Toronto's Star...
Ben Rayner
In a interview

By Cameron Gordon

Ben Rayner is the rock critic for the Toronto Star...and you're not! Known for his sardonic wit and a willingness to slot Britney and Beyoncé alongside Uncut and UFO, Rayner is the ultimate generalist: a genuine connoisseur of musical snot-itude but also an observer of Much Music, boy bands and all the rest of it. He has the guts to tread in the mainstream, a place that many rock critics avoid for fear of setting off a bear trap of banality. Yet you can leaf through just a small sample of his work and be left with the impression of dedicated student of the underground, and a diehard music fan above all else. Rayner and I recently enjoyed several late afternoon beers at Toronto's Red Room, and discussed what life is like writing about music for Canada's largest daily.

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Cameron:   When did you first start getting into journalism?

Ben:   My mother is a reporter and my father was a reporter too--they actually met while working for the same newspaper back in England. And my dad eventually became a music teacher so I guess I combined elements of both. I never really wanted to do journalism because I didn't want to do what my mom did. But I was always a pretty good writer so I ended up taking journalism in school because I got money for it up at Carleton. I had done some writing for my mom's paper, growing up in St George, New Brunswick--I used to help out with this April Fools issue she'd do in the community newspaper. My mom doesn't think she's funny so I wrote that from about the time I was 12.

Cameron:   Do your parents still write?

Ben:   My mom does. My dad's retired now. He was a principal back in New Brunswick and he just published his fourth or fifth kids book. He does some photography too and teaches piano.

Cameron:   So it seems like you've lived in a few places?

Ben:   Yep, I was born in Colchester, England, and then moved to Newfoundland to New Brunswick to Ottawa to here. I'm as much Newf as I am anything else.

Cameron:   How did you discover a lot of the obscure music, growing up in the Maritime's?

Ben:   I listened to "Brave New Waves" on CBC radio a ton. That and Backstreet Records in Saint John, New Brunswick were my only lifelines to what was happening in the music world. I actually had Psychocandy by the Jesus and Mary Chain when I was 11. I had this babysitter who played it for me and I liked it. So I definitely got into a lot of the weird stuff pretty early--the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Damned, the Church, Severed Heads, Love and Rockets. I had my first Joy Division album at 12. I remember I bought it in St Johns, Newfoundland off the very same guy who used to work in the Sam's at Brunswick Square in Saint John, which is just too perfect not to be part of some greater design?sorry, I know that's a total stoner thing to say. Otherwise, I've always been a big metal fan--I grew up in a town of 1,300 people in rural New Brunswick, so that's pretty much a given. For the electronic stuff, it started with New Order and Cabaret Voltaire, then into Arthur Baker and The Orb. I had read about a lot more of the techno stuff than I'd actually heard so it wasn't until I got to Ottawa that I really got into techno. I was and still am a huge techno nerd. It's the same type of group as indie rock nerds--all awkward boys [laughs]. I began going to lots of parties once I moved to Ottawa. There was actually a good audience for that kind of music in Ottawa. It was a small music community at the time so you'd see all the same faces.

Cameron:   And it was in Ottawa that your writing career really started?

Ben:   Yeah, I started interning at the Ottawa Sun in my fourth year at Carleton and they hired me for the summer before I had even graduated. That was around 1996, I think. They hired me as a GA for the summer but I knew the editor a little bit. Craig MacInnis, who used to be a rock writer and a film writer in Toronto, was my arts prof at Carleton and he introduced me to Vit Wagner. Indirectly, he got me the job at the Star, through his contacts.

Cameron:   What were you doing at the Sun when you first started?

Ben:   I worked weekends at the start. Eventually, the entertainment editor offered me a three-month contract to replace Paul Canton, who was their music writer. Paul was leaving to write a book about Alanis Morrissette. It actually turned into four months because Paul took an extra month to write the Alanis book. Just when I was starting at the Sun, there were a ton of pretty good bands in Ottawa playing all sorts of different music: Punchbuggy, Furnaceface, Wooden Stars, Starling. There actually seems to be a new wave of bands from Ottawa now because I'm getting sent a lot of stuff from that direction. Anyway, once Paul came back, they gave me a column writing about bars. And then the publisher liked me enough to give me a column on the Saturday op-ed page.

