All posts tagged culture

  • 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.


  • Mess+Noise story: ‘Lofly Hangar: 2007-2010’, January 2011

    A feature for Mess+Noise about a much-loved Brisbane venue.

    Lofly Hangar: 2007-2010

    ANDREW MCMILLEN laments the loss of short-lived Brisbane venue Lofly Hangar, which shut its doors in late 2010.

    Nestled under a party goods store on Musgrave Road in Red Hill, the Lofly Hangar always seemed an unlikely meeting place for Brisbane’s independent music community. Located far from the dedicated entertainment precinct in Fortitude Valley – where the majority of the city’s live music venues are based – Red Hill is very much a residential area. Yet since it first opened its doors to the public in 2007, the Hangar built a reputation for delivering quality music to curious listeners in an intimate setting.

    From the beginning, $10 got you inside – a cost which was maintained through until the final show in December 2010, except for the occasional special event – and since it was classed as a private residence, there was no liquor licensing regulations involved. You’d bring your own booze, and since the main area was adorned with couches, it didn’t feel dissimilar from your living room. Such was the charm of the Hangar: interesting people and new sounds, experienced in comfort. Upon entering, you’d be almost guaranteed to have a great – and cheap – night out.

    The line-ups were curated by the Lofly brains trust – Phil Laidlaw, Andrew White, Greg Cooper, Chris Perren, and Joel Edmondson – and even if you’d never heard of the bands playing, the sounds emanating from the adjoining band room were almost always diverse and intriguing. The stage, however, was non-existent. The bands played on the floor, set up in front of a wall of old televisions. The venue’s PA wasn’t amazing, but it got the job done. An unspoken, Meredith-like “no dickheads” policy seemed to be in play throughout its existence. To visit the Hangar was to be among open-minded music fans. It was a beautiful thing.

    The final Hangar was held on December 11, 2010; coincidentally, it was the 100th public show held at the venue. A few weeks beforehand, three Hangar co-organisers – Laidlaw, White, and Cooper, each musicians themselves with aheadphonehome, Restream, and Toy Balloon, respectively – reflected on their time at the forefront of the Brisbane independent music scene.


    Andrew White: We got a warehouse and leased it to practise and record in, and have parties with our friends’ bands. Then we started having more people coming. The idea came about to have it as a regular thing, every month. We were interested in putting on music that we liked. Having the parties has been a way of paying the bills. It was never a profit thing; it was just something that we wanted to keep going.

    Phil Laidlaw: At the time [2007], there were around three or four venues [in Brisbane] – The Troubadour, Ric’s, The Zoo. So we’d approach people asking them to play, and they’d respond with, “What are you talking about?” The model of warehouse party shows wasn’t happening. There wasn’t a lot of faith in it. It was very difficult to get bands that we thought were good bands to play. But the culture of the space evolved from the parties we were having. There was no need for security, because we knew everyone here.

    For the full article, visit Mess+Noise. For more on Lofly, visit their website.

    With this story, I tried something I’d never done before: I went for an ‘oral history’ angle. I chatted with Andrew, Phil and Greg for over an hour on the evening of the last Hangar nights, and shaped the best / most relevant bits of that conversation into a narrative structure. I think it turned out OK.

  • Mess+Noise album review: The Key Of Sea – ‘Volume 1’, December 2010

    An ‘on rotation’ album review for Mess+Noise. Excerpt below.

    Various Artists – The Key Of Sea

    A new compilation sticks up the middle finger at the oft-repeated “stop the boats” refrain, writes ANDREW MCMILLEN.

    This is more than a collection of songs. It’s a middle-finger to the unending dialogue surrounding the hideously offensive phrase “stop the boats”.

    That dog whistle sounded long and loud across the land earlier this year, as politicians and their supporters attempted to shield racist ideals under the guise of protecting national interests in an election year. The Key Of Sea is the compassionate antidote to narrow-minded xenophobia. All proceeds from the sale of the album – which pairs well-known Australian artists with refugee musicians – go to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, and Refugees Survivors and Ex Detainees. Its co-founders encourage listeners to “think deep, dig deep, and enjoy a unique musical journey”. It’s an apt disclaimer.

    These 11 narratives are drawn from disparate inspirations. Knowing each song’s genesis only adds to their impact. Urthboy’s collaboration with Group 120, ‘Letters From Jamshed’, has its roots in the MC’s sister trading mail with an asylum seeker named Jamshed, who was being held in the Nairu detention centre. Featuring lyrics taken from Jamshed’s correspondence, the song’s chorus – set among hip-hop beats, a circular nylon-string guitar riff, and Group 120’s choir of sighs – presents the question that lies at the heart of the asylum seeker debate: “Do you mind, if you and I/We share the sky?”. Alongside Blue King Brown and Diafrix’s ‘Streets Are Getting Hot’, it’s the album’s most upbeat track, and among the most memorable.

    For the full review, visit Mess+Noise. For more on The Key Of Sea, visit their website, or watch the project documentary embedded below.

    Elsewhere: a story for Rolling Stone about The Cat Empire’s involvement with The Key Of Sea

  • Brisbane City Council LIVE story: Penelope Bell, August 2010

    Each quarter, the Brisbane City Council pulish LIVE, a free pocket guide to arts, culture and entertainment events that take place throughout the city.

    I was contracted to edit the copy for the 64-page July-September 2010 issue of LIVE, as well as writing a profile of Penelope Bell, an emerging Brisbane fashion designer who was one of the recipients of a $20,000 Lord Mayor’s Young And Emerging Artists Fellowship.

    Click the below image for a closer look at the Penelope Bell profile, or read the article text underneath.

    Brisbane City Council 'Live' article on Brisbane fashion designer Penelope Bell, by Andrew McMillen

    In Focus: Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowship
    by Andrew McMillen

    The seed of inspiration was planted when Penelope Bell witnessed Elizabeth Harrison, CEO of New York-based luxury brand agency Harrison and Shriftman, speak at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival in August last year.

    Not long after this experience Bell discovered the Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowship, a grant for creatives under 30 years looking to develop their careers through international training, development and mentorship programs. In her application, she described an internship with Harrison’s agency as her dream role.

    Brisbane City Council LIVE arts/culture/events guide, July-September 2010Earlier this year, dream became reality for the 25-year old Toowong resident, who, like the three other fellowship recipients, will benefit greatly from the opportunity to gain professional experience within her chosen field. In September, Bell will travel to New York to participate in a three month internship with Harrison and Shriftman.

    The young designer completed an Advanced Diploma in Textiles, Clothing and Footwear in 2006 before starting the Penelope Bell fashion label; boutiques across the city have routinely sold out of Bell’s bespoke designs;

    Bell’s drive and dedication to the Brisbane creative industries impressed the fellowship’s judges. The majority of her $20,000 award will be put toward flights, rent and living expenses for her three month internship. Upon returning to Brisbane, Bell aims to put these newfound branding and marketing techniques into practice by overhauling her label’s luxury product line and broadening her market scope to encompass international buyers.

    “The fellowship’s not just for me,” Bell says, “It’ll ultimately benefit other local designers because I’m hoping to help build up the fashion industry here in Brisbane by passing on what I learn and experience as a result of the fellowship.”

    The Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowship isn’t just awarded to fashion designers, though. Bell’s fellow 2010 fellowship recipients include Sally Golding of West End, a moving image artist and curator undertaking mentorships in London and the Netherlands; Clare McFadden of Bardon, a community cultural producer who’ll travel to Italy to learn international best practices for engaging children in the arts; and Sherwood resident Jillian McKeague, an arts curator and producer who will undertake a 21-week mentorship at the London International Festival of Theatre.

    The Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowship focuses on supporting Brisbane’s young artists and artsworkers to realise their dreams and their full potential.

    To view the LIVE program online, visit the Brisbane City Council website. According to BCC, LIVE is an “innovative, socially inclusive and diverse program of arts and cultural events that includes music, festivals, cultural activities and community projects”. You can pick up a copy from culturally-relevant stores throughout Brisbane.

  • Mess+Noise story: ‘Hundreds Protest To ‘Reclaim’ Brisbane’s Nightlife’, March 2010

    On March 11, concerned members of Brisbane’s music community turned out in force to protest a proposed 2am shutdown on all live music venues and nightclubs. I reported for Mess+Noise.

    Photo of the 'Reclaim The Nightlife' protest in Brisbane, March 2010, by Elleni ToumpasMelbourne had its march for the ages last month, though it was too late to save The Tote. Yesterday, it was Brisbane’s turn to take to the streets in response to proposed legislation that threatens to undermine its vibrant nightlife and culture.

    While the Victorian SLAM rally was triggered by a “senseless and arbitrary” liquor licensing regime that tarred all live music venues with the same high-risk brush, the situation up north is a little different. The Anna Bligh-led Labor Government and Police Department Union last year launched an inquiry to curb alcohol-fuelled violence across the state. A proposed response is to close licensed venues at 2am, and enforce a “lockout” at 12am, thereby overruling the existing 3am lockout.

    Ahead of the inquiry’s findings – to be released on March 18 – concerned punters gathered outside Queensland Parliament House, a kilometre south of the CBD and located on the edge of the Botanic Gardens. Pitched as a peaceful, strictly drug- and alcohol-free protest named “Reclaim The Nightlife”, the organisers’ expectations for 2000 attendees seemed ambitious as the clock struck 4pm.

    Full story (and more photos) at Mess+Noise, published March 12 2010; above photo by Elleni Toumpas.

    This was the first organised protest I’d attended. It wasn’t a particularly well-organised or memorable occasion. On the ground, I made the decision to report purely on the proceedings, instead of conducting interviews and collaborating those results into my story. I probably wouldn’t use that same approach on similar events in the future, but for this time, at least, I felt it was worthwhile.

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Lonesome Highway’, February 2010

    This is my first feature for national broadsheet newspaper The Weekend Australian‘s ‘Review’ arts and culture lift-out. Entitled ‘Lonesome Highway’, it’s 2,000 words on the challenges faced by Australian country musicians. [Click the image for a readable version.]

    'Lonesome Highway' by Andrew McMillen, The Weekend Australian Review, 6 February 2010

    This is by far the biggest story of my career; you can read about how it happened here. Full story text included below.

    Lonesome Highway

    Once a year country music gets its moment in the sun, then it all goes cold again. Andrew McMillen reports on a neglected genre

    The country music scene appears on the radar of most Australians only each January, at Tamworth Country Music Festival time. Television shows brief clips of guitar-slinging performers; newspapers run wide shots of cowboy hat-wearing, denim-clad fans lining the main street and, if we’re lucky, which we mostly are, we’ll be shown “the weirdest busker on Peel Street”, says singer-songwriter Felicity Urquhart with a sigh, referring to the many performers who line Tamworth’s main drag and vie for the attention of visiting news crews keen to shoot and run.

    Golden Guitar winners rate a mention in the mainstream media and then country music is put back in its box.

    As singer-songwriter Adam Harvey puts it, “people tend to dismiss country music without giving it a go. They think we still sing about the one where ‘my wife left me and my dog died’, or if you play it backwards, it’s where ‘my dog left me and my wife died,’ ” he says with a laugh.

    The problems are many: image, airplay opportunities, marketing, media attention, even differences in the sector about what country music should be in a wider music world dominated by glossy pop singers who flaunt skin and layer digitally enhanced vocals over processed beats .

    As Harvey suggests, not everyone even knows what country music is.

    The Australian’s music writer, Iain Shedden, puts it this way. “Country music, since it was first called that in the 1940s, has evolved and fractured into hundreds of sub-genres, from alt country to cowpunk to pop country crossover, so it’s impossible to attribute one strict formula to all of it.

    “In Australia, however, it’s a little easier to define. Stretching back to the pioneering output of Tex Morton and then Slim Dusty, songs have simple folk structures, generally led by acoustic guitar, but accompanied by other instruments also used in the folk tradition, such as mandolin, banjo, harmonica. Most often the songs are in waltz or 4/4 time,” he says.

