Latest release: I Am Morbid – Ten Lessons Learned From Extreme Metal, Outlaw Country, and The Power Of Self-Determination (Jawbone Press)
British author and music journalist Joel McIver is one of the most prolific hard rock/metal writers you’re likely to encounter. He’s previously written biographies of Metallica, Black Sabbath, Tool, Slayer, Queens of the Stone Age, Motörhead, Slipknot, Rage Against The Machine, Machine Head and Cannibal Corpse, as well as co-writing autobiographies by the likes of Max Cavalera, David Ellefson and Glenn Hughes. He’s also written tomes on acts you’re unlikely to see featured here on Loud, such as Kings of Leon and Ice Cube. He also contributes to music magazines such as Metal Hammer, as well as editing magazines.
The topic at hand for this interview, however, is his latest effort, the autobiography of David Vincent, former front-man of death metal pioneers Morbid Angel, turned outlaw country performer now involved in two supergroups, I Am Morbid and Vltimas. I Am Morbid – Ten Lessons Learned From Extreme Metal, Outlaw Country, and The Power Of Self-Determination certainly veers away from your typical sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll story. Vincent’s unconventional story is essentially a gathering of wisdom distilled into ten lessons for anyone interested in furthering their fortunes in life. The book even features a foreword by Rosetta space mission project scientist – and Morbid Angel fan – Dr. Matt Taylor.
We chatted with McIver about the creation of the new book, how he discovered the music of Morbid Angel, and whether the Dead Rock Stars podcast (co-hosted by esteemed rock scribe Mick Wall) will ever return.
Q: To begin, what was your introduction to the music of Morbid Angel?
A: Oh, man. I got into it a little bit after the fact, I suppose. I think David had already left in ’96 by the time I fully got into them. But once I did, I was a fan for life. That stuff is amazing. The early stuff, David will tell you, the lyrics are what they are, they’re kind of like a young person’s Satanic metal lyrics. But then as time passed and he grew as a lyricist, he started addressing deeper stuff, which always appealed to me.
And then the music itself, it’s great, isn’t it? If you’re like me and you love the fast, aggressive and angry parts of Metallica and Slayer, but you want it to be heavier and faster, and more brutal, that’s Morbid Angel. But the stuff’s intelligent as well, and it has that weird vibe about it, a sort of strange… Like the album title Blessed are the Sick, it’s just perfect, because there is kind of a sick sound to it. And I mean that in an evil kind of way (laughs). I just was always into it, and all those crazy instrumentals, and those weird synth sounds that they threw in. I enjoyed the stuff that they did without David as well, I thought that was good. I didn’t think it was quite as good, but nonetheless I still enjoyed it.
I’ve always been a fan, and when I do a book with someone, they need to be an interesting person for me to want to do it. And I was always fascinated by Morbid Angel and their lyrics, and their message. So that was why working with him was attractive.
Q: How long has the Vincent book been in the works for?
A: We had been chatting about it for quite some years. I think I first met him in about 2008, and we would have a beer when Morbid Angel would come through London. We always used to throw around the idea of him doing a book with me as his co-writer, because he had read a couple of my books and liked them. We always used to joke about it, because he’s a clever guy who can easily write his own book – he doesn’t need someone like me. He’d always say, ‘I don’t want to be another notch on your bedpost, Joel’, which always made me laugh, because I’d worked with a lot of people. Then when he left Morbid Angel in 2014, he changed his mind and said, ‘let’s do it, let’s do a book together’. I went over there in 2016 and I spent a week with him and his partner down in Austin, Texas, which was great because I hadn’t been to Texas before. We banged it out; we got all the interviews done, we did about 40-50 hours that week. This was followed up by a few phone calls. It took a while to get the right deal in place, but when it was done, you’re scheduled and can go for it.
Q: He does seem like an articulate subject. What was your role – primarily to keep him on task, provide direction?
A: Neither of those things really; he’s a pretty driven guy and doesn’t need managing in any way. We both knew exactly what we wanted, so it was a pretty smooth process. My role was to sit down with him, interview him about his life and then turn those audio files into a book. He had the title ready to go, and I added the strap-line about Self-Determination… and figured out where the chapters were going to fall. And also it was my idea to turn it into a “ten lessons” structure. When you’re doing a book, you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. You don’t know what shape it’s going to have until you’ve gone through everything, and it became apparent that it wasn’t just going to be a regular story from start to finish. It had a lot of philosophy in it, which is not too big a word to use in David’s case, because he’s a real thinker, an educated man and culturally literate. There was a lot of wisdom to impart, which is why the structure of the book is the way it is.
Q: He’s certainly someone who has walked the proverbial left hand path.
A: (Laughs) Yeah.
Q: It’s made apparent from the outset that this wasn’t going to be a typical “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” tale.
A: No, and there’s loads of things he didn’t do. He didn’t do a dedication, he didn’t do a thanks list. We didn’t have celebrities throw in their opinion every couple of pages. All that is good stuff but it’s conventional, and he didn’t want to follow a conventional path. It’s similar to his worldview in that sense.
Q: It features an intriguing choice for a foreword writer as well. How did that come to be?
A: That was amazing to me. I knew who Matt Taylor was, although I’d never met him. David came out with this idea: rather than get a regular heavy metal person to do it, which would have been very easy to do, why don’t we get someone a bit different? Matt Taylor is such an achiever in his field. I mean, landing a space vehicle on a comet? Who the hell does that? They were friends anyway, and also Matt is a huge Morbid Angel fan, so it made total sense.
That’s really the perfect example of where this book deviates from the norm. I was really pleased with that.
