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Interview: Cosmo Lee (Invisible Oranges)

The oldest screen gab of Invisible Oranges, courtesy of The Internet Archive
The oldest screen grab of Invisible Oranges, courtesy of The Internet Archive

Cosmo Lee founded this website in 2006. He has not written about music since his departure in 2011. He remains a celebrated writer in some circles of metal enthusiasts.

Lee would also probably shy away from such praise or such introspection on the site’s part, but anniversaries are a time for recollection and reflection. There is no better way to reflect on the site today than to consult with its originator.

My guess is that some people reading this have become Invisible Oranges readers since you left, or will be otherwise unfamiliar with your work. For those people, will you tell me the Invisible Oranges origin story?

The story behind the creation of the site is not glamorous at all. It’s about as mundane as it could be. Basically, ten years ago I was living in Berlin, Germany. I was a freelance music writer at various music publications and I simply had too much music to write about. That problem existed back then as it does now, except back then people sent me real CDs instead of streams and whatnot. I was sent all this good music that I couldn’t possibly cover across all my outlets, so I thought about putting it into a site. Blogs back then were a fairly new thing. This is prehistoric, before social media, and in the time when you would actually go directly to a website. That is, as far as I can tell, pretty rare now, where you would type a URL directly into a browser and hang out there, but that was the way you did it back then.

So I went around looking for examples to follow, because I didn’t have much web experience. I found there really wasn’t anything out there. The closest thing that I could find was a blog called Aversion Line, which is one of the greatest blogs ever made. Its editor, Andrew, covered hardcore punk and metal about equally. There were definitely metal websites out there, but none in the format what I was looking for, which was a blog with content that would be updated fairly regularly and would look new each time you visited it.

I literally went into Andrew’s code and stole it. Well, stealing was a strong word because we might have been both using Blogspot, but I looked at his html and figured out what he was doing. The very first version of Invisible Oranges looked like Aversion Line, just with a different banner across the top. The site grew to take on its own look and identity over time, but that was the start. I was simply getting too many CDs. I thought that the world should know about them, and there wasn’t any place that existed for that purpose, at least for heavy metal. There were websites which covered music that way, but not specifically metal.

At no point in time did you see it lasting ten years did you?

Absolutely not. The me of ten years ago did not look ten years into the future for anything, unlike the me of today. That wasn’t something I concerned myself with at that time. Back then I was just concerned with learning html, learning how to write, and getting music out there. Back then there weren’t streams, you had to actually download the mp3s. I was learning those skills and not looking past whatever I was working on at the moment.

When I started reading Invisible Oranges, around January of 2008, you still employed the rolling column format of Aversion Line. Not long thereafter, you shifted to the more classic ‘grid’ layout, and also around that same time content shifted away from record and more toward, for lack of a better term, ideas. Can you explain that shift to me?

I couldn’t point to any one factor that led to that shift. That was just experimentation. In an ideal world and if I were a better writer, I could probably make record reviews about ideas.

Just recently I was reading Lester Bangs reviewing some BB King records. These were reviews from the 70s. He certainly was reviewing the records, but he was talking about these rather important and big ideas in ways that most music writers don’t do. That’s very hard to do nowadays and increasingly harder to do as people’s attention spans grow shorter. Lester Bangs was able to do that because people weren’t distracted by the internet and they were only reading print. So they were sitting with their Rolling Stone, or whatever publication he had written in, and they were a captive audience for that time. As long as he had an editor that gave him the space then he could talk about more than just the artifact. “Here are some songs, are they good or not?”

Nowadays, with attention spans being atomized, if you put in a title that the content is a record review, people are just going to take that at face value. They are probably going to click and expect a stream first and foremost, and then some words about basically if the songs are good or not, and then they will go about their day. I think that our reader expectations are much lower. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think maybe was I was coming upon at that time was the first wave of that.

In the original incarnation of Invisible Oranges, I probably noticed that the few times that I did write about stuff that wasn’t records, that got the best reactions in terms of healthy commentary and a sort-of life of the content beyond the 30 seconds it took to read it.

That is what drew me in from casual reader to dedicated reader to someone being involved in the project to now running the project.

Yep. And for someone in your position I don’t envy the job that you had. I think it would be much harder for you than it was for me. I think I grew up in a time when records mattered. Hopefully that’s not just teenage nostalgia speaking. List any number of classic metal records and those are all potentially life changing.