    “The connection to the land is probably Australian country’s strongest lyrical characteristic, with John Williamson one of the leading exponents of that form. Lyrics often have a narrative, although at the pop end of country (taking Taylor Swift from the US as an example), they can be more abstract (or banal) with no ties to rural life at all.”

    Amiable superstar Troy Cassar-Daley calls country “the story of everyday people. Vocally, it’s sincere; instrumentally, it’s proud to wear sounds like banjos and fiddles in the mix. Other music steers clear of those because they don’t want to be labelled, but we proudly use instrumentation that has the feel of the hills that cover this great land,” he says. “Lyrically, it’s pure home-town pride. And you know you’re listening to country – not pop or rock – when you hear songs for the common man. There’s a lot of people living, loving and dying in Australia, and this music is about them.”

    Following this creed, Cassar-Daley won six Golden Guitars this year, including album of the year for I Love This Place, taking his career tally to 20.

    “Afterwards I got a text from Keith Urban asking, ‘Can you just leave some for someone else?’,” he says, laughing.

    Cassar-Daley was a popular winner, but there were questions elsewhere when writer-photographer John Elliott, a festival veteran, gave a lecture titled Let’s Get Real: The Need for Authenticity in Australian Country Music. “Great country music tells stories about our country; about who we are and where we come from. I think a lot of younger artists have lost this focus,” Elliott argued.

    He also said performers needed to have an appreciation of what had come before. “Without that respect it becomes very bad pop music,” Elliott said. “And it has to have more of a connection to the country than wearing a hat, having a twangy guitar and getting your clip played on the Country Music Channel.”

    Dusty’s widow Joy McKean, who celebrated her 80th birthday with a concert on January 21 at Tamworth’s Capitol Theatre, agreed. McKean is a songwriter who managed her husband’s career for more than 50 years. “As yet, no one has crystallised what it means to be country like Slim did. He was the point of reference for country music, and I don’t think we have that now. A lot of people are paying lip-service to country music for their own means, without having a genuine feeling for the music.”

    The variety of music styles being presented in Tamworth this year gave some force to this argument, although Dusty’s daughter Anne Kirkpatrick, while warning today’s performers not to get “too wound up in the image to the exclusion of the heart and soul”, acknowledged the stature of Urquhart and Cassar-Daley in the business.

    But no matter how good the country artist, there is still the matter of getting them heard. Aneta Butcher, who manages Australian country music at the nation’s largest independent record company, Sydney-based Shock Records, says: “I don’t know if we’re ever going to get mainstream radio to pick up what we market as country music. If we’re taking a country act to radio, we generally have to provide a pop mix of their single and hope for the best.”

    In the US – where Urban is a huge star – there is a vast network of country radio stations, something Australia lacks. Urquhart, who won female artist of the year last month, has been sitting in as host of ABC radio’s Saturday Night Country program while regular host John Nutting is on leave, and says that in the absence of other outlets, “all we can do is try our best to promote, expand and educate the listeners of our ABC program … I truly believe there’s something in country music for every Australian.”

    Scott Lamond, who was raised in Bundaberg on a healthy diet of Dusty and Williamson, has reported on country music events for the ABC for the past five years. “I know ABC radio takes country music seriously, but generally speaking there are limited broadcasting opportunities for country artists outside of community radio,” he says. “I spoke with [2010 Golden Guitar winner for group of the year] Jetty Road, who mentioned that there’s around 70 commercial stations in Canada playing country music 24/7. Australia just doesn’t have that; the platforms on offer to artists who want to share their music are limited.”

    Harvey has tackled the issue of attracting attention by inviting performers from outside the country realm – including pop singer Guy Sebastian – to sing on his 2009 release Duets. Sebastian headlined a show at this year’s Tamworth festival, which was one of the first to sell out. The presence of such an unashamedly un-country artist was the talk of Tamworth, but as Harvey sees it, there has always been a diverse array of acts on display at the festival, where this year an estimated 2500 acts played across 10 days.

    “The old guard tend to forget that the traditional Tamworth crowd’s getting older,” he says. “I understand we’ve got to respect our heritage, but we’ve also got to make sure we’re encouraging a steady influx of young performers. And if we’ve got to drag a few people with us to move the industry forward, we’ll do what we have to.”

    Harvey’s willingness to test boundaries, is, he says, just “a bit of common sense. I’m aware of how important it is that we plan a long-term future for our industry.” Performers needed to remember “that we’re product who’re expected to sell records”.

    Twelve-time Golden Guitar winner Graeme Connors says the country industry is in something of a trough.

    “From my perspective, the music business cannot function without artists who are creating interesting, challenging, and diverse works … The business has this constant demand for large-selling records, and not every artist can do that with every release.” A powerful, individual voice is what’s missing, Connors says.

    “That void will be filled in time, if only because the human spirit is incapable of staying in a lull. In the interim, there’ll likely be someone at the young end of the spectrum who’ll find a voice that reminds us just how good music can be.”

    This year’s anointed up-and-comer is Luke Austen, winner of the 31st annual Star Maker talent quest. It’s a title previously held by Urban and Lee Kernaghan. Austen, 28, isn’t exactly a neophyte, having spent four years on the road with lauded bush balladeer Brian Young and six years as bassist for Cassar-Daley. He also co-wrote a song on Cassar-Daley’s I Love This Place.

    “We prefer to select a winner who’s already working professionally in the industry, because they get it,” quest co-ordinator Cheryl Byrnes says.

    A cautionary note is struck, nevertheless, by Geoffrey Walden, founder of the Gympie-based Australian Institute of Country Music. He contends that the Tamworth talent quest programs tend to build artists who don’t appeal to the younger demographic of potential fans. “It’s about marketability from the perspective of what the industry sees as the future of country music. They’re generally after someone who’s marketable and who’ll appeal to a wide audience, but not necessarily a young audience.”

    Austen is acutely aware of the expectation thrust on him. “There hasn’t been a major star in a long time, but I’d like to put that pressure on myself because I feel that I’ll perform better. It inspires me to dig in and really make it work. I’ve won the respect of my peers, and now I just have to concentrate on backing it up with good product.”

    Nick Erby is a Tamworth local who has attended all 38 country music festivals. “Competitively, contemporary Australian country music is the best you’ll find anywhere. We’re not backwards, we’re just underexposed,” he says.

    Erby has a long history of broadcasting country music on radio, but now works online. He points out that terrestrial licenses for Australian radio are restricted and finite, but thousands of stations exist online, each broadcasting to niche audiences. “Online technology is shaking up the radio industry. Once the cost of access drops, the option will become more attractive to a wide array of listeners.”

    He sees this as a potential answer to the lack of exposure for country music: his Country Music Radio online simulcast of this year’s awards overloaded his US-based server. “You watch,” he predicts. “In the next two years, the awards will be streamed via live video.”

    Industry insiders also point to the success of the 20-year-old Swift, whose career and style could entice young Australian performers and fans. Swift’s second album, 2008’s Fearless, has sold more than seven million copies in the US. Butcher voices a hope shared widely: “Swift appeals to younger girls, who might be influenced to give country music a try,” she says.

    Traditionalists may squirm, but this could be the future. As Urquhart says when despairing of the limited view of country music held by the media at large: “What about our shining lights and our new discoveries? There’s so much more to country music than footage of a hay bale and a guy with a chook on his head.”

    And even someone as successful as Cassar-Daley half-jokes as he helps out with phone numbers: “Good luck with the story, mate. Keep it positive. We need it.”

    This story originally appeared in The Australian’s ‘Review’ lift-out on February 6 2010. A link to the story on The Australian’s website is here.

  • A Conversation With Neil Strauss, New York Times Bestselling Author, 2009

    Neil Strauss and his entourage. I wonder what the kneeling girl is up to.It’s June 23, 2009. Minutes away from meeting Neil Strauss, I catch myself being self-conscious. I realise that when I sit, my jeans reveal my red-and-white striped socks above my white basketball shoes, which were hastily pulled on before a flight from Brisbane to Sydney earlier that day. Shit. What will Neil think?

    I can see him in the opposite corner of the Sofitel Hotel’s lobby, closing an interview with another young, starry-eyed guy, and chatting with his publicist. I change sitting positions a couple times to try and find the optimum spot that’ll make me look relaxed and in control. I want to exhibit both of these traits before Strauss, one of my favourite writers, because I want this to be perfect.

    As I walk toward them, the publicist turns and says, “you must be Andrew”. We shake hands, and Neil offers his. “Hey Andrew, what’s up man?” he asks warmly. They’re finalising his plans for tonight; an opportunity to watch a taping of The Chaser’s War On Everything seems to be on the cards. Neil turns to the otherwise empty lobby antechamber and asks me to pick a comfortable seat for our interview. I select a window seat, and run my eyes across the page of questions written in my notebook.

    I don’t admit that I was self-consciously readying myself just moments earlier. I don’t describe to him the trepidation I feel as a fan almost half his age, speaking to my favourite writer. The one who wholly shared his personal demons and sexual exploits in the 2005 book The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society Of Pick-Up Artists; an autobiographical account of the two years that Strauss spent investigating the lives of men devoted to improving themselves by attracting women.

    As I ponder, Neil bounds over and sneaks a look at the page.

    Neil: Ready for all fifteen questions!

    Andrew: I think fifteen’s a good number. Or is it too many, or too few?

    Here’s what I do. I write out like a hundred questions, even though I rarely get to ask them all. I write them out, while researching and studying them beforehand, and then just have a conversation. And if the conversation stalls, I turn to a prepared question.

    But that’s just the way I do it. I don’t know if it’s the best way; no-one ever told me!

    So I really enjoyed Emergency [his 2009 book on survivalist preparedness]. What did you set out to achieve with the book?

    Note: book may not actually save your life.The main thing was to write an interesting, hopefully somewhat humourous story. But what I set out to achieve is always different to what I achieve. I originally set out to write a book that would influence the (2008) American election, so that a Bush-like type of person didn’t win the election. So the original goal was to look at the country and ask, “Why isn’t anybody having a revolution?” That’s even almost how I pitched it. And they let me do the book like that in the first place – “okay, go do your fun little pet project, and then give us a real book” – and then it just turned into this whole other thing about self-sufficiency and learning to be independent of the system.

    Did you come across that accidently?

    My favourite composer is John Cage, and his credo is “be open to whatever comes next”, and I think that’s it. You start with one idea in mind, but you have to be willing to go further. Like when I did the Marilyn Manson article for Rolling Stone, I planned to tear him apart, because I didn’t like him. And when I met him, I liked him, and it turned out to be a positive article. The first book I wrote was with him, and if I hadn’t challenged my preconception, maybe I wouldn’t have started my career writing books.

    So the original thing was to activate and politicise apathetic Americans, but then I realised that the whole idea of voting for a person is a pretty pathetic way of empowerment. One person isn’t really doing that fucking much. It’s like that lyric – “meet the old boss; same as the new boss” [The Who‘s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again], you know. And even though there are major differences, I realised that it’s more about one’s own self, and not entrusting your safety to someone else. To become self-sufficient, and not depend on the system so much. The way you leave home when you’re a child, and eventually have to leave your parents and become an adult, in the same way you have to eventually step outside the normal political system.

    Was one of your goals to encourage others to become self-sufficient, as opposed to living a life of convenience, which you describe at the beginning of the book?

    Yeah. It’s also to wake up from some of the delusions you were taught as a child, from the history books and in class. And to do whatever it takes to give yourself peace of mind. The other thing is to – rather than having these anxieties and fears – take them to the extreme and get rid of them. In that way, one of my aims for the book was basically generational Prozac (laughs).

    The economy’s falling apart around you; people are freaking out over these pandemics; terrorism alerts are always in a shade of orange or red.. so, you know, learning what this stuff is and what it means, and how to protect yourself. That was my Prozac for this generation’s panic attack.