Q: I also enjoyed the lyrical excerpts from various songs, whereby David would examine and explain the stories behind the songs. I think fans will enjoy those insights.
A: I’m glad to hear you say that, because that was what I wanted it to achieve. I wanted to dig a bit into the lyrics. I think it’s important to do that, because the people who buy the book are going to be fans of the music, so we spent a bit of time unpacking some of the lyrics. The idea was to give a little bit of insight into the meaning of the songs. So for example, I had no idea that Maze of Torment, which is one of my favourite Morbid songs, is about suicide. I had no idea. That was the value of the exercise, to dig in and hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, what these lyrics were actually about.
Q: I think much of the book, and indeed David’s outlook on life can be summed up in lines like “I take things that used to be obstacles and I turn them into advantages”. When you’re trying to capture someone’s ethos on the page, is it easier than most with someone like David?
A: Correct. He’s very clear about what he is, what he wants and what he thinks, and he doesn’t waste time worrying about that. One thing that I had to be aware of was that this was not me injecting my own voice into the conversation. It was about representing him, as he is. Your job as the co-writer is to make sure that person is projected very clearly through the text. But as you say, David made that very easy for me.
Q: I think in many quality biographies or autobiographies, sometimes it’s the details, nuances or stories that may at first seem inconsequential that inform you a great deal about the subject. For instance, David deciding to “humble himself” by driving a taxi for a living. How crucial is it to unearth those types of stories and details?
A: Yeah, I’m always digging around into people’s lives like that. Even when I interview a musician for a magazine or whatever, I’ll always say, ‘what’s your daily routine like? I know you’re a musician, but do you have a job? What time do you get up in the morning?’ Those little details, as you said, they really illustrate what people are like.
The thing about driving a taxi was that it was so transformative, that period of his life. In his own words, he wasn’t enjoying himself towards the end of his time in Morbid Angel, and also he was de-motivated by the musical changes that were happening at the time. There were a million Morbid Angels at that point, they weren’t on their own any more. So he jacked it in; I think he had to for his own mental health, and spend some time just getting back to reality. When you’re in a band you’re in a touring bubble, and it’s stressful, and so is delivering those songs every night as well, with the amount of aggression that you need to do it. That in itself is would be pretty taxing.
So yeah, that’s a really interesting part of his life. He was also doing loads of interesting stuff. After he’d done the taxicab stint, he worked as a wrestling promoter, he did loads of musical stuff with various artists including his wife’s band. He was still in the music industry. Then when Morbid came back in 2004 they were just so huge. That was obviously a rush, to see them come back at the level that they did.
Q: It’s also interesting to read his take on the creation of the ill-fated, poorly received Illud Divinum Insanus album from 2011. There was so much anticipation for that record, and it failed to meet most fans’ expectations.
A: There was an enormous backlash. The only backlash to an album that I’ve ever seen which was worse was to Metallica’s St. Anger. That really tells you what happened here. So many people wanted Illud… to be amazing, and there’s two or three songs on there that are really good, the more traditional death metal ones. What I wanted to know was how it came about. David talks about it in great detail, to his credit. It all came from the initial demos that Trey [Azagthoth] had made, that was the direction that they decided to go into. He really worked hard to try and help Trey achieve that. And the results were what they were. He does make the point that it also attracted a lot of new fans who would not have listened to Morbid Angel before that.
Q: Changing topics, do you have any other book projects in the works at the moment that you can tell us about?
A: There’s at least three, four or five books to come. The next one will be Frank Bello from Anthrax’s book. People have been talking about that for a little while, that’s going to be a great book , and rather different from anything else I’ve done because he’s had quite a lot of bereavement and serious things happen in his life. On top of that, I edit Bass Guitar and Bass Player magazine every four weeks, so life is busy.
Q: Any thoughts on doing updated versions of some of your past books, such as the Slayer biography?
A: No, that’s a good point though. That and the Metallica book should be updated. I should talk to the publisher about that, because both those books are a little out of date now. Nothing concrete, but that’s a good idea, and a few people have been asking, so that’s something I need to get on.
Q: Is essentially being self-employed an increasingly difficult way to make a living? Is it still a way to make a steady income?
A: It is, yeah. I wouldn’t want to start now as an unknown writer, but because I’ve been doing this 20 years and there’s 32 books, people know who I am. I’m fortunate in that sense. The way I explain it to people is that the money you get for doing a book is kind of like a pyramid. There’s a small number of very lucrative deals at the top, and at the bottom there’s loads of deals where you either get very little, or you do it for nothing. And then in the middle, there used to be this really nice central point where you would get paid, say, £15,000, something like that, for a book and it would take you three months. It would be easy, well-paid and you could do a couple of those a year, and do well. That area is going – that’s the problem. That middle area is gradually eroding and going away because of the fortunes of the publishing industry.
You can still get the top deals at the top end and do really well, or alternatively you could do 20 books a year and earn almost nothing from them, although I personally refuse to do that. You can still get started as a book writer if you wish, it will just be harder than it used to be, and it will take you more time to build up to an acceptable level of income. It can still be done, though.
Q: Interesting. You co-hosted the entertaining Dead Rock Stars podcast with fellow writer Mick Wall. Are we likely to get another season of the show?
A: No, that’s done I think. We just don’t have the time. I really enjoyed doing that, and Mick’s a good guy and I learned so much from him. But we just ran out of time, and it was taking up a day of our time every week and we’re both so busy. We did the one season and nailed it. If things free up again, we’ll do another one. It was a good laugh; what you heard on those programs was literally what we’re like when we go out for a curry and some beers. I really enjoyed those – sometimes I do listen back to them.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: Wash your hands, don’t cough on people and stay optimistic.