From July 2000, Steven Ward interviews metal/hard rock critic, and Toronto native, Martin Popoff. Some kind of prolific writer when this interview was first published, Popoff is a veritable publishing industry unto himself these days (check out his website for more current information about his many projects). Given his success as a writer and self-publisher, I trust (and hope) Martin was able to deal with the carpal tunnel syndrome that was causing him severe pain at the time of this interview.
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Enduring the noise: Martin Popoff Pops Off on Heavy Metal, Rock Criticism, and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
An E-Mail Interview by Steven Ward (July 2000)
If Chuck Eddy is heavy metal’s bastard child, Martin Popoff is its favourite son. Popoff, 37, has been writing about metal for more than a decade and listening to it for twice that long. Regardless of what other writers say about the best books on heavy metal, Popoff, a Toronto resident, wrote THE BIBLE on the genre: The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal. The book is crammed with 3,700 sharp and detailed reviews of metal albums and (almost) full discographies. It features top ten lists, lists of everything from the most overrated performers (Eric Clapton and drummer Carmine Appice) to a breakdown of the different metal genres (what is the difference between Gothic metal and Viking metal anyway?).
One of the best things about Popoff’s observations is the intelligence, honesty and straight forwardness of his reviews. You won’t find any Teena Marie reviews in Popoff’s book (sorry, Chuck Eddy. No Offence). You are likely to find details about Witchfinder General’s debut, though. In other words, Popoff is the true guru for headbangers everywhere. He’s a senior editor at Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, probably the best magazine/fanzine on metal from this side of the Atlantic; he can also be found occasionally in magazines as diverse as Guitar World and Lollipop.
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Steven: What the hell is it that attracts you so much to heavy metal music?
Martin: It’s the only music from my youth I’m not embarrassed about any more, except, that is, for classic rock, mainly prog. R.E.M, The Cure, even fIREHOSE, Joe Ely, Kate Bush and The Replacements, for me it’s all inextricably linked to university (you folks call it college), weepy, vulnerable, girl problem stuff. Metal just is. It rarely contains irony, and when it does, we all get it and laugh at the joke bouncing around, with, and at us. It’s never changed, or, at least the general power chord, power personality aspect of it still courses, plows, blunders, chops away. It keeps you young, it makes you get up in the morning and methodically vanquish your action points, it staves off the dozy mid-afternoon, gotta-take-a-breaks. It can occasionally brainwash you into jogging. It basically jars you out of a number of potential funks, losing situations, surrenders.
These metal makers, if they have problems, they rarely show it, and in the many cases where all they seem to do is growl about problems, by session’s close, you are quite sure said quandaries will be stomped shortly. Plus, it’s a vibrant, growing genre. Tons of new artworks every month, most of it from destitute Swedes still living with their parents. The camaraderie? Forget it. That’s for young folks, of which there are many at these sorry 150-attendance shows. Please stop trying to talk to me about the merits of various Stratovarius albums while Destruction is pasting us to the back wall and I’m busy putting a cigarette filters in my ears because I forgot my ear plugs.
Steven: Was there a song, band, or album that you remember first hearing years ago that sparked your interest in heavy metal?
Martin: Yes. The first inkling of a trace of a clue that my randomly stumbled over CCR and Three Dog Night records were lame, came from Hotter Than Hell, Zep IV, Vol 4, Toys In The Attic, Razamanaz and then in ’76 on an earth-shattering plane, Priest’s Sad Wings Of Destiny, an album over which sadly, the band themselves deal glassy unknowing stares when informed of its Richter importance with respect to the advancement of the form. I’m 37, so I guess this all happened when I was 12. My cousin Lawrence accelerated the education, as did my buddy Forrest’s older brother Mark. We were in Trail, B.C., a town of 10,000 in Canada, on the border two hours above Spokane. Spokane was our record Mecca. Sounds, Melody Maker and later Kerrang! blew our minds and the imports at $7.95 (one buck more than a domestic) began to flow on road trips blasting Angel City and April Wine.
Steven: Your main print gig is Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles. What is it you do there and how did the magazine start and how is it different than most metal/rock mags out today?
