Q&A With Tom Moon

You might know award-winning critic/journalist Tom Moon from his bestselling book 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, his contributions to NPR’s All Things Considered or his freelance work in the likes of Rolling Stone, GQ, Blender, Spin and Vibe, but around the MAGNET office, when we think of Moon, we think of the nearly two decades he spent as the music critic of our hometown newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. When you regularly read a writer’s work for that long, you feel like you really get a sense of who someone is, so we were shocked to find out that Moon is also a musician who just made an album. Into The Ojalá (Frosty Cordial) is credited to Moon Hotel Lounge Project and came out earlier this month. MHLP is an impressive, instrumental, jazz/lounge/Latin-leaning project featuring Moon and six local musicians playing nine Moon-penned tunes as well as a cover of gospel standard “Rock Of Ages.” We are excited to have Moon guest editing all week. We recently caught up with him via email.

“Thank The Eyes” (download):

MAGNET: I have one friend, who is a musician, who has a deep belief that music critics should never make music professionally and vice versa. You obviously disagree, but do you think there is any truth to such thinking?
Moon: I understand that to a degree. There is something to be said for the critic being completely “independent,” standing apart from the fray, not harboring any aspirations toward world domination in the artform he pronounces upon. That would be an ideal, in a sense—and possibly more applicable to literature than the popular arts. In fact, the history of music (and art and theater, etc.) is full of instances where practitioners also worked as critics—a few well known ones would be Virgil Thomson, the composer and critic, and George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and critic. There are good arguments on both sides; some of the critics I’ve learned tons from are coming from a background of musical training, and others are proudly “civilians.”

On a more practical level, my question for your musician friend would be this: Is there a place in criticism for what might be called “professional development”? In other words, after writing record reviews for years, might it be helpful for the critic to experience just what’s involved in making a record and bringing it to market? I would argue this is invaluable, for all the artistic reasons (the series of interrelated decisions that go into developing a “sound” and aesthetic approach) as well as the more ordinary ones having to do with marketing, promotion, etc. Professional development was not my singular motivation for doing the Hotel Lounge Project, but it was certainly part of the thinking: If I’m writing music that I believe is on some level original and if I’m able to document it in a way that is pleasing, why not see what, exactly, is involved in sharing it? Why not take the journey that so many artists who send out their music for review have taken? Seems to me there’s a ton to gain and not much to lose.

I should add that when I started this project, I had no fixed goal of putting out a record. I wanted to see if the tunes I’d written could work with other musicians (my demos are just drum machine and my hamfisted piano playing). Then it was, “What would happen if we built a little chamber ensemble?” Then, “Can we do this live in the studio?” And so on. I very much followed what was happening and didn’t try to plan things—beyond a delirious “mission statement” I wrote one night at 3 a.m. As someone who has suffered through a lot of mediocre records, I was not interested in adding to the problem of “record pollution” (also known as “too much music syndrome”). If what we wound up with had been obviously derivative or just plain not happening, I would not have continued. I was perfectly happy to keep my little experiment private.

Being a longtime Philadelphian, I obviously read your writing in the  Inquirer for many years, and we have run into each other a number of times, as the Philly rock scene is relatively small and we have mutual friends and colleagues, but I had no idea you were a musician. Can you tell me when you started playing and how active you were as a musician over the years? You went to college for music? Do you play other instruments aside from the sax?
When I interviewed at the Inquirer, back in 1988(!), I made the mistake of listing my musical experience on my resume. I went to the University of Miami school of music and stayed there afterward, playing gigs and teaching, the usual scramble. I thought that was a good thing, and it was certainly part of my thinking as a critic. The editors looked and saw red flags: conflict of interest. They asked me to sign an agreement that said I would not play music professionally while employed there. That’s perhaps why you didn’t know about my music background—I didn’t make any kind of deal about it. I did turn up at jam sessions (the old Ortleib’s one was a great learning environment!) and played with friends and stuff, but nothing more for 20 years. Which is a long time to go between gigs.

I started playing saxophone in fourth grade, right around the time my mom remarried (my father died when I was two). I grew up to be a classic “lost” kid—my stepbrothers were big jocks, and my stepfather didn’t really care much for hearing saxophone music around the house. I was lucky to have a high-school band director, the late George Horan, who sorta steered me and fed me lots of music and was just a daily inspiration. After college, I worked around Miami, in salsa bands and as part of small orchestras backing entertainers at various resorts (one year during “snowbird season,” I played with Ben Vereen, Joan Rivers, the Fifth Dimension and Eddie Fisher) and also on cruise ships. I eventually landed a gig with Maynard Ferguson’s orchestra and did that for nearly a year. I also played with a rock band based in South Carolina called Freeze Warning. We did the fraternity circuit all over the Southeast. It was mostly fun.

