as part of a new series focusing on indie labels, we introduce (those who don’t already know him) y’all to Ed Shelflife! Not too surprisingly, he also has a day job, is a massive karaoke aficionado, is a soccer dad, cat lover and longtime vegan! Shelflife has put out loads of records that we adore. Meet Ed…
chickfactor: What year did you start a label? Where? Why? Ed Mazzucco: Shelflife started in 1995 from my bedroom in Southern California. I was inspired by a lot of the great international bands I was discovering at the time and I really wanted to help get these bands a little more exposure in the US. That was basically the label’s mission at the time and our first release (the Whirl-Wheels compilation) was the product of that.
What has been the most fun bit about running a label? I love working with so many amazing artists and helping bring their visions to life. I never grow tired of holding a brand new release in my hands for the first time. It’s a pretty magical experience working from start to finish with our artists to create a product together that will soon be shared and loved by our community. I put a lot of time and energy into making each and every release the best it can be.
What have been the biggest challenges? Right now the vinyl production bottleneck is causing me quite a headache. It’s all a bit insane, going from 3-4 month to 6-7 month turnaround times. We are doing our best to navigate through it, but really hoping the plants can catch back up in 2022.
What are the top sellers of all time on yr label? Off the top of my head, probably Airiel, The Radio Dept, and The Ocean Blue.
What new stuff are you working on in the coming year? We just released wonderful new albums by The Catenary Wires (ex-Heavenly), Always You, and Pastel Coast. We haven’t announced our fall releases just yet, but there are some really exciting things coming up.
What labels have inspired you? Factory, Sarah, and Slumberland are the first to come to mind. Slumberland probably was the most influential for me in starting Shelflife. I still remember writing letters to Mike asking for advice.
How do you find new records (not on your label)? Usually word of mouth from friends or sometimes on Instagram.
What are some great record stores and mail orders still operating? I have to give a shout out to My Vinyl Underground in Portland, OR. Hands down the best indiepop shop around today.
Can people get your releases outside your country? Yes, but sadly shipping costs and taxes are making it harder these days. Our solution has been to work with an overseas partner label on most of our releases, so fans can have a local label to service them. That helps a lot with keeping shipping costs down.
What bands/records are you really excited about? I have been really into the new Lightning Bug “A Color Of The Sky” LP and Submotile’s “Sonic Day Codas” CD.
He’s an indiepop guy (Kevin Hairs), an illustrator, a comic artist, an art teacher, and an apprentice spiritual medium! Meet Kevin Alvir, who lives in Brooklyn and is awesome.
Chickfactor: How are you holding up during crazy COVIDtime? Kevin Alvir: Gail! I’m good—thanks for asking. I never thought I would handle a pandemic so calmly. I would say I’m an anxious sort definitely before 2020 and to live in times of turbulence… I seem to thrive. haha. Certainly last year (2020) was really bonkers and waking up to what an insane world this is…. that is quite sobering.
What did you learn about yourself during this time? I definitely thought about where my time and energy went to. The frantic commute energy, the workplace energy, the socialization energy. I’ve discovered my spiritual side, which surprises me.
What kind of changes did you make to your home/workspace/etc? Living in NY, at home I feel like a tourist. (paraphrase Gang of Four) So my apartment was pretty bare. Now that I’ve been living in it with my bf, we’ve spruced it up with artwork and plants. Comfier furniture. Better drawing desk in my office. It’s a real nice place to be. Now I love it. I do have a similar “frenetic commute energy” when I have to go to the next room for a zoom lesson.
Tell us about your latest release on Bandcamp. Is it also on CD/vinyl/tape? I just put out a new Kevin Hairs 3-song single called “Stay Mild, Man Child” and a couple months ago I put out an album called Dad of the Universe. It’s just digital. I’d rather not make more consumables with plastic and tapes and stuff. I don’t think I’m that kinda artist. I just like having music digital now. BUT… about the music, I felt like I had a shift in thought about making music. The songs I make kind of feel like my poems and cartoons with a janglepop background. They certainly retain my sense of humor. Some friends tell me that listening to my music makes them feel like they’re actually hanging out with me. So that’s kinda what my music is like. haha.
What are you missing the most during this time? I miss seeing so many friends. I miss restaurants. I miss the ease of going outside. There’s this layer of fear (a bigger one) added onto going out. I miss the community aspect of things.
How differently do you see your home now that you’ve been spending more time there? I love it. I would think about how in zoom calls, I am still able to retain my identity. To be more clear, like when I would go to work or see my therapist, I always felt like I would have to adapt to the workplace and or my shrink’s office. Always feeling at the mercy of other people. If that makes sense.
Where did you grow up? Where all have you lived? I grew up in Northern Virginia suburb Annandale, close to Washington, D.C. I went to college in Richmond (VCU), lived in Philadelphia for a couple years, and then just loved being in Brooklyn for over a decade.
What were you like as a teen? As a teen, haha. I was definitely troubled. Repressed gay youth in the suburbs. Since I felt so alienated, I just got really into whatever turned me on (musically). So I was a total fanboy about music, starting with the local Arlington music scene — Teen-Beat, Simple Machines, Dischord. Teen-Beat really resonated with me. But you know, I think I dressed like a freak… and was kinda dour haha but also really funny and sarcastic…only to hide my anger/vulnerability. haha.
What was your first concert? Technically, the first concert I went to was Ocean Blue & Marshall Crenshaw. I appreciate both artists now. My oldest brother is a Crenshaw head. I just wanted to see the Ocean Blue bc they had a video on MTV at the time making the rounds. “Sublime.” Not exactly a fan although I toured with them a lil 10 years after that.
First record you bought? When I was 12 years old, I used my Xmas money to buy Julie (comedienne) Brown’s Trapped in the Body of a White Girl but what REALLY counted was Electropura by Yo La Tengo. I remember putting down $14 cash for that CD and how weird and esoteric it seemed.
When did you write your first song and what was it about? I was 19 I think. I wrote a song called “Pet Rock.” I was inspired by the Tall Dwarfs musically. Lyrically, I was inspired to speak from a POV of someone not wanting to be taken for a ride or abused… but it was cute.. and sounded … ehhh. I’d rather not hear it. haha.
What bands you have been in? I always had a band… of some making. I had a band called the Lil Hospital, Knight School, The Hairs, and well now it’s my solo thing: Kevin Hairs. I’ve helped out in other bands: Sprites, Basic Plumbing (Patrick Doyle of Veronica Falls band), BMX Bandits (played 4 shows in the Bandits).
What is your day job? My day job??? Hrrrm, kinda piecing it together. I was working for a tech company doing office manager stuff. Moonlighting doing my illustration work when it came in (sporadically). However, I got let go from said job at the start of the pandemic. But thankfully, I’ve had a lot of commissions to do: Logos, Spot Illustrations, Portraits, Pet Portraits, Album Covers, Animations. I also teach art to kids over Zoom, which I love and avoided doing for so long. I want more students. And this is kinda controversial, but I am an apprentice Spirit Medium. I’ve been taking classes and developing my ability. One hour of meditation a day. I talk to the dead and communicate messages to loved ones. Not everyone likes hearing about it. It scares people and it’s out there. But it’s very real to me.
What neighborhood do you live in? Best and worst things about it? Top haunts? I live in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Midland-Brooklyn. Best thing: the apartments are so spacious. I have so much room. The food is diverse in the neighborhood, which is great. The Ryerson is a restaurant down the street from me. Their food is the best and the music they play is always up my alley. Some jangle, fuzz jams. Bars are hard for me. I don’t really like to drink and bars are always so loud.
What are the best bands in Brooklyn these days? Pale Lights / Love Burns, Jeanines, Nice Try / Racecar, Frankie Cosmos are my personal faves.
Tell us how Fanboy Memoirs came about? Fanboy Memoirs started when I just did a lil’ cartoon of teenaged me watching Cat Power for my instagram. People responded and wanted me to do more of them. I have so many stories of talking to “so and so” before or after the show. I just wanted to be making music and living that life. But yeah, I met Stephin Merritt as a teen. He was flirty. David Berman was just the kindest soul. Jennifer Herrema was intimidating but sweet.
Do you still do portraits by commission? I still do!! Yep. I advertise it on my socials. Mainly on that hellhole platform Facebook – but I’m always open. I feel like I’d do another one of you, Gail. I feel like I’ve gotten better at my portraits since. But people can follow me on Instagram and see my work and message me.
Have you thought of cashing in on the NFT craze? I did set up some NFTs with my friend Ivan. I have a mistrust of it. Get Rich Quick schemes really turn me off. But I did set some up. I haven’t heard anything about them. So still not *life-changingly rich* haha.
What’s your sign? LIBRA through and through. haha.
Who do you have a crush on? The woman who played Anathema Device in Good Omens. Comedians John Early & Kate Berlant, Any Australian in music is so charming (haha), Will Schwartz from Imperial Teen. Crushes went from “Oh I bet they’re into cool stuff” to… “Oh my god, there’s something about them that I just want to be their best friend.”
What are you reading/watching/eating? Reading: a lot of Manga. Astro Boy & other works by Osamu Tezuka. Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. Dolores Cannon (fringey mystic hypnotherapist). Spirit Medium books.
Watching: Barry (HBO), Search Party, Arrested Development, Ranma 1/2.
Eating: I am on the Keto diet now (like every gay guy in NYC). So I just eat cheese, salmon and salad. I feel great. But I miss donuts.
What can you not wait to do as soon as everything reopens? I am excited for small club shows. Music performances. But I also want to nurture all the online communities and friends I’ve made too.
Any other plans for the future? I’m doing a Young Adult graphic novel, and I’m so excited. It’s a definitive version of my Lisa Cheese webcomic with a bigger story. AND becoming a working Spirit Medium. I need to practice. So if anyone’s interested… Thanks, Kevin! CF
Records Kevin cannot live without! 1) The Aislers Set, The Last Match 2) Sportsguitar, Married, 3 kids 3) Yo La Tengo, Electropura 4) Teenage Fanclub, Bandwagonesque 5) Apples in Stereo, Fun trick noisemaker 6) Television Personalities, And don’t the kids just love it 7) Pastels, Truckload of trouble 8) Bats, Daddy’s Highway 9) Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes 10) Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Last month Portland, Oregon’s Corvair released their wonderful debut album on the very fine WIAIWYA label out of London. The band is couple Brian Naubert and Heather Larimer, along with drummer Eric Eagle on the album. CF folks know Heather from her (John Peel approved!) band Eux Autres, whose music was used in TV shows and commercials as well. She’s also played on other folks’ record, including the Minus Five and Stephen Malkmus. Brian has played in loads of bands including Tube Top, the Service Providers and (solo as) Hoffabus. They’ve also created jingles! We caught up with Heather to see how she and Brian have been faring during this very weird era. Interview by Gail O’Hara
Chickfactor: How have you guys been holding up during COVIDtime? Heather Larimer: We are doing really well, actually. We had already basic tracked our record so once we went into lockdown, we were able to focus a ton on building up the record and playing around with ideas. We went through a lot of wine and candles trying to make quarantining a little less apocalyptic feeling. Having a project was so good for us. We would have lost our shit otherwise.
When did Corvair begin? We started writing the record about two years ago, not knowing exactly what the project was, just that we were collaborating. It’s funny how obvious it seems to us now—and it’s weird we didn’t try it a lot earlier.
Tell us about your nautical theme / water obsession on the new one. I guess there’s the obvious Jungian stuff, water as the unconscious. And then I think because Brian and I imprinted on each other when we were very young and then went our separate ways and reconnected, it’s really made both of us question what is volition and what is much deeper or older than our superficial daily “choices.” So this record is in so many ways Brian and I retrieving stuff from the deep—including our own painful early history together and the dark time that ensued when we tried to build lives apart that kind of collapsed. And then, his family is old-school Northwest people. S’Klallam tribe from Port Townsend and early settlers of the port town of Tacoma. But then there’s just the more associative and light parts, which were that we rented a cabin in Oceanside Oregon to go write songs and everything came together. We found all these sea creatures, which ended up being our album art. And we wrote a song about hope and added the words “Oceansided” at the end, because what does that even mean? And then we drove to “Cape Disappointment,” which is the best place name ever because some of the most instructive times in my life were when I miraculously got what I wanted and blam!—be careful what you wish for. This idea about finding land and with it, salvation and then…oh shit. So, we were both really feeling the symbolism and murky depth of the water stuff and we just ran with it. Plus, for videos it was pandemic-friendly—all we needed was a car and a camera.
How old were you when you started playing music? I started playing Sukuzi violin when I was about 6 and played until I was 14, and then I dabbled very lightly in bass and tambourine (haha!) and then when I was 28 I learned to play the drums and my brother and I started a band about a year later. I thought I was too old to start a band at the time. Ridiculous.
When did you write your first song? What was it about? Weirdly, Brian hung the lyrics to my first song on the wall of our studio. When I was 4, my dad typed up my song lyrics and later framed them once I was making music. I had forgotten all about it until Brian found them in the basement. The song is called “She’ll Never Let Me Play” and it’s about my mom, and my friendship with squirrels. It seems all cute at first but then it turns into a Steve Miller time-traveling diss track.
What were you like as a teenager? Very confused. I loved punk rock music like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements but I also hot-rolled my hair and wore, like, striped turtlenecks and scrunchies. It makes me laugh that I was too scared to play in a band or be in drama, because it’s obviously where I would have been happiest. I always sang in school even though I was never picked for the elite singing groups because I wasn’t showy or polished enough. I just cried bitterly into my scrunchie. But I’m like a cockroach. I come crawling BACK stronger!
Do you have kids or pets? I have two young sons, which is a trip, but they’re unbelievably sweet and weird. And a boy dog, a disturbingly muscular lab. Plus, Brian my husband slash bandmate. My house is a total sausage fest.
What else do you guys like to do besides making music? I like to write and read. And power lift. And travel. And snuggle the shit out of the kids and have movie nights. And then, Brian is one of the most well-traveled people I know, a great photographer and he loves to garden. That is the one activity I will never join him in. To me, gardening is a nightmare trifecta of tedium, dirt, and solar irradiation.
Your previous band was inducted into the Indiepop Hall of Fame recently. Tell us about that. That was such a thrill. I love that Eux Autres still matters to people. And that the song was “Other Girls,” which was the first or second song that Nick and I wrote together. We got to pick a location for our virtual commemorative plaque, and we chose Omaha’s Sokol Hall, which was an amazing place in our hometown that hosted bingo, gymnastics, polka lessons and all-ages punk-rock shows. I love Omaha so much.
Can you cook? What is your specialty? What’s in the fridge? I am a pretty dang good cook but I’m not very improvisational. I get uptight about the recipe. My best friend is the best cook I’ve ever known—she’s a food entrepreneur—so I always feel like a fool next to her. But she’s taught me some great stuff, just by virtue of the fact that she’s been feeding me for decades. And my mom and sister-in-law are also killer cooks. There’s always a lot of asparagus in our fridge for some reason. It’s so easy and toothsome. And pork. It’s the Other White Meat. Brian cooks a lot of brown rice and vegetable stir-fries that are great healthy staples; he’s a bold weekday improviser. I take us to the dark side of the fridge on the weekends.
