Started a Tumblr

Not entirely sure why, or what the distinction between here and there will be, but nonetheless, here you go: http://laurasnapes.tumblr.com/

NME feature: St Vincent

SERIAL KILLER RIFFS

St Vincent’s reinvention as an axe-wielding heroine has produced arguably the guitar album of 2011. And, as she tells Laura Snapes, she owes it all to her obsession with murder

“Shit, fuck it up!” Whereas your average strumming Jim might rally his band into song with a steady, “ah-one-two-three-four”, St Vincent – aka 28-year old Dallas native Annie Clark – has different ideas at the London’s Barbican venue, shouting this order at her surprised saxophone player.

That was back in July, when she covered ‘Big Black Mariah’ for a night in tribute to Tom Waits’ feted 1985 album ‘Rain Dogs’, a yarn of salty hounds and seedy coves that doesn’t require much help in the fucked-up department. One minute in, Clark was transformed – snarling, clawing at the body of her Harmony Bobkat guitar (the same brand Jack White plays); a world away from when we last saw her, touring 2009’s elegantly poised ‘Actor’.

Clark has come a long way since being a member of frock-wearing hippies Polyphonic Spree in her early 20s. You might know her from her critically beloved albums: 2007′s ‘Marry Me’, a low-key, sweet debut written almost entirely on computer, full of canny lines like “We’ll do what Mary and Joseph did/Without the kid”. Follow-up ‘Actor’ was less playful, detailing suburban darkness with dizzying woodwind and showboating strings, inspired by watching Disney films on mute and reimagining the soundtracks. Although her guitar skills underpinned every song, she only unleashed the feral fret-frotting occasionally. Hence the surprise at her behaviour at the Barbican show, looking like she’s auditioning for a Slayer support slot.

“I was in a noise band in college, Skull Fuckers,” Clark explains over coffee at a sweaty central London café when we catch up with her later, the Barbican show memory still stamped on our skull. “That band was about getting really aggressive and ugly. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself that hard,” she adds, recalling another frenetic live show that came shortly afterwards in New York, where she nailed a similarly ferocious cover of Big Black’s ‘Kerosene’. “That night I unloaded every bit of misanthropic bile in my body, and people cheered!”

It wasn’t just the crowd cheering. The original scribe of ‘Kerosene’, Steve Albini – the guitar legend who has produced everyone from Nirvana to PJ Harvey to the Manics – once proclaimed, “I like big-ass vicious noise that makes my head spin.” “I found out from a friend that he liked the cover. It’s the biggest compliment!” Clark trills.

It comes as little surprise, then, that despite being written and recorded before these two gigs took place, for Clark’s third album, the wide-eyed prettiness of its predecessor is no longer on the agenda. ‘Strange Mercy’ is dark, peculiarly beautiful, and most importantly, one of the year’s greatest guitar records.

Back in January, when battles were raging over the health of guitar music, few would have thought that Annie Clark would make one of the albums that would put the kibosh on that argument. It came as just as much of a surprise to her too.

“I’ve been writing on the computer since I was 14 – I’ve rarely written just on guitar. The closing song is called ‘Year Of The Tiger’ [which ran from February 2010 to February 2011]. It was the darkest year of my life – I lost people that I loved,” she says quietly, pointing her face up at the ceiling and cupping her flat white coffee. “I couldn’t take being in New York any more because it was too overwhelming, so I went on a whim out to Seattle, where my friend Jason McGerr from Death Cab For Cutie has a studio. I wanted to see if I could be the troubadour, and write a proper Neil Young-style song song, on guitar.”

Bored with the filigreed orchestration that had couched her last record, Clark aimed to make “music for the American recession”. Or, in plain English, a record chock-full of focused, dazzling riffs – as on the King Crimson-indebted freakout of ‘Northern Lights’, or the dizzying, deranged ‘Surgeon’.

“I was trying to leave space for your ears to readjust, and let there be air in the room,” she explains. “To let there be life. I wanted to make something people who can’t dance can kind of dance to – sexy, and sleazier than before. Things are more emotionally immediate, there’s more simple form, then when I got into the studio with [producer] John Congleton in mid-February, we put everything through the meat grinder.”

