All posts tagged culture

  • The Walkley Magazine story: ‘Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk’, April 2017

    A story for issue 88 of The Walkley Magazine, the quarterly publication for Australian media professionals. Excerpt below.

    Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk

    Newsletter as lifeline.

    The Walkley Magazine story by Andrew McMillen: 'Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk', April 2017. Illustration by Tom Jellett

    The email subject line in edition #139 was “Clown doctors, giant pigs and public shaming”, while #99 was titled “Gay twins, shot elephants and friendly magpies”. The intention is always to pique the reader’s interest, so that if they see Dispatches among a few dozen emails in their inbox, mine is the one they’ll want to open first, because they are curious about these three unique phrases—taken from the recommendations contained within—and want to know more.

    Every week, you see, I spend an hour or two compiling an email newsletter that is sent to people around the world. Some of them are my friends and family; others I have never met before, and have no idea how they came across my work. Since starting with zero subscribers in March 2014, I have now delivered more than 140 editions. The newsletter is called Dispatches, after the Michael Herr book of the same name. It is a space where I recommend excellent feature articles and books I have read and enjoyed, as well as podcasts, music, and my own recently published writing.

    Its format has remained unchanged in the three years since I started. There are three sections: Words, Sounds and Reads. I choose a relevant image to announce each section, because I know that an email newsletter consisting only of text can be a little overwhelming.

    Since the beginning, I have sent the newsletter on Thursday mornings. This was a deliberate choice: as Friday tends to be the busiest day for office workers scrambling to meet deadlines before clocking off for the weekend, I figured that seeing a long, considered email from me a couple of mornings before the workweek ends might offer a welcome reprieve. Setting an expectation around a weekly publication schedule might help to give others some structure in their work lives, too. (Perhaps I am projecting.)

    For the first couple of years, I would compile the recommendations on Wednesday, and then wait until waking the following morning to manually press “send” using a free online service called TinyLetter. Now, I publish it just after midnight, in the wee hours of Thursday morning—which suits me better as a night owl, anyway. It’s the last thing I do before going to bed, and it pleases me to know that, by the time I’m back at the desk the following morning, more than a hundred people will have already opened the latest edition.

    To read the full story, visit The Walkley Magazine on Medium. Above illustration credit: Tom Jellett.

  • The Kernel story: ‘The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer, Brett Christensen’, May 2016

    A story for The Kernel, published in May 2016. Excerpt below.

    The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer

    Thirteen years ago, Brett Christensen was the victim of an email hoax. Since then, he’s dedicated himself to preventing the same fate for others.

    The Kernel story: 'The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer' by Andrew McMillen, May 2016. Illustration by J. Longo

    For 13 years, Brett Christensen has been a committed professional debunker. This balding, bearded, soft-spoken, and serious man of 53 years has devoted himself to fighting the tide of online misinformation—the kind of scams, frauds, and hoaxes that used to spread from one inbox to the next but today move with alarming speed across social media. He assures readers that no, Mr. T is not dead (actually a like-farming scam); combining Mentos and Pepsi won’t lead to cyanide poisoning; and the sun won’t be going dark for eight days in June, no matter what that Facebook post quotes NASA as saying.

    In short, Christensen tries to bring his readers the facts, even as lies and mistruth swirl all around him. Way back in 2003, when he began his quest, he gave his website the suitably ambitious name, Hoax-Slayer. Its white, red, and black design favors practicality over aesthetics; while not particularly pretty to look at, the site is one of the Web’s largest archives of falsehoods. Christensen claims around 1 million visits per month, three-quarters of which arrive from search engines.

    The Hoax Slayer himself lives in a house hidden by trees on a busy street in Bundaberg, Australia, a city of about 55,000 people situated in Queensland, the country’s third most populous state. His home office is a minimally appointed room with an adjustable desk, a copy machine, a single computer monitor, and plenty of unused space. One of the walls is painted blue, and on either side of the monitor hangs a calendar and a framed assortment of Christensen family photos.

    As we talk, Christensen clicks onto Google Analytics, showing 50 people from around the world are currently browsing the site. Its social media presence is significant, too, with more than 202,000 Facebook fans and 5,300 Twitter followers.

    For a time, the site operated as a family business: At the peak of online advertising revenue a few years ago, he could afford to hire two sons from his previous marriage to help him with Web development and maintenance. “If you’d told me back in 2004 that I’d been making a living out of it, I would’ve laughed at you,” he says.

    Christensen’s wife, Deborah, also joined her husband in working on the site full-time for a few years but recently decided to return to her job as a probation and parole officer, managing the cases of criminal offenders. Today, about 80 percent of Christensen’s workweek is spent on managing Hoax Slayer, a site whose mission statement is “to help make the Internet a safer, more pleasant and more productive environment.”

    It’s a quest that started with a hoax. Nothing too terrible; in fact, just a bit of mild embarrassment. Back in the early 2000s, when Christensen was still new to the World Wide Web, he received an email informing him not to download a Budweiser Frogs screensaver, as it contained a dangerous computer virus. He hurriedly forwarded it to his contacts. He thought he’d done the right thing by warning his friends and family away from harm—until he received a reply that it was a hoax. Stunned and chastened, he was also intrigued by how he’d become a victim. Rather than simply chalking it up to experience and moving on, he burrowed in.

    To read the full story, visit The Kernel. Above illustration credit: J. Longo.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Heroin Heroine of Reddit’, July 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    The Heroin Heroine of Reddit

    How a former addict uses the internet to save drug users’ lives

    'The Heroin Heroine of Reddit' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, July 2015

    On a quiet night in late April, Brad Treseler slipped off to his bedroom at his family’s home in Cumberland, Virginia. His friends kept on chatting in the living room, but after a few minutes they began to wonder what Brad was up to. They found the 25-year-old slumped on the floor of his room, blue and unresponsive. He had overdosed on heroin and benzodiazepine.

    Brad’s friends cycled through the options. They could call 911, but the responders might not arrive in time and might tip off the police. Or they could run to the apartment next door and wake Treseler’s older brother, Bill. They knew that Bill had a small vial containing a clear liquid called naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. In a panic, they opted to make the short sprint and bang on Bill’s door.

    Together, they carried Brad into the bathtub and cranked on the shower. Bill dipped a syringe into the vial and drew in the naloxone, then injected the the liquid into the fatty part of Brad’s thigh. Nothing happened, so Bill refilled the syringe and injected him again. Brad stirred, and opened his eyes to see his brother and terrified friends peering down at him. As he came to, he thought: This is what being dead is like.

    Brad had acquired two vials of the naloxone months earlier. Some states—including New Mexico, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and California—allow it to be sold over the counter. But it is illegal in Virginia, so Brad received his shipment in the mail from an unlikely source: the online forum Reddit.

    Brad is an active member of the Opiates subreddit, a lively forum where queries about safe injection practices and rehabilitation are posted alongside tactics for hustling cash and coping with constipation, an unwelcome side effect of frequent opioid use. He saw a thread where a moderator known as the “mother of r/opiates,” named Tracey Helton, was offering to send clean needles to fellow Redditors. When he reached out to Tracey about the free needles, which were rare in his scene, she told him that the package included naloxone. Brad replied, “Oh man, that’s awesome! That’s a great idea!”

    Five days later, a yellow padded envelope arrived from San Francisco, where Tracey lives. Inside was a bag of clean syringes, two vials of naloxone and a post-it note with a hand-drawn smiley face. “I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ I didn’t send her any money. All I did was send her one little message,” Brad says. “Somebody out there cares that much.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • Announcing ‘Penmanship’, my podcast about Australian writing culture, May 2015

    Logo for 'Penmanship', Andrew McMillen's podcast about Australian writing culture, launched in May 2015. Logo design by Stuart McMillenI’m proud to announce the launch of Penmanship, my podcast about Australian writing culture.

    Penmanship will feature interviews with Australians who earn a living from working with words: writers, editors and publishers, among others.

    Each episode consists of an in-depth, one-on-one conversation about the guest’s career, craft and inner life. The show’s goal is to provide unique insights into the creative process, mechanics and skills behind the best writing in the country. The podcast exists to explore the diversity and complexity of Australian storytelling by speaking directly with leading contributors to the field.

