Exclusive Interview: Bazillion Points Founder Ian Christe on the Publishers’ Fifth Anniversary
If you aspire to someday be a part of the metal media — and my inbox tells me there’s more than a few of you out there — than you should have no greater hero than Ian Christe. He’s written for Spin, AP, CMJ Monthly, Blender, Metal Maniacs and Guitar World, authored two addicitively-good books (Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal and Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga), been in a band that appeared on the soundtrack to one of the 90s most unusual cult classics, hosts the program Bloody Roots on Sirius XM radio’s Liquid Metal channel, and, oh yeah — five years ago, he launched his very own publishing house, Bazillion Points, who have brought the world such tomes as Daniel Ekeroth’s Swedish Death Metal, Laina Dawes’ What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, Annick Giroux’s Hellbent for Cooking: The Heavy Metal Cookbook, Once Upon a Nightwish: The Official Biography 1996-2006 , and Murder in the Front Row: Shots from the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter (to name but a few). The man is a true metal scholar; if there were such a thing as a PhD in extreme music, surely, he’d have one.
Last week, Ian was cool enough to get on the phone with me and pick his brain for nearly an hour. Below, read our chat on Bazillion Points and the state of the book business, hanging out with Metallica and Samhain, watching the dude from Manowar work at a Piggly Wiggly, Quark, and more.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Uh, you were born in Switzerland, is that right?
[laughs] Oh, man. Yeah, that’s right. My mom was American and she met a Swiss guy basically. So I was born there and lived there for the first few years of my life. But we came back to the States right before I started elementary school.
Got it, and where did you grow up in the States?
For one reason or another I moved around a lot. I lived in New Mexico, Illinois, Ohio, and went to high school in upstate NY, near the Finger Lakes. Seneca Falls, the birthplace of women’s rights, a heavy metal hotbed.
[laughs] Was there any kind of metal scene in Seneca Falls?
Yeah, pretty big. I remember Heaven and Hell being the prom theme when I was just starting high school. That was like the homecoming theme. So there was this huge Heaven and Hell float. And right around there around that time… it was pretty close to Rochester, and that’s where Metallica did their first record. Manowar lived in the next town over, and Ithaca was pretty close by, and that’s where S.O.D. and Overkill and Anthrax did their first records.
There was a Heaven and Hell float? What did that look like?
[laughs] It had an angel and a devil on it.
That was it? [laughs]
Oh yeah! In fact, Dio was from like twenty miles away. It was real metal territory. It wasn’t even that far from Buffalo, which ended up being a secondarily, but still important, death metal hotbed. That was a pretty intense scene — Malevolent Creation and Cannibal Corpse later came out of there.
So how did you personally end up getting into metal?
I really lucked out I think. Just being the right age that when I started becoming aware of music, when AC/DC’s Back in Black was just released and was such a huge thing. And I lived in West Germany then, and they were just die hards for metal in Germany. That was like Motörhead’s basic home base at the time. All the record stores would have like every Iron Maiden 12”. It was just a place where that kind of music was totally mainstream and everywhere.
So you started with AC/DC… and then at what point did you start to move on to the stuff that parent’s really hate?
[laughs] Well I mean then that was brand new stuff, so that got me through like the sixth through eighth grade. And then we moved back to the States when I started the ninth grade. I heard the local college radio station out of Geneva, NY playing Mercyful Fate and Manowar and Raven. So I started doing shows on that station when I was thirteen or fourteen.
And they let a fourteen year old just come in and have his own radio show?
Well I was the only one, but it was good. It was good that they did. You know, I played Venom and Merciless Fate, and early Voivod, and the first Metallica and the first Slayer records when those came out.
Anyway, so I was at the right age to be able to start getting into metal and I was buying a lot of twelve-inches. And I just happened to be in the center of where S.O.D. made their record, Metallica made their first records, and Manowar was prancing around. We used to get super high in high school and go to the local grocery store, ’cause the singer of Manowar [Eric Adams] ran the meat counter there. And we’d just kind of like prowl the aisles, eating Little Debbie Cakes and be like, “Yeah that’s him, there he is!”
[laughs] Really? He worked the meat counter?
Yeah, that made no sense to us. “How can the singer of Manowar be working at this Piggly Wiggly?”