As for instruments, I play all the saxophones, flute and bass clarinet. I write on piano but really can’t play piano. Lately I’ve been using a looping device (Korg Kaossilator Pro) and having a blast coming up with strange layered stuff that way. After struggling with the digital audio software, I’ve concluded that I’m more comfortable with hardware (simple digi multi-track, etc.).

Is it hard not to wear a critic’s hat while making music? For many years, I dabbled in music with drinking buddies purely for fun and enjoyed making it and liked what we did, but I always thought, “If I got a CD in the mail of these songs and had to review it, I would think it was pretty unremarkable.”
I’ve made more than my share of unremarkable music, that’s for sure. And I’ve been involved in music that started out purely for fun and snowballed into something thrilling that I would be proud to share with people. I’ve learned that the thrilling stuff has a better chance of happening when I am willing to let go of the reigns, to sorta “shush” whatever judgment might be running like the crawl on a Fox News TV screen through my feeble brain. It’s a weird paradox: To communicate through music, you have to be aware of and in control of the fundamentals (pitch, rhythm, etc.) that critics often carp about, and at the same time you can’t be so hung up on those details that you miss shaping and being part of the “forest” of music. When I’m playing or working on a tune, I force myself into this mentally blank place where I don’t care about the end result. I try to be into whatever happens. Mistakes and trainwrecks are vital to the process. If I’m worried about any reaction, especially my own often severe reactions, I know I won’t generate much of lasting consequence. On the other hand, if I’m just exploring and don’t care whether I suck,or the results will be “worthwhile,” that attitude alone seems to foster creative surprises. The musicians we both admire seem to operate on several of these types of levels at once: First they generate, without evaluating much. Then, they go back and survey the wreckage to find the jewels.

One of the people I played with wanted to do shows, but I always said no because of my job at MAGNET, primarily because I didn’t want what I did privately to have any impact on how people perceived the magazine. Did you ever have similar hesitations?
I came to really respect the Inquirer’s conflict of interest policy, in part because it provided clarity about what might be called the separation of church and state. The internet has upended that dynamic—nowadays we expect people to be working several angles, and their activity in one doesn’t necessarily reflect on the others. (Is this a good place to plug my new line of haircare products?) Being a free agent changed the question for me, from “should I worry?” to “why not?” In thinking about going public with my music, I knew I’d have a giant target on my back and decided to welcome all the ramifications of that. Also, I wanted to open up some conversations about (for lack of a less-pretentious term) “aesthetics.” I’ve written I guess now about a zillion reviews, and while the quality of the writing and the reasoning varies, what’s constant is an underlying “sense” of music—not a set of fixed “standards” (my favorite quote: “You cannot have critics with standards. You can have music with standards which critics may observe.”) but an overall approach, a way of hearing and thinking about sounds. For better and worse, that same aesthetic is present in my compositions, and in the record we made.

Have all these years as a critic taught you anything that helped starting a band and making an album?
Being a critic didn’t help much in terms of the practical stuff. I’ve never been good at logistics and all the rest, and though I’m organized as a writer for some reason, I am less so in my music endeavors. Where it helped was at the most basic level of musical awareness: The job meant I was able to hear and study and think about a ridiculous amount of music. To engage music as something more than a fan, as an advocate and critic and/or “explainer,” is a great and humbling task. And I think the lessons from all that listening filter into every corner of consciousness—while I was working on the tunes, I played along with records by Elis Regina, the late great singer from Brazil. I wanted to absorb as much as I could about her way of phrasing, the “cry” in her voice, the space between notes. Likewise, I thought about the “arc” of lots of classic albums (Pet Sounds, Nefertiti, Astral Weeks) in making decisions about which songs to put on the record. Figures like Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Van Morrison have a ton to teach about the “alchemy” of an album, its flow and all the rest. Because we’ve spent so much time immersed in their “worlds,” the lessons come along sorta by osmosis. It’s possible to absorb not just the notes and melodies but a bit of the thinking that powers a great record.

