“Adrien Begrand’s writing at PopMatters was what made me give writing a go. His writing about metal was as accessible and informed as any other writing about music I’d seen. What I learned from Begrand was the importance of research. Know your shit before you write about it!”
Instead of writing my own spiel about Adrien Begrand, I have decided to copy and paste the unmerciful and honest words from Invisible Oranges:
Do tell us – how did you get into music journalism?
Ready for a long story?
It’s weird, writing about music was always in my blood, the seed planted when I first discovered how brilliant and hilarious John Lennon’s lyrics to “I Am the Walrus” were on my Mom’s old Magical Mystery Tour LP when I was about nine years old. After I became obsessed with metal in early 1984 at the rather late age of 13, while friends were picking up instruments and starting bands I was having more fun writing essays about W.A.S.P. and the PMRC in English class, reading record reviews in mags like Circus, Metallion, and, yes, Rolling Stone, and basically trying to convince people why they should own this record instead of that. But being an introverted, bullied kid in some absolutely hellish, ostracizing schools, I had zero confidence in the end, and didn’t even consider music journalism a possibility. I was sapped of ambition.
As the years went on I became interested in a much wider range of music outside of the metal realm – the US and UK indie scenes from 1990 to 1997 had an enormous impact on me – and the Internet in the mid-‘90s re-ignited my interest in music criticism and journalism. This might seem goofy, but before I started my own blog in January 2001, what really got me going in the late-‘90s was writing the odd customer review at Amazon.com. People would email me telling me how they saw what I’d written, bought an album, and wound up agreeing, which was awfully nice, so I just kept at it, whether it was emailing friends about stuff, posting on music newsgroups, or eventually my blog. Finally in late 2001 I saw PopMatters was looking for new writers, and I offhandedly applied. I can’t even remember what I said in the email. Miraculously they took me on, and I was having a great time churning out review after review after review, covering all sorts of genres.
Most fun, though, were the metal albums I covered. Back then nearly all indie metal labels didn’t even think of submitting CDs for review, they just assumed the mainstream webzines weren’t at all interested. There was so much great metal music going unnoticed, and in 2004 I finally suggested to my editor that I start approaching labels myself. Because PopMatters likes to cover all facets of popular culture, I immediately got the go-ahead, and starting with Nuclear Blast, Relapse, Prosthetic, Century Media, and Roadrunner, I got them to send me stuff, and my writing focus started to shift from all genres to mostly metal. By 2005 I was talking to lots of other labels and PR people, saying, “Send me anything!” That year we decided at PopMatters that I start a monthly column devoted exclusively to metal, something no widely-read, non-metal webzine was doing at the time (Stylus and Pitchfork would start their own metal columns not long after). I named it Blood & Thunder after the Mastodon song (I’m notoriously lousy with titles), and proceeded to churn out 60-odd 2000+-word columns over the course of six years or so.
That was the big turning point, as Decibel magazine would come a-knocking in late 2005, having seen my PopMatters writing, and I’ve been with them ever since. Metal Edge would ask me to join in 2007, and it was great fun helping rebuild the magazine for a year and a half before it was sadly shut down by its parent company in 2009. With four major magazines folding in just a few months – Metal Edge, Metal Maniacs, Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, Unrestrained! – 2009 was a rough year for metal writers, but a group of us Canadian scribes got together to start Hellbound.ca, and in 2010 Sick Sounds and Terrorizer asked me to contribute. Then last year I was asked to succeed my friend and peer Phil Freeman over at MSN’s Headbang blog, which has been such a blast. So it took a while, and I’m a quintessential late bloomer, but ten years later I can say I have a pretty cool little career going.
You have been writing (professionally) about metal for ten years – what keeps you going?
