Do you know who I think is a really cool guy? You guessed it right, Mr. Kevin Corrigan of course! Not only is Kevin this amazingly talented and entertaining actor in a great multitude of your favorite films and tv shows (Goodfellas, Slums of Beverly Hills, The Departed, Grounded for Life, Portlandia, The Get Down, too many to name here…) but he is into music, which makes him ultra-cool in my book. Kevin plays many instruments like bass, guitar and piano, and he’s good at it. He’s in a NYC band called Crystal Robots with his friend Daniel Harnett. He produces tracks on Soundcloud and he’s had his own talk show – The Kevin Corrigan Show – where he interviews famous actors like Steve Buscemi, James Franco, and Natasha Lyonne and also musicians, like David Johansen and Kim Gordon. From the moment I saw him wearing a Dirtbombs t-shirt in his role as Eddie Finnerty on the show Grounded for Life, I was smitten. I wanted to know, is he actually a fan of the band and into the same music I’m into? It was a dream of mine to meet him and ask him these questions. Not to mention that I recently discovered that he acted in the “Get Me” video by Dinosaur Jr. Learning this was the definitive moment for me; I just had to talk to him. Well, the universe provided and I was given this kind gift of an opportunity. Without going into too many details of how this occurred, I hung out with him in a coffee shop in NYC for a couple of hours in March and he related to me tons of great stories, 95% music related. Did I mention he’s a real music fan? It was such a delight to hang out with him that afternoon. Although I didn’t record that conversation, he answered these questions for me via email.
You were in the Dinosaur Jr video “Get Me”. How did you get that part?Are you a fan? Did you meet those guys? Was it great fun smashing up the TV and the room with the golf club in the video?
I wasn’t a fan of Dinosaur at the time, but I became one, and I did meet them on the set. Murph was friendly. J Mascis was…distant. Matt Dillon directed the video. I had acted with Matt earlier that year (’92) on a film called THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON. We talked about rock music. So I was on his mind. He said he would’ve played the part in the video himself if he couldn’t track me down. I’m so glad he did. It meant a lot to me. I’d been a fan of Matt’s since MY BODYGUARD which came out in 1980. THE OUTSIDERS in ‘83. DRUGSTORE COWBOY. Getting to smash things up under his direction..yes, it was fun and deeply cathartic. And that sense of catharsis returns whenever I see the video, the way they edited my busting up the joint with J’s guitar solo.
What’s going on in the video “Safe Word” by Choke Chains? It’s pretty sick! What are you supposed to be, a family of homicidal cannibals, or zombies?
Yes, we are meant to be cannibals. The violence is a bit extreme, but it was a focused production and a very funny group of people. A lot of laughs. It is based on a black comedy horror film called “Parents” starring Randy Quaid…directed by Bob Balaban.
Do you get to go to many concerts? You mentioned Public Access TV playing at the Bowery Ballroom. Did you go to that show?
I see as much as I can. I have missed a lot of stuff over the years (including Public Access). You can’t make it to everything..but the experiences I’ve had—everything from Judas Priest to Ravi Shankar—have enriched my life. Rock, classical, world music. Arena shows, small clubs.
How long have you been playing bass? Do you play guitar also? From the movie Results it seems you were having fun with playing the guitar. I’ve been playing guitar since ’88. I bought a Fender Telecaster in 1990 which I still have. I’ve always kept a bass around to record with but never attempted to become a bass player until 2013 when I started playing bass for Daniel Harnett, a New York singer-songwriter https://danielharnett.bandcamp.com/album/under-the-veil-unseen In the movie RESULTS my character plays around with a Gibson SG.
Could you write a script for a film based on a musical soundtrack that you hand-picked? If so, what would the songs be and what would the film be about?
Personally, it would be a dream come true, to make a feature film like MEAN STREETS and AMERICAN GRAFFITI, a coming-of-age movie, set largely at night, with a virtually uninterrupted soundtrack. My film would almost certainly take place in the Bronx and/or Yonkers in the 70’s and 80’s. It would begin on a static shot of Tracey Towers as the sun was going down over Mosholu Parkway. Some lightning would flash behind the buildings while Led Zep’s “In the Evening” played (the intro, before the drums kick in)…It would continue with a wild keg party in the Oval park at night. Music: “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” Yardbirds. “Intruder” Peter Gabriel, “Anytown” Reagan Youth, ““Symptom of the Universe” Black Sabbath. There would be some kind of build up to some tragedy, a fight would occur, a death would occur, the revelers would scatter and we’d follow two kids, one of them desperately, but unrequitedly in love with the other, as they took off, go into hiding somewhere, maybe even travel back in time through some kind of portal..and at that point the music would become more melancholy..I would try to have the narrative conform to “Birthday Song” by The Fall, “The Water Is Wide” by Fred Neil, “Your Mother And Father” by Cass McCombs, “Save A Seat For Me” by the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, “Pastime Rag No. 4 (Artie Matthews), “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson, “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin, “The Single Petal Of A Rose” by Ben Webster, John Lennon’s home recording of “Cathy’s Clown”, “All I Want” My Bloody Valentine, and the movie would end somehow with “Meher Baba M5 (Vivaldi)” by Pete Townshend. The movie is called CRY OF THE GULLY JUMPER.
Who were some of your favorite bands growing up?
There were many bands that I loved as a kid who were before my time, but I grew up with them, listening to them and absorbing their catalogues. The Beatles, the Who, the Stones, Zeppelin, Floyd, Cream, Hendrix, Black Sabbath. Yes, they were all finished by the time I discovered them, but they were of vital importance to me from the age of 12 to at least 20..and the reason I specify 20 is this: the way I look at it, it was my adolescent/teen fascination with 60’s music, or psychedelic music–particularly the music of Cream and the Stones, and though he is more of a 70’s and 80’s artist, Peter Gabriel—that prepared me, on a psychic level to meet and bond with Martin Scorsese, who cast me in GOODFELLAS. I had just turned 20 and that was a major occurrence in my life. Getting the nod from him, to me, was a validation of not just my abilities as an actor, but of my ear for music.
After that, I was ready to start the next phase of my life…and a year and a half later.. I heard of My Bloody Valentine, the first band I discovered on my own who were a current band, playing to my age group. They had just put out Loveless. Brian Eno said they were the future of music, and I loved Brian Eno. Nirvana was exploding at that time, but I didn’t respond to Nirvana the way I did to MBV. I would come to love Nirvana much later, but MBV was the band that helped me transition out of my 80’s head and into the new decade..and by that I mean… there were two kinds of music which vied for my attention in the 80’s: the hard rock and heavy metal that were customary in my neighborhood, the bands my friends and I went to see–Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, AC/DC. I loved all those bands and you could truly say I grew up with them. I saw them all in their 80’s heyday (except AC/DC who I finally saw in 2016 with Axl Rose—a great show)
And the other kind of 80’s music that affected my brain in the 80’s, artists it would never have occurred to me to go and see or have a direct relationship with–Pop, R & B, new wave, no wave, hip hop, punk rock, post punk, hardcore…And btw, how, in 2017, can one not long for the variety and the diversity of those days? Anyway, when I wasn’t banging my head, I was drifting off to sleep with a radio on..the sounds of Big Country, Eurythmics, Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, Madonna, Modern English, The Cure, The Cult, World Party, The Clash, The Smiths, The Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, The Pretenders, Public Image, Prince, Queen, U2, REM, Simple Minds, Billy Idol, The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, LL Cool J…radio waves, endless, wafting
I remember riding around with my friend Curt. The song “It Takes 2 to Make A Thing Go Right” always seemed to be playing in his car.
All throughout those years, The Beatles were my anchor, but all of this other stuff got into my head..and then GOODFELLAS came along, which was like my graduation and then MBV came along, which influenced me as an actor in that I decided i wanted to be in movies that were as unconventional as the album Loveless, and two years later I discovered the director Hal Hartley, his film TRUST, which he composed the music for, which blew my mind, and who told me, when I first met him, that the closing credit music for that film was based on the closing credit music of LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (composer: Peter Gabriel). So I knew I had to work with Hal. And I did work with him on HENRY FOOL.
And apart from all this psychobabble, I need to mention the band Elysian Fields, led by singer/lyricist Jennifer Charles and guitar virtuoso Oren Bloedow, who I have have been growing up with from my late 20’s to the present. We have grown together. Their music and their artistry mean a great deal to me.
Are you still doing stuff with Crystal Robots? Any upcoming gigs? I hear you just put out a record.
Yes, Crystal Robots, have a self-titled album coming out March 27 on CD Baby and i-tunes. It’s available for download but there is also a vinyl LP if you have a turntable.
How do you feel when seeing yourself on screen? Does that ever freak you out?
It only freaks me out if I’m bad. If I’m on top of my game, I don’t mind watching.
Of all the parts you’ve played in films and in TV what are some of your favorite roles and why?
I like the part I play in the Netflix show THE GET DOWN.
As mentioned in the intro when I met Kevin in the coffee shop in NYC I didn’t record the conversation but of course wish I had. He is great at telling stories, in a funny, charming, down to earth kind of way. We talked about music mostly, how he had his connection with Matt Dillon from his early beginnings at acting school. How his dad asked the people at the acting school which actors had come out of there and he was told – Matt Dillon. And how Matt Dillon called his home to ask Kevin to be in the “Get Me” video but got his parents on the phone instead because he wasn’t living there at the time. The way he described and played out this event was just so funny, imitating his parents broken english and how they said “yeah we’ll give him the message” to Dillon.
Kevin also recounted the story behind the Dirtbombs t-shirt wearing on Grounded for Life. He told me he first heard Ultraglide in Black while stuck in a horrible LA gridlock traffic jam and how it changed him. He wanted to wear the t-shirt on the show but was given a hard time about it and had to contact the band to get their permission, and how he later on met the band and hung out and partied with them in Detroit.
Another great story involves our mutual friend, Emily Hubley, film animation artist, who Kevin has done a couple of roles for, The Toe Tactic and And/Or 2012. He went to a Roky Erickson concert with Emily at Maxwells in Hoboken and had to learn a song on piano that Ira from Yo La Tengo wrote for the film The Toe Tactic. Kevin recounted how when he visited the band’s studio in Hoboken it was like walking into Abbey Road with instruments strewn all about.
We talked of other things like how real artists just have their creativity pour out of them like a necessity and about an artist’s goal to express the truth, actors included, and his admiration of Marlon Brando, relating some of his famous quotes on acting. Kevin also mentioned how he had the privilege to meet some of his idols, and how sometimes you meet someone you admire they seem very alienated and can’t relate to people.
Other discussion topics included how he met his wife, actress Elizabeth Berridge at party but how he could have met her years earlier as he had auditioned for the film 5 Corners that she acted in, but he didn’t get the part. He considers the role she played to be her best, even more so than her character in Amadeus, and how his whole life since his marrying her was like he married that movie, like he had to be a part of that movie.
So what people say about dreams coming true, I can attest that a dream of mine did come true in meeting Kevin Corrigan and it was pretty awesome.
Had a cozy chat with Bloodshot Bill, the revered rockabilly one man band from Montreal and learned some things about his early years as a budding rock’n’roller, his hoarding habits, and his love for ballads.
When did you realize you had this talent to be a musician?
It’s more like realizing you enjoy it, so I realized I enjoyed it and just wanted to do that.
How old were you?
I started playing drums when I was 13 or something, I was playing with friends and stuff. When I realized when I wanted to do it, probably like around when I met you, during those Jailhouse days. I was working all crappy jobs, so many shitty jobs.
So, at that point you started playing more?
I used to drink more than I played so I didn’t really take some opportunities that I could have, with people offering me to play out of town and stuff like that.
As a solo artist, or in bands?
Both, I was doing both. I started out playing alone, not the way I do it now with the one man band type of thing, it was just with a guitar. I played with Dom and stuff like that.
Were you in bands in high-school?
I was playing drums in high school. Being the drummer I didn’t really have so much control, so I had to learn to play guitar to do my own thing.
And when did you start singing or realizing you could sing?
Well I didn’t realize I could sing, I just figured I should try this if I want to do stuff I like. That happened pretty late when I was like 19 or 20.
I know people call you hillbilly or rockabilly, what’s the difference? What do you consider yourself?
Just rockabilly, rock’n’roll or just rockin’. I guess hillbilly loses that rock part of it, and I like that style, that’s what I try to go for. You try to go for what you like. Like if you are a writer you want to write something you want to read, right? So, I try to make songs that I obviously want to hear.
You’ve met some of your idols? Like Hasil Adkins
I never met Hasil but we used to talk on the phone a lot. I got his number a long time ago.
So, did you just call him up?
I called him up and he talked to me like we knew each other for years. It wasn’t like who are you? It was so cool. And we used to play songs to each other over the phone. And after he passed away his girlfriend wrote me, sent me a letter saying, “Is this Bloodshot Bill, you used to talk to Hasil on the phone” I was like “yeah”. He used to tape record his phone conversations which I didn’t know and she was like “I have a tape of you guys talking, would you like it?”. She sent me this tape and we’re talking, and playing songs over the phone to each other, it’s cool.
Great, that’s awesome! Where do you think your passion and energy comes from?
Hmm, I don’t have that many interests, I’m not interested or knowledgeable on many things because I have no interest in them, except for a few things I think are cool. Music, different musicians I like, and so I guess that’s it.
But you have tons of energy, put out so many records, and your energy on stage?
It’s just from liking what I do, I guess. Liking it. If it’s a live thing, then you also get the energy from the crowd. So if they’re going nuts then you get to go more nuts.
You seem to be entrenched in 50s music, style and subculture. If you could travel back in time to that time what would be the first thing you would do?
Go shopping! Find all the cool stuff I have to dig for nowadays. Even if it’s clothes, gear, or guitars, whatever. Meeting people, going to shows, all that stuff.
What fascinates you about retro signs?
I don’t know, they’re just cool, they don’t make them like they used to kind of thing.
And I know I saw you had some garage sales over the summer?
Well because I moved and I’m a super amazing hoarder. I travel a lot to so it makes finding things and finding things easy. That’s one of the fun things about going on the road. What’s in this town, and what’s in that town.
Do you ever have problems bringing stuff back?
No, as long as it can fit in the car I’ll take it. But I did find pieces of signs that I couldn’t take back and I was kind of bummed about that. But I usually find small things that I can fit in the car. So back to when we were moving, I was just like, how am I going to move all this stuff, I have so much stuff, I can get rid of this stuff, I had so much so I was kind of panicking. I was like okay, I’ll sell some of these guitars and I just got flooded with emails in 15 minutes, while I was packing and I couldn’t answer all these things, so I just answered like the first email. A guy came over and he bought a guitar and I just didn’t bother answering the others, maybe later I’ll do a garage sale or something.
So you still have a lot of stuff?
Yeah, out of all that stuff I only sold one guitar, really cheap too. But at my last show, I don’t know if that’s what you are talking about. I did a little purge of some clothes and comics. I didn’t bring too much stuff because I had to bring my gear also.
That’s an interesting concept.
It worked out good! It worked out good! I’ll try and do that more.
It’s a great way to get rid of stuff.
Way way too much stuff.
Do you drive to most of your show, like in the US?
I fly and I drive. I have kids now so I don’t do crazy long cross country drives.
With your family now it must be harder to go out and tour?
I kind of keep it at two weeks tops if I do go out, and that’s rare even. And I try to keep it to weekends, so if’s its somewhere far I’ll fly.
Do you have any favorite places you like to play? I know you play a lot of clubs, festivals, parks?
In the summer I do like playing outdoors, that’s always fun. Festivals, I like the outdoor ones, there’s this one I do every year in Massachusetts called the New England Shake Up, that’s a lot of fun, my friend puts it on, so I been doing the pre-party. And during the festival if a band cancelled we’ve been filling in, but there’s all sorts of different ones. But it’s weird, I find I’m able to play these sort of rockabilly festivals, and these other different ones, like if you categorize me as a rockabilly band I play festivals that other rockabilly bands wouldn’t…
Like a folk festival?
I did play a folk festival last year. You know you hear about a folk festival but not all the bands are folk bands. Like a blues festival, not all the bands are blues. The jazz fest in Montreal, perfect example, they’re not all jazz bands.
Are there any cities or places that are more into 50’s more than others, or in Europe?
I don’t know if it’s so much the cities, it’s just the crowd that puts on the show, or the festival that gears it toward that crowd. Europe definitely has a lot more festivals than North America, more for that kind of stuff.