What else is in the pipeline? We are going to record again in May, and we are so excited and nervous now that we have actual expectations, as opposed to last time when we were making it up as we went along.
What is Portland looking like at the moment? Portland is pretty devastated all around. The houselessness is like nothing I’ve ever seen. There’s graffiti on every surface city wide. And I’m so worried about the restaurant and food community, they are the heart of Portland. I have no idea what this city will look like in 12 months, but we are committed to staying here for a while. CF
10Records Heather Cannot Live Without Guided By Voices, Alien Lanes Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville The Replacements, Let It Be The Kinks, Village Green Preservation Society The Cars, The Cars John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy Built to Spill, Perfect from Now On The Bee Gees 1st New Order, Substance Cat Power, Moon Pix
It’s that time of year again, friends! Time to open your wallets and throw some cash at WFMU to keep the best radio station ever fully operating! This coming Saturday, March 13, join Gaylord Fields and Todd Abramson when they host Yo La Tengo, who show up once a year to play your requests on demand (when you make a pledge of course!) We have known the sharply dressed, smart, funny Gaylord since the mid-1990s, when we met and realized we both had the best (kinda similar) taste in music and we were both copy editors! In recent years he’s been a regular MC at many chickfactor events and we love his radio show on WFMU. We caught up with him to see how he’s been handling COVIDtime and got the scoop. Interview by Gail O’Hara
chickfactor: How are you holding up? gaylord fields: I’m shocked at how my typical non-Pollyanna brand of optimism has been tested but has withstood the ordeals we’ve been through both with the pandemic and the sociopolitical reckonings of 2020–21, both in the US and throughout the world. If I can survive the worst year I ever lived through, with 2016–19 taking the other four spaces in that ignominious top five, with my head aloft, I can count myself fortunate.
How has your life changed during the COVID time? Between the forced-upon-me sedentary lifestyle and my recovery from the major back surgery I had last year to correct a crippling spinal disorder that left me bedridden for two months, I underwent a drastic redistribution of my body mass. So now I have a personal trainer who tortures me via Zoom. My brain is slowly learning to accept exercise as not being futile, but it isn’t doing it quickly enough for my liking.
Also, I learned that if you’re going to be stuck in bed for months at a time, it’s best to do it when there is literally nothing going on to get all FOMO about.
Have you been vaxxed? Yesterday I received my second dose of the Moderna — a.k.a. the Dolly Parton — vaccine. Here on day two, I thought I had escaped any adverse side effects, but an hour ago I was shivering under a duvet, a flannel sheet, and an Irish knit sweater! And now I’m sweating and fanning myself from the heat! I could not be happier.
What music/film/art/books/snacks have gotten you through the pandemic? My current “wow” group is Sault, a mysterious Afrocentric British R&B collective that released two of my favorite albums of 2020, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise).
The last film I watched was Coming 2 America, which was pleasant enough for revisiting characters I liked in the original, mostly the secondary ones played by Eddie Murphy under pounds of latex. The last film I thoroughly enjoyed was during a socially distant trip to a Pennsylvania drive-in this past summer to view Rock ’n’ Roll High School. Worth the price of admission alone just to see Joey Ramone invent mumblecore. Fun fact: PJ Soles, who starred as high school student Riff Randell, was older than three of the four Ramones.
As for art, I allowed myself a rare museum trip to the Whitney, where I marveled at the video of Alexander Calder at play gleefully manipulating his magical Cirque Calder. There’s also a Calder exhibition opening at MoMA at just the time when I’ll be pronounced 100% vaccinated.
I just started reading Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, because I’m fascinated by an American Black upper class I knew practically nothing about as a product of the Black working class.
You didn’t ask about TV, but I watch a lot of 1960s and ’70s detective shows, such as Naked City and Cannon, respectively, because there is no story arc or even a B-story to be found.
Thanks to the fine people at the employee-owned King Arthur Baking Company, I got into baking doughnuts, until my carb loading while doing the opposite of running a marathon made my blood sugar levels rise — hence the dreaded Zoom personal trainer.
How long have you been at WFMU? How did you get involved? I did my first program in August of 1992, so my 29th year will be swiftly approaching. I’m trying to reckon if perhaps 30 years is enough, but I have made no concrete decision about my radio future either way. I got my start early in ’92, when I was discovered by the WFMU music director at the time, David Newgarden, whilst I was DJing a show at Maxwell’s at the request of headliners Yo La Tengo. I guess I was making some oddball musical choices, because several WFMU DJs that night recognized me as one of them, just like in the movie Freaks, but to an arguably more positive and definitely less tar-and-feathery outcome.
How important is the marathon to keeping the station going? The two-week-long WFMU Fundraising Marathon is by far the primary source of the station’s operating budget, as we steadfastly maintain our stance of airing no commercials or underwriting, and accepting no money with strings attached. We’ve seen too many other stations compromise their way to irrelevance once they began answering to anything but their own individual tastes and whims. We refuse to put on such a straitjacket. I think that’s a thing worthy of support.
What are your favorite shows on the station right now? And in the past? There are way too many favorites for me to list, especially now that we have three Web-only streams as well as the broadcast station proper. Also, I wouldn’t feel comfortable singling out some of those favorite shows and colleagues while slighting others. But to name just one out of many fabulous former programs that I enjoyed in the past, I really miss The Radio Thrift Shop, a country-leaning show hosted by the lovely and talented singer-songwriter and chickfactor 25 performer Laura Cantrell.
Tell us how long Yo La Tengo has been doing their marathon duties? What are some of the most memorable performances/covers of theirs? I had a thought that the band’s first appearance might have been 1997, but I recently checked with Ira Kaplan, who makes the persuasive case that it was 1996. If I take his word as gospel, that marks this year as the 25th anniversary of this wonderful WFMU tradition. For the past few years, former Maxwell’s impresario Todd Abramson, a.k.a. WFMU DJ Todd-o-phonic Todd, has been hosting them, and me, on his three-hour show instead of the band being forced to curtail their appearance during my inadequate for the task two-hour program. This also makes it a bit of a homecoming, as Todd, Ira, Georgia Hubley, and I shared a Hoboken home during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
In a quarter century, there have been too many renditions to recall, but I swooned mightily a couple of years ago when James lent his golden high tenor to bring forth a gorgeous version of Lois’s “Shy Town.” And they also memorably performed “Outdoor Miner,” by Wire, which is a shade less than three minutes — or less than two if you prefer the LP version — of left-field pop bliss.
How long have you known them? In what capacity? I knew who Georgia and Ira were from seeing Yo La Tengo perform here and there, and from the copy of Ride the Tiger I picked up at Pier Platters, but we didn’t become actual friends until early 1987, when I was invited by Todd to take over the biggest bedroom in the house the three of them lived in, and they are to this day three of my favorite people ever. Much later, I met James McNew when he completed the trio, and what’s not to love about him?
Can you tell us any stories from the early days of Maxwell’s? One of the first times I went to Maxwell’s, in the early ’80s, the band A Worrying Thing opened for the group I actually wanted to see, namely the Cyclones. I preferred that first band in their later incarnation when they renamed themselves after an apocryphal tale concerning the 1962 New York Mets and a three-word Spanish phrase. I also once saw rockabilly behemoth Sleepy La Beef go into the kitchen and chug-a-lug a carafe of hot black coffee, then clamber onstage to play his oversized heart out for hours.
Do you have any favorite memories of their Hanukkah shows? Forgive me for making this first memory about my own participation, but one of my happiest moments on a stage ever was sharing the one at Maxwell’s with Lois to perform an unrehearsed comic deconstruction of “Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)” as an encore. Performing with her was a dream I never imagined would become real. Also, I must say that any time the Sun Ra Arkestra, featuring the ageless Marshall Allen, are part of the onstage Hanukkah celebration, as they were last in 2019 at the Bowery Ballroom, it’s a transcendental moment. Next would be seeing the late and great Neil Innes perform Rutles songs, backed by a worshipful Yo La Tengo in the roles of Dirk, Stig, and Barry, again at Maxwell’s.
Do you have any beloved memories from chickfactor shows? Every chickfactor show has been a reunion of sorts of lovely people I have not seen in a long time, sometimes in decades. It thrills me that the chickfactor community is not something people age out of, although many of us started off not quite fully formed when we entered this special world.
As for a personal MC memory, I recall at the Bell House in Brooklyn when I divided the audience as well as the performers into two gangs: One group I dubbed Team Horizontal Stripes, and the other was Team Gingham Checks (my own posse, membership duly marked by the lilac gingham shirt I was sporting). I may have had Lois on my ginghamed side, but we were up against the striped likes of Small Factory’s Phoebe Summersquash. No one was harmed, all were delighted. It was a chickfactor event, after all.
Another was when Sukhdev Sandhu, Tae Won Yu, and I held a meeting of what I cheekily called the “chickfactor men of color” in the Bell House’s automatic photo booth.
Then there was the London chickfactor 25 show at the lovely Lexington in my home away from home, Islington, when Cathy Rogers of Heavenly, Marine Research, and, evidently, Junkyard Wars fame, approached me after one of my typically freewheeling and off-the-cuff announcements and said, “I never have any idea where you’re going with these introductions, and somehow you pull it all together at the end!” I told Cathy that if I’ve learned anything from watching gymnasts, it’s that you can perform any sort of mad gyrations and twists and turns, as long as you stick the landing at the end.
What were your most treasured purchases from Pier Platters or Other Music? Thanks to recommendations by my longtime dear friend Katie Gentile, who was working her way through grad school as a Pier Platters clerk, I own all the early Bus Stop Label 45s, mostly seemingly recorded by different permutations of Ric Menck and Paul Chastain. I also did all of my Sarah shopping there, whenever one of those precious discs would somehow wend its way from Bristol to Hoboken. I also have many, many cherished releases put out by Flying Nun, such as the three Look Blue Go Purple EPs, as Pier Platters — where I was later a clerk myself — had the most comprehensive New Zealand indie collection on the East Coast, and possibly in all of North America. But the most valuable thing I have from Pier Platters is its distinctive handmade swirly open/closed sign, which Bill the store proprietor let me take home on the store’s final day.
I had such good luck in the cheap 45 bins at Other Music that it mentally allowed me to go extravagant on some of the store’s pricier imports, such as the Tom Zé reissues imported from Brazil.
Do you have a current favorite record store? Online one? I rarely visited local record stores, even pre-lockdown, as the pickings are slim in New York, and my usual vacation forays into shops have obviously been curtailed. But the last local record store I visited pre-lockdown was the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, outpost of Academy Records. I will correct my lack of local shopping once I’m comfortable to do so again, and look forward to crossing two rivers to get to such Brooklyn shops as Earwax, Rebel Rouser, and Captured Tracks, to name just a few.
Online, I use Discogs to find mostly old and rare 45s, and I still patronize Dusty Groove, especially for my Brazilian musical needs.
Do you listen to any podcasts? When I actually went into an office pre-lockdown, I used to walk to the train station listening to John McWhorter’s Lexicon Valley language podcast — love his linguistics work; not as big a fan of his politics, but they never intrude. I guess I could consider him the William Safire of the 21st century in that regard. Nowadays, the only podcast I listen to is called Nothing Is Real, and you can guess by the name that it’s Beatles-related. The two Irish hosts go deep into the Fab Four’s careers, both as a group and solo, yet in a way that isn’t old hat or slobberingly hagiographical.
What is a Melody Dad? My late friend Trevor Jenkins, who was a composer of production music in his native London, referred to me as such with regard to my show’s embrace of melodic components, and it is an honor I wear proudly. I was quite chuffed that someone who wrote melodies as a career thought I had a keen ear for picking out and combining indelible ones for interesting effect. I always listen to my air checks post-show, but I have yet to re-listen to the one I programmed in his memory a couple of years ago. It’s still too soon, too raw.
I know your wife is involved in helping animals. Is there a place folks can donate to help her out? Kathleen is the director of community cat education for the NYC Feral Cat Initiative, which recently partnered with the longtime animal welfare nonprofit Bideawee. So if you would like to support community cats by donating to help fund programs such as Trap-Neuter-Return and shelter-building seminars, here is the place to do it.
What are you going to do when we are all vaxxed and are given a green light to be free? Because I’m now set up to work remotely, once it’s absolutely safe to do so, I plan to couch surf in L.A. for a few weeks and get caught up with all my friends on that coast. A side trip to my beloved Palm Springs may also be in the offing.
I’d also like to visit the chickfactor editrix now that she lives in the same time zone as I do.
Any other news about you or WFMU? WFMU is unparalleled in its diversity of programming, but recently we had a bit of a reckoning about its somewhat less diverse roster of actual programmers. As such, we’ve enacted internal programs to make the station more inviting to BIPOC and other marginalized groups. Within the past year, the on-air staff has become more representative of our community and our nation than ever, but we can’t rest on our laurels, as this is an ongoing struggle.
Also, this past summer I joined the station’s board of directors, and as proud as I am to take on such an important role for a radio station I love and believe in, I never saw myself as boardroom material beforehand. Mind you, WFMU is far from corporate, but this is real grownup stuff nonetheless. I promise to take on this role with the utmost seriousness, whatever that word means relative to WFMU.
Will you MC some shows at chickfactor 30 (gasp!) in 2022? Try and stop me, Gail! I have a travel budget burning a hole in my Venmo account! Have quirky MCing style, will travel!
Thank you, Gail, for interviewing me, and I hope to see everyone everywhere during chickfactor 30.
Thank you, Gaylord!
Tune in to WFMU on Saturday, March 13 at 3 pm EST to hear Gaylord, Todd and Yo La Tengo!
chickfactor 13 (2000) published an interview with Jessica Griffin from the Would-Be-Goods 21 years ago conducted by Peter Momtchiloff, who ended up joining her band, which also features Deborah Greensmith and Andy Warren. I took a lot of photographs of them while I lived in London (2001 and 2004) that have ended up on their album covers, and the WBGs have played at many chickfactor parties. While some of us haven’t been able to focus or achieve our creative potential during COVIDtime, Jessica has become rather prolific. We checked in with her about how it’s going. Interview by Gail O’Hara
chickfactor: how are you holding up? jessica griffin: Fairly well, although my dreams are much more vivid than usual which must mean I’m more stressed out than I think.
How different is your life under lockdown than it was before? In some ways, very different. Peter (my partner and fellow Would-be-good) has been staying with me since it all began, and I’ve got into a different routine, cooking twice a day (except at weekends) and writing and recording songs daily.
What has been getting you through this time? Books, food, etc. Peter’s company, Zoom chats with friends and songwriting. I’m too restless to read much these days, although when I’m feeling anxious I devour 20th-century detective fiction. We’ve been watching the short Cocktails with a Curator talks from the Frick Collection and old black-and-white British films, e.g. Spring In Park Lane, Cast A Dark Shadow. I’ve always cooked regularly but food seems much more important now. We have a proper lunch every day which is quite old-fashioned (and French!) and I’ve expanded my repertoire quite a bit. I find cooking very calming.
