November 6, 2008

Interview: Denis Semchenko, undergraduate music journalist

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , , , , at 9:55 pm by Andrew McMillen

Griffith University Communication almost-graduate and current Rave Magazine writer Denis Semchenko kindly saw fit to answer a series of questions regarding his career path, university and internship experiences, and the current state of music journalism on a local and national level.

Thanks for your time, Denis. You’re nearing the end of your Bachelor of Journalism, majoring in Communication (or is it the other way around?) at Brisbane’s Griffith University. How’s that working out for you?

Yes, fingers crossed I’m graduating this semester after finishing my journalism major in Bachelor of Communication (same thing – they make journos!). I have to say it’s a pretty stressful time of the year – I’m the news editor for the Griffith University annual student newspaper The Source, the making of which constitutes the News & Current Affairs Production module (third year journalism subject), so there are always issues with obtaining photos for stories, finishing up others’ work, proofreading, subediting as well as last-minute alterations and unexpected story material, and with the semester’s end looming, I never seem to get bored. Bring on the graduation!

Can you elaborate on your previous tertiary education experiences? 

It’s been a long and somewhat strange trip, to be honest – I wanted to become a journalist since my early teens, but got dissuaded by my parents and their friends who thought it wouldn’t be a suitable career path for me unlike, say, business, accounting or law.

I first started studying Commerce 9 years ago in Canberra; I wasn’t even 18 at the time, fresh out of my high school in Russia, and I ended up hating that course so much I dropped out after a year and went to study IT (again after the suggestion it was the ‘big thing’) at the Canberra Institute of Technology, which I finished after 3 years with a diploma. I did some further IT studies when I moved down to Melbourne 5 years ago but eventually realised my heart wasn’t in programming or systems administration either.

Having relocated to QLD 4 years ago, it took me a further 1.5 years of office work to want to study again, and this time I decided to pursue my original passion – journalism.
 
I understand you’ve undertaken some rather interesting internships. 

Yes, I’ve managed to accrue a somewhat unheard-of grand total of 6 weeks’ work experience this semester, including 3 weeks at ABC Online, 1 week at Channel Nine and 2 weeks at Rave Magazine.

Were these organised by Griffith, or a result of your own initiative and enthusiasm?

Both I guess – the actual internships were organised by my course convenor at Griffith according to the preferences I’ve specified and the slots available – I didn’t end up getting The Courier Mail, Channel Seven or Channel Ten gigs, for example.

The Rave gig was largely a result of a mutual understanding between me and my teacher who seized on the fact that I tended to write my best assignments on music and art themes; besides that, I had always wanted to write about music and being an avid street/music press reader, it meant a lot to me to be writing for Rave.

How did that eventuate? Had you considered music journalism beforehand?

Chris Harms, the Rave editor, seemed to be impressed by the amount of work I did for the magazine during my 2 weeks of internship, including music news, tour announcements, artist interviews, feature stories, CD and live reviews and was happy to give me extra work to do.

By the time my internship ended, I stated I was more than keen to keep doing it – being a musician and a band-member as well as a journalism student, I felt I could contribute to the Brisbane music scene by putting out the word for numerous bands and providing more recorded and live music coverage, as well as learn from the masters while I was at it. 

I was also told that not many uni students who do internships in music press are actually music fans, nor do they particularly wish to attend gigs, so someone like me – a music/guitar nut – was a find.

All said, I feel I’ve finally become someone I always wanted to be – a music writer. 

You mention ‘learning from the masters’ during your time in the Rave office. What’s your opinion on the current state of Brisbane’s four regular street press publications – Rave, Time Off, Scene and Tsunami?

Without being biased, I think Rave is doing a great job – quality written material, extensive live event coverage and people who actually live and breathe music despite the daily stress. 

From my memory, Time Off used to be better back in the day than it is now  – we don’t really need Sydney ads here in Brisbane and I don’t have a lot to say on their new website design and structure.

Scene is doing a good job on covering dance music/hip-hop/club events, however the print version has this very odd and not particularly pleasant whiff to it, which still doesn’t necessarily stop me from reading it.

As for Tsunami, I used to think they were primarily dedicated to heavy music but they actually encompass a broad selection of genres, which is definitely a step in the right direction.

You mentioned that Rave do well despite the daily stress, which I took to mean the difficulty in assembling the content for a widely-read publication week after week. Could you elaborate on this stress, based on your time spent in the office?

Story/news requests pile up every day – everyone wants to be in the magazine! I have witnessed how the artist-publicist scheme works, and while I cannot question its effectiveness, it’s what keeps Rave on their toes.

