Washington Post Pop Critic Chris Richards on Starting Out, Keeping It Going, and Looking Towards the Future

Washington Post Pop Critic Chris Richards on Starting Out, Keeping It Going, and Looking Towards the Future

This is a free installment of Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also get a Baker's Dozen playlist every Friday with critical writing; all newsletter revenue is currently being donated to the National Network of Abortion Funds. We've raised $3,160.13 so far.

Chris Richards is someone who I've been a fan of twice over—once when he was in seminal D.C. punk band Q & Not U, and again through his critical writing as pop critic for the Washington Post. I thought he'd be interesting to talk to for many reasons, hope you agree as you read on.

I’m curious to hear you talk about how you got to the position you have today.

Doing the work is a huge part of it, and there’s a huge amount of happenstance as well. I really struggle when I’m talking to younger writers who are trying to imagine their path, because there’s no highways paved in this game. You have to wander through the woods, slash through the bushes, and try to find your way.

The way it started for me is the same way it does for everybody: Really loving music as an adolescent while trying to learn who you are, which meant trying to play it, trying to write about it, talking about it with my friends, wearing it on every T-shirt I wore out of the house, and really immersing myself in it in any way I could. There wasn’t a demarcation line between writing about music and playing it, especially in the post-hardcore world I grew up in where fanzines were super prevalent.

I wrote for the high school paper and college paper and kept going at it, and the way I formally got to this legacy media corporation was by getting a part-time job at the Washington Post while I was in Q & Not U. I came back from our first U.S. tour and needed a job, and there was a guy named Bob Massey who used to play in Tsunami. We were old roommates at a punk house a few years earlier. He said, “You should apply to be a copy aide at the Washington Post.”

When I got there, I found out that the Style section was filled with people in bands—Kathi Wilcox from Bikini Kill worked there, Alison Wolfe from Bratmobile, Michael Cotterman from Kid Dynamite. We covered for each other while we went on tour, so we could have health insurance and an hourly wage when we were home from touring. I kept the job all the way through Q & Not U, and when the band broke up I was like, “Now what am I gonna do with my life?”

Things kind of fell into place. The music critic, Josh du Lac, he and I got along while talking about E-40 and Deftones, and he said, “Hey, you have this history, you should start reviewing concerts for the Post!” I said, “Wow, really? I never thought to ask about that.” So I started doing concert reviews here and there, and he was very good at getting me to leave my comfort zones to attend country and rap shows—things I wouldn’t have gone to normally as a punk kid. He’d be like, “You like Dolly Parton, right? Go check it out.” He taught me to have a broad taste, and in 2005 it was a generalist era. He was an amazing mentor for me.

I did that for a few years, and then I got hired to be editor of the FADER, which was a very strange hire because I had no experience managing or editing anybody—so I only lasted there for six months before I was fired. I freelanced in New York for a bit, and then I got a call from Josh who said, “I’m leaving for another position at the paper, you should apply to be the critic here.” I thought, “Well, there’s no chance I’ll get this.” But fate shone kindly down upon me, and I got the gig. That was 2009, and I’m coming up on 13 years of doing this job and starting to think about how much longer I should be doing it.

Elaborate on that last sentence.

I don’t know if I believe in term limits for critics, and I know I’ll be writing about music for the rest of my life, but I wonder how much longer I should be the Post’s only voice on music. We don’t have a ton of resources—the music department is basically myself and the people who edit the copy that comes in from freelancers. I’m happy to write about music teenagers are making when I’m in my 50s, but I shouldn’t be the only person at the organization doing that.

I’ve given myself another seven years in my mind [Laughs], and I know that anyone reading this will go, “Oh my God, that’s a long, long runway.” But when you’re 43 years old, seven years go by very quickly. I’m trying to use that next seven years to write the pieces I want to write and chisel my stone tablets before figuring out what the next move should be.

You mentioned zines. You’ve been putting out one yourself.