    The written description and embedded audio for the first episode are included below.

    Penmanship podcast episode 1: Trent Dalton, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015Penmanship Episode 1: Trent Dalton

    Trent Dalton is a staff writer at The Weekend Australian Magazine.

    He’s one of the most influential journalists in my life, and I’m honoured that he’s my first guest on Penmanship.

    Trent’s writing moves and inspires me with shocking regularity. Judging by the volume of praise-filled letters to the editor published in The Weekend Australian Magazine following each of his stories, I’m not the only one.

    Our interview touches on Trent’s upbringing in Bracken Ridge, Brisbane; his early interest in magazine journalism; working at an auto-electrical parts supplier for a year after finishing high school; studying creative writing at university; his first writing job at Brisbane News on a salary of $26,000; his pre-interview tactic of looking in the bathroom mirror and reciting a mantra misquoted from Reservoir Dogs; and his transition to writing feature stories with great emotional depth.

    Previously, Trent was a staff writer at Qweekend and an assistant editor of The Courier-Mail. He has won a Walkley Award for excellence in journalism, been a three-time winner of the national News Awards Feature Journalist of the Year Award, and was named Queensland Journalist of the Year at the 2011 Clarion Awards for excellence in Queensland media. His journalism has twice been nominated for a United Nations of Australia Media Peace Award.

    Trent Dalton on Twitter: @TrentDalton

    Direct download          iTunes          libsyn

    Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

    To learn more about Penmanship, head over to its standalone website, and subscribe via iTunes or your preferred method of podcast consumption.

    The show’s logo and header image was designed and illustrated by Canberra-based cartoonist Stuart McMillen; click the below image for a closer look at the full desk scene.

    Desk scene logo for 'Penmanship', Andrew McMillen's podcast about Australian writing culture, launched in May 2015. Logo design by Stuart McMillen

  • The Guardian story: ‘The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use’, July 2014

    A comment piece for The Guardian’s Australian culture blog, published the day after my book Talking Smack was released. The full story appears below.

    The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use

    In a new book exploring the relationship between musicians and illicit substances, some of Australia’s most successful artists say there’s more to the story than the usual chorus of condemnation

    'The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use' story on The Guardian Australia by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” is a well-worn cliche that music fans and journalists use as shorthand for “someone else’s job is more fun than mine”. We fantasise about the wild excesses and rampant hedonism experienced by the world’s top performing artists on a regular basis.

    And yet, in writing my book Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, I discovered there is a kernel of truth to the cliche. Some of Australia’s most successful musicians – including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Steve Kilbey, Phil Jamieson and Holly Throsby – openly admit that the use of both legal and illegal drugs has contributed to some of their creative achievements and personal insights.

    Of the 14 musicians I interviewed, all of them have had contact with illicit drugs at some point in their lives. The preference for substances varied widely, from cannabis and MDMA to methamphetamine and heroin. I discovered that the reasons individuals are drawn to the risky business of ingesting, inhaling, snorting or injecting foreign substances are complex and nuanced.

    Although stories of drug abuse, overdose and addiction have been part of the popular musical lexicon for decades, while working on Talking Smack I found an important distinction to be made: that despite the noisy negatives often associated with drugs at all levels of society, many of my interviewees had positive experiences. This is a rarely-acknowledged truth for many Australians, regardless of whether or not they’re employed in the creative industries.

    Illicit drug use in Australia is often rendered as a black-and-white battleground: you’re either a drug user and thus looked down upon as a loser and a criminal, or you’re an anti-drugs totem of purity. My goal was to explore the shades of grey by talking to public figures who know what they’re talking about when it comes to a tricky topic, and where rational, expert voices are sorely lacking.

    Usually the discussion is dominated by politicians, police and sensationalist media outlets who stand together in condemnation of anyone who would dare consume a drug that isn’t alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or a prescribed medication.

    What I found during many hours of face-to-face conversations about this topic with such distinctly different musicians is that there is no simple story when it comes to drugs. Some people are early bloomers, and try substances in their teens; others, like myself, avoid the matter entirely until their mid-20s, or later. Some, like Gotye, choose to abstain completely. Drug tastes vary greatly between individuals; the chemicals that resonate with one person may repel the next.

    For some of these musicians, subjective experiences and sensations felt while under the influence had a powerful effect on songwriting. Steve Kilbey told me that The Church’s 1992 album Priest=Aura was an attempt to recreate the feeling of heroin through music, soon after he had started using the drug.

    “That was the honeymoon,” said Kilbey. “You can hear it’s working. You can hear that I achieved that thing. And then it went downhill after that. For 10 or 11 years, I still made records [on heroin]. But I struggled a bit. When the gear arrived, I’d get so stoned I couldn’t work.”

    Managing these motivations is a struggle met by many creative people, whether their task is to play an instrument, paint a canvas or scribble words. Sydney hip-hop artist Urthboy is unsure whether smoking cannabis while writing lyrics is an effective way to tap into creativity: “I’ve never really had any clear proof of that; you can’t say that’s a fact when you write really good stuff without smoking,” he said.

    “To ever suggest that weed is an essential ingredient in that process is almost to give up on your own abilities.”

    For Melbourne pop artist Bertie Blackman – who has struggled with alcoholism, depression and anxiety – abstinence is a matter of prioritising her mental health. “Recreational drugs in a safe environment are cool,” she told me. “I’m around it occasionally, and I don’t frown on it. I mean, they exist. It’s just that I make the choice now to not partake, because I know that, for me and my mental health, it’s not good.”

    That’s the bottom line for many Australians: an individual choosing whether or not to use a particular drug for an intended benefit, whether that’s buying a bottle of wine or a gram of cocaine. The illegality of the latter choice rarely comes into account. Humans are clever: where there’s a will to snort or smoke something, there’s a way.

    Almost all of my interviewees agreed that the prohibitionist “war on drugs” is failed policy that has had little to no effect on their overall consumption. As Steve Kilbey of The Church told me:

    “I think it’s becoming obvious to people that the whole [war] about drugs was a fucking lie,” Kilbey said. “It’s like fucking burning witches at the stake, or having slaves. I believe one day people will, in some enlightened time, look back at this and say, ‘You know they used to throw people in jail for five years for smoking marijuana?’ Why? What the fuck have you done except disobey some fuckwit in authority? That’s all it is. People are realising that taking drugs is a medical issue; it’s a social issue. It’s nothing to do with the law.”

    Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen is published by University of Queensland Press.

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Digital Vertigo’ by Andrew Keen and ‘The Blind Giant’ by Nick Harkaway, July 2012

    Two digital-themed non-fiction books rolled into one review, for The Weekend Australian. The full review follows.

    New portals of perception in a digital age

    As cyberspace encroaches ever deeper into our everyday lives, it’s worth pressing the pause button to question how we choose to spend our time in an era of digital distractions. The two books under review present opposing viewpoints on this conundrum.

    In Digital Vertigo [pictured right], Anglo-American entrepreneur Andrew Keen takes a critical stance against the technologists behind social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, for reasons exemplified in the book’s subtitle. Keen knows his topic from the inside: on the cover the title is presented as a Twitter hashtag and the author’s name as @ajkeen. He has more than 19,000 followers on that medium, and this book seems to have been written between his frequent pond-hopping to speak at social media conferences.

    The tale begins with Keen staring at the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the long-dead British philosopher and prison architect best known for his Panopticon design, in which inmates can be watched by outside observers at any time: “a prison premised upon the principle of perpetual peeking”, as Keen writes. Per his wishes, Bentham’s body is permanently exhibited inside a glass-fronted coffin — an “auto-icon” — within University College, London. Keen’s segue is that social media represents the “permanent self-exhibition zone of our digital age”.

    A curious introduction, no doubt. Time and again, Keen revisits the concept of the auto-icon while examining how our culture has become “a transparent love-in, an orgy of over-sharing” and comparing today to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where “to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude was always slightly dangerous”. Many readers will recognise a kernel of truth in this comparison: to log on to the internet in 2012 is to be inundated with requests (demands?) to share, to socialise with other humans.

