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Jack Rabid interview for QRD

In are ongoing quest to not only cover people who make music, but people who make people able to find the music, I conducted this interview with Jack Rabid of the Big Takeover.  Interestingly enough, he's one of the few magazine personalities that isn't bitter....

QRD – Why did you originally start Big Takeover & how does that differentiate from why you keep doing it now?

Jack – Because I loved punk rock so much from 1977-1980 and it was frustrating how hard it was to find out anything about my favorite bands that weren't English or on major labels. I still love to expose people to great music; there's always someone who is 15 like I was or slightly older and just learning that there is this amazing world of music beyond the awful dreck and sheer crap the radio plays and MTV spins. You'd never know there was any real brilliant, moving, intelligent, and challenging music in the world! And I love inspiring people to both think and create themselves, and get involved! So the answer is, there is really little difference in WHY, it's really HOW that's different. We've grown from one page for 100 copies by a couple of precocious but learning teenagers (Dave Stein helped found it) to experienced people and knowledgeable fans who print nearly 20,000 copies of a 236 page glossy mag! Ah, evolution! I'm not sure it's natural selection, but it's this real mainline inspiration that's allowed us to be so doggedly persistent and keep growing!

QRD – What's the secret to your magazine's longevity & ability to come out regularly & on time?

Jack – I think for the second question it's always been setting realistic deadlines and working steadily towards them. Sure we only come our twice a year, but it's a lot like putting out two books a year, plus we have to spend an inordinate amount of time arranging the funding (the advertising) before we go to print and sales (the subscribers and distributors) after we do! Once we start getting the ads we know we have to get the mag out quickly or the ads will get stale, so we try to make sure we're making great progress toward each deadline we set for reviewers, features, letters, editorials, etc. and getting the graphics in shape. We have a lot of great people helping out each issue who do it for the love of the magazine, and my assistant is very helpful, and lastly, I work 80-100 hour work weeks the last month before publication. Two awful months a year isn't bad to do this for a living the last eight years after it was a hobby for 15 years. As for longevity, it's a mixture of conviction that what we do has value, not only to ourselves but to all the readers who write in or talk to me at shows or in the street, and genuine love of the music, which I think is really transparent to anyone who has ever picked up one of our issues! I don't know why most Americans look at music as something for the background, for me, it's always been the most moving art and expression! The greatest language of life!

QRD – How do you decide what you want to review or who you want to interview versus who you pass on to your staff writers?

Jack – Ha ha, that's a good one! One of the perks of being one of the only editors of a mag this size who writes a lot in his own mag is that I get first dibs on everything I want to do! The editor in me has never turned down the writer in me when I pitch myself! So I just write about the stuff that really turns me on. My favorite stuff is always mine, all mine, as Daffy Duck would say! There's so much good stuff, though, that if another writer is passionate about a group and it's kind of on my B list instead of my A list, I will let them do it instead of me. The best, most excited and knowledgeable man or woman for the job, I say, I think that really shows in our coverage. I feel like if I'm not that person, I should get out of the way and let the better man/woman win. But there's no formula, and I know I can't do every thing, it's just gut decisions, really. And sometimes I do stuff on my C list because no one else wants it and I feel like it deserves at least a review!

QRD – What do you feel your job is as an interviewer?

Jack – Probably two things, one giving people an idea of what it is like to have a conversation with the subject, like you would if you just found yourself with them for a while all to yourself, and you could ask them any question you've ever had on your mind—like any conversation you have with anyone you've ever met that you know something about in advance that interests you. The second is to attempt to go a little deeper than most mags into the entire story of what an artist creates and experiences while creating it and then later while performing or promoting it and just living with the consequences, so people can understand what joys, frustrations, difficulties or real deep satisfactions come with the territory of each individual who makes music or art and then reaches out to the public with that expression that has at least moved me. A lot of Q&A interviews or written pieces are too dry and stiff, I like to get my subjects to just loosen up and shoot the breeze about actually interesting ideas and stories that illuminate and make me (and others) think! I think our interviews are both fun, yet memorable. And we get people to reveal a lot more about themselves in the process, because we get their trust first that we're interested in them foremost, not in selling magazines on the sensational or personal that has nothing to do with what they make!