What do you miss most about beforetimes? Friends and family. I haven’t seen my (grown-up) daughter for over a year as she lives in another city. She’s very Victorian and doesn’t do FaceTime/Zoom. And I really miss my almost-daily lunches at a wonderful local cookery bookshop/café run by an eccentric Frenchman.
How has London changed since this happened? For better or worse. I haven’t been further than a mile from home since March 2020 so I can only talk about my own part of west London. In the first lockdown, with almost no traffic and very few people around, you could smell the grass and flowers in the gardens and parks.
Seeing so many local shops, restaurants and cafés go out of business is heartbreaking, though.
Can Brexit be reversed? Probably not in our generation. I think it’s a huge mistake.
Let’s talk about your new songs! When did you start writing one song per day? And how many are you up to now? 2 October 2020. I thought it would be good to have a creative project as I was slowly turning into my grandmother. I’ve written 157 songs so far.
How has Peter been involved in the process if at all? My idea was to treat songwriting like a game or challenge, so I asked Peter to give me a title every evening. I would write and record the song the following day and play him the result. It’s worked for me in the way nothing else has. Sitting around waiting for the muse never got me anywhere. I should say that Peter doesn’t have any preconception of what the song should be about, or how it should sound. He just gives me a title and that’s it. Sometimes I will change the title retrospectively if I think it suits the song better.
Otherwise it’s a solo project — I do all the singing, play all the instruments (apart from bass on a few songs) and recording.
What have you learned about yourself as a songwriter, a musician and a home-recorder since you started doing this? I’ve learned not to be so precious about songwriting and to treat it like a job that I have to get on with every day, whether I feel like it or not. It’s helped me to override my perfectionist tendencies as I have to finish the song by the end of the day and play it to Peter even if I’m not happy with it. And I’ve learned that I can’t trust my own judgement, at least my first impressions. Sometimes I’ll think a song I’ve just written is rubbish but when I listen to it again a few days later I like it. And vice versa. My singing, guitar and keyboard playing were quite rusty at the beginning but they’re improving. And being in charge of the recording process means I can do as many retakes as I want, which has helped me to sort out some things I didn’t like about my singing.
Can you give us some details about some of the songs? Titles/subject/etc. “Ouija Board Romance” is set in a provincial English town in the 1920s and is about a housemaid being invited to join a séance hosted by her employer, and the unexpected result. “The Magic Hour” is about a suicide pact between a spoiled young man and an older courtesan in a hotel in Khartoum in the siege of 1884. “The Wind Will Change” is about a drifter in 1940s America, written from the perspective of a woman or girl who loves him but knows he’s not going to be around for very long. “Demon Lover” is the story of the ‘damsel with the dulcimer’ in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” who is outraged that she’s been spirited away from her loom in rural Devon and abandoned in the dark cavern of the poet’s imagination. And finally, “Cavanagh, Cody and Byrne” is about a mysterious vaudeville act that might actually be something much bigger.
I don’t know where these ideas and characters come from. I always wanted to be a writer or film director so maybe these are the novels I would have written or the films I’d have made, compressed into song form. I can picture the characters and their settings in detail and I know who would play the couple in “The Magic Hour” – Omar Sharif and Jeanne Moreau. I’ve also written some songs about universal experiences and situations with quite simple lyrics which aren’t like anything I’ve written before.
And some songs in recognisable styles but from a female perspective, like “In The Mirror” which sounds like an angsty early Who song but is about being a young woman, having to be what other people want you to be and being able to be yourself only when you’re alone.
Do you have any rituals or unusual holidays that you celebrate? My daughter said at age six that she thought it was unfair that we had Mother’s Day and Father’s Day but no Daughter’s Day so we instituted it and I send her a hand-made card and a little present every year.
What are you reading? I started reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Rachel Cusk’s Transit but am finding I can’t concentrate for long.
What is in your fridge? What is your specialty to make? The usual stuff, plus Thai green curry paste, tahini, fresh ginger, kefir. We’re eating very healthily—everything cooked from scratch, lots of vegetables, etc., but possibly a little too much of everything. Irish soda bread (Darina Allen’s recipe) is my lockdown speciality. I make it with spelt flour which gives it a kind of soft sweetness like English scones.
If you were running the country (or the world), what would you do first? I would absolutely hate to be in a position of power and can’t even imagine it. Being the mother of a small child was challenging enough.
What is your sign? Cancer.
What is your spirit animal? A rather small and motheaten bear.
When we’re allowed total freedom, what will you do first? Meet up with my sister and take her for the birthday lunch we had to cancel last year because of lockdown.
Any other future plans? Where and when will you release some tunes? I’ve just set up a page on Bandcamp where I’ll release some of my new songs very soon. Beyond that, I hope to finish the Would-be-goods album we were working on before lockdown and to start doing live shows again (if there are any venues left).
We’ve been big fans of Pete Paphides since the 1990s when both of us worked for the Time Out media family. One year ago today he published a memoir called Broken Greek — a warm, funny, relatable and charming tale. It captures the thrill of discovery for a young record shopper, the brutality and wonder of childhood, the split identity people from two different cultures often feel, and the euphoria of great pop songs in general. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time to burrow back in time to Birmingham 1982, where Pete fumbled his way into adulthood to a mighty mighty soundtrack. We caught up with him again(!) to chat about the book. (You can also follow him on Twitter and listen to his Soho Radio show)
chickfactor: so how did it feel to put yourself out there? pete paphides: it didn’t really feel like that. First of all, I started writing the book without knowing if I would finish it. Secondly, when I finished it, I had no idea if it would find a publisher. And then, when we found a publisher, I didn’t know if anyone would want to buy it. So those are three pretty big provisos! The amount of green lights required for me to get to a position where I’m “putting myself out there” was quite a lot. It was only when the book was finally out and I read the reviews that I realised what I’d done was quite exposing. But by then, it was too late. And because the reviews were nice, that softened the impact. The worst thing would be to reveal something personal about your life and for total strangers to say, “This has no real value”… that would have been a bit embarrassing.
Tell us about the process – how long it took to write, were your editors heavy or light, any sort of details about where you write/how you best go about focusing on writing? I started work on Broken Greek at the beginning of 2017. I wanted to write a book that felt as much like a history of music during a particular period as it did a memoir – and the connecting tissue between those two things was the way that music gave me an identity that was different to that of my parents. They were Greek and Greek-Cypriot, but I could never wholly identify as Greek because I was born in England. And pop was the engine of that realisation.
There were no editors, because I didn’t show it to any until it was finished. My friend Bob Stanley was invaluable throughout this time – he read every chapter, and when it started to become clear that this was going to be a lengthy book, he told me to hold my nerve and believe that it needed to be this long. And he was right. We only showed the book to one publisher – Katy Follain at Quercus, who first approached me about 20 years ago, when I was still at Time Out. She asked me if I had any ideas for a book. I told her that I was probably never going to write a book. And she just said, “Well, I hope you don’t mind me calling you up once every couple of years, because I think that one day you might – and when you do, I’d love to see it.” So, after all these years, I thought it was only correct that if I did write a book, Katy should be the first editor who sees it. That said, imagine how embarrassing it would have been if she thought it was awful…
The book was mostly written in cafés in North London. I find that the best place to write is in a café, surrounded by the everyday background bustle of people going about their business. At the beginning of the process, I’d drop my youngest daughter off at school in Golders Green (about five miles from our house) and make a short walk to a café called Bar Linda, which is right next to the tube station and coach terminus. It was pretty perfect in there: large windows, plenty of light and clay-coloured tea, poured out of huge stainless-steel teapots for tube train and coach drivers on their lunch breaks. I wrote the section about Sound Affects by The Jam in there; and at Bar Linda, I also wrote the early section where I heard The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love for the first time. Most of the final half of the book though, was written in another cafe The Palace (now renamed The Breakfast Hub) in Crouch End. It’s run by a young Turkish guy called Efe – they were so good to me in there. Ida who works there is Lithuanian. Every morning I’d go straight into the Palace from the YMCA gym across the road and, without even having to ask me, Ida would deposit a frothy coffee on my table. Nescafé on formica in a bustling caff – that’s my happy place. When the first hardbacks were ready, I went straight to the Palace and handed one to Efe and Ida. It’s now sitting on a shelf above the chilled display counter.
What kind of response did the book get from your family and friends? Generally, lovely. It seemed to affect my mother quite deeply. I think it made her feel like someone had borne witness to some of the unpleasant things that had happened to her. And that in turn made me realise that, as you get older, it does help you to achieve some measure of closure to have gone through some sort of adversity and feel like someone was watching as was able to help tell your story. Some of the most touching responses have been from musicians whose records I love – some of whom were even featured in the book: Helen O’Hara and Billy Adams from Dexys were both so lovely. Two of my favourite bands, Crowded House and The Trashcan Sinatras, made videos for singles and deliberately placed the book in background shots without telling me. Even when I watched them, I somehow didn’t notice – other fans had to pointed them out to me! I interviewed Elton John for a Record Collectorfeature and he had been reading the book in the days preceding the interview – he said that me in the book reminded him of himself at that age. Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens was lovely about it too. You can imagine how that felt – I was 15 when I bought my first Go-Betweens single (“Bachelor Kisses,” swiftly followed by “Part Company”). I love that band so much.
And from strangers? Way, way, way beyond my wildest expectations. I get messages via Twitter every day – people from all sorts of backgrounds who saw something of their own childhoods reflected in the book.
And the critics? Again, just great. The first review to appear was by the former Labour MP Alan Johnson in The New Statesman. I’ve never met him; I had no idea he’d even been given the book.
Was your family upset by it at all? Did they read it in advance? I didn’t show them the book in advance because I wanted them to read everything in its correct context. My dad is a complex character and you can’t really sugar-coat that. But if he didn’t also come across as a loving, conscientious father to his kids, then I haven’t done my job properly. That said my parents’ marriage isn’t what you would call – by the modern expectations – a harmonious one. I think we forget the degree to which notions of duty and expedience were once soaked into the definition of marriage. People didn’t expect their marriages to be like the fairytale idea of marriage. That’s why I wanted to mention Fiddler On The Roof in the book – because in some ways, that corresponds more closely to my parents’ notion of what a marriage might be. I think it was a bit of a shock for my dad to see how much I had remembered and to read about how his marriage had seemed to me as a child observing it. I didn’t think my mum and dad were particularly well-suited to each other, and those differences were compounded by their decision to leave behind their support systems, their extended families and run a succession of fish and chip shop in Birmingham for 25 years. I still feel that way, but I have to respect their belief in the sanctity of marriage to the exclusion of almost all other considerations. I don’t quite see it that way. A successful marriage can last for five years if those five years are happy ones. And conversely, if marriage lasts a lifetime, that alone doesn’t make it a success. So, yes, some of the details about their marriage would have been upsetting for him to read, but if I’d chosen not to include them, there would have been a gaping vacuum in the book. He wasn’t always the easiest person to be around, but he was under a lot of pressure, trying to keep a business going in a country that he only stayed in because his kids wanted to be here – and I wouldn’t have swapped him for any of the other Cypriot dads. And I have to say, after the initial surprise, he’s been great about it. We phone each other every couple of days. In fact, the first thing I’ll probably do after this is call him.
What did your daughters think of it? They’re too busy creating source material for their own memoirs to read mine!
What is the funniest response about the book that you got? I stopped reading the Amazon reviews quite early, but one of the first negative ones suggested that I might be autistic. It was the combination of disdain for the book and concern for my well-being that stuck in my memory.
Tell us a bit about the launch. When was it? Who attended? March 6, 2020 – the day of publication, a fortnight before lockdown. One of the most surreal days of my life. The basement of the Heavenly Social in central London. On the ground floor, Cornershop were hosting the launch party for their album England Is A Garden. I arranged for a ‘house’ band of some friends to play a few songs – covers of songs that were mentioned in the book. That came about after my friend Mike Batt (who was the guy behind the Wombles records in the early 70s) offered to play a couple of songs at the launch. Obviously, when Mike Batt offers to play at your launch, you bite his hand off. Then after that, things snowballed. Mike and I are both friends with David Arnold and Eos Counsell. David is, of course, a brilliant soundtrack composer and all-round lovely human; his partner is Eos who is a member of the popular classical quartet Bond, and a brilliant funny human being. Then David said, “I do a pretty good version of E.L.O.’s Livin’ Thing, on which Eos can play violin. Then somewhere along the way, Helen O’Hara from Dexys Midnight Runners, Sean Read (Dexys, The Rockingbirds), Dan Gillespie Sells (The Feeling), Kate St. John (The Dream Academy), Andy Lewis (Paul Weller, Pimlico) and James Walbourne (The Rails, The Pretenders) got involved. What James didn’t tell me was that, for the version of “Back On The Chain Gang,” he asked Chrissie Hynde if she fancied coming along and taking the lead. So suddenly, I’m at my own launch party watching Chrissie Hynde singing my favourite Pretenders song, and one of my favourite songs of all time. Then, a few minutes later, there’s Darren Hayman a.k.a. the world’s biggest Wombles fan, losing his mind because his childhood hero is up there doing “Remember You’re A Womble.” Being an exceptionally lovely man, Mike then offered to appear at the Rough Trade event to perform two songs with Stevie Jackson – who had primarily agreed to come along for the reading. Instead of my reading out extracts from Orange Juice songs, I figured it’d be much more fun to have Stevie actually singing and playing them in person. He also did a magnificent version of “Silver Lady” by David Soul. You know how much I adore Belle & Sebastian, so imagine how it felt to have him agree to do that, and to be up there on stage next to him.
You clearly have met some of the pop titans from your childhood via being a music writer – can you tell us a bit more about who/when/how it went? I met The Bee Gees in 1997, when I was still working for Time Out. That was a big deal for me, because these were people who I adored from a distance, watching them on TV when I was still in my pre-teens. They were promoting the release of their album Still Waters, and the three of them were gathered in Barry Gibb’s house, which was a mansion a short drive outside London. I walked into Barry’s house and he was on the phone to someone from The Brit Awards, where The Bee Gees were shortly due to receive a lifetime achievement award. He was berating them for suggesting that they receive their award from Jarvis Cocker. Barry objected on the basis that, during the previous year’s ceremony, Jarvis had “invaded” the stage during Michael Jackson’s performance of “Earth Song” – he’d been unamused by that. Anyway, the interview – once it had gotten underway – went so well that, at the very end, I summoned up the courage to ask the Bee Gees if they might be willing to sing an outgoing answerphone message to the tune of “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.” I asked them if they could sing, “If you want to leave a message for Pete/Hold on, hold on/Leave your name and number after the beep/Hold on, hold on.” To my amazement, they did it – two attempts to get it as good as they wanted it to be! When I got home and played it to my then-girlfriend Caitlin, she dropped to the floor in amazement. Twenty-four years later, she still insists that’s the thing that made her decide that we should be married.
This is clearly the first chunk of your life. Are there various other sequels to come, in a Tracey Thorn sort of way? Too early to say. I work pretty slowly – even more so while lockdown is ongoing and there are no cafés to work in…
What are the plans for putting Broken Greek on the screen? It’s been optioned for TV by Andrew Eaton (The Crown, 24-Hour Party People) and we’ve found a writer to adapt it, but whether it’ll ultimately happen, who knows? Lots of things get optioned but never made.
