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 encountered his work somewhere along the way. He’s previously written biographies of Metallica, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Queens of the Stone Age, Motörhead, Slipknot, Machine Head and more. He also contributes to music magazines such as Metal Hammer and Classic Rock, as well as editing Bass Guitar magazine.
The past year has been a flurry of activity for McIver. Namely, releasing and doing extensive promotional work for autobiographies/biographies he’s written or co-written. They are David Ellefson’s My Life With Deth; Max Cavalera’s My Bloody Roots; the official Cannibal Corpse memoir Bible Of Butchery and his Know Your Enemy: The Story of Rage Against the Machine biography. Loud caught up with him to discuss these projects, potential future endeavours, favourite releases of 2014 thus far and much more.
Q: I noticed on your website that you interviewed Steven Seagal recently, which must have been an intriguing experience.
A: Yeah (laughs), that was really funny. That was for The Blues Magazine, which is part of Classic Rock magazine over here. They have a specialist blues title, and it’s probably one of the bigger blues magazines in Europe. So I got to interview him at his home, which was kinda funny. He was alright actually, he was a nice guy.
Q: (Laughs) Excellent. You’ve had a multitude of projects issued recently, but first cab off the rank – tell us about the Cannibal Corpse book.
A: It has turned out really nicely; it’s a really beautiful bit of design, and mostly what we’ve concentrated on in the book is the songs, the lyrics, and how completely disgusting and violent they are. What we’ve tried to do, they’ve obviously got two DVDs out, which I’m sure you’ve seen.
Q: Both of them are essential viewing.
A: Yeah, they’re really, really good, they covered the band’s history in great detail, so we didn’t need to go over all that stuff again. But what I did do was talk a bit about the band’s personal backgrounds, and some of the more interesting things that have happened over the years, without going too much into detail. Then the rest of it was all about the songs really, and just the problems that they’ve had with them. A little explanation of like, why is it that the public are so interested in this kind of incredibly violent music? Why is it that when so many bands say, play mainstream music, why is it that Cannibal have managed to do so well, playing music that is incredibly violent and graphic? So it was a lot of fun writing it.
Q: Do you think fans are curious about the members’ personal lives? I say that because despite playing such crushingly heavy music, they have long struck me as somewhat straight-laced family men who just happen to play death metal for a living.
A: They totally are. So we didn’t go into that in massive detail, it’s just it hadn’t been covered before at all, they’ve never talked about their personal lives. So I thought for Cannibal completists, for the real fan, it would be nice to have some information about what they’re really like. That’s not a major part of the book for that reason.
Q: Their story lends itself to being documented in print form though – they’ve even had difficulties here in Australia with censorship.
A: Yeah, I think it was Australia and Germany where you couldn’t get some of their stuff. The stuff is pretty hardcore (laughs). I say it in the book, that I wouldn’t really want my kids to see the artwork, you know? Maybe when they’re 16 or something and can understand that the stuff is not meant seriously. But it is pretty frightening and graphic, so I’m not surprised really.
Q: There was also some contention in 2006 when a group in Perth tried to prevent them from performing in the city. It even gained mainstream press coverage and likely gave the tour a sizeable boost.
A: It’s bizarre, authority and authoritarian figures will never learn that the worst thing you can do is try and ban something, because then it just draws interest to it, doesn’t it? It’s been the same, whether it goes back to the PMRC in the ‘80s, and sort of general censorship. All it does is it throws a big spotlight on the thing that you’re trying your hardest to make go away. That lesson keeps not being learned, which is also relevant in the case of Cannibal Corpse.
Q: Do you believe they’re tired of being asked about the various controversies these days?
A: Well, that was what was amazing to me actually, because they were completely relaxed about it all. If it was me, I’d be going, ‘I cannot talk about this one more fucking time’. Because they’re not just about horror; they are interested in other stuff. They’re actually not horror freaks really, any of them, and yet they keep being asked about it. But they still very patiently answer the questions, which I thought was pretty good. I can’t think I’d be that patient to answer the same question for the millionth time.
Q: As a result they perhaps don’t receive their due credit as musicians either – Alex Webster for one is an incredible bassist.
A: Yeah, they’re all virtuosos. Alex is especially visible in that sense, because there obviously aren’t many bass players like him, maybe Steve DiGiorgio and a couple of others. The guitar players are amazing. Pat O’Brien gets most of the spotlight, because he has a more in-your-face, melodic style. But they’re all amazing. The drummer’s really good too, and George (Fisher) I just think is Cannibal’s secret weapon. First of all, he’s funny as fuck on-stage, he’s absolutely hilarious the way he just rips into the crowd and will not take any shit out of anyone. But also his vocals are unbelievably demonic, and I’ve always really loved them. I like Chris Barnes’s vocals too. I don’t know how he screams for as long as he does, and he’s always counting, because some of the time signatures are a bit tricky.