It’s been going out for three years now, it’s called Debussy Ringtone. It’s a quarterly thing, 12 micro-interviews and nano-essays about music and things like that. It’s basically a place for me to put ideas that are too small to go to the Post. I should say, at the paper, I have an incredible amount of freedom. They’re very supportive. If I find it interesting, they find it interesting. But there’s also ideas that can’t sustain 500 words, and I was tired of posting them to social media and giving them over to these dark corpo forces for no reason. So I was like, “Let me try to cultivate this in a tactile object that could be exchanged in the mail.” I thought it would be a cool way for me to have an offline exchange of ideas.

I probably sell 200 copies an issue. I’m very behind right now, but it’s been really fun and has connected me with a whole new world of zine writers who don’t write online and only put their stuff in print. I’ve made great friends with this guy who does a zine called Possessed in San Francisco, and I would’ve never met him if not for this pen pal-y thing, which is an old-school way of communication. I met Jessica Hopper the same way in the ‘90s, and it’s a great thing to keep going.

You were involved in punk communities as a musician in D.C. How have you seen scenes evolve since?

They still exist, they still thrive. When we talk about the all-ages scene in D.C., it goes in both directions . You can be a 12-year-old at the show and get in, you can also be 60 years old and people probably aren’t gonna blink. In the greater hardcore and punk universe, it really goes that way. People help each other across generations. When Q & Not U were coming up as a band, we got an immeasurable amount of support from the people who were five, ten, fifteen years older than us. Part of it was because we’d been around—we had our zines and interviewed them, and we clearly committed ourselves to the culture, so we got to be a part of it.

Obviously, the pandemic and this stage in mid-life has been a time of reflection for me, but I’m really trying to reconnect with all of the positives that I got out of that era. There was a time in my 30s where I felt a little shackled by punk dogma—I was like, “I need to shake this stuff off and go live a grown-up life.” Now I’m spending my 40s realizing, “No, no, there’s so much truth and importance in the way you came up.” So it’s been really good to reconnect with it.

A lot of times, when younger music writers ask me what they should be doing, I’m always like, “Just listen to as much as you can and write every day, like you’re training for the Olympics.” But my latest addition to that advice is “Go become a part of a scene.” Make music. Organize a show. Write about a show. Be a participant, because when you become a participant in a scene, it will make you a better guest in other scenes.

Just having that connection to a community will inform how you understand music so much better. When I started going to country concerts, I’d see the audience singing along as if they were singing about their own lives. I knew that feeling, because I’d been there with punk, and I got it in a way that I wasn’t from listening to the radio.

Music is something that happens in real life. It is life. It’s not business, and we need to not think about it that way. I hate music criticism that contextualizes musical life in waves, or lanes. Those are just worn-out smokescreen words for commerce. There are too many critics that are just business reporters. They have no interest in bowing before the mystery, and I’m way into mystery-bowing, belonging, and being with people.

During early pandemic days, I remember seeing you tweet about doing walk-and-talk interviews outside as a workaround for not being able to do traditional in-person interviews. How else have you had to adapt as a critic and writer in the pandemic era?

I would say not to hold me up as someone who’s successfully adapted—if anything, I sort of crashed and burned through it. [Laughs] I just started going to concerts again. Last night, I went to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a piece I’m writing next week, and I almost had a panic attack. Extroverts thrive off of being in the company of others, while introverts feel their lifeforce being sucked away, and I was always the former. I loved crowds, and I’d come home from a concert feeling super energized. Last night, I felt like one of those characters from The Dark Crystal, where my energy was just drained.

The pandemic has transformed me as a person, and I’m still trying to figure out who I am, what kind of listener I’m trying to be, and how to deal with the world. In terms of getting the work done, once people were amenable to going outdoors, getting masked, and going for a walk, covering the community in D.C. here has become a huge privilege of the job that I have. I take it real seriously, and I really wanna give the people who make music in this community access to a megaphone.

