Conversation: Mike McGonigal

Interview by Tobias Carroll

Writer, editor, and critic Mike McGonigal has been involved in a number of distinctive projects over the years, from his work as editor of the long-running publication Yeti (and the small press that grew from it) to the folk and gospel compilations (including 2009’s Fire In My Bones) that he has curated. (Full disclosure: I contributed an interview with Amelia Gray to the latest issue of Yeti.) In 2010, he announced the launch of a record label, the Social Music Record & Tape Club; said label’s output has included everything from the intricately-played folk of Stefan Jecusco to a survey of Jamaican gospel to a split 7″ featuring The Bats and Califone. The music he has advocated has ranged from the Soul Stirrers to My Bloody Valentine; in this interview, conducted via email, we explored the connections between the styles, genres, and art forms McGonigal has endorsed.

Where did the initial idea for Social Music come from? What was the reason for keeping the name distinct from Yeti?
The first time I had my own small record label, I called it See Eye, after my ‘zine at the time, Chemical Imbalance (C.I.). Initially Social Music was to be a collaboration with Mississippi Records — Social Music was the only name I’d come up with that Eric from Mississippi liked. I appreciate how sort-of generic the name is, and of course the title is a reference to the second volume of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Greil Marcus and others discount that volume as being the most boring but I disagree.

What sort of balance do you see Social Music having between new work and reissues of older work?
The subscription series is primarily new material but the label itself will have a lot of reissues. I’m guessing it will be about two-thirds reissues, at least for the time being. I just want it to be diverse and interesting.

You’ve assembled a number of compilations over the years — most recently, Fire In My Bones for Tompkins Square and Social Music’s Where Soul of Man Never Dies and Noah Found Grace. What is the process like for assembling a compilation? How long does it usually take to put one together?
It depends on the project, of course. I spent two years working up to Fire In My Bones. Its sequel, which I’m preparing now, will take maybe five months to assemble.

What first sparked your interest in older folk, blues, and gospel?
I merely followed where I was pointed by other artists and writers — down the very well-trod rabbit hole.

If you get into Surrealist painting, which is an easy thing to do when one is 15 or so and a pothead, you quickly make your way to Victor Brauner and Leonora Carrington an then to Dubuffet and the Prinzhorn collection. The cracks inside the cracks, the people just mentioned in the major books, are often the most interesting even if they do not have the most realized vocabulary.

No one is going to say that the bluesy gospel musicians Reverend Edward Clayborn (who recorded in the ‘30s) or Sister Ola Mae Terrell (who cut records int he ‘50s) are the finest musicians but they have such distinct sounds… Both of them repeated the same riffs a lot, but if you like that riff then it’s not a chore to hear it repeated a bit.

When I got to gospel, I felt I was very much on my own. There was precious little in terms of literature, and nothing to find online — when I first started to get into it in the mid ‘90s the Internet was far different in terms of providing resources. Gospel remains such a poorly reissued form — you can pick up a reissue with a group in their younger and better selves on the cover, but inside there’s some shoddy later incarnation with crappy sounding synths in the background… Fred McDowell’s Amazing Grace record is definitely the reason I got into gospel. That and a collection of George Jones’ own gospel recordings. At first I could only hear the music ironically but after some time the veil of irony was blessedly lifted from me and I could hear the music for what it was — the major root for all American popular music, and the most intense and vibrant and least commercially compromised form of music since recorded sound-making came along and wiped away so many regional distinctions and injected whole new levels of commerce into things. In theory, gospel is the least commerce-driven music and that imbues, say, a self-released 45 from the ‘60s by a small group like Grant + Ella (one of Kevin Nutt’s discoveries) with a far different narrative than most any other form because they were far less likely to be worried about “making it.” I just find a lot that’s interesting there, and it’s why I’ve said more than once that raw gospel is more punk and more DIY than anything I’ve ever heard. That’s silly and reductive but for me it’s true.

