Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Interview with author Richie Unterberger

The next best thing to rock 'n' roll is reading about rock 'n' roll. There's a whole feast of music books out there with more and more big names lining up to release autobiographies. One of the finest music books I've read recently is Richie Unterberger's Wont Get Fooled Again. An insightful, thoroughly researched account of a fascinating period of The Who's history. There are not many writers who could have done such a sterling job. Based in San Francisco, Unterberger has been at the coalface of music journalism for over 25 years, having contributed to publications such as Ugly Things, Mojo, Record Collector and Pulse among others as well as penning books on The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds along with two books celebrating lesser known artists (Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll, and its sequel, Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock). On top of this he's also written many liner notes and is a much  respected travel writer.

I recently contacted Richie to see if he'd be willing to answer some questions for my humble blog. Good guy that he is, he said yes.

Click over the jump to read for the interview.

(HD)  What first sparked your interest in music and how did you come to start writing about it?

(RU)  I've been interested in music since I started listening to the radio at the age of five in 1967. I might have seen A Hard Day's Night and heard "Yellow Submarine" before that, but the AM radio was my first sustained exposure to pop music. Like a lot of people, I first developed a serious interest in rock through the Beatles, whose "Hey Jude"/"Revolution" single was the first record I bought. From there, my interest widened to a lot of things, though the Beatles remain my favourite group and the 1960s my favourite era of rock.

I first started writing about music in 1983 for a small magazine about independent music of all kinds, Op. This was at the suggestion of someone who worked at my college radio station, where (again like many writers) I gained a lot of experience as a programmer, and a lot of familiarity with a wide range of music from the station's library. A couple of years later, I edited a magazine started by people who'd been affiliated with Op, Option, that also concentrated on independent music. In the 1990s, my main outlet for record reviews came to be the All Music Guide, and I moved into writing books with my first one, Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll, in 1998.

Your books draw heavily on first hand interviews. Who have been your most inspiring and interesting interviewees?

That's hard to answer since I've done so many (somewhere between 500-1000, I think) for so many different kind of projects. Some of my favorite interviewees, for both their stories and colorful personalities, would include:

Dorothy Moskowitz of the United States of America (I interviewed her first 15 years ago for my first book, and then again last month for a big USA article that will hopefully appear in a new British magazine soon);

Arthur Brown (whom I interviewed at his home in Lewes, and whose mild manner is quite a contrast to his flamboyant stage image);

Billy Harrison (lead guitarist of Them, whom I interviewed in his native Belfast for two sessions totaling four-and-a-half hours, for a 30,000-word article in the Ugly Things magazine);

Glenn Ross Campbell (not the superstar Glen Campbell; the steel guitarist in the overlooked psychedelic band the Misunderstood);

Roger McGuinn (because I consider him the most important figure in folk-rock, and a lengthy interview was key for my two-part history of 1960s folk-rock, Turn! Turn! Turn!/Eight Miles High);

Norman Dolph (an unofficial co-producer of sorts for the first Velvet Underground album, who hasn't often been interviewed);

Geoff Emerick (Beatles recording engineer, for a Record Collector article; the closest I've come to the Beatles' inner circle, though I did also interview Mike McCartney a couple of months ago);

Phil May (the Pretty Things' singer);

Shel Talmy (producer of the Kinks, the Who, and many others; the first major interview with a historical figure that I did);

Giorgio Gomelsky (marathon two-session interview of original Yardbirds manager/producer and manager/producer to many other notable figures in UK rock);

Sean Bonniwell (Music Machine leader; interviewed him twice, about 15 years ago for my first book, then last month just two weeks before his death).

Does it ever seem daunting interviewing big name artists? And how do you go about getting the best out of interviews/interviewees?

