Scribes Sounding Off: Rock And Hard Places

Subtitled “Travels to Backstages, Frontlines, and Assorted Sideshows,” Andrew Mueller’s new collection of “being there, doing that” stories from the benches and trenches of broad western pop and underground world rock is this spring’s rock book to grab and sink into.

Rock And Hard Places (Soft Skull/Counterpoint) is a couple-decades swarming assortment of shaggy dog in the center of the road tales, for magazines like Uncut and respected newspapers such as The Guardian. Mueller finds himself squeezed between Bob and Simon of The Cure on a cozy tour bus couch (“Friday I’m In Chicago”) and trekking through Canada with Green Day (“Every Which Way But Moose”), but also soberly tracing the elements of conflict in Sarajevo and Srebrenica that led to war after 9/11. Didn’t expect that did you? That’s right, out of the bedsits and basement and back to the real world that inspires and challenges youth music in the global chain (including Crazy Norses in Iceland, and China Drum in Bosnia). It is the most important critical anthology on popular music from a single author in a long time, its humor and insight equal with collections by Nick Tosches or Robert Palmer.

Mueller graciously agreed to answer some questions about a book I found to be the only source of comfort and information through the Hades head-cold experienced a couple of weeks back. Thank you, sir.

The big selling point for me about your book is your bold and bawdy sense of humor, which as a typically nationally-obsessed American I am going to attribute to your Australian upbringing. How did you get your start as a music writer, and as a travel writer? Were those fates entwined?

Kind of. I started writing about music in the late 80s for street paper in Sydney – called, prosaically enough, On The Street. I came to London in 1990 and began writing properly for the lamented rock weekly Melody Maker, who’d already printed some stuff I’d sent from Australia. Working for MM provided the opportunity for travel, mostly Europe and the US, which was obviously fantastic fun, but kind of frustrating in that the sort of stories you get to write travelling with rock bands don’t vary hugely with the location. But I thought that maybe there might be ways of applying the virtues of rock writing (irreverence, humour, some species of gonzo sensibility) to other arenas, and that the results of doing that might be interesting – certainly for me, and hopefully for the reader as well.

It seems to me that pop music and culture reporting could use a lot more of your natural, relaxed humor. What writers inspired you to be funny while still seeking out the story? Who do you consider your literary mentors?

While acknowledging that there are few things in this life more tedious than the wilfully zany buffoon determined to make a punchline out of everything, I’ve always been suspicious of, and uncomfortable with, people who profess to take everything desperately seriously. So I’ve always been drawn to writers who are able to articulate the funny, absurd – but nevertheless illuminating – take on a serious situation. Of many, many formative influences, the ones which probably had the greatest impact in terms of attitude and style (while maintaining careful respect for the who/where/why/what fundamentals of journalism) were P.J. O’Rourke (obviously) and George MacDonald Fraser (author of the “Flashman” novels, among other things). And I should also tip a hat to the Melody Maker writers of the late 1980s who made me want to join their number: David Stubbs, Mat Smith, Chris Roberts, The Stud Brothers, Ian Gittins, Everett True, Jon Wilde, Allan Jones, Simon Reynolds, Steve Sutherland and Carol Clerk.

I love how you took The Jesus & Mary Chain to Bill Wyman’s gauche “Hard Rock Cafe” restaurant to conduct an interview around the time they had released the “I Hate Rock & Roll” single. You said, “It worked.” How so? Do you often conduct your interviews with subjects in situations that may challenge their answers? What’s another example? And/or one you hoped would work but didn’t?

Taking the Mary Chain to Sticky Fingers was a joke they were also in on — in fact, now that I think of it, I’m not sure I could swear that it wasn’t actually their idea in the first place. There was a point at which the high-concept interview was something of a music press trope — taking one or other bunch of hapless indie rock chancers out for a day’s ballooning or canoeing or golfing or whatever, usually in the hope of amusing photos and in tacit acknowledgment that the chances of them saying anything interesting on its own merits were somewhat slim (this didn’t apply to the Mary Chain, incidentally, both astute and articulate men). My only foray into this field of endeavor that I can recall off the top of my head was deciding to interview Cathal Coughlan, then singer of The Fatima Mansions, now scandalously under-regarded solo artist, on a roller coaster in an amusement park near Tynemouth. It wasn’t an outstanding success, which is why Cathal and I now generally conduct our conversations in Vietnamese restaurants.

You actually use the word “hack” to describe yourself, something American rock critics seem to have become afraid of doing, as if it cheapens their “art.” Do you think a lot of your fellow writers may take themselves too seriously? And if so, has this affected their work?