It’s an appropriate word to describe her relationship with long-term producer Congleton, with whom she first bonded over the realisation that they both knew a lot more than was healthy about serial killers.

“I have a very specific memory of my stepmother reading a book called The Mammoth Book Of Murder, a compendium of serial killers from the 19th and 20th centuries,” she laughs. “It described their crimes in really gory detail – on car trips I used to read about how Jack The Ripper got his victims. John had a really similar interest – we talked about Ed Gein, the inspiration for Psycho, the one who wanted to make a skin suit. And Ted Bundy – he was actually very handsome and charming, and he’d lure women into his apartment by pretending he was struggling on crutches…”

Making friendships over murders mirrors the contradictions that run through ‘Strange Mercy’. “It’s about people looking for catharsis through pain,” she explains of the title track. So ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ details some light S&M – “no kisses, no real names” – and ‘Champagne Year’ is a gorgeous, resigned love letter to disappointment: “So I thought I learned my lesson/But I secretly expected/A choir at the shore and confetti through the falling air”. Whereas ‘Actor’ was masked by the perspectives of different characters, given the sad events that inspired it, ‘Strange Mercy’ sees Annie wear her bruised heart on her sleeve: “There’s less hiding here. I have always revealed myself emotionally in serpentine ways, which I’m less afraid of now – sometimes when you go through something that shows you that life is so short, you realise there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Not that fear is something that anyone will be associating with the formidable shredder any time soon. Frankly, there’s better cause to be scared of her…

“What did I learn when making this record? That I might be a serial killer!” she laughs. “No, the opposite – I learned more about forgiveness, human compassion, and not trying to manhandle and strangle the life out of songs. I think my live show will be harder and darker than ever before. That feels right. That feels natural now.”

ANNIE’S GUITAR PICKS

St Vincent’s favourite guitar shredders

‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott, Pantera
Annie: “When I first heard the bizarro Dimebag harmonics on ‘The Cemetery Gates’ at age 13, I thought I was hearing the very embodiment of evil. Which is to
say, I was as intrinsically drawn to it as I was mortified by it.”

Andy Gill, Gang Of Four
“Some guitar players can gently cajole and coerce a guitar to sing. Some
guitar players can make a guitar beg and squeal for its very life. Andy Gill
falls into the latter category.”

Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, Slayer
“There is jockish musical athleticism, which can be admirable, but lack
emotion. Then there is unwieldy, savant-ish creativity, which can be
fearsome, but unreliable. Somewhere between those is the ideal – this is the
domain of Slayer… plus a whole lot of doom and destruction.”

Brassland: the record label at the centre of New York’s other music scene

A feature I wrote for the Guardian’s Film & Music supplement about ten years of the label Brassland and its most famous bands, The National and Clogs. Click to go to the piece! I took the photo too.

NME feature: Tune-Yards

SHOUTING FOR GIRLS

Whooping and yelling about sex, violence and female empowerment, Merrill Garbus, aka Tune-Yards, has evolved from a lower-than-lo-fi bedroom pot-basher to mainstream gatecrasher via the brilliant call-to-arms of her second LP. Laura Snapes meets Oakland’s striped crusader.


Like the giveaway glint off a camouflaged soldier’s gun, there’s only one thing about Merrill Garbus’ outward appearance that betrays her otherwise undetectable warrior stance. Sat in the foreign territory of a ritzy oyster bar in St Pancras Eurostar terminal, around us, suits bray and quaff champagne. Away from the bar sits Merrill, laughing at the weirdness of drinking wine bought by her label, 4AD, before she catches a train to Paris later this evening (though she and bassist Nate Brenner will still be carrying their own equipment). A tipsy blonde teeters over asking if we know where the loos are. It’s only when Merrill turns to answer that the two stripes of black claw-mark warpaint on her right cheek become visible. (more…)

Dang And Blast: Why the BBC’s creative programme for teens shouldn’t have been scrapped

Written just for this blog.

Anyone who follows my frequent internet witterings will have seen that on Monday, I got my dream job – a desk post at NME as their Assistant Reviews Editor. Hurrah! Jubilation! I celebrated by drinking a lot of ale in my bedroom and watching five episodes of MTV “it’s not rubbish honest” reality series The City in a row. Boy do I know how to party. But there’s no way I would have got the job if it hadn’t been for a BBC work placement that I did aged 16, thanks to the fantastic BBC Blast – now sadly condemned to close following the conclusion of the BBC Strategy Review.

