Craig Hayes offers an excellent primer to the good and ugly of rock journalism. His writings are superb, fluid and most importantly honest. None of that watered-down nonsense.
Let me first ask you, how did you get into music journalism?
Well, I’ve been scribbling things down my entire life, but a couple of years back I was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition which led me to eventually having one of those ‘life’s too short’ epiphanies, and I committed to writing full time. I was already writing for NZ magazines, and had a part-time music editor role, but like a gazillion other metal writers I really wanted to write for Decibel, Terrorizer and kin. I thought long and hard about if or how that could happen, realised the chances were minuscule, and just decided to plough on writing about metal regardless.
I decided to start a blog (sixnoises.com), and then contacted Hellbound about the possibility of contributing. Hellbound welcomed me aboard, that in turn gave me the confidence to approach Popmatters when I saw they were looking for writers. After writing a small piece on NZ metal for Heavymetal.about.com I began to contribute reviews there too.
Earlier his year I began writing a column for Popmatters (Ragnarök) and my workload increased drastically. I had to drop my magazine work here in NZ, which was tough decision, but I feel really lucky about how things have been developing.
Why did you get into music journalism?
I’ll be honest here. I write about music because for the last decade it’s been an essential outlet in maintaining my equilibrium in life. For many years I tussled with addiction and mental health issues, and it all ended up getting a bit Trainspotting/Leaving Las Vegas. Music played a huge role in piecing my life back together and I couldn’t overstate its importance to me, so in many ways writing about music seems predestined.
Linked to that is my belief in the transformative possibilities inherent in music. Metal’s filled with an array of mind-bending/expanding outfits, and whether that artistry is delivered in a bombastic, blackened, brutal or beautiful package, its ability to identify meaning in life is colossal—I’m just writing to reiterate that fact.
I guess there’s also an element of obstinacy in my work because I’m dyslexic, and I got very tired of people telling me that I’d never be able to make it as a writer. Ultimately, I’m a hermit who happens to be a music geek, so there’s really nothing else I’d rather do.
What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?
I think the key attributes to remaining sane as a writer would be to do everything I don’t. Get organised, eat healthy, exercise, and don’t spend hours watching Iron Maiden footage and shark documentaries on YouTube when you have work due.
You are based in New Zealand (Wellington), what can you tell us about the metal scene over there that we don’t already know about?
We have a fairly extensive scene down here with a raft of fantastic bands (and some dire ones too). We’re geographically isolated, but that hasn’t hindered the resolve of NZ metal musicians. I think most NZ metal bands are realistic about the vagaries of the music industry and just get on doing what they do best. A DIY spirit underscores a lot of NZ metal, fans are really supportive of local acts, and I think it has its own flavour. I’d say NZ metal is grounded yet tenacious—which I think also defines the NZ music scene as a whole.
The scene is really thriving. You have bands like Ulcerate, Diocletian, Witchrist and Beastwars doing well internationally, and aside from those guys, if you want a taster, then check out: Razorwyre, Arc of Ascent, Old Loaves, Meth Drinker, Stone Angels, Vassafor, Creeping, Winter Deluge, Exordium Mors, Cobra Khan, Keretta, House of Capricorn and The Mark of Man.
I’m pretty promiscuous when it comes to music, especially the experimental, eccentric and ear-splitting stuff, so I think my tolerance for weirdness is fairly skewed—I don’t know if I could pin it down to a single album. Certainly, as a teenager, hearing Hellhammer, Bathory, Slayer and ilk for the first time made me raise a brow, and encountering Disembowelment really shook my expectations of how ‘heavy’ metal could be.
But in the contemporary realm Oranssi Pazuzu definitely fulfil my brow-raising requirements, as do Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord. Justin Broadrick and Aaron Turner’s various side projects are always fascinating too. I think my go-to idiosyncratic metal bands would include Locrain, Bosse-De-Nage, Sutekh Hexen, Sunn O))), Circle of Ouroborus and Botantist—those guys all offer genuinely unconventional metal—as well as any band that resides in that noise/ambient/metal nexus.
Is it true that you briefly endeavoured to be a Rockstar?