I’m absolutely proud to call myself a hack, and I’d counsel crossing the room to avoid any journalist who bristled at the term – they would be exactly the ones who take themselves too seriously. Pomposity is a terrible thing in any person, but especially risible in journalists (which isn’t to say the job itself shouldn’t be taken seriously, and done well: of course it should). Mercifully, it is fairly unusual in my experience, but that may just be the company I keep.

Here in (underground rock) Seattle, we loved bands like The Saints, Radio Birdman, and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. What music influenced you before you moved to London, and were there music milieu stops along the way?

I was very fortunate to have attained gig-going age in Sydney in the late 1980s. Though there’s a nigh universal tendency for people to discuss their first encounters with popular culture as if they were present at the dawning of a gilded era unrivalled since 16th century Florence, it does still feel to me that it was a rare treat to live in a place where one could wander to the pub up the street and see (among many others) Ed Kuepper & The Yard Goes On Forever, The Triffids, The Go-Betweens (whose 1986 masterpiece, “Liberty Belle & The Black Diamond Express”, remains my favourite work of art), Hunters & Collectors, Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls, and so on.

In your article on Sarajevo’s rock and roll scene (“Balkan After Midnight”), you introduce your time there with the phrase, “the route to 9/11 leads through Sarajevo and Srebrenica.” I think I understand what you mean (and agree), but do you think most Americans miss this point? And if so, why?

I wrote and rewrote that observation a dozen times, and I still feel a bit weird about it — I worry that it sounds a bit like I’m endorsing or adding to the fatuous “root causes” quacking about 9/11, which holds that the US was in some way to blame for the attacks. Just so we’re clear on this: I ascribe absolutely all responsibility to the people who chose, from all available options for the expression of grievance, to commit mass random murder.

There is no doubt, however, that the Bosnian war was a massively radicalizing catalyst for many Muslims, especially European ones, and that much I can understand — their coreligionists were slaughtered in their thousands in full view of the world’s news cameras for year after year, and nobody (at least, nobody with an air force) appeared especially minded to do anything practical about it (i.e. dropping heavy explosive things on those waging the carnage). The US and Europe should certainly have acted swiftly and decisively to help Bosnia, both because it was the right thing to do, and because if we didn’t, other people would, and those other people might not be acting out of desire to preserve a society that was largely secular, pluralist and democratic. But we didn’t, and those other people did, and both Bosnia and the world at large are the more precarious for it.

If Americans miss that point, it’s largely because America’s government at the time also missed it, fumbled it or chose to ignore it. But if we get into the foreign policy disasters of Bill Clinton, we’ll be here all week.

In both of your books, this and “I Wouldn’t Start From Here,” there seems to be a need on your part to be where the action is: From a pop culture landscape of The Cure attempting to connect with their fans in the States, to China Drum in Bosnia, and my favorite, your insane reporting on Woodstock ll (which you probably very accurately described as “The horror, the horror”). Are you naturally attracted to atrocity?

No. I’m just interested by stuff people do, especially the stuff I don’t quite understand, whether it’s amazing and uplifting, or stupid and depressing.

Do you think with the way that music reporting economics are going, there will be less of the expansive masterpieces you’ve done for Uncut? Or will experience and talent such as yours be adaptable to some other medium? And what might that be (as in a recommendation to other young music-loving wanderlusters)?

It’s not just the economics of music reporting, it’s the economics of journalism in general. I see variations of the same phenomenon in all the areas of journalism in which I dabble, ie that while it’s quite easy to find writing work (there now being infinite amounts of space that need filling), it is getting harder and harder to get commissioned to do actual reporting work. I sympathize with publishers to an extent — why spend money sending someone like me somewhere to do some weird story when they can generate more page views (and therefore more advertising) by asking an intern to recycle celebrity gossip, even if it is (probably) untrue and (certainly) irrelevant?

The trouble with this approach is that it’s short-term — it’s perpetually playing catch-up with the internet, which is not a game any print title, and especially not a music magazine, can win in the long run. My own (admittedly wishful and self-interested) view is that the only way music (and most other) magazines can survive and perhaps thrive is to do what the internet can’t do nearly so well: long-form journalism, proper photography, thoughtful analysis, thorough reporting. All of which costs money, but I’d like to think that there’s still enough of an audience for that stuff to make it worthwhile. There’s a magazine called Monocle, which I’ve written for since it launched three years ago, which proceeds on that assumption, and it’s doing very well.

How much of the music and worldwide music scenes you cover in “Rock And Hard Places” is gratifying and inspiring to you personally (as in firing up your own band, The Blazing Zoos), and how much of it is more about the art of reporting? In other words, is it all Richard Thompson bootlegs on your iPod and a PA checking out the stacks of crap from the stars?