In May 2005 I was appointed BBC Cornwall’s Blast Reporter, which entailed spending the summer running my own section of the BBC Cornwall website. I interviewed bands, jewellery designers and the inventor of the first biodegradable surfboard, took photos of the Eden Sessions and played at being a real journalist for the summer. The same scheme went on in the majority of the BBC’s local newsrooms. With our sections being primarily arts-based and aimed at fellow teenagers, our duty as reporters was to file at least one article and diary entry per week in exchange for rigorous BBC training in internet content management systems, professional recording equipment, and safety procedures. There were compulsory training days in Bristol at the start of the placement, and a concluding session in Birmingham at the end of the summer, and each reporter was manned with their own personal mentor – mine was Matt Shepherd, who has looked after Cornwall’s Blast reporters since the scheme began in 2004. He only has lovely things to say about it:

“Being a mentor has been incredibly rewarding. Over six weeks you see your chosen reporter grow in confidence. Many have gone on to do some great things after BBC Blast: BBC Radio 1, NME, working at music magazines in other parts of the world. It’s been a tremendous amount of fun.”

Aside from covering travel expenses, the placements were unpaid – though the newer Blast Creative Trainee positions are paid – but considering the colossal effort put into the department by both the people running it and the teenagers taking part, it represented huge value for money by investing in talented young folk. As Matt pointed out, many were able to pay that investment back upon being employed on a long-term basis by the BBC, like BBC Cornwall’s first Blast reporter, Alex Full – he’s now an Assistant Producer on Fearne Cotton’s Radio 1 show after starting at Blast in 2004.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the BBC Strategy Review saw it. The department – which also entails a website encouraging creativity amongst teenagers, and a series of brilliant free outdoor events and workshops across the country – is being closed due to “a relatively high cost per user and a decreasing userbase,” according to the Strategy Review. That obviously refers more to the website and its thousands of users rather than the work experience placements, which are being axed without explanation. They could be integrated into the BBC’s established work experience programme, or they could vanish for good. No-one’s commented on it – and no-one from BBC Blast or the Strategy Review has replied to my emails requesting statistics or clarification (yet, though if they do I’ll be sure to blog them) – because there’s been no public uproar at the closure of Blast and withdrawal of these placements, unlike the appropriately loud furore around the closure of 6Music which succeeded in getting it saved. Even when the Guardian evaluated the different parts of the Beeb recommended for closure, Blast wasn’t on the agenda. 78% of nearly 50,000 online responses to the consultation focused on 6Music; I suspect less than 1%, including mine, focused on Blast.

During my time at BBC Radio Cornwall I met Fraser McAlpine, who then worked for BBC’s Top of the Pops Online website. The Tweeters amongst you will know him as @csi_popmusic, now the editor of the BBC Radio 1 Chart Blog, and all round pop fiend and wonderful chap. His desk in the Cornwall office has seen him sat opposite eight different Blast reporters, to whom he’s offered advice, a wealth of pop culture knowledge and brilliant common sense, along with merciless teasing about going to a girls’ school. That last one might have been reserved just for me. As such, he’s had a lot of experience with the scheme and the Beeb, and has theories on why Blast is for the chop:

“[Amongst the programmes proposed for closure], Blast is the anomaly, because it’s not an editorial-led initiative, it’s designed to be a kind of community outreach programme for an underserved audience – the same audience Switch [another BBC teen programme headed for closure] is supposed to serve. It’s one of those great BBC things which creates editorial, generates massive goodwill for the corporation, creates transparency – people love transparency – but viewers/listeners/readers wouldn’t necessarily miss if it wasn’t there.”

However, the people who will miss Blast – in particular its work experience placements and free event and workshop tours – are a group chronically underserved by commercial media, which is in complete antithesis to the BBC’s justification for proposing various closures on account of intruding on the competition. That group includes young people in geographically remote areas, away from the London-centric media world – regions like Cornwall, where there are very few other opportunities for teenagers to get experience in the limited local press that exists here. It includes kids whose parents/aunties/godfathers aren’t industry highflyers, able to wangle their progeny work experience placements on account of the family name; kids who wouldn’t make it to Oxbridge – still renowned for giving applicants a leg-up into the Beeb – but who nonetheless have incredible skills to offer. Blast is open to kids from any social background, making them feel comfortable in a very middle class industry, and the application process is the same as any fair, equal opportunities job application – proving that you’re worthy of the job because of your enthusiasm and achievements.

