An interview with Rick Rubin

On not-knowing:

I never decide if an idea is good or bad until I try it. So much of what gets in the way of things being good is thinking that we know. And the more that we can remove any baggage we’re carrying with us, and just be in the moment, use our ears, and pay attention to what’s happening, and just listen to the inner voice that directs us, the better. But it’s not the voice in your head. It’s a different voice. It’s not intellect. It’s not a brain function. It’s a body function, like running from a tiger.

On producing:

So how would you describe your role as a producer, in general?

Just as fan. Making music that I want to hear. You’re so close to something when you write it that it’s hard to have any perspective on how it hits someone else. My job is to be a professional version of the outside world—a listener who is not attached to any of it, who doesn’t know the story of how it was written, who doesn’t know how it works, who doesn’t know why this is important to you.

On stripping things down:

There’s a tremendous power in using the least amount of information to get a point across.

Wonderful interview.

So great. That part about being a “professional version of the outside world” reminded me of Jeremy Denk’s New Yorker essay about recording, and how hard it is to get perspective. A favorite quote:

In the moment of playing, the logistics of just hitting the notes distract you somewhat from the continuous choices you are making. In the edit you have nothing but choice. And yet you feel helpless, since everything has already been played.

And since he talked about Kanye, remember the rules: No hipster hats. No acoustic guitar in the studio.

Ideas and views that differ from one’s own should not be targets for demolition, but whetstones for sharpening one’s own thoughts.

Philip Ball in the preface to his very good book, The Music Instinct.

I am frankly embarrassed that most of my musical life has been spent in the search for new materials. The significance of new materials is that they represent, I believe, the incessant desire in our culture to explore the unknown. Before we know the unknown, it inflames our hearts. When we know it, the flame dies down, only to burst forth again at the thought of a new unknown. This desire has found expression in our culture in new materials, because our culture has its faith not in the peaceful center of the spirit but in an ever-hopeful projection onto things of our own desire for completion.

You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something.
Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal, and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, “Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander around in these back hallways…” and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.

Twyla Tharp on hunting for ideas.

I find that more and more nonfiction authors are confusing Book Idea with Long Magazine Article Idea.

Making Memes

Tim Walker writes about meme entrepreneurship. I love it. Go read it. Unless I misunderstand the point, it seems like a lot of folks are already working in that vein—writers. Just glancing at my bookshelf, there’s Florida and his Creative Class, Friedman and his Flat World, Weinberger‘s Miscellany, Anderson‘s Long Tail.
I don’t mean that to sound flip, because I think these all occupy an interesting middle ground. The ideas aren’t quite as heady and broad as, let us say, praxeology (brilliant though it is). But they’re a step up from the mundanities of something like Six Sigma. For the most part, the far ends of that bell curve can be safely ignored, unless it happens to be your pet interest. But if you’re paying attention, strong arguments in that middle ground can force a conversation. That is what great memepreneurs do well.

Tim brings out a political example to contrast bad memes with fruitful memes. “Bush is stupid” vs. ‚ÄúBush pursues dangerous ideas—expensive dangerous ideas.‚Äù The latter is more effective because it comes across as not a simple couched argument or opinion, but an invitation to explore. Provocative, sure. Good memes usually are. But more than that, it’s actually a functional starting point. The best memes are forward-looking.1 That’s one reason I always liked political theory more than any other field of political science. I get to escape those messy details of policy and history and think about what could be.

I’ll let Tim close it out:

We need better memes in the world to counter all the stupid ones that drive so much of our behavior. I would say “that drive so much of our thinking,” but in fact the purpose of many of these memes is to relieve us from thinking, so that we reflexively reach for the products we’ve had marketed to us, or reflexively reach for the attitudes that favor certain special interests within the society. (Note that these special interests can be political, commercial, religious, or what have you. I take the broad view here.) But those of us who are awake to these tendencies can work to shape them in other, better directions.

1. Bureaucrats and pundits are not. Though I’m willfully ignorant talking-head culture, I’ve seen enough to convince me that they tend to be far more concerned with digging up old grievances and winning now than actually caring about the future. It’s the nature of the gig. See “Property Rights and Time Preference” [pdf]

Scott Rosenberg interviews Steven Johnson about his latest book, The Ghost Map. I liked Johnson’s thoughts on the evolution of popular theories and the role of public intellectuals. “Part of what you’re supposed to do as an educated intelligent person is try and figure out the giant weird invisible elephant in the room that nobody’s talking about — the thing that everybody’s missing. But it’s hard. They’re blind spots for a reason.” Reminds me of Mises’ thoughts on ideas.