Martin PopoffCanadian author and journalist MARTIN POPOFF recently published a 380-page history of JUDAS PRIEST, entitled HEAVY METAL PAINKILLERS.

Martin has also written biographies of Black Sabbath, Rainbow, UFO, Rush, Dio (and more!) combined varios Collectors' Guides and Best Ofs, and contributed articles to Guitar World, Record Collector and many other prestigious music magazines.

GET READY TO ROLL! spoke to Martin about brave words, bloody knuckles and... disjointed thumbs!

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You have an impressive body of work to your credit - what first inspired you to write, and how did your very first book (Riff Kills Man!) go from being an idea in your head to a hard-copy product on sale worldwide? 
It was much like it is for the rest of my books, i.e. my head is cluttered up with loads of trivia that needs to be put to good use! At the time of my first book I was a print broker, with a business partner who did desktop publishing - or 'layout' as it was called back then - and we would constantly be sourcing print jobs, getting prices etc, so I was immersed in that world. The idea of producing and self-publishing a book wasn't all that scary to me - except on the day when 2000 books showed up at my door, and then I had to work at getting rid of them all!
But yes, it started out as an idea to review everything in my collection. As soon as you do something like that, you have enough knowledge to realize that you don't know anything! So, for book #1 the writing was hideous, and it was so woefully incomplete that the entire thing is a huge embarrassment to me now! I just think back and shake my head. I had an MBA, an undergrad in English, and was around 30 years old, so you'd think I could be a half-decent writer! Wrong! But yes, it was fun packaging the books into consignments and driving all over Ontario and New York with them. Eventually they did all get sold or traded - I had an $8000 print bill which I needed to re-coup on!

Rather than a straightforward 'biography' your books on UFO, Sabbath etc., are in a format whereby each chapter relates to one particular album, and covers the events that happened around that time. It's still chronological but each section is almost a stand-alone book in its own right. How did you come up with this format, and why do you think it works so well? 
Yes, all seven of the rock bios I've done have album titles for each chapter, and are written song by song - because the music, lyrics, album covers, production and all of that is what I personally care about the most. Plus it provides structure. I figure that for most of us as fans, our main interaction with the band is with the records and CDs they paid hard-earned cash for. So the idea is to raise appreciation for those everlasting artworks that you bought for pleasure, to make your life incrementally more enjoyable.
So yes, my favourite response from readers is that they ran over to their collection and snatched out that dusty record or CD that they hadn't considered for a while, and used it as a soundtrack to that chapter. Hell, that's the way I love reading rock bios! So yeah, there's not a lot of personal stuff in these books. It's more about the music that we all have and know and recognize, and hopefully in chatting with these guys, they throw out many little trivia jewels and such to make you, y'know, listen to the fade-out real loud for the very first time and hear that cough or in-joke or something.

MARTIN POPOFFWhich of your books has been the most satisfying to write, and why?
I still maintain that the Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs Of All Time, and the similar book for albums, are my best books - they were the most fun, with the best writing. It's very rewarding to do a poll which asks a big question like that, and get so many responses, and thereby actually know the answer. Not know my own answer, but know THE answer. And it was very cool to be able to draw from my own interview archive and find so many quotes on those songs and albums as well, although that might not have been such a coincidence as it sounds, because when I booked an interview with someone, I would quickly check the database and see what I needed to ask them about!

What is the difference for you between writing the 'Best Of' collections and writing a book about one particular band? 
With the 'Best Of's it's fun arranging everything, playing God, getting all the knowledge together and putting it in one place where you can hold it all in your hand. It's also very interesting to find out the the answers to the poll questions. But writing about a band feels a little more academic, as if you are back working on a school assignment. As with the 'Best Of's it also has the feeling of taking everything you know about a band, from all your own interviews and everything you've read, adding your own commentary, and putting it all into one place. There is sort of a unpleasant finality about it though, inasmuch as once you've done it, a lot of the reasons for talking to those bands ever again is now over with. Not really of course, but all the old archival stuff that constituted the most burning questions in my mind, is now all taken care of. And it's not like I'm ever going to write another book about those bands, or even update the books for new edition. But... who knows?

