Peter Momtchiloff has been philosophy editor at Oxford University Press since 1993. He studied classics at Oxford. He has played guitar in many bands, including Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, and currently the Would-be-goods and Les Clochards.
Peter Momtchiloff interviewed by Christy Mag Uidhir
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Most philosophers know you as the Senior Commissioning Editor for Philosophy at Oxford University Press but I suspect are unfamiliar with your rock star status. Would you mind giving the readers a brief history of your illustrious career as an indie-pop guitar icon, founding member of twee-pop legends Talulah Gosh & Heavenly?
PETER MOMTCHILOFF: I started playing in bands in 1978, on the fringes of the punk rock world.The first band I was in which made records and toured was Talulah Gosh, which started in 1986 and lasted a couple of years. The basis of our music was the bringing-together of our two main influences, 1960s girl groups and the Ramones. We weren’t the only ones doing that, but we happened to be in quite early on a style which proved to have a lot of durability.
AFB: Heavenly’s sound, at least to my inexpertly trained ear, underwent a pretty noticeable shift from its debut album Heavenly vs. Satan (1991) to its final album Operation Heavenly (1996) [—with the shift as I see it occurring precisely at the 1993 7” release of the “Atta Girl”—]. How did you see the band’s music and songwriting as changing during that time? To what extent might it have been influenced by the larger Brit Pop movement?
PETER MOMTCHILOFF: You are right to identify a shift. When Heavenly started, in 1989, our aesthetic was guitar pop, which we saw as consciously in opposition to the prevailing guy-rock movements of the time, which were (a) grunge and (b) dance rock a la Stone Roses/Happy Mondays. But in the early 1990s a more forceful woman-focused alternative to guy-rock took shape, in the form of Riot Grrrl. Heavenly’s US record label was K Records, one of the centres for this movement, and when we toured in the USA in the early 1990s we met and played with Bratmobile and other riot grrrl acts, and found them kindred spirits. This reawakened our punk rock tendencies, which had been to the fore in our previous band Talulah Gosh, and so our music became noisier from our 1993 releases till we finished in 1996.
We did not feel a similar alignment with Brit Pop, which was a laddish and often sexist cultural movement. But we did have musical sympathy with some of the groups involved (Blur and Elastica perhaps) and in recent years we have jokingly referred to our last (and favourite) LP, Operation Heavenly, as ‘our Brit Pop record’.
AFB: What have you recently been up to musically?
AFB: When you look back over your impressive music career, how do you see your own guitar work as evolving over time?
PETER MOMTCHILOFF: I have been in more than a dozen bands, in very different styles of music, so I have had to learn different ways to contribute. The electric guitar is both a rhythm and a lead instrument, and is easy to make loud, so a guitarist can easily push himself to the fore in a group if he wants to. I think I have learned to be more attentive to what else is going on: not to get in the way of the vocals or whatever else might deserve the listener’s attention. I am also gradually learning to play in time – always a struggle for guitar players. I should have learnt sooner, given that I started out as a bass player.
In terms of guitar style, I have often ventured into noisy territory, in keeping with the punk rock tendencies of several of my bands, but have always found myself pulled back to my home territory of late 50s/early 60s twang. My early guitar idol was Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood, but for 25 years or more my pole star has been Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs, who played on most of the great Stax hits of the 1960s.
AFB: Do you think in Britain as compared to in the States musical movements and genres have a greater tendency to be associated with larger cultural movements? To what extent do you think such tight associations have an effect on the music (expression, creativity, appreciation, etc.)?
PETER MOMTCHILOFF: I think the key difference between UK and US musical culture, at least between the 1960s and the 1990s (after which I lost track), has been to do with the ease of nationwide communication in Britain. Most of the radio and TV programs that we listened to and watched, most of the print media that we read, were national. Anything new and interesting could very swiftly find a nationwide constituency. And many of the people with influence in the media and the industry had considerable freedom to champion their own tastes, rather than being required to be sensitive to an existing market – after all, that market was liable to be fickle, because of the swiftness with which tastes could change.
And so the downside was that success tended to be short-lived. Most successful UK acts in the last century just quit or faded into oblivion, rather than slogging around the circuit forever on the back of ancient hits. Actually I don’t think that’s a downside.
I think the same is true of youth culture more generally. It comes and goes swiftly in Britain. Certainly when I was young the way one dressed was expected to correlate in some way with the music one liked. My impression is that the connections are not so strong now, but I could well be wrong.
AFB: As Senior Editor for Philosophy at Oxford University Press, what if anything about a book proposal—apart from its philosophical content—strikes you as being a decent indicator of its chances of success or failure? Have you ever been genuinely surprised that certain books you thought would do well did poorly and vice versa?
PETER MOMTCHILOFF: I am fairly sure that the strongest contributory factor in the success of an academic philosophy book is the extent of prior philosophical interaction with the author’s work, or better still with the author directly, on the part of philosophers working in the area. So get out there and interact! I don’t think the topic in itself will make a book sell. Nor, I’m afraid, quality on its own.
AFB: While I have little doubt about my own talent/ability for philosophy, I’m also equally certain that I’m utter shit as a writer. How do you think philosophers compare to other academics as writers?
PETER MOMTCHILOFF: Of course a lot of philosophy is hard work to read. But one thing which I tell my colleagues about philosophers is that they generally have reasons for saying what they say the way they say it rather than some other way. Philosophers’ writing tends to be considered, which is better than unconsidered (even Wordsworth said that a true poet is not only “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility” but has also “thought long and deeply”).
I can easily think of philosophers whose writing I like. Just from our own times, the following come to mind: Quine, Davidson, David Lewis, Annette Baier, Judy Thomson, Peter van Inwagen, Galen Strawson, Mark Wilson, Trenton Merricks, John Doris.
AFB: What things can philosophers do to make your life as Senior Editor easier?
PETER MOMTCHILOFF: Short is good. And for my tastes, you should minimize time discussing your contemporaries’ work. I realize that there are pressures in the other direction.