Early Encounters with Future Pitchfork Legends
thoughts on eras and endings
What an awful day this past Wednesday was, when I was texting with friends about what we were seeing on twitter and we learned one-by-one which of our friends at Pitchfork no longer had a job. I've seen such a thing unfold on twitter many times, but it hits different when it’s people you worked alongside for years, at a publication you’ve been contributing to for more than half your life.
The day after, Pitchfork’s reviews editor Jeremy Larson sent word that Pitchfork would continue, and we’ve seen a regular slate of reviews since, including pieces from two of my favorite music writers—Jenn Pelly on Sleater-Kinney and Simon Reynolds on the Cocteau Twins. Pitchfork isn’t dead. While we don’t know what will happen next, there are still extremely smart and thoughtful people working there, and I’m rooting for them.
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Still, given who was let go, clearly things will never be the same. Scrolling to see who was losing their jobs was for me a bit like rewinding a tape—I started thinking about when I first met these people and how I became aware of their immense talents. So after taking it all in I typed this in a rush—it’s long and rambling and filled with typos and probably a few errors, and it doesn’t cover everyone who was laid off, just those I worked with closely over a number of years. But it feels necessary to me somehow, to document just what these folks, once my co-workers and now my friends, brought to a publication that has meant so much to me. Maybe think of it as notes toward a speech I wish I could have read aloud at the proper going-away party all these people deserved.
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I have to start with Amy Philips, Pitchfork’s former Executive Editor, who was, I believe, Pitchfork employee No. 5 when she was hired to run the news section in 2005. The site was really taking off at that point—founder Ryan Schreiber had hired Scott Plagenhoef as editor and Chris Kaskie to run the business side, and they were moving aggressively to make everything about the organization better. That included creating the Intonation Music Festival—the first iteration of the Pitchfork fest—and I was there for that event, as I would be every summer through 2018. That’s where I met Amy. I came up from Virginia, she from New York, and we both crashed in Ryan’s apartment, as did a few other people. She had already been hired but hadn’t yet started.
There was a buzz of excitement around the fact that she was joining the staff because she was a “get” as hires go, even though she was, I think, only 23 years old. Amy started writing for music pubs of considerable note when she was 19, which was incomprehensible to a late bloomer like me, and I knew her work. “They brought on Amy Phillips, that’s a good sign,” was how I saw it. We talked some that busy weekend and she said she’d email me contact information for all the print magazines she had written for and I was trying to break into, which she did.
Over the following year, I began to edit part-time for Pitchfork and became more involved in the reviews section. And then in 2007, Ryan, Scott, and Chris offered me a job and I moved to Chicago. My primary duties initially were doing a sizable chunk of the review edits and running the Forkcast section (more on that later). I have a clear memory of walking into the office on my first day. It was on North Ave, a few doors down from the bookstore Quimby’s and above a yoga studio, and it was one large room with a small office at the far end. Many of the desks were hulking steel monstrosities from the 70s. Amy had a creaky old Windows machine on her with an ethernet cable that led to the modem, and that cable, which you had to be careful not to trip over if you were walking along that wall, was stretched to the breaking point. For the next 11 years, in several offices in two cities, every weekday I’d be sitting somewhere near Amy and we’d be discussing, verbally or via messaging, the music news of the day, music in general, and, later, as we became friends, our lives.
Amy was the loudest typist I’d ever heard, at least until I eventually worked near Jayson Greene. I can remember being in rooms with her where I had my headphones up loud, blasting Autechre, say, and we’d be going back and forth on AIM about whether some new album announcement was worth covering, and I could hear every key of her being slammed over the clatter of the music as her words emerged on my screen. It was fun discussing music with her, in part because our tastes were pretty different. But there was some overlap. I’m thinking back to the two of us chatting on AIM when Jamie xx released “Gosh”—I was working on a track review, and a couple of days earlier the news story announcing the In Colour tracklist had lit up the internet like a goddamn pinball machine (inside joke for Amy only) and we were losing our minds at how good it was.
Amy is the kind of person for whom working extremely hard is the default—especially in those days, it took effort for her not to overwork herself. It seems possible that, early on, as it was for me, she saw this opportunity at Pitchfork as the chance of the lifetime, and she didn’t want to mess anything up. You have to watch out for that feeling because if you give into it, you can easily forget to take care of yourself.
