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The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Chris Ott

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With the news that UK publisher Faber Social are set to release Ian Curtis’s journals, entitled So This Is Permanence: Lyrics and Notebooks, in Spring of next year, Joy Division fans the world over have sat bolt upright. In honor of the news–and the 25th anniversary of Unknown Pleasures in 2014–we reached out to our Unknown Pleasures 33 1/3 author Chris Ott about his book, the band, and Ian’s peculiar pull (ie: right now you can buy his kitchen table on eBay).

What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
CO: At the time Continuum contacted me, I was working as an editor and contributor at Pitchfork, and we were all kind of noticing that, as the site was getting more attention, a lot of it was trivial and a lot of it sought to trivialize us. We were very anxious about looking foolish, and I was lobbying for us to start creating an archive of substantial survey pieces focusing on genres or particularly important artists. It’s difficult to promote material of that kind, and it really can’t generate the kind of traffic that gets much second-stage attention (back then you’re talking message board threads; today you’d be looking at re-Tweets and all manner of analytics). The driver was really about getting substantial, definitive writing on the site, before it became an index of sticky-notes with ratings for every record under the sun.

I wrote up long pieces on Joy Division, the Cocteau Twins, the Replacements, and a couple of other acts before we realized we were trying to satisfy our critics. I can only speak for myself but that was the first time I recognized the futility of writing to impress other people.

Who did you reach out to during the writing process? Why?
CO: I was able to blag my way into the [2002] London premiere of 24 Hour Party People, being serendipitously abroad, and had hoped to interview somebody from the film for Pitchfork. We didn’t even have a logo, let alone “badges” of any kind. Our footprint beyond other music writers and college-aged music obsessives was pretty much non-existent. Despite my quick-witted entrance, I was essentially “found out” and asked to leave as the after-party started up. It would have been incredible to have that source material, but I ended up writing a devotional piece all the same, which David Barker saw on Pitchfork and which formed the basis of the book. To compensate for the absence of first-person original content, I spent a lot of my advance buying obscure old magazines on eBay. David had offered to ply some of his contacts to get me a phoner with Tony Wilson, but I felt a) he would laugh at the idea and b) if there’s ever a hero I never wanted to meet, it’s him. In the strangest way I am so happy I never spoke to him. His affected manner, and the work he did to ensure pop music maintained some element of mystique, was immeasurably important to me.

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What did you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hadn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing? Did you feel you achieved it?
CO: Ian Curtis, for his youth, the dramatic nature of Joy Division—visually and musically—and the tall tales spun by Tony Wilson for ten straight years after his suicide, has never been approached terrestrially, is the word I’d use. He was a twenty-three year old kid. Yet, he packed an unbelievable amount of living into those twenty-three years: he was married, became a father, became famous, had an affair, and on the sly wrote a clutch of songs that still shame most pop music twenty-five years later.

I wanted to look at that with a realistic eye, with the sense that this isn’t some Oxbridge prodigy. Ian was not particularly well-educated; he was keen, and that’s a very special quality on its own, but a lot of the group’s early work was terribly sophomoric. What fascinates me is how, even after you’ve learned most of the story, you can then turn it upside down and realize they went from “You’re no good for me!!” to “I Remember Nothing” in just over a year. No matter how you approach Joy Division, from any angle they will win out as a truly remarkable band. I tried to show that by breaking down the easy romanticism around suicide, and point out the uglier reality of his epilepsy, his naivety, his self-absorption and anti-social tendencies…not to tarnish his legacy but to expand it into a more dramatic, realistic picture of ambition, frustration, and anguish.

What was the most surprising reaction to your book?
CO: I was offered the chance to turn it into a script by a pair of producers who had a competing project going at the time [2007’s] Control [the Ian Curtis biopic based on his wife’s biography, Touching from a Distance] was being finalized. It was a desperate play, as Tony Wilson had already publicly blessed Control and Anton Corbijn was set to direct. At the time, there was also a very heavy rumor Jude Law was going to play Ian Curtis in Control, which nobody was eager to dispel. So, I left that meeting and took a long shower.

