Interview with music writer and author Andrew Mueller final
With words his most potent ammunition, rock journalist and author Andrew Mueller is self-assured and self-deprecating in equal measure - ingredients that make him quite the charming lad, actually. Interview by Antonino Tati.
With the subject of music, and the theme of death in title, in books by both
yourself and Neil Strauss, people are inevitably going to draw comparisons.
Have you had any such comparisons drawn by critics or the public so far?
Not to my knowledge. I did read [Strauss’] Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead a while back, and quite enjoyed it, but I don¹t think it was an especially dominant influence on It’s Too Late To Die Young Now, as Strauss’ book is more of a scattergun anthology than a memoir. I will, however, cheerfully acknowledge as inspiration all of: Luke Haines’ Bad Vibes and Post Everything, Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate, David Bennun’s British As A Second Language. My book isn’t as good as any of those, obviously.
What do you think of the idea of consumers/readers now being able to
critique authors, via platforms such as blogs and comment sections online?
I address this in It’s Too Late To Die Young Now - admittedly rather loftily - by comparing the job of the writer in the present day and age to that of a zookeeper tipping the daily ration of mangos into the chimpanzee enclosure. Unless it amuses you to stick around to watch the subsequent screeching, brawling, biting and faeces-flinging, there’s no need to pay the aftermath any mind. But it is important to remember that below-the-line commenters [sic] are not representative of your readership, or humanity at large, or indeed of anything other than my theory that evolution has not proceeded at a universally steady pace. Plus, I’ve made a lot of my living as a critic, and have therefore forfeited any right to get untowardly wound up about people criticising what I do. So I don’t really care about it one way or the other, because I can’t, but I can and do wish these pestilential troglodytes would at least spell and punctuate their half-witted, ill-informed bleating correctly.
Do you think the public’s critique will influence writers in their future
work, perhaps see their writing style becoming more contrived; or will
authors continue to write from the heart?
I know for a fact that it already is having an effect on journalism, especially among writers who are less experienced and therefore perhaps less sure of themselves. Which is an obvious shame, because if you trim everything you write with the intention of avoiding offending the single thickest or craziest person likely to tap their boneheaded and/or deranged response into the below-the-line asylum, you’ll never write anything useful. It is - or should be – a general rule of writing and broadcasting that you’re essentially doing it for an audience of two, which is to say you’re trying to tell the story to the satisfaction of (i) yourself, and (ii) whichever editor you need to get it past. If you start thinking of the entire potential readership/listenership, you’ll just second-guess what you’re doing to death.
Did you find you wrote predominantly on instinct when putting together It’s Too Late To Die Young Now or was there a lot of swapping around of ideas and text?
The structure of this one is largely chronological, so that pretty much took care of itself. Beyond that, there was the usual writing and rewriting and writing and rewriting, accompanied by alternating moods of look-upon-my-works-ye-mighty-and-despair hubris, and despondent conviction that it was literally the worst book ever written. I feel I should stress at this point that it is really very far from the latter. It is, indeed, quite good in patches.
What was an example of putting something on the backburner and what was the reason behind that decision?
Ach, there were loads. The difficulty with writing any sort of memoir is managing to remind yourself that while pretty much everything that happens to you is interesting to you - even trips to Zurich - not everything that you’ve done/said/seen/heard/thought is going to enthral the passing reader. So quite a few reminiscences of various interviews, trips and Melody Maker office incident got deep-sixed on the grounds that they weren’t quite as amusing or illuminating as the stuff that stayed. A few things also got cut because they were - though very funny - also kind of mean and spiteful and/or relied overtly on the mockery of people who don’t need further mocking, and once I was properly up and running I decided that a general tone of affectionate, semi-nostalgic warmth was more what was called for. I may just be getting soft.
Did you have a lot of mementos to go through, to reminisce and remind
yourself of particular people, places and events?
A cupboard full of back issues, scrapbooks and photo albums, abetted by the contents of the attic of former Melody Maker colleague Ian Gittins, who’d kept even more of our yellowing history than I had.