What other autobiographies have you loved to bits? Julian Cope: Head On/Repossessed; Robert Forster: Grant & I; Chrissie Hynde: Reckless; Katie Puckrik: Shooting From The Lip. Those are the four standouts for me.
Whose autobiography that hasn’t been written yet do you long to read? Linda Thompson.
What music from the book do you still play a ton? Loads. When I’m writing, I tend to listen to music that I know inside-out, so any MOR, soul, disco, New Wave and synth-pop megahits from the late 70s will serve that purpose.
What is your favorite Greek music of all time? Manos Hadjidakis’s work runs the gamut of soundtracks, pop, popular folk songs and classical. I listen to his music a lot. Nikos Xylouris is someone I mention in the book – he was a Cretan singer who rose to become something of a folk hero in the late ’60s and ’70s up to the time of his death in 1980. My parents reacted to his death the way most people of their age reacted to John Lennon’s death.
What snacks from your childhood are the most comforting in 2021? Primula Cheese Spread that comes straight out of a tube – that’s been a dramatic rediscovery for me lately. Also McVities Ginger Cake: thirty seconds in the microwave with a blob of tinned custard added to it. A bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes with hot milk just before bedtime is pretty hard to beat.
Do you know what’s become of the characters from your book apart from your family and rockstars? One of my teachers has been in touch – my German teacher. For legal reasons, I had to change most of the names in the book. His real name was Mr Thomas, but I didn’t try too hard to change his name. I just removed the ‘a’ and called him Mr Thoms because he was tall and had a moustache, just like Peter Thoms, the keyboard player and trombonist from Landscape, who had a hit in 1981 with a song called “Einstein A-Go-Go.” When Mr Thomas got in touch after reading the book, he thought it might have been a typo. One name I didn’t change was that of Ged, the older girl who lived next door because we’re still in touch—she’s a librarian these days—so she was able to give her approval. In fact, one of the nicest things about the response to the book has been the affection that people feel for Ged—she’s like the surrogate older sister that everyone would like to have had. When we hosted one of Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Parties for a Broken Greek–themed playlist, I got to introduce everyone to Ged. I can’t tell you how surreal it felt to have Tim Burgess from The Charlatans tweeting Ged because he knew her from the book.
Here is a little promo film we made for the book. We didn’t have an advertising budget, so I got my friend Johnny Daukes to record a version of Brotherhood Of Man’s 1976 hit Save Your Kisses For Me (the winning song in the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest and mentioned extensively in the book) in the style of Subterranean’s Homesick Blues. Johnny is a genius. Not only did he record the song, but he made the video.
What films/TV/music/whatnot have gotten you thru the past year? Or the past four or five for that matter? Caitlin and I hadn’t watched The Sopranos prior to December 2020. We can now concur with the popular view that it’s the all-time greatest televised work of fiction. We also binge-watch any programmes hosted by Cornish TV chef Rick Stein. We’re strangely comforted by what an awkwardly on-camera presence he has. He also doesn’t know how to end and on-screen conversation. The forced smile at the end of the exchange is almost unbearable. And yet also, as a participant in that moment of awfulness, I feel like I’ve been propelled to the essence of something of great existential significance. So much of life feels like that moment fleetingly captured in Rick’s pained grimace. Obviously, Seinfeld and Cheers FOREVER. We’re also big fans of Best Home Cook. Claudia Winkleman can do no wrong in my book. The fact that, ultimately, none of this really matters is the complicit unsayable bond between her and the viewer. Finally, can I also mention Queer Eye, which is the one show that will never fail to envelope our family in feelings of warmth and well-being? We encounter way too much wanton cruelty in our everyday lives, and so it’s more important than ever – to misquote The Chills – look for the good in others so that they can see the good in you. If we were all a bit more like Jonathan, Karamo, Antoni, Bobby and Tan, the world would be a much healthier place.
Can Brexit be reversed? I think so. But not the damage to the lives of all the small businesspeople who were duped into believing the lies on which it was predicated. This country – or, more specifically, the level of political discourse – needs to grow up a little.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do once we’re all allowed total freedom? My local YMCA gym – in particular, the perfumed hair and body wash that comes out of the pump-action dispenser in the shower. Working in cafés. Record shops. All of these things, in any order.
Do you have any future plans/books/etc.? I co-run a small reissue label called Needle Mythology. We’ve put out records by Stephen Duffy, Ian Broudie, Tanita Tikaram, Bernard Butler & Catherine Anne Davies and Robert Forster. They sound as brilliant as they look, and we’re putting out some more this year, by Whipping Boy, Neil & Tim Finn and Butcher Boy. We’re also about to put out our first brand-new album, The Obvious I, by Ed Dowie. I don’t know if there’ll be a sequel to Broken Greek. I’m proceeding slowly, much as I did with the first one. And if it turns out to be a book, then great. If not, well I’ve still written one more than I ever thought I would.
Thanks for chatting with us, Pete!! Thank you. It’s a continuing honour to have the chickfactor stamp of approval.
Read these two excerpts from Pete’s book here and here.
anyone who has seen the go-go’s documentary has seen some of theresa’s photographs. she was out and about taking photos of the los angeles punk scene back in the day, including photos of joan jett, billy idol and the jam. this interview focuses heavily on the go-go’s! see more of her photos here.
interview by gail o’hara / photographs by theresa kereakes
chickfactor: how are you today!? can we save the world from evil? theresa: hi! I am doing well, but I am concerned about saving the world from evil. we can, but there are so many variables. like the willfully ignorant. are you currently living in nashville or LA or both? nashville. I’ve been here for 12 years, but I do visit LA two or three times a year. despite its horrible traffic, its overdevelopment, loss of characteristic architecture, displacement of normal people to make room for business plazas no one now needs, and homes no one can afford, I still do miss living there. my LA of the ’50s through early ’80s is noir LA, punk rock LA, and even though it was always the second largest city in the states, it felt like a town because the metropolis is so spread out. my LA is weirdly the LA of tarantino’s once upon a time in hollywood, which I enjoyed for the nostalgia factor. for the most part, some sections of the valley and of hollywood still seem untouched by the 21st century. I miss NYC too. I lived there for 20 years, and have been back once or twice a year since I left, but damn, if it isn’t so expensive.
how and when did you meet the go-go’s? (and billy idol, joan jett and paul weller) I met belinda carlisle when she was still belinda kurczecki, during her time on her high-school speech and debate team, as I was on my high school’s speech and debate team. we competed in the same events over four years’ time—original oratory, impromptu speaking and debate. an aside, I was known as the squirrel queen of debate. this means I was able to present and argue a case so ridiculous and squirrelly and yet prevail. I often tell people I’ve been pro-UBI since 1974, and that’s because in 1974, the policy debate topic was: resolved: that the federal government should guarantee a minimum annual income to each family unit. the case against it was always comprised of the same old GOP talking points you hear now about UBI and unemployment insurance—people wouldn’t work because: free money. my rebuttal to this was “mother’s milk leads to heroin addiction.” I love absurdity. I love taking a debate opponent off track with a flippant response, and then being able to control the argument philosophically.
when the participants’ names were called in the awards presentations, belinda and I were the two girls with the unpronounceable K names, and we bonded over that. we were also both fashion oriented and spent time in between the speech and debate rounds talking about the latest issue of Vogue and identifying designers we liked and styles we thought we could get away with wearing in school. my mom was a fashion designer, so I’d get her to copy all the latest styles and make them for me. I’d be wearing kenzo! we also both liked shoes and accessories and vintage style—back before it was called “vintage” and just known as thrift shopping. our bond was made over weekends through our high-school years; I graduated early—january 1976 (I applied and was accepted to start mid-term at UCLA) so I could start college a term earlier and in reality, I just wanted to move to LA proper and be on my own.
after I had graduated, and was living in the UCLA dorms, I’d see belinda and teri ryan (lorna doom to the world) every weekend in the rainbow parking lot. that was a scene. you’d go to see and be seen. the rainbow bar & grill is next door to the roxy theatre. all the rock & roll people would drink and dine at the rainbow (great pizza; good bars; DJ upstairs), including rock stars, so even if you didn’t have money to dine, or weren’t old enough to drink, you could still be a part of the scene and catch a glimpse, a chat, a photo or an autograph with any of the local and visiting rock stars. belinda and lorna would go to shows, hit the rainbow parking lot, and then drive an hour back to their home in thousand oaks. after they graduated, they eventually found an apartment in west hollywood on holloway drive, just off the strip, in an apartment building next door to the one where sal mineo was killed in his driveway. I was very aware of the location because mineo was killed right when I moved into the dorms and started hanging out in west hollywood, and when my parents saw the news stories on television, they made me call them every night to check in. since we didn’t have cell phones back then, of course, it was to make sure I was in my dorm room (or somewhere inside, with a phone). it was walking distance to tower records (a scene and a hang! you could honestly see elton john or alice cooper shopping there) and licorice pizza record stores, the whisky, the roxy and the rainbow parking lot. that’s centrally located, because as you know, nobody walks in LA, they even drive to their mailboxes!
so by the fall of 1976, we were all living in LA proper. I was in the dorms until april of 1977 and then I got a place in hollywood, which became known as the famous lobotomy apartment (because pleasant and I would put the zine together there). the address was 7231 franklin ave., on the northwest corner of franklin & la brea. la brea was the avenue that separated classic hollywood from “real estate west hollywood.” I believe west hollywood actually has a boundary that’s further west of la brea, such as fairfax—but this is real estate speak here. we were on the OK side of the tracks, and this is important in punk living because so many people lived in old hollywood proper (which many uppity people considered the wrong side of the tracks—la brea being the dividing line) in the canterbury apartments on cherokee ave., spitting distance to the masque, where bands rehearsed and played, and where punk rock people hung out. now, 45 years later, the canterbury touts its punk past as a selling point (see “connection to history”).
at some point late in 1977 (I was living in the famous lobotomy apartment at this time), I ran into belinda and lorna out and about and they were telling me they were trying to stay out until daylight because when they were trying to go home, they heard suspicious and dangerous noises in the bushes around the alley by their apartment. knowing where they lived, and the sal mineo murder still fresh in my mind after a year, I invited them to spend the night at my apartment. they ended up staying for a few months while looking for a new apartment (or two) of their own. I had a wurlitzer electric piano and at several times over the weeks and months she was there, I’d hear belinda muse about being in a band. I think they were probably still bunking at the lobotomy apartment when everyone made the trip up to san francisco to see the sex pistols. in february, the king tut exhibit came to los angeles and every punk who wanted a job as a ticket taker or whatever, really, at LA county art museum got one. I guess all that kohl eyeliner made them instant thematic fixed-term employees. so around that time, you saw a huge surge of punks becoming first-time renters because they had jobs, most of them getting places at the canterbury, or renting houses as a group. belinda did not work at LACMA though. as far back as I remember, she always had a hard-core work ethic. she had a job at the hilton hotel in the administrative office. a real job!
I met charlotte caffey in line in front of the whisky a go-go one summer as we were waiting for doors to open for a ramones gig. she soon started a band she called the eyes, who I frequently saw. they played a gig on my birthday, 1978, where they opened for the jam. that is when I met the jam, together with the rest of my lobotomy cohorts. I still remember the publicist at polygram’s name: len epand (I even have a photo of him with rick buckler!). the “daft PR stunt,” as paul weller has referred to it in post-1978 interviews, involved the label hiring two red double-decker london busses and squiring a bunch of journalists to the king’s head pub (where legit english people did hang out) in santa monica from the starwood in west hollywood. there was fish & chips & mushy peas, all the booze the bartenders could pour and darts. we made a big deal about it being my birthday, and as we (the lobotomy zine crew: me, pleasant, and co-founder randy kaye) were the same age as the band members, and actual real punk rockers, the jam took to us. that’s how we met them, and I maintained a casual correspondence with paul’s father, john weller, for decades. mr. weller would always get me on the guest list, no matter where I lived, or how tight the gig, and he was always completely accessible. the last time I saw them was in NYC in the early ’00s. paul had performed at the town hall, and we went back to their hotel and closed the bar. I spent a great deal of the night talking with mr. weller, as we were both interested in writing a memoir of the early punk days.
joan jett was friends with pleasant and randy since high-school days when they all hung out at rodney’s english disco, which I didn’t do very much. they grew up in beverly hills and in the valley and I was in santa barbara, although I did spend many a long weekend in LA, and during the summer, convinced my parents to let me and various friends spend a week at a time in town each month. my dad and a couple other of my friends’ dads had offices in LA, and also LA pied-à-terres that we could stay at. we also took advantage of our parents’ season tickets to the hollywood bowl, universal amphitheatre (went opening night to jesus christ superstar in 1973; I snuck in a cassette recorder and taped it) and also the more grown-up downtown venues like the marc taper forum (I saw matthew broderick in one of the brighton beach plays). so my rodney’s visits were limited. joan, however, was an emancipated minor (I suppose because of being in the runaways, being a professional musician and traveling the world), and she had her own apartment before anyone else. by the time I had moved to LA and started hanging out with pleasant, dropping in on joan was just part of a regular day. she was one of us, and she was also a rock star. In our eyes, she was a huge rock star.
pleasant had an obsession with billy idol, and I was friends with a guy who worked at chrysalis records, so between us always dropping in on rodney bingenheimer’s radio show, and my friendship with brendan (bourke, who would later work as billy’s manager), we kind of had a lock on him whenever he might come to town. because of the zine, we had a legitimate reason to go drop in on rodney, and he even put us on the air a few times. we would have benefits for ourselves at the whisky, and we’d promote the shows on his radio show. we always booked local bands, and rodney was the radio station champion of local bands. we had the best of all possible symbiotic relationships. I’ll interject that a few years ago, in retrospect, I branded us inadvertent teenage entrepreneurs. we were doing marketing and events and not really understanding that was an actual job—we were just trying to support our zine. pleasant and I very much planned to talk with billy idol on the phone when there was a scheduled call-in from him for rodney’s show. we did speak with billy for a long, long time after his on-air interview with rodney concluded. he told us he would be coming to the USA to do a promo tour in advance of the american release of the generation X album. we became his tour guides. that’s how my friendship with brendan turned into a mutually beneficial thing. he got to actually spend time at his office getting work done while we entertained billy, AND he also got to include pleasant and me in all of the activities he had to do with billy. all the photos that I took during the week we spent with billy show more than just an english kid visiting LA. they illustrate how the ’70s were so much different than times are now. it’s the difference between an analog life and a digital one. it’s the difference between a world where people have some sense of decorum and one where they have zero filter. we took billy to the airport when he was going back home. we accompanied him right to the gate, and I took pictures every step of the way. that would be impossible now—or even in the 90s. I don’t know if we had a false sense of general safety and trust, or if the world has gone to shit. both can be true.
