Michael Azerrad in Person
By Jeanne Fury (2002)
Michael Azerrad is the author of two books, Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana and Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991, which recently came out in paperback. Our Band covers the canon of American indie punk bands that birthed do-it-yourself culture. And it was indeed a culture: Azerrad’s book uncovers the sociology of outsiders, the noises they made, and the result it had on the industry that eventually ate the era.
One day in the beginning of the summer, I got an e-mail from a guy who read some of my reviews and wanted me to go hear his band, The King of France. It’s not an uncommon request. But what made me do a double take was the name of the guy who wrote me. Michael Azerrad. I wrote him back. Immediately. “Are you the same guy who wrote that book Our Band Could Be Your Life?” Same Michael Azerrad, same book, yes that’s the guy. “I’ll come hear your band if you let me pick your brain.” Agreed. I still haven’t gone to hear his band, but I will.
Michael probably doesn’t like the fact that I’m interested in his band simply because I’m familiar with his writings. He’d rather the band get attention for its music and not its literati drummer. Sitting in a West Village café, his appreciation of and wonderment for music runs deep. He spoke with the earnestness of a die-hard music fan, not the authority of someone who earns his living as a music critic. In fact, when I referred to him as a music critic, he corrected me with a smile: “I call myself a ‘music journalist.”
Jeanne: I don’t know anything about you aside from the fact that you’re a big rock writer and wrote a couple books. Where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up there?
Michael: I grew up basically in Westchester, New York, and got turned on to rock music mostly through my father bringing home Sgt. Pepper, like, the week it came out. I thought, “This is great” and I was totally hooked. Those three little tom tom drums–maybe it was a kick drum–that introduced “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” that basically got me playing drums. [Westchester] was your basic leafy green suburb, and I spent some time out in northern California in my teens, came back to Westchester, went to school at Columbia and never left. I’ve always wanted to live in New York City, so here I am.
Jeanne: So when did you actually decide you wanted to make a career out of rock criticism?
Michael: I had been writing for a bunch of free papers for a couple of years. The way I actually started making a living was I wrote a review of a record by XTC called Skylarking, and I just wrote it for the hell of it because I thought it was the most amazing, beautiful record, so I just wrote a review of it. I didn’t know what to do with it. My girlfriend at the time said, “Why don’t you send it in to Spin and Rolling Stone?” and I said, “They’ll never even read it.” She said, “Come on, come on,” so I sent it in to Spin and Rolling Stone. A week later, I called to follow up with a guy fromSpin and he said, “You should write more like you speak.” And I thought, “Well, if I was gonna speak, I’d just say the review on the radio.” When I’m writing, I’m writing. When I’m speaking, I’m speaking. But then, a few days after that, I got a call from a guy who said he was the music editor from Rolling Stone, saying, “Hey, that was really well done. We already assigned that one but if you wanna try something else…” So I did. The first record I reviewed was an anthology of Athens, Georgia, bands called Athens, Georgia Inside Out. So I started writing for them, and after a year of that they gave me–there was an issue, the 100 best singles of the past 25 years, and they assigned me to write 15 of them. And that was $2,000. So I just quit my day job and said, “Well, I’ve got four months of rent here, so surely in that time I can scare up some more work,” and I did. That was 1988 and I haven’t looked back.
Jeanne: Wow. Wish that happened to more of us.
Michael: Yeah, well, the Rolling Stone editor said it never happened before, and as far as he knows, not since.
Jeanne: Must’ve been a damn good review.
Michael: Must be damn lucky.
Jeanne: For Our Band, how did you decide, okay, these are the bands that influenced generations of bands to come, I want to write this huge book and research my brains out and write till I pass out?
Michael: Hmm, yeah, I did almost write till I passed out. I did it for a couple reasons. I did that Nirvana book [Come As You Are], you know, and Kurt [Cobain] was always very concerned about giving credit where credit was due, and, you know, here’s the stuff that influenced me and all these people who’ve come on to the train a little later in the game who didn’t know that there’s this whole pre-history. He [Cobain] was very concerned about that, and I kinda related to that. That Nirvana book was very, very good to me, too, just as Nirvana had been very good to Kurt.
