British author and music journalist Joel McIver is one of the most prolific writers you’re likely to encounter. Chances are if you read much material covering metal or hard rock, you’ve almost certainly encountered his work somewhere along the way. An author of 20 books, he’s written biographies of the likes of Metallica, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Queens of the Stone Age, Motörhead, Slipknot and more. He also contributes to music and film magazines such as Rolling Stone, Metal Hammer, Classic Rock, Bass Guitar, Drummer and Record Collector. On top of that, McIver makes radio and television appearances, as well as writing liner notes for CDs and DVDs. In a fascinating chat, he spoke to Loud about the most challenging book he’s written, co-writing Max Cavalera’s upcoming autobiography, his advice for aspiring music journalists and more.
Q: Many of our readers would be interested in how you got your break in music journalism. How did you manage to do so?
A: In 1996 I was teaching English in Munich, Germany and one of my students was a section editor at Cosmopolitan magazine. I mentioned that I was interested in doing some music writing and she offered to give me a shot. Her name is Nadja Bossmann and she now has a jewellery business in South Africa called Dew Creations, you should check her out. I’ve never forgotten that act of generosity and have tried my best to do the same for other aspiring writers in recent years. Those first published features and reviews led me to a staff position at Record Collector magazine, where I worked from 1999 to 2005. My Metallica book was a bestseller in ’04 and so I jumped ship to work from home, which I’ve done for the past seven years. I highly doubt that there is any office-based job that would attract me now, unless they offered me a ridiculous amount of money and a limo to and from work every day.
Q: (Laughs) Do you remember the first band/artist you ever interviewed?
A: Yes, it was a DJ called Rollo from the dance act Faithless. It was great, he was a decent guy. That was a phone call; my first face-to-face interview was with a soul singer called Dina Carroll, whose music is dishwater but who was really successful in the mid-to-late 90s. It’s funny looking back on the early days; I did a lot of poppy crap like that before my career took off a bit and I could focus on the music I really liked.
Q: I know you’re co-writing Max Cavalera’s autobiography, which he talked to us about in a recent interview (which you can read here). That is an example of a fascinating story that has not yet been told. What can readers expect there?
A: Obviously I can’t give too much away, but there are several revelations in there about Max’s life that he hasn’t discussed before. He also tells his side of the story about the Sepultura split, which I’m fairly sure hasn’t appeared on the record to date. Along the way there are tonnes of amazing rock’n’roll stories; it’s going to be a hell of a read.
Q: Indeed. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that Max is somewhat of a “man’s man” and getting inside his head was difficult. What techniques or ideas did you use to try and make that process easier?
A: To clarify, in the interview you’re referring to I didn’t say that getting inside Max’s head was difficult, I just said that it wasn’t as easy as it had been with Glenn Hughes, whose autobiography I also wrote a couple of years ago. Max was actually incredibly easy to work with; very willing to dig deep and make time for the book in a fully committed way, even though he has a very busy life. What I meant was that at times I had to challenge him to open up about his emotions, which is something that we men usually suck at. There were times in his life when euphoric or traumatic events occurred, and what I wanted to do was portray those events in a way so that the reader would feel what they were like. That’s the secret of a good autobiography: the subject has to open him- or herself up to the reader, or there’s no connection between them. Without wanting to sound too pretentious about this, in many ways the dialogue between writer and subject is similar to the therapist/client relationship, which requires emotional transparency. That does sound totally pretentious, but fuck it.
Q: What other projects do you have in the works at the moment?
A: I have about eight books at various stages of development. The ones I can talk about are Max’s book, an updated version of my Slipknot biography from 2001 and a tasty photo-book with Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols. The ones I can’t talk about yet include the autobiography of a particular thrash metal legend, the official book of a certain death metal band, the official history of a guitar manufacturer that you’ll be familiar with and yet another autobiography, this time of a stadium-sized group’s bass player. I could tell you and your readers more, but I’d probably end up at the bottom of a lake.
