Writer’s Workhop: Mike Greenhaus

It’s almost cliché, but after college I drove cross country with a few friends and, literally, filled out a Relix internship application in the parking lot before a Deer Creek Phish show. I sent it off at a local Kinkos and after some persistent nudging scored an interview that fall. I interned for Aeve Baldwin, who was the editor at that time, and after a few months that turned into a part time job at the magazine. I did pretty much every job under the editorial sun except—luckily for Relix—copy editing, including project coordinator, staff writer, Jambands.com contributing editor, staff editor, associate editor and, finally, in the past year executive editor. One of my first jobs as an intern was subscriber data entry and, I must say, knowing where our pockets of readers live still helps me when it comes to spreading out our daily news geographically or looking for new bands to include in our On the Verge section.

HT: Having done both for a number of years now, which do you prefer, the editing or the writing?

MG: Oddly enough, it really depends mostly on the time of day. With the exception of the daily news I do on Relix.com and Jambands.com, I find it hard to write in the office, so much of my day is spent compiling articles, helping [Editor-in-Chief] Josh Baron plan out future issues, working on Jambands.com/Relix.com, going over proofs, taking a pass at raw text, assigning content, talking to publicists/bands and, of course, playing on Facebook. But at night or when I’m relaxing, I definitely enjoy writing—both for Relix/Jambands.com and for my increasingly dormant blog.

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HT: I remember reading somewhere that your father worked in investment banking. Did your family consider you a black sheep at all for following these bands around and ultimately choosing a career in music journalism as opposed to something more mainstream, like banking?

MG: My family has always been incredibly supportive of my writing and has been very tolerant of my various obsessions (I think they even have my Transformer action figure proof of purchases hidden away somewhere). My parents were hippies growing up and actually went on their second date to see Traffic at the Fillmore East (according to family folklore, I think my grandfather called the police on my dad when the encore ran long). They are both music fans and took me to lots of shows growing up like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the various members of the Grateful Dead.

My dad still goes to a handful of concerts each month and is pretty good at channeling his vulture investment skill set towards Ticketmaster.com when need be. My high school was a little less supportive of my career choice and actively encouraged me to follow a more traditionally accepted Westchester, NY career path like doctor, lawyer, banker or inside trader. But, then again, they also kicked out Edward Albee when he was in 8th grade…

HT: What was your first interview that felt like a pretty big deal? How did it end up going?

MG: I got to interview Les Paul during his weekly residency at the Iridium for Relix when I was 22, which feels even more special now that he’s passed away. It was a pretty straightforward interview until he started talking about how arthritis changed his guitar playing, which I’m not sure many people were aware of at the time. So I suddenly had this unique, real insight into his personality—and after that the conversation was extremely fluid.

HT: It’s sort of a weird dynamic that comes with being part of a pretty small scene like that of the jambands in that it’s a bit tougher to stomach saying something harsh about a musician or and you actually know or at least will probably cover and/or work with in the future. What’s your feeling on giving harsh reviews?

MG: Cameron Crowe popularized the old Creem magazine motto “rock stars aren’t your friends” in Almost Famous, but then he ended up marrying a member of Heart so I think there is a balance. Obviously the more comfortable a musician is with you, the more open and honest he or she is going to be in an interview and the richer the story is going to be for a reader. But at the same time, you have to be honest about your subject matter and occasionally harsh when it’s called for, otherwise people won’t respect your reviews—negative or positive.

As a reviews editor I’ve had a few writers turn down assignments because they felt to close to a band or were afraid the long term effects that a negative review might have on other projects, and I definitely respect that decision. But if you fluff a band too much, at the end of the day, people are going to stop respecting what you say.

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HT: Speaking of reviews, you gave one a few years back that caused a bit of a stir. For a little context for everybody reading, you made a comment in a review of Trey’s Horseshoe Curve album that the recording was akin to a stillborn baby, given that the album consisted of a set of songs Trey would ultimately never tour behind. Although you explained that the comment was intended to mean that these songs would not get the opportunity to meet their fullest potential and didn’t mean it to be crass or insensitive, some people felt it was wrong to use that word. I wondered how that whole saga felt from your vantage point?

MG: I felt awful that my comments were hurtful to anyone. Whenever you review bands like Phish, Widespread Panic or the Grateful Dead that people are very invested in, you are automatically placed under a microscope and, inevitably, some readers are going to disagree with your review. That’s happened from time to time, and I’m sure it will again happen in the future. But the backlash from that particular Trey review was more about my word choice than giving the album a harsh review, which was a clear misjudgment on my part. I definitely wasn’t trying to make light of such a serious subject and felt really bad about that comparison.

HT: How much work goes into producing the Jammy Awards for you guys at Relix? Are the Jammy’s gone for good?

MG: We used to joke that you could tell how close we were to Jammys season by how often [Jammys executive producer] Pete Shapiro came into the office, which is even funnier now that he is our publisher. For Pete, Dean Budnick, Jon Schwartz and a lot of the other people who booked and built the awards show, the Jammys took months and months of preparation. It took up a good chunk of time for those of us who worked more on the production and promotion as well, especially as the event approached. And, of course, the week of the show, we all worked 24 hour days. The first Jammy Awards that I worked on took place on this snowy day in March, and I lost my cell phone an hour before the show—that felt like a 36 hour day. But then the Black Crowes reunited at the show and Kate Hudson thanked me for a good party, so all was good.

