Dean Brown is an Irish man full of ire and spit for music writing. He currently is on staff for The Quietus, Pop Matters, Iron Fist, Terrorizer and Metal Hammer. You can also find his writing popping up freelance style at Noisey and Decibel Magazine. He’s a breath of fresh air on Twitter voicing his opinions (even the contrary and negative ones) with sincerity, intelligence and humor. You can, and should, follow him on Twitter @reus85. He also happens to be a very, very accomplished writer (and an aspiring lawyer/barrister). Dean was kind of enough to take some time out of his busy legal career, writing career and pub hopping career to sit down and answer some questions for us. His answers are informative, thoughtful and humorous. So follow the jump for the complete interview.
How did you first get into writing and reporting and have you achieved all your wildest dreams?
I’ve always had an active imagination and I was encouraged to read from a very early age; having my head stuck in Roald Dahl books while tucked up in bed with a mug of hot chocolate is a very fond memory I have from my childhood. English was my favorite subject in school and creative writing came quite easy to me, even though I didn’t do much of it outside of school work and some dodgy poetry during my teenage years! In terms of music, I’ve loved it as long as I can remember; another fond memory from my childhood is sitting in front of our big hi-fi player, repeatedly listening to Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ on vinyl and fiddling around with the EQ. So I guess it was always on the cards that I would merge the two worlds – especially since I’ve collected music magazines for over fifteen years. The bands magazines like Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Terrorizer, and Rocksound covered really informed my tastes during my teens, and I used to read and re-read issues constantly while searching for the albums they rated highly. When Decibel came out it was a revelation to me because it was the first time that a magazine really covered the bands I loved, and the writing and creative direction of the magazine kept getting stronger with each issue. It was a big deal for me to see my writing in an issue of Decibel this year.
I started writing about music close to six years ago now and it began as a test-the-water kind of thing. I was living in Sydney, Australia and working for a law firm based a million miles away from my family and friends in Ireland, and I needed a creative outlet during my spare time. At the time I had been reading and enjoying all of Adrien Begrand’s work for Popmatters, alongside a bunch of other writers I rated from various magazines and websites, and I thought I’d see if I could do a similar job since I had very solid knowledge of metal history and an understanding of the music of old and new bands in and outside of the genre. Popmatters actually had a contact page and encouraged writers to submit a draft review for consideration along with a note about yourself, so I sat down and wrote a review and the editor, Sarah Zupko, seemed to like it and added me to the staff. It would a few months before I’d actively start writing for Popmatters but during my final months in Sydney, I wrote a couple of things for the Aussie metal site Metal Obsession.
I really started to take writing seriously when I got back to Ireland and I was dead set on improving my style… and I still am. I worked hard at building up my portfolio by pitching to various magazines and websites and I’ve managed to join the staff or have pieces published at most of the outlets I’ve loved over the years – which is a bit surreal at times. I haven’t achieved everything I want though, but I’m confident that if I keep plugging away during my spare time I’ll get to where I want to be.
What’s the most you have ever debased yourself to get a promo, guest list or interview that you really cared about?
Maybe it’s down to the fact that some writers don’t know what to look for in order to pick apart inconsistencies in albums and so they just focus on the bits they love. But if you have the word space, why would you score an album 7/10 and not mention why you deducted three marks? Think about what doesn’t work for you and then try to explain it in a constructive manner.I really find it very hard to follow the work of a writer who loves everything he/she covers. Even some of the best albums have negative aspects, so why not mention it? Critique in music writing is a dying art. Writers need to be aware of their obligations to the reader, even in an age where there’s not the same monetary investment as during the pre-downloading days since every joker with an internet connection has a hard-drive jam-packed with stolen music.Personally I’ve never had an editor change a review because I bashed what I thought was a shite-storm of an album, and I’m not afraid to do so out of fear of being cut off the promo list; that’s happened to me before, along with death threats from disgruntled fans of a certain terrible band who took offense to my opinions. But such fear to speak your mind exists across the writing industry, and it’s a tumor that needs serious treatment.
