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The Monday Media Diet with Philip Sherburne
On Menorca, Fernanda Melchor, and Blood Meridian
Philip Sherburne (PS) is a longtime friend of WITI and one of America’s best music writers. He’s covered a lot of musical ground, but his strike zone is often the interesting periphery of electronic music, which he covers with depth and nuance. Check out his Substack here. Back in the day, I was astounded by his ability to zoom in on minimal techno releases by people like Ricardo Villalobos and extract the most interesting ideas, textures, and feelings. And he was always gracious in editing my Padawan copy ;) I’m pleased to have him with us today. Have a great week. -Colin (CJN)
Tell us about yourself.
I write about music—these days, mostly for Pitchfork—and I’ve been doing it for quite a long time, since 1998 or so (though it took me a while before that became a more or less full-time thing). For most of that time, my focus has remained pretty narrowly on electronic music, but my focus within the genre has shifted over the past decade. I used to concentrate much more on various strains of leftfield techno and house; these days, I spend more time with experimental and ambient-leaning sounds, though I do still keep up a DJ mixes column for Pitchfork. In May of this year, I finally launched a Substack, Futurism Restated, which is a weekly newsletter of new-music recommendations, plus occasional bonus posts for paying subscribers.
I also co-run a record label, Balmat, which focuses on ambient and ambient-adjacent music. I started the label with my friend Albert Salinas, my co-host on Lapsus Radio, which was a weekly show on Spain’s national public broadcaster Radio 3 for a number of years, until 2022. We’re currently working on a reboot of the show on a new platform.
I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and spent my young adulthood in a handful of different places—Poughkeepsie, Providence, San Francisco—before making my way to Europe in 2005, in large part drawn by my interest in electronic music. I was in Barcelona for a few years, went to Berlin for another four, and then returned to Barcelona. Five years ago my wife and I moved to Menorca, a small island in the Baleares. Our daughter was almost three years old, and we were getting a little fed up with city living. Plus Barcelona was getting awfully expensive, rents were skyrocketing, and the city had changed considerably over the past decade—gentrifying, touristifying, turning into an Airbnb playground. An island with a population of 100,000 with no record stores and virtually zero nightlife might seem like an odd place for an electronic-music specialist to live, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some trepidations when we came here. But Barcelona’s about a 30-minute flight away, should I want or need to see a show or a festival or interview someone. And the benefits of life on the island—fresh air, green nature, wildlife, local produce, being able to see stars in the night sky—more than outweigh whatever fleeting (and I mean fleeting) FOMO I might feel about missing out on seeing some DJ somewhere. Our front door opens onto a town plaza and our back yard looks out on farmland; we feed our neighbor’s donkey banana peels over the fence. It doesn’t suck. (We do have a shockingly high number of scorpions, though, which is of some small concern.)
Describe your media diet.
The one word that best describes my media diet would have to be “chaotic.” I blame social media. I use Twitter as a kind of RSS feed, and while that casts a nice, wide yet, it also results in an infinitude of open tabs that often don’t get read, and a Pocket list so long it’ll probably crash the company’s servers at some point.
I subscribe to the digital editions of the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Washington Post, all of which I read pretty extensively. I also subscribe digitally to El País, ARA Balears, New York Magazine, The New York Review of Books, the UK experimental music-magazine The Wire, UK music website The Quietus, and probably some others I’m forgetting right now. Since launching my Substack, I’ve become a paying subscriber to quite a few. Off the top of my head: Shawn Reynaldo’s First Floor, Marc Weidenbaum’s This Week in Sound, Max Read’s Read Max, Sasha Frere-Jones’ SFJ, masters of swag Blackbird Spyplane, Tim Max’s The Counteroffensive.
My day wouldn’t be complete without reading Menorca - Es Diari, the local paper. Normally I just read the website, but if I’m at a cafe that stocks the paper, I love reading the print edition. It covers everything—politics, traffic accidents, scandals, neighbors’ complaints about parking and trash pickup—from a truly local perspective. Last week they ran a story about a woman who got bitten—a tiny cut, like two centimeters—by a fish. The coverage is literally, gloriously, insular in nature.
What’s the last great book you read?
Temporada de Huracanes (Hurricane Season), by the Mexican novelist Fernanda Melchor. I don’t actually remember where I heard about her—I don’t think it was the New Yorker piece last year. Word of mouth? In any case I bought it from a bookstore in Barcelona, in Spanish—the first Spanish-language novel I have read in ages. Like, years. Cracked it open and was faced with the page-long paragraphs, and the regional slang, and thought: What have I gotten myself into? But I devoured the thing, never mind that I had to consult spanishdict.com about five times per page. (Sometimes I would give up, and just let the unfamiliar words wash over me, figuring that I’d catch them on a later page, or another read.) It’s a grim kaleidoscope of a novel, cycling through numerous perspectives, each one gradually filling the outline of a world marked by hardship and violence, painting a truly terrible picture of the misogyny (and classism, and racism, but especially misogyny, intertwined with homophobia) at the heart of contemporary Mexican culture. It can be tough, tough going—there were times I found myself physically flinching, or crying out at some monstrosity on the page. It’s not entirely surprising—in fact, it’s almost a relief—to read that Melchor started going to therapy after finishing the book. But not only is it an absorbing and addictive read; it feels necessary, a work of documentary weight created using the tools of fiction.
Bonus round: Joel Chadabe’s Electric Sound, an essential and fascinating history of electronic music written from a technologist’s perspective. Published in 1997 and now out of print—Chadabe passed away in 2021—but it remains the most comprehensive book on the field that I know of.
What are you reading now?
