Former AP editor Rob Cherry: “AP wasn’t just a job, it was a lifestyle”
Rob Cherry, a high school friend of AP founder/publisher Mike Shea, joined the magazine in 1990. A recent college graduate, he made some sacrifices to join the staff. "To show you how bad the economy was, and how small AP was at the time, I actually had to take a pay cut from my job stocking shelves at a local grocery store to join AP," he recalls now, "which I gladly did." Cherry ended up spending a decade at the magazine, first as managing editor and then as editor-in-chief. Along the way, he guided AP through the alternative music boom, navigated the chaotic post-Nirvana aftermath and saw the magazine start shifting its focus to cover the nü-metal music popular at the time.
Cherry left the magazine in 2000, to tour and create music with his then-band Ether Net, and also be a full-time freelance writer. His days at AP left quite a mark, however. "I was able to get essentially my dream job writing and editing for a magazine on a subject I was hugely passionate about, like everyone else there," he says. "Aside from essentially just finding another family of very like-minded people that were all equally crazy with their own individual talents, my joining the magazine also coincided with the rise of all the music that we were covering, from Nirvana into the mainstream."
Cherry, who is now the chief creative officer at the Cincinnati-based Seed Strategy and plays music with his band The Plastic Ants, spoke with Annie Zaleski to reminisce about the good ol' days. (Full disclosure: Cherry is actually the person who initially hired this writer to be an AP summer intern in the summer of 1999, thus kickstarting a journalism career that's still going strong, and I am eternally grateful for that.)
Describe the zeitgeist at the time, in regards to alternative and underground rock.
ROB CHERRY: For everyone there, it was music we were very familiar with and very passionate about, and had been following since we were all teenagers. I'm not sure there was an expectation that it would ever become the “mainstream,” because it was always very niche. Bands like the Cure were probably the biggest acts that we were featuring in the mag, aside from early on with Guns 'n Roses and some of those outliers. I think the rest of the world was shocked that Nirvana came out with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Nevermind, and suddenly there was this huge movement of all this once-underground music into the mainstream. We were just in the exact right place—oddly enough, Cleveland—at the exact right time, covering the exact sorts of bands that then became hugely successful.
The fortunate thing was that all these groups that we were covering showed incredible loyalty to us. Instead of going to some of the bigger magazines and leaving us behind, they actually would give us exclusives a lot of times, so that the magazine could succeed along with them. Then all the indie labels that were releasing the music were very loyal to us as well, and very supportive, and suddenly we had legitimate careers. Again, [this was] somewhat of a shock, but we certainly all worked insanely hard to put out what was essentially this passion project. We were always trying to improve and hire new people who could take the mag to the next level of where we thought it should go.
Did you really have a sense at the time that what you were doing was important?
It was our lives, and it was hugely important to us to get this music out in front of people. There were just a lot of bands that were really underserved. That's been one of the consistent things in the magazine's history: serving this very underserved fanbase for these groups that otherwise didn't have an outlet for coverage. I shouldn't say no outlets, but [there were] very few, and the ones that were covering it were, I think in our minds, more [like] fanzines, and the production quality was pretty shabby. Which is fine, but I think we aspired to [produce] a more professional, glossy mag treatment for these up-and-coming bands, who weren't selling more than a few thousand records. We just felt a deeper connection because we understood where they were coming from and the ethics involved in the scene from which they were emerging from. We felt we could be more authentic to the groups and the fans, as well.
What do you feel were the high points for AP during your tenure?
Very early on, it was just a really funny process thinking back over the editorial decisions we made for the cover choices especially. At least in the first four to five years I was there as managing editor, the cover choices were really made just out of what we were excited about as fans. So My Bloody Valentine would come out with Loveless. We heard that, loved it, and said, "Hey, let's throw them on the cover." There was no concern whatsoever of whether it would actually sell, which is kind of silly. We're covering a British band that was still independent over there, even, and putting them on a cover of a U.S. magazine for readers that probably were more interested in American bands. Or Boss Hog, thinking back to that cover, it was like "Oh, they just came out with a single, we liked it, so let's go interview them." It was really just off the cuff and fun in that respect. I think those early days really all culminated in the tenth anniversary party, which was in '95 [an event featuring Flaming Lips, Helmet, Everclear, Jawbox and more].
