Richard Edwards, frontman of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, was not pleased with my review of his latest album Not Animal. In fact, he was so enraged about it that he sent me a long, impassioned email voicing his displeasure at my take on his music. He called my review “wrong headed” and “misguided,” among other choice adjectives. Rather than relegate his missive to the dead letter pile, I decided to write Richard back about my thoughts on criticism and the separation of art and artist. I fully expected him to tell me to “fuck off,” but Richard seemed excited about my response and we talked for over an hour, explaining where both of us were coming from. After the chat, I offered Richard a chance to have a formal interview. He graciously accepted and we spent a few pre-dawn hours talking about Not Animal, his art and how he wanted to strangle me.
Hello Richard. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Before we address my review, why don’t we take a few moments to set the stage. Tell me what happened, for those who don’t know. What the story is with Animal! vs. Not Animal?
My friends and I made a record that ended up on V2/Artemis records. The record was talked about by a very small number of blogs and such. V2 went under and the president of that label went to Epic. He is a beautiful man who cared about our band and helped us transition to Epic records. We recorded without label interference for four months. We turned in a record called Animal! and it was not greeted kindly by a few of the higher ups. A compromise was reached where we could put out our record on vinyl and they would release songs that they liked on cd and vinyl.
What was their problem with Animal!?
It was never really defined, but the implication was that it was a downer without any clear songs to push. I know they commented on the mixes and things like that. They thought some of the songs were too long and didn’t contain enough singer/songwriter elements, which they had liked about our first record.
How did you respond?
We told them that we wouldn’t re-record songs and that the record was done. Maybe that was foolish in retrospect. I went to New York and met with a couple of them. I guess we told them we were done and we didn’t care if it came out.
But something did come out….Not Animal. What’s the missing link then?
Well, Not Animal was the compromise. Animal! is the missing link, and I don’t think that record is able to be judged independently at this point.
Did the whole process have an emotional toll on you? It sounds like you are very unhappy with Not Animal.
This has been the most painful experience of my life. I don’t mean that in some bleeding heart artist way. I don’t think Not Animal works as a record. Animal! does. People might claim otherwise, but I think time will prove them wrong. I definitely feel differently about making music now. And it’s not a positive change.
How so? What’s the change?
I just hate the noise more now. The talk about records and movies and books. I’m sure you can relate, as someone who went to school for creative writing. We’ve all be through those workshops where classmates rip apart our work. Animal! was made by someone who was so obsessed with doing something beautiful. And when that thing gets cut out of you, I don’t think you can think about your work the same way. No one can judge the thing I made, and if they do, it’s in the context of this other thing. If I was writing “I kissed a girl and I liked it” I suspect I would care far less about the reaction to it.
But isn’t impossible to produce art and not expect criticism? And I don’t mean saying it’s bad, but critical interpretations. Art is always going to inspire some sort of reaction. Do you think saying, “I put my heart and soul into something” is enough? Wouldn’t anything qualify as “good” art then?
You’re completely right. I have, and will continue to deal with criticism. My problem was with your review. I had no problem with Pitchfork’s review, or Filter’s, or any number of reviews. I had problems with two reviews.
Are you the type to read reviews of your own work?
I wasn’t, but I was an idiot and read reviews of our record when I moved to Chicago. I had lunch with Brian Deck (the man who recorded our record), and I started reading them. But, I had read maybe five or six before that lunch.
How did you come across my review of Not Animal?
My friend Josh sent it to me. He said it was linked to our Wikipedia page. He sent it to me yesterday. I think he thought I would laugh about it or something.
And you obviously did not laugh about it.
Well, it’s obvious that it bothered me in some ways. I don’t have enough confidence to laugh everything away, some things, but not everything.
What was it about my review that struck you enough to write me? I know you feel I misinterpreted some of the album, but isn’t all art really up to the consumer to interpret? I re-read the review today and though I did take some shots at the album, I felt the undertone of the piece was somewhat encouraging.
First of all, I don’t think a 40% out of 100% is too encouraging. But it wasn’t that.The main points were spelled out in my email, and I’d have to pull it up to quote it.The basic issue was, when someone says a metaphor is “too obvious” and then misses the metaphor completely, that’s not good criticism. When someone says “settle down, your starting to freak me out” is “sophomoric”, I question whether that person knows the definition of sophomoric. When someone uses song titles like “Real Naked Girls” and “Hello Vagina” as proof that the band “shouldn’t be taken seriously”, that seems ignorant to me. I’ll admit that I have “boy band lust”. And I’m not enough a bleeding heart liberal to pretend like I think that’s a bad thing.
Do you think an opinion can be wrong?
I do not, but a reviewer is always going to win that argument. It doesn’t mean it’s a good review.
That’s the nature of the beast. Art is subjective. We also tend to dwell on the negative as humans. I would say we’ve had a fairly congenial discussion since we first corresponded and it seems like we may continue talking after this interview. But if the piece had been glowing, I suspect you wouldn’t have written me. This isn’t an excuse for “bad writing” or anything, but just a look into human nature. On the other hand, when you put something out there, like a book or a painting or a song, it is bound to be interpreted in a manner unlike your original intention. We talked about Heaven’s Gate being misconstrued for masturbation in my review. Do you think every listener is going to know about those Hale-Bopp guys? To be honest- I knew the song was about that cult (from doing some research) but chose to read the lyrics how they came across to me.
