His name is John Doran and he writes about music. He’s the co-founder and editor of The Quietus, a veteran Metal Hammer scribe and the presenter of Noisey’s British Masters video series. Best of all, he was the subject of one of Drowned In Sound’s greatest ever message-board threads, the endlessly entertaining Angry Quietus Editor.
Last year Doran published his memoir about drink, drugs, mental illness, music, the wise decision to quit drinking in order to evade imminent death, and the psychological fallout of being on the wagon. Covering subjects as varied as factory work, gentrification, bipolar disorder, street violence, hallucinations, companionship and ageing, Jolly Lad also includes amusing anecdotes about annoying Bobby Gillespie, getting weirded out by the DJ from Slipknot, wearing Mick Hucknall’s spare clothes and debating the concept of privilege in a Honda Civic with a gold-toothed cocaine dealer named Jimmy The Saint.
Without Drowned In Sound, there would be no The Quietus, and there might even be no more John Doran. “Big thanks,” he says, “to Sean Adams for inviting me to pitch my idea for the site to him. I’d probably be dead if that hadn’t happened.” So seeing as Doran has just released the audiobook of Jolly Lad, we thought it only polite to ask him a few questions about his literary endeavours...
(In full disclosure, I do also write for The Quietus but I’ve only met Doran about three times in real life and one of those occasions was at Supersonic Festival in Birmingham where John enthused rapturously into my ear about the Matmos set we’d just witnessed, describing how blown away he’d been by the experimental duo’s ability to “bend sound” or something and in front of this literally and figuratively towering figure I was too embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t really been all that into their metronome-sampling electro clever-bollocks so instead I just mumbled in agreement. So this interview isn’t toooo nepotistic and besides I had some things I wanted to ask him about.)
How was recording an audiobook different to writing the book?
Even though writing the fucking book was one of the worst experiences of my entire life - akin to casting all 22 Subbuteo players in titanium, setting fire to them and pushing them all into my anal cavity while simultaneously watching every episode of Friends in consecutive order in a room knee-deep in tarantulas - at least I knew it was going to be appalling. With the audiobook, I just waltzed into the situation whistling glibly, mainly treating it as an excuse to visit my pal John Tatlock in Manchester and thinking, “How bad can it be?” It turns out that recording an audiobook can be very bad indeed. I may as well have spent a fortnight hitting myself in the face with a tyre iron, for all the enjoyment I got out of it.
It should have been a three day job but ended up lasting for about 12. I got ill on the train going up and things went downhill from there. After six hours at John’s flat, I lost my voice. On day two we went out for a curry with the rock band ILL and I tried to cure myself by asking for the hottest dish the chefs could make. It did not make me feel better. Then John got sick and lost his voice. We were just sat round his flat in the dark, shaking like shitting dogs, watching The Walking Dead, waiting to feel normal again. We got through the recordings like this: I’d have a pint of hot water with honey and lemon followed by a Fisherman’s Friend. I’d record one sentence of the book and then lose my voice again. Repeat process approximately 100,000 times.
On day seven John was frying bacon and slipped with the pan giving himself third degree burns. I’ve never seen him so angry (and I was there when our friend Curley set fire to his favourite coat and pretended that burglars had broken in and done it). I took the precautionary measure of locking myself in his bathroom while he calmed down. It was like something out of Evil Dead II. He was raving, “I’ve recorded loads of bands. Some of them were on alcohol. Some of them were on speed. Some of them were on acid. And one of them was on all three. But nothing has been as bad as recording your fucking book.” So when you listen to the audiobook and it sounds like I’m close to tears and want to kill myself, it’s because I was and I did.
Looking back to your boozing and drug-taking days, how did you manage to stay so (relatively) functional, hardworking and prolific?
I was mithered mercilessly by my Dad when I was young from as early as I can remember up until I left home. In fact, he still fucking mithers me about everything even though he’s in his 80s. By the time I turned 13 my spirit was broken and relaxation became a complete impossibility. I managed one year on the dole when I was about 19 but I was climbing the walls by the end of it, even with all the sherry and weed. An inability to relax and an almost permanent state of existential crisis means I have to be working on ‘projects’ a lot to occupy my mind and keep the sense of gnawing dread at bay. It was bad when I was drinking but went into hyperdrive when I stopped.