D.C. isn’t considered a music town by industry standards, but it absolutely is by life standards. There are so many communities and traditions, and the generations really help each other out. I’m always trying to make a record of that and helping their neighbors know that they exist. And when it comes to the formalities of meeting up and walking around, it’s a great interview structure. When you get someone walking, the ideas start flowing. It’s not a stilted phone conversation or an awkward Q&A at a hotel lobby. Being able to walk around the city blocks, see where they live, and talk about how their music informs their daily lives has been really incredible. I’m going to try to keep doing interviews this way for life, because they’ve produced a lot of insight from the artists.

As a critic, how have you navigated writing for such a large audience as the Washington Post’s?

I kind of just barreled through it for the first five or six years [Laughs]. In music criticism, we inherit a lot of language, from the “angular” guitars on down. Something that reading Ben Ratliff has taught me is disabusing yourself from inherited language. Once I started doing that, I realized that these newspaper-y, music journalism-y words and ideas that I’m clinging to or using reflexively are someone else’s language and not my own.

I’ve always been able to say what I want in the paper, whether it be my affection for something, my disgust for it, my annoyance with it. They’ve been totally supportive about me being real about the feeling, so that was always the bedrock, which is great. I’ve never been worried about it. But as time has gone on, I hope I’ve developed a voice that feels personal and not like someone speaking through the language of the institutions, so to speak.

I try to think of the Post as a megaphone, and writ large, I try to think of music criticism as human experience. This goes for anybody writing for any publication—as a reader, when I encounter their stuff, I try not to see it as a decree or a score, but someone’s experience. And sometimes I’m annoyed and disgusted by their experience, which is fine! [Laughs] There’s a lot of music critics that I disagree with fundamentally, and I read them avidly because I’m reading for other peoples’ experience. That’s what reading is all about.

So whenever I get too freaked out about talking through the institutional voice of the Post, I’m counting on the media literacy of the reader to know that this is just one person’s experience of a moment in life. If everybody read and thought that way, there’d be a lot more peace in the valley—and it’d be more argumentative too! There’d be a more lively debate, because we could all take our shots without worrying about what people are going to say.

Recalibrating your mind to understand that music criticism is just one person’s experience is helpful. But, then again, when I was in a band, I was thinking about the score that I was given, and if someone was not going to come to the show because of it. We were very good at disabusing ourselves of that anxiety when it came to any review that wasn’t “right.” We’d be upset about it for 24 hours and brush it off our shoulders, because we felt like we had a community that had our back. Another reason to be into community in music!

But I digress. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “On behalf of the Washington Post, I do declare!” [Laughs] I work through my own thought waves, and I’m incredibly lucky that I have the trust of the paper to fill that role.

Typically, when we talk about music writing in its present and future states, there’s a tendency to talk about its general health in a concerning way—I may be more guilty about this than most people. What gives you hope when it comes to music writing right now?

Looking into a tumultuous future is very difficult to do, but people can benefit from being hopeful about it. You’re not entering a locked-up system where everything is streamlined. The uncertainties of the future are also filled with possibilities, and people can figure out lots of new ways of doing things. That’s the hard part of when people want advice. “How did you get here?” Well, my path is already over—it doesn’t exist. I’ve moved through time to get here, and the future is also uncertain. Everyone has to decide their own way.

I love listening to improvisation in music, because it’s such a metaphor for existence. [Laughs] Listening to a jazz record, you’re hearing people together making all kinds of decisions based on what other people are doing. If that’s not a perfect example of how everyday life unfolds for us, what could be? So, looking at the future and what it holds, it’s about not knowing what’s over there and also that you could build something over there.

What I see from younger people right now is totally inspiring. Any time when a major figure passes in music writing…like when Greg Tate died, people were like, “Who’s going to be the next Greg Tate?” Maybe there will never be another Greg Tate! There’ll be a new type of writer we don’t know yet, and they’ll take a long time to get there, because it takes years to get yourself together. I love writers like Julyssa Lopez, Cat Zhang, and Mina Tavakoli—and I love zines like Possessed and Demystification. Music writing is happening from young people in a very exciting and vital way right now.

I don’t mourn for the future, because I think that it’s impossible for people to not care about music. It’s the animating force of my entire life and existence, and I’m not alone, so I feel like it’s in good hands.

Subscribe to Last Donut of the Night

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson