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Mark Rowland - A Life in Music

  by Mark Rowland

published: 29 / 7 / 2021

Mark Rowland - A Life in Music


In her series 'A Life in Music', in which she talks to Pennyblackmusic writers about the personal impact and influence of music on them, Cila Warncke, discusses with Mark Rowland his changing musical tastes, the importance of solid music journalism and the hypocrisy of rock mythology.

A late-spring afternoon; long-serving Pennyblackmusic journalist Mark Rowland is in a south-east London park, sun falling past cumulus clouds across his Pavement tee-shirt and blunt-edged glasses. When our call connects, he ambles out of earshot of his wife and two young sons. His fascination with music started as a youngster in Chatham, Kent. It was rundown, its dockyards fallow, but Billy Childish and his handlebar moustache puttered around town on a bike. And the Tap ‘n’ Tin was a cheerful dive where “you could buy a drink, put on the jukebox and get a free tuna sweetcorn sandwich’ until the Libertines dragged it into the spotlight with Pete Doherty’s post-prison comeback gig.” Though “not the best town in the world,” it was a fit starting point for a future lifetime musical explorer. Here, Mark muses on 20-plus years of writing for Pennyblack, touching on the difficulties of interviewing addicts, the artist he wishes he never liked and Bowie’s cocaine-defying creativity. What musical cultures did you identify with most strongly as a young person? Musical tribes were still a thing. In the 90s; you had dance kids, indie kids, alternative rock kids. My big musical epiphany was my friend Chris taping ‘Incesticide’ by Nirvana over a Terry Pratchett book on tape I had. The first time I put it on, it was just loud. I turned it off. Then I psyched myself up and put it on again. And my mind was blown. The edgy band at my school was E17. Until that tape, I hadn’t thought music was my thing. But from that moment on, I wanted to know where the music came from. What influenced it. How has your relationship with music evolved? When I started playing bass, my teacher got me into funk, soul, jazz. Then Big Beat came along – Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers. But I was also listening to Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson, Sebadoh, post-rock, math rock, Madonna. I remember watching the Pet Shop Boys on ‘Top of the Pops’ with my family. You can’t beat a good pop tune. Today, there are a lot of great female musicians, Waxahatchee, St Vincent, Olivia Rodrigo. Taylor Swift; people cover her songs and take them into different styles. That’s an indicator of a good tune – you can transform it. What are the biggest differences in your musical taste between ‘then’ and ‘now’? Teenage me was a pretentious snob. I would make my feelings clear about things I didn’t like in quite blunt ways. I remember inadvertently telling a band they were rubbish. Someone was talking [about the band] and I said, “I hated them.” They got a few of their mates to come after me, but I managed to talk them around. I’m more tolerant now. More understanding of people’s musical taste. What attracts you to an artist/band? If it feels like they might be doing something new, something I haven’t heard before. And having a good story. As a music journalist, I’m a sucker for a good story. Getting into Slint started with reading an article in ‘Select’. It wasn’t just the description of the music, it was the description of the band the story, I was intrigued. As I get older, it’s hard to resist the pull of things I know, but I try to force myself not to. I write [Pennyblack column] BandCamp Explorer to keep myself hearing new things. What’s a band you used to love that makes you cringe now? I went through a brief nu-metal phase, which I regret. It’s the worst music ever written. Garbage. The other – and this is embarrassing – is when I was about 14 and trying to be rebellious I had a brief Marilyn Manson phase. He’s a terrible piece of shit. The evidence was there at the time, things he said. I thought he was edgy, and at 14 you think edgy was great. The fact I gave that man any money, at any time, I’m pretty annoyed about. What is your take on separating the art from the artist? It’s a debate to be had. When you’re listening, you’re not necessarily thinking about the artist. In the 60s-70s, you struggle to find anyone who didn’t do something we find abhorrent now. John Lennon beat his wife. David Bowie reformed and became a pretty good guy. But in the 70s he was a monster, living on milk, peppers and cocaine. All those big bands did terrible things. Led Zeppelin did terrible things but they’re revered, Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famers. They’ve not been excised from any of those lists. Bad behaviour was celebrated for so long; it was the great, cool, rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. In this last decade, it’s the opposite. Recent bands have been hauled over the coals for that behaviour, which is the right thing. Just because you’re famous and making music people like doesn’t mean you should use your power that way. [Read ‘It’s Time We Torpedoed Rock Mythology’] Who’s an artist you came to late but now love unreservedly? Bowie. I didn’t get into him until I was in my 20s. Before that, I used to dismiss him. That’s insane. Why would I dismiss Bowie? I saw him as part of the glam thing, and I wasn’t into that. Now I think, you silly, silly boy. I listened to ‘Ziggy Stardust’ as a teenager, and we’ve established I listened to Marilyn Manson, who’s like Bowie if he were terrible. But, as I got older and listened to it properly, I realized it was amazing. Now he’s one of my favourite artists. Three gigs that meant something extra-special? A) Pavement is one of my favourite bands. I never got around to seeing them, then they split up, and it was too late. When they reformed and did All Tomorrow’s Parties