Interview With Author/Journalist Joel McIver
Interview by JP
Anyone who has ever done any reading of metal books have no doubt read Joel McIver. From best selling books on Metallica to books on Slayer, Cliff Burton, Black Sabbath, etc. to his contributions in magazines like Metal Hammer, Classic Rock, and Rolling Stone, he is one of the most identifiable metal authors in the world. We recently had the pleasure of doing an interview with Joel about his beginnings to his current endeavors in metal journalism. Enjoy!
Tell us how you got your start in Metal journalism.
As with most things in life, it came about through a combination of flukes, accidents and luck. After graduating from university in 1993 I did what most people do if they haven’t got a clue what they want to do with their lives: I travelled around the world and taught English. After a few years of that, the idea popped into my head that maybe I should be a writer, so I spent a couple more years writing odd bits here and there for various magazines. I wasn’t writing about metal, particularly, just covering whatever needed to be written. I gradually built up a small portfolio, which helped me get a job on a British magazine called Record Collector in 1999. I was the production editor on that mag for six years: it was basically a boot camp teaching me how to write, edit and manage a schedule. It was fairly tough at times: until 2003 the magazine was owned by a very strange man indeed, and the editor was a pretty special character too. After that the mag changed hands and was run on a much more professional basis, as it continues to be today. I was there for six years. As a magazine staffer you find your niche pretty quickly, and I naturally became the extreme metal guy, which is a more important genre than you might expect in the not-at-all-geeky world of collectible vinyl.
What was your first book?
It was called Extreme Metal and came out in 2000. A lot of writers look back at their first book and cringe in embarrassment, and while my first one wasn’t a complete train wreck, it wasn’t particularly well planned and it had quite a few errors in it. I stand by it, though. There was a sequel in 2005 which was much bigger and better, thank God.
Why are all the best (or at very least the most respected) Metal journalists British?
I don’t think that’s true these days: there are a lot of amazing North American and European writers on the subject. It was definitely the case in the 80s and early 90s, though, because the key magazine, Kerrang!, was British. Nowadays its focus has shifted to a younger, less demanding audience, but back then, if you wanted to read metal stuff from writers who really knew what they were talking about, KerrangI was where you went.
The deeper reason for the preponderance of UK metal writers is that we Brits invented metal. From the Beatles and the Kinks to Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and then to Motörhead, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, heavy music was mostly about merrie England. That changed in the 1980s, of course, thanks to Bay Area thrash, LA glam and Florida death metal, but for a while there, we ruled. The obvious next question is why the British scene is so weak these days, but let’s not go there…
You are catching up to Martin Popoff as one of the world’s most prolific Rock/Metal journalists. How do you manage such a pace?
I’ve been writing full-time for five years, and when you write for eight hours a day you get a lot done. I’ve always been a fast writer and a lot of publishers want me to write books for them, which explains the fact that I’m on my 18th book in 11 years. Who needed those rainforests anyway? And speaking of Martin, being compared to him is an honour: he was writing about metal when I was still a useless stoner college kid, and I’ve learned a lot from his approach to writing.
Do you get any grief or criticism from the metal community about your… shall we say… non-metal books?
Not much, although the way you’ve phrased the question implies that you’d like to give me some. Which would be fine, I should add – I welcome all criticism, positive or otherwise. I do get the occasional email from disgruntled teenagers in Bumfuck, Nebraska who don’t grasp that I am capable of writing books about both Ice Cube and Slayer. My response is that most people like different kinds of music, and so do I. Metal is the cornerstone of what I listen to on a daily basis but I’m also into loads of other genres, and as a result I’ve written about pretty much all types of music over the last decade or so.
Speaking of criticism have any of your titles generated more controversy than others?
I don’t deliberately seek to whip up controversy for its own sake: life is hard enough without setting out to piss people off, and anyway it’s only rock’n’roll. But two of my books have created a fair bit of excitement. The first was Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica, which a lot of younger Metallica fans got upset about because I laid into the band so hard about the Load, Reload and St. Anger albums. It’s a comprehensive, well-written book, which explains why it’s sold upwards of 50,000 copies in several languages, but if I were writing it today I probably wouldn’t be so aggressively critical of those albums. I was a younger, more cynical man when I wrote it and also it was my first major book, so I attacked it with great vigour. The other controversial book of mine is The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists, which it looks like you’re about to address below.
