Behind the blog: Shake Your Fist
Shake Your Fist doesn't update everyday, but I still check it everyday. I do it in the hope that there'll be a new entry but also just to browse through the considerable archives. It makes me want to strive harder in my own posts, raising the capacity of my writing, digging up untrod descriptors and newborn metaphors. It makes me want to plunder used CD bins too, excavating obscure finds and little-known wonders to champion. Needless to say, Shake Your Fist has quickly become one of my favorite music blogs, a exemplar of quality in a medium often tagged as sloppy and tasteless. So it was a pleasure to have an opportunity to chat with Amy, the guiding force behind the blog:
Nerd Litter: What was the genesis of Shake Your Fist?
Shake Your Fist: Originally, it was to be a group blog with a group of six of us who went to grad school together. It was going to cover not just music, but books, politics, technology, etc. I always intended to write about music and I became the lead pretty early (like the first week). I was also reading a lot of MP3 blogs at the time, and was particularly inspired by blogs like Spoilt Victorian Child and The Mystical Beast—personal, idiosyncratic blogs like that—and so SYF became an MP3 blog. Jon and Joe stuck around, but over time it has pretty much become my baby.
NL: Where did the title come from?
SYF: Oh God, I hate this question because it's such a meaningless name. It came from a James Merrill poem I happened to be reading at the time. I threw out a bunch of titles to the original group and I think the first choice was Type Slowly—which would have been great! But it appeared at the time to be on reserve by some other bloggers. For the record: I hate the name Shake Your First. But I'm stuck with it now.
NL: James Merrill is one of my favorite poets, so I give it a pass.
SYL: You're kidding! I adore him.
NL: I read his Selected Poetry (1946-1985) pretty incessantly for a while. Did you go to grad school for English then?
SYF: Erm, yes. But I actually wrote my Master's thesis on film. So it was sort of an English/Film degree.
NL: Oh nice. I was going to ask you about this later, but since you've delivered the segue... Tell me a little about your film tastes. I was reading some of your thoughts on Caché and that intrigued me enough to want to know more.
SYF: Yikes! Such a big question. I used to be an utter film geek, starting in high school, through college where I did some student filmmaking and then worked briefly in Hollywood after college (but nothing glamorous). And then some writing about film in grad school. It's weird because I have lost touch with a lot of the film scene but still know the language, if you know what I mean. Some of my favorite filmmakers—Bergman, Renoir, Hitchcock, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Truffaut. Many others. For some reason, I'm blanking on all of the Americans right now.
NL: Kubrick and Scorsese? Those seem to be the cineaste consensus.
SYF: Hmm. Early Scorsese. I wasn't wild about his latest. Kubrick was British, right?
NL: According to IMDB, he grew up in America and then moved to England once his film career started up. So we're both right.
SYF: All right then. No, not a big Kubrick fan.
NL: Oh, and Altman. I love Altman for the most part.
SYF: Some Altman. But Ready to Wear was probably the worst film I ever saw!
NL: That’s absolutely true. I saw that when it came out and I'm still recovering. But then there's Nashville (minus the reporter) and The Player (minus nothing). He just has such a scope and a talent for making an ensemble feel like a universe. What's the last great film you saw?
SYF: I'm extremely critical of film. More so than any form of art. I'd have to say Half Nelson because it's the only recent-ish film that really impressed me. Before that—and this is going back two years now so it should tell you something—Me and You and Everyone We Know. I was actually planning to walk to the bookstore and pick up Miranda July's new collection of short stories today. But it was raining.
NL: Yeah, I was thinking of checking that out too. I have some problems with her work—the usual ones, I’d imagine—but at the end of the day, it's still more affecting than stuff that plays it safe. Where do you find out about the music you post?
SYF: So many channels. I read a lot of blogs, websites, magazines, I troll MySpace (which I pretty much hate but have gotten used to). eMusic is a huge resource. I'm always checking out the new additions and have found a number of good things that way. But finding music is the thing I dislike most about writing this blog. I don't post about 75% of the music I listen to either because I find it has already been covered extensively elsewhere, it's on a major label or it's something I don't have the vocabulary to write about.
NL: What's one of the things you don't have the vocabulary to write about?
SYF: Oh, for example, I'd love to be able to talk about John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and why I find it so moving. But I don't know how to talk about jazz.
NL: I’m still sometimes intimidated by instrumental electronic music. Not that I can't write about that, but just the sense I won't really nail how I feel or what it does. Just kind of flutter around it.
SYF: Oh yes. I'm getting better with electronica, but it's still a challenge.
NL: What are some of your posts that still stick out in your mind as particularly successful?
