Tell us a bit about yourself in an extended author biography.
I am a regular contributor to the Daily Beast, and a columnist with the Indianapolis Star. In early 2015, the University Press of Kentucky will publish my book, Mellencamp: American Troubadour. My first book, Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen is a Bloomsbury book, published back when it was Continuum Books. I also write regularly for a great website called Splice Today. I live in Highland, Indiana.
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
First, there is the obvious – Metallica is one of my favorite bands, and The Black Album is one of my favorite albums. Then, there is the personal. When I began my lifelong romance with rock ‘n’ roll, it was John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, and The Rolling Stones. Unlike most adolescents, I started with the softer, so called “classic” rock – much of which I still love. Then, it got a little louder. It was AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gov’t Mule, Aerosmith. Then, the music of Metallica hit me like a thunderbolt, and I started listening to their influences in hard rock, heavy metal, and punk.
I became enticed and seduced by the reckless and raucous aggression of harder and heavier music, with Metallica at the head of the pack. The Black Album is the perfect album for merging these two interests. As Jason Newsted said, “With The Black Album it started getting a little more rock ‘n’ roll – a little more swagger.”
Writing about The Black Album enables me to speak in a language of rock ‘n’ roll poetry, bringing together all of this trashy beauty – Motorhead, Venom, Iron Maiden, The Misfits, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Aerosmith – and it all culminates in this loud, aggressive, defiant, and dangerous Metallica masterpiece.
I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had, as a writer, writing this book, because it is my venue for paying tribute, not only, to Metallica, and their reckless genius, but also hard rock as an art in itself. It’s that guitar amp turned up to ten, power chord, thunder beat magic that gets you grinding and grooving. Kirk Hammett has a phrase he uses to describe the Black Album sessions – “soul groove.” When its loud, and its heavy, and it has the soul groove, it is a rare gift of life affirming intensity and energy. Metallica had it all on The Black Album.
The volume and aggression is also a celebration of freedom. The idea of freedom comes up over and over again in James Hetfield’s brilliant lyrics of the Black Album. That appeals to me too – The opportunity to write about something that not only sounds like the cage door breaking off its hinges, but describes it lyrically.
Heavy metal, hard rock, freedom, and fun: Why would anyone in their right mind not be drawn to writing about this album?
If you don’t get it, it’s time to turn off country radio.
Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
I’ve already interviewed current Metallica members James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett, former bassist Jason Newsted, and Bob Rock. Rock is the producer of The Black Album. So, his perspective was essential.
It was a thrill having all of those guys call my house, and they were all generous with their time. I say that only because after interviewing or working with many musicians’ management teams for books and articles, I’ve learned that kindness is not always the case.
They’ve made writing the book easier and harder. Easier, because they were all insightful. Through the recollections of their personal experience, and their reflections on the album, twenty three years after they made it, they gave me the best imaginable foundation for the book.
They made it harder, however, because now in addition to writer, I am a curator. I’m bringing together these five interesting, intelligent, and insightful voices, and weaving them together with my own perspective. It’s been an entertaining, enlightening, and rewarding challenge.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another? Be as specific and detailed as you’d like.
This was the second time I’ve submitted a proposal. The first – a couple of years back – was for the John Mellencamp record, Scarecrow. When it didn’t make the cut, I expanded the proposal to cover Mellencamp’s entire career, and the University Press of Kentucky picked it up for publication. So, the 33 1/3 rejection was actually a step forward disguised as a setback.
This time around, I had no doubt I wanted to write about Metallica and The Black Album. I was surprised when the band’s publicist replied to my email requesting interviews with the band members in three minutes. My own mother doesn’t respond to my emails that quickly.
What do you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
There are many people who erroneously believe that Metallica “sold out”, or at least started moving in that direction, with The Black Album, because of the rock ‘n’ roll influence on the songs. What the metal purists don’t understand or appreciate is that Metallica always loved rock ‘n’ roll. James Hetfield had an Aerosmith poster in his bedroom as a teenager, Ulrich’s favorite band is Deep Purple, and Hammett’s favorite guitar player, at least as a teenager, was Hendrix. It was inevitable that, at some point, they would engineer the combustible combination of rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal. It also served their strengths and styles well.
I’m also exploring the philosophy of heavy. Albert Camus in The Rebel defined rebellion as the “violent denunciation of hypocrisy.” Those words, even though Camus never intended it, are the perfect description of hard and heavy music, most especially when you consider the socially aware, politically critical, and introspectively brave lyrics of Hetfield. When living in a culture that is increasingly careerist, materialist, and conformist, it becomes essential to examine voices of freedom, and exemplars of rebellion.
What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
D.X. Ferris’ 33 1/3 on Slayer’s Reign In Blood is excellent reading. I’ve also immensely enjoyed reading Geoffrey Himes’ book on Born in the USA, Joe Bonomo’s on Highway to Hell, and Sam Inglis’ on Harvest.
Those are my favorites, because they combine interesting background stories on the recording of the albums – good musical journalism – with insightful criticism.
What was your first concert?
My first concert was Garth Brooks. I was 12 years old. My parents took me. It’s interesting that Garth Brooks was considered a pop crossover in his prime, but compared to what passes for country now, he sounds like Waylon Jennings. I’ve since learned that Garth actually used Metallica’s light rig and crew on the tour I attended. Maybe that’s when the 33 1/3 seed was planted, and I just never realized.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? And could you tell us why?
CDs – I’m drowning in them. I prefer having a souvenir. I like going to record stores, because they are cultural centers. I enjoy liner notes, and the entire experience. I also believe it is important to buy music, and buy music that sounds good. The sound quality of most CDs is much better than Mp3s.
Also, at this point, I have so many CDs, I feel like Colin Powell. During the hideous catastrophe of the Iraq War, according to many reports, Powell discussed how the Bush administration had no “exit strategy.” Even if I wanted to convert to digital music, I have no exit strategy.
Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
In the monster song, “Wherever I May Roam”, Hetfield, with an impassioned growl, sings, “Free to speak my mind anywhere.”
That declaration of independence captures the spirit of freedom and boldness that possesses the entire album – and the entire Metallica body of work.
It also captures the exciting essence of writing. I’m using my first amendment rights, and my own intellect and imagination, to say exactly as I believe – to speak my mind. Unlike Metallica, I’m not going to tour the entire world, but by writing, my ideas are free to roam everywhere. Someone from my hometown might buy this book, along with someone in Mexico and someone in Japan. There’s a thrill that comes with that possibility, but also a responsibility – a responsibility to tell the truth. With this 33 1/3 book on Metallica, I’m hoping and working to do justice to Metallica, do right by the legions of fans who love The Black Album and hard rock as much as I do, and with a little luck, give the readers some insight, along with the pleasure I’m gaining from writing it.