Mike D on the end of the Beastie Boys
For a man who stepped off a plane from New York City mere hours before this interview in Sydney's inner west, Michael Diamond not only looks remarkably fresh, he is, mercifully, as lucid as he is loquacious.
"I'm starting to feel slightly tired but I feel like I shouldn't at all because I slept more [on the plane] than I probably would at home," says the 48-year-old best known to several generations as Mike D - a man who with Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz and Adam "MCA" Yauch blazed a trail through pop culture with their hip-hop crew Beastie Boys.
We are at the Camperdown offices of Monster Children, a handsome skate, surf and art magazine on whose latest issue Diamond served as guest editor.
This is hardly unfamiliar territory for him - Beastie Boys always had broad interests. There have been forays into the fashion world, political activism and fundraising for causes including Tibetan human rights. The group founded the record label Grand Royal, which ran for almost a decade before it went out of business in 2001, signing artists including Australian Ben Lee.
More pertinently, there was also Grand Royal magazine, the Beasties' own short-lived but profoundly influential publication to which Diamond brought his wit in the 1990s. It covered music, culture and anything else that took the group's fancy, from kung fu to the Dalai Lama. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the magazine as the first publication to use the term "mullet" in reference to the hairstyle and the article itself ("Mulling Over the Mullet", Grand Royal #2, 1995) credits Diamond with "being the first to use [the term] around here".
Only 7500 copies of Grand Royal #1 were printed in 1993; such was its popularity that 50,000 copies of issue #2 were printed when it finally arrived two years later.
Diamond still has an affection for the printed word. "There's a certain inherent appreciation, I think, when you're flipping through it, that you get to actually have this high-quality experience which is totally different to, whatever, scanning through pages online. It doesn't resonate quite the same," he says.
He approached the Monster Children project with the same flexibility he applies to other aspects of his creative life. "Maybe some people, when they sit down to write their great novel or make their great record or paint their great painting, they have it all planned out in their head. But for me it's never worked that way. It's always, like, you have to just dive in and start working ... and then the theme kind of emerges."
Whatever Diamond's methods, it is hard to question them given his band's extraordinary career. It is a poignant time to talk about it, too, given Diamond last month confirmed that, following the death of Yauch from cancer of the salivary gland in 2012, Beastie Boys are officially no more.
"When Yauch died it was really like losing my older brother," he says. "I mean, I have biological older brothers but growing up, Adam really was my older brother."
Yauch joined what Diamond describes as "our version of a post-punk group", the Young Aborigines, in 1981. "We were 15, so that lasted all of, like, two shows. And then we started Beastie Boys."
At first they were influenced by hardcore punk outfits such as Washington's Bad Brains, but by 1983 other, overly macho acts in that scene had put off the nascent Beasties to the point where they started looking elsewhere for their kicks.
"When hip-hop records started coming out on vinyl - as opposed to just mixtapes or whatever we started hearing - we would increasingly spend all our time buying whatever rap record would come out that weekend and, y'know, just like any kid, memorising every single word on every record. That kinda became our focus," Diamond says.
"Probably at some point it should have dawned on us, like, 'Hey, you guys are three white kids from wherever, you're not supposed to actually be rapping'. But it never did. We just loved the music, so that was what we started to make."
Diamond sheepishly admits that in early experiments such as Rock Hard, which sampled AC/DC's Back in Black, "we kinda sucked. It happens". But with the formidable 1986 debut album Licensed to Ill, Beastie Boys found their hip-hop feet and won the respect of peers and Def Jam label mates including their idols Run-DMC. It was something of an indignity when they became an international phenomenon on the back of the album's fourth single - its least representative song, (You've Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!).
"Yeah," Diamond says. "When you look at it in hindsight, of course it makes sense. It was more like a pop song, it had guitars - so there was a much larger, broader audience that could all of a sudden relate to it that might not have been able to relate to the [pure hip-hop] singles that had preceded it."