SYF: I'm the worst person to ask this question. I'm pretty dissatisfied with the vast majority of the things I post. I love the process of writing. It's pretty much the only reason I keep blogging. But I always get this sinking feeling when I read back what I've written. One of the few posts I feel almost completely satisfied with was something I wrote about a year ago on Fleetwood Mac. It was sort of this weird fusion of personal history, band history, song analysis and a bunch of other stuff. And a couple of months ago, I wrote a post on a song called "Flatland" by Red Leaf Black Bird that sort of represents a lot of what I'm trying to do these days with SYF. I was attempting to not only explain how I interpreted the song but also to evoke its mood and rhythms and stark sense of space. And, of course, I'm always pleased when I can toss in a film reference!
NL: Do you ever go back and edit old posts? I find myself doing that to a ridiculous degree.
SYF: I edit when something’s a few hours old, occasionally when it's a few days old. After that, I really can't bear to reread.
NL: That's kind of surprising. I think you're probably the best music blog writer. Writer in terms of actual writing.
SYF: That's very sweet of you. I'm very hard on myself. People who know me know this and they learn to ignore it.
NL: You referred to the Clientele's guitar lines as “inky.” I loved that and was also jealous.
SYF: Yes, but they are.
NL: What is your background in writing? And does poetry have much to do with it? Because there's definitely a very present poetic quality in there.
SYF: Well, I've always written. It came to me very naturally from the time I learned to put pen to paper. I used to do more creative writing—short stories, poetry—in school and college. I've worked as a financial writer/editor for the past ten years. It's not exactly creative, but it pays better than poetry! The blog is my outlet for more challenging, imaginative stuff. I love language and as SYF has progressed, it's gone from more standard blog writing to more, I don’t know, sound-oriented writing. If that makes sense. I often sacrifice sense for sound. If choosing between two words where one is more “right” and the other mellifluous, I'll take the pretty one every time.
NL: It's like you're writing music instead of words.
SYF: Aw, thanks! That's a great compliment. I hope so.
NL: How long does it take you to assemble an average post?
SYF: I've written posts in as little as fifteen minutes. That's the exception. Most take at least a couple if not many hours. I usually have five or six going in the queue and then generally scrap at least half of them before they make it to the page.
NL: Let's talk a little about albums. What's the last album you've been obsessed with?
SYF: My fave album so far this year is Frightened Rabbit's Sing the Greys—catchy, charming, ambitious. I can't get away from it. Oh, Pantha Du Prince’s This Bliss is astonishingly beautiful. Can't get away from it either. All weekend I've been listening to the latest (hopefully the last!) Elliott Smith collection. What about you?
NL: Well I’ve been writing pretty intensively so I finally went ahead and got Endtroducing… on MP3 and my iPod. I'd been missing that album like a runaway dog since I’m never home and I never listen to CDs anymore. What about an album that you’re surprised you like?
SYF: One that I find so unlikely is Miranda Lambert's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I'm not exactly a commercial country girl. I may even post a song and write about it if I dare tempt a cease-and-desist from Sony.
NL: Yeah, that album is getting lots of love everywhere I look.
SYF: Because it's good!
NL: I believe it but I'm still just not sure I enjoy the genre even when it’s good. I will give it a try though. We both picked Ys as our top album of 2006. How has that album settled with you nine months later?
SYF: I still love it, of course. But it's not the kind of thing you can listen to every day. If you had told me a year ago that I would choose an album by Joanna Newsom as my favorite of 2006, I would’ve thought you were smoking crack. So I'm still kind of worried about overdosing on her. Like maybe I’ll break the spell? What about you?
NL: I've actually been listening to it through this interview. It's a strange creature, because I did literally listen to it every day when I lived in San Francisco. I'd wander the woods and the parks, and it made everything seem magical and fantastic. In New York, I need to find these pockets of quietude to listen to it. I can't listen to it unless I'm only listening to it and not traffic and subways shuddering and people yelling. But yeah, when I can find those little pockets, I find myself loving it more than ever. It's the closest thing to a portal I have to some other planet. Indie Narnia. How is it living in Chicago vis-à-vis being a music blogger? Or even a music listener?
SYF: Place is so important to how I listen to music. And I think it's because I hear things so differently when there's traffic in the background than when there are birds chirping. Even the quality of the air makes a difference in how things sound. Chicago comes though my posts in subtle ways, I think. For some reason, I talk about geography a lot (still not sure what's behind that). I don't talk a lot about Chicago bands, though, because frankly I don't hear a lot I like. But the city informs my moods and sensitivity to certain types of sounds. I never really liked alt-country/Americana before I lived in the Midwest. But it sort of makes sense here.