So what’s your typical set up and has it changed over the years?
A guitar, an amp and a drum, when I’m playing alone, it’s the drum and the high hat. I read reviews where it’s like, “Bloodshot Bill playing harmonica” and stuff like that, I’m like, what, no, I never played that, they probably think cause I’m a one man band I have a harmonica. I think they kind of think, he had a maraca in his sock, or something, or a harmonica, or whatever. They just figure you’re trying to play so many things.
They just have a great imagination.
Or they’re just not watching, maybe they hear that, I don’t know, it’s kind of funny. But I keep it pretty basic, I just keep it simple for myself, I don’t try to like…I’ve seen other one man bands who try to play a million things, it’s cool or whatever, but for me if music is about expressing yourself you don’t want to make it hard on yourself to do that.
Do you write lots of originals or do you do mostly covers?
I do a mix of both. On all my records, I do covers too, and originals.
So I know you mentioned having a lot of jobs before. Did you ever imagine yourself on a different path?
Sometimes doing what I do now, it’s all me, I don’t have a manager, I book myself and stuff like that so I really have to hustle a lot to make it work, so sometimes I’m like it would be so much easier if I had a fuckin 9 to 5 job but I think I’d just blow my brains out if I did after a while, you know. But with all the stuff I’m hoarding I think I’d like to open up my ideal shop, you know, selling junk! (laughs)
Yeah it would be cool.
What’s the emotion most felt in 50s music?
I don’t know, the music I go for, even if it sounds inept to some people, it’s the enthusiasm maybe.
Are there more love songs?
I love ballads. On my records I put a lot of ballads but reviews of me, the things I read of me, it’s like “the wild man!” but I don’t think people know that I love ballads. But I think that it was a lot of teenagers playing this kind of music, and they had a lot of energy because they are young and it’s just the enthusiasm I guess.
Do you play for your daughter?
Yeah, I mean sometimes. She tells me to stop. (laughs) Stop. She’s funny too.
Where do you spend time writing and practicing? At home?
Yeah usually at home, in the basement or something in the winter.
Who are some of your main influences?
There’s so many but I always have my holy trinity, Hasil Adkins, Charlie Feathers, and Link Wray.
Kary once told me that there was a song you once wrote about her and Johnny (Bergeron/Crap)…How did you come up with that?
Yeah, a long time ago, Johnny Crap. I don’t know, I think we all used to hang out at Jailhouse. It was weird, they are still together and that’s great, but I think after a week of them knowing each other Johnny went and had her name tattooed on him and we were like, oh what, dude, hope it works out! I guess it has worked out. I think that’s even a line in the song I think. “Johnny loves Kary, Kary loves John, wasn’t that a new tattoo on his arm, Johnny Crap!” Haha something like that!
Wow, that’s so cute! What’s going on with some of your side projects? The Tandoori Knights, The Ding Dongs?
Not much, those things just started out as…you know those guys, they don’t live in town anymore…
What about The FireJacks?
These were all recording projects. I get together with my friends, and it’s like – hey let’s record a song! And then it’s another and another song and then we have enough to put something out. Tandoori Knights, we actually did do a tour. We might put out some more stuff. The Ding Dongs, with Mark, we put out 2 albums and a single. We put out a bunch of stuff, with The Ding Dongs we played a bunch of shows, FireJacks – were these guys from the States, The Two Timin’ Three was the name of their band and we had plans to, they were always touring and I was always touring, so let’s tour together and we’ll put out an album, and then I got banned from the States like shortly after. And one of those guys that was in that band got in a motorcycle accident and died, yeah, so that never happened. We got to play one show.
So that whole banning in the States was because of paperwork?
And now you have the right papers? Do you have to pay for that?
Yeah, it’s a lot, it’s so stupid, for Canadians to play in the states you have to do all the paperwork to play, and wait, and gather all this information, but for Americans to come to Canada I could write them a note five minutes before they hit the border, and be like they’re coming to play, oK, and that’s it. Yeah it’s so stupid.
The look of your album covers are really cool looking. Who comes up with that?
Some of them I’ve done. The Norton stuff they take care of their stuff. I’ve loved that label forever so I’m like please do it, keep doing what you do, do it to my stuff cause I love you, I trust you.
Do you have a weirdest show you ever played?
I definitely do. One time I played in this giant fridge, that was in Montreal, some art thing. One time also in Montreal in March they got me to play in the Old Port right by the water, and it was freezing, it was an outdoor 5 a 7, open bar, it was really weird, like bad timing, like why are you doing this in the winter? Lots of weird shows. I just played with Mungo Jerry, I mean it wasn’t weird but it kinda made sense as I was watching his show, cause I only knew “in the summertime, when the weather gets hot…”, his hit song, but it seemed weird when my friend asked me to play it.
And what’s the show tonight, you got lined up?
Tonight I’m in a store, my friend’s store, Kitsch’n Swell, and they have a new sign and they’re having a party around it.
And who are the Hick-ups?
The Hick-ups are my latest band, I travel around a lot, but in the winter I’m home a lot, so I usually start a new band in the winter, this one I started a couple of years ago, it’s more like a traditional rockabilly sound, like a trio, 2 guitars and a bass, that’s what that is.
So did you listen to music early, like as a little kid?
Yeah, that’s when I got into rockabilly, was like my best friend in grade 1 or 2, he had an older brother who was into that so we kind got into it through that…he had a cousin too, an older cousin that even had a band, and I recently got to play with that guy too, which was kind of neat. He lives in Ottawa now. So that was an influence that kind of steered me early on I guess.
So I was looking at your site and saw these cool promotions you did for a hamburger joint in a bowling alley…
Yeah that was on the south shore, they were introducing some new burger, they always have little restaurant in the bowling alley, and I love bowling and I love hamburgers so it was perfect. They were introducing this new burger called the Dégueu burger which is the disgusting burger as you know.
With this brown sauce?
Yeah they had a sweet one and a spicy one and they were really good. The spicy one wasn’t spicy enough for me. But they wanted me to be the Colonel Sanders, the face of Wendy’s, the face of this burger, the Disgusting, so it was perfect, and they wanted me to write a song and we did a video.
And what about that restaurant, I never even heard of it, the Madrid?
Somebody asked me to write.. do you know this place? it’s on the Hwy 20 on the way to Quebec, it’s a truck stop and they had monster trucks and dinosaurs, but they were switching owners or selling it, so some of my friends in Granby were like let’s make a tribute album to Madrid, so I made that song, and made that crappy video just for the hell of it.
Oh, it’s so awesome!
I like it too! It’s short and funny.
Did they ever see it, like the owners, or anything?
I forget, I think one of them did, and they were just like – thanks!
Meet Adam Gollner. He’s the author of two celebrated non-fiction books, The Fruit Hunters, and the Book of Immortality. He used to be a music reviewer, ad sales guy, writer, and editor in chief of Vice Magazine. These days, he is a much-envied food and travel journalist. But when I first met him, two decades ago, he was the guitarist in the bratty, obnoxious, yet revered Montreal garage band, The Spaceshits. He also went on to play in the nederlander band The Hot Pockets. Adam Gollner is a cool guy to know and be friends with, he is a knowledgeable and experienced music fan, and he is amazingly talented at what he does – writing about the stories he hears and learns about from traveling and experiencing life in food, life in culture, life in life and/or life in death. It was fun doing this interview with him and it was great seeing him after such a lengthy span of time .
So the last time I saw you, you were in The Spaceshits. That was like 20 years ago?
Yeah, probably 20 years ago, maybe a little bit less. 1996, 1997? I don’t remember the exact dates but it was somewhere around there.
When did you guys break up?
Let’s see. We started when I was like 18 or something. I think we were already playing together in around 1994. My band the Maury Povitch 3—that was Arish, Danny and I, and we were all in The Spaceshits also—already existed in 1994, so The Spaceshits probably already existed then as well. I’m pretty sure that the Spaceshits started shortly after we started the Maury Povitch 3. We can probably verify these dates online somewhere; there’s probably some site that has the dates for the releases. And as far as when we broke up: well, I left the band in the winter of 1998, the year of the ice storm.
You left first, right?
Yes, I left after our US tour with The Dirtys. We’d moved to Vancouver—I don’t know if you remember that chapter. We went and recorded a second album in San Francisco that never got released.
With Greg Lowery from the Rip Offs and Supercharger. He “produced” it. But I’ve never heard it. He kept the tapes, or claims that the recording device didn’t work or something. After that session, we did a tour with the Dirtys that ended on a very negative note. It involved Mark from the Dirtys, their guitar player. It was in Kentucky, and the Dirtys had been hanging out and partying all day with some friends of theirs at a strip club. By the time the concert started, they were out of their minds. Mark Dirty was playing my guitar—I don’t know what had happened with his guitar, but on the tour he was playing my guitar. And that night, he started playing it naked. And at one point he rolled over backwards and accidentally broke the neck right off the guitar. It had been a tense tour before that, but when my guitar snapped, a conflict arose between him and Mark from the Spaceshits. Mark Dirty came over to me and was apologetic, saying he would pay for it, buy me a new one, you know? But Mark Spaceshit was upset about it. Their argument escalated fast and then Mark Spaceshit said, “We’re leaving, the tour is over.” But I obviously had to stay with The Dirtys to recoup my money for the broken guitar. So my bandmates left. They ended the tour. The rest of the Spaceshits left that evening to drive back to Montreal and I stayed there, in Kentucky. I then headed to Detroit with the Dirtys and had to hang out there for a few cold days until Mark Dirty could scrape enough money together somehow to repay me for the broken guitar. In that time that I was in Detroit, The Spaceshits decided that their narrative had changed from “The tour is over and we’re driving home to Montreal” to “Adam abandoned us.” I guess they decided to keep playing the rest of the concerts once The Dirtys were no longer part of the tour? This was before the era of cell phones and email, so it was hard to communicate. We only played one more show after that point, maybe two. I reconnected with them in Rhode Island after taking a bus there from Detroit.
So that was the end!
Yeah that was kinda the end. The breaking point. The guitar snapped; they left; I went to Detroit. We played one more concert in Montreal and it was bad vibes. It had been bad vibes for quite a while. There was a lot of negative energy in our little unit there. And so I left the band and went on with my life.
What did you do after that? What brought you to becoming a writer and journalist?
When we got home from that tour, it happened to be the winter of the big ice storm in 1998. It was a tough time. No matter how emotionally advanced you may be, it’s hard to lose your close friends. It’s hard to break up with people who are like your family. My band-mates were my tight friends, and we were finished. Danny was always chill, and Yat-chi was generally easy going. Arish was very influenced by Mark: they’ve had an interesting psychodrama together that has played out over the years. I remember I got home and that ice storm happened, and there was no heat in the freezing middle of winter. Nobody had any electricity, for like 5 days. I remember sleeping in a mall because some shopping centers had generators and people were going there with sleeping bags. It was such a low point. Life has ups and downs, but that was definitely a time of despair, and uncertainty. Something needed to happen. I had a friend in Paris who was working as a babysitter and she was like ‘come here and stay with me.’ So I did. We lived in this studio apartment on Rue de la Roquette with no bathroom or kitchen, just a room with a bed. The Dirtys came to Europe and played some concerts, and I tagged along with them for a bit in Scandinavia. Their tour manager and I ended up hitting it off. He wanted to play music and I had all these songs written, so we managed to record some songs together in Holland. Our band was called The Hot Pockets.
That’s right, I read you recorded some songs for a week.
Yeah I didn’t live in Holland, I just went there to record. They managed to get, I don’t know exactly what we recorded on, a 4 track or something. That’s the hard thing as a musician: it’s kind of tough to record your stuff unless you’re good at engineering. A band is such a coming together of various different skills and attributes and abilities, passions too, and it helps to work with someone who is good at recording, or have someone into that aspect be part of the band. Either way, I was never that good at it. But the other Hot Pockets managed to get the recording equipment together and I had a lot of songs and they had some songs, and that collaboration ended up being a way to get those songs done, get them completed. Some of the songs were songs I wrote while I was in The Spaceshits for our second album that never came out. One of our songs was about the street I lived on in Paris. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNtntuUblKQ]
So that was The Hot Pockets.
That project was just a fun thing to do, it was never serious. But that entire style of music never seemed overly serious to me. I think maybe that’s why things were complicated in The Spaceshits’ dynamic. I always thought our type of punk music was supposed to be kind of fun, young and dumb. It was anti-commercial, and anti-success, but it was also silly. I mean we were called The Spaceshits—what do you think? It was stupid. It shoulda been fun and magical, and it was at the beginning, but it became kind of… dark, I guess? Egos are like that. So at the same time we were recording with The Hot Pockets, I started writing more and more. I’d written about music in college. Danny, Arish and I all met in CEGEP, the three of us. Arish and I, we wrote music reviews together, for the student newspaper at Marianopolis. It was called The Paper Cut. We would review new releases and we’d write things like ‘If you don’t like this album then your life is as pointless as capitalism.’ Right around that time, by coincidence, a thing called Vice magazine started. There was this cultural newspaper starting up, and they were like “Oh you write about music? You should write about music for us.”
How did you meet the guys from Vice?
It began with Suroosh Alvi, who was starting a free newsprint monthly magazine. I met Suroosh through Rupert Bottenburg, who at the time had been organizing Comix Jams. My bands would play concerts at his Comix Jams, and Rupert would photocopy his comix zines on my mom’s photocopy machine in the basement in our home. Rupert was a slightly older guy at the time we met. I was probably 17, going to concerts with fake ID—Bad Brains, L7, Fugazi, that kind of thing. I often saw Rupert at those shows, and we’d end up on the 211 bus home after midnight. So on some snowy night in like 1993 or 1994 Rupert introduced me to this guy Suroosh who was starting a free newspaper. Rupert told him that I write about music for my student newspaper, and Suroosh asked me to write for them as well. That’s how it happened. I wrote some stuff in that very first issue: Issue 0, Volume 0 of The Voice of Montreal, as it was called then. They changed the name to Vice a few years later. I’m pretty sure our band played at the launch party. I think it was The Maury Povitch 3, not the Spaceshits. I remember the concert was at Stornaway Gallery, where we played often, at Comix Jams and on other nights, both as the Spaceshits and as The Maury Povitch 3.
You were already writing when you were in The Spaceshits?
I wrote as a kid also. My mom was an English professor then and she is still an editor and publisher, as well an author. So she was always encouraging me to write. She enrolled me in some after-school creative writing classes at the library when I was a kid. I had always been writing. But I guess a turning point was at college when my art history teacher took me aside one day and said, ‘You’re able to write, just so you know. I look at a lot of essays and your writing is different from other student essays.’ And I was just a total stoner who would spend very little time on homework but she was saying that I can write even though I clearly put no effort into it. That art history professor made me realize that writing was something I was able to do. So basically that teacher led to the student newspaper led to Vice – and I wrote stuff for The Spaceshits of course at that time also.
Wasn’t your moniker in The Spaceshits Gold Tongue? Why did you get that nickname?
Yes, one of my nicknames was Tommy the Tongue, or Tongues, probably because I was the one who usually spoke with and corresponded with record label people for the band. And I wrote our press releases, that sort of thing. But I had many nicknames. Every release for The Spaceshits I used a different name: Johnny Bigwolf Littlejohn, Mister Shampoo, Goner, Adam The Pocket Rocket Richard. We all did. Like Arish, now King Khan, used to be Blacksnake. I used lots of pseudonyms when writing at Vice too: Convulvulus Gondola, Hankie Herbcock, Glenda Molar and other anagrams like that. It was just the way things were. I still have a bunch of nicknames today.
And you continued writing when you lived in Paris?
Yes, I wrote some blurby things for Time Out Paris; I don’t think I even had a byline in there. I was just using the magazine as a way to go to concerts for free. I then did the same thing in London with a rag called Footloose in London where strangely enough my editor turned out to have been in the 70s punk band The Boys, who wrote that amazing song “First Time.” There we were, two former punk guitarists working on a shitty free magazine. It’s like the setting for a bad 90s sitcom. I was 21 years old. He couldn’t believe I had ever heard of The Boys. They aren’t exactly a household name, but The Spaceshits—and even more so The Hot Pockets—were part of their lineage. I ended up writing a piece about The Boys for Ugly Things magazine, and they ended up getting back together and it’s all a nice memory now. I would love to have a pint with Matt Dangerfield again sometime. After that I moved back home and started writing for TheMontreal Mirror, and continued to write for TheVoice of Montreal, which became Vice, and just kept with it. That’s how the writing thing happened. It always seemed like a way to make money, weirdly. It began on a volunteer basis but after coming back from London I needed to try and make money somehow and writing was the way.