were you friends with them or just part of the scene? sowith the go-go’s, I was closest to belinda, because I knew her from before. and I knew charlotte, but she was kind of a loner. I’d see her at shows, but her social life seemed very private. considering her solid musicianship and songwriting chops, I guess I figured she was just home creating. I saw her a tiny bit more socially when she was dating guys I knew, but then again, not that much more, because it was still just at gigs, but our conversations would last longer and be more substantive because there were more of us keeping the conversation going. pleasant and belinda became the very best of friends, so the three of us became collaborators in addition to just being friends. I wanted to make all kinds of pictures and pleasant and belinda, together and individually, were willing to be in them. a couple years ago, jane wiedlin asked me why I had photographed belinda almost exclusively, and that’s when it hit me that we did so much work together because we already knew each other before the punk scene happened. I was always in awe of jane, who at the time called herself jane drano. she made cool punk clothes, and because my mother was also a fashion designer, it was something I respected at some level where I felt like I didn’t want to trespass. the other members of the go-go’s I knew only from being at shows, just like the dozens of other punk people I knew. we all recognized each other, because the scene was really small—maybe the same core 100 people, overall. it was like high school in that you had your bubble and stayed there, but you all knew who everyone else was
what kind of camera were you using when you started out? I had a pentax spotmatic F and a nikon FM. I sold the pentax, which was a christmas gift in 1973. I had seen the faces earlier that year and didn’t have a proper camera—ie: an SLR; I shot as much as I could on a canon super 8mm motion picture camera) and bought a nikkormat. I’m still using the nikon FM. the nikkormat got splashed unmercifully when I was crossing the irish sea between wales and ireland and I couldn’t afford to get the work done on it, so I put it in an oxfam donation box. was the go-go’s doc director around way back in those days? if she was around, I didn’t know her! if you’d directed it, what would you have done differently? what is missing from it? what is your favorite part? the way I see it, there are two ways to do a music documentary for the mass audience. either way, you have to figure out what story you’re going to tell, and then tell it without putting in everything and the kitchen sink. allison elwood did a great job. of course, small things—details that only friends of the band members or people who were deeply involved in the scene would know or care about—and for minutiae’s sake, really—are what’s missing; but I don’t think the film or the band’s story is the worse off for it. there was enough back-story and a lot of stark honesty about the usual rock & roll subjects— drugs, personnel changes, record and management deals, breaking up. a few people from back in the day have either contacted me directly, or posted commentary on social media about events and people who were missing. but overall, the story is told, and the people who tell that first-person story are all there—all the band members, past and present, former manager, record label, members of bands they toured with, a couple friends. the other way to tell the story is the tabloid way, and I’m not a fan of that. what do you learn from that? when you see a film about an artist, or read a book about them, what’s really much more interesting is their process. that’s the beautiful part about the go-go’s documentary—you heard both charlotte and jane’s songwriting process. that’s valuable. that might be my favorite thing about the film—hearing how charlotte wrote “we got the beat,” and how jane wrote “our lips are sealed” based on lyrical ideas from terry hall. I liked hearing how much charlotte loved kathy valentine’s “vacation” and then helped transform it into a hit. how many of your photos are used in the film? I think there are 4 that made the final cut. They’d requested another one specifically, but that one isn’t in it. the one they requested that didn’t make the cut? it’s your favorite! how many books of your work are out there and are they still available? every year, I make a limited-edition punk rock day of the dead, which is a cumulative in memoriam collection, that unfortunately grows bigger every year. I only make 20 or so of them and each edition is sold out. I make a small run of catalogs that correspond with exhibits I do, and I don’t have any left. my work is featured in many other books though! punk 365 by holly george warren, barnes & noble’s in-house press did something called the encyclopedia of punk that I’m in; todd oldham’s joan jett book has a couple of my photos, as do the bomp!book and the creem book. the author dave thompson has used my work in his books about patti smith, joan jett and the iggy/bowie/lou triumvirate. there’s a book about jews in punk calledthe heebie-jeebies at CBGB’s: a secret history of jewish punk that includes a photo I took of stiv bators doing the goose-step.
were there other bands from that time you think should have gotten more attention? the screamers are woefully unrepresented; everyone in LA loved them, and san francisco did as well. but outside the big cities, no one knew who they were, and they didn’t have a record, so word of mouth and photos will have to keep them alive. I loved the alley cats. dianne chai, the bass player, rocked this ronnie spector look. the band was tight and fierce. the last were a fantastic power-pop group that played well in any bill, from hardcore to pop. their songs were strong. they’re on one of the rhino compilations and worth seeking out.
tell us about what you’re doing now. I have an actual day job utilizing skills I learned in college! I work for warner music group, doing back office things. my work is not creative or conditional on any artist having a hit, which is about as much job security one can have in the music business. the role I occupy provides a service to the labels (I work in royalties; it’s a little bit business affairs, a little bit finance). if I fuck up, of course, I could lose my job. my point is, with this kind of job, it is mine to lose—my position isn’t dependent on a specific project being a hit. I do a fair bit of guest lecturing and speaking at universities about punk rock, and it turns into a lesson in inadvertent feminist entrepreneurism. I also talk about copyright and recording agreements. when I was younger and had the fortitude, I worked in entertainment law firms, and I still read recording agreements every day. my alma mater UCLA is my main university outlet, and a couple times a year, pleasant and I work with jessica schwartz, the resident punk-rock professor in the herb alpert school of music. I am currently involved (as much as one can be in a pandemic where you can’t travel) with a theatre group in LA that is mounting a production called adobe punk, a deeply fascinating and layered play that’s a coming-of-age story involving kids whose life epiphanies are often delivered through punk music. in february, I attended and spoke at one of their work-in-progress readings together with richard schave, who is an historian of LA culture and architecture. I can’t say enough about its greatness and potential. then COVID interrupted live performance work.
I feel like I have been working on putting together a photo book for decades. actually, I guess I have been. back in the ’80s, when punk was hitting its 10-year mark, I tried to do gallery shows and put together a book based on that but not a single gallerist anywhere recognized contemporary street or documentary photography as “art.” I knew a lot of self-proclaimed cutting-edge people in the art world in NYC and even they too were like, “photography is not art.” this bothered me for years, until very recently when I watched a documentary about robert mapplethorpe, who also ran into many roadblocks being considered an artist and getting shows. photography was ghettoized. so, of course, I chose the DIY/punk route of getting shows. I set up shows just like bands do in-stores, and all the interaction I had with people who were fans of my subjects, or people who appreciated photography taught me a lot. and while doing my never-ending photo exhibit tours, I realized having a theme or some kind of unity in a collected body of work is important. so now I am over-thinking unifying themes for photo books.
I’m also collaborating and solo organizing storytelling/spoken word events. this grew out of the guest lectures; students were always asking about the fun times and wanted stories about people they only knew about via urban legend. that’s how the war stories project got started. I want to do another project not unlike war stories, but I would like to gather groups of photographers and do a show & tell kind of event, and also gather groups of punk memoirists to read from their books (which would also give them additional opportunities to sell them). I keep thinking it would be like a live action rashomon of punk… we’d all pick a time/event/band everyone wrote about and compare/contrast. and except for working alone at home with my scanner, none of this can be done until it’s safe to be around groups of people. CF
As Rhino Records prepares to reissue Fan Modine’s debut album, Slow Road to Tiny Empire, we checked in with a number of musicians, label heads and others about meeting songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gordon Zacharias, how Fan Modine’s sound has shifted across decades and what the album means in 2020. Written and recorded between 1995 and ’97 and originally released on Phovsho (vinyl) in 1997 and Slow River/Rykodisc (CD) in 1998, Slow Road is a critically acclaimed cult fave that is available now on digital services, with a deluxe vinyl version coming in the future. The album, which is a travelogue tracing his transition from Boston to New York, shows glimmers of greatness: a distinct voice in a crowded indie-rock landscape that included shoegaze, jangly pop, orchestral rock and space rock. Now a quarter century on, we listen to the folks who knew Fan Modine well, played on the records and helped Zacharias perfect his orchestral bedroom pop sound.
Compiled by Gail O’Hara
Musicians who played on Slow Road to Tiny Empire: Gordon Zacharias, who also produced; Joan Wasser; Clarke Martty; Dylan Fitzgerald; Kevin March ; Sean O’Brien Josh Hager
Tell us about the ideas that went into making the album.
Gordon Zacharias, Fan Modine: It is a travelog of my move from Boston to New York City. I developed an allegory around that and things going on in my love life, which later became a screenplay and second album. I wrote the songs primarily in Boston but completed it in New York. I jumped into the Sleepyhead van back to NYC one night at the Middle East after a show in ’95 and planted some roots in Carroll Gardens. I returned for my things a little later in ’96.
What were you like back then?
Gordon:In high school I played in a band and was very influenced by the New Romantic thing and the Boston goth scene of the late ’80s. And then I had my heart devastated by an older girl who worked at a major label that I had my first real love affair with. She promised to take our band to the big time. And then had an affair with the guitar player. This coincided with me transferring from public school to an extremely progressive institution without a set curriculum. I began to read Hesse, and the Vedas and became interested in Eastern religion and ascetic living, and ultimately renounced making music as a career. ¶ I met a spiritual teacher and traveled with them for several years, hitchhiking and practicing yoga around North America. I became disillusioned with my progress and returned to Boston, got a job at Tower Records and auditioned for bands. I lived with art students, joined a techno band and encouraged them to let me sing. I befriended a security guard at the Museum School and he let me in to the building, where I attended studio classes and was taken under the wing of a few students and teachers. This propelled my interest and learning in digital audio and synthesis. ¶ Later I moved into an illegal loft downtown, where I lived with Joan Wasser and later Josh Hager. I began playing out in a band called Astroboy, which was inspired by Big Star and Spacemen 3 (in fact, people used to call us Spacemen 4). Then I decided to go solo and built a studio in my room with a Tascam 388 reel to reel and an E-Mu Darwin hard disk recorder. I took some Astroboy sessions I had recorded and erased everything but the drums and then overdubbed new parts over the slowed-down tracks. This became the basis of the first Fan Modine recordings. I didn’t start playing out as Fan Modine until I moved to New York.
What bands were you listening to back then? You often got compared to Folk Implosion or the Magnetic Fields, but I also think of Elephant 6 and the Lilys when I hear Slow Road.
Gordon: Having been introduced to Mary Timony by my roommate Joan, Mary and I became fast friends and I became a huge fan of Helium. The Dirt of Luck was released while we were first getting to know each other. I was also exposed to her boyfriend Ash’s band Polvo for the first time, but Helium was more my speed. I really didn’t gravitate toward indie rock except for maybe the Pastels. But all of a sudden my friends all seemed to be in these touring indie-rock bands so I got into it—especially the live shows. I had been listening to more psychedelic bands of the era, like Mercury Rev, Spacemen 3/Spiritualized, and deeply falling in love with Bowie and T. Rex, and some later Britpop bands like Primal Scream, Blur, and then dreamier stuff—MBV, Heavenly, Lush, Catherine Wheel. But given that I worked at Tower, nothing really escaped me. I remember hearing all of the latest grunge bands releases and being ok with them too. Lou Barlow used to come into Tower quite a lot, and he would scour the indie bins and I was pretty intrigued by him. I liked a few of his songs. But it’s true, a friend of mine at the time produced that Folk Implosion record for the Kids movie and it really resonated. And I always like Lou’s voice. He must have listened to as much of Martin Gore as I did. ¶ I became aware of Lilys in the same loft that I recorded the record in because the album cover was designed by a roommate. I heard him playing the cassette of mixes and freaked—asked if I could borrow it. Listening to that album almost maybe me stop recording, as I could never imagine making anything as good, or understand how he did it. I played that cassette for Jeff Buckley around that same time. He was visiting my roommate whom he was dating and shared my astonishment. He was also very encouraging about my own work. ¶ I somehow didn’t become familiar with Magnetic Fields until I moved to NYC, where the people I knew from Ladybug Transistor and later the Essex Green were infatuated with them. Soon after I was also in love with them and eventually met Claudia and Stephin and shared some performances, including Stephin’s debut of 69 Love Songs at a Chickfactor thing at Under Acme. I was barred from speaking to Stephin for a year because I had made a pass at him at Dick’s Bar one night. Claudia would call me their biggest fan. ¶ I’m associated with Elephant 6 in that I co-wrote and played on the first Essex Green EP. Members of that band also played in the live Fan Modine band.
Tell us about the recording process of Slow Road.
Gordon:I built a studio in my room with a Tascam 388 reel-to-reel and an E-Mu Darwin hard disk recorder. I took some Astroboy sessions I had recently recorded and erased everything but the drums and then overdubbed new parts over the slowed-down tracks. This became the basis of the first Fan Modine recordings. I would improvise over the drum tracks and build themes with keyboards and synths. Once I heard the makings of a song, I would transfer mixes over to the hard disk recorder and edit the tracks into a song structure. Finally, I would add vocals, percussion and string overdubs. ¶ This was all fueled by ephedrine and weed, and some very late nights. The loft I was living in was very active, with a lot of touring musicians coming through—just so much influence. My roommates were also getting 6-figure record deals, and people like Ric Ocasek and Jeff Buckley were stopping by.
When did you first meet Gordon? In what capacity do you know him? Mary Timony (Ex Hex, Helium): I met Gordon in 1995 in Boston, and we kind of immediately hit it off. I felt like we came from the same kinda music/art planet. He lived in a giant artist loft in a former factory in downtown Boston. We hung out a lot that summer. I remember sneaking into an empty loft in the same building he lived in, crawling around on gigantic platforms, talking about Brian Eno, joking around, and just getting lost in a good way, the way I usually feel when I’ve found a fellow music time traveler.
Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields): The Magnetic Fields probably played shows with Fan Modine multiple times, but I don’t recall the famous Dick’s Bar incident.
George Howard(founder of Slow River Records, former president of Rykodisc, cofounder of TuneCore, Professor of Business Management, Berklee and Brown): Gordon was friends with my closest friend and bandmate, Keith Grady, while we were in college. He was also friends with my friend and ex-bandmate, Joan Wasser (Joan as Policewoman). I distinctly remember Gordon being impossibly cool…he frequently rocked a white belt.
Kendall Jane Meade (Mascott, Juicy): I met Gordon in the late ’90s, through mutual friends, when I was living in Brooklyn. We hit it off right away, maybe because we both have midwestern roots. We also both had albums on Slow River Records, which was run by my college buddy, George Howard. (George had released two albums for my very first band, Juicy.)
Josh Hager (DEVO, formerly Elevator Drops, the Rentals after that; producer and engineer): I first met Gordon at a studio called New Alliance in Boston. That was around 1993/94. He was introduced by a friend. I was living at the studio and then became roommates with Gordon in Boston’s South End.
Joan Wasser (Joan As Police Woman, Dambuilders, Fan Modine): Did I meet Gordon through Josh Hager? Probably. This was 25+ years ago. Gordon, Josh and I ended up living together in a massive loft in the South End of Boston before it was a place anyone wanted to be. We all had bedrooms you could roller-skate in, and that’s not even including the common area! The closest life to us there were a homeless shelter and an Asian supermarket, and even that was a distance. This meant we got to be as wild and as loud as we wanted at any time of the day and night. Otherwise, totally free.
