INTERVIEW – Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records

Michael White has finally written a book I’ve waited twenty years to read: Popkiss tells the story, or really the set of stories, around Sarah Records, the Bristol, England indiepop label whose seven years (1987-95) left us with 100 releases the size of a 7” single (99 were music, but one was a boardgame), 30 albums (whatever you else you do today, listen to Unisex), a few famous gigs (the last one took place on a boat), and a startling contingent of superfans.

Some of those fans (I’m one) discovered that years of our lives, and an alarming proportion of our emotional capital, had been colored out, filled in, and made more beautiful by the hours and days that Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes spent listening to demo tapes, folding sleeve inserts, answering snail mail, and (not least) paying bills from the label’s cramped quarters. Sarah fans didn’t just like the bands (and few of us liked every one of the bands); we felt a rare personal connection to the prose style, the sense of how to live, and the way of doing business (yes, it was a business, though one with clear left-wing views) that the label represented, a connection that makes Sarah worth remembering even above and beyond the sparkle, crackle, melodic glee or melancholy glow in the music that it released.

Popkiss explains how some of that glow came to be: sometimes chronologically, and sometimes band by band or scene by scene, it shows what Clare and Matt thought they were doing, what some of the label’s bands thought they had done, with the help of many, many interviews. The elegant—but still indie-looking—book even includes some of the famous flyers and inserts; you can see some of the rest, and hear some of the music, at  (There’s also a new film about the label: I asked Michael several salvos of questions via email; he had the generosity to answer a few.

Q: Can you talk about the process of writing the book? How long did it take, and what was the toughest part?

I emailed Clare and Matt in November 2011 to propose the book, although I’d been carrying the idea around in my head for close to two years before that. My understanding at the time was that they had already turned down at least two other writers’ proposals — I still don’t know if that’s true — so I was expecting the same. The one potential advantage I had was that I’d written the liner notes for Cherry Red Records’ reissues of the Blueboy catalogue in 2009, and Clare and Matt had liked them. But the clincher, I think, was my upfront assurance that the book wouldn’t be unconditionally reverent — I’d poke fun and be critical where I saw fit, and I wouldn’t laud Sarah as history’s greatest bastion of “twee,” which I think is how some of their most obsessive fans view them. They hate that word in association with Sarah and so do I, so I made that clear.

The book wasn’t finished until spring of 2015. It was supposed to be finished the previous fall, but instead I had to send the publisher, Bloomsbury, a letter from a doctor telling them I’d been diagnosed with nervous exhaustion. To their credit, my go-to people at Bloomsbury said, Forget about the book until January; don’t even contact us until then. The reason my exhaustion happened is because when I’d agreed to the initial, contractually enforced deadline, I had a day job that allowed me plenty of free time to work on the book. But then I switched jobs, moving from Toronto to Vancouver in the process, and suddenly I had much less free time. The move itself and acclimating to my new job probably took six weeks of productivity away from me. But I’ll also admit that it was my first book and I was massively disorganized. It was a hard but crucial lesson in having a very clear idea of what you want your book to be before you’ve written your first sentence.

The toughest part, other than getting it finished in those final few months, was figuring out how to structure the book in a way that it wouldn’t matter that Sarah’s story doesn’t feature very much dramatic tension or have an obvious narrative arc. Writing about, say, Creation or Factory — you’ve got drugs and egos and huge amounts of money and international success. Sarah was made up mostly of very normal, well-adjusted people who had very modest ambitions, so how do you report that and still offer people something intriguing enough to read?

Q: You conducted a lot of interviews (that’s one of the great things about the book, and one of the things that distinguishes it from the existing acres of fanzine prose and reviewing). What was the most surprising thing that you learned during those interviews? (Was there an interview subject you never got?)