One harsh lesson I learned pretty darn quickly was that music writers earn peanuts. If you want to make any sort of money doing this you have to really, really keep at it, pitching freelance stories and reviews. Thankfully I don’t have any kids; I have no idea how my peers with kids handle all the work! The interesting thing about working for MSN is that while I’m paid a monthly wage, more than any combination of writing gigs ever got me, the real challenge is writing good content five to eight times per week. It’s really easy to get burned out, but I’ve learned to make a few adjustments, such as working strictly nine to five rather than all hours of the day and night. Forcing myself to stay away from the computer at night has paid off nicely, I’m able to handle the grind a lot better. Living healthily is something that’s easy to forget when you’re doing freelance work.
The bottom line, though, what drives it all is that I’m still as interested in good new music as I was ten years ago, 27 years ago. Sure, now more than ever I have to listen to a lot of mediocre music, but every so often I’ll get a great new CD in the mail or a digital promo in my email, or a new band will bowl me over, and that excitement will be back just as always. If you don’t have any passion for the music, then you have no business writing about it. I’m glad to say that I’m as passionate for metal music now at 41 as I was when I was 13 or 14.
Was there a time when you thought that maybe you should get a ‘real’ job?
Of course. But writing is the only thing I do, it’s the one thing I know I’m decent at, and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.
When you are not contributing to Decibel, Terrorizer, MSN.com and many more – what do you do with your time?
When you’re this busy you don’t really have a life. It’s very insular, and my life pretty much revolves around music. Of course I have other interests, I’m as big a hockey fan as you’ll ever meet, my 20-year obsession with the Beat Generation writers has resulted in quite a massive collection of books and multi-media, I love good films, from the French New Wave to the master Krzyztof Kieslowski. There’s traveling of course. And the little things, like hanging out with my niece, those are the best.
You were one of the lucky few who got to be aboard 70,000 Tons of Metal as well as toured with various bands – what can you tell us about those experiences?
Living in the middle of Western Canada I’m not privy to as many cool metal shows as my buds in Toronto or New York are, so whenever I do get a chance to experience a festival or a big show it’s something I savour. 70,000 Tons was crazy; not only were there 42 bands on a cruise ship (including older bands I love whom I’d never seen like Voivod, Raven, and Saxon), but the fact that it’s so self-contained and so well run by the ship’s crew made it perfectly suited for me. Let’s face it, at 41 I have no desire to sleep in a tent at Wacken for four days. On this cruise, you had a bed just a 60 second walk from any of the venues, there was all the free food and (non-alcoholic) drink you wanted, you’re mingling with bands, most of whom are super-nice, and it was all on a freakin’ boat in the middle of the gorgeous Caribbean Sea.
Back in 2008 Phil Freeman at Metal Edge had a crazy idea. Why not send me on the buses with Paganfest and do an old-school tour report traveling from city to city? So for a week I hit the road with Ensiferum, Turisas, Tyr, and Eluveitie, across Eastern Canada and the Northeast United States. I was a little wary at first, but everyone was so accommodating, especially the guys in Tyr, whom I got along with splendidly. Sure, there were hijinks, like losing a coked-out guitarist in Montreal and then trying to get across the US border with the same coked-out guitarist, but what really hit me hard was the down time. You’re stuck in an awful neighbourhood in a city with nothing to do but wait for the show to start. The shows and afterward are awesome, visiting with fans and hanging out with the bands afterwards (man, do Finns ever drink), but in between there’s a whole lot of nothing. And it gets worse when it’s pouring rain outside, you’re stuck on a crowded bus all day. If there’s one thing I got out of that trip is a deep admiration for those road dogs, especially the merch slingers and the crew, who grind it out on the road during those long tours. It’s just not the life for me…one week was more than enough!
Iron Maiden are British Demi-Gods that you nabbed a sit-down interview with. Are they very private and reserved or have we got the wrong idea about them?
