JONATHAN SELZER – A Dive…
Diving in the record collection to people is something many have done before us, but we want to give it a try anyway. We’ve picked a nice collection of well known actors within what we may call the metal press, and we took a second look at their favorite bands and discs. Second up is a british journalist well known for his knowledge about the metal scene and his job as the review editor at Metal Hammer UK. Here is a small dive in the record collection of JONATHAN SELZER.
Foto: Ragnhild Osnes Olsen/NRK
Are you a vinyl freak or more of the modern CD type?
I love vinyl and grew up with it long before CDs ever existed. Aside from the beauty of it, something magical happens when you put the needle on a record, the completion of a circuit and the anticipation of the run-in groove. I owned a Rega Planar turntable where you had to lift off the platter and adjust the drive belt to change speed, so it was a very hands-on relationship. I still own loads of vinyl, but it’s a matter of space. I still buy it occasionally for special releases, but I still have a lot of music on CD and in good quality digital format.
Do you have a record player? If so – do you use it?
My hi fi system has dissipated through various moves and malfunctions, so I now have to make do with a USB turntable. Not ideal bit you still get some of the warmth only vinyl can offer.
Do you remember the very first record you bought?
It was probably the gatefold 7" of Japan’s ‘Cantonese Boy’. They were my favourite band in my early teens!
What is the rarest album you’ve got?
I don’t have a clue! I’m not going to lie and say I’ve got first pressings of seminal or obscure black metal albums, because I don’t, and although I was into death metal and writing about it for Melody Maker in the early 90s, my big thing around that time was bands like Swans, Godflesh, God and all the really heavy leftfield bands. I did pay £30 for a Skullflower 7", so that’s probably the rarest piece of vinyl that I have, but I don’t tend to check how my vinyl is worth; it’s not like I’m intending to sell it at any point.
Does Jonathan’s record collection consist of metal only? What else can one find that Jonathan highly appreciates?
My vinyl collection is pretty eclectic, largely because of the age I was when I was buying most of it. There are a lot of 4AD and Touch & Go-type albums in there, loads of Swans and obscure bands from the late 80s/early 90s, and a bunch of stuff I’ve picked up from charity shops such as Erik Satie.
How do you preserve your collection? Is it categorized or is it just helter skelter?
I did start off putting my vinyl in PVC sleeves, but I took them out, because it just didn’t feel right and I needed to be able to see the spines, not just for convenience’s sake, but because vinyl just demands it. Unfortunately, my cat started using them as scratching posts, so I had to cover them up while he was still alive, but it’s also part of the reason I can’t get too attached to the monetary value of them. They used to be in alphabetical order, but my collection has been in so many moves that I’ve lost heart in re-ordering them again, so now I just like to rifle through them at random.
You told me that your all-time favorite band is Swans. When did this love affair between the two of you start? Was it love at first sight?
It definitely wasn’t love at first sight. I read a review of ‘Holy Money’ by the Stud Brothers in Melody Maker back in ’86, and it sounded so horrific that I had to go out and buy it straight away – there used to be a great record store where Camden Lock market is now, where I’d get most of my vinyl. I put the needle down on the first track, ‘A Hanging’, and was absolutely shocked. I couldn’t believe anyone could make ‘music’ like that – there was just a complete absence of anything I expected music to have at that point; any kind of melody, hope, or at least some kind of forward movement or narrative. It utterly barren and harrowing, and I put it on again before I went to bed and woke up in a cold sweat. The shots of the band members inside also looked like they were all in purgatory, and the muted gold and red on the sleeve all had a huge effect too. I made a tape and used to play it on my way to college, partly as a challenge, but mostly to get my head around it, and it’s one of those albums that once you do, you’ve have to configure your entire worldview in order to accommodate it, and you’ve entered a new place psychologically that can give it some kind of context. I got more and more obsessed with it, and then I saw them live at what was then called the Town & Country club (now the Forum) in ’87, and it’s still the most intense gig I’ve ever seen. I felt psychologically flayed, but also found a sense of peace amongst the horror and that’s affected me ever since.
What is it with Swans that makes you hold on to them as your favourite band? What do they have that no other band has?
As much as they changed over the years, Swans have always held their nerve, looked reality – as much as their worldview had a theological aspect – in the eye and never flinched. In their first phases, there was no other band so willing to strip away all the illusions we use to get by in the world and reveal the cold, hard chassis underneath and paradoxically, it was revelatory. A lot of bands around that time, such as The Smiths, were talking about the human condition in personal diary terms, but I was never interested in that and found it really cloying. I was young, quite paranoid and fatalistic and thought the mechanics of the universe were set in motion with the express purpose of fucking me up, and here was a band revealing those mechanics and your metaphysical plight, which to me was far more potent and relevant than wimpy, adolescent songs about lost love. Swans were like the bottom line, they seemed to contain some elemental truth about humanity that no other band has ever faced so fearlessly, and having that spelled out was truly accommodating, as harsh and heartless as they were. I’m also almost as obsessed with Skullflower, and to me it’s like a calling, but that’s a whole other story that you’d have to put up with me blabbering on about for ages if I was going to explain it, so I’ll spare you that.
Swans have released eleven studio albums and an incredible nine live albums. I will assume that you have all these. Do you have a favourite among them that you play more often than others? Is it important for you to that you have everything?