QRD – How have webzines affected the purpose of BTO?

Jack – I don't think it's affected ME one iota! I don't read them! Every day I read newspapers, books, and magazines like I always do. That's what really engages me, not something on a screen, where it comes to reading. It is so much more interesting to me to read print on paper. I don't think that makes me old fashioned. I just think it's more of an enjoyable experience. That said, I have nothing against them. Any way the dialogue can be advanced is the point!

QRD – When have you felt least in control of BTO & how did you regain control?

Jack – Aside from a brief episode in 1981 for one issue when I let a friend print issues 2-6 for me and then had a falling out with him because he slipped a few items of his own in issue 6 I didn't know about or approve of, I've always been in control. That's the way I like it! I've never borrowed a penny from friends or banks or had any charity shows for us, we've always grown slowly to make sure the funding was always there. But I don't think it's an issue of control, it's really the readers that control things, in the end, but buying it or not! That, and all the fine folks who contribute their time and effort in order for an issue to come out, I just stand back and feel grateful for that, glad that they pitch their lot in with me and trust that my vision is an inclusive and ever expansive one! I know that sounds like a bland answer, but it's true! I set it up that way so I'd always be comfortable with things. It's never really been an issue! We're pretty benevolent around here.

QRD – Will there ever be a BTO without Jack Rabid or a Jack Rabid without BTO?

Jack – Actually, I've often wondered that myself! I have a lot of interests that the mag either doesn't cover or just touches on (sports, economics, history, politics, artistic movies, classic movies, and nature, primarily) so I've never thought of myself as Jack Big Takeover! I nearly quit to become a history teacher in 1995, and would have if the net hadn't come along then when it did, to make it possible for me to reach more advertisers and readers like it did. So I can easily see a Rabid without a BTO. Not that I want to, though! As long as I love it I see no reason to stop, and the real enthusiasm I keep encountering for my/our work is so inspiring, you'd feel like a fool to not keep it going as long as you get something meaningful out of it yourself! As for a BTO without me, sure, why not? Someday I will either get tired of it, get too old, get sick, or die, obviously (my friend Kristen says from the background, "That's horrible!" but really Kristen, that's just the reality of answering this question fairly, ha ha!) so the question is really whether any other human being or extraterrestrial would really want to step in and take my place or gradually take over! Is there such a thing out there? That's what I've always wondered. I don't have delusions of grandeur that I'm so irreplaceable, but they'd have to love it as much as I, or see the same things in turning other people on to this kind of music as I do, or it wouldn't really BE the Big Takeover, would it? If I were only the editor, it would be easier. So I really don't know! I think I've always thought that when I get too old or tired of it I would start asking around my friends and fellow writers, and maybe someone could save the magazine. But if that wasn't the case, that's fine too. There will still be other great magazines and DJs that will keep this thing going, in their own ways.

QRD – How does interviewing & befriending a band change how you listen to them?

Jack – It just makes me more interested in them if it was a good experience talking to them, as it usually is. But I don't think bias can make you like a bad record, and occasionally I've gotten hurtful letters from friends of mine who I've given bad review to after many good reviews, though less so nowadays as I befriend less and less musicians (the older I get and the younger they get, the less I really relate to them as friends, I guess!). The proof is always in the record or the show, and your readers can always tell when you're making undue excuses or going soft on someone who deserves criticism. I've gotten to know Joe Pernice, for example, and I said a couple of really unflattering things about two songs on his new LP, but I otherwise loved the LP, and Joe never expressed any disappointment with the review. I think he knows its only one man's opinion, fairly offered. I really think people can sniff dishonesty out like bloodhounds! I'd rather be honest! But again, the more you respect a person and enjoy their company, the more you become interested in what they do and why they do it, I think that's fair enough and there's no point in trying to hide that in a future interview. I think it makes the interview better when people know in the intro that the two people talking have in fact known each other for a long time, like when I interview someone like Paul Westerberg or Jack from TSOL. It just makes them open up to me more, I think it's a plus!