That is entirely true. My attempt at rock ‘n’ roll glory lasted for around 30 minutes sometime in 1992. I can confidently report it was a staggeringly awful experience for all concerned, apart from one guy who’d spent the night huffing solvents to the point of psychosis—he seemed to enjoy himself.
Now that “Rockstardom” is over – how do you spend your free time?
Like I said, I really am a bit of a hermit. I just hang out with my family and friends. I have a seven-and-a-half-year-old son, so we do all the usual dad/son stuff like kicking a ball round, going on adventures, loading up on candy, and arguing about why he can’t play with my Star Wars Lego. My partner is really into bikes so we go on bicycling jaunts about the place, and we live about one minute from the beach and an outstanding rugged coastline so we make the most of that. We don’t watch television, so movie/DVD nights are a big thing in our house, and personally I’m happiest just trawling second-hand record and bookstores, and catching a gig every now and then.
Having worked in print media as an editor – what is your take on music webzines versus printed music magazines?
I’m a complete anarchist when it comes to any artistic endeavour, so I love the unbridled passion of webzines. I think everyone’s opinion on music has validity, and I love the wild variances of quality and content you get with webzines. I do think people need to have realistic expectations about what they’re doing with a webzine. I’m not privileging studied criticism over passion, but there’s a difference between the two, and having an editorial buffer between writers and readers would really help on some webzines—but then, many others do just fine without it.
There’s no doubt the rise of webzines has contributed to many print magazines folding, and that’s a tragedy because along with that go hopes and livelihoods. Adaptation and survival is a cruel process, and I know from experience how tentative some magazines’ existences are. I hope the print industry finds some steady footing, because I love the tactile world of magazines, and that can never be replaced by online content or reading off electronic devices. I’d really hate to see the day when I couldn’t flip open a copy of Decibel or the Wire. Magazines continue to be a huge part of my life.
If it wasn’t for webzines I would never have discovered the bulk of the writers I love to read, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because I wouldn’t have read your work, and you wouldn’t have read mine. I don’t think I have a concise answer for that issue really, aside from the fact that I really enjoy both, and I think they occupy very different and important roles.
At Victoria University (New Zealand), one of your majors had been philosophy. What are your philosophies of heavy metal?
That is a big question, and metal and philosophy make for great bedfellows, because both offer conflicting theories about the answers to life.
Metal is so incredibly broad that it’s an endlessly fascinating philosophical mind-fuck (I’m pretty sure that’s the correct academic term for it). You can look at metal through the eye of any number of critical theorists, and you can try and gauge its accent using countless theories, and you’ll find entirely different and often contradictory answers about what metal ‘is’ every time. You can think you’ve got it pinned down one day, then take another peek—questioning its aesthetics, moral relativism or culture—and find all your answers negated again.
I appreciate metal for its purely visceral aspects, but I’m also fascinated about the philosophical basis of an artist’s works. Obviously, metal is more than anger, bile, devilry and buckets of gore, even if those happen to be some of its best aspects, but I guess the closest I could get to my own philosophy of metal could be crudely captured using two sets of metal lyrics.
The first is the initial question that metal has always sought to answer in its broadest terms: “What is this that stands before me?” The second defines metal’s temperament: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
I think metal seeks to answer big question, while carrying an even bigger chip on its shoulder—and that’s why I love it.
Do you have any albums picked out for the ‘must-have’ of 2012?
I always hum and haw about ‘must-haves’ and ‘best-of’ lists because it’s all so dependent on time and place. However, going by my headspace today, I would heartily recommend:
· Samothrace— Reverence to Stone
· Horseback—Half Blood
· Dawnbringer—Into the Lair of the Sun God
· Sutekh Hexen—Larvae
· Arc of Ascent—The Higher Key
· Tragedy—Darker Days Ahead
· Locrian & Mamiffer—Bless Them that Curse You
· Mares of Thrace—The Pilgrimage
· Witch Mountain—Cauldron of the Wild
· Vatnett Viskar—EP
· Astra—The Black Chord
· Ancestors—In Dreams and Time
· Ufomammut— Oro: Opus Primum.