There weren’t very many surprises — I was expecting most of the people to be very nice, and to be surprised and possibly flattered that some music they’d made 20-odd years ago was going to become part of a book. And, for the most part, they were all of those things. But a few people were exceedingly blasé about it, to the extent that they gave me almost nothing to work with. I always tried to go out of my way to ask interesting questions that demonstrated I’d listened very closely to their music, and the questions encouraged elaborate answers. And then, if it was an email interview, I’d get one or two short sentences in return. Maybe because these people had only ever been interviewed for fanzines that would be read by 50 people, they couldn’t differentiate between that and a book that was being released internationally by a major publisher, although I always went to great lengths to point that out.

But the biggest, and most pleasant, surprise was that Bobby Wratten agreed to be interviewed. He initially declined via his partner, Beth Arzy, who’d been in the band Aberdeen and who I became “friends” with through Facebook — I put “friends” in quotations because we hadn’t met yet but had a great rapport online. I’d been told to expect he would say no, partly because he isn’t especially proud of the Field Mice’s and Northern Picture Library’s music, and also because he doesn’t like to look back; unlike so many others who’d been in Sarah bands, he never stopped making music, so his latest project is always his foremost concern. I think he also had the same reservations that Clare and Matt did, that the book was going to be hagiography and a perpetuation of Sarah’s worst stereotypes. But then I met up with Beth in London to interview her, and she reported back to him that I “got it.” And then Bobby read some online interviews I’d done while the book was still in progress, and those convinced him I was taking the right approach. Bobby changing his mind is one of the greatest things that could have happened to the book, because he ended up being one of the most erudite and generous people I interviewed. The consensus seems to be that the chapter about the Field Mice is the book’s crown jewel.

Q: The proto-Sarah zines and their precursors developed a certain set of signature prose styles: Kevin Pearce’s writing, Everett True’s (despite what he later became), Alastair Fitchett, Are You Scared to Be Happy?, Kvatch, all those Sarah inserts, and Matt Haynes’s later writing for the Shinkansen releases and for Smoke: A London Peculiar… Have these pieces of writing influenced you as a writer? Have you tried to write as they did?

This might sound evasive but I think my greatest influence when I was trying to become a professional music journalist in the ’90s was some abstract composite of all the writers whose work I’d been reading in the UK music weeklies — especially Melody Maker —during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Their writing style was so different from everything in the North American music press: they were unafraid to be as irreverent and hyperbolic and dismissive of received wisdom as they wanted to be. It was like fanzine writing, but polished and unashamedly intellectual, even when it was being willfully crass. Even if I disagreed with something they’d written, I was still entertained and felt like I’d been introduced to an interesting perspective. And, of course, they were writing about bands, like those on Sarah, that weren’t being written about anywhere else. Other than Kevin Pearce’s book, Something Beginning with O, which I mail-ordered when it came out in 1993, I didn’t get to read his fanzine writing — or Clare’s or Matt’s or Alistair’s — until years later, when PDFs were posted online.

By the time I started writing Popkiss, I hadn’t been writing regularly about music for quite some time. I’d moved into other areas of journalism because I had to make a better living, and was actually working more as an editor than as a writer. That said, all those people you mentioned definitely influenced me to varying degrees. But I also drew inspiration from non-fiction books that have nothing to do with music but have incredible style and entertainment value. Bill Buford’s book Heat, about the author getting a crash course in Italian cooking from working in one of Mario Batali’s restaurant kitchens — I frequently took that one out when I needed a reminder of the standard I was aspiring toward. Bill’s book is far better than mine though.

Q: Though you mention Matt and Clare’s and Bob Wratten’s later careers—the launch and slow fade of Shinkansen Records, Matt’s post-Sarah label, in particular— you otherwise draw a very strict line around the Sarah era. Popkiss just mentions the rise of Belle and Sebastian. Nor do you mention (unless I missed it) the death of Matthew Fletcher or Keith Girdler, nor the (great!) music of Marine Research and Tender Trap.