But your point about them not being appreciated as musicians is absolutely true, and it always really pisses them off. One of the clichés for people who don’t know is that heavy metal musicians are not talented. And what they’re thinking of is the original punks, who made a point of not being good musicians. But that’s nothing to do with this kind of music. For people who aren’t educated would assume that’s the case, and it always really fucks them off, because they’re really great musicians, all of them.
Q: I understand that you didn’t speak to any former members for this project?
A: No, we didn’t need to really. We thought about it. So what we did was we sat down and decided which way this book was going to go. And at first we thought maybe we’ll do a bit more of a historical angle, and talk to Chris Barnes and the rest of them. But then we thought, ‘there’s just no need for this’. Chris was on the DVD talking about the history of the band, and he did a really good job. And we thought, let’s focus on the core line-up, because it’s a really strong one. So in the end we just didn’t need to. But the relationships are all good; they get on fine with anyone else who’s been in the band before. It’s just we didn’t need to go in that direction this time.
Q: How much easier was it working with their label Metal Blade instead of a regular publisher?
A: They were great. Communication was great, which is always key. I would send off an e-mail on an evening in the UK, and the next morning it would be back there from America. The design was really good; they got a really killer designer. The guy’s done a really amazing design; it’s almost like a creepy old Gothic bible the way they’ve done it, which obviously ties in with the title of the book. I wish more book publishers were like Metal Blade to be honest with you. A bit more aware of deadlines and a bit better at communicating; thumbs up to Metal Blade.
Q: Was the release intentionally scheduled to coincide with their new album?
A: Well, funnily enough it wasn’t. I started doing the book about two years ago, and at the time they were on the previous album. So it worked out really well with deadlines and schedules that it ties in with the new record. So that’s a fortunate coincidence.
Q: Fair enough. Since 2006’s Kill they’ve been consistently making strong albums after a string of perhaps less impressive ones. Why do you feel they’re able to make some of the best music they’ve ever made at this point in their careers?
A: Yeah, it’s funny isn’t it? A lot of bands can’t do that, but for some reason they’ve hit a rich vein of form in the past few years. I think some of it is to do with the producers that they’ve had. They did three albums with Erik Rutan, who obviously was in Hate Eternal, and was in Morbid Angel for a while. Amazing musician, excellent producer, and I think he pushed them to do great stuff. But also, they’ve kind of come into their own as musicians After this long in the game, a lot of musicians don’t continue to evolve, but they’ve really, I think that their composition has basically peaked. They’re writing the best songs they ever have… They’ve just improved. A lot of bands don’t, but some do, and this lot really have.
I couldn’t agree more about Kill, that album’s amazing. Some people accuse Cannibal of always sounding the same, which if you don’t know anything about death metal, or maybe you just listen to too much of that music (laughs), or if you’re not in the mood for it that day you might well say. I kind of get that; and they’re used to it. But they don’t just record the same album, you only have to listen. They’ve got a sound; they’re kind of like Slayer in that sense. You know when you’re listening to Slayer, because they sound like Slayer, but there are differences here and there that anybody can spot. You just need to listen a bit really, then you realise that they’re doing very different stuff.
Q: On the topic of Slayer, will you be releasing an updated version of The Bloody Reign of Slayer in the near future?
A: I am, yeah. Obviously (Jeff) Hanneman’s gone, (Dave) Lombardo’s gone, and the last book I think went up to 2009 and covered World Painted Blood. I think what I’ll do is, wait for the new record to come out, which shouldn’t be too long from now, and I’ll do it then.
Q: I saw them at Wacken this year with the new line-up, and although Jeff had a particular type of stage presence, it still felt distinctively Slayer, despite them being criticised for continuing without him and Dave Lombardo.
A: Yeah, you’ve got to remember Gary Holt’s been in the band for what, four years now? So everyone’s used to him playing, and he’s such an amazing guitar player. He knows how to replicate Hanneman’s stuff. And as great a drummer as Dave Lombardo is, I think Paul Bostaph is doing a great job of basically replicating his stuff, and bringing his own feel to it. So I think the difference will be when the new record comes out, then we’ll see what the difference in sound is. But that said, they’re not going to update their sound or change it dramatically. I thought Implode was a really good song, and it was designed basically to show people that Slayer could still cut it, which they obviously can. So, we’ll see. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
It’ll be very interesting to see what happens next, whether they’ll finally call it a day after this. I know (front-man) Tom Araya has been very vocal in the press about how he’s a bit sick of touring; he’s burnt out on that. And you can’t blame him after all these years on a tour bus at his age. And I don’t think any of them particularly need to keep on touring financially. I’m not talking about Holt and Bostaph, but I would think (Kerry) King and Araya are probably pretty much set for life now. It will be interesting to see what happens next with them, definitely.