[Our Band] really came about when I was sitting on the couch one day watching a ten-part documentary about the history of rock, and I was waiting, waiting for punk rock to come along because punk rock was my favorite, kind of where I came in, and they got to Talking Heads and they totally skipped to Nirvana. Nothing in between. I was thinking, “What happened to Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, all those great bands? Someone should do something about that.” I thought, “Do it yourself.” It turned out that the people who were into indie rock, that era, are now grown ups, they can afford a hardcover book, a lot of those people were educated and read books, and it seemed natural. It’s funny. Even though those records didn’t sell much, you can get that audience so interested in the subject that you can sell a respectable amount of books. There’s an incredible portion of the indie rock fan base that actually reads books, especially books about music. So it was a good financial proposition. So that’s why I got to do that. And there was nothing written about it [the indie era] except maybe Gina Arnold’s Route 666: On The Road To Nirvana, which was a very anecdotal approach.
Jeanne: How’d you go about hunting down these bands? Was there any resistance from certain people–Paul Westerberg?
Michael: Well, if you notice, there are no new quotes from Paul Westerberg. There’s other stuff from older sources. He didn’t want to talk. It’s funny. He now complains that I never asked him, but I actually had someone ask him several times. There was resistance from him, from Calvin Johnson. He felt that doing such a thing would be like putting a tombstone on the end of his career. Of course, Calvin shortly thereafter put out a box set which is about as much of a tombstone on one’s career as possible. Chuck Dukowski didn’t want to talk. As it turns out, he was getting ready to leave SST at the time, so it was a very ticklish time. But most people were glad to talk because they’d been completely unrecognized, almost totally undocumented, and really wanted to be recognized, justifiably, for all the hard work they had done. They really wanted to be on the record and there were a lot of myths that needed to be corrected and clarified and they were more than happy to help out. And people were very candid. Like, a lot of the stuff that happened in their youth, they totally fess up to being jerks or neurotic, and people were pretty straightforward about that. It was cool.
Jeanne: Speaking of being jerks, I got the biggest kicks out of what control freaks these guys were: J Mascis, Steve Albini, and Gregg Ginn. Everything was very regimented and strictly enforced. It didn’t seem the stereotypical punk rock anarchy.
Michael: Well, that was the point of the whole indie scene–you could create your own system and not have major labels interfere with your vision. You could make music exactly the way you wanted. Contrary to popular belief, American punk rock is not terribly nihilistic. It’s very entrepreneurial. There’s a really serious hardcore American work ethic that goes back to I think Thoreau and Emerson; the idea of jamming econo, making do with very little, and living within your parameters and not being excessive is a very old American idea. Anarchy is about being responsible for yourself and not relying on authority figures telling you how to act. That’s what the scene was really about. There was a very high ethical standard. Of course, other people were doing a lot of ripping off while paying lip service to ethicality and hard work.
Jeanne: After Nirvana, the underground became mainstream. Executives were cashing in. In the traditional sense, the underground wasn’t so underground. Does mainstream awareness pollute the sanctity of the underground or does it help it? I remember hearing Billy Corgan say once that he didn’t care about selling out because he wanted to bring his music to as many people as possible. I can’t imagine that coming from someone at SST or Ian MacKaye.
Michael: Ian MacKaye actually told me he has no interest in getting his music out to as many people as possible. He’s comfortable with where he is. Same with Albini, actually. He said playing to more than 2,000 people in a room makes him uncomfortable, it’s just not a good gig. And they have their sort of level and that completely flies in the face of capitalism. With capitalism, you’re supposed to grow incrementally every quarter, and if you don’t, for some reason you’re a failure. I never quite understood that. I always thought as long as you made a profit you were fine. Mainstream awareness of the underground, I think, does probably inevitably corrupt the underground because people are only human. While you do have some incredibly resolute people like Steve Albini and Ian McKaye you also have other people, for financial security, who would like a house or don’t have as close an attachment to their music as others, who can just say, “Sure you can use my song in a commercial for the Navy. That’s fine, I don’t really care about it that much. I’ll take the $70,000 and I’ll buy a boat with it.” There is that corrupting influence. There are other people who will actually just make more and more inaccessible music just to insulate themselves from a) the temptation and b) the bother of the squares.