    Keen’s title is also a reference to the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, where the protagonist eventually learns that everything he believed to be true was the product of malicious deception by his peers. Keen ties this to social media by describing it as “so ubiquitous, so much the connective tissue of society” that we’re all “victims of a creepy story that we neither understand nor control”.

    The scenic route that Keen takes to arrive at this tenuous point is not particularly interesting. He fills entire chapters by paraphrasing academics and journalists, and attempts to list seemingly every start-up social business making waves in Silicon Valley. As a self-described “super node” of the social network, Keen seems quite proud to tell us that he closed his personal Facebook account in September last year.

    What could have been an original tech-dissident’s tale from the belly of the never sleeping beast is instead convoluted and messy. Keen draws heavily on historical references and too often these miss the mark, though a thorough examination of the creation and fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace in London is a highlight. It’s worth considering whether the meandering and messy nature of Digital Vertigo — including many typographical errors — is a symptom of the author’s inability to avoid the attention-shattering properties of the web.

    At the time of writing, @ajkeen was still tweeting, by the way.

    Conversely, British novelist Nick Harkaway tries his hand at long-form nonfiction for the first time in The Blind Giant [pictured right], and strikes on a narrative that immediately grips the reader. Using tight language and evocative descriptions, Harkaway’s introduction is a nightmare vision of a dystopian, tech-led society where “consciousness itself, abstracted thought and a sense of the individual as separate from the environment” are all withering away. A contrasting vision of a “happy valley” follows, and is just as realistic and compelling.

    Harkaway admits in the afterword that the book had its origins in “unpicking the idea that digital technology was responsible for all our ills”. This late-declared bias aside, The Blind Giant is a measured and thoughtful take on a problem that will concern us all soon, if it doesn’t already.

    Though the author is clearly tech-inclined – he notes on page one that he was born in 1972, the same year as the release of the first video game, Pong – he is not fanatical. He compares attempts to switch off from the internet with refusing to open your mail: “It doesn’t solve the problem, it just leaves you ignorant of what’s happening, and gradually the letters pile up on the mat.”

    His narrative arc is well considered and draws on disparate topics such as neuroplasticity (how the brain alters its make-up to take on new skills and abilities), whether social media helped or hindered the anti-Mubarak revolutions last year (in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and London) and the intriguing idea that we are living in an era of “peak digital”: “the brief and impetuous flowering of digital technology during which we inhabit a fantasy of infinite resources at low market prices”.

    Harkaway is a consistently engaging narrator: his fascinating analogies, elegant word play and occasional use of humour all point to his storytelling skills. True to the subtitle, his book cuts to the core of what it means to be human and how we might go about managing new and emerging technologies.

    It’s no self-help guide to unplugging yourself from the wired world, nor does he encourage us to spend more time with our heads in “the cloud”. Instead, Harkaway urges us to acknowledge our humanness on a regular basis, regardless of whether that human happens to be engaging online or off.

    Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us
    By Andrew Keen
    St Martin’s Press, 246pp, $32.95

    The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World
    By Nick Harkaway
    John Murray, 288pp, $21.99

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.

  • The Global Mail story: ‘Do You C What I C?’, March 2012

    My first story for The Global Mail: a feature about the use of the word ‘cunt’ in modern Australia.

    Excerpt below; click the image to view the story on The Global Mail website (link will open in a new window).

    Do You C What I C?
    by Andrew McMillen

    Long absent from polite society, it is widely considered one of the most obscene words in the English language — and yet this very vulgarity is suddenly very vogue in some circles. But even the twentysomethings who fling it around willingly wouldn’t use That Word in front of their parents. What’s changed with the C word?

    “WHAT A CUNT OF A WEEK,” writes a female friend on Facebook one Friday afternoon, after an apparently stressful week of work at a Brisbane radio station. A live music promoter friend updates his Facebook status in the early hours of a Sunday morning: “Extremely tired. Just found out the fucking dog has pissed on my bed. I’m done with that cunt.”

    When I’m playing a first-person shooter video game online and my character is killed by an opponent’s bullets, I’m likely to type those four letters among a ridiculous string of expletives, mostly to amuse myself while I wait for the next round to begin.

    As a 24-year-old Australian male, I’m drowning in the word. It seems to be the go-to expletive for people around my age — mostly males, but females aren’t exactly a rare exception. The word cunt is in common usage — most often as a term of frustration or ironic endearment rather than an insult directed at any particular person.

    We say it because we think it’s a funny word to say, to type, to express to other human beings. It’s something of a naughty vice that we knowingly indulge in, smiling inwardly at our own wickedness. Among my friends, its use is entirely context-specific. It is not a word that would ever be uttered during dinner table conversation with my parents. But in the lounge room with my housemates, all in their 20s, it falls from our mouths at a frequency that would undoubtedly shock my grandparents. I recall that during my early high school years, the word was perceived as risqué by my friends and me. When our schoolmates said it, we flinched. How dare they say that?

    But by senior year, something had changed – trends, taboos, our maturity or lack thereof – and we’d regularly make each other laugh by quoting lyrics from a song titled ‘I’m a Cunt‘ by West Australian rappers Hunter and Dazastah. Sample: “I’ve done a lot of cunty things / And out of cunts you know / You know I be the king.”

    CUT TO March 2012. I walk the streets of Brisbane with a blue A4 folder in my hand. Underneath the cover, wedged inside the plastic sleeves, I’ve printed six words in mega-sized fonts. Dark blue cardboard separates the six pages, so the next word can’t be seen until the page is turned.

    I meet 43-year-old local author Krissy Kneen at a New Farm café as she flips through the words: bloody, arsehole, shit, fuck and motherfucker. Before she flips to the final word, I ask Kneen what she thinks will be next.

    A brief pause. “Cunt?”

    And there it is, in 255-point Times New Roman.

    To read the full 4,400 word story, visit The Global Mail.

  • Australian Penthouse story: ‘The High Road: Silk Road, an online marketplace like no other’, February 2012

    A story for the January 2012 edition of Australian Penthouse, reproduced below in its entirety. Click the main image for a closer look (which will open a PDF in a new window), or read the article text underneath. You can click any of the below images and screenshots for a larger version, too..

    The High Road
    by Andrew McMillen

    Silk Road is an online marketplace like no other. Totally anonymous, the website uses sophisticated encryption software and a digital currency to facilitate the worldwide sale of prohibited items, particularly illicit drugs. Australian Penthouse investigates.

    “Imagine how exciting it is when you get something in the mail; even the shittiest thing, like a free sample. But in this case, you’re getting drugs that you really want to take, and get high on. It’s a compounded experience of excitement; an exponential high.”

    A 24-year old man who lives in an inner-city suburb of Brisbane is describing what he felt upon opening his mailbox one day in 2011 and discovering a package containing one gram of cocaine. It was addressed to a person who does not exist. He does not know the source of the substance beyond its country of origin. This was not the first time he had purchased drugs online; his first order was for one gram of MDMA powder. That package was sent to a house that he knew was unoccupied; it took around nine days to arrive from Canada. He checked the vacant mailbox daily. “I’m still waiting for some undies off of eBay from Hong Kong,” he says. “[The MDMA] arrived way quicker than that.”

    Why the alternate address in the first instance? “Because having something illicit sent in the mail seems fairly thick,” he replies. “It seems so simple; too good to be true. I wanted to put some form of buffer between myself and the order I made, as a ‘test run’.

    “One day it was in there and it hadn’t been intercepted. I didn’t get immediately arrested when I took it out of the mailbox. Since I didn’t use my real name, it didn’t seem possible to get traced back to me. It still hasn’t been.”

    These orders were made using a website called Silk Road. It can only be accessed after installing anonymity-enabling software called Tor. All purchases are made using Bitcoin, a currency which only exists online and whose public transaction history can be untraceable if handled correctly.

    My interviewee randomly discovered online mentions of Silk Road in May 2011, and pursued the intriguing concept all the way through to installing Tor and trading Australian dollars for Bitcoin; a process he calls “semi-prohibitive” owing to the persistence and tech-knowledge required to check all the boxes before users can place an order. In four transactions, my interviewee has ordered three grams of MDMA and three grams of cocaine at a cost of “close to AUD$700”.