Q: They clearly wouldn’t have “Metallica money”, but they’d be in strong financial shape I’d estimate.
A: Yeah, I think they’ve all got some property and some investments. Like you say, I don’t think any of them are super wealthy, but they’ve been well-rewarded for all their years on the road, and quite rightly so.
Q: What’s the latest on an updated edition of your Metallica biography, Justice for All: The Truth about Metallica?
A: A new update of that book actually just came out recently. That goes right up to this year. It covers the Antarctica thing they did, and it goes into discussion of where the new album’s going to go with Rick Rubin. So that’s out, and also my Sabbath book has been updated as well to cover the recent album, and all the stuff they’ve been up to. The next book that’s coming out is I did a Queens of the Stone Age book a few years ago. That was ages ago, I think it came out in ’07, and they’ve done tonnes since then. So that’s the next thing that’s going to come out.
Q: What was your view on the Lulu album? It copped a pasting in the press.
A: I don’t think that album is as terrible as some people make out actually. I don’t think it’s particularly good, but it got absolutely murdered by the critics, and I think that’s probably a little bit unfair. It has its moments.
Q: The David Ellefson, Max Cavalera and Rage Against the Machine tomes seemed to arrive within a relatively short span of time. How have they been received?
A: Quite good really. What you want when you write a book is you want it to be commercially successful and sell a bunch, and you want the reviews to be good. And in all of those cases those two things have occurred. So the job is done as far as I’m concerned. The Ellefson book came out last year; it was the paperback that came out this year, just after the Max book came out, and I spent a lot of time promoting that.
That was an epic book to write, we had so much fun. Max dug really deep when it came to reflecting on his past. Because he’s had a traumatic life, the stuff he’s been through would probably leave most of us weeping in the corner. But he’s got up and fought it every step of the way. So to do that book with him was an honour really, because he’s always been a hero of mine since I was listening to Sepultura in the ‘80s.
So yeah, they all happened at the same time. I obviously didn’t write them all at the same time, but they all sort of, publication dates kind of coincided (laughs). I think that happened back in ’09 as well, I had three books out at the same time, and it wasn’t deliberate at all. It just meant a hell of a lot of press for me, and a lot of cool interviews like this one.
Q: Thank you kindly, sir (laughs). It’s akin to a movie star making a number of films over a lengthy period of time, but they’re released in quick succession.
A: Yeah, it’s just like that, except you get way less money (laughs).
Q: The Rage Against the Machine book must have been difficult subject matter to approach – there are a number of different facets to explore there.
A: What I did there, I thought exactly the same as you just said. I thought, right, when I talk about the politics of Rage Against the Machine, I understand them, and in many ways I sympathise with them. But I’m not an expert on those things. I can’t necessarily talk with great expertise about the revolutionary movement and the Zapatistas in Mexico. So what I did was I took a slightly different approach, which was I included a bunch of interviews in there with experts on those subjects. So for example, one of the things they talk about in their songs, and it’s not something that we talk about specifically. It’s more of kind of an ongoing theme, is the sort of enslavement of the masses by media and corporations.
So what I did was I found this really interesting woman, this writer in America called Pamela Satterwhite who has written extensively on the subject of how we could achieve a kind of workers’ utopia, where we would not be enslaved by our employers to spend our time doing jobs that we don’t want. Like they said in Fight Club; “we spend all our days working at jobs we hate, to buy shit we don’t need”. So I did a detailed interview with her, and we talked about that. So her voice, she’s the expert in this book on that particular subject. Then I got a Canadian professor of geopolitics to talk about the Zapatista movement, and Rage Against the Machine’s involvement in that. So there’s your expert voice.
But I guess the thing I’m proudest of is you will remember that Rage got the Christmas number one here in 2009, how they defeated Simon Cowell’s X Factor. It was a huge thing over here, it was massive. And I tracked down the guy, Jon Morter, who made it happen. So we sat down, had a couple of beers in London, and did a great interview. What I really wanted to show in that book was that’s really the peak of their recent career. And that’s probably all we can expect now from Rage Against the Machine. But if that’s all they do with where they are now with their careers, then that’s still a great thing. They went out and they defeated the absolute epitome of corporate entertainment, and that’s not a bad way to go out. It was a bit tricky, some of the subjects were a bit dry and hard to get around, but I hope I managed that by getting hold of some interesting people to talk about them.
Q: There perhaps is a sense of relative finality surrounding that band which lends itself to a biography, as opposed to artists whose careers are still very much active.