Tell us about Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles. 
BW&BK is a magazine we started on my photocopier in 1994. It started as just black ink on gray paper, and it's grown into a regular-looking magazine. Tim Henderson is the boss, I'm Editor In Chief, Jackie and Scotty handle all the admin, and yes, it's been a blast over the years. It's afforded us the opportunity to talk to all of our heroes. The website kicks ass too! It's very high traffic, and Tim is the one to thank for that because he is obsessed with keeping the news page ticking over every 10 minutes or so. It's funny, his main concern about going out to lunch or going out to do an interview or see a concert is whether the site updates will be covered by one of our other employees for the few hours he's away!

When you're interviewing, do you prefer a face-to-face interview where you can adapt your questions by responding to the body language - or a telephone interview where you don't get the eye-contact but get what eye-contact doesn't always produce, i.e. the 'anonymity' of the confessional-box, where people tell you more because they feel less exposed?
I totally know the answer to this one! The face-to-face interview is the one you will always remember, maybe get a couple of things signed, or get a photo taken with them (although I never do the photo thing).
But in terms of a good interview, phoners win hands down. There are no distractions, nobody's wasting brain cells trying to think of how much eye contact we should all be making. Some of the in-person interview situations are set up properly, but very often it's scheduled to take place on the tour bus or even worse, backstage at the club, and five minutes into it they start to soundcheck the drums!

Writing about classic rock and heavy metal it's a Catch-22 that a lot of what is written has to refer back to the 70s and 80s. Do you think that reinforces a belief that the genre is set in the past, or do you think it's still evolving - and if so, which bands are taking up the baton? 
It's definitely still evolving. But I'm not keeping up, that's for sure! I really don't care too much about new bands. My one saving grace which means I'm not living entirely in the past is that I'm intensely interested in all new music by the old bands. That counts for something, although admittedly, not a lot! I think the rock/metal scene is as healthy as any scene. There are all sorts of new bands, it's just that I'm not talking to them. The new bands are all the usual suspects, Mastodon, Lamb Of God, Opeth, but you see, even with that answer, I'm referring to bands that have been around 10 years and have five albums out!
I can't answer a question about new bands without talking about bands that some little pipsqueak pup will think are already old! So, built-in to that answer, it's clear that to name check bands that are the future, they have to have some sort of impressive track record already.

MARTIN POPOFF Who have been your favourite musicians to interview? 
Ted Nugent, for one. He is hands down the funniest, most energetic, most articulate guy to interview. And he's damn inspiring in about half a dozen ways. It's pretty amazing when you can put down the phone after talking to Ted Nugent and the first thing you think about is improving your life!
Alice Cooper is always a nice chat. I've also had some magic moments with Ozzy Osbourne, but those have to be in person. On the phone with Ozzy it's a disaster! Ian Gillan is also a pretty smart, inspiring guy. I’m the biggest Gillan band fan in the world, and I think he finds that a combination of amusing and creepy.
It's always a great chat with Bill Ward, Joe Lynn Turner, Roger Glover, etc. Sabbath and Priest are all pleasant guys. UFO, I love those guys! Rush, Rainbow, all great, Ronnie James Dio, always a pleasure.

Which interviews were the most difficult? 
Hmmm, Lemmy always seems to be an uncomfortable one. Glenn Danzig is a man of few words, although I don't think he intends to be mean... I remember Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu was not in the mood to be interviewed when I collared him in person, at a club show. There's a whole category of guys who I like enough, but they just don't have much to say, or you have to drag stuff out of them, or they speak more in platitudes. There's a bunch of guys like that.
I mentioned Ozzy before. I had a pretty bad phone interview with him once. But if an interviewee is difficult, it's not always their own fault. If the artist is a big star like Ozzy and gets delayed by 10 minutes and you've only got a 15 minute interview slot, everybody is stressed out while you're trying to get it done. An acquaintance of mine here in Toronto who does interviews with big movie stars for a TV show once told me about being flown to Los Angeles for an interview, and flown back to Toronto the same day, and he was allotted only four minutes!

Any extra-special magic moments? 
There was an interview with Zakk Wylde... myself and Aaron Small spent over an hour and a half with Zakk on his tour bus. I swear to God, it was probably the best time we ever had. I'm not talking about anything crazy happening, it was just all of us togther, drinking beers in the middle of the afternoon. Zakk was going off like a firecracker, and it resulted in a brilliant interview. We came off the bus thinking "wow, did that actually happen?" It wasn't even a taped interview, because it started out just as a visit to Zakk's tourbus and it was all going so well that we decided to carry on as we were, without recording it. It's still one of my Top 10 favorite interviews of all time!