So you were the editor of Vice after that?
Yes, that happened in like 1999-2000.
That was just a progression, from being a writer?
Yeah, I’d had been writing for them, and being an editor is a way to earn a stable income, so I did it, for a while. I’d also been offered a job from Vice when I came back from that miserable US tour with The Dirtys, to sell ads for them. I’d sold ads for them in the past: I’d sold ads to places like Dischord records, and Merge records, for like $50 an ad. They would support the Voice of Montreal, I don’t think it was Vice yet. Either way, I would get paid a commission, like 15% or something. So I’d sell ads for Vice, and help them with distribution. Throughout those early years I’d also write for Vice but never really got paid for writing. I was like part of the team there. I’d be on the phone selling ads and they’d give me CDs and I would sell the CDs which is essentially how I made my living for a while. And then after that tour with The Dirtys ended, they offered me a stable job, a low-paying one, but a real one nonetheless. I think they offered me like $10,000 for 6 months guaranteed. It seemed like a lot of money at the time, but also like not that much money. And when you are young you can really live for nothing. But their offer was still somehow significant and they were like ‘You will make more money than that if you sell more ads as well,’ but I was like ‘No, I need to go to Paris and be a young person in Paris and let life happen.’ When I got back to Montreal, they were a little pissed that I had gone my own way and not taken their offer. But gradually I worked my way back into their good graces and they let me write stuff again for them, for free, of course. As I wrote more for them, I think they saw—just like that art teacher from college—that I was able to be an editor. I was submitting cleaner copy than what other writers gave them. I know that was the case because subsequently, when I became the editor in chief of Vice, I saw the garbage that people submitted. It was atrocious, such poor-quality writing. It was just unbelievable to me that anybody could give that in to a magazine.
So what did you do with those?
I would edit them. That was the job.
And rewrite them?
Yeah, there was a lot of rewriting going on there. They moved to New York at that point, when I became the editor, or they were still here in Montreal but on the cusp of moving to NY, and I remained the editor after they moved to New York. I’d been doing stuff with Vice online also, which was pretty early days of the Internet. I’d been editing feature articles before that for Vice, so becoming the editor in chief was kind of a progression.
Recently I saw a TV report you did on Viceland, Shroom Boom?
Yes, I’ve done a few things with them on video. What a mindblowing arc that company has had. They started out like nothing… how did that become this multibillion-dollar empire? Vice’s whole rise to a global media empire, one big reason that happened is because they started doing videos. They started turning their stories into videos and they were in NYC and they were great salesman and bit by bit the world just started throwing money at them for that. I have been in a small way a part of that progression as well, meaning I’ve done some stories as videos too. I’ve done a handful, like maybe 5 for them, a couple of which aren’t out yet.
Over the past few years, yes. I did one on the Grapple—an apple that tastes like artificial grapes. I did the Shroom Boom story about the subculture of morel mushroom harvesters in the burnt-out remains of forest fires in the Northwest Territories. There’s one on eating mammoth meat at the Explorers Club in NYC. I’ve done shoots with them in Tofino, Prince Edward County, and Kamouraska as well. Video is not necessarily my medium, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn how to do it. The documentary that I’m excited about the most is a feature-length piece about the seal hunt in Canada. We went to Newfoundland, the Magdalen Islands, and to Nunavut. We went out with Inuit hunters on a seal hunt in the middle of January. I wanted to just learn about their perspective on the story – to speak with people who actually interact with seals, who hunt seals and live alongside seals, as well as interview animal rights groups who have been able to raise a lot of money trying to stop the hunting of seals. It’s a real conflict-driven story.
Yeah, I was going to say that a lot of things they do are like confronting issues and uncomfortable situations… is it hard to do that?
That’s part of what drives journalists, certainly, to get at issues that are emotional. What drives all writers is the desire to express the truth, to try and find the truth to the best of their ability. To engage with reality as it is.
You have a pretty amazing job. You go out, write, travel, you meet interesting people. Do you love every part of that? What inspires you?
The idea of putting yourself into situations where you have to ask difficult questions or where you have to see two sides of a very messy debate — I do love that. It’s part of what I love. I’m not the most opinionated writer. I’m not a polemicist. I’m not interested in politics the way some people are. It’s not that I’m apolitical; it’s simply that my main interest is in human nature, in humans and nature. That’s my zone. What are we like, and what is the world like, how do we interact with it, and how does it work and who are we and what are we doing here? You know, those sorts of questions.
So you are more philosophical?
I think my strength is not in philosophical big questions. I learned that while writing The Book of Immortality. I’m better at describing things, concrete things, rather than abstract concepts. The Fruit Hunters is about actual objects that grow on plants that contain seeds – and I’m better at describing the experience of tasting those and desiring those than I am at articulating philosophical ambiguities.
Are you saying that your writing for The Fruit Hunters was more difficult than The Book of Immortality?
Writing is always tough, right? So to come back to your previous question in a circuitous way: do I love all the aspects of what my work is? There are aspects that I definitely love and aspects that are definitively amazing, but there are also aspects that are very laborsome and difficult. That’s the nature of it. There are times that I love the challenging parts, but getting it finished is hard, transcribing is hard, trying to get started is hard, trying to make a living is hard. There are a lot of hard things involved in writing. Just trying to stay with it and maintain your focus is hard. To keep chipping away at it and move the thing forward can be tough, but it can also be more gratifying than anything else.
How long did it take you to do your books, each of them?
Well The Fruit Hunters began in the winter of 2000 for me, and it only came out in 2008, and it only became real in the sense of a full-time pursuit in 2005. There were a few moments of it getting more real along the way—like I got a publishing contract in 2005. I got a Canada Council grant in like 2003. I sold an article to Air Canada’s in-flight magazine about fruit tourism around 2001 or 2002.
You sold an article?
I pitched an idea to them and they bought it. So Air Canada’s magazine sent me to Hawaii on a first-class seat to go fruit hunting. I couldn’t believe it. All of those things were like moments of the book coalescing. But in 2005 I got a contract from a publishing house to write the book. I didn’t know that that’s how it worked at the time, and maybe you don’t know how it works? Most people don’t. But if you are writing a book of non-fiction you sell the idea to the publishing house in a treatment, like you do a proposal that’s like 25 pages long, and you describe the whole book. A publisher buys that and hopefully gives you enough resources to write the book. That’s how nonfiction books get sold—you just don’t write the whole thing and sell it as you would in fiction. Fiction is a little bit different, you write it first then hope… as far as I understand, I don’t write fiction, I would hope to one day, but I write nonfiction. So The Fruit Hunters came from an emotionally difficult place, much like the ice storm time there. It was two years later, and I had already moved out of that whole Spaceshits phase of my life, or was in a new one, but it was also a difficult time, as described in the beginning of The Fruit Hunters.
So in the beginning you went to Brazil?
Yes, I was gonna go there and have a sunny vacation but reality is never that easy. Part of the reason I’m a writer is because of the need to try and process suffering and difficult situations. That’s kind of where it comes from, I guess. Sometimes it comes from wanting to celebrate the joyousness of life. Reality isn’t just difficulty and misery—but it involves that as well. It involves beauty and happiness, feelings of total exhilaration. I think writing is like that also. Writing is as painful as it is beautiful. You have to relish the good moments and you have to accept and work through the challenging moments and also recognize that one isn’t better than the other, they’re both just there and they are both meaningful. That’s kind of the key to sanity.
So was The Book of Immortality harder for you to write?
Yeah, it was harder. The Book of Immortality was supposed to happen in a more condensed way, but they both took a long time. The Fruit Hunters gestated for a number of years. I got this Canada Council grant three years after the idea came to me,
And went and spent a few months researching it in South East Asia, and then came home and thought about it and developed it for another year and a half. Only then did I in earnest begin writing it.
When you say writing, does that include you going off and talking to people?
Yes, that’s definitely the fun part of writing, for the most part. And even there, there are things that suck, I don’t know, you get some weird illness in a faraway place. I was just reading today a description from a writer friend of mine, she was in Mexico having this amazing trip but then she got a stomach flu from bad shellfish and spent two days barfing, and that is something that totally resonates with me. It is not something that invariably happens, but when you have great things in life you also have bad things. You have this dream trip to Yucatan but then you eat a bad oyster and are ill for two days, life is like that. Or my friend John, this photographer I work with sometimes, he was just in Jamaica. We were in Jamaica together on an assignment like 5 years ago, but he went back a few weeks ago and stayed where we had stayed. It’s this amazing place where you jump off a cliff into the ocean, eat great food, and it’s very mellow, lots of pot. Anyways, he went back and got all these terrible insect bites. Classic! I know I’m not answering this question well. Before I even really got serious about writing it, The Fruit Hunters was five years thinking about it, sort of working on it, doing an article here, a Canada Council proposal there, keeping notes and reading and being really excited about the idea, being obsessed with it, learning everything I could about fruits, and loving that and feeling like it made life make so much sense. It was like the way that maybe punk rock had made sense, when I had been obsessed with punk music. I realized then that there are so many other things like that. When we were in The Spaceshits, we had such a narrow worldview. The only things that really mattered were these punk records, garage records, and everybody else was wrong, nobody else knew what was really important. And then I realized that there were people in the fruit world who were like that with fruits and I found that so fascinating. Like why do people get that way? Why do they become so focused on a certain thing? But a thing like that can make life make sense. And that happened to me also, that’s what was going on for those five years and then I got a book contract. Then I had to deliver a finished manuscript in two years, and that’s when it got serious.
Serious in the sense that you have a real deadline—you go from having a crazy dream vision to executives in the Rockefeller Center who are paying you a lot of money. It starts being stressful. You have to fucking deliver that thing. The Book of Immortality was harder because I didn’t have that time where I could just think about it., as I had done with The Fruit Hunters. As soon as I finished The Fruit Hunters my agent was like ‘you have to sell another idea before that first book comes out, you have to get another treatment done and get another book contract before it comes out.’ So I was contractually supposed to get The Book of Immortality done in like two years. But about two years in, I was like ‘I don’t even know what this book is, I don’t even know what I am doing, I’m still figuring it out.’ It ended up taking five years.
Where were you at two years?
I had like a rough draft that was real messy. It was really half-baked and I was just starting to find the story. At that point, we were in a recession, and book publishing went through a massive transformation where a lot of people in print media got laid off. I don’t know if you remember, but print media in 2005 was a very different thing compared to 2009. A lot of people lost their jobs.
A lot of things were just going online…
Yeah, they were in the middle of trying to figure it out. They still are. But 2009 was a real brutal moment in what we would call traditional media. Like Gourmet magazine, where I had become a correspondent, got shut down in 2009. The record industry, the film industry, all these industries were realizing that the paradigm had shifted. They are still trying to make sense of it all. But back then it was like, ‘whoa, everything has gone online.’ The online world destroyed the traditional infrastructure of how money is generated for these creative industries. Most people don’t buy music anymore, right? Crazy. Some people will pay for iTunes but most people don’t pay for iTunes, right? That was that moment of the deep realization that we had entered a new era in which people were just going to consume things for free and not pay for it anymore, which is still generally the age that we’re in. And Vice was always free, so they anticipated that, in a way. Most people now don’t pay for newspapers, they just go check it out online. It’s the same for magazines. Some people still pay, but by and large these media industries are still figuring out how to evolve. So in the midst of that 2009 shakeup, I was freaking out, real late with a book. It was a time when publishing houses were cancelling contracts and asking for advances to be paid back. It was the “real dark days of publishing,” as they say. Part of what made writing The Book of Immortality harder was the feeling of intense pressure coming at me from the people who had given me money to do it. I remember going to New York and feeling like the city is such a bone crusher, like it wants to chew up your bones in its teeth and grind them to a powder and just eat your bones. It’s a feeling you might have when dealing with people who have given you enough money to live on for two years, and you’ve spent all that money, and then they’re saying ‘ok, give us that money back,’ and you’re like ‘well what am I going to do?’ Then you have to conjure of all these scenarios for how to survive. Luckily they did not cancel the contract. They let me finish the book. They fired my editor shortly before the book was completed, so at that final moment of finishing it I didn’t have an editor. It was hard. Those were hard things. To generally just be lost in the story is a beautiful thing, you know. It’s beautiful to be lost in a story and try to find your way—but not if you have people essentially threatening you with bankruptcy in the middle of it. Anyway, I survived. I came out on the other side.
Are you happy with it?
Yeah, I’m proud of the fact that I got it done. I don’t think a writer knows how to judge their own work. I learned that my value system is taking however long it takes to do something properly rather than rushing to completion. It would have been great to have even more time with it. If I could go back there are things I would change about it. I think it’s a complicated book to read.
Well I imagine that it’s not an easy read. I mean, I don’t know, I haven’t read it, I just wrote it.
Is that what you got from reviews?
Not really. Reviews were generally positive. It could have been shorter, and could have been edited tighter, but I lost my editor at the end.
Well I really enjoyed both your books.
Thank you, I really enjoyed aspects of them and really struggled with other aspects of them, and I’m proud of them both. I’m proud that I did them. I love writing. I’m about to start another book, but I decided that with this one I would not force it out fast, but that I’d think about it, I’d research it and do it kind of like The Fruit Hunters where the first years are not under contract to a publishing house. I think that my timing is that it takes just a few years to think about a book, and then it takes a few years to write it, and so that’s what I decided to do this time.
Are you still figuring out the story?
Yeah, I generally have a pretty good idea of what it is, and I’ve been researching it, but I’m not going to tell you what it’s about, because then it’s going to become a whole 15-minute confused thing. I can’t quite articulate it yet, I’m in the middle of trying to articulate it. I’m trying to write that treatment now. It feels like an exciting project, something I’m excited to do.
And while you are doing that are you doing other things? You’ve been traveling a lot…
Yes, that is how I’ve made my living since The Book of Immortality. I’ve had a good few years as a travel writer. A lot of food and travel writing, that intersection there. And I have managed to be lucky with it, even though I had to work hard and push myself to keep trying to sell ideas. Freelance writing is a different ballgame than writing books. The way it works is that you need to put out a lot of ideas, pitch a lot of ideas and hope that editors will take them. Because of the fact that I’ve done two books, plus my previous journalistic experience, at least editors have been open to hearing the ideas. There’s a lot of ideas I put out that they did not buy, but there’s also been a bunch that have been bought, so I’ve been doing that.
With different magazines?
Yes, I’m a freelance journalist these days, mainly travel writing and food writing. But the kind of food writing I do means there’s almost always travel involved in it. And that seems to have been a big thing that’s also been… to go back to the punk rock thing, the way we were obsessed with punk rock—those same sort of things seems to have happened in the food world. A lot of qualities of the music world have been transposed onto the food world, weirdly. I should mention, because we’re doing this interview for Gravyzine, a few years ago, a musician friend of mine started a food zine here in Montreal called Gravy also. From music to food. It’s like the way people used to be obsessed with 7” singles has happened with eating certain dishes or eating at certain restaurants.
You mean for anybody, or for you?
For a lot of people. A lot of people want to go and “experience” food in the way that a lot of people used to want to go to concerts, it seems to me. People today love food in a way that was totally inconceivable in the 90’s. It may have something to do with the fact that music has become so digital, and immaterial. But at the time when we were into punk rock, the idea that somebody would be into food was unthinkable. There was no such thing as a foodie. To be “into food” was not cool in the least. It wasn’t even conceivable. That outsiderness was in part what attracted me to writing The Fruit Hunters. I remember I went to a magazine store and I saw something called Gourmet magazine and another one called Scientific American. I was like ‘what magazines do normal people buy?’ And I realized that people buy food magazines and science magazines. I found the intersection of those two worlds to be so interesting. I had no idea you could write about food or that you could write about science, and I kinda set out to do both with The Fruit Hunters. But now everybody is so into food, it seems odd to even point it out. Like Instagram is mainly about food. Food has become such a big deal for people. Lives revolve around food.
So it’s sort of a coincidence that you went in that direction?
I just happened to be this guy that ventured down that path a little bit earlier than others. Like now Vice has this food channel called Munchies. In 1999, trust me, nobody in the orbit of Vice was even remotely interested in food. Now the music part of their empire is called Noisy, their news vertical is Vice News, and Vice Food is basically called Munchies. The documentaries I’ve done have mainly been with Munchies.
I read one where you went to Cuba.