Jeanne: Kids today, say, ages 16 to 21 years old, what are they missing that kids of the indie generation had growing up on those independent bands? With the Internet and everything, there’s a million independent labels, there’s a bunch of ways to get your band known. The bands in the ’80s had to work harder, which made their success that much sweeter.
Michael: Yeah, it did that, but it also was a natural selection process. It’s so easy to make a record, to distribute music, and promote a band. Back then, you really had to want to be in a band, you had to really want to suffer, and consequently, I think there was a slightly higher ratio of good bands to chaff simply because the people who were half-hearted about it got selected out. So I think what kids are missing now–well, what they’re experiencing now is they’ve just got this glut not of music but of music information and it makes it really difficult to find the wheat instead of the chaff because they’re inundated by chaff.
It’s different now, because back in the ’80s, there was no hope of commercial discovery, so you could follow a band and not worry about selling out or [the band] playing this big, huge place where you’d need binoculars to see the guitarist’s face. There was never that worry and you could enjoy it for what it was, be a part of this very tight-knit community all of whom had something in common with each other. Now, there’s always that fear that you’re going to follow this band and you’re going to wind up going to this echoing, impersonal arena with a bunch of people you wouldn’t even let, you know, shine your shoes.
Jeanne: That happened to me with the Distillers. I saw them last winter at the Knitting Factory, they were on Hellcat Records, and now they’re touring arenas, opening for Garbage and No Doubt and they signed a deal with Warner Bros. But I don’t feel scorned because I think [singer/guitarist] Brody Armstrong has a strong feminist streak in her and I think she’s good for young girls to look up to.
Michael: It is kind of cool when a great band becomes really popular. I think it’s to the benefit of humanity, frankly. But, inevitably, I think there’s stuff that gets kind of diluted.
Jeanne: What makes you want to pay attention to a new band? I say “want to” because, you know, a band like the Liars is in your face and you can’t avoid them, you have to pay attention to them. But, let’s say a band comes along. You’re a musician so I guess that helps when you look for certain things in a sound.
Michael: Um, wow. I guess you’re asking me what makes a band good.
Jeanne: For you, yeah.
Michael: It’s this funny balance between challenging and accessible. You’ve got to feel like, “Oh this is something I’ve never heard put quite this way before,” and it’s got to be something that you can grasp. It’s a very tricky balancing act. You can be really challenging, but you can be undecipherable and that kind of has its charms, too. But in general, the bands I stick with are people who just seem to have this short, straight wire from their soul to their fingertips and that can go anywhere from Leadbelly to Oval, a German electronic duo. It just has to be something that strikes me as unique and beautiful.
Jeanne: How would you rate the new crop of New York, Brooklyn-based bands like Liars, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Black Dice against the bands of 20 years ago?
Michael: Well, I’m going to see Black Dice tonight, so maybe I’ll tell you tomorrow. But um, it’s funny, you know, you get forced into a position where you’re going to look like a fuddy-duddy for saying, “Well, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they’re okay, but they’re no Blondie.” So I don’t want to say. it’s like apples and oranges. The new bands are good but they’re not blowing me away, although some of them are very stylish. As creative forces and innovative entities they’re sort of…
Jeanne: Not knocking you over?
Michael: Yeah, but I’m so excited that New York is a happening town again. I’m a little worried that these bands are not going to measure up to the hype and it’s just going to fall through to the basement again. That could be a bummer.
Jeanne: So do you still do freelance work?
Michael: Yeah. I write for Blender. Sometimes for Revolver. They give me fun assignments. I asked them to give me assignments for bands I don’t know anything about. I like just diving in, researching, preparing, and getting up to speed. Last summer they sent me to Ozzfest. I mean, I really have little use for any Ozzfest band, really. I can’t think of one band on that tour that I thought was any good. This year I would’ve been more interested. But yeah, it was pretty dreadful–but it was great! What an eyeful, what an experience. So I like doing that stuff a lot. I’m really in it for the adventure.
Another thing I do is “Sessions” for AOL. The first artist I interviewed was Kenny G.
Jeanne: How was that?
Michael: Incredible. Really, really interesting. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his music, but he’s a very interesting human being. He’s sold 70 million records. He’s kind of an icon. Everyone knows who he is. It was just interesting to meet him and see him play. He’s really technically quite good.
