Simon Sweetman: Mr Pitiless

by Guy Somerset / 17 November, 2012
Critical savagings don’t come any harsher than from Simon Sweetman.
Simon Sweetman

Like builders, music writers have an opinion on everything – not least each other – and aren’t slow to share them. On the plus side, only builders are likely to inflict Radio Hauraki on you. In casual asides alone, Simon Sweetman declares The Joshua Tree to be “the last U2 album I can listen to” and that he didn’t mind an early deadline making him miss the Rolling Stones playing Satisfaction during their 2006 Wellington concert because “they’ve never done it well”. As Sweetman opinions go, these are pretty innocuous. It’s the savagery with which he has dispatched live performances and CDs in the pages of the Dominion Post, as well as on radio and television and in his Blog on the Tracks on the Stuff website, that has earned him the ire of so many people, alongside the admiration of others.

As I write, revived Kiwi rockers Rival State have been the latest recipients of his attention, dismissed in a one-star review of their new album, Apollo Me, as sounding like “Battle of the Bands’ stuff … everything you hate from phone-in macho land”. Sweetman does five-star reviews as well, of course. And writes lovingly about a wide range of music on his blog (which gets up to 100,000 hits a month) and in his prolific Facebook and Twitter posts. An uncommonly wide range of music – from hip-hop to, er, Phil Collins.

Even as a teenager, says the 36-year-old, “I don’t think my collection made a lot of sense to my friends”. But it’s the pitilessness, not to mention fearlessness, of those savagings that sets Sweetman apart and it’s a pitilessness that, unusually, doesn’t distinguish between New Zealand and overseas acts, resulting in more than a few enemies on the local music scene and one notable refusal to participate in his newly released first book, On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics. Sweetman wanted P-Money to talk about his involvement in Scribe’s Not Many. Not likely, was the answer.

This, though, is small beer compared with the member of an overseas tribute band Sweetman had dissed on the radio, who phoned him to say “they were going to get someone to f--- me up. I was like, ‘Really, are you serious? Who phones threats in?’” Then there was the fan of US rapper KRSOne who left a Facebook message saying he was going to burn down Sweetman’s house. More benignly, earlier this year Kiwi rock band Autozamm were inspired to write The Review to “make an example” of Sweetman “on behalf of every other f---ing band in the country”.

Not surprisingly, Sweetman steers clear of industry events. “I would never go to the New Zealand Music Awards, because I think they are a sham, but also because if I did I could imagine a few people eyeballing me and wanting to have a go at me, especially after a few drinks,” he says. He gets enough eyeballing and people wanting to have a go just attending gigs. “I was at a Crooked Vultures gig and I’m getting a beer and a guy goes, ‘Hey, Sweetman, you’d better write a good review about this one. Unlike AC/DC.’ And I said, ‘Are you working on Monday? Where do you work again?’ He goes, ‘Pardon?’ and looks at me, like, why? And I go, ‘Oh, I might come and bug you while you’re at work.’”

You’d need pretty thick skin to be Sweetman, I imagine. Is he naturally a don’tgive- a-damn kind of person? “I’ve learnt to be one. People, I think, aren’t mad at me, they’re mad at the work.” It’s harder, he says, for those attending gigs with him. His wife, Katy, is “unenthused about the angst”. She’s not entirely enthused about some of his opinions, either. And not just about music. “I remember she was really angry with me when we went to that stupid movie Separation City, which I thought was just ghastly and mean. I came out and said that and Katy said, ‘You just ruined a good evening. It was a good film. I loved it.’ It was like, ‘Whoops, sorry.’”

Katy can find his reviews as harsh as the rest of us. “She thinks I’m mean to people sometimes. She’s a really good gauge and a really good editor and I’ve read her some things and she’s gone, ‘Don’t say that, don’t say that.’” And has he not said that as a result? “Sometimes I’ve gone, ‘Right, that means I should say that.’”

As infuriating as Sweetman’s reviews can be – either because it’s your favourite act he’s eviscerating or because he seems to be relishing the blunt instrument of invective at the expense of analysis – he is on the whole an enlivening presence. “The criticism people give me is you need to be open-minded. But isn’t it being open-minded reviewing things negatively as well as positively? Couldn’t you question someone who only writes positive reviews as maybe not being open-minded?” He’s never written anything he doesn’t believe, he says.

On Song “I wrote a blog at the start of the year about Six60, which doesn’t seem to want to die. It’s got the most comments of anything I’ve ever done – over 500. I stand by everything I said in it. Was I being provocative? Yeah, probably. I was definitely stirring. But isn’t that one of the roles of writing a blog? “I’ve got to say I’m constantly baffled that I get the reaction I do and the reputation I’ve got of being controversial or mean or whatever. It just makes me think how, compared with the writing culture in the UK, we are a bunch of f---ing softies.”

For his On Song book, Sweetman is in five-star mode: it’s a celebration he was invited to write by Penguin. He naturally had his own opinions about what merited celebration. “I was sent a really long list of suggestions – about 100 songs. Many of them it was just, ‘No, no, no, no f---ing way.’ There was Fat Freddy’s Drop on there. Wandering Eye. It was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

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