Yes, that was a written article for Vice magazine proper, although the assigning editor on that story is the head of Munchies. Actually, that reminds me of an interesting comment I saw recently, when Munchies hired a west coast editor in Los Angeles. He’s this pop-punk East Side Vato Loco Chicano dude. And when they hired him, he was quoted as saying ‘What’s more punk rock than getting paid to write about food?’ I remember thinking: ‘Food writing is not punk rock.’ But then again, the world has changed, and we live in the world now where a young punk rock music lover can also be a food lover and can believe that writing about food is the most punk rock thing that he could possibly do. I don’t exactly agree. I think that most writing about food involves telling people with disposable income how to spend it, unfortunately. But yes, sometimes it can be a way into a culture, into identity, and into bigger questions. And sometimes it can even have political ramifications, or at least political aspirations. I guess ‘punk rock’ can also mean following your own heart, doing what you would most love to do, not letting corporations dictate your path. So I guess, sure, food and travel writing can fall into that category, but with some caveats.
You know that right next to where CBGB used to be there is now a Daniel Boulud restaurant called DBGB? Marky Ramone did a pasta dinner there not too long ago for like $75 a person. And someone recently told me about a pasta dish of malfadine with pink peppercorns that they described as being a “punk rock cacio pepe.” Um, how exactly is a pasta dish “punk rock?” They were like, “It’s different; it has a zing to it; it’s youthful and unexpected.” OK. These days you see concert posters in Brooklyn promoting the fact that there will be “natural gamay” available by the glass.
So what are the best restaurants in Montreal, what would you recommend?
I really like a place called Le Petit Alep near the Jean Talon market. I did a little article about them for Vice actually. [https://munchies.vice.com/en/articles/preserving-the-traditions-of-syrian-swimming-pool-cuisine.] The owners are Syrian, and when they were younger they would spend their summers in Aleppo and hang out at swimming pools. At those Syrian swimming pools, there was food that you could eat poolside. So they opened a restaurant that’s an homage to those dishes you get at swimming pools in Aleppo. I just love the restaurant. And it’s for young people, it’s cheapish, as far as restaurants go. Intentionally, they want it to be a place that’s affordable. They have a more expensive restaurant that’s called Alep next door that’s more sit down and formal, but the Petit Alep is more casual and cheap and there’s this incredible story behind it. Part of what I love about it is that I always loved eating there, but when I found out that backstory it made me love them even more. They’re an example of how food can sometimes be a way into a culture. Probably the biggest crisis and tragedy of our age has been the civil war in Syria for the past 5 years now, with all the refugees that have spilled over into the rest of the world. It’s the reason Europe is freaking out, Brexit, Trump, all of that… But there goes my tendency to take things too far. My point is: sometimes something as simple as a restaurant can help you make sense of the world. You go there and you learn about what they’re doing and you realize what’s happening in the world today. So I love that place. I go to Le Petit Alep often. I love a place called L’Express, it’s a real Parisian bistro type place. It feels like Paris, but it’s on St-Denis. It’s simple food, it’s not fancy. But it’s French food, bistro food. I don’t know, I often get Banh-mi sandwiches next to the Jean Talon market, at a little place called Marché Hung Phat. It’s $4 for a sandwich. I go there often. There’s a new little taco place that I like called Impact Tacos, 4 tacos for $5. But on Wednesdays it costs $4 for 4 tacos, I think. One of the restaurants that people travel here to experience is Joe Beef and they have a little sister restaurant called Vin Papillion. It’s like a natural wine bar. What’s happening in the world of natural wines is also very similar to punk rock in the sense that there are all these people trying to work their land in an honest way, no bullshit, no chemicals, no preservatives. They’re just trying to get to the true expression of the land. And who knows how it’s even going to get sold and how does it not go off and become all freaky? They’re generally not trying to conform to anything, although of course there are followers and innovators and detractors, just like in the punk world. But the world of natural wines is an interesting one in that it consists of people who are mainly saying fuck the system, let’s do things our own way, let’s do things in the most honest way possible.
So are you writing about that?
I haven’t written too much about that but I love wine, and I find natural wines to be very interesting. It’s a new movement.
Where are the natural wines being made?
Mainly France and Italy. There are some people doing it everywhere though, like in Ontario, California, Republic of Georgia. It’s a grassroots movement in some ways. One of the stories I’ve been interested in is the way that humans first started making wine. Like how did that happen? And why is it that religions are linked to that? Why is wine used when people go to church—why do you drink the blood of Jesus as wine, what is that? Why is that? Something so obvious: what is the reason behind it, how did it come to be? That’s one of the things I started thinking about in The Book of Immortality, within the idea of nature transforming and all of that. It turns out winemaking began at the time when humans stopped being nomadic and settled down into agriculture. It begins near Turkey and Armenia, Iran, the Republic of Georgia, Azerbaijan. That area is where it started, over into Greece and Macedonia. It had to have been somewhere there, all the archeological finds that are like 6000-8000 years old are from that vicinity. And it’s interesting that it is such a war torn region, that it’s always been so contested. ISIS is not far off, the Kurdish peshmerga are right there, Syria’s next door. And the bible says that Noah parked his ark on top of Mount Ararat and planted the first vineyard there. So my interest in natural wine connects to that historical side. There are people who are trying to make wine today like humans first did when they first started making wine. That’s punk rock. That’s like something else; that’s caveman shit. That is primitive in a genuine way. Wines from the Republic of Georgia—there are some really interesting ones. All they do is they dig these holes in the ground and they put these big clay vessels in the ground, so it’s like all you see in a wine making facility there is a hole in the ground. They put all their grapes in there and put a lid on it and that’s it. They just close it and then they come back a year later and it’s like grog, ready to go. They didn’t add anything or do anything, they just drink that. And that’s a real natural wine, in the Republic of Georgia. That’s cool to me, I’m interested in that for sure, I went to do a story there about that, which will hopefully come out soon. And it turns out they found this cave in Armenia, right next to Georgia, that is also crazy. [That story can be read here: http://www.saveur.com/world-oldest-winery-armenia.] I also did another cave-wine story in Crete, actually. It was one of the first stories I did after The Book of Immortality, as part of this travel/food beat I’ve been exploring. There’s a magazine called Lucky Peach, and they were supportive of me at that point. I think the editor realized how precarious my employment status was, and as I was finishing The Book of Immortality he gave me some assignments that helped me get the travel aspect of my writing going. I started by going to Crete. I ended up in a cave on a mountaintop for a party that these people were having in their village. It was a harvest party where they make their first raki of the year. Do you know what raki is? It’s like grappa, a clear alcohol made with distilled grapes. The villagers were having a raki-making party that night, and as part of the party there was live traditional folk music in the cave. It sounded kind of like the Troggs, but with a lyre-player, and there was this guy playing an Eastern-sounding fiddle over the pulsating rhythms. And all these old people were dancing this weird beautiful slow skeleton dance. I remember thinking that their music is what a lot of punk rock wants to be, like music that is played in a cave on the top of mountain during a harvest party. I found it way more punk rock than the Cro-Mags or any of that stuff that fetishizes the primitive but isn’t really in touch with the past in any way. A true Cro-Mag was just an early human, a Cro-Magnon. And the name Troggs comes from troglodytes, as in those ancient beings who lived in caves. The Troggs were such a foundational early garage rock band, in the way they were reaching out toward some imagined past. In Crete, I felt like I’d ended up in a modern-day version of a cave-using culture that has managed to stay in touch, somehow, with humanity’s earliest roots. [That story can be read here: www.adamgollner.com/file_download/47/crete.pdf.]
Were there any scary situations when you were traveling? Are you ever confronted with situations that are uncomfortable?
Yeah, uncomfortable happens often. Scary – infrequently. The situation in the Fruit Hunters, when I went to Cameroon, is fully described in the book. That was a little bit scary, but it was also fun. I had to pay a bunch of bribe money throughout that evening to corrupt members of the military, and that’s never enjoyable.
When writing the Book of Immortality were you often hit with the realization of your own mortality?
Strangely, it’s like when something hurts: if you focus on what it is rather than turning away from it, then it doesn’t really hurt that much. If you are in an experience of pain and you decide to actually just feel the pain, it tends not to be that bad. It’s more our apprehension—the fear of the pain—that is worse. It’s the fear of dying that bothers us but actually dying doesn’t seem to be that bad. I don’t know if that’s a proper answer but that’s what I was thinking throughout much of the writing process. I wasn’t in a terrible state of being afraid of dying.
Did you end up looking at things differently after you wrote that book?
Yeah, definitely. I tried to explain how at the end of the book, I’m not sure I can articulate it now though. I feel that there’s so much we can’t know and we don’t know. I’m grateful I’m not trying to figure that one out anymore.
You’re writing is pretty funny, you have parts that are humorous and witty, so have you always been that way?
I’m a goofball. Somebody I was speaking with recently used the word ‘wacky’ to describe themselves, and I thought, “yeah I’m also kind of wacky too.” I make a lot of bad jokes. I try to see things in a lighthearted way whenever possible, but obviously a lot of comedy comes from a difficult place, sometimes. Many great comedians aren’t the easiest-going people. Like Louis C.K is a hilarious comedian but his comedy is so brutal it is almost self-immolating. But that’s where his humor comes from. I don’t think I’m that brutal a person.
But you notice things…
Being observant, I can’t help it. It’s a blessing and a curse, definitely.
What are some top experiences throughout the course of your writing?
One of the themes throughout this conversation is that, in life as in art, there are a lot of peaks and valleys. Peak experiences: you have to enjoy them while they last. It’s brief. For example, it was really fun to go to David Copperfield’s private island. Leaving the island was a real great feeling, having been there and being on the way home with my friend, I remember I couldn’t stop laughing. There are great moments when you laugh, but that’s not to say that moments that are more emotionally complicated are not just as valid. In fact, they’re often more powerful. Experiences at the bottom are also important and I’m grateful for those times as well. Those often are where this all comes from. I don’t want to just run away from those things, I want to allow them to be as real as the moments of joy and pleasure.
So what are you listening to these days?
Let’s see… (We walk over to Adam’s record collection and he rifles through his albums.) Well I’ve been loving John Fahey, this guitar player. He’s unbelievable. The Pagans, I still love “Street Where Nobody Lives”, and “Eyes of Satan” is really fun to listen to. I put this on recently – The Best of Sam Cooke — he’s the best. And Francoise Hardy, of course. I’ve been really liking this German music that happened maybe around the same time in the 1970s that punk rock was happening, I guess sometimes they call it Krautrock or Komische music, but there’s a bunch of that stuff that I’ve been really loving, particularly Edgar Froese and Cluster. There’s an album by Cluster with Brian Eno that is like, whoawhat is this music? One of the musicians in Cluster was named Roedelius, and some their records are done at like the exact same time as punk rock stuff in 1976, 77, 78, but it was of course a very different scene. I have an album where Iggy Pop and David Bowie thank Roedelius, or the other way around, so they were aware of each other…
So you listen to a lot of old stuff.
Yeah, mainly what I do is go through these records I accumulated in my twenties.
And now you are rediscovering them.
Yeah, it’s a library here. Thank you Adam, age 25. This a new album: Joanna Newsom, Divers. Do you know her?
It’s not punk rock, it’s like harp music. It’s no Alice Coltrane, but it’s pretty powerful.
Where do you buy your records from?
When I buy new music, which is pretty rarely, I go to Phonopolis on Bernard cause it’s just down the street. There’s also that store on St. Denis and Pine, Disques Beatnik, but I don’t go very often, I went record shopping like maybe two times last year and no times this year. I also have all this stuff that I don’t really listen to so I’m trying to go through it and listen to it all. Oh I really love Jonathan Richman, too.
Oh, of course.
Always. Blues – I’ve been listening to some good blues, do you know a guy named Junior Kimbrough? He was from Mississippi, not the Delta, the hill country, near Oxford, he has this album, I think it’s called All Night Long, but it’s amazing, check out the song “Meet Me in the City.” It’s crazy that he was doing stuff at the same time as The Spaceshits. I remember seeing R.L. Burnside in Montreal in the 90s. He was like “I drink Bud cuz it makes you wiser.” And I just saw his grandson Cedric Burnside play an amazing concert in Clarksdale, Mississippi a few months ago.
So just changing topics from music to fruit: after The Fruit Hunters, what’s the tastiest fruit you tried or your favorite fruit?
I really like this thing called the ice cream bean which is from Ecuador in the Amazon, somewhere around there. It’s like a really long thick green bean almost the size of a baseball bat, just a little smaller, and you open it and it’s got all this cotton candy type fluffy stuff inside of it. They say it takes like vanilla ice-cream diffused through cotton candy-like veins. Like the cream is inside the filaments of the fruit’s cloud-like substance. You bite into it and it’s got the sensation of having vanilla ice cream in it, somehow. It’s a bit weird, and you have to get it at the peak of ripeness for it to really taste right. I also really enjoy a good pear. Yellow kiwis are a fruit I like. Have you ever had a yellow kiwi? They’re kind of around, in stores. They’re a good fruit.
Can you get them at the Jean-Talon market?
Yeah, you can get them there at a place called Chez Nino. A yellow-fleshed kiwi. I think it costs like a buck twenty-five a kiwi, but it’s worth it. You cut it in half and eat it with a spoon. It’s great.
You don’t eat the skin?
No. I also like honeycrisp apples a lot. A good honeycrisp from Quebec is pretty good.
I had some good macintosh apples recently. They were very red, like rosy red, and the inside was also like veins of red. They were so good…
That’s great, I love that feeling.
So do you think that one day we will be a society of cyborgs, do you think that’s actually possible?
I guess it’s possible; anything’s possible. I hope we won’t be, I definitely don’t know. Who could have predicted the Internet? Cyborgs, god, I hope not. I don’t want to be a machine. I like real things.
So The Fruit Hunters movie, Bill Pullman, is he playing you?
It’s interesting, but he’s only in the movie a bit, right? He’s not there throughout. So I don’t think he’s playing me. He’s playing himself. Bill also loves fruits, he’s a fruit lover. The documentary is its own thing. But I will say that when I met Bill the first time, I had the sensation that he was an actor who was trying to figure out what I’m like, in order to get into the role. He was sort of scrutinizing me, in a friendly, professional thespian way. I remember he did this amazing thing in real life that he also does in Independence Day. You know when he’s the president, and he kind of gives the thumb’s up to everyone in that movie? He does that in real life too. And after meeting him, I ended up doing it too, giving that presidential thumbs up to people. I enjoyed that transference. Bill is so funny, a real sweet and genuine person.
Visitng the Something Weird table was always one of the highlights of going to the Chiller Theatre Expo in NJ. Mike Vraney and Lisa Petrucci were always so friendly and just about the cutest couple around. And that’s where I discovered Lisa’s adorable and very nostalgic Kickass Kuties art. I remember buying a tank top with a little devil girl on it, a little change purse with a little leopard gal on it and some stickers of various Kutie characters. I still use that change purse till this day and will always hold it dear. I kept those stickers safe in their little paper baggie hidden away for years and would love to take them out and look at them once in a while like a secret treasure. And then I started sticking them places, which led to their wearing out due to the elements and such, so I will have to replenish my stock. I also hope to one day own one of her beautiful paintings. For me, Lisa’s art takes me back to my childhood, to the cherished big eyed blond and brunette paper dolls I played with and loved so much and still remember so vividly. It’s wonderful to be able to connect with that child inside you, and I think that Lisa’s art does just that, for me, and perhaps for others who also enjoy heavy bouts of nostalgia, and certainly as you will read below, for Lisa herself!
Your art is so darn cute, hence the name, Kickass Kuties. Was there ever something you tried to paint that you couldn’t make cute?
Ha! I guess making things cute just comes naturally now. I don’t think I’ve tried to paint anything other than in that style. Even my creepy and sexy subjects are cute!
What was the first doll you ever got as a kid, that you remember dearly and had a fascination for, and how old were you?
I vividly remember having Liddle Kiddles dolls during the mid-1960s. There’s actually a photo of me clutching a Liddle Kiddle in my tiny fist outside our house in Ipswich Mass. I must have been 3 or 4 years old. They were my favorite dolls then and still are! Liddle Kiddles were the original inspiration for my Kickass Kuties.
What was the first Kickass Kutie, or other series character, you ever painted?