That’s a very good question, and it’s something I think about from time to time. Working for an international law firm means I have to be careful how I portray myself online in case either the powers that be or clients (who are, in fact, an even higher power) decided to take offense to my tweets about bands like Pissgrave or whichever dumb-named extreme metal act I’m harping on about at the time. I’ve put my twitter account on private on a couple of occasions just to try keep the two worlds separate in case people without an understanding of how metal works start to view me in a different light. But I’ve stopped doing that because having a private profile is not very helpful for a writer looking to spread his work online, and also because it’s who I am and it’s just music – I’m not coming to work covered in goat blood and corpse paint (yet). So, to me, there’s no real issue!
What are some of the most important issues (social/political/humorous/etc.) for you and how do you insert those issues into your writing/videos?
While there may be objective aspects when writing about music, it’s primarily subjective, and that’s the way it should be. (If anyone tells you their music writing is entirely objective well then they are a pretentious knob-head.) So because it’s a subjective thing for the most part of course your social background, beliefs and sense of humor will bleed through as you find your writing voice. The trick is to not let your personal beliefs take over your music writing, otherwise you will risk alienating the reader by shoving your social/political opinions down their throats. We’ve seen that happen this year with Leviathan and Myrkur; two acts I recently covered for The Quietus. I was conscious of the online venom being spilled about both musicians prior to writing my thoughts about their albums, and while I briefly mentioned my personal opinion on both Jef Whitehead’s past and how ridiculous it is that Amalie Bruun has to justify herself as a woman playing black metal, I made sure to put the music to the forefront because that’s what matters.
Generally I can separate the art from the artist – Ol’ Vargy is one of my favourite black metal composers – but everyone has their breaking point and mine hasn’t been pushed too often when it comes to the music I write about; the heinous actions Ian Watkins of Lostprophets being the last time I was truly sickened to my stomach.
The world is full of injustice, greed, pain, and horror, and like every decent human being out there, I’m affected by the stories I read and the things I see. The most recent being Making A Murderer, a 10-part true crime documentary available on Netflix, which I highly recommend.
What, or who, got you into metal and how old were you? Was your family supportive?
As I mentioned, music has been so important to me as long as I can remember. I started with Michael Jackson and various pop songs at an early age. My Mam always has had great taste in music (she was probably the only person in our hometown of Athy who was a fan of Uriah Heep back in the ‘70s) and I got into whatever she was listening to around the house, from Boney M, Wet Wet Wet, Elvis and Dr. Hook to classic rock and other good pop music. I also remember being drawn to heavier sounds as a child, and seeing and hearing Motörhead thunder through ‘Ace of Spades’ on BBC’s Top of the Pops was a big eye opener for me. Rest in Power, Lemmy!
I was also a huge wrestling fan growing up and the electric entrance music of Bret Hart and The Ultimate Warrior really excited me, while the ominous toll of The Undertaker’s entrance frightened and intrigued me just as much as when I heard Black Sabbath’s debut for the first time. But, like most kids born in the mid-80s, it was Nirvana who really became my gateway into heavier music, and I still remember the day I discovered them. My friend had lifted his older brother’s ‘Nevermind’ tape and played me ‘Polly’ and told me the song’s story: a girl kept in a cage. I was aged ten or eleven at the time so I was creeped out by it. Then he said, “You think that’s good? Wait until you hear this…” and he rewound the tape and pressed play and suddenly that opening riff to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ rushed out and hit me right in the chest. That was it. From there, I was like a sponge and I soaked up every related band I could find, gradually gravitating towards heavier, more extreme sounds, but also keeping my ear open to different styles of music outside of rock and metal.
What advice do you have for aspiring music critics out there?
Don’t waste your time, ha ha! Seriously though, I would say that if you have aspirations to make a full-time career out of it, don’t be so foolish. The reason being: very few writers in this day and age make a decent living from freelancing, and it can be an absolute bastard to try get paid on foot of your invoices. The industry is shaky, publishers are under financial pressure, and writers suffer by having to constantly chase up monies due and owing to them for work done. That’s the worst part of it, and if you were relying on being paid on time – or at all – you’d starve to death, so make sure to have a primary source of employment. For the majority of music writers out there it’s only a hobby that occasionally pays.
