it is your job to release lost Betty Boo records or save Mini Viva (which I want you to do). What are you really trying to do with PJ Hi-Fi?

It would be great to do stuff for fun. And we will be doing stuff for fun. I am not sure if releasing the Mini Viva album - taking into account the administrative and financial complication associated with moving the recordings from a Universal label to an EMI label - would be fun. Does that sound like the sort of thing a 'suit' would say? Probably. But there are obstructions everywhere to things that from the outside seem fairly straightforward.

You've talked about this before, but this "ethics" question of pop-news-site-vs-record-label seems to linger. What exactly would be unethical if you promoted your own artists? The assumption is that you love them...

And that's the right assumption. I suppose I'm not necessarily worried about the ethics because I know I'm just carrying on regardless (although I'm happy for people to monitor my coverage of Virgin acts if they wish), I'm just concerned about smacking people around the head with release info all the time. I think there's a balance which I need to make sure I get right. But you're right, if there's stuff on the label it's stuff I like which means it should go on the site anyway as that, clearly, is the whole point.

Does the label pose a risk to the PJ brand? I think of Perez Hilton's label, which went nowhere. Is there a PJ brand?

Without knowing the details of Perez's label deal, it's hard to know how or whether to comment on Popjustice Hi-Fi as a comparable label. I suspect that if posting a photo of an underage girl's vagina on his blog doesn't damage his brand, he doesn't need to worry what people will say about the relative lack of success of Sliimy. There's definitely a Popjustice brand, perhaps defining it is best (or just as well) left to other people!

Okay, so what defines success for the first few singles? Is this a one-off deal or will you do albums for these artists?

I want Popjustice Hi-Fi to be able to release one-off singles and I know it is hard to release one single by an act because the perception is that if a second single doesn't come out something must be 'wrong'. Well, there wouldn't be something 'wrong', it would just be that it was a single deal! One-off singles are a bit of an odd one, it's not really what the media is set up to expect (they/we always want to know what the plot is, leading to an album release) but labels should be able to do one-off singles as a means of celebrating tracks and showing the world how amazing they are so that's what we're doing with some of our stuff.

How involved are you in the details, like artwork, videos, b-sides, etc?

So far I've been as involved as I think has been sensible, which is not too much and not too little. It would be hard (and in my view not positive or productive) to overrule or ignore everyone with this sort of thing. There are all sorts of parties who can (and often should) have a say in decisions. It's not just labels and artists, as it sometimes seems. There are managers, lawyers, publishers, live agents, producers, co-writers, all of whom will have things to say about what should and shouldn't happen. And often, of course, their individual wishes will contradict each other. Then of course there's feedback from press, online, radio, TV and the rest, which is all valuable whether positive or otherwise. But a lot of the people who are coming to Popjustice Hi-Fi with music or ideas are coming to us because they get what we're trying to do and are excited about being a part of it

I think you can seem quite mercenary in the name of modern music business practicality. I realize this is not 1983, but sometimes I don't know if you really want to give artists a chance to develop. Does this capitalism apply to your own Hi-Fi artists?

We may not be the first label an act is ever on and we may not be the last label an act is ever on but I think there's a good opportunity for Popjustice Hi-Fi to play an important role in an artist's - to employ X Factor parlance - journey. I wouldn't say it's capitalism as such, but it's hard as a journalist to keep banging on about an act when nobody is interested, because you end up becoming a laughing stock. In some circles, for example, Popjustice's support of Dragonette (in the face of fairly widespread indifference) is still seen as a negative. I wasn't very bothered about that and continued supporting them into their second album campaign.

It's a one-shot world now, in terms of chart position. I keep thinking of people like Preston or MPHO, where one single failed and it was suddenly, "Thank you, goodnight."

With Preston and MPHO, though, the wheels quickly fell off the whole thing and there wasn't really much left to support. I'd be happy to hear Preston's next stuff - probably more than MPHO's, as I suspect she'll go in a rather less commercial direction. It's interesting with those two actually because Preston and MPHO are two acts who completely failed to connect. They were given a massive push by their respective labels and couldn't get in the Top 40. I don't think it was necessarily down to quality or execution - they just didn't connect with an audience. The problem was that neither of those singles were tastemaker singles aimed at generating buzz - they were big first singles that were designed to be hits. Whether that approach was right or wrong is a different point, but if nobody is interested in an act, what does a label then do? Throw another £250K at it, knowing it won't work? I don't know the answer to that, really. What would you do?

I have no idea. Anyway, there is a criticism I have heard of you: that you're elusive, that you don't call people back, etc. Your interview with Paloma Faith was brilliant. I think she gets you and she cleverly flipped that tables right up front. Do you care what people think of you personally?

The Paloma interview was great and loads of fun, I wish more interviews were like that. I feel sick when I think about how many unanswered emails there are in my inbox, but I feel happy that I give as many emails as I can the attention they deserve.

What was the first music you really obsessed over ... what age were you? Not kid shit - real stuff.