Jeremy Chatelain (ex Jets To Brazil / Handsome / Helmet / Cub Country / Insight): I met Gordon in 2003 when I moved to Chapel Hill, NC, from Brooklyn, NY. My girlfriend (now wife) and I were invited to Melissa and Gordon’s house for a party. We didn’t know more than two people in our new hometown, so we wanted to go meet the locals. The following week we were invited back for a BBQ with a few friends and I was asked to play bass in Fan Modine. It took me by surprise as I didn’t really know any of his bandmates, and I was looking to form a band of my own. Gordon struck me as a spacey, kind of far-out, artist. I loved his vibe. Plus, he’s funny as hell. I ended up playing bass in Fan Modine for a few years while I lived in Chapel Hill.
Ash Bowie (Polvo, Helium): I met Gordon around 1995 after I’d moved to Boston. He was part of a slightly younger art-school/rocker crowd that I didn’t really hang with, but I occasionally ran into him at parties. All I really remember is that he once implied that I didn’t like poetry because I wasn’t a big fan of his buddy’s band. He eventually relocated to Chapel Hill, and then I moved back around 2002, and we became good friends after that.
Chuck Johnson (solo artist; also plays in Saariselka): I met him when I lived in North Carolina, around 2003; soon after he moved there. We’re friends and for a brief time we were bandmates.
Missy Thangs (producer/engineer at Fidelitorium, Birds of Avalon, ex-Fan Modine): I met Gordon through Alex Maiolo. We played a handful of shows all over: SXSW, chickfactor zine’s 20th-anniversary shows, among others. This was in support of Gratitude for the Shipper. I was also a part of the Julu Road film shoot in Chinatown in NYC. Bubble tea, steamed buns and kombucha baby. It was a special time in my life. Gordon has always been very kind to me and I’ve always appreciated his apparent ability to stay true to himself. I admire him tremendously.
Clarke Martty: Gordon and I had the same day gig, working at a video duplication firm on Newbury Street in Boston. I filled in on drums for the last utterance of Astroboy, for a few shows. At the time, we were hanging a lot at this group flat that overlooked the Boston common, a lot of mutual friends were living there and we convinced Mel Lederman to play bass with us and formed the Fan Modine. We rehearsed in Mel’s basement rehearsal space in the same building, and fastly gained a repertoire of about eight songs. My favorite of that bunch was a group effort called “Horus”—I don’t know if it ever got developed into something later on. When Gordon moved into his flat in the SoWa district of Boston, we rehearsed and recorded in that space for a while. The most memorable time was one weekend recording session where we recorded my drums in the (4th floor) stairway, putting mics on the different floor landings between the 3rd and 5th floors. Listening back later, it was a massive drum sound, but a bit undefined once overdubs happened. We did a few shows live; the most memorable was at the Gardner Art Museum, when we played the big room there for an outstanding crowd, opening for Syrup USA. Big fun! Then I left for a hired-drum tour, and was away from Boston for about two months. By the time I returned, Gordon was basically working alone.
Murray Nash (cofounder Phovsho Records; executive producer; CFO): I was working in Soho in 1995 and every Friday night I would drop into Rocks in Your Head, a small but iconic record store. I had a habit of asking the folks behind the counter what music they would recommend and buy it in good faith. If I liked it, I would go back to the same person and take further recommendations. That’s how I met Gordon: He was someone who would pull out all these albums and I would just buy them all, no questions asked. After about 4 weeks of this, he challenged me as to who I was and whether I was a talent scout for a record label. Truth was I had just moved to NYC, was a bit of a record collector with an interest in music that seemed to overlap with Gordon’s, and not much else, other than work, was in my life. The next week I turned up with a six-pack: we sat behind the counter and drank beer, played music and chatted, while he manned the cash register. ¶ One week Gordon turned up with a tape of “his music” and upon listening to that I realized I was in the company of somebody with an exceptional voice, a sensitivity and complexity of insight I hadn’t fully appreciated, and a unique way of expressing it. All this led to the establishment of Phovsho Records, the release of Slow Road to Tiny Empire and a life-shaping friendship. We both insisted this would be a vinyl-only project—which was pretty much commercial suicide in the mid-’90s.
When/how did you become aware of Fan Modine? George Howard: I’d guess it came through either Keith or Joan [Wasser]. But who knows. In hindsight, it was a pretty cool little scene in the early ’90s in Boston. My label, Slow River, was signing artists who I thought were making interesting music around town (Willard Grant Conspiracy, Tom Leach, Juicy, Future Bible Heroes with Stephin Merritt) and around the country (Sparklehorse, Josh Rouse, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, who had moved from Boston/NH to SF, etc.) It was still sort of a small community; and in addition to putting records out, I was playing in my band around town/the country too. Pretty inevitable that we’d run into each other.
Matt McMichaels (Surrender Human; The Mayflies USA, Chris Stamey’s Big Star Third project): I first really met Gordon in the summer of 2010, when my pals Lee Waters and Michael Holland suggested I might be a good fit to play guitar with the band he was putting together in advance of the release of Gratitude for the Shipper. But Gordon and I quickly realized that we had in fact met before, back when he was living in New York and my Chapel Hill–based band the Mayflies USA was playing up there every six weeks or so. My brother-in-law at the time was Rob Sacher, owner of Luna Lounge, so the Mayflies would stay at my sister and Rob’s apartment on First and A and play at Mercury Lounge, Luna, Brownie’s and a bunch of Brooklyn dives. It was the best of times. We also probably drank together at Henry’s in Chapel Hill back in the indie rock heyday, but we couldn’t credibly recall.
Jeremy Chatelain: I knew nothing about the band before being asked to join. But we shared some musical tastes and I loved his songs, like, a lot. I feel extremely lucky to have played on Gratitude for the Shipper and I think it’s one of the best pieces of music I’ve ever been involved with.
Ash Bowie: Fan Modine played with Helium in Philadelphia, and I was playing in Helium. I can’t remember who the headliner was (maybe Sonic Youth), but we played in a large theater, and they were great. I don’t think I had seen them play previously, but they played a jaw-dropping version of “Cardamon [sic] Chai” that reminded me of My Bloody Valentine.
Did you work together on music? Joan Wasser: Gordon and I made a lot of music together. As far as I know, I was “in” Fan Modine. I did several shows with Gordon and various musicians in Boston and NYC. We made music in the loft all the time. I remember recording magnificent drums in the echoey stairwell of that building.
Josh Hager: Yes, Gordon and I have worked on some collaborations that are unreleased. Though if I remember correctly, I do say a word or two on his first record. I also worked with him on the beginning stages of Homeland in my studio and played on a few tracks. I also played on a track that we did at the record plant in L.A. Can’t remember the name.
Jeremy Chatelain: Yes. I played shows with Fan Modine over the course of a few years. We went on a short tour with Andrew Bird. And, I played bass on Gratitude for the Shipper. We recorded the bass and drum tracks live in his living room in an old house right off the main drag in Carrboro. He fed Lee Waters (the drummer) and I sushi and beers while we recorded, he was a warm and gracious host. It was a great musical vibe. He was fun to work with. A quirky, melodic pianist and fantastic lyricist. He’s the only musician that I know who can pull off singing about sandwiches and make it sound emotive.
Kendall Meade: I was touring a lot during the time I met him, playing keyboards for Helium. In between tours I would record songs I was writing for my solo project, Mascott, wherever I could. Gordon invited me to record one of my songs at his place on 3rd Street in Brooklyn. We did it in one afternoon, a raw and natural recording. There’s a lot of street noise on the track—I thought that was so cool and unique. The song is called “Baby, Go Away”.
Ash Bowie: Yes, we actually worked out some Fan Modine arrangements as a piano/guitar duo and recorded them using his friend’s Nalga tape deck. I don’t know what happened to those recordings. Later, Gordon put together a new version of FM with me on bass, later switching to guitar as other friends joined. We had a few shows and played on the Gratitude for the Shipper LP.
Chuck Johnson: He asked me to play guitar in the touring band version of Fan Modine. We toured with Andrew Bird in support of Homeland. I also played guitar on Gratitude for the Shipper.
Murray Nash: Not on Slow Road. It was pretty much completed by the time I got involved. There was mixing and mastering and that was all. I would describe my contribution to the final product as perhaps influencing the production at the margins. I was more the financial enabler of the project. I have a deep interest in music and spend a good part of my life (still) unearthing and listening to music. But I learned through this enterprise—and those that followed with Gordon and others—that what I listen for, and what I hear is very different to what a musician does. Maybe my comments and feedback were useful in some sense, but mostly my role was as the enabler—with few if any strings attached—to let Gordon do what he wanted to do. At one level I just wrote some checks. Actually I became more than that, and Gordon seemed to trust my advice and comments and would involve me in pretty much every decision.
Matt McMichaels: I played in a revolving-door era of Fan Modine from about June 2010 to April-ish 2011. I jumped at the chance to play with Lee and Michael, since they are both amazing players and good friends, and I had heard that this Gordon guy wrote great songs. The genius keyboard player Charles Cleaver was also involved, though he was replaced by the awesome Paul Finn (Kingsbury Manx) when Charles moved to Brooklyn. At some point Lee also had to bow out, but he was replaced on drums by Michael’s twin brother Mark. That was fun, since those two have a weird, psychedelic fraternal chemistry that I had admired since their days in the criminally underrated Jennyanykind. Eventually Alex Maiolo came on board to add a third guitar (and a vast array of swirly guitar effects) to the mix, since my abiding love for the Replacements means I have an aversion to pedals. I remember Seamus Kenney conducting a handful of string and horn players while we crowded together on some small stage, but that may be apocryphal. I was mostly tasked with singing harmony vocals and trying/failing to replicate the strange and beautiful guitar parts that Polvo’s Ash Bowie had played on the Gratitude record.
Is there a particular Fan Modine song/album/era that resonated with you?
Kendall Meade: I will always love “Cardamon Chai” and “Homeland” and “Pageantry.” Some of my favorite songs of all time.
Josh Hager: Slow Road is the album that resonates the most. It brings me back to a carefree particularly magic time in my early twenties when Gordon and I lived in a giant loft in Boston.
Stephin Merritt: My apartment was too small to have a turntable, so I have never heard Slow Road till today. I like it, it’s like hearing an extrapolation of what Ariel Pink would have been doing several years earlier. And the slowed-down drums sound like the record I’m making now.
Joan Wasser: Listening to this music again is really bringing me back. This was a very special time for us all. If I’m not mistaken, the first verse of “Tinseltown” mentions the Dambuilder’s song “Shrine.” It was clear that Gordon was making something very special. Slow Road was made mostly in Gordon’s bedroom. As I’m listening, I realize I played (violin) on the first two songs… and probably more… yes, more: “Marigold,” “Cardamon Chai.” “Cardamon Chai” is effortlessly romantic. “Rhubarb Pie” has got so much swag. “Trash in Romance,” oh man. I love every track. These are the sounds of us growing up and learning to make music.
Ash Bowie: I’m most familiar with Gratitude for the Shipper because I played and recorded those songs, and it’s arguably Gordon’s strongest batch of songs. My personal favorite album is definitely Slow Road because it’s the most intimate and homemade-sounding, which complements Gordon’s creative vibe better than a conventional production approach. I do like Homeland a lot, as well.
Jeremy Chatelain: I really like Homeland and Gratitude. Those were the songs I performed and recorded. I particularly like “Wormwood Scrubs.” It’s very British in its concept and the music is jaunty and fun.
Chuck Johnson: Big fan of Slow Road to Tiny Empire and Homeland! Those songs are truly classics and have a timeless quality.
Matt McMichaels: “Pageantry” and “Waiting in the Wings” from Homeland are great. They are a distillation of the un-self-conscious orchestral bedroom pop that Gordon does better than anyone on his best days.
Rhino is about to reissue Slow Road to Tiny Empire; how do you see it and Fan Modine’s legacy at this point in time, 23 years later.
Mary Timony: When he made [Slow Road], I listened to it constantly, and was super-inspired by it. Listening 23 years later, it sounds just as inspiring to me: It’s timeless.
Jeremy Chatelain: Oh geez! I feel like I went into the Fan Modine universe quickly and exited quickly as well. Gordon deserves any accolades he receives. He’s a great songwriter. I can’t believe those records are that old.
Stephin Merritt: Every record should sit around for 23 years before you hear it.
Kendall Meade: What Gordon achieved with that record is mind-boggling for someone in his twenties. Such vision and talent.
George Howard: It is impossible to deny—listening to his music now a million years later—how enduring and brilliant it is.
Missy Thangs: I loveSlow Road to Tiny Empire. It was through playing with the band that I found Slow Road, it’s a brilliant record. Its aesthetic deeply resonates with me, the textures, moodiness, arrangements. Gordon is a creative genius.
Josh Hager: Gordon’s genius as a singer and songwriter has been tragically overlooked. I’ve always admired him and his abilities. He was a very big influence on me. Hopefully he will take his place in history as one of the greats!
Kurt Heasley (Lilys): I loved the copy of Slow Road Gordon gave me. Listened to it a lot in Connecticut while recording The 3 Way actually.
Joan Wasser: I hear it as fresh as it was then. Gordon was way ahead of his time, in my opinion.
Chuck Johnson: It still sounds fresh today, the way that any carefully crafted pop. I consider it part of the canon of lush, orchestrated pop.
Murray Nash: I find that at some point with an artist you move from songs and albums to seeing the body of work as a more a biography of that artist’s life—good times, tough times, smart choices, silly choices, present in my life and not. And as someone who really got to know Gordon and will always see him as being among their closest friends and most important people they met through life, then I can’t help but see his body of work in those terms. No favorites, just parts of a larger whole. That said, the pieces I was most directly involved in were the early albums from Slow Road through to a couple of subsequent releases. So I have an intimate awareness of that period. After that, I moved back to New Zealand and Gordon had already relocated to NC. The later albums feel more like letters from a friend, than direct observations or co-creations in any sense. I have a special place in my heart for the “Pageantry” single: the lines that were to become “Pageantry walks through the door” were originally, “Patti Smith walks through the door”—she used to frequent Rocks in Your Head, too. She walked in one day when Gordon was behind the counter composing that song. There was also a recording made of a radio show (WFMU?) Fan Modine performed in the mid/late 90s which was just Gordon and one other. Acoustic instruments and live. I always had a soft spot for “unplugged” Fan Modine and that recording just spoke to me. I don’t think it was ever released. I can’t find my copy.
Gordon Zacharias: I think Slow Road is my best work. I made a lot of very deliberate albums after that, and they are mostly missing the spark that this one has.
What made you want to put out Slow Road?
George Howard: I could not stop listening to the demo tape. Just over and over and over again. “Cardamon [sic] Chai was on it and rough versions of a couple of the other songs that eventually made it to to Slow Road. I thought then—and think now—that they are beautiful, perfect, fractured songs. In hindsight, I’m clearly not the best judge of what a pop song is. In my world, Gordon and Josh Rouse and Stephin Merritt and Charlie Chesterman are all superstars with Top 40 hits.
Do you remember any details about the process?
