Monday, October 21, 2013

The Folks Behind the Music - Featuring Tony Conley - Rock Guitar Daily

A true rock n roll stalwart, Tony Conley runs the excellent Rock Guitar Daily which is an amazing resource for lovers of rock music everywhere.

Start at the beginning, how did you get started with this crazy idea of writing about music?

I started writing about music not long after an injury ended my playing days. I've spent over thirty years in the guitar business, whether I was selling them for Guitar Center, or playing them for bands as wide and varied as Bobby Womack, Iggy Pop, Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices). My playing days were for the most part ended in a second, and after that, it became a way of being involved in music and not becoming a bitter, angry ex-musician.

We're all the product of our musical past. What's your musical history? First album you ever bought? First musical epiphany moment? First album that terrified the hell out of you?

I believe the first album I can remember buying was Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies, which would have made it about 1973. Before that it was The Beatles, and the radio. I vividly remember riding on a school bus very early on, and being completely enthralled with the pop hits on the driver's AM transistor radio. I'm guessing that was around 1969-70, and I remember Happy Together by The Turtles, some stuff by The Guess Who, and things like Build Me Up Buttercup - it gave me a love of big production and melodies, a proclivity I maintain to this day. The first album that terrified me was either Transformer by Lou Reed, or the debut by The New York Dolls. It wasn't long after that I picked up the guitar, and started learning how to play.

What's the last album to grab you by the throat and insist you listen?

Mos Generator's new live set - as much as I loved Nomads, I was stunned by their power as a live act, and the wonder of the power trio re-greeted me. Pure feral rock, but played with an empathy that's all too rare in the days of ProTools, and made-by-mail records.

What do you see happening in the music scene today, good and bad?

I'm cautiously optimistic - by that, I mean that if the bankers, politicians, and Monsanto don't destroy us first, we'll be OK. In fact, I find that musically things are better than at any time since the very early '80s. I've heard more great records in the last year than maybe I have in the last ten. Loads of cool projects being done by guys who just wish to play with each other, without the hampering of old entities like record companies and contracts.

In fact, I am embarking on a project I call, Rock Ain't Near Dead™, which is starting out as an internet radio show/podcast here in mid-November, but also is blossoming into other things, including a recording studio and a small record level which will focus on small batch projects that we hope to combine with select touring of the acts, and trying to create an in-house concept not dissimilar to Motown (but I think we'll try to be more fair economically). I've long watched the business practices of my old childhood friend Robert Pollard, Mac McCoughan of Merge Records, and guys like yourself, who have what I will call supplemental record labels. Certainly a labor of love, but I believe by closely controlling things, we can make everyone a few bucks along the way, and more importantly create some records that are cool and maybe even inspire some kids somewhere to pick up some guitars themselves.

While we're certainly not in a 'golden era,' it is vital to do something to perpetuate the whole thing, and keep rock moving forward, as opposed to sitting around crying about the state of things.

With so many music sites, how would you describe what you do? What's your unique take on the music and writing?

What may make me somewhat unique is my absurdly high word count, and the fact that I don't do negative - I don't listen to music I don't like, so why would I bother to write about it? And I don't feel like I can effectively communicate just how good something may be, or just how much I dig it in 400 words. I write firstly for myself - I have developed a style which is akin to being a jazz player, in that I am improvisational. If you have ever read one of my record reviews, you may find it interesting to know that I write along with the music, usually on the second listening, sometimes even the first. I write from beginning to end with no thought to outline, or where it goes - it's just from start to finish, then usually a bit of technical editing, because I tend to be a bit sloppy with the grammar at times.

I consider the acts I write about to be peers, and not adversaries. I've made records, so I know how hard it is, and I'm more concerned with supporting and communicating what I do like, as opposed to trying to cleverly invite my ideals onto someone else's work. If I'm writing about it, you know I like it, and most generally, I like the musicians themselves, many who are friends and comrades. It comes down to me wanting to do what I want - that's why I've resisted the offers from certain print and 'Net entities - I am beholden to no one, and I like it that way.

Illegal free downloads on your site. Yes or no, and why?

Absolutely not - if an artist wishes to give their music away, I am all for it, but I'm not going to rob someone who doesn't wish to be robbed. When hamburgers and cars are free, then so should be music.

What's been your all time greatest "Find"? That band you "discovered" before anyone else and started the word spreading?

To a certain degree I 'discovered' indie legend Robert Pollard, in that I invited him into our first band, and got him to sing publicly, which has since lead to his releasing over 100 albums of original material in myriad configurations. I knew he had great taste in music - we would trade albums when we were about 14-15, and he was into prog, metal, or anything cool. I called him on a Monday, asking him to do a gig with a band we were assembling that coming Saturday. He said no, so I called him back again on Wednesday, and egged him on - he said, OK, and we practiced for two nights, then did a twenty-five song set of covers that Saturday. I'm quite proud of the fact that Bob says that he's been trying to recreate that first gig for the remainder of his adult life.