Martin: I edit the whole thing, write to ten to 12 reviews, and usually four to six stories of various sizes. The only difference between our magazine and others out there is its slightly tweaked focus. Our particular idiosyncrasy is that we will chuck in a fair bit of hair metal and old fart metal with the usual progressive, power, death, and black stuff. Our layout and design is nice. We have tons of small-print news. We do a cool thing where we forecast, over two pages, all the metal albums that are coming out in the next year. But other than that, it’s just the usual reviews and interviews with the same bands everybody else talks to, with, like I say, our own minor flavoured differences. We have good writers and bad writers, probably less of a concentration of good writers than Terrorizer or most definitely the big, general rock mags. We include no hardcore or rap-core acts, but pretty much everything else is game. For whatever reason, we are one of the most respected magazines in the industry. We’ll occasionally sling mud, but I wouldn’t call us completely courageous. Nobody is, but we seem to speak out, complain, slag, a shade more than most.
Steven: Back in the 70s, magazines like Hit Parader and Circus actually did a decent job of covering hard rock music (and other genres). What do you think of those two mags today and are there any mainstream rock mags out there that you like?
Martin: My favourite metal magazines, aside from ours, which I guess is in a tie with these, would be Terrorizer and Metal Maniacs. I loved Creem in its heyday, and nothing made me happier as a kid when I would come home from lunch and find the new issue of Circus in my mail box, except when Lindsay Wagner was on the cover. I bought Hit Parader regularly but I guess even in the late seventies, it was never taken as seriously as Circus. But of course Creem was the vessel of good rock criticism, and they even tolerated hard rock, which was nice. Hit Parader today? Looks the same, haven’t bought one. Circus: one of those situations where a bunch of really inept people have acquired a respected name and turned out trash.
Steven: I think it’s interesting that heavy metal is mostly loved by white, male nerdy types and white, male nerdy types are the ones who, many times, turn into rock critics. Yet rock critics scoff at heavy metal and rarely write about it seriously. Why do you think that is?
Martin: There’s no serious poetry. The practitioners look ridiculous. And nerdy pasty pencil-armed white males that turn into critics are still worried about getting the girl well into their late twenties, something which new wave, alternative, and watery pop has always gone on about. These people don’t solve their teenage and college years problems. The nerdy, pastly, pencil-armed white males that are metalheads either physically bulk up or, through the encouragement of metal lyrics, develop psychic armour that shields them against life’s inconveniences. Low pay? Doesn’t everybody get low pay? One arm? The other one works just fine in the pit, plus Chuck Billy says it looks cool.
Steven: Tell me about your favourite rock critics and rock writers. Who would you say influenced your music writing?
Martin: I’ve only actually started looking at the by-lines in the last two years. I don’t think I’m influenced by anybody. When I wrote the self-published version of my reviews book (Riff Kills Man! in ’93; The Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal is a double-size ’97 update through a publisher), I was a casual buyer of metal mags, but I certainly had only sporadically seen the work of any of the top tenners through the odd Rolling Stone and Spin. And like I say, it never registered who wrote what.
Steven: You may disagree, but I find your writing to be somewhat influenced by Chuck Eddy. In fact, the first time I read something in yourCollector’s Guide to Heavy Metal it struck me that you were doing a good imitation of Chuck Eddy doing a good imitation of Robert Christgau.
Martin: Well, OK, I forgot something. The first version of that book was based in format on Robert Christgau’s. Simple: this guy hates metal and knows dick about it anyway. Why can’t there be one of these on metal? But the writing, man, if I picked anything up it was sub-subconsciously. Chuck, I love the man, but I can’t say when I started that thing, that I had much clue who he was. Stairway To Hell came out before mine was done, and it actually spurred me on because even though it purported to be about metal, it was yet another filmy, scurrilous, blasphemous attack from upon high, irony being the only poofy abstractism that allowed the man to enjoy any of this stuff at all. I was the straight man, the fanboy. My book sucked bad, and now three years after the ’97 edition, I’m again embarrassed by my ignorance (although the writing is at least tolerable) of various sub-genres, most notably black and death, which I’ve got figured now. Rock crit is taking shape for me now: read the Bangs bio, got the Meltzer anthology, re-reading Bangs anthology, check the by-lines in mags, reading way too many band bios. The Mick Wall was a blast. But then again, he runs a mag now that lacks the courage he used to have.
Steven: Who are your all-time favourite heavy metal bands and if you could come up with a Martin Popoff all-time top ten list of greatest HM albums, what would they be?