I don’t think music has gotten worse, but I think that the sheer volume of music being produced makes it harder for the really epic and life-changing stuff to be recognized, picked up, talked about and given their due. So for a music website to survive you almost have to start talking about ideas in a really bald-faced way, as in make sure that the title carries the idea and that SEO captures that. You’re not going to survive for very long by being subtle and being Lester Bangs and placing your insightful social commentary at the bottom of a record review.

In your absence it’s been a balancing act. One thing that I have done is pretty much abandoned the review as a format, at least for inexperienced writers. I don’t think music has gotten worse, but I think music writing has gotten worse, and my task with new writers usually is to break them out of thinking about music as a commodity and get them used to thinking of music as a manifestation of the world around them. It’s a tough piece of mental acrobatics but it usually winds up producing the best material on the other end of the process.

I think that’s the right way to go, given what music considers a commodity now. Back when I did Invisible Oranges, especially where it started, I was looking at Aversion Line not just for html code but for ethos, since Andrew is about as pure as they come. He never sold out to anyone for anything. His heart was always in the right place, and one thing I got from him was the links at the end of a post to buy the album. Back then it would have been CDs, but I started to add some links to mp3s. I honestly thought, back then, that I was trying to help bands out economically, that if I could get eyes upon the content then people would enjoy what they heard and buy the record. I think that impetus has largely disappeared as music has shifted from physical to digital and thus almost essentially worthless monetarily as a commodity. If you want to support a band now, you might buy the mp3 if you’re older, but no one really does that now. More likely you’re going to stream it and then the impetus would be to get people into the band period so they go out to a show, buy things at the show, tell people about the band and create a buzz around them. So, I believe that thinking holistically about a band and thinking of it as more than just a record is the way to go when it comes to supporting music these days.

You don’t read the site anymore do you?

I occasionally do but I’ll add that I hardly read anything on the internet now. I do read Invisible Oranges occasionally and I’m always pleased at what I see. I’m glad that it’s still kicking, and covering relevant things. I feel no ownership towards it. I feel towards it as someone might think of an alma mater. I’ve graduated from it, it continues doing its thing and I observe from a distance.

Certainly many of the people whom you appointed and who have been appointed after that have become music writers of some import, if a music writer can be considered important – writers at Stereogum, Rolling Stone, Noisey and other such places. Justin Norton has become quite important to the content of Decibel Magazine. I enjoy that metaphor. Speaking somewhat selfishly, you’ve got kind of a legacy among our older readers, who really craved your return for a long time. I think you did leave us something to uphold.

That’s very kind. I certainly don’t worry about anything like that. As you probably know from working on the site, the work is very day to day, pretty much hour to hour and sometimes minute to minute. That’s no time to be thinking about legacy.

Analogizing to the things that we write about: music. You could probably argue that most of the great recordings were conceived of that way. Once you start thinking that you’re important and that you have something to lose then you start getting self-conscious and not doing what instinct says. I think that’s what metal does best is instinct. Once you start thinking about things you lose the intensity and drive that pulls people in.

Kill Em All is the Metallica record that I return to most. It’s probably not the highest in that pantheon, but it’s the one that grabs me the most at this point in my life because it’s probably the purest. Those guys just wanted to kick ass and make a record. That very much comes out. You don’t get acoustic guitars or epic song structures or whatnot. And I like all that stuff in later Metallica, but there’s something about very pure music that’s compelling and timeless.

That’s a long way of saying that if you want to create a legacy it’s probably best not to think about doing that. Just make each piece of work the best that it can be. If that adds up to something that other people consider something, that’s cool, but you shouldn’t expect that.

It wouldn’t be a conversation with you if Metallica didn’t come up. Kill Em All isn’t the best Metallica record, but it’s probably the best example of a first record in metal that I can think of for the reason you mentioned. It explodes out of the gate and has a fully formed identity right at the start. People deify first albums, but the first Black Sabbath, first Judas Priest, first Iron Maiden – they didn’t hit their stride at go. I actually like the first Slayer album but that’s probably not their peak either.

I think those kinds of discussions are like, “do you prefer your dog as a puppy or as it is now?” There’s no right answer. I mean with Metallica some answers are clear: After the black album is pretty negligible.