Was it really a Piggly Wiggly?
Something like that. They only had a couple of records out so. You know how it is. You don’t understand that when you’re fourteen years old.
Did you ever talk to him, or did you just go and look at him?
Well, I met those guys, when they came on the radio show around ‘85. Did I ever break the barrier the barrier and talk to him while he was chopping bologna? No. [laughs]
I promise I’m coming to Bazillion Points; I just wanted to ask a few questions about your Pre-Bazillion Points life.
Yeah, no problem.
Your band Dark Noerd was on the soundtrack for one of the stranger movies I’ve ever seen, Gummo. How did that come about? Did you hang out with [writer/director] Harmony Korine or was it just something that happened?
It was something that happened. The music… the person that riled up all those bands obviously had really amazing taste. I think it’s like the craziest major label record ever. It was on London, in fact, and there was suppose to be this big story in Rolling Stone about how metal was still alive and all these bands represented something. [laughs] Basically represented insanity and weirdness. But it was all kind of hooked onto Sleep, who were also around the time of that soundtrack signed to London, and they were suppose to go off and be a big band, and I think the first thing they did was announce that they were not going to be touring. Their first act as a major label band was to announce they were done touring, and their second act was to turn in Jerusalem. So I think they got dropped like a hot potato, and there was no story after that. I met Harmony a couple times during the course of that. And he was definitely part of a fast.. .he was living life in the fast lane in the 90s.
I don’t doubt it. The one time I met him, at the premiere of Julien Donkey-Boy, he was clearly fucked up on something.
So when did you start writing about metal?
Well, I always kind of lived in out of the way places where there weren’t a lot of people around. There was no music scene. For nine months when I was in high school we moved to Indiana. There was like nothing going on there. Really… it was like years behind, you know? ‘Cause by then I was already tape trading and knew about bands like Death and Cryptic Slaughter, the earliest death metal stuff, and being in Indiana was like going back in time a few years and it was Mötley Crüe Land. I was a longhaired guy with a bullet belt, and everyone else was like into Aerosmith.
So I was basically in total isolation there, and I started a zine. And that’s basically how I started writing.
I went to the local arena and saw Metallica open for Ozzy Osbourne, and I was there all day long and those guys [from Metallica] were there all day long, the guys from Samhain — minus Glenn Danzig — were there, too. So I basically spent the day as a fly on the wall hanging around the sidewalks of Indianapolis with Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield and Eerie Von and the other two dudes from the last Samhain lineup. And I basically felt like, “Holy shit I have to do something!” and kind of started my zine after that. It’s just inspired by hanging out with a bunch of dudes on tour.
Can we go back for one second…? Did you just say you were hanging out with the dudes from Samhain and Metallica? [laughs]
Yeah, and they had never met. And they were really happy to meet each other. And basically those were my two favorite bands at the time.
Dude that’s insane! I don’t even know what to say about that. My mind is blown. So far, you’ve watched the dude from Manowar cut bologna, and then you hung out with Metallica and Samhain, and you had a college radio show at fourteen.
And I guess by doing a fan zine starting around maybe 1986. The first piece that I ever sold to a magazine was for a reader contest for Creem. Basically… it was probably some totally overworked New York assistant editor [laughs] who had an inch to kill in the magazine and was like, “Dear readers, please help us out.” I think I reviewed either a King Diamond or an Assassin record ,and they took it. So I got my $75 check and the magazine promptly went out of business. The other guy I know who had the same experience was Jeff Wagner, who later edited Metal Maniacs, and also wrote the prog metal book Mean Deviation for Bazillion Points.
So that was kind of like my first clue. Actually I remember sending self-addressed stamped envelopes with a hundred-and-fifty handwritten questions to [Roadrunner’s] Monte Conner and Borivoj [Krgin, who eventually founded Blabbermouth], probably around like 1986 .
Did you ever get a response?
Oh well. [laughs] When you see Borivoj now, are you like, “You owe me a letter, motherfucker!”?
No [laughs]. I mean, I remember what I was asking. Basically, like, you know, every last question you’d want to know as a fifteen year old. As an adult, it would probably be too much reality to face. would ever, it’s too much reality to face probably. “How do you do this?” “How much does it cost you to live?” and all that.