Did you consider taking us into the present with other figures (especially Amelia Fletcher) who have kept on making music?  Or did you alrways know where the book had to stop? What in the post-Sarah, post-Shinkansen lives of these musicians and writers do we need to know?

I concede that the “afterlife” reportage promised by the book’s title is shorter than perhaps some people wanted — a few people have said they wish the book was altogether longer, but thankfully just a few. The short answer is I decided I had to impose tight restrictions as to how much of the post-Sarah story I was going to tell, otherwise it would get unwieldy. In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, I talk about what I decided to do after it became apparent that I couldn’t tell Sarah’s story chronologically; I had to cherry-pick what I thought was most important or interesting, because there was simply too much going on at any given time, and most people couldn’t remember exactly when various events happened because no one was documenting anything. It was for these same reasons that I kept the post-Sarah chapter short. You’ve got dozens upon dozens of people scattering in all directions, some continuing with music and a lot of them not. I dedicated the book to Mathew and Keith — and to Simon Westwood from Gentle Despite, who passed away less than a year after I interviewed him — but I didn’t directly address their deaths, and I don’t remember why. Probably because I was mentally exhausted and I didn’t want to dwell on anything so negative.

Now that I think about it, though, I’m glad the book leaves quite a few things unanswered. This might sound like a cop-out, but I think Sarah’s legacy is better if some degree of mystery still remains around it. I know Clare and Matt think so.

Q: I’m glad you share my sense that Unisex could be the best single thing Sarah did, or at least the best album (though for me it’s tied with Le Jardin du Heavenly). Can you say more about what made that album special, what set Blueboy apart?

It’s a funny contradiction: What so many people love about Sarah is that the technical abilities of the bands were almost uniformly rough; in many cases, it was what made the records as good as they are. But Blueboy — especially Paul Stewart, their guitarist — were technically great musicians, and Keith Girdler was a great singer and an even greater lyricist. Whether by accident or design, Unisex is an extraordinary one-off; not even the Blueboy albums that preceded and followed it have the same consistency and narrative clarity. It isn’t only unique within the context of the Sarah catalogue; I think it’s unique in pop music, especially lyrically. I don’t know of any other songwriter who has written about the minutiae and the emotional roller-coaster of grappling with sexual identity and desire in the way Keith did. And this was in 1994! Keith’s perspective was singular. And despite having only a few thousand pounds’ budget and a couple of weeks to do their part, the rest of the band propped his words up beautifully. I won’t say anything more about it because I want those who haven’t heard it to buy it as soon as possible.

Q: Compared to other treatments of Sarah and indiepop scenes, your book is wonderfully long on the economics and practicalities of distributing, managing, recording and touring, but it’s relatively short on fashion and visual style. Can you say more about twee, cutie, indiepop, as a look, or a way of life? Some of the musicians seemed to resent it; others took part. Did the rise of the look help the music, or limit its audience, or both? (How different are the answers to those questions from the UK to the US to Spain to Japan?)

What we think of as the “indie-pop look” — striped tees, bowl cuts, children’s anoraks, print dresses — existed long before Sarah began; look at any photos of the Pastels or Marine Girls from 1982 for proof. This is why my discussion of it is only addressed at length in the “Roots of Sarah” chapter. I wouldn’t have wanted to imply that Sarah created it; some of the label’s bands merely perpetuated it.

The look seems to have come into being for two reasons: it was a way to distinguish yourself amidst the very futuristic and expensive-looking — and, indeed, expensive — contemporary fashions of the ’80s, and it was a very affordable look for a young working-class person to pull together because almost everything was second-hand and sourced from charity shops. It also was very un-rock ’n’ roll, although leather jackets did find their way into a few people’s wardrobes. These sorts of clothes — most of which were made in the ’60s and ’70s — are highly covetable now, but in the ’80s they were considered anachronistic and more or less worthless. A few Sarah bands had nothing to do with the style: the Orchids looked exceedingly ordinary — I love Alexis Petridis’s comment in the book that they just looked like some people waiting for a bus. Not coincidentally, they were probably the band who took the greatest exception to the assumptions the press made about their character and their allegiances simply because they were part of the Sarah roster. Bobby and Michael of the Field Mice also looked like they didn’t think twice about fashion.

