Brian McElhiney is a music reporter for Bend, Oregon’s paper the Bulletin. He was the Sunday editor at the Leader-Herald in Gloversville, NY, and covered music in New York’s Capital Region for the Daily Gazette of Schenectady and Saratoga Living magazine for almost six years. In this interview, I had the chance to hear about his current sci-fi graphic novel project, how his time leading NY punk band The Hearing Aides relates to writing, and his thoughts on what makes good rock journalism.
You’ve been a music reporter for quite some time now. Was that a career you always knew you wanted to pursue, or did it happen that you came to it through a convergence of your interests?
The very specific thing that made me want to become a music journalist was Cameron Crowe’s film “Almost Famous.” I saw it when I was … 13? 14? And I thought, huh, that’s a thing. If I can’t make it as a musician — which let’s face it, very few people do — I can write about music. That’s the cliché, saying, right? That those who can’t do, write (or criticize, or teach)? Thing is, I had wanted to be a writer long before I wanted to be a musician. In any case, the film at least gave me the idea to pursue journalism at college. When I got to Keene State I actually tried to go the muckraking, political, investigative route; that lasted until my first Equinox (the college paper) staff meeting when I naturally gravitated toward the arts and entertainment section. I’ve somehow managed to keep stumbling down the arts journalism path ever since. Every professional newspaper or freelance writing job I’ve had has been arts or music related, somehow. And you’re right: An inordinate amount of my professional life, I would say, has been spent specifically as a music journalist.
Do you find it necessary to be a musician to be a good music journalist? How important is the knowledge of the technical side of music in your job?
This is a question I constantly torture myself over. Being a musician has its positives and negatives when you’re a music journalist. In some ways it gives me insights that someone without a music background might not have had, and in interview situations it often allows me to relate better to the subject since we’re starting with similar experiences (in some ways). At the very least, similar knowledge. On the other hand, you run the risk of going too technical and completely losing your reader. I once spent half an interview with Bill Kirchen of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen talking about our favorite guitars. It was completely irrelevant to my story. There are also fine lines you have to tread with being on both sides of the music scene, in a sense. Ethics and all that. In “Almost Famous”, at different points the young rock journalist kid and the guitarist in the band he’s covering both refer to each other as “the enemy.” But my whole existence as a journalist is as a completely different person to begin with, pretty much; I do create a persona that I use to talk to these people, because otherwise my social anxiety would make me curl up in a ball and never pick up the phone. When I worked in upstate New York I used a pseudonym to play music, as well, though –it’s not like my identity was a secret.
Yeah, let’s talk a little bit more about your own music for a bit. You’ve had solo musical projects before, but have also been a part of bands such as The Hearing Aides. Do you see any ways that being in a band is similar to working with a team for a publication?
I used to put together a package called Live in the Clubs for the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, NY. This included a story every week, usually on a local musician. I would kind of look at those stories as if they were albums or some other kind of installment in, like, a musical series — maybe songs, or something. I once read Trey Parker
and Matt Stone think like this with their seasons of South Park. Right now at the Bulletin I do a video series called Anatomy of a Song, in which I interview a local musician about their songwriting process and then they play the song in our office acoustically, a la NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts. I joke that we’re in the “second season” now. That has nothing to do with being in a band, but it does relate in my mind to the idea of grouping bodies of work together. Do I have a point? Not really. Being in a band is hard. So is putting out a newspaper every day (or an entertainment section every week). In both, everyone has roles to fulfill. So in that way, they’re similar. I do think what I need to tap into to write a story is pretty much the same stuff I need to tap to write a song, or paint a picture, or draw a sketch. It’s all creativity and it all comes from the same place. On a good day, I have access to it.
It seems like you tap into that creative side quite a bit. I saw in the Bulletin’s reporter bio that you are working on a Sci-Fi novel? What inspired that?
Lord of the Rings times Star Wars with dinosaurs and Nazi space slugs. It’s going to be a graphic novel, I think (at least, that’s what I’m writing a script/outline for — 548 pages and counting!). This is a combination of make-believe stuff my sister and I used to play, and pot-fueled runs to Stewart’s for candy at 3 in the morning in the middle of winter. I would pretend I was on Pluto! Oh, and Nazis. At first I wasn’t even sure this was something worth pursuing, but as I wrote and the story took shape it began to take on themes of racism and fascism. And then Donald Trump happens, and suddenly it feels really important to finish this now rather than later. The story is predicated on two extremely far-fetched ideas. First, a species of human-intelligent dinosaur (Troodon) survived the meteor impact by building a spaceship and colonizing Venus, then over millions of years polluted the sky to the point that the planet became uninhabitable, forcing them to leave and find a new home. Second, there are lots of aliens in the Solar System. Like, everywhere. We just don’t know it yet. And then everyone has to fight the Nazi space slugs.
Ha, I love that! And how, too, you drew from elements of your own life. You know, when I read your pieces, I really get the sense that this is someone invested in music on a very personal level, and I like that. What is something you personally look for in other writers’ coverage of music? What are some publications or writers that you go to? Conversely, what do you HATE seeing in music criticism?
Thank you. I’ve always approached doing this job with the mindset “what would a fan of this band want to read about this band?” So you want what’s going on now — new album, new tour, real basic five w’s stuff. And then what I am super pretentiously going to call the mythology of the band, and every band’s got one. This includes not only trying to ask some new and interesting question, but telling the familiar story as well. I do my best to focus on the music, the songwriting, the processes behind it, the playing. I glaze over when interviews get too name-droppy, or too much about the peripheral personal life questions that the musician doesn’t want to answer in the first place.
