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Matt Resnicoff: A Musician's musician
Interview with a former music critic

By Steven Ward

Matt Resnicoff crossed a line. The former Musician Senior Editor and Guitar Player and Guitar World writer is now a professional guitarist and record producer. During the e-mail interview below, Resnicoff talks about working for Musician (a magazine he once described as "The New Yorker of music magazines"), and the good and not-so-good aspects of interviewing and writing about musicians. Although he doesn't miss his music-writing past, he admits it was fun working with such talented people.

Resnicoff gained a reputation among Musician readers when, in 1991, he penned an unflattering cover profile of Eddie Van Halen, prompting a phone call from the band's manager, who physically threatened him. Sometimes the truth hurts, but it's a truth Matt wasn't willing to hurt for much longer.

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Matt Resnicoff

(Photo of Matt Resnicoff by Sharon Case.)

Steven:   First off, we haven't seen your byline in any music magazines in ages. I know you are a musician and have produced some records. Where are you living these days and what have you been up to lately?

Matt:   I'm in New York, where I've been all my life, with the exception of what in hindsight seem like extended West Coast vacations. But out there I actually worked quite a bit: I played guitar and sang on Reeves Gabrels' new record Rockonica, co-produced and sang on Wooden Smoke by Mike Keneally, and also worked with Steve Lukather and Larry Carlton on a record that won a Grammy a couple years back. The latest thing I produced is Phil deGruy's Just Duet; Phil is (was?) a New Orleans-based "guitarpist" who sounds like nothing else I know, and we're very grateful because all the reviews have been really positive.

I'd always played music on the side, and one reason I quit Musician was to refocus on that. But soon afterward I was asked to co-produce Pat Martino's comeback album for Blue Note, and the next thing I knew I was in the studio with Les Paul, Kevin Eubanks, Cassandra Wilson, Michael Hedges and a bunch of others. Then the people I was producing found out I could play, so I picked up the guitar again. It was pretty anticlimactic to go back to writing after that, though I did try freelancing for a while. Even more recently, my dad finally corralled me into the real-estate business, which by comparison makes the horrible music industry seem like a charming community of selfless do-gooders.

Steven:   Let's go back. Where was your first piece of music journalism published? Was it a review, an interview? If so, who with? And how did it all happen?

Matt:   I was in college upstate in the mid-'80s and came to NYC frequently to hear bands. On one occasion, as I was pressing my nose against the window of the Bottom Line hours before an Allan Holdsworth gig, a famous journalist named Bill Milkowski announced himself to the guard, and because I'd enjoyed so much of his stuff in Down Beat, I buttonholed him as he was going inside. He let me watch the soundcheck with him while he waited to talk to Allan for Guitar World, and although--or maybe because--I was a wayward college junior with absolutely no connection to the music world, he offered to let me help do the interview and put my name somewhere in the piece, so I could later show it to the editor. So that was my first "published interview," though I didn't write the final story--but that didn't stop me from scouring every newsstand in town every other day, not realizing it took at least three months for anything to appear in a monthly magazine! Then right after graduation, Guitar World hired me as an editor, and my first articles were a short thing on Craig Chaquico and then a big feature on Joe Walsh.

Steven:   Did you always want to write about music or was your journalism career an accident?

Matt:   The whole thing was utterly--or, since I call Milkowski "the Milkman"--udderly by chance. It so happened that my enthusiasm for music dovetailed with an English major's ability to write and edit, which is just a default educational setting for the lazy or undecided. I always felt school robbed me of my music and that music distracted from school, so in stumbling into that career, the vacillation finally got put to work. I'm not sure I'd have elected to do it, especially after finding out how little the field of music journalism has to do with music, or an actual love of music. It took a few years for that grim reality to set in, and by the time I left Musician I could see a pretty alarming trajectory in my excitement level and my awareness about how ruinous the business side can be. I distinctly remember during the early '80s devouring consecutive issues of Musician featuring Pete Townshend and Ed Van Halen--delicious irony since Pete was a primary reason I had any success in music journalism, and Eddie a catalyst for my ultimately deciding the field wasn't for me.