During my internship, I was in the Rave office every day and that’s when my multitasking skills came to force – I was either writing newsbeats, newsbites, album reviews, feature stories or interviewing artists practically every day. There was a number of interviews that other people could not do so I had to step in and do them, or the opportunity of speaking to an artist you like would pop up and you would miss out because you’d be too busy writing and a fellow contributor would beat you to it!

Having said that, however, the notions of seniority, experience and familiarity with a particular artist/genre are also involved in the interview distribution. The same goes for live gig reviews – the assistant editor is working overtime organising those. It does indeed get rather hectic sometimes but not every day in the Rave office is immensely stressful as you also get relatively cruisy days where you just do things in your time. 

Monday is traditionally the busiest and the most stressful day of the week at Rave, as the print version comes out on Tuesday and you’ve got to make sure you’ve handed in all your copy and corrected all the typos and blunders. I twice helped proofread the print version of the mag and stayed in the office until 7pm with the rest of the staff.

These days, I’m only in the office when I have to interview a certain artist by phone, copy the recorded audio file for transcription and pick up some CDs for reviewing purposes – usually once or twice a week during business hours, but I wouldn’t mind becoming a permanent staffer… if I end up sticking around in Brisbane for longer, that is.

Street press exists for several reasons – to promote artists; to provide critical commentary on artists and their output; to provide advertising space.. you can probably think of more. What role do you think the street press should serve, and how are the above four measuring up to these objectives?

I think the primary role of street press is informing people about the wide variety of music, including live music, available in their hometown – and the above four are answering to the challenge, maybe not 100% because it’s impossible to cover absolutely everyone who’s playing in town during the week, but I still reckon it’s a pretty big effort and I have enormous respect for fellow writers and musicians, particularly when I can tell they feel compelled to do it.

The veil of objectivity among music writers is something I find particularly interesting and amusing. I only write about artists I expect to be entertaining or interesting, and I suspect you’re much the same. Thus, we usually already possess a positive connotation of an artist before we see them play live, or interview them, or listen to their album. What’s your take on objectivity as a music critic?

My take is normally ‘objectivity first, subjectivity second or last’ depending on whether I like or don’t like a certain artist – I agree with you on possessing a positive connotation of an artist and I expect them to deliver.

Chris, the Rave editor, told me it was important that my writing stays objective; at this stage, I feel I’m still largely ‘beyond good and evil’ when it comes to reviewing music that I don’t particularly like, however I also agree that sometimes you’ve got to give flak yet be able to back it up sufficiently.

Another contentious musical topic is individual taste. Music fans will rise to the defence of artists just as soon as they would a family member. It’s a really interesting phenomenon that I was reminded of when Everett True made some inflammatory comments about some Australian artists back in August. With regard to the musicians you write about – do you try to steer away from outright criticism, or do you aim for honesty? I guess this comes back to the objectivity/subjectivity argument, too. 

Again, I agree (but not always conform) with the notion that outright criticism is great when you can back it up, otherwise it’s not far removed from shitting in your own nest when you’re reviewing Australian artists. Everett True said something not everyone else dared to and copped all sorts of righteous “how dare you, you stupid bloody whinging Pom!” response from all corners, which wasn’t surprising at all considering how much an average Australian cherishes their middle-of-the-road “big” bands like Powderfinger and Silverchair.

Honesty, objectivity and confident criticism are my primary aims as a reviewer – I might be a bit subjective towards the abovementioned Powderchair phenomenon due to my consistent failure to grasp it, being a bloody foreigner and all, but my love for original Australian (and international) music remains undiminished.

You seem heavily into music writing at this point in your life. Can you see yourself carving a name for yourself as a writer in that industry, or do you have greater designs for your career?

Yes and yes – I’m going to keep combining my aspirations as a musician with music writing and I’m prepared to do the hard yards on both accounts.  

Given the people you’ve met throughout your course and your time spent engaging with the media industry itself, have you got any advice you’d like to impart on would-be journalism undergraduates, media personalities or music critics? 

Firstly, ask yourself why you want to do it. Secondly, be yourself and thirdly, don’t get starstruck but be patient, persistent, creative, brave and take chances – the last two are from the advice John Birmingham gave me and I think these are the words to live by. 

Thanks for your time Denis. Good luck with the graduation; I’m sure we’ll be reading more of your work in the near future!

Denis Semchenko is a Communication undergraduate and enthusiastic contributor to Brisbane-based music publication Rave Magazine. He can be contacted via email, LastFM or Facebook. His published work can be found with the assistance of Google.

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1 Comment

  1. Meg said,

    Really enjoying your interview series, Andrew.


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