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I Hear a New Gramophone – an interview with Sean Michaels

This is an interview from November’s issue of The Skinny Magazine which can also be found on their website here. It was loosely timed to coincide with the release of a wee bundle I’ve put together for www.tentracks.co.uk which will be available in late November – more info on that will be coming soon. The artwork was specially commissioned from Eleanor Meredith šŸ™‚

To mark the 50th issue of The Skinny, music columnists Milo McLaughlin and Sean Michaels got on the blower (well, Skype) for a transatlantic chinwag about the Scottish music scene and how it’s all changed since the magazine began in 2005.

The Easy Gramophone was a monthly column written by Sean Michaels which ran in The Skinny from 2006 to early 2008. As the title suggests it was intended as a companion to his hugely popular mp3 blog Said The Gramophone – deemed one of Time Magazine’s 25 best blogs this year.

For each column Sean handpicked a selection of tracks he loved which were available free to download somewhere on the net. In line with The Skinny’s eclectic, cutting-edge music coverage, these were songs from a dizzying array of styles, based on their quality rather than any fixed genre – and he was one of the first people in the UK to write about bands such as Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Beirut and Final Fantasy. When Michaels returned to his home city of Montreal, he passed on the baton to me, and the column morphed into I Hear a New World, with an accompanying podcast of ‘original and innovative songs from Scotland and beyond’. This included such cult heroes as Bonnie Prince Billy, Jeffrey Lewis, James Yorkston and Herman Dune as well as established and underground local acts such as Errors, eagleowl, King Creosote, The Pictish Trail, The Phantom Band, and The Japanese War Effort.

Now that he has the perspective of time and distance, I ask Sean how he feels about the Scottish music scene and how he sees his development since those formative issues of The Skinny. From where he’s standing, the east coast has seen the biggest change. “The thing that I sorrowfully tell people when they ask about music in Scotland is that between the time I arrived to when I left, I didn’t discover a single great Edinburgh band that I hadn’t heard before I arrived. It gives me great pleasure and envy that after I left things have really come out of the woodwork, and it feels like it’s reached some kind of velocity.”

Despite his physical distance, Michaels continues to scour the web in search of great Scottish acts, having featured some of the new breed of Edinburgh artists such as Withered Hand and Meursault on his blog, even before many local commentators had caught on to their undoubted charms. However, whilst he believes that it’s important to be supportive of Scottish artists, it can also be counterproductive to lavish blanket praise based on geography alone.

Some have suggested that this is at risk of happening with the recent explosion of predominantly positive coverage in the local blogosphere, but Sean is optimistic about the internal barometer of the genuine Scottish music fan. “Scots are great musicians, it’s a great place for music, and they also don’t put up with crap. In the case of bands like Uncle John & Whitelock people were responding to something that was very good, and that’s the crucial element.”

The ethos Michaels has brought to both the Said the Gramophone blog and the Easy Gramophone column is perfectly simple – to celebrate the magical synchronicity that leads an artist or band to come up with that one, amazing, addictive, essential tune. “Your column led on from mine, where you’re highlighting great songs. And that’s what I’ve done with Said The Gramophone all this time – I think you can be enthusiastic much more honestly when you don’t need to say ‘this band is clearly the greatest band ever’ or ‘this album is a masterpiece’. Our small aspiration is to everyday give you three minutes that are wonderful.”

With the prodigious Sufjan Stevens recently questioning what the point of a song actually is, I ask Michaels if he too ever gets tired of the hunt for the next hidden gem. “Sometimes you have to sit down at your computer, take off your ears, and knock them against the desk and ask ‘how are you feeling today?'” Nothing hones that internal barometer better than a bit of perspective. “Sometimes you feel like hearing that hot new CD that came in the post or that new mp3 you downloaded from that cutting edge blog, and sometimes you’re like, ‘okay, time to throw on the Neil Young; time to throw on the Bach.’ Reminding yourself and other people about great old songs is a really nice thing to do – I mean it’s what we do with friends, right?”

Sean Michaels writes for The Guardian, blogs at www.saidthegramophone.com and is currently starting work on his second novel.

The I Hear a New World channel – featuring tracks from Withered Hand, Gummi Bako, Meursault and Ambulances – is launched on Ten Tracks in November – in the meantime check out the podcasts.

Some other stuff I’ve written for The Skinny recently:

By Milo

Freelance writer and content creator.

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