A regular writer at Pitchfork, The Wire and Resident Advisor, electronic music journalist Philip Sherburne isn’t short on platforms to share his writing. So why would one of the field’s most well-respected start the Futurism Restated newsletter? Free from the restrictions of writing for a big publication, what would he write about in his own direct-to-inbox newsletter? For our blog, Rob Smith chatted to him to try and find out.
How did you name Futurism Restated?
It’s actually the title of a song by the Minutemen, the great San Pedro, California punk band from the 80s. I’ve always loved that title and sort of had it in my back pocket as something I might try to use someday. I would love to have used their song title “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth,” but that’s just a little too long for a Substack! Punk rock, by and large, is a long way from most of the music I tend to cover, of course. But I grew up on punk, hardcore and goth—they’re really central to my musical upbringing and the formation of my tastes. So I like nodding to those origins.
As well as writing about music you curate playlists. What can readers, and subscribers expect to find in the playlists you put together for your substack? What’s your selection process?
At the moment, the playlist (which is reserved for paying subscribers, since I felt like I needed to give those supporters something extra besides the occasional exclusive interview) is just a clearing house for the music that I cover in each newsletter, plus occasional bits and bobs that feel relevant. Still, talk about a clearing house—at this point, it’s 210 songs and nearly 23 hours long! I need to decide if I want to archive it at the beginning of the year and start a new playlist for 2024, or just keep it going. We’ll see.
Experimental is a wonderfully open term used to describe music, are there any factors you take into consideration when writing about music? What makes it experimental to you?
“Experimental” is a pretty open-ended term, though in some ways it can also be rather limiting, given that it has become a stand-in for a certain type of music—you know it when you hear it—that is, in its own way, as codified as any other genres. I used the term in the introduction to my newsletter out of sheer convenience, I’ll admit. I think, at the end of the day, I’m not terribly worried about whether a given recording is experimental or not; what I ask of any piece of music, whether it’s a noise sonata for French horn and cello or a UK garage banger, is that it be interesting and true to its intentions—and that it move me, of course. Bonus points if I’m surprised in some way—if I hear something I’ve never heard before, or, conversely, hear something familiar in a totally new way. But the method used to get there hardly matters.
Any other newsletters you enjoy being subscribed to?
You bet! Matthew Schnipper’s Deep Voices is a totally personal and wonderfully subjective tour of his tastes; whether or not you know the music he’s talking about or not, reading him feels like eavesdropping on the act of listening itself. Joshua Minsoo Kim’s Tone Glow is an essential repository of interviews.
Other regular reads: photographer Dina Litovsky’s In the Flash, ex-Gawker culture writer Max Read’s sensibly named Read Max, swag repository Blackbird Spyplane, hardcore legend Sam McPheeters’ Reality Breakdown, Sasha Frere-Jones’ S/FJ, Marc Weidenbaum’s sonophile’s journal This Week in Sound… and too many more to mention.
Should writing about music be experimental as well or functional?
I think that really depends on the writer. Sasha Frere-Jones has a pithy, particular style that you might, in a pinch, call experimental; Lucy Sante’s writing (I don’t think she has a newsletter, alas) has always been breathtakingly advanced in its form. I keep my own writing pretty straightforward, just because I know my limitations, and when I try too hard to be playful, things go off the rails.
Any plans to incorporate any photography into the newsletter?
I have included a little bit. I had some stray iPhone pictures, mostly behind the scenes, in my recent Unsound festival review, and I included two full galleries of “real” pictures, taken with my good camera when I went to Stephen O’Malley’s drone festival in Carnac, France.
I do make sure to have a catchy header image for every newsletter—usually something abstract, taken with my iPhone. It’s a good excuse to keep my eye out for interesting shapes while I’m out walking. (I’ll admit that Sasha’s photography is a big influence on me there; he’s been peppering his work with interesting street snaps since the glory days of the blogosphere.)
Is there anything you specifically wanted to avoid featuring in the newsletter?
I don’t really think so. I’ll admit that on the few occasions that a publicist has pitched me something specifically for the newsletter I’ve felt an initial twinge of annoyance because my idea was to keep the newsletter a space for me, unaffected by PR. But then I realized that they’re just doing their jobs, and I felt flattered that anyone would care enough to try to place something in my newsletter in the first place. And now that I’m beginning to do more interviews for it, I’m increasingly needing to work with publicists to make those pieces happen. As long as they understand—and I think most do—that Futurism Restated is ultimately subject to my own whims, then I don’t mind someone suggesting a particular title to me at all.
I might be splitting hairs here, but are Substacks injecting urgency and dynamism back into blogging (I wasn’t around for the birth of the blog) or do you see them as a different, separate format?
I was definitely around for the blogging era; I blogged pretty heavily from 2003 until 2011, and then I just… stopped. I was actually re-reading a lot of my old posts the other day, and although much of it made me cringe, just because I think (or I hope) that I was a very different person 20 years ago, I do think that much of the writing has held up, at least within the context of its time, and there’s probably a historical or documentary value to some of it.
In any case, I think that newsletters are very much the same as blogs were, they just get delivered to people’s emails. But the social aspects are remarkably similar—the recommended newsletters are essentially the same as the “blogroll” of links in the margins. And my willingness to indulge a looser tone and first-person voice in my Substack isn’t so different from the way I used to write for my blog—just a little less gonzo than I was in my 30s is all.
What do you look for in tight music writing?
Well, it’s just that, isn’t it—it’s tight! I’m actually a quite wordy writer, though I’m always trying to get better. But I think I like the same things in music writing that I like in music: I want to be transported, and I want to be surprised. I want the writing to teach me something I wouldn’t have thought about the music otherwise, and I want the words to make me feel envious that I never thought of putting them together that way myself.