Word Interview #7 – Andrew Collins

I met Andrew in the autumn of 2017 in a café in south London.  Before the actual interview started we were talking about records. As a music journalist whose enthusiastic reviews in the NME were an important component in many of my vinyl purchases, I was happy to discover that Andrew continued to have a connection to music’s physical objects.

…the next house move we thought, ‘Do we really want to move these heavy things?’ Something in me clicked and I decided to just keep the 7” singles. I’m glad we did because they’re like photos in a photo album but they can be played. They’re lovely objects.  Also, they’re kind of rarer because the vinyl revolution is about 12” albums. I found a flight case online that was designed for singles and the collection fitted perfectly so it felt like it was meant to happen. You could literally carry it – it’s heavy but next move it will definitely come along.  All the 12” singles and LPs went though.

I sold the lot to a nice guy that used to come down to London from Newcastle. I’d not met him before and he turned up in his Range Rover. He said ‘”You can leave the room and I’ll sort them into two piles – one of records that are worth something and the rest aren’t worth me buying but I’ll take them off your hands if you like.” The pile that was worth anything was pretty small although the wad of cash was nice. I just kept a small pile of 12” singles so I could do an eighties disco if anyone asked me to – some elongated remixes of Echo and the Bunnymen tunes and stuff like that. I’ve only been asked once since then as a promotional event for one of my books but I was glad I had them. I think keeping the 7”s helped to counteract the emotional upheaval from having to get rid of a load of records.  I’m not sentimental about CDs really. My old ones are mostly at my Mum and Dad’s house. I went up there an few years ago and said “I’ll do you a deal. I’ll clear the loft out and get rid of anything in there that’s from when I left home in 1984.” I put boards down to make the space more useful for them and put some boxes of CDs up there. It was a good deal, everyone benefitted. When Bowie died I went up to see them for the weekend, took some bags up and collected all his CD albums. They’re all on i-tunes but somehow it seemed important to have them as objects.

I think the world is still getting over his death.

I genuinely believe that when he died the whole world started falling apart. He got out because he knew it was time to go – unfortunately. And as for keeping magazines, I wish I had all the Word magazines. That’s why we need you!

Well, that leads us nicely on to the first question… when did Word first come onto your radar?

I was slightly out of the loop with EMAP at the time. In 2003 I was working for five days a week at 6 Music. In fact I remember that one of the first times I was in the magazine was for one of those articles where you’re asked for recommendations, you know ‘Books For a Rainy Day’ or ‘Records You’d Save In A Fire’. There was a photo of me alongside it with shoulder length hair. The first piece I actually wrote was ‘How To Be An EastEnders Writer’ which was lovely to do because it was something I knew about. At that stage it was two people I’d worked with for years who had formed a publishing company that I didn’t even know about. I think Mark or Dave must have got in touch and said they were starting the magazine. I was quite wrapped up in 6 Music then – if someone told me now that that they were starting a magazine and they were people I knew and loved I’d be banging on their door! I was quite busy but I was really glad to be asked to do a decent-sized piece about EastEnders and then I just started picking up more bits and pieces as I went along. From day one to the final issue there was just no downside to any of it. It was the magazine that came at the right time for me and for the people who read it. I subscribed from the beginning because I knew that Dave and Jerry needed subscribers as you can imagine. A lot of American magazines survive on subscriptions and I wanted to support my friends in their venture. I wasn’t writing for it then so it wasn’t for mercenary reasons!

There was a lot of fun in writing for it. I didn’t go to the office much, it was too small, but I liked the atmosphere they created, not just in the office but from Mark’s emails or if he called you up. I was coming up to forty in 2003, exactly the right age. I was a similar age to Andrew Harrison and Fraser Lewry and a bit younger than Mark and Dave. As you approach your forties there’s no difference with people in their fifties and sixties. The years make less difference but they make a lot more in your twenties and thirties. At the end of your thirties you think ‘Wow, I’m an adult now’ but you still think ‘They’re in their forties’. And then you get to forty and you admire anyone who does anything at any age! I think ‘good on you’ to anyone who achieves anything from that point, anyone who makes something brilliant. Why should life slow down?

It was the right magazine at the right time and if I’d never written for it I still would have bought every issue. It was only after a few years that I asked Jerry for a guest subscription – by then I was quite a regular contributor.