“[Ian] packed an unbelievable amount of living into those twenty-three years: he was married, became a father, became famous, had an affair, and on the sly wrote a clutch of songs that still shame most pop music twenty-five years later.”

What would you do differently if you could do it all over?
CO: As the series has matured, and is now a viable entrée to interviews and direct contact with principle players, I have some measure of envy for how much stronger the books have become. That’s only going to continue, and I’d hoped to parlay that into a second title focusing on Duran Duran’s Big Thing. I got close, but then they had a massive thrust of activity around a full-fledged reunion and John Taylor’s autobiography. The timing was all wrong. I’d have had to front travel expenses to South America or Australia to get them in a room, and I just don’t have that kind of money. I wound up making it the first “real” video in my Shallow Rewards series, which is now on YouTube. [Editor’s note: 33 1/3 currently does not permit authors to write a second volume in the series.]

What words of wisdom can you offer to aspiring 33 1/3 authors?
CO: If the record is incontestably important in the history of pop music, you don’t need to explain that. You need to find the threads of the story that not everyone knows, and expand on them to reveal another perspective, another way of looking at this monolithic thing. If it’s an obscurity play, and you’re convinced some cult record is crucial for reasons people are missing, you’re opening yourself up for failure and need to make sure you re-read everything as someone who cannot stand the music you’re writing about.

How did writing this book change your feelings about the album and artist?
CO: It reaffirmed and broadened my love of Joy Division’s music, which I still carry with me, but more importantly it helped me reconcile the sense of disappointment I felt for a father who’d abandon a child. Ian Curtis’ age and illnesses—he was diagnostically bi-polar in addition to being epileptic—form a basis for sympathy, but his daughter is still dealing with a world that looks at her absent father as a modern messiah. There’s no angle from which that isn’t completely and totally horrible.

What’s changed in your life and writing since you wrote your 33 1/3? Do any of these changes stem directly from writing the book itself?
CO: I met my wife while writing this book, not because of any shared musical interest but because writing it somehow changed my personality. I felt a sense of accomplishment in knowing that while I stayed up until three in the morning every night, frantically rewriting copy, a clutch of peers I respected were doing the same. And we were going to go down as the first people to take this chance, to help build an outlet for music writing outside the anonymous and fast-fading Internet tableau.

In the ten years since it first printed, I’ve gotten married and become a father three times over. I’ve only just re-evaluated the book, with an eye to creating an unofficial audio edition read by me and interspersed with music. I feel more proud of its high points and embarrassed of the low, which is what you’d expect, I guess.

With respect to the book, I recognize the fact that it says Joy Division on the cover has a lot to do with its endurance, but the only measure of success I had set for myself was earning back the advance I got from Continuum. And I’m proud to say I’ve done that probably ten times over – I don’t know the minutiae on that score but I know I’ve earned out three times my advance due to the outstanding royalty structure and bookkeeping. Getting detailed sales reports with such frequency has been a major reinforcement that, despite its short length and early-days status, this is a real book and I’m working with a real publisher.

Has any new information about the record or the process of creating it come to light since you wrote the book?
CO: At this point people are selling, you know, the label that fell off the ¼” reel that Martin Hannett used to record “Transmission,” for hundreds of dollars. The archaeology of Joy Division over the last ten years is a maudlin persistence. I long for the bleak if comically fabricated austerity and headiness Tony Wilson draped them in in the 1980s. I really wish there was a way we had the privacy and exclusivity of information to play games like that, but the Internet has spoiled the broth.

What was your first concert?
CO: I tell people it was the Cure in 1989 but that’s a lie. I was fourteen; my parents wouldn’t let me go. I was so crushed that I begged my best friend to give me his used ticket the next week. I still have it.

My first concert was Sinead O’Connor at Great Woods in Mansfield, MA on August 14th, 1990. She wore a one-piece floral bodysuit and was still very raw, young and powerful. I was blown away by the image of her singing “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” on a darkened stage, a single spotlight shared by her and the massive reel-to-reel playing the backing track. I don’t think anyone had ever done anything like that, unless you count the Cocteau Twins, but they didn’t make it a part of the performance in quite that way.

Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is for sale on Amazon and wherever 33 1/3s are sold. Follow Chris on Twitter: @shallowrewards.

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