Martin Popoff: Living in the Limelight!

By Jeb Wright

Martin Popoff is a Canuck that has written more rock and roll albums reviews than perhaps all of the rest of the rock journalists on planet earth put together.  He has also penned something like 57 rock books.  To say this guy is proficient at his craft is an understatement!

His latest accomplishment is titled Rush: Album by Album.  In this exciting book, Martin, along with a slew of famous rockers, journalists and music insiders, examine and discuss in-depth each Rush album released.  The result is a book every major Rush fan must own.  They will have a hard time putting this one down and rest assured the critic’s comments will incite some amazing rock nerd debate.

Read the interview below to learn more about the book and the famous people making comments within the book.  Order the book here… you will be glad you did!

Jeb:  Congratulations on your third Rush book!  You are now officially an expert!  Silly question, maybe… but why Rush?  Would it be the love for the band?  Or… because Rush books sell?  CANADA????? What is the reason you’ve returned to this band for a third time?

Martin: Well, Jeb, Rush books do actually sell. But the only reason I could possibly go back to do another one was this novel concept, which the publisher already had, because they’d done it already, with a Bob Dylan book. So as you know, the idea was to talk to two knowledgeable Rush fans each about each studio album. And then those people would be used again on a second one, and maybe just a little bit of a top-up here and there, if I was particularly impressed with them, on a third one. Having said that, man, it was crushing leaving stuff out. I probably gathered enough material for a book double this size. But no, having written the official biography way back in 2003, Contents Under Pressure, and then a second one that is essentially a shorter biography, with reviews by famous rock critics, called Rush: The Unofficial Illustrated History (for the same publisher as this new one, Voyageur Press), I thought, how in the hell could I possibly do another Rush book? Well, this was perfect. I got to have my say in the intros, and then I was talking to a bunch of really smart people and getting their views. It’s really them. They did the heavy lifting.

Jeb:  The book looks great.  I love the memorabilia, album covers, photos… When you saw the finished product were you impressed… and is any of that cool stuff in your personal collection?

Martin: Heck yeah, I was impressed! Dennis Pernu and Voyageur always do an amazing job with their layouts, and this one didn’t disappoint. I’m even having some of the top Rush experts tell me there’s pictures in there they’d never seen before. And yeah, some of that is from my collection, but a lot of it is Ray Wawrzyniak helping out yet again, a good buddy of mine from Buffalo, who is widely considered to have the biggest Rush collection. And if you think this looks good, wait ‘til you see the Led Zeppelin we’ve got coming out. I remember looking at the PDF and thinking, “There’s got to be more than half of these photos I’ve never seen before.” And I’ve also finished an AC/DC -just like the Rush- and again, I think it’s even a step above the Rush.

Jeb:  You seem to gravitate to albums, or album by album, type of reviews.  Explain why that inspires you.

Martin: I do like this, and the other format that is similar, although the methodology is way different, is what I did with the upcoming Led Zeppelin one, where it’s just an analysis by me of every single song. But no, you’re right. Even the sort of normal narrative books that I do, every chapter is synced to an album, because I think that’s the most important thing. “Live” is just looser versions of the album and these people’s lives have nothing to do with our interaction with their art, which is ultimately the thing that gives us the most pleasure, consuming art. So that’s why I like to look at the lyrics, production, album covers, the music, just like a full examination of the art that these people have made for us. Perfectly glad to do books like this as well, where it is album by album, but there’s that unique thing of me doing it with the gang of my friends. So yeah, an AC/DC is done, and I’m crossing my fingers that a third one is about to pass committee.

Jeb: This book is cool because it is like each chapter sees you and your guests talking about Rush.  If feels like you are all at the pub talking tunes over a few cold ones.

Martin: Exactly, I wanted to keep it conversational, although the little secret is that I’m conducting these interviews separately by phone, and then stitching them together Frankenstein-like. It might be more entertaining if we did it in a pub, but it wouldn’t be as scholarly. And I know you, who are a total veteran of doing interviews, you will understand it. It’s a complete nightmare transcribing an interview of two or three people all talking together, over top of each other, a little line here, a little line there. That doesn’t translate well to books, and it eats up a lot of real estate fast. But sure, I wanted it to flow, and it does feel conversational, but it’s got enough intellectual heft to it that it doesn’t sound like we’re sitting around the kitchen table getting drunk.

Jeb:  The guest list is impressive.  Start with that guy from Metallica.  How did you get him involved in this?

Martin: Kirk… man, I love Kirk. He’s been great. In fact, in the course of doing this, he reached out and we had some long conversations where he helped me with my birth of thrash trilogy that I’m doing. So he is all over those books, talking about the early days of Exodus and Metallica. But no, a cool thing about Kirk is that he’s very appreciative of being given so much, almost incredulously, by playing pretty uncompromising and nasty music, that he likes to give back, and in a way that is really cool, which is talking about music with people, and music that inspired him. And he’s just a huge Rush fan, so it didn’t really didn’t seem like there was any hesitation when I asked him to join into the discussion. And he did an amazing job. See, one of the funny things is with a guy like that, there was no way I was going to slam my fist down and say you gotta do your homework. And fortunately he nailed it, although probably, cool guy that he is, he might have done some homework. But no, he did a great job. With a few guys, and fortunately not really any of the rock stars, in either the Rush or the AC/DC, but some other guys, there was that awkward thing where I sort of started doing the interview, and we both realized that the guy didn’t really have much to say. But to be fair, again, the higher up the food chain I went, the less likely I was going to tell them to do their homework, and I tried to curate the questions a little less onerous and nerdy and specific.