As for functionality, that’s fluctuated over the years. I’ve had a couple of nervous breakdowns and nearly ended up in a psychiatric hospital after one of them but for the most part I’ve been okay and I’d put that down to a high tolerance, not for weed or acid but pretty much everything else. Most chronic alcoholics stop getting really wasted after a while; they’re just topping up the levels. I only ever lost about three jobs over the years and I was dying to get out of those anyway. I was too soft for living on the streets and loved pubs, bars and clubs too much to do much park drinking so high-function boozing was my only avenue.
The comedian Nick Doody has this joke about his own heavy drinking that goes, “I think I might be an alcoholic... but in this country how can you tell?” Does that chime with your own experiences of alcohol in the UK?
For sure. This country isn’t the worst for boozing but it’s up there in some respects. Where I grew up, in St Helens, was pretty hardcore and there would be some people back home who would call me a puff or whatever for stopping. “Why are you quitting? It was only a bit of liver disease, epileptic fits and a burst pancreas. Are you some kind of shirt lifter?” I’ve heard some people suggest that the alcoholism epidemic is spread across the classes in the UK, talking about office workers having to have a glass of wine as soon as they get home but I genuinely think they don’t really understand how deeply ingrained drinking culture is in working-class communities. The merciless grip of ale is used to hold a lot of disadvantaged people back in Britain. On my tour and my own travels across the north in recent years, it’s been really upsetting to go to places where the town centre is just a load of boarded-up units with only some bargain booze offie, a ‘Spoons, a Greggs and an all-you-can-eat buffet place open. But I can’t proselytise about this stuff, it would be massively hypocritical of me. Remember, I didn’t choose to give up drinking because I thought it was a righteous thing to do. I had to because I was dying.
Do you feel your writing has significantly improved since you became teetotal?
I think so but it’s not really for me to say. I take fewer risks now and write with less of a thunder in my chest and rage in my heart but I’m also less prone to writing embarrassing drivel (although that’s not what some folk on the internet would say). Writing is more like hard work when you’re sober all the time because none of the edges of the experience are softened and there is zero percent romance to what you’re doing. There’s nothing exciting or romantic about sitting on your own for ten hours a day with just a laptop for company. You can only pretend that you’re a debauched French poet while reviewing a Catfish And The Bottlemen LP if you’re completely off your head on port and even then I can guarantee that what you come up with will read more like John Rambo than Arthur Rimbaud.
When I was young I thought I wanted to be a writer. I used to fantasise about living in cheap accommodation with an insane girlfriend, where we would have blazing rows and I would smoke cigarettes standing on the roof shouting at the moon, drinking red wine straight from the bottle. Very quickly all this came true and I realised that what I was actually coveting was a bohemian lifestyle and as soon as I had the bohemian lifestyle I got next to no writing done. My true career as a writer only really started in earnest when I gave up drinking because that’s when I abandoned this infantile daydream and accepted writing for what it actually is: very hard, unglamorous work. A lot of my shit is still shit though, that’s just the way it is when you have to write reams and reams every week just to pay the bills.
Will my own writing improve if I quit the sauce? (Like many a hack I have the pipe-dream fantasy that if I cut it out altogether I would transform into some sort of witty and perceptive super-writer such as David Foster Wallace or Frankie Boyle when he’s got his Guardian hat on.)
That’s not for me to say, JR! But I would urge younger writers to question the archetype of the booze-sodden author. Bukowski was, to a certain degree, an actor. His most autobiographically ‘true’ book, Ham On Rye, is a joke where he’s referring to himself as a bad actor on cheap whisky. Also, all of these figures tend to be American and from a completely different era in financial, geographical and political terms. They don’t apply to us in the here and now. Can you afford to drink heavily every day and still find time to write? Thinking of yourself as a lonely poet, sat next to a typewriter at 2am with a full tumbler of Scotch and overflowing ashtray is not only a cliché but is pure golden-age thinking. Sure, it’s good to have a means of silencing your inner jury of critics and letting your mind wander uninhibited but there are other ways of doing these things, it’s just that they’re just not as fun (meditation, running, swimming, turning off the internet for a full day, etc.). If you quit drinking I can guarantee you’ll become better at pitching for work, getting work, hitting deadlines and self-editing, however.