Which was very infamous.
We had these crazy, grandiose ideas that we'd leap into without any real forethought of whether we could pull it off. We were just like, "We can do that. We can organize that." Huge events with all these huge bands, or bands we loved, without any prior experience in doing that sort of thing. Carla [Cherry, Rob's now-wife] was the organizer behind that, and with Mike and Jason, they really just approached all the bands personally and asked them to come and play.
All the bands in there were personal favorites of ours. To pull something like that off was a huge coup for us, and something that I think everyone is still super-proud about. Especially when you look back at the bill today, it's like, "Holy crap, these bands are still awesome and legendary."
We put Nirvana on their first national cover—I think Radiohead, we did something similar. We were probably the first to actually to put them on the cover of a national magazine before anybody else. Oasis too, another personal favorite of mine. The series of Nine Inch Nails covers too: Trent and his manager at the time, John [Malm], and his label, were extremely faithful to us and would always give us an exclusive, even when Trent became huge. I think as I became editor-in-chief that was one of my bigger coups of getting the exclusive interview with Trent when The Fragile came out.
When I became an editor and there the decision was made that we wanted to go up against Rolling Stone and SPIN head-on with some more bigger-selling acts, it was always fun to try and beat out those big magazines that had 10 times the circulation we had. Just by being nimble and, again, with the bands showing incredible loyalty to us, we were often able to get the very first interview with huge groups.
One of the Nirvana covers was infamous: It was the "Stop the presses!" cover that AP put out after Kurt Cobain's suicide.
All of us were hugely shocked, like the rest of the music community, at that point in time. We had a Sonic Youth cover story just days away from going to print. Of course, since it was the heart of who we were and what we covered as a magazine, so we had to change the cover at the last minute. I think Dave Thompson wrote the cover story the night before. We got a cover photo from Charles Peterson. Literally, somebody said "Stop the presses!" right before the Sonic Youth cover went to print and we redesigned the magazine on the fly and got it out there.
[Then-editor] Joe Banks wanted to keep the trains running on time. I'm not sure he quite saw the urgency; there was some debate about whether we should do that and, of course, we wanted to be the first one on the stands with the story. I think we made the wise decision to make the extra effort and make it happen. It was shocking. Just super unfortunate. Everybody called [Kurt] the voice of his generation, and to have that voice pull something like that was just this really miserable thing for everybody. It's an awful, hard piece of punctuation to put on a life and a career, and a musical movement at the same time.
With AP's history, there's an interesting point to be made—the whole idea of what happens when art and commerce collide. (Did that happen in the wake of Nirvana's success?) Was it the lack of strong personalities after Cobain passed away? Was that a function of the alternative music scene really evolving, and just having to think about "Well, we can't just put any old person on the cover"? Because alternative music did become totally mainstream, so there were people encroaching on AP's audience then, too.
That was really the crux of it, because the original alternative rock revolution merging into the mainstream didn't really last that long. After Nirvana and Pearl Jam and those groups started to wane, there really wasn't anybody else that big behind them to fill the space. Nine Inch Nails would still do well, but Trent went off into the wilderness there for a few years. It was just kind of a breakdown of that whole big scene, especially with Kurt killing himself. I think when that happens, the party is seriously over. There was nobody at their level to fill the void there.
When that happened, we started to see sales wane. Some of the bands who were "alternative" were no longer selling. We really had to start looking for more mainstream things that were at least kind of interesting in a creative sense. You had, like, Tori Amos — I'm sure there was some big battle over whether she was cool enough to be in the mag or not. Fiona Apple was another one; I'm sure there was some debate over that. There was a big debate over whether AP could be covering this nü-metal thing. Even Rage Against The Machine, at the time, we were really wringing our hands over whether that was our scene or not.
