Interview: Dan Ozzi

Dan Ozzi

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to schedule a Zoom interview with the extremely busy, Dan Ozzi. In this interview, we discussed his unique writing process for his new book called Sellout, some unique stories of his time working in the music industry, advice he would give to other writers, as well as his process for preparing for an interview. Be sure to check out Sellout, which is available for purchase here.

Thank you for your time today, Dan, and congrats on the upcoming release of your new book Sellout, out everywhere on October 26th. Why did you decide to continue on this path of exploring landmark emo and punk music?

Because I don’t know any other path, and I didn’t want to get a real job. And that kind of pushed me into a very specific direction.

Then how did you narrow down the bands you focused on? I understand you narrowed it down to 11 or so, correct?

Yeah, it’s 11 bands. And the way I narrowed it down is I wanted to tell this history from Green Day to Against Me! So that’s 13 years from 1994 to 2007. The book is really one story, and it goes chronologically. So in an ideal world, I want them to have one album every year to sort of progress the story. So I almost pulled that off. It varies a little bit, but Green Day’s Dookie is the first album, that was 1994. And then Jawbreaker’s Dear You in 1995, and Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails in 1996. So I almost pulled that off. But that being said, there were definitely some selfish choices that I had to make, especially in those early 2000s, where sometimes three interesting bands with major label records came out in the same year. And I sort of had to make some tough choices on those. But overall, I see this as one story and all of the bands are interconnected. And you can kind of see the how and why, when you read it.

Makes a lot of sense. I’m looking forward to my copy arriving. Hopefully it gets here right on the same day, if Amazon’s doing their thing! (Laughter) So based on the success of the book with Laura Jane Grace, called Tranny, what expectations did you set for yourself on this book called, Sellout?

Well, I know it sounds really arrogant, but I truly mean it. When I say I wanted to write the greatest book about rock music ever. And I know that’s sort of like an unattainable goal, because how do you even measure such a thing? But to me, I didn’t really see a point in stepping into this, if I wasn’t trying to just absolutely crush it. So Laura’s book was a very high benchmark, and I remember actually getting sort of depressed after that book, because I thought, “Oh, I’m not gonna ever be able to top this!” It sold a lot of copies. And it’s been published in six languages, and kids have tattoos of stuff from the book. And so it’s a really high benchmark. And I was sort of overwhelmed with the idea of how to top such a thing. But eventually, I got over that. And what I learned is that you don’t really have to go bigger or top something every time. You just have to keep adding to your body of work. Like in my head, I think of my work as a bookshelf, and I’m just trying to add to it. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be so huge that it’s bigger than the next thing. But even if it’s just the Zines, or just taking it seriously, and adding to your body of work, is how I look at it now.

Yeah, and it’s interesting that you brought up the Zines, too, because I know you’ve been doing a lot those recently with the photography that either didn’t make it into the book, or you just had extras of. So can you talk a little bit about that process that went on behind the scenes? Also, promoting your work on Twitter?

Yeah, well with the Zines, I’m realizing I made three over the last year. And I think that you can see that they were definitely like a direct response to working on Sellout because Sellout is like a 400-page book. And it went through like rounds and rounds of edits, legal reads and copy reads, and I had to read it a million times. A million other people had to read it, too. And it took a long time. And I finished it months ago, and I’ve been waiting months for it to come out. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I want to give people a great book. But on the other side of that, I think I wrote the Zine as a response to that because I want to write something, and have it out next week. And also in Sellout, I am not present in it at all. It’s all about other people. It’s me being a documentarian, but the Zines are kind of a reaction to that in the sense that a lot of it is about me, and I put myself into it. But I think working so intensely on Sellout, and in a book of that stature, made me say, “oh, it’d be fun to just make a couple of Zines here.

Did you find that process enlightening and almost like a stopgap between like two different works? Did you find that to be a good process for you?

Yeah, for sure. Because I think when I was writing Sellout, I was doing these long, long days of just writing and writing, and just trying to get out as many words as I could per day. And at the end of the day, like after 10pm, sort of as my little reward, I would write some personal essays. And then I thought, “Oh, this should maybe be like a personal essay Zine.” And that ended up becoming this thing I called “where it all went wrong.” That was just about me. And it’s really funny, because when I was working on Sellout, I was like, man, I can’t wait to finish writing this book! Then I can write my essays and that’ll be so much fun! And then as soon as I finished the book, I didn’t want to write the Zine anymore. It was so funny how I needed one reward…it was like the dessert for the main course. And it was helpful in that regard. Just sort of like getting myself out of my head that you don’t always have to write about one thing in one specific way

And I imagine with Sellout, you probably did a lot of interviews documenting the process. So, how do you prepare for an interview?  Everybody does it in different ways, and different styles. But what’s your approach?