Cameron:   What were you writing about then?

Ben:   Well, he wanted me writing about the "politics of youth" but it very quickly degenerated into the usual?stuff I write about now. Then, I got hired as a news writer and then the rock writer again when Paul left. In the space of two years, I moved around a ton.

Cameron:   How did you end up coming to the Star?

Ben:   In about May of 1998, the Star phoned me--I had actually interviewed for Betsy Powell's job when she got hired. They called me up, asked if I still wanted to work for the Star. I was like, "Uh? YES." He said he couldn't really guarantee me the job but it was pretty much mine if it was available. It was just weird. I never really wanted to live in Toronto, but it was obviously a great opportunity. I had never really read the Star before that, which maybe was a good thing.

Cameron:   I always thought it was a bit strange when you got hired because a lot of the stuff you ended up writing about wasn't "newsworthy" in a sense. It was music that wasn't getting covered anywhere else, at least in mainstream media.

Ben:   I don't know about that; the Star's always been really good about letting me do whatever I want and covering a wide range of topics. It's a bit worse now because we're working without an editor. It's pretty much running itself at this point.

Cameron:   So there's a lot more freedom at the Star than at the Ottawa Sun?

Ben:   It was just a different approach. On my second to last day at the Sun, Swervedriver were playing their first ever show in Ottawa. And I love Swervedriver. So I put in an advance for the show, it's my second to last day and the managing editor calls me over and says, "Ben, Ben? come 'ere. What are you doin'? Who are these guys? Who are the Swervedrivers? Alannah Myles is playing the Hard Rock Café and we don't have anything!" They were just freaking out. It was just an example of the kind of controlling people who had no clue in terms of music at the Sun. But at the Star, they don't care. As long as Christian Aguilera gets reviewed when she comes through, I can write about Richie Hawtin ad nauseum if I want to.

Cameron:   How do you and Vit Wagner share rock writing duties?

Ben:   Well, Vit's been at the paper for 13 years but I'm actually the senior rock writer at this point. It's supposed to be Vit featuring the "mature artists" and me just doing whatever. After Betsy Powell left, it was just me and a couple of freelancers I was using. And I just ignored a whole tier of stuff--y'know, Deep Purple and Yes. There were obviously exceptions, like when the Rolling Stones came through town, but there would be months where I'd be writing about nothing but techno.

Cameron:   Did you ever think there'd be a point where you might lose that free reign?

Ben:   No, it's not like anybody was complaining about the stuff I was writing. I think they appreciated that I was writing about all these other kinds of music. The electronic stuff especially, nobody was writing about it when I started. Even eye or Now weren't covering it that much, and I think the Star appreciated that we were giving the readers something a little different.

Cameron:   I think that's pretty reflective of the youth focus the Star's been trying to build since the mid-1990s.

Ben:   When I started at the Star, the National Post had just come out and the Star really wanted to stock themselves with young writers. And they're still saying that today. There's this thirst to be different and I think that's a good thing, but when you try too hard at something like that, inevitably you'll fail. For a newspaper, when they manage to find a writer who is able to connect with their audience, they're very appreciative. You'll get a lot more leeway?plus nobody reads the Entertainment section anyway [laughs].

Cameron:   Have you ever submitted anything that the Star has rejected?

Ben:   No, never. Of course, I file so late most of the time that there's not a lot they can do in that 10-minute window [laughs]. But no, nobody's ever complained. That's the thing; the Ottawa Sun was a right wing paper staffed by pretty left-leaning people while the Star is a lot more central. They're very cool about allowing for many voices. Especially in the Entertainment section, you could've been a communist during the McCarthy era and you still would've got published.

Cameron:   I remember you once wrote about going to a Yanni concert. How'd that come about?