The music writer equivalent of Bukowski is undoubtedly, in my mind, Lester Bangs, and I think his influence is just as malign. The first thing you should do if you want to be a music writer is take that copy of Psychotic Reactions and throw it in the bin. The age where you could write a rambling 8,000 word essay on wanting to smash Debbie Harry’s face in or having a food fight with Slade and earn enough to keep you going for a month has gone. Personally, I’d abandon the idea of venerating this waddling, racist, homophobic, transphobic, woman-hating whopper and start thinking for yourself instead. Formally speaking, Bangs could be brilliant on a good day but most of his days weren’t good and he belongs to a completely different age. I’ll tell you who else was brilliant on a good day? Fucking Chaucer. You wouldn’t write about music like him, so why write about music like hipster drivel spouting Bangs? “The tendre, younge and parfait Tyler The Creator hast maken melodye with a straunge and unhooly box called verily ‘Abelton Live’. What devl’ry ist it? Zounds! For it maketh a racket.” Fucking ridiculous.
You’ve said that people sometimes email you about their own substance abuse and mental health problems and you try to advise them as best you can. How many get in touch to ask for the contact details of Jimmy The Saint?
Ha! None, thankfully. However, people always still try to buy drugs off me when I’m out of the house at night-time or DJing. I guess if you’ve seen my photograph it’s not that surprising. His deals were surprisingly good, though. His gear was always clean and, unlike Lou’s man, he was always on time.
What are your memories of the infamous Drowned In Sound ‘Angry Quietus Editor’ thread?
I felt bad for that guy, really I did. I get grief off people on the internet all the time and I don’t care usually, it’s all par for the course. But this time, once he started publishing private correspondence in an attempt to make me look bad, I did feel I had to do something. I get people asking me about writing several times a day and I try and respond to all of them eventually. Most of them get it, I genuinely do work from 8am until 10pm most days, weekends included, so I do the best I can but I can only do about one fifth of the things people ask me to. I try and be encouraging to as many people as I can but I’m not suddenly going to turn round to a green writer who isn’t ready and say, “Yeah, we’ll publish your badly written essay on The Beatles” or whatever. It’s always immediately clear when a young writer doesn’t read the site. I didn’t receive any encouragement myself. Other than Metal Hammer no one would employ me ten years ago, which is why Luke [Turner] and I had to start The Quietus. I hope, if nothing else, that he got a few tips on how to approach people looking for work in a professional manner. If someone says “no” to you now, don’t toss the rattle. They may be your commissioning editor in a year’s time. If you get knocked back, count to ten, send them a “no problem, thanks” email and move on to your next pitch. Don’t call them a twat on a public forum! My favourite bits about that thread are the MSPaint pictures of me dressed as Gandalf giving him a piggy back to work.
What is the current status of your relationship with Cardboard Daddy]?
Ah, that bastard. He’s back now. Everyone thought I’d ‘murdered’ him in the middle of the night and even my son was asking, “What have you done with Cardboard Daddy?”, clearly suggesting that he suspected foul play. But then we were doing some cleaning and it turned out he had fallen down the back of the bookcase so he’s back in circulation again. I can see his fucking head from where I’m sitting now, peaking over the top of my record shelves, the flat, bendy, blue-haired whopper.
_John Doran will be appearing at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 4 at The Prince pub on Kynaston Road. There’ll be a reading backed by Andy Votel of Twisted Nerve Records. Chairing the event is Assistant Editor of the fabulous Little Atoms website and occasional VICE/Dazed writer, Caroline Christie. And there may even be time for “a regression ritual.” Tickets are four pounds.