"I Just Like Music, Period": Joseph Kyle of Mundane Sounds
by jonny bonetz
"Aw, man, I loooove this song," Mundane Sounds editor Joseph Kyle says, turning up his car radio and bopping his head along. The song in question is "Leave My Mind Alone" by The Would Be Goods, taken from the compilation All's Fair In Love And Chickfactor. "This song, man, it's one of the best pop songs ever."
It's hard not to deny his assertion. With a thick Texas drawl that's as distinctive as Would Be Goods’ lead singer Jessica, his starry-eyed enthusiasm is as sincere and as deep as any big-eyed dreamer, and Alls Fair In Love and Chickfactor currently has Joseph in dreamy mode.
"That compilation--it inspired me. I listened to that CD a lot when I came up with the idea for my own online sampler series. What I love about Gail (O'Hara, mastermind behind the influential indie-pop magazine Chickfactor) is that she's such a big fan of music, and she's not ashamed to let that override her modesty. The sampler's full of great songs, compiled by loving hands and it just drips sweetness. Any record with the Magnetic Fields, Flare, Pam Berry and the Clientele is automatically going to be wonderful. That record, man...it's so..." Joseph pauses to find the right word. "....yummy!!!!!"
Regular readers of Kyle's website, Mundane Sounds, would probably say the same thing about him. It's his lovingly loving and charming attitude that keeps people coming back every day. "I've got a loyal readership, yeah. Haven't spent a dime on advertising, either. I just let the website speak for itself. I've built this site from the ground up, often times being the only person writing anything for months at a time. I did it as a reaction to a scene that's negative, cold, and...not very good. Certain websites make a lot of money being negative. Mundane Sounds is the opposite of that. I'm making no money from being positive. Am I a fool? Perhaps. But I can sleep at night, so that's a plus."
Kyle is in a position to know about negative writing. For a year, he served as a hard-working newswriter for notorious website Pitchfork--not exactly known as a friendly place. He left to start Mundane Sounds because "we weren't going in the same directions. I was told that the stories I wrote weren't the 'right kind' of indie. I did an interview with the Polyphonic Spree back in 2001 and submitted it. They rejected it, saying that they weren't interested in the weird side projects of failed Alternative Rock one-hit wonders. I couldn't convince them otherwise, so I decided that it was time for me to strike out on my own. I still read Pitchfork every day, though, so there's no ill will towards them."
Leaving Pitchfork to start his own site was no big deal, except for one thing: "I had no website design skills. None at all. I came up with a design, not understanding the concepts of coding, and it looked horrible. It wasn't much of a site. Badly coded, you couldn't read most of it, and it just looked a mess. It was truly pathetic--but in an endearing way, like a two-year-old's drawing. Some people who visited it took pity on me and gave me a design that was merely amateurish, but it made me feel like a million bucks. "Besides, negative reviews are a dime a dozen. These writers today mistake being rude to bands who make records you don't like as being 'honest.' That's a load of crap. I just cannot be pointlessly negative. It doesn't happen. I'm too nice."
A recent incident proves Joseph's statement to be more than just a proud boast. It turns out that a band he gave a massive tongue lashing to twice discovered his reviews, and they had some things to say about it. "I thought I'd get away with it. They're in major-label land, and the majors just don't care about negative reviews, or anything that's not on an 'independent' level, so I never expected to hear from them or that they'd ever see the review. Well...they did, and we had an interesting email exchange. Turns out they live a few miles down the road from me, and we got together face to face. Turns out they're really, really awesome people, and I really like them, though I still stand by some of the points I made at the time. That's what's the problem with the music journalism world--we forget that there are people who make these records. It's easy to be cynical, though, because nobody likes music journalists. We're considered to be the pariah of the industry. Everyone wants to be us, yet nobody likes us. It's puzzling. There were times when I didn't think Mundane Sounds would grow because it's 'too nice' about things."
But grow it did, and people did take a liking to it. It's easy to understand why: he mixes his deep knowledge of music with language that's so simple and basic that anyone who doesn't understand much about music could easily appreciate the music he talks about. In fact, the website's growth required it to change from a weekly publication to a daily publication. "I had to. It was growing so much, I couldn't keep up with it in that format." He admits, though, that it's not all him. "If it wasn't for my writers, I don't know how I could do it. All of them are great guys, some of them are young, others have an impressive depth of knowledge, but they're all like me: fans of music. You have to really love what you do, and we all do, and I feel blessed that I've got these writers. Besides, they're better writers than me. I just like music, that's all."
