Q&A: WeShotJR's Stoned Ranger and Defensive Listening Talk Anonymity, The Importance of Outside Perspectives and Their Reasons For Saying Goodbye.
|Stoned Ranger, as photographed for the Observer in 2006.|
When it launched in January of 2006, it came with a spurt of other local blogs that similarly saw a need for added perspective on the local scene. But, unlike those others, WeShotJR never fell by the wayside, somehow maintaining its voice and keeping its operation running in the face of real-life obstacles getting in the way.
Until, well, earlier this week, when the site announced that it would be closing shop in October.
The news came as somewhat of a surprise--but, at the same time, not as a huge one. This year, the site's day-to-day operations have been largely handled by a new writer, as opposed to the site's longtime figureheads, the anonymous scribes behind the monikers of Stoned Ranger and Defensive Listening.
After the jump, we speak with those two polarizing figures about their site's history, legacy, anonymity and its very short future.
So, first off, this is for real, right? You're done? Or, rather, almost done?
SR: Yep, this is for real. We're going to do our last post just before the end of October.
DL: Yeah, if it were a publicity stunt, it would be a pretty lame one. We have talked about how to do it for some time, and I think that coming up with even an arbitrary date is the first step for anything.
The most obvious question, then, is why? And why now--er, October? Why announce the decision so far in advance?
SR: We just felt like it was time. Some of the main people involved in WSJR have moved on to new places (I'm in Chicago, for example), and it becomes rather difficult to stay in touch with a scene or a town when you aren't physically present to witness it and experience it. We've been doing this since January 2006, and myself and DL have been working on the website more or less daily since that time, so we feel like we've done a lot of the things we wanted to do with it and sort of just want to move on at this point. We decided to announce it far in advance just to let people know what's going on, and to set the stage for some features we have planned in the next few weeks.
DL: Well, no other month is more appropriate than any other since we never operated with any seasonal or fiscal schedule, besides some obvious exceptions. Even with the announcement so far in advance, it was still considered a "surprise." I don't think there is anything we could have done that would have been considered too soon or not soon enough, depending on the reader's feelings about the site.
It's fair to say that, over the years, WeShotJR certainly developed its own style. How would you describe that style? How'd you come to it?
SR: Well, I'm not sure how I would describe it because I feel like its different in different contexts--I feel like when we do features, we take a more formal tone, and for It Lists and smaller daily stuff, the style is more conversational. I'd say my writing was shaped first by my experiences with academic writing, and also strongly by music writing I've read throughout the years.
DL: Well, that would probably be best left to others to determine. It was never a conscious style. I think we often wrote the way we would discuss or argue about art and music in our own lives. If I was influenced by anything, I probably thought more about humorous writers or actual literature as opposed to lists you'd see in Blender or something.
Part of why you've said you started the site was to learn more about local music. I assume you feel you've accomplished this? Is there anything in particular that you've learned about this or local music scenes as a whole that you can share?
SR: Yeah, I've feel like I've obviously learned a lot about local music in Dallas and Denton, and I think the most positive or constructive thing I've learned is that a music scene can grow, change and become more diverse when musicians feel like people out there are paying attention and taking them seriously, and I think media coverage plays an important role in that. I don't think a lot of people who are interested in the things I am interested in really felt like they had an outlet to present these things back in 2006, and of course these days there are tons of different places online to go and find out more about almost literally any musical event in the area.
DL: SR and I are coming from different angles here. He was a bit out-of-the-loop with local music at the time, and I was coming in with the feeling that the most captivating things about local music had long been underrepresented or misrepresented. There was a time in the last decade where people never stopped talking about '90s Deep Ellum or even '90s "Space Rock" Denton, and it was nauseating. There was always more to DFW music than those eras, but around 2004, you wouldn't really know that. I think if you even spend 30 minutes a week on Bandcamp, or Facebook, or even Myspace you can probably learn more about local music than you would ever want to know. So I do feel that we learned a lot about it. Something I've learned is that the most ridiculed and lambasted performers often end up being the most successful. I suppose it's no different than high school in some respects, unfortunately.
You've also said that the site was launch as a response to local music coverage at the time. How have things changed in your blog's five years of existence?
SR: Well, some things have changed quite a bit, and others haven't. Obviously there are tons of new blogs and websites covering music in the area, and a lot of the most important discussions concerning local music seem to happen online now. When we started, I'm pretty positive that the Observer did not have any blogs at all, and I don't recall Fort Worth Weekly or the Star-Telegram or the Morning News having music blogs either, although I could be wrong about that. So now a lot of that stuff has moved online, and I feel like it's made it easier for the aforementioned mainstream media publications to hit the streets and find out whats going on in different realms within the local scene, and I certainly think this has made coverage more diverse in certain respects. It's that democritization of media narrative that you hear all the time--you don't necessary have to "be someone" in order to contribute to the local media narrative anymore, and this has greatly increased the power of certain people while diminishing that of others. However, its not as if the "cliques and politics," as Wanz Dover likes to say, have gone away--they've just changed, and there's still a very small group of people who have any real influence over local music. Fortunately, the '90s leftovers who used to run this town have lost some of what they had five or 10 years ago, which is good because those people really held this town back--2006 still felt like 1998 around here to me.