Amy created the structures for organizing and processing information that made Pitchfork news what it was. Her ability to get things done right on an extremely tight deadline was awe-inspiring. Over time, and through many changes and growth in her role—much of which happened after I moved on, when she became Managing Editor and then Executive Editor—she became the unshakeable foundation of Pitchfork, the person who always had her shit handled even when there was chaos everywhere else. She did that away from the spotlight. She was late to join twitter and seemed to be immune to the “Hey everyone, look at me!” impulse that drives social media (let it be said that I am not immune to this impulse, so I notice when others feel differently).
I was always trying to get Amy to write for the site more, because I knew what a talented writer she is, but she was already putting in ridiculous hours running news so it wasn’t really possible. I used to get excited every time I was assigning blurbs for a year-end list, because she contributed to those and nailed her pieces every time—I’d relish the combination of knowledge, insight, and funny-yet-sincere tone I first noticed when she was a freelancer. The Amy Phillips Era of Pitchfork started shortly after Spoon released Gimmie Fiction and the Hold Steady put out Separation Sunday, and it ended last week.
* * *
I can’t think about News at Pitchfork without remembering Evan Minsker. He first worked for the site as an intern in the Chicago office in 2010. Pitchfork had an improbably lucky run with interns over the years, kids just out of school who would later join the staff, and Evan established the template. From the beginning, he was eager and meticulous. He was deeply committed to DIY culture and passionate about underground music and, like many with these attributes, he loves the democratizing power of independent radio. He loves garage rock and knows a shitload about it. I was so stoked when he started writing his column, Shake Appeal, which covered that scene—I remember thinking when it launched that we got the best guy in the world to cover this stuff, always a good feeling for an editor, and I loved following along, especially because so much of what he wrote about was unfamiliar to me.
We’re connected by our Midwestern roots. One night I worked late at the Greenpoint office and I had just finished up. He had recently moved to Ann Arbor, which excited me, and he was just clocking on. Feeling a bit of Michigander pride and wanting to welcome him to his new state— it’s possible I’d had a beer or two—I hopped over to Discogs and sent ordered him a vinyl copy of Bob Seger’s out-of-print early masterpiece Mongrel, which it seemed to me every garage-rock obsessive based in Michigan should own. I think he liked the Seger record, but I never got to talk to him about music as much as I wanted to, since he was on the night shift. He essentially ran the site on his own for half the day—it was a tremendous responsibility, and he was very good at it. He also mentored many new staffers. Along with interning, part-time news shifts during off hours was a common entry point for those just starting at Pitchfork, and Evan, a thoughtful and generous leader, worked closely with this cohort, helping them become better.
* * *
Another person I met at Intonation, only briefly, was Ryan Dombal. We said hello for the first time at Schreiber’s apartment (as you might imagine, we got used to saying “Schreiber” and “Dombal” at Pitchfork rather than “Ryan”—if it was just “Ryan,” that was usually Schreiber) and shared a cab to a post-show event somewhere. I can remember a brief conversation about whether he preferred Four Tet, whose album he had recently reviewed, or Caribou/Manitoba. (As I recall, he was a Four Tet guy all the way, and that time Caribou was closer to my heart.) I was already a fan of his writing for Pitchfork, both with reviews and in the track reviews section. Like Amy, he was funny and knowledgeable and very good at packing large thoughts into a small space.
In 2009, Pitchfork hired Dombal and Tom Breihan. For a while, Dombal wrote news and did it well, but he was full of ideas and obviously wished he was doing something else. Around this time, Pitchfork still had a private staff message board where the writers and editors would hang out and post about music and whatever else. At some point I had started a thread there called 5-10-15-20, asking new contributors to post and discuss their favorite music from each of those ages, as a kind of icebreaker. Dombal had the idea to turn the thread idea into a Pitchfork feature, where we’d ask artists about the music in their lives.
5-10-15-20 caught on and is still going 15 years later, and it’s possibly my favorite interview franchise in the history of the music press, up there with The Wire’s Invisible Jukebox. The best of these offer an intimate look at an artist’s life and tell their story through the music that mattered to them, and, for me, they erase the line between artist and fan. My favorite entry in the series, and what I’ll call one of my favorite interviews with an artist ever, is the one Dombal did with Robert Wyatt. I still read it pretty much annually to be inspired by ways of thinking about life and creativity. Later, he created the Over/Under video series for Pitchfork.tv, which was instantly great and is still running.