Ben:   I wasn't even going to write about it but my friend thought it would be funny to go. I like doing shit like that. I saw the Backstreet Boys five or six times; it's pretty interesting to watch them go from the Robert Guertin Arena in Hull to 50,000 people at Sky Dome. My first week at the Star, I was flown to Montreal to see the first Canadian appearance by the Spice Girls. And last Valentine's Day, the Star flew me to New York to speak with Kylie Minogue. I really enjoy doing the pop stuff where Vit really doesn't like it. It's just so much fun to write about.

Cameron:   I really like reading your columns because you're not really harsh and elitist like a lot of rock critics are. You seem to be able to keep the audiences for the music in mind, and write from that perspective.

Ben:   I think that's because I've been writing about it for so long and because I've been to a lot of the really, really bad pop shows. Bands like O-Town or the real boring stuff like Our Lady Peace or Matchbox 20. I see a band like that and I just don't get anything from them. It's really hard to write about those type of bands. But with the pop bands, you start to judge them on a sliding scale. Like I know a Britney Spears show will be entertaining and it won't be as obnoxious as a Christian Aguilera show. And with the Backstreet Boys, the last time I saw them, it was so sad. They had become totally earnest and they were all dressed in black?"This song is dedicated to my sister. She died three years ago of lupus." When Justin Timberlake was still playing with 'N Sync, their shows were always kind of fun. They'd have Mystery Science Theatre 3000 heads bobbing around on the video screen. A lot of that stuff is way more clever than it's made out to be and it's totally entertaining?even if it's dreadful. The bad ones are still really bad but the good ones would surprise you.

Cameron:   Are O-Town the worst of that ilk that you've encountered?

Ben:   Not sure, they were just the first that came to mind. I was thinking about them the other day. Not only were they lip-synching but they were also miming playing their instruments. It's really hard to pick a worst band. If you're talking about the most unpleasant band to watch, it's usually those half-assed bands that aren't really good or bad. Like Incubus or Three Days Grace. You just sit there thinking why the fuck do they have such a huge audience?

Cameron:   I'd agree. I would much rather see something I absolutely hated than something I'm just indifferent about.

Ben:   Yeah, come to think of it, Bon Jovi were pretty fucking awful too.

Cameron:   One band that I thought kind of turned a corner of banality was Creed. They started out really boring but then they got pretty over-the-top with the posturing and religious overtones. It got to be so sensationalized that they became sorta interesting for their sheer ridiculousness of it all.

Ben:   Actually, Creed were one of the worse shows I have ever seen. I remember sitting there with Kieran Grant and my ex-girlfriend, thinking it would be really funny, but it was just brutal. There were these Roman pillars on stage and every song sounded exactly the same--like Alice in Chains with Eddie Vedder singing. Their singer is one of those guys you just want to smack in the face.

Cameron:   What kind of promo items are you getting from the record labels these days?

Ben:   Mainly just the CDs at this point. I get all my mail sent to my house because it gets stolen at work. I did an experiment a few years back with the Garth Brooks re-issues that came out. I tucked them behind some books, under my desk, and sure enough, they were gone within a few days. People literally rifle through there. The problem with getting everything sent to my house is that I'm literally up to my ass in crap. But it's nothing like it was a few years ago. The labels just aren't giving out as much stuff as they used to with the CDs. If you're lucky, you might get some candy or a coupon for $2 off at KFC.

Cameron:   Do you throw most of the excess right in the garbage?

Ben:   Yeah, that or I give it to the United Way or something.

Cameron:   With all the free CDs you get, do you ever buy anything at HMV or the big chain stores?

Ben:   I've become friendly with a lot of the cool indie labels so I get most of that stuff now, so I can save my cash to buy weird 12"s. The last thing I bought from HMV was the Rhino Left of the Dial box set. It's awesome--really good for road trips. It cost $120 but was definitely worth it.

Cameron:   What's in your CD player right now?

Ben:   I've really been obsessed with the re-issues of the third and fourth Suicide albums. I've never been a huge Suicide fan but they have this song "Wild in Blue" that I just can't get enough of. It's the darkest tune ever, just this throbbing death disco thing. It doesn't sound like anything else they've ever done but it's so good. [Responding to music coming over PA] The Paul Oak enfold megamix? This is when trance used to be all right--1995 or 1996, when I used to be a full-on rave kid.

