From sharing weird club cuts on her INTERROBANG radio show and hosting a panel with Kode9 and Mala at AVA 2022, to interviewing Scratcha DVA for The Wire, and talking to some of the industry’s most infamous label bosses for her relevant parties podcast, Chal Ravens is one of the most versatile voices in music writing. Rob Smith talked to Chal for us about the books that have shaped her approach and career, what good music writing means to her and how to keep readers keen and locked in to weighty conversations about electronic music.
Were there any books that stood out as being, not necessarily the first thing you read, but the first thing you remember engaging with?
Yeah, I tended to enjoy books that felt a bit exotic. I read it as an adult, but I remember that The Life of Pi, which kind of feels like a children’s book, had that effect on me. I’ve always liked exoticism and enjoyed things set on islands.
So there’s almost an escapist element maybe?
Definitely. It’s funny because I really don’t read a lot of fiction anymore, but I ought to.
I guess maybe, electronic music is filling that escapism hole with repetitive noises instead?
Exactly. The fiction happens when you’re out dancing.
Is there anything on your reading list at the moment that you haven’t quite got round to reading yet?
Oh my God. So many! You know, there’s a Japanese word, Tsundoku, for having a massive pile of unread books. I’ve got a big stack, but I was gonna mention one I’m really looking forward to – I bought it on a whim a few months ago and it’s called The Bad Trip: Dark Omens New Worlds and the End of the 60s by James Riley. I’m really into stuff about the bad 60s and dark things from countercultural history.
I don’t really read graphic novels, but I’ve also got The Invisibles by Grant Morrison which is a kind of 80s, somewhat anarchist, chaos magic story. It’s very up my street but I’ve just got it waiting around because I don’t really know how to read it. How do you read a graphic novel?
Yeah, I don’t know… do you sit down with a cup of tea? Is there too much going on visually for that cross-legged kind of approach?
I think you’d have to slow down to read it, right? You have to take in each panel a little bit to kind of understand it, as if you’re watching a movie. I’m quite a fast reader nowadays, to the point of being quite a skimmy reader. The internet’s ruined my brain.
Do you read anywhere then? Do you dip in and out of stuff?
Yeah, I actually do, these days, I quite often read several books at once. At the moment, I’ve got probably about four or five that I’m reading all at the same time. Because a lot of them are non-fiction, I’ll dip in and skim. Maybe that’s because I’m trying to find some information that I’m using for writing. In the process of the skim, you do take in quite a lot of it, but maybe I’m reading some sections a bit more. Then I put it down for a bit and come back to it later on.
Efficient. I think sometimes with non-fiction as well, you can read something for a while, put it down, and then you sort of end up bumping into the topic again elsewhere. Then suddenly there’s a revival of interest.
Exactly that. I’ve got this one particular book which I’ve borrowed from my housemate, it’s called Set the Night on Fire. It’s by Mike Davis and John Wiener and it’s about five inches thick! I made good headway with it for a while, but it was just too long to keep reading about this history. There are really only so many factual updates that you can take. And then if I go and read, let’s say, this James Riley book, there’s going to be overlap, this is going to be about LA in the sixties too, in a different way. I like the knowledge piling on top of you from different people.
Particularly when people are writing about the same events… It’s really interesting you brought up how you were reading about the 60s, because I was talking to Scuba from Hotflush the other day and he said he felt like some areas of dance music keep looking backward and fetishizing the 90s in the same way that rock music did with the 60s. You just said there’s only so much you can read about the past, and I was wondering, do you think reading more about the past can almost be a bad thing? Or is it that the more educated we are, the less we fetishize and borrow nostalgia?
Yeah, that’s interesting. I think, to clarify, with that particular book, where I felt like I couldn’t read anymore, it was just the relentless depth of it and close detail… I think I understand what he’s saying. But I think that there’s a difference between fetishizing the past and actually reading about it and properly researching it.
I think what happens when you properly research it is that you actually dig up contradictions that complexify things, so more reading is good and more research is good because you always find a different take on the established narrative, particularly with dance music. Over the last ten years, there’s been a proper reckoning with the roots of house and techno right?
But I think in this process of re-reminding and re-defining and re-broadcasting of where dance music came from, we run the risk of actually diminishing the breadth of it and complexity of it in the first place. Because I think it’s not actually really accurate to oversimplify and just say ‘all house and techno came from Black, Gay, Latino dance floors in New York and the Midwest.’ It’s sort of accurate, but there were also so many different dancefloors and so many different histories.
Ron Hardy’s crowd was totally different to Larry Levan’s crowd. At the time they represented different streaks and different meanings, and what I’ve enjoyed recently about reading about the past is having my own mind constantly changed because I’m reading about what people who were there experienced. So I think yes and no. There’s a real difference between fetishizing it and actually just like doing the reading and doing the thinking.
