Martin Popoff: Bloodied and Brave
17-Jun-2012 Words: Brendan Crabb
Continuing our series featuring interviews with some of the biggest names in music writing is veteran Canadian journalist/author Martin Popoff. Co-founder of Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles magazine (which in recent years has been reinvented as a popular news and reviews site), he’s also written a series of heavy metal guides as well as biographies of the likes of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Dio, Rush, UFO and Blue Oyster Cult. He also recently collaborated on the Metal Evolution television series and has contributed to publications such as Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Record Collector and Guitar World. Loud spoke to Popoff about his extensive career in the industry.
Q: Can you tell our readers a little about how you “got started” in music journalism?
A: Very odd, but then as I’ve learned, not so odd because I’ve had lots of people whose deep yearning for their first book is to somehow make sense of their vast record collection, which is exactly what I did. But I was also a print broker, with a partner who was a layout guy, so the idea of self-publishing a 400-something page book of heavy metal record reviews came to fruition and it was off to the races. Met Tim Henderson who was breaking away from Drew Masters and M.E.A.T. magazine to start his own thing, and we were soon, this is 1994, creating Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles.
So from that point, yeah, you’re getting all these interviews, the idea of band bios becomes reality, you keep hearing lots and lots of new music so keep on writing those record reviews, and then eventually went full-time, I guess in 2000. So yeah, I had a sort of two-week, three weeks, a month workload with Brave Words, and then you just fill in the time with books in between. Along the way I found this self-publishing books can be just as profitable as going through a publisher, so that opens up the avenue of get a few with a publisher, you self-publish a few, and essentially you’ve carve yourself a full-time job. When there’s nothing to do, just work on some book - simple. But yeah, before self-publishing my first book in 1993, I hadn’t written a stitch and wasn’t part of the business at all. I was just a manic heavy metal fan with lots and lots of albums, and then found I suppose I did have a knack for writing record reviews, although all that writing in the ‘90s was pretty much crap that I’m embarrassed by.
Q: Interesting. This may be difficult, but of the countless musicians you have interviewed, are there one or two that stick out as the most memorable?
A: So many. Ronnie James Dio, Bill Ward, Joe Lynn Turner, heck, just the other day, John Lydon for the first time! Quaking in my boots but he was delightful. I suppose the ones that are always the most memorable are the in-persons, which surprisingly are only about 10 per cent of the 1500 or so I’ve done. Actually, how could I forget Zakk Wylde; the few times we’ve been on the bus, it usually ended up being a couple hours or more and you’re just crying, you’re laughing so hard. Another memorable one, which I consider rock royalty over and above most was John Paul Jones, in person, backstage at Massey Hall, and then also Malcolm Young, the day after the mass of Toronto Rocks festival, in his hotel room. Both guys were gracious, disarming, pretty amazing. One that Tim Henderson and I always shake our heads and think, “man that was so cool”, was when Black Sabbath did their first reunion. We got to interview Geezer and Tony in person at the hotel, and then got sent down the hall to interview Ozzy and Bill. Come to think of it, one other time when I got Ozzy in person, he was just the greatest interview. Love that guy - totally down-to-earth, honest and accommodating.
Q: Good to hear. After more than two decades in the game, what is it about music writing that still excites you today?
A: I read something the other day that concerned me, where some writer said something to the effect of don’t write about what you know about, don’t write about what you’re already an expert on. That kind of stuck with me, first of all, because that’s all I kinda seem to ever do. But also there’s some interesting dimension to that, this idea that I’m most excited about writing what I think I’m discovering something or learning something in the process. Or another slightly different way to look at it is I love when I get interviews with guys outside the metal realm, so you know, Manic Street Preachers, The Damned, all those punk guys, or prog bands that usually I don’t have outlets for, and that’s sort of the key. I don’t get to talk to these bands because I don’t have lots of non-metal outlets. I don’t want to waste their time, so I make sure I have a good place to place any kind of story like that. But yeah, it’s an extra little thrill getting to meet guys from the non-metal realm, getting a few autographs, doing that interview.
Another kind of cool new thing I discovered is, and I might do more of this in the future, is writing just really impassioned, out there, crazy reviews, really sort of deep writing, getting down into that extra layer. Where I sort of found this out was I wrote this big honking Black Sabbath book called Black Sabbath FAQ, and in there I reviewed all the Sabbath albums for whatever, the third or fourth time for various reasons and at various depths of description, and I just went for it. It’s some of my best writing, and I actually did go back and look at them again and had a chuckle. I rarely go back and look at anything I’ve ever written. Even recently, I wrote just a crazy stream of consciousness almost review for the new Rush album, and a lot of people called me on it, called it pretentious and all this stuff. I think I even pissed off the Rush guys, even though I gave it a 10/10 and think the album is the best since Signals. But I always think that, you know, getting older, I don’t have time anymore for niceties. I’m just gonna go for it and be a crotchety old man, don’t care if you can’t understand what I’m saying – try harder! So in that light, a lot of the catalogues that affected me deeply, I can see going back and writing my ultimate “just go nuts” review of them; like I’ve been thinking of doing something with all the Kiss albums. Like I say, I said my piece on Kiss in various ways, but I’ve never just dug right down deep and just blasted out a bunch of crazy ideas.
