Episode 34: Andrew Stafford

Andrew Stafford is an author and freelance journalist.

Penmanship podcast episode 34: Andrew Stafford, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016In 2004, UQP published his landmark book, Pig City: From The Saints To Savage Garden, which covered three decades of Queensland’s musical and political history. Three years later, the book was followed by an event of the same name, staged by Queensland Music Festival and featuring a headline performance by the original line-up of Brisbane punk rock band The Saints, who had not played together in almost 30 years. Sometimes authors live to see their book made into a film; it is much rarer that a book is made into a music festival with their heroes headlining, and Andrew Stafford can count himself among the lucky few in the latter category.

Reviewing the Pig City festival in 2007 was one of my first assignments as a fledgling music journalist for the website FasterLouder, and in the years since, Andrew and I have become colleagues and friends. Having spent 14 years driving a cab while writing about music, sport and the environment, Andrew is a full-time freelance journalist who now writes about these matters for a range of outlets including The GuardianThe Saturday Paper and The Sydney Morning Herald.

In late September, I visited his home in the Brisbane suburb of St Lucia to record a conversation which touches on the skillset required for his long-standing role as Queensland AFL correspondent for The Age newspaper; how an early interest in birdwatching introduced him to an enduring passion for punk rock; how he got started writing about music for Brisbane street press and Rolling Stone magazine; how his depression has affected his productivity throughout his career; how he first hatched the idea for Pig City and spent three years writing it while driving taxis, and how he looks back on a mental health crisis in early 2016 that led to national media coverage in the wake of his sudden disappearance.

Andrew Stafford is a freelance journalist and the author of Pig City, a musical, political and social history of Brisbane, now in its third edition. In July 2007 the book was transformed into a key event as part of the Queensland Music Festival, headlined by the first performance by the original line-up of The Saints in nearly 30 years. He has been the Queensland AFL correspondent for The Age for 11 years. His journalism also appears in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, The Monthly and many more. He maintains a blog, ‘Notes From Pig City’, and watches birds for fun.

Andrew Stafford on Twitter: @staffo_sez

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3.30 Between 2000 and 2014, Andrew worked as a part-time taxi driver, then gave it up in order to fully commit himself to freelance writing since 2015; during the winter months, he is Fairfax Media’s Queensland AFL correspondent, following the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast Suns

4.30 “I’m now in the position of pretty much living off my wits, with nothing coming in next week, as far as I’m aware at this point – which is a scary position to be in”

5.30 Throughout 2016, Andrew says that the Brisbane Lions story has been beneficial for him as a freelancer, as it has been “a poorly administered and poorly run club for over a decade”, culminating in them sacking their coach Justin Leppitsch after a poor season

8.00 How Andrew differentiates between feature writing and news reporting, especially when reporting on AFL-related matters in terms of breaking news, such as Justin Leppitsch’s sacking in late August

9.00 Andrew tends not to share most of his AFL-related writing on social media, in part because he knows that most of his musical fan friends aren’t interested

10.00 “It’s an older reflection of a fact that Melbourne and Brisbane are very different cultures […] In Melbourne, it is perfectly acceptable to be passionate about the arts and sport at the same time”

12.30 At present, Andrew is finding that “a surprising amount” of his freelance writing income is coming from musical journalism, largely for the likes of The Guardian and Fairfax Media

14.00 “There are not many music writers that have been around as long as I have, that have stuck at it. It’s something that I’ve returned to, and found that there are actually opportunities there, and I’m getting quite a bit of work”

15.00 What led Andrew to pursuing a career in writing, including his perceived status as an “outsider” through his interests such as birding, or birdwatching

16.00 “When I was growing up, all I really wanted to do was go to university and study zoology, so I could spend my life in the field”; he later studied arts/law at the University of Queensland, and dropped the law component after six months

17.00 During his early teens, Andrew was introduced by other birdwatchers to punk; he recalls a trip to “somewhere in the wilds of The Mallee in Victoria, and being introduced to the Dead Kennedys, The Sex Pistols and Midnight Oil”

18.00 For Andrew, hearing Sydney rock band Midnight Oil for the first time was a political awakening as well as a musical one, and started to give him “a sense of self, and helped confirm that slight outsider status that I’d developed”