Martin: All music appreciation is so hopelessly wrapped up, clouded, shrouded, bagged and tagged in your own youth-bisecting jaded age demographic, it’s pretty much meaningless asking one’s faves. But me, fore-stamped with a big 37 years of age, I’d have to go with Lizzy, UFO, Sabbath and BOC, and then sidling into modernity, Pantera, Amorphis, Soundgarden, COC, King’s X, Love/Hate, Trouble, and in the mid, I dunno, old Maiden, definitely Priest, old Metallica, Savatage, Ozzy, Faith No More, Sepultura. The rightwnowsies, look how right hip I am’s: Opeth, Dark Tranquillity, In Flames, Hypocrisy, Witchery. The Top Ten Albums: again, even worse rose-clouding broken glasses can’t see objectively but OK: hey, this’ll be fun, in my Goldmine Heavy Metal Records Price Guide, as an appendix, I list my Top Ten’s for each of the 30 years from ’70 to 99. Skimming the roofs of those lists, I spy…
IN QUASI-ORDER… Queen 1, Sab’s Sabotage, Dictators’ Bloodbrothers, Rainbow’s Down To Earth, Metallica – Ride The Lightning, Deep Purple – Purpendicular, Love/Hate – Wasted In America, OK, let’s veer off a bit, Entombed – Uprising, In Flames – Clay Man, (back on) Badlands – Badlands, Zep – Physical Graffitti (OK, thazz higher), King’s X – Dogman. How many’s that?
Steven: One of the great things about your HM writing is how you acknowledge bands that are not really HM, but are kind of connected to it (things like BOC, Rush, Iggy Pop, King’s X). Is HM more than people actually think it is?
Martin: No, it’s less. The only definition that does me any good is mostly bass/guitar/drums/vocals with lots of fuzz pedal on the guitar, lotsa power chords, plus as a grave marker, a widdly guitar solo. Plus recording wherewithal that only came into effect about 1970. Hey, people, artists, folks all exist on a pinwheel of greyscales. Overlap a thousand of them and there will be a preponderance of pinpricks somewherez and those ones splotch up to mean metal. Iggy makes two more reflective remembrance albums, he falls off the list through bald-faced stats. Same with any other poor sod. That Everclear single points to them leaving any quizzy-in-or-out. Gotta get the album and find out. Rush has worked there way off of many’s Santa-roll. Plus age: Metallica ain’t metal to handfuls of church-burning Norwegian devilmutts. Life gets more extreme allatime. Two dozen not-metals to a 15 year old might strip flesh off of a stillborn pup of a mere 25 years of age. The only reason I have a clue at 37 is I unfortunately study the stuff.
Steven: I like British metal mags like Kerrang! and Metal Hammer. Much better than Hit Parader and Circus, I think. What do you think? Who wins the metal mag fight, us or the red coats?
Martin: Oh, they do, undoubtedly. Brits just like language, and they like toppling and prodding their stars. They are truly humorous people. But having said that, metal is dead over there. London is worse than Toronto, and that’s big whoop. These mags are all alt.metal’ed these days and the writing has gone downhill since the ’80s.
Steven: Do you think fanzines and webzines are helping HM fans by giving them a stage to write about and read about their favourite bands and HM bands they might not of heard about other wise?
Martin: Fer sure. Metal’s always been written and mulled over extensively. Many ‘zines and quite fortunately, much net action, I dare say, out of and way above proportion to its Soundscans. Metal has taken to the net like that geek question above would predict. And I think the bands in general have had a healthy attitude about talking to ‘zines. We are a chatty bunch, this three ring circus that we are.
Steven: Echoing the punk attitude of bands at the time, Lester Bangs once said that anybody can and should write record reviews. Do you agree with that?
Martin: No way. Or if they do, please keep it to yourself. From a purely selfish standpoint, I let art into my world to enhance and elevate the quality of my life. I don’t mind it being somewhat pre-screened so I don’t have to wade through the dishwater. I’d rather minimize the time I spend considering and rejecting, by having a mid or large record label deem something worthy, or have a critic I respect pontificate its glories.
Steven: Do you think rock journalism sucks today and if so, why?