I’m about halfway through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. He was (and remains) a blind spot, really—I’d only read The Road previously. I tried Blood Meridian last year, but I was traveling with my wife and daughter, and trying to read that on the plane where you’re having to break concentration every few minutes was pointless. But I picked it up again recently and it clicked with me this time. In some ways I can see certain similarities with Melchor—not just the violence and amorality of the characters, the panorama of endless brutality, but also the language. There’s a real ambient quality to McCarthy’s prose here. Again, sometimes I just let it wash over me, the umpteenth description of a mountain range purpling in the distance. The landscape takes on the feel of a kind of trance state.
What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?
It has been ages since I have routinely read print publications, to be honest. Part of that is living in Europe, and postage rates from the U.S. being so expensive. (I realize that there are European print magazines I could read, I suppose, but I don’t.) But recently I subscribed to the New York Review of Books, and since the print edition isn’t that much more expensive than the digital, I decided to spring for it. I’ve really enjoyed just picking it up and reading through it, cover to cover. Obviously I skip some stories. But I don’t even bother with the table of contents. Just: What’s on this page? Does the headline appeal? Does the first paragraph hook me? Let’s see where this goes, then. It’s a refreshing change from online reading, which doesn’t have that aleatory sensibility. When I’m scrolling the New Yorker’s homepage, for instance, I’m a lot less likely to click on something I have no idea about. I miss that about reading, say, the New York Times, which I subscribed to in print for years, probably from when I graduated college until I left the U.S. in 2005. You’d read things you had no idea you might be interested in, simply because it was on the page in front of you.
Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?
Obviously I’m biased, and this might not sound like a very original answer, but Pitchfork’s reviews section. Recently, there have been a handful of episodes where a musician got mad online about a review, triggering a chorus of fans to declare the irrelevance of criticism. I’m not going to get into the finer points of that argument here, but I think it’s notable that we’re one of the last publications that dedicates significant space and editorial resources to publishing record reviews. A lot of them, about a wide, wide swath of music. Pop, rap, commercial dance music, underground dance music, jazz, classical, weirdo experimental stuff, indie rock, music from all over the globe. And while you can tell from their comments on Twitter and Instagram that many people sniping at us don’t look beyond the numerical score, we put a lot of time and care into engaging with these albums—thinking about them, unpacking them, considering where they succeed and where they fail, asking where they fit into their genres or historical contexts. Reviewing records is probably my favorite part of my job—I’m far more a critic than a journalist—and at best I find it to be an incredibly intense, even empathetic activity. I’d like more readers to be reminded of the spirit in which reviews—the best ones, anyway—can be written.
What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone?
Windy, a wind map that tracks its speed, direction, etc. It’s imperative for beach days—if it’s windy on the north coast, you head south, and vice versa. Also useful: Medusapp, a crowd-sourced jellyfish tracker.
Plane or train?
Given that I live on an island, I’m afraid there’s really only one possible answer for me here. (I suppose I could swap in “ferry,” but getting to Barcelona from Menorca is an eight-hour all-nighter versus a 30-minute jump, so again, the answer is pretty easy.) I did get the chance to take the train recently between Paris and Brittany when I went to attend Stephen O’Malley’s drone festival amid the neolithic ruins at Carnac—high-speed train on the way there, milk run on the way back—and it was a pretty sweet experience. Loved staring out the window watching the landscape stream past; loved getting some writing done on my laptop without feeling like my elbows were jammed into my ribcage. I will say, however, that the wifi really wasn’t everything I hoped for. Also we hit a deer on the way back, which brought us to a halt on the tracks for a good 30 minutes or more. That sucked, especially for the deer.
What is one place everyone should visit?
The easy answer is Menorca, because A) I live here, B) I love it, and C) it really is all that. It’s the smallest (save for Formentera) of the Balearic islands, flat and largely rural, peppered with neolithic ruins, ringed by a horse/hiking trail that extends around the entire island (you can hike it in three days), and surprisingly green in winter and spring. I wrote about it recently for Departures magazine.
I realize that might not be a terribly original answer. The island has experienced a major boom over the past five years; it’s difficult to pick up a glossy magazine without finding an article extolling its virtues (even if most of them fall into cliches of “turquoise coves,” “whitewashed villages,” “boutique hotels,” etc.). If anything, I should probably steer people away, if only because Menorca’s newfound popularity is causing all the problems you might expect: more congested roads, more polluted beaches, rising home prices, rising rents, Airbnbs cannibalizing the property market. We’re an island that depends on tourism for our livelihood, and has for many years, but striking the right balance, particularly in boom times, is proving tricky. Still, it truly is a gorgeous place, and every day I feel fortunate to live here.
Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into.
My father served in the Canadian RAF in World War II, though he never saw combat. (He was born in 1919; he was in his fifties when he had me.) His best friend, a young man named Philip Purdy, was a fighter pilot who flew a Gloster Gladiator, a WWI-era biplane that was still in use in WWII. He was killed in the war; my parents named me after him. I never knew much about how he died (my own father passed away in 2005), so I began trying to find out more, just by googling his name, looking up various databases of fallen servicemen, etc. The first time I really fell down the rabbit hole was years ago—I had stayed up late watching Das Boot, I had a fever, and I got obsessed, just spent hours pursuing links. What I finally figured out was that he had flown a campaign in Norway and landed his plane on an aircraft carrier, the HMS Glorious, which was then sunk by German battlecruisers, killing almost everyone aboard, on June 9, 1940. I keep a handful of links related to my research pasted in a document on my computer, and I’ve got an annual Google reminder set up for June 9. I doubt there are any surviving members of his family; I like to keep his memory alive.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Philip (PS)
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