Oh boy, I mean that’s like a whole interview in itself, because I am such an insane person about preparing for interviews. I mean, my preparation is that I try to really read every interview with the person that I can find. Trying to just be really knowledgeable and then I sort of map out the topics that I would like to cover, and preferably the order in which I would like to get to them. But then I think there’s a little bit of like throwing that out the window once you finally do sit down with the person, because you don’t want to just be like, “Yeah, tell me about this thing that you’ve already talked about…” You want to approach it fresh, and I know that everybody wants to sound smart when they’re interviewing somebody, but I actually think that there’s some merit to just sounding like an idiot who doesn’t know anything, too. Sometimes you’ll listen to Howard Stern or something. And he’s just asking these like, blatantly obvious questions, and it’s not that he’s dumb. It’s just that if you play dumb, the subject feels like they have to explain it to you. So yeah, you don’t want to just cut somebody off and say, “Oh, yeah, I already know about that.” You’re genuinely presenting yourself as somebody who needs to be explained to, but that’s just like a tip of the iceberg. I’m a very meticulous prepper for interviews, I think.

And it’s interesting you brought up the Howard Stern portion because he’ll throw out like the most outlandish questions sometimes. Just to get that weird soundbite. But if I were to do that during this interview, it would probably seem so inauthentic or unprofessional.

Yeah, well, he has that to his advantage that he’s been around for so long. He’s known as a “shock guy.” So if he asks how many times you go to the bathroom a day, nobody really thinks twice about it. But yeah, in the context of this interview, it would sound ludicrous. And you know, I don’t get to do what he does when approaching a sensitive subject. Anytime that I’ve had to ask about a death, or divorce, or drug use, or things that are sort of sticky topics…I’ve tried to present it in such a way where I say, “I know this is may be a difficult thing to talk about, but what would you mind if I asked you about…” Just so that the person knows that I’m treating it with respect, and I’m not trying to get that soundbite, right? Where I’m not saying, “Hey, your brother died last year! What was that like?” You want to just approach it with more sensitivity to say, “Hey, you know, this is really hard to talk about, but can you tell me a little bit about your brother?” But yeah, I think context is super important. And once you have an established rapport with the person, it’s a lot easier to delve into those subjects.

And that makes a ton of sense because of how I outlined my questions for you today. I mean, sometimes it makes more sense to jump around based on how the conversation is going, or I can kind of interject other questions I have along the way. So it’s cool to hear your approach to that.

This is so insane. But in my head, it’s like a flowchart. And on the flowchart are all the topics I want to get to, and I’m going to get to them, but maybe not in the order that I want. But if this person gives me one answer to this, I’ll go one way, if they give me another answer, I’ll go another way. This is just how my brain is sort of working in the background. But that’s all to say it’s just I have these ways of getting to the topics that I want to get to. And hopefully, the conversation flows in a smooth way. I just want to say for the record, not all of these interviews have been good…Everybody sits through a bad interview. But when you get that good one where you got exactly what you want, and you walk out of it…it’s like, “Yes!”

I’ve had a couple of those recently, luckily. And it’s that feeling of, “That was a really professional interview!” It’s nice and rewarding when it kind of goes that way. Because, you’re right, there’s some interviews that you just kind of have to get through. But there’s other ones that you’re really into, not just a transactional experience. Is there a certain quote from an artist that really stood out to you, in hindsight?

That’s a tough one, because there’s like 1000’s of quotes. I will say, there’s one quote and I won’t even say what it is, because I don’t want to spoil it. But sometimes when I am interviewing somebody, they’ll give you a really good quote. And in real time, you can figure out how you’re going to use it. Sometimes you’ll be like, “Ooh, that quote might start off a section in the book, because I could see what I would do with that.” And I remember I was interviewing Jim Ward from At The Drive-In and he said something to me. And it’s just like a little firework went off inside my brain where I said, “That’s the last line of the chapter!” And so this is so weird and over the top, but when I was writing it, I put that quote in a document. And I sort of worked backwards. And it’s hard to explain what I mean by that, but I knew that I was going to end at that point. And so it was just a matter of saying, “Okay, what would the story have to be for me to get to that quote?” And in a weird way, I wrote that entire chapter in a backwards mentality.

That’s really neat to hear about. I mean, there’s certain ways of approaching writing, and I’m very curious about everybody’s approach to it. I think I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, I just read through Dave Grohl’s memoir, called Storyteller and how he pulls out different pieces in that “spiderweb” type of approach. I don’t know if you’ve seen the book or not, but I have it in front of me. I’m so prepared! (Laughter) But it’s got like this kind of chicken scratch of ideas and stuff like that, where he kind of maps out different things. That’s Dave Grohl’s handwriting, too.

Do you want to see something? Hold on one second. It’s right here. <Grabs his personal notebook of notes> Okay so this is the notebook that I kept for working on this book and obviously I’m just writing gibberish down left and right but I see that you have a My Chem shirt on…so when I was writing the My Chem chapter I would write down the chronology of it and what happened. But I feel like that’s not even the most insane one. I say all this not to sound smart by the way…I say it because I sometimes feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m just inventing it as I go along. I don’t pretend to be any sort of writing genius. I just wish I was more organized, but instead a chapter about Blink-182 looks like this <Holds up notebook of chronological events in an organized timeline of events>.