    So what motivated him to take a chance on buying illicit substances online from a complete stranger?

    “I’m interested in taking drugs casually, but I hate the process,” he says. “I don’t know any dealers. Even if I want to get weed, I don’t know anyone, so it always becomes this drawn out process of finding someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s a real pain in the arse. Whereas this way, it’s so direct and private. I didn’t leave my room, and then nine days later there was something in the mailbox that was for me. It’s discreet and exciting. Imagine the fun of shopping on eBay, but then you can also get high.”

    Visiting Silk Road for the first time, I feel a little like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. After downloading the correct Tor software bundle, I connected within five minutes. A warning appears at the bottom of the registration screen: “Be advised: This website is experimental. We do not guarantee your anonymity, protection from law enforcement in your jurisdiction, or protection from other users of this service. You and you alone are responsible for the risks associated with entering and using this website.” The site does not request any information from its users beyond a username and password; not even an email address. And then, you’re in.

    The site’s bright, clean design displays images of nine items for sale; among them, ‘red joker’ ecstasy pills, one-ounce of the ‘purple kush’ cannabis strain, a $50 Australian banknote and syringes. When I first visit the site in late August 2011, one bitcoin is worth USD$11.15; a fortnight later, the exchange rate has dropped to USD$6.18 per bitcoin.

    The nine ‘featured’ items change upon each page refresh. A column on the left categorises the goods for sale: ‘drugs’ is split into sub-categories like ‘dissociatives’ (11 items for sale), ‘psychedelics’ (123 items), ‘stimulants’ (65) and the most popular category, ‘cannabis’ (237). Other categories include ‘digital goods’, ‘money’, ‘XXX’, ‘weaponry’ and ‘forgeries’.

    At first, it’s a little overwhelming. What Silk Road [SR] offers is the online equivalent of strolling down a dim-lit alley filled with surly guys wearing heavy trenchcoats, except that you can contemplate purchasing their goods while lounging in your underwear, without fear of being stabbed.

    Each page on the site generally takes a few seconds to load, regardless of the user’s connection speed, due to an overcrowded Tor network. A page called ‘how does it work?’ describes the site as “an anonymous marketplace where you can buy and sell without revealing who you are. We protect your identity through every step of the process, from connecting to this site, to purchasing your items, to finally receiving them”. Lengthy guides for both buyers and sellers are freely available. The latter guide states that “every precaution must be taken to maintain the secrecy of the contents of your client’s package. Creatively disguise it such that a postal inspector might ignore it if it was searched or accidentally came open.”

    It concludes with a ‘final note’: “Regardless of your motivations, you are a revolutionary. Your actions are bringing satisfaction to those that have been oppressed for far too long. Take pride in what you do and stand tall.”

    There’s an active and boisterous SR forum community, which is hosted off-site and requires an additional registration; this process requests an email address, but a note states that it doesn’t have to be a legit address.

    After poking around the site and smirking at some of the items for sale – condoms, an e-book of Neil Strauss’ pick-up artist classic The Game, military training manuals – I decide to engage with a few sellers by requesting interviews using the site’s private messaging system.

    Within 10 minutes, three sellers respond enthusiastically to my request; one says, “I’ll even give you a media discount if you order.” The website’s administrator, who goes by the username Silk Road, also responds. “Sorry, we aren’t doing interviews at the moment,” he says. “Good luck.”

    Of the 27 SR sellers I approach during a two-week period on the site, seven respond thoughtfully and at length to my questions. They are mostly based in the US and Canada, though one is Australian. All seven request that I don’t mention their usernames. A few prefer to conduct the interview using PGP text encryption, which adds another element of spookiness to the situation. Most of the sellers found their way to Silk Road after the site was covered online by Wired and Gawker in June 2011.

    When I ask what they like about Silk Road, I’m met with a range of responses. “Being able to provide a safe and anonymous way for someone to purchase something that they choose to put into their body,” says one seller. “It’s nice how it turns drug dealing into an office job, with less risk and more stable demand while interacting openly with customers,” replies another. This focus on administrative duties is echoed by another seller, who says it’s “nice to have everything so organized and centralized, it really cuts down on the time spent per order which is a huge plus when you’ve got a mountain of them to work through.”

    One source remarked aloud, ‘this is the future’, upon finding the site. “The free market has provided for one of the oldest needs in human history,” they elaborate. “[SR] removes the elements of danger that exist in in-person black market arrangements, and offered anonymity for all parties involved.”

    I ask what sellers don’t like about the service. One tells me, “while the majority of users are honest and trustworthy, you always have to keep your guard up. There are plenty of scammers here on SR.” Another is frustrated by the long wait between making a sale and receiving the bitcoins in their account. “It can take a while for people to finalize transactions, so the money gets stuck in escrow until the customer remembers to finalize, or it auto-finalizes after like 20 or so days.”

    One seller is concerned about the silo-like nature of the site: “Having everything organized – vendor statistics easily accessible, reliance on a single server, etc – all makes any vendor, or even SR itself, a juicier target for LE [law enforcement].” An Australian seller replies, “I don’t like being out in the open. Even though I feel rather anonymous within SR, I could always make a simple mistake with my packaging or use of encryption that would give me away.”

    A few of my respondents reveal that they have sold drugs in the real world. One dubs the online process “much easier” than face-to-face sales. “SR buyers have no info about me whatsoever. Whereas with a face-to-face transaction, a buyer might know my name, what I look like, the car that I drive, or the city that I live in. So if they get caught, LE goes up the food chain. Here on SR, there’s nowhere for LE to go.”

    Another seller says SR is preferable because it “takes potential violence right out of the equation, and mitigates theft; you can’t exactly take someone to court for robbing you during a black-market trade, which is why there is so much violence. I prefer SR to offline, any day of the week.” One seller candidly replies, that SR is “better and cleaner. Customers are more educated and nice, and it leaves you more spare time to study, play with the kids, and clean the house. It’s telecommuting at its finest.”

    None of the seven sellers I interviewed would detail how they package the illicit substances sent through the international postal system. A couple mentioned that it’s an unwritten law among SR sellers to not disclose such methods, though I learn by reading the forums that vacuum sealing is common. The young man from Brisbane who received MDMA and cocaine in the mail didn’t want to discuss the appearance of the packages he received, either.

    All this illegal activity must be a rush, even if the process does become somewhat normalised due to the volume of orders that some sellers process. I have one final question. What does it feel like to sell illicit drugs over the internet to complete strangers?

    One replies, “honestly, it can be quite nerve racking. I have no idea if I just sent some illegal items to LE. That’s why it’s so important for a good vendor to use all precautionary tactics to keep important info away from them. Leaving no DNA or fingerprints, and sending from an area where you don’t live. It’s not unusual for a vendor to be wearing hairnets and multiple layers of gloves while packaging the material. If there is even a one-percent chance of some identifying marks on or inside that package, it will be thrown out.”

    Another says, “It’s awesome. Most of the users on Silk Road are good people, and it’s always been a pleasure providing them goods that their corrupt governments have denied them. By simply living our lives and doing what we want to do, we break the government’s iron fist. It’s pretty satisfying.”

    “It feels great,” agrees another. “I get to make a positive contribution in the lives of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to drugs, such as old folks, and people in remote locations.” The seller shares some feedback received by a buyer that they found “really touching”. The feedback reads, “I don’t want to sound all sentimental and crap but in all honesty, my friends and I have become closer and happier with ourselves and each other, thanks to you and your stuff. It’s really been a bonding experience for everyone. We aren’t really the partying type and instead like to chill and talk for hours. Thanks to you, we have shared some amazing experiences.”

    The seller tells me that “getting feedback like that makes those nights spent sweating over a hot vacuum sealer seem worthwhile!”

    For more on Silk Road, visit its Wikipedia page.