Some of the earliest paintings I did during the early 1990s featured Kimba the White Lion. When I moved to Seattle in 1994 I began incorporating Liddle Kiddles and pin-up girls into my art. Probably the first official Kickass Kuties were two Bad Bunnies (wearing black and red onesies) with flames in the background. I was attempting to make lowbrow art that appealed to females.
How long did it take you to find a style that you were comfortable with? Can you talk about the evolution of your style?
I didn’t seriously start painting until around 1994. I had been dabbling with the idea of doing collages and decoupage plaques with cute, sexy and subversive imagery, but it was when I decided to paint on wood slabs that I found my groove and developed the style I’m known for now.
How do you get, or where do you get, the wooden backings for your paintings?
I find vintage decorative wood slabs that already have images decoupaged on them in thrift stores, flea markets and swap meets. I scrape off and sand down the surfaces and get them prepped to paint. Or if I run out, I get blank consumer wood slabs at the arts & crafts store, but these are inferiorquality so I prefer to use the old found ones.
Is there a series, or a type of Kutie, you tend to like painting more than others? Are there any you consider your faves?
I prefer creating characters that have a retro feel to them, like 1950’s bad girls and 1960s sex kittens. Either big pin-up girls or pint-size Kickass Kuties. I also enjoy doing creepy monster-themed cuties too. And incorporating kitty cats. Some of my favorites are the Frankenkuties series and the ones based on spooky subjects and campy cult movies.
On your site you have a lot that are marked “private collection”. Does it ever happen that you’ll paint something and decide you love it too much to sell?
Private Collection just means that someone bought the painting, but prefers not to be credited or I don’t know or remember who bought the painting, (so I can’t give a proper credit)! There have only been a couple of paintings that I didn’t offer for sale. One is my Liddle Lisa self portrait. Others are ones that my late husband Mike Vraney wanted to keep for himself. But otherwise they were up for grabs!
Do collectors tend to buy the Kuties that resemble them, and whatever the answer, what do you think about that, or why do you think that is?
Collectors definitely identify with some of the characters and imagery I’ve created. And over the years I’ve done custom commissions for fans, which are basically cute versions of them surrounded by things that they like.
What do you think of girly toys and dolls that are made nowadays? Is there anything that you like?
I kinda like the Monster High Dolls, but I’m pretty out of the loop these days. I have noticed that dolls and toys have gotten increasingly bigger eyes over the years reflecting recent trends in popular culture, so that pleases me.
How did you and Mike Vraney, the founder of Something Weird Video, meet?
We met at the Chiller Theatre Expo in 1993. Which is funny because that’s also where I met you and Sal Canzonieri! I actually interviewed Mike and legendary exploiteer, David F. Friedman, for an article I was writing about sixties sexploitation films. Mike said he fell instantly in love because I knew who Michael and Roberta Findlay were. haha
How much had you been exposed to Exploitation Cinema before meeting Mike?
I’ve always liked horror films ever since I was a kid, but really got into exploitation movies in the 1980s when I started renting videos and reading the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and Incredibly Strange Films books. I used to live in the East Village in NYC a few blocks from Kim’s Video and watched any oddball low-budget flick I could get my hands on. There was a big section of Something Weird videos at Kim’s Video, which is how I became acquainted with the company. I even worked at the Psychotronic Store in the East Village for a spell, so I was pretty immersed in exploitation film fandom before becoming involved with Something Weird.
Have you watched all of the videos that Something Weird has produced? Which films or which genres of the SWV collection are your favorites?
I have watched a lot of the Something Weird catalog but certainly not them all. However, I’m familiar with all the titles since I’m the one who puts together the catalogs and dvd covers, but I certainly don’t need or want to see everything we’ve ever released. My favorites are the Sixties Sexploitation films, especially the black & white New York roughies and films of Doris Wishman, Joe Sarno and the Findlays. Also the kooky regional Nudies by filmmakers like Dale Berry. “Hot Thrills and Warm Chills” is one of my absolute favorites.
When you’ve sold your videos at conventions like Chiller Theatre, what kinds of people, characters typically buy them? Who have been the most surprising types of customers? It’s everyone from serious film genre fans to creepy pervs with cringeworthy fetishes! Young and old. I’m always surprised at what people are drawn to. Some customers want recommendations based on their particular, and often peculiar, interests. The funniest interactions have been on the phone when they call and start telling us really confessional and embarrassing things about themselves. Or just sound totally nutty. Something Weird customers are often unintentionally entertaining.
Which films have you sold the most of?
Probably the Herschell Gordon Lewis gore movies like “Blood Feast,” “Two Thousand Maniacs,” and “Wizard of Gore” which are the most well known and popular in our catalog, but also the Bettie Page burlesque movies “Teaserama” and “Varietease.” We have over 2000 titles available so there’s something for everybody!
Did anyone ever return a video because they didn’t like it or it was too shocking for them?
A few times people have tried to return a video because they didn’t like it, but never because it was too shocking. If anything it was that the film wasn’t shocking enough! One time a guy sent back a video because he said the boobs weren’t big enough. Needless to say we don’t accept those kind of returns. Welcome to my world.
Have you ever had any self-righteous anti-sexploitation people trying to shut you down?
Ha! No, but occasionally a customer will write or email to be removed from the mailing list because he’s found religion or his wife disapproves of him watching smutty movies.
How’s it been carrying on the business, and Mike’s legacy, after Mike’s passing in 2014?
Running Something Weird by myself has been a challenge. Mike and I were great team. We each brought strengths to the table. I’m trying my best to keep things afloat and going. Mike and I both knew this business was changing even before he died, so now I’m partnering with enthusiastic young companies like AGFA and Alamo Drafthouse who are helping to take Something Weird into the 21st century and bringing these films to a new untapped audience. I miss Mike everyday, and I’m working hard to keep his memory and legacy alive and well.
Have you been producing any new films? Have all the exploitation films ever filmed been found?
Not really “new” ones, but what I have been doing is working with other film preservationists to restore and release existing Something Weird films in high definition. They’re rescanning the original film elements in 4K and releasing them on blu-ray and other digital formats. There are are still lost films left to unearth, but I’m leaving that to the next generation of archivists.
Has business declined with any significance with the advent of DVDs? Actually, people are buying fewer DVDs, Blu-rays and physical media than they used to. Most of our business is actually digital downloads that customers get directly from our website. Plus many are watching films via streaming and other sources that don’t involve actually purchasing anything which effects small independent video companies who are struggling these days. We depend on genre fans to keep supporting us by actually buying movies from us.
How did Mike Vraney find these films? Can you relay any particular stories?
During the early 1990s, Mike came across the first 35mm and 16mm of the sexploitation films in an abandoned storage unit near Seattle. It dawned on him that there were probably hundreds more oddball lost movies out there so he began actively looking for them. Eventually David F. Friedman heard that Something Weird was selling some of his movies on video, so he contacted Mike and offered his film library. Dave later introduced Mike to other film producers and colleagues. People began to contact Something Weird directly about original film elements. And we scoured as many film archives as we could. Some films were even scored on eBay!
If aliens came down to earth and invaded the Something Weird film library – what would they do? What would be their commentary on the human condition after watching SWVs?
Ha! Based on that extraterrestrial beings would think human beings are obsessed with naked ladies, sex, vice, monsters, blood and death. In other words, completely unworthy of their time and attention!
Steven Cerio’s world is filled with the innocence and refreshing newness of childhood discovery. As an artist he communicates this animated sphere of his younger years through an extensive range of very detailed ink drawings and colorfully vibrant paintings of a myriad of joyful worms, bees, pig-tail girls, minnows, giraffes, and whales. Discover his boundless creativity in his free flow doodling in band posters, films, comics, books and music. Read about his early childhood experiences, his love for folk and outsider art, the useful self-marketing tips he learned from legendary artists and illustrators in NYC in the late 80s, his love for improvisation, abstract expressionism, and DIY thinking. Take this trip and delve into Steven Cerio’s magnificent and captivating macrocosm about all of the above and so much more in the interview!
At what moment in your life did you realize your calling as an artist?
I think it was really early for me, cause I found boxes of drawings that my mother saved. I think I was encouraged more than most because my dad – both my parents were first generation Americans, my mother’s family is from Yugoslavia and my dad’s was from Italy – he couldn’t afford to go to art school but he had skills and wanted to go but couldn’t so I think that’s why he enjoyed the fact that I liked drawing so much. If I even mentioned offhandedly, you know, asked like, “what’s oil paint dad?” we’d be in the car driving me to buy oil paint at 7 years old. And I got interested in typography early on, signs, and my father would take me to the museums. I think he was taking me partially hoping that I would be interested but he was interested in it himself. I think that got me on track at an early age. I used to say as a kid I wanted to be either an artist or an archeologist.
Do you have any of your dad’s paintings?
He didn’t paint a lot or draw a lot around the house, sadly. I wish everybody did. Sometimes I try to make people do it – pretty much anyone I was too close to in my family is passed away now. It would be so nice to have just a painting, a very simple painting that my grandmother did of her house or of a puppy, whatever. To me, well you know, I believe in art, it speaks to me, so to be able to answer “what is that weird bean shape on that canvas?” with “oh my grandfather did that; he was 82”. I wish I had stuff like that, but I do have this though, I have a painting that my dad did of a pot full of flowers, a still life that he did when he was showing me how to paint. He was showing me how to do shading and highlights. I have that exact painting, I kept it, I have it framed on my wall. And that thing is so strong to me it can drive me to tears on the right day. And I just wish that I had stuff that mother did, or my grandparents – not specifically for me but just a doodle or something. That would say a lot to me.
Were there artists on both sides of your family?
No, no one on either side of my family. No, they didn’t like doing it. I wish I had pieces by everyone of them though. No, there wasn’t a lot of that around me growing up. I just believe in anyone, even non artists. I think especially non-artists do the most interesting stuff anyway, I really do. I mean honestly the things I pay the most attention to since I was a kid are folk art and outsider art. I got into outsider art in NY in like ‘89 or ‘90.
What’s outsider art?
Outsider art would include a lot of folk artists of course, but it would be people that didn’t have any training, that weren’t doing work to have it be in galleries. It would be somebody like Henry Darger, one of the more famous ones. When he passed away they found in his apartment a book that was thousands of pages long and it had a lot of illustrations and paintings. There’s other ones, like the Philadelphia wire man. Someone passed away in an apartment and they threw away everything that was in there, all these abstract strange wire sculptures. That stuff speaks to me. Like to me the people who say they can’t draw, when they sit down to draw they have these unique styles. Dubuffet was the first one to promote it and use the term ‘art brut’ to describe it. And then you have a place called Gugging which is a mental facility in Austria and they started having people do drawings and paint every day, and they’re not painters and artists, and they created some of the most original and telling work. To me that flies in the face of all the training that people get, conceptualizing the way people do nowadays.
So, it’s like the natural trait in humans…
Right, it’s a human trait, it’s no longer a college graduate trait, or well educated trait, and to me that’s big, that’s strong human instinct. Look at someone like Howard Finster, one of the biggest folk artists in the world, one day he just decided that he was going to do sacred art, as he called it that was it, he just woke up one day and decided to do it. It’s an American thing. You see it in Europe and elsewhere but it seems to be a very common American occurrence. Waking up one day and going, “oh, I’m going to be a film director now”, you know, that was afforded to us back when there weren’t as many troubles as there are now, it’s still going on. 5-6 years ago, I got up one day, and decided, “I am going to start doing films” and then asked myself, “I never shot a film before, why am I going to do a film?”, and that’s why I started a film, because I had never shot one before. And I don’t know, I guess I carry around that Do it Yourself attitude, where if I don’t do a film one day I will look back and admit I didn’t do a film, but if I do a film, then I did a film. It’s as simple as that, right? And if you feel drawn to it then go ahead and do it. Going back to folk art, Grandma Moses decided, she was 72 or 73 when she started painting. You know, why not. Like some people are like – I wish I learned an instrument, and they’re like 40. You have plenty of time to learn an instrument. Pick up a guitar and play it your own way. If you are interested in it enough, you put in a couple hundred hours just messing with a guitar, you are going to start writing songs, you’ll start figuring out where your favorite notes are, you’ll start figuring out how to structure things or what appeals to you, I think it’s like that with everything. I wish there was more people that would do that, I wish there was more naïve music out there instead of the worried, businessy dress up music that the labels award themselves for.
When you talk about composition and theory in art and music, it’s nonsense. It’s nonsense to educate on composition. That’s old silver haired white boy stuff that they still stick to. It’s not that I’m revolting against it. Now think about composition in music – John Coltrane- Cecil Taylor goes out, Ornette Coleman goes out, and they improvise completely. They learned structures/patterns, how to play a song, that there’s an introduction and a chorus, it’s not really that hard to learn. And you learn that stuff and when you go to improvise – Coltrane still created beautiful music even though it was improvised. If Coltrane just plays a theme at the beginning and just runs off that theme like Ornette Coleman did, who is to say that that’s not music or a composition. To predetermine doesn’t take skill or taste, just memorization. That is what music is, not pop music, it’s actual music. And these ideas from composition come from old classical techniques that the composers used but when you take rules away you realize most people invented their own rules anyway, Shoenberg, Cage and Varese. If you get different pieces of colored paper and you throw them on the ground a composition got created. Composition isn’t something that you need to go to school to be good at. Composition is something that just happens. I feel like a lot of these things that people believe they need to learn kept them from becoming an artist or musician, I think they could have just gone right past it. Composition and theory, theory is just that, it’s a theory. A person that just sits down and plays and starts doing music is going to have a catalog of 5000 new songs before a lot of these other musicians learned enough theory to improvise yet.
Do you use this same philosophy in the music that you write?
I sit down and play, if something works it works, if I enjoy listening to it I’ll continue working on it, and I’ll go that direction. There’s that instinct, if you are playing, even if you don’t have something written down, hopefully I know enough than to play a D sharp for 7 hours straight, you know what I mean? Some people think that if you don’t have something written down, if you don’t know where you are going you couldn’t go anywhere good. But if you get in your car and you drive you could very well wind up somewhere good if you keep driving long enough. That’s where I draw the line between what songs are and what music is. I think music, John Coltrane is music, I don’t think of John Coltrane as songs, I think of music as from higher level of thinking than that. Not that I think that there’s anything wrong with anyone listening to it or anything. I think at some point I grew out of the idea of songs. Grew out of the idea of even listening to them. If I know a verse is coming and I know a chorus is coming I get bored awfully quickly. Something might grab me for a little while but like most pop music it becomes disposable after a while. Where Coltrane, or Captain Beefheart say, even though his work was very structured, it’s hard to wear out. You could play the same song in a row for a decade and you still hear something different every time. I know it’s not for everybody.
Can you take me through the evolution of your artistic style?
When I started, the first thing when I started that I was in love with was the dictionary. It was the first thing that I saw that impressed me as a kid. I saw those tight engraved lines and I didn’t know anything about printing, I thought they were drawing all those little lines, and I thought those drawings were done that size too, I became fascinated with the idea of really tight line work when they brought out black ink in school, and then I saw the first Santana record. A friend of the family gave me a copy of the first Santana album, the Lee Conklin cover, it’s a drawing of a lion, and I was sitting around with it and I knew there was something up with it, I didn’t know what it was and I kept looking at it on and off for a couple of months and all of a sudden I saw the girls inside the eyes making up the nose and that’s when I started drawing. I asked my father for ink and I started drawing in ink, too much maybe –I got called into the school psychologist and I didn’t know what was going on, I thought I did something wrong. He sat me in a room and now that I look back, they were watching me through some glass or something, this was in the 70s. He watched me for a while and then he came out and the first thing I said to him when he came in was, “Is that a Boston pencil sharpener?” Because I loved Boston pencil sharpeners and you could see a lightbulb go off over his head, Ching!, cause that’s what I was there for. He asked “Why do you care if it’s a Boston pencil sharpener?”, and I reached into my pocket and I pulled out 5 pencils and he let me sharpen the pencils and then he asked, “Why are you sharpening those pencils?” and from my back pocket I pulled out a couple handmade sketch books that I had made out of folded paper. I would carry them to doodle during recess, and he asks “What are these?” and I go “Sketchbooks – I’m making sure the pencils are really sharp because I am doing detailed drawings” and he goes “Okay, you can leave.” They thought I was just obsessively sharpening pencils for no good reason, the reason why I would get up during class was because I wanted to draw all day. 10 years later I won a couple of scholarships to go to college to art school so it all worked out I guess.