    How soon did you finish the book before it was published? There’s some stuff near the end that’s pretty recent.

    Strauss: shadowed skull indentsI literally finished it in February, and it came out in March. That’s the cool thing about publishing, and why I love writing versus movies or TV, because you can literally get it from your pen to the reader so soon. And I’m lucky enough that my publisher’s pretty cool, and they can turn it around (quickly). I think if it came out now, it’d be a slightly different time.

    I’m really interested with what you’re doing with your publishing company, Igniter.

    Thanks for asking about that! I’m fucking stoked that you asked me about that.

    How did that idea come about with [fellow Rolling Stone writer] Anthony Bozza?

    We were on Tommy Lee’s tour bus. He’d just written the Tommy Lee book, and I’d written the Mötley Crüe book [The Dirt: Confessions Of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band]. And we started talking, and exchanging notes, and found that the same people had been approaching us about books. We both got approached by Slash to do a book, and Axl Rose. Over the course of that night, three different people approached both of us about writing their books. And we were like, “fuck, this is weird!” Every now and then, there’d be a good one that we didn’t have time to do.

    So when someone came to us with a good book that they wanted written, we’d pass them onto agents and publishers and it’d never get made. It couldn’t get through the (publishers’) doors. So we just thought “fuck it, let’s put these books out ourselves.”

    Why do you think that they couldn’t get published? What was stopping these projects – the idea of working with unknown, unpublished authors?

    Yeah, unknown authors, and that most people don’t trust their taste. The phenomenon of social proof – no one thinks something is good, unless other people tell them it’s good beforehand.

    I was going to ask you about social proof, because you’re now, what, a six times New York Times bestselling author? That’s a pretty massive social proof there.

    Yeah, exactly.

    So with you and Anthony behind Igniter, do you think that your names will hold sway in the publishing community?

    That’s our hope, that we can get people to read good books. And also, we don’t want to deal with agents. If an agent has a book, he’s already shopping it to every publisher. We want to go find raw talent. I’ll give you an example: in our first book, which is out this fall…

    Is that the book on the mafia guy?

    No, the first one is on Bozo The Clown.

    Ah, I know you’re a big fan of his.

    Exactly. So you’re on my mailing list, I take it, since you knew about the mobster book?


    Amber Smith: massive stalker. Be careful.When I did the writing contest, for the mobster book, there were three guys who got through to the final. The mobster chose a different guy to the winner of the public vote, who was Ian Kelk. He’s an unemployed computer programmer. So Ian didn’t get to do the mobster book, but I said to him “listen, I’m going to find writing work for you.” And so a few weeks ago, Amber Smith [pictured left], who’s this gorgeous supermodel – she’s been on the cover of Vogue, Playboy, FHM, and also now has a reality show – she wanted to do a book. Her story is insane: she’s a supermodel, but she’s only been in two relationships for like three months each, and afterwards she stalked the guys for like ten years. It’s awesome – she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world, yet she stalks guys and they run away from her! (laughs)

    So I called up Ian, and said “why don’t you phone her, see if you guys get along, then come down and work on her book.” So this guy who applied for my writing contest – an unemployed computer programmer – is now hanging out with, and writing a book for a supermodel. That’s the kind of stuff that we like making happen.

    So Igniter’s goal is to get unknown writers published?

    It’s just to get good books published. It could be a known or an unknown writer, it just has to be good. But I’m more excited about someone, maybe, who.. like when I wrote for the New York Times, there were certain bands that I was one of the first to write about, like Elliott Smith, or Built To Spill, or Ryan Adams. There were artists I’d find and write about, and then the world would embrace that person, and I could be like “cool, I hope I helped in some way”.

    That’s the kind of feeling (of talent discovery) that we’re looking to replicate with Igniter.

    It’s interesting how certain writers can hold that kind of control, or influence, over popular culture.

    In my case, The New York Times was a good platform because it reaches a billion people. And they’ll let you do.. do you know who Robert Randolph is?


    In other words, I could say to my editors, “man, there’s this guy who performs pedal steel music in churches, it’s an old church tradition, and people just fucking dance on the rafters and it gets crazy.” I did a story on him, and now he’s huge. He plays at Bonnaroo and all those kinds of festivals. And they put it on the front page of the Arts section, so it was cool to have a platform like that for people be able to listen to.

    As well artists you liked, were you pressured by the Times to write about artists that you didn’t like?

    Kenny G: everything I know about him is from that South Park episodeAll the time, but I could choose how I wrote about them. For example, I had to write about [the saxophonist] Kenny G [pictured right]. I thought, “well, I could write the normal fucking shit about Kenny G – he’s too easy to make fun of”. But then I found out that he was a pilot. So I thought, “why don’t I have Kenny G pick me up in a plane, then we’ll go fly somewhere, then have dinner together, and we’ll talk.”

    So I did that and I realised that I’d developed a respect for Kenny G, because he’s a guy who plays what he feels. And what he feels just happens to be very simple, and sweet. He’s just a simple, sweet guy playing simple sweet music, and he’s playing what he feels. He’s not like, you know, [jazz musician] Sun Ra. I have respect for Kenny G’s integrity, and I’m glad that I met him, because it would have been too easy to make fun of him.

    You seem to have preconceptions of artists and people before you meet them. Have you tried to stop having those preconceptions?

    I think it’s okay to have preconceptions, but you have to be willing to discard them in the face of the truth. I only think they’re bad when you stick to them, regardless; that’s just dogmatic thinking. It’s impossible to learn if you don’t listen.

    What preconceptions do you think that people have of you, based on your experiences in The Game?

    Generally when I walk into an interview, they definitely expect to see some arrogant fuck. You know, some arrogant, shallow fuck. And that’s fine, because people who think that generally haven’t read the book. They think it’s some lad’s manual, and that there’s a guy out there acting like that guy from Magnolia, screaming “respect the cock!” at guys. It’s fine for people to have preconceptions about me, because I usually am not like the preconception, and they’re thrown off.

    I lent The Game to a bunch of my friends, and the ones who read it loved it. But the ones who didn’t pick it up had that preconception of it being a guide for guys to get laid. They find something morally wrong in the idea of a book teaching something that should be inherently known.

    It’s the weirdest book, because the people who’ve read it know what it is, but those who haven’t don’t get it. I think the book is like that – you expect it to be one thing, but it turns out as something else. Like how it begins with the greatest pickup artist in the world about to kill himself. And while reading, you think “okay, maybe this isn’t going to be like what I had in mind”. And I think with all my books, I try to give the audience what they wouldn’t expect. Like with the Jenna Jameson book [How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale], you know it’s going to deal with sex and porn, so I started it off somewhere really dark.

    When did you realise that you had a book on your hands with Emergency?

    It was originally just going to be a story about getting the St Kitts passport, and that was it. The original pitch was just ‘escaping America’ (laughs). And then I went to Tom Brown’s Tracker School, and I called my editor and said “listen man, I need like, another year!” I realised that I had so much to learn; I had to learn how to be human all over again. And he was cool enough to be okay with it. I still remember that cell phone call to my editor from Tracker School.

    I guess that’s before you dropped your Blackberry in the water?

    Exactly! (laughs)

    You mentioned your parents throughout the book, and that they’d always lived a ‘life of convenience’ in the city. Have their views changed since they read the book?

    Neil Strauss: look how trustworthy he is!It’s funny, because I went to visit them, and I was doing a radio interview from the back of their car, and the interviewer asked what my parents feel about the book. I was like, “I don’t know, ask them!”. And they said, on air, that they wished they got the St Kitts passport with me, now.

    It’s funny, that always happens with everything I do. When I’m doing it, all my friends and family make fun of me, but once it’s done, they’re like “oh, I should have done that”. Whether it’s The Game, and learning to be more attractive to women, or Emergency, and the need to be safe and self-sufficient.

    What do your parents think of your evolution as a writer, from starting with places like Ear and Village Voice, to writing New York Times bestsellers?

    Man, you want to know something hilarious? My next book’s probably going to be an anthology of articles I’ve written for Rolling Stone and stuff, and my parents just sent me a book proposal letter I wrote when I was eleven years old. It’s the fucking funniest thing!

    In it, I’m like: “Dear publisher, this is my book. Please send a printed copy, and all money to..”, and I gave my address. And the grammar is really good, it’s just weird to read that I was sending out book proposals at age eleven.

    What was the book proposal?

    It was a series of fictional mystery novels. “The Smith Mysteries“.

    Did you end up writing them?

    I wrote the first book, and I think my parents attached it to the letter they sent. I can’t wait to read it again, it’ll be fucking weird.

    Dude, eleven?!

    Yeah, I know. But my parents were always against me becoming a writer; they actually cut me off when I was writing for Ear Magazine and stuff. I had to support myself, because they really wanted me to study business, and do what they felt was safe. Ironic how business is the least safe thing to do right now! It’s much safer to be writing.

    But eventually, once I was at The New York Times.. they were always a little hard [on me], but I think it drove me to excel more. Like when the Marilyn Manson book [The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell] reached the New York Times Bestseller list, they told me, “well, it’s awesome that you’ve been on the list for one week, but it doesn’t really count unless it’s for two weeks”.

    Damn, they’ve got high standards!

    Yeah, and that’s why in Rules Of The Game, the book is dedicated to “Your parents. You may be upset with them for what’s wrong with you, but don’t forget to give them credit for what’s right”. So I can’t really blame them for shit, because I feel that I’m happy with stuff I’ve done, and I feel that they gave me everything I needed to succeed.

    How do you feel that the experiences in The Game and Emergency have shaped how you view yourself?

    The Game: one of my favourite book designsThey’re completely different. With The Game – even separate from the book – I always think about how if I’d never come across this underground group of guys, I always would have lived my life in the dark, and died never having emerged from my little shell. Like, there are good things and bad things about The Game, and I thought I’d neither attack nor defend it, but when I do interviews, I will defend guys’ right to learn it. The right that guys should be able to learn those skills if they want to. Because I think “fuck, if I’d never learned it, I would have just lived my life with blinders on”, not knowing who I could be, or the experiences I could have.

    Even if the book never came out, I’m so grateful for those experiences. It’s just weird, I was just a completely different person [beforehand], and I just wasn’t me. I was just so intimidated, and shy about everything.

    But after going through your experiences and sharing them, you’ve allowed how many thousand people to improve themselves?

    Yeah, it’s pretty fucking weird. Because I didn’t know that the book would have that effect, and I think if I was trying for that effect, I probably wouldn’t have had it, because I would have tried too hard.

    You share a lot of yourself and your experiences through your writing. Did that come easily, or did you hesitate?

    No, I had to do it. When I did those books with celebrities, I had a rule, which is you have to tell the whole truth; you can’t hold anything back. You’d have to be willing to make yourself look bad, if that’s how it happened. I hold myself to the same standards I held those other people to. I couldn’t be hypocritical about it.

    With The Game, many times I considered doing it under another name. My alias was ‘Chris Powles’. I used ‘Style’ online, but if I needed to use my real name, most of the time I was ‘Chris’. I thought I’d write the book under that person’s name, and pretend it was another book I had ghost written for somebody else, like what I’ve done using my real name in the past. I thought many times about not doing it, and then I thought, “If you’re not willing to put your name on what you did, then why did you do it?”

    You mentioned at the start of Emergency that when you were researching those crazy groups around the year 2000 that you were a bad reporter because you got nervous talking with people. That’s not still the case, is it?

    I still feel like a horrible reporter. My last two interviews were with Jay Leno and [comedy film director] Judd Apatow for Rolling Stone. I still feel like, “Oh shit, I didn’t ask the hard questions.” I still leave every interview feeling like I didn’t get all the stuff.

    If I do an article for Rolling Stone, I feel like it’s got to be the best article and that I’ve got to get the most out of the person. I always just leave feeling I should have asked them harder questions, or been tougher, or I don’t know what. But then I listen to the interview afterward, and I actually end up getting good stuff, so I don’t know.

