Statesman music writer Patrick Caldwell answered the following questions from Newspapers in Education coordinator Flannery Bope. (Update – Spring 2011: Patrick left the Statesman to move out of state to Portland, Ore.)
How long have you worked at the Statesman?
I’ve worked for the Statesman since August of 2008, but I started working as a full-time music writer in November 2009.
What types of stories do you write?
I work on a pretty wide variety of stories. Sometimes I write stuff that’s news-oriented and straightforward and not all that different from what you find in the Metro and State section. I also write a lot of profile stories on bands and musicians. These can range from short and (hopefully) sweet stories to in-depth profiles that involve talking to a lot of different people who know the subject. From time to time I do broader stories on trends or developments in the musical world — which can mean something like a story about the young soul music scene here in Austin. On top of that, I do a fair number of reviews of live shows and albums. And, sometimes, I get to do fun stuff that doesn’t have much of anything to do with anything, other than that I think it’ll be interesting to read — like hanging out with the indie band Titus Andronicus from wakeup to bedtime during South by Southwest.
Do you have a blog? If so, what is it called and what is it about?
I contribute to the Statesman’s Austin Music Source blog, along with the paper’s other music writers. It’s kind of a catch-all blog about the Austin music scene — so you’ll find everything from reviews to interviews to essays to news to short features.
What is the best thing about being a music writer?
Learning about the people behind your favorite clubs and bands. Music is fascinating and fun all on its own, of course, but getting the chance to find out about the personalities that make the music scene what it is always fascinates and often inspires. Austin is full of passionate people who lead interesting lives, and getting the chance to dig in and find out what drives them and what stories they have to tell never fails to intrigue.
What is the worst thing about being a music writer?
That nagging feeling that no matter how much you do — no matter how much you write or how many shows you go to — you’ll never be able to do justice to music in Austin. It’s such a big, layered beat with so many different dimensions that you won’t ever be able to cover everything. The Statesman could employ a dozen full-time music writers and still not be able to write about everything out there that’s interesting. Sure, there’s a lot of other difficulties to contend with — I struggle with late nights and writer’s block quite a bit — but that’s definitely the thing that bothers me the most. That, and the e-mails. Hundreds upon hundreds of e-mails every day.
What is an average work day like for you?
Like a lot of people at the paper, I don’t know that I really have one — some days I might be outside the office all day writing about a music festival. Other days I’ll be biking around Austin to interview subjects for a story. Some days I’ll have several phone interviews arranged, to talk with bands on tour. Other days I’ll block out, free from distractions, just to write. And some days I’ll focus mainly on listening to music, researching forthcoming stories or otherwise planning for things I’m working on. It’s a very fluid life.
Would you recommend your career to someone else? Why or why not?
Absolutely, insofar as I would recommend to anybody that they do what makes them happy — or at least try to. There’s a lot more people out there who want to write about music than there are paying gigs, so it’s a hard world to make it in. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it if you want smooth sailing. For my part, I’ve been very lucky to get where I am today. But we’re put on this Earth to do what we love, so if writing about music excites you, then go for it. It may not be easy, but you can always find a way to make it work — maybe you’ll have to find another paying job and freelance on the side, or start your own blog or website. But if you’re interested, I would definitely recommend getting your feet wet and doing some writing — and if you dig it, by all means give it a go. As a general rule, try to do whatever you have a passion for. If that doesn’t work out, you can always try something else.
What steps did you take to get into reporting about music?
I started writing about music for my college paper — in my case, the Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas. That’s where I learned a lot of the fundamentals, and I’d recommend that anybody interested in any kind of journalism get their start at a student paper — they usually have open auditions for writers and it’s a great way to find out if journalism is right for you. On top of that, of course, I also listened to and continue to listen to a lot of music — and read a fair amount of music writing.
How is being the music writer different from reporting?
There’s a critical dimension to music writing that differentiates it from reporting. All reporters use critical thinking, of course, but a music writer has to report and tell stories, like any other reporter, while also acting as a critic. They have to parse the music that’s out there — talk about what’s good and what’s bad and why. And it can be difficult to juggle those two responsibilities.
What advice would you have for students who want to be music writers when they grow up?
Like I said earlier, write for your student newspaper or any other small publication where you can get your foot in the door — or, if you’d prefer to not have to answer to The Man, start your own blog and write about what you want to write about. Either way, find an excuse to write regularly and extensively. Read a lot — not just music journalism, but anything that’s well-crafted and insightful. And, of course, listen to a lot of music and go to a lot of shows and build your knowledge of the art form. Your musical vocabulary can never be large enough — I’m a long, long way from where I’d like to be.
How do you find stories to write about?
Fortunately, I don’t have to work very hard at finding stories. It’s a huge music scene with so many stories in it that the only challenge is figuring out what to write first. Stories come to me a lot of ways — sometimes I get a CD in the mail that sounds great and has a fascinating story behind it, and off I go. Sometimes I get an e-mail or a tip from a source. And sometimes I go out and see an amazing band or notice something about a club and it snowballs from there. If you listen to a lot of albums or music online and go out a lot, these things will come to you. There’s an infinite supply of stories in the Austin city limits.
How much of your day is spent listening to music?
It varies pretty wildly. Most days I try to listen to at least three or four hours of music, often while I’m doing other work. But if I’m reviewing a record or doing a story on the band I’m listening to, I generally focus my attention exclusively on the music. I try to block out nearly a full day once a week to listen to music that’s been sent to me — especially the local stuff. And there are some days, though they’re rare, that I don’t listen to any music at all. It’s important for me not to get too burned out on music — no matter what you do, even if what you do is something as great as write about music, you have to take breaks. Otherwise the thing you love can turn into an obligation, and that’s not good for your writing or your peace of mind.