QRD – With listening to music being part of your job, do you still find it enjoyable as a leisure activity?

Jack – Oh yeah, big time! When that day comes that that is no longer true, it will prove that I should quit. But how can that day come? Who gets tired of music when they control what they play and at what volume? I'm always hearing such amazing music from the past and present that's new to me, I could never burn out in that sense. I can only burn out in the writing side, and editing side, not on the listening side. When I am on vacation I take some CDs with me. Sure, why not! A few Marvin Gaye or Louis Armstrong CDs or maybe Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles or Buzzcocks, or Kinks or 50s Sinatra. What the hell! There's so much music that makes me want to SING along with the CD, that's the greatest joy of all!!! That's the music I look for the most of all! I can never get tired of singing!

QRD – What's your favorite Michael Gira song?

Jack – Believe it or not, his cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart." I know that he didn't write it, Joy Division did, but his version sure sounds like he wrote it, it's a pure version of what he's all about. He's a cool guy, I run into him all the time in my neighborhood, he's always wearing big, distinctive hats and smoking on a fat stogie.

QRD – What's the most stressful thing about doing your magazine?

Jack – Arranging for the ads, getting the ads, and then getting paid for the ads. And then the deadline pressure of completing the text and final layout, for that last week when I sit next to our art director Adam Symons, and trim and manipulate his final layout. I exhale like I've never breathed when we finish a mag and send the discs to a printer. It's like finishing a thesis!! That said, my close friend Mitch from Springhouse is a paramedic, he's delivered over 10 babies who couldn't wait for a hospital and saved countless lives, so I don't really think of the stress of my job as being so bad. It's not life and death for others, it just is stressful to me (and my wife) for a month and to Adam for that week.

QRD – You give lower ad rates to indie labels, how do you determine whether a label is legitimately indie?

Jack – To me, it's a matter of who distributes your records. Labels with major label distribution have a massive advantage, it's not a level playing field. A lot of stores in this country simply will not order any record that's not major label distributed. Aside from that, it's usually pretty obvious. There's some gray areas, when major labels invested in indies like Sub Pop and Matador some time ago, but then I look at what music they release and they were clearly still indies to me in what they were putting out, so what the hell... They're still indies, giving us music that wouldn't be recorded and fairly marketed with taste by any major label...

QRD – What do you think are the biggest advantages & disadvantages to a band being on a major label instead of an indie?

Jack – Well, the advantage is having a marketing machine behind you. Every week there are 1000s of records released, why should anyone pay attention to yours? It's like being in a prison cell with so many other inmates screaming at the warden when he comes to release just one of you, how can you get noticed from the multitudes? And even after you get noticed, if you're lucky, how can you sustain the attention of the industry, the media outlets, and the consumers? That takes so much money, and usually major labels are the only ones that have it. But they expect to call the shots when they're spending the big bucks up-front, so it's usually hell recording for them, you lose your freedom to do what you think best more often than not. And they just pass all the whopping promotional cost on to you in the end, anyway, so you're always in debt, or if you're a big hit, they just take the lion's share of the big money you generate. So I'd rather be on an indie, preferably a bigger and supportive one that can get your record out there a bit and put you on tour and trusts you to work more in partnership with you. It's simple. But it's just harder to get people to hear and appreciate what you do, no question. And some indies have been as corrupt, and many have been just plain incompetent. You're damned more often than not going either route!

QRD – What's a cycle you perceive in music that you feel a lot of music fans don't see?

Jack – How rock and roll has been considered "dead" about 20 times, and yet, that's always someone reading last rites every time the patient just falls asleep. The music is just too popular and too populist, both at the underground and the mainstream level to ever become just a purist pursuit like jazz, as much as I love jazz. Rock at its heart is still pop music, and there's always someone who is going to want to make it and someone else who will want to buy it! I've heard that one five times since 1977 (who remembers that disco had "killed" rock n roll then?), it always makes me laugh. No one learned from 1960-1962 that you just can't kill rock n roll. It just goes out of fashion for a few years then ALWAYS comes roaring back. Much as I hate the Strokes, I predicted something like them five years ago. The same thing will happen again in the 10s! and 20s, just watch!