    Even after your hundred questions, you still feel like your hundred and first would have been the best.

    Yeah, exactly, like I missed something or I didn’t explore something with them or didn’t dig in deep enough or didn’t have enough rapport with them, or whatever.

    How do you prepare for an interview?

    I just make myself an expert on them. I brainwash myself. If it’s music or movies, I listen to every album, watch every movie, read every interview, and write down every possible question I could ever think of. So I brainwash myself with their lives. (laughs)

    How does that compare to being interviewed? Do you prepare for things like this?

    Talking about a book is different than writing it, so before each book comes out I’ll think about how would I describe this thing I went through and summarize it. Sometimes, I come to realizations I didn’t have in the book. People ask me about The Game and Emergency. I don’t friggin’ know. I just wrote this book and that book. If I think about them, it’s “Well, both books are really about fear.” The Game is about fear of approaching women, getting rejected, social humiliation, let’s say. Emergency is about fear of dying. Both are about ways to conquer your fear through knowledge and experience.

    So you’ve been a journalist, biographer, and an autobiographer. Which do you prefer?

    I think I just like writing, whatever it is. I love storytelling; anything that is storytelling, I love.

    The Rules Of The Game: continuing the trend of naked women silhouettes

    You’re pretty good at storytelling. Your writing style in The Game is so good. It’s one of my favorite books, just because of how you wrote it. The Style Diaries, at the end of Rules Of The Game, some of those stories are really different to the style of The Game, as well.

    I’m curious; how do you feel they’re different? You’re probably right, whatever you’re going to say.

    The Style Diaries were more personal, more focused in each vignette, and in how those stories fit into the whole picture of ‘the game’. The one where you were climbing up the back of your apartment building; that one was pretty crazy.

    I think it’s funny; I like the writing in The Style Diaries better. I think The Game is a better book. I think I like the writing in The Style Diaries better because it’s like you said; it’s more focused and on the subject. That some of my favorite stuff that I’ve written, all those little vignettes. Also, it was just exploring the idea of relationships, which doesn’t get to be explored in The Game.

    One of the main arguments against the concept of pick-up artists that you raised in The Game was “what do you do after the orgasm?”.


    So in The Style Diaries, you explored that a little bit.

    Exactly. I think I also want to expand on that writing. I’ve had some even crazier experiences than what I described in The Style Diaries; insane shit. I was thinking of just putting it all out as a little secret book. I might do that.  (laughs)

    I read in another interview that you were a bit of a workaholic when you first started writing.


    But I’ve seen you tweet about procrastinating by watching YouTube and stuff. How do you deal with procrastination or maintaining productivity, when you’re on deadline?

    The best thing for procrastination is a hard deadline looming over your head, like your editor is saying, “If this doesn’t come in now…”

    [American actor and 30 Seconds To Mars singer/guitarist] Jared Leto [pictured below right] told me that he had a thirteen day deadline for the band’s next album. If it wasn’t done, they were going to fine him $2 million. That’s a good way to not procrastinate, to have a hard deadline with consequences. I find that’s the only way to get shit done.

    Jared Leto, a.k.a. Angel Face.I’m a workaholic but I’m also a lazy workaholic. I fucking work really hard, but at the same time, if I don’t have to work I can be at the beach.

    It’s hard; I was much the same with university, and now with writing assignments. It all comes together right near the end; for better or worse, and I often think it’s for worse. You think you could do it better if you plan the whole way along, rather than cramming it all in.

    Exactly. What I’ll do is wait until the night before it’s due and fucking really transcribe it and then, “Fuck, I gotta…” But something I noticed when I started working at the New York Times, when I had a weekly column: it went from ‘finish your work the night before’ to writing it on the due day. Sometimes I find I do my best stuff under pressure.

    Do you have any interview transcribing tips?

    Yeah – outsource it. (laughs)

    For real. Even if I couldn’t afford it.. I just have to have someone else transcribe it. Sometimes it’s good to listen to because then you relive the conversation, but sometimes I find it easier if if I can fucking find someone I could pay a little bit to do it. Even when I didn’t have the money, I was like, fuck – it just makes my life easier.

    Do you have any advice for people who want to start becoming contributing writers to Rolling Stone or New York Times; those big-name publications?

    I think they need to be willing to write wherever, for no compensation. I never applied for Rolling Stone; I never applied for The New York Times. They just saw my writing in little shitty magazines and were like, “Why don’t you write for us?”

    I think you could be the greatest writer in the world, but unless someone can see your writing, no one is going to know. Just get your stuff seen. I would take every opportunity. I did a weekly column in the paper called the New York Press. I got paid $75 a column but it would take me all week to research and write it.

    It was a free weekly paper, and because of that, everyone in New York would read it on the subway, and that’s how it came to the attention of The New York Times. When the job opened up at The Times, someone recommended that I apply for it. I didn’t even apply for it. I thought, “I’m not good enough; I just write for this little paper,” and then one day they called me and said, “We like your stuff.”

    I think you should not be precious about shit. My advice would be that paragraph in The Game, about not waiting for opportunities to come to you, but meeting them halfway and putting in the work.

    Have you read the book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell [pictured below left]?


    Outliers: a pretty sweet book. Read it.I think that 10,000 hours concept is pretty interesting [where Gladwell suggests that expertise is built after spending approximately 10,000 hours working toward a skill or pursuit]. The first stuff I wrote fucking sucks, you know? (laughs)

    If I look at the first articles I wrote for Ear Magazine, you’d never know I could be a decent writer.

    I guess you’ve got to start somewhere. How did you get the start with Ear, did you apply for that?

    Yeah, it was an internship. I was in my college dorm room and a guy had gone to New York and applied for an internship at this magazine. He was rejected because he was too well-dressed. I thought, “That sounds perfect for me!” and I just wanted to be in New York. I didn’t really think about writing. I got the internship. It’s good to have an internship somewhere small, because after a while they’ll let you write for them and take on other responsibilities.

    I’ve read that you kind of fell into writing; you didn’t set out to be a writer.

    Now I don’t know. Now my parents sent me that thing from when I was eleven years old. Maybe, I don’t know; it’s confusing. I feel as a kid you want to do everything. You want to be a writer, you want to be an astronaut, you want to be a farmer, and you want to be a movie star.

    I take it that your journalistic urges haven’t been quelled, because you’re still contributing to Rolling Stone.


    Do you read newspapers?

    I still read The New York Times, not just because I work for them, but I do feel like that’s the closest you get to the full story.

    How do you feel about newspaper readerships declining?

    It’s fucking weird, especially the idea that a lot of these papers folded and going online. I just feel like online is a place for information, not writing. You don’t necessarily go online to read good writing. I still like the printed word.

    That’s one of the theories behind the decline though, that people are becoming less attached to good writing, and strong reporting. They want instant facts, which is what the web is for.

    You know what I think is interesting though? I think Twitter and all that are making people better writers. Twitter is what I had to do my whole life, where you need to get a certain word count. On Twitter, everyone is becoming their own editors. “How can I express this idea in..” How many characters is it?


    “How can I express this idea in 140 characters?” You have to slim it down, change your words, cut out things, so it’s making everybody an editor of themselves. I think that’s the closest that the mass population has come to being writers. Do you know what I mean? It’s pretty cool.

    You started a book club with Emergency after it came out. How did that go? I knew you were trying to organize some teleconferences or something, to get everyone together.

    It went so well that I had another book club that I killed and made this one my main book club, because I got really good people on it. We read Emergency, and then we finished that. I thought, “I like this group; let’s do another book,” so we read a book called The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers, which I mentioned in Emergency. We all read that and it went great, but I think we’re going to do one more book and then I’ll close it down. It’s kind of fun and it motivates me to finish reading some books too. It worked out pretty awesomely.

    What are your reading interests? I assume you read widely in music and culture.

    I mostly read fiction, almost 90%, because I feel it’s good writing and I want to be influenced by stylists. I also think you learn more about life from fiction than nonfiction because people feel with nonfiction, “This is useful,” but to me fiction is metaphors for real life and the brain works better through metaphor. I feel like I learn more through fiction. I love it.

    Can you recommend any good fiction books that have come out recently, or even historically, old things?

    Some of my favorites are Ask The Dust, by John Fante. It’s a story about a struggling writer in Los Angeles; it was written maybe seventy years ago, but it could’ve been written now and it’s fucking hilarious, especially as a writer. You would love it. He has a picture of his editor on his wall that he worships and it’s a total AFC story too. He has a crush on a waitress, and he totally blows it with her. There’s a horrible movie adaptation, but the book is great.

    The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski is a brutal book about a kid wandering through the villages during World War II, in Poland. I like Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera, which is about life choices; doing what you’re born to do, versus doing what society and family pressures you to do. I like Mishima Haruki MurakamiGabriel García Márquez; Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries is awesome.

    I don’t know; I really love fiction, which is ironic because what I do is so different from what I love.

    That’s really surprising to me.

    It’s weird to me, too, because my goal is always to be.. there’s this bookstore called St. Marks, in New York. Behind the desk, they have a counter of their most stolen books. There’s [Charles] Bukowski, and William S. Burroughs, and my goal was to be on that list of their most stolen books. One day I saw The Game there and I was like, “Yes!”

    I went to another bookstore once and they said their most stolen books were the Bible and The Game. I don’t know if that means people thought The Game was the Bible and stole it, and I also thought it was kind of fucked up; how could you live with yourself if you stole the Bible? The book’s about ethics, yet people still steal it. It’s so weird.

    When you’re writing, actually sitting down, and writing a book, do you shut yourself away from the world?

    Yeah, for sure. I have to. It involves an intense amount of focus; a lot of it is organisation, and how you organize 500 type-written pages. How do you organise that? It’s like there is a string unspooling in your head and you need to focus to make it snap taut, if that makes sense.

    There’s a little place I go to on the beach in southern California, a little shack on the water where I go and get focused.

    Not St. Kitts?

    St Kitts, in the West Indies. Not pictured: Neil Strauss, writing.Yeah, I go to St. Kitts [pictured right] a lot to write, too.

    What ever happened to Spencer [the character from Emergency]? Do you still see him?

    Yeah, I just saw him in St. Kitts. He bought a couple of Segways for his house and so we were riding those around. Now he has all his money out of U.S. dollars. He has a lot of money in Australian dollars. He wanted currencies that were backed by something stable. I think the Australian dollar is on the gold standard?

    Gold standard?

    I think it’s backed by gold, versus the U.S. currency which isn’t backed. Canadian currency is kind of backed – he studied it and he felt he wanted a currency backed by something solid, versus a free floating currency, if that makes any sense.

    I’m still friends with Spencer, and the same with the guys in all the books; Mystery and Spencer and the Manson guys. Everybody I’ve written with and about.

    I never watched [the VH1 reality TV series] The Pick-up Artist. How did that fare, ratings-wise? Did that get a good response?

    I think it did really well. It did well enough for a second season. They represent it pretty well. There’s a lot of empathy for the guys trying to learn it. As far as reality goes, I thought it was portrayed in the best possible light,as far as the TV medium goes.

    I watched the videos that you did for Rules of the Game.

    Those are my favorites! (laughs)

    I like David Faustino in those.

    Yeah, he’s fucking hilarious, isn’t he? He’s so fucking funny. I really think he’s a comic genius. Those are really eye-opening. To me, the video where he goes blindfolded – no, with his hands tied behind his back, and gagged, and has to meet women and get phone numbers. He has a hat on and no one can recognise him. The fact that he got four out of five phone numbers, while fucking gagged and blindfolded; it kind of means most of this stuff guys are worried about are just their own limiting beliefs.

    Yeah. You mentioned your next book project earlier – I didn’t catch the name.