  • A Conversation With Neil Strauss, New York Times bestselling author, 2011

    Almost two years ago, I traveled from Brisbane to Sydney to meet Neil Strauss – my favourite writer [pictured right] – for a face-to-face interview. It was a life-changing experience, and that’s no exaggeration: being in his presence solidified my decision to seriously pursue journalism. (Up until that point, I’d only dabbled; the interview was ostensibly for FourThousand.com.au, a Brisbane-focused online publication). That meeting, and our resultant conversation, is documented in full here.

    This time around, when Neil’s new book Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead – a collection of enlightening and revealing moments taken from his 3000+ interviews with cultural figures for Rolling Stone and The New York Times – appeared on Text Publishing’s Australian release schedule, I was in the position to get paid to interview my favourite writer, rather than spending a few hundred dollars on travel for the same opportunity. Which is nice.

    I interviewed Neil over the phone from his home in California for The Courier-Mail in early March 2011, before the book was released. I published a 800 word article here, which summarised our 45 minute conversation.

    Our full interview transcript is included below.

    Beware: throughout our interview, there are many references to the content of …When You’re Dead, so if you haven’t read it yet, you might want to avoid reading this interview. Maybe not.

    ++

    Firstly, I want to talk about the final chapter of the book, and the epilogue. I thought it was a very touching note to end on; it wrapped everything up nicely. It made me wonder; was that section about [American rock and folk music critic] Paul Nelson always going to close the book? [Note: Nelson died in 2006 due to apparent starvation. Strauss wrote a feature for Rolling Stone about his death, called “The Man Who Disappeared”; in When You’re Dead, he says it was the hardest article he’s ever had to write.]

    No. I don’t think any book is ever planned. It always sort of just happens. I guess I knew I wanted the last section to be about family and mortality, and I felt I put so much heart and time into the Paul Nelson piece, it seems like a fitting epilogue for the book. And it rolled so nicely into the actual epilogue. I knew that each section was going to have a theme, and the last section was really going to look at mortality around different angles, in a parallex way. That got more appropriate there. It just sort of landed there.

    When I’m writing, I never think in advance. I just keep hammering and hammering. They’re like puzzles. You’re putting everything together and you keep rearranging until you feel that it’s right.

    Something that Paul’s ex-wife said made me think of you, Neil. She said, “I found out more about him by reading what he wrote.” I wondered if you’d ever heard the same thing from those close to you.

    [laughs] You know what? That’s such a good comment. I’ve never heard that, but I know it’s 100% true. One hundred per cent true. There are things that I can’t tell people face-to-face, whether they’re just friends of mine, or people I love who are close to my life, yet for some reason I’m not afraid to write about them, even though I know they’ll see ‘em.

    Even the stuff in The Game, I’ve never told people because I was worried they would judge me. The stuff in Rules Of The Game, in that first story about that really, really old woman. My friends would have just ripped… it would have been publicly humiliating. But I guess I feel if I can write it I can really explain it fully, all the dimensions to it and I can make sure it’s said right, and comes out right.

    That way I can say it the best way I can possibly say it. It’s so true. It’s interesting. It might be something… I just interviewed Howard Stern for Rolling Stone, and I realised what we have in common. It’s hard sometimes to communicate the truth, as a guy like me, because it’s hard to deal with peoples’ emotions. If you say something that affects someone you have to deal with their emotional reaction to it. And maybe in a book, as horrible as this sounds, no-one is talking back to you, to that idea. No-one is saying that it’s wrong or that it hurts them, or is an unhealthy way to think, or it’s a judgmental thing to say, or whatever. It’s a semi-one-way conversation. I’m speaking to a bunch of people, but they’re sort of a faceless, invisible mob.

    I see what you mean. Most journalists I know admit to feeling guilty for drilling into peoples’ minds to make their stories public. I’d like to know your take on that.

    I never feel guilty, because I never try to hurt anybody with a story. I’ve never been a gossip reporter. I’ve never sat outside somebody’s house chasing them. Everything I’ve ever written, at least in journalism, is in the context of, you know, “I’m here to write a story, and anything you say or do can end up in that story”. So they’re making the choices. I’ve never tried to assassinate anyone. I’m always trying to show them as they are.

    Sometimes I feel guilty in the sense of after we did this interview; say I spent a long time with this musician, and I’m leaving with four hours of recordings of them spilling their soul to me, and all of a sudden it’s like, “thank you very much, good-bye”, and I’m just walking away with their soul on a tape, to some degree. They have nothing. That part always feels strange to me, like having sex with someone, then pulling out and running away.

    The fact that you’re working with ‘household names’ most of the time, does that increase the guilt, knowing that you’re exposing them even further?

    No. I would feel that with anyone. If I’d just interviewed a guy off the street for four hours, or for a day or a week, about their inner most thoughts and fears; their life, their insecurities, and their hopes and dreams and ambitions, and then I just walked away… I’d still feel horrible, because they have nothing. I’ve got this tape recorder that has everything. It’s a feeling of: I’ve taken something and I’ve walked away with it, and what do they have? Nothing.

    Even though that’s not how it works – obviously they have the promotion and the press and whatever the article is [about] – but it’s still a way where they’re bereft, and here I am with everything. You try and shape it as honestly as you can, but there’s also a trust element, where you could shape it any way you want.

    Speaking broadly, have you thought much about why people are so interested to read about the lives of famous people?

    I don’t believe that. I didn’t put the most famous people I interviewed in the book. A lot of the people I interviewed, whose heart and fame I adore, whether it’s Stevie Wonder, Iggy Pop… who I didn’t put in the book, because the interviews weren’t revelatory. I think if anything, what makes it look unique is: there are a lot of people who spend their lives interviewing famous people, but just as interesting as Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake and Bruce Springsteen are Von Lmo, and Patrick Miller, and Lucia Pamela, who probably 99.9% of readers never heard of. And yet they’re going to find those just as interesting as the big stars.

    I just think people are interesting if you get them at the right moment, you know? [laughs] I do think that on some level, celebrities are being used to sell the book, and that’s a lot of what I’ve written about, but to me the Ernie K-Doe experience – the 50s R&B star who tried to have me arrested, or again, Patrick Miller who’s smoking crack and doing heroin in his basement and fighting off hallucinations – they’re even more interesting than reading about… for example, Led Zeppelin just being assholes. [laughs]

    To talk about the book in broader terms; this book is not directly about you, it’s about revealing other people. It’s been a while since you’ve done a project like that.

    Right. But I think in a lot of ways the book is about me. I really made a conscious effort to keep myself out of it but I think between the lines, the book really is an element of my… I think each book is little elements of my autobiography. Whether it’s The Game, which covers a couple of years; Emergency covers a couple years. This, to me, is like the prequel in some ways, [laughs] because this is all I did for 20 years. This is my life for that time, and I think if you look at the pieces, you can see my own evolution as a person. Whether it’s Led Zeppelin making fun of me [for being inexperienced], to learning The Game and trying to seduce people into these interviews, to much later, meeting Lady Gaga and Chuck Berry and giving them life advice. I can see my own evolution in the book. It’s just not explicit.

    When you began putting this book together, at what point did you decide to do that concept of the threaded narratives, or ‘open loops’?

    I think what I did was, I broke down all those interviews to those little clips, and each clip was a standalone clip. Then I collected the most interesting [clips]. Some people were interesting for only one clip, for one little vignette. Other people maybe had three or four vignettes in which they were interesting. Then I sort of sequenced them together, so that everything matched together. The vignettes were really standalone stories about an idea, so I thought that it’d be nice where, “Hey, we get this idea, now here’s a couple ideas from someone else, now let’s return to a new idea for that person we just met”.

    I kind of saw each piece as almost a standalone piece. Even when they continue from scene one to scene two to scene three, sometimes the story continues. Sometimes they’re just completely separate ideas. Other times, which I kind of like, you see artists at different times in their career. Maybe a couple years later, they feel bad about what they said earlier.

    It’s interesting that a lot of the segues between the vignettes are artists mentioning other artists. That shows the breadth of the 20 years that you’ve spent doing this.

    Yeah, it’s really funny. I’d probably say, with one or two notable exceptions, almost every artist someone mentions is interviewed elsewhere in the book, so it’s like the book itself; it’s kind of a closed loop. It is funny, there really were points where Trent Reznor mentions Beck, Gwen Stefani, Marilyn Manson and Oasis and I’ve got all four of those people interviewed elsewhere in the book. It’s like: which one do I put next?