Steven:   Tell us about when and how you first hooked up with Musician.

Matt:   In a roundabout move typical of this business. I'd met Bill Flanagan, who was then Musician's Executive Editor, at a party while I was still an editor at Guitar World, and was too awestruck to think I'd ever hear from him again. In the meantime my Guitar World gig started to sour, and I did a brief stint as the New York Editor of Guitar Player, a great magazine which rescued me from arguing all day with Guitar World publishers who thought "bass" was a fish. All of a sudden I was sitting on a drum platform in an English airplane hangar surrounded by Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle as they rehearsed their 1989 set. It was just a surreal experience for a Who fan, and resulted in a lengthy interview with Peter that spanned two issues of Guitar Player. Immediately after becoming Editor-in-Chief of Musician, Flanagan looked me up to say that the piece was the sort of thing he'd like to see in his magazine, and offered to make me Senior Editor. Guitar Player's Tom Wheeler--a sage and gentleman, calmly hearing this news within only months of hiring me--acknowledged it was a big step up for me and handed me over to Bill.

Steven:   What writers at Musician did you love to read, and what editors were your favorites to work with and why?

Matt:   My favorite writers were Mark Rowland, Chuck Young, Bill, Chip Stern, and of course Vic Garbarini, who was sort of the Syd Barrett of the magazine--a spectral presence whose vision still informed the concept but who'd unfortunately stopped working for us long before I got there. Mark was a fine editor and incredibly sweet guy who could turn out a great piece on anyone or anything, but he worked on the West Coast so we saw him all too rarely. Between being in those guys' orbit, and being handed copy by cats like Jon Pareles to edit, it was a total rush. As far as direct editing and day-to-day stuff, I really only worked with Bill, whom I still regard as among the most keenly brilliant people I've encountered in any field, and one of the more emotionally unapproachable. He didn't really have that avuncular quality, which I'd attribute to us both being relatively young for our respective positions--he called me "the kid" for most of my time at the magazine, even though I was 23--and because of that distance, much of what I learned from him was through observation and inference. I'd have liked knowing him better, but like I said, I was the first person he ever hired. So there might have been a certain proprietary awkwardness complicating our occasional bouts, but I was and am deeply indebted to him for his confidence in my abilities, which manifested in plum assignments, and more indirectly in him leaving things in my hands for weeks at a time while he went overseas to research and write books. I don't think I secretly wanted his job, but I must say I coveted his fiercely acute ability to do it and so many other things at once. I watched him make highly creative decisions and turn out topflight copy on a moment's notice in an office spinning with distractions.

As I consider this now, it's funny that I was young and insecure enough to take perverse pride in how these much older guys valued my work enough to overlook the age and personality differences. What buoyed me was Bill's professional faith in me, so that even when I'd irritated an interviewee (sometimes with a specific question he'd told me to ask, though he'd never admit it), he stood by my work, protected my more provocative articles (and my physical safety) from our advertising department, and sent me on stories I was too intimidated to write. I'd told him about the very early stages of Frank Zappa's illness, and he immediately instructed me to fly out and do the interview, insisting upon it when I hesitated; he later called it the best piece to appear in the magazine that year, which just knocked me out.

Steven:   Let's talk about your infamous 1992 dual profiles of David Gilmour and Roger Waters. You interviewed both men for Musician covers around the time of Waters' third solo album, Amused to Death. The Gilmour profile ran first. He made fun of Waters' skills as a musician and his leadership methods. During your interview with Waters, there was interesting exchange between you two where Waters accuses you of dredging up his fight with Gilmour to just sell magazines. You included the back and forth in the interview and held your own. Did you and the editors ever think about excluding that? Also, looking back, what are your thoughts on those two profiles?