“Blast provides an entry point to the media for kids who’d find it almost impossible to get that experience elsewhere,” says Wendy Roby, a music journalist who worked in television for seven years and who has put on free BBC Blast workshops for teenagers this summer (hers specialise in music reviewing and playing ‘Bad Review Bingo’ – I wish I could lop two years off so I could go…). “The Blast schemes mean that kids who wouldn’t normally dream of entering the media get a chance to see how it works and have it demystified. More than that, they’re shown that the media doesn’t just have to be the preserve of the Octavias and Tarquins of this world. They get proper, useful advice about how to get a foot in the door from people who are already doing it.

“If the BBC is serious about inclusion and equal opportunities, killing off Blast is a funny way to go about it. People like David Attenborough got into the BBC during the liberal post-war boom, when it was possible for lively people who had ideas to get in front of the right people; it wasn’t the huge bureaucracy it is now. As the organisation has grown, of course it’s had to become more formalised – but this is why we need Blast. Entry-level positions in radio, film and television are almost always incredibly badly paid – think £12k – so it’s no surprise that most of the people who can afford to live in London and take these jobs are those who come from a more privileged background. And young people in farther flung places have less opportunity to get involved in projects or companies that might look good on their CV. There aren’t a great many film and TV companies outside of London; the young people Blast serves won’t have mummies and daddies who ‘know people’. If harder-to-reach young people can’t get that vital early experience, or see how competitive it is, they’ve got even less chance of getting a job as a runner or studio assistant. I’m a great believer in awakening ambition as early as possible, I want kids outside of London to see that they can and deserve to work in the media, just as much as kids who’ve grown up in Primrose Hill.”

Recent figures have shown that as many as several hundred applicants apply for every graduate job going. The economy has shrunk, starting salaries are dropping, and the amount of graduate positions is dwindling, meaning that such jobs are becoming exclusive to those students able to afford to undertake internships that gild their application with experience. Even then, a huge amount of graduates are underemployed and forced to take menial jobs that don’t utilise their skills, making it even harder for 16 – 18 year olds and anyone without a degree to get a foothold on the jobs ladder. Earlier this year, Barbara Ellen writing in the Guardian highlighted a BBC report which said that anything between three to 12 months of work experience is required for certain professions, 90% of which is unpaid, and which 60% of interns say is not beneficial. Not everyone gets the same chances as Tom Meltzer, an Oxbridge graduate who scored work experience at the Guardian only to find himself filling in for Charlie Brooker one week and writing his own column the next.

But as well as being a barrier to social mobility, many of these internships are fairly chuffing useless to boot. I recently went to see a friend who attends a first rate university in London. In the pub she and her friends were all proudly laying out their summer work experience placements and internships like trump cards on a casino table: investment bank, fashion house, advertising. Fast-forward a month, and despite being at a highfalutin PR company, said friend is miserable: ignored, stuffing envelopes, making tea, and learning approximately nothing about the industry despite the cut-throat application process to get the hallowed placement.

Take a look at the messageboard for the BBC Blast Creative Trainee: after describing their time working with CBBC and the Blast events team, Blast_Creative_Trainee_(U14054348) wrote in June 2009:

“Oh, and perhaps best of all, I’ve yet to be asked to brew a pot of tea or fax a copy of my manager’s expenses. The traineeship is lookin’ good.”

As my friend’s experiences prove, work placements in the commercial sector can be extremely hit and miss – they’re not regulated, and unlike in France, they’re under no obligation to pay interns or even cover their costs. Not Blast, which, as its 2005 Positive Image Award for Coverage of Young People and 2010 Webby People’s Voice Award for Netart prove, promoted professional office conduct and a rigorous intern support system along with invaluable experience. Anthony Lee, a recent English Literature graduate from the University of Bristol and one of the last batch of BBC Blast Creative Trainees, says that the people behind Blast go out of their way to cater to the experience that each individual intern is looking for:

“I started an 8-week, paid placement at the beginning of June, working from the Blast office in White City, London. The placement is based in Blast’s online department, so mainly I’ve been helping the team in the maintenance of the website, but the beauty of it is that it’s extremely diverse and flexible; I came in wanting to learn more about television production and radio broadcasting, and so they’ve tailored my Blast experience to suit my interests; another trainee who has exactly the same role as me is more interested in social media, games and the online platform, and so likewise they’ve offered them different opportunities.