Q: I got into Sarah (Heavenly, and then the rest) through college radio, but I met other fans through the early 1990s version of the (still existing) indiepop email list (also, later, how I met the love of my life). Can you say more about your own involvement with internet-based Sarah fandom, either before you began writing Popkiss or while you were at work on it? Did you meet popkids online? Did you travel to meet them?

I wasn’t very active on the Indiepop List because when it launched I was making a conscious effort to explore other types of music after years of listening to little else; I was simultaneously delving into the past and trying to embrace what seemed like the future, so I was equally excited about discovering, say, a War album from 1975 and Tricky’s Pre-Millennium Tension. But once Friendster emerged, I did start making connections with other indie-pop fans — although I was in my early 30s at that point and so were most of the people I was connecting with, so none of us were “kids.”

It’s funny you mention having met the love of your life online: I came out very late, at the age of 30, and had learned very quickly that I had as little in common, in terms of cultural interests, with 99 percent of gay men as I did with anyone else, so social media was the first opportunity I had to try to make romantic connections with gay men who liked the same music I did, because there certainly were none where I was living. And I did meet a few and I did travel to meet one of them. Love didn’t follow, but some friendships did that have endured to this day.

Q: Are you part of indiepop fandom now? I know you live in Vancouver, so we probably won’t see you next week at Popfest NYC, but do you go see, for example, Rose Melberg, or Sleuth? There’s nothing like Sarah now, but does it have distant inheritors who matter to you?

I’m still a part of the fandom, but much less actively. This is mostly to do with being a 46-year-old whose life is much busier and more complicated than that of a twenty-something, but also because my musical taste has expanded considerably since the ’80s and ’90s and there are only so many hours in the day. So the primary difference now is that I let the music find me — a link someone posts on Facebook or Twitter, usually — rather than me constantly scouring for it. I’m sure I must be missing some great music as a result, but none of us ever gets to hear everything. And I haven’t seen Rose play in a long time, but I did have lunch with her a few weeks ago, which surely counts for something.

Q: Did writing Popkiss change your sense of what a song is? of what pop is or could be? Of whether and how we care about guitars, as opposed to pianos (as in Harvey Williams’s California), or laptops and sequencers (as in those great Shinkansen records by Cody, whom I wish would reappear)? Is pop electronica—from Walking Wounded to Grimes, or something— the logical successor to guitar-based indiepop? Does it matter?

I don’t think I’ve ever imposed a strict definition as to what a song should be, so writing the book didn’t change that. I’ve met some people — some very nice people — whose indie-pop fandom is such that, to my knowledge, they don’t listen to anything else, and I’d never want to be so committed to a particular genre that I denied myself everything else there is to hear. But you’ve used a couple of interesting examples here. Harvey’s piano-based solo records confused and drove away quite a few Another Sunny Day fans, and Walking Wounded drove away thousands of longtime Everything But the Girl fans — although in the case of the latter, they gained tens of thousands in their place. As it happens, EBTG are one of my all-time favourite bands, and on the one occasion I interviewed Ben Watt he made a very interesting point about Walking Wounded: its contents — the melodicism, the emotional tenor, the subject matter — isn’t unlike anything else EBTG had done before; the only difference is the execution. He called it “Eden made on a computer.” You can’t worry about how open- or close-minded an audience is going to be about a particular type of music or even a particular record. In the end, there’s always more good music than any of us will have the chance to hear in a lifetime. That’s a beautiful problem to have.