Matt:   Exchanges like those were often the spine of the pieces. The only gripes about offensive or controversial material were usually raised by the ad guys and, to Bill's credit, shot down except in egregious circumstances. Not that we were intent on raking muck, we just wanted the stories to come in from angles no other magazine could or would address. "Controversy" in big business can be caused by the simple act of saying something true--not necessarily unseemly personal stuff, but, for instance, evocations of an artist's weaknesses or creative stagnation, things which nobody on that artist's payroll wants broadcast by a prestigious journal. Or as with my encounter with Ed Van Halen, confronting a truly great musician about questionable musical choices, which brought on a shitstorm of pointless aggravation and cost us advertisers even though my approach was fairly benign. Keep in mind that this was 15 years ago, when few music-media outlets existed, and even fewer had access to this echelon of artists. How many journalists getting to sit for hours with such heavy musicians--and we demanded much more time than even the mainstream press--would risk this or future interviews by asking tough questions? This is what gave our magazine its purpose and audience. Whatever sacrifice the policy brought on with certain artists or record labels at least accrued to our credibility, which is why important musicians usually listed us among the two or three magazines they'd talk to. And because there are no ad guys in the room now, I can tell you that our circulation was a scant, scant fraction of the others on that short list.

Letters Page, Musician June 1991

(From the Letters page in Musician, June, 1991)

As far as the Floyd stories, I wasn't aware they were infamous or remarkable in any way, apart from my nearly getting killed on the expressway on the way to Waters' house. I do know that of the many articles I've done, they're among those most often pirated on the Web, which did kill my foreign-language reprint income. But they were both relaxed, polite, aristocratic chaps. I know David to be a committed bandleader and genuine music fan; I've run into him at Gary Moore and Joe Satriani shows, and he did enjoy that story enough to ring me at home and ask if he could include it in the hardcover book that accompanied the Pink Floyd box set. They say if a subject ends up liking you, you're not a very good journalist, so I guess in that respect the piece was a failure. In retrospect, I'm far more jazzed that he liked the guitar licks I'd played on my outgoing answering-machine message at the time.

Steven:   Most of your profiles in Musician were of guitarists--Jimmy Page in 1990, Mark Knopfler in 1990, Slash in 1992, Jeff Beck in 1993, Frank Zappa in 1991, just to a name a few. Was it as simple as: you were a guitar player yourself, so that's why you were drawn to those guys, or was it something else?

Matt:   Mostly that I played, and sometimes the only way to unravel these guys journalistically was to have someone conversant do those interviews. In many cases I already knew the person so it was easier to get in touch, or we assumed they'd be more comfortable talking with someone they'd dealt with before. But it was just as interesting, and often refreshing, to talk with Sonny Rollins, Carmen McRae or Bowie, because sometimes you can find out more by not having as much familiarity as you would if the subject played your instrument. We didn't go at it from the scripted, clichťd guitar-magazine perspective, or at least I didn't; I think the idea at Musician was to treat them as artists rather than technicians, and to explore that side of their work as it related to the overall creative process.

Steven:   Why did you leave Musician? Looking back, what are your thoughts on Musician magazine in general, and do you think any music magazine out there today comes close to what Musician did in the '80s and early to mid '90s? Also, do you know why it folded?

Matt:   Well, I left when it started to feel like a grind, and a lifeless one at that. I also just decided to apply myself directly to music before I got too old. You can only do so many interviews, and have so many of your heroes telling you that you should be playing before it finally sinks in. I've always been insecure about my abilities as a musician anyway, so being friends and jamming with guys like Reeves or Steve Vai or Robben Ford is a blessing and a curse; it was tremendously important for me to be able to walk away from writing and know these people would still involve me in their music even without the promise of a journalistic favor. Also, "writers who play," including famous ones like Dave Barry, can be so stigmatized by their day job that they're often forced to relegate their own music to an unabashed joke. And as critical as I am about mediocrity in famous artists, I'm exponentially harder on myself; very few people can be good musicians on the side, the rare exceptions being Joe Gore, Bob Doerschuk, Chris Jisi, and Mac Randall, all of whom are more skilled players than I am.