QRD – As someone who's been involved with the punk scene basically since the start, what years do you think punk has been the most & least valuable?

Jack – It was most valuable from 1975-1982 because it was constantly inspiring young people with something to say to say it. Since then it's just become another lifestyle option for worried teens that want to fit in, the pure opposite of what it was supposed to be! to be freed from that scared inhibition. That great freedom of creative and raw expression got replaced by an imposter ever since you have to conform to restrictions or you're not punk. What a pure contradiction crock. That said, there's always TSOL, Bad Religion, and Leatherface, folks old enough to remember what the real point is, and they keep making it! The form itself didn't die, it was just hijacked by people who didn't have the talent or imagination to keep reinventing it and keep using it as a vehicle for artistic expression and communication, not just some stupid exclusive club with dumb and dumber, ever dumbed down membership. And some cooler kids who just get this point.

QRD – Do you have any ambitions for BTO to become a media conglomerate producing books, cds, movies, & television shows?

Jack – No, not really. We're likely going to have a book of selected interviews and reviews or editorials in the near future, but I can only do so much. I'd love to put out records, but I'm extended as far as I can being a writer/editor/publisher and musician and husband and friend with a social life. I can only do so much. I'd listen to offers, but it would have to be something I'd personally like, and someone I personally like to work with! It's much like being in a band, in that sense!

QRD – Who did you never manage to interview that you wish you had?

Jack – Paul McCartney, Morrissey when he was in the Smiths and so clever and not bitter, Graham Nash (though I'm trying to arrange that now) from the Hollies and early solo days, and maybe Syd Barrett, ha ha!

QRD – How does being in a band help & hurt your ability to conduct a good interview or do a good review?

Jack – No, it's the other way around. It helps doing interviews and reviews, because I have so much experience to bring to bear, and other musicians really appreciate that! I know a lot of what they go through or have gone through, and how hard or easy it is to make LPs, go on tour, deal with fans and labels, etc. What is really hard is the opposite, to get people to pay attention to the music I have made as the drummer and occasional singer in Even Worse, Springhouse, and Last Burning Embers without seeing me as a writer. On the one hand, it makes some people interested in hearing what I've recorded, but I think it hurts probably more than it helps, because 99% of musicians don't have this problem. For instance, when Bernie Williams of the Yankees makes an LP, he may get the deal because he's a Yankee, and he might get reviews because he plays baseball, but people always think of him as a Yankee, not as a jazz musician. And he's famous, I'm not. Same with Jack McDowell, the old Yankees pitcher, I saw him play and he did a Replacements cover. Ditto Russel Crowe, or Keanu Reeves, or Jack Black, or River Phoenix when he was alive. Granted, I'm thought of as more connected to music, and I'm not famous, but the same problem exists: I'm always going to be a writer/musician, not a musician. And I think that's too bad. There's so many times when I've wished that wasn't the case, and my favorite fans of Springhouse have always been the ones that had no idea I was a writer first before they liked the band!!!! There was a lot of them for a while when we were on 120 Minutes twice! I can't tell you what that meant to me, to have the LPs judged on their merits, good and bad, and not on the idea or hook of my being a critic! That said, I really don't have any complaints, beyond that small one, and overall, the two experiences, though separate, have so often fed each other. It was most funny when I once conducted two interviews with artists in one day while sitting for three myself as an artist. I remember I even leant my tape recorder to one of the interviewers since I had it on me, and hers had broken! Now that was funny!

QRD – Anything else?

Jack – Yeah, I really appreciate you interviewing me instead of some mindless celebrity or musician who is famous that really has nothing to say! I really relish the opportunity to speak, and every time I get the chance like this I am so grateful! And your questions were great, never heard of those before, it really was a great challenge! And I never want to just coast! I hope people like what I have to say or it at least inspires them to think more about what writers and publishers and editors and musicians do, and how there's no substitute for love and conviction if you want to do something really memorable that you'll be proud of that others might really enjoy too...