A Normal Interview With Joshua Harmon

By J. J. Anselmi

Recently released by Dzanc, Joshua Harmon’s first essay collection, The Annotated Mixtape, is a journey into the mind of a true music junkie. His essays invite you into his musical obsessions through personal narrative, social criticism, and beautifully precise language, making you care about bands you’ve never heard of before. An excerpt from the book, “The Annotated Mixtape #6,” was published in the Fall 2012 issue of The Normal School. Joshua is also the author of a short story collection, a novel, and two collections of poetry.

J.J. Anselmi: Many of the essays from this collection have been published in magazines like Believer, Make, The Rumpus, and, of course, The Normal School. The pieces all compliment each other, but they also stand alone. So I was wondering, did you start writing these essays knowing they’d be part of a collection?

Joshua Harmon: In 2001, when I began writing “The Records”—the first gesture I made toward this book—I’d originally considered it a companion piece to a similar essay I’d written about cars as consumer goods and the site of various, often conflicting desires and fantasies and fears about how consumption relates to identity. But I’ve always liked records way, way more than cars (lately, days when I don’t get into a car feels like minor victories), and in 2001 the income from a visiting professorship let me spend way, way too much money on vinyl. After I finished “The Records,” I found I still had more to say about music: first, about coming home to Massachusetts (sort of: I lived a few miles across the border, in Rhode Island) via the Scud Mountain Boys, and about junior high French vs. junior high Spanish (the rest of the essays in the book aren’t in the order in which they were written), and on and on from there. I think originally I thought the series might be a half-dozen essays, but I started (though didn’t finish) at least forty-five or fifty of them. I’m still writing a few “outtakes,” god help me.

JA: In addition to essays about albums by the Beatles, U2, New Order, and Rush, you also write about several obscure bands. But, unlike a lot of journalism about underground music, your essays feel very inviting. How does your approach to music writing differ from that of many rock journalists?

JH: Thanks—I guess that’s because I’ve never considered myself a rock journalist, or read much rock journalism. I have copies of Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Ellen Willis’s Out of the Vinyl Deeps on my shelves (though I bought both after I’d written much of this book, and still haven’t really read either, just skimmed here and there). I don’t think I own anything else that would qualify as rock journalism in the sense of it originally having been written for news or serial publication and then collected later. I like reading Simon Reynolds and Simon Frith, but as an apprentice writer I was too busy reading novels, and as a young music fan I fancied myself way too cool to read magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. I read ’zines in the ’80s and early ’90s, but before the internet, buying something like NME or The Face or Sounds—if I could even find them in the record stores in my hometown—meant spending about as much as an LP, and I always preferred buying the LP. Later, I discovered magazines like Forced Exposure, Ptolemaic Terrascope, and The Wire, but I still mostly used them as music buying guides rather than music writing guides.

In writing the essays in The Annotated Mixtape, I tried not to have an approach, but rather multiple approaches. I wrote about songs or bands that seemed to prompt me to write about them, which means that the essays don’t necessarily cover my favorite music so much as music linked to various ideas and memories that might dramatize those ideas. I interviewed three members of Black Tambourine via email back in 2005, but otherwise the research I did probably falls more under the category of essayist than journalist. I spent more time getting books via interlibrary loan than making phone calls or getting out in the field.

JA: Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how you use music as objective correlative, particularly in the essays about Section 25, Cocteau Twins, and Scud Mountain Boys. Can you explain the idea of music as a reflection of personal and cultural identity?

JH: When I was younger, music didn’t reflect my personal identity, it was my personal identity. I think that was true for a lot of my classmates as well. Liking bands was a form of social and subcultural claim-staking, a kind of public declaration depending on how far one took it, and we all judged each other by those bands as well as other things (jeans, sneakers, haircuts, whatever).

As for the way music evokes complicated emotional responses, well, I guess trying to answer that question is what the book’s really about. To take your example of the Cocteau Twins, their music is so bound up in such a particular moment in my life—everything I discuss in that essay: the old clichés about figuring out who I was and what I was going to do with myself, essentially—that to listen to those records now, as I did while writing that essay (the last one I wrote for the book, thanks to my editors Guy Intoci and Michelle Dotter giving me an extension), brought back those memories in intense detail: the blood on my arms from the boy hit by the car, the old bus terminal at South Station, the airport lights and fog during our midnight picnic. And by the time I finished the Section 25 essay, I had my first nuclear war nightmare since the ’80s. So I do think music can evoke—or provoke—all kinds of complicated, unspoken feelings.

Maybe the reason so many of us use the tired metaphor about how certain songs or bands “soundtrack” our lives is that we use music deliberately and strategically: mood music at dinner or when friends come over, up-tempo music for workouts, favorites for headphone listening to block out the world on the street or in an office, mellow music for falling asleep to, etc. But despite that, music’s also inescapable, and we’re always encountering it even when we don’t want or expect to. And since researchers have determined that certain kinds of music make us buy more than other kinds when we’re inside a store, that’s probably evidence that music affects us in ways we don’t understand, even when we think we know what a certain song “means” to us.

