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Miscellaneous - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 24 / 8 / 2018

Miscellaneous - Interview


Pennyblackmusic magazine editor John Clarkson talks to Lisa Torem on its twentieth anniversary about the formation and history of our website.

Edinburgh’s own John Clarkson has enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the indie/punk rock music industry for nearly two decades—the popular British website will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in September of 2018. But as the editor of Pennyblackmusic explains in his first in-depth interview on the site, although part of his dedication entails fielding up to a hundred emails a day from music managers, acts and international writers, the overall job involves so much more. Furthermore, Pennyblackmusic enjoys a remarkable “off page” life, too. Having forged valued relations with writers and artists as a result of the site, Pennyblackmusic has featured both regular Writers Nights in London as well as Bands Nights there, and in Edinburgh, Manchester and Glasgow more recently. Some of these nights ran brilliantly, but the occasional oddball evening also stands out in this editor’s mind… Nine years on and still learning, American writer Lisa Torem is excited about the opportunity to query John Clarkson about the website’s origins, challenges and highlights, as well as about how his longstanding partnership with webmaster extraordinaire Richard Banks came to fruition and how that fundamental partnership has enabled the site to fully flourish. PB: How did the idea for Pennyblackmusic originate? JC: The initial idea for Pennyblackmusic came from our webmaster Richard Banks, who founded it in 1998 in his then flat at 4 Fernlea Road in Balham in South London. In those early days of the Internet, he had created a small webpage, in which he had put some of his old punk and indie CDs and vinyl records up for sale. He received a lot of emails from people asking if he knew where they could get hold of other records, and seeing a wider opportunity he formed Pennyblackmusic with his then flatmate Neil Landowski initially as an online shop specializing in independent music releases. The magazine was very much an add-on to the shop in those first days, and was used initially to promote some of the records that it was selling. Neil had been at university with me, remembered that I had done some writing there and got me involved. I had always been a huge music fan, and I took to it despite never having written a record review or done a band interview before. Although it was something that was never really discussed with Richard and Neil, probably because I was during Pennyblackmusic’s first year pretty much its only writer, I found myself running the magazine for them. The shop did okay but not brilliantly. It was selling £10,000 worth of CDs and vinyl a month at one point, which sounds like a lot, but, as they only got 10% on each one, it was not enough for Richard and Neil to live on, especially at London prices. The shop folded, but the magazine was attracting a lot of focus by that stage and we had over twenty writers involved. Neil developed other interests and dropped out, while Richard and I carried with Pennyblackmusic on our own, putting most of our emphasis on the magazine. All these years later we are still here. PB: Other websites have come and gone in the blink of an eye, whilst Pennyblackmusic has remained steady and progressive for two decades. What have you learned about human nature from running the site all this time? JC: I have learned a lot about mine and Richard’s persistence. I sometimes think that we have pulled it off through sheer belligerence. We have both been prepared to put in late nights over the years. I also have learned a lot about creativity. If you are doing something which people see as being creative and honest, they will respond to it positively, and if you let them become involved in that creativity then they will soar. PB: Your writers are from many corners of the world. Have the demographics changed much over the years? Furthermore, what qualities do you look for in your writers? Has that fundamental criteria changed? If so, why? JC: There have been changes in the demographics over the years. When we started out, we had a lot of writers from Ottawa. There has always been a strong pool of London-based writers, and in more recent times we have had several writers and photographers from the North West of England, and Manchester and Liverpool in particular. It is often a case of people telling their mates about us. At one point during his student days in Carlisle, our long-term writer and sub-editor Mark Rowland got his flatmate, his girlfriend and brother all writing for us. His girlfriend and now wife Sarah still does very occasional pieces for us, and made a fantastic film ‘Such is Rock and Roll’ about one of our more chaotic London Bands Nights in which the drum kit didn’t turn up until very late and the evening was almost hijacked by the extended sound check of one of the support acts. His brother Jamie is also still involved with us. The fundamental criteria of what I am looking for in writers and, for that matter, photographers has not really changed. I am looking simply for people who care about music, and are the sort of people who I can go down the pub with or out for tea and a cake with and talk about records. You don’t have to be a technically brilliant writer, although we are very lucky as we do have a lot of those. We can normally, however, sort that out at the editing stage. You do have to be passionate about music. When I am down in London from where I live in Edinburgh and we are not doing a gig, we often have a Writers’ Night. There are normally, depending on who is available and these days babysitters, about eight of us who have been meeting for years in the same quiet back street pub in Victoria for years, which another of our long-term writers and sub-editors Anthony Dhanendran discovered for us. They are always good evenings. I am very grateful after all these years that these guys still want to hang out with Richard and I. PB: Pennyblackmusic is known for long form interviews in a world where attention spans consistently change. Has that influenced your choice of content or the length of the average article? JC: We do have a reputation for doing in-depth interviews. Given that we are publishing on the Internet rather than in printed form which makes it more difficult to read, I try to encourage as much as possible writers both with interviews or more in-depth articles to go up to a maximum 3,000 words, the length I