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He Knows What Music Isn't

Part one of a two-part interview with digital music guide and Rawkblog founder David Greenwald.

He Knows What Music Isn't

Between listening to Pitchfork's BNM and every NPR First Listen, it's easy to forget about all of the music just outside of the indie industrial complex. 

By being beyond, above, beneath and sometimes completely lined-up with mainstream taste, David Greenwald has introduced listeners to bands like The Miracals and Little Scream, re-acquianted his Twitter followers with  The Softies and Pedro the Lion. Greenwald even reminded us that there is no shame in enjoying Ryan Adams ( Pitchfork be damned). 

In a sea of music critics dead set on making all the right moves, David Greenwald distinguishes himself by being unabashedly specific and sometimes desperately Uncool (the name of his upcoming music mag). 

A champion of Twitter, Greenwald uses social media and his own Rawkblog website to devastatingly precise, hilarious effect.

In the past few months, he has set the record straight on rap's new phenom  Kitty Pryde and definitively summarized the pop culture placement of Cat Power's latest album in three minutes flat: 

(6:12 PM - 29 Aug 12): New Cat Power sounds great but also sounds a lot like the late '90s lady-rock -- McLachlan, Alanis -- she was ignoring at the time. 

(6:13 PM - 29 Aug 12): Every review of "Sun" is going to manage to avoid mentioning Luscious Jackson and it's going to be embarrassing for everybody. 

(6:15 PM - 29 Aug 12): Controversial opinion: Sarah McLachlan's "Surfacing" is better than any Cat Power album. "Moon Pix" comes close. 

A contributing editor at Billboard, sometimes-writer for Rolling Stone and the A.V. Club, and founder of Rawkblog and the Rawkblog Playlist Club, David Greenwald seems unable to live without his Season 1 of 'Pretty Little Liars'-watching heart directly on his sleeve.

How did you first get involved with writing rock journalism? I've read some of your early pieces at the Daily Bruin, such as your gentle take on Avril Lavigne's 'Under My Skin'. Were these some of your first reviews?

I started writing about music in my senior year of high school, as the A&E editor of the Ventura High Cougar Press. I was very snobby. Then I got to college and some really smart editors sorted me out.

I did most of my first reviews for the Bruin, but I also started doing Rawkblog and writing album reviews for Cokemachineglow during my sophomore year. 

Were you always interested in balancing serious looks at musicians like Lavigne with pieces on Rose Melberg or Jens Lekman? Or did that evolve over time? How much of it is what you want to write versus what you're assigned to write?

I grew up listening to Blink-182 and Dave Matthews Band and it never occurred to me to give albums like those up just because I was suddenly into Radiohead. But I was also discovering stuff that nobody else I knew cared about at the time, musicians such as Ben Folds Five and Elliott Smith, so it seemed natural to just follow my taste wherever it led.

I was spending a lot of time in my room by myself, just listening. As a journalist, you're not always going to love everything you're assigned, which is one of the reasons I started Rawkblog, so there would always be a home for bands or albums I couldn't cover more professionally.  

Who were some of the blogs that inspired you and what did the first incarnations of Rawkblog look like?

In 2005, I was reading Pitchfork and Cokemachineglow as well as blogs such as Aquarium Drunkard and You Ain't No Picasso. Gorilla Vs. Bear started up around the same time I did. Those were my early favorites -- still are! Originally, Rawkblog was just a Blogger template and then I started doing mad scientist stuff to the HTML. I was taking photos from the beginning, so hopefully those have improved along with the design. 

Rawkblog Playlist Club was the first digital music subscription service. What has the process of getting it up and running been like for you and what's the next step?

I should note that many labels are running their own subscription services through Drip.fm, and probably other formats -- I'm a big fan of stuff like that. It's been pretty smooth so far -- I've learned a lot about people's tastes after making each member a mixtape, which has been the most interesting part.

The next step is just to grow the membership and provide a service to people who want a simple, personal touch to their music discovery. I think because it's a new idea, or at least new to the Internet, it's going to need a lot of evangelism. 

Pitchfork's People's List got a lot of discussion going on Twitter. Does the back and forth ever get tiring for you? You recently avoided an argument about Animal Collective. How do you decide the context in which music is worth debating versus what seems like a waste of time?

I always enjoy the back-and-forth -- there are few things I like better than talking about music with passionate people. But it can also be extraordinarily time-consuming and as a freelance writer, I'm unfortunately not being paid to sit on Twitter. I'm trying to focus more energy on longform projects or discussion formats like the Rawkblog podcast at the moment.  

You seem to take extra measures to avoid trashing bands and artists in your writing. Is this out of deference for the work that any musical artist puts into making an album or are you such a music fan that you don't see the point in such negativity?

I've written as many snarky takedowns as the next critic, but in general, I lean toward artists and music I think are worth sharing and examining. It's much more satisfying to write about. I did write a list of "bands you can ignore" as an anti-hype goof in 2010 and it was the most controversial piece Rawkblog had run in years. I do think critics should take every piece of art seriously, but part of the job description is identifying a stinker as quickly as possible and moving along. 

You've written for Billboard, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club and others. Writing for so many publications, do you ever feel like you're being pulled in a million directions? 

I've been lucky and had lengthy relationships with a number of publications, including Billboard and the Los Angeles Times, over the years. I'm a full-time freelancer now and there's always a balance between my regular gigs and the next round of pitches, but I just try to take it day-to-day and week-to-week. I spend a lot of time making to-do lists, almost as much as I spend on Twitter. 

What has been the highest point of your writing career? What has been the toughest?

Two articles: interviewing comic book legend Stan Lee in college and writing an oral history of the menswear blogosphere for GQ last year. Both easily the most fun I've had in journalism so far. 

The hardest part has been every hour spent waiting for an email, or a half-dozen emails, to get a response. It never gets less nerve-racking. 


In part two of our interview with David Greenwald, we will discuss the use of Google Hangouts in the world of podcasting and the one artist everyone should check out during 2012 is over.

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