That’s not true! I know I’m the only one, but I like Load

[laughs]

Right, but if you look at the words we’re using, they’re ‘like’ or ‘prefer’. But that’s what matters, actually – whether or not we like a record. The only test for a record in our personal lives is whether or not we like it. Extrapolating ‘best’ from that makes for spirited discussion but I’m not sure how productive it is. It makes people click on links, that’s for sure. And I was guilty of that too. Best this or that. I certainly don’t discourage that as a tactic. It works. But you need to take that with a grain of salt. There really is no such thing as a best when it comes to personal preference.

This is something that I figured out while reading Invisible Oranges, specifically Chris Dalton’s list on great records with bad drums. I realized that lists don’t exist to create a canon, they exist to kick hornet’s nests.

I would agree with that, or I would say that’s one of the more productive uses of lists. I honestly find the typical year-end best of list not-very exciting for that reason, because the premise is not new. If the premise is new, like the drumming list you mentioned, that will perk up my ears. As far as I am concerned as a listener, I don’t like to look to anyone else for guidance. Certainly we’re all interested in what each other has to say hopefully, but I think couching a list as something other than an absolute from on high, more as an opening to discussion, is the way to go.

You don’t look to other people for listening, but what are you listening to now?

You asked two questions there, sort of. What am I listening to and how am I getting there. I can answer them both at once by saying my listening is very functional. I am almost never sitting down, listening to music, and not doing anything else. That’s sad but currently that’s the state of my life. If I listen to music I am doing any number of things from driving, to folding laundry, to work, to paying bills and whatnot. So the music that I listen to is very much oriented along those lines. At work I listen to mostly ambient music because I need sonic wallpaper that won’t distract me. If I’m driving for any length of time and it’s sunny and nice out then I will usually put on some form of American roots music like blues or country music. If i’m coming home late at night from work and it’s dark and gloomy outside I may put on some Unleashed. So there isn’t really any one thing. I think part of the beauty of the cornucopia of music that we are afforded now is that it wasn’t available twenty or thirty years ago. You tuned into the radio. You had a limited budget with which to buy recordings and beyond that you didn’t have access to anything. Now I can go to YouTube or any other streaming service and pull up basically anything I want.

As far as what I’m listening to now, I’ll admit that it’s not much metal in the sense that I don’t keep up. I have no idea what the hip bands are now. I still do listen to metal on occasion. There’s a certain time in the afternoon that just calls for stoner metal; probably between 3 and 5pm. That’s just how my body clock works. There are some bands for that time that will never ever go away and for me those are Sleep and Eyehategod. I’ll probably be listening to those bands until I am dead.

The one way that I discover new music now is probably recommendation algorithms. So on YouTube that would be the videos on the righthand side of the screen. Or, I’ll just go to Bandcamp and search by tag and see what comes up. Through those I discovered two contemporary bands that I really like. They are Beelzebong and Monolord.

You like Monolord.

Yeah, I do.

Oh god. I think that band is very mediocre.

Yeah. I mean, I can see why you would say that, because they are very derivative. But if I want Electric Wizard that… isn’t Electric Wizard, with maybe a little Yob in there, then I go to Monolord.

Well, you just hit the nail on the head.

Yeah. I did. They aren’t very ambitious. That conversation that you and I just had I’ve had with myself. “That’s sort of derivative. But I like them so much. Why do I like them so much?” I’ve pinned it down to them being very efficient at what they do. I don’t think there’s a lot of fat in the riffs and the songs, and I appreciate that. There’s another band that falls into the same category and that’s Harm’s Way.

Yes.

They’re an extremely derivative band, but they take me back to late high school to early college and jean shorts and chains with wallets. But they’re also efficient.

So those are some bands that I’m listening to, but it’s hard to give you a list of say ten or fifteen contemporary bands that I like.

You wrote a series of articles on how to write about music, and in those articles you said that you don’t read music journalism. After that, I all but stopped reading it as well. So if that’s what you’re listening to, what are you reading?

I think that’s a good question. First of all, I think it was pretty presumptuous of me back then to have put up such a post. I’m glad that some people found value in it. I look back on that as an act of incredible chutzpah, for me to tell people how to do something.

It’s a good tool. I still use those posts as a style guide today.