NL: Did you grow up there?
SYF: No, I grew up in Salt Lake City mostly (we lived in Europe a bit too). But my parents and endless generations are from here and I visited Chicago every summer growing up. I've lived here now for more than twelve years so I guess it's home. Though I should add, in many ways I still feel like a Westerner.
NL: I don't know what I feel like, other than I think I want to move somewhere else again. Everything in New York feels too familiar and obvious. Although I am probably the only person who says that.
SYF: Yes! That's something that gets me itchy too. I lived in L.A. right out of college and loved it. I think about going back.
NL: I'm tired of New York and you love Los Angeles. We're such iconoclasts. What are you listening to right now? Literally, I mean.
SYF: This is going to shock you, but I'm not listening to music. Just the sound of my typing, random cars, my cat making little sleepy noises.
NL: Same here, except substitute cat for dog, jingles emanating from my roommates’ TV and Ys. What aspects of music blogs do you not like and what would you like to see more music bloggers doing?
SYF: I'm disappointed that more bloggers don't write about the music they post. Really write about it. Try to examine why it has meaning for them and what that meaning is. I think a lot of newer blogs model themselves after some big blogs (we all know which ones) that became big for postings the Hot! New! Thing! and press releases and concert dates and so on. I wish more would try to emulate the more “writerly” blogs (and again, we know which ones these are). I dislike blogs that seem to exist simply to post long MP3 lists that are little more than aggregator bait. I dislike blogs that post full albums (obvs!). I wish more blogs would write not just about new releases but also records that are a couple or a dozen or even thirty years old.
NL: Part of the problem is that of course music bloggers love music, but they don’t consider the need to also be good designers, good writers, good editors, good researchers, good tech guys. There are so many more elements and skills involved than I realized and more than most people can excel at.
SYF: Yes, of course. Most MP3 bloggers are fundamentally fans, not critics, not writers. I fully admit that my expectations are too high and that I come at this from a different angle than a lot of bloggers.
NL: Why do you pair photos or pieces of art with the writeups?
SYF: Sometimes I post album covers, sometimes unrelated art. Depends on my mood. I started hating the look of band promo pics. Most of them are so ugly!
NL: Ha, that's as good an answer as any. What about books? You strike me as a reader. What are you interested in other than the aforementioned Miranda July?
SYF: I can't imagine where you got that from. You want my fave authors or what I'm reading now?
NL: Let's say both.
SYF: Well, I just finished one of Alice Munro's more recent collection, Runaway, and was reminded of why she's probably the greatest living short story writer (unless Grace Paley's still alive and she might be). But I'm not even sure Munro is writing short stories, because her writing is so miraculous and impossible to wedge into a niche. Other favorite writers: Joan Didion (I would kill to write a single sentence like she does on her worst day), Ian McEwan, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Nancy Mitford, Lydia Davis, Geoff Dyer, a couple of crime writers—Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke—poets like Johns Donne and Milton, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, historian David Hackett Fischer, Marxist geographer Mike Davis... I could go on and on.
NL: I picked Runaway for my book club last year. It led to a pretty spirited debate.
SYF: Really? How so?
NL: I was called upon to defend my appreciation of it.
SYF: That's insane.
NL: Well, she's a pretty subtle and intimate writer. Also not to a lot of people's tastes I would imagine, especially if you're not interested in women coming of age in Canada.
SYF: I can think of no other living writer capable of saying so much in a single sentence. But what she writes about hardly matters. It's the way she does it. You remind me that I've had such difficulty finding a compatible book club. Most people don't want to read critically. I just discussed Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking with a book club and all anyone wanted to talk about for an hour was all the people they know who died. Gah!
NL: That's like the people who only want to agree with or condemn the decisions of characters in stories rather than engage with the writing itself. If you could trade, what recent album or new artist would you give more attention to and what recent album or new artist would you take attention away from?
SYF: I think Julie Doiron's new album is just wonderful and isn't getting much credit for it. The Pitchfork review anyway was rather lousy. Essie Jain's gorgeous record has also fallen under the radar and deserves some celebration. Overrated? Dan Deacon's okay but some folks seem to take him as the second coming. That seems exaggerated. I don't hate on a lot of new artists though. They're usually just as surprised by the attention as the rest of us. I generally reserve my animosity for bands like, oh, the Decemberists.
* MP3: "Be Less Rude" - Frightened Rabbit from Sing The Greys [Buy it]
* MP3: "Asha" - Pantha du Prince from This Bliss [Buy it]
* MP3: "Glory" - Essie Jain from We Made This Ourselves [Buy it]