Moonbuilding is a new-ish DIY publication from music writing maestro Neil Mason and the Castles in Space label. For the next instalment of our zine scene series, Rob Smith chatted to Neil about Moonbuilding‘s mission, and returning to independent publishing after leaving the mainstream music press.
Why was 2022 the right time to put out the first issue of Moonbuilding? Had it been on the cards for a while?
Moonbuilding started as one of those lockdown daydream ideas. The original thinking was a little grander, three zines – post-punk, heritage dance music and DIY electronic music whose jumping-off point was Mute’s early days. I worked right through the pandemic as commissioning editor at Electronic Sound, so there was no time for side hustles.
But I left Electronic Sound last April, which opened the door for Moonbuilding and the first issue came out in May 2022. It’s published by the Castles In Space label and covers the current independent electronic DIY scene and associated ephemera. It’s not just CiS releases; it draws from a wealth of great labels – Subexotic, WIAIWYA, Woodford Halse and many more. It’s not quite the lockdown idea, but there’s time for it to morph.
You have plenty of experience in the music press, but is this your first fanzine? Were you involved with any original fanzines?
I worked at Muzik, Melody Maker and NME, but before all that, I had a short-lived A5 lifestyle zine called The Big Dip, which I did with my good friend Reg Tubby. It was Norwich-based, kind of listings driven. We had Stewart Lee on the cover way before he was properly famous and one issue folded out into a sheet of Xmas wrapping paper. It didn’t last long, mainly because I’d just started working at Muzik.
Where does your desire to write about music come from? Personal satisfaction or a desire to share? Both?
That’s such a good question. I’d written bits and bobs over the years – for listings mags, university papers and the like – but it was just something I did. It never occurred to me that I could be a journalist. I went to art school where I worked with film, video and photography. I thought I was going to be a director, I made a few pop promos, but I graduated into a recession, so that door closed pretty quickly.
I’ve known Push, the editor of Electronic Sound, for a long time. In 1995 he launched Muzik and was looking for a decent sub-editor. I was “between jobs”, so I said, “Oh, I can do that”. I didn’t even know what a sub-editor was. A week later, I started work at Muzik, which was in King’s Reach Tower, home to NME and Melody Maker.
I’d read the music press since I was in my early teens and here I was, stepping into that world. It wasn’t an opportunity I was going to waste. Seeing how a magazine was put together really captured my imagination. Making good mags is such a craft. We’d be in the office all hours – early starts, late nights, going out loads – exciting times. I learned so much about what makes a good writer from editing other people’s copy. My desire to write came from that. I knew I could do better.
I think the best writers are the ones who are as obsessed with the actual writing as they are with the music they’re writing about. That’s me. I’m at my most content when I’m sat at a keyboard. I love the idea that you can create absolute magic from nothing. I just want to tell good stories in an entertaining way. Which I hope I do. I’m not sure that answers the question, but it’s as good as you’re going to get!
Moonbuilding stands apart from other music zines in that each issue has a CD of exclusive tracks. Was this the layout with a cover CD a nod to music publications of the late 90s and 00s?
Glad you think it stands out; that’s really good to hear. The CD thing isn’t especially a nod to music mags of the late 90s/00s, but I am really fond of the cassettes the NME used to do in the 80s – things like ‘Dancin’ Master’ and ‘C86’. I also loved the seven-inch EPs you used to get with the inkies.
We drew on that idea at Electronic Sound, with the cover artist providing two tracks for a single accompanying each issue. With Moonbuilding it just made sense to let people hear some of the music being written about otherwise, it’s just like dancing to architecture. Sure, people can Google the artists, but having something curated as we do is a nice touch.
Moonbuilding features reviews from other independent labels as well as CiS; how do you choose which tracks/labels/artists you review?
Oh well, that’s the skill of the commissioning editor! I listen to and have always listened to, an absolute mountain of music. When you listen to that much stuff you know what’s good. And there’s just so much of it. Some artists featured in Moonbuilding release half a dozen albums a year. A year! It’s funny, I’ve done this sort of thing for so long that I know when I’ve got the balance right on the pages, I think it’s just in my bones.
In your career writing about music, how do you think music writing and publications have changed?