Q: Fair enough then. In an interview with this site in 2010, (read it here) Mick Wall said one of the goals of his writing is to investigate and even dispel rumours/half-truths/complete fictions about the artist in question that have been regurgitated so much throughout the years that they’ve essentially become accepted as truth. He used the example of Metallica continuing on after Cliff Burton’s death, supposedly “because that’s what Cliff would have wanted” becoming gospel by now, but didn’t really seem to be the case according to many. Do you approach things from a similar perspective?
A: Yes, but with slightly less dedication than Mick, who is a good friend and a mentor to me in some ways; although I want it on the record that I introduced him to Jagermeister. In his Metallica book he tenaciously deconstructed a lot of the bullshit that surrounds that band, something which I’d tried to do to a certain extent in my previous book about them, but less successfully. My view is that few books really get close to telling the absolute truth – if such a thing even exists – in rock music, because there are too many agendas that would be fatally compromised. If the world’s biggest bands ever sat down and revealed the genuine truth behind the music industry, it would collapse.
Q: Probably the most successful book of your career was Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica. Considering how much has been written about them during a 30-year career, how do you find a new angle or fresh stories to tell?
A: Well, you have to remember I wrote that book a decade ago. There was no other biography of Metallica available in 2002, apart from KJ Doughton’s Unbound; that’s an excellent book but it only goes as far as 1992. So there was nothing but fresh angles and stories for me to write about at that time. Since then, there have been several Metallica books – a Cliff Burton biog by me, Mick’s book and Mark Eglinton’s Hetfield biog among them – and the tales have mostly been told by this point. But not entirely; Paul Brannigan’s two-volume book is on its way and I’m sure he’ll be digging up plenty of new stuff for it.
Q: What was the most challenging book that you’ve written, and why?
A: They’re all challenging in one way or another, because the writer’s job is to write well, informatively and break new ground, while on a deadline. My Black Sabbath book in 2005 was probably the hardest to write because it was so long, 175,000 words, and because my time management wasn’t great and I left it too late to write at a comfortable pace. The last three months of it almost drove me nuts. Comparatively speaking, though, the writer’s career isn’t particularly hard; I have friends in management and sales whose stress levels are horrendous.
Q: Who would you like to collaborate with on a book that you haven’t already?
A: Where do I start? Martin Scorsese, Tom Waits, Prince, Barack Obama, Richard Dawkins. But if you’re looking for metal musicians, then doing a book with James Hetfield, Steve Harris or Kerry King would be a lot of fun.
Q: Good to hear. Now, the internet has given everyone an avenue to express their opinion. While that has many positives, for mine the major downside is it enables anyone the ability to start a website or blog and as a result there seems to be a lot of sloppy, amateurish musical “journalism” out there. As a music fan and journalist there are few things that annoy me more. How do you feel about this situation?
A: I feel that the open forum which the internet provides is generally a good thing. Sure, there are a lot of haters and idiots out there, but dig deeper and you’ll find some extremely intelligent people writing at as high or higher a level as any print journalist. I recommend a website called The Quietus if you’re looking for music coverage with braincells.
Q: What advice would you give any aspiring music journalists reading this?
A: If you want to pay your bills as a writer, you need to be dedicated. It helps if you’re talented, too, but believe me that’s secondary to being willing and able to push for opportunities and take them. It’s much easier to write for a small income, or even for nothing, so consider working a part-time job as well as writing if you don’t have the inclination to work at building your business. Also, be nice to people or you’ll be flipping burgers before you know it.
Q: On a musical front, who are some great up-and-coming bands our readers should check out?
A: Other people are better qualified than me to answer that question. I mostly listen to old stuff these days. It’s better, I’m afraid.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: Here’s a collection of aphorisms. Be original. Be optimistic. Enjoy life. Have fun. Keep an open mind. Be grateful for what you’ve got. Don’t worry about the morons. Get some sleep. Spend time with good people. Listen to very loud music. And thanks for having me on your site!