Interview with Phil Freeman, Author of Sound Levels: Profiles In American Music, 2002-2009

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By Laina Dawes

Who knew that a clinical discussion of porn could lead to a meeting of minds? At one time both writer Phil Freeman and Oxbow singer Eugene Robinson had editorial positions within the porn industry – Freeman as the editor for High Society and Robinson as the editor of Code, a men’s lifestyle magazine that was published by Hustler‘s Larry Flynt. It was their shared connection working in the Porn industry (Robinson once interviewed a naked, semi-erect male porn star in between takes at a movie shoot) that assisted in anchoring the profile of the band in Freeman’s latest book, Sound Levels: Profiles in American Music, 2002-2009.

“We had connections to the porn industry in common and we knew some of the same people and had a similar mindset in a way,” Freeman explains. “I talked about that in the introduction to the Oxbow piece as in the way as I compared it to an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), who see horrible things but can talk about it with a casualness that would send somebody else right out of the room. That’s how someone who has spent seven or so years around the porn industry talks about sex – in this callous, sort of elite way that normal people would go ‘omigod.’

The former editor of Global Rhythm and Metal Edge magazines and author of two books (Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis and New York Is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz); Editor of an anthology of music criticism (Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs) Sound Levels is a collection of artist profiles that on first glance, might seem like a mishmash of artists who don’t have much in common. Their musical genres vary from avant-garde jazz (Noel Howard) and Reggaeton (Café Tacuba) to artists who have forged their own unique paths in the metal scene (The Mars Volta, Sunn O))), Serj Tankian).

While Freeman might not admit this, it’s his fearlessness in asking probing but well-researched questions, his personal interest – perhaps not in the artist per-se, but in their artistic process, and a thorough investigation of their position as musical artists within their prescribed genres that makes this collection work. Additionally, his thoughtful prose seamlessly blends these pieces together. “The biggest thing that you have to work on (as a writer) is almost like a Daoist or a Buddhist type of thing,” he says. “You have to realize your own unimportance before you can become a good writer. Be true to what you actually think about something, but recognize that in a year or so no one will care. It’s only interesting while someone is reading the story.”

There is a very delicate balance when a journalist puts themselves into the story but Freeman masters this quite well, knowing when to let the artist’s speak for themselves but sensing when a gentle, narrative ‘nudge’ is needed for the reader. In all of the 13 profiles Freeman allows to reader to interpret the artist’s work through their own perspective, providing an objective and balanced account without pontificating about what he feels is their true intention.

A frequent contributor to The Wire, Jazziz, Signal to Noise, the Village Voice and Alternative Press, all but one of the profiles were assigned to him and it wasn’t until much later that he realized why he had been given the opportunities. “They had put me on this track (talking) with American muses, people who were on the fringes, people who are doing weird American art. I’m not really that interested in the lyrical content. I’m more interested in how the band sounds. I’ll sit there and like a puzzle and try to figure out how they made that sound, whether than worry about typical indie rock type of concerns about lyrics or the sexual politics of it all, or whatever.”

As an interviewer, listening and researching music and musicians from a plethora of cultural backgrounds seems as though it could be an arduous process, especially for one who is primarily known as a metal music enthusiast and journalist. But Freeman has always been interested in various genres (“recently I’ve been really obsessed with norteño music from the border towns of Mexico and the US”) asserts that musical diversity is important in order for music critics to hone their craft and…yeah, be ‘critical.’ While there are some real barriers that deter some listeners from investigating other musical genres, on a technical level the differences in musical styles are irrelevant.

“There’s the barricade that people say ‘certain music is intellectual and cannot be appreciated on a visceral level’ which is what happens with jazz…. And then there is music that is perceived to be too dumb for serious consideration, which is what happens to death metal” he believes. “Metal is hard. It’s difficult, rigorous music but it’s not treated as such. These are guys who are on the level as symphony players on their respective instruments. These are guys who went into their bedrooms at age 10 and didn’t come out until age 20, but because they have long hair and they sing about decapitating virgins or whatever, it’s not treated with the respect the effort put into it would seem to demand.”

In the introduction for Sound Levels he explains selecting profiles on artists who “attempt to transcend one’s genre and in the process expand that genre’s parameters and reshape the way outsiders hear or understand it.” When asked what artist profiled in the book was the most successful in doing so, he believed it was the legendary free jazz musician Ornette Coleman “(He) has had the most impact on the culture at large,” he asserts. “The guy won a frigging Pulitzer, which is nice, but more importantly, he pretty much caused an entire generation of jazz musicians to way their options. Because before him, no one was really playing after him and then dozens of other musicians were saying ‘hey I can do that. I could try that.”

You can purchase Sound Levels: Profiles of American Music, 2002-2009 at Lulu.com.

For more information about Phil, please visit his blog Running the Voodoo Down and Heavy Metal Superfan.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.