The only daunting aspects of interviewing big name artists are getting through their wall of publicity to set up the interview, and during the interviews themselves, trying to put in enough offbeat questions that they don't get bored or tell the same stories they've told in dozens of interviews. I don't think it's good to be worshipful of big artists, even if they're among your favorites, because that compromises objectivity, and the interviewees probably won't be impressed. It's not good to be overtly nervous either, because they'll probably sense that and not open up as much. Having said all that, I should say I haven't interviewed many big name artists, as I've focused on more cult/overlooked ones.

Getting the best out of interviews/interviewees is, in my view, not as flashy a process as some people might expect or hope. I think it's key to be well prepared and quickly make obvious that you know a lot about their music, and to ask them questions that they haven't often or ever been asked. It's also courteous not to bombard them with queries like they're a database, but also ask basic questions about how they're doing and what they're up to now, so they realize you know you're dealing with a human being.

What's the average time scale between a book's inception and its publication? Do you find writing a pleasure or do you ever feel bogged down by it? If so how do you go about combating that?

It's hard to answer what the average time is between a book's inception and its publication, since it varies so much according to numerous factors: length of the book, difficulty of subject matter, amount of research involved, publisher's timetable/schedule, and others. It's usually been a year or two for most of my books. A couple of them were completed nearly a year before they were published, since I handed in the manuscript early and/or the publisher didn't want to put the book out until a certain time in their production schedule. Keep in mind that I've never been able to work full-time exclusively on one book project. I've always had to combine book work with other free-lance writing to support myself, which makes it difficult to estimate how much time the writing and research alone take.

I like writing, and fortunately I haven't had a problem writing at quick rate. My favorite part of a book is actually doing interviews, and I also like doing research into little-known source materials, though that can be tedious until you discover stuff that's useful. The chief thing that's frustrating about the kinds of books I do is that it can often take a long time, and a lot of back-and-forth grind, to arrange interviews or convince people and/or their representatives to give interviews. That takes up a lot more time and effort than people outside of the process realize. Transcribing the interviews is also a lot of grunt work, but it's necessary, and fortunately I can type very fast.

Your book Unknown Legends Of Rock And Roll came out in 1998, it profiles artists who never received the recognition they deserved. Since its publication Wanda Jackson has had her career revived due to the patronage of Jack White. What did you think of her recent album on Third Man Records?

To be honest, I haven't heard the record, so I can't comment on it. I do want to note that although the patronage of Jack White helped, her level of recognition has generally been on an upsurge for at least twenty years or so. I kind of see White's interest in her as more a symptom of her career revival than the cause.

It seems to me that rock's past vastly outweighs its present and future. Do you think there'll ever be an artist or band that will ever attain the stature and popularity of say the Beatles, The Who or The Stones?

That's another hard question to answer. From our twenty-first-century vantage point, it does seem unlikely, since there are so many more bands competing for attention than there were 40-50 years ago; there are so many more distractions for people seeking entertainment besides pop music, whether cable TV, video games, or the Internet; and so much ground was broken by those bands that it's harder to be startlingly innovative.

That said, it should be kept in mind that the emergence of all great acts in rock music, and indeed the emergence of rock music itself (and numerous other phenomena in popular culture), has always been impossible to predict and seemed to have happened in times and places where they were least expected. No one really saw Elvis Presley and the rock'n'roll explosion coming; no one really saw the Beatles and the British Invasion coming; etc. So it could happen, and my only prediction is that it will be impossible to predict.

Do you see any parallels between effects of the internet on today's music scene and the DIY/fanzine culture of the punk years?

Yes, and there are advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage is that the advent of the Internet has made it much easier for people to write and/or distribute material that can be read or consumed by a huge audience - probably billions throughout the world. That also makes it much easier for people, especially young ones, to gain experience and a potential audience.

The obvious disadvantage is that there are so many people doing their own thing on the Internet is that it's very hard to get attention, regardless of the level of quality. Also, this might seem old-fashioned, but I do think that the physical product of a fanzine, or record (as opposed to sound file), was/is more satisfying to hold, read, and look at than a blog, download, or even a very well-constructed site. And even many DIY fanzines had/have, because of the demands of physical production, higher standards of writing, editing, and graphics than many blogs or sites, where people often throw up content without much thought or refinement.