So yeah, ideas pour out of this guy. And if all Dombal did was write terrific pieces and invent franchises, that would be a lot. But I haven’t even talked about his greatest gift, which is editing. Everyone who has been edited by him will tell you this: He cares so much about making a piece as good as it can be and he has some kind of superpower that helps him understand how structure informs impact. I asked him once how he was so good at turning OK pieces into great ones, and what his trick was, and he told me that if a piece starts to get boring, he cuts the boring part. I think he was kidding, but it wasn’t always easy to tell with Dombal because of his low-key demeanor.
Dombal has great taste in music. If he says something is good and its appeal escapes me, I listen to it over and over to understand what he hears. And if I’m having trouble getting it, I know I’m missing something important (sometimes this gap in understanding was more like a chasm—Lil Peep comes to mind). As with Amy, I always wanted Dombal to write more because he’s so good at it, and he has written some of the best reviews and features to run on Pitchfork. But he was mostly busy with editing, and only took on a piece if he knew he could make it great (once in a while, he’d write about something because he was driven by being deeply curious about a subject and wanting to learn more). That impulse seemed to drive everything he did at Pitchfork—if it’s not going to be great, why bother? Check out this twitter thread from Dombal to see a tiny sample of some of those great things, including the last column I wrote for Pitchfork, which, as usual, he improved immensely.
* * *
My partner on the Forkcast blog was Marc Hogan. Through the 2000s, Pitchfork grew mostly based on its news and reviews sections—thanks to Amy it was a one-stop shop for information on all things indie rock and beyond, and the reviews as always were there for people to read and argue about. In the indie world people call this the “blog rock era,” and Forkcast was Pitchfork’s home-grown blog, a place to post quick-hit thoughts on mp3s, YouTubes, new tracks posted to Myspace, and so on. It had its own RSS feed. And while lots of people contributed to the Forkcast, Marc was its primary writer, contracted to be available Monday through Friday to write about whatever came over the transom.
Looking back now, Marc was one of the first people I became friends with through the internet. We were tethered via AIM, where we’d spend our days looking at what was happening in the blogosphere and discussing which tracks or videos we’d cover. He was such an efficient writer it was scary—I don’t remember the precise nature of his compensation package, but there was an incentive for hitting a certain number of pieces a day, and I can remember occasions where it would be well over 20 pieces in a single day.
By then, Marc was an established Pitchfork contributor, and I knew him through his reviews. He knew a little about everything, but was passionate about twee-leaning indie rock of a certain kind, and I enjoyed learning from him about that world. Perhaps because our friendship started over AIM—we’ve never lived in the same place—I’ve always enjoyed shooting Marc an occasional text about an old Forkcast favorite, pointing out that I’m currently listening to Evangelicals “Skeleton Man” or Cloud Cult’s “Chemicals Collide.”. In 2008, we had an epic hang when we went to Denmark to cover Roskilde for Pitchfork. We watched My Bloody Valentine play in a tent that was billed as the largest in Europe and then we stumbled to a hill to listen to Neil Young singing “Old Man” as our ears recovered. While we were there, Marc told me about Tumblr, which I’d never heard of.
But the Forkcast days with Marc were just a blip when we talk about the significance of his work. In my mind, he’s without question the most important reporter working in the music space in the past 15 years. I enjoyed geeking out with him and learning what made I’m From Barcelona tick, but his later reporting, often about the abuse of power by individuals and organizations, shifted culture. For a few years after I became editor of Pitchfork, Marc was applying those skills at other music publications and it was killing me. It would be physically painful when Marc would break a story at another outlet. It just seemed just wrong somehow, and when the opportunity presented itself, bringing him back to Pitchfork was the top priority, a missing piece that we knew would make us great. Check out the essay he wrote for Rolling Stone about his P4k tenure.
