Inspired by... blog

04 November 2014

Interview with music writer Zoë Howe on The Slits and The Jesus and Mary Chain Story

Music writer Zoë Howe has used our collections to research many of her books, from Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits to Barbed Wire Kisses - The Jesus and Mary Chain Story. I got in touch with her to find out her story.

Zoe Howe

Image: Ian Treherne 

Hi Zoë. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hello! I’m a music biographer and I am in the process of writing my ninth book to date (or tenth, if you count the rock ’n’ roll novel in the drawer). My books include: Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits, ‘How’s Your Dad?' Living In The Shadow Of A Rock Star Parent, Wilko Johnson - Looking Back At Me, Florence + The Machine - An Almighty Sound, Barbed Wire Kisses - The Jesus and Mary Chain Story, Stevie Nicks - Visions, Dreams and Rumours and I co-authored British Beat Explosion- Rock ’n’ Roll Island, a book that celebrates Eel Pie Island’s place in music history.

I also write sleeve notes and biogs for artists on request, very occasionally pen things for magazines and sites including The Quietus and Play the drums.

The book I’m working on right now is about much-missed Dr Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux.

Zoe Howe 2

Image: Ian Treherne 

Can you tell us how you did your research for your book ‘Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story’ at the Library? Did you find anything surprising in the archive?

I actually started to use the British Library when I was working on my first book about The Slits, but that time would set the blueprint for how I would continue to work on non-fiction - I love to work from home, but I knew I could lay my hand on anything I needed at the library in terms of research materials. Going online for information is never enough, but at that time, hard as it is to believe now, there really was quite a limited amount of information online about The Slits anyway, comparatively speaking. I also prefer pages to screens wherever possible. So I really valued being able to dive into the archives of music papers (I’m obsessed with old music papers anyway) and get a sense of historical context as well as adding to the information I’d garnered from interviews.

I used the collection in pretty much the same way subsequently, for ‘Barbed Wire Kisses - The Jesus and Mary Chain Story’. There was more information about the Mary Chain out there than there was about The Slits, but as I say, with research, you can always go further. Time is often an issue, of course, so sometimes you can only do so much, but any time spent at the BL in this way is well spent; it’s such an incredible resource that it’s like opening a casket of treasure, all of that information, all of those articles, even tiny news stories, some of which might not have been read since they were published! Those are the jewels that I’m looking for; there might just be one scrap of information that sheds some light on something you’ve been puzzling over, clarifies a date that no one can quite remember, or displays a perspective that, thanks to hindsight, has either been forgotten or morphed into something completely different over time. It’s painstaking but worth it.

What is strange about working this way is that it’s so intense, and I spend so many hours reading music paper after music paper from the time that I’m writing about that, if those are the only papers you’re actually reading every day, you have to keep reminding yourself that this isn’t actually 1978, 1985 or whatever. I’d find myself flicking through the pages and after a while the bondage trousers advertised in the back of the NME would start to look increasingly appealing, or I’d suddenly get excited: “Ooh, Echo and the Bunnymen have got a show coming up at the…. ok, hang on…” Weird bubble to live inside, but also strangely enjoyable. Basically, thanks to your collection, considering the theory that perception is reality, I was living through the 1980s again, immersed in the pop world, but also safe in the knowledge that Thatcher wasn’t actually in charge any more.

Zoe Howe 3.jpg

Do you have any tips for writers who want to use the British Library’s archive?

YES. Eat something substantial before you go in to start your research, because, obviously, you can’t take food in, but you can’t exactly nip out and grab something if you’ve set up your laptop and chargers and the papers you’ve finally found. Some of the blood sugar lows I have suffered in there have been monumental. I still associate using the library with feeling light-headed and weird, although that might just be me.

Last question. What are you working on next?

Thank you for asking, I am in the midst of working on a new book about the phenomenal singer and all round rock ’n’ roll gentleman Lee Brilleaux, which I’m very excited about. I get very excited about all of the books I work on, it wouldn’t be too good to basically spend about two years (if you’re lucky) with these characters living in your head (and sometimes keeping you up at night) if you weren’t passionate about them, of course, but the Lee project is particularly close to my heart.

You can find out more about Zoë on her website



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