List books tend to generate some impassioned debate. I wrote a semi-critical review of your book THE 100 GREATEST METAL GUITARISTS on this very site. (Click here for link to review) I understand you might have a comment or a rebuttal?
That review is very positive, I appreciate it. Sounds like your main problem with my book is simply that I drew a line between what I believe is hard rock and what I perceive as metal, and that this line excludes some guitarists who you think should be included. It’s a fair point, and one that literally hundreds of reviewers and readers have made before you. I’m a huge fan of Randy, Yngwie, Angus, Eddie etc but I don’t think their music is consistently heavy enough to qualify as heavy metal, even though people labelled it metal in the 1980s – hence their exclusion.
You make a couple of erroneous suppositions in the review which I’d like to correct. You write “Even if he hates Yngwie…” – I don’t. I admire him a lot, having interviewed him a few times. He also supplied an afterword for my next book, a Randy Rhoads biography.
You also wonder if some of my more commercial choices for the book may be have been included under pressure from the publisher: the answer is absolutely not. I wouldn’t write under those circumstances and, conversely, the publisher wouldn’t have asked me to write the book for them if they hadn’t valued my individual opinion.
What has been your most successful book, financially?
The Metallica book. The most apparent benefit is that a nice royalty payment comes in twice a year. However, a less obvious bonus is that when you write a successful book, publishers line up to work with you. That’s why I was able to quit my job at Record Collector in 2005, because I had books lined up for the next couple of years.
What has been your most successful book, critically?
The Cliff Burton biog I wrote in 2008. I worked so hard to get the balance right on that book that it was immensely gratifying when reviewers liked it and readers bought it, both in large numbers. I’ve always felt deeply sorry for Cliff and his family, and making sure that the book was good was about the only thing I could do for them at this stage.
What has been your favourite project thus far?
The only way for me to answer that truthfully is to look back and ask myself how I felt at the time. When I wrote Extreme Metal in 1999, as an inexperienced hack without any real understanding of what I was doing, I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be a real, published author, rather than just some tool who sits in the pub and tells his friends how he’s definitely going to write a book one day. So that was quite an astonishing experience. I remember the finished book arriving at my home when I was at work, and I called my wife to ask her what it looked like. I couldn’t wait to see it. Then I gave copies to all my friends, ostensibly as a gift but in reality to show off. That’s what you’re like when you’re young (ish) and excited. Since then, getting the Cliff Burton biography, the 100 Metal Guitarists book and the Slayer biog done have been most enjoyable, as well as the new Randy Rhoads biog which I think (hope) is one of the best books I’ve written.
What titles are on the horizon for 2011? Projected release dates?
So, Crazy Train: The High Life And Tragic Death Of Randy Rhoads is coming out in the UK, US, Canada and several other territories in the summer. The foreword was written by Zakk Wylde and Yngwie did the afterword, as I said. I’ve also written Overkill: The Untold Story Of Motörhead, which comes out at approximately the same time. That one has a foreword by Glenn Hughes. Talking of Glenn, his autobiography – which he and I co-wrote – is out in May. Plenty of cool stuff ahead this year.
Do you have any dream biographies that you wish you could write?
After this year I’m moving away from writing third-person biographies into co-writing musicians’ autobiographies, as I’ve done with Glenn Hughes. It’s more fun and more prestigious, although I may still write the occasional straight biog if the subject is interesting enough. There are four co-writing possibilities lined up for this year, all with very well-known household names in the metal field. I can’t identify them until the contracts are signed, obviously, but right now I’m in the middle of negotiating with them in a complex conversation that involves their management and my agent, so it’s all a bit fatiguing. But it’s still fun, and one of the best possible ways to earn a living that there is, anywhere on the planet. I look at some of the ‘real’ jobs that my friends do, and I shudder.
Any last words, for now?
What we’re all doing here, from web writers such as yourself to old-fashioned book authors like me, is committing the history of our culture for posterity. Nowadays, everything that is written down will outlive its creator, which makes it important, if you ask me. Future generations won’t give a shit about the accountants and salesmen of today, but thanks to us, they’ll care about Reign In Blood. That means a lot to me, so thanks for having me on your site, and keep up the good work.