Jeb:  I know Mike Portnoy is in the book… Paul Gilbert is in the book.… journalist and CRR contributor Ralph Chapman is in there… tell me how you chose them and who all joins you in this reading adventure. 

Martin: A lot of this credit has to go to Dennis Pernu, who had a vision of mixing it up and having these four or five little kind of groups of people who can give different perspectives. So there’s the rock stars, and then among them, I’m trying to think who wants to speak quite theoretically, or musically, who’s a drummer, who’s a bassist? There are tribute band guys, there are the girls who put on Rushcon, and they did great, interpreting lyrics on later albums like I know no other guy would have been able to do. There were people like Ralph who I knew was just a super knowledgeable music fan and a real sort of music intellect. So the idea was to have these people from different walks of life, but they had to really know their Rush. Or let me correct myself: they had to know some specific albums. Because not everybody who knows Presto or Vapor Trails up and down necessarily knows Fly by Night as well, or vice versa.

Jeb:  No ‘Jeb Wright?’  Hmm.  Still not a big enough name for you… ! Just kidding—but keep me in mind for a future project.

Martin: You absolutely are squarely in my sights for one of these at some point. And I’m going to ask you for the next one, when it’s approved and not a secret. But one thing that concerns me is that you’ve told me before, that you are sort of, not a deep record review or specific record guy as much. So again, if you’re willing to have your ass kicked and do your homework, and it’s a band you really love, then we’re good to go. But now that you’ve got the Rush book, you’ve got to ask yourself, could you have done that? Maybe you could have. I’m not razzing you, but man, I gotta tell you, I look at how good it turned out, and I’m pretty damn sure I wouldn’t have done as good a job as these people, and I had written two Rush books already. So the bar is set pretty high. I’m itching to tell you what the next band is, but I can’t! And this brings up another point, I don’t want to make this about beating you up specifically, but in relation to your question above, how did you get these guys? These rock stars and whatever. I’ll tell you, I absolutely had to leave the door open for them to pick whatever albums they wanted from the catalogue, and then demand of other people that, no, you gotta give me a half hour on Roll the Bones. So yeah, even with the next one, I’ll ask you right away, but you gotta be ready to not get your first choices!

Jeb:  I love how you not only talk about the beloved tracks, but how you dig deep and get your guests to dig deep.  This material really is geared for the huge fan, but includes enough low hanging fruit for the casual fan as well.  Do you know what I mean?

Martin: Sure, absolutely, there’s a good mix of talking about the hits and general topics like playing and singing and album covers, but then I was so impressed when some of the music theory kind of guys would point out little musical intricacies on some deep Hold Your Fire or Presto track, or interpret the lyrics from some deep album track two songs from the end of an album. But then again, the hope there is that we send the light or medium-grade fan back to the album to find that part, or reread that lyric, and become a bigger, deeper thinking fan, right?

Jeb:  Absolutely. Let me hit you with this… Rush… from the self-titled debut, through Moving Pictures… I love every single note, sound, vocal, liner note and photograph.  After that… I begin losing interest.  I am an Alex fan… maybe that explains it. 

Martin: Sure, that explains it just fine. We know they had the ‘keyboardy’ period, but even on the supposedly less ‘keyboardy’ albums from later years, Alex is just not thinking as heavy metal or power chord as he used to. Or even as riffy, right? Even on later records where there are walls of guitars, there just aren’t the note-dense and memorable riffs that there were on those ‘70s albums. No, I totally agree.

Jeb:  My personal fav that I listen to the most is Fly By Night.  I realize it is not the most accomplished.  It is not the most popular.  It is not the most influential.  I just love it.  Just curious what you think about that one.

Martin: Sure, love it. Some great songs in there, the first with Neil Peart. Of course, as is discussed in the book, somewhat, they actually went backwards from that album, both in sales and critically and arguably creatively, which is kind of odd, with Caress of Steel. It’s almost as if they stumbled upon the formula of merging progressive rock with heavy metal on Fly by Night, in terms of writing mature songs, but then regressed and didn’t even really get back up to speed with that until half of Moving Pictures and then pretty squarely on the ‘80s albums.

Jeb:  As an older rocker, I appreciate the 1980s more.  I guess I ‘get it’ now.  When I was younger I just wanted to rock.  Do you ever go back and discover an album that turns you on now which you dismissed as a younger dude?