A lot of the 60's artists that you've written extensively about seem to genuinely care about the world, spirituality, and humanity in general, (specifically Pete Townshend, Donovan, The Beatles), and are/have been spectacularly articulate and open about it. Maybe I'm missing something but it seems to me there are no modern day equivalents. What's your take on that?

To be honest, I'm not up enough on a wide range of current artists with that kind of stature to be sure whether any of them have similar spiritual concerns or levels of articulation about same. My guess is that there are some, because this sort of way of thinking has actually become more common in the last forty or so years. But at the same time, it doesn't get as much publicity when celebrities have such views, precisely because it's not nearly as novel. Not many young Western people knew much or anything about Indian culture or religion, for instance, when Townshend and George Harrison started discussing aspects of it at length and reflecting it in their music. The level of knowledge of such things still isn't huge in the West in general, but it's much higher than it was, due both to the attention such figures gave it in the '60s and '70s, and the greater overall accessibility of information in our age.

One thing I like about your writing is its actually about the artist and their music as opposed to some music writers who seem to use their writing as self-promotion for themselves and their sense of humour. Who are your favourite writers, music and otherwise?

Thanks. Some of my favorite music writers, all of whom specialize in rock history, are John Einarson, Peter Doggett, and Johnny Rogan. They've all done numerous books, but some of the best rock historians specialize in liner notes or magazine articles, like Mike Stax (editor/publisher of Ugly Things), Alec Palao, and David Wells. Some of the rock writers of previous generations who got me interested in reading and writing about the music are Lenny Kaye, Charlie Gillett, and Nicholas Schaffner. Some of my favorite non-music writers are Spaulding Gray, Mary Gaitskill, Harvey Pekar (graphic comics/novelist), Nick Hornby, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Aside from the music writing, you're also a respected author of travel books.  Apart from having paid for holidays what drew you to travel writing?  Where have been the most beautiful places you've had the pleasure of visiting? And also the most dangerous?

Well, to disillusion people right away, doing travel books isn't exactly a paid holiday. For the ones I've done, I've received an advance, from which I had to pay expenses. You don't submit bills for hotels, transportation, restaurants, and entertainment and have them covered.

Some of the most beautiful places I've visited have been Sydney, Australia; Barcelona, and the surrounding area; Yosemite park in California; Montreal; Discovery Park in Seattle; Rishikesh, India and Dharamsala, India; Gimmelwald in the Swiss Alps; Portmeirion in North Wales; the Redwood national park in Northern California; Granada in Spain; and Lesvos Island in Greece. Although they're not commonly described as "beautiful," I like big cities, and my favorite of those are London, New York, Paris, and San Francisco, where I live.

I wouldn't say Delhi or Tangiers are exceptionally dangerous, but they were the most hectic and tense places I've visited. The most dangerous places I've been are some of the slums right here in the USA, including neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Memphis, and New Orleans. But here as everywhere, stereotypes aren't accurate. The South Side of Chicago has a reputation as one of the most dangerous areas in the US. I went there and nothing happened; I wasn't even taken special notice of.

An impossible question I know, with ever changing answers, but could you recommend one album, one movie, and one book that you think everyone should experience in their lifetimes?

The movie A Hard Day's Night and the Beatles' album Meet the Beatles  will always be favorites of mine since I came across them at such a young age, and nothing can be as influential. I can't pin down one book to recommend.

What are you currently working on and when can we expect to see it in book stores?

I don't have a book contract at the moment, and haven't had one for a couple of years. I have shopped a few proposals around, but no one's been interested in them yet, and I'll keep developing others to see what happens. 

Heartfelt thanks to Richie for agreeing to the interview.
To read more about Richie and his work go to his official website - www.richieunterberger.com
To purchase his books click here or on any of the book jackets above.