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Simon Reynolds Photographed By Adriana Bianchedi Profile (1)

“What happens when we run out of past?” asked music critic and theorist Simon Reynolds in his 2011 book Retromania, an analysis of 2000s nostalgia fixation. The book reflected on his ambivalence towards the excess of history made available by the internet, and argued that this results in an inability to imagine new futures as substantially different from or an improvement on the digital present. His recently published essay collection Futuromania is something of a corrective, an investigation into how music has imagined and anticipated the future, from Kraftwerk’s robo-fetishism to the somnambulant impersonalism of Auto-Tune. Curated from nearly four decades of Reynolds’ writing, Futuromania is a testament to our ever-changing imagination of what the future holds, and whether radical sounds equate to radical politics.

Interview by Matteo Pini 
Portrait by Adriana Bianchedi

MATTEO PINI Two predominant trends within mainstream music are compression – making songs that are two minutes or shorter – and appropriation – sampling melodies, sometimes without any substantial alteration. Alongside this, there is a collapse of the nostalgia gap. Kate Bush has a number-one single nearly 40 years after “Running Up That Hill” was released. What do you make of these phenomena? 

SIMON REYNOLDS The two-minute-long songs are because of the algorithmic logic of streaming, and then sampling melodies is because of the consolidation of song publishing rights into assets that the new owners wish to extract as much value from as possible – the owners directly collaborate with artists to get them to sample tunes that they own. Then Kate Bush’s recent number one was the result of its featuring in Stranger Things, evidence for the relatively new importance of the role of music supervisors in television and how their quirky choices provide both a revenue source and exposure to the public for often obscure artists – or regionally obscure artists. Until “Running” blew up, Kate Bush had never had a hit in America. Streaming and YouTube have created a generalised atemporality in music listening, where the chronology of music history dissolves. What came first and what was derivative doesn’t seem to matter or at least becomes cloudy. I have a very strong sense of history in the way I process the world, but I can feel it dissolving in me too. At any given moment, 70 per cent of my attention is on things that aren’t contemporary, and I jump around between eras and genres in this completely disordered way, but I have embedded memories of how things used to be. To have grown up completely inside this atemporality with incredibly easy access to pop cultural archives must create a completely different kind of relationship with music – all the eras jumbled up, context dropped away, the urgent battles that once consumed music and divided the terrain up into opposed camps, all gone. As a teacher, I find trying to explain things like punk involves a huge amount of contextualising and historical backfilling – you have to explain the 1960s before you can explain punk, and then before you know it you are back at rock ‘n’ roll and the 1950s.

MP In Futuromania, you reference Fredric Jameson’s book A Singular Modernity (2002) to explain futuristic artwork as something that both inhabits and externalises a break with time, in which “the act of restructuration is seized and arrested as in some filmic freeze-frame.” Even when the work is no longer considered at the vanguard, it still gives us that futuristic feeling. 

SR The two examples I give are jungle music and this chopped-up voice thing Burial and Todd Edwards did. I teach a class on voice and I use a song J Dilla produced for Common called “The Light”, which samples a song called “Open Your Eyes” by Bobby Caldwell, a blue-eyed soul singer. There’s an amazing moment at the end of “The Light” where Dilla chops little grace notes, vocal ornaments, nonverbal cries or even single words from all across the original song, making it sound like Bobby Calwell was in the studio extemporising over the groove. It’s extraordinary: the music is so fantastically human, but it’s woven out these little elements from across the song. That’s a paradigmatic example of vocal science where it’s still very human, but it’s also phantasmal. I don’t deal with AI in the book.


What came first and what was derivative doesn’t seem to matter or at least becomes cloudy


MP I was just going to ask about AI. 

SR In the German version of the book, I had a very sceptical essay that briefly addressed AI towards the end. I decided to leave it out of the English version because I felt like anything I could say about AI would be redundant by the time of publication. If I was doing the book right now, I would try to interview [AI musician] patten; I thought his Mirage FM was a really interesting record. The sound isn’t a million miles from what someone like Burial has done in the past, taking a single vocal performance and messing around with it, deconstructing, decontextualising and recontextualising it – but because AI is scraping from a much larger pool of human voices and creating this alloy, or merger of ghosts into a single form, it’s even more ethereal. You can hear the original human singing, but something really radical and hallucinatory has happened to the end product. 

MP I feel like the examples you’ve mentioned reflect an optimism about what we can do with technology, a way through which human presence can remain intact. 

SR Not necessarily, because it’s also pretty eerie and sinister, though it’s optimistic about human ingenuity.

MP Is that related to how you discuss of the conflation of progressive politics and progressive music, and how that’s not necessarily a meaningful comparison?  

SR I think that indexing or connecting is quite tenuous. Technology is politically neutral. The vocoder was invented as a military encryption technology and all its use in funk and disco is just a spin-off of this technology that was originally intended to encrypt messages from Churchill to Roosevelt that they didn’t want the Nazis to intercept. A lot of things with fun applications in popular culture either have some connection to the military or to scientific research. Technology has all these other uncanny, uncomfortable values.

MP There are other post-human associations with the synthesiser. 

SR Synthesisers were linked to outer space because they came along at the same time as the space race, and early synthesisers looked a bit like the computers you’d see in the background at NASA. People like Sun Ra or Stockhausen would also link synthesisers to the idea of the cosmos with Space is the Place and Sternklang [Star Sounds]. They also have an association with the modern, a world of plastic and manmade fibres. Isao Tomita uses this garish, instantly kitsch synthetic sound very artfully. His record The Planets fits with the theme of outer space. I have a feeling fans of Debussy or Ravel might find his renditions blasphemous or just thin-sounding compared to “real instruments”, but the piano itself is also this sort of machine, a mechanical contraption, more so than violin or horns. I don’t know how they were greeted at the time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people were like, “What’s this barbarous, new, noisy, vulgar instrument?” There’s a cornucopia of associations with the synthesiser.

MP You also make the point that in its inflexibility, the synthesiser can be funky. 

SR Initially, synthesisers were inflexible because the very first ones were monophonic. You couldn’t even play a chord. They also weren’t as touch-responsive as pianos and other instruments. That then became a kind of aesthetic. A lot of British and European musicians liked the stiffness and mechanistic qualities of a synthesiser, playing one-finger tunes, pop as a machine. When someone like Stevie Wonder grappled with a synth, it became extremely funky and squiggly, sexy and soulful.

MP When you published Retromania, you were quite clear in the interviews around that time that it was less of an academic concept and more of a blanket term for music concerned with the nostalgic imaginary. It was also a word you had no particular claim over. How do you stand with “futuromania”? 

SR There’s some level of silliness in the wordplay on Futuromania, but I think there’s something there. I have been, at various points, a sort of futuromaniac. Critics love that kind of rhetoric and the idea that music is at the vanguard of its time. It’s not necessarily always to do with electronic music: the most famous example is a guy called Jon Landau who said, “I’ve seen the future of rock and roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen”, which is ironic because Springsteen’s work is laden with references to rock history. Journalists love feeling like they spotted something before everyone else, which allows them to make an appeal to the reader to come and join the future. I had a particularly strong streak of it in the 1990s: I had been a latecomer to raving and happened to get in early on jungle. I couldn’t see why everyone wasn’t excited by it. I felt that jungle was the real future, hybrid and chaotic and resulting from an emergent multicultural London. Being a futuromaniac is this impatience to hear the next thing, to identify what in the current musical landscape is the herald of a new formation. It’s a bit of an “I be the prophet” mentality which can be quite addictive. ◉