Q: So many of the early Sarah bands—the Sea Urchins and the Orchids in particular—only had a classic “indiepop” sound (twelve-string guitars, warbled vocals, melody first) for about ten minutes of their existence, and I remember an insert where Matt and Clare mused, after another weekly praised a single while slagging the rest of Sarah, “I wonder exactly what it is that all our bands don’t sound like.” It’s as if Sarah Records (an international community that coalesced around a Bristol-based small business), Sarah records (the records they actually put out), and “Sarah Records” (an idea and a sound) were three different things.

Can you say more about the difference among them? Did they always seem to point in different directions, or were they unified in 1990, but moving apart by 1993? Or what?

It was both a blessing and a curse that Sarah had such a strong identity, but the identity was ultimately more to do with artwork and the adverts and the thematic concepts and Clare and Matt’s ideals than the music. The Field Mice’s discography alone proves that Sarah was never about one style of music, and the Orchids evolved and diversified almost as quickly. The fans, of course, recognized this, but the UK music press had become so married to the idea that Sarah Records was about one style of music that it became very uncomfortable for them when they were tasked with reviewing a Sarah release that nullified every knee-jerk criticism they thought they could fall back onto. So it got to this tragicomic point where every review essentially said, “Unlike everything else Sarah has put out, this is not only different but really good, too” — and different journalists were saying this about virtually every release. To Clare and Matt’s credit, they were grownup enough to see the humour in it, but it infuriated the bands — who, understandably, just wanted to be critiqued for the merits of their music rather than how their music was perceived in relation to the label they happened to be on.


Q: I knew that Sarah was run on a shoestring (not to be confused with Michigan indie-synth act Shoestrings), and that Clare and Matt did almost everything themselves, but I had no idea how broke they were for much of the label’s existence, how tightly Sarah was run as a proper business (“Our lives revolved around sourcing cheap parcel tape”), or how much they gave up in terms of “normal” twentysomething lives, time out with friends, days off.

Can you say more about the economics of the label and the opportunity cost of keeping it going? (Did you talk to Timothy Alborn of Harriet Records, or to other people who have studied the costs of running a label?)

Clare and Matt freely admit they were learning as they went along and they made plenty of mistakes, but I think it’s key to point out that the two of them being perpetually broke was a conscious choice — essentially a preemptive strike — rather than something that happened to them. They lived like broke people so that the label wouldn’t be broke; Matt has repeatedly pointed out that Sarah, as a business entity, always operated in the black. For a couple of amateurs in their twenties, they showed incredible financial discipline.

But that discipline did pay off eventually. After about five years in business, Clare and Matt were not only able to buy a modest terraced house and a car; they were also able to justify it as good business sense. Owning a house was cheaper than renting both a flat and an office, and the car meant they no longer had to rely on taxis and couriers to move the records back and forth between their home, the post office, and Sarah’s distributor.

Q: Matt Haynes’s zine was called Are You Scared to Get Happy? Yet much of your book describes difficulties—with money, with feuding or undisciplined teens in bands, with the music industry circa 1989. The picture of (ironically) the members of Brighter, jumping up in the air, on p.127 is maybe the first image of happy people in the book. Can you talk about the emotions in the music, about the emotional range that Sarah’s best releases—and, maybe, similar releases elsewhere—permitted? What’s emotionally different (if anything) about the music that has meant the most?

There’s a much wider range of emotion in the Sarah discography than its detractors tended to acknowledge, including a lot of humour. But certain things — melancholy and lovesickness and all manner of sadness — are definitely motifs. In that way, you could compare it to the Smiths catalogue: Morrissey has been caricatured as a miserabilist for decades, but anyone who pays the least bit of attention to his lyrics knows he’s often being tongue-in-cheek, and the music itself is often joyous-sounding. But to whatever extent unhappiness — or maybe “discontent” is a more accurate word — dominated the emotional tenor of Sarah’s releases, I think Alison Cousens from Brighter articulated it best in the book: “Keris [Howard, singer-guitarist and main songwriter in Brighter] was singing about all the fundamental insecurities of people like us who, for the most part, weren’t allowed to be honest and say, ‘Actually, I’m quite scared of the real world and life and love.’ We weren’t interested in adopting a pseudo-macho confidence — that wasn’t who we were.”