Outside of the financial shafting that goes on, I would say that writing to satisfy your own personal hunger to discuss what you love and hate about music is paramount. If you want to do it bad enough, pitch an idea to a blog; try get your foot in the door by writing as much as you can in your spare time; build a portfolio; pitch to a bigger publication, and keep doing so until you find a home your happy to keep honing your craft at. It takes time – sometimes years – to get in the door; all depending on your location in the world, who you know, the quality of your writing, and the extent of your ambitions.
Building relationships with PR is important but don’t sell your abilities to satisfy their needs – be true to yourself and your opinion and keep that a priority, not the fact that you’re allowed to hear albums before the release date.
Don’t get dejected if your pitches blow past like tumbleweed – just keep writing and the more you do and the stronger you get at it the more of a chance you will have at writing for the publications you’ve always loved.
Listen to music outside of the chosen style you’ve decided to write about, because you can rest assured that if the band you’re reviewing is of any use they have sourced inspiration from other genres. It’s important to be able to pick out where they’re coming from musically.If you write about metal don’t limit yourself to one sub-genre – learn the entire history, listen to the classic albums, expand your knowledge of the bands and who they’ve influenced.
Read critics from other areas of the arts as well as esteemed writers in your chosen discipline. Film critics tend to be more pointed in their reviews than music writers and you can develop your skills by considering their approach.Maybe set up a twitter page and follow the work of your peers and engage in the (mostly inane) discussions. This has helped me a lot.Finally, find yourself a good editor – it’s the only way to develop and learn from your mistakes. The folks at The Quietus – John Doran, Luke Turner and Sophie Coletta – have made me question my approach on occasion and this has been very beneficial to me. Adrien Begrand, Craig Hayes, Louise Brown, Kim Kelly, Sarah Zupko, Albert Mudrian, Kez Whelan, Jonathan Selzer and Justin M. Norton have all played a part in my development, too, whether it be their learned advice, taking a chance on my writing, or inspiration gleaned from their writing. While in addition to those scribes, I’ve intently followed the writing of Dom Lawson, J. Bennett, Joel McIver, Chris Dick, the guys at Last Rites, Jonathan Dick, Grayson Curran, and a handful of others for a number of years.
From spending a semester in Ireland I learned that Guinness has gone on a mission to purchase almost every single pub in Ireland. Guinness, when consumed in Ireland is also one of the best beers on the planet (although Beamish is quite good too!). I assume this has severely cut down on the number of beers available to the Irish mainstream. What’s your go to drink in Ireland and do you hang out in bars that have carpeted flooring?
I’m a bit of a slag when it comes to drink: I’ll pretty much guzzle anything except for cider and vodka (bad experiences with the latter, and the former makes me feel like the acid in my throat is going to burn a hole right through me). I don’t go boozing half as much as I did in my early twenties – the damn hangovers get worse every year. But when I do I usually drink either Guinness or Erdinger, depending on the pub. I’m also a fan of whiskey so I always end up with Jack Daniels and Coke once the pints hit their mark. Again, RIP Lemmy!!Craft beer culture is slowly starting to grow over here, and Blacks of Kinsale have got a really tasty IPA that’s worth searching out. I try to sample different beers wherever I go, and recently I had one of Iron Maiden’s Trooper beers and I was impressed – I should never have doubted Maiden!
I wouldn’t know where to begin – I listen to a lot of non-metal music in my spare time! This year, for example, I’ve truly loved the new Torres album. The final song, ‘The Exchange’, is probably the heaviest track I’ve heard in 2015, emotionally speaking. The whole album is fantastic and fans of early PJ Harvey will love it. I thought Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was, from a conceptual standpoint at least, a very timely release. Musically, it’s also deserving of its accolades, and the song ‘King Kunta’ needs its own End of Year list; the funk bassline alone would have James Brown dancing in his grave. New albums by Holly Herndon, Girl Band, Lana Del Rey, Circuit Des Yeux… the list goes on.Probably the most listened to and important album of the year for me in 2015, however, happened to be Roky Erickson’s ‘The Evil One’. I had listened to it sporadically over the years after stumbling upon the song ‘Two-headed Dog’, but this Autumn I really fell in love with it during a personal rough patch, and I binged on it daily. It’s just so true, catchy and indicative of the Roky’s mind-frame during his time in a mental health facility. The monsters were real…