I kept with the ink work, then I started giant scale charcoals and I was painting a lot. When I was around 20, I was doing all ink drawings, I had moved away from color, just ink drawings. I switched from a technical pen to a brush in ‘90, and I worked with a brush ever since then. I started painting seriously somewhere around the mid-90s in a looser kind of style, sometimes almost completely abstract. It’s a completely different animal. I started showing the paintings now and I’m realizing how strongly people react to color. Cause to me I care more about composition more than I do about color. I had no idea, all of a sudden I’m doing work that people will hang in their living room and their wives will let them buy it. I think that the energy in my drawings is very aggressive to some people, it makes them nervous. So I am at both ends of the spectrum now, doing tight anal retentive drawings and really loose paintings. The way I see my stuff, even as a little kid I could see in my stuff, I’m always trying to build structures, they’re sketches for sculptures, and David Smith had a large part to do with that. It was one of the few sculpture books at the library in the town where I grew up, and I just adored it right off the bat. He was a big inspiration for me, still is. So a lot of my work is sketches for massive sculptures that I could never afford to make.
How did your poster making for bands come about?
Well that was one of the first gigs I got. I moved to New York, I got out of school in 87 and I was in NYC in 88, and people laugh about this but I moved there with $700 dollars in my pocket. That was enough to get situated back then, it was so cheap to live there, and the second day I was there I landed a job at Psychedelic Solution Gallery in the East Village. So I was working in a place where artists come in, Rick Griffon would come in, I got to know him, we’d have shows – artists would be coming through so I picked up a lot of advice from people’s work who I admired since I was a little kid. From there I started meeting people that would come in to look at art. My skin’s always been thick about art, it’s aesthetics, someone’s gonna like your work, someone’s gonna hate it, and I think I just knew that as a kid, I’m never really bothered, if someone doesn’t want to use me for a project I don’t become offended by it, I may not be good for the project or they may not like my work, I’m ok with that, it’s not really bothersome to me, I never let that get in the way. So every person that came in I was helping with a print I’d ask, “Are you in a band?” NY back then was all creative people, cause it was cheaper to live, you’d meet people that would make a living from having a little tiny record store in the back of a book store, everyone was doing something, but I’d ask enough and I met Kevin Hine who is one of the art directors for Screw magazine. He had me doing little spot illustrations for that and then I did a single cover for the Dust Devils, that was the first record cover I ever did, and from there I’d meet people, I did a poster for White Zombie before they broke really big, just a Xerox street poster, and I did some for Monster Magnet before they really broke through, so there was a lot of those bands around and people would come to me to do posters. Sometimes I would just accept a few beers for it, and the poster scene, there wasn’t really a poster scene back then, it was just Xerox street posters, it wasn’t until one day somebody came in with a Frank Kozik poster that we realized that anyone was still printing posters anymore because all the posters we were selling, nothing went past 1974, they were antiques that we were selling.
So how did you get involved with work for the Residents?
That happened by an old business technique where some of these older illustrators and gallery artists told me, don’t ever sit at home and wait for a gig, don’t do that, you go out and you knock on doors, that’s the way it’s done. Rick Griffin, Robert Williams, Ron Turner, Robert Crumb told me go and knock on doors, that’s the way you do it. And they didn’t mean as a beginner either, they meant as a professional artist, you knock on doors. That’s essentially what I did with the Residents, I got a mailing address for their office and I would spent $15 on Xerox copies, send them in, not hear anything back, send some more in, get a little note, and then one day they asked me to work on a film with them. Back then you used mail, the physical object, getting a physical object and holding it I still think has so much more power than getting an email. You can overlook an email but if you mail someone a 2-pound packet of Xerox copies of your drawings and they hold it in their hands and they wind up on their desk, you know they don’t get turned off, objects can’t get turned off, who knows, someone pins one up on a wall. I’ve sold art to people because someone they met had a poster of my work on their living room wall, or a postcard pinned on their cubicle at work. You can’t account for where people are going to see your works, putting actual copies out there still seems to me that it works much better than e-commerce.
Can you talk about some of the reoccurring characters in your work?
Yeah that goes in deep, all the way to my childhood, it takes a long time for a new character to be accepted into my stuff, I think carefully about that. All of the images I use started when I was a little kid, to me everything in there is suburban. The worms…I remember as a kid, I grew up in central NY, not a lot of sun, and I remember us calling each other and going “It’s a blue sky day” and looking up and having no clouds and having that beautiful blue sky, the green of the grass, certain things have a special resonance when you first start noticing them, I remember falling in love with lawn grass and finding toads and a puddle at the bottom of the driveway after it rained and there might be some worms in it. So you’d have this black pavement with this bright pink worm moving under the puddle and then you have a bright green frog hopping through bright green grass and to me there is a lot of poetry in all of that. It brings me back to those experiences and I remind myself of their beauty and because I’ve done that I’ve never forgotten. I talk to my friend Cindy, we’ve known each other since we were 3, and we talk about our neighborhood and the fields. She saw my art after we hadn’t spoken for a few years and said “I knew your art would look like that”, which I thought was great, and she remembered more stories than I did, like she remembered how obsessed I was with bees when I was a kid, which are still in my drawings, she goes “Remember the burning bees?” and I go “No..” I guess at one point my dad had a jar with some gas in it, he was cleaning screws, and I just emptied the gas out and I caught bees in it and we left it in the sun and it blew up cause of the fumes and we were freaked out, we didn’t know what was going on, some strange other worldly physics were going on. But all of those things like the yellow of the bees, of the yard, all of that, and building dioramas as a kid was a big thing with me and if you notice in almost all of my work has a short depth of field. I never use deep space, I never try to do reality, I never try to make something realistic, I’ve never been interested in it.
I was obsessed with view masters, I remember holding one on my face so long that I actually got bruises around my eyes from bumping into things. I wanted to be able to walk around and be in that Charlie Brown world. I kept hoping that if the light was just right I could still look at Charlie while I did my homework or while I was eating dinner. I think that’s where the love of shallow space comes from. To me, my work is all very innocent .I call myself a psychedelic artist but I don’t mean that in the most way that people use that term. I’m not a habitual drug user. I’m not saying I never had psychedelic experiences though. To me the psychedelic experience is just a pleasant sense of confusion. To get lost in something, to not know where you are for a while is very pleasant. I’ve experienced certain psychedelic states looking into a swimming pool and the light moving around, I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with drugs, to me it’s just the way your brain is reacting to things. Alan Watts said, “after you get the call you can hang the phone up”, I think it was helpful to me, it helped me focus and realize things, but I don’t base my work in anything that’s happened to me, I’m on play not record, I want to confuse myself, I want to look at something and wonder why I did it, and guess at what state of mind I was in to make it, and I think that goes right back to my love for outsider art, if I am looking at a piece of art and can’t figure out why the person drew a fish or a house the way they did, I’m probably going to enjoy it .
What about the whales in your art?
I went on a whale watch out in Maine and they were swimming right along the ship, I was able to pet a couple of them, they were babies. I met whales – I was out there in the water with them, I was out in California, I saw whales out there – didn’t draw whales, for years I didn’t draw whales. You think that that experience alone would trigger something. No, it took 8 years. Things have to feel right, there has to be a reason- not necessarily rational- why it’s there. Sometimes I’ll put something in and it doesn’t look like it belongs, like even my giraffes. My giraffes aren’t really giraffe’s, they’re toothpaste. I was doing a drawing one day and I drew some toothpaste squirting out, it was a tube with a chopped off end like a log, and then I drew an eye on it, so in my head it’s ok having toothpaste in a drawing about the suburbs and my childhood ’cause it just reminds me of the Crest tubes. There’s always bees, there’s always lawn grass, and there’s always worms, that’s been in everything for about 20 something years. But if I have water now I have I certain type of minnow I draw all the time because I had been up by a river, hiking up in the Adirondacks, and there was one dead silver minnow laying out on a rock, perfectly laid out on a dry rock. It looked like it had only been there for a half hour and it just struck me for some reason, like the shape of it, and how silver it was and how big the eye was and I took a bunch of photographs of it and then I started drawing minnows the next day. It just made an impression on me, it came into my work organically.To me it’s comfort food, art is comfort food to me, it makes me feel good. I don’t do irony or politics, to me art should be about confused comfort and pleasure, some people get it, the people that like my work get it. Everyone wants to feel better, no matter how many skulls and graveyards they tattoo on themselves.
Can you describe your studio space? ? What environments are you most comfortable or enjoy most working in?
I think the one thing I took from the environment living in NY was the horror vacuous approach of it all; televisions playing in windows and all the trains back then, this was the late 80s when I just got there so the trains were still really beautiful. They were big beautiful murals rolling through the city. We’d all stop and watch the # 7 trains go by, they were just painted from top to bottom. Even riding those trains was a treat. I already had those kind of horror vacuous instincts, the idea of activating every available space, but I was still drawing nature, I never really found cities, boxes and squares very beautiful, but after I moved up to the Hudson valley in the Catskills my style really started changing a lot quicker. I never thought much of inspiration, I never thought that I needed to be inspired by anything outside of me, just like Picasso said – inspiration is just fine but when it shows up it better catch you working – I’m paraphrasing but that’s the essence of it. I got up there and found giant centipedes and caught frogs on the way home, after being in NYC all day I’d stop at a pond on the way home, and be careful not to hit raccoons on my bike when I was going to get pizza in the evening. That really inspired me. Nature started becoming increasingly important in my work. Even now though I’m technically in a suburb but separated by big lots, being able to go out in the garden every day helps me get a lot of work done, my brain just opens wide up. The pollen, the bees, just the color green, I love the summer. For my studio set up I keep everything in the same room, one giant room where I have all of my books, the television is in here so I can leave movies on, the stereo, my computer, two drawing tables, a surface for cutting stuff and trimming stuff. A brain where you can go in there and there’s all this activity going on and hopefully some of it grabs you. Everything is an arm’s reach away. I’m stalked up on pencils, erasers and ink and there’s stacks of unfilled notebooks. I love the idea that there’s paper I haven’t drawn on yet. I like knowing there’s tons of work that I still need to do. That really inspires me knowing that there’s all that blank paper in the world. I love facing an empty canvas, I love facing empty paper, I love it, because there’s nothing there and when you are done there’s something there.
I’m trying to remember a long time ago I think you told me how you enjoyed working in the south west, maybe Arizona…
Yeah, I’m very attached to that area, especially the southwest corner of Arizona. My friend Dave and I used to fly out there about every year or two years and go out there to hike and drive every road we could and mark it on the map, all through New Mexico and Arizona till we found something interesting. I fantasized about living out there, the idea to me of just having nothing to do but work sounds beautiful to me. I don’t hate people but I like the idea of being out there in the middle of the desert and no one’s going to disturb you. Of course that was pre cell phone days, but to really be in the world, I know it sounds simple and almost hippyish but the idea of being in the world and getting wet when it rains- being there in the elements. I brought my mother’s ashes out there to Arizona near Organ Pipe National Monument. When she passed away I brought her ashes out into the desert. I like thinking of her ashes being there cause it’s so incredible the view, you can see 20 miles into the desert from where I climbed and that’s what my movie was about, The Magnificent Pigtail Shadow. The idea came from that day where I was up on the mountain and a bird followed me up and all the way back down then sat underneath the car. My half-sister Michelle said – “That was your mother!” – and I go – “My mother followed me down and sat in the shade of a rental car and ate potato chips from a bodega in Tucson?” – and I found that insulting (laughs)! No, my mother didn’t inhabit a bird and eat Ripples underneath our Ford rental car! When I was up there laying out her ashes, I took some photos. Only in Arizona can you have really strange shadows casted from rock formations you can’t see from where you are, and there was this rock casting a shadow that looked like a girl with pigtails. It reminded me of a picture of her when she had pigtails when she was getting her communion as a little blond girl in Simpson, Pennsylvania. For a second I thought, “wow that looks like that photograph” – but I don’t go for superstition or mysticism so I was bothered by the fact that my brain was trying to make me believe that her spirit was moving in strange fantastic ways and I rejected it and I still reject it but when I got home and showed my sister that picture, and she said that- “that was your mother!” – it didn’t make me angry at my sister but it made me realize how un-superstitious I am, how un-spiritual I am, and for a while I felt a little bit guilty about that. One would assume that I am a cold person but I’m not – I just believe that we should do whatever we can while we are here. We should enjoy this world as much as you can while we are here. The movie is about that sensation, it doesn’t have a sinister tone to it but it’s slightly mocking, like oh, you can think of something better than this desert or that beautiful tree, you’ve got something better, what is it, a vision of heaven that you’venever seen that someone sold you on that they invented and you are going to wait for that instead of enjoying where you are here? I’m not trying to attack religion but superstition is fascinating to me. I’m using images of the earth and laying them on top of one another and it looks very meditative and very psychedelic so technically speaking, me doing a film isn’t me being here and enjoying the world either, it’s me doing a film to tell everyone that they should enjoy the earth (laughs). Creating art isn’t enjoying a sunset either.
Can you talk about or describe the various techniques you use?
The paintings I’ve been showing, I hadn’t shown them for years. Doing the tighter style that I do which is the really tight polished style with the brush, I call it the germ free style. But that stuff is a stunt, I don’t draw like that in my sketch book. I have to control my breathing when I do those, there’s a specific brush I use and there’s no mistakes on them. Since I was a kid I liked the idea of art just coming out of you-happening to you. I think of the great folk artists and outsider artists as cavemen – they did what they had to do to get the image down or to create the object, they didn’t care what they made it out of. Look at Salvation Mountain, its’ made out of mud. He needed to get that image out in the world and he couldn’t afford cement so he was making adobe out of mixing water with the dirt that was out there in the desert. I approached art initially as a little kid, and at this point the pieces that I do have no performance anxiety in them at all, there’s no test to me in it at all, it is me getting an image down. I put a color I don’t like down I’ll either paint over it or I’ll tear it right off cause I paint on paper now, I stopped painting on canvas, it was starting to take up too much room and I just liked the absorbency of paper better and I like the texture of paper better and I didn’t enjoy spending hours preparing for every painting or drawing. On paper I can do work on 6 paintings at the same time, and there’s not much prep time involved really, and there’s no such thing as mistakes anymore and sometimes they wind up being fifteen layers of paper and weighing a couple of pounds, but in the end the image comes out the way I want the image to come out and they follow that caveman approach where I’m going to get this image down no matter what. It’s an attitude that has nothing to do with style, it’s not a statement in itself, it is only the urgency of getting something accomplished, something recorded, something done, something out there, I hesitate to ever use the word expressing because that word seems odd to me, like I don’t really feel like I’m trying to tell anyone anything and I think expression means you are trying to tell somebody something, I’m not trying to tell anybody anything. It’s about structure and it’s about beauty. I think of it as art of course, but a bit like putting in a bathroom floor in a way. I think of it as what my dad did being a carpenter. Those instincts sound ‘selfish’ in this age, but art is selfish, or at least it used to be .Now the art world wants art to be ‘socially redeeming’, but I didn’t get into art to illustrate American politics. I feel like a lot of gallery art has become very illustrative where abstraction has become a dirty word, like it’s something that self absorbed people did instead of painting the US flag dripping its red stripes like blood. I’m not inspired by CNN to do art.
When you are facing a blank sheet of paper do you know what you are going to draw?
I will definitely have an intentionally loose idea of how I want something to come out. It’s usually from the most simple thumbnail sketch imaginable and I’ll keep it on the wall while I’m doing the piece. The inspiration is often a simple shape. Everything comes off that big shape. I’m always thinking sculpturally. A thumbnail that took me 3 seconds to draw might talk to me for some reason. The sketches that I really prepare for I rarely end up using ’cause I feel like I already know what they look like in my head so there’s no mystery in it for me anymore. If I plan too much the mystery is gone for me. It’s the same thing for me in music, if I know where the verse and the chorus is and how long the song is and when it’s going to end I don’t want to play it anymore. I kind got really fed up with playing pop structures and songs. I wanted to sit down and do music and play music like you go for a walk, like you think, and what happens, happens, and when it ends, it ends. You don’t really know exactly how long it’s going to be, you just need to have that mystery, the possibilities and open-ends of it is what inspires me. But with my paintings I’ll start with nothing. I’ll start making gestures on the paper and just feeling out. There’s no performance anxiety, it’s just jump in, sink or swim, but really, there’s no sinking because I can always tear out the part that I don’t like.
Do you ever get commissions for work?
Galleries, commissions and book/print sales is how I make a living.
Do you still do posters?