    I think there’s one section where all the artists are always talking about each other, Billy Corgan, Marilyn Manson, I think Courtney Love, Dave Navarro, And they’re all kind of referencing each other.

    You state in the intro that “you can tell a lot about a person in a minute, if you pick the right minute”. Was that always the premise of the book?

    No, the original idea was because Emergency – as you know from when we talkedEmergency was so much work. I basically had to learn how to rebuild the entirety of civilisation all by myself, you know? [laughs] It was so intense, so much work, I thought I’d give myself a break and do an anthology because anyone who’s been writing articles and features for 20 years feels like, “why not collect my favourite pieces and put them in a book?”

    I started collecting [my] pieces and reading them, but… I like telling stories. There were no through lines. I bought a bunch of anthologies from writers I liked. Half of them I didn’t finish, because I got bored. With the other half, after I was done, I was bored of the writer, and bored of the voice, because it’s not a book if it’s just articles bound together.

    Although it literally is my dream project, as for over 10 years I’d been collecting all my favourite articles in a file to put into an essay book. Then I realised it doesn’t work. Every book one does, or every film, or every record should be good enough that if anybody starts with any single one, they’ll then want to read the rest of what you’ve done. I felt if somebody read [a straight anthology] first, and it was the first book of mine [that they’d read], they might not be be intrigued enough to want to read the others.

    I wrestled with it for a while. I thought I’d write a story about being a down-and-out writer in New York, and merge some of the articles that happened during that time, and tried a couple of other formats. Gradually I realised that essentially, these articles were moments when you saw the real person behind the mask.

    I started collecting those. That two month quickie book became fuckin’ two years of intense work. Unlike Emergency, which was fun, I got to go live off in the wild and learn how to pick locks and go to junkyards and hotwire cars. The Game was fun because I got to run around the world and meet women. This time, I was stuck in a room with my own past, sorting through thousands of pages of transcriptions.

    The way I think of it, this book is the journalistic opposite of taking the easy way out. Like you said, rather than putting together your best, or favourite published work, you’ve really gone through and mined your past for the best material.

    Yeah, and it’s funny because I even had most of the interviews re-transcribed. I had somebody go back to the tapes. I said, “I want every time someone coughs, every time they paused, every time there’s an interruption, I want you to write it out like it’s a play and tell me everything going on”. Even though that’s time consuming and expensive and laborious, I was pretty adamant about getting everything from those tapes and looking for those little moments.

    I was going to ask: how much of this book existed on your hard drive already?

    I think only about 10% were on the hard drive as they were.  A lot were already transcribed, but just not well enough. Sometimes, for example, if it’s someone transcribing something, they might not take the part where the guy just asked me as an off-hand thing, “Hey, do you know now to make beans?” The truth is; the guy who’s talking about his album and why he wrote songs, it’s really more revealing to me that he asks the journalist “How do you make beans?,” because he’s trying to cook for his son. That tells me more about the person than some long story about his album. I tried to get most of them transcribed, and the only ones that didn’t were when I couldn’t find the original tapes. I literally called people who transcribed tapes 10 years ago, and had them find the tapes and bring them back to me.

    Was this the first time in your career that you’d really sat down and gone through all your old stuff?

    For sure. Absolutely.

    What were some of the personal highlights when you were going through that material?

    To me, the highlight for sure was finding all these all pitch letters I’d written to people, trying to write articles for different magazines, different newspapers; finding letters I’d written to my family about how excited I was that this article was out, because you forget how much you struggled sometimes. You forget how excited you are at those first-floor victories. That was kinda moving. It’s really easy to forget the past, because we get so caught up in the present. It was cool to see that. Everyone has a passion and a dream, and it was cool to see that I somehow was lucky enough to live that passionate dream, and even overshot, somewhat, my goal. My only goal was to write a weekly column for Village Voice. I did that by the time I was 22, so everything since then has been gravy.

    That’s awesome. Let’s talk about interviewing. What is an interview to you, now? Has it changed since you started doing interviews back then?

    No. I think I’m better at it. The interview’s still the same thing. An interview is still me trying to get as close to someone I can and write an article that somehow captures who they are, and that says something new about the person that hasn’t been written before. It’s always been the same thing, and I’ve always been really hard on myself about them. They’re never easy, and they need a lot of preparation.

    What makes a good interview?

    In the end, it’s about how you write it. I could say to me there are three kinds of good interviews. I’m just thinking of this out loud as we’re talking. One is where someone really examines themselves in a very honest way and is really emotionally vulnerable, and open, and honest with you. Another kind of good interview is where crazy shit happens, like the first time I’m going to interview Motley Crue, and the police are literally arresting Nikki and Tommy, and in the meantime Vince Neil is blow-drying his hair the whole time. That’s a great interview. They haven’t said a word, and it’s already the fucking best interview ever. The third kind is where the subject sucks, where they’ve got fucking nothing to say. They’re really closed off, not giving you anything, and then that’s an opportunity for me to be a creative writer. [laughs] One thing is the material. The other thing is what you make of it.

    I saw a recent press interview for this book, with Cleveland.com, where you told them that when you do an interview you’re petrified with fear and you’re stressed out. I’m surprised that you still feel this way, after doing it for over 20 years.

    For sure, man. My last interview was with Howard Stern… I’m definitely doing fewer and fewer [interviews] over time. I really only want to do one or two a year. But yeah, of course [I’m stressed], because you have to somehow go in, you have a limited amount of time with someone, and you have to walk away and leave with something they’ve never told to anyone else before, or at least any other writer before. That’s a lot of pressure. You’re not in control of it, they’re in control of it.

    My last interview with Howard Stern, who spills his whole life on the radio every day. How do you get that guy to say something new? There’s a burden. I think the better you get at something, the more intimidating it gets. For example, the better I got at pickup during The Game, the harder the approach was because my expectations and everyone else’s expectations were so high of me. To make the parallel, when I approached a girl in the past, if I didn’t get slapped or laughed at, it was a success. In other words, if some crazy wild adventure didn’t happen with this woman, then I failed.

    It’s the same with an interview. In the past, just to get the interview was enough. I succeeded by getting to be in the same room as this great artist who I looked up to. Now it’s not enough. I’ve got to get the best interview this person has ever given in their life. So the better you get at something, the harder and more intimidating it gets. I’m sure that’s true for you. When we had that interview before, I would say the success was fucking even getting it [in the first place].

    Definitely. I know what you mean. You said when we first met that your goal was to get the best possible material out of someone, and like you said; if it’s someone who speaks for a living it’s hard to find some new truth in that. But it’s still the goal. It’s my goal every time, regardless whether it’s a 15 minute phoner or a couple of days with someone, you still want to get the best. You want to be the best. It’s your standards you’ve got to live up to and you want to put them as high as you can.

    Yeah. And as an interviewer, you’re not in control of that. If you’re just writing an article you can make it the best if it’s all up to you, and how well you write, but in an interview you’re not in control of that. I agree.

    Is it a matter of the bigger the star you interview the more nervous you are beforehand, or is it similar across the board?

    I think it all depends on the situation. I’m more nervous if the star has only given us one hour in a room together. Unless I’m going to be going on tour with them for a week because I know I’ll get time to get what I need. I guess it’s not how famous they are, it’s how short of a time I have to get to connect with them.

    When we first met, I think the first thing you told me when you walked over and looked at my sheet of paper, was: “Ready for all 15 questions,” and then you said what you do to prepare for an interview is brainwash yourself with the person’s career and write down every single question that comes to mind. Now besides those two elements, researching and writing down questions, is there something more? Is there a routine to preparing for interviews beyond just research?

    I think it’s kind of what I said before, that brainwashing which is reading all the books, reading every article about them, reading any books if they’ve written any, listening to every album, watching every movie they’re in, and then as I’m doing these things writing down every question that I can possibly ever thing of. Then studying those questions and arranging those questions in a sequence I kind of want to ask them, and then studying those questions like I’m preparing for an exam, where I don’t know what the questions are going to be on the test. [laughs] There’s a lot of big interviews I turned down, because I really didn’t want to get that deep. I wasn’t that interested enough in the artist to get that deep in their life, and their work.