You are playing with guitarist Kevin Hanson, who was in a popular Philly band called Huffamoose. When the last Huffamoose album came out, you trashed it. Did that make for any interesting conversations with Kevin in the studio?
I wrote a lot about Huffamoose back in the day, and just for the record, much of it—for the Inquirer and other outlets—was super-enthusiastic. This was simply a great band! Every song (even the ones on that last record) arrived rich with images and interesting harmonies and ideas bubbling in all directions. And they killed live. As you know, when you spend time with musicians, sometimes their subversive ideas and warped sensibilities slip into your consciousness whether you want them there or not. Sort’ve a Jedi Mind Trick thing. Beware of Kevin and Erik and Co. because they are masters of the dark arts. That’s what happened here: Years and years (maybe a decade?) after Huffamoose split, I was working on the tune that’s called “Seed The Future” on the record, and I kept hearing Erik Johnson’s drum approach. Couldn’t shake it. Then on one of the Brazilian tunes, it was “Dammit, Hanson! You again!”

That’s the truth, though. And so when I picked up the phone to see if Kevin would be willing to get together and play through one or two of my tunes, I had some major anxiety. I remember saying in that conversation that I completely understood if he was disinclined to get together, and I really didn’t expect him to be willing. Within five minutes of our first meeting, I was blown away by his openness, willingness to just dive in and try these tunes, and all the rest. Right then I was convinced that the project needed him as guitarist, producer and spirit guide. He nailed all that and more besides! Well at least up until the iPod incident. I’ll let him tell it …

Hanson: It did make for some awkward moments in the studio. One time when I suggested we start one of Tom’s songs with a guitar intro, he exploded and screamed, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we were making a fucking Huffamoose album. Maybe I should go get a fucking WXPN bumper sticker for for my Volvo. Fucking poseurs.” Another weird moment happened when I was sitting alone in an isolation booth with the lights off listening to my iPod. The door flew open and Tom came stumbling in slurring and asking where the fuck his thermos of whiskey was. I said I didn’t know, but by that point he had already ripped the iPod from my hand and saw that I’d been listening to Steely Dan. His eyes turned black as he laughed violently, then said “I knew it. I fucking knew it.” Then he smashed my iPod under his work boots. Other than that, it was a very organic, supportive atmosphere that allowed the songs an element of discovery and feelings of joy.

You spent a lot of time in hotels on your book tour and said that inspired your music. How so?
Moon: Music is everywhere around us and, therefore, easy to take for granted. And of course it functions differently in different settings. What blew me away on the book tour was how even in social spaces, people just don’t want to move out of their audio bubbles. I’d have an hour to kill, and I’d go to the lounge and look around, and often the entire population of solo travelers would be there with a laptop or some sort of music player and headphones, when not talking on the phone. Didn’t matter if there was a piano player or a trio with a singer, whatever. This got me thinking about how for many folks music is “ignorable,” a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. It’s easy for musicians, particularly jazz musicians, to become indignant about this—how dare they not pay attention! But on several occasions I picked up exactly the opposite: musicians who didn’t seem to care that half the population in the room was on headphones, who saw this as a chance for some subversion. Playing stuff that was utterly appropriate for the surroundings, they seemed to operate in their own bubble, one that allowed for music of striking subtlety and clarity. That got me thinking: Nothing I can do as a musician is going to astound people or hit them over the head. Rather than fight for attention, why not start from “ignorable”? This was liberating. I began to think about how some of those great Jobim tunes work—sometimes you pick up the heavy melancholy of the theme in the middle of the tune, after it’s been going for a minute. They sneak up on you. That’s what I wanted to do: Some of the melodies on my tunes are almost skeletons, there’s very little “action” and lots of long tones. My goal was to create a sound that demands very little; it’s just some pleasant and calm and breezy stuff in the background. But should your attention drift from the conversation you’re having, you might find something poignant in the music, something that sparks the memory of a lover from long ago or an evening spent looking out at the sea from a warm beach. You know, the audio equivalent of those Studio One prints of sunsets that were popular in the ‘70s.

Where did you record the album? What was the process like?
We recorded at Giant Steps Recording, which is a very cool studio out in the wilds of Jersey, Winslow Township/Sicklerville area. It’s owned by Vic Stevens, who is an amazing drummer and recording artist as well as a special engineer—great ears! Kevin knew about the spot, and as soon as I walked in it felt right. We set up to get as much isolation happening as we could, because though we were recording live, in many cases we knew we’d want to be able to tweak/fix in ProTools. Vic set that up so it was easy to do; the seven of us were spread out over five different rooms. My spot was Vic’s office. Which has a wonderful Debby Harry photo on the wall.