    It’s just an anthology of stuff I’ve written for The New York Times and Rolling Stone. I’m probably going to do something to make it more interesting, like weave together funny, early writing days stories.

    Like maybe your first book proposal?

    Exactly, the book first book proposal, and I got cut off by my parents when I was trying to write, and dealing with all that stuff.

    Stylelife [Neil’s “online academy for attraction”] is still going on, while you’re doing your book tours abroad. Who takes care of that?

    Join Stylelife and you, too, can wear a tuxedoI really like the Stylelife guys. I don’t know if you know the guys, but they’re really sweet. Gypsy, Bolshevik, Bravo.. they do a really good job running it and they’re good-hearted guys. They do it. I feel bad because I haven’t been around enough; I’ve been traveling too much.

    They just put together an anthology of our newsletters. I couldn’t believe that it sold out really fucking quickly.

    The other good thing is the teleconferences we did with most of the guys in The Game. We did a seminar, and those guys are all pretty good. I know I spent most of the time talking but when I saw The Sneak do his thing, I was like, “Fuck!” I like those guys. It’s fun; I’m proud of them.

    Well, I’m out of questions. How did I do?

    You did awesome. I was just thinking as we were talking. The TV interviewers, they generally haven’t read the book and they just want some entertaining shit about “five tips for our viewers”. This is more fun for me because you know – I can talk about Igniter, and talk about the stuff that I’m passionate about right now. It was great. I enjoyed it. I thought you definitely cover your stuff pretty well.

    Cool. I’m still pretty new to this.

    I knew when I saw you that it’d be a cool interview. Plus you just had a regular conversation, which is better than just going one-by-one through the questions. I thought it was interesting. I like these interviews the most, because it’s someone who knows the work versus somebody who is like, “Here’s the world’s greatest pick-up artist; let’s get some tips and say “this wouldn’t work on me!”

    To back up their bias.


    I knew when I saw that interview list, I knew you and the guy I talked to before, I knew you guys would be good.

    Who was the last guy?

    I think he writes for a student newspaper, at the university of whatever it is. I knew you guys would be guys who follow this shit.


    Are you going to stick around for the book signing thing on Wednesday?

    No, I’m flying back in about two hours.

    Are you serious man? You just came down today to hit and run?


    Did you fund it yourself?


    That’s cool man, thank you.

    Thanks for having me, man.

    That’s really cool. I did the same thing. With Emergency, I spent more money on the book than I made from the book. I’ll do whatever it takes for the stories, even when I was a kid; I flew to Europe to cover a festival when I was a sophomore in college, just because I would do anything for a story. That’s awesome.

    What are your interests? What do you want to do?

    Writing, but I kind of want to pursue your style of writing, like the interviews written in feature style; the kind of thing that you do for Rolling Stone. I’m not sure if I have a book in me, yet.

    Even though I did that book proposal [as a kid], I never thought seriously about writing a book. Even when I did the Marilyn Manson book, I wasn’t ready to write my own book yet. It just happened. You know when it’s right.

    I think that ten thousand hours thing is true, too. You pay your dues writing for websites and writing for magazines, and then when you get that opportunity for your book, your reflexes are there.

    I’m writing for four publications at the moment.

    That’s awesome.

    The bylines are gradually getting bigger and bigger, and they’re paying more and more.

    That’s cool. That’s exactly what I did. Are you out of school?

    Yeah, I just finished last week. I studied Communication, which is half journalism, half media studies. It was a lame course, man.

    They’re all lame.

    It was a waste of my three years. Well, no; I was at college two years, like residential college on campus, and that was great, making friends and stuff. In terms of the educational content…

    It doesn’t matter what you major in. Unless you’re going pre-med or pre-law. Just because I majored in psychology doesn’t mean anything; I learned so much more about psychology from living and writing The Game.

    I think it’s important just to get real life experiences. I think because I took those internships in college, instead of writing in college, I learned more from the people I was around – like from that kid in the dorm room who said he didn’t do that internship – than I did from any economics class I took.

    So you write mostly for websites?

    Half websites, half print.

    Cool man, what kind of print?

    Street press, which is a free newspaper you pick up off sidewalk, like music newspapers.

    Cool, it’s like me with the New York Press! (laughs)

    As well as a weekly publication for the  music industry , which is really aimed at the major labels [The Music Network]. I’ve been writing a column about digital music and the changes that are happening in the industry.

    That’s cool.

    I have to be careful with what I say, though, because they’re so major label-centric and I can’t really be attacking their methods, or how they’re still tied to the old way of thinking when distributing music and stuff.

    It’s so weird; I remember I worked for The New York Times when I first heard about ‘the World Wide Web’, but I never knew what it was. I heard The Rolling Stones were doing a promotional thing where they were doing something on the World Wide Web, broadcasting a concert. I didn’t know what it was. I just knew what the internet was. I didn’t know what the World Wide Web was. To me, the internet was all the news groups you had.

    I remember someone said, “It’s the backbone of the internet,” and I still had no fucking idea what the World Wide Web was. Everything was dialup. Then I remember writing about the first music download, which was the quality of an AM radio in a bad car, and it took like two hours to download. Then I remember going to these conferences every three years, and someone saying that one day it will be “all you can eat”.

    I think that’s the future; it’s the all you can eat services. Like the subscription model with [online music service] Rhapsody. I have [the multi-room music system] Sonos. Do you know what that is?


    Luke Steele's Sleepy Jackson: Neil's a fanIt’s fucking life-changing. It’s changed my entire musical life. When I come home, the first thing I do is “Where’s Sonos?” It’s like a pet. I pick it up and I’m like, “Okay, shit, I went out and I talked to that guy on the street and he told me about a fucking Sleepy Jackson album [pictured right]” or whatever, so I put it in and I hear it right away. It’s fucking great. Then someone comes over, like some club girl, and she wants to hear Lil Wayne, and I’m like, “Okay cool, here’s Lil Wayne.” If you’re talking on the phone and someone recommends a song, you can hear it right away.

    I got it for my parents for one of their birthdays. They love it. I think it’s game-changing, even though it’s just hooked up to Rhapsody. The whole idea that it’s your home stereo component and it’s all you can eat.. I love it, and it’s also the price of one CD a month. Napster is now like $5 a month. It’s fucking insane. 80% of what you’re going to want to hear is going to be on that.

    That’s the challenge for new artists though, because there is so much music out there. How do you get heard? How do you differentiate your product from everything else that’s going around?

    I think it’s always true that gatekeepers emerge. In other words, the internet happened, and there was so much shit out there; then search engines come up as the portals. I think gatekeepers always impose themselves. I keep a running list of everything that people recommend to go ahead and listen to.

    I have a physical recommendation for you.

    Oh, cool.

    It’s a Brisbane electronic artist. He does pop songs with an electronic edge. [Yeah, I pimped Hunz to Neil Strauss.]

    Cool, like The Notwist and The Postal Service kind of stuff?

    He’s influenced by Radiohead and Boards Of Canada.

    I love both of those. This sounds great. Is there anything else I should listen to?

    There’s a band called The Middle East. They’re indie folk from North Queensland, way up north. They’re really unique and powerful.

    Cool, I’ll see if I can get that. What kind of music are they?

    Indie folk.

    Cool. It’s kind of old, but have you heard the Yeasayer record? It’s about a year old, but it’s awesome. It takes a couple of listens to get into it, but I’ve been listening to that a lot lately. There’s also a group called Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s, do you know them?

    I’ve heard of them.

    It’s about a year old, but I like that too. Then there is a band I liked, called The Felice Brothers. Their first album was amazing; their next album wasn’t as good.

    Cheesy? Totally. But worth it.

    Do you still find that face-to-face recommendations are your strongest musical markers?

    Definitely. When I was in Australia last with Mystery, I bought a bunch of CDs and did an article on the top ten favorite Australian CDs back then. It’s cool to see that sometimes they end up getting to the States. I think that was maybe five years ago. I think it was when The Sleepy Jackson and Architecture In Helsinki were first getting popular. I always take recommendations because even if one in twenty is good, it’s worth it.

    Shit man, I can’t believe you just came down for the day. That’s crazy.

    Totally worth it. I really appreciate it.

    Cool man. It was cool meeting.

    Can I be cheesy and ask for a photo?

  • The Music Network story: ‘For The Record: An Album Retrospective Part 5’, August 2009

    In the final piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. After speaking to passionate Australian artists like Hungry Kids Of Hungary, Urthboy and Eleventh He Reaches London last week, Andrew verbally prods two innovative Brisbane-based acts who have turned the album-release expectation on its head.

    Were this album-centric article series an actual album, we’d have since bypassed the hit singles, the forgettable middle filler, and the surprising experimental freak-outs. This’d be track twelve; the last gasp that’s strategically-placed to reward the attentive hard-core of fans. Luckily, reader, track twelve is this metaphorical album’s hidden gem: it describes two Queensland acts who’re subverting the traditional cycle in favour of a flexibility that benefits both artist and fan. Press play and get comfortable, won’t you?

    Drawn From Bees: animal loversBrisbane natives Drawn From Bees [pictured right] are riding a healthy buzz following their recent national tour and more than a few nods of approval from Triple J. The art-rock four-piece have self-imposed an interesting alternative release strategy: a new record every six months. Explains bassist Stew Riddle: “Over a few drinks after our first rehearsal last year, we decided to use the fact that we’re a band of four songwriters to our advantage, and aim for a prolific introduction to the band. We felt that it would be interesting to break from the new-band cycle of ‘release an EP, tour for 6-12 months, release another EP’, and instead try to put something out every six months.” But the Bees are in a unique situation that encourages frequent releases; Riddle admits: “Dan, our singer, is also a producer, so we can afford to record very cheaply. If we had to hire studio and producer time, it might be a very different story.”

    Two EPs into their two-year experiment, Riddle contemplates the band’s feeling toward the album format: “I tend not to think about what we’re doing in terms of working towards an album, as to me, the length is largely irrelevant. I feel that each record needs to make a statement, and to be a snapshot of where the band is at that particular time. Our third release is looking to be an 8 or 9 track record that has a more melancholy flavour. Is it an album or an EP? We don’t know, so we’ll just call it a record and let other people decide!”

    When asked where he thinks the album format belongs in the future of music, Riddle is sceptical. “It’s a hard one to judge. It seems that while the physical single is dead, the digital single is now king. No one buys albums anymore, but if you look on my friends’ mp3 player, they tend to collect not just full records, but full catalogues of acts that they love. I think that the album will live on. Certainly, at least in the sense of releasing bodies of music that make various statements at different points in an act’s career. Does it mean that the length of an album will remain between 30 and 70 minutes? Maybe not. Musicians aren’t constrained by the format anymore; vinyl and plastic don’t dictate the length.” With a fourth release due around Christmas to bring the four-EP commitment to a close, what’s next for Drawn From Bees? “We’ll probably do an album. Or a greatest hits box collection, who knows?” laughs Riddle.

    From a regular-release ideal to a staggered album: meet Brisbane indie rock band 26 [pictured below left], who’re midway through an ambitious project to release a twelve-track album in three-song installments every three months. After releasing two albums in the standard manner since their 2005 debut The King Must Die, singer/guitarist Nick O’Donnell explains the genesis of the concept dubbed 26×365: “We don’t sell all that many hard copies anymore, so we decided to release the next album in small portions. We were finding that people were buying singular songs rather than the whole albums off of iTunes.”

    Each of the four parts to 26×365 is priced at $3.39. O’Donnell continues: “We thought maybe we could package a couple of songs together at a lower price point and you could get people buying them because they think they’re getting a bargain, as they’re getting three songs for the price of two. By April next year we’ll have the twelve songs that you can buy as a whole product, but our true fans can get the songs every three months. This allows us to introduce the songs gradually into our live set; in terms of the record, it’s like our fans are coming along for the ride.”