around 2008-2009, it was amazing. For the first time since I was a teenager I was camped out at the front, waiting. B) Flaming Lips have an ability to infect you with childlike energy. You always come out feeling giddy afterwards. Or you used to. Now it’s gotten a bit dark. Amazing shows. Dancing. People in costumes. Confetti. I saw them in London in Victoria Park, I saw them in Alexandra Park doing ‘Soft Bulletin’. Finally, I saw them on my honeymoon in San Francisco. It was Halloween so they were all dressed up, and threw tonnes of balloons in the audience. C) There’s one that is memorable, but not for the reasons you might think. The main venue I used to go to was the Forum in Tonbridge Wells, a converted Victorian toilet block. NME was hyping this band called Terrace so we went to see them at the Forum. Coldplay was the co-headliner. They didn’t have much stage presence. I remember thinking, “they’re not going anywhere.” About a month later ‘Yellow’ came out and [Coldplay] was the biggest band in the world. When and how did you get involved with Pennyblackmusic? That was thanks to my school friend Ben [Howorth], who is also a writer for Pennyblack. He was coming into sixth form with random CDs. I was like “what’s this?” and he said, “I get them for free.” I wanted to be a journalist anyway so I emailed John [Clarkson] and we had a long chat on the phone. I told him music journalism was my second-best dream job – after rock star. How would you characterise a) the site and b) your contributions? Pennyblackmusic has a unique place in the music writing world. It’s a fanzine more than anything, not commercial in any way. It maintains that fanzine mentality. It gives a lot of bands that would otherwise get lost in the noise a platform. You don’t have to be a huge band to get a decent write up. It’s unique in that sense, that’s why we need it in the world. Sporadic, these days, but I’ve done a lot over the years I hope people find value in my ‘BandCamp Explorer’ column, I hope they find music they love that they wouldn’t find otherwise. Why does music writing matter? There are loads of bands I love, or have loved, that I would never have found without good music journalism. From Slint to Jeff Buckley to the White Stripes. Stuff I’ve read on Pennyblack has gotten me into all sorts of things. I love the idea of being able to write something that some kid will read and want to find out what the fuss is about. There is so much out there, so much noise, we need a filter, we need people to curate listening experiences. What was your most memorable Pennyblack interview? One I’m most proud of was Dan Treacy from Television Personalities. It was such a difficult interview. He was an addict and he has serious mental health issues. Asking questions elicited no real response. He walked off several times during the interview, so I would interview the fans that were there. It was hard to be a Television Personalities fan – they were notoriously difficult. [Treacy] told me he carried a gun all the time. Talked about going out to get high. It was an odd, revealing interview. The night ended in a sad, strange way. They came out and were playing this great set. Then [Treacy] invited his dealer to sing a few songs with him. He decided the drug dealer was getting too much attention, started ranting, then got really miserable. The band was all down on their luck. The bass player had lost his job so he was mooching drinks off me. It was such a strange day, such an odd interview. It pushed me. It is probably the best and most nuanced piece I’ve done for Pennyblackmusic. How has your experience of music changed over the past year? I put a band together in lockdown, even though we couldn’t play very much. I wrote a load of songs to improve as a songwriter and push my creativity. My friend Ben [Howarth] and I have started a podcast called ‘The Hot Flop’. It revisits old albums that didn’t do well, or weren’t reviewed well. So far, we haven’t found anything we’d redeem, but we will. We’re not doing the obvious flops like ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’. We did Keith Moon’s solo album, ‘Two Sides of the Moon’. Lou Reed, Metallica, which I did not enjoy. It will be on any podcast channel. Describe an image that encapsulates your life in music. The heart of me as a music appreciator is probably me sitting in a room, next to a turntable, listening to records. My youngest son is too young to appreciate music but I love to put on music for my five-year-old and dance around with him. He likes Pavement, T-Rex, Madness. We have full afternoons where we just groove around the sitting room. What are your vocations outside of Pennyblackmusic? I write about finance and management. My wife and I run a small content marketing business that keeps the quality high and the puffery to a minimum. We do a lot of interesting stuff on sustainability, climate change, the pandemic and how people have managed, or mismanaged, Covid-19. Take 5… 1. The first song you remember? ‘Yellow Submarine’. When I was very little the Beatles were ‘the Yellow Submarine band.’ 2. What song would you play at a wedding? My wife and I got married in Screen on the Green cinema in Islington. We played ‘Strangers’ by the Kinks. It’s one of the rare songs that David Davies sings. 3. The artist you’d most like to interview? Bowie, if he were still alive. Later Bowie, not milk-and-cocaine Bowie. When he was semi-retired, I’d have loved to sit in a room and chat about what he’d done. He was a thoughtful guy, he had so many interests. 4. The artist you’d most like to be? Jeff Tweedy from Wilco. He’s comfortable, he has a family, he’s not an opiate addict any more, he has his own studio, he seems to have the balance right. And he writes good songs. 5. The song you never, never get tired of… ‘Running Away’ by Sly and the Family Stone. It’s so summery. I love the horns on it.

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