Broadcaster and founder of the Oh Yeah music centre on working for NME, visiting Cuba and cutting his own groove

When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
I was a failed musician and I saw myself on television in about 1985 fronting a very bad band very badly, and it was one of those terrible wake-up calls when you go, ‘That’s it buddy, you’ll never be a rock and roll star’. Literally the next day I swapped my keyboard for a typewriter and went to London.

Is it best to be brave?
I went to London with a plastic typewriter from Boots and an inkling of doing something creative. I started writing little live reviews for a long defunct magazine called Record Mirror and ended up working for a record company, Warner Brothers, as a press officer and I hated it. I walked out of that job and New Musical Express asked if I would like to work for them. I was on the staff from 1988 until 1996, when I came back to Northern Ireland. You’ve just got to knock on doors. I’ve been knocking on doors for the last 20 years. Sometimes they don’t open, but sometimes they do and exotic things lie inside.

Was NME all it was cracked up to be?
I started off looking after the album reviews pages and became assistant editor. It was a very exciting time. Stuart McConny was there, Andrew Collins was there, Barbara Ellen, Mary-Ann Hobbs, James Brown, who went on to form Loaded, Danny Kelly. It was like this academy for very eccentric, incredibly gifted people who shouted at each other all the time. The most exciting time was every Tuesday when the new issue came up and everybody would read it. Then Tuesday afternoon we had the editorial meeting when we would plan out the next week. Literally, you had 20 of the great talents of British journalism shouting at each other for two hours, and we would come out with the next week planned. I haven't been involved in anything so stimulating ever since.

When were you happiest in your professional career?
1992 at NME, interviewing all sorts of fascinating people including Tom Watts, Sinead O’Connor, The Manic Street Preachers, Radiohead, et cetera, et cetera. It was a never-ending playground.

Is it easier to make it in your chosen field now than it was when you started out?
I think it’s easier to make your mark from Northern Ireland. You had to get on a boat in those days, more or less. These days, with all sorts of electronic communications you can be working for American publications and websites, you can be delving into London culture, and it’s very exciting to watch young people doing that. I think journalism has been devalued at the same time, because everyone’s a journalist today, everyone’s a blogger. So some of the mystique has gone, and some of the kudos. In my day, if you were working for a semi-respectable paper, you would get invited to all of the best parties, you’d get paid fairly well, you’d get flown around the world. I think that era has defused a little bit. I got to ride on that merry-go-round, and it was great.

What’s your favourite book?
My favourite book is The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. Basically, his earlier books were quite macho. It was one of his last books and it’s all about catching the big fish. It’s an incredible metaphor for art and life. I was in Cuba with the Manic Street Preachers and I got a taxi to the little village where The Old Man and the Sea was set. And I was in the little bar where Santiago, the old man, used to drink. Sadly, he wasn’t there that day. The village has now become this ugly suburb, but it was still a great thrill to be there.

Which was your favourite NI band of all time?
It would probably be Rudi, who were around at the same time as The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, and they had the first single release on Good Vibrations Records, a track called 'Big Time'. They were the great band that never got a big record deal. As a live band they were just so thrilling and they coincided with my teenage years, so they soundtracked a very exciting part of my youth.

Which new bands stand out for you?
One in recent months would be Panama Kings. They just seem to have everything together. They’re kind of sexy like the Doors, and they’ve got a strut about them. They play these very bizarre, eccentric bits of music that are quite like The Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse. And they write ripper tunes.

What Irish cultural figure do you most admire?
At the risk of sounding like a scratched record, Van Morrison is the giant in Irish culture. For someone who’s been writing amazing music for 40 years, and writing poetry and doing these eccentric things, there’s no-one who can touch him, not even Seamus Heaney or any of those cats.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?
If you want to be a creative person, you have to knock on doors. Also, when I went to London, I had a friend who was helping me out, and he said to me, ‘You’ve got to cut your own groove’. Anyone who used to buy vinyl will understand that analogy. I might put that on my headstone: He cut his own groove.