Totally. So what I read now is pretty functional also and incidental. I’ll read pretty much anything that crosses my path, so my reading is about as mixed as it could be. So I just finished Michael Lewis’s ‘The Blind Side’. He wrote ‘Moneyball’ and ‘The Big Short’. I bought all of his books and am making my way through them all. That’s also something that I’ve started to do is read all of something. Some books will come in a series and I will read the entire series, or some authors will have a body of work and I will try and read it all. He’s one of those authors. I read some books by Caroline Paul. She writes both fiction and nonfiction. She’s extremely funny, and it’s the kind of writing that will make you have faith in humankind. She’s very empathetic regardless of what she writes about. I also read some pure trash. Right now I’m going through the ‘Bourne’ books. Last year I read all of the ‘Jack Reacher’ books by Lee Child. That was pretty trashy, but enjoyable. I was training for some triathlons earlier this year, so I read a bunch of triathlon training books.

I guess in terms of music and reading I feel as though I’m wandering in the world and feeding on whatever is in the country I am in at the moment.

I’m a little envious of that. Doing IO has focused me which is good, but I’m also aware that there are whole galaxies that are passing me by which could probably also be fun.

That’s true.

It’s tough.

It is tough, and that’s a big reason why I stopped doing it. I don’t think you or anyone should stop doing it for the same reason, but I think personally I feel more comfortable in life as an outsider. It was interesting when I became an insider in metal. You really get to know the pulse of what’s going on, but over time that tired me out. I’m very much a classic introvert, so I decided to remove myself and I like where I am at now. There was a time where it bothered me that I didn’t keep up and I felt like some old person listening to Meshuggah as if no other band has come along since. But then I listened to the bands that have come along since Meshuggah and I still prefer Meshuggah. I don’t think I’m missing that much.

You’re not.

Sure. But even if I am, I am at ease with that. It sounds silly but I think it’s true: If I only listened to recorded music from before 1980, I could still listen to all new music for decades. From that perspective there’s not a huge reason for me or anyone to try to keep up because you can’t.

I understand why you quit. But what you have done that is cool is that, perhaps unintentionally, you’ve built a community, and as stupid as this sounds, most of the good things that have happened to me in my life have come out of being involved in the metal community. I just wanted to reiterate that there is an upside.

Oh sure. I certainly believe that, and that was very much an upside for me, as well. It does pain me a bit now while having this conversation to think of the people I haven’t spoken to in a while because I don’t do this work anymore. Literally as I’m saying these words in front of my eyes I see fast forwarded images of these shows and merch tables I’ve been at and people that I’ve met. I’m glad to have been there, and at the same time I need to be at peace with where I am at now. You can’t regret anything. There is a time and place for anything. And I’m pretty glad that you’re doing the work right now and not me. I don’t mean that selfishly. I mean I think the content would get boring if I were at the helm for so long.

I think it’s interesting when there are new Batmen. Michael Keaton was a good Batman. Probably the best was Christian Bale. So, it’s good to breathe new life into things every once in awhile.

I have one last question. What is your favorite article on Invisible Oranges?

Man. that’s rough.

Yeah. I know! I show no mercy!

Two things come to mind and they’re pretty incidental, in the sense that they’re the two things that literally spring to mind, but maybe that means something. The first is Justin Norton’s interview with Dan Fante, the author. That was a weird piece of content for Invisible Oranges by any standard. It would be a stretch to call that metal related but I felt that somehow it fit. I would like, just as a consumer of content, to see more stuff like that in the sense that: metal can be a lifestyle where you wear a jacket with patches, or metal can be a lifestyle where you hold yourself to certain ideals. You remember what Sabbath is talking about in “War Pigs” and don’t ever forget because it will always be relevant, and to be questioning everything. I think that’s one of the things that metal does best. So you can listen to music of absolute violence and be a pacifist in real life. How can that be? Those are interesting dynamics.

As far as stuff that I wrote, I liked the posts about the Metallica songs. I felt a certain amount of freedom in doing those posts that I didn’t have all along, and that was the freedom to re-examine myself and bring my personal experiences to bear on music writing. That’s always tough to negotiate. You don’t want to read the record review where the writer is talking about what he or she had for lunch. That kind of personal experience is not productive in that context.

But I do feel like I reached further in those posts and felt more vulnerable that I previously had with any writing that I did. So I’m looking back at my experience with writing that stuff as probably my most interesting on the site. Because you run the site you’re in a position of authority, you tell people what to do, you make stuff happen. That doesn’t normally go hand in hand with a position of vulnerability. I’m not sure if I was successful at that, but looking back that was the main feeling for me. So I don’t know if that was a greatest hit for sure, but it was one of the more salient experiences for me.

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