Professor Bunkum Meets Martin Popoff

In this update of metal literature, we give credit to, interview and shamelessly plug perhaps the most prolific metal writer alive--Martin Popoff, an unassuming Canadian and dean of the metal scribes.  City of Devils is all about identifying the human connection we share when blasting South of Heaven rather than shooting up our places of employment (or our arms) for enjoyment. It works the other way too.  When we read a writer that connects to us, we realize that our tastes aren’t just the result of that time we snorted an unidentified white powder we found in a barn.     

Probably the greatest “ahh-ha!” moment I’ve had in reading music books (and I’ve read a lot of them – even tried Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock a few times) was when I picked up Martin Popoff’s first mass market Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal in 1997 or so.  Reading that book was like reading Tesco Vee’s Touch & Go in the early 1980’s -- covering Venom and the Cure together--this can be life affirming stuff.  Popoff covered the entire Black Sabbath catalog.  The Motorhead entries weren’t just the observations of Sonic Youth fans slumming in “Ace of Spades.”  He saw that some post-Schenker UFO records were as good or better than those with Mikey. This guy obviously loved metal, and he was obviously crazy.  It was all comfortably familiar.

By now, Popoff has written over 7,500 record reviews—ostensibly more than anyone, ever.  On top of that, he has written over 30 books on hard rock and metal--increasingly, in his own polite way, with a middle finger firmly extended to the publishing and music industries.  He writes about what he wants. He has written two books on Deep Purple.  His latest book -- Black Sabbath FAQ -- is over 400 pages of stuff that repeats nothing in his first Black Sabbath tome (“Doom Let Loose”).  He is writing a whole series called Ye Olde Metal that starts in 1968 and has year-by-year, track-by-track analyses and band interviews regarding some of the most obscure and idiosyncratic choices from the hard rock genre.  How about two chapters on Starz in the same book?  Coverage of the Dictators’ “Manifest Destiny” and “Bloodbrothers.”  Remember Ram Jam?  When Y&T was “Yesterday and Today?” Those are just for starters in his world of metal ephemera.

For a basic encyclopedia, get one of the (now four) volumes of Popoff’s decade-by-decade Collectors’ Guide to Heavy Metal series. These are meticulous, band-by-band, album-by-album ratings on a scale of 10. I’ve been talking these up for years, and with the addition of the 2000’s, maybe some younger people will buy a volume or two.  Popoff’s stuff is starting to make it into ebooks too.  His turns of phrase and opinions are endlessly entertaining.  Some favorites from memory are describing Hawkwind as “the world’s only three chord progressive rock band” and describing something or other as being as “rare as a high IQ at a Rick Emmitt [of Triumph] concert.”  

Based on the volume of Popoff material I have, I guess he is my favorite writer of all time.    So I was a little nervous calling him for an interview, but not too bad. His style is so personal, I felt like I pretty much knew the guy already.  I was generally right, except he was way more articulate and polite than I could have imagined.  So let’s jump right in…

Hey, Martin.  How’s it going? This is City of Devils in LA.  We’re huge fans.  Let me just start right off.  Tell me what you’ve got going on right now?

Right now, at the printers is a book called “The Deep Purple Royal Family ’80-’11,” so that’s the second half of the Deep Purple pair, and it’s the same as the first one.  A detailed time line with quotes and pull quotes and 500 images.  And I’m working on a two part Thin Lizzy book.  The first one will be called “Fighting My Way Back” from ’69 to ’76 – probably ending at “Jailbreak.”  A whole lot of images and memorabilia shots.  Sitting in standby is a NWOBHM reviews book.  I’ll take all the album reviews I have and combine it with the NWOBHM singles book I did and polish it up, make it not a price guide.  And a NWOBHM timeline book.  Down the road, could update the UFO book, gotta get back to the “Ye Olde Metal” thing.  So ya, a lot going on, sort of a weird experiment, just writing a lot of books full time and hoping that the rights and ebooks and foreign rights will catch up to me and I can make a monthly income.  