You were writing articles in every issue by that point?

Yes, it was the first time I had a column anywhere and it was about TV to begin with, called ‘Telly Addicts’. I’d been on the TV programme in the eighties and I’ve managed to recycle the title as a TV review column for The Guardian and a blog which no-one looks at but I felt that I could own it. It was brilliant, you still had to pitch, you couldn’t just write about you liked and I liked that discipline. I’ve always admired columnists, usually political but often cultural as well. One of the reasons I like The Guardian is that their columnists are the best ones. Some of them, like John Harris are friends and that helps but that’s not why I think they’re great – I just think they’re excellent writers. The Guardian has kept me as a reader because of their columnists.

The New Yorker was a model for The Word and is all about people occasionally writing a column. It’s a very personal magazine. For my fortieth birthday Stuart Maconie bought me the best birthday present that you could get, a year’s subscription to it. At that point I was aware of it but I’d never actually sat down and properly read an issue. The ‘Talk Of The Town’ section of The New Yorker was the template for the first part of The Word. You’d have an article, go down a column, then the next story would start and then an illustration just like The New Yorker. The Spectator and The New Statesman did a similar thing but they were the first music magazine to do that. It just felt so grown up. The Word was bigger too so you felt more like holding it and keeping it. It was the best magazine to be in. As a shop window you thought ‘I’m going to do my best stuff for this magazine, I’m going to hone it and not just hack it out.’ I think a lot of people, the writers of my generation who’d come through the NME like Stuart Maconie, David Quantick and others, had been accused of knocking it out. I remember Stuart being unhappy when Danny Kelly asked him to bang something out. He was really offended by the terminology because no writer wants to be seen as a hack. I think everyone is a hack occasionally, especially on a weekly, even more on a daily. When I got to Q there seemed to be less of that attitude. There’s something about move from newsprint to a glossy that makes you care more. I cared a lot when I was at Q because I was learning and I was young and trying to prove myself but I cared even more about what I wrote for The Word. Mark Ellen was in a more executive role when I was at Q, he was always one step above the editor but always visible and hands on. I’d been under him at Select with Andrew Harrison as my editor and under Dave at Q so the idea that those two would pop up in their own scrappy little office in Islington with a scary lift – it was just too good to be true.

I remember there was a classic Word feature, where they got all the writers to contribute one thing. You’d be asked something like ‘What’s the greatest vocal performance in a song?’ Clearly the best way to approach that is to try and think of something that no-one else is going to do. I did Method Man’s ‘Tical’ which is my favourite track by him. It’s the most incredible performance – he’s got a low voice and has a lot of spit in his mouth. It’s not particularly pretty but you can pick his voice out in the Wu Tang Clan. He does this weird thing in the song where he goes into a falsetto, really odd but brilliant. It was only about seventy five words but it was great on the page because everyone chose different things. I was so proud to be asked, I’m sure everyone else felt the same way. It was treasure trove of thought and knowledge and powers of description and interest in things and yet it was the spread of all music. I’d love to go back and read it. That can never be on a website, there’s something about holding it. It makes me feel like an antique dealer, who really appreciates something you can hold.

There’s some unnecessary panic at the moment about kids reading things off screens but you just look at whatever the thing is that everyone else is using to look at things. We were brought up with the printed word so we still have an interest in that. For me the big question about The Word is why couldn’t it have carried on as a website? Dave said there was no money in it and it was a business decision. Once it couldn’t be a magazine it had to stop which is the saddest thing about it, it felt doomed to fail.

Did you go on the website and forums much?

When it folded I didn’t so much, it made me sad. Sometimes I’d be sent a link if I was mentioned so I‘d go and wade in because I like to have my say if people are talking about me. On The Guardian I sometimes stupidly start looking at the comments but there are too many so I try to stick to the newest or the oldest and let it go. When I was writing things for them, I always read all the comments as I felt that if it had my name on it, it was my responsibility to respond. You develop a little community of your own. That’s been the best thing that’s happened since The Word really, getting to do that at The Guardian – they have a similar sensibility.

