An Interview with Craig Schuftan

jakec / everguide / 2013

Billy Corgan

Despite being born in the same year The Ramones first formed, Craig Schuftan has a passion for the 90s that exceeds most of the current generation of Millennial navel-gazers. In fact he literally wrote the book on it. Borrowing its name from Nirvana’s generation-defining classic, Entertain Us! takes a very serious look at some very serious music, which also happened to be the most popular of its time. Theodore Adorno famously drew a line separating the two but Craig Schuftan considers them one and the same. After all, if some music is able to impact society on a scale as broadly as it did in the MTV days, surely it demands to be taken seriously. We talked about 90s kids, critical theory, and how the world may be a vampire, but the universe just doesn’t care.

Jake Cleland: So let’s get the showbusiness out of the way first because I wanna ask you some life advice later. What can we expect from your show at The Toff on February 13? It’s about alt-rock as I understand it.

Craig Schuftan: Yes it is, it’s a history of alternative rock in the early 90s, mostly American alternative rock, so I’m talking about the first flowering of what people at the time called grunge. Nirvana and everything that came after it, the success of Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers a little bit later, Smashing Pumpkins, The Breeders.

JC: You obviously take pop culture quite seriously — more seriously than most, perhaps — but I’m a little bit surprised that a youth oriented network like triple j has so fully embraced this critical and philosophical exploration of pop culture. Like, I assume most of the people rockin’ out to the Hottest 100 aren’t thinking about Illy’s context within the tradition of hedonistic thought or something. Do you hear from many young kids about how you’ve opened their ears or is it mostly old folks?

CS: That’s actually one of my favourite things about what I do, I love that when I was doing the Culture Club segment on triple j a while ago and also more recently with the stuff I did with the 90s week, I hear from uni students and high school kids and all kinds of people, saying it’s made them think about music in different ways or that it helped them with something at school, like they’re studying Romanticism or Modernism and the connection I made between that and Illy or Weezer or Daft Punk or Kanye West or whatever it is helped them to get a little bit closer to that. Personally that’s what I’ve always loved about triple j and I still feel that it does that a lot. I think we take it for granted a bit because we’re so used to it being there but at its best, what the station does is entertain and inform, that’s part of the charter. I mean, it’s an entertainment station, it plays popular music, it’s not about avant-garde music, it’s not that radical really, it’s a fun, enjoyable thing to listen to and you can listen to it when you’re young and not be alienated by it. And it throws you a party from time to time, as you said with the Hottest 100. But there’s also some great content in there, and there’s always the potential for great content. I’ve always liked that, I like the challenge of it because I remember how hard it was to get through to me as a 15 year old, how hard it was to get me interested in things I wasn’t already interested in. That’s what I like about working there. I’m very grateful that they make the space.

JC: Yeah well it’s such a beautiful thing that popular music, whether its “pop” music or just music that’s in the mainstream consciousness, is being taken seriously.

CS: I’d say most people take it seriously. They’re not always sure why but most of the kids you meet at the Big Day Out take the music they love really, really seriously, and if you ask them whether it’s important they’d all say yeah. It’s just that we’re not always sure why, and I’m not always sure why, I still haven’t really come up with an answer for the question “What is music for?” I doubt that I ever will. There are much smarter people than me who’ve died without figuring that out. I guess what I’m saying is that the effort, the conversation, is really worthwhile. We believe music is important to us, we should always be talking about why. If we don’t, then it’s just entertainment, it’s just a soundtrack to the party.

JC: I heard this great analogy the other day where there’s these two people sitting on some grass, one of them’s an artist and the other’s a scientist, and the artist plucks a daisy off the lawn. She says “Because I’m an artist, I can appreciate the inherent beauty of this flower, but because you’re a scientist, all you can do is deconstruct it to its component parts, you don’t see it as this beautiful object, you just see it as a chain of chemical reactions etc.” Then the scientist goes “Yeah, but I can understand the constituent parts of this flower, what went into its creation, how it is at a base level and I find those things extraordinarily beautiful.” And I think that applies to music because it’s like, once you develop a greater critical understanding of music there are so many levels of greater appreciation which open up.

CS: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny, I heard that analogy in a slightly different context a couple of weeks ago. It might’ve been Richard Feynman. I’ve certainly heard people say that to me, they ask why ruin it by dissecting it, by taking it apart, doesn’t that take the magic out of it? But personally, I think magic sucks. It’s not the Dark Ages anymore, we don’t need to be superstitious about the physical phenomena of our world, and we really don’t need to be superstitious about culture. There’s plenty of it to go around and I’d argue that if it’s that easily ruined, the simple act of trying to figure out how it works is enough to put you off it, it probably wasn’t worth it in the first place.