One of the most frustrating things for a writer, and probably right up there with writer's block, is the physical brick wall of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I know you suffer from this very painful condition and that it restricts the amount of time you can spend at the keyboard - how do you overcome this? 
I don't even know if Carpel Tunnel Syndrome is the exact diagnosis for what I have. But I do know that if I type too much, I get a kind of separated or pulled feeling in my thumb joint. I really can't overcome this except by taking a good long break to give my hands complete rest in between. I do use voice recognition software, but even then I have to go back and do all sorts of clean-ups to the displayed text. I fret and worry about having to retire - but maybe that would be a good thing to be forced to do, because my one life goal left is to do lots of paintings, paint album covers, have gallery shows, become a famous painter! That's really the last goal.


Of all the books you've written, which has had the most favourable reviews from the band themselves?
For not a single one of my seven biographies did the band see any of the copy before it went to print, except the Rush book, which was a special case - well, I guess not all that special, just authorized - and they sold it on tour in the merchandise booth. I've heard that all of the Sabbath guys seem to have liked the Sabbath book, and Joe Lynn Turner, Ronnie James Dio have also said favorable things about my books. For the Priest book there's been no reaction at all as yet, but it's early days!
After the Blue Oyster Cult book came out I definitely got bad vibes from Eric, but Albert and Joe like it and I think Buck is okay with it. Eric probably figures that he doesn't come off looking too good in it, and fair enough, I think Albert and Joe and maybe Richard Meltzer all had some negative things to say. It's too bad, we had a really cool plan to turn that into a big massive full-color coffee table book, but I can't get those guys to even answer my e-mails anymore.
As for Ronnie James Dio... I really wonder what that guy thinks of me, because I've written a Dio book, a Rainbow book and a Sabbath book. Maybe he thinks I'm some kind of stalker!

Vinyl LPs with 12" comfortable-to-touch sleeves versus CDs with diminutive artwork and cold hard plastic jewelcases... Discuss. 
I'm gonna be in the minority on this one. It drives me crazy when people talk about how great vinyl artwork was compared to CD artwork. The only place vinyl wins is that it was obviously bigger. With special packaging such as a gatefold, a lyric-sleeve or a cool back cover, combined with the fact that it's bigger, then yeah, maybe it's a tie or a slight win for vinyl. But people forget that with CDs you get a cover, and it's usually pretty damn cool, and nowadays you get all sorts of crazy packaging - and with a CD you usually get lyrics, all sorts of pictures, and even lots of extra artwork throughout the booklet. How many LPs back then even came with lyrics? 30%? I mean, let's face it, even on the subject of the artwork itself there are probably more cool album covers in the last 15 years than between 1970 and 1985. Looking back we tend to only remember the classic covers and think that all album art was classic, but taking everything into account, things have improved with CDs.

MARTIN POPOFF Your schedule for writing must keep you pretty busy, but what other things do you spend your time on?
As I already mentioned, I love art, but I certainly don't get enough time to paint - although now, with my new office, I have a set up where I can spend at least a little bit of time on that, and hopefully I'll damn well turn it into a career one day! We also seem to take lots of vacations, although my wife doesn't think so! And our son is in lots of different sports programs and stuff. I tend not to watch movies anymore, and very little TV, but I read like crazy. Fiction, non-fiction, biographies, and I subscribe to about six magazines and two newspapers.. yeah, I'm a crazy newshound!

What's on your To Do list? 
Mainly painting. But I also have so many records and CDs that need to be catalogued and put up for sale. I'm not talking promos - I don't sell promos which have been sent to me by record labels (but I do sell promos and other stuff which I've bought and paid for!). I'm a big collector, but I have to divest myself of some of this collection. I literally could have a full-time job for a couple of years just cataloging and selling off stuff that isn't in the framework of my sentimental favorites! I care about my record collection more than practically anybody else on the planet, so it doesn't make sense to sell it off. And most of that falls in the round of records, yes, actual LPs, but I bought as a kid or teenager, and even more so, subsequently got signed by the band.

What outstanding ambitions would you like to have fulfilled in 5 years time? 
Just the painting. Like I say, I would love to have gallery shows, but I would also love to become a regular album cover painter. I've done a few little indie things, but that's it. I haven't painted a lot, but most of what I've painted has sold! My friends say I'm crazy, but I think I can be more successful as a painter than I am at trying to be heavy metal journalist!

MARTIN POPOFF© Get Ready To Roll - 5th April 2008

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