The most hurtful thing that ever happened was a letter that The Word printed about my piece about joining a film society. It was a piece that David had commissioned for the back section, those personal stories. I’d written what I felt was a loving and affectionate history about this society. It was set in the early eighties when I was a teenager, a key time in my life when I got to see loads of X-rated horror and foreign films. I loved writing it and had spent ages on it. Someone wrote a letter saying it was the most boring thing they’d ever read – not just in the magazine, but the most boring thing ever! The fact that they printed was more annoying than the fact that he’d written it. I wished it had been online as I wanted to respond to it saying “I’m so sorry, I hope you didn’t read all of it. It sounds like you did in which case I apologise about making it so long.” I thought, ‘I’m not going write a letter for them to print. Who cares?’ and just had to let it go.

Favourite memories of The Word?

Always the podcasts.

How many were you on?

Quite a few I think. I started my podcast with Richard Herring around the same time. I had no idea that my laptop had GarageBand on it, I didn’t know what it was. I was on some of the earlier podcasts before Matt Hall got involved, when the sound quality wasn’t quite as good. It sounded like an echoey room – which it was. Dave and Mark were there, they opened up the laptop and it already had this GarageBand programme on it with channels and a little external mic. I said “What’s this, where did you get it from?” They said it was already on the computer. After the first one I went back to Richard, who used to be a guest on my 6 Music show where we used to have fun going through the papers. I thought we could sit down and chat into it for an hour and just put it out there, we only needed to buy a mic. It didn’t cost anything to put it onto iTunes. Without it I wouldn’t have had those five years of me and Richard almost making a career out of it. We used to do gigs that we’d get a bit of money for. When we split up it was mentioned in The Guardian’s ‘Media Monkey’ page, that’s how big it was.

You had the recent reunion on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast. How was that?

I really enjoyed it. Do you know why I enjoyed it? Because years had passed and I always followed who was on it. I felt no bitterness towards him, even though it ended in some acrimony. After it all finished very publically (we both wrote blogs about it) he invited me to his wedding so there was clearly no deep-seated ill-will. Then I went to Edinburgh and saw his show, we went for drinks afterwards and so on. At that point he’d met the woman who went on to become his wife so it was natural that we would spend less time together. I’d watched his Leicester Square podcasts and he’d get fantastic guests on like Stephen Fry and also sometimes less well-known guests from the comedy circuit. The less famous ones were sometimes better. I loved the fact that he’d worked out a way of financing it so it ticked over and he’s got a lot of fans.

Occasionally people would ask him on Twitter when he was going to have me as a guest and I noticed he would never respond. I thought it was really funny, I guess he just thought ‘I’m not going to get involved’! I did wonder if he would run out of comedians at some point. I was never going to ask but loads of people kept asking me and I would just say something like ‘I think it’s too soon, it would be too awkward’ so it didn’t look like I cared. When he asked me, I said yes straight away. I thought I’d do it in a way that draws back a bit of the moral high ground for me because I’d been painted as the villain of the piece. 6 Music had asked me to pilot a show with Josie Long. I’d told him about it and did the pilot. They wanted to get her on the station but she didn’t have much radio experience so they decided to put her on with an experienced presenter who liked comedians – and that was me. We did that show and went on to do six months, at which point he and I had split up. He said I’d been duplicitous because he thought I’d put my career before my relationship with him even though what I’d done with Josie hadn’t had any bearing on what I’d been  doing with him as 6 Music had got fed up with him.

So, when he invited me I said yes. I thought it would be a great thing to do and I love performing, as I found out when I was working with him. I thought I would just go out there with an absolutely confident attitude. A lot of the audience were people that used to come and see us so they’d be happy to see me. I said “I’m the most anticipated guest you’ve had on. It’s easy to get Stephen Fry, he’s got an agent – but you’ve got me now!” His job as the interviewer when he’s with Stephen Fry is clearly delineated but it’s different with me because we used to be equals. This time he had to interview me and listen to what I had to say. I stopped and said to the audience at one point “He’s never asked me this many questions before.” On our podcast he’d talk about himself, I’d talk about myself and we’d talk about silly things; it dawned on me how weird it was, him asking me about things I’d done in my career. So I enjoyed it, not to get back at him because beforehand we’d had a hug and been pleased to see each other. I liked going off on my flights of fancy too which you can only really do on stage.

Like the Frog Tape riff?

Yeah, I hadn’t planned that but that’s why it worked, I just got my teeth into it. It was important to me because I’d been doing a lot of DIY! I listened back and thought it was pretty good.  Long ago I decided not to be a stand-up comedian because I sort of was one for a while. I did one run at Edinburgh and a few years with Richard. It was good that it happened when I was older because if I was younger I might have thought I should have a go at this. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go out every night and that’s insulting to all stand-up comedians because the one thing you have to do is gigs. If you’re married or have other things you want to do in the evenings or just like to be in bed by half past ten, then it’s not for you. Not that’s it’s a young person’s game but it’s better if you’re single with nothing else to do in the evenings. I did a free show (the safest way to do it) in Edinburgh, people came and it was full every day for the run. I remembered my lines, got some laughs and some kind comments from other comedians. There’s an idea that comedians hate non-comedians having a go but that’s not true. Sarah Millican and Gary Delaney came to the show and gave me tips about how to deliver certain lines and I took their advice. It was nothing but fun but when I got home I thought I can’t be doing it anymore. I love going to watch comedy but I’m past the point of trying to do it properly. So when I went on the Leicester Square Theatre podcast with a little audience of partisan nerds it was great fun but I can’t see why we’d do it again – it wouldn’t be a reunion.

Do you listen to any other podcasts regularly?

Predictably enough I listen to Bigmouth! I was on one of the first episodes; Andrew Harrison has given me some dates to do others but they’re always on the one day I can’t do. I’d love to do it again, it’s in a proper studio and feels very professional. It’s always the day I have to be at the Radio Times. I’ve been running the film section there since 2000 and it’s completely different to every other magazine I’ve ever worked on. It’s huge and there’s so much to process. The subs are people that tend to have been there for a long time because it’s a proper skill and you need a certain mind-set. You have to get every listing right and there are so many channels now. There’s a lot of  information in there, apart from all the features. They’re the glamorous pieces at the front of the magazine and the film section is halfway between the two. We pick out certain films to write about and I get to choose a ‘Film of the day’ which I tend to write quite fast, there’s no time for inspiration. The main skills you need are over-confidence and punctuality both of which I believe I have. I have a humble view of my talents but they’re good ones; doing something to order, spell-checking, reading over it at least once and trying to be amenable if you’re there in person. Everyone else is there working their arses off to get the magazine out so you can’t come in and be like Oscar Wilde. You come in, sit down and get on with it. I don’t mind bashing it out because if you also read it back then that’s not bashing it out. I would never name them but…there would occasionally be a piece in Q magazine written by people of a certain level, named writers, and as features editor you’d sometimes get a feature which looked like someone had started writing it, put a couple of quotes in and think it was done. I’d get furious and think ‘You got where you are by working hard and gaining a reputation, don’t piss it away now.’ One I can mention is Tom Hibbert, a brilliant example of individual talent who I only got to work with for a few years because he was in a bit of a decline. When he was in his pomp, doing his ‘Who The Hell…?’ pieces, no-one else could compete. His legacy was sealed by that point and by the time I got there he was still doing it. His copy would come in, not quite crayons on sheets of A4 but pretty raw. There was brilliance in it but as an editor you had to shape it. That was quite easy with Who The Hell…?’ as it had quite a straightforward structure with quotes in it. There’s only so much madness he could get into it, most of it came from his interview technique –which was just to shut up. He’d have Jimmy Saville or someone, ask them a question and then sit there. Once they’d answered it he’d keep nodding, waiting for them to say something else. It‘s a brilliant strategy but it takes a bit of nerve. I’m not sure I’d be very good at; in fact I’d be shit at it, I’d start talking immediately if someone wasn’t saying anything. Anyway, a piece came in from Tom, a think-piece about The Eagles. There was some reunion and we didn’t have an interview so we thought we’d get Tom to write something about them instead.  When the copy came in it wasn’t quite a stream of consciousness but you couldn’t just ring Tom up and get him to change a few bits and I needed the thing on the page. So, as Features Editor, I just plucked the Omnibus book on The Eagles off the bookshelf and went through it. I looked at Tom’s piece again just adding in names of band members and some facts. It read well on the page, plenty of Tom in it but it was also factually correct. I felt like I’d been a conduit for the unbottleable spirit! You can’t have too many unbottleable spirits on a magazine, not when there’s a deadline but you probably could on a website. I love the idea that I got to edit someone like Tom Hibbert.

Sometimes you’d get poor copy from a name writer who wasn’t an unbottleable spirit, just a writer who was very good and you’d think ‘Just read it back!’ So even there, there were people who were coasting a bit. I never felt that at The Word. I’d pitch three or four ideas to Mark every month, usually in an email and he’d pick the one he liked. He’d often say “No, I’m not sure about that, that’s not going to work. Have another think.”  That was fine though because no magazine should be a free pass, you should earn your place as a contributor.

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I recently met Billy Bragg at The Green Man music festival and asked him for a question for you. He told me to ask you when you’re writing another rock biography. (Andrew had written Billy’s biography ‘Still Suitable For Miners’)

All the stars were in alignment when I was asked to write the book. I’d been a fan of his before I was even a journalist. I was at the NME around the time of his album Don’t Try This At Home. It was bold, a pop record and I’d have loved it whether I was writing about him or not. I was Features Editor then and had the video for the single Sexuality, directed by Phil Jupitus. Go Discs, his record label, sent it to me knowing I was sympathetic and in a position of some power. I took it in to Danny Kelly and said, “You’ve got to watch this video!” It was a great song and video and I thought it was time for Billy to be back on the cover. I said I’d write it as I was a fan and occasionally I’d give myself a cover feature to write – not that often because it’s a bit naughty. I did the same for My Bloody Valentine when ‘Loveless’ came out. There was no argument so off I went to meet him with my tape recorder. We started the interview on foot, walking along the canal in Camden and ended up in the pub. He’s everything you want; a brilliant interviewee, he’s always got lots to talk about and he’s a great musician. We got on well and he identified me as a fan. When I got to Q, his next album came out and I put myself forward to write a piece, again as Features Editor. We did a series of epiphanies with the headline “Still Suitable For Miners” (I’ve copyrighted that pun!). It was about things that changed his life like joining the army or hearing Dylan for the first time. It was a good Q feature, an artist we all know about but maybe some things in there that we don’t know. He was about 39 at that point.

When I left Q and was cast into the world of freelance danger, my friend Ian Gittins at Virgin Books rang me up and asked if there was anyone I wanted to write a biography about. The two I said I’d like to do were The Cocteau Twins or Billy Bragg. I went to Billy first and he said, “It’s funny you should say that.” He was thinking it might be a good time to do it because he and his partner had had their son. He started thinking about mortality and handing things on. Lots of good writers had wanted to do his biography but he’d always said no up to then because they’d wanted to write about his political views. He said “You’ve written about me and not always just about my politics.” He was about to turn to turn 40 and selling a flat that he’d lived in while he was single so it felt like the right time in his life. I had the time and so I wrote it over the next six months. I met his family, went to his Mum’s house, visited Oundle where he’d formed Riff Raff in the Northamptonshire wilds and went to Dublin together where he was recording the album with Wilco. We were in this house that the record company had rented for him and it was full of members of Wilco. We slept in this little spare room together – separate beds – but that’s how close we got! I listened to the music he was referencing while I was writing it, things I hadn’t listened to before, lots of folk music, much more Dylan because he’d been a big influence on him and Jackson Browne.

I’m very proud of the book. It first came out in 1998 and every three or four years Virgin have been in touch and asked for an updated version with a new chapter. He deserves it and it says a lot about him that they want a current edition on the shelves. It’ll be the book’s 20th anniversary in 2018 and he’ll turn sixty soon so hopefully they’ll ask for another chapter. I put the same amount of care and attention into this as a Word or a Q feature. You have to be proud of something if you’re going to put it out as a book. It’s great that anyone is still putting books out. I’ve always been optimistic and I don’t think books will ever completely die really because they should have already. If vinyl can survive, books definitely can.

 

You can follow Andrew on Twitter – @AndrewCollins

The updated, 20th anniversary edition of ‘Still Suitable for Miners’ will be published by Virgin Books in May 2018

And see if you agree with the choices Andrew has made for his mp3 player on his entertaining 143 blog

Previous Word interviews: Jude Rogers , Mark Ellen , John Naughton , Paul Du Noyer , David Hepworth, Andrew Harrison

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