If you could write a 1,000 word essay on one song, which one would it be, and why? What makes that song so important?

Damn, that's a tough question.... It's not my single favorite song, and I'm not sure what is, but I'd pick In Your Park by The Scorpions - I heard it first when it was new, which would have been 1975 - I hadn't been playing guitar for very long at that point, and when a friend gave me the record, it blew my mind. To that point, I was a child of the radio for the most part, and this was something completely unique to my existence - the guitars were very different than what I was used to hearing, the vocals were very strange but compelling, and it changed my world in an instant. It took me several listening to get my mind around it - did I really dig it as much as I felt like I did? It was a very visceral reaction, and since that day I've been a huge fan of Germanic rock - especially in their love of classical harmony and their strict sense of time. To the point where I eventually left a great management job at Guitar Center to go to work for ex-UFO axeman Michael Schenker as a guitar tech, mostly so I could get to know him, and hear him play every night.

Give us three bands that we need to keep our eyes out for.

The Temperance Movement, The Graveltones, and 68-75. None of them are inventing a new wheel, but they are all straight up rock bands who are following their muse and getting it right more often than not.

Tell us about your personal music collection. Vinyl? CD? What's your prized possession?

I'm guessing 2,000 vinyl albums, and maybe 3,000 CDs. Frankly, I'm mostly digital right now, but that's because I'm between two huge moves, and many things are in storage. I don't really have prized possessions anymore - that kind of ended when I had a guitar stolen some years ago that had been specifically made for me, and had become my grail. I realized that grails don't last, so I'd say my prized possession these days is my capacity to love.

What makes it all worthwhile for you?

I'm a big kid - last week Leslie West told me how much a review I had written a while back had meant to him, and how he thought I was a great guy. That moved me. When I wrote something about UFO's keyboardist Paul Raymond, and his wife wrote me to thank me, saying that she had only rarely seen anything written about her husband in the decades he'd been treading the boards, well that counted for something. I don't write to fish for compliments, but when they come, I find them uplifting, and take them for what they are.

How would your life be different if you weren't writing about music?

Can't really imagine it, at this point - this Rock Ain't Near Dead thing is about to consume my waking hours, and I wouldn't change that for anything right now.

Ever been threatened by a band or a ravenous fan?

Hahaha, last year, on a bit of a lark, I created a Facebook page entitled 1,000,000 Black Sabbath Fans Say Yes to Bill Ward. While a million didn't join, 50,000 did within two days, but I have never been so beat up by fans in my life - threatened, called names, having the most vile things directed at me by pissed off Ozzy fans - mind you, I wasn't anti-Sabbath, I was pro-Ward, but this bunch would occasionally just go after me with an anger and a lack of intelligence the likes of which I had never experienced. Both sad, and kind of funny. The funniest thing that happened was that I got a request from Geezer Butler asking me to remove a PETA ad he had once done, but didn't want the metal-heads to see.

In the end, what would you like to have accomplished, or be remembered for?

Just to do something to help keep rock alive through a rough stretch so it can grow into an accepted piece of permanent culture, not unlike jazz or the blues. To help rock grow up, and maybe even become a sensible business again!

Many people may not realize the hours you devote to what you do for little or no pay. Is there a day job? If so, how do you find the balance? What's next? Any new projects?

I have avoided monetizing my work for the last three years, and even attempted to keep my writing somewhat hard to find if you're not directly in its stream - I've done this to develop an audience that reads for the right reasons, and to create a place in the world in which I can monetize my efforts, which I am in the process of doing. There is no real day job, there is no balance. I am working with some great people down in LA on some things, and much will be emerging here in the next few months that will reveal a method to my madness. We've got some incredible guests and features lined up for our radio show, and I'm hoping that this idea, this notion of starting a truly grassroots project to further the cause of classic rock will grow legs and take on a life of its own.

Also, in the next few months I will finish a book I've been working on for over seven years, a book that is unique in that it looks at the life and work of Paul McCartney from an almost exclusively musical viewpoint, and posits the notion that Beatle Paul may actually be the best all around musician who has ever lived, based on his skill set and accomplishments. Yes, I am going after a life in dying industries, but what the hell, I believe in what I am doing, and it's being done for the right reasons. The reason is love.

Finally, other than the music, what's your other burning passion?

My wife and child. That's really about it.

Thanks for this opportunity - it is great to occasionally write down what you're doing, and why you are doing it. It gives one the chance to look at their labors on the page, and to consider the merits.

Cheers, Tony

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