I could go on and on… the new Rush, Ahab, Father Befouled, and Wrathprayer albums are great. Titan’s Burn is HUGE, and those Adversarial/Antediluvian and Alaric/Atriarch splits were amazing.
I think if you buy all those, and every other 2012 release from Profound Lore, Gilead Media, Dark Descent, Handmade Birds, Southern Lord and Nuclear War Now! you’ll be making a good dent into 2012’s must-haves. Oh, and Christian Mistress and Royal Thunder too. And… sorry.
You are a Krautrock fan – is that a reflection of your eclectic music taste?
I think so. I like a really broad range of music, and I’m open to exploring most musical avenues—aside from vacuous, mass-marketed soulless pulp. I really enjoy the contextual aspect of music; seeing how it’s developed and mutated into various strains. Krautrock was huge discovery for me, and it opened up a whole new world of fringe-dwelling artists; I love that proto-electronica, experimental, and progressive and psychedelic rock world.
Krautrock is the perfect conduit into that realm, and if you’re shy and a bit awkward like I am, then that insular and nerdy niche-within-a-niche vibe is the perfect place to hide away. I just love that feeling of stumbling upon under-appreciated or forgotten treasures. It’s the same with metal: the more underground and obscure the better. I guess I’m looking for music that’s a geeky as I feel.
Most writers eventually move into novels and biographies, do you have any plans to go in this direction?
I sure do. I have two books in various stages that I’ve put aside, and one other idea that I’m going pitch to a publisher here in NZ, just as soon as I can pluck up the courage.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming music journalists and are there any misconceptions of writers that you would like to dispel?
The most important lesson I have learnt in all my time writing is that it’s vital you remember you’re writing for an audience. Folks are busy, and time and attention spans are fleeting, so the key is to find that balance between satisfying your own creative instinct and providing an accessible piece for the reader. If you can say something in 250 words rather than 500, do it. You want to keep your readers engaged, keep it sharp and punchy—which is probably something I should have kept in mind for this interview.
You should never write solely for money or egocentric reasons, because there’s little money in the writing game anyway, and conceitedness is an insult to your readers’ intelligence. Write because you want to find that perfect way to express how music makes you feel in the marrow of your bones.
I’ve written umpteen thousands of words, and I’m still not sure if I’ve found my voice or if my work has any personality. Writing is a continually evolving process, and ultimately the key is just to keep grafting and grafting, and to never give up. If people tell you you’re wasting your time because one piece of work happens to be less than perfect, keep in mind they are completely and utterly wrong. The sharing of different perspectives and voices is what writing, and life, is all about.
Alternatively, feel free to ignore my advice and do whatever you want—it’s probably best not to take advice from someone who failed all his English exams at high school anyway.
As far as misconceptions about music journalists go, they’re probably all warranted in some sense. We’re a wildly diverse bunch, which is perfect, because music causes wildly diverse reactions. I hope we all have a touch of the tortured artist lurking within, as that’s what turns the dull and descriptive into something altogether more lyrical.
At the end of the day, I think the most crucial piece of advice I would pass on to writers is that you if you work from home, try your utmost to get dressed before lunchtime. Because if you don’t, you’ll inevitably find yourself at the corner store buying cigarettes in your pyjamas at 3pm—and trust me, there’s really no way you can escape that scene with your dignity intact.
Are there any last words that you would like to add?
Thank you so much for asking me to have a chat, Lav. It’s such an honour to appear on your blog, and congratulations on all the success you’re having with your writing. I want to send out my everlasting thanks to Hellbound, Heavymetal.about.com and Popmatters for allowing me to pollute their pages, and cheers to the writers and readers who’ve sent an encouraging word my way. I really can’t underscore enough how much that means to me.
My family and friends have been ceaselessly encouraging, enormously helpful and have put up with all my idiosyncrasies while I type away. So I’d like to send out a mighty hail to them all. And an extra special mention has to go to my partner El, who has been unwavering in her support (although, she has made some extremely disparaging remarks about Bruce Dickinson’s stage attire).
Craig Hayes (Haze) can be found scribbling at: www.popmatters.com/ www.hellbound.ca/ heavymetal.about.com/ sixnoises.com/ and on Twitter