Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Interview with Ryan McNutt

Maisonneuve's new music columnist sings like a canary.

As a self-described “lifelong pop culture junkie” who recently took over Maisonneuve’s Music Room print column, Ryan McNutt has a sizable online footprint that makes one suspect there might be three of him. From  Music Room, to his rewardingly loquacious blog McNutt Against the Music, to his day-job contributions to Dalhousie University’s online news and other higher-ed pubs like Academica, to his Twitter feed, he continually demonstrates a rabid enthusiasm for charting the blips on the cultural radar. I joined McNutt for a chatty brunch at mid-Halifax haunt Brooklyn Warehouse, and asked him about his blogging adventures, his favourite Canadian music artists, and just what the deal is with music critics and their list-making.

James Covey: I’m going to guess that your first music purchases were on CD. Is that true?

Ryan McNutt: Hmm…no, that’s not entirely correct. I’m reasonably confident that my first purchase was a cassette tape so I could play it in my Walkman. And I’m pretty sure it was Bryan Adams’ greatest hits – So Far So Good, circa 1993, I think.

JC: Still, how’s it feel to be the last generation who discovered music through CDs and not downloading it?

RM: Well, my relationship with the digital age is kind of complicated. I do think something is lost when you lose that physicality. There’s a sense of identity and ownership that’s connected with the physical object and the effort in acquiring it, whether it’s walking to the store to get a new CD or scouring through the record stacks for some obscure Bob Dylan bootleg. I think that process leads us to value more what you find.

But the other side of the coin is just how exciting it is to have access. I remember when I discovered Napster in high school. I had just gotten into the Manic Street Preachers, who are probably one of the great unsung b-sides bands of the 90s. I had all their cover songs and rarities instantly at my fingertips, allowing me to build my own b-sides record. And that still meant a great deal to me because I would never have gotten all those songs otherwise.

I think we’re all kind of renegotiating what music means in our lives a bit. As the last physical generation, I think some of us cling to that. I know I do. I recounted a story on my blog a few months ago where I bought a used copy of the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. I’ve had that record on my computer for over five years, and yet I felt compelled to finally buy a physical version even though the music is already well-worn to me. So I guess I’m just glad that record stores are still supporting fetishists like me. (Laughs)

(Read Ryan McNutt's "Generational Angst and The Manic Street Preachers.")

JC: A lot has obviously changed in the Internet age, but I’m particularly interested in the Canadian scene, as it seems much of our musical identity has been built through Canadian content regulations. How do you think that the Canadian scene, specifically the indie scene, is thriving in this new environment?

RM: It’s exciting to see us move beyond the artificial construct of Cancon into valuing Canadian music on its own terms. I think if you look at, say, the state where television is now – where it’s still much cheaper and easier to flood television with American content than to produce our own – that Cancon still has a place. I think music was once that way too, when Cancon rules forced radio stations to embrace local talent and, in the process, built a domestic industry. But now the primary mechanism for music is not based in geography or a broadcast model – it’s about finding your own music on your own terms.

You know, I’ve been thinking lately about the idea Canada as a construct – inspired in part, I think, by the winter cover story in Maisonneuve, actually – and how divided we seem to be by province, by region, by culture and, perhaps, by music scene. And yet, when we discover a Canadian band that is exciting its own terms, the fact that they’re Canadian is taken as a source of pride regardless of where you are in the country. It’s encouraging that in spite of all of our issues, Canada as a concept means something to people and they’re willing to build that idea into our music.

JC: So what are some of those essential Canadian bands or artists for you right now?

RM: Well, I’ve made no qualms about the fact that I’m a shameless Arcade Fire fanboy. I think they represent for me the possibilities of the digital age, the idea that music still means something powerful in people’s lives and is worth sharing with others. I’ve also become quite smitten with the two separate halves of Wolf Parade, which surprised me because of how much I enjoyed them together. But I think with the Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown that Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug are proving that they are two of Canada’s best songwriters and doing so on their own compelling terms.