Landing this assignment was the big one for me. After this, it’s all downhill. Iron Maiden remains my favourite band of all time, and to get the chance to sit down and talk individually with four of the six members was mind-boggling. I was in Dallas with about 20 other members of the global metal press, so the guys in the band were fully prepared for the barrage of interviews. They’re total pros, they were there to answer questions, they knew that. But it was fun dealing with the different personalities. Dave Murray is very friendly, always with a smile on his face. Adrian Smith, my favourite songwriter in the band, is more reserved, very laid back and chooses his words carefully (what broke the ice for us was our first meeting: “Adrien, meet Adrian”). Bruce Dickinson was awesome, exactly how you’d think he’d be, extremely witty, you ask him a question and it’ll be ten minutes before you get a chance to ask another. I had so much fun talking to him. Steve Harris was so imposing, he’s very straight-faced, he’s a reserved guy, but after the requisite questions about the new record we got onto more fun topics and turned out to be an absolute pleasure. I didn’t interview Janick, nor Nicko, but saw plenty of them and those two are so gregarious. You know when Nicko’s in a room, you hear him from miles away.
Lars Ulrich once said, “Once in a while the heavy metal community needs a good fucking kick up its arse, because it can get a little predictable.” As a metal music critic, what is your take on that?
Yes. Emphatically yes. Like any metal fan I adore certain bands that refuse to change. It’s like comfort food, that familiarity when you put on a new Motörhead or 3 Inches of Blood album is a wonderful thing. But at the same time, going back to when I was listening to Metallica, Voivod, and Queensrÿche back in the 1980s I’ve always craved new metal music that dares to try new things. Metal’s a very conservative form of music at heart – just look at the backlash Liturgy has gotten over the past couple years just because they’re trying to do something a little different – but I’m a bleeding heart liberal, so much of the time it’s the forward thinkers out there who remind me most often how even more exciting metal can be than just complacently adhering to a formula. Even though Lulu was arguably one of the most misguided experiments since Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake, it’s admirable that Ulrich wanted to try something like that. His heart’s in the right place, but his head clearly isn’t.
I know its borderline April but do you have any albums picked out for the ‘must have’ of the year? (Now it is April)
I’ve already heard dozens upon dozens of albums this year of course, and I always have to keep a running tab of my favourite albums at the moment. If I had to pick ten, they’d be (in alphabetical order):
Alcest, Les Voyages De L’Âme
Christian Mistress, Possession
Dawnbringer, Into the Lair of the Sun God
Horisont, Second Assault
Mares of Thrace, The Pilgrimage
Pallbearer, Sorrow and Extinction
Witch Mountain, Cauldron of the Wild
You are a Goldfrapp fan boy – what can you tell us that we don’t already know about them?
Ha! I am utterly shameless when it comes to Goldfrapp. I can’t help it. Along with Anneke Van Giersbergen Alison Goldfrapp is my favourite singer out there. She and Will Gregory have a great partnership going, and every record they create has its own unique identity. You never know which direction they’re going to head in next.
I’ll readily admit to having a particular weakness these days for women singer-songwriters with a predilection toward the esoteric. Basically if Kate Bush is an influence, my ears will perk up. Or of it’s just Kate Bush (50 Words For Snow is wonderful). I’m awful. Canada’s really starting to churn out a lot of such talent as of late…Austra was one of my 2011 faves, and now this year I can’t stop listening to Grimes and Yamantaka//Sonic Titan.
Because I listen to so much metal music I don’t have nearly as much time to devote to all other genres as I’d like to, but being a Polaris Music Prize juror since 2006 (Canada’s version of the Mercury Prize) I do make every effort to stay current. As much as I love metal, it’s only a fraction of my musical interests. I need that variety, especially when casually listening to shuffled tracks on the iPod. Just now my iTunes went from Firewind to Florence + the Machine. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Notice how I evaded the original question?
Are there any last words that you would like to add?
Only thanks so much for asking to be interviewed! I’ve ben reading your site for the past few months, and it’s great to see such a smart metal writer doing good work promoting the scene in a country a lot of us don’t consider a real metal superpower. Keep it up, Lav!
Thank YOU, Adrien!