That’s really refreshing to hear. Have you ever finished a book and then wished that you’d written it?
I’ve got a couple. I mean ideally, I’d rather have written The Brothers Karamazov and gone straight for the literary acclaim but I didn’t. Recently I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshvegh. I’m not massive on fiction, as I said, but this reminded me that fiction can be about people and moods that you recognise, and not just about sort of literary worlds like ‘Sally-Rooney-world’, none of which I’m particularly interested in. It’s basically about a New York woman who decides to just take enough sleeping pills that she can just take a year off, and chill out.
It’s just written in such a contemporary way that I understood, and I always think that’s impressive when someone has actually nailed something that feels contemporary. Even though it’s actually set in 2001.
I also just wanted to mention a book by Mark O’Connell, who is an absolutely fucking amazing writer of non-fiction, and it’s called To Be a Machine. It’s a collection of journalistic essays about his kind of Louis Theroux-esque journey to meet people who are interested in transhumanism and living forever, basically. He’s just a phenomenal writer. Just like a really literary writer, but writing about very modern contemporary things, which I think is quite hard to do.
I agree, it’s harder than ever to write convincingly in one of the literary worlds you describe. It can sometimes seem hard to engage with these worlds, like you just want to tell everyone in that world to chill out, man. It doesn’t always land. If you had to lend an artist, a friend or someone you know, one of your favourite books, who would it be and why?
Well, there is a book that I often lend to people, and some of my friends also often lend to people, kind of like how people give each other a Bible – it’s John Higgs’ book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band That Burned a Million Pounds. It’s probably one of the best music books ever written. It ties in with so many of my other interests, like weird 60s stuff, magic, counterculture, anarchy, but it’s just brilliant. The KLF are an absolute monument of artistic practice who have basically been written out of the history of contemporary art and music, and I think that is fucking fascinating. This book just does a very brilliant job of setting it in context and making it as meaningful as it really is. It’s just spooky. If you at all have any leanings towards there being unseen forces or magic that you can’t control, you will have your head turned by this book. It’s brilliant.
I watched the documentary the other week as well, fucking brilliant. It’s not even about liking the KLF as such, it’s really not about the music necessarily. I mean, a bit – but conceptually, they just took it so far. But because they deleted their music, they just went away. I never knew anything about them until relatively recently. It’s mad. They were number one. But you couldn’t listen to them.
Weren’t there rumours about their catalogue re-emerging?
Well, they promised to go away for 23 years and then come back. And actually, now I think some of the tunes are floating around again on Spotify. But for a long time, they were deleted, and it used to be that being deleted actually meant being deleted. So I never knew any of that music as a kid or anything, even though it was only a couple of years later that I was watching Top of the Pops and stuff.
That’s madness. So I’ve noticed you often tackle sustainability as a theme in your journalism. Are you an audiobook or an ebook kind of person? This is a sort of conflict I have similar to vinyl. Is reading an actual book part of the experience for you or do you also listen to stuff?
I don’t really get on with audiobooks, because as I say I flip through, I scan, I skim, I fold pages over. I like to have a sense of where I am in the book and go back and forth. So for me, an audiobook is a bit bewildering. I have to keep pausing, and it doesn’t quite work. I don’t really have any issue with the sustainability of books. I mean, I know some of them have glue, that’s not great. But ultimately, it’s just paper, which is not as bad as plastic. An audiobook still requires you to have a device, server storage and whatever. So I think books are relatively sustainable. And books are around a long time. You know, one book, I can give it to people, I can sell it. I can pass it around. Whereas with an audiobook, there’s no sense of sharing an audiobook.
There’s no sense of ownership, you can’t consciously decide to show it to someone else who doesn’t have it.
I think mainly it’s having it read out to me in order, without being able to, skip, or go back and forth. Maybe it’s just the distraction thing. I can quite often read two pages and I get to the bottom of the second one and then realise I slightly daydreamed through one page so I re-read it.
So it’s on someone else’s terms, really, isn’t it. Velocity’s main tip is club culture books, so were there any other music titles you haven’t mentioned yet? Any you want to shout out in particular?
In terms of dance-y ones, more recently the one that I’ve really gotten into is It’s a London Thing by Caspar Melville. It’s just brilliant and deserves a bit more hype than it’s got. It’s a really great balance between, you know, the impulse to be an anorak – which is a book, like, for example, Join The Future. That is pure anorak. God bless Matt for doing it, it’s the Lord’s work. You need people to go in and lay it out and be like, these were the facts, and explain the stories.
But what Caspar also does really well, and what someone like Dan Hancox also does really well in Inner City Pressure, is to talk a lot about some of the other contextual things and get into the flavour of the era. Caspar is really good at bringing some of his slightly more academic, cultural studies lens onto it. And it’s just that balance between getting the facts down but interpreting it in a way that feels exciting. That’s what makes it a great book.