Recently, I’m intrigued by the number of acts who are taking the kind of alt-folk tradition that much of “Canadian” music has been based on and doing great things with it – artists like the Rural Alberta Advantage or Said the Whale or Joel Plaskett with his Three record. I thought I was reaching the point where I believed that bands like, say, Holy Fuck were going to be the future of Canadian music and that the roots or folk tradition didn’t mean anything to me anymore. I’m kind of surprised by how I’ve fallen back into it.

(Read Ryan McNutt's "The Art of Gaslight Anthem Songs.")

JC: So as both a blogger and a columnist, is there a big difference between the two in how you approach your writing? Do you feel as if the blog has been an extended audition for this sort of magazine gig with Maisonneuve?

RM: (Laughs) No, not directly. My blog was started as an outlet for playing around with writing, in that even though I write in my day job, it’s often in a very journalistic tone. I wanted to work with different styles and formats and I wanted to write what about what interested me most. And though my blog can be a little bit scattered at times, more often than not it’s come back to music as the focus.

I love the blog format because of the flexibility it gives me – you get to break some rules. If you mash together news and opinion, who cares? I even break some of the rules of blogging. You ask about “best practices” for blogging and writing long-form essays generally doesn’t fit the bill. But because I’ve built my blog around them, readers know what to expect. I’m not interested in doing a news blog – Stereogum has that covered. I’m not interested in doing an MP3 or song-analysis blog – why would I do that when Fluxblog and Said the Grammaphone are so great at it? Even with the Halifax scene, the folks at Herohill do a great job of covering it. My niche is sort of longer-form analytical-type writing, and that’s what I want to work within.

Writing Music Room for Maisonneueve is quite a different writing challenge, but a fun one. It’s sort of like Twitter for album reviews. How do you communicate what an album means without having time to do a larger analytical construct? I only have two or three sentences to get across the essence of a record, and often for readers who have been drawn to this particular issue for a certain feature story and may not know the bands or their influences. What might this album sound like to them? I like the challenge of trying to get that idea across.

(Read Ryan McNutt's "The Inconvenient Truth of Guitars.")

JC: What are some of your favourite things that have happened with your blog over the years?

RM: I kind of enjoy the good and the bad equally (laughs). To have one of my articles featured on R.E.M.’s homepage, for example, was pretty amazing. I mean, R.E.M. was life-defining for me at 16. They’re one of maybe two or three bands that really shaped my tastes and interests in music. So to have the essay I wrote on “Living Well is the Best Revenge” on their homepage was a bit of a rush. The same thing happened with an interview I did about the Smashing Pumpkins. To know that people in these band’s camps are looking for this kind of material and responding to it is still a bit strange to me, but really cool.

That said, I also enjoy when my posts end up on messages boards and the band’s fans tear them to shreds and call me all sorts of horrible names. I don’t believe that music – or any art – is live and let live. I don’t think that we should just listen to an album and say “that was nice,” and then just not talk about it. I think music is meant to be debated, discussed, analyzed, reworked, mashed up. What happens after the record is over is just as important as what happens when you listen to the record, and the idea that there are others out there who want to engage in that, whether it’s on negative or positive terms, excites me.

JC: So what is it about a piece of music that makes you want to start that chain of discourse? What qualities fire up that desire to write about and talk back to the music?

RM: In some cases, it’s the music itself. I’m never quite sure what I’m looking for when I start a record and often what grabs me is somewhat intangible: a hook, a melody, a sound. You know, I have a soft spot for what I call “evil pop” – pop music that is so meticulously constructed it’s almost a masterpiece of pure evil – but I also enjoy music that’s deconstructionist and broken apart. Anything that touches a nerve can inspire me to write, if I can figure out what that nerve is.