George Howard: It was sort of nuts, but aren’t the creation of most sui generis records? I remember getting to the office—by this time, Rykodisc had entered into a deal with my label (Slow River) so I was trying desperately to take advantage of this bigger machine that I now had access to for the benefit of my artists. There would be like 15-minute voicemails from Gordon where he’d talk, in various accents, about how “haaaaaard” he was working, and would play snippets of songs, and sort of ramble. In my infinite (lack of) wisdom, I would then play these messages to my Rykodisc overlords thinking they would be as charmed as I. I’m not sure that was the right move. ¶ There were also many “conversations”—I mostly listened and shook my head into the phone silently—where Gordon would give me the back story of the Tiny Empire and Pho and all sorts of things that I figured I just wasn’t smart enough to understand. It was like Pynchon calling or something.
Murray Nash: To release Slow Road we needed a name for the record label. We went out to a Vietnamese restaurant to discuss. The label name was inspired by the Pho menu item. The observant Phovsho historian will note that Slow Road was released as Phovsho 003. This was actually the first release on the label, not the third. We reserved places 001 and 002 for two earlier albums Gordon told me he had recorded. (We never did release those albums. Releasing those at some point would be interesting.) We had 500 vinyl copies pressed. We still have boxes of the original vinyl. In vinyl form, Slow Road never did hit sales even close to 500 units. Slow sales of Slow Road taught me a lesson in the importance of distribution. It wasn’t enough to have a great record that everyone who heard it loved it. It gets pretty frustrating to win awards like “Best albums of the year, you will never hear” (I think Slow Road won that award in Magnet). It’s particularly unfair to the artist. It was one reason I was really happy to hear the album was being picked up “by a real label” and that it would be released on CD—the dominant format of the time.
What other bands/musicians spring to mind when you listen to Fan Modine? Where do you see them fitting in? Joan Wasser: This kind of question is always hard for me because almost anyone who makes music pulls from an enormous variety of influences. I remember us listening to that first Cardinal record of Eric Matthews and Richard Davies. I hear some similarities there, but Gordon was going for a much looser, textured and dirtier sound, which I personally adore. There’s some Elliott Smith and some traditional Indian music. In other words, like anything truly great, it doesn’t really fit anywhere.
Josh Hager: The Elevator Drops. Since that was the band I was in at the time and Gordon did a short stint as our keyboardist. Indie rock was king in the ’90s. But I always thought Gordon’s music had a depth and timeless quality to it that other bands didn’t at the time.
Stephin Merritt: I think Radio Dept would enjoy it.
Kendall Meade: Ladybug Transistor, the Dambuilders, Helium. This era of orchestral, melodic and indie art rock coming out of the East Coast.
George Howard: Neutral Milk, Teenage Fanclub, T. Rex, Slade, The National (at their best)
Jeremy Chatelain: Nothing in particular comes to mind. I know that Gordon and I were both serious Anglophiles at the time. Fan Modine fits between singer/songwriter music and great pop music. Gordon draws influence from fantastic places. He’s very hip. But Fan Modine has a pretty unique sound in the pop/rock universe. I remember that he would give me a little grief sometimes for being so “rock.” He said to me once that, while I was busy listening to Led Zeppelin, he was probably listening to Japan.
Murray Nash: Scott Walker. David Sylvian. The Magnetic Fields. Bobby Callender. Prince.
Matt McMichaels: The Smiths, the Magnetic Fields, and Belle and Sebastian come to mind. Gordon can credibly use the word “’twas” in a song, and that is punk as fuck.
Tell us any other stories about Gordon and Fan Modine.
Kendall Meade: Once Gordon joined me for a Mascott tour of the Midwest. It was just the two of us, and I don’t think he was happy with how sparse we sounded as a duo. He proposed that we ask whoever we were opening for to basically jam with us during our set. It was a totally Gordon move that I was happy to go along with because I trusted him and looked up to him musically. Each night was a different experience depending on who played with us. It was wild and weird and exciting. I remember laughing a lot on that tour, getting a flat tire and having to get the cops to help us change it, staying with my mom in Detroit, meeting Doug Gillard for the first time in Cleveland. I miss Gordon a lot, he’s so fun to hang out with.
Josh Hager: At the time in 1994 I was literally living on a shelf in a tape closet in a recording studio. Right after he and I met, he offered me a room in his south end loft. He literally saved me from that roach and rat-infested place! We immediately set out to cause some Dadaist mischief. We wound up performing and starting a club out of a drag bar called Jacques. It was a brilliant time. We were both very broke but it didn’t matter. It was all about the music. I have so many stories it’s hard to recount in such a short space. He moved to NY and we kept in touch. I would come and visit or stay with him for periods. He was always better at connecting with new people and making friends than I was. Within a short time, he had a network of people who would support his music, etc. We worked together less during this period though I think I did sit in with him for a show or two.
Chuck Johnson: He has a remarkable skill at long, late night drives. He also has some sick dance moves.
Stephin Merritt: If only I remembered this Dick’s Bar fracas, I’d be happy to tell it from my perspective. Maybe under hypnosis?
Missy Thangs: I even loved the fat suit.
Murray Nash: One Saturday night in NYC, Gordon and I went to the birthday dinner for a sound engineer we were working with. That night would change our lives forever. The dinner was at an Ethiopian restaurant in Queens. I met my future wife Birgit at that dinner; Gordon and I headed downtown and later that same night Gordon met his future wife.
Matt McMichaels: Gordon has supreme self-confidence and a vision of what he wants out of his music, combined with an endearing vulnerability that makes you want to help him tilt at his windmills. Lee Waters called him “Gorgeous Gordon.” He once insisted on donning a ridiculous fat suit when we played in a Comic Book shop parking lot on a 100-degree day in Chapel Hill. He got all of us, a bunch of grizzled indie rockers with day jobs and kids and obligations, to agree to drive to a warehouse in Burlington, North Carolina, on a weeknight for a video shoot complete with green screens and a crew and catering and no apparent budget—because that was his vision. I only played with him briefly, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, like probably everyone who has been pulled into the Fan Modine orbit. Gordon is a unique creature who writes songs from a strange and beautiful alternate universe, and I am glad I know him.
Ash Bowie: I never knew Gordon as a goth. I’m pretty sure he was wearing a fur coat and large plastic sunglasses when I’d see him around. More of a ’70s Elton John glam look.
Joan Wasser: Gordon was one of my best friends in Boston and when we moved to NYC. At that time, I had not begun writing songs yet. I was making tons of music, but not singing or writing my own material. Watching Gordon create such unique, gorgeous creations was like being around magic. He was magical.
Gordon Zacharias: I have made several albums over the years, and have managed a Brazilian rock band (Boogarins) since 2013, building a label and publishing company in 2017 . I am married to a wonderful woman and we are raising our two children in North Carolina.
it’s hard to leave the house in portland, oregon, without seeing an iconic queen bee bag. designer rebecca pearcy started making them (along with wallets, guitar straps and more!) in the 1990s and they were everywhere in the indie punk scene: durable, beautiful and waterproof! chickfactor’s editors are big fans. as rebecca gets ready to close the queen bee shop and move on to her textile business, we wanted to get the scoop. (she also makes music!) interview by gail
chickfactor: I bought my first queen bee bag at dumpster values in olympia in the late ’90s: a tarot card bag and wallet. rebecca pearcy: I love that you bought your first queen bee at dumpster values. I love kanako and that store. we started our businesses around the same time, and dumpster values sold queen bee plus lots of clothing I used to make for a long time. cf: so what’s the deal? why are you closing down queen bee? it seems very punk rock and anti-capitalist to do such a thing. well, I suppose it is kind of punk rock, though I hadn’t thought about it in those terms till now. I do still plan to try and carve an income out of my creativity, but hoping to expand into realms that don’t necessarily involve making and selling stuff. workshops, and more community-building / sharing skills type of work. but to your question, why: I’ve been running queen bee for almost 24 years. longer, really, if you count the time I was doing it before I went legit and got a business license. I’ve changed, the world has changed, and I’m ready to shift toward the stuff that I find really inspiring these days. queen bee has become such its own entity, that it has taken a long time for me to get to the point where I feel truly ready to dismantle it and move on. it has been a big part of my identity, but I don’t identify with it so much anymore. I want the work I’m doing to be more representative of who I am now, and to keep evolving as a creative person. it’s funny because many people in my life, especially other business owners are telling me how brave it is to do what I’m doing and I guess it is. It is a big leap of faith to let go of something that is familiar, even if it is super challenging. but that’s how queen bee started, with a leap into the unknown, so I’m just doing that again, but at a very different place in my life than I was then.
cf: tell us about the person you were when you started queen bee, how you have changed, and how the company has changed since then. I was living in olympia when I started queen bee. it’s hard to remember the timing of everything, because I was always sewing and making stuff and selling it. I was making stuff in my bedroom wherever I lived, and selling it at evergreen or at dumpster values, or at a riot grrrl convention or what have you. deciding to live in olympia after graduating from evergreen really changed my life. I thought I might like to move to san francisco but I quickly became intimidated by the challenge of finding housing there (even then, in the mid-’90s). so I decided that if I could find a job in olympia, I’d stay there. I got a barista job at batdorf & bronson and ended up living there for 11 years total. I’m so glad I got to live there, and become part of a real community, start my business, and play music there. so when I started queen bee I was really beginning to become part of life downtown: I lived at the abc house (a big land-trust communal living house on the west side, amazing experience, live shows and dance parties in the basement, fantastic housemates, affordable rent, good times). I started off by setting up my sewing station in the “rose room” at the abc house, but quickly realized I wanted to have a separate studio where I could work. my first studio was in the capitol theater building and it was like $100/month or something! a little while after being there, I got a call from stella marrs inviting me to move to a studio alongside her, nikki mcclure, amber bell, community print, khaela maricich, and k records. that was a dreamy situation. so many creative people, women in particular, working in the same building, bumping up against each other. very inspiring and special. ¶ back then, I was a scrappy, creative woman who was just living life in the hotbed of olympia awesomeness. I was young and writing songs, performing and going to movies and seeing shows and participating in olympia life. It was really great. In many ways I am still that same person. older, obviously, and I’m now married and have a 9-year old son, so my time and energy is pretty well split between work and family. I don’t have time to see all (or any) of the movies, or shows. with queen bee, I started off just by myself, and over time got too busy to do it alone. over the years, we’ve gone through so many stages, growing, contracting, adjusting, weathering the recession, etc. I’ve been through a lot and am pretty tired, honestly. ready to downsize to just me again and recalibrate to a new direction that’s better suited to where I’m at now and what I need and want as a 46-year-old woman. when queen bee started, the internet wasn’t a thing—even in that one way, so much has changed, it’s wild. I’ve learned so much, running this business—I hope I’ve become a better and better leader. things started off pretty casual and over the years so much of what has developed has been due to the folks I’ve hired to work here—it is because of their brilliance that we are so well organized and created systems to make things run smoothly. it’s great—that has been a big change! left to my own devices, things aren’t quite so orderly 🙂
cf: what was something you learned from attending evergreen that has stayed with you and made you successful? I did lots of independent study at evergreen, so I think that helped to prepare me for being a creative small business owner. you really have to just make so many decisions, all the time, when you’re running your own show, so it’s very beneficial to be an independent thinker and just problem solve the shit out of everything. and just the value of creativity at a place like evergreen—the value of looking at something from your own point of view and bringing that to the table—those are great qualities to have as an entrepreneur. cf: what was it that inspired you to make this particular design? how did that change over time? what was the most popular? well, one of the first things I designed that became part of queen bee was the wonder wallet. that came out of me just needing a new wallet and since I’m inclined to just DIY as much as possible, I made the first wallet with shiny black vinyl fabric with a vintage wonder woman comic laminated and stitched to the front. I don’t even know where the original inspiration for that came from. but I liked working with the vinyl fabric and faux-leathers and stuff. I was also making bags and stuff out of thrifted fabrics, vintage curtains, fake fur, and the like. I liked to shop for tough fabrics at auto and marine supply stores. I would drive to tacoma and seattle to hit comic books stores and buy all their vintage wonder woman comics, record stores and thrift stores for records to make my LP tote and 45 rpm bags with, and archie mcphee for packs and packs of loteria cards. after making bags with the comics, mexican loteria cards and kitschy stuff like that, I started developing my own appliqué designs. starting off with a simple star cutout and going from there. faux-leather, like real leather, is fun to work with because unlike woven fabrics, it doesn’t fray, so you can just cut and sew without having to finish the edges. that enabled me to really go crazy with the appliqué motifs and we always did fun contrasting stitching and stuff. over time I developed a whole line of waxed canvas bags, and heavier canvas in fun colors, and then printing onto fabric and creating the rebecca bearcy textiles line. ¶ the most popular designs have been the truckette messenger bag and the maximo wallet. they are the classic queen bee items that you see people carrying everywhere (that’s the truckette, the little sister to the trucker which is named that b/c the first ones I made were out of truck tarp fabric).
cf: will you be moving out of the williams shop? yes. my lease is up at the end of the year. I’ll be moving to a studio on 15th & SE ankeny, but won’t have a retail storefront. so I’m planning to do more events, pop ups and folks can schedule to come shop at my studio when I’m ready. cf: what’s the last day folks can visit the shop? and order online? we don’t know what the closing date for the store will be—we are playing it by ear. It will come when we really don’t have much left to sell, honestly! It will probably be in december sometime. for online orders we will have to cut them off sometime in the next few weeks, possibly early december. when we announced the closure, we got a ton of orders, so the wait time is currently like 8-10 weeks. we’re very busy and will have to stop taking orders when we can’t accommodate the production of them anymore!
cf: will you make bags for your other brand: rebecca pearcy textiles? yes, but not nearly as much of a focus as it is for queen bee. I did design the lola convertible tote/backpack for the rebecca pearcy line, so that is cool. and I have ideas for other things. but I’m pretty into designing and making clothing right now, so will be developing that more, as well as continuing some home decor items and other accessories. whatever I feel like! cf: what are your personal favorites? well, I kind of always love whatever is newest or what I just designed! go figure. so, the lola convertible, that’s my daily bag. I also love the snippet wallet (tiny), and the maximo wallet (big), the becca backpack, and the ramona tote. and the marlo purse. so many! those are some of my faves. cf: do you have any rock star fans? have queen bee bags become part of popular culture in some way? hmm, I don’t know if we have any rock star fans! there are notable folks over the years who have bought from us. we made some custom truckers for wilco to sell at their shows a few years back. and word has it that cheryl strayed bought a bag to give to reese witherspoon. lots of folks in the indie northwest scene have been customers. I think the biggest way we’ve become part of popular culture is that people think the portlandia ‘put a bird on it’ skit was inspired by us. and I do think queen bee is a part of portland, olympia, seattle, PNW culture. we’ve been around long enough and are recognizable enough to fill that role.