When I’m reading about a band I love, I want something that’s honest, which is basically all I want in music, too. I see so many writers who try to get cutesy with the language, or think they’re so funny, or write about themselves. That’s the worst. First-person journalism is unnecessary like 83 percent of the time. You already have a story to tell; if you want to tell yours, make like Justin Bieber and write a memoir no one asked for. I read anything about any band or musician I’m interested in, or any band or musician I’m researching. I’ll pay particular attention if it’s by Michael Azerrad, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Chuck Klosterman (his review of the Lou Reed/Metallica album “Lulu” in 2011 is the finest piece of rock journalism to emerge this decade), Matt Taibbi (not music journalism, sue me), and from beyond the grave, Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs.
Speaking of that, I saw a documentary recently on the heyday of rock music journalism (Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism) and by the end they were sort of lamenting the direction that music coverage is heading. What would you say to that? How do you see the role of the music reporter today?
I was inspired by “Almost Famous,” but I never got to be Cameron Crowe. Rock journalists aren’t allowed that kind of access anymore. Chuck Klosterman talks about, at best, getting two hours with an artist in their dressing room. That’s Spin level. At a daily newspaper in a B-market, I’m getting, at most, an hour on the phone for the really talkative ones (Ventures guitarist Don Wilson wouldn’t stop talking; Alice Cooper wouldn’t have stopped, but he actually had a handler yelling at him to “end it already, you’ve got more of these”).
As for the role of the music reporter today, and any day, really, Frank Zappa says it best: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” I pontificate about pop stars for a living. At the end of the day, sometimes, it’s like, “really?” I had a good almost six-year run at the Gazette and thought, that’s it. It was fun. I never expected to do this again. Obviously there’s more important stuff going on that needs to be reported on, and that’s going to take precedent at a cash-strapped, small-town paper. That said, musicians have far more interesting things to say than politicians or policemen or lawyers. And I guess the goal is, every once in awhile, you get to tell the story of an artist who actually means something. And I’ll bet hundreds of years from now more people are going to know the Beatles than any politician.
You’ve interviewed so many musicians. Any good stories? Who was your favorite to interview?
I asked Brian Wilson what his biggest regret was and he said, “Oh, probably all the drugs I’ve done.” Adam Duritz from the Counting Crows randomly started praising Skype in answer to, “How’s the tour going?”, then halfway through the interview announced, “Look, I’m fucking crazy, I know that.” (He has dissociative disorder.) Andre Rieu yelled at me because the press created his nickname “The Waltz King” many years before I entered high school. Ray Manzarek asked me, “What the fuck kind of question is that?” when I asked him about how his musical relationship with Robby Krieger has evolved from The Doors to the present day.
On the more pleasant side, Everlast told me I gave him the best interview he ever had, including Rolling Stone. I’m pretty sure Grant Hart from Husker Du almost kissed me after a show, then left a voicemail on my phone a month later personally thanking me for the article (that never, ever, ever happens).
I interviewed Greg Ginn from Black Flag once, went to the show and proceeded to watch things fall apart in glorious fashion (never use tape-recorded bass synced to a projector screen at a live rock show, kids). Later on I saw him with the reformed “Black Flag” and had an awesome time for about 20 minutes, and then spent the rest of the set wondering if anyone else noticed how awful the drummer was. I almost called the drummer in my band and asked him to come play, that’s how bad this guy was. Pretenders founding drummer Martin Chambers was super awesome. Chrissy Hynde, not so much. Black Francis/Frank Black answered the phone by saying, “Charles Thompson here,” thus clearing that one up; he refused to talk about the Pixies other than saying, “They will not be appearing at this show.” Fair enough, but that’s the only reason most people reading this will care. I have lots of funny stories about hanging out with bands no one has heard of. Oh, I once watched Sean Rowe make a breakfast sandwich in his kitchen at 3 p.m. It looked super awesome. I was the only person watching him perform at a bar in Saratoga Springs the night Michael Jackson died. He played in Bend this year and sort of remembered me (I forgot to remind him who I was during the phone interview and just awkwardly acted like he should totally remember me, though it’s not like we talked or hung out beyond a handful of interviews and random show sightings and stuff).
Okay, finally, what have you been listening to lately?
As I write this, right now, this minute, I am currently listening to The Thermals. I rediscovered them (or just discovered, I guess) when I moved to Oregon, and got to interview Hutch Harris this year. I listen to a lot of classical music because the speakers in my car are busted and the classical station is the only thing that comes through. The new Metallica album is surprisingly good while still being bad in that distinctly Metallica way. Green Day’s new album is great, period. I wrote a thing about YG when he came to town and ended up getting really into “Twist My Fingaz.” I haven’t heard the new Lady Gaga yet but I’m looking forward to it. I’m trying to get into the new Jimmy Eat World and it’s just not doing it for me. Band of Horses’ new album was great; I saw them this year and it was also great. Dinosaur Jr.’s new one, also great. The new Red Fang was awesome. There’s this group Gone is Gone with dudes from Mastodon, Queens of the Stone Age and … some other band, I think? Okilly Dokilly! And Coltrane, Monk, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis.