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Issue 37 Launch: Interview With Sean Michaels

Issue 37 Launch: Interview With Sean Michaels

Montreal writer Sean Michaels discusses micro-fiction, breakups and Arcade Fire ahead of Maisonneuve's Issue 37 launch on September 21.

Sean Michaels started Said the Gramophone in 2003, when he was still an undergraduate at McGill. It was Canada's very first mp3 blog, and has since become one of the most influential independent music websites in North America. Michaels also happens to be a talented fiction writer whose words fall just so, creating small, affecting dioramas of human delicacy. He's currently working on two novels—about melancholy and Leon Theremin, respectively—and he will read his new short story "Knights of Griffintown," which appears in Maisonneuve's Issue 37 (Fall 2010), at our launch party this Tuesday.

Drew Nelles: Said the Gramophone is so effective in large part because a lot of it is micro-fiction as opposed to traditional music criticism. So I'm wondering how you conceive of the relationship between the prose you write on the blog and the more long-form prose that you publish elsewhere. Is Said the Gramophone an inspiration, or practice, or is it its own animal?

Sean Michaels: A month or two ago I was sitting with Dan Beirne—the other writer on the site—and I was complaining that I was writing very little short fiction. I've been working on these novels, and I wanted to submit things to magazines and for awards, and I said, "But I just don't have material to submit to magazines. I don't have very many stories." And Dan said, "You write several a week and have done so for five, seven years." And I was like, "Oh. Those are stories!" I'm obviously perfectly conscious of them as short-short stories, but they live in different places in my mind.

I think the big difference is that the stuff on Said the Gramophone comes to me essentially spontaneously. I write it, and maybe do a little bit of editing, and then it goes online. While the work of writing the more serious fiction I do is obviously edited and revised and laboured over, Said the Gramophone is written more off the cuff. So it does feel—not like practice, but like a practice, and that's part of what has helped me improve substantially as a writer over the past decade.

DN: How do you think that differentiates you from other music journalists? Even when your writing is more similar to journalism than to fiction, you still have a very distinct style. So what do you think is wrong with most music journalism? Why do you do what you do?

SM: I don't think there's something wrong with it. I do know, though, where my tastes lie. I read and participate in a lot of music journalism discussions online, and you can really see a clear split—even talking to people or reading the comments on the internet about various reviews, there's this clear split between people who are interested in the first-person experience of someone listening to music, of the critic describing their experience with the music, and the people who hate that, who want an objective voice, who are interested in dates and the musicological and historical social stuff, and, if they see an "I," they get enraged. "Get the fuck out of here! This isn't about you, it's about Gang of Four," or, "This isn't about you, it's about Led Zeppelin." And I've always been the opposite.

I don't read very many books about music—biographies and so on—because it just doesn't interest me. I definitely don't think it's the wrong way to write about music, but it's never been the way I engage with it. I don't really care about the influences of Neil Young. Tell me the story about that time you listened to a song and it really moved you. And write about that in a good way, in a powerful way—don't just blather. I don't want to read someone's LiveJournal entry about how "I listened to a song last night and it was awesome." That first-person experience of music, when well-written, is to me extremely compelling.

DN: Your story in the upcoming issue of Maisonneuve is about a young Montrealer who starts a band of knights after breaking up with his girlfriend, and a few years ago you had a story in Matrix about a guy who starts a music festival after breaking up with his girlfriend. So I'm wondering: have you ever done anything like that for a woman?

SM: I don't think so, no. That's a funny coincidence. I think that I really like the idea of grand romantic gestures, but I try to invest a lot of meaning in those things, or use them as a kind of jet fuel. When good things are happening or bad things are happening, I try to use that as an excuse to get something done.

I'm turning twenty-nine in January, and I feel like I'm already moving past that phase, where people who are in relationships are kind of staggering around from one to the other. You're in a relationship and there's maybe three months of bliss when it starts, and then you fall out of the relationship and there's three months of terror and misery, and then in between there's this dead period where you're just wandering around having coffee. It's as if there's something more dramatic, and you feel things more strongly, in those moments of infatuation and loss, and I think that's immature—but I'm as guilty as anybody else. And part of what I was exploring in this story is the recognition of that immaturity. You know: Am I doing this for me? Am I doing this as a symbol? That's something I'm interested in.

DN: You mean why you make these grand romantic gestures?

SM: Yeah, or whether a big gesture need be—what's the word? Not dramatic, not historiographic. There's a word between those things, not in significance but in spelling.

DN: Between dramatic and historiographic? Uh. Histori-dramatic? [Ed. note: The word is "histrionic."]

SM: I guess it's just overdramatic. Whether a gesture need be overdramatic, linked to some grand emotional thing, or if making a big decision or doing something silly can just exist for what it is. Whenever someone does something grand it feels like it needs to be motivated by some grand feeling, some grand sway in your heart, and I wonder whether it does, or if you can just decide to do it.

DN: You said you were motivated to set this story in Griffintown by the broader Devimco project.

SM: I've never lived in Griffintown. I've spent relatively little time in Griffintown, but maybe because of that I've always felt a curiosity about it, an attraction to it, and an admiration for it. So when I heard, over the past several years now, of the plans to demolish it or not demolish it or reinvent it as condos or wipe it off the face of the map, this gained a particular poignancy for me, because I never had a chance to know it. I don't really even know this place and it's going to be wiped out like an endangered species. The way it was a thing in my imagination that was threatened brought me to the point where I wanted to write about that thing in my imagination.

Then I started doing that and it became clear that I couldn't write about Griffintown. It wasn't fair, not without doing proper research about the place. So I thought, Let me do a story about imagining Griffintown. There's nothing political about the story, overtly. Nobody says they want to destroy what Griffintown is; the developers say, "We want to maintain the spirit of the place, blah blah blah." And I didn't want to address that head-on. It's not my role as some outsider who lives in Mile End. But I did want to wave, or something.

DN: What do you think of The Suburbs?

SM: The Arcade Fire album?

DN: Or, y'know, just sprawl generally.

SM: I think it's a really good album. I was disappointed by it, and that's coloured my listening, perhaps irretrievably. I was at that tiny little show the band did before the record came out, and the music sounded so snarling and loud and violent and un-smoothed, and I was so electrified by that. The record is much more smoothed and doesn't snarl very much. So that was disappointing, to have an album that was a handsome, well-made record instead of something a little bit more thorny. A song like "Ready to Start," in that room, sounded like the best song Arcade Fire had ever made, and on the record it sounds like a good song. That's not the same thing.

The album is too long, but I'm really pleased that they continued to be an amazing band. It's nice to have bands that you can still rally behind and root for over the course of three, four albums, because they're rarer than I realized when I was younger. I've been listening to Arcade Fire for almost a decade now, and it's really great to have a record that is awesome, songs that are awesome. They should definitely do a whole album that sounds like "Sprawl II." They should do a whole synth-pop album, but still with the things that make them good. I'm not saying they should turn into the Rapture.

Sean Michaels will read at Maisonneuve's Issue 37 launch at Drawn & Quarterly on September 21 at 7 p.m., alongside Marius Kociejowski, Kathleen Winter and James Irwin. The event is free and refreshments will be served. Check out the launch on Facebook.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—On Arcade Fire's The Suburbs
—The Music We Hate: Online Supplement
—Interview With Pat Jordache

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