cf: what do you think makes them so popular and beloved? I see them everywhere I go! it’s crazy. I don’t know exactly what make them so beloved, but I’m guessing: they are a nice combination of practical and stylish. they’re made for everyday use, and folks in the PNW tend to be on the practical side, as opposed to super fashiony. I mean, if it starts raining heavily, you don’t really want to have to worry about your bag. they are very identifiable and so people notice them and ask about them and their popularity spreads. the truckette, our most popular bag of all time, I think it just the right size, you know? not too big or small. and it has a satisfyingly square shape, a nice flat bottom so it can sit on a surface easily, it holds its own shape. cf: how many bags do you think queen bee has made? thousands and thousands! I wish I knew the actual number. cf: how many employees have you had/do you have now? I have 6 employees currently. at our biggest I think I had around 15 or so. I have worked with so many great people over the years. that’s one of the hardest parts about closing, is losing this little work family. they are all wonderful and I hope they all get to work somewhere where they’ll be appreciated.
cf: tell us about the rebecca pearcy line and your future plans. in 1997 I did an apprenticeship at the fabric workshop in philadelphia, where I learned how to design & print patterns in repeat onto fabric. It was like a door opening into the realm of what really clicks with me. at the heart of what I love to do, is my love for fabric, color, and print. so getting to create the pattern that is printed onto the fabric and then getting to design what to make out of that fabric, and then MAKE it, was just taking me deeper into what I loved. so after that experience, I really wanted to start to print my own fabric and create goods from that. printing in repeat on yardage of fabric requires a big table a specific set up so it took me a few years to figure that out, but when I did I founded rebecca pearcy textiles. I’ve been running that brand for a few years now, but it has always taken a back seat to queen bee. part of this transition is my desire to turn my focus and energy onto the project that I feel most inspired and excited about, which is the rebecca pearcy line. this brand’s focus is handprinted, silkscreened natural fiber fabrics, made up into home decor, soft goods, accessories, and apparel. clothing is really my favorite thing to make (I make most of my own wardrobe) but it always seemed too complicated to make a business out of clothing design, but I’m dipping my toes into that realm—apparently I just can’t not do it. I’m excited to explore that and whatever else is inspiring to me. this is an opportunity for me to develop a new path and see where my creativity leads me! I’ll be going back to working solo for the time being, while I get settled into a new routine, working at a new studio, selling through my website and doing some in-person events, pop-ups, that type of thing. cf: merci, rebecca!
it’s been 23 years since rocketship released its wonderful debut LP, a certain smile, a certain sadness, and on october 11 the band is releasing a new album, thanks to you. songwriter and band leader dusty reske heard a felt song back in those days and rocketship was born. these days he lives in portland, oregon, and collaborates with ellen osborn and adam bayer. dusty thinks a certain smile still resonates with people in their twenties, but that people get more complicated as they get older. “thanks to you is for all the fucked-up children of this world,” he says. “I’m drawn toward melancholy pop and tend to stress that innate juxtaposition in all of my own compositions and recordings. in my lyrics now I use a broader lexicon, yet the subjects reflect much of the same longing for love and connection through dysfunction and alienation as always.” head to rocketshipmusic.com, patreon.com/rocketship, darla and bandcamp to get the new record and find out more. we chatted with him over the summer at a portland bar about music, family, gentrification and climate change, among other things. interview by gail o’hara
chickfactor: how long have you lived in portland? dusty: I think 13 or 14 years. where are you from? dusty: I was born in san francisco, and I lived in the wine country in sonoma county for years until the end of elementary school, then I moved to texas for a decade until my senior year. I lived in dallas and then houston and then austin a little while for college, and then I moved to sacramento when I was 17. did your parents move there for work? dusty: my mother’s new husband was from texas. strangely they thought there wasn’t enough opportunity in sonoma so they went to texas and texas was about to boom. why/how did you end up in portland? dusty: my partner at the time was going to move from brooklyn, where she had been living for 15 years or something. she was going to move back to the west coast—she was from the bay area as well. I was living in arcata. was that cynthia nelson? dusty: yes. after sacramento I moved to arcata in my late 20s. (we talk about kendra smith, who doesn’t live in arcata, but in the region. I interviewed her for cf18.) you and cynthia have two kids? dusty: yes, aurelia is 12 and leo is 8. are they musical? dusty: I wouldn’t say so. they’re both really into literature, reading a lot. leo is now getting into sports a bit. aurelia is into drawing. kendra actually has a song called “aurelia.” is that why you chose the name? dusty: it wasn’t, I came across the song later. are they quiet readers? dusty: they’re not quiet readers. they occasionally throw the books across the room. they’re not too into music yet, not rock music. aurelia has been in the portland girl choir for a while. leo will sometimes hit the drums. what do they think of your music? dusty: I don’t know if they hear it that much. I never throw on an old record but they hear cynthia and I composing our music around the house a lot, but that’s always in bits and pieces when we’re trying to figure something out. cynthia and I will play a lot of covers, again trying to figure out new material. but it’s just something that’s always in the background in the kitchen, not something they have to deal too much with. It’s just something they know their parents do. what do you think about portland now? dusty: yeah. I’m an absolute proponent of infill ecologically but it’s hard to deal with the neighborhoods changing so much. I can see why they tear down old shacks and put up duplexes. isn’t infill just high density? why are people against it? dusty: I’m not exactly sure. people do like their single-family homes and maybe only want to live on a block that has single-family homes, what they’re used to. apartment complexes are often stigmatized because they’re where poor people live or people with modest means. there’s often a lot of NIMBY-ism around that. I suspect that their disgruntled-ness is misplaced and it’s actually the new people that are more the problem. the houses are all okay, but it’s this new wave of middle-class consumers who are displacing all the artists. it does seem like californians are often blamed/demonized here but people are moving here from everywhere, right? gentrification is a tricky subject with a lot of different levels: one business opened on mississippi ave. and others followed and now the neighborhood is unrecognizable to many locals. can you blame the original business that was just looking for a place they could afford? change is inevitable but how does the city keep the original community from disappearing?
dusty: I agree. it used to feel more grassroots: somebody who was kind of scrappy put together the money and got some couches and started a coffee shop. that’s a little romantic. it seemed more down-home. and now it just feels like massive capital infusions from above that come in and change a street like division so that it’s just a new city there. it used to be open fields and they built a new city. cf: that block on fremont between vancouver and williams used to be a field and now it’s that spaceship-looking office for instrument across from a new seasons. people who work there probably bought up a lot of the homes around there. dusty: they could afford it. when we bought our house, it seemed like it was the least expensive house in NE and we fixed it up a little bit over time but our mortgage is still really low from so long ago. now we have people who come in with really serious middle-class jobs working 40 hours and they can’t afford to buy a house in our neighborhood and so they’re renting. enough about gentrification! has rocketship been going this whole time? dusty: I’ve always been doing music but I’ve taken long periods off. when I moved to arcata, I got really into social activism so I was going to meetings all the time: food not bombs, the free bike program, all kinds of things that people were doing, zines. I didn’t have time for music. do you still do that stuff now? dusty: the activism? I’m embarrassed to say no. I’m not social enough, I’m a little too shy and awkward. I’d like to be involved more. I keep up with politics but now it’s just donations. portland is great because everyone shows up for everyone else’s rallies, but there’s also a fair bit of bickering and infighting within the left that takes everything off course. dusty: activism used to be a thing I could just hop on my bike and go do but now it involves other people’s schedules. when I first moved to town, I worked at the alberta co-op for almost a decade. we had a big action there where we turned it into a worker-run collective. we got rid of the management structure. but it was hard too: there was a lot of fallout and infighting among the folks who had been allies. what do you do to stay sane? dusty: ooh, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve figured that thing out. I don’t know if it keeps me sane but I have a lot of time to think while I’m working. I have a company that does ecological lawn care. I do lawn care and yard care by bike using all hand tools, just in NE portland. I’m fitter than I’ve ever been in my life and I’m outdoors all the time. I wanted to do something where I wasn’t on the computer all the time. it’s called eco-lawn care. did you do this before or just decide to start a company? dusty: pretty much the latter. I had a garden in the back, I had grown vegetables, and I’d been a bicyclist for many years, which is really important cause I’m hauling a lot of tools around. I’ve been riding my bike as my main transportation for 20 years. I was thinking about going back to school and I only have so many years left when I can even work so should I take on that much debt? it’s not rocket science, right? you just avoid using carcinogenic pesticides. there are so many stupid things humans have brought into our lives that we don’t really need: weed-wackers, gasoline mowers or those teeth flossers on a plastic stick. people love them, they’re so easy to use but if everyone uses those, we’re doomed. dusty: it’s funny you mentioned those. ellen has an instagram account [where she posts photos of those on the ground] and people respond to it: for whatever reason, people leave those things all over the city. but yeah, people don’t like the noise from leaf blowers and gas mowers. I was reading a statistic that the amount of gas that is spilled every year by people putting gas into their mowers is equal to an exxon valdez spill. that’s not even the pollution that comes out of the thing, and that’s just the US. what do you tell your kids about climate change? dusty: it comes up all the time. climate change is just one part of a complete ecological apocalypse that we’re approaching, not to overstate it: deforestation, loss of top soil, extinction, the list goes on and on. these subjects come up a lot when we’re explaining why we won’t buy a certain thing. portland used to be a green city, a green leader, but it doesn’t feel as much like that now. but at the same time there are people doing something on a small level and making a difference. dusty: we do have a lot of advantages here. the scale is of such a scope that I don’t think there is any hope. it’s just going to be really awful; the next century is going to be awful for young people. [heavy sigh] let’s get back to pop. what was your first concert? dusty: my mom took me to a bunch of stuff in the 1970s, I don’t know what it was. the first one I went to that I’m conscious of was ELO. I thought I was going to see the alan parsons project but I hadn’t realized how much I liked ELO, especially Xanadu. I think van halen was the second one. by myself it might have been the cure at an amusement park like six flags or something.
were you musical as a child? dusty: not really. my parents bought me a drum kit and a guitar when I was 13 or 14, thinking I was a little too shiftless. so I kind of fumbled my way around those for a long time. finally when I was 18 or 19, when I was in someone’s dorm and they were playing a song, I thought, I know all those chords. I can play a song. what was your first song about? dusty: when I lived in texas, in my junior year a bunch of fellows said let’s start a band. they had two-track cassettes. so we would just record some music and dub that onto the next track and add some tracks. that really meant a lot to me because I could suddenly see how you could make a recording. It had never occurred to me to do that. we made a cassette—I mean, it’s pretty funky, not-good music but it kind of caught on with people’s friends so people were playing it on the weekends. we kind of just wrote those songs together and a lot of it was first takes. when I moved to sacramento, I fell in with a fellow named josh berkley, who befriended me. we were in show choir together with purple sequins. he invited me out to his house and he had a four-track. we kept it in this comical vein, we couldn’t take it too seriously, laughable songs about people at school. that was our first exposure to songwriting. we did a cover version of “leave me alone” the very last song on power corruption and lies. for college I wanted to go back and visit with all my friends in texas. I moved back to austin for a bit. I came back for xmas in sacramento and josh had started a band, a synth-pop band with his buddy aaron. that was real compositions, serious attempts at making music and I was instantly sucked in. when I went back to texas, that’s all I could think about. I was listening to it on my walkman, on the bus, thinking, why am I going to this class so early in the morning? so my second semester I dropped out and moved back to california. you were like, I need to join this band! dusty: yes. when rocketship started, what were you listening to and what were you thinking you wanted it to be like? dusty: josh and I had been in a band for a while and we kinda had made our name around sacramento; we were called the rosebuds. we probably wrote 20 songs or something. we were listening to english shoegaze music and we were playing that a lot. after that fell apart, I wanted to shift gears. it was before slowcore really happened, but a lot of people were thinking the same thing. I wanted to do this really slow kind of music and bought this really old organ and brought it up to the second floor of this duplex and did a 4-track demo. I guess I wanted to sound like galaxie 500 or something. shoegaze music had become passé, so I sold all my pedals, got that money back and stripped everything back. I was also taking a recording class at sacramento city college. for some reason at the time they had a state grant that funded their studio—they had like a million dollars and they built a world-class studio. I came up with this band name—not original—“silver rocket”, based on the sonic youth song. I liked the contrast, I was doing this mellow organ music. this guy ed artegas, who was there with me suggested, why not call it rocketship? I knew this guy who’d been a fan of the rosebuds, robert cartwright, he played drums. so we started playing together and his girlfriend heidi (barney) had played piano in her youth. for me rocketship begins properly because they played me this felt album, let the snakes crinkle their heads to death. the very first track on that (“song for william s. harvey”), it was mind-blowing, this super-organ-driven pop song. by that time stereolab had come out so I think we were reassessing guitar rock, but for a long time before that you couldn’t have keyboards in your band. so I wrote “hey hey girl” when I was inspired by this upbeat pop sound that I heard on that felt record.
did you know rose melberg (who is from sacramento) and mike slumberland (who put out rocketship) in those days? dusty: no. so heidi worked at a coffee roasting house of all places that rose worked at. so she gave rose our tape and rose kinda liked it so we met her through heidi. tiger trap was really important in sacramento. when did ellen (osborn) join rocketship? she’s the other primary band member? dusty: yes, and I would include adam bayer. ellen and I are best friends too. I wanted to put together a live band for your show [chickfactor 25 party at bunk bar, portland, december 2017], and I met ellen through adam. she was just the kind of singer that I had always wanted to work with. and she was in an all-girl bee-gees cover band! dusty: right, the she-bee-gees. are there any platforms you like to use for making or listening to music? dusty: I still download stuff for free and put it on my music player at home. for recording I use a program called ableton live. I have a bunch of shared software. do you have any pets? dusty: a cat named crystal. do you have any idols? anyone you admire for their style or stagewear? dusty: I’m thinking early morrissey with the open shirt and gladioli. [we discuss the fall of moz] are you playing much these days? dusty: it takes a lot of effort—or it has in the past—to put together the kind of band that I want or that can play the material. It requires a certain amount of musicianship, certainly on the organ. heidi used to do these incredible things, doing arpeggios on electric piano while she’s playing chords and then taping down a moog note. it’s hard to find people who can do that. it requires rehearsal and we’re not at a level where we can count on getting paid so it really has to be for the love of it and people’s lives are so busy.
is that why you gravitate to more stripped-down live shows? dusty: I’m flirting with that more and more: a lot less gear that’s easier to play for people that can also replicate a lot of the more modern sounds. I’m not in love with a loud drum kit where everything then has to get loud. it’s environmental noise pollution and it damages people’s bodies. it’s hard to know how big your audience out there in the world is because people haven’t seen you play much in a long time. dusty: we did popfest a few years ago in new york, san francisco and sacramento. I don’t like playing live that much partially because—at least in the kind of music that I play—it’s so repetitive. it’s not necessarily very creative. for me all the pleasure is in writing and recording the songs. by the time I’m done recording it, I’ve heard it thousands of times, and adjusted it and the minutiae and all the different ways that are meaningful to me, it’s hard for me to just hear it back in a way. I get particular about trying to re-create the recordings and how all the details are supposed to go live. So that presents its own challenge. it’s hard for me to just get together with a bunch of people and bash it out. what’s coming up for you and rocketship? dusty: our new record! I’m making 10 videos for it and that’s all planned out. before I met you today, I was working on the next record. so in the next 10 years, I’m going to be putting out lots and lots of material. that’s the plan. thank you, dusty!