So you want to be a music journalist: Fader editor Will Welch
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog Music Critic Bryan Mochizuki catches up with former boss Will Welch, CC ’03. Settle in, it’s a long one.
Will Welch isn’t the sort of alumnus you hear about a lot—he doesn’t donate eight figures in scholarship money or own the Pats or herd sheep with Heath Ledger. But he’s the Deputy Editor of a magazine called The Fader, so chances are he’s at least had something to do with your iTunes library. Welch co-wrote Kanye West’s first-ever cover story, and as an editor, helped break artists like M.I.A., Lady Sovereign, Lupe Fiasco, Baby Cham, Mavado, Love Is All, Rick Ross, and Bloc Party, to name a few. I got to know him when I interned for The Fader a year ago. A few weeks back, we grabbed Indian food.
So when you were at Columbia, you worked at WKCR right?
Not really, I was an intern there for my friend Hank Shteamer who now works for Time Out NY writing about music and who writes for us occasionally. He graduated in 2002 but I did a couple semesters of just casually working with him, he was just teaching me shit. The idea of working with someone like that is to eventually get your own show. But I kind of bagged it before that. It was an awesome experience – the show was Daybreak Express – but the jazz I was listening to wasn’t really aligned with the program, and I didn’t want to fake it. I wasn’t really immersed in Charlie Parker and stuff like that. So I ended up not following through with it.
But it was an amazing mood up there. Let’s see, Birdflight – I can’t remember if Birdflight, which is Phil Schaap’s Charlie Parker show, was before Daybreak Express or after. But he would always be in the studio with us for like half an hour. He saw Bird when he was like two years old with his father, and he used to crawl around on the rugs on 52nd street and stuff like that. He has a steel trap for a brain, so to listen to him talk and break stuff down for Hank and I was just fucking awesome. Just the stories we heard.
How soon did you get the job at The Fader after you graduated?
I started as an intern the week before I graduated. So I worked for like a week and then went home for a couple weeks. Then when I came back I was doing like three or four days a week.
So then how soon did you move up to an editor position?
I guess I started as an assistant editor after maybe two and a half months – before summer was over. I was working as a bar-back at a really obnoxious restaurant on the Westside Highway called The Park. So yeah, I would do that until 5 am and get to The Fader by 12. I started writing while I was an intern, pretty much right away. In fact I pitched something in the week before I graduated, my first week. It was an Athens, GA based story, so I went home to Atlanta for a week and a half and did that story while I was there.
Who was the story on?
Yeah? That was your first story?
It wasn’t a cover story, it was just a one-page. So I went to [singer/bandleader] Patterson Hood’s house in Athens and did it while I was there.
Did you know them before you did the story?
I had seen them a bunch of times, but I didn’t know them personally. So I met him there at his house.
What was your first big feature?
Back cover story, also on Drive-By Truckers. I was in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for like three days, then Tuscaloosa with them, doing the cover story. That was my first time traveling on a plane for the magazine. I’d done some road-trip to Ithaca, NY to do a story on the Black Eyes. But that was my first really big story, and then the next issue I had a back cover story on Rick Rubin and a feature on Wiley. Which was cool because that was really before anyone else was covering any of the grime stuff besides Dizzie Rascal.
What’s the process for finding the new stuff? Rick Rubin’s Rick Rubin, but Wiley and Drive-By Truckers back then, how’d that come about?
[Drive-By Truckers] were weird because they were really well known for years in certain circles but entirely out of the context of The Fader. There was a lot of negative feedback to us doing a cover on them, but we never flinched for a second about it, myself and the editor-in-chief at the time.
But as far as calling stuff ahead of the time, I don’t know. Part of it is believing that what you like is actually good, then also recognizing certain sign-posts that suggest that other people are going to care, too. It’s weird because it’s a little bit circular, putting someone on the cover. I wish it were more this way, but it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like, “Oh, how did you know that this unheard of person on the cover was gonna turn out big?” “Well, the cover itself helped them.” To some degree, to a small degree. Like I said, I wish that it helped them out more than it does. But, I don’t know, it’s just practice. The whole editorial is responsible for any cover call, but I’ve been the engine behind some failed covers.
What sort of stuff?
I think one of the best issues of the magazine ever had a total bust of a cover. We did this huge hip-hop feature with all sorts of untold stories. And the photographs were amazing, and it was all “as told to” style stories. It was really things that nobody had heard before. We knew that we wanted to put a young, unknown, emerging artist on the cover and I was pushing for this guy Maceo, who ended up on the cover, and he had one hit – one regional hit – and no one cared about him. It kind of kept that hip-hop feature that we had all worked so hard on from getting across like we would have liked.