When we put them on the cover and it started actually selling issues, we realized that to maintain our personal lifestyles and the quality of the magazine, we had to make those artistic compromises. We were no longer putting just our favorite groups on the cover, and [covering] our personal favorites all the time. We were having to think about who was actually shifting units, as we used to say. Art and commerce were definitely colliding there. Looking back, it just seems silly that were questioning whether Rage or even Soundgarden were too metal for Alternative Press. You look back now, and all those bands were generally perceived as classics: Tool, No Doubt. And then you get those clearly awful outliers like Sugar Ray, which, you know...huge embarrassment then.
Because the editor ultimately chose the cover, did you feel like you were up against the wall, because there was a shortage of great artists that people actually wanted to read about? Was picking 12 winners in a year in that era just excruciating post-Nirvana?
By the late-'90s, when we were getting into the Kid Rock years, basically the rap-metal years with Insane Clown Posse, I think that really started to feel kind of soul-crushing, to some extent. At the same time, those issues were again just serving the underserved fanbase that would go out and buy two or three issues if we put multiple cover issues out there on the stands. It really kept the magazine going for a while when we were paying off our debts to writers and the printer and kind of digging ourselves out of a hole there. It became more of a business decision than just artistic choices.
At the same time, there were a lot of high points, too. I remember one of my favorite issues was that Tool issue, which was hugely refreshing. After hearing how difficult the band was, [I ended up dealing with] just Adam Jones, the guitarist, for organizing that interview and the cover image. I collaborated with him, and this special effects artist friend of his, to create the really unique cover with them as these almost puppet-looking things. So instead of going through managers and handlers, just working with the band was really cool at that point.
So what was the office environment like with all those interesting personalities together?
Working at AP wasn’t just a job, it was a 24-hour lifestyle. Everything we did revolved around music, and even after normal office hours, we’d often find ourselves in the same venues together, doing something music-, arts- or food-related. Jason, for instance, wasn’t just my co-worker; he was also one of my closest friends. If you loved music, every day was like Christmas at AP. The average workday would start at 10:30, following Mike’s mandate that we all keep common office hours for the sake of productivity. Before then, it was anything goes as long as the work was done (and, fortunately, we all had a strong work ethic).
After brewing up some strong coffee in the days before Starbucks’ dominance, you’d check voicemail on your landline office phone maybe edit a few things before the mail arrived. That was a big event. If you were an editor, you’d usually receive at least one giant mailbag full of CDs from various labels, indies, majors and even unsigned artists. Before the era of digital downloads, it was common to receive a preview copy of a big album like two to three months before the actual release date, so you could plan coverage accordingly. That was thrill, especially if it was one of your favorite artists. We also spent a ton of time on actual landline phones talking to publicists and writers—taking pitches, finding out was happening that might be newsworthy, seeing what was selling, negotiating exclusives; talking story angles with writers. It was really the only way to stay informed in the days before the internet boom.
Occasionally we’d have a band drop by on their way in or out of town. I still remember Brian Jonestown Massacre stopping in with the director [Ondi Timoner] who was filming their infamous documentary, Dig, at the time. Great characters; super-funny. We’d usually have an editorial meeting at least once a week, ostensibly to decide what to cover and how we’d cover it, but it would usually turn into show time for Jason [Pettigrew]’s comedy routine, egged on by [former reviews editor] Dave Segal and [former managing editor] Aaron Burgess. I’d be laughing so hard that tears would be streaming down my face.
Then we’d usually run cover ideas and feature ideas past Mike , and if he wasn’t feeling certain choices, we’d then go back to the publicist for more info to back up the decision or change course altogether. More than any of us, he had an eye on the magazine as a business, as you’d expect. After work, we’d usually grab dinner and catch whatever band or bands were in town, stay out late drinking Rolling Rock and Jägermeister, then start it all over again the next morning, fuzzy-headed, ears ringing.
What sort of impact do you see AP having today on music and pop culture?
It's covering that underserved audience of fans. [AP is] always gonna be serving the underdog bands for the underdog fans, basically kids wearing the black hooded sweatshirts who may not be feeling like not part of whatever the squares are listening to. alt