I was in Kylie's fanclub when I was about 11, but when I was 12 I decided that The KLF were my favourite band. What I didn't really get, properly, at that point was that loads of their stuff was completely immersed in drugs - like all the original What Time Is Love and 3am Eternal releases were massive acid house rave anthems and Chill Out (it seems so obvious now) was, er, a chillout album. I used to write to and phone their PR and radio plugger and people like that and pester them. Sometimes they'd send me promos, and merchandise. I was basically their only teenage superfan - in his book 45, [KLF founder] Bill Drummond described the relationship as them being the older brothers I never had - and they would indulge me, so from time to time Bill would call me out of the blue for a chat. On one occasion they invited me to Top Of The Pops when they were performing on the show, and I hung out with them. I would listen to barely anyone else.

You are, at heart, a hardcore music fan. The whole thing hinges on that.

I think having had that sort of obsession for a couple of years (until they split when I was about 15) is something that it's important for me to remember when, for example, I think now about obsessive pop fans on, for example, the Popjustice forums. But what I think about most is the void that there seemed to be when The KLF split up. I'd obsessed about them so much that I hadn't really listened to much else for a period of about two years. Actually that's not true, I've always listened to Radio 1 and I was still buying other acts' music during that period, but The KLF certainly dominated my field of vision. And what I found when they disappeared was that I needed to redefine, quite quickly, what sort of music I was into. Anyway the KLF thing was a bridge to what I do now in that when they split up I put together a fanzine which led to bits of work experience but was also purchased by someone who, two years later, turned out to be the admissions tutor at the university I wanted to attend. She recognised my name from my application and gave me a place on the course which then led to other work stuff and now here I am.

In your interview with Robbie Williams last week, you said,
"Being a pop music fan, or a supposed fan, seems now to have become a blood sport in which small but significantly large groups of people, seem to hound artists down until they're just left there in a bloody pulp." Do you think the armchair analysis in PJ Forums hurts the process in some way, making the artists second guess themselves? I am thinking of someone like Sophie Ellis-Bextor. It's human nature, maybe. Is there a desire to watch people fail that fans subconsciously propel? "We love" Sophie so much that we will tear her down if she does not fulfill our dreams for her.

I think fans do subconsciously love the drama of something going badly, of being the only one who 'really understands' their favourite artist, and of somehow seeing some 'truth' that record buyers, labels and artists themselves don't see. Obviously, journalists have been doing this for years. But I think what is different about fans doing it in this way is that fans can communicate with each other in a way they never could before and they can gather momentum in really exciting, but sometimes unhelpful ways. And, of course, they're doing all this in full view of the artist. And that's something popstars never had to contend with before. Nor did music journalists, of course - ten years ago there was no way of knocking what people thought of your article. These days you're ten seconds away from someone posting 'you're a twat and by the way you got the song title wrong' under a review. There are good things and bad things about that sort of response...

Random question, but in terms of fandom, who have you seen live the most times?

Pet Shop Boys must be the act I've seen most, and it's still exciting and amazing every time I see them.

Okay, so let's end this with Peter's Choice: If you had to pick one, which would you choose: 1) putting a chip in your brain that blocks you from ever hearing Bad Romance again OR 2) putting a chip in your brain that painfully tasers your penis every time you use the word AMAZING?

Clever question - after all, what use would there be for the word 'amazing' in a world without Bad Romance? Presuming option two imagines a world in which Bad Romance continues to exist I would be using the word 'amazing' to describe it fairly frequently... So for that reason I'm going for option one.

That was very satisfying. Thank you, Peter. Rock on...

It is not often I am told or invited to 'rock on.' But thank you.

Popjustice hosts a CMJ showcase on Wednesday, October 20 at Bell House in Brooklyn. Here's the details - doors at 7:30.


John said...

If there is one thing all diehard music fans share, it's that first experience venturing out from the confines and safety of home and into the big bad world to get closer to our music idols. Whether its hanging out behind the scenes at Top of the Pops or taking three buses to get across town to the one bookstore that carried Smash Hits, it becomes a foreshadowing of a life of finding the next killer groove or transcendent key change.

That sounds a bit more pretentious than I meant it to, but it's the truth. Thanks for sharing your conversation.

Myfizzypop said...

Absolutely brilliant read. I'm slightly in awe of Peter and all that he has achieved and though our musical tastes don't always match up, I do always enjoy his writing & enthusiasm. I also love that he has a huge passion for grammatically correct press releases (and would probably rip this comment to shreds). So yes, enjoyable read. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Great read! But I still wanna know about any North American release for the Popjustice Hi Fi roster!!

xolondon said...

@john not pretentious at all - I agree.

@paul Peter would never rip you to shreds!

@bill I'll see what I can find out. Last I heard it was not planned yet.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic read! Thank you for doing this. Peter is fascinating and, yes, elusive, and after reading this interview I feel as though I better understand the man whose brand occupies a good deal of my leisure time.

Bill: Rebel Rebel in the West Village, NYC carries Popjustice Hi-Fi releases, and there's always Amazon UK, of course.

daavid said...

Great interview! Lately I find myself increasingly at odds with Peter's taste, yet I still love his wit and charm. That online Mini Viva special thing where he interviewed the girls was really enjoyable and made me wish he had his own TV show. I think that would be, er, amazing!