When it came to recalling encounters and casual conversations with certain
celebrities, were you afraid that publishing these might get you into legal
No. At the risk of tempting fate, I’ve a pretty good idea at this point of what’s actionable and what isn’t, and besides which my publishers have lawyers, on the grounds that if anyone does end up in the dock as a consequence of this book, it’ll be them, as there are few enterprises less potentially profitable than suing rock journalists, as none of us have any money.
Was there anything potentially liable that you originally wanted to include
in the book, but were then recommended not to by lawyers?
Nope. And obviously, if there was, I couldn’t tell you what.
Is the legal side of publishing a rock’n’roll memoir a necessary evil?
No more or less than the legal side of publishing anything. And in this instance, it honestly wasn’t a thing.
Who have been your three favourite celebrities/musicians to interview and
Tough one, but after considerable consideration, I came up with the
following. Bono, who I’ve interviewed several times in several locations. I can hear your readers’ teeth grinding, eyes rolling, fists clenching, but there it is. He’s smart and funny, has some terrific stories to tell, and has that hopelessly disarming knack of appearing genuinely interested in other people, possibly I suspect because he actually is. So the interviews are never interviews, but conversations, and usually very, very long ones.
Merle Haggard. This was a few years ago, near where he lives in northern California. For a country music nerd such as myself - and the debut album of my own tremendous country band, The Blazing Zoos, remains available – this was a pleasure and a privilege beyond price. He was great - expansive, generous, just a little crotchety. And it created one of those great surreal memories that journalism, as a job, sometimes bestows on you: sitting in the passenger seat of a ludicrous gunmetal-grey Hummer, as one of the crucial figures of 20th century American music gives you a lift back to your hotel.
George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series, among other things, and one of my very favourite writers, who I interviewed in London in about 2003, a few years before he died. He was excellent value, funny and cantankerous, and it was just nice to shake the hand of someone who’d been one of the major reasons that I’d wanted to do what I’ve ended up doing. One of my most treasured items of correspondence is the thank-you note he sent after I posted him a bootleg copy of the first Flashman book which I’d found in a bookstore in Kabul, shortly after the liberation of Afghanistan.
And who has been the absolute monster? Somebody you wish you’d never
encountered, and why?
While the difficult interviews are a pain in the neck while they’re occurring, you never wish they’d never happened, because as is the case in most areas of endeavour things going wrong always make better and funnier stories than things going right. Many times, in various circumstances, I’ve been able to console myself during some or other mishap that this is going to read brilliantly when I write it up. But two who get singled out in the book are J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, and Mark E. Smith of The Fall. Both are legendary terrible interviews, if for different reasons - Mascis because he never says anything, and indeed often gives every appearance of being asleep; Smith because he’s just such a grouch. That said, it may not always be their fault. Interviews often just boil down to whether or not two people happen to get along. More than once, I’ve turned up, somewhat apprehensively, to meet someone with something of a reputation, and had no trouble at all. I was even told by someone just the other day that they’d recently interviewed Lou Reed, and found him delightful. You just never know.
You’ve lead quite a rollercoaster rock’n’roll lifestyle. If you’d never
gotten into music writing, what career would Andrew Mueller have pursued?
I cannot overstate the degree to which that question terrifies me. I have been exceptionally, preposterously fortunate [that] I’ve spent the last quarter-century or so basically being paid - if usually late, and not enough for my liking - to amuse myself. Everything I’ve got to do, everywhere I’ve got to go, everyone I’ve got to meet, has happened at least partially because Margaret Cott at On The Street in 1987, and Everett True at Melody Maker in 1989, didn’t do what they really should have done, and tossed my hapless youthful scribblings into the bin. Or indeed pinned them to the noticeboard for the incredulous amusement of the rest of the office.
The only other things I would really have liked to have done - played centre half-forward for Geelong, and batted number five for Australia - were always unlikely, due to a complete absence of athletic ability. So had I been discouraged from journalism at a crucial early stage, I honestly can’t imagine what I’d have ended up doing. I might have had to work for a living.
It’s Too Late To Die Young Now is published through Pan Macmillan, RRP $32.99 available from quality book stores.