was told to stick to when writing essays at university. That provides writers usually with plenty of scope to say what they want to say, but beyond that I feel it can be stretching things and demanding a lot of readers’ time and patience. It really depends, however, upon whom the interview is with and what the article is about. There have been exceptions to that rule, and both other writers and I (as I am liable to here) have sometimes gone beyond that. We can always split an article into two if it is exceptionally long and have done, but I am not that convinced of the validity of that. Sometimes the first part of the piece will do really well, pick up a lot of likes on Facebook and Twitter, and the second part will pale in comparison. PB: What would you say are the typical genres you encourage your writers to explore? What are your favorite genres? Do you encourage your writers to write about topics or genres that don’t necessarily jive with your way of thinking? JC: Our roots are in indie and alternative rock and pop, and giving a voice to that is still a very important part of what we do. I don’t want to ever lose sight of that, because we have been going for a long time now and are in a place now where we can talk to often big names. That would be sell-out. I grew up on punk rock and new wave in the late 1970s, got into post-punk and alternative rock in the 1980s, and since then my interests have expanded to incorporate some Americana and a lot more electronica. I encourage writers to write about topics or genres that don’t always fit in with my way of thinking. The Beatles are a very good case in point. It is not that I dislike the Fab Four. I can see their importance and like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘A Day in the Life’ in particular a lot, although for me personally they are nearer my 200th rather than my favourite band. I feel, however, sometimes that they have been done to death, and, with all the books and films about them and some of the music monthlies’ unofficial policy of sticking the Beatles on their front cover twice a year, it can be very difficult to say that much new about them. Several of our writers would, however, disagree strongly with me about that, and when reissues have come out or the opportunity to talk to people associated with the Beatles have been very keen to work on articles about them. It would be wrong for me to deny them this. I also am pleased to report that sometimes although not always from these articles I have learnt new things about the Beatles. It is not just about me and Richard anymore. It stopped being about that a long time ago, and I see that as a good thing. PB: Running a website entails many responsibilities. How have you and webmaster Richard Banks handled that load? JC: Richard and I didn’t know each other well when Pennyblackmusic started. We had met each other briefly a couple of times before, but it took us a while to get used to one another and each other’s way of working. We, however, bonded initially again over old punk records, and bounce off each other well. I enjoy coming down to London to stay with him, which I do three or four times a year, and he has become one of my best friends. We are very different in a lot of ways. He is very clever technically, while my computer skills are average and any talents that I might have are more literary. Neither of us could be described as wildly extrovert, but I am the slightly more socially gregarious of the two of us. He is also a good person to have around in a crisis of which we have had a few. He has a logical mind which will get to the root of the problem, and is totally unflappable. It works, however, because we are so different. Richard does all the computer design work and maintenance stuff that keeps the site working. I do most of the liaising with the writers, photographers and PRs, and get the magazine and its content together. Richard also finds the sleeves for record reviews, puts up Soundcloud links and finds a lot of band website, Facebook and Twitter links. I sometimes worry because I have become the site’s front person that he doesn’t get enough credit. We would be absolutely nothing without him. PB: Keeping contemporary is paramount, and as a popular website, you probably receive tons of emails and recordings from artists, public relations personnel and writers. To that end, how do you stay abreast of new acts and procedures without becoming overwhelmed? JC: We do what we can, but I am not sure that we ever have really. Both Richard and I have jobs, and neither of us do this full-time. I get eighty to one hundred emails a day sometimes, and, while I will always try to reply to a writer or photographer in 24 hours, I don’t mean to be rude but it is not always possible to reply to every PR or band that gets in touch and asking for help. I have to keep reminding myself constantly that Pennyblack is an extended hobby. A couple of years ago I was feeling totally overwhelmed by it all, and we put into place then a sub-editing team from our writers which currently consists of Anthony Dhanendran, Ben Howarth, Adrian Janes, Richard Lewis, yourself Lisa, and also our writer and photographer Dave Goodwin’s wife Cat. They all help considerably by editing and proof reading the articles that come in for the magazine each month. Mary O’Meara, who ran our Twitter account with our other writers Kimberly Bright and Dan Cressey, was also a sub-editor. She died in December after a battle with cancer. We also lost another of our writers, Anthony Strutt, who had written for us for seventeen years, again to cancer in March. There is never a day that passes in which I don’t think about them both. PB: Which interviews that you have conducted have stood out in your mind and why? JC: After being introduced to her through my friend and our writer Adrian Janes, I interviewed Bi Marshall from The Sound. The Sound’s story is a messy one. They were a South London new wave band from the 1980s that was signed to Korova, an offshoot of Warner Brothers, at the same label as Echo & The Bunnymen. They never achieved quite the success that was predicted of them. Their front man Adrian Borland developed a schizoid-affective disorder, and some years after The Sound ended as a result of that he committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train at Wimbledon Station. I am a huge Sound fan, whose music has been through various reissues and continue to attract a cult audience. Bi, who had been their original keyboardist, had left the group in 1980, shortly after their debut album ‘Jeopardy’ came out, in not very good circumstances. I met her on one of my trips to London and had a