Why do you think Maceo never hit big? He was at the right time, right sort of thing, right sound-
Yeah he had a really good song and he was a really cool personality. He’s got a lot of style, good-looking. It was cool too because it was basically a snap music story just as that was beginning to break, and Diplo wrote this amazing story about how snap music is a symphony of four sounds. I don’t know, his label situation maybe wasn’t perfect. I don’t know. He just never got the pick-up.
And D4L did.
Yeah, and we knew about D4L, I had just been in Atlanta, and what I heard was that D4L was kind of a mess. And it’s hard to put a group of four people on the cover and make it look good, so it just seemed like they weren’t the right face for it. Which I still don’t think they were, but anyway, Maceo wasn’t the answer.
So what sort of flack did you guys get after the Drive-By Truckers story?
It was just people being like, “What?” The great thing about music magazines is that people become fans of them and they feel like they’re a part of them and they feel not only do they get turned onto things by magazines, but when magazines cover what they already listen to, they feel validated. Some people feel like a specific magazine is theirs on a particular level. So when a totally new kind of thing is introduced and it feels totally out of the box, understandably people feel like, “This isn’t the magazine I have been a subscriber to for two years and why are you doing this?” But that changes as you continue to do stuff that people feel that way about. They get used to it and eventually get into that kind of music, or at least learn something from the writing or the coverage.
But yeah, country and all of its offshoots are music that’s very dear to me and that I grew up listening to, along with Pearl Jam and Guns ‘n’ Roses and the kind of music that everyone was listening to in elementary school and junior high. I was not only allowed to but encouraged to bring that into the magazine because my own knowledge of it and passion for it was validated among the editorial staff. There wasn’t that much concern for whether or not people were going to be really excited about it. As long as the ideals and execution were valid, the content was fair game.
Did you listen to a lot of Atlanta rap when you were growing up or was it mostly just country?
Well it depends what you mean by growing up. In elementary I listened to country music – Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, Garth Brooks – and I would wear white jeans and black cowboy boots and Garth Brooks patchwork shirts to school. Atlanta’s the south, but wearing modern Nashville country clothes in fifth grade was really kind of weird to people. So I did that, but I remember when I was thirteen and playing basketball on the traveling team, I started really getting into hip-hop through my teammates.
For a while, the only music I cared about at the end of the day was Outkast. They were talking about a city I’d lived in my whole life but they were talking about sides of it that I didn’t really know but at the same time I still felt some connection to. And, you know, the music itself was just completely out of this world. I’d been listening to funk and soul, or starting to, and it really struck a chord with me. My interests into hip-hop proceeded from there.
And at the time, interest in hip hop for someone who was interested in music was completely inevitable, especially living in Atlanta. No matter what neighborhood you lived in – you know I was born in 1981, so in the mid 90’s I was in my teens, which was just an explosion of hip hop. My own experience was skewed towards southern hip hop – Outkast and Goodie Mob and UGK – but as a hardcore music fan all hip hop at that time was unavoidable.
So you had that lexicon before you came to New York?
Uh huh. In high school I listened to some jam music and through my friend whose dad was a Dead-head, I got into Grateful Dead. I didn’t live in the suburbs but there was a certain suburban aspect to my school, so that stuff was really standard in that year too. Then I started getting into jazz, but like anyone else, whatever was on the radio and was really good I was jamming too. And at the time I was listening to Hot 97.5 mostly, which had Chris Lova Lova and Poon Daddy hosting the show that I listened to in the afternoon. Then Chris Lova Lova became Ludacris. So that was kind of funny too, that this ham on the radio I used to listen to became this huge rap star. His first tape was really amazing, it was called Incognegro and that was his first underground tape before he got a deal. So I was totally aware and into all of that, but I was a hardcore Outkast and Goodie Mob fan, and then all the Dungeon Family projects that no one else cared about I was super into.
Was it weird for you to go back to your hometown for The Fader and go to all of these clubs you’d heard about and change how you saw Atlanta?
As I got older I had been doing that myself. I played drums in high school, which I don’t do anymore, but through a series of weird connections my name had been given to this rapper, named Sporty. I think his name might be Sporty-O now, I just sort of heard of him again, I’d been wondering if he was still around. But he got in touch with me because he wanted a live drummer to do some studio stuff for him. So I did that and I ended up going to weird clubs to see him play – I never performed live with him.
