erasing clouds

Chronicling the Underground: Interview with Author and Publisher Martin Roach

by anna battista

Music. Literature. Music and Literature. Two great things human beings cannot live without. Two things that I cannot live without because they saved my life more than once, sometimes from boredom, some others from loneliness, at times from general malcontent. There are infinite possibilities in literature and music, infinite genres, billions of books, billions of songs, kazillion of stories and soundtracks for your lives. I'm being extremely enthusiastic here, I know, but that's only because I'm sure music and literature must be the twin obsessions of many people around the globe, especially of the people behind the Independent Music Press.

Funded in 1992 by author and publisher Martin Roach, this London-based publishing house, which focuses its releases on music books and bands' biographies and on fiction with its imprint I.M.P. Fiction, has become in the last few years one of the most vibrant independent publishing houses around. "The Independent Music Press was born out of being unable to get my first book published," Martin Roach remembers. "It was about three bands from my local town - PWEI, Wonder Stuff and Ned's. No major publishers would touch it so I published it myself and sold 5000 copies. That alerted a distributor and thus it all started! I.M.P. Fiction was funded in 1998 and it was my wife Kaye's brainchild and still is. She was working for a publisher but always craved her own fiction label. She rather cleverly used our music contacts and her encyclopaedic literary knowledge to create what I believe is THE best new fiction label in the UK. Subsequent releases mix musicians-turned-novelists with pure literary talents. To a degree IMP is based on the DIY punk ideal that spawned also fanzines and independent mags - we do everything ourselves except design - which is something that should never be skimped on. However, we have never striven to be indie for the sake of it - we want commercial success. After all, some of the biggest and best indie records sell millions. Take Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation - sold millions, written in a bedroom."

Up to now, I.M.P. has published about 35 books, translated in more than 20 countries. Its catalogue includes, among the others titles, biographies of The Prodigy, Shaun Ryder, Oasis, Travis, Stereophonics and Moby, whereas the fiction catalogue includes Nalda Said and The Peacock Manifesto by Stuart David (ex-Belle & Sebastian and now Looper), The Bad Book and Harry and Ida Swop Teeth by Stephen 'Babybird' Jones, Yours Truly, Pierre Stone by TV script writer-turned author Sam Bain, Love And Peace With Melody Paradise and Milk, Sulphate And Alby Starvation by Glaswegian cult author Martin Millar. "To get into our catalogue, music books must be very detailed but not anal. At the same time, they need to place an artist in context and not just be a hagiography," Martin explains. "Fiction is Kaye's choice alone - she simply reads a manuscript and decides individually. Needless to say, the writing has to be exquisite and the plot ingenious otherwise she just puts it down. Throughout the year 2003 we received very few music manuscripts but hundreds of fiction efforts. We are actually stopping accepting unsolicited manuscripts or authors without agents - simply because in 12 years we have never published one of these and it is very time consuming to reply to all of them as we do. My current fave music book is Martin James' biography of Dave Grohl/Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl: Foo Fighters, Nirvana & Other Misadventures, which is a great read. Fave fiction has to be Nalda Said, a classic piece of modern fiction that is already being recognised as such, not least in the 11 translations and the film being made of it. The Prodigy: Electronic Punks: The Official Story was the best-selling title in our catalogue until recently, but it was recently surpassed by Dave Grohl."

Given the variety of the I.M.P. catalogue, the audience of this publishing house is also the most varied. Martin simply describes it as "anyone who loves books," revealing that the success of the label depends from a lucky formula, "The music books obviously appeal to fans of the specific bands," Martin underlines, "The fiction label has solicited the most remarkable critical acclaim - which again can be traced back to Kaye's personal commissioning skills. It is so subjective but thus far we seem to have hit a chord with literary lovers."

Martin Roach's personal bibliography includes 80 works on music, youth culture, celebrity and film. He has written volumes about the most disparate bands and artists. Among the other titles there are also Mega City Four: Tall Stories and Creepy Crawlies, The Eight Legged Atomic Dustbin Will Eat Itself and the latter Morphing the Blues: The White Stripes and the Strange Relevance of Detroit. Surely he met throughout his life some interesting bands, "Prodigy are the most down-to-earth, despite their child-scaring image. They are ultra-professional too and always championed my work beyond the call of duty," Martin reveals. "There weren't many bands with whom it was hard to work with. Wiz from Mega City Four was initially a nightmare because I thought he was being uncooperative where in fact he was just shy. Once he relaxed, he gave the most brilliant interviews - one of the unsung music heroes of my generation, and I am happy to say, a close friend now."