couple of hours’ good conversation in the tea room at the V & A museum in 2014. It had been her first interview beyond a short email Q & A at the time of one of the reissues in almost thirty-five years, and her version of events did not always account with those laid out in the history books up until that stage about The Sound. She said that she enjoyed it far more than she thought that she would. She has since then gone on to do other interviews with ‘Vive Le Rock’ and for the Adrian Borland documentary ‘Walking in the Opposite Direction’, and I like to think that we helped to pave the way for her there. I have enjoyed doing interviews with people like Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols, Clem Burke from Blondie, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Claudia Brucken from Propaganda, the Rezillos and The Damned’s Rat Scabies, all people I have grown up or listened to for years. The Willard Grant Conspiracy, with whom I did eight interviews, will also always hold a special place in my heart, and I would be happy to talk to Johny Brown from The Band of Holy Joy, who is always enthusiastic and thought-provoking, any time. It has often meant as much pushing and giving a voice to under the radar bands. I did a lot with the Boston alternative rock outfit Magic 12 and the London new wave band Baptiste in the first years of the site. They have both long since split up, but Magic 12’s 1998 eponymous debut album and Baptiste’s 2002 only LP, ‘Nothing Shines Like a Dying Heart’, both of which were self-released in editions of 1,000 copies, remain two of my favourite albums. I also really like the Cathode Ray, who I have done two interviews with and are an alternative rock outfit also from Edinburgh. They are not well known outside Scotland, and we brought them down for their first gig in London. Their second album, ‘Infinite Variety’, is another of my favourite records, and the sleeve for it, which features over forty types of flower, is one of my favourite sleeves of all time. PB: Some of your subjects have ended up becoming friends. What were the factors that made that happen? JC: We have simply got on well with them when we have done interviews, or found mutual shared territory at Bands Nights. PB: Pennyblackmusic has run “Bands Nights” over the years, as a way to allow writers and fans to mingle and listen to a spectrum of local musicians. Have you had any challenges in running these evenings? Are there any highlights you would like to share? JC: Challenges! Yes, we have had a few of those and had to deal with some egos along the way as well. We have had the band who broke up on stage; someone who we should have really researched a bit more thoroughly who told racist, sexist and homophobic jokes throughout his set; the musician playing his first London gig in nine years who bawled out his violinist after she played a bum note and reduced her to tears; the group who turned up two and a half hours late and after doors had opened clearly having stopped off at several pubs on route from Northampton and demanding a sound check (they were told where to go); and – my own favourite story- a band who having done their sound check went out for their tea and were jumped by a gang at a cash machine. They returned to the venue covered in cuts and bruises having got into a fight with their assailants and beaten the hell out of them, and went on to play the most extraordinary, adrenalin-pumped set that the Pennyblackmusic stage has ever seen. It has been a lot of fun too, even when it has got wrong, and when it does go right it is a terrific feeling. I have got lovely memories in particular of the four shows that we did in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh with my favourite band the Willard Grant Conspiracy and their front man, Robert Fisher, who died in February of last year once more from cancer. Nick Garrie played a magical solo set in front of one of our smaller crowds in which the audience sat in a semi-circle on the floor around him. Madam have played four exceptional gigs with us at four different venues. The Band of Holy Joy, the Bitter Springs and Idiot Son are also always great value, and there was a Bands Night in 2015 with all three of them at the Macbeth in London which we completely rammed out the room with an audience of over 200. We are putting on a Bands Night, our 20th Anniversary gig, at the Water Rats in London on September 15th with the Bitter Springs, Idiot Son, Oldfield Youth Club which is Simon Rivers from the Bitter Springs’ new other band and who will be playing their third gig and making their London debut, and Raf and O who musically are doing something very different. The evening will be dedicated to the memories of Robert, Mary and Anthony, and all profits will go to cancer charities. PB: If you could interview any artist or band in the world, living or dead, who would you choose and why? JC: I would like to interview Marianne Faithfull. I love her voice. She has also led a fascinating, complex life across many decades and I am sure would have some good stories to tell. I’d also like to talk to John Lydon from the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. He was one of my first musical heroes, but got into the habit of saying things to shock people at a young age. He talks this strange mixture of absolute sense and complete bollocks. It is hard to tell where the real Lydon begins and the loudmouth myth ends, more so than ever these days. I am not sure anyone will ever find out now, but I’d like to try. PB: What do you expect to accomplish in the next twenty years? JC: To be honest, I am not sure if we have another twenty years in us. I will be 72 by that stage and Richard will be a couple of years older still, and it might be time by then for us to do something else. I also had something of a health scare last year, and, while I am okay, we made the decision because of that and to give myself more of a break between editions to cut back then from doing full magazines every month to every six weeks, and album and single review updates from every two weeks in between to every three weeks. When we got to our fifteenth anniversary I wanted to get to twenty, and now that we have got to twenty I would like to get to twenty-five. I often wander around FOPP, my local record shop, on Saturday afternoons, and there are a lot of acts now on their CD and vinyl racks, some really well-known and others more obscure, who we have done interviews or run features on. I’d like to fill in some more of the gaps there, and also to discover some other new acts alongside those. PB: Thank you.

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