People usually don’t tell me what to do when they want posters done. It was back in the 90’s, I worked for Entertainment Weekly and Nickelodeon and all that and it was very precise stuff, like we need a dog and the dog needs to be this color, or the article is about this person, do a portrait of them. It was easier doing that than, you know, cleaning dishes, for me. I could make more money doing that so I kept at it for a few years. Most of the commissions now are for paintings, I’ve been doing more paintings than usual and then some people will commission posters and graphics for bands and what not. I’ve been working on a lot of books now, the one sad thing about book publishing now is that there is no such thing as advances anymore.
Can you tell me about your book, Sunbeam on the Astronaut?
It was a collection of what I wanted in narrative work. I like abstraction in writing. I used many of my automatically written shorts alongside veiled stories of my sister’s death, hallucinations and dreams. It is far from a comic but has some influence of 60s undergrounds. I used any style needed to push the writing. I often invented styles for a specific piece. Its being re-released as a boxset with my new book Charming the Sugarbowl– a full color collection of my paintings. The box will also have a collection of my music and films.
Can you talk about your whole toy making experience?
I was talking to a friend about ideas for The Residents toys that I wanted to do. I had the blessing of The Residents to do it, and he had just met Lev from Toy Tokyo, so we made plans to go down. Lev at first wasn’t too thrilled with the idea. I am sure he has to say no to like a thousand toys a day I would guess, but he kept a few images from me and then a month later he called me, and I lied and told him that I knew how to make toys. I called up some friends who knew how to design toys, found out it wasn’t horribly detailed and I didn’t need to go to school for 8 years to learn how to do it so I jumped in, got it done. I ran everything past the Residents and we were good to go. I told that story to my students and they didn’t seem to think I really got the gig was their impression. They thought asking someone for a job doesn’t really mean that you got the job, that you were essentially begging for it. They seem to think you get on a TV show or win a contest and the next morning you wake up to a career. I hope that magical thinking works for ‘em, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. There’s only so much I could do teaching seniors that had never been taught any business at that school. I think if you go into art school you should be learning business at the same time. I’m not saying that you have to be like Andy Warhol where 99% of your day is business. It’s often painful for me. I don’t really dig the business side of things but I don’t hate it either, and I know that it’s necessary, I know that promoting my art gets me more commissions, gets me more gallery shows, gets me more books, and that gets me more work to do so I can use up all that paper in the corner.
Anyone who’s been to a King Khan and the Shrines show knows all about the sheer cathartic energy, the wild and crazy exuberant antics onstage and the adoring crowd as they worship the almighty King Khan and his sensational Shrines in all their fantasmic musical glory, as they spread their wicked voodoo charms, in their whacked out glittery caped costumes. It’s a soul-filled, garage-y, horn smattering love-fest of spiritual liberation, excitation, and sexhalation. While on his latest tour, the multifaceted man about town, King Khan, kindly finds time to answer some questions:
What lives inside the mind, heart and soul of King Khan and the Shrines?
I really feel like what we do is some kind of spiritual service especially in such a corrupt world nothing can soothe the mind and soul more than soul music. If the intentions are holy and it provides the proper opiate that both alleviates pain and exposes hypocrisy then we have a true catalyst for change which is precisely what rock n roll really is… breaking all sexual and social boundaries…. Little Richard was nothing but an Indian deity!
Where do you get your flashy and sexy outfits?
My wife makes all the uniforms, i guess she understands my body the best after 17 years of marriage. She seems to control how much i expose myself to the world.
Can you describe the journey that you are taking us on?
Well it is basically trying to find your own path of illumination. This can only begin when you are spiritually liberated and start to learn the tools to control your destiny. Once that path is found, everything falls into place…. order out of chaos…. the light shines thru and your visions become crystalized and begin forming…. the dance of reality is what my mentor and guru Jodorowsky calls it.
Who or what inspires you to do the things you do?
Its hard to say, everything inspires me, i am very passionate about the things i do and i think people feel that and see that my intentions are good and dont revolve around trying to get rich or climb a bullshit social ladder. AS much as i feel like a receptor for divine information from the cosmos, i also feel like a 12 year old boy who wants to make jokes and laugh all the time. That childishness is something i cherish deeply and share very profoundly with most of my closest musical brothers and sisters, especially Mark Sultan, him and I have been giggling all the way to the bank for a long ass time.
I love your crazy hilarious videos. Who comes up with the stories and ideas for them?
I do all the story writing for the videos. I have a wonderful team in Berlin called the HYLAS brothers…. whenever i gave them a script they always made all of it come true, even when i wanted Jesus squirting red wine out of his eyes and shooting white bread out of his hands…. they literally make my dreams come true.
Sleepwalker video for moon duo is one of my faves, I lay a cult leader/aeorbic instructor…. its really funny.
You must have traveled all of the world spreading your glorious music. Which places have you like the most and why?
Mark Sultan and I drank fresh cobra blood and spinal cord in a vicious cocktail in Jakarta, i love that place. Playing the Sydney opera house was also pretty crazy cuz we got to hang with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson for a few days and do Tai Chi with them. Spain is always wild and fun, Berlin too…. i feel very fortunate to have traveled the world over and over again with the people i love the most.
Where do your wildest fans live?
Berlin, Spain, USA, Oakland, all over i guess.
Tell me about your wondrous Black Power Tarot cards. What went into creating them? Did you design the cards?
I designed them based on a dream i had of Jodo and i hanging out and him asking me to show him a card that is weird. I woke up knowing exactly what i had to do. When i told him my idea Jodo really loved it and gave me his blessings. Michael Eaton, the artist,who does lots of stuff for Game Of Thrones, reached out to me and i filled him up with the vision. Then every card was sent to Jodo to be approved, and that’s when happiness began!!!!
How did you get involved with Alejandro Jodorowsky? Did you meet him?
His son Adan, who was the kid in Santa Sangre, played bass while i played guitar and sang a Charlie Feathers tune at a buddy of mine’s wedding. Afterwards we met and i told him that i had been studying his fathers teachings for a long time. He told me he loved my music and would love to send me to meet Jodo. I felt i wasn’t ready to meet him at that time and waited a few years till i felt strong enough and then it happened. Jodo invited me to his home in Paris, gave me my first deck of the Tarot de Marseilles, taught me personally and finally I got to be one of his spiritual warriors.
What’s your favorite film of his? Can you related to any of the characters in his films?
That is tough, i love Holy Mountain and El Topo equally. I love that each of his films are like a ritual, with the intention to mutate the collective soul, to teach all of us something profound, hilarious, surrealistic and mind blowing. The world needs more things like that to save our souls and keep us laughing till it hurts.
What’s the story behind the William S. Burroughs “Let Me Hang you” record?
That was a gift given to me by Hal Willner. Hal was Lou reed’s best friend and producer and i met him and Lou at the same time and became close buddies. A few years back Hal wrote me that he had a surprise for me, he sent me seven tracks of William S. Burroughs reading the most unspeakable parts of Naked Lunch. My mouth dropped, i made the music for all the tracks and one of them even made Hal cry! WSB has always been one of the biggest catalysts of change in my life, i read Naked Lunch when i was 14 years old and it mutated my brain and turned me into a absolute freak worshiper.
What do you think William S. Burroughs would say today if he heard that record?
I think he would love it…. and maybe fly me to Tangiers and feed me the black meat and eventually I would turn into a fez wearing mug wup juice drinking queer or maybe not.
Having just played Burger Boogaloo, what was it like meeting John Waters?
Meeting John Waters was a dream come true… i think his films inspired me just as much as all the r&b and garage punk and teenage bubble gum rock n roll i grew up on with the Spaceshits. When john introduced the King Khan and BBQ Show, he was blown away and gave us the best compliment ever… he called us the love child of gorgeous george, liberace and bunker hill!!!! This year he introduced the shrines and i got to hang with him a lot. It’s amazing that he can still whip out a sentence and have the whole room open mouthed in awe at how offensive he can be…. i cherish that in people very much.
Did you get to meet Traci Lords?
Not only did i get to meet her, but i kissed her hand and just that act alone completes a circle of orgasmic energy that was created in 1999 when i found a tape of hers in my wife’s VHS collection and of course I am gonna marry a woman who can watch hours of Sun Ra with me and then enjoy some of Traci’s finest performances…. especially Cry Baby!!!! I think Traci is one of my super feminist dream goddesses, what she single-handedly did to turn the porn world upside down and empower herself could only be masterminded by a TRUE BANDIT QUEEN of the highest order of filth and i mean that with the utmost respect and admiration. I am trying to get her and Willie Nelson to sing a duet of this country song i wrote with my daughter Saba Lou who is 15 called “you’re only as good as the woman you love”.
So, being chosen by John B. Smith, founding member of The Invaders, to do the soundtrack of The Invaders film, was a wonderful experience for you…. Can you describe how you felt, what that meant for you, and how you tackled the project with the feelings you had? Have you always been interested in Black Power and such subversive groups?
My father told me he saw the Black Panthers speak in the Univ. of Montreal in the 60s and gave me the Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 12 years old. I was raised to love Black Power and learned at an early age that black power meant “All Power to all People!” The fact that this film actual tells a new side of civil rights blew my mind, I had no idea that MLK embraced a militant group and was impressed by their incredible work in organizing the youth of Memphis, getting all the kids to drop their gang colors and fight for Black Power. MLK was always painted as the peaceful one and Malcolm X was the tyrant, this was total bullshit. They both were radical in there own ways. It was the greatest honor for me to be chosen by John B. Smith, the man who had secret meetings with Dr. King and helped organize the poor people’s campaign. During the two years of working on this soundtrack John B. adopted Prichard Smith, The Director, and I like real family.
Had you heard about The Invaders Black Power organization before all this?
I had no idea about the Invaders, i feel like it was the powers that be that tried to erase there existence. Luckily Prichard was from Memphis and his mother told him about the invaders long ago when he was a kid.
Did you have an opportunity to watch the film and decide what tracks you wanted write and where to place them? Or was it a different sort of process? Describe the process.
I basically was given carte blanche. They sent me the film with no music and i got to put what i wanted where I wanted. Since it was about Memphis, Prichard and our record collector buddy Andrew Macullogh wanted to use a lot of our favorite soul comp called “Chains and Black Exhaust”…. I also wanted to put some real Black Power Free Jazz into it so I used some amazing tracks by Philip Kelan Cohran and The Art Ensemble of Chicago.
How has this whole experience changed you, and the way you write?
It gave me a reason to start writing more about getting involved…. I choose to stay away from heavy politics in my music by choice. Music is a spiritual thing for me, and also a strong opiate… I prefer making music for those purposes, but now i also try and throw some serious issues into them.
How did Ian Svenonius and Jack Oblivian get involved in the project?
I got Ian involved cuz I love his writing and we are very good friends and always talked about collaborating, this was the perfect thing to get together for. Ian is a super genius! Prichard got Jack involved in the beginning of the film and he provided a couple of tunes with his new band The Sheiks.
What did you grow up listening to as a kid? Did you live in a musical household? When did you passion for music start?
My dad used to book very big Indian classical music legends when i was a little kid. My mom used to put headphones on her belly before i was born and make me listen to Indian classical music in the womb. That’s why my brain is paisley inside, haha. My parents loved music and made me learn guitar when i was 12. They were very supportive of my weird musical taste and let me discover all the music i wanted to so I guess my passion from music was pre-natal.
Do you believe in some sort of afterlife? What do you believe happens when you die?
I believe in the universal soul, a place in the stars where all our spirituality comes from. Humans are 20% magma and 80% water…. the magma in us wants to return to the sun our holy mother, just like the planet earth whose blood is magma and wants to rise and go back to mama sun. All spirituality wants to erupt and go back to space. The moon is our bloodless sister which we are tethered to so that we are reminded of the cycle of the days.
What are some of your all-time favorite movies?
There are way too many to mention…. but here are some films that changed my life….
Holy Mountain andEl Topoby Jodorowsky Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Songby Melvin Van Peebles Black Orpheus from Brazil Three Cabellreosby Disney Naked LunchandDead Ringersby Cronenburg Psychoand VertigoandBirdsby Hitchcock Spirits of the Dead: Toby Dammitepisode by Fellini Taxidriver, Meanstreets, American BoyandGoodfellasby Scorcese Space is the Placeand Joyful Noiseby Sun Ra and The Third ManandTouch of Evilby Orson Welles
In the film you did the music for and acted in – Back to Nothing – was this the first film you acted in? Did you enjoy playing the character Pontius?
Actually Miron Zownir the director wrote that part for me! I did a bunch of films as a teenager with Mishka Gollner aka T.T. Rogers, as well as some low budget films with German film maker Iris Cuntze…. Hombre Fatal! I loved playing Pontius, but filming with Miron can be torture, but only in the best way!
Have there been other soundtracks besides The Invaders and Back to Nothing that you did for films?
The first major motion picture i scored was Schwarze Schafe by Oliver Rihs in 2005…. its a great German black comedy…. The Invaders and Back To Nothing were the other two major films I have done.
If Hollywood discovered you and wanted to hire you full-time to create soundtracks for super grossing films, would you quit touring and do this full time?
Probably not…. i love doing ALL of those things. Touring and making rock n roll is my service to the world, to heal their ills with my opiate….
After seeing the legendary band TheGruesomes play a live show in Montreal recently, after what’s been like decades, it left me feeling totally ecstatified! The show was so simply amazing! They garage-rocked the house down! And prior to the show I pulled out all the Gruesomes CDs I had (courtesy of Ricochet Sound) and started reminiscing and feeling utterly head over heals. I was also listening again to The Gerry Alvarez Odyssey – Candy Prankster CD remembering how special it is! In fact a few days after The Gruesomes show and wearing out their CDs from constant rotation, I decided that in order to give The Gerry Alvarez Odyssey a proper listening to I had to put away The Gruesomes for the time being. Sad but true. And believe me, was I ever blown away, I mean I couldn’t fully appreciate it until I saw it as a separate entity. I was absolutely enthralled. I felt a connection to the songs and I decided to see if Gerry was up for an interview and he was. We met and Gerry was super nice and funny, and so I was happy to hang with him for a bit and ask him these questions.
So I find there is a lot of eastern religious or Buddhist references in most of your lyrics, and also in the imagery of the artwork…. Does this come from your actual personal ideas, beliefs, or experiences?
Yes, yes it does. I’ve been into meditation since my early twenties. Spirituality I think is a very strong artistic energy that I’ve always been interested in, and have read books on Buddhism and meditation. And artists that I really admire as well have also been influenced by eastern philosophies so because of them I was influenced as well.
Which artists have inspired you?
George Harrison, he was big in eastern philosophy and many other artists. When I was young it kind of piqued my interest and then I just got involved into it on my own. I think in order for art to last for a long time it has to be spiritual, it can’t be just sexual or just material. If you want it to be listened to in 500 or 1000 years it has to be more profound. Leonard Cohen, he is spiritual, is into Buddhism, and he’s an ordained monk. Nobody knows that, not many people know that, they think he’s just Jewish. He’s just open minded, I like that, and I like to study things, and to learn and use that as an influence in lyrics and music. I grew up with punk rock music and rock’n’roll, and I got into psychedelic rock. But you know I’m not a teenager anymore, my lyrics just evolve by themselves, I didn’t force it, it just happens. I do still write songs sometimes about relationships but sometimes I’m on another level. And to inspire others as well to get into it.
Do you follow any practices that involve meditation or visiting Buddhist or Zen temples?
Well I don’t have much opportunity to do that but I used to go to Buddhist temple in Toronto and study meditation, I had a monk teacher. I’d love to go to Asia or South America and see temples.
What books would you recommend?
I’m into Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth, it’s a great book. I also like all of Leonard Cohen’s interviews, I’m thinking of that right now because I’m being interviewed (laughs).
Also, I get a feeling of deep relaxation and balance from certain songs that have that hypnotic trance like rhythm, sort of what you might experience from listening to chakra healing music. Is this effect intentional?
Yes, it is, I listen to that a lot. I like frequency music too as well, 528 MHz, it’s like relaxing sounds at the frequency of 528. It’s really cool. Once you get into that, it’s nice, it’s very relaxing and spiritual. It’s a mathematical equation from nature, all the cells reproduce themselves using that mathematical process, formula, and that’s the tone, 528. It’s the tone that makes you feel positive, and it’s healing, and I find that that music is influential for my music as well. You mentioned liking the song “Heaven” before, it’s kind of like that music – transcendental. Yeah, that’s an influence.
Are you working on writing new songs?