    26: averse to smiling

    With the new release, the band are aiming to reduce the comparative tedium that they’ve experienced with past releases. “It’s not like the situation where the band records the whole album and they’re already already kind of over the songs; you know, you’ve already been playing the songs for a year or so. As an artist, you get to the end of the album process and the songs aren’t fresh for you, but they are for the public. So you’re pretending that they’re new to you, but they’re not.”

    The band’s website further addresses the reasoning behind the project. Perhaps unwittingly, 26 have put their heads together and specified a bold manifesto for independent artists the world over. 26 state:

    Unless you’re Coldplay, Metallica or Andre Rieu, the one thing a band must do is maintain momentum. Peoples’ attention span is becoming shorter and shorter, so we want to be attracting CONSISTENT attention.

    The 26×365 release process will allow:

    1. New material to the audience, but not so quickly that it will lose its impact.
    2. Offer a time-based point of interest for the band
    3. Allow the audience to see how we are progressing as a band
    4. New content for an entire year, including pictures, videos, blogs, and give aways
    5. New gig material for an entire year and having it ready for consumption on iTunes. No waiting for the whole album to be released.

    The purpose of this article series is not to eulogise the demise of the album, or to bemoan the recording industry’s omissions. Instead, it’s to highlight that right now is a better time than ever to consider the ideal manner in which to distribute music to an artist’s fanbase. For independent artists, a direct artist-fan (one-to-one) connection may be the most appropriate business avenue. For bigger artists – the aforementioned Coldplays and Andre Rieus – a one-to-many, traditional distribution method may still be the ideal outcome. The keyword in this discussion is choice. Not only do customers now have the ability to choose how they consume music with more freedom than ever before; now, artists are privy to a wealth of release strategies, business models, digital distributors, while still retaining the option to engage in traditional physical product manufacturing and distribution.

    “A lot of purists tend to complain now that an album’s artwork is gone. I think it’s really great, because what has gone is all the shit surrounding the music. You can still get the music itself, so you’re getting the purest version of the art, because it’s just the music. It’s nothing else.” – Nick O’Donnell, 26.

    Brisbane-based Andrew McMillen writes for several Australian music publications. He can be found on Twitter (@NiteShok) and online at

    (Note: This is part five of an article series that first appeared in weekly Australian music industry magazine The Music Network issue #748, July 27th 2009. Read the rest of the series: part one, part two, part three, and part four)

  • The Music Network story: “For The Record: An Album Retrospective Part 4”, August 2009

    In the fourth piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. This week, Andrew quits hypothesising, and instead speaks to those responsible for history’s loved and loathed albums: musicians!

    In the last three weeks, we’ve indulged in much reminiscing and theorising on the value of the album format in an era of unparalleled consumer choice. “The track has been disengaged from the album!” “Artists shouldn’t automatically sprint toward the album endpoint as a result of historical programming!” “It’s easier to choose to part with around a dollar for a song you’ll love, rather than $15-20 for an unfamiliar collection!” You’re familiar with these arguments, professed from this writer’s listener/critic position. But, er – what about the artists themselves? The ones who make music? Where do they think the album belongs in 2009?

    Hungry Kids Of Hungary: Bigger fish to fryBrisbane’s Hungry Kids Of Hungary [pictured right] write hook-heavy songs that’re informed by a studious observation of the pop legends of generations past. Their two EPs have attracted radio attention, festival slots and, most recently, a Q Song award nomination. Are they treading down the pop-proven album release path? “We sure are!” replies singer/keyboardist Kane Mazlin. “We’re currently demoing and writing songs for a debut album. Like most independent bands, it’s a matter of balancing time and finance as to when we will record and release, but we’re certainly hoping to be in a studio within three months. I think it’s just a natural progression for us to put our ideas down on a long player. It will give us more scope to present ourselves more accurately, which is something we’ve only been able to touch on when creating EPs.”

    No surprise, then, that the Hungry Kids are album purists. Drummer Ryan Strathie explains: “Artists put a lot into creating an album as an entire piece – a single song is only one part of the album puzzle. I think it’s crucial for an album to be experienced in full, artwork and all. For me, its just not the same without the whole package.” Strathie cautions, however: “Artists – big or small – need to take responsibility for the quality they put out. If you can’t put out 10 great songs, then don’t do an album! It’s obvious that people will still buy a record if it’s any good; too many artists maximise on a single song or a hit and put out an entire album, even if it’s not good enough.” He concludes: “People aren’t stupid, they have been burnt!”

    From young upcomers to an established act: Perth’s Eleventh He Reaches London [pictured below left] have forged a respectable name for themselves at the intersection of the nation’s hard-rock, metal and hardcore communities. Their 2005 debut album The Good Fight For Harmony preceded 2009’s Hollow Be My Name, for which the five-piece received a $13,000 recording grant from the Western Australian Department Of Culture And Arts. Drummer Mark Donaldson rationalises the decision to release music in this manner: “We never really gave any thought to releasing an EP or singles, because we believe that you can get more enjoyment out of our band across an album. We wanted to release something that was quite cohesive, and had some continuity, with a good hour-long running time.”

    Eleventh He Reaches London: simply red“I’m still a huge fan of putting on an album and listening to it all the way through. It’s very rare to experience an album that you can listen to from start to finish, and not get bored. It’s very rare to experience that, and it’s one of the things you look forward to in life, as a music fan – that next band that you’ll become completely obsessed with.” When questioned about the free MP3 downloads offered on the band’s Last.FM profile, Donaldson continues: “It’s still good for people to be able to download a song in reasonable quality, just in case they are thinking about downloading the full album. Because we’ve basically arrived at the situation where you can download a song for free, get a feel for the quality of it, and then decide whether you want to waste your bandwidth on it!”

    We laugh at the madness of trying to explain the rationing of 60-100 megabytes to a music fan fifteen years ago. But how does he feel about fans of the band who purport to love their music, but who’ve never bought anything from the band? “There’s no ill feelings toward those who don’t pay. What I don’t like is when people download the album, love it, but then don’t attend a show when we’re near them. That really cheeses me off, because touring is such a massive effort. You look forward to sharing the music with the audience, and that’s what playing live is all about. Being able to share your love of your songs with others.”

    As co-founder of the Elefant Traks label and a renowned hip-hop artist in his own right, Sydney’s Urthboy [pictured below right] understands the record business better than most. Born Tim Levinson, his third album Spitshine is due in August 2009. He reasons: “I love the idea of the album because it allows an artist to make a little book, rather than a short chapter. I completely respect that people receive music in their preferred form, but as an artist I think the whole LP is worth holding onto. The album allows the artist to stretch out a bit, and from that perspective you’re able to tell a better story.”

    Urthboy: both dapper and chipperIt’s a valid comment, given that hip-hop song structures are perhaps more reliant on narrative than their rock counterparts. When asked about digital distribution’s effect on the album format, Levinson concedes: “It’s slowly changing people’s attitudes and expectations toward consumption of music. We’re in a transition period where albums retain a huge significance – but some signs suggest it’s disappearing. Stranger things have happened and trends don’t always result in their predicted outcome, though.”

    Levinson’s position at the helm of Elefant Traks informs his optimistic wisdom. When asked whether Elefant Traks have adopted alternative release strategies to album delivery, he responds: “We’ve discussed it a lot; I want to keep open-minded about it. One of our key methods of promotion is bundling as many activities into the one ad spend. Usually this is simple: the album and the tour. We’re a record label, but we’re also a default management company – we spend money to invest in the artist who hopefully invests in themselves, and in turn helps us sell their records. Touring is not lucrative across the board – that’s an industry myth – but it forms part of the overall picture. The point I’m getting at, is that not every artist can simply put out a few songs regularly, sling ’em to radio, excite the public’s imagination and wait for the money to roll in. There are significant costs associated with any release, whether EP or album. The public may like the freedom of picking and choosing but I don’t believe they’ve fallen out of love with the album yet. Singles aren’t for everybody, but our music industry is; there’s no use writing eulogies at this point in time.”

    It’s worth reinforcing that the purpose of this column series is not to eulogise the album as a whole. Rather, it’s to highlight that digital distribution has allowed listeners to choose how they consume music, and musicians to choose how to deliver their creations to listeners. Next week, we’ll meet some artists who’re rejecting the album-release expectation in favour of innovation, and look to a bright future where musical expression isn’t necessarily confined to 10-12 tracks.

    Brisbane-based Andrew McMillen writes for several Australian music publications. He can be found on Twitter (@NiteShok) and online at

    (Note: This is part four of an article series that first appeared in weekly Australian music industry magazine The Music Network issue #747, July 20th 2009. Read the rest of the series: part one, part two, part three, and part five)

  • A Conversation With Ross Zietz, Threadless Art Director

    Patchy Ross and Patchy RedI’ve worn Threadless shirts almost exclusively since 2006. So I when I found out that their Art Director, Ross Zietz, was visiting Brisbane on Wednesday, 27th May as a guest speaker for the Portable Film Festival, I hooked up an interview with him for FourThousand. I researched like a good journalist and found that I owned two of his designs, ‘Pandamonium‘ and ‘Loch Ness Imposter‘. So I wore one of them when we met, to show that I’m a fan. Kind of like how gangs wear colours so that they know who not to fight.

    But Ross wouldn’t fight anyone. He’s a gentleman. He spoke with me about t-shirts for 45 minutes, before speaking about t-shirts for another 70 minutes to the Portable Film Festival symposium crowd of 40. During the discussion, Ross had to repeat answers to a lot of the questions that I’d asked beforehand. Poor guy. 

    A: Hey, Ross. I read that you joined Threadless as the janitor.
    R: (laughs) Yeah, back in the day. Do you know that whole story?
    A: Well I knew that you had submitted designs to the site. Then an opportunity came up at the company, and you took it.
    R: Yeah. I went to school at Louisiana State University, and studied graphic design there. One day I was researching for a project at a bookstore, and there was a little blurb in a magazine about Threadless. So I checked the site out, and submitted a shirt that night. It was a really bad shirt, but I kinda just got hooked. It was a cool way to get feedback, and it was outside of what we had to do for school. It was like an escape, where I could just do what I wanted.

    It was a year or two after that, right after I graduated from design school, when they posted a blog about how they were looking to hire somebody. It wasn’t for a graphic design position, it was for a – as they worded it – “helper dude”. I was about to accept a design position at a place in New Orleans, but I looked at the Threadless opp and thought – “why not?” Because I’d been to Chicago, and really liked it, and kind of wanted to get out of Louisiana as I’d been there all my life.