Finally, yeah, when you have an extra good interview and you hear some cool trivia that you’ve never heard before, just like a radio DJ or a news reporter or anybody, it’s pretty cool writing up that stuff and sticking it in a book. Gathering knowledge and sticking it out there, that’s pretty rewarding in itself.
Q: What is your number one pet peeve about music journalism that you see occurring on a regular basis?
A: Hard one, and I’m not thinking about too much, but I really do hate softball generality type questions that you just know are going to get really boring answers. Actually another thing, I mean I think everybody’s rock biographies are better than my rock biographies, and I have a great time reading them and I’m amazed how much insight and insider information there is blah, blah, blah. But it always drives me nuts how the most important thing, at least to me, that artist’s records and all those songs, can get glossed over so quickly to spend mileage on what, tours, key gigs, personal stuff, things bands got in the news for. So despite the many shortcomings I see to my own books, and I don’t care if they seem overly academic, but I tend to want to make sure to touch down on every song on every record. It’s cool getting to talk to the producers, engineers maybe, say a little bit about the studio, lyrics, music. That’s the stuff I love, and want to make sure it’s in my rock bios.
Q: As mentioned earlier you co-founded Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles magazine in 1994. It’s still going strongly in 2012, albeit in online form these days. What do you attribute this success to?
A: Brave Words… went online only simply when the ad revenue and the newsstand sales couldn’t support putting out the print issue anymore, which was 2008. The continued success and awesomeness of it online has nothing to do with me. That’s totally due to the full-on focus and obsession of Tim Henderson, who loves news, loves winning and wants to just keep that thing ticking over, keep the costs down, just relentlessly disseminating metal information. The guy is a machine, and he’s got his little team around him, which I’m part of, but unfortunately not contributing all that much these days. But I’m addicted to the site like anybody else. I look at it many times a day to get my metal news fix.
Q: Speaking as someone who has written numerous books, what is your view on the sheer number of self-publishing and print-on-demand avenues aspiring authors have now? Do you feel it has diluted the overall quality of writing and saturated the marketplace, or has it been largely positive?
A: I think it’s been largely positive. Sure, there’s going to be quality issues, but I think if you read the blurbs you can basically figure out if something’s right for you, if there’s enough fresh stuff in there. I self-publish, but I haven’t been smart enough or had the time to make full use of conventional self-publishing, and really even e-books to a large extent. My self-publishing is more, I do the whole thing myself, with the layouts, either by doing them or my buddy Bill Harris/Steady Design in Calgary, who is amazing, then getting them printed up and delivered to my office and then having this little mail-order business. (This is) very different than the one at a time, print-on-demand situation. But I won’t bore you with the details.
Suffice to say, as I said before, I’d say about half my books through publishers and half are self-published, and I do just as well self-publishing as I do going through a publisher. And that allows me to write books on UFO, Blue Oyster Cult, four books on Deep Purple, and weirdest of all, three books on Thin Lizzy, which couldn’t have been done without the awesome visual research and gathering of a buddy in Sweden, Peter Nielsen. I don’t have to worry about a publisher thinking about visualizing this thing being on the shelf in a big book chains and nobody knowing who the band is. Don’t care. I’m just glad to be the only guy with a book on some of these bands, and just keeping the flame alive.
Q: What have been some of the best music-related books you’ve read in recent years?
A: Man, like I say, every single rock bio I read is way better than any I do, that’s for sure. I really dug Nick Kent’s memoirs. I read a great book called Mr. Big on Don Arden, and like two books on Bill Graham. I think Ron Wood’s autobiography is every bit as good as the Keith Richards autobiography, which I’m reading now. I tend to lean to the ones that are about the music business and the more numbers in them the better, which makes that Kiss and Sell book, by the band’s account, an amazing, interesting read. I have no time for philosophical examination books. I personally won’t write a book on a band unless I have well over 20 of my own interviews, and usually 40 or 50, and I want any one I read to have that as well.
Q: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you often censor yourself by choosing not to include details that may damage musicians and/or their families. Has this always been your stance and do you wish more authors adopted this approach?
A: I don’t know, usually things that fall under this category are so insignificant that the damage far outweighs the benefit. Like I say, my favorite stuff is just that dry, academic, boring stuff about all the songs on the albums. That’s what I care about the most. Odd way you asked that, I for sure would love to read all of those cool details though, so maybe that’s a bit of hypocrisy there. I suppose the drama of major drug problems and that makes you look at an artist’s albums more intensely? And let’s face it, I suppose we’re weirdly happy when we find out these guys have problems like everybody else.