19.00 After quitting the law degree, Andrew was quite active on the Brisbane music scene in the early 1990s, and starting to consume the Australian rock press such as Rolling Stone: “It occurred to me that that was something I could do; it allowed me to fuse my interests in words with music”

20.30 A friend of Andrew’s was working for Brisbane street press Time Off at the time, and offered Andrew his first assignment for the paper: a live review of You Am I, supporting Beasts of Bourbon

23.00 How Andrew went about recording interviews in the 1990s, when he started in music journalism, such as using a Sony Walkman or whichever technology could hold a cassette

24.30 Andrew started at the bottom of the pile as a junior writer at Time Off, but soon started getting regular work with Rolling Stone for a national audience, under editor Kathy Bail

26.30 “I was pretty serious; I was as interested in my politics as I was interested in music, as I still maintained an interest in wildlife”

28.00 After a few years of street press and freelancing for Rolling Stone, Andrew moved to Sydney to work as a copy editor and, later, features editor for Studio Magazines, which published “high-brow nudey titles” such as Black&White, Blue and Studio For Men

29.00 “These were the jobs that appeared in the paper, and I didn’t know that the journalism jobs advertised in the paper were the jobs that no other journalist really wanted”

30.30 While working for Studio Magazines, earning a salary of about $27,000 as a copy editor, Andrew continued freelancing under a pseudonym, “Andrew David”; David is Andrew’s middle name, and looks back on this pseudonym “an appalling lapse of creativity on my part”

33.30 Andrew later fled to Australian Geographic, which he thought might be a more natural marriage of his personal interests, but it was his first experience with a publication that had an “extremely rigid” house style with multiple layers of editorial oversight spread across several months

35.30 “That was awful. I lasted about six months, and thought I was a failure. It had a terrible effect on my confidence”; for about a year, he couldn’t write a sentence “without striking a line through it”

36.30 This episode triggered Andrew’s depression, which he has found is cyclical: “That’s a battle, and my productivity tends to go up and down with it”

37.30 The turning point in his productivity came “quite suddenly”; Andrew bumped into an old friend in Brisbane’s CBD who happened to be lecturing in music at QUT, and invited Andrew to the university for a chat

38.30 QUT’s creative writing head tapped Andrew to give a guest lecture on music writing. He agreed, despite going through “a terribly difficult time” with his depression at that point, having just spent a couple of weeks in hospital for the first time

39.30 He was able to crank out about 8,000 words for a two-hour lecture on music writing, to about 120 students, who he was surprised to find were paying close attention to what he was saying, including an unsolicited round of applause at the end

40.30 After that, he started to do some tutoring, and a few months later, Andrew was watching Savage Garden perform at the Closing Ceremony at the Sydney Olympics Games in 2000, which gave him the spur to formulate and pitch an idea “about Brisbane’s musical history, and how it fused with the politics of the place under Bjelke-Petersen

41.30 At that point, Andrew was reading a book by Clinton Heylin, From The Velvets to the Voidoids, about New York punk, and thought of applying a similar idea: “From The Saints to Savage Garden”

42.00 The night after the Closing Ceremony, Andrew sat down and sketched out a chapter outline for the book, “which was almost mathematical, right from the start”, including six chapters each dedicated to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s

44.00 “Brisbane undeniably transformed in that decade [the 1990s], in my view. There’s a reason why people like Robert Forster and [previous Penmanship guest] Ed Kuepper came back to Brisbane, and they both said the same thing: it had a really good energy about it”

45.00 Andrew took it back to QUT to see if they would consider it as a post-graduate project; the book proposal was accepted as a Master of Arts at QUT, and he spent the next three years working on it

46.00 “There was a point at which I stalled after the first two or three chapters; there were some times of self-doubt where I wondered if I would get the thing done, but I pushed through it”

47.00 Andrew thinks his outsider sensibility, having been born in Melbourne, served him “rather well”, as it allowed him a slightly distanced take on Brisbane during that era

48.00 After “breaking the back” of the book while finishing the final chapter of part two (‘Cyclone Hits Expo’), Andrew celebrated by going out and buying himself a Victorinox watch, which he is wearing during this interview

49.00 Andrew had no funding to complete the book; it was written entirely under his own steam, which is why he drove a cab two nights a week, on Fridays and Saturdays, while renting a room in Red Hill for $70 per week