I wonder if that whole idea begins with the Romantics, because up until that point, certainly during the Renaissance where artists and scientists would see themselves as being involved in more or less the same task. If you look at the great paintings of the Renaissance, they’re attempts to understand the phenomenon of our world. It’s one of the reasons Leonardo Da Vinci is such a famous symbol of that age, he was an artist and a scientist, he made art and he wanted to figure out how things work. With the Romantics, because of the rise of industrialism and the process of modernisation and certain other things going on at the time, there was a split that’s never really healed between the creative community and the scientific community, where artists began to regard scientists with suspicion.

There’s a line in one of Wordsworth’s poems which is almost paraphrased in the story you just told, “We murder to dissect.” Wordsworth is kind of saying stop thinking with your head so much and go with your heart. That’s a pretty good definition of Romanticism in a nutshell. And rock culture is heavily Romantic.

JC: Going back to that rock culture, there’s this whole idea about living fast and dying young but these days it seems extraordinarily unfashionable. It seems like rock stars have cleaned up their image. Like you look at Australia’s biggest rock stars — Tame Impala, Temper Trap — they all seem like the kind of polite young men your Mum wishes you’d bring around for dinner more often.

CS: [Laughs] You want them to fuck shit up more?

JC: I want them lighting fireworks in toilets! But why do you think this idea of debauchery has faded from popularity?

CS: First of all, I’m glad it has. I love all those stories too, of course I love reading stories of the Sex Pistols and The Who and their shenanigans and all that sort of stuff. We all love those stories, we love to tell them, we love to hear about the kind of weird stuff Iggy Pop used to do to himself on stage, because there was something weirdly heroic about it. I can’t speak for all those people but I wonder if we’re all historically so self-conscious now. We’ve grown up with rock music as a historical fact and I think if you’re into music, you quickly learn where that stuff leads you. It’s not really something to buy into, I don’t think.

What occurs to me hearing you say that is maybe people are getting smarter, maybe that’s a good thing. I think people do have a sense sometimes that they wish art was a little bit more dangerous, and I agree, I think art should be challenging, it should be threatening, it should cause a problem, it should try to mess with the status quo. It should register a protest and that protest should count for something. But I also think that we need to be careful that it counts for something, that it isn’t just a waste of our energy, and I wonder if that’s why we don’t see so much of that going on anymore, I wonder if maybe people are trying to figure out ways to register a protest in a way that’s maybe less spectacular and less self-destructive. But equally powerful, I hope.

JC: It’s interesting that you bring up the spectacle because my next question is about Guy Debord and The Situationists. I really love this concept of detournement and how it’s made its way into the modern idea of culture jamming, but it seems to me like culture jamming is becoming less and less effective because all these brands are finding ways of co-opting this winking self-effacement.

CS: Yeah, that’s right. And this is something that happened in the early 90s, there was an anniversary of the Paris riots of 1968, so in 1988 there was a 20 year anniversary analysis or re-engagement of the Situationist project. There was a touring exhibition, there was a book, there was a whole bunch of stuff that came out between 1988 and 1990 that made people look and think again about SI [Situationist International] and their legacy and Debord and his work. You can see the way Kurt Cobain and other people were quite powerfully touched by that, by how radical their program was and how extreme their artists were and how uncompromising their vision was. Over the course of the decade, that little wave of interest in the SI carried on to the rise of culture jamming and Adbusters and that sort of stuff. All those things Naomi Klein wrote about in No Logo. And you’re right, it did become co-opted, there was that big marketing thing that was a way of advertisers to sell crap to kids in the 90s.

One of the things Naomi Klein says about radicalism and its co-optation by corporations is that it’s fine, as long as something survives. It’s frightening and we look at it like “Oh my god! Our subversive message is being stolen by advertisers and being turned into a mockery of itself!” It’s only a disaster if there’s nothing left after that happens. That’s what she argues happened with grunge, it was supposed to be subversive and looked like trouble but in the end it was very easy to sell and there was nothing left after the selling. Maybe I wouldn’t go that far with grunge, because there were some good subversive ideas, but I think if you compare grunge with another movement at the time, like riot grrrl, you can see she has a point. Riot grrrl had a point, it had a manifesto, it had real principles. It was exploited to some extent, there was a fake riot grrrl culture that was sold in the mid to late-90s, but riot grrrl itself survived all of that because it was a good idea. If you were smart and into it, you could look at the fake version and say, “That’s not for me.”

JC: It seems to me like recently, the shoe and drink companies which have sponsored gigs in the US and the UK — Mountain Dew, Converse, Vans etc. — they’re starting to throw a lot of gigs here, and I’m just wondering is it possible for bands coming up now to do anything subversive with that? Is it possible for them to take the money and play in front of a big logo but still maintain their integrity, or autonomy from the brand?