And then one summer I drove a beer truck and one of the guys that would drive the truck with me a lot was also an Atlanta rapper who lived near the airport, just outside of College Park. And I would go to his house and we would fuck around in his home studio and stuff like that. So by the time I graduated from high school I had some experience with the real underground version of that scene. I wasn’t like friends with anybody who was famous for rapping, but I knew my way around the communities I’d heard in the Outkast songs. So I sort of had experience with that kind of stuff on my own. I mean, I wasn’t actively going to Club 112 or Magic City by myself in high school, obviously, but it wasn’t foreign to me even by the time I got to Columbia.
And I don’t say that I’ve played drums with a rapper or delivered beer with a rapper as any kind of claim for creditability to be able to write about that music. It’s just that through my own interest and familiarity with that stuff, that stuff happened, so when I went to Atlanta for The Fader, there were communities and musical vocabularies that I had personal experience with, but not that I thought that that gave me ownership over it. It’s just to say that that wasn’t a total revelation of a different side of Atlanta.
I feel like you have a general impulse to shift perceptions about something that’s already pretty established and categorized a certain way, to give an artist their fair due. Like, in the last issue you had a small piece on Bright Eyes, which would seem pretty knee-jerk to most people who pick up The Fader.
I just think he’s a really good lyricist and a really good songwriter. I didn’t listen to him when I was 16, he wasn’t making music when I was 16, so I never felt the need to throw off the yoke of something that I was listening to when I was immature. I’m just really into his ethos and his storytelling and his really deft songwriting, not just lyrically but with the way that he actually structures the song and the way that he’s able to pull an emotion from his listeners and himself.
I’m skating around the term “emo” – for me it’s not about that. I just get emotionally involved in his music and I think a lot of it has to do with his technical skill as a songwriter. He knows how to structure a song unlike anybody else his age, which is my age, and I’m just so fucking impressed by that.
What do you think about the crossover success of Oberst and Jenny Lewis and groups that expose those idioms to a lot of listeners who have never heard of someone like Merle Haggard?
I think the idea of needing to have done your homework shouldn’t apply to music. There was a period while I was at Columbia where I was like, “Fuck, I don’t know any of the really really classic Rolling Stones albums. I know the radio hits you couldn’t avoid if you tried but I don’t really know anything about the Rolling Stones. Or like, fuck, I don’t own Abbey Road.” And I felt like I shouldn’t even talk about music because I haven’t listened to the classics, which is funny in the context of Columbia as an academic place as well.
But as far as music goes, it took some effort, but I think I succeeded in getting over the idea that you should feel bad about what you know or what you don’t know or what you like or don’t like. And if you’re not experienced with country because you never had access to it or searched it out, but if a country influenced record by contemporary musicians who are classified as indie rock speaks to you, it speaks to you. I wouldn’t know what more I would want from music other than for people to really get into it and have it strike them on some level.
I think the obvious thing here to say is I would hope they get into country music from there. But I don’t even really feel that way. I would just hope that they would continue to be really turned on by music from there. If that means that you read the liner notes of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and saw that the fucking magnetic and totally emotionally powerful voice backing up Conor Oberst was Emmylou Harris and you went and bought a bunch of Emmylou Harris from there, that’s awesome.
Have the last four years changed how you listen to stuff? Do you go home and just zone out into shit you would never cover for the magazine?
There’s an element of that, of like, “I just want to go home and pull out a record I loved when I was 12 and had on cassette and put that on and not think about what’s cool or what’s going to do well in two months or if we’re missing the boat on something we’ve decided not to cover.” Any time you work or handle something in the work environment that you love so much, there’s a little stress on your relationship. At the end of the day, it’s not that bad. It hasn’t ruined loving music for me. And there’s just so much music that you can just go get into something else.
My relationship to music is that if there’s something I found outside of the work context that I’m super excited about, I’m gonna want to end up putting it into the magazine and sharing it with people that way, so it’s really fluid like that. But yeah, if you love CD’s and going out and spending the 18 bucks and looking at the liner notes and now you’re in a position where you get 25 of them in the mail and one of them is good, you lose that tactile love of the object itself, but there’s other good trade-offs as well that more than make-up for whatever is lost there.
Sometimes I write about something that I really love and when I’m through with the somewhat arduous process of writing about something, just because I’m slow, you end up not wanting to listen to the album a whole lot because you spend so much time with it and looked in all its nooks and crannies and ruined the mystery a little in the process of writing. Or maybe you met the person and they weren’t that nice or whatever and you don’t end up playing the album as much as you would have if you were the fan and you bought it. But that’s ok, because there’s always something else to get into.