I was panicked because it didn’t feel like we’d rehearsed enough, but Kevin—who is a positive-energy-generating machine like nobody I’ve ever encountered—remained calm and got us into this mindset of light and focused attention. I totally understand why people want to just live in the studio; you learn a ton if you’re listening and open, and it’s great tightrope-walking fun at the same time.

Do you plan on making more records? Do you have a lot of other songs written? Have you always been writing?
When we started this I had something like 20 tunes that were possible candidates. I’ve always scribbled down ideas for tunes and have a bunch more half-finished sketches I should do something with. Since the recording, I’ve written a handful more—and these are more effectively utilizing the sound possibilities of this instrumentation. As I said elsewhere here, I’m also exploring loop-based rhythms and textures; in a perfect world, I’d always be aiming at some sort of recording project. Whether these would see the light of day or not is an entirely different question.

Will you tour?
I’m open to anything but think it’s unlikely. A dream would be to spend a week playing in a sleek luxury hotel lobby bar in Atlanta, say, then one in Miami and so on.

What do you think of the state of rock criticism now? Do you see the internet, etc., as a positive or a negative for music journalism or journalism in general?
I’m dismayed that criticism in all the arts has devolved so rapidly into this glib, often meanspirited, opinion-slinging. Reading essays on the “pro” sites where writers get paid, I find myself wondering if there’s an editor involved, if any attempts were made to situate the work in question within a larger context, etc. Read enough of this stuff and pretty soon you’re off into the deep waters pondering, “Is criticism dead and does it matter?” and all that. The same applies to many, many blogs, where there’s lots of spirit in the writing. At least.

And of course I’m going to complain, because for 20 years people paid me to dive into records and attempt to describe them, place them somewhere in the firmament and offer some arguments about why (or why not) they demand attention. I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to do that. I learned so much, heard so much. I’d like to think that the accumulated experience of that listening has made me a more effective critic. And that this experience can be useful in the internet information economy somehow. I haven’t figured the proper configuration for that yet.

I don’t trust the herd of allegedly independent-minded hipster voices cranking out latest-discovery posts on the hour; what they do is different from criticism as I understand it. I don’t trust the short 120-word catalog-copy reviews. I find it strange that relevance is measured in “hits” to a particular website. At the same time, I have faith that because the internet is so mutable, the discourse can expand, and that somehow as it evolves, the internet can help people become more discerning about music, books, art, everything. That evolution won’t swing things back to the old media “authority” model, thankfully, but it will mean a different approach than the one that is prevailing now: an approach that mirrors the artistic impulse and strives to enrich understanding. Criticism is an art, and I have to hope that when the babbling of the nonstop internet grows tiresome, there will be a hunger for more nuanced thinking, for context and analysis, for commentary that’s passionate and well-reasoned at the same time. I know what you’re thinking: Yes, I am a dreamer.

Do you think there will be print music magazines aside from Rolling Stone in 10 years?
Rolling Stone isn’t really a music magazine, is it? For a while now its strengths have been most evident in national-affairs coverage and in those huge, inescapable pop-culture stories. (Excellent Lady Gaga coverage!) By addressing itself to celebrity and trying to appeal to greybeard boomers and those desperate to graduate from Justin Beiber, it seems to magnify the gulfs between generations rather than unite (or blur) them. As it once did. RS will survive precisely because of this editorial shift. I’m fairly pessimistic about music magazines generally—in their present form. Survival perhaps depends on the degree to which people become hungry for authoritative guidance and informed opinion, not just the current babble of recommendations from friends. Playing with the iPad recently, I kept thinking how the next iteration of magazines will be more like apps, built to hook people into specific worlds and serve them through hyperlinked video and audio and all the rest. It seems to me what’s needed in many realms of music is a “guided tour” approach that allows curious listeners to dig deeper, to start from coverage of something recent, hear a bit and then follow breadcrumbs back to songs/artists that were obvious influences or somehow related. (With audio and YouTube and not too much text, for example, you could sorta draw a dotted line from the latest Black Keys back through early White Stripes, the Minutemen, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, then that great John Lee Hooker/Canned Heat collaboration.) It seems to me that this “roots-and-branches” approach, already at work in the sidebars Mojo uses to accompany main features, could become its own standalone exploration engine. A new “flight” each week or month or whatever. That would be fun to do, and it might expand some horizons, too.

—Eric T. Miller