Interview with Dan Ozzi: “It feels great to push your brain to its limits like that.”

Dan Ozzi is a Los Angeles-based writer. He is the author of the bestselling book SELLOUT: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007), published in 2021 by Dey Street Books at HarperCollins.

Along with Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, he is the co-author of TRANNY: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (Hachette, 2016), which was listed on Billboard’s list of The 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time. For over five years, he served as a staff writer and editor at VICE’s music site, Noisey, and has contributed to Billboard, SPIN, The Fader, The Guardian, The AV Club, and others.

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Hi Dan, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your book, SELLOUT: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore?

The inspiration came from living through this period and watching this sellout divide play out in real-time. This was the era of punk I grew up in and the one that shaped me as a teenager, for better or worse. It’s only now that I was able to look back on it with enough perspective to document it. I think that’s for the best.

I wouldn’t have been a very good author at 15. I know so many more words now—I’ve added at least 20 new ones to my repertoire since then. “Repertoire” is one of them. Also, I don’t think my parents would’ve let me travel for the book tour.

Your book delves into the commercialization of punk, emo, and hardcore music. Can you discuss your personal thoughts on the line between authenticity and selling out in the music industry?

It’s hard to say. I don’t think the line exists anymore. If you’d have asked me at age 15, I probably would’ve had a million opinions about punk authenticity. But unfortunately we’ve lost the war to big tech since then. The corporations have their claws in every facet of music now and it’s hard to claim anything as pure anymore.

To be clear, that’s not to say that independent music isn’t still worth fighting for. It is, but the war is different now. That’s sort of a good encapsulation of my ethics as I’ve gotten older. I think my principles have largely remained the same, but the world around me has changed.

To put it another way, I feel very unpunk by teenage standards but very punk by the standard of 30-somethings. Like, I still want to argue about how Top Gun: Maverick is just Pentagon propaganda but all my friends my age will tell me to shut the fuck up because it’s just a movie.

As a former staff writer and editor at VICE’s music site, Noisey, what role do you believe music journalism played in shaping the narrative of the punk, emo, and hardcore scenes during the 1990s and early 2000s?

That period predates my time as a writer but coincides with my time as a fan. But I remember that, as someone watching from the outside in, I hated major magazines and MTV. A lot of the established publications seemed to ignore or actively trash the kind of music that was bubbling up in the scene I was involved in as a young person.

It was only when journalism moved online did the conversations begin to mirror the ones happening on the streets. On the internet, there was more room for diverse tastes. Everyone got their say. The problem was, the quality of the writing got worse.

I guess that trend has continued to this day because now we have a million voices and very few are making any real points. There’s been a lot of talk lately about AI bots taking over music journalists’ jobs, but I’m not too worried about it. No computer could write anything more soulless than most of what the humans are already doing.

With your extensive experience in music journalism, what advice do you have for aspiring music writers and journalists?

Build your own audience and own as much of your work as possible. If you have a long career in writing, chances are, you will outlast a lot of the publications you write for. Your work will end up being the most valuable asset to you in the long run. And on that note, be an archivist of your own work.

These two pieces of advice might be hard to receive early on, because they are big-picture things and who is thinking about the long haul when you’re just trying to land paying gigs? I get it. But having a large body of work is the ultimate goal, and at some point you’ll wish you were more proactive about keeping all your old material.

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What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

If you recorded my mornings and played them on top of each other, they’d probably sync up to the second. Every day I wake up at the same time, I arrive at and leave the gym at the same time, I drink my first sip of coffee at the same time.

David Lynch apparently ate the same meals every day. He said that once you have the habit of your daily routine down, your mind is then free to go off and wander. So, ironically, I really need that structure to be creative. Routine can be liberating. I do change up my writing location, though. Some days I’ll go to a coffee shop or the library, and other days I’ll just stay home.

Years ago I read this book called Deep Work which advocates for 90-minute work blocks in which you turn your phone off and ignore all distractions, then take a 20-minute break and repeat. So if I get four blocks in a day, I’ll have gotten a ton of writing done. As I get closer to big deadlines, I try to cram in as many blocks as possible in twelve hours. It feels great to push your brain to its limits like that, like you’re training for a marathon or something.

If you could have a conversation with any artist throughout history about their creative process, who would that be and why?

I tend not to glorify anyone, but as I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about artists with larger bodies of work. I’ve been really into Ed Templeton lately. He was one of my favorite skateboarders growing up, and I’m just now realizing that the amount of work he’s amassed since then is so impressive. He has shelves of photos he’s taken and skateboards he’s designed and books he’s made.

I’ve also never met Aaron Cometbus but I have a great respect for what he’s done. He’s essentially created his own universe within his work that is completely independent of any trends or external institutions. That’s really inspiring to me.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite recent reads?

I’m currently reading Flea’s memoir and a really busted up copy of Sunsan Sontag’s On Photography. I tried to read more fiction last year when I realized that I’ve chosen the hardest possible writing path. I have to conduct interviews and do research and fact-check my quotes and information.

Meanwhile there are writers out there who just make this crap up! So I finally submitted to my identity as a Straight Male Author of a Certain Age and read my first Bukowski books and surprise, surprise, I loved them. I also really enjoyed this book called Running the Light by the comedian Sam Tallent. It’s about an aged-out comedian, so it’s not a music book, but I imagine anyone who has spent time in a soul-sucking green room can relate to it.

What does your current workspace look like?

Since I am part writer/part mailorder customer service rep, my workspace looks like a shipping station with a computer in the middle. There’s a postage label printer, package scale, padded mailers, and several dozen signed books.

Every morning I shovel out a one-foot-by-one-foot square for my computer in all this and hunch over it for the day. Straight ahead is a wide window that I stare out a lot. I can see the nearby hills and they somehow find new ways to humble me every day. It’s the most serene and beautiful part of my life, although sometimes birds smack into it and knock themselves out.

I then have to spend the rest of the day periodically going out there to check on them and say, “You OK, little buddy?” Behind my laptop I keep a Polaroid of my niece and a Post-It note that says EVERYTHING WITH INTENT, which has become something of a mantra for me. The late Gared O’Donnell from Planes Mistaken for Stars signed off our last correspondence with it. It feels like the key to all of life exists in those three words. Everything with intent.

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