The new Black Sabbath one is really good. It’s so long.  I can’t believe you have time to do all this.

Ya, that one was long, about 400 pages.  Took about a year.  The nice thing about it was that it is little chunks you can read.  You don’t have to have your mind focused on one thing.  Maybe when you’re sitting around with your buddies drinking beer – “what about the top 10 this, top 10 that?”. [Damn Cannucks are too polite; face it, it’s a bathroom book here in the USA. – Ed.]
COD:  Are you getting a lot of reviews in magazines?

Not much, but I just don’t care any more.  It used to be a thrill, but I don’t chase that.  I’m self publishing, so I don’t send out review copies.  The Black Sabbath book was through a big publisher, so there are some reviews here and there, but there isn’t that much print out there to impress anymore.  It’s been years since I cared.  The model is going to be my email list, and I can get enough sales.  I’m like a Black Metal cult guy…I enjoy flying under the radar.  No cell phone, no twitter, no Facebook. I’ve got  You can find me.

It seems like Classic Rock should have a whole issue about you.

Ya, well, I don’t buy it.  It’s fifteen bucks at the newsstand!  They have reviewed my things.  It’s not that we are hostile. I know those guys.  Record Collector has been good.  Joel McIver there is a good friend. He’s a super star, doing way better than I am.  He’s quicker, a big publisher.

His Slayer book was good.

Ya, he writes on big bands.  Hats off to him. He’s taken over my mantle, that’s for sure.  I just think he’s smarter about business, more driven.

For what it’s worth, I give you the props.  I think you are the best – you obviously really have thought about the music.

Well, thanks.  There are younger guys though. Writing faster.

To me, reading your stuff is like reading about my own perceptions.  It’s, I guess, “validating” if someone else has the same perceptions.  Other guys are good writers, but with you, I get the feeling we lived through the same thing.

A lot of the younger people … they don’t even think what I’m doing is metal anymore.

But a lot of younger people are getting back into this old music, because it’s music being played by people.  It’s amazing the bands now in LA, they respect that music.

Ya, there is a lot of the neo-thrash or NWOBHM.  It takes eager kids to study and get into that stuff.  They start sort of ironically, but then they get into it.

On Iron Maiden and Accept albums, you can hear fret noise.  The new, dynamic crunchy stuff…it’s too perfect… it’s like the air has been noise-gated out.  

That’s one of the problems now.  The whole thing sounds like it’s made on a computer.  It’s not a complaint, but everything is so perfect and professional.  I look back, and Maiden probably couldn’t write with this detail.   Now you get to the end of the song, and there’s this perfect fill, with the whole band together, whereas old Maiden, it’s Nicko doing “do, d-d-d-d-d-do do” or whatever. If you “A – B’d” these records and had no idea what year they were made, the new stuff would win everytime.  There is a glut, because it is so high quality.  I don’t want to put down the new metal, but everything is of such high quality.  It must be so hard to stand out in the crowd.  

You have to be a good live band to stand out.  That’s our blog here.  Not enough people in LA goes out to see music.  We have  some cool labels like Southern Lord or Hydrahead, but LA isn’t a great live music town.  That’s our whole focus… is to get people out.  But to get back on track, you must have interviewed some of these guys so many times by now… are they like your friends?

Well, it’s funny, we in the press expect these guys to know us, but they meet so many people.  So many interviews are on the phone.  And I think they feel that way about their peers too, other guys in rock bands.  They are on the same circuit, but they might not see each other once but every 18 months.  I don’t assume they know me until I’ve interviewed them 10 times.  

Do you want to do radio?  Like Ian Christe?

MP:  Not so much. I love the idea of a book, that has a cover and it’s permanent.  You buy it, you can buy it again.  Even a magazine you can’t buy it again.

Look at Rollins, he does well.