50.30 While writing the book, Andrew was quite isolated, which he thinks was important to the project; his peak writing time was generally between 10pm and 4am, probably because of working night shifts in the car

51.30 Andrew got into cab driving after returning to Brisbane and living with his mother; he saw an ad in the paper and applied for a job

52.30 When Andrew first hatched the idea of the book, it was called Security City, a name borrowed from a song on The Saints’ third album, Prehistoric Sounds; it later hit him that Pig City, named for an all-but-unknown song by The Parameters, was a”much punchier title”

56.30 Andrew thinks there’s a “huge, ongoing irony” that the best reception the book got critically was in Melbourne, where it was also shortlisted by The Age for their Book Of The Year awards

57.30 That irony “continues to resonate”, as today almost all of Andrew’s freelance journalism is published by newspapers, magazines and websites based outside of Queensland

59.00 In 2005, while on a seabird research trip to Antarctica, Andrew received a short email from John Harms, a sports writer based in Melbourne at The Age, asking if he was interested in being considered to cover the Brisbane Lions

60.00 This job meant writing match reports and filing “five minutes after the siren”, which included writing ‘go last’ copy as the game unfolded, then topping and tailing it at the end of the match

62.00 Writing match reports was a powerful experience for Andrew, after years of being a slow writer – a “stone cutter”, as he puts it– and being unsure of himself, he realised that he could do this work, and had achieved a dream of writing for a national broadsheet alongside writers he admires

63.00 Andrew had a book deal in hand for Pig City “surprisingly early”; he originally pitched a couple of chapters to Text Publishing in Melbourne, only to receive a rejection notice which said it was “fanzine journalism”

64.00 “That made me very determined to prove her wrong. I then pitched it to UQP, which was obviously a more natural home for a book set in Brisbane […] [New UQP publisher] Madonna Duffy had a brief to find new talent, and she signed me up on the strength of those chapters and the outline”

66.00 Andrew sent over each chapter to UQP as they were completed; the editorial process was “pretty simple”, and his original chapter outline didn’t change too much between watching Savage Garden at the Olympics, and what he submitted

67.00 “It took a while to get enough distance from the book to have any sense of objectivity about it, but I was tremendously proud of it”

68.30 Pig City had a tenth anniversary edition published in 2014, for which Andrew wrote a new introduction, “which became redundant far sooner than we might have thought, because at that stage Campbell Newman was Premier, and he had been elected with such a whopping majority that most people assumed he was going to be in power for at least another ten years”

69.30 Andrew has twice visited Antarctica to count seabirds on the Aurora Australis icebreaker, for eight to ten weeks at a time, but has never written about it: “I wanted to be able to enjoy an experience like that without having to document it”

73.00 Hanging on a wall in Andrew’s home is a framed poster from the Pig City music festival, held at the University of Queensland in 2007, which saw the original line-up of The Saints reform for their first performance in 28 years

79.00 The Saints’ Pig City festival show was released on Shock Records, and Andrew wrote the liner notes for it

80.00 “I was determined to enjoy the day purely as a punter. I didn’t go backstage until the end of proceedings, I think, and so I spent the day enjoying it as I would any other show – basically, down the front!”

81.30 Reviewing that festival for FasterLouder was one of Andrew McMillen’s first assignments as a newbie music writer

83.00 “Not too many people get their book turned into a rock festival, with their heroes headlining; that’s something I’ll be able to go to the grave very happy about”

84.00 In 2016, Andrew has decided to hatch the idea of a purely Brisbane-based, vinyl-only record label, “and it just made sense to call it Pig City Records, of course”; its first release is by a band called Some Jerks, which will be launched on October 28 at Black Bear Lodge

85.30 “It’s a risky endeavour, particularly when I’m not quite sure how my rent’s getting paid in the next few weeks”

87.30 “I’d be very surprised if I got anything out of this financially; it’s a risk more than anything, but it’s a way of keeping the name alive, and also giving something back to that community”

89.00 A few years ago Andrew toured Europe with the Brisbane rock band HITS, and had designs on writing a book about that experience of being their road manager in foreign countries

92.00 While the book didn’t happen, there was a feature article about the tour named Tour De Farce, which was published as a cover story in Qweekend in 2012