Musician folded because when Flanagan left, not long after I did, they replaced him with a talented but far less assertive editor, and every promotions slickster and bean-counter who for so long wanted a say in the magazine's direction eventually got it. Of course, the result was a total lobotomy. BPI, our parent company which also owned Billboard and many other trade titles, never understood the magazine's appeal or the community it served, but those bosses respected Bill enough to give him his head with Musician and were clueless without him. They also had the suicidal notion that Nashville was a better home base for the staff than New York, but their crowning abomination was trying to reposition the magazine as a technical handbook in an already cluttered market. To phrase it like an ad man, we were always a niche publication without a real niche, competing for limited ad revenue with what are called "vertical" magazines, like Calculator World or Dog News; no matter how many dogs we'd mention by first name, the flea-collar companies wouldn't spend a single ad dollar with us before hitting all the dog books. So although we had the eyeballs of serious musicians and smart non-players, we were often too unclassifiable, and too expensive per page, to have unending financial security from the Fender Guitars or Ernie Ball Strings of the world. By shifting the focus entirely, the doomed new regime figured they'd secure their usefulness to readers and advertisers, and that everyone would forget that this eloquent, clever and insightful journal somehow became a how-to manual for aspiring roadies.

Steven:   You did some work for Guitar Player in the '90s too. How did you hook up with that magazine, what editors did you work with there, and do you still read Guitar Player or any of the instrument-oriented music magazines today?

Matt:   I was becoming increasingly unhappy with the direction of Guitar World, particularly after NoŽ Goldwasser left. Despite how the history of that magazine has since been rewritten, it was NoŽ who created the foundation of soulful irreverence which gave Guitar World its character; he was an instinctive, experienced writer and editor who loved music passionately, and wasn't about to be a tool of opportunistic publishers who would blame poor sales of a Guns N' Roses cover on the fact that the issue also contained a jazz feature. Luckily for me, Guitar Player's Tom Wheeler and Jas Obrecht had read some of my GW articles, and when I met Jas at a convention he was kind enough to say he thought my stuff was the best in that magazine. Not much later, Tom--whom I'd not yet met--called me at home and said that Jas talked me up and had been pushing for years to infuse GP with a New York vibe anyway. I remember Tom asking my age (which I was reluctant to reveal), flying me out to Cupertino to be interviewed, creating the New York Editor position expressly for me, and printing a big "welcome" picture of me in his column, all in one big thrilling blur. Then he gave me the coming-out gift of the century by taking that pivotal Townshend story away from another writer and reassigning it to me.

From there it was nothing but completely cool, albeit a long-distance relationship--and we all know how those go. Jas and Tom were total pros and veterans even then, and Tom Mulhern was always a pleasure to interface with, especially in the clunky days when "modeming" a story took the better part of an afternoon and countless maintenance calls. Gore was closest to my age and seemed to find himself in New York the most, and we had a blast traveling around the country in Stevie Ray Vaughan's tour bus on the Vaughan/Jeff Beck tour. Really fun days, and great guys to a man.

I never see the instrument-oriented books now except at studios or friend's houses, or unless I seek one out for a specific reason. There are only a few trustworthy venues for the stuff, and I seem to have lost my taste for pursuing it because I suppose I get my musical education from being around musicians.

Steven:   Do you read any music magazines today and if so, which ones? And are there any music writers out there today that you like to read?

Matt:   I rarely see the magazines, but I have enjoyed the odd Mojo and I look at the local papers to see who Pareles likes or who's fallen under Jim Farber's guillotine. And in many of those instances I find myself being more impressed by the writing than the music, if I ever actually hear it. Maybe I'm just getting too old, but reading about it just isn't as compelling as it once was.

Steven:   What about when you were growing up? What music magazines did you read then and which writers were your favorites?

Matt:   Creem, Punk, Circus, Trouser Press, Rock, Guitar Player, Aquarian, a New York magazine called Rock Scene. The photos of Ace Frehley in Grooves were unbelievable. There was writing in those magazines?

Steven:   You wrote liner notes for Joe Satriani, and you have done others as well. Do you prefer that kind of music writing to magazine profile writing? How are they different?

