Episode 22: Bernard Zuel

Bernard Zuel is senior music writer at The Sydney Morning Herald.

Penmanship podcast episode 22: Bernard Zuel, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016He was visiting Brisbane in early April as a guest speaker at the inaugural Rock and Roll Writers Festival, so after a day of inspiring and enlightening discussions about all things music writing, we went back to his hotel room in Fortitude Valley to talk more about that very topic. I’ve been reading his album reviews and features in The Sydney Morning Herald for years, so it w as a treat to pick the brains of one of Australia’s most prolific and enduring writers in this field.

In 2016, Bernard is actually one of very few journalists in the country to be employed as a full-time music writer for a newspaper. We talk about this very fact, and the shrinking nature of such jobs, as well as how he chooses which artists to write about; how he manages to juggle writing up to six album reviews per week; how he prefers to take notes in dark rooms when attending concerts; why he hates the five-star ranking system; the value he sees in writing negative music criticism, and why he now uses voice recognition software rather than typing.

Bernard Zuel has been writing about music since typewriters, C90 mixtapes and coming home stinking of everyone else’s smokes. Having written for RAM, Rolling Stone and street press, and talked on TV/radio for anyone who asked and paid nothing, he’s been covering arts at The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media for more than 20 years, the past 12 or so as senior music writer and chief critic. He still buys records and discs and sound files because it’s great.

Bernard Zuel on Twitter: @BernardZuel

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2.00 At the Rock and Roll Writers Festival, Bernard facilitated a panel about Australian language and identity in music writing

4.00 “I don’t make a differentiation between regional music; I’m from Sydney, but I don’t seek out Sydney bands as a preference to Brisbane or Melbourne bands”

6.30 When he began writing about music, Bernard would be seeing five gigs a week, almost every week, in Sydney

8.00 “In a mainstream outlet like The Sydney Morning Herald, it’s even more important that I push some of those [smaller or lesser-known] artists”, such as women and indigenous musicians, or performers in niche genres

9.30 “If it’s good enough, it doesn’t matter that it’s only going to sell 5,000 [copies] – which, these days, would actually be pretty good [sales-wise]”

10.30 The day after our interview, Bernard will be a guest speaker on a panel about music criticism that was facilitated by Jake Stone, music writer and singer of the pop band Bluejuice

12.30 “In most cases, people who write about music aren’t doing it for a career. And if they think they’re going to get a career out of it, they’re deluded”

14.00 Bernard gave Jake Stone some writing work for The Herald – “not because I liked Bluejuice, but because I thought he was a smart guy with a talent for writing”

14.30 Bernard says that he and Dave Faulker of the Hoodoo Gurus – and music critic for The Saturday Paper – are the only two people to have been on the Australian Music Prize judging panel for the past 11 years

17.00 “The fact is, we all have our preconceptions and prejudices, whether or not we know the band at all”

18.00 “I don’t have a view that my opinion is fixed, but it’s actually very rare where I’ve looked at a review some years later and thought I was wrong”

19.00 Ideally, Bernard prefers eight to ten listens of an album over multiple weeks, but it can be condensed into three or four days if need be

20.00 He recalls listening to The Smiths’ final album “incessantly” over a weekend, and says “my judgment, I think, inflated the worth of that album” because he was just excited to be reviewing The Smiths, rather than trying to be as objective as possible as a critic

22.00 His ideal process for reviewing an album starts with playing it in the background while cooking or driving; “I deliberately don’t focus on it”. Then he’ll start tuning into more aspects of it, noticing which things he’s recognising, such as the “hooks” that have revealed themselves during the first few plays

23.30 Finally, he’ll put it on while he’s writing his review, so it’s in the background again: “It’s gone from front of mind to back of mind, but I’m thinking about what I’m writing”

25.00 Bernard will review about four albums per week: “Some weeks I might be writing up to six reviews, in different styles and lengths” from 120 to about 900 words

26.00 “Having that many albums on the go is a questionable practice. I think I’m fine with it, but others wonder how I can do it […] But I’ve been doing it for 30 years. It’s what I do”

27.30 “Music is my full-time job, and music is my full-time passion […] People who live with me are inured to it”

28.30 Bernard says he doesn’t really get fatigued by listening to music all the time, but “there are times where I can’t be bothered with something that isn’t that good”, which is particularly evident when reviewing concerts

29.30 “I have no sense yet that I’m going to run out of excitement about music […] I still get excited by finding new music, and old music”

31.30 The Drones are an example of a band that still gets Bernard excited, “and still makes me feel really uncomfortable – and excited because I’m uncomfortable”

35.30 “It would be easy to fall into the feeling of, ‘I’m not getting the perspective anymore, because I’m just churning through’ [a constant cycle of new music]”

37.30 Bernard thinks one of the toughest parts of the job is finding new ways to talk about music; “new reference points, and new language”

39.00 “I write for me before I write for anyone else, and if I’m not interested, no-one’s going to be interested”

41.30 Sometimes a live review will come to Bernard while he’s watching a show, and he realises the shape that a piece of writing will take on the page

42.30 He’ll generally write every song that he can identify in a small notebook he takes to every live show

43.30 “I prefer a notebook [to typing in his phone], even though my handwriting is appalling, and I’m writing on a small notebook in the dark”

45.00 “If I don’t have a concept or a theme, it’s really hard to write a review. If I don’t have a beginning, I can’t go on”

46.00 Very occasionally, Bernard will be recognised at gigs as a critic for The Herald, but “they’re usually just curious about what I’m writing”

