Kiam Records Label head: Jennifer O’Connor Location: Nyack, New York
the latest installment in our new series on independent labels takes us to Kiam Records in Nyack, NY, where label head Jennifer O’Connor leads a very music-intensive life. Jennifer is a musician who records under her own name and has an ace new album coming out on Nov. 5 called Born at the Disco! She also runs a record-book-clothing store called Main Street Beat with her wife, Amy Bezunartea, who is also a great musician and Kiam artist. Check out the artists on Kiam here. She also talked about running Kiam Records on this podcast recently. Find out more on FBK, Twitter, Insta, etc. Meet Jennifer…
chickfactor: What year did you start a label? Where? Why? Jennifer O’Connor: 2002. To put out my first album. I was in Florida when I started it technically, but moved back to NYC soon after. What has been the most fun bit about running a label? The most fun part has been being involved in helping my friends and other people that I care about get their music out into the world. What have been the biggest challenges? I think the hardest part is that I need to be like 10 more people. Ha. How have things changed over time in terms of marketing and distribution? I feel like both marketing and distro are constantly in flux. When I first started there were still actual physical publications and that is not really a thing anymore. Magazines and zines and such helped a lot with marketing to people who actually care about music. And even early on in the web… before it was all just about personalities and clicks and social media. We are all so spread thin now that I think it’s harder and harder to reach people. There was no such thing as streaming!! Which I think of as a blessing and a curse. But I also didn’t own a record store when I started, which gives me an actual physical place to sell the label’s releases and has also provided me with a trial by fire education in many things I was not super knowledgeable about before…. What are the top sellers of all time on yr label? Like physical records? Probably The Martha’s Vineyard Ferries, Mass. Grave. or my album I Want What You Want. Overall sales on all platforms and if you included income from licensing it would definitely be I Want What You Want.
What new stuff are you working on now/soon? I have a new album coming out on Nov. 5 called Born At The Disco. It’s the first label release since 2019 and my first since 2016. What other merch do you sell? For the label we don’t have anything else yet. I’m thinking about getting a tote or coffee mug soon though. The store (Main Street Beat) did a tote this year—our first piece of merch—and it sold out already. What labels have inspired you? So many. Kill Rock Stars, Merge, Sub Pop, Stones Throw, Mello Music Group, Orindal, Thrill Jockey. There’s a lot. How do you find new records (not on your label)? For me personally to listen to? Mostly at my shop. I listen to a lot of old jazz and hip-hop and disco. But for new music, I listen to Sirius Radio a lot and also to WFUV and WFMU. And then I follow a few people’s playlists too. I’m trying to get better about listening to more new music. The store has helped with that for sure.
What are some great record stores and mail orders still operating? I love record stores so much. And I love to order from labels directly. I think Bandcamp has been great for keeping online ordering alive, but I think people should order more directly from label websites. It doesn’t have to be Bandcamp Friday to order a record. There are too many great record stores to list. I wouldn’t know where to begin. And they just keep popping up everywhere! Just go to any near you and you will find something good, if you are curious and open. Can people get your releases outside your country? Just from us, unfortunately and I know it’s so expensive to ship overseas. Hopefully, we will get that sorted eventually. What bands/records are you really excited about? I really love the band Dry Cleaning and their record from this year. What are you drinking, eating, listening to, reading, watching these days? Coffee/water This and that. I don’t know! Funk/Soul/Disco I May Destroy You and Ted Lasso most recently. I May Destroy did in fact destroy me, but in the best way.
Has the vinyl supply chain bottleneck affected you? Yes, my own release has been delayed and it affects me daily at the shop. Almost nothing comes out on time. It’s a mess. We pretty much stopped participating in RSD because so much nonsense is getting pressed now and it’s truly fucking up the little guys’ (independent labels) chances at getting their records out in a timely fashion.
Do you have a day job? Are you in a band? Do tell. Yes, I have several and always have. In addition to the label (Kiam Records) and my career as a musician, I also own and operate a record/clothing/book shop with my wife and label mate Amy Bezunartea. Hobbies? Interests? Pets? Kids? No kids. Had a sweet pup named Paco who we lost on Leap Day, 2020. I’m interested in traveling again hopefully soon. I’ve been going on a lot