CS: I think there has to be. In a way we don’t really have a choice. The funny thing about looking at the 90s today is that we can see the ways those people had the luxury to be able to refuse things. It’s weird to think of it now because it all seemed so impoverished and desperate at the time but those bands — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day — they all arrived in the middle of a world where the music industry still existed. The blockbuster music industry built by the success of Michael Jackson and The Equals and groups like that was there waiting for them. Waiting to exploit them, yes, but also ready for them to exploit too. They could find major labels and also write their own ticket, because music was popular and record companies wanted to sell it. And when they found that situation wasn’t to their liking anymore, they also had the luxury of stepping away from it and knowing there were other alternatives.

I think in a way it’s much harder — easier in the instance that you can publish or release anything at any time and have a chance of a few hundred people hearing it, which is not a luxury that was available to people in the 90s without major record companies — but in a lot of ways much harder. I have to be realistic, I can’t demand things of bands today that make it impossible for them to eat or pay their rent, but I think that’s why I really like that thought of Naomi Klein’s. I think it’s true, that it’s not so much about whether playing in front of a logo makes a mockery of your principles, it’s more about making sure your principles are good in the first place, that they’re strong enough to survive a process like that. Also there’s a lesson in that for us too. We’re pretty hard on bands and sometimes we have trouble making a distinction between contradiction and hypocrisy. The instant we see a band with a vaguely anti-corporate message playing in front of a logo we go “You hypocrites! You’re disgusting!” Yet bands who register no protest and have nothing to say about the state of the world can do whatever they like and we think that’s fine.

JC: Sort of in the same line of thinking, independent labels are getting bigger and cutting distribution deals with major record labels, and we now have this history of truly independent artists maintaining their independence creatively, even after signing to a major label, like Sonic Youth. So do you think the “major label” designation has become an irrelevant talking point in terms of authenticity? Is authenticity even something worth arguing over these days?

CS: My argument in the talk I’m giving at The Toff is that it is, as long as we define it in a way that makes sense. To clarify that, what I think was one of the biggest problems in the 90s was that authenticity was defined as sincere self-expression. That became the currency of youth culture and the currency of its worth. To be honest, I think that’s worth nothing. Self-expression, to paraphrase Robert Hughes, is a task that no one can fail. One thing any artist is guaranteed to do is express themselves, but it was made into such a fetish in the 90s. Artists worried about it so much, fans worried about it so much, and I feel like it distracted them from far more important things. To go back to your question, the conversation that Sonic Youth defined and Nirvana defined was exactly that. As long as we’re able to do what we want and express ourselves the way we want then there’s no problem with being on a major label, they’ll allow us to do what we do. They’ll distribute our records to millions of people instead of thousands of people and as long as the message itself is still good, there won’t be a problem. And I think that holds true, but I would also say that a lot of those bands and fans fell victim and began to assume that as long as artists are doing what they like, they’re doing good work, that that’s the goal in itself. I don’t think it is.

The really exciting thing about alternative rock and maybe the reason why people miss it today is a feeling that it was re-engaging with the world, that it raised a critical voice to the spectacle, to use Debord’s word. That it said no to something and briefly it seemed like that ‘no’ would count for something. The world was about to change, which is a daggy thing to say now and a hopelessly daggy thing to say back then, but that’s what you wanted. The whole point of this new culture was that life would improve along with music and that didn’t happen. I think one of the reasons why is because people got wrapped up in this fairly toothless idea of self-expression as a goal in itself.

JC: And now for the life advice: you’ve talked about how the forlorn, troubled poet look among our culture heroes dates back to Lord Byron and this concept of the Byronic hero. So in that spirit, most days I wake up overwhelmed by the fear not that the universe is hostile but that it is indifferent. How does one overcome the unbearable notion of the universe’s indifference without employing wilful ignorance?

CS: I’m a sort of experimental existentialist, like I’m trying it on, because I think you have to accept that the universe is indifferent — I’m with you there — and that human life is probably pointless. But I think given that, we have to commit ourselves to something. So I take a little bit out of Sartre there, but also out of Schopenhauer, who was one of the few people of his generation who were prepared to admit that there might be no point to human existence, but also said that if that’s true, we ought to be compassionate. We ought to live our life in a way that makes life easier for other people to live. To me that’s about as good as it gets. That’s what I try to do. That’s why I’m interested in this idea of culture as a way of improving life and alleviating suffering. If we’re not doing that then we’re kind of wasting our time. At that point I depart from Schopenhauer a little bit, he kind of said anybody who tries to make a difference in the world is most likely gonna fuck it up and make it worse. I’m not prepared to go that far with him. But I do like that idea of alleviating suffering and that’s what I try to do. I hope that’s helpful.