Six years ago, I was a wide-eyed, first-year journalism student at the University of Maine, and a photographer taking pictures near the dining hall told me that the student newspaper could use new contributors. I sent an email to the Style & Culture Editor of The Maine Campus, and after hearing back a few days later, I went to the paper’s office and met Kegan Zema for the first time.
Not long after that, our paths diverged as Kegan went on to pursue other passions. He didn’t quite give up on journalism per se: since 2012, he has fronted a rising indie rock band named after his former craft. And rising they are: Brooklyn-based Journalism just released their debut LP, Faces, on Dead Stare Records.
Before Journalism heads out on tour, Zema and I got on Facebook video chat and spoke about Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Hipster Runoff founder Carles, how seeing Dave Matthews Band at Bonnaroo changed his outlook on music and the ways that journalism has informed Journalism.
Paste Music: So what made you want to switch your focus from writing to music? Or rather, what does the band Journalism allow you to do creatively that news journalism doesn’t?
Kegan Zema: I think the biggest thing that I walked away with after studying journalism for all those years was that it was very ephemeral. You’d write something, and you’d put a lot of energy and effort into it, and the next day, it would literally be yesterday’s news. That didn’t leave much encouragement to want to put creative energy into it, and it’s a medium that doesn’t necessarily require creative energy if you can get away with it.
PM: There’s a classic quote that goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” You used that in your undergraduate thesis, which was a 168-page exploration of music criticism as an art form. Since the artistry of music can’t really be measured or quantified, would you say that criticizing it and reviewing it has to be interpretive and artistic?
KZ: I ended up pretty much disproving that throughout the thesis, because most album reviews were very formulaic. There were a few here and there that I could point to as kind of works of art in themselves, but for the most part, they were like, “This a little bit about the album, this is blah blah blah, this is song-by-song,” that kind of thing. However, what I wanted to see with music criticism, and what I see accomplished sometimes, is people that do write in a more artistic manner. Not even necessarily that, but I really enjoy music writers who get at how people, either themselves or others, have experienced music.
PM: Going from experiencing music as a consumer to as a creator-we were talking about Carles recently, from Hipster Runoff-I mentioned the conversation he had with Ezra Koenig [for The Fader]. There’s one quote from that that always stuck with me, from Ezra: “Content is the commodified form of thoughts/information, and in our hyper-capitalist era everything moves towards pure commodity.” As an artist and a performer, do you think it’s possible to succeed without putting all of yourself into your work and turning every worthwhile idea you have into content?
KZ: I think no matter who you are or what you’re doing, you work to the point where, at some level, your life is kind of this brand, and it is kind of this cultivated thing, unless you’re living in a shack somewhere. Those living in the realm of, as he said, this hyper-capitalist society, it’s pretty much inescapable, no matter what you’re doing. I think the best thing you can do is be aware of it, be a conscious consumer as much as you are a conscious producer of content.
In anything we do and put our heart into, it’s really going to be, at the end of the day, used for some capitalist gain. I feel what Ezra’s saying, because I studied as a disciple of Carles for many years.
PM: You told me recently that seeing Dave Matthews Band at Bonnaroo really changed how your outlook on music. How did that work?
KZ: In high school and going into college, I spent most of my time really thinking that there was a “right” music and a “good” music. That there was a good taste and bad taste, and I obviously had great taste. Especially being up in Maine, up at state school, that was such an easy target. They were kind of like a bro band, everything I kind of stood against. I was more like, “Oh, I’m going to go hang out at the college radio station and spend hours burning CDs onto my laptop back in the stacks, and I’m going to try to find whatever new album’s coming out, and I’m not going to listen to Dave Matthews, these bros.” So that was where I informed myself, and I thought that this personal truth was a big, inherent thing.
It was the last day, he was closing it out, and we ended up having a totally sick time in the moment, in the heat of things, which is something I never thought I would put myself in a position to do. I was like, “OK, what if I’ve just been wrong this whole time, and there’s nothing that’s inherently good or bad?” It didn’t change my life or turn me into a giant Dave Matthews fan, but it certainly changed my life, because I just had a great time at something I totally stood against.
PM: Was there anything else that you wanted to talk about?
KZ: The only other thing that might be important to discuss is the timeline of how everything came to be, as far this being a story about not only me and my band, but like you said, leaving journalism and having thoughts on that.
I was pretty disillusioned by it, but also looking to start a new life in general, moving to the city and doing stuff like that. I think the biggest thing I wanted to avoid was all these things that we were kind of bringing up and talking about: A lot of your first entry-level media jobs, at least in things I wanted to be doing, writing about music and shit like that, is kind of aggregation and blog-type stuff, and just literal content generation.
I just didn’t want to stay in Maine and work at the small-town paper covering the police beat, and I didn’t want to sit there and type up 20 blog posts a day from 9 to 5 and then on the weekends, which some of my good friends that stayed with journalism did. If somebody wanted me to write in depth pieces on the way I feel about certain albums or certain things, then that’d be something I’d still like to do.
On the other side of that, I get to now be on the other side of the desk. Literally right now, you’re interviewing me, and I’m still getting to talk about and explain [my thoughts]. Not to reveal behind the curtain too much, but most of the PR cycle [for Faces] was just me writing about my own band, the same way I would write about anything else. It was kind of a dream come true. I was like, “Cool, I just get to write about how awesome my band is, how deep our lyrics are, and how cool we are!”
It’s still, as you said, accessing some of the same things. I’ve kind of always had this desire to be on the other side of things and do that.
Journalism’s debut album, Faces, was released on March 4 via Dead Stare Records.