In other words, it’s about that difficult transition from youth into adulthood, when you feel adrift in the world and don’t know where “home” is anymore. Sarah’s audience tended to be the same age as the bands — and as Clare and Matt. I think that’s a big part of why Sarah fans tended to respond so intensely to the records. They identified with the words and with the overarching mood because the lives that were being described were their lives, too.

Q: Maybe it’s because you tell so much of the story of Sarah through Bob Wratten (rather than through Amelia Fletcher and the Oxford scene, which is where I came in), you make quite a lot of the time up to, say, Sarah 50 look like hard work on behalf of quite moody, shy people: Matt and Clare, as the practical, level-headed, optimistic hard workers, did their best for clueless, unworldly, impulsive musicians, who responded by making music when they got lucky, and by throwing sulks when they did not. (It’s like the life of Nick Drake repeated as comedy.) Was that your sense of how it felt to be Sarah, and to work with the early bands, or did I get the emotional tenor way off?

Well, most young people are impossible, aren’t they? And musicians — especially those who have a very specific idea of what they want, or perhaps don’t have a specific idea but are too proprietary to welcome outside input — are even worse. The impression I got from Clare and Matt and from the bands I spoke to was that it was, more than anything, a comedy of errors. No one fully knew what they were doing or what they wanted; they only knew what they didn’t want whenever it was presented as an option. That said, Clare and Matt, by the very nature of their roles, had to be the grown-ups most of the time, trying to keep everyone happy and massaging dozens of egos without surrendering their own principles in the process. It can’t have been easy, and yes, some of the bands must have seemed, to Clare and Matt, like monumental ingrates, because in many cases no other label would have had anything to do with these bands. But, in the end, it was that awkward dynamic of push-and-pull that made a lot of the records turn out like they did.

Q: You mention the romantic partnerships that formed and dissolved in the years that Sarah ran, principally the one between Matt and Clare: do you want to say more about the role of romance and dating, either between individuals who made (and distributed) the music, or as that perennial, overarching, hegemonic topic for pop songs?

I can’t really say much more about it because I didn’t investigate it further! In retrospect, I’m not sure why, particularly because it would have been nice to present some evidence that proves the lie of so many journalists who characterized Sarah as a repository for sullen virgins. I probably thought it would be impolite to make such inquiries. I can say, though, that a few people I interviewed mentioned in passing that, basically, everyone was shagging everyone else — which not only makes me happy but makes total sense. This is what people in their early 20s are supposed to be doing.

Q: You picked a few songs to consider, as songs: “Sensitive,” for example, and “Atta Girl,” and of course “Pristine Christine.” Was there other music criticism on your part, other grafs about individual songs, that you had to cut from the book? Would you want to make, a la Nick Hornby (“Shut up and read your Nick Hornby,” as the Heavenly lyric had it) a list of your top five Sarah songs, with reasons why?

I’d love to say I was so productive that material had to be cut from the book, but what was published is more or less exactly what I handed in — there are no outtakes. I’m reluctant to compile a top five because I don’t want to appear to give short shrift to bands that don’t make the list. The songs you mention in your question were singled out for deeper analysis because they either were especially important in terms of the development of the label or they were a watershed for the band. I’ll tease the readership enough to say that what’s probably my number-one favourite Sarah song is from one of the band’s that had the shortest affiliation with the label.

Q: Edwyn Collins was, you write, “the opposite of the archetypal boy in a band” when Orange Juice started; Heavenly were a Riot Grrrl band that could write King/Goffin and Shangri-Las quality songs; Blueboy were (as far as I could tell, and I was looking) the first clearly queer, clearly trans-friendly pop group that didn’t insist on high-drama, big glamor, and grown-up confidence: they were a group for queer and trans boys and girls. Do you have thoughts about Sarah and queer identity, thoughts about Sarah and youth and childhood, that are too new, or too convoluted, or just too long, to have gone into the book?

