An Interview With Joel McIver

The article was originally written by Rae Amitay.

There’s hardly a music journalist around that hasn’t heard of Joel McIver. He’s published twenty books, written for a variety of magazines, and has documented the careers of bands such as Metallica, Black Sabbath, and Slayer. His 2009 book, Unleashed: The Story of Tool is what first opened my eyes to his writing, and I’ve avidly read his work ever since. Recently, Joel was gracious enough to grant me an interview, and our conversation is documented below.

MetalReview: In your line of work, you’ve been able to meet, interview, and befriend countless rock and metal legends. When was the last time you felt truly starstruck?

Joel McIver: A good question, it’s been a while. That said, there are certain interviewees who are personal heroes and you never really get used to talking to them. James Hetfield is one, Ronnie James Dio was another. It really depends on how you regard these people. I interviewed a member of Van Halen the other day, and it was just another interview to me because I’ve never been a huge VH fan, but a friend of mine who worships the ground they walk on was speechless when I told him about it. It’s true, though, that after a few years and lots of interviews – in my case I’ve done about 800 – the stardust fades a bit. It’s better that way. If you’re interviewing someone and you can’t concentrate because you’re blushing and giggling like a teenager, it’s hardly conducive to good results.

MR: You’ve written biographies on bands spanning the full spectrum of heavy metal, and even a couple of books about rap / R&B artists. Is your music taste as eclectic as your material?

JM: Yes, the books I’ve written reflect my interests. It’s all basically music with energy: while Ice Cube (for example) might not seem to have much in common with Metallica or Slayer, there are more similarities than you might think in the overall approach and delivery. By the way, by ‘R&B’ I think you might be referring to my Erykah Badu biography from 2002: I’ve always regarded her as a soul singer. Modern R&B makes me want to slam my head in the fridge door.

MR: In your 2009 book, ‘The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists’, you placed Dave Mustaine in the number one spot. Did that turn out to be a controversial decision?

JM: Controversy is a strange thing: when people are up in arms about a particular issue, it feels as if the world is going to end and nothing will ever be the same again. Then everyone has forgotten about it a week later. PR people know this and constantly exploit it. Anyway, a lot of internet warriors got upset about my choice of Mustaine at number one, either because they didn’t read or understand my criteria, or because they weren’t guitarists themselves. Guitar playing is something that everyone feels qualified to comment on, even though most people wouldn’t know a pinch harmonic from an EMG 85. What was most interesting to me was that comments from guitar players were almost universally in favour of Mustaine being at the top spot. People who know what it takes to play well and influentially, understand what he has contributed to metal. Watching the discussions unfold was a lot of fun.

MR: What’s your favorite and least favorite aspect of the metal “scene”?

JM: Metal fans are generally welcoming and supportive to each other because they’re looking for security themselves. I like that. The downside of any group of sensitive individuals is that certain members will try to self-aggrandise, especially as most of them are young or young-ish. Apart from that, the musicians are constantly stalked by a crowd of managers, PR monkeys and other industry pondlife who are looking to make a quick buck. That’s no different from any other creative business, but it’s still depressing.

MR: Who are some of the musicians or bands that first pulled you into the heavy metal genre?

JM: I can tell you exactly. When I was 17 a friend played me Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and I was immediately hooked. I was already obsessed with pop music in the form of 1980s synth-pop and all the New Romantic crap, but once I heard Metallica, that was it for me. Then I got into Slayer and it was a done deal with no turning back.

MR: Who are some of your favorite writers, and are there any writers in particular that inspired you to enter your profession?

JM: It’s easy to lose the essential spark in your writing if you do it for a long time, simply because you start recycling your favourite phrases. I’m as guilty of that as anybody, but I try to keep an eye on it. There are a lot of journalists who constantly amaze me because they keep coming up with new and interesting ways to express their ideas, and those are the writers whose work I enjoy most. At Metal Hammer, the magazine where I write most of my metal stuff, I always enjoy reading features by Mick Wall and Dom Lawson because they put so much passion into their writing. There’s a writer at Total Guitar called Henry Yates who always makes me laugh with his equipment reviews. Ian Glasper at Terrorizer, Dave Ling at Classic Rock, the Record Collector staff… they’re all inspiring. The award-winning novelist Naomi Alderman is a fantastic writer, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my cousin. There are loads of others who blow my mind on a regular basis. I used to work with a guy called Jack Kane, who committed suicide in 2005, which was an enormous tragedy. His writing had me in stitches, but sadly he never got to do much of it.

As for who inspired me to enter the profession, the late Tom Hibbert of Q magazine was a big influence, partly because he took the piss out of his interviewees with a tenacity that I would never dare approach, but also because his writing was so snappy and fresh. His words flew off the page.

MR: Which one of your books required the most grueling and intense writing process?

JM: The Black Sabbath biography which came out in 2005, largely because it was such a monster (175,000 words) and also because I left it a bit late, like a tool. I had to rush to meet the deadline, which was unpleasant. It turned out really well, though: in terms of scope, that book is the most ambitious I’ve attempted. Otherwise writing books is not really that tough, assuming you’re interested in the subject, which I always am: what I find most difficult is finding the time to get them done, given that I also write for a bunch of magazines and like to spend time with my family.

MR: What words of advice would you impart to aspiring music journalists and authors?

JM: I get asked this a lot and have set up a page at for anyone who wants to get into this crazy business, but basically if you want to be a writer you have to be good at taking rejection, capable of taking criticism and a fundamentally decent person. If you can’t be decent, at least make an effort to be nice. I know a few talented writers whose careers foundered because they were rude to people, and conversely there are tons of average hacks who make a living because they’re generally easy to get on with.

MR: What are you working on now? On your website, you said that next year you’ll be writing the official book of a “particularly amazing death metal band that everyone has heard of.” Can you give us any more hints?

JM: Not yet! Apart from that I’m co-writing the autobiographies of three very well-known metal musicians, updating my Slipknot book from 2001 and also assembling the memoir of a certain punk legend, which is a new direction for me. It’s all good fun. There’s actually too much work to do, but that’s what you want when you’re self-employed.

MR: On top of everything else, you’re also a bass player. If you could choose one band from the past or present to gig with, who would it be?

JM: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cliff-era Metallica, Tool and Parliament-Funkadelic, although I’m one-tenth as talented as any of their bass players. I’d probably be better off playing with The Cult in about 1986, when most of their songs were D, C, G and repeat.

MR: You currently work solely in non-fiction. Do you think you’ll ever try to write a work of fiction? What about non-fiction in a non-musical realm?

JM: Yes, I’ll do a sci-fi novel sometime, it’s pretty much required when you’re a heavy metal nerd. There’s no hurry, though – there are thousands of writers doing that stuff way better than me.

Posted by Old Guard

The retired elite of LastRites/MetalReview.

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