    So I applied, and got an email back from Jake [Nickell, Threadless founder] the day after. He said that they were interested in hiring me, so they flew me out a couple of days later on St Patrick’s Day. The job interview was actually at a bar, and we drank some green beers. So I got the job the next day, and I was like, “All right! I guess I’m gonna move to Chicago!” I moved there the next month, and when I started there, I was like the ninth person that they’d hired. And I was probably the first person to join who wasn’t already a friend of Jake. Jake and Jacob [DeHart, Threadless co-founder] both had their own friends, and that’s how they brought the company together. That’s why everybody’s so close in the company. So I was one of the first that wasn’t part of the clique. At that time, we all packed and shipped shirts, and kind of did everything.
    A: So Threadless had a warehouse space at that time, I take it.
    R: We had a warehouse space, but it was like a quarter of the size that we have now. That’s when we were doing our early growing, I guess you could say. That was 2005.
    A: So there were only nine people in 2005, and now you’re up to..
    R: Around 80. 80 during the sales. We hire a bunch of temps to help us ship out shirts. And a lot of the time, the people who work as temps end up getting normal jobs, too.
    A: When you applied, were Jake and Jacob aware of your design skills?
    R: They were, yeah.
    A: Had you had a few designs printed?
    R: At that point I four or five printed. And that was one of my stipulations when they hired me. I told them that I really wanted to still be able to submit shirts. Because to me, it seems like if you work for the company, and you get chosen to be printed, it still kind of looks shady. So when I was hired, I started doing designs under different aliases. But yeah, that’s how I got the job!
    A: Do you wear your own shirt designs?
    R: I feel weird wearing stuff I designed. I don’t really own any of my designs. I let my mom, and dad, and girlfriend wear them, but I’d feel weird wearing them myself. Imagine if someone saw me wearing it, and came up to me: “Hey, you designed that shirt!” I don’t know if that’d really happen, but I’d just feel weird doing it.
    A: But it’d be advertising for your work.
    R: That’s true. If somebody was like, “Hey, I really like your shirt!” But that’s one of the great things about Threadless, when people say that kind of thing. Because we don’t brand it at all, so when people see the shirt and complement the design, that’s when you tell them about Threadless.
    A: That’s the reason that I got into wearing Threadless. I used to wear surf brands and stuff when I was growing up, and I got sick of that. So I started wearing band shirts and Threadless. I found the site in 2006, and I really got into it, because I’d rather wear a cool design that I know someone made, rather than wearing a brand that I’ve never associated with.
    R: Exactly. I think that’s really cool. Especially when the shirt designers are from all over the world. That’s really neat.
    A: Does it still blow your mind to see people wearing your designs?
    R: It does. The first time I saw someone wearing one of mine was ‘Pandamonium‘, and it was a girl at concert. I was with some friends, and they told me that I should go and talk to her.. because she was kind of cute too (laughs) But I didn’t do that, because I didn’t want to be like “Hey, I designed that shirt!”
    A: “That thing you’re wearing? I made it!”
    R: “I’m on your shirt tag!”
    A: Really, man? I totally would approach people like that if I were you. It’d be a great introduction, because they’ve obviously taken the time to find your artwork, like it, and buy it. You’re too modest!
    R: That’s true.
    One of Ross' Dave Matthews Band designsA: I saw that you’ve done some band work for Dashboard Confessional, Dave Matthews Band and a couple of others.
    R: The first one I did was for Hellogoodbye. All of those artists, or their managers, saw my shirts on Theadless and got my email through the site. They said they liked my style, and asked if I’d be interested in doing some shirts for them. I was like, “Hell yeah!”. Because when you get a gig like that, it just seems awesome. It all happened though Threadless, and it happens with a lot of other designers. Once they get printed, and their name is out there and on the shirts. I know a bunch of others that’ve gotten to do shirts for bands. I know that Dave Matthews has done a bunch of Threadless designers. I’m actually doing some for Phish when I get back. That was through the Dave Matthews people.
    A: Do they give you design briefs, or do they ask you to come up with something?
    R: They tend to show me a bunch of stuff that they like, and have me go from there. It’s always interesting, because when you do a t-shirt for a big band like that, the most you’ll get paid is.. I did two shirts for Dashboard, and they paid me $1500 total. I thought that was a lot. But when you compare that to Threadless paying out up to $2200 for one design.. I know it seems strange to some people, but that is a lot of money for a non-spec work. And I know there’s no guarantee that you’re going to win, but at least you can have fun doing it.
    A: Who would you most like to design a shirt for?
    R: Doing something with a band who have a crazy, art attitude would be cool. Someone like Radiohead would be awesome. Any stuff like that where you can have more freedom. It’s fun doing that stuff; it’s fun to challenge yourself. I have no idea what I’m going to do for Phish. I’ve seen their older shirts that have fish smoking weed, but I’m going to try and come up with something cool. Right now, Patagonia is a company who I think is really cool. They’re kind of like an outdoorsy brand, and they’re really green and organic and all of that stuff. They’re based in Ventura, California, so they’re really into surfing and stuff. They work with some designers, like Geoff McFetridge, and I think it’d be really cool to design some stuff for them. I don’t think I could though, because I work for Threadless.
    A: Do you get many bands approaching Threadless to do contract work through the site?
    R: Yeah, we’ve done some Threadless Loves promotions.
    A: I saw you had Hot Chip on there recently.
    R: And a lot of other bands, like Josh Ritter and The Decemberists. I think we’re gonna start doing some more stuff like that, and maybe even do some bigger bands, too.
    A: It sounds like a pretty good idea to me, for musicians. To source artwork from a crowd of people who’re likely fans of the act, in most cases. And if a fan’s artwork wins, they’ll tell all their friends about it.
    R: Exactly. The bands that approach us are really cool about it, but the ones that aren’t cool about it are the ones that want the band’s name on the shirt. We haven’t really done a shirt with a band’s name. We run it so that the band will give a theme, and then the design community will take that theme and go nuts with it, and then the band will pick a winner.
    A: I saw that Design By Humans have been doing that a lot lately.
    R: Yeah. I’m not going to talk shit about them. They go through one merch company that uses a kinda weird licensing thing. But they do a lot of huge bands.
    A: Fleetwood Mac, Kings Of Leon.
    "Stand in front of this yellow door, put on this shirt and wear a scarf."R: Lil Wayne, too. It’s cool, but I didn’t like the shirts that got chosen. They got some amazing subs [submissions], but again, those artists require that the band name has to be pretty prominent on the design. It’s not to say that we wouldn’t do that in the future, but I think that we like it so that when you see the shirt, you think of the band, but it’s not necessarily overt.
    A: You take more of a subtle approach.
    R: Yeah, that’s it. Subtlety!
    A: I guess that’s something that not a lot of artists would be down with that.
    R: Yeah. That’s why the artists that we partner with are more into the whole ‘art scene’, I guess.
    A: So you score a lot of designs each day. How long does it take you to know if you like a design?
    R: I think it’s cool if when you see a t-shirt, and you don’t have to get it right away. When you walk by somebody, you usually see it for like two or three seconds. So it needs to be something that’s pretty simple and straight-forward. That’s just what I like, or whether it looks good or pretty. But the ones that are really intricate – the ones you have to look at real close – I think they’re cool, but that’s kind of more stuff to hang on a wall, rather than to wear on a t-shirt.
    A: That’s funny, because I told a friend of mine that I was doing this interview. She said that she thinks that she prefers plain shirts to any kind of design. She thinks that designs just belong on walls, which I totally disagree with.
    R: I guess I kinda see that, because I wear a lot of plain t-shirts too. I like the idea of being able to express yourself with a t-shirt.
    A: Because a shirt is a statement.
    R: Yeah. I like spicing it up a little bit, rather than wearing the same plain, uniform kind of shirts each day. It keeps people different, I guess. I do love some shirts that are really crazy, but I like simple stuff. My favourite artist is Geoff McFetridge. Do you know who that is?
    A: No.
    R: He’s pretty amazing. He does a lot of real simple, kinda goofy stuff, but I’ve always been a fan of his. Check him out – he actually just did a Select shirt for us [‘Frowns Are Flesh’, pictured below right]. That was pretty damn amazing – this guy, who I’ve idolised for so long, did a shirt for us. That was cool.
    A: I’ve noticed that most Threadless shirts over the years have relied on a centre image on the chest, whereas elsewhere there’s a bit of a trend to use the whole shirt.
    R: Yeah. We do that [giant designs] more now. Our best-selling shirts lately have been the all-over prints. One thing that I really like about Threadless is that we print enough shirts that there’s a range. I don’t mean to put down Design By Humans, but it seems like their shtick lately is just kinda giant prints.
    A: Definitely.
    R: It’s almost too much, and I think it alienates some people. It’s kinda cool that we can spread out. This [points to shirt – ‘Party Animal‘ by John Hegquist] is a new one. Just a real basic, simple print on the front. But we’re working all these new printers now, too, that have presses that can do these crazy big prints. But there’s not many in the Midwest. We’re based in Chicago; they’re more in LA, which is where Design By Humans is located.
    Ross modelling a double-sided Geoff McFetridge Select designA: American Apparel are there too, aren’t they?
    R: Yeah. They’re the ones that make our shirts. But we use two printers out of Chicago, and one of them is getting a brand new giant press, so we’re looking forward to seeing what we can do with that. But lately we’ve been doing more big prints, because that seems to be the trend that’s been coming for three or four years now.
    A: Do you think that centre, chest designs kind of define Threadless’ style? Because when I think of Threadless, I think of the simple, character-based shirts, or the clever situations.
    R: In the past, yeah, but I think we’re doing a bunch more random stuff now. If you look at our homepage, you can see that a lot of our new ones are trending toward giant prints. And another cool thing that we do is the Bestees, where you can vote on the best t-shirt that we print each month, and the winning designer will get another $2,500.
    A: Oh yeah, I heard about that. That’s ridiculous!
    R: It’s crazy. Three out of the three that’ve won so far this year are giant tees. [he shows me on his laptop]
    A: Oh yeah, that red one is awesome. [The Red‘ by Dina Prasetyawan]
    R: Yeah, these big prints are all the rage right now. And I think they’re cool, but I like simpler stuff.
    A: Do your designs have a particular style?
    R: I don’t really have a style. When I come up with something in my head, I have to make it look like that. And I think that is probably one of my problems, that I don’t have a distinctive style. I’m more about the idea than having a style. But no, I’m styleless. (laughs)
    A: I’ve seen your stuff, and it’s pretty varied. You range from character-based ones like this, to ones like ‘Infinity MPG’.
    R: I found out that one [‘Infinity MPG‘, pictured below] just got ripped, actually. I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, you probably don’t care.
    A: No I do, because I saw that ‘Pandamonium‘ got kinda ripped off a while ago too.
    R: They basically just stole the idea and made another shirt called ‘Infinity MPG’. And I was like, “oh well”.
    The ORIGINAL MPG. Accept no substitutes.A: How do you feel about that?
    R: It sucks.
    A: I guess there’s a good way to look at it – it was such a good idea that they wanted to take it off..
    R: It’s kind of flattering, yeah. There are even people who started a website called ‘Infinity MPG’ after I got printed, and sold bumper stickers and all these things. It’s not like I invented the idea that by riding a bike you use less gas. (laughs) I can’t get mad at that. I think it’s cool. As long as it does something beneficial, it’s cool.
    A: When people submit to Threadless, they still own the copyright of the image, don’t they?
    R: The only thing we get is garment rights. So basically, we can put it on a t-shirt, or a hoodie. But the artist can make prints of the design and whatever else. We have some wall rights for wall graphics. We work with a company called Blik, and they do crazy wall coverings. They’re a great company to work with, and that’s why we have some of those rights.