A: They’ll do a few tours here and there I’m sure. Tom Morello (guitars) will never stop doing stuff, because he’s a natural creative. I mean, the impetus to make Rage work was pretty much always his band. All the rest of them got involved too, but he has a natural desire to fix things, and protest. Which certainly Zack de la Rocha shared; I’m not sure whether the other guys did particularly. But because of that, he won’t give up. They’ll be no getting rid of him, for sure.
Q: As a productive author, do you envision books remaining a viable prospect for the foreseeable future?
A: Yeah, I think books have got a few decades yet. I don’t think magazines have particularly in their printed form, and I say that as a magazine editor. I think in about ten to 15 years, more people will be reading the electronic editions of magazines. The mags will still exist; it’s just that people will be reading them more on devices than they do in printed form. But books I think is different; I think people like physical books quite a lot, and they’ll stick around for some time yet.
Q: Shifting topics, what new albums have impressed you thus far in 2014?
A: Well, there’s been loads of cool metal. The Haunted’s new one, which destroys, I really, really liked it. It’s exactly what I wanted to hear (laughs), because I was a big fan of that early Haunted stuff, before they got a little experimental. I like experimental music, but there are lots of acts doing that better than The Haunted. So I was very happy for them to get back to that. I love the new Mastodon, thought that was epic. I liked the stuff that Max did with Killer Be Killed, I thought that was killer. I got a preview of the new Cavalera Conspiracy album as well, which is pretty brutal. It’s really kind of cool grind that I really enjoy. Opeth, that was a good one. Every Opeth album is a good one, it’s not like I’ve heard one that sucks. It’s been a good year for metal I think.
Q: Have you heard the new Slipknot record yet? There’s another band you wrote a book about.
A: I haven’t, no. I heard that one new song, but I haven’t heard the whole album. But I’m sure I’ll get to very soon, and I’ll probably review it somewhere. It’ll be interesting to see where they’ve gone with that. I didn’t engage that much with All Hope is Gone, the last one, really. I thought it was okay, but I preferred their earlier stuff. So it’ll be interesting to see what they do, post (drummer) Joey Jordison. I hope it’s good.
Q: There’s been plenty of discussion in recent years about when heavy metal’s “old guard” finally call it a day. I was in Europe this year and it seems many of the festivals are still headlined by the same acts. Do you see a new crop of headliners stemming from the current younger bands out there ala Trivium and Five Finger Death Punch?
A: I see a lot of good bands, but I don’t see any bands that are going to be as big Metallica or Sabbath or Maiden. I just don’t see it. I’ve got an awful lot of respect for Trivium, Machine Head, Lamb of God, Slipknot, Rammstein and the rest of them. I really do, I think they’re great bands. But I think the record industry has diminished to the point where those bands can’t exist on that scale anymore, because there’s just not enough money.
What I think will happen is, the festivals will continue, but they will be headlined by smaller bands in five to ten years. But there’s no reason why Metallica, Priest, Sabbath, Motörhead, Maiden, all that lot, they can’t retire and then come and do the odd gig every couple of years until they’re literally 70 years old. Just the occasional one every three years or so, like the Stones do, and I think that’s probably what will happen. We won’t see Metallica doing a two-year tour anymore. We won’t see Maiden doing these massive epic things they do where they fly around the world. You just won’t see it. But you will see the occasional gig every now and then, and that’ll be a real occasion. I can imagine ten years from now, Slayer or whoever doing something just as a one-off, and us all going to see it and it’ll be pretty amazing.
Q: What’s your view on a band like Kiss potentially taking it one step further, whereby Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons have said that no one is irreplaceable, including them, and that Kiss could continue for some time yet with new musicians?
A: Well, it’s interesting. Gene Simmons has been talking about that for years. I first interviewed him in about ’99, and he mentioned it then. So it’s obviously something they’ve had bubbling under, an idea that they could pass the torch on to impersonators essentially, and you could go and see it. In the case of Kiss, that would totally work. Okay, there’d be a little bit of a leap of faith, but as long as you go and you see the same faces in the same make-up, and the fireworks, the pyro and the same songs and the same vocals, or similar vocals, that would work.
In the case of the bands we’ve just been discussing, that would not work. Because you don’t want to go and see a Bruce Dickinson lookalike, you need to see the actual guy, because he’s not covered in make-up, he’s not wearing a mask and he’s not wearing some sort of stage thing that is tied to his identity. I’m actually full of admiration for Kiss for having the balls to try and do that, you know? I think that’s quite amusing, and Kiss is not really about the music, is it? It’s about the fun, the pyro, the acrobatics and the fucking jumping up and down and breathing fire. It’s not really about the actual person. So I think in that case that would work, but I do not see that working for any other band.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: Only thanks very much for having me on the site, it’s really appreciated, and keep up the good work in Australia.