In Real Talk, a regular feature for The Corner, Marty Jones talks to those in our community that influence what we read, what we see, what we hear and what we attend.
In the final entry to the series Marty talks to Nick Bollinger. Nick is one of New Zealand’s best-known music writers and broadcasters and has been a longtime presenter of National Radio’s The Sampler, a regular columnist for the Listener and has written books about music, including ‘How To Listen To Pop Music’ and ’100 Essential New Zealand Albums’. Alongside of this, Nick produces records, runs a label and is also a musician, playing bass for The Windy City Strugglers.
What were some of your first memories about music?
Listening to music, as early as I can remember, that’s my first memories. As a kid growing up and latching onto all sorts of stuff, just whatever I heard, records that my parents had, which was classical music and folk songs and all sorts of odd stuff. I remember when I was quite young, when I was six, realising that all this stuff was on the radio and really latching onto the radio. There was only one hour a day that would actually play popular music and it was called ‘The Sunset Show’ and that was from five until six every night, and that was the only time that you would hear the pop songs of the day, so it would be; The Beatles, The Animals and The Rolling Stones and all of that stuff. Even at that age I just gravitated to that, it was exciting music, everything else was kind of light orchestral and the old pop songs like Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds. And really throughout my childhood the only other thing I was interested, other than music, was writing.
When did you start exploring the more journalistic side of things?
So by the time I was about ten or twelve I was making these little magazines and handing them out in the school playground. I had this little wax stencil printer and I’d type these magazines up and print about twenty copies. We had all sorts of stuff in there. I’d get other kids to write things, there would be news, some would write about the school sports teams, some would write about their pets and I would always write about pop music. I was writing about the pop records of the day, so The Small Faces, The Who and things like that.
You’ve been quite lucky in being able to combine your passions into a career.
Yeah it’s funny. There was certainly no careers advisor that was telling me that I could be a music journalist. When I left school I didn’t even go into journalism, I actually got into in playing music. I became a bass player and I sort of did that professionally or semi-professionally for a few years and then went to teachers college because I still hadn’t really seen that I could write about music and do that professionally. And playing music was a pretty hard way to make a living – if you were going to do it professionally then you had to travel all the time. So eventually I went to train as a teacher as I thought that would combine a lot of the things I was interested in. But while I was at teachers college I started writing about music for a bunch of different publications. Firstly for student newspapers and then I was making programs for RadioActive. Then I heard that The Listener was looking for a music writer and I took a portfolio to them and got that job. It was just a contract but by the time I finished my teacher training I was actually getting quite a lot of work as a journalist so I never actually taught in a classroom. I’m qualified but have never practiced.
Was it around that same time that you started working for Radio NZ?
Probably yeah, just a little after that. There was a kind of lucky thing that happened. I had done a bit of stuff for student radio but I had a couple of ideas for music programs for National Radio. At that point they really didn’t have much coverage of popular music at all, music was just filler between talk items – their main focus was current affairs. I didn’t know anyone in the organisation but it so happened that a woman called Kaye Glamuzina had recently taken over the role of music manager. She was young and a real visionary. Kaye was prepared to take on the powers that be and say, ‘this station has to change and music needs to have a different role’. Between us we came up with the idea of ‘The Sampler’. I don’t think ‘The Sampler’ would have happened if she hadn’t been inside the organisation to drive it and say this is the kind of program that we need to have.
Do you think that your experiences as a musician have affected your approach to music journalism?
I think being a musician gives you a certain perspective on the mechanics of music, but some of my favorite music writers I know are not musicians, and I don’t think it disadvantages them at all. In some ways it makes them more inventive because they don’t necessarily know the music terminology, so they have to come up with other interesting ways to talk about music. In fact sometimes I find myself writing about music in a way that is probably a little bit too nuts and bolts, because I sort of know how a record is made and I’m kind of vetting myself. I think it’s useful in terms of listening though. Once you’ve spent a lot of time in a studio or rehearsed with a band, you never quite listen to music in the same way again. You do always break it down, and that’s useful but only if you can put it back together again.
How much has music journalism changed since you began?
I think it’s changed a lot! When I started doing it there was Rip It Up, there were some record reviewers in the daily papers and there was The Listener. When I first started reading music criticism, The Listener was just about the only place that had a music writer. That was before Rip It Up, which came in 1977. The Internet has been a really big change. I used to go to the public library in Wellington and photocopy the music pages of The Village Voice. You could buy American sea freighted copies of Rolling Stone and NME, and you would sort of religiously read this stuff as there was no other place to get the information. Often you would read about records that didn’t get released in New Zealand, and you would know about them, and know all this stuff about them months and months before you even got to hear them. I would try and imagine in my mind what Captain Beefheart sounded like, because I had read all this stuff and I would be almost playing this music in my head from the descriptions.
Now the information is so easy to obtain. Everyone has got it at their fingertips. But there are so many people writing about music now, from your bloggers to your Pitchforks and Drowned in Sounds etc. I think some of the character has gone out of music writing. There’s a lot of people writing who are almost interchangeable, there’s no particular style, or they’re using the same style and they use the same adjectives and the same reference points. That was one of the things that excited me about writing about music in the beginning – there wasn’t that much around and it was kind of unformed. You would find these crazy writers like Lester Bangs who would write these incredibly personal, and totally off the wall pieces, that were supposedly about Lou Reed or Iggy Pop or whatever and that could be rock journalism, because no one knew yet and it was being invented, whereas now I think the rules have become rather cemented.
Do you think that music writing has suffered because of the lack of editorial control on the Internet?
Yeah one thing about blogs is that no one edits the stuff, so there’s a lot of stuff that could be shaped into a good piece of writing, but it hasn’t been. It’s just been blurted out onto the screen and there it sits. I have to say I don’t value that sort of thing very much. I look at things and I just think, ‘I’m not going to read this, these aren’t sentences’. I’ve come to value more and more really well crafted pieces of criticism, things that actually stand up as good writing. If you don’t have editors, who care, then you’re not going to have writers that develop.
How much do you think those early experiences with music influence us in how we see music in later life?
They are completely forming, there’s nothing you can do about it and I don’t think you should fight it. I hate the kind of eternal hipster thing which is about dismissing the past and only being down with the latest thing. I think that all the stuff you grew up on, and the stuff that affected you, those will always be your reference points. When I listen to music now I still want it to be as exciting as I remember when I was hearing ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ when I was six. Those experiences formed me as a listener. I’ve got lots of friends, my age, that can’t afford the time to listen as widely as I do and I can tell that they stick to things that they know that they will like, and it’s not because they’re not adventurous, they just don’t have the time. I feel really lucky that I can spend a few hours every week listening to things I don’t know the first thing about, and it might be the best thing I’ve heard all year, and that’s a privilege.