48.00 Bernard doesn’t like his face being associated with his reviews, as it means he’s recognised more often at gigs; he prefers not to be noticed

51.00 “I’m quite happy to have my name in the paper, but I don’t see it necessary to have people standing next to me know that I’m ‘Person x from [publication]'”

53.00 Common misconceptions about being a full-time music writer include the fact that it’s the best job, that it’s easy and straightforward; “Just because you like music doesn’t mean that you can write about music”

54.30 Why Bernard hates star ratings on album reviews even more than he hates having his face in the paper

57.30 Laura Marling is one of the few artists for whom Bernard will make “the kind of ridiculous statements that any music critic should never make; I think she is capable of being the Joni Mitchell of her generation”

58.30 Bernard has given perhaps five five-star reviews to albums or concerts in the last 12 or 13 years

60.00 “I think if you’re going to have star ratings, drop them to the bottom of the review… I’d still end up going there first off, probably”

61.30 Negative album reviews are valuable for the reason that Bernard doesn’t like star ratings: “It’s a discussion, which sets up an explanation for what an album or concert set out to do. Did it succeed in its aims?”

65.00 Bernard was an avid reader of the British music press as a teenager; he studied law at university because he didn’t think he could write, despite his desire to be a journalist

66.30 The first review Bernard wrote came about after he strongly disagreed with a review written by another music critic in Rock Australia Magazine (RAM); Bernard wrote about Everything But The Girl, then bought R.E.M.’s Fables Of The Reconstruction as an import ahead of its Australian release and reviewed it, too

68.30 Bernard typed up his review of Fables and walked it over to the RAM office in Sydney on his lunch break; he was aged 20 at the time, and was greeted at the door by Lynden Barber, a critic he’d been reading for years, who agreed to run it in the next issue

70.30 “I did it because, at that point, I didn’t think there was a career in it; I loved music, I could write, I had opinions, and it was a few years before I woke up to the fact that I wasn’t as knowledgeable or smart as I thought I was”

71.30 “I did it because I wanted to talk about music, and if I’d had girlfriends, I probably wouldn’t have written”

72.30 After writing for street press, Bernard got a call from Rolling Stone, asking him to do an interview with Steve Kilbey of The Church – a previous guest of Penmanship

73.30 Bernard subsequently got a call from the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Metro section, asking him to write some things; he later began pitching to the Agenda page, and wrote features for them, too

74.30 His next plans were to go overseas with his then girlfriend (now wife), travel for nine months then base themselves in London, where Bernard expected to get some work because he’d been writing for Australian magazines; “Apparently there were several thousand other people in London who thought the same thing!”

76.00 On returning to Australia, he sought full-time work as a journalist, and got a reporter job at a suburban newspaper in the outer Sydney suburb of Penrith

77.30 Bernard stopped writing about music at that time, but “I’d buy 150 albums a year, and I kept doing that, and read and played a lot of music. I just broadened my knowledge”

79.30 In his second year at Penrith Press, Bernard’s editor encouraged him to apply for a job at The Herald; he was interviewed the following year, and became a general rounds reporter

82.30 He was then asked to edit Metro, the Friday entertainment supplement, which he did for a year before realising that they weren’t covering CD reviews properly

84.00 “There was a bit of a boys’ club that had happened there, so I thought, ‘We need some women’ [writers] for a different perspective and feel'”

85.00 Over time, Bernard expanded Metro’s weekly music coverage to include features and multiple album reviews; he started writing regularly about music again, too

88.00 “That’s been a constant struggle: trying to remind people that music is serious, can be treated seriously, and deserves space”

89.00 Today, Bernard is now one of only a handful of full-time music writers among Australia’s newspapers; his peers include Iain Shedden (The Australian), Kathy McCabe and Cameron Adams (News Corp national)

90.30 “Arts coverage is constantly under threat, and music is not top-ranked in arts for a lot of managers at all media organisations; it fluctuates, but it’s certainly not books or film”

91.30 How Bernard’s experience with repetitive strain injury (RSI) at Penrith Press led to him adopting voice recognition software, as otherwise he’d be unable to write due to the pain associated with tendonitis in his forearms

93.30 “I think the technical term is that I completely fucked my arms, and I’m now permanently crippled. It was so severe at the time, that at its worst, I couldn’t grip things properly, or open jars well at all”

96.00 “My style of writing is quite close to my style of thinking, so when I think and speak it, it’s writing; it helps that what I do is not straight down-the-line fact writing, it’s a more personal voice”

97.00 Bernard says that the voice recognition software claims to be up to 90% accurate: “Utter bullshit. On a very good day, maybe you get 80% accurate, and it still requires adjustments. It’s a pain in the arse in lots of ways, but if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be working”

98.00 As a result, Bernard now works from home, in a quiet room; anything else would screw up his reliance on voice recognition software to do his job

101.30 “The biggest problem with young writers is we all love the sound of our voices, and we love sounding smart, and we want people to know how smart we are”

102.30 “If you don’t have your period of excessive writing and over-reliance on your ‘wit’ and ‘deep brilliance’, you’re probably a little too boring to start [writing about music]”

103.00 Bernard first encountered Erik Jensen when he was a 15 year-old work experience kid at The Herald; “He showed me his stuff, and it was disgustingly good!” Erik is now editor of The Saturday Paper

105.00 “I said to [Erik], ‘The only thing I ask of you is, could you give me five or ten years? You’re gonna take my job, you’re gonna make me redundant, so I’d like to have a bit of time!'”

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