    When you’re meeting face-to-face with your subjects, do you pick clothes to make you appear a certain way?

    No, in fact I’ll usually dress more down than I would if I was going out myself because I want them to know they’re they star, I’m not trying to say… I think if someone walked into the interview saying “hey, we’re equals! Hey, look at me, I’m one of you too!” the star’s already like “no you’re not.” [laughs] So if anything, I try to play myself down. Even the Howard Stern interview I did today ended up on the air and it’s on TV and you see it, I’m dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. I really try to be like, “you’re the star. I’m not going to be so embarrassing you can’t be seen with me, but I’m not going to be dressed like I think I’m a star too”. I think that’s the wrong attitude to go into an interview with. In fact, going into any situation whether it’s pickup, survival, or an interview trying to impress someone is the exact wrong attitude to have.

    The way you say that makes me think that you’ve made that mistake in the past and you learned not to act that way. Is that correct?

    No, I never did because when I started out, I really was super, super humbled by these amazing people I got to be in the same room with. And I really was kind of young and innocent. I did it before, but it wasn’t a mistake, when I did that Ludacris interview. There was an idea that we had the ‘Ho’lympics’, a contest where it was me against Ludacris doing all these crazy things, like the one-hand bra unhooking contest. I brought one of my peacocking outfits from The Game, like this snakeskin suit. It was funny. He loved it. He thought it was fucking hilarious. It hasn’t been a mistake when I’ve done it in the past and I think it’s less about dress and more about attitude. But I know my place, I know the role. They’re the star and I’m the person who’s translating that message to the world.

    Out of interest, Neil, do you have a musical background?

    No, I can play a little bit of music and I’ve even been in bands and stuff, but my goal was never to be a musician. If anything, if I was to end up anywhere in the musical side of things it would have been as a producer, because I think in a way it’s similar to being a critic. There’s a sense of saying “what can we do?”. It’s being a critic, but earlier on in the process, where you can actually have some effect on the music.

    True, I see that. The reason I asked is: that bit of musical knowledge that you have beyond being a critic – you actually know how to play some music – do you think that’s been advantageous for you to help relate to musicians?

    Not always. Sometimes it’s been fun, because I did piece on this band Sebadoh, and we went and recorded a punk rock single together. There were a lot of cool things that didn’t make it in the book, but I had to select what was most interesting. But [musical knowledge] has helped in a couple of cases. I also find that musical dialogue won’t be interesting to the general audience of Rolling Stone or The New York Times. If I wrote for Musician or Guitar World it would, but I think that would have hurt the interviews. Because maybe [the interview subject and I] would have bonded over it, but it’s not going to create any kind of dialogue that’s going to be appropriate for that kind of article.

    I think there might be an element, too, of if you cover musicians, then I think you need to come in as a journalist, and not as a fellow musician. To me, the best asset one has in an interview is curiosity. It’s better than an outfit; better than musical knowledge. And even having brushed up and having prepared, I think genuine, sincere curiosity is the best tool you have.

    I find that simply listening and responding to a person is just as important as background research. A good example of that in the book – of you just listening and going with the flow – is when you tell Britney Spears that you know exactly what she’s talking about, even though you have no idea.

    [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I think there are a lot of points in a lot of interviews where you’re saying ‘yes’. We’re agreeing just so you don’t stop the roll they’re on. I think there’s definitely some crazy things I’ve fucking agreed with in interviews. I think it’s important not to judge the person in an interview, and not to judge whether they’re right or wrong, or if it makes sense. The job is to let them speak. Often, some of them I don’t even know… it isn’t until I look at the transcripts that I know what someone was really saying, or trying to say, because I can slow it down.

    To talk about some more specific sections of the book, my favourite band of all time is Led Zeppelin, so I thoroughly enjoyed that section. [Neil interviewed Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for The New York Times. It was their first interview together since Zeppelin broke up 14 years earlier.]

    That’s awesome.

    I want to know what was going through your mind when you discovered that you hadn’t recorded those first 40 minutes of your interview.

    One, was that I was so fucking mad at myself. There are two interviews… I also love Ray Davies of The Kinks, and I missed that interview, too. I was just furious. After that, I started bringing two tape recorders to every interview and I’d have them recorded on two audio recorders just in case one failed, or goes wrong. I was thinking: “how do I re-ask these same questions and get those answers without them catching on?”

    The other funny thing about that interview was that I was so young, and they were these icons. I think I’d read [Zeppelin biography] Hammer of the Gods and was obsessed about their… I was a guy who’d maybe slept with one or two women my whole life, so I think I was more obsessed with their sex life than their music. [laughs] And I wanted to know the story. I think at one point Jimmy Page asked me, “Do you have any questions that don’t involve sex?” [laughs] To me, they were legends not just for their music, but the lifestyle around it.

    That bit about how you missed the first 40 minutes, it’s funny because it’s such a rookie error, and yet it was one of your first assignments for The New York Times.

    Yeah! And that happens. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. There are so many things that could go wrong, especially with cassette decks. You can plug the microphone in the headphone jack, the batteries can die in the middle of the interview and you don’t notice it. The pause button can be on, and you’re recording. I think every one of these errors has happened to me, and that’s my biggest paranoia. I’m almost OCD about checking to make sure that it’s recording. Especially now, I get really paranoid with digital recorders because after you stop it, it has to store the information after you stop it, and what if it doesn’t store… I get so paranoid, man, because you can’t recreate what just happened.

    That’s true. But you’ve got to have faith in technology, Neil.

    You can have faith in technology, but if it goes wrong… like, you don’t know what’s left on your computer if it shuts down, and you lose your work.

    I see where you’re coming from. I’ll remain blissfully naïve until that happens to me.

    You can have faith in technology, and technology has things that are operated on electricity. Batteries can die. You can be working there and the power can go; anything can happen, especially when one has more faith in technology than one has in one’s self. One can rely on one’s self, you can’t rely on technology.

    Some of my favourite parts in the book were when you revealed part of yourself, like right near the start when you’re talking with Madonna about drugs. You said that you didn’t like pills because “it’s a control thing”, and by making a statement and not asking a question, you encouraged her to go off on her little tangent about how she feels about that, which is an interesting tactic.

    I do find that… I put those parts in this book less, but I’ll tell you something interesting, which is that as I was compiling the book, I was going back through a lot of parts in the book. You have to give a little to get something, so the parts of Madonna in the book – I saved these. I’ve got about 100 pages of it, I kind of collected my own personal biography through these interviews with these artists because at some point I’m telling them about my life. I’m telling Bruce Springsteen about how I got a job at The New York Times. I’m telling Lady Gaga about how I came to write The Game. I’m telling Tom Cruise about, I think about The Game also. I’m talking to Christine Aguilera about my childhood. I collected those parts of the interviews because I thought it would be fun if I ever do a straight-up biography, to mix in those interviews.

    I was impressed by a few sections where you revealed your ability to form a bond with some of your subjects, like Shawn [Crahan] from Slipknot, and Chuck Berry.

    Going back to what you were saying before, I do think I was very conscious to leave myself out of this as much as possible because I felt like you can see the book is showing who these other people are, and the less I’m in it, the better. In all my books, even though I might be a central character in The Game and Emergency, I still tried to put myself in as little, only in there as much as necessary to understand the subject being written about. I’m not in The Game and Emergency, I’m not giving my whole biography. I think I did the same thing in here, I just tried to give myself as little as possible, as was necessary to get to know the subject. But you like when those special bonds happen, you were saying?

    Yeah, it’s cool, because the only time that most fans see these musicians is when they’re performing on stage, or in a music video, or they’re being interviewed on TV. But when you break outside of that… like how Shawn from Slipknot took the second cup from the top of a cup pyramid; this tiny little detail tells you a lot about a person.