And in the pre-internet era those answers were a not easy to come by.
Yeah, I basically figured it out on my own.
So skip ahead however many years, you did Sound of the Beast, and the Van Halen book, and Bazillion Points came after that…
Basically, I was surviving in New York somehow. Playing in bands, freelancing, testing video games, and just writing more and more. Eventually, I wasn’t writing about music anymore, I was writing about e-commerce platforms. Wired magazine started a website in like ‘95 called Hotwired, and I started working there pretty much at the beginning. That was the very first sites that took banner ads, so they actually had some income. That was a very funny, totally forgotten moment in internet history.
I was also writing for Popular Mechanics and meanwhile still going to metal shows during the drought years of the 90s. There was a ton of stuff going on in New York, it was just all spread out. You’d have to go out to the deepest recesses in Queens… or the not-so-deep recesses. There was an awesome venue on Northern Blvd. called Heck Castle Heights that had death metal shows pretty much monthly. And as I progressed as a writer there still was just nothing out there that summed up the experience I had growing up as a metal head. Meanwhile I felt like, especially being in New York, New York punk was so over-covered. It’s hard to remember now, but specifically at that time, I just remember being so outraged. Like who cares about CBGBs in 1977, and how significant could that be that there were seventeen books about Blondie? And meanwhile, where’s Agnostic Front in all of this? So in ‘99 I started writing Sound of the Beast.
How long did that take?
It took a good solid four years.
How long did the Van Halen book take? Did that take as long?
No, that took like a year, that was much much easier.
Just because it wasn’t the history of the entire genre?
Yeah, because I didn’t have to figure out how Emperor, Pantera, Anvil, and Budgie all fit together. [laughs] I just had to figure out how David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar fit together.
Did you ever figure it out? ‘Cause nobody else has.
Roth is a continually fascinating guy. He’s still amazing, he’s still doing mind-blowingly weird shit.
He’s definitely an interesting character.
Van Halen were going to play Japan last year; of course the shows got cancelled. But [Roth] had already moved there. He was like, “Hey, we’re going to play some shows in Japan, I figure I’d hang out and soak up some local flavor.” And he got himself an apartment, founded a dojo, started taking sword lessons, started taking Japanese lessons, and he’s just been there ever since.
He’s still there?
Yeah, he’s still there.
I wonder what the Japanese think about David Lee Roth. [laughs]
[laughs] “Typical American!”
S how did you finally decide to start Bazillion Points?
So Sound of the Beast was a totally minor book deal. At one point during the four years I was working on it, the publisher wanted to cancel it. because it was dragging on and on. And a friend of mine told the editor, “Just keep it, who cares? If it never comes in, it never comes in. Why bother canceling it? There’s so little at stake for Harper Collins.”And years after the book had come out, it had sold about fifty-thousands copies or so. They’ve since been able to license it and now it’s in over a dozen foreign territories. So the book was doing well, and [the publisher] wanted to know what I wanted to do next. So I started bringing up all these subjects, these ideas to go deeper into some of the stuff that was left out in Sound of the Beast. I think Sound of the Beast has maybe one page on Swedish death metal, and maybe a page or two about progressive metal. But it was like going back to square one. Just, total resistance [from the publisher], everything happening on a very slow timetable. I don’t really understand how publishing can be so slow and so technologically backwards. Even in ‘03, when I was dealing with some final stuff for Beast, if they needed to send me a big file, they would put it on a floppy disk and give it to a messenger to physically bring it to me in Brooklyn. [laughs] I mean, thumb drives existed back then, and FTPs have probably existed since the 70s. The files weren’t that big [laughs]. To me that’s the ultimate example of “This is how publishing functions.” They’re going to spend a hundred bucks or whatever to get a guy to ride a bike to Brooklyn to give me the physical file instead of figuring out how to upload it. So, basically I got tired of waiting, and had a chip on my shoulder about all the work I had done to make Beast to fly. And I realized I had been involved in almost every aspect of the process in order to make that book happen.