Martin: Yeah, it’s certainly worse. Maybe because there’s no time and space to navel-gaze. Too much product to glance and gloss over, too many stimulants competing from outside rock, with rock. Any one record was a big deal to (metal-haters) Rolling Stone in 1972. Now, a couple grand can cover a pretty crisp slab o’ tin, so there’s a lot of couple grands getting spent.
Steven: Are there any newer HM bands that are coming out today that make you feel like Black Sabbath and Pantera once did in days gone by?
Martin: Yeah, Entombed (shoot ’em up alcoholica), Witchery (ditto), American Dog (ditto, redneck).
Steven: What kind of future writing projects are you working on?
Martin: I gotta do a cut and paste here. I got some potentially big trouble. I’m actually answering these questions in voice recognition software, but I get lazy and don’t use it and keep typing. I’m really worried about carpal tunnel syndrome. I may have to quit this business or really dive into finding the right software so voice recognition can be used more efficiently (I’m on a three year old version of ViaVoice Goldand frankly it sucks in about a dozen buggy ways). If I seem to be really drunkie-economizing my words in these answers, it’s because I’m cringing with every tap of the keyboard. There’ll be mistakes, maybe even odd nonsensicals that are a direct result of me missing a voice recognition correction. But yeah, damn. In fact soon as I finish, I’m running down to the clinic to see a physiotherapist. I’m quite concerned. May have to go get a record label job. But right, you asked something. Here is a cut and paste from my bio:
- Riff Kills Man! 25 Years Of Recorded Hard Rock & Heavy Metal (1993)–1,945 album reviews, 440 p.
- The Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal (1997)–Update of Riff Kills Man!: 3750 album reviews, 540 p., 600,000 words, full-length CD sampler, in fourth printing
- The Goldmine Price Guide To Heavy Metal Records (2000) –11,800 entries, 300 photos, 368 p., best of list, essays, full-length CD sampler
- Heavy Metal: 20th Century Rock And Roll (2000)–Part of series, themed as The Fifty Most Influential Bands In Heavy Metal, essays, interview segments, discographies, best of lists, 190p.
Books Currently In Writing Stage (publishing secured and scheduled):
- Southern Rock Review (Q4 2000)
- The Collector’s Guide to ’70s Metal (Q2 2001)
- The NWOBHM Singles (est. Q4 2000: self-publishing)
- Blue Oyster Cult Explained (est. Q4 2000: self-publishing)
- Yesviews: The Yes Albums and Solo Works Reviewed (est. 2001)
- The Collector’s Guide To ’80s Metal (2001)
- The Collector’s Guide To ’90s Metal (2002)
- The Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal 1970 – 2000 Box Set (2002)
Steven: Why do you write about HM and why do you think it makes you so happy?
Martin: Oh it doesn’t make me that happy. Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, occupation division: blue collar or service work, white collar work, owning your own biz, writing or something peripheral to art, art itself. That’s how I see the world of work. I’m one notch down, but I am very good at a hobby that is at the apex. I love art, painting, got my paintings all over my house. Have done a couple of album covers, but the main thing is, a half dozen of my paintings are like, six of the coolest 25 paintings I’ve ever seen. I was a kid, I did six years of university, worked for Xerox, had my own graphics/print broking biz for nine years, now full time writing about metal. Underscore: babbling, fawning, fan-boying over other people’s accomplishments. Sure, it’s fun, as being social with people you admire is (even when you are anti-social like me, having little tolerance for people I don’t admire). But it’s a time-waster. To get to the top of Maslow, I must paint full-time, exhibit, and as a particular creased foible of my metal hobby, do many album covers. I think about fiction, lyrics etc, even non-metal. Never do it. I would never be honest about anything personal and I really don’t have a ton of interesting experiences. I’m pretty simple. I’m a slot down. Writing about metal: it’s derivative, tertiary, removed. Which is I guess why critics rightly obsess over being a “real” writer, i.e. Meltzer with his babbled fragments, Bangs with his dumb, unlistenable record. I can earn a great living at this. It’s a biz like any other. Little sweet assignments come your way, other things pay badly, the big payoff hits once every five years, have enough coffee in ya, and you can pick up the phone and earn a hundred bucks in half an hour, you meet all your heroes (in this one compressed world). But fact is I’ve got paintings I walk past ten times a day that I never get tired of. They rule. And if I didn’t have them, I’d feel like a loser. It’s all I’ve done that’s special.