    Yeah, and I loved that. That’s one of my favourite things about this [book] is when you come back and check in with someone later and see how they’ve grown, how they’ve changed, how maybe they take back what they said then, whether they’re sober or whether they’re on drugs. Whether they’re talking rehab speak – it’s a really cool barometer of watching someone grow in these little snapshots. They tell you about your own life too, because you can see how you’ve changed in those interviews as well.

    But my favourite time to talk to artists is when they’re in the creative process, versus when they’re in the promotional process. I love talking to them when they’re in the midst of creation because then they’re really wrestling, they’re really raw. When you get them in the promotion process, they’re closed.

    I think an example in the book was Trent Reznor; you made that comment about how he was unpacking a videogamesconsoles, which would be upsetting to his listeners, because he’s obviously procrastinating, and not creating music.

    Yeah. And I loved that interview, because it was so honest.

    The idea of revealing a bit of yourself to the reader, there was a bit more of that when you asked Brian Wilson whether he’s a nervous person. Then you went on to state that having a very domineering, critical father can make people nervous and hesitant later in life, which I believe is a reflection of your own life.

    It wasn’t that case, I think it was just from observation. I do have critical parents, probably more so on my mother’s side, but I think that was more like a general observation from a number of interviews, [as opposed to] saying that about myself. Though of course in interviews, I will often talk about myself. Again, I think if someone tries to suck all the information out, you’re kind of an asshole if you’re out to do that. There should be reciprocity. But I definitely wasn’t referring to myself in that case. Though now that you mention it, I definitely grew up in a household where nothing was ever good enough, and that definitely probably did contribute to the hesitancy and lack of confidence later in life, for sure.

    After The Game came out and you started to get noticed, were there many instances during interviews of your reputation preceding you? Were some of your subjects were already aware of your work, even beyond music journalism?

    Yeah, and it usually helped if they were aware of my work. I think it’s definitely true, versus some random name coming in to interview them, or a guy whose stories they’ve read in Rolling Stone. If they’ve sat there with a book, and read a book. It definitely helped.

    Are you concerned that journalists like myself are going to read the book and steal your best material?

    No, because that material is already out there. I mean, to me it’s like if somebody steals it… I’m scared until it’s out, like before I put the book out, I’m scared someone else is going to do an anthology like this, when it hasn’t been done before, and some other journalist is going to think about creating something like this. But once it’s out, I look forward to people… let’s not say stealing, but being inspired by it. [laughs] I think that’s the most awesome thing ever. If someone likes it enough to do something similar or use that material in their own way, that’s cool. Otherwise you’d never do anything, because otherwise you’d just be frozen.

    There were two questions you asked in the book that totally blew me away, because I would never even have considered asking them. Do you want to know what they are?

    Yeah, go ahead. Wait, I know your first one’s going to be: “could you made the best album ever, then bury it and never listen to it, but still be content?”

    Yeah, that’s one.

    And is the other one about “what’s more important, music or children”?

    No.

    I liked that one. “What’s the thing you felt you’ve given to the world most, music or children? What’s benefitted the world more?”

    The other one was what you asked [the rapper] The Game – “what was the first money you ever made?” It’s such a simple question, but his answer reveals so much about him.

    Oh yeah, “the first money I made wasn’t made, it was stolen”. [laughs] I don’t have stock questions I ask everybody. I really should have a list of questions I ask everybody, but I don’t.  I usually ask that if I’m curious about it for that particular person. There are a couple that have been themes in my life because I’m always curious about family, and curious about artistic stuff.

    So, my last question: have you sent this book out to any of the people who you interviewed?

    Umm… no. [laughs]

    Are you intending to?

    No, I’m not planning to. I’ll just think I’ll let them find it. I don’t know why. It seems to me something where… for some reason, it seems boastful to send it to them. I don’t know why. I probably should. I think that would be a good idea to do. Even, like, Russell Brand, who I’m friends with, he told me I was in his book, and I didn’t tell him he was in my book. So I should probably do that.

    Totally. Alright Neil, I’ll leave it there.

    I look forward to catching up with you at a more calm point, and seeing you when I’m in Australia.

    For sure man. Thanks for your time.

    Thanks man. It’s been fun watching your evolution. Bye Andrew.

    ++

    For more Neil Strauss, visit his website or follow him or Twitter.

  • The Courier-Mail author profile: Neil Strauss – ‘Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead’, April 2011

    An author profile for The Courier-Mail. This isn’t available on their website (at time of publishing), so you can either click the below image to view a bigger version, or read the full article underneath.

    Neil Strauss: Choosing the right minute

    To American writer Neil Strauss, the traditional format of the cultural journalism anthology was tired and predictable.

    After his 2009 book, Emergency – wherein Strauss switched into survivalist mode and learned a raft of new skills so he’d be prepared in the event of an apocalyptic catastrophe – the accomplished Rolling Stone and The New York Times writer thought he’d give himself a break.

    “I thought I’d do an anthology,” he says, “because anyone who’s been writing articles and feature stories for 20 years feels like, ‘why not collect my favourite pieces and put them in a book?’”.

    The problem with this formulaic approach became evident once Strauss started sifting through thousands of published interviews with some of the world’s most famous musicians and actors.

    “I like telling stories,” he explains – as evidenced in Emergency, and in the 2005 bestselling exposé of the then-hidden pick-up artist community, The Game – but in this instance, “there were no through lines”.

    He spent some time with anthologies by some of his favourite writers.

    “Half of them I didn’t finish, because I got bored. With the other half, after I was done, I was bored of the writer, and bored of the voice, because it’s not a book if it’s just articles bound together, he says.

    Eventually, Strauss realised that his best published work simply showed moments where readers were allowed to see “the real person behind the mask”.

    So he began collecting those moments. The final product is a 500-plus-page tome named Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, which features 228 such moments.

    In the book’s preamble, Strauss writes that you can learn a lot about a person or a situation in a minute – but only if you choose the right minute.

    Strauss is known for his ability to get closer to his interview subjects than most writers.

    Some of the book’s best moments are when he’s far from the regular interview locales, like hotel rooms or cafes.

    Instead, far more revelatory material is gained when he’s lying in bed interviewing Jewel, or driving with Snoop Dogg to pick up diapers for his kid, or being flown in a private jet by licensed pilot and jazz saxophonist Kenny G, or riding motorcycles and going to the Church of Scientology with Tom Cruise and his mother.

    Reporting from these extraordinary situations comes at a cost, though. For Strauss – who says he only does one or two interviews per year, now – these outlandish experiences have raised the journalistic bar considerably.

    “In the past, I succeeded by getting to be in the same room as this great artist who I looked up to,” he says.

    “Now it’s not enough. I’ve got to get the best interview this person has ever given in their life. You have to somehow go in, with a limited amount of time with someone, and you have to walk away and leave with something they’ve never told to any other writer before. That’s a lot of pressure. The better you get at something, the harder and more intimidating it gets.”

    Does he ever feel guilty for relentlessly extracting information from his subjects? “Sometimes I feel guilty. Say I’m leaving with four hours of recordings of one person spilling their soul to me, and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘thank you very much, goodbye’. I’m walking away with their soul on a tape, to some degree. They have nothing. That part always feels strange to me. It’s like having sex with someone, then running away.”

    Aspiring and existing journalists will be pleased to learn that Strauss is human after all, though. He doesn’t shy away from including one of his most embarrassing moments in the book.

    Forty minutes into an interview with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – guitarist and singer for legendary British rockers Led Zeppelin – Strauss realised that he’d plugged his microphone into the headphone jack. The result: blank tape.

    To make matters worse, it was the pair’s first in-depth interview together since Zeppelin broke up fourteen years earlier, and it was one of Strauss’ first assignments for The New York Times.

    When he later attempted to surreptitiously backtrack over some of his questions, Page and Plant gleefully discovered his mistake.

    Strauss can laugh about it now, but at the time, he was  “so mad” at himself.

    “After that, I started bringing two recorders to every interview, just in case one failed, or something went wrong.”

    Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead is out now in Australia via Text Publishing. For more Neil Strauss, visit his website or follow him or Twitter.

    Bonus material: for the full transcript of my 45 minute interview with Neil Strauss in early March 2011, click here.