Jeanne: Was it a challenge for you to interview Kenny G?
Michael: No, no, not at all. You know, I like talking to musicians. I find them interesting, and it’s why I do what I do. It’s a prerequisite. My interviewing him in no way constitutes an endorsement of his music. I’m just curious about him. You know, I’d be interested in interviewing Bin Laden and I in no way endorse Osama bin Laden but I’d be interested to hear what he had to say. And Kenny G and Osama bin Laden are roughly equivalent. [laughs]
Jeanne: In your book, I noticed that a handful of the bands’ stories ended the same way. A band becomes well-known, the lead singer gets a God complex, and everything falls through.
Michael: [laughs] Well, you know, I’m really, really interested in rock archetypes. The more you study this stuff, the more you read it, it’s just like–you can almost see, you know, temperamental drummer, prima donna lead singer, and musicianly guitarist. Well, the drummer will probably quit, the lead singer will go solo, and the guitarist will become a respected underground icon. After a while, you always see the archetype. You go, “Oh that’s that type of band.” You know how it’s going to play out. It’s a limited universe of possibilities and Our Band Could Be Your Life is not just about the indie scene, it’s about rock. By approaching indie rock, you get this less ornate window through which to peer at the band. You get a much more straightforward view of the mechanics of a rock band. It’s definitely–you picked up on that as a theme. It’s not just about indie rock, it’s about being in a rock band and the practicalities and the archetypes. I think I pointed out…
[Jazz is being played on the sound system in the café.]
Charles Mingus…[Finger pointed to the ceiling, in recognition.]
In the Black Flag chapter, I said that Ginn and Rollins were like Page and Plant. The guitar maestro and the strutting lead singer. It’s funny, even though they may have hated Led Zeppelin, you fall into these patterns.
Jeanne: Of the bands that you picked, which one are you most likely to throw on on a Sunday afternoon and rock out to?
Michael: Wow. Hmm. That’s a funny question, because it’s not the band that I think had the most interesting story. Probably, ummm, probably Hüsker Dü or the Replacements. And those two had pretty interesting stories. You know, I never had a lot of use for Butthole Surfers, but I think they had the best story. Well, the Minutemen, too, I love the Minutemen, but you have to be in a certain mood to put them on. That’s what I tell people who read the book. They’ll say, “Well, I’m not really into the Minutemen, so I skipped that chapter.” You know, they [the bands’ stories] were written to be interesting to people who didn’t know anything about them.
Jeanne: Butthole Surfers put something out either this year or last year. I can’t remember. Do you still follow the bands of the ’80s that are still around today?
Michael: Yeah, I’ll throw on the record. Almost none of the bands, as it stands right now, are really rocking my world.
Jeanne: Will you go see Mudhoney when they play Northsix next month?
Michael: (laughs) I didn’t even know they were playing. That doesn’t mean I won’t go, I’m just so out of it. I just put my head down and work all day, I don’t even know what I do all day. But yeah, I’d love to go see Mudhoney play. You know, they’re close to my age and I’m always interested in seeing what geezers like me do to rock. That’s something that I’m watching as I go through life.
Jeanne: Is it still possible for a band to be your life?
Michael: The title of the book was not about being consumed by a band just on a musical level. It’s about the way they conduct themselves and their career. So a band like the Minutemen with their small-town mentality, they find a vision, pursue it any way you can and not worry about the fact that you’re not selling a million records. You’re vindicated by the quality of your music and the integrity of the way you conduct your career. So people can emulate that in their own lives, whether you’re a bricklayer or maybe even a stockbroker. Pursue what you want to do with integrity, and in that way your life can be like their band. It’s a crucial notion and I think that it really did rub off on a lot of people who followed the bands. They did fanzines, they did whatever business they did. Maybe they knew that they’d never be huge but they got a lot of satisfaction from doing exactly what they wanted to do and not worrying about being rich.
Jeanne: These bands had to be getting some incredible satisfaction, the same kind of magic that they gave their fans.