“I have a line manager who oversees what I do and offers help and support where necessary, but I’m allowed a great deal of creative freedom and independence. At the beginning of the placement, my line manager and I discussed my objectives and what I wanted to get out of the placement. I have weekly and monthly meetings to see how I’m progressing and whether I’m meeting my goals.”

The BBC’s reputation with regard to its teenaged audience isn’t great, television wise, and they’ve accepted that their commercial rivals serve this age group much better than they do. But that doesn’t mean that the BBC should abandon teenagers completely. At the time of the proposed closures back in March, Erik Huggers, head of BBC Online, said: “In preparing for a digital age where BBC Online is at the heart of our future, we need to improve the quality level, and reprioritise on what we do best.”

What the BBC does best in terms of serving its teenage audience, is Blast, and unequivocally so. Whether offering feedback on creative writing through its website, webchats with professional artists, ‘Bad Review Bingo’ with Wendy, or summer-long placements at the behest of merciless tease Fraser and all-round sweetheart Matt, BBC Blast supports teenagers in a fairly selfless way that no other broadcaster does.

“When the question was posed as to where Blast would now direct all of the young talented people it has supported and nurtured over the years,” says Anthony Lee, “the BBC appeared to have no answer. It just goes to show that Blast is a unique and invaluable service to young people, without an equivalent and without any competitors. If, or rather when, it does close, it will create a vacuum as there’s currently no service that offers the same level of quality for young people.”

Despite the closure of Blast (amongst other services) supposedly being proposed to stop the Conservatives hacking the BBC to bits, it actually fits in very well with the coalition government’s plan for a “Big Society”, and with a statement that the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, gave to Radio 4’s The World At One on Monday 19th July:

“Even at a time when money is tight it is still possible to find different ways of delivering. It is unashamedly about getting more for less. But it is about passing power down to folks so you can start to mould your own neighbourhood and put something back in.”

Swap “neighbourhood” for “career” and take “folks” as normal, unconnected teenagers, and you’ve got Blast. I bet that if Cameron and Clegg were to sit down and take a look at precisely what it is the BBC are going to cut, they’d be as outraged as I am. With an aging workforce, the country needs young, trained people, and despite massive pressure for budget cuts in the public sector, cutting on investments for the future doesn’t seem like the right way to go. As far as the government is concerned, organisations staffed by well trained individuals – such as Blast graduates – function efficiently, which is just what the BBC has been accused of failing at. As well as providing a service that its commercial rivals don’t, there’s also the other side of the argument, which is that the BBC as a public service organisation can provide the training that small, independent firms can’t afford to – it arguably has a role to play in this area.

I’ve written this blog post too late. I should have done it when the cuts were first proposed, but never got around to it amidst mires of university work. I’m angry that Blast is closing. Pissed off that the media is again being cut off from people in rural areas, bitter for my unconnected teenage self that it’s kids with fancy surnames who’ll get hotly coveted work experience placements, and sad for the hundreds of Blast employees who have done such a fantastic job nurturing the talents of young people who are going to be reallocated or lose their jobs. Like I said, I wouldn’t be where I am today without it – from Blast I went to BBC Top of the Pops Online thanks to Fraser, and from there to a work experience placement at NME, aged 17. I owe it my whole career, though I still feel like I’m playing at being a real journalist despite the desk job. When the BBC cuts were first proposed, I tuned in to Lauren Laverne’s 6Music show and unsuccessfully tried to stop myself crying in the middle of the library as I heard her lovely Mackem accent quivering. But I knew 6Music would be ok; it was Blast I was worried about.

***

As a present for reading the whole blog, here is a picture of my gawky teenage self on my Blast placement, giddy with glee after interviewing the Magic Numbers.

goon