Interview with Martin Popoff
After a recent surge in publishing from the prolific Martin Popoff we decided to get caught up!
How do you do it? You have released (and are about to release) another four to six books in the last eight months! (Rush, two books about Thrash, Motorhead, Metal Collecting, Ted Nugent) That is more books than most people write in a lifetime. How do you maintain such a pace of creativity of productivity?
Well Josh, it’s a combination of the following. First of all, I’m a fast writer. The Ted Nugent you mentioned, is just an update from the earlier version, and a little bit of that is going to be happening in the future, so I supposed to some people, it looks like I’m having a new book happening when these happen. Also, some of these aren’t completely from scratch. They are using stuff not used from my 1700 interview archive. That goes for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal trilogy, the thrash trilogy, of which the third one is finally now in layout. But then again, some things are hugely and completely from scratch, like this Album by Album series for which I’ve done a Rush book, and I’ve got the AC/DC coming out in the fall. Actually, come to think of it, excruciatingly from scratch is my Led Zeppelin book, also out, I think, in the fall, where I basically had to write 400 words on every single Led Zeppelin song. That was tough, heavy writing, but it’s gratifying, good writing as well. Okay, last thing, this is my full-time job! Almost nobody who does these books has this as their full-time job. And even more, even when full-time job, say, 15 years ago meant “heavy metal journalist,” and that meant our magazine, writing bios, writing for other magazines and websites, all of that has fallen away, some of it by choice, some of it by no choice, and what I’m left with, essentially, is working 80% of my time, at least, on these books. I also have done, and continue to do, although less lately, quite a bit of work for Banger Films. So yeah, come to think of it, there were a few years there where I was full-time over there, and you can see the production drop off a little bit when that happens. But yes, dammit, I’m fast. And, oh yes, one other thing, I’ve realized a limitation as I get older, and that’s that I’d better do the heavy writing between about seven in the morning and may be 10:30, 11, because after that, my IQ drops 10 points an hour.
How is the carpal tunnel syndrome?
I don’t think I have it! Yes, you’re right, I had those scarce throughout the years, and still every once in a while when I type a lot, I feel some kind of strain, but it’s just a vaguely sore hand, and probably not carpal tunnel. So knock wood, I can still do a bunch of this for a bit, although I’m really trying to divest and deliberately cut way back when I hit 55, which I’m classing as a sort of retirement age, in honour of my dad retiring at that age, and mom I think even a little earlier, although as a nurse, she had some shoulder and back problems as well. But it was great to see how much busy living they’ve gotten in since officially being done work at 55. Both of them are workaholics anyways, so they’ve done a million things since then, but the regular 9 to 5 job was gone.
On a similar vein, what is your writing routine? Have you never just stalled out and sat staring at the blank page, thinking’ ‘Now what’? Do you feel a lifetime of collecting and archiving has finally paid dividends in that you have mountains of rare, raw material that needs to be synthesized into books?
Yes, to answer that second part first, what helps motivate me to get a book done is the fact that I have all this great footage that I haven’t used yet. And having said that, I finally embarked upon another thing I’ve been meaning to do for years, just taking my raw interviews and putting them into books by genre, called the Popoff Archive series. I’ve done four of them so far. And I want to do more. But I’m also being very careful that what goes into those is mostly, conceivably, not footage that I’m planning to use in another type of book. To answer the first part of your question, as I mentioned above, I have to really make sure that I’m doing any heavy lifting, super brain-shaking writing, at eight, nine, 10 in the morning. It’s actually gotten bad that I’ve talked myself into disqualifying that I can do it at any other time. As the afternoon wears on, I do easy stuff, like pack up books. Actually, a big part of my job isn’t writing, it’s actually signing and packing up and mailing books, because a good pile of my books are available only through my website. And those self-published books are actually printed in very low quantities, and weirdly, it works out to the same sort of unremarkable blue-collar pay, but pay nonetheless, doing it that way. Best cure for writer’s block? Again, write in that period, where you tell yourself this is when I have to get it done. Deadlines also help. Also just knuckling down and starting. Plus remember that old adage, writing is rewriting. So just blast it down onto the page, do a second pass, and all of a sudden it starts to look like something. I also tried doing what I’m doing exactly right now, which is speaking this into voice recognition software. Sometimes I write that way for that first pass, and then of course it needs major cleanup, but it’s a great way to get thoughts down quickly.