I’m a massive Swans completist, and have to have everything. I finally got my hands on the final piece of the jigsaw, ‘Anonymous Bodies In An Empty’ room, which normally goes for silly money, but I really want the vinyl version too. It’s hard to say what my favourite album is, because they’ve gone through so many phases, and the minute I play any one of them, I’m totally lost in it. Their swansong ‘Soundtracks For The Blind’ is one I totally admire for its scale, and because I love sprawling books and albums that manage to spell out an entire world, ‘Children Of God’ was personally a really important album for me, but although my favourite albums aren’t always the ones I listen to the most, ‘The Great Annihilator’ is probably the one I play the most often. It’s just so devastating, and the lyrics to ‘Mother/Father’ are the most beautiful I think I’ve heard in my entire life, both visceral and cosmic. In my universe at least, they’re like it’s beating heart.
The breakup in 1997, it was guaranteed the darkest day for you as a Swans fans. Do you remember what you did after you hear about breakup?
Some bands I like because they mirror a personal journey, or at least I mould a personal journey around them, so when they do split up, I understand that the timing of it is as organic and necessary as any of their albums. I seem to remember taking the news of their break-up with a bit of resignation, but then it led to ‘Soundtracks For The Blind’, an album that’s as close to being endless as you can possibly get, and all their albums seemed to lead to that point, so ultimately I was satisfied.
And what were you thinking when you found out about the reformation last year? Was it happy happy joy joy or did you just go "naah"?
I did have a bit of trepidation. To me, Swans were perfect and ultimate, and a standard so many bands I admire set themselves, however vainly to reach, and also their journey had seemed complete, so if they fell short, it would have been a tragedy. It did take a while for me to get into the new album, because a lot of it seemed to fall outside of what I thought were the Swans parameters, but all you can ask of an album is that it captures its own point in time, and ‘My Father…’ does that as much as their previous albums did.
You also told me your favourite album of all time is probably Morbid Angel’s "Altars of Madness". What is it with this album that makes it number one, when were you first introduced to this masterpiece and how many versions of it do you have in your collection?
Again, it took me a little while to acclimatise to Morbid Angel, and when I first heard them, I used to think they were a bit distant and dry, but I think there was an ‘otherness’ to them that I just had to get my brain around. But ‘Altars…’ is one of those albums that captures a unique moment, although in such an idiosyncratic way that it resonates far beyond that. It’s at a brilliant crossroads where thrash was still in the process of morphing into death metal, but also at the time when Floridian DM was still in its birth throes and every album that was coming out of there was bursting with its own set of ideas and purpose. ‘Altars…’ just spins it all into some chaotic cyclone, though, you can hear bits of Voivod in there too, and it’s the sound of chaos starting to form into something else. I’ve always needed an element of chaos in my metal, and it’s when I lose my bearings that I feel most alive. But to cut a long story short, every time I hear this album, I feel like the alien is bursting out of my chest and is going to devour the entire world
"Altar of Madness" is Morbid Angel’s debut album and it was a pretty straight forward fast brutal death metal album; very easy to like. But already on the second album, they began to experiment more. I remember I was a little disappointed, but mostly surprised. What did you feel when you heard "Blessed are the Sick" for the first time?
I’ll have to disagree with you on this one! I actually think there’s very little that’s straightforward about ‘Altars…’ and it’s bursting with ideas they can’t contain. ‘Blessed…’ sounds more subdued, as if they’ve learned to control the forces they’ve unleashed better, even if the ground still seems to be constantly shifting. I do love ‘Blessed…’ – that weird, woozy guitar break on ‘Abominations’ will stay with me to my dying day – and it seemed a natural follow-up to ‘Altars…’, but I do feel it’s missing something that they could never recreate. ‘Domination’ was always my second favourite Morbid Angel album, and it’s as if ‘Blessed…’ and ‘Covenant’ are gathering power that got unleashed in full force there.
Do you have a favourite song on "Altars of Madness"?
‘Maze Of Torment’. That riff makes me want to smash stuff, and it’s my favourite ever death metal riff, along with Deicide’s ‘Sacrificial Suicide’.
You are home after a long day’s work and want to relax with some music. What do you, most likely, want to listen to?
I love a lot of doom and psych music, and I like to chill out to music that has a bit of warmth. Current favourite chill out bands are Ancestors, Royal Thunder and Sungrazer, and the later Talk Talk albums will always be a perennial fade-out-the-world favourite.
Where do you stand when it comes to original albums? Do you want a first press or are you pleased with re-mastered re-publications?
I’ll usually keep both. One of the things that makes metal special is that you’re always conscious of where it comes from, so just getting rid of an original if you’ve bought the remastered version just seems wrong.
There are split opinions about live albums. Where do you stand and what’s your ultimate live album? What’s so special about this record?
I don’t play live albums often enough to have an ultimate one, but the live tracks on Swans ‘Die Tür Ist Zu’ are amazing, anything with Ronnie James Dio live such as the Heaven And Hell live album will send shivers up your spine, and the Negura Bunget DVD with the original line-up is an absolute necessity.
What about the gender distribution in your collection; how is that coming along?
I have a lot of albums by female singers, and they can reach realms of consciousness male singers just can’t access. I have a lot of Diamond Galás, Jarboe and PJ Harvey to name but a few (Horses by Patti Smith is a masterpiece) and the first Throwing Muses album is one of the most genuinely scary and utterly original albums I own. There’s an eeriness to older singers such as Patsy Cline, Billie Holliday, and even Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach songs that I really get off on too.
The vinyl tax collector is standing at your doorstep and demanding one – 1 – vinyl record as an instant charge. What record do you choose to give away?
To be fair, my vinyl collection could do with a bit of pruning, and there’s a lot of detritus from past incarnations of myself I don’t recognise myself in and can’t bring myself to listen to. I’d happily hand over my copy of ‘The Queen Is Dead’. It would be a very cleansing experience.