2008 was the last year of the Jammy Awards as we know it, but the concept might morph into something new in the future. As for now, though, we are not actively working on anything for this year.

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HT: You and Benjy Eisen created one of the very early podcasts with Cold Turkey. How did that idea come to fruition and what have been some of the challenges in building that up?

MG: Benjy and I co-wrote a cover story on the Disco Biscuits for the April/May 2005 issue of Relix and, though we knew each other before, became really good friends while working on the article. We’re both somewhat nocturnal and would end up talking for hours about music, girls and a million ADD ideas that never materialized. Our personalities meshed well, and we were looking for another project to collaborate on together.

I had worked at my college radio station, and I think Benjy originally suggested we try to start a podcast. The term podcast was only a few months old at that point and relatively underground, so it felt inline with the jamband and indie rock scenes. I studied sound design a little in college, so I knew how to do some basic things on Sound Forge, and we had the Internet to teach/distract us.

We did a few pilot episodes for Ropeadope’s blog that spring and then decided to bring it over to Relix where I worked fulltime. The first few summers, we were using this little iRiver recorder and hit pretty much every festival we could. We spent a lot of time just explaining podcasting to publicists and musicians alike—we have this really cool interview with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips where you can almost hear a light bulb go off in his head when he hears the concept.

We’ve had our best response covering the festival scene which makes sense—it is hard to capture the color and spirit of a music festival in print, and I think a lot of times traditional festival recaps end up sounding a little sterile. In the past year, the podcast has developed into a videocast on Relix.com and also a pretty cool in-office series where we’ve had a range of performers like Rusted Root, Pete Yorn, Alberta Cross, Mason Jennings, the Duke & the King and even Kevin Bacon play the office or the Relix roof. Dr. Dog—being Dr. Dog—opted to play the boiler room and totally owned it. We are finally about to re-launch Relix.com and a lot of Cold Turkey content that hasn’t seen the light of day yet will be part of that re-launch.

HT: I confess, I thought the new issue of Relix was an issue of Spin at very first glance, but it looks terrific once you get used to it. What’s your verdict on the new look?

MG: Relix has had four design teams since I’ve been here and each one has definitely brought their own feel to the magazine. Our current designer has been with Relix since our April issue, and I love what he has done. Though it might sound surprising coming from a writer, I think his use of white space really makes the magazine breathe. He has a really strong background in magazine design and actually helped bring Maxim over to the U.S. a few years ago. Magazine layout is always going to be a balancing act between artistic design, content presentation and magazine/brand promotion, and I think our designer Andy does that as well as anyone out there today.

HT: Last one, if you could write for a television show, what would it be?

MG: Well, being a self-proclaimed neurotic Jew from New York, I’d have to go with Seinfeld—at least when Larry David was the show’s executive producer. Even in syndication, it is still the best-written show on television and has held up surprisingly well twenty years after its first episode. Though this season on the whole has been spotty, I think the idea to stage a Seinfeld reunion within a Curb Your Enthusiasm plot-line is a totally unique and surreal twist on a traditionally cheesy concept. I just wish Jerry had better taste in music…

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12 Responses

  1. great interview, mike’s an awesome dude and was a great mentor when i interned at Relix
    nice to see an interview with someone who works behind the scenes!

  2. dude is beat. one time i saw him waddle up behind someone, and try to squeeze by them. he didn’t realize that the person had a beer in their hands. he was impatient, and continued trying to squeeze by, inadvertently knocking the person’s beer out of their hands, and all over the floor of a designer clothing store. instead of trying to help, or even apologizing, he turned about face, and walked away. needless to say, everyone was totally impressed with him.

  3. my thoughts are completely concurrent the main man. i also attended that event when this fella weaseled out of the situation. highly unacceptable and poor social etiquette. it’s really a wonder how people like him function in a civilized society.

  4. Actually that wasn’t Mike, it was a guy standing next to him — Mike had to turn around to get something for the performance that was starting and couldn’t help — I know because I was there too and saw this go down, but that’s neither here nor there.
    Thanks for bringing up an unrelated and trivial accident and trying to use it to defame Mike’s character. He’s an awesome writer, a great guy and a friend to everyone. This isn’t about spilt beer at a Relix party two months ago, so get over it. Mike deserves respect and congratulations for his hard work and contributions to the scene. Great interview!

  5. I was pretty excited that we got to feature Mike as part of the Writer’s Workshop. Mike entered Skidmore just as I graduated and I’ve been a big fan of his since reading some of his Skidmore News articles.

    From the first day I launched my writing/blogging career Mike has always been there to help and to answer the many questions I’ve sent his way. He’s never hesitated to help promote Hidden Track even though we cover much of the same ground.

    When people say Mike is a good guy, they aren’t giving lip service. He’s the genuine article.

  6. Nice chat, Ryan, and totally agreed, Mike is a good dude and indeed the genuine article.

    It’s not always easy — especially in a scene like this, which is so close-knit and so often afraid of bad news or bad vibes — to be a reporter and use a critical eye when you need to, but he’s the rare jamband journo that understands that.

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