Was that a depressing period? "Ultimately we became caricatures of ourselves," Diamond acknowledges. "At first it's exciting because it's like a big record, whatever. But then it's kind of like ... we'd become this thing where we were kind of joking around. Then people expect that you are that. Then you're over it.
"It was hard, in a way ... So we wanted to just kinda break away from everybody and everything, just kind of go into our own world."
Then came the Beasties' self-imposed wilderness years; they made two sensational albums (1989's Paul's Boutique and 1992's Check Your Head) that, while critically acclaimed, would only gain broader appreciation after the success of 1994's Ill Communication and its spearhead single Sabotage, with its unforgettable video clip directed by Spike Jonze.
"We wouldn't really listen to anyone," Diamond says of the trio's quiet times post-Licensed to Ill. "Arrogance generally is a bad thing but with a band, somehow you have to have this gang mentality or this certain degree of arrogance to push forward an idea that's new enough that people aren't comfortable with it at first. If it's genuinely new, when people are hearing it they're not really gonna be comfortable because they haven't heard it a thousand times before."
With their passion for innovation finally reaping rewards, Ill Communication returned Beastie Boys to their place at modern music's top table. That must surely have given Diamond, Horovitz and Yauch a certain sense of satisfaction; vindication, even?
"I don't think we felt vindicated 'cause ... at that point it had become a slow climb, you know? We went from that thing of picking up the pieces after Licensed to Ill - where it was like we had this commercial success, but then the end result was that we were being so manipulated by management, record label, whatever, that we didn't really care for each other that much - to then us thankfully realising, you know what? It's actually about the three of us. It's not about all these other people.
"The record company actually didn't - no one wanted anything, really, to do with us at that point. It wasn't like, 'Oh, we're counting on our next hit record coming from these guys.' It was kinda like, 'Maybe if we're really lucky they won't make another record,' y'know?"
For the band, he says, "it was always more a matter of us challenging ourselves, really - like, just wanting to make something where we were pushing ourselves and making something ... new."
There have been creative missteps along the way - 1998's 22-track Hello Nasty, for example, could have done with some judicious editing - but even then Beastie Boys continued to challenge, as they did all the way to Yauch's diagnosis in 2009. Indeed, even though the wait for 2011's Hot Sauce Committee Part Two felt like an eternity, at the time the band were working as hard as they ever had.
"In a weird way it almost became all the more imperative to work because I think with Yauch ... When you're diagnosed with being sick like that and people know it, unfortunately people treat you a certain way. It's kind of a bummer because people, instead of relating to you as who you are or what you are, they relate to you as a sick person - that defines what their relationship is with you.
"The cool thing with working with Adam during that whole time is we all really appreciated it very much because that remained the same. In this situation, where obviously you really can't control things - y'know, where you've got cancer cells that are just kind of literally doing what they're gonna do, and you can have doctors do this experiment and that experiment to try and swing things in a certain way ... you know, you don't have that control. But we ... could have those times together and that was kinda like the unspoken thing, y'know, and we all kind of appreciated it. And for Adam, too, it was kind of crucial. We were family that way."
With the Beastie Boys chapter closed, Diamond has plenty of new challenges to look forward to. He will make music again - for a start he will soon be producing the eighth album by Alaskan alt-rockers Portugal. The Man - but he is in no rush to put out anything under his own name nor in conjunction with Horovitz, with whom he is still close. ("We're stuck with each other, basically," Diamond says. "And I mean that with all affection.")
Meanwhile as well as his adventures back in magazine editing, in the recent past Diamond has been dabbling in design, helping create everything from a Monster Children wallet to accompany his issue's launch, to bespoke wallpaper for Brooklyn company Flavor Paper.
"I spend my time doing anything I haven't done previously," he sums up, laughing. "We'll see how long it lasts but I feel like I've been very fortunate that I somehow get these opportunities. It's like each thing I don't actually really know how to do - but then I'm forced to figure it out."
Sydney Morning Herald