* * *
(Quick aside: Competition is good for magazines. After Puja Patel took over as editor at SPIN prior to her tenure at Pitchfork and changed its focus to in-depth reporting, we were feeling the heat of that shift. I began to worry that they would beat us to scoops and sometimes they did. It hurt, which made us want to do better. And so later, it made so much sense that she’d come to lead Pitchfork. Puja is rightly being celebrated for transforming the site in the past five years—she came into an exceedingly difficult situation and made the site better and I’m not sure anyone else could have pulled it off.)
* * *
Another brilliant writer and editor whose hire at Pitchfork required effort and strategizing was Jill Mapes. I first read her work at Flavorwire and then on Tumblr, which I was spending time on after Marc introduced me to it. She had that mix of intelligence, humor, and insight that always jumps out at me, a perfect balance of conversational tone and smart commentary. I’d learn something new with each piece. Like Amy, she was doing exceedingly impressive things career-wise when barely out of college.
We interviewed Jill for a job early on, but it wound up going to someone else. A couple of years later, when we needed someone to edit The Pitch, the site’s blog-like space for shorter features, everybody knew she was perfect for it. Problem was, by that time she had a highly desirable job as an editor at Vulture, and it wasn’t easy for Pitchfork to lure people away from these NY publishing institutions. Historically, given its modest origins, Pitchfork was often a stop on the way to something bigger.
I remember feeling like a man on a mission when taking the subway down to Park Slope to talk to her about the job over lunch, going over in my mind how important it was for me to close the deal. I was thinking of the famous story of when Steve Jobs was trying to hire John Sculley, then CEO of Pepsi, to come work at Apple, and he asked him something like, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to change the world?” But nothing we could offer at Pitchfork provided such a stark contrast to the work she was presently doing. But, lucky us, she wanted the job and, as with Marc, I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment after bringing her aboard.
Jill came up reading Pitchfork and came in with a million ideas, many of which were explicitly about expanding the range of the site’s coverage. I loved discussing writers with her, who was doing good work and who we should reach out to, and she had a long list of potential contributors who weren’t anywhere on my radar. She made me pay attention to artists I hadn’t really engaged with before—Julien Baker and Big Thief come to mind—and once in a while I’d edit one of her reviews, and it was exceedingly fun to sit at a table and kick around ideas about how to make a piece even better. I’ve been thinking about that phrase you see on social media when someone leaves a job: “I can’t wait to see what you do next.” I heard that one a few times when I left Pitchfork, and while of course it feels good that people care, my first thought was always, “Appreciate that, but it might turn out to be kinda boring!” It’s a lot of pressure to expect one’s career path to be a never-ending series of rungs stretching upward, and the mindset of the phrase suggests, just a little bit, that our work is who we are. All that said, and knowing something about her particular ambitions, I really am excited to see what Jill does next.
* * *
I have the same excitement about the future of Sam Sodomsky. He was another intern who grew to become a cornerstone of Pitchfork. (Come to think of it, we have to put Dombal in this category too—he interned at Pitchfork in the early 2000s while studying journalism at Northwestern, and he tells a funny story about trudging to the post office with a dozen bags of CDs to mail to writers). My memory is that Brandon Stosuy brought Sam in. At some point early on we went to lunch in Greenpoint, and I learned that he also made music, and that he had a deep knowledge of what Pitchfork was all about and thoughts on the art of music criticism. He’d read and absorbed the best of what Pitchfork had published to that point as far as music criticism, and he was poised to extend that legacy with his own work. I admire his writing so much, and every time I read his thoughts on a record, I hear it with his ears and it expands my perspective. We also share favorites. Springsteen was my first exception as a teenager getting into music, and Sam knows more about him than almost anyone, and has a seemingly endless reservoir of thoughts on Springsteen’s art. Once again, if Sam took an artist seriously and I’d only skimmed their work, I knew I had to go back and listen a second time to hear what I might have missed.
After I left Pitchfork I got to know Sam a bit better from seeing him occasionally, texting when a record review caught my eye, and listening to the two podcasts he co-founded (I learned via the latter just how screamingly funny he can be). I’ve learned how he thinks from the other side of the Google doc when he edited a few of my reviews. And as is true of everyone I’ve mentioned here, he cares about quality and getting it right. I started to miss working with these folks in 2018, but I was comforted by knowing what they were up to on Pitchfork each day, either from seeing their byline or having some awareness of what they were doing behind the scenes. Now they’re gone after so many years of fantastic work, and that’s going to take a while to process.
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