How is the international market for your books? Do you have many translated editions?
Yes, I suppose I have about, I don’t know, a dozen or 15 different books out in six or seven or eight languages. I really doubt they sell all that good, because all of these languages have a way smaller readership base than English, of course. Heck, I’ve got books in Czech, Polish, even Bulgarian. Finnish. But I also sell a lot of my self-published books, which of course are all in English, to mainland Europe. But man, I’m not sure I’ve sold a single book to Africa, other than South Africa. I don’t think I’ve ever sold a book to India. Nor to China. Maybe one or two to South Korea, I’ve got a couple customers in Hong Kong, a few to Japan, but not that many, considering that I’ve written four Deep Purple books, a Rainbow book, a Dio book, and books on all sorts of other bands that supposedly were pretty big over there. But yes, lots of English books all over mainland Europe. Plus a fair bit to Brazil, the Ukraine, Russia, the odd book to Mexico.
A tough but fair question….I noticed the your new Motorhead book BEER DRINKERS AND HELL RAISERS has the exact same title as Neil Daniels 2014 book about ZZ Top. Was that a bit of a screw-up by the publisher?
That was me picking that title, and I love that title, because I love mixing bands together like that. Of course, Motorhead covered that ZZ Top song, and ZZ Top are one of my favourite bands. But that would’ve been me, forgetting that, or not noticing that. But now that you mention it, I don’t even care. That kind of thing might’ve bugged me 20 years ago, but I don’t care anymore. Also, up until recently, I used to think there was no way I could write books on bands that there are already books on. Heck, if I had that attitude now, I’d never have any projects.
As a collector, what do you feel about this recent trend of product branding (especially alcohol and hot sauce) from Metal guys?
I think it’s a great idea, but they should come up with some more innovative and cool in different products, rather than hot sauce and booze all the time. But I love it. A brand is a brand and it should be used is much as possible. These are playful things. This is not whether Harley Davidson should have a cologne or, I don’t know, a car company should make vacuum cleaners. This is just fun stuff. Nobody really cares about synergy between product lines or whether it’s the stamp of quality. It’s just another cool thing to collect with Megadeth stamped on it.
In your recent book about Metal collecting (METAL COLLECTOR) I noticed a contributor suggested that collecting Metal stuff will be dead within 25 years. I know through private conversations between us that you have also scaled back your desire to accumulate ‘stuff’, hard copies etc. So..is collecting Metal soon be a dead art and we will all just have digital services? On a related point, what are you going to do with all your stuff? I understand you have donated parts of your collection to a university?
No, collecting will never be dead, and I predict CDs will come back the same way vinyl has, which is essentially as a physical thing to collect with that band’s name on it. The collecting gene is so strong. And collecting music stuff has almost always mostly not been about having the music itself. If you are a guy with 22 different pressings of Number of the Beast, the desire to do something like that doesn’t matter if we’re in a streaming culture or an eight-track tape culture.
You went back to the well again with your third book about Rush. What is it about these guys that makes it so easy and so fun to write about? Have they seen and/or endorsed the book at all?
Basically, when I was approach with that idea, the first thing I said was there was no way in hell I could ever write another book on Rush. But the beauty of that concept is I was to gather up a bunch of experts, and just have a cool ol’ roundtable bunch of interviews and get their views. So all I was really writing in that book is those introductions, which of course was a chore, because yes, I’ve written that sort of stuff already across a couple of Rush books. But, indeed, that was the only Rush book I could write. So there’s nothing in particular about those guys that makes it easy to write about. In fact, they’re very hard to write about, because you’d better take what they do pretty seriously.