DL: They've gotten more competitive. People are fighting to be the first to cover artists and scenes that would have been completely ignored at one time. It would be foolish to think that was all because of us, and I'm not saying that it was. In a lot of ways, I think that sort of competition can be positive and I hope the beneficial aspects are here to stay. But I think it's silly when this race takes precedence over the actual "story." In other words, sometimes people are jumping all over themselves to write about something that's probably not even that special, but they feel some sort of obligation to because it's being covered by others, or it might be covered by others. That leads to unhealthy habits in some instances. Even by us. Occasionally SR would say, "We have to talk about so-and-so" and my response would be, "Why? They're terrible." But he was right a lot of times.
As the site expanded, you brought in more and more writers and photographers to help you out. Was that always what you envisioned?
SR: It's not something I even considered to be possible when I first started, but I suppose I thought about it a little, and it just seemed natural to bring more people on board once we started attracting a larger audience and had the opportunity to expand.
DL: Well, SR started the site and I'm sure he didn't realize how much work it could be. He actually had an extra writer very early on. I was just a commenter that would take an hour to write my anonymous posts and actually edit and spell-check them, so he asked me to write for the site. I am glad that more people came on, purely for selfish reasons, mostly because it was a lot of fun. Having people like Sally Glass involved was a big help, because she provided a friendly, public face to the site that I think helped people think of it in a more benign way. Also, her photographs weren't total garbage, which is more than I can say for a lot of photographers that were predominantly doing candid work at that time.
Obviously, anonymity played a huge role in the site's identity. And, for your detractors, that was the go-to criticism of your site. What're your thoughts on that argument--and the anonymity thing as a whole?
SR: I think the argument that anonymity somehow takes away from the worth of our work is just total nonsense. What does it matter what my name is? What other information do you want from me? Where I live? Who I love? Where I'll be on Friday night? At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter. Yes, I suppose that anonymity could make it a little easier to make "back room deals" or to support our friends' records without coming clean about it and things like that, but to the average reader who doesn't know people in the local music scene, what's the difference between Stoned Ranger and Pete Freedman (for example)? They don't know who my friends are, and they don't know who your friends are. They don't know our political views or our motivations, or anything else about either of us really, and just because someone uses their "real name" doesn't mean that we have any real information about that person either. The anonymous aspect of the site came about in order to promote more honesty, and although we certainly didn't develop a perfect system, I think it helped, and I'm glad we did it. We let our work speak for itself, and most of the people who wanted to know our names just wanted to be able to get drunk and tell us to fuck off at a bar or something.
DL: Well, I think it's an easy argument. In many cases, if we were actually asked publicly about the site, we were usually engaging about it. I know I was. I've hardly been anonymous for years, and I don't mind if people talk to me about it. So yeah, people don't know who I am at AllGood Cafe when I eat there or something, but that's OK. I don't need any recognition, but I will gladly have a friendly conversation with any critics if they have grievances to air. More often than not, people will just realize that we're pretty harmless and jokey about most things. I don't know if it was understood how much the anonymous factor would be a lightning rod, but I think it ultimately helped more than it hurt. I can certainly think of worse gimmicks. Anonymity has long been a method in art, literature, and politics and I think ignorance of that fact has contributed to many misunderstandings. People often say things like, "Well, I would say have the courage to say that under my own name." But that isn't the point. The point is that nobody is asking you to say anything under your own name because nobody cares to know or ask in the first place.
There were talks (a couple times) of expanding the coverage beyond DFW (shared content with other blogs, adding other cities to the coverage)--but aside from a couple fleeting efforts, those never really panned out. Why?
SR: We just didn't have the kind of time that we thought we would because of our careers and various other things.
DL: Hmm, why doesn't anything ever pan out? I think when you are relying on people from other cities, even with all of the communication advantages available, there is still a disconnect. That applies to us as well, of course. We were asked to do some things I think would have been even more ambitious--podcasts with websites from outside of the U.S. and similar things--but it's just tougher to coordinate with people that don't live in the area. Sometimes you don't even want to drive down the street to see a show. The fact that we always had readers outside of DFW was flattering, however.
How frustrated did you get with the commenters? How frustrating was it to put up with the (admittedly sometimes petty) criticisms and force yourself to keep going on a site that, in real life, you got essentially no credit for?
