The Greg Kot Interview

Today is the day to be annoyingly twee.

Some things for you to read:

A book review at Popmatters.

How to pitch to Chicago Magazine at Mediabistro.

Some extremely short fiction at Dan Kennedy's site.

If there's one man I listen to when it comes to music, it's today's interviewee. And not just because he once told me that he had personally seen Elvis Costello sweat and spit onstage in the eighties. He's the rock critic for the Chicago Tribune , co-host of WXRT's "Sound Opinions," and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. For more on his journalistic and music background, check out this fine interview. Otherwise, keep reading. Apologies to Mr. Kot, however, in case any of his wise words were cut out...despite my checking of my tape recorder, the whole thing got totally wrecked later on. Thank you very much, Radio Shack.

The Greg Kot Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
Oh, sure, tons, if by 'guilty pleasure' you mean music that other people think is uncool. I'm a big fan of dance, house and disco music, you know, anything that gets your booty movin'. You know, I've been in Chicago since 1980 and especially here, there seems to be this big insecurity about disco music, as if it's a threat to manhood. But I used to go listen to a rock show and then go out and dance to Labelle.

There are a lot of British bands like the Happy Mondays, the Charlatans, or Blur, that have less of a phobia about dance beats. It's funny how a dj can just be walking down the street in Chicago would be an absolute star in England. But here the feeling on that kind of music ranges anywhere from ambivalence to actual hatred.

Let's talk about the Dixie Chicks. How hard is it to separate music from the message of artists? What do you think when musicians use their popularity as a forum to express their beliefs?
More power to them. I think that they have every right to use their popularity to express their opinion, especially during wartime. I'd think that much less of them if they didn't s ay something. We're going through a time of emotional catharsis and I give them a lot of credit for speaking their minds.

Why are people so passionate about their music?
I've found that more than movies or books or what have you, people attach themselves the most to music. They can always remember where they were when they first heard a song, and when you're dissing a song or an artist, you're dissing part of them.

I'm sure tons of people think they can be music critics. What's hard about your job?
Well, let me preface this by saying I have the greatest job in the world. But it's hard; I've never worked harder than as a music critic. There's a lot of listening time put into it, a lot of prep time. You have to figure out what it is that you want to say about it. Like what are you going to say about a Matchbox 20? You have to invest time into putting together an article people would actually read. I want to educate, illuminate and entertain. Since I've had this job since 1990, I've never worked less than 70 hours a week. I'm constantly behind. The albums always keep coming. But I'm learning something every day.

Have you encountered many concerts or cds that were hard to review?
Oh, sure, and if anything, that's the hardest part of my job. Like, what are you going to say about Madonna? I've written about her probably 25 times…what are you going to say about her the 26th time that's going to be fresh and new? Everybody's got an opinion, but it's more than just saying 'this sucks'…you have to say why. It's about learning to be a better listener.

What are you listening to today?
A new Eels album, Katelyn Carey, "The Hundredth Window" by Massive Attack, Aimee Rigby.

Do you think that soundtracks have been becoming larger forces in movies lately? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, we're entering the dawn of a new Godzilla era of blockbuster cross marketing. If you've got a movie to sell, you've got a soundtrack to sell, and I think it's a sad trend.

Of course, music can also be used in a cool way, like how Paul Thomas Anderson does it. I think he should be knighted by film students for his more imaginative choices. I hate to say it, but they've been using music more interestingly It's a powerful medium.

So, while it's a cool trend, I'm also cynical and it's every bit as bad as it is good.

Do you actually consider Tom Petty's new album controversial for poking at big music business while he's on a major label? Or this sort of a Madonna thing where it's not really that controversial?
Well, I think Tom's got a lot of credibility. He's certainly used the system to his benefit, but he's battling it at the same time. He's addressing an important issue that's been around since Pet Sounds. He's really raised a hotbutton issue but you know I've noticed a tide turning recently against Clearchannel.

As for hypocritical, I don't think so. It's definitely not his best album, though.