Henry, I love that guy.  But he is an artist.  To me, making art is the tantamount thing.  When I think of him, he “got in the van”, he wrote those books, he sang on those songs.  I put art at the top, like my paintings, because I feel it’s the coolest thing I’ve done.  I feel like this music stuff is a hobby I can do as a job, but not an art form.  Had I written fiction, I would feel more accomplished.  

Don’t sell yourself short.  There is so much shoved down our throats now, that someone like you who can filter it has a lot of value.

Ya, there is a need for a filter to help make sense of it, or to have a bit of a platform… that’s Ian [Christe] with the radio show.  There is still a place for the critic but for different reasons.  There is so much out there, be it old or new.  But I’m perfectly happy writing about old stuff for the rest of my writing days.  

Ya, I’m psyched you put both later Dictators records in there.  

You need to be reminded about this stuff by somebody.

So, to get to my killer question that’s been pending for years, is “St. Anger” going to be Metallica’s “Another Perfect Day?”

Well, records like that, bands with big catalogs--you get so tired of the same stuff--I always like when there is a black hole record like that, you can go back and listen to it, and St. Anger will always be that kind of record for me.  Just this quirky, eccentric album, and frankly I like it better than Load and Reload.  They just annoy me!  Calling it “Another Perfect Day…” that is interesting.  The cliché on that record is that there is his bizarre guitarist playing clean lines over buzzing bass and vocals and bulldozer drums….

Ya, I guess what I meant is that it was a departure.  Years later sometimes people say the departure is brilliant.  St. Anger might be that way.  Actually, the guitar sounds are great.  Really dynamic.  It sounds angry.  The last album is more a thrash album, but it’s too compressed.

But there are a lot of criticisms that stick to St. Anger.  The weird little stopping and starting and nu metal things.  The twangy things, and some really forced poetry out of James.  

I agree, but he was falling apart, which is interesting.

Well, they always had this problem too of so many riffs.  As much as I love “Death Magnetic,” I would like them to come back and make them three minute and fifty second songs and that’s it. Forget all this. There is no reason for six intros before the vocals start.

Ya, I saw them in Indio and they played some of the “deep cuts” off that album and it was almost like a prog rock show at times.  

But a really cool thing about that album is that the riffs are so creative, catchy and heavy.  Nobody talks about that.  But there are just way too many.  

Well, I’ll let you go.

Thanks, I appreciate the interest.  I feel like a hermit, I’ve lost the urge to be competitive.  I feel like I just want to grow my little audience a little bit bigger.  

I remember reading every metal book… when your first mass review book came out, it was like a voice in the wilderness.  I like Chuck Eddy a lot, but it was ironic.  

My writing was so bad then.  When I did the top 500 metal albums and best singles… I think those are some of my best writing.

But it’s the thought…take Schenker.  Everyone knows the first two records, but you were saying “Assault Attack” was the best, and that’s absolutely right.  Or UFO, the party line has always been Schenker, but you said “No Place to Run” and “Wild Willing and Innocent” were great, and they were, to have someone say that, it’s like art, it’s a good moment.  You’ve drawn out a thread that a lot of people don’t pay attention to.

Cool, I guess the overarching thing is to make people appreciate what they’ve bought.  Speaking of Schenker, given his problems, it’s amazing how good and how often he is putting out these full length records that are so cool.  His songwriting in his catalog is probably better than UFO.  He’s done a great job.

I’m glad you are tackling Thin Lizzy.  I hope you do Motorhead.

I hear somebody else is doing a Motorhead book right now.  As soon as I hear someone else is doing a book, I lose interest.

But your approach focuses on the music, song-by-song.  

Ya, these old Thin Lizzy books were so good, they had amazing access and personal anecdotes, but I’m amazed you get to the album, and it’s two pages and it’s over.  I’d rather have 80% be about the album.

I totally agree.  We listen to these guys for the music, not for their personal lives.  Ok, I’ll let you go.

Thanks for having me.  This has been fun.