So I got in touch with Daniel Ekeroth. He had self-published a thousand copies of Swedish Death Metal, which is a giant, five-hundred page book, in English in Britain. Anyone in the US that wanted a copy had to pay eighty euros or something like that. So I think Albert Mudrian from Decibel, Chris Bruni from Profound Lore, and maybe Chris Dick from Decibel all got one. That was the extent of copies of the book in North America. So I got in touch with Daniel. He had Sound of the Beast and was like “Okay, sure, let’s see what happens.”
You didn’t personally know him at the time?
No, I didn’t know him at the time.
Did you find a printing press? I’m so ignorant regarding how to start a book publishing business…
Yeah, exactly. I knew some of the stuff. I knew how to make a website and I knew, more or less, how to lay things out in Quark, but it turned out the world doesn’t use Quark anymore. So I figured out how to use InDesign.
[laughs] I’m sorry, did you say “Quark”? I can picture all our readers going, “What. The FUCK. Is Quark?”
[laughs] Quark is still something I hear people mention, “You know what I’m gonna make a book, too. Do you know where I can get a new copy of Quark?” I’m like, “Listen just leave it to an expert.” [laughs]
ANYWAY, I got in touch with Daniel, we did that book. The hardest part was dealing with the physical books. Updating the files, laying it out, I did a very heavy edit on it, added some other things like a new interview with In Flames and the Opeth guys about the very beginnings of Swedish death metal. And, then all of a sudden I had about three-thousand copies of that book delivered to my office. Just imagine — there’s a truck driver who wants to talk to you and everything he’s got in his truck is copies of a death metal book that need get off his truck [laughs]. So he’s like, “Umm, do you have a pallet deck?” “Uh, no. ““Where’s the receiving ramp?” “Uh, well we don’t have that either.” It was a very precarious process. [laughs] So that was a big big day. That was almost exactly five years ago.
And that book did really well. People loved it; Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review. And we sold out of them within a year. So basically, if a book ever made any money, I would just fold that money into printing something else.
Did you worry in the earliest days about getting Swedish Death Metal into retail stores, or were you just selling everything over the web at that point?
We did get it into the stores. There was a small press program at Barnes & Noble. I wrote them a cover letter. It was kind of like applying to college or something. “Dear Barnes & Noble, today I present to you…”
“…Swedish Death Metal!”
And and it worked! Now we’re carried by the biggest indie distributor, so we’re in all the stores without me having to write those kinds of cover letters. But in the early days, yeah, I spent a lot of time packing up weird boxes — seven Hell Bent for Cookings, three Only Death is Reals, three Swedish Death Metals… We do less of that now, but we still sell to music stores.
What’s your criteria for what the next book you’re going to put out? Is it just, whatever you think sounds interesting…?
Pretty much, yeah.
Are there financial considerations for you?
Yeah. For example, I would have like to have done Tony Iommi’s book. But I think they probably sold it for at least ten times the advance that could have given them.
Basically, it’s been about putting out the best possible version of something that I’d want to read, and hoping that I’m not the only person in the world who has that taste. The lack of interest by other indie publishers is so high that something like We Got Power!… there’s nothing else like it. I have the freedom to make something big and bulky and something that’s expensive for us to make, but that territory is otherwise completely uncovered.
I think it works because of the fact that these are such self-contained universes. We Got Power! is about 1982 hardcore punk. The atmosphere, the music, the experienced, the way people dressed, what the venues looked like, the facial expressions of the bands. If you limited it to just ten photos each of The Descendants, Black Flag, Red Cross and the Circle Jerks ,it wouldn’t be as powerful, it wouldn’t be as immersive. Books are for completely absorbing your imagination and transferring an experience. And for pretty pictures [laughs].
Speaking of pretty pictures: we talk about the death of physical media in music a lot. I suspect everyone talks about it in the world of publishing, too.
Yeah, it’s a huge thing in the last couple of years. Barnes & Noble have just lost hundreds of millions gambling on their eBook reader. I don’t even understand how you spend a hundred mil developing an eBook reader, but somehow they did it. Basically, in the last five years, publishers have looked at the music industry and said, “Oh shit, we don’t want that to happen to us,” and tried to get a jump on technology. But they ended up ramming it down people’ throats — especially Amazon with the Kindle –but it’s a very limited thing. It’s starting to find its ground; I don’t think eBooks have grown in the last couple of years. It definitely has a role and it’s something ten percent of book sales now. But eBooks not replacing physical books in the same way digital downloads are replacing physical CDs or vinyl, because while a lot of people can’t tell the difference between an mp3 and a vinyl record, the difference between an eBook and a big giant chunky book of photos of Cliff Burton wrangling his bass is readily apparent. [laughs] A Kindle looks like a first-generation Gameboy. Even an iPad, pixel-wise, is one-sixth of the page of something like Murder in the Front Row.