Did you put any of that writing approach into Sellout in the foreword about how this came together?

No, no, no. The book is strictly the end result. The book is just the finished product, you know? I don’t want anybody reading it to know how the “sausage is made.” 

Ahh, I gotcha.

So it’s a mess. It’s a fucking wreck, right? I have my own way, and I think it came out well, but I think if I handed this <notebook> off to anybody else, they would have no idea what they’re looking at.

Sellout features a ton of great photography. I’ve already taken a look at some of the images that people shared with me, besides just the cover art that includes Geoff Rickly from Thursday as well. But can you describe the process you went through for choosing these photographs that made the cut?

Yeah, and I’ll be honest with you. I would rather write an additional 100 pages than have to deal with one photo. And so anything that involves paperwork, or red tape, I’m very bad at that. The photo section came together at the last minute because I was just chasing down photographers to ask if I could use their photo and have them sign off on it. So I don’t really have a good smooth process. I’d never had to do that before, to clear photos for use and there’s all these rules about what regions you can use them in. I think my favorite two photos are from this guy named Paul Drake, who is in the book, and he roadied for a bunch of bands in the 90s, and he worked with Jimmy Eat World and At The Drive-In. He also happens to be a fantastic photographer. And he very graciously gave me a couple of photos that he took of both bands. So there’s this photo of Jimmy Eat World, and they are babies…like legit teenagers in Pomona, California. And there’s another one of At The Drive-In, and I think they’re on the streets of Japan, and to my knowledge, I don’t think that they’ve ever been published. So I’m really thankful for Paul. He also took the cover photo for Clarity and I believe for Static Prevails, too.

I know the photos are gonna be great! So what does the word “sellout” mean to you today, Dan?

Probably nothing (Laughter). I feel like I haven’t heard it in sincerity, in years. I feel like I hear it now. I’ll see it online more in the context of politicians. I saw that word being used quite a bit because some ran as hip, progressive politicians, and then they got power. And they’ve just, completely sold out to her corporate donors. And so I saw that word still out going around a lot recently, but I don’t see it as much for musicians anymore, because there’s no money in music now, right? How do you sell out?

Right! And it’s interesting, because the way people were making money is off of touring. And once that was kind of taken away the last two years, what have you noticed about what’s going on in the industry during the pandemic? There’s things like vinyl delays, but what sorts of things have you noticed while talking to different people in the industry?

I mean, there are just….unexpected delays. Everybody was like, “Yay, touring!” And things were starting back up. But then I don’t think that anybody realized the unexpected consequences of a year being totally fucked. The entire planet being totally fucked. In addition to vinyl, the things that I’ve run into…Did you know that there were paper and ink shortages? Because my Zines were also delayed. And then there’s shortages on cotton T-shirts for getting band shirts made. Also even touring vans got screwed up. We’re having trouble getting new fleets of vans because apparently there’s this microchip that only comes from Japan, and it’s the one that’s used in a PS5, too, apparently. And there’s a huge backup on that microchip, so there’s a delay in vans. So just all these unexpected consequences of touring not happening for a year, we’re doing like a post-mortem on the pandemic right now. 

It’s easy for things like that to snowball, and go from one thing going to the next thing…

There’s also a huge queue where nobody has been touring for a year, and everybody wants to get back out there. So everybody’s trying to print vinyl, everybody’s trying to get a van, and everybody’s trying to book dates at whatever venue, right?

Okay, so the last question I have for you today, Dan, is more about how you kind of market yourself. I’m a big fan of your Twitter feed, but what do you do as far as getting the word out there about your writing, and do you have any advice for other writers out there?

It’s not that I don’t want to be talking to you, but I was actually just writing this in my newsletter that I hate this part. I wrote this book that I think is definitively good. And I’m proud of it. And I want people to take it seriously. But then you have to hop on the internet, and be like, “look at this meme I made!” It’s degrading, and I hope people can separate one from the other. So I’m hesitant to give any sort of advice because I think that it’s not “a one-size fits all.” And what works for one writer, might not work for another. I was looking at Shay Serrano’s Twitter feed because he has a book out this month, too. And he’s just so good at engaging with his fans and making funny memes, and he can just turn a tweet about basketball into a promo for his book. But that’s certainly not a skill that everybody has, and that doesn’t have anything to do with the writing of the book. And so I’m so hesitant to give any sort of general advice other than just…do what feels right for you.

And for you, it seems like it comes from an authentic place. Just from talking with you in this last half hour feels like something that comes from a good place in your heart. It seems like the book is doing well with the pre-orders and things like that. And I wish you and your collective team nothing but the best as you move forward throughout this process. So any other last little pitches for anybody?

As I always say at the end of my interviews…listen to Laura Stevenson. It’s the best advice that I have.

There you go! Alright. Thanks, Dan.

Thank you so much for doing this, Adam.