Q: You also assisted with Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s recent Metal Evolution series. How was that experience and do you have more television work planned for the future?
A: That was an amazing dream job, basically. Those guys are great, and their adherence to quality is just incredible; agonizing over chopping for five seconds here or there, just to make everything perfect. But yeah, the whole job was essentially talking to rock stars on the phone and sitting around on leather couches talking metal all day, plus some serious writing of letters and such. Little writing jobs that needed to get done along the way. Pretty cool, and I learned so much; really the main thing being how much you can learn just by talking to other smart people over and over and over again about an issue. Then what happens is you just peel back the onion, read between the lines, throw whatever cliché you want to have it, but you just dig deeper and deeper down into the philosophies of all this stuff.
It’s incredible how much gets left out when you have to pare down a few weeks of research into 42 minutes of TV. And it was like that on the Rush movie (Beyond the Lighted Stage) as well. That thing spent months at four hours long, and then three hours long, two hours long, and that was finally 88 minutes. There were probably over 100 hours of interviews done for that movie. Again, the level of quality at Banger Productions was pretty frightening.
Yes, I would do other TV work. We had a series fall through, and I keep my hand in over there at the office, doing a fair bit of transcribing of interviews, nothing too heavy and none too intellectual. But yeah, who knows, something else might come up there in the coming months or years. Having said that though, I do like the luxury of doing these damn books, like I say, my Thin Lizzy book, a band I didn’t think I would ever write a book on, suddenly ballooning into three books. And it’s quite simply this. The contrast, I suppose, is that for everything we did for Banger, most of the time is spent editing things out. Book-wise, I couldn’t give a damn, especially on self-published things I have total control over, about editing anything out. I don’t care how boring the final outcome is, how little of a story arc there is, I really will just leave everything in.
Q: What other projects, literary or otherwise, do you currently have in the works?
A: I’ve got two books that are going to come out through US publishers. I’ve got somewhere between two and 20 book ideas that will be self-published if I don’t have a publisher knocking down my door to ask for it. Because I certainly won’t be going to them and begging them to put it out, couldn’t care less. But unfortunately, the nature of this is, you really just do all this stuff in secret and put it out. It’s funny, another thing you learn in adult life and this is something that is sort of the Banger Productions way it seems as well. Between keeping things secret and announcing them loudly, there’s this weird way that you don’t really say much about what you’re doing, but you don’t mind mentioning it if asked, and it leaks out slowly; that’s okay too. So yeah, weirdly, it’s not that I’m hiding anything I’m doing - I’m just not running around screaming about it.
Q: We’re almost at the halfway point of 2012. What have been some of your favourite releases thus far this year?
A: Man, I’ve been so bad. I literally have talked myself into being a historian, which means I’m really not keeping up on stuff at all. Having said that, I’m sure I’ve listened to dozens and dozens of things, but not really hundreds of things, as I would’ve maybe even seven or eight years ago. Drawing a big blank! That’s something that has also happened in recent years. Along with another strange phenomenon like, no matter how much I get into an album, listening to it dozens and dozens of times, maybe even up into the hundreds, I just somehow decided or automatically it’s happened, don’t remember song titles, don’t learn song titles.
In a general way, what makes me most excited, and it’s really the only way I could be said to have been keeping up, is that the few hundred bands that I’ve cared about for years or decades, I’m always very excited to hear new music from them. I think it’s the one healthy-staying new aspect to my listening personality. Drives me crazy when a fan for example has to have every new re-mastered or reissued version of Back In Black, and then barely takes notice when they put out Black Ice. I’m definitely not one of those fans that spends time over and over again with some big classic band’s back catalogue.
I’d definitely be listening to all of their new stuff way more, and think some of my favorite bands are making their very best music in recent years, such as Cheap Trick, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Motorhead, King’s X and ZZ Top. Never need to hear the back catalogue again. Give me last five or six albums by these bands and I’m happy. But yeah, have decided to be a classic metal historian, for better or worse. No time to try be a poser any more, and study and know everything there is to know about thrash metal or black metal or death. And really, that’s a big change from the Brave Words years, where I kept my hand in all those pies through the late ‘90s and most of the 2000s. I’m quite surprised at how many interviews I did with all these crazy extreme metal bands, and now I’ve completely lost touch with these guys.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: Yeah, one fruity thing that just came to mind. Leading on from the last question, this idea that I’d love to dig even deeper into history, interview all sorts of producers, managers, promoters and learn more about classic, legendary gigs, legendary studios. Don’t know when or how I can get around all this, but I just find that I’m very curious quite often these days when I hear about anybody’s experience in the music business. Whereas 10, 20 years ago, it was really even more so just about the musicians and their creativity. Now I’m just as intrigued by everything that happens behind the scenes.
To browse a complete A-Z list of Loud Magazine’s interviews, please click here