So while eBooks are definitely coming, and getting bigger and bigger, it’s not gonna happen as fast. You can download every book in the world, but the authors’ revenge would be you lose your eyesight very quickly squinting at your phone as your read Return of the King for free. Which you can get for ten bucks anyway.
Unfortunately it doesn’t stop people from downloading music. It is crazy, even in Manhattan, a lot of the mom and pop bookshops have gone out of business recently.
There are some big successful ones in Brooklyn. But it’s rough, it’s a strange business populated by idiosyncratic people who got into selling books as a lifestyle choice, not as a way to make money. So you’re dealing with all kinds of people, expectations, and some ideas of what’s fun and what’s worth getting excited about.
I’m glad that they’re still out there. I just read that Jeffrey Tambour owns one, which I thought was cool.
Yeah, why are all these metal guys like starting vineyards? Like Satyr from Satyricon. Where are the bookstores? Which guy from Tool is going to open up an independent bookstore?
So what’s up ahead for Bazillion Points moving forward?
Well, in the next week I’m gonna finish up Experiencing Nirvana, which is a photo journal done by Bruce Pavitt, who started Sub Pop Records. In 1989 he and his business partner, Jonathan Poneman, went to Europe to see three of their bands — Mudhoney, Nirvana and Tad — for a week-long tour from Italy to London. When they got there, the very first night Nirvana broke-up, and by the end of the week, Nirvana had been compared to The Beatles in the British press. So they have crazy photos of this no name band from Aberdeen… like, Kurt Cobain hanging out in the coliseum in Rome, and all of the members of Nirvana riding this insane hovercraft. And great early Mudhoney shot,s and great stuff about Tad. Tad was funny. Tad were the one Seattle rock band that crossed over and had metal fans, except for Alice in Chains. Tad is kind of forgot now, and it’s too bad because… I guess there is no sort of band that was that wild and wooly… that has that big, heavy, no-holds-barred charging rhino of a frontman.
We’re also doing a huge book with Mike McPadden called Heavy Metal Movies that’s twelve-hundred pages long.
Yeah, he was supposed to write a book with 666 of the heaviest movies of all time. At first, he could only get three-hundred, and he was worried that he might not be able to get to 666 — and by the time he was done, he’d turned in over thirteen-hundred.
Are all the movies directly metal-related?
Some of them are Conan the Barbarian movies. [laughs] I think The Jerky Boys movie counts, because Helmet plays in it. Airheads with White Zombie, all the Heavy Metal Parking Lot movies, the Paradise Lost movies. So as this poor guy was slaving away, burning his eyeballs with all these barbarians, road warriors, apocalypses, and concert films, I kept rounding up stuff from foreign countries and saying, “You gotta check out this Brazilian death metal documentary MTV Brazil made aboutt Sepulture and Sarcophagi!” In the end it should be every last satanic, horns throwing, axe wielding, incantation laden, guitar solo having metal movie book of all time. And that’s pretty much ready to go, it should be out this spring.
We’re also a book about mellotrons, ’cause we released the documentary called Mellodrama that MetalSucks reviewed actually. This book version doesn’t have to deal with as much licensing, and can get way way deeper.
And we’re doing an anthology of the Sub Pop Zines that lead up to the creation of the label. Still trying to get this snake-handling thing going on. We had licensed this snake-handling documentary from Sundance with a ton of photos and great essays to go along with that. We’ve been working on it for a while. Because it’s a film there’s all this music licensing stuff that needed to be cleared up. But it still should come out sometime next year.
Dude, that all sounds awesome. Anything else you want to add before I let you go?
I would just thank everybody for a) reading Sound of the Beast and b) for going deeper by spending a lot of time with a lot of boring reading materials. And for listening to my Sirius XM show!