I do own a Richard Thompson live album — the 1,000 Years Of Popular Music one, which I heartily recommend — but have generally believed that life is just that little bit too short to take much interest in bootlegs. And I don’t have a PA, nor any idea of what I’d ask one to do, except perhaps get to grips with this drawerful of receipts I’ve been ignoring for six months.

But yes, in terms of music reporting, I’m obviously drawn to the arenas I find most personally appealing, which is why I’m more likely to go to something like the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada — which I did, in January — than any given jazz festival. That said, I’d be happy to report from a jazz festival, though I suspect my dispatch may not be favorably regarded by jazz fans.

You can write sympathetically (but critically) about broad cultural icons like Bono, and still confess your absolute hatred of the adored music festival. Have there been any that you have enjoyed? I personally like the ones here in the city of Seattle, but wouldn’t venture to a big outdoor one involving “camping.” Are there recurring larger grouped concerts you don’t mind attending?

Well, I had a whale of a time in Elko, but that wasn’t a festival as the word has come to be understood — the venues were indoors, there was reliable plumbing, and there were no vast crowds of idiots wearing jesters’ hats and blowing whistles and trying to hug me.

I probably enjoyed festivals when I was a lot younger, but then I think a recurring motif of getting a bit older is pausing, amidst something you’d always thought of as enjoyable, and finding yourself thinking “What am I doing? This is terrible.”

The revealing, sometimes lengthy introductions before the articles collected in “RAHP” help connect the reader both to that moment in time in which each story ran (which could be over a decade ago) and circumstances and feelings that may have changed since then. Do you have a desire to write something larger in thematic ambition than an anthology, for example a novel like Bill Flanagan’s “A&R” or “Evening’s Empire”? Or John Niven’s “Kill Your Friends”? And would it have to be fiction for you as well?

I’ve almost zero interest in writing fiction, and indeed very little interest in reading it (this is intended to read as an admission, not as a boast – my annual new year’s resolution is to make more of an effort in this area, but there’s always a towering stack of non-fiction I still haven’t gotten around to). I’d certainly like to write something with a larger thematic ambition, and have loads of grandiose ideas to that effect, but the difficulty there is that the sort of writing/reporting/travelling I like doing best costs money, and a book-length version of it would cost quite a lot — and publishers, things being as they are, are not presently queueing up to fling skipfuls of cash at obtuse travelogues.

You seem to be reporting from most of the historical rock crossroads (the reunion of the E Street Band) and covering great groups ascending (Radiohead in America and France, for example) but is there a specific band-period or experience you missed that you would have liked to have covered in pop music history?

I’ve been so incredibly fortunate in this respect that asking for anything else seems just plain greedy, but since you asked: I’d like to have seen Hank Williams at the Ryman; I think it would have been extraordinary to have witnessed the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis igniting rock’n’roll in Eisenhower’s America; and there’s a whole bunch of Springsteen tours I wish I could have dropped in on.

Speaking of Springsteen’s group, you end your article on them with a statement about how the truth can be corny. How do you feel about the often icy “ironic” aesthetics of indie rock? There is talk of a “New Sincerity.” Do you think that’s necessary when so much new music is so fiercely “niched” and not made for wide appeal?

The irony I think you’re talking about — that smug, knowing archness specific to indie rock – is (though there are exceptions to every rule) a ballsachingly boring and annoying cop out, music which principally wishes to stress the degree to which the person making the music is really far to clever to be making it. Springsteen, I guess, represents the total opposite of that, in that he’s a much cleverer and more subtle writer than he might initially appear. He’s also brave enough to court gaucheness if it’s what serves the song. And that’s why he wrote “Born To Run”, and They Might Be Giants didn’t.

From your travels, what areas of the world do you think will produce music that will be more universal soon? And related to that, what music scenes have you been in that you wished got more attention?

For a variety of reasons, I think the Western, English-speaking world’s hegemon over popular music is likely to stay pretty much insuperable, though it will of course continue to absorb and co-opt other influences. I can’t think of any particular scenes, as such, that deserve more attention – all scenes, as such, tend to comprise a small core of genius attracting uncountable satellites of mediocrity. I can think of individual artists who deserve more attention, but that’s another forbiddingly lengthy tangent.

You write, “There is a point at which it dawns on you with crystal clarity that you are a fool,” when traveling, realizing you’re “nowhere,” yet you’ve done so much of it. What are your plans now after collecting the writing for these books? A more parochial existence?

I hope not. Being out and about and reporting on stuff still feels like more fun to me than anything else I’ve done, or indeed heard of, so I’d like to keep doing that. And I’d like to write more books. But if none of that works out, there’s always singing in an obscure alternative country band to fall back on.

(For more writings and very up to date and often hilarious bloggings, please check out Mueller’s site.)

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