93.00 In February 2016, Andrew experienced a mental health crisis and went missing, after posting a troubling series of messages on Twitter, then deactivated his social media accounts

94.00 “In the aftermath, it got me thinking deeply about how we talk about mental health in the media. I presented a difficult case in terms of reporting: I am a relatively public figure […] and I’d set the hares running with a couple of tweets that I would not have made if I was not in a state of acute mental crisis”

95.30 Andrew was aware that there was “an enormous shitstorm” developing around his disappearance, but it wasn’t until some time later that he learned there was media camped outside his house, and journalists were calling Andrew’s partner, harassing her for photographs

96.30 “I became aware after the fact that, at that point, I’d actually effectively ceased to be a human being in the eyes of some; I’d become a story to be got, even among people who I might consider colleagues”

98.00 Later in the year, Andrew was “quite disturbed” by the story of Duncan Storrar, who asked a question on the television program Q&A, and later had his life upended by Australia’s mainstream media

99.00 “I don’t want to claim to be more than I’m not […] But I thought Duncan did what good journalists actually should do. For speaking truth to power, he got sat upon by power”

100.00 Andrew says his case was “mostly treated far more sympathetically” than Duncan’s, but “that does not make what happened right, either”

100.30 When searching his own name since that episode, Andrew came across a Daily Mail article which had included screenshots of the tweets Andrew had sent, then deleted; he ended up emailing the editor and journalist asking them to delete the images, because “that was simply not good practice”

102.00 Andrew is interested in writing about his own experience, but only if it’s combined with speaking to community leaders in mental health about how this sort of issue could be better reported by the Australian media

104.30 Andrew is a strong advocate for freelance journalists to be paid what they deserve, which is an issue that he got involved with in 2013 when Private Media website Daily Review asked him to write “for exposure”

106.00 One of Andrew’s key journalistic interests in 2016 has been the reporting in Queensland around a significant coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef, about which he has written articles for The Saturday Paper and The Monthly

107.00 “The one place you wouldn’t read about this happening was in the state newspaper, The Courier-Mail; eventually, I took them to task in a piece for The Saturday Paper, which in turn was picked up by Media Watch

108.30 “That, to me, was a monstrous failure of journalism in this state, and it needed to be called out. I knew that by doing that, it was going to limit my prospects at that newspaper from that point”

109.30 “I was prepared to die in a ditch for that issue. It was that important to me, and I think it was important that that conversation had to be had in media circles”

110.30 Andrew had previously pitched an idea on what was happening on the Barrier Reef to Qweekend, The Courier-Mail‘s Saturday magazine, while being aware that it was likely to be rejected or not even responded because of the paper’s recent editorial bent on that issue

112.00 “I write about music, sport, and a little bit of environmental journalism; it’s not what you’d call ‘hard journalism’, but I still believe very strongly that the job of a good newspaper is to speak truth to power, and what I saw was a newspaper that instead was kowtowing to it”

113.30 After Pig City was published in 2004, it became apparent to Andrew that his mother was “behaving quite oddly”, and it took a few years for his family and himself to realise that she was showing signs of early onset dementia

114.30 Andrew had been contracted by UQP to write another book about Australian music, and got “some way into” before the project was derailed by his mum’s illness, which wasn’t diagnosed until late 2011

115.00 “If I had had greater intestinal fortitude at the time, maybe that would not have derailed me, but it was obviously a very significant thing to happen; I was very close to my mum”

117.00 “One of the things about freelancing is trying to find a routine in your day, and trying to discipline yourself – you need a lot of self-motivation, and it became very difficult because the nature of mum’s illness was very disruptive”

118.00 For Andrew during this period, driving the cab was a steadier form of income than freelancing, and he began embracing that as part of his identity: “the rock and roll cabbie”

119.00 Andrew stopped driving a taxi in June 2015: “Cab driving was finished at that point, too. I was lucky to take home $100 from a 12-hour shift”. Andrew wrote about the taxi vs Uber situation for Qweekend in December 2014, Fare Game

120.00 “No shortage of stories [from taxi driving], not all of them bad, by any means; there were some good times there, as well, but I’m done with it, and glad to shut that door. But certainly there’s room for a good story after it”

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