But often, it’s the context: an artist’s story and how the record fits into their body of work, or the record’s connection with a larger cultural idea, even if that wasn’t the artist’s original intention. I’m a big fan of Roland Barthes, the literary theorist, and he’s big on this idea of intertextuality – that how we understand any piece of art is largely based on this giant web of experience that we each bring to it. When we listen to a new record, we bring in everything we know about the artist, we bring in our record collection, we bring our personal experiences and the people we lived them with – our friends, our family, our lovers. All of this is floating in the back of our head, and you never know when a piece of art is going to trigger something and make connection.

That’s why I like the blog format of reviewing and – although it gets crap from some professional critics – why I enjoy the style of reviewing that places like [movie website] Ain’t It Cool News have honed. It acknowledges that past experiences and preconceptions matter in responding to art. And it seems we’re reaching a point in critical discourse where we’re okay with acknowledging that and embracing it as part of the dialogue. I’m all for types of criticism that attempt to be more journalistic or academic, but I think there’s a place for accepting the personal in our analysis too.

(Read Ryan McNutt's "The Secret to Lady Gaga's Success.")

JC: So we’ve talked a bit about Canadian bands and records, but we haven’t really talked about the live experience or the Halifax scene. How does being based in Halifax influence what you bring to your work?

RM: Our geographic isolation has its upsides and downsides. Halifax has a really exciting homegrown music scene which has gotten a good deal of attention at certain points in alt-rock history. The early 90s was one of those times – Sloan, Eric’s Trip, etc. – and I feel like with the breakthrough of records by folks like Joel Plaskett, Matt Mays and Classified that we’ve had a second wave of that recently. But there’s so much great stuff happening all the time here, with newer bands like Dog Day and Tomcat Combat that are just waiting for people elsewhere in Canada to learn about them. Joel Plaskett has a song called “Waiting to be Discovered” that hits that nail right on the head. But Halifax is a pretty amazing place to bounce in and out of bars and find cool music happening.

As a touring destination, though, getting bands to Halifax is a huge novelty in a way that it isn’t in most other cities in Canada. I’ve had to travel to see a lot of the bands on my bucket list and when bands do come to Halifax we tend to get unduly excited for it, which can change the live experience a bit. If you’re bringing that sort of intense enthusiasm to a show, it can make a good show seem great and a not-so-good show seem really awful.

But there’s been a lot of work put into bringing more bands here over the past several years. It’s certainly better now than it was when I was growing up; in particular, it’s great to see the number of good all-ages shows. Growing up in the late 1990s, unless you wanted to see one of those big Canadian bands that could play the Metro Centre arena, all-ages shows weren’t happening and I felt like I was denied access to a lot of great music. But I don’t think kids growing up in Halifax today have that problem to the same degree. Now it feels like a majority of the good shows coming through town have some all-ages component, which is great for the scene as a whole.

JC: One last thing to ask you about and it’s very simple: lists and music criticism. Discuss.

RM: (Laughs.) I love lists. Love ‘em. It plays into the idea that music is meant to be debated, discussed and engaged with. Having a discussion around ranking it is a really fun way to do that, provided that you bring to it an understanding that no one is truly an authority. And I love making my own lists, digging through my own head and debating between records. Even though I know it’s arbitrary, it forces me to be more critical about my relationship with my record collection.

I just finished my albums of the decade list recently. I’ve been thinking about that list for two or three years now and I’ve always known that Kid A, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Funeral – as clichéd as they are – were the records that meant the most to be this decade. But having to wrestle with what order to put them in helped me better understand why they mean so much to me. I was leaning towards Funeral as my top choice, but it wasn’t until I sat down and wrote the piece that I was convinced, as if I was almost talked myself into it. I’ve got a better understanding of what how that record is important in my life because I pitted it against the others on a silly list. So for me, lists are a wholly worthwhile exercise – plus, you know, a lot of fun too. And if it’s not fun, why do this at all?

(Read Ryan McNutt's "The Decade in Review.")

In a past life as a music journalist, James Covey wrote a regular column in Halifax's weekly The Coast, hosted a community radio show, and delivered on-air Halifax scene reports for CBC Radio Two's Brave New Waves.