The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Alex Niven

alex niven

Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.

This time around: Alex Niven. Having written for publications like The Quietus, The Guardian, New Left Project, myriad pop culture blogs, and authoring a book to boot–Folk Opposition (2011)–Alex Niven has now dedicated his wordsmith skills to a 33 1/3 installation on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. Read on to find out what magnetized him to the album, and how he thinks Nirvana holds up to Oasis as a critical subject (spoiler alert: he wrote a whole book about the one he favors).

What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Alex Niven: I’ve wanted to write a book about Oasis for a while, and obviously there are only two records to choose from because everything after What’s the Story Morning Glory? was unremittingly awful. Definitely Maybe is soulful, it’s visceral, and it evokes a very specific moment in pop music when the counterculture was beginning to morph into something else, but in a giddy, slightly surreal way. So basically I’m a huge fan of the album but I also thought it would make a good subject for a book because of its darker contexts.

Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
AN: Well I would quite like to speak to Noel Gallagher, because he’s quite a compelling character, so if anyone has his phone number …

Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
AN: The proposal was fun, because I had a lot of long-running ideas about the subject and this was a chance to shape them into a coherent narrative. I’ve never written about something this close to my heart before. When I was writing the sample introduction it felt like a breakthrough, because it seemed to offer a chance to synthesise lots of disparate kinds of writing – academic research, blogging, journalism – in a fluid form.

The introduction for the proposal was called “A speck of dust in a football stadium”, which is something I overheard someone say on a train, but it also offered a way for me to transition from the last thing I wrote, a book about populism in the UK that ended with a chapter on anti-establishment culture in British football supporter groups. Part of what interests me about Oasis is the fact that somehow, quite miraculously I think, crowds actually started to sing their songs at football stadiums in the mid 1990s. This is a very significant cultural fact, and I guess this was the starting point: trying to see if there might be some positive potential in a small detail like that.

What do you want to explore about this band that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
AN: Oasis seemed like a perfect subject to me because so little has been written about them. On the one hand they were massively successful commercially, and there were a number of potboilers written about them in the nineties. But as yet no one has really treated them with any kind of critical seriousness. Admittedly, this is partly because so much of what they did was terrible. But I don’t think that’s an excuse to dismiss everything about them. That seems to speak of a sort of buried snobbishness or class prejudice, the idea that the uncouth or indecorous things about an artist push them completely out of the pale of taste.

Nirvana are an interesting point of comparison. If you listen to a lot of Nirvana lyrics, they’re excruciatingly awful, and arguably much worse than Oasis lyrics because of the cod-intellectual element. But people forgive Nirvana for their missteps because in their best moments they were unbeatable. I think part of the reason people don’t forgive Oasis in the same way is because they’re easy to dismiss as lumpen idiots, whereas Kurt Cobain read Patrick Süskind and name-checked Leonard Cohen and is regarded more favorably as a result. So I suppose defending the legitimacy of Oasis as a critical subject is very important to me, and it ties in with a wider project of trying to redeem populist art, even when it went badly wrong, as it clearly did ultimately for Oasis.

What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
AN: John Niven’s Music From Big Pink, and not just because we share a surname. I like his writing style, its combination of skepticism and sincerity.

What was your first concert?
AN: Jamiroquai at Newcastle Arena in 1997. I don’t like to talk about it.

How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
AN: I’ve actually started to listen to CDs again recently after years of not doing so, which is a slightly bizarre turn of events. The fetishism that seems to accompany the collection of vinyl, CDs, and latterly tapes is weird. I think there’s a lot of potential in the free and easy ways we listen to music nowadays. But at the moment, iPod culture hasn’t really been channelled to very positive ends, and it tends to decontextualize music, to take away the backdrop of community and discussion. I’m not sure that listening to CDs is a very good alternative, but it does give back a modicum of context to the listening experience – if for example you listen to a whole album with a group of friends, which you wouldn’t tend to do with MP3s. Having said that I don’t think I’d buy newly released music on CD, and especially not for any pseudo-ethical reasons. I don’t buy the argument that by paying for music from big record companies you’re “helping out the little guys at the bottom”. That’s bullshit.

Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
AN: Maybe you’re the same as me / We see things they’ll never see / You and I are gonna live forever. I feel like I could write the whole book about this one lyric.
Next up: Kirk Walker Graves on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Stay tuned.

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