How do you find out about new bands? And how can you tell they’re good and worth writing about?
New bands come to my attention almost a million different ways — e-mails from publicists, CDs and records that get mailed to the Statesman, bands that I randomly catch when I go out, bands that I read about on blogs or hear on the radio. In one case, I found out about a band because I was seated next to their bassist on a flight back to Austin from Chicago. Anything can happen. As for what makes them worth writing about — I wish there were a perfect formula for that, but it essentially comes down to two things. Either their music can be interesting or captivating or entertaining, or they can have a personal story that’s fascinating. Either one makes a band worth writing about, and when you get a band with both you’re really lucky.
Who was the most interesting person you’ve ever interviewed? And why?
That’s a hard choice, but I’d have to say Christopher Owens, the lead singer of the indie rock band Girls (a band which does not include any girls, incidentally). Owens grew up in Europe as a member of the Children of God cult, where he was kept isolated from the outside world. He eventually fled to America and bounced around as a Texas punk before eccentric millionaire Stanley Marsh III took him in. He eventually wound up in San Francisco. Needless to say, his life is going to make for an awesome rock star biography someday. He was as nice and open as you could possibly hope for, and in terms of people with a fascinating, winding history, he’s probably at the top of my personal list.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned from an assignment?
I’ve learned way too many things to answer this question definitively, so I’ll just say the first thing to come to mind. The Warehouse District bar and music venue the Ghost Room — which used to be the (awesome) bar the Ginger Man — is so named because its employees are convinced it’s haunted. Stories of creepy things happening there date back all the way to the late 70s, when, the general manager told me, someone died there when it was a different club. I wasn’t able to verify that by the time a story on the venue was due — the details were a bit too scarce — but I’m always fascinated by supposedly haunted places. So if you’re ever seeing a show at the Ghost Room and a chair goes flying across the room, you’ll know a poltergeist might be at work. That or somebody had a little too much to drink.
What bands have you interviewed and/or written about?
Gosh, I honestly don’t know. I probably should have kept a tally all these years. I do know that it would be a very long list, ranging from local bands with interesting stories and/or great music to artists who have sold tens of millions of records and who could buy and sell people like me. Locally, I’d say this is something of a greatest hits: Balmorhea, the Octopus Project, Alejandro Escovedo, Dana Faclonberry and Spoon. Going outside of Austin, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to the very sweet, very missed folk rock genius Vic Chestnutt, who died last year, the guitarist for my all-time favorite psychedelic surf rock band Man or Astro-Man?, and even — although individually, not together — classic pop duo Hall and Oates, who have sold more than 60 million albums. Remember when I said I’d talked to people who could buy and sell me? I was pretty much talking about Darryl Hall.
What are your work hours?
For the most part I try to keep my work hours in the general area of 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. — most of that time I’m in the newsroom, but I often go out for interviews, and sometimes to write. But as I’ve said, there’s very few rules you can count on when it comes to my job, so sometimes I’ll be in earlier — I once had to come in at 6 a.m. to do an interview with a musician in Berlin — and sometimes I’ll work late on assignments. Every now and then I’ll work until midnight or so to catch up, and on at least a few occasions I’ve worked overnight into the early morning hours. And during festivals, all the rules fly out the window and my work hours are generally whenever I’m awake — during South by Southwest, I was up at 8 a.m. every day and seeing or writing about music until four in the morning or so. It’s kind of all over the place. Of course, there are quieter times, too, so it all balances out in the end.
Do you ever have to see a band you don’t want to see? What do you do?
All the time. Which is not so unusual — every job involves doing something you don’t want to do, and in my case that’s seeing bands I may not be hugely into. In which case I try to do my best to show up, be enthusiastic, be open to the (very strong) possibility that I’m wrong, and keep an open mind.
Do you ever get nervous interviewing bands? Why or why not?
Believe it or not, yes, pretty much every time. Even after years of doing this, I still get a bit jittery whenever I interview someone. It’s not as pronounced as it used to be, but I still feel it, and I get especially anxious when I’m interviewing somebody I really like or somebody really popular. Partially that’s because I’m a shy person by nature. But another big part of it is that intimidation factor that comes into play when you’re talking to somebody with an amazing talent. I spend a lot of time talking to talented, impressive people, and it’s easy to be nervous when you do that.
Is it better to interview a band you like than one you don’t? Why or why not?
For the most part, yes, because you’re liable to know more about a band you like and have a deeper understanding of their music, which generally means you ask deeper and more insightful questions. But that’s not an ironclad rule — as I’ve said, interviewing a band you like can also be really stressful. And sometimes bands you’re not all that into can still turn out to be fascinating, fun interviews that go places you wouldn’t have expected. So to answer the question: yes, generally, but there are exceptions, and they’re not all that rare.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
One word: earplugs. Wear them, live them, love them. It’s all fun and games until you lose your hearing at 35 years old from standing next to the amp at Emo’s.
Is there anyone you would recommend we interview next?
It looks like you’ve talked to a lot of the writers, so I’d suggest talking to someone on the photo desk, like the hard-working, seemingly-able-to-be-five-places-at-once Jay Janner. He shoots great material, and he’s often got a real front-row seat to some of the biggest, most diverse stories. He’s also a thoroughly nice fellow.