    But there’s been times when people have had their design printed on a shirt, and they came back to me saying “hey, I want to do something with this design”, like making a print out of it. We just talk to the artist and they’re fine with it. That’s the cool thing about being so close with all the artists. If they have a want or a need, they can just talk to us, and make it happen.
    A: Here in Australia – and I’m sure you’ve heard of similar things in the US – I saw some designs for sale at a music festival market stall, and the majority of the shirts were Threadless rip-offs.
    R: They were telling me about this yesterday in Melbourne, too. I have heard that. There’s a lot of places in Asia that have that same thing. And we can’t really do anything about it. It’s so hard to do stuff outside of the United States with that kind of law. And especially if it’s just at a market. Were the shirts tagged and everything? Did it seem like a legit brand, or like they weren’t making too many of them?
    A: No, they just seemed like limited runs.
    R: Yeah, see, it sucks, but we can’t really do anything about. It sucks for the artist, too, because they feel like they’re getting exploited more than we are, because they’re not getting any credit for it.
    A: For sure. What’s the most important part of running an online design community?
    R: I like being open and honest. When we fuck up, we let people know that we messed up. We keep our community ‘in the loop’, and that’s what is most important. I also like being able to be close with the designers. In my position as Art Director, I receive their art, and I get to work with these amazing artists to try and make what they envisioned work on a shirt. And at the same time, if the community sees something like a fake Threadless shirt, they’ll blog about it and kind of police for us.
    A: It really is just a dedicated community built around t-shirts.
    R: I know, and who would have thought? And seriously, when Jake came up with the idea, he never, ever in his wildest dreams thought that it would get as big as it has. The growth was organic, and it’s just turned out really cool.
    Nothing I type here could be funnier than this photo.A: Tell me about the Threadless retail stores.
    R: We have two now. They’re both in Chicago. We opened the first one around 18 months ago, and then the second around six months ago. The second one was just for kids shirts, initially, but we’re going to change it so that it’s for both kids and adults.
    A: So the kids idea didn’t work out so well?
    R: Well it did, but parents would come in with their strollers and want to buy shirts for themselves, too. It makes sense to have everything there, rather than just do a kids store.
    A: I read that the first store didn’t have a lot of stock, but tended to focus on art instead.
    R: We tried to replicate the feeling you get when you’re on the website. We have a bunch of digital displays where you walk in, and you can get a headshot of yourself taken. We have a bunch of monitors on these mannequins in the window, so your head will show up on the mannequins.
    A: Is that a popular feature?
    R: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. It’s a pretty busy walking street, so a lot of people walk by and stuff. We do two weeks of stock at the store, so we only have like 18 shirts in the store at a time. I mean, right now we’ve had like 2,000 shirts printed, and in stock we have probably 300 designs, so we can’t necessarily have 300 designs in stock at the store. But it’s a pretty small little shop, and we just decided to do the most recent shirts, and cycle through.
    A: Do you have plans to expand the store range?
    R: Eventually, we’d love to. It’s just that right now, it’s just so hard with all of the money issues going on. But we definitely plan to do some more stuff overseas. And the cool thing is that Australia is our #4 country, sales-wise. It goes US, UK, Canada and Australia, so y’all are up there on our list. This is my first time here; it’s been great so far. I really love it!
    A: The whirlwind tour – you’re here for what, three days?
    R: I know! So quick. I was in Melbourne for the past two days and basically jetlagged the whole time. Tomorrow is Sydney, and then I have two days to relax. Actually, another Threadless guy is coming from New Zealand to meet me there. His girlfriend lives in Sydney, so we’re gonna hang out for those few days. He’s a cool guy. The community has these meet-ups once per year in Chicago, and we have designers and members from all over the world coming to meet us.
    A: The online community in real life.
    R: I know, it’s nuts. It’s nuts that they travel – well, not nuts – but it’s really cool that they travel that far just to come and meet everybody.
    A: Dedication! Brand loyalty! Hey, how many votes does it to convince you that a shirt you don’t personally like should be printed?
    R: We have a brand management team, and so when we look at the scores of shirts, we can see the highest scoring ones, but then we can break it down into how girls scored it, how guys scored it, how people that buy a lot of shirts scored it; all these different factors that we get to look at. That’s how we decide what gets printed. So there’s a lot of times where designs that I’m not really too keen on score amazingly, and I can’t deny it just because I don’t like it. If a lot of other people like it, it’s worth printing.
    He's that futuristic. Also, I'd never wear this shirt.A: How many shirts does Threadless print per week?
    R: A single batch is right around 1,000. But before we print them, we ‘weigh in’ the amount of votes. So if it scored well with girls, we’ll print more for them, and if it didn’t score so well for guys, we’ll print less. One single batch is usually between 800 and 1,000. Once they sell out, you can request a reprint, and the artist will get another $500 if the shirt gets reprinted.
    A: How many requests does it take for reprint?
    R: It varies, but if we do a shirt that sells out really fast, we’ll push that to reprint a little bit quicker, especially if it’s like a hot topic, or a hot style at the time. But when we look at a reprint request, we usually get more than 2,000 requests before we reprint.
    A: But you only print around 800 or a thousand at a time.
    R: A lot of times when people make a reprint request, they’ll do it multiple times.
    A: I guess that Jake and Jacob learned that the hard way.
    R: Yeah. (laughs) And a lot of the time when people request a reprint, they changed their mind when it’s back up on the site.
    A: The site has those $5-10 shirt sales throughout the year. Is that just to clear out the inventory?
    R: Yeah, it’s to keep everything clean. We’re starting to have $9 shirts on the site almost all of the time, now, but we tend to only drop to $5 for the crazy sales. But we do that just because we release so many shirts a week that stuff gets lost of the site, if we don’t clear it out. Like if we printed more than 800-1,000 shirts, the different designs that we have would just get too much, and too hard for people to find on the site. And that’s another thing that’s really hard: a lot of the time, shirts have titles that don’t really fit, so when people are looking for it, it’s kind of hard.
    A: Maybe that’s something that could be built into the site – shirt keywords.
    R: We do some keywords, but it’s always hard to keep track of that.
    A: I was submitting some photos on the site last week [note: uploading a photo of yourself wearing a Threadless shirt earns $1.50 in store credit] and it took me a while to figure out their names.
    R: It’s tough. It’s one of the things that we’re constantly working on – better ways to keep it so that shirts don’t get lost. Some really great designs get lost on the site.
    A: How did the Twitter tee range come about?
    R: We have a pretty good relationship with the Twitter guys. Our Chief Technical Officer Harper Reed is friends with them. Twitter put us on their ‘suggested users’ list, and now we have over 500,000 followers. It’s crazy for a little t-shirt company out of Chicago.
    A: It’s such a powerful medium when you have that kind of a follower base. Every time you post a link, it goes out to a huge amount of people.
    R: That’s the thing. We’re trying to figure out the best way to use that. We don’t want to drive people crazy and post too much. We don’t want to be annoying. So we’re trying to figure out what people react to. Because, yeah, when you have half a million people following you, you have to think about everything that you’re sending out.
    A: There’s guys like Trent Reznor who have a similar amount of followers. It’s the kind of thing that could be abused so easily. “With great power comes great responsibility.”
    Guaranteed to cause seizures as you walk down the street, or your money back!R: Exactly.
    A: Would you wear a Twitter shirt?
    R: Um.. (pauses)
    A: Come on!
    R: I’m not a big ‘words on t-shirts’ kind of guy..
    A: I didn’t think so!
    R: Me and two other guys are designing all of those Twitter shirts, and all of the Type tees, but I like more of the subtle stuff. Less ‘in your face’. I wouldn’t be too fond of wearing the ‘I’m huge on Twitter‘ shirt. But there’s definitely an audience for that stuff. It’s just not my cup of tea. But we are going to start doing more Twitter shirts that are going to be less about Twitter, and more about funny things that people said on Twitter. I think that we probably shouldn’t have done the launch using four shirts about Twitter.
    A: What can you recall about your first time on the site?
    R: I remember that first night that I went on Threadless, I studied the site for a little bit, and studied the designs that had been submitted. And I came up with a design, and thought “man, this shirt is going to be so awesome!” It was a heart on a sleeve, and it was the worst design ever.
    A: That was it? Just a plain shirt?
    R: Yeah, a plain shirt with a heart on the sleeve. I was like, “That’s so clever and creative!” So I subbed that, and it just got tore up. It was hilarious. But that’s what got me hooked, because I was like, “All right, I’ll prove these guys wrong! I can do some stuff that they’ll like, that I’ll like too!” And that got me hooked. But the community can be brutal. They can be mean. If you put some stuff up that they don’t like, it can be a real reality check sometimes.
    A: That’s a good thing though, right? You’d want criticism rather than praise?
    R: Exactly. You want honest criticism. That’s one thing I noticed when I was in design school. Our teachers would give honest feedback, but the students would never really give feedback. They probably just felt that they were trying to say good stuff. And so when you put it online – especially with people you don’t know – and they give you feedback, that’s when you feel like you get more of the honest truth from people.
    A: Was that hard to deal with at first, as an artist who’d been otherwise praised?
    R: Yeah.. no.. (laughs) I think you need that. It’s what keeps you humble, and what keeps you in check. You don’t want to get a big head about anything.
    Blue shirt, yellow field. Sounds like an Eskimo Joe b-side.A: The site gets over a thousand subs per week – what percentage is printed?
    R: We’re printing six new sub shirts per week, and we’re about to add two more per week. So it’s less than a 1% chance of being printed.
    A: But it’s not really chance, though.
    R: Yeah, it’s more based on skill.
    A: That’s the beauty of it: the most popular, or the best designs, will win.
    R: That’s one of the things that’s tough, because I do feel like there is a little bit of a popularity contest within the community. It’s not as bad as it could be, but you do notice that people who score well tend to always score well. I mean, a lot of times it’s because all their stuff is so good, but other times they just figure out what people want and they just duplicate that style, to make it work on a t-shirt.
    A: What’s your favourite printed Threadless design?
    R: The one you’re wearing is pretty great [‘Pandamonium‘]. I also like ‘Loch Ness Imposter‘.
    A: I’ve got that one too. It’s pretty subtle, it takes people a while to get it.
    R: Yeah, it’s great. The one shirt that I designed that I wear is ‘Piece Of Meat‘, the one with just the steak on it. I don’t know why, I just really like that shirt. One of the shirts that I’ve been wearing a lot lately is a Select shirt that wasn’t even that popular, it’s a green one called ‘The Hills Have Eyes‘ [by Clayton Dixon]. It was like this little mountain scene with these hills that all have eyeballs, and this guy in a station wagon driving by. It was illustrated really well. It just looked cool on a t-shirt, and I liked the green colour. That’s the one I wear the most. [he points at a bowl of Smarties that I’ve been snacking on throughout the interview] Are these chocolate?
    A: Yeah, they’re called Smarties. When you were at college, did you imagine that you’d make a living off of directing the art that appears on shirts?
    R: No, not at all. I know that I basically just lucked out, and every day when I come into work, I think “this is an awesome job”. And now I get to come to Australia and talk about it!
    A: Again, it wasn’t luck, though. You were chosen for this. It was perfect for you!
    R: Yeah – it found me! (laughs) But no, it is really cool. When I was at college, I thought that I’d eventually get a job at a design firm or at an ad agency. Which still wouldn’t be bad, but it’s just that I like what I’m doing now.
    A: What advice do you have for young designers?
    R: Oh, man. (pauses)
    A: Would you recommend following your path – not to become Threadless Art Director, but in terms of getting printed?
    R: Do what you want. Do what you enjoy doing. I mean, for kids in school, it’s tough now, because you have to do these real strict assignments and stuff. But try and make each project your own, if you can. Use a grid. I love using a grid, even in strict illustrations, I’m real weird about that.
    A: Can you explain that? I have no design knowledge. What’s the advantage of a grid?
    R: It’s a sort of really anal thing, I guess. It’s a Swiss thing. But when you start working on a piece, imagine if there was like gridwork and lines going through it. If you can get ’em to match up and stuff, it’s a lot more pleasing to the eye, usually.
    A: What, so being symmetrical?
    R: Not symmetrical. Just – at points. It’s one of those weird things that I’ve always done. There are definitely design teachers who are like, “Break the grid. Don’t use a grid.” For illustrations, you don’t have to use a grid. But when you’re doing stuff with type, and type mixed with imagery, I think it’s important to have some structure to it. That was one of the first things that we learned in design school.
    Zietz 'n' me. I'm wearing his Pandamonium design. *blush*A:Tonight’s discussion [for the symposium] is a bit different to last night, right? I’m told that you’ll be speaking about the entrepreneurial side of things.
    R: I think so. Which is not really my expertise, but..
    A: You can bullshit, right?
    R: I can do my best (laughs) But Portable [Film Festival], where Andrew [Apostola, Creative Director] works, they’re the ones that flew me out here. What we do with Threadless, they kind of do with films. They allow filmmakers that’re just getting started to get their films out there, so that people can see them. That’s kind of like how designers who’re just starting out can put their designs up on Threadless and get people talking about their work.
    A: That’s gotta be one of the best parts of the internet, how people can group off in different sections and just talk amongst yourselves. People who care about a topic can find their own niche.
    R: Exactly. All over the world. It’s really great.

    Aww. Thanks again, Ross. That was probably my best interview so far. If you want, you can stalk Ross on Twitter, Flickr, and Threadless.