Most came to know Sasha Frere-Jones as the cerebral pop music critic of The New Yorker. He left that gig in January for a stint as executive editor of Genius, before landing at the Los Angeles Times last month. (He’s also a musician, prominently known as the bassist and co-founder founder of Ui.) At the L.A. Times, his role is cultural critic at large, where he continues to be the idol of music geeks everywhere. I spoke to him, coast-to-coast, to find out about his new digs and what he’s diggin’.
“The dominant thing I do at home is to have silence,” SFJ says, “I put on music sometimes — or have silence — and I cook or read. My cooking is pretty rudimentary, so it’s probably not ‘cooking’: I eat. Getting away from screens is something I try to do at home.”
The new gig hasn’t only affected office life for the lifelong New Yorker. His L.A. transition hits the homefront, too. “I probably will have neighbors above me and I would rather opt for a no-sound environment. I have a fairly decent sound system: If I wanted to play Haxan Cloak pretty loud, it’d be a hard record to take if you’re my neighbors. I liked doing that — because I didn’t have anybody above or below me in Brooklyn — but I don’t want to do that to somebody else.”
So, where’s he gonna catch up on his tunes? “I love listening to music in the car,” Frere-Jones says. “There’s traffic and all that, and I know I’ll eventually be complaining, but I actually love being in the car.” I’ll check back with him in a couple months to see if he’s still feeling this way.
Still on the topic of music, we start talking about musicians borrowing ideas from earlier material. He admits that Ui had a track that originated in a Creedence jam and ended up with “Fortunate” in its title as a nod to the group. “Almost every band in the world — if you look at their master tapes and their setlists — have a song called ‘Electric Duck’ or whatever, but what it’s called within the band is ‘Zeppelin #2.’ Everybody remembers it as the one where you started jamming on a well-known song,” he says. “Pharrell did that with ‘Blurred Lines,’ I’m sure, but just didn’t take out enough.” He doesn’t agree with the ruling against Pharrell & Co., by the way, citing some of the note changes and the different cowbell patterns from the song’s apparent inspiration, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”
Since SFJ hasn’t landed a permanent home, he’s shacked up at an Airbnb for now. Although he aspires to not unload the TV from storage to his new place because he finds television screens ugly and distracting, he has one at his current joint. “This weekend I found this Robert Rodriguez channel, El Rey. It’s sort of like if Quentin Tarantino had a channel: the same taste, grindhouse movies,” he says. “I watched Rodriguez’s second movie, which is called Roadracers — Selma Hayek’s second movie with a very young David Arquette. It was cheesy but fun.”
You think he’s done with El Rey? Please. “The same channel showed a genuinely interesting movie, a bona fide Spaghetti Western called Keoma. And it stars Franco Nero. Everything is looped and dubbed — because it’s going into all these other languages anyway — so they don’t do any location sound. You should look up Sybil & Guy, the duo that did the theme song. I don’t want to ruin how strange it is.” He’s right. It’s very strange.
SFJ goes on, “Later in the movie, Sybil — who has this very high-pierced and basically really unpleasant soprano, and she warbles a lot — she would recite the exposition and say what had just happened in the scene before.” We talk for a bit about opera, Shakespeare, and lines being awkwardly fed into movies to explain what’s going on in the plot — and then laugh. “The movie doesn’t need the songs to say anything: You get it. The scene just happened. She will just come on and sing, ‘Now you are alone. Your father’s gone. It’s just you and your brothers.’ It’s amazing because we know that. We just saw that in a scene,” he says. “And I watched the end of Pulp Fiction twice.”
Finding an interest in an odd place and magnifying it is typical of Sasha Frere-Jones. He did it for years with bands you might not have otherwise heard of, and he’s curious enough to do it across the popular culture spectrum. Recently, he’s been reading a lot of Clarice Lispector and was given Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase as inspiration for his memoir, which he’s been working on here and there for years. “It’s about someone who has to leave town and they only allow him two suitcases,” he says. Currently, he happens to be living out of two pieces of luggage, and he’s found items like one of his son’s stuffed animals and a Boredoms T-shirt and wonders why those items in particular are important to him.
He gathers news very systematically. “I use Twitter as my RSS feed and put a bunch of stuff into Pocket: a bunch of different pieces about wildfires, bears, and pipes,” he says. “It’s a really easy way to read things. You create your own newspaper or magazine.”
And he mostly uses tweets to point him in the right direction. “A lot of it comes from looking at links on Twitter. They call it ‘convergent validity’: if 25 different people say this piece on Maggie Nelson in n+1 is great — which it is,” he says, then he’ll read the piece. “There’s the problem of self-selection because we tend to be friends with people we like. Twitter is one of the few places where you can begin to follow people you don’t like or disagree with. It’s hard to enforce because if you don’t like someone or don’t respect them, you probably don’t want to see what they’re into. There’s an echo chamber of narcissism where your friends are recommending your friends’ writing and you’re all patting each other on the back. There’s something a little creepy about that. The best version of that is when your friend is wandering around the world, I love when someone points me to a non-American source.”
He may be in L.A. now, but he hasn’t abandoned his hometown paper. SFJ says, “A1 coverage in The Times is still even now a cultural barometer. Maybe it’s just a hangover of being a New York kid but it’s like, ‘How important was that building collapse yesterday?’ I know enough to know that it’s not really predictive of how important it is or isn’t. But you want to know how big they will play it on A1 tomorrow.” Then, he talks about the photo The New York Times ran of Michael Brown’s father at his funeral and how heartbreaking it was — especially for the father of two sons. “It was one of those images that you never, ever forget.”
The news can be gut-wrenching, he says. Frere-Jones reminisces about watching the local coverage as a child. “The 7 o’clock news was always stuff that mattered and stuff that was relevant: Stuff I could protest or vote or think about,” he recalls. “Whereas the 11 o’clock news is: Baby falls out of window! And all you could think was, ‘Oh my god that’s terrible.’ But there’s nothing you can do about it. Basically, it’s like: ‘Here’s some suffering.’”
His magazine subscriptions have yet to arrive on the West Coast, but he name-checks Harper’s and the London Review of Books. We end up on sports, arguing about the Cavaliers vs. Warriors NBA Finals. Then, he takes an empathetic stance for professional athletes in the spotlight. “Seconds after it’s over: If they lose, somebody comes up to them and they have to become totally composed. ‘We weren’t getting the boards, we didn’t have enough D. We didn’t have KD in the game.’ And you know what the guy is thinking: ‘Fuck! Fuck! I just want to break down and cry. And some asshole is asking me a question,’” Frere-Jones says. “It’s incredibly easy: They lost. The answer to every one of those questions ever, is: ‘They scored more points than we did. Can I go home?’”
You can, SFJ, but only once you get out of that Airbnb.