Matt:   I vastly prefer liner notes. Besides the crass reality that they can pay very well, it's a direct communication with the listener. And in most cases, unless the musicians are deceased and you're dealing with the label, the artist is the "editor" and usually is too busy or, if you're a halfway-decent writer, too appreciative to bust your hump. Joe probably asked me to write notes in Surfing with the Alien and some of his other albums because he was feeling nostalgic and I was one of the first people who ever interviewed him. And I was honored to write essays in Who Are You, and also for George Benson, Tony Williams and for four Kinks records, including the concept albums from the '70s which I grew up on; to my delight and amazement, Ray Davies didn't change even one of the roughly 10,000 words I submitted. In that forum I've never been edited no matter what I wrote, I guess the logic being either that direct criticism within its own sleeve only adds to the overall credibility of the package, or that it can't hurt sales of a record that's already been purchased, or just that the people who have asked me for notes are exceptionally cool.

Steven:   Why did you stop writing music journalism and do you miss it?

Matt:   I can't say I miss it, but it was very often hilarious and fun. They were instructive times for me, and a necessary step toward working as a musician and record producer with people I could really learn from. I remember doing articles where I'd be observing a recording session and restraining myself from making suggestions; without question, active involvement is immeasurably more interesting and validating. I've since been involved in situations that were either so inspiring or amusing that they warranted writing down in some form, which I still find myself doing. But those experiences are too personal and probably beyond the scope of "reader service," and given the unforgiving critic who still inhabits me, I might just cringe and think, "Jeez, look at this writer trying to be a musician...."

Like anything else in life, that business is not a meritocracy. That's the last thing it is. I had a brief, naive feeling that it was during my first year or so at Musician, because I was surrounded by smart people who, though all very different in temperament and taste, still shared a specific professional vision and enjoyed mutual trust and respect. Outside of that cocoon I saw some grim things: I did a bunch of pieces for the New York Times, including a record review in which I referenced the legendary, seminal bluesman Lonnie Johnson, and the editor Fletcher Roberts, who in terms of power and responsibility has perhaps the most coveted position in music-news publishing, said to me, "This Lonnie Johnson--I don't know who she is."

There's potentially a tremendous price to be paid for directness, which is the great paradox in music journalism. But I'm as grateful for the freedom to "out" an under-qualified charlatan like that as I was for the chance to bring unheralded geniuses to the attention of a larger audience. As the business gets stiffer and more corporate, my instincts just don't mesh, either with the music being promoted or the personalities gravitating toward the industry. Nor do I think the politics of publicity or media relationships should govern that world, because music criticism has a purpose more noble than providing uninterrupted hype for huge companies who buy ads and promote pretty faces. There's a responsibility to aggressively sift through all that nonsense, even if it means catching crap for writing from the heart or asking great artists straight, tough questions about their music. For me, it was an honor to get that opportunity--enough so that I wouldn't squander it by lobbing Larry King-style softballs, avoiding crucial points and sublimating my love for these artists' work just for a chance to line my coat pockets with tin foil and take home eggrolls from the next record-company Christmas party.

The other side of it is, where did a yutzy kid like me get off grilling the gods about musical decisions before actually acquiring some credentials of his own--like standing at a mic trying to layer twelve tight vocal harmonies while the studio clock is ticking? Unless you're a spectacular writer, journalism is a reductive process, and without solid experience it's just not fair to sit on the sidelines and make judgments which might be construed by a large readership as absolute truth. As much as music is a commodity and often gets debated and contested like a sport, for me it's a spiritual refuge and one of very few things, apart from my family's well-being, that move me at the deepest level. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of people in the music world, and certainly music journalism, have absolutely no grasp of the process of music-making. I'm not saying I'm Quincy Jones here, but you have to start aspiring sometime. And I'm constantly reminded of the whole cycle: Just a few weeks ago I went on a date with an attorney who the next day in her office was playing a record I'd produced, and when an associate heard it and read the credits, he asked, "Is that the same Matt Resnicoff who interviewed Eddie Van Halen....?"

  • Click here for an excerpt of Matt Resnicoff's interview with Frank Zappa.