That’s fine and good, but is it my job to spell out that lyric so that a reviewer doesn’t think that line is about masturbation, or that the title isn’t about birth? Again, if someone says a metaphor is “too obvious”, they need to be pretty sure that they know what the metaphor is. If someone thinks it’s about jerking off, I think it says more about them than me. And that’s my problem with your review, not reviews in general. Even though, I’m pretty sure i like you more than anyone else i could be having this conversation with.
Well, it seems we are at a stalemate here and to be honest, I don’t think either of us is wrong. Of course, it’s about the critic, the consumer. It’s about what we bring to the table. As I mentioned, at the same time I was listening to the new Of Montreal and that really is all about sex. Can I say my perception was not flavored by that album? Nope. It almost certainly was.
And that’s fair, but isn’t my reaction to it fair as well? Like I said, I’m not someone who emails everyone who says something bad about me, but while I know that my opinion is extremely biased, I felt compelled to direct my thoughts to you directly. Because something about your review didn’t smell right to me. And I’ve read enough of your work since then to realize that you are a smart guy with very valid thoughts on movies and records. But I still have the same concerns about those other well-written reviews. Or at least one of them.
Richard, I never said your reaction was not fair. Even my initial email to you validated your feelings about the review.
I agree with that, I may have worded that wrong
As I said to you before, music criticism can be a nasty business. Once an opinion is put into print, it is considered concrete. Tastes change based on experience. You mentioned before we critics write as if we’re on high and weigh things as good and bad. I think the best critics recognize it’s all opinion. I don’t claim to know everything, I write on a gut reaction. I think each review should be read as opinion and nothing more. If someone else loved your album, I am happy for them and I am happy for you. It’s just a difference of opinion. What does bother me is when I receive letters saying that i am wrong, because my opinion is different or that I only gave an album a cursory listen. As I told you before, I listened to Not Animal on repeat for almost a week. So the question is: should there be criticism? Do you think you’ve ever disliked a film or song but totally didn’t “get” what the artist intended? In postmodern criticism, the author doesn’t even mater.
But you didn’t hear Animal!, and you still felt the need to say Not Animal “was no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Not Animal is not my album. I don’t pretend to believe that you would like Animal! But it’s “my album.” And yes, I do believe criticism matters. Very much so. But I think if we’ve both taken enough time to discuss this review, than that means something as well. Of all the reviews, positive or negative, your review bothered me enough to write you. As much as I need to accept the fact that criticism of my work is a necessity, you need to accept the same fact. I didn’t chose to write an angry, open letter to the blogs. I chose to address you. And I still appreciate the fact that I think we both respect each other and that we can have this conversation. I think it’s a very good thing.
Yes, I feel the same way. What was your intention/hope I would “learn” or gain from reading your letter? Did you expect me to be like, “Fuck you, buddy?”
My hope/intention was that you would know that there was a human being on the other end of your review who cared so deeply for his record that he would defend it. And yes, I did expect you to say, “Fuck you, buddy”. And I expected to say, “Fuck you” back”. I have been pleasantly surprised.
What surprised you? And does that show little faith in mankind on your end?
That we could respond this way to each other, despite the fact that you feel negatively about something that I would literally die for, and that I think if we saw each other in person we would have a drink and talk about movies instead of me trying to strangle you.
Tsk tsk, violence. And besides….my review as not on the album you really cared about.
I don’t think think it shows little faith in mankind on my part. I think it shows that you might be a unique exception. Besides, I’m ok with having little faith in mankind.
So what’s the plan? Are you going to carry on, quit music and join the circus, hunt down critics?
You’re the only critic I’ve ever hunted down. And I may continue to hunt you down. Until your dying breathe. I suspect we’ll be pals, but I have been wrong before. My plan is to either complete a record called Dark Energy in the Spotlight (you’ll hate it (or love it?), it’s all about masturbation), or stop and become a follower of Harmony Korine.
So I guess I’ll never live down not liking (or misinterpreting) Not Animal.
You’ve already lived it down. I have a fondness for you that I don’t even have for my own mother
So, right when I finished talking with you the first time, I received another angry letter about your album, but from a fan this time. Why is that people usually write when they’re pissed and not when they agree?
The same reason cops don’t pull you over when you’re driving like a sane person.
I like to look at positives. If we hadn’t corresponded, this interview would not have happened. Even if our acquaintance is brief, this never would have happened. With technology, we are growing more and more impersonal. The bottom line is that behind both pieces there is a person and we sometimes forget that.
I agree with that. And I like you as a person. I might be insane enough to “defend” my album, but it doesn’t mean that I take it personally.
Have you received mainly positive feedback from “real” people on Animal!?
It’s been very much 50/50.
What criticism have you received that you think will help you improve as a songwriter and what one piece of praise has really stayed with you?
The praise that will help me improve is, “Animal! rules”, and the criticism that will stay with me is “I liked The Dust of Retreat better, why do you sing about mineshafts and robots now?”
All right…it’s 2am here and 5am for you. Thank you so much for the interview. Last chance to tell me to “fuck myself.”
Buñuel IS the greatest director of all time, but other than that you’re pretty okay.
Thanks so much, Richard
by David Harris