Andrew Mueller - I Wouldn’t Start From Here
Rock critic Andrew Mueller swapped years of hanging out with rock stars for hanging out with a motley crew of warlords and terrorists in trouble spots around the world. Susan Wright grabs a chat with him while he’s still around
A few weeks after 9/11, Andrew Mueller – rock journalist, travel writer and self-ascribed hack – browsed the list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organisations released by the US State Department and wondered what it might be like to be one of those organisations sitting firmly in the cross-hair sight of the most powerful country on Earth. Not one to sit around his Hackney flat for too long, he decided to find out.
‘I put Hezbollah into Google and it came up with their website. I went there, clicked on the Contact Us icon and, thinking that it was clearly ridiculous, sent them an email asking if I could come out and visit them,’ says Mueller, speaking to The List as he celebrates the launch of his newest book, I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where it all Went Wrong.
Within ten minutes, he had received a reply that the situation was a bit fraught right at that moment. A week later the pressures had apparently eased and the Mueller inbox contained a personal invitation from Hezbollah, saying that any time he wanted to go out to Lebanon and visit, he’d be welcome. The group, a mainstream political party in the country but with a history marked by accusations of kidnapping and bombing, was ready to receive him.
‘They were exemplary hosts and surprised me,’ Mueller says of the subsequent trip, which makes up just one engrossing chapter in the book. ‘They’re not fools, they’re not maniacs and there’s a kind of logic, within the way they view the world, at the heart of what they do.’
This type of close up contact – his first-hand experience of Hezbollah’s hospitality, which includes chat about martyrs, kidnappings and the like – typifies Mueller’s book. It’s one of the reasons it’s such an addictive read. Echoing PJ O’Rourke’s classic forays into war-torn territories, he takes us to places we wouldn’t otherwise see. Whether he’s writing about Alabania, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon or the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, his experiences are brilliantly observed, articulate, often funny and immensely readable.
It’s certainly a change from rock journalism, the world in which Mueller began dunking the nib of his pen when he moved from his native Australia to London in the early 1990s. After a stint on music weekly, Melody Maker, he went freelance and since then has written for publications such as The Independent, The Guardian and Arena. His book, if his website wasn’t enough, shows just what a gifted writer he is. The kind that makes the art of scribbling appear agonisingly painless. Indeed, something like PJ O’Rourke.
‘He’s been an enormous influence and inspiration, and on a personal level he’s been extremely kind and encouraging,’ he says of O’Rourke. ‘When I left Australia in 1990, I bought his book Holidays in Hell and read it backpacking around Ireland, laughing my head off. It was a liberating read, the idea that you were allowed to laugh at these things, and I had the vague sense that I’d like to do that when I grew up.’
Mueller hasn’t completely abandoned the music world (when I talk to him he’s in the middle of working up a piece on George Jones’ classic album, The Grand Tour, for Uncut magazine) but he’d rather be scratching the itch that started during that early read in Ireland.
His first book, Rock and Hard Places, cannily managed to combine rock music and travel to troubled places. In it, he followed The Prodigy to Beirut, U2 to Sarajevo and Def Leppard to a cave in Morocco. The idea for his second book was originally about unrecognised countries he had visited – places such as Palestine, Kosovo and South Cameroon – but eventually took on a different guise.
‘It struck me that a lot of places I’d been were also places where the big questions of the 20th Century are being decided,’ he says. ‘If I could find a way to get a semi-cohesive narrative from it, I could get a book serving as a portrait of our era. At least from one perspective.’
Not only that, but it would save him from the pain of writing about pleasant things. ‘I generally find it difficult to write about really nice places. The last travel feature I did, and I think I just about pulled it off, was about spending a few days in the Dingle Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland,’ he says. ‘It’s a great place. The food is fantastic, the pubs wonderful, the scenery jaw-dropping. To make that interesting for 1500 words is much harder.’
Then again, getting under the skin of strife-ridden places can be a bit of a strain. At times he found the situation in Gaza and other parts of the Holy Land particularly tough to deal with. ‘I have total admiration for reporters and correspondents doing their thing there day in and day out,’ he says. ‘There was always at least one day where I’d wake up and think, “I can’t do this today”, and go and buy some books and sit in a café and forget about it all.’
It’s the price you pay when you take it upon yourself to test the more tense areas of the world. But despite the odd excess of hazard, the occasional overloading of emotion and bouts of bruised optimism, there’s little hankering for the carefree days of joining tour buses. ‘The thing about touring is that it’s great fun when it’s not your tour and you’re only there for a short time, but it’s a limited variety of fun,’ he says. ‘There’s a reason every band can quote every line of Spinal Tap and that’s because it’s true. It’s only satire for people who don’t know.’
That hasn’t put him off forming his own country band, The Blazing Zoos, with ex-Jesus Jones singer, Mike Edwards, on lead guitar. They have an album due out soon but he’s not counting on it as a career option, and why should he? He’s just got started on this book-writing thing and has still to wangle a visa for the next country on his hit list, North Korea.
‘How often would you get to go somewhere like that?,’ he says. ‘It’s a country that’s probably the least like any other in the world. But I don’t favour my chances.’
Mueller mentions in passing that when young wannabe journalists write to him asking him for advice on how to further their career, he sends them a list of books they should read. The list can change but includes titles such as O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell, Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation, and Lester Bangs Psychotic Reactions. He should, unashamedly and rightly, now add his own.
I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where it all Went Wrong is published by Portobello Press, £8.99; Andrew Mueller will be launching his book at Word Power Books, Edinburgh, Fri 15 Aug, 2.30pm.