Martin: Jeb, I’m finding whole catalogues and genres like that, more than specific albums. Like, I’m so into post-punk now, Echo & the Bunnymen, Teardrops Explodes, Public Image Ltd. I debate that with people, that there ought to be a word for nostalgia for a time you were definitely intensely into something—in our case music—but you ignored whole streams of what was going by around you. And so you’re not nostalgic for something you didn’t participate in, although the timeframe was right. So I’m doing tons of that always. Like I spent a lot of time over the last bunch of years going back and listening to hundreds of ‘70s albums I completely ignored in the ‘70s. Well, now I’m doing that for the early ‘80s. But I gotta say, something’s got to happen over the next ten or 15 years for me to get into late ‘80s Rush. I mean, Signals is my favourite Rush album, and I totally love Grace Under Pressure, so I get what you mean. My love of Rush covers most of their albums, but so far I just can’t enjoy those thin productions and all those dated keyboards.

Jeb: Other than Clockwork Angels… I must admit I found later Rush material to be -how should I say this- boring.  As a Rush expert, am I missing something?  Am I doing something wrong? 

Martin: Well, this book will definitely help with all that later material, because of the enthusiasm and knowledge and intellectual heft of the things these people have to say about those records, both musically and lyrically. So yeah, there’s a lot of cool stuff pointed out that make you go back for a second look. I don’t know, strange question—boring is not exactly a word that comes to mind, even with the Rush stuff that I don’t like so much. I suppose I could cop to calling Geddy’s sort of lower register, more laid-back singing as kind of boring, but that’s comparing him to ‘70s Geddy, who, now that I think about it, was one of the most exciting singers in all of rock.

Jeb:  Do you learn stuff about Rush writing books like this?  Are there moments you get into the mind of Geddy, Alex and Neil?

Martin: Hell yeah, I learned a lot. I mean, being a drummer, I suppose I knew pretty much all the drumming stuff any of the drummers were going to say, but I learned a lot about guitar, bass, certainly some of the motivations around the lyrics, some of the inside stories from guys like Ray, and then Doug Maher had just really cool theories, concepts, ideas, looking at things contextually. That guy, man, he could’ve done the whole book and it would’ve been super interesting. I think Ray could have too, but Ray is a different personality and would’ve taken a different direction, although equally as cool. But I can safely say that most of these people would’ve burnt out after five or ten minutes on quite a few albums that they knew less about. As for your second, very curious and thoughtful question, I don’t know, I suppose we can’t. Hopefully there aren’t too many insights here that they would disagree with, where we got them wrong. Because these people are, for the most part, pretty major Rush scholars and they would cringe to think they were interpreting something wrong.

Jeb:  The 5 Rush Albums Everyone Should Own According to Mighty Martin Popoff are…

Martin: Man, I would go with, chronologically... man, I can’t pick just five! Okay, gee, Hemispheres, Moving Pictures, Signals, Vapor Trails, Clockwork Angels.  The most insanely Rush-like, the classic, my favourite, the most heartbreaking and important part of the story, and the raucous, who are they now?

Jeb:  Has anyone in the band Rush read this book?  Do you know the guys now? 

Martin: Not yet, but we are getting five copies to the office, one for Ray, one for Pegi, and one each for the guys. I think they’re going to love it because it’s such a weird idea, a different perspective, the views of some fans that they know are super-fans. I know when I told Pegi at the office about the idea, at a Tea Party after-party, she thought the idea was very cool. I was actually a little bit skeptical at first, but then it quickly became apparent that I had a ton of great material on my hands. But I think the guys will get a kick out of it.

Jeb:  Last one: In 100 years what will Rush be remembered for the most?

Martin: Well, I’ve had some pretty deep discussions on the wider topic around this with some people, lamenting, with horror, the slashing down to almost nothing of the ‘60s play list, and then seeing the same thing happen with the ‘70s, where, seriously, through the death of songs at radio, through the deluge of new, replacing-like music we’re getting, through the mountain of information about everything we’re getting, and just basically the people that care about certain things, dying off, and there being no reason that younger people would know these bands... You still with me? Basically, it’s this idea that when the decades get old enough, the memory of them is reduced to like 20 or 30 bands and one or two songs from each band, and then that represents that era. A sermon about a whole decade that could take place in ten minutes. So when you asked that question, for most bands, my answer would be, they’re not gonna be remembered at all. But the crazy thing about Rush, I think they will be remembered, even if they go the way of the middle tier dinosaurs and they become known for their one or two biggest hits and everything else fades into obscurity. Who knows if we’re right about this, but think of it this way: How many 1920s and 1930s film stars can you name? Can you name even three or four titans of the big band era? Well, there is a theory that the ‘60s are going through this sort of memory purge right now. Sorry to get so heavy. The answer is “Tom Sawyer!”

Jeb: Really last one:  What is next for Martin Popoff?  You’re getting kinda famous… there must be some big plans on the horizon? 

Martin: Well, I’d like to give up this addiction for saying yes to writing all these books, and just do art. I’m 54 next week, and I always joke that when I hit 55, I’m going to cook up some semblance of a retirement, which in all likelihood, if I have the guts to do that at all, will just mean a few more hours for art a week, and less on books. But for whatever reason, I’ve had five books out already this year, and there’s another four that have been long finished and in layout mode now, so that’ll be the most books out for me ever in any year, and I’ll likely finish a couple more. But no, I never have any big plans. It’s just the same plan over and over again. As you can see, I’m already weaselling out of big plans for retirement.