SR: It wasn't too bad most of the time. The people in the comments sections certainly made me angry from time to time, and the racism and sexism and ignorance that appeared on there every once in while would get to me, but we tried not to let criticism of the site get to us too much, and we developed pretty thick skin over the years. And as far as receiving credit in real life, it's not as if we never told anyone who we were, so we got some credit from friends, etc., and that felt very nice, but, honestly, just knowing that people were reading what we were writing was more than enough of a reward for me. It was very exciting.
DL: They could be pretty frustrating but we were OK with that. For a long time, they thought I was a woman. That wasn't an insult. What was insulting was that since they thought I was a woman, I faced a barrage of some of the most twisted and misogynistic insults imaginable. It actually gave me some limited insight into what female writers must experience, and it's not pleasant. I think we got more than enough credit for it in real life, actually. As long as the readers were funny enough, I usually didn't mind that they were insulting me.
WeShotJR was nothing if not ambitious: You tried to expand to other cities, you booked some shows, you threw some awards, you sponsored some shows, you launched a record label. From the outside looking in, these were pretty bold moves. But you guys also wrote at length about not having the time to do get to features you had planned. I guess I'm asking if the beast ever grew too big to control?
SR: I'd say the things we planned were all workable for sure, but since we all made a living doing things other than WeShotJR, sometimes our careers had to come first and we weren't able to spend as much time working on the site as we wanted to.
DL: Well, it's all about your feelings about the specific activity. Booking an awards show is a lot more work than writing about whether or not there is an after-party at The Nightmare this weekend. But it's also a lot more fun. Some big ideas work out better than you would expect. We only wanted to put out records in quantities limited to 300, but the more expensive run of 500 is the one that we sold out of. To answer your question, the most beastly beast is usually the everyday and the ordinary, and that was often our biggest challenge.
We here at the Observer were always a heavy target of yours--from Day One, long before my arrival, even. And yet I've also heard you guys each say things along the lines of us "needing" one another, etc. Can you expand on that?
SR: Not to get all Milton Friedman about it, but I think some competition is a good thing. If you're trying to be the best at what you do, and other people are doing the same thing, then you can feed off that energy to make your work even better, and I think this makes things better for the readers.
DL: Well, I guess I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "need," but I think it's fine to have those sorts of symbiotic relationships. It keeps things interesting. I find it odd when papers never refer to one another when they're often covering the same subjects. It just seems kind of unnaturally cold and sterile. On the other hand, I have never understood why the Observer bagged on The Dallas Morning News for having a Quick awards show. I mean, of course they're going to try having an awards show. Nobody invented that. We pretty much got along with everyone except for the Observer, for whatever reason.
Looking back at your five-year run, what're you most proud of? Least proud of? Any regrets?
SR: There isn't much I regret specifically-- there are situations where I wish I would have been less harsh or rude about certain things, but we usually thought very hard about what we said before we said it. And I suppose I'm most proud of the fact that we were able to help expose a lot of bands to the public that might not have otherwise gained recognition.
DL: I like some of the writing that the other writers did quite a bit, and I think that the some of the conceptual jokes still hold up well. I like thinking of how angry some people got that someone they have perceived as writhing around and babbling incoherently or haphazardly pressing random buttons on a synthesizer received more attention than their craft that they were honing for years on end. That microcosm of artistic justice is a good and humbling lesson that I still find interesting, and I enjoyed the way we commented on it. What I'm least proud of is thinking of the fact that some of the people we actually championed were then on the receiving end of endless amounts of criticism and scorn. Unfortunately, that's part of being in the public eye, whether you want it or not and I have had my fair share of being treated rudely because of the site, so I understand.
Any plans to out yourselves now that it's done? On some level, I imagine doing so would be quite tempting.
SR: It is and it isn't, but as I said before, who we are isn't all that important as far as the website, so we don't really see a point in it.
DL: I think it's unnecessary but I really don't mind if someone knows who we are. More people know who we are now than they did before the site, so I don't know how or why the anonymous argument is still being made. Word of mouth will always be more powerful than some theoretical article with our names and pictures that most people will simply not read. If we had written the site under our real names and made it very straightforward, I don't know how interesting it would have been.
What're the blog's plans in these final few weeks?
SR: We're planning a small event some time in October and other than that we have some special feature plans that we'll reveal over time.
DL: We have a lot of things we are going to try to cram in, but I don't want to say too much, so as not to give people something else to point to if it doesn't work out. I would like to tie up some loose ends and even work on some things with people that we have previously been adversarial with. I would like to work on at least one event with our last record, which is by Orange Coax and that should be announced any day now.
Any future music or writing plans/hopes down the road?
SR: Not sure yet, but I think I might enjoy writing about music again somewhere some day.
DL: Well, people have been extremely helpful and positive in helping us with wrapping things up, so we'll just have to see.