The publishing side has changed beyond all recognition. If you liked alternative music of any persuasion – from jangling guitars to pounding techno, the weekly music press would provide a central point for people to gather. Muzik was the same. You liked dance music; you had to buy Muzik. There isn’t that focus anymore, there’s no overall authority and I can’t work out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
People seem to operate in their own silos these days. Everything is niche, I get my fix from a hotch-potch of printed titles, websites, blogs, social media posts, podcasts and, increasingly, newsletters. All of which I like, but I do miss the old days of picking up the music press every week.
Many in music writing have argued that long-form review is less prevalent than it has ever been, was Moonbuilding an outlet to pursue longer-form writing?
It’s an outlet for me to pursue writing about music full stop! I started to feel a bit hemmed in at Electronic Sound. I was pulling together a 100-page mag each month with little time to write. I’d do a lot of little bits and bobs to fill holes on the pages. I write a great 75-word review, let me tell you. So Moonbuilding is long-form, short-form, whatever. The cover feature is 3-4,000 words, which is a chunky read. I’m not sure you’d get that about the sort of artists we cover anywhere else.
How did the collaboration with Castles In Space come about? Did you approach them about publishing the zine or vice versa?
I got to know Colin Morrison, who runs CiS, over the years. We’d chat now and again and one day, I floated the idea. He said he’d love to publish it and away we went. We look at it like I’m one of the artists on his label, but instead of releasing an album, I release a magazine. It seems to be working so far.
When can we expect your next issue? Where can people get their hands on it?
You can pre-order the next issue here. I was looking at early April but Easter got in the way, so it’ll be late April now. It’s my mag and I can move the deadline if I want to, especially as we have a very understanding printer in Spencer Robinson at Premier Printers in Bury St Edmunds. It helps that he’s a massive music fan too.
Anyway, the new issue will be available from the Moonbuilding Bandcamp, keep an eye on @MoonbuildingMag on Twitter and Insta for info. We also have distribution via State 51, so it’s starting to appear in independent record shops – ask if you can’t find it in yours.
Any reading recommendations, music books or otherwise?
Oh goodness, there are so many great music books around at the moment. James Brown’s Loaded memoir is very entertaining, as you’d expect. I worked in the office next door to Loaded for quite a while. It was utter mayhem.
I’ve just finished Audrey Golden’s The Women Of Factory Records, which tells a well-trodden tale through the words of the many, many women who worked for the label. It not only sets the record straight, but it’s also full of genuine “I never knew that” moments.
I’m reading Lucy O’Brien’s Karen Carpenter bio Lead Sister, which is very, very good and I’m looking forward to Cathi Unsworth’s goth overview, Season Of The Witch.
Have you rediscovered any old gems or found any great new tracks due to putting Moonbuilding together?
Almost every day! There’s so much good music around. I could tell you what I’ve been listening to today, but it’ll be totally different by tomorrow. As for old gems, I ran a column in Electronic Sound called Buried Treasure which each month featured a writer waxing lyrical about an old record they love that no one else seems to have heard of it. There are just so many. I could have written that column every month. I’d love to make more time/space to do something like that in Moonbuilding.
Any events in the pipeline?
Goodness me, there are not enough hours in the day as it is. That said, Colin is a man who never sleeps, so you never know. We both love seven-inch singles and we’ve talked about a post-punk reissue label, so that might pop up at some point.
How did you put together an overall look, theme or design language for the zine? Was it fully DIY or a collab with any other designers?
In the grand tradition of fanzines, it’s fully DIY. I design and write the whole thing. I’ve got a Fine Arts degree and as an editor, I’m handy with InDesign, so the two skills kind of met in the middle, which had never occurred to me before!
When I’d finished the first issue, my friend Kev Foakes – DJ Food – popped around to give it the once over. He’s a brilliant designer and his advice was invaluable. Long story, but Malcolm Garrett also offered some great advice. When it was published I had so many kind comments about the design, which was really lovely.
Have you built any moons yet? How did you name the publication?
We all build our own little moons, don’t we? The one I hope I’m building with the mag is very much from the Slartibartfast school, the Magrathean designer of planets from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, rather than Darth Vader and the Death Star.
As for the name, Castles In Space comes from The Orb song ‘Spanish Castles In Space’. Alex from The Orb lives around the corner from me in south-east London, so with his blessing, I borrowed the title from Moonbuilding 2703 AD, a very fine album.