Cameron:   Well, they were playing the Cranberries before you came in so I guess their music policy changes come late afternoon.

Ben:   The Cranberries had their moments. I'll give anything the benefit of the doubt and try to find something to like. I'm just so negative most of the time that it's too easy just to slam most of the stuff I hear. But yeah, the Cranberries had some decent tunes?This is totally zooming me back. I'm starting to feel a bit melancholy.

Cameron:   Do you go to a lot of record industry parties?

Ben:   Sometimes, but not so much anymore. When I first moved Toronto, that was kind of exciting because we didn't get a lot of that in Ottawa. It's not that I dislike the showcases or whatever but I just hate talking to people at those things. I'm pretty reclusive; I'll nip in the back right before it starts and leave the second it ends.

Cameron:   Are you often assaulted by young bands wanting you to write about them?

Ben:   Yeah, there's a little bit of that but you can normally tell right away when you're getting into one of those conversations. But yeah, it's not quite as romantic as bands shoving their demos in my face. I get a lot more, "Hey! My friend's in a band. They play covers out in Brampton. You should check 'em out."

Cameron:   Are you still as enthusiastic about seeing so many concerts as when you started?

Ben:   It's hard because I've seen so much now that I get pickier and pickier about what I'll watch. It's not a pretentious thing; it's just I don't want to be seeing the same kind of band over and over. I've actually been going to a lot more of the electronic stuff recently for sheer pleasure, which means spending a lot of time in Montreal. But I still think there's no substitute for a good rock show and sometimes I forget that. I'll see somebody like the Dears and they'll destroy me every time. But when you're going out for a living, it can get pretty draining. If you're seeing Blink-182 on a Monday and Yanni on Tuesday and Melissa Etheridge on Wednesday, I would even pass up the Constantines just to stay home because I'm out every goddam night. I don't like when the job erodes my enjoyment of the music.

Cameron:   What else would you like to write about besides music?

Ben:   There's a little space to roam in my column so it's a good outlet for that. It's funny. Just last week, I got a call from my acting editor asking if I'd like to write about the male contraceptive pill. It had come up in some meeting and they determined Rayner's the guy to do it. I went back to sleep, thought about it and politely declined. I actually like the unpredictability of news--you go in for your three o'clock shift on a Saturday and you're shuttled out to Grimsby to interview Mike Harris. Those days don't happen when you're writing about music, but that's fine.

Cameron:   You wrote recently about the Jandek on Corwood documentary. What did you think of that whole project?

Ben:   I thought the filmmakers handled the whole "myth of Jandek" thing pretty respectfully and did a good job of confirming that obscurity is an essential part of his art.

Cameron:   I enjoyed all the scenes with the high-brow "rock scholars" pontificating about his music.

Ben:   Yeah, like that guy who insisted it was pronounced Yan-Dek. It was cool to see Calvin Johnson involved. He's the real deal--one of those true indie guys who's just totally into that lifestyle. And I had forgotten how much I like that old Beat Happening stuff. There's just something very sinister about his voice.

Cameron:   Lastly, who are some of your favourite writers, fiction or otherwise?

Ben:   I'm an absolutely obsessive Martin Amis fan. You should read London Fields or Dead Babies by him; it will probably change your life. You'll know all my tricks if you read that but it's the most black, black satire. It's nasty stuff. Otherwise, Chuck Eddy and William S. Burroughs. I wouldn't really say that any of these guys are influences--The Simpsons is probably a bigger influence on my writing than anything I've ever read. There's more of that in this head then anything else. The amount I know about The Simpsons is just disturbing. I'm just up to my neck in Simpsons stuff. I've got talking play sets, a talking Krusty doll, a plush Itchy and Scratchy. I stopped short of getting the Simpsons chess set. There's actually two different ones--there's a really nice version that I've seen once and then there's one that's cheaply painted and widely available [laughs]. I've also got an original David Silverman sketch. I cornered him at a conference when I worked at the Sun. I was stoked. Everyone was asking him for sketches when I was talking to him and I just couldn't bring myself to do that. But then by the end of the conversation, he drew Homer for me and said, "I think you're a little obsessed. You have to stop."

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