How is the Thrash series coming? Have you had a lot of positive reception about the symmetry of design/layout, book spines etc, for this and the NWOBHM series?
As I’ve mentioned, the third and final book in the thrash series is now with my layout guy, Eduardo. It’s called Tornado of Souls: Thrash’s Titanic Clash, and it covers late 1986 to 1991, the end of 1991, I believe, which brings in the Black Album, the American leg of Clash of the Titans and the rise of Nirvana. Yes, I’ve had some of that fun slingshot effect by designing these to all look similar, and in fact similar to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal trilogy, which also has a tie-in to these because they all use the timeline with quotes and lots of memorabilia shots, method. But no, they haven’t sold that great. I had no choice to move into the ‘80s, because I’ve kind of written about everything in the ‘70s already, if I was going to continue doing this. But in fact, my Megadeth book didn’t do that great either, and here I am doing this thrash thing, and it’s not doing that great. Even the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, has done about double the numbers. Not sure why that is, but I get such a kick out of just having this stuff out in the world, that it’s probably going to be full steam ahead, even when I don’t think it’s going to be financially worth it.
What is your best selling book of all time?
That would probably be the first Rush book, Contents Under Pressure, which was an authorized biography of the band. It’s strange, it’s now something like a dozen years old, maybe even older, and the publisher, ECW has not thought to ask me to update it. And I’ve already even updated the Rush illustrated history book that I did for Voyageur Press. That one has done quite well also. And it’s funny, those damn Collector’s Guide series of reviews books have done pretty darn good over the years. In terms of the self-published, band bios, the two that began as Metal Blade books, well, there were actually four in total, but two of those have done pretty good over the years, and that’s the Blue Oyster Cult and the UFO. I want to update the UFO some day, and the Blue Oyster Cult has gone through a couple of updates already. But I don’t know, I don’t feel like I sell that many books. I feel thankful for the sales I get, because when me and my buddies get in doom and gloom conversations, I almost start feeling like nobody remembers any of these bands. I mean, God, recently, I’ve done books on Max Webster, Montrose and Riot. Pretty crazy. And actually, come to think of it, the Max Webster and the Riot have done quite well. The Montrose, not so well, but slow and steady.
What is on the horizon for new titles?
Well, I want to do the power metal book of the Popoff Archive series, and possibly a black metal one for that. I mean, I got about 10 more those that I can do, it’s just prioritizing, figuring what is cool enough to make a proper book out of, and of course, trying not to overlap with something I want to do a different kind of book on, in terms of using up that footage. Actually, I finished another book for Voyageur Press exactly like the Led Zeppelin, where I analyse, review, break down, stuff all the trivia in that is ever known, on every Clash song. I also still want to get a book done on the invention of punk, sort of what happened in detail from about 1972 to 1975. And then I have three books that I’m working on for publishers that I can’t mention, because nobody knows about those yet.
Lastly how can all out readers get copies of your books?
Well, they can go to www.martinpopoff.com, where there’s a page of description or picture of the book cover, some time some pictures of the inside pages, plus PayPal Buy Now buttons for American orders, Canadian orders and international orders. Anything that I have PayPal buttons for there, which is almost every one of my books that is in print, I will be signing to you or whoever you want, and then shipping from here. Like I say, well, if I was to work it out, I would say that more than half of my meagre income every year is from being a mail order guy for my own books. It’s not royalties, advances, working for Banger, odd little writing jobs the come along, it’s producing my own books or buying my own books from the publisher, signing them, and mailing them. And yes, people need to realize that most of the books that I self publish and produce myself are printed in the low hundreds. And sometimes they get reprinted and sometimes once they’re gone, they’re gone.