There’s a lot to potentially dig into on that topic, but too much of it would merely be me offering my own interpretation as to what the bands’ intentions were, which may be completely inaccurate. I will say that to whatever extent Blueboy were, or are, identified as a queer-friendly band is a happy accident, because it wasn’t a direct intention. Keith’s lyrics may have suggested various things, but in fact Keith never disclosed his sexuality publicly during the band’s lifetime, and various friends of his have told me he was extremely private about his romantic life, so much so that they still decline to go on record as to what it was. [Note: Keith passed away from cancer in 2007.]

In terms of Sarah Records’ overarching relationship with sexual politics, Clare and Matt approached it in the same way they approached any other issues that were important to them, whether feminism or public transit or the wonky economics of 12-inch singles: it was stealth, and often tempered with a lot of humour. It was there to be discovered if you wanted to look for it, but if all you ultimately took from Sarah were some songs that made you happy, they were fine with that, too.

Q: The pop music scholar and zine writer Elodie Roy has written about Sarah as the pursuit of “perfection”; on the one hand, they wanted everything just right, and on the other they obviously supported amateurism, enthusiasm, trying again, failing better. Can you say more about the conflict between punk rock DIY-ism and the desire to make the perfect pop song? Does that conflict feel different for Sarah and Sarah bands than it does for, say, the Creation stable, or the Él Records decadents, or K?

The notion of “perfect pop” has always seemed ridiculous to me. Music is so subjective — how could anyone have the arrogance to ascribe a specific formula as to what makes it perfect? Clare and Matt have often said that when they were running Sarah, they rarely could explain why something struck them as perfect or why they wanted to work with some bands and not others — they simply knew it when they heard it. So, in that regard, they were just like any music fan who has no involvement with the business of it. That said, imperfection, from a technical standpoint, was always much more appealing to them than technically perfect music. “Perfect imperfection,” to them, meant the Orchids’ slightly out-of-tune guitars or Boyracer always sounding on the brink of collapse. The consuming masses’ notion of perfection was Dire Straits. I should also mention that one of my favourite Sarah songs — “Dreamabout” by the Poppyheads — is one of the most technically inept recordings in the Sarah discography. I’ve often said the magic of it is that the band sound literally drunk, none of the members quite in time or in tune with one another. I suspect it would be nowhere near as interesting a record if they had performed it more competently.

Creation, él, K — all those labels are very different from one another, but what they have in common is that, most of the time, what they did was based on the very particular aesthetic preferences and quirks and leaps of faith of one or two individuals. I don’t doubt that they all strived for perfection in everything they did, but inevitably there would be hundreds or thousands of people who didn’t share that view.

Q: What’s next for Michael White? What are you writing now?

Everyone who follows the book’s Facebook page and Twitter feed probably knows I haven’t been well. Less than two months before the book came out, I was diagnosed with a very rare, chronic neurological movement disorder called Cervical Dystonia, which can manifest in many ways — in my case, it causes my head to almost constantly spasm backward. As a result, I didn’t write anything — other than social media updates — for more than half a year. Fortunately, unlike most people who acquire this disorder, I was diagnosed very quickly and was able to see the only specialists in North America — there are just two of them — within a few months. I’ve finally started gaining control over my symptoms in the past month and am feeling very positive. The only writing I’ve done is some paid corporate work because I now have debts to take care of, and I hope I’ll be able to seek out a full-time job before July. As for music-related writing — well, I can’t say yet, but hopefully sooner rather than later

Michael White has been writing about music and popular culture, for publications in his native Canada and around the world, for more than 20 years. A longtime resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Popkiss is his first book. Popkiss can be purchased here.
Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, including Belmont (2013), as well as some prose about obscure pop songs: learn more at


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