I’m always fiddling with new songs, I just write down ideas all the time, and then I’ll see what happens, no plans on a record yet but I do think about it. Right now I’m painting, I’m doing canvases.
Right, I wanted to ask you about that..
Sure, nowadays I do acrylic paintings on canvas, they’re very 50s and 60s beatnik-y kind of influence and they are again very primal and mythological kind of stuff, psychedelic-y in a way too, It’s hard to describe, I enjoy it. I went to art school.
Right so you are an artist, and practice art?
Yes, Then I became an art director in advertising, a graphic designer, so it’s all part of the same baggage.
Do you have a large collection of your own art that you’ve done over the years?
Well, I have sketch books, and prints, I’ve got a few canvases, but now I’m really focused on creating a series.
Are you going to have an exhibition? Where will you do that?
Yes, I don’t know yet, I am just going to accumulate the work and then I will find a gallery or something in Montreal. I’ve been to a lot of galleries and art shows in Toronto and Montreal. I’ve always been into that. I enjoy it. We’ll see what happens. There’s no money in music too so (laughs), it’s all fun making a record and playing in a band, but it costs, you don’t make much.
How big are your canvases?
They’re 30×40 inches, something like that.
There is a theme running through them?
Yeah, they all have that same style, mid-century modernistic. I love Picasso, huge influence, he’s Spanish. He’s my guy.
It’s figurative then, not just abstract?
It’s abstract figurative.
You said you may not be putting out a record soon, but do you plan on playing any shows?
Well with the Gruesomes, we just did a couple of Gruesomes show, and we might do more shows, but as the Odyssey no because it’s kind of hard to play in two bands at the same time, so I kind of tend to focus on one at a time, one thing, one project at a time.
So right now you are more in Gruesomes mode.
Gruesome mode, yeah, I’ve turned into a Gruesome again (laughter).
When was the last time you played before this last time that you played?
It was in 2008, at a festival in Montreal.
Is it fun, getting back together?
Yes, it was fantastic. We’ve played together for so long, for so many years, that we’ve developed deep grooves that we can easily get back on. We know each other so well and the songs so well, it’s easy to get back on it. It’s fun for us, well for me.
Is the new material similar to the last two in terms of the psychedelic rock sound?
Yeah, more or less, it’s hard to say cause you just do it and see how it’s going to come out after.
What are your musical instruments, effects and pedals you use to make The Gerry Alvarez Odyssey sound?
I play a fender telecaster, and I use a Vox amp, which is a 60s quintessential amp, the Kinks used, and the Beatles and the Who, that’s got a beautiful sound. I used to use a distortion peddle but I don’t use it anymore, I like the natural distortion of the amplifier, of the Vox amp. I didn’t use one in the 80s and 90s because they didn’t make any reissues, they were original 60s amps and they were old and banged up and they were rare and expensive so I used to use Fender all the time. For peddles, in the Odyssey I use backwards peddles for a backwards sound, makes like a backwards effect, and I use a sitar effect as well, to get a buzzy sound, so you can play a sitar through your guitar (laughs). I also use a tremolo on my Vox, and that’s about it.
In certain songs, like the Trail, that has a sort of noodling fluid thing going on in it…
Yeah, it kind of has a delay kind of thing. I don’t know the names of these things, I just screw around and get the sound and don’t know what it is but it sounds cool.
Can you talk about the difference in production between Candy Prankster and Omega Tea Time?
Well the first one is more layered. I really was into making a record that was really psychedelic, full of effects, just want to paint imagery and landscapes and go crazy and make long songs that are very trippy. On the second album I sort of gone back to my roots, more stripped down. I’d been on a trip to Liverpool in England and really got back into my early Beatles fandom, my punk rock roots. I’d made a more stripped down power poppy kind of record, still with some psychedelic flavor to it, and spiritual flavor. But it’s more stripped down and shorter songs, tighter. Production is cleaner, you know it’s hard to make the same record twice. I don’t want to make the same thing twice but if you try it’s hard cause it’s like trying to make the same exact cake twice. It’s impossible.
Are there any songs on either of your records that you’ve written that stand out for you as more meaningful than others – in terms of when you were writing them and what influenced you?
That’s a good one cause they are all like your little kids, it’s hard to pick one more than the other ones. I kinda like Cosmic Weaving at the moment, from Omega Tea Time, because it’s very cosmic, it’s heavy, and it has some personal meaning to it as well. It’s got Who influences, Beatles influences, the kind of stuff I enjoy, I always liked. It’s the kind of song I always want to do and I’m very proud of it. Yeah that’s a good one.
Can you talk about how the cover art of Omega Tea Time came about? The collage of images and concept?
Oh yeah I did that, I’m into collage art. I published a book of illustrations and poems and songs and lyrics with drawings and collages to sell at shows. I did a lot of collages on the computer, I did a silkscreen from one of my collages and then I did one for the cover. So it uses a lot of imagery that I like.
Did the images come from books?
Books, anywhere online, I just screw around with it and make my own art out of it.
Do you have the original framed up somewhere?
Uh, yeah I have a silkscreen that’s sort of based on it. I took that silkscreen and then I tweaked it for the album cover. I have the original. I love travel as well. I work for a travel agency that I do graphic design for and I learnt a lot about itinerary and cultures from around the world, and I started my own travel blog, Mythic Journeys Travel. I get the information from all over the internet, and I am working on a book for that, I love travel and culture so that cover reflects a bit that vibe.
How do you feel about people downloading your songs on ITunes or listening to it on Spotify? Do you think that they are missing out on actually owning a copy of the CD?
Yeah, it used to bug me. The thing is I sort of gave up on all of that, I used to care. I used to get hurt when I’d see people on those download softwares but there’s nothing you can do anymore. It’s a free for all. It’s busted, broken, it’s done. It’s like water, it’s done. Who cares anymore? I’m not going to make myself sick worrying about it. No, I did it for fun and I hope people enjoy it and it gets around.
But the sound quality is not the same, right?
A CD is much better. It depends what kind of recording you got, and what kind of song you got, what format, but CDs I think are better.
Oh and another thing, the big influence on me that I didn’t mention before for the Odyssey is Stanley Kubrick. I can go on and on about Stanley Kubrick. And the Odyssey is from 2001 Space Odyssey. For me it’s the new bible for the 3rd millennium. The new Odyssey, from Homer, from the 3rd Millennium, because 2001 is the first year of the 3rd millennium, it’s the new age. The opening sequence is by Strauss called Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is also a book by Nietzsche with the same name, on the ascension of man to superman. Just the intro, it’s ascending climax, the attention to detail to everything, how far ahead that movie is. It was done in ’68. Every time I eat while watching my iPad I think of that movie, they were doing that, eating while reading their iPad on the table. 50 years ago. Because it’s the new bible and Odyssey for the new millennium that means that in 1000 years that movie will still be good and watched. I always tried to be at that level, it’s an inspiration. So it’s kind of like my Odyssey, the records, my experience.
Is the Odyssey available on vinyl?
No, but we are planning on doing a greatest hits on vinyl.
Tell me more about the book you put out?
The illustrated book of songs, poems and stories, it came out with Candy Prankster to sell at shows.
How many did you make of those?
I don’t know I got it published online, maybe about 20 or so. But I can print those whenever I want. I started working on a new one that includes the lyrics for Omega Tea Time and stuff, new art…
Does the CD have the lyrics in it?
No, that’s why you have to get the book (laughing). It’s nice to have swag for shows too so I did that one specifically to sell for the record/CD., and it’s got poems, just whatever – scribblings, so I’m working on a new one, and it’s taking a while, it’ll come out someday, long term projects.
What in your music collection is the least psychedelic or garage sounding?
In my records? Ok, well let’s see…uh it’s a good question (laughter), well I have movie soundtracks, like zombie movies, and sci-fi Logan’s Run soundtrack. But I like this band called Zombi. I listen to that kind of stuff, soundtrack-y kind of music, like Goblin.
From Dawn of the Dead?
Yes, that’s right. I’m just throwing that out there, I mean that doesn’t sound psychedelic, I have a Johnny Cash record. Leonard Cohen doesn’t sound very psychedelic or garage sounding.
Do you have a lot of records?
Vinyls? No I have a small collection, I used to have a lot, now it’s dwindled.
You got rid of stuff?
Just through the ages, moving here and there, I got rid of stuff, cause it takes a lot of room, but I am trying to get my old collection back. I’ve given records to friends years ago and I’m trying to get them back.
The same ones?
(laughs) Ha yeah the same ones.
You lent them?
Yeah, lent them, I don’t know what I did.
Are they going to give them back to you?
Well, yeah (laughs).
Well a friend of mine already started giving some back.
That’s a good friend.
But I’m not trying to build a huge collection anymore, I enjoy listening to either CDs, vinyls, whatever… It’s all over the place now. I don’t have the energy to really go for collecting. I used to collect but not anymore. I have so much on the computer so why bother spending money on the vinyl version if I have it on the computer.
So you download it?
Well I pay for it, but no I really haven’t downloaded much music, it’s just CDs that I copied over. I still have a good CD collection, but who buys CDs anymore.
Well I buys CDs, or went to this used record store recently and they had a lot of great CDs. They were like 5 bucks each.
Oh nice, it’s a good price.
Yeah, Cheap Thrills.
Oh, it’s around? I used to buy records there in the 80’s.
They have a lot of records there.
Do you remember Dutcheys?
Oh you do? Wow.
Yeah I bought my first record there, I’m sure.
Yeah that was a great place.
Those were the days!
So what music do you put on if you want to get psyched for a show or event?
I like Tom Jones (laughs). I have this record since I was a kid, Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas, it’s bursting with energy and I enjoy singing along with it. It’s really really something. It’s great. I mean I don’t collect his music or records, it’s just that particular record live at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, in the mid-60s. It’s fantastic, incredible. It really really gives you a lot of energy.
So what’s one of the best shows you ever went to?
We opened up for the Fuzztones in Quebec City in the late 80’s and there was a balcony, and after we played John Davis and I went to the balcony and watched the Fuzztones. Rudi Protrudi was incredible, really the best show ever, it was amazing. Really something, yeah. What a performer that guy, memorable. I think we were on the sweet spot too, the sound, the visuals, the seating, just a big difference, get the sweet spot, bang! We were right on the edge of the balcony and you could hear perfect and it wasn’t a balcony really high up, it was kind of a low balcony too. In Quebec City, I don’t remember the club.
Any advice you would give to the kids today who are starting out as musicians?
Well, part of me would say don’t do it (laughs), do it if you really really have a real meaning of life feeling about it. So if it’s everything to you, then yeah, do it. Go for it, but don’t put all your eggs in that basket, just be careful, it’s not easy, not an easy life, especially nowadays.
Are there any newer bands that you know or like?
Garage bands? Any bands? Well you know online you get to see so many bands, on Facebook, you have new bands just playing clubs. There’s a band from Seville, Spain, called the Smoggers, great garage sound. New bands, I see so many online,
Do you listen to them online?
Yes, on Facebook and Youtube. I will like their page and they post their stuff, their music and their videos or whatever, clips of their shows. A lot of people I like are my friends, are musicians in bands and post a lot of music stuff that their into, that they are playing and doing like the Montreal band, The High Dials from Montreal, they used to be on Ricochet Sound. They were a mod band before called the Datsons but then they became The High Dials, but their first two albums as The High Dials are phenomenal. Some of the best stuff to come out of Montreal. I don’t know much about their later stuff, their current stuff is more 80s sounding and another band that came out of that is called The Elephant Stone, that’s a good psychedelic, more laid back, more groove, trance-y, lounge-y kind of stuff.
You mentioned some shows might be in the future for the Gruesomes, like in Mexico maybe?And you mentioned some festival too… I imagine you played in Europe also back in the day…Would you consider touring again?
Yeah, we got offers, We were offered to play in Mexico and a festival in Montreal so we will see how it goes. We’ve toured Europe, yes, the thing is it costs a lot of money to go over there and nobody’s forked it over yet (laughs). I don’t want to pay for it. We are open for anything. We were supposed to do a tour in 2008 but I think the big crash that happened kind of cancelled the tour, people just didn’t have money in Europe after that. Nobody wants to pay for bands. Sometimes I don’t mind punking it out but if it’s for a whole tour and not making any money and punking it out at the same time, no, I can’t do that.
Any chance you guys would start writing songs again, as the Gruesomes?
Not really, no.(laughs). No not with the Gruesomes, no.
No chance in hell? Just playing the old stuff, which is great!
No, not really. Yeah, we thought of maybe doing a record of cover songs, but it’s too much time and money for what its worth for what we get back from it.
Who’s the “band leader” of the Gruesomes? Like the main organizer.
John Davis. He works at Concordia. He’s been working at the Concordia music department at Loyola campus for over 20-30 years. He’s a stage manager, in the music department. So he organizes all the bands that come in and all the stage handling and all that. He’s the guy, he takes care of our stage managing.
So he’s the one who organizes the shows, and calls the clubs and is like hey ok, be there. And you are like ok.
Yeah, well we have a bit of our input if we want to or not. Well I handle the online, the Facebook page, so people contact me through that and then I talk to John. I guess I’m more PR than the other guys. I’m more the advertising guy, I’m the one who does most of the posters, the albums, the CDs.
Between you and Bobby, how did you decide who was going to sing what song?
Well it depends on the style of the song, if the song is a more trippy more smooth song, I do it, if it’s a more growler song, it would be Bobby, or who wrote it.
Whose house is on the cover of Tyrants of Teen Trash?
I don’t know, somebody who lives on Cote St-Luc (Montreal).
So you just stood in front of a random house?
Yeah, Bobby had got permission and then we posed there.
Did you guys meet in high school?
John and Bob did, they’re friends from Westmount high, or something like that. I knew Bob and John from the clubs hanging out, downtown Montreal hanging out back in the early eighties. The Mod scene, the Montreal Mod scene. I bought a guitar and was looking to jam with different musicians. Somebody told me, “John, Eric and Bob got instruments, are starting a band” I said “oh, I’ll try it out.” I showed them how to play their first chords for the first songs, and we had different names. I don’t remember who came up with the Gruesomes, was it Eric Davis or Bobby, I don’t remember, and it took off from there. We became really popular really fast because we had a schtick, a style, we had a look, we had the sound, we did what we wanted, it was stuff that was easy to play. We were all really into it. I remember when I was still really young and I heard The Count Five doing Psychotic Reaction and I was playing air guitar like crazy, and I said I could do this crap easy. And so there you go, that’s how it started, in garage music, in punk garage, yeah it started from there.
Anything else you want to talk about?
I don’t know. We could have been way bigger, I think. The Gruesomes could have been way bigger.
Maybe if you started later when garage became more mainstream?
Yeah, I think we played in the 80’s underground scene that never really got really mainstream till much later. We had really burned ourselves out touring Canada many many times. Canada is not like England, you know, all these British bands they toured, it’s nothing. Canada is enormous. It kills bands. I wanted to tour Europe, and the States and it wasn’t going on, it wasn’t taking off enough..
Have you toured in the States?
Yeah, we toured all along the east coast, but it just wasn’t the right time for that. I think we could have been as big as the Cramps or the Ramones (laughs!)
How did your relationship with Ricochet Sound happen?
Ray, he was a fan, he contacted us, he had a record store back in the day. He wanted to re-release our stuff. We released our vinyl records at the end of vinyls, in the 80s CDs were coming out, and we’re releasing vinyls, and our music started first coming out on Cd’s in the 2000s. “Cave In” was our first CD in 2000. So we were way behind in producing digital music, and so not only did we miss the vinyl thing we missed the CD thing too. By the time we started releasing all the original stuff on CDs, the first three CDs came out in 2003, on Ricochet, thanks to Ricochet Sound our stuff was released finally on CD. So we were way behind, so bad luck there too. We could have had more impact if our CDs were released way earlier. During the whole 90s we had no CDs out there. And that was the peak of it. And vinyls were dead back then, and that was all we had, was just vinyls. So it was poor management. I mean OG was great, they released our stuff, we were thankful for the release, but there wasn’t much in promotion or anything so it kind of spudded away. We gave it our all but it just died off. And then we got back together in 1999 to make Cave In, and I’m glad we did that, that was our best record and finally we ended on a good note. So that was great, I’m happy about that one.
Anything else you want to talk about?
So whenever anyone interviews me for the Odyssey, the last question is always “When are the Gruesomes coming back?!” (laughs). I used to say I don’t know, maybe, never, I don’t know but you never know. You really never know.
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