Michael: Yeah, you see that over and over in the book. People carrying on in really adverse personal circumstances within a band but carrying on because the music is so good. Rollins says that, and I think almost every band with some disharmony within them said, “Well, we kept going for a long time because we were good.” That’s a very, very powerful thing. When you’re playing in a good band, there’s nothing like it. There’s no drug or sex act that could possibly equal it. So people will put up with a lot. A band like Blink-182 could not be anyone’s life. It’s unrealistic to emulate them. You can like their music but there’s never going to be that kind of connection. You just have fans rather than people like peers who want to live their life analogous to the way the band is conducted.
Jeanne: Do you think punk rock has died out and is gone?
Michael: Well, in the mind of the general music-buying public, punk rock has become a very, very circumscribed musical genre instead of a liberating idea. It’s turned into a formula that’s just replicated endlessly for commercial gain at this point. But originally, punk rock was most emphatically not about following a formula, it was about being yourself in a pretty extreme way. So there were as many punk rock formulas as there were people making punk rock. The Butthole Surfers never made anything that sounded like the Ramones, but they definitely played punk rock. And punk rock means not just music but the way you run the band and everything else around it. Punk rock as a provocative, confrontational, and very idiosyncratic way of making music, still lives. It just doesn’t sound anything like Green Day and you can’t see it on MTV.
Jeanne: So when you’re writing now, will you do CD reviews, live reviews, profiles?
Michael: My favorite is probably the longer profile. You can really immerse yourself and do some actual writing. Although I write CD reviews for Blender which are 110 words max, and it’s kinda fun to make these little haikus. It’s very challenging and it’s kinda cool. You see how much you can pack into 110 words. It’s fun, it’s a nice little challenge. But I do like the longer profiles. You just dig in.
I’ve always been uncomfortable writing reviews partially because I’m not really an abstract thinker. I’m not somebody who can start extrapolating on stuff. That leaves you with describing music which is also kind of a black hole. Ha ha. So I was always uncomfortable with that. But I love reporting. Reporting and describing and getting myself in the right situation where I can actually see the revealing, critical moment, or if I can get that exact quote. It’s not just being able to write, you have to conduct yourself in situations where things happen and you’re in the right place in the right time.
Jeanne: Since you’re in the band King of France and you’re also a music critic, do you ever find yourself compromised?
Michael: I call myself a “music journalist.” So far, there hasn’t been any conflict. It’s not like I’ve been calling in favors to Spin, like, “Hey why don’t you write up a feature on my band?” Not that they’d even bow to my all-powerful wishes. So it hasn’t really gotten to that point yet. One thing we have to worry about are people who dismiss this band because they’re like, “Oh, he’s a critic” and there’s a certain dilettantism that people will assume is there. But I think once they see us, it’s just like I’m another guy in the band. And I think it’s really good. We keep picking up a following, like every time we play there’s a few more people. It’s just so fun to be in a good band. I just get a huge kick out of it. I think I devote more time to the band than to my work. Ha. I know people who run record labels and I say, “I’m in a band and we want to get signed” and they kinda raise an eyebrow and say, “Are you gonna tour?” as if there’s no way I’m going to quit my day job. And I’m like, “Hell yeah, of course I’d tour.” I can work on the road. Set me up with some headphones and a laptop and I’m good to go.
Jeanne: Okay, I’ll end with this. What did you take away from writing the book?
Michael: Wow. Besides severe physical exhaustion? Um, you know, I just felt like I did what they call in Yiddish or Hebrew a mitzvah. I felt like I’d done a good thing. These people needed to be recognized, and I thought I was a good person to do it for various reasons, and I was satisfied with the job I did. And I got a bunch of good reviews. I just felt a sense of satisfaction, like I did a good thing. My intentions were good, it turned out well, I worked hard, it was good, honest work, and I’m very proud of it. It’s a huge sense of accomplishment to write a book. It’s only my second book but it’s just so huge. It’s like giving birth. You have this postpartum depression, like “What do I do with myself? I’ll never do anything as good as this.” You’re so used to this routine. I’d get up, work till I got hungry, eat, work till I got hungry, eat, work till I got hungry, eat, go to sleep. Every day. Well, interviewing was work. Worked myself into the ground, just drawn and sickly. I got sick really easily, and after a while I got really angry like, “Why am I getting sick all the time?” But I felt like I accomplished what I set out to do and it was something that–except for a lot of dead trees–something that the world needed. Now I gotta think of something else to do.