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Interview: Sylvie Simmons (rock journalist)


Sylvie Simmons has written for most of the leading rock mags including Sounds, Kerrang! and now Mojo magazine.

How did you become involved in the music business?

I've been obsessed with music ever since I can remember. The first time I heard my voice on tape when I was a tiny little girl I thought I sounded like Billie Holiday. As my brain outgrew my ego, I realised I sounded like Minnie Mouse. So, in time-honoured tradition, I became a rock critic. Since I was sick to the point of insanity of London's grey skies and rain, I moved to Los Angeles and became the correspondent for Sounds (after getting the cold shoulder from called NME and Melody Maker, who I offered myself to first).

What are you currently up to music wise?

I write for and am Contributing Editor of MOJO magazine, and I write pretty regularly about music for The Guardian. I'm the UK correspondent for Rolling Stone in Germany and Aloha in Holland and I write features off and on for a number of different magazines in the US, Japan and Europe.

I wrote a book on Serge Gainsbourg that has been published in the UK. US, Japan (and in the coming weeks) in Italy and Brazil and I've written a book on Neil Young that's, as far as I know, no-one's bothered to translate.

I've got a book of rock-related short stories coming out in October in the US (on Grove Atlantic) called 'Too Weird For Ziggy'. (It WAS called 'Too Weird For Iggy', but Mr Pop, although he has retained his sixpack, has apparently lost his sense of humour). There's blurbs on the dust-jacket, I'm proud to say, from Slash, Lemmy and Sharon Osbourne, but not from Iggy.

And I'm working on a book about Johnny Cash's last decade, at the behest ofRick Rubin for whom I wrote that nice little black book that came with the Johnny Cash 'Unearthed' box set.

What were the highlights of your time at `Sounds'?

So many I don't know where to begin. As L.A correspondent I got to cover anything and everything, so one week I'd be on a tour bus crossing California with The Clash, the next in a helicopter with a coke-snorting Steven Tyler, and the one after that wading, fully- dressed, in a hotel swimming pool with Tony Iommi at 3am, helping him rescue frogs from a nasty chlorined death (this last thing happened on Sabbath's final tour with Ozzy as vocalist; I got to go along for the ride).

Doing the first published interviews with the likes of Motley Crue and Guns N' Roses was nice, but even more memorable was interviewing Muddy Waters (lovely) and Michael Jackson (er, different). But the whole deal with Sounds was great - it was an era of non-stop gigs and parties (which I'd cover in my column Hollywood Highs) and endless free drinks (which, in the immortal words of Kerrang!'s Malcolm Dome, "it would be rude to turn down").

It was also an era before MTV, UK rock radio and glossy magazines existed, so the weekly music papers could make and break a band. If a rock writer believed in a band enough, Sounds would put them on the cover even before they had a record deal. Hey, it would GET them a record deal! Which is why we were all such raging egotists - when we weren't being raving drunks, that is (there was a lot of free alcohol and stuff back then too).

Seriously though, if it wasn't for Sounds and the early Kerrang!, the whole L.A stadium glam metal deal would have been just another cult.

How did you become to be involved with `Kerrang!'?

When Geoff Barton was Sounds' editor at the height of the NWOBHM scene, the Metal content of the mag rose considerably. I don't know, since I was thousands of miles away in L.A at the time, what the politics of giving him a glossy metal magazine of his own were, but as I recall, it was the beginning of an era of glossiness (and Sounds, as an 'inkie', was decidedly unglossy) and an era of spin-offs. Kerrang! was one that, thankfully, stuck.

While I was living in LA, the glam metal scene had just started up, and I was writing about it for Sounds. Geoff Barton asked me to write about it for Kerrang! too, so I did so - initially under the psuedonym Laura Canyon. (Someone told me the name's now being used by a porn star. It's NOT ME. I've hardly ever been THAT blonde! Oh, and a delusional music writer from L.A also occasionally likes to claim she was Laura Canyon. Don't believe her. It was me and I have the battlescars to prove it). When I moved back to London and soon afterwards quit Sounds, Laura Canyon disappeared and I took her place.

What was it like working in a near all male environment of `Kerrang!'?

A fuck sight better than any other environment (and, being rock, most of them were near as dammit male) I've had anything to do with. Some might find it hard to fathom, but of all of the people, from all corners of the music business, I've had dealings with over all these years, musicians, editors and otherwise, the metal men were for the most part the easiest-goin, the most (excuse the word) gentlemanly, and often the least sexist.

Who was a pleasure to interview and anyone that you would rather not interview again?

I've been lucky to meet just about everyone I ever wanted to meet, so it would take a lifetime to list which ones were a pleasure. As for the pains, incredibly there's actually been very few insufferable dicks and divas and even they (take a bow, Diana Ross and Glenn Benton of Deicide - now THERE's a duo!) are usually good entertainment value.

Have you noticed your taste in music changing down the years? Any band/album you raved about in the past that you can't believe you liked in hindsight?

Since MOJO is very heavy on the research, someone (usually Fred Dellar) is always coming in with a xerox of someone I gushed over who nowadays I'd flush down the toilet. So yes, I have been guilty of enthusing over things I'm so embarrassed to think about I can't even name them. Okay, okay, I admit, I said some pleasant things about Survivor!

But to my credit I ALWAYS hated Loverboy and am proud of my achievement of getting the WHOLE OF THE BRITISH PRESS banned from talking to them. And yes my taste has changed, in both clothes and music. I wear a cowboy hat a lot these days (okay, so does Lemmy) and listen to a great deal of alternative country music. A lot of those old cowboys have more attitude than the new rock guys.

What makes for a successful CD release in your view? I.e. What are labels doing right/could be better at.

Almost everything good I've heard in recent years has been an indie or small label release. It's hardly an original thought (then, there aren't many original thoughts going on at major labels either) but the big companies are basically selling biscuits and toilet rolls. In the (increasingly distant) past, musicians seemed able to lie down with businessmen without getting totally fucked or bitten to death by the fleas. With rare exceptions, that's history.

Who are your musical heroes and why?

A long list of people but I'll pick the one that came to mind first: Johnny Cash. Because he stuck by his beliefs and he stuck by people and he had a voice that could rattle your bones. I spent five days with him last year, just weeks before he died, interviewing him for Rick Rubin's box set. It was an indescribable experience. He was like Abraham Lincoln, Joe Strummer and Moses rolled into one.

What has been your most embarrassing moment?

I'll go with the first one I remember. I was interviewing Eric Bloom Blue Oyster Cult for Sounds at a N. California festival. I was, er, in a state of chemical alteration and he wasn't.

Due to my temporary loss of plot, I continued to ask him the same question over and over again. Being a sardonic New Yorker, he simply answered it with the same reply each time. At one point, becoming aware that I'd heard the same words several times, I stopped and said to him, "You're really boring." He was a gentleman about it. Like I said, the rock men always were.

Interview © 2004 Jason Ritchie

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