What do you see as the common element uniting the records currently announced on Social Music?
Ohh man I have no idea, really. I think that is for others to state. I hope that the subtitle of F.I.M.B. — raw, rare and otherworldly — is something that we can attain? It’s certainly something to aspire to, as those are all qualities I am drawn to.

You recently mentioned that you’re working on an oral history of Galaxie 500; are there plans afoot for books in a similar vein on other artists? What do you see as the advantages of oral histories compared with more traditional biographies or critical writings?
The Galaxie book will be the first in a series of small oral histories of various scenes and groups that YETI will publish. I’m also working on an oral history of Mississippi Records that some friends are publishing. It’s going to be really a fun thing, I think — very visual. I’m a bit behind on it now but it will be finished within the month and both books will be out late Fall or so of this year. I really like stitching together what other people have to say on a subject — oral history is a whole ‘nother side to editing and it is incredibly fun to do unless you are transcribing. No one likes transcribing.

You’ve written a book on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and I’ve also read a bit about your in-the-works Buked and Scorned, on blues and gospel. Do you find much in common between these two styles and sounds?
Loveless and gospel both share a certain intensity, that’s for sure. Neither musics can too easily become background music — they both have qualities that make them sort of “insistent,” to me anyway — you have to listen and pay attention because these things are really intense. They both inspire strong reactions, and they both sound awesome.

On the publishing side of things, you recently released a collection of Erik Davis’s nonfiction. When planning future titles, do you try to balance fiction, nonfiction, and art?
We I’d love to do some smaller run things – silkscreen books, pamphlets, even – that would help to make the book output more diverse. As it stands, I guess we’ve done a pretty diverse collection – this is my preference in most things but I think most people just get confused. They expect you to only do books on Japanese metal bands or translations of European poetry or something. That we’ve gotten to do two books with Luc Sante is so killer, and the Erik book is incredibly good I think.

How did Yeti’s partnership with Verse Chorus Press come about?
Steve Connell from VCP is my business partner in YETI. I’ve known him for some time because he used to edit and publish the great ‘zine Puncture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. VCP was already set up with its own book distribution so the first number of titles were partnerships with them. Now that both YETI and VCP are distributed by Publishers Group West – which is a relatively new development – I’m not sure how that affects things going forward but it was basically just to get the best distribution for YETI titles. VCP’s books themselves are great – those Peter Doyle books are wonderful.

You announced in the latest issue of Yeti that the musical accompaniment to future issues will shift from a CD to a 7″, with a corresponding change in the shape of the magazine. Do you foresee the shift in format as having any effect on the writing or artwork that appears inside the magazine?
In order to accommodate yes we are going to change the format with YETI 12. It’ll be square, 8” by 8”, and might have to cost a dollar or two more. For the first 7”, plans right now are to include an unreleased 1959 Lomax recording of Fred McDowell on one side and a new song from Grouper on the other, which will make for a phenomenal record if you ask me. For the last YETI CD I did something a little weird and it’s been fun to assemble. There are twelve tracks, all rare/ unreleased – by people like Oneida, Phill Niblock, Happy New Year and Roy Montgomery. And this time, each song is as long as its corresponding track number — so that track ten is ten minutes long and track three is three minutes long, etc. This adds up to 78 minutes.

What’s the current status of Buked & Scorned? Will we see it in 2011?
No, not this year. I’m focusing on gospel compilations for myself and others plus a documentary film on surviving vernacular traditions in gospel this year, not sure when I’ll have time to work on writing much.

I began work on a book about sanctified blues and bluesy gospel but got sidetracked. I will definitely publish a small book on that subject but I actually just think I need to do a big A-Z book on gospel, which I’m close to finally finishing a proposal for.

(photo: Mike Doughty)


  1. Great interview! I used to read Mike’s zine “Chemical Imbalance” here in Miami (available only at the former “Open Books and Records” and can site the zine as a formative influence on my youth. It’s nice to take a peek into his mind through this interview. Well done 🙂

    – Jerry Delince (Miami, FL)