Not writing about something in isolation?
Exactly. It’s like with Inner City Pressure. Not only is it pretty much the only grime book that really sets out the history properly – well it isn’t the only one, but it’s one of the few – but it’s also about New Labour. It’s about gentrification, it’s about surveillance, it explains why that music might have been made as well as just like, what happened.
The details. Have there been any books that have influenced your practice at all?
I’ve recently been getting to know the work of Ellen Willis. Her essay on Bob Dylan is probably the best piece of music writing of all time, as far as I’m concerned. I can’t imagine anyone being able to even write something about a modern musician that can even touch it, partly because of how important the music was then. Culturally I think there isn’t an equivalent to Dylan now. But she’s amazing.
Also, I wouldn’t say that it shows up in my writing especially, but Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than The Sun. Which I’ve got the PDF of, because nobody has the book. But I think reading people like Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds and Greg Tate, but especially Kodwo, it’s a reminder that the response to the music can be as creative as the music itself. I think there’s a lot of downward pressure on journalists to not see their work as creative in itself, for it to always be secondary and supporting. And there’s a lot of pressure from artists, and maybe PRs, for writing to simply be supporting or publicising. But in Kodwo Eshun’s world, the writing becomes part of the futurism that he feels in the music. And I think that’s something that’s easily forgotten and very, very hard to do, and probably much easier when you’re writing in the mid-90s, and everything musically is going forward at a million miles.
But with Kodwo Eshun he’s a reminder that, particularly when you’re talking about black music, that it can and should be taken on its own conceptual, sonic and aesthetic terms, and that you’re not just talking about black music through historical contexts, as like an expression of black history at that time, or black culture. He talks about black electronic music – jazz-fusion, hip-hop, turntablism – as being like… it reorders how you actually perceive music. It’s music that has an effect on how you actually hear the world and hear music again, so he’s just getting so far away from the typical way of approaching what black music is about.
I’m not saying that that necessarily shows up in my work, but I think it’s really important to try to remember that music can have an effect, you know, an emotional effect, a kind of physical effect. Lots and lots of things in it that don’t always align with the group identity of the person who made it or their personal narrative.
Yeah, it’s an artist creating personal art, as well as being part of a socio-political movement. Which obviously, Is still crucially important and valid to write about, but also easy to hop straight onto. Is avoiding that hopping-onto what you feel makes for really good music writing?
I think what makes really good music writing is being able to think about music as an individual experience that maybe not everyone has the same experience of. I got given some good advice from Derek Walmsley, editor of The Wire. He would often say, if I was getting a bit tangled up in trying to correctly define what I was listening to, he would put in a note being like, ‘okay, how does it make you feel?’
And actually, sometimes that just produces the best writing, because you have to step back. You’re coming up with images and metaphors that are actually more memorable for the listener than describing a genre, which is really boring to read.
Sometimes you want to avoid falling into technicalities and minutiae.
Yeah, exactly. I think talking about genres, there’s this Prince book that I’ve got somewhere that I was trying to find, which is called Let’s Go Crazy. It’s like simultaneously one of the best and worst music books I’ve ever read. It’s pure, hard anorak, like ‘and then on March 16th, Prince went on tour and said this to his interviewer.’ It’s play-by-play. And in all of the descriptions of all of the albums and the recording process and everything, the writer just describes everything like, ‘This song is an example of a hard rock, R&B fusion with a jazz tinge’ or something. The only words he has for the music are genre labels. And it became really mind-boggling, because it’s like, if that’s how you think about music, I just don’t know why you care that much about Prince! Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I guess if you’re coming at it from that taxonomising niche-finding perspective, why are you writing that way about music written to have a super broad appeal? I think that’s super relevant in the current ecosystem of electronic music writing. There is a lot more grey area between many electronic sub-genres, with the rise of broader labels like ‘UK Bass’ and ‘Future Beats’. If you try to describe a lot of new tunes just using genre labels, it’s too easy to end up just saying ‘all of them’. I’ve certainly found myself doing that, and had to take a step back when I realised that’s a really boring way of writing. But if you try and use only those labels, sometimes that’s all you can get to.
I think that’s quite interesting as well. I appreciate what Scuba was saying. But I think that actually there is a hell of a lot of super interesting music happening at the moment, and most of it doesn’t have genre names yet. Like, there’s a kind of scene that I might quite clumsily refer to as Afro-techno or Afro-gabber. Because it’s African people who are making it, right? But what is that stuff? I mean, there are really interesting things happening that are very hard to label. And I suspect that might always be the nature of the thing. The things that are hardest to describe and don’t have an easy tag are obviously some of the most interesting things that are happening.