Though writing about music can be deemed quite easy, it is sometimes tricky and music journalists writing bands' biographies and such often end up being bombastic and not very informative. "Generally, music journalism is not great," Martin admits, "but there are pearls among the swine. The writing is too opinionated, too convoluted, but you have to understand these people are working to tight deadlines. I have used many music journalists for books and they usually find it very difficult. I often think when you see a poor review of a book - maybe they'd be less savage if they had tried to write one themselves..."

Martin hasn't only written bands' biographies; one of the best selling title in the I.M.P. catalogue is indeed a book about, surprise, the Dr Martens phenomenon, simply entitled Doctor Martens: The Story of a British Icon. "The original Dr Martens book was an idea of myself and a colleague, Gary Pettet," Martin explains. "It took one year, 40,000 pictures, 10,000 phone calls and a massive effort to complete it. I recently wrote an extended version for retail for Chrysalis Books which is triple the original word count - that brand is a genuine icon."

Different publishing houses often have different marketing strategies and advertising campaigns for different titles: fake hunted castles are reproduced in bookstores to sell children's books, book signings are accompanied by live music to attract a young audience and so on. I.M.P. recently did a very particular advertising campaign for Sam Bain's Yours Truly, Pierre Stone, a novel written from the point of view of an obsessed fan. To promote Bain's book, I.M.P. Fiction sent letters penned by the obsessive Pierre Stone to various booksellers. Though one chain of booksellers apparently missed the humour and called the police, the campaign was quite successful and also stirred the interest of the police. "We have never had so much pre-publication interest in a novel," Martin claims, "It was actually at one point being investigated by the police who thought our mock-stalker letters sent to book buyers were real! We even got the author Sam Bain arrested at the book launch. Needless to say, it helped sell the book enormously."

The success of I.M.P. is also marked by the fact that two novels in the fiction catalogue will soon be turned into films. Stuart David's Nalda Said was optioned by BAFTA winning producer Janey de Nordwall who, together with BAFTA nominated director Yousaf Ali Khan and New Zealand writer Kathyrn Akhuata-Brown, is developing the screenplay for the movie. David's second novel, The Peacock Manifesto signed a film deal with Samuelson Productions, the London-based film production company best known for their Oscar Wilde biopic starring Stephen Fry and the American blockbuster Arlington Road. "Another fiction work which would work well on the big screen is our forthcoming debut novel by Ged Simmons, The Gravedigger's Story," Martin suggests. "It is so subtle and yet gripping, quite brilliantly written. It would be compelling viewing. Also, our last novel, Stephen Jones' amazing Harry and Ida Swop Teeth is being read by a renowned animation company and that would indeed make the most surreal and yet astonishing animation film. Stephen's mind is unique."

If you're just developing an interest in I.M.P. books, then you should also know that I.M.P. is not only a publishing house: I.M.P. also packages box set and special limited edition CD releases for record companies, project launches events and exhibitions and offers a photographic source service. "We can do this sort of stuff because of our contacts," Martin explains. "I would like to explore more the photographic source service area - we have the best photographers at our fingertips for example but many of them are unknown to the advertising/media world." Exploring further this area is probably one of the future projects of I.M.P., together with releasing new books: the next titles will be the world's first comprehensive history of the Two Tone scene, Sent from Coventry: The Chequered Past of Two Tone, coming out on 29th January, and The Gravedigger's Story, a novel that will be available in April. While waiting for these new releases, Martin recommends us to read anything on the I.M.P. catalogue, but in particular Stephen Jones' books or his own book on the White Stripes.

There is one book Martin still hasn't managed to put into the I.M.P. catalogue and that's John Lydon's autobiography, but you can bet one of these days he'll manage to. In the meantime, he will have to feed a tapeworm which, living in his mind, is constantly nudging him to write. "When I was a kid I wanted to be a footballer, Gollum, a spaceman -- the usual," Martin recounts, "Although my wife might say the Gollum ambition is being fulfilled with every day, the publishing/writing bug only caught on after three years in a professional thrash band." But it must have been a benevolent bug the one Martin caught. "We were once called 'the chroniclers of the music underground'…" Martin says, "…which was pleasing." Like his wife Kaye, Martin can be simply proud of I.M.P.


Issue 19, January 2004

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