One of the pleasures of meeting this country-living writer is that his extremely positive and friendly aura simply shines on you. You want to know why his reviews read so well? You want to know why they're so real and positive? Sit down with him for breakfast and you'll understand. He's a big, imposing fellow, one that doesn't necessarily strike you as the person he really is--an acerbic wit that endears you immediatly and makes you wonder what he's going to do or say next. Even if he doesn't talk about music with you, he'll entertain you and have you laughing.
“I’ve been told I’m a funny guy,” he says, as if he has trouble grasping the concept.
“Funny” doesn’t even begin to describe him, though. We’re talking about a man who had a pancake breakfast meet-and-greet at a hip Austin cafe--reading his humorous announcement was enough of a reason for me to want to meet him. We're also talking about a man who has done such irreverent things as wearing all white to a Goth club, wearing overalls and a John Deere hat to a Shostakovich recital, and wearing formal attire to a crappy indie-rock show. “I don’t play to fashion; I play my own style card,” he says, giving me a twinkled and mischievous look. “Like my haircut?” he says, taking off his hat and proudly rubbing his shaved head. “It’s the Grandaddy look. I call it that because I could go to a Grandaddy show and tell the bouncer that I’m in the band and they’d be none the wiser.” Not only do I laugh loudly at this assessment, the couple sitting behind us does, too.
“Man, these flapjacks are gooooood,” he says with his deep East Texas drawl as he eyeballs the buckwheat cakes on his plate. He’s not trying to make me laugh, but his nature is naturally funny--enderingly charming. Of course, with a naturally sharp sense of humor, you have to wonder if he has any other outlet for his creativity. Surely he's not limiting himself to simply writing record reviews--he must do other creative things?
“Well, yeah, I do," he says with a big grin, stroking his thick beard. "A few years ago, I did some standup comedy. I did several open mic night appearances, and I did okay, the crowd didn’t crucify me, so I may just give it another go. Why not? I've been thinking about it a lot lately, but the problem is, comedy's simply not funny any more.”
A book, perhaps?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s what every music writer does now, isn’t it? I read something recently that said that fiction writers who have problems with writer’s block often go into non-fiction/journalism writing, because they cannot sustain creativity over the long haul. Dang it, that makes sense to me. And yeah, I’m working on a fiction tome as we speak. ‘Lad lit,’ of course. Music themed? Probably. Better than Our Noise? That’s a given. It’s going to be titled Steven Patrick Morrissey Is Not Dead. It’s miserably funny, or it will be if I actually write it. I can’t take myself seriously enough to actually do it. Besides, by writing a book, then that would make me a typical music writer, wouldn’t it?”
It’s his serious yet humorous approach to life that makes Mundane Sounds such a fun, thrilling read. Kyle openly acknowledges that he doesn’t know much about the technical aspects of music, nor does he particularly care about the finer points of music theory or composition. “Yeah, me and 99 percent of the world,” he quips. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you know what technically makes a record any good-music is an emotional creature, and to me, the most important thing is how the music makes you feel. It’s like the blues. ‘If you have to ask, you don’t know’ was the description of the blues that I heard growing up, and that’s true of music in general. I take that idea to heart when I write my reviews, and I think that people appreciate that. I know that I’d rather write a review that says, ‘oh, you know, I really like this record because it reminds me of something else I like and this is why,’ and then simply tell the people how the record makes me feel. Is that naïve? Perhaps. Is it real? I think so.”
And with that, for a just a minute, the happiest man in the world quiets down. His smile turns introspective, and what's this--is he getting a bit glassy-eyed on us?
"I just want to give my readers good music, be it in the form of a review or a contest or a free online mp3 album of new and unknown artists. I find myself wanting to give more, but I'm just happy to have the opportunity I have now. I don't care about negativity. I don't care about the 'next big thing' or the hype that goes along with music. I don't care about the rules of indie-rock. I just like MUSIC, period. That's the reason I started Mundane Sounds, and that's the only reason I will continue to do it. End of story."
Joseph Kyle’s a man of many passions, and it’s a good thing that he has an outlet for music commentary, because his unconditional love of music is something that's been missing in this bitter and cynical music journalism world for some time. It may be a small website, but his love and his personality, it’s larger than life, and that makes Mundane Sounds one of the best music websites today.