What are your thoughts on "American Idol"?
My god. I can't think of anything more horrifying than an artist-contest. It really says something about civilization. It's got this sick Celine Dion/Mariah Carey thing to it. It's basically everything I hate encapsulated. At the same time, it's fascinating; how long a shelf life has it got?

<Insert editor's attempt to justify "American Idol" while at the same time trying not to seem like she really watches it>

Can you name a recent album or artist where you seemed to disagree with every other rock critic?
Hmm, that's a good question. I'd say the last White Stripes album. I really loved their first album but not this one. Rolling Stone gave it a great review but I don't think they're particularly amazing songwriters.

I heard there are comparisons being made between Meg White and [9-year-old] Rachel Trachtenburg.
I'd say that's a fair comparison. The album is fairly tough to listen to, although they're really fun live. I wonder how much impact this garage rock/new-new wave thing will have two to five years down the line.

You've been reporting here for a while. What are your thoughts as Chicago as a music town? Do Chicago music fans differ from those in different cities?
Chicago is an amazing music town, although at the same time it has problems marketing and packaging its artists and never seems to properly capitalize on its talents. It's a great incubator of ideas since it's sort of isolated in the country and from the major industry. Plus, the reasonable cost of living has made it fairly easy for artists here to market themselves.

Who are some of your favorite acts to come out of here? Are there any who you thought underachieved?
Well, 11th Dream Day could have just been phenomenal if they were marketed better. I thought the Jesus Lizard was one of the great live bands of the 90's. Local H was always bringing the rock. Sea and Cake pushed the limits of what a four-piece rock band could do. And Common might be the best hip-hop artist to ever come out of here.

As a reader, not as a critic, what would you say makes a good review?
Something that brings some insight, something that I didn't already know. I should know from the first sentence that this is a review that I want to read.

As a writer, has it been difficult making your opinions clear on "Sound Opinions," or was making the transition from something where you could pick and choose your words more deliberately to something more spur-of-the-moment pretty smooth?
Well, we do almost no preparation for the show. There's no preparation ahead of time, and it's unscripted. We talk about what order we'll discuss and that's about it. So you definitely have to think on your feet and be alert so you can listen to your partner. You can't think ahead of time. But we've got really good chemistry since we're so opposite from each other, which I think provides real entertainment. The dialogue is the most important thing. It's hard to get in a word edgewise with DeRo. You know, I was raised never to interrupt people but sometimes you have to on the show. But it's a lot of fun.

What are some of your favorite venues to see shows, whether they're in Chicago or not, existing or not?
Oh, the Lounge Ax was my all-time favorite. Their owner, Sue Miller, is so great and was responsible for other great clubs like the West End and the Cubby Bear. It just had such a great vibe and it was a real meeting place for fans. The Hideout also had a great role. It all starts with the people who run the place, who don't just want to see how much money they can make.

You have two daughters. How much did try to influence their music tastes when they were young? How did that work? I didn't like the Beatles, for instance, when my dad made me listen to them but then I became obsessed with them of my own volition.
Oh, I can't influence them, they're really headstrong. They love music, and that's the most important thing to me, that they have opinions. It's such a great conversational tool and it just reveals how they think and what they like. It's basically all we talk about, whether it's the Shrek Soundtrack (which is actually pretty good) or whatever. They can pick out a Beatles tune after just four bars, which is kinda cool. Their tastes are all over the map. They're seven and eleven years old and they're at the age where they still like whatever they like, not just because it's cool.

What's one show that you wish you could have seen but didn't?
Oh, some older things like Led Zeppelin or the Who with Keith Moon. I was really upset that I was going to see Joy Division but the show was cancelled after Ian Curtis hung himself.

What have been some of the worst concerts you've seen?
David Bowie with Tin Machine was just horrible. It's like he was trying to drop 20 years and recapture some sort of lost youth. Also, Beck's first tour after "Loser" came out was just a train wreck. It's like he was trying to figure out everything on stage and it was jut bad. I thought he was a one-hit wonder but obviously, he got much better.

60th person interviewed for
It's an honor.