JA: For anyone who hasn’t read your essay about the saxophone from the Fall 2012 issue of The Normal School, can you describe your feelings toward this instrument? Maybe it’s just me, but you really seem to have it out for the saxophone.

JH: Well, it struck me as strange even in the ’80s—and much stranger in retrospect—how prominently that instrument featured in pop and rock music of the era. It seemed super fashionable all of a sudden to have a sax solo in a song. And, except in a few cases, the sax always seemed to be soloing, rather than part of the song’s general instrumentation. I’ve always preferred the understated to the in-your-face, I guess, so maybe that’s why I don’t like the saxophone: it’s hard to ignore. Does anyone still really use saxophone in a pop/rock context the way bands used to?

JA: You fluidly mix research and criticism with personal narrative. But your analytical writing doesn’t feel stuffy, and your personal writing isn’t solipsistic. How do you balance these modes without falling victim to the downfalls typical of each one?

JH: Thank you for saying so. I can’t say that I deliberately set out to achieve a balance between these modes. I like talking about myself as much as anyone, I assume, but generally feel that no one else is especially interested in, as I put it in the book, hearing about “the dude staying up too late, rattling his keyboard to describe the fundamental effect some crappy pop song had on his teenage self-understanding.” So for me, trying (if not always successfully) to link the songs I write about to something more than just how they made me feel, or what happened the first time I heard them, etc., seemed important, whether that’s nuclear dread or amateurism or trickledown economics or teenage abjection or whatever. Certainly plenty of the essays do focus on personal narrative—although most of those came later in the sequence, when I felt a little more autobiographical relevance/resonance would help tie the essays together, in terms of chronology and character. The research and criticism happened mostly because each essay was prompted by an idea or a question, however much that idea might be linked to my history.

In any case, I wrote these essays over a long period of time, always in the background of other books. Some of the essays—including the one about saxophones—existed as half-written drafts I didn’t touch for years. The project took off in the late ’00s for a couple of reasons: Carolyn Kuebler and Stephen Donadio at the New England Review kept accepting all the essays I sent them, and then asked me to write something for them at a point when an assignment with a deadline felt profoundly helpful at getting me to sit down and look through all those old drafts; a few of my other books found homes; my friend Hua Hsu would come to my house and we’d drink whisky and listen to records and talk about music all night.

Then, not long after the 2008 recession, I became an “extreme commuter” for a couple of years, and spending so much time in the car, alone with my thoughts and my iPod really spurred me to finish the book, because those ideas and questions that inspired the essays suddenly happened all the time. I’d been digitizing my vinyl for years at that point, so almost 80 GB of personalized music accompanied every trip. Most of the time I just let the iPod shuffle, usually on some playlist sorted by date, and since I was driving on pretty empty roads through beautiful countryside, my meditative mind took over. I was on the Taconic Parkway when the 1975–1983 playlist spun up A Flock of Seagulls, and for some reason my brain recalled Def Leppard’s similar song. Section 25’s attitude toward nuclear war clarified itself during another drive when I listened to one of their songs I’d heard countless times previously. The Flying Saucer Attack essay explicitly invokes one particular day’s commute. (I could go on.) I used my iPhone’s voice memo app to start a bunch of those essays, and on some drives I made eight or ten brief recordings. (Some days I made recordings about one song on the morning drive, and recordings about another song on the evening drive.) When I transcribed them later, I could hear the songs playing in the background.

JA: As you say in “The Records,” you’re a vinylphile. Do you think digital music can have the same significance as physical music in terms of a cultural artifact?

JH: Like 99% of music collectors my age, I went through a phase where I bought more CDs than LPs. (Unlike a bunch of my peers, I didn’t get rid of many of my LPs in order to replace them with CDs—I either kept both formats, or bought one instead of the other.) In my case the reason first had to do with perceived fidelity—this was in the early ’90s, when I had a relatively crummy turntable and cartridge—but later had a lot to do with the weak dollar and the high price of shipping from the Royal Mail. I bought a lot of stuff on vinyl, but, for example, I got the limited CDs of Boards of Canada albums the weeks they were released instead of the limited vinyl, because the CDs cost £1.50 to ship instead of £6.50, or whatever the rate was then—and, again, I could put that extra five quid toward a couple of 7”s that were also relatively cheap to ship.

I think a CD, like any object, can acquire its own aura, though it’s harder for me to see how an AAC file might do so. But I’m biased—as I say in the book, I’ve always liked objects, and I still find pleasure and security and a certain amount of dismay in surrounding myself with records.

Joshua Harmon’s collection of essays, The Annotated Mixtape, was released from Dzanc Books in November 2014. He is also the author of two books of poems, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie and Scape; a novel, Quinnehtukqut; and a collection of short fiction, History of Cold Seasons.

J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His first book, Heavy: a memoir of Wyoming, BMX, drugs, and heavy fucking music, is forthcoming from Rare Bird in Fall 2015. You can check out more of his writing at jjanselmi.com.