Thursday, August 11, 2005

33 1/3: a conversation with michaelangelo matos

Like my interview with Joe Pernice, the conversation with Michaelangelo Matos came about in preparation for the 33 1/3 series feature. As such, it also is more concerned with process than content.
Matos' Sign O’ The Times book jacket bio reads, "Michaelangelo Matos is Music Editor at Seattle Weekly."
Readers should refrain, at least for another month, from sending Mr. Matos fan mail as Bumbershoot is once again right around the corner.
MM and I talked by phone on Monday, June 6, 2005.

Q: So how did it happen that you wrote a 33 1/3 book on Sign O’ The Times?

A: At the beginning of 2002, three years ago, I was in New York freelancing and I had come across Douglas Wolk, who also contributed to the series. He has a website and I was looking at it one day and it said something about a book he was writing. He had mentioned that he was writing a short book on James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, so I e-mailed him and asked.
About two or three months earlier I had done an e-mail interview with Yuval Taylor for a piece that never ran. He used to be at DeCapo. He’s the editor at Chicago Review Press/A Cappella now. And he told me that they were publishing four books from England about classic albums. The albums were Led Zeppelin IV, Pet Sounds, either Are You Experienced? or Electric Ladyland, and The White Album. Just basically canonical stuff, so I figured Douglas might be doing it for that series. So I e-mailed him to ask, Are you doing your book for Yuval Taylor? And he said, No, I’m doing it for David Barker at Continuum. It’s part of a series. And he basically kind of filled me in on that and I was pretty intrigued.
When Yuval Taylor had told me that, I wasn’t thinking about it in any particular way. It sounded like a cut and dried licensing deal and I didn’t even think about wanting to do one. It didn’t occur to me. But when Douglas told me they were doing that, I was kind of intrigued. You know, when you’re a freelancer you kind of hustle all the time and I was sort of thinking, I mean, gosh, I wonder if I could do one?
What happened is I got David Barker’s info from Douglas. He very generously gave me his e-mail and so I just wrote a really quick, kind of two-paragraph e-mail saying, I’ve heard about your series. I know a couple of people who are doing them. Because at that point I’d found out that Elizabeth Vincentelli was also doing one.

Q: Was she working on Blondie or was she working on Abba by then?

A: I didn’t know which. I just knew she was doing one. Douglas probably mentioned that she was doing one. I think I may’ve Googled it too and found out. Basically I knew that Elizabeth was involved and I knew that Douglas was involved. And I didn’t even think I’d have a chance. I just wanted to ask.
So I e-mailed Barker and I figured I wouldn’t hear back from him. I didn’t expect to hear back from him. I basically said, I’ve got a couple of ideas. If you’re interested, let me know. Which is kind of a vague thing to do and I should’ve been a lot more specific. It’s not the kind of thing I could get away with now.

Q: You were surprised that it worked.

A: I was surprised that it worked, but I also know that it wouldn’t work the same way now. If I were to just e-mail Barker out of the blue, not knowing the guy already, and said, Can I write one of these books for you? and not been very specific, then I wouldn’t get a book.

Q: He says he’s getting three to four pitches a day now.

A: Yeah, he told me 20 a week at one point, and I believe it. It’s the dream job every rock critic wants. Everybody who writes about music wants to do one of these. So I got lucky because I saw that on the Web really early.
But I e-mailed Barker, and, you know, you send out pitches when you’re a freelancer to new people that you don’t know and you don’t expect to hear back if you’ve been doing it for a while, and I was extremely surprised when he responded the next day. He actually responded in the morning. I think I sent the e-mail at about 2:30 in the morning and I woke up about 11 the next day and he’d sent me one.

Q: He’s a very prompt correspondent.

A: Yes, he is. Well, it turns out, as he put it in the e-mail, he and his girlfriend had been reading my blog and wondering what they might have me write about. So he’d already kind of had me earmarked in his mind to do one, or at least that’s the way he made it seem.
My favorite album of all-time is There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and there’s no way that I could write about that album because there’s nothing I could say about it that hasn’t already been said in Mystery Train. I mean, somebody needs to do a book on There’s A Riot Goin’ On, but I don’t know if anybody’s going to do anything better than what Greil (Marcus) wrote. So it was just too tall an order.
He said, What do you have in mind? And I said, Well, there are three records, and one of them is There’s A Riot Goin’ On and there’s no way I could write that, and the other two were Sign O’ The Times, which I had a pretty deep, personal attachment to, and I figured I could do that or I could do Paul’s Boutique. And I figured I could’ve done Paul’s Boutique pretty easily because it wouldn’t have been that hard. There’s one really excellent website that’s been around for about eight years or so now that is devoted entirely to the album, like explicating all of its sources and all of its samples and all of its references. And I figured I could just start from there and just kind of like riff on the album. I just figured it would be easier. I figured it would be an easier thing to do because I didn’t have anything personally invested in it.

Q: So who makes the choice?

A: David makes the choice.

Q: So David says, Sign O’ The Times.

A: Well, what happened is I told him those and it turned out that somebody else had already signed up for and abandoned Sign O’ The Times. I don’t even remember who was going to do it, but he told me somebody had the idea. Somebody was about to do it and had just let it go. So it turned out that he already wanted a book on that record. Also, the fact that I’m from Minneapolis, that Prince is certainly the single artist I’ve thought about the most, and so it just worked out that way.
And then he asked me to turn the book in. He gave me three deadlines – April 1st, July 1st and November 1st.

Q: When was the initial conversation?

A: This is February.

Q: And you’re going to write the book by April 1st?

A: No, I didn’t. I thought about doing it that fast, but I decided what I would do instead, because I was freelancing a lot, was to just do a whole shitload of work on other things. Just do a lot of freelancing and then set aside about a month and a half or two months. Basically I was going to set May and June aside entirely to write the book.

Q: You were going to make as much money as you could freelancing, and then live off that for a month and a half.

A: Pretty much. And I had moved, so by May that wasn’t going to work. I was just going to write it in June, which is fine, because the book is 25,000 words. My book is 28,000 but the word count was 25,000, which is more like a very long essay rather than a real book. And I write fairly fast so I didn’t think I would have that much of a problem turning it in in a month. And as it turns out I didn’t.
But what happened was I got the job at the (Seattle) Weekly in May. I came out here in April, talked to them, and then a month later they offered me the job. And I took it. And I took it fairly quickly, so I had to come out in June and I e-mailed David and I said, Can I extend my deadline to November? And he was like, Um, no. You can extend it to the middle of September but that’s the absolute latest you can turn it in because everybody else is really behind. I think a few other people fell behind.

Q: Your release group were procrastinators. Not that you didn’t have good reason.

A: Well, I mean, I think it was just job stuff in most cases. And I know for a fact, for example, the Loveless book was supposed to be written by David Keenan who writes for The Wire in England. And I don’t know the full story but apparently, not unlike the album itself, it got delayed and delayed and delayed and delayed, and finally Barker gave the book to Mike McGonigal who’s a friend of mine who’s written for me here in Portland. Mike was living in Seattle at the time. He wrote a couple of cover stories for me before he moved down there.
But yeah, I mean, there’s all kind of logistical stuff there that I couldn’t even comprehend. I know how difficult it is to get copy out of freelancers even if you’re just talking about a 250 word record review. I mean, I’ve been spending a lot of today chasing down pieces that are due me. And, you know, when you’re talking about a book, that’s a different thing.
But what ended up happening is I moved out here. I had to overhaul the section. They basically hired me to overhaul the music section, so I did that. I had to do a lot of revamping of the section and the calendar and I kind of got involved in the music awards that we do which I didn’t really know that much about. And they were a lot more involved than had been indicated prior, so that was just extra work. And then we had Bumbershoot, which is Labor Day weekend, and I had to put a Bumbershoot cover together. I basically came in and just got hammered for three straight months.
So I went to Bumbershoot and literally it wasn’t until after Bumbershoot that I would have any time, and Bumbershoot ended, I think, the third of September. So I sat down. Like basically I’d come into the office at like 9 or 10, work until about 4, go out for dinner and what not for a couple of hours, and come back and write the book. And I did that for two weeks.

Q: So this is a fourteen day book.

A: Yes. I came back and I wrote it at night and I wrote it on weekends. You know, like I said, I had fairly strict regimen at that point because I had to get it done. It was ridiculous. I’d come in at 9, work on the section. I think I wrote one thing for the paper in those two weeks because I just basically told my bosses, Look, I have to get this done. All of this stuff got in the way and I had this contract before I got this job. They were very understanding about it and I greatly appreciate it to this day because, you know, they basically were asking me to tighten the budget a little, and I was doing that the best I could but I basically told them for those two weeks, The budget’s going to be high and this is the reason. It’ll go back to normal after that, but I literally can’t write anything.

Q: But writing a book for this series isn’t going to do the paper any damage.

A: Well no, they understood that. They were cool with that. They were absolutely understanding. They did not have any problem with anything. It was just a matter of coming in, overhauling stuff, and there being a couple of major events that I had to produce cover packages for. I had to produce a pull out for the music awards and then we had to cover the music awards and then we had to do a cover package on them, so that’s three weeks of music awards. I mean, it’s not like I’m doing rocket science here, but it’s a little more involved than just sitting there and writing a record review or just covering who’s coming to town. It’s more than that.
I managed to come in during the busy season, and that pushed the book back. And then the only time I had, literally, between the busy season and the drop deadline was two weeks.
So yeah, it was a fourteen day book and when I sent it off I sent it off a chapter at a time. It’s four chapters. I think the first chapter took the longest. It took a week. And I had a bunch of different notes. I had taken notes on the record and what I wanted to say, I just hadn’t put it together yet. Writing about the songs themselves was the easiest part. And the ending was pretty easy. The first chapter took half of it because the first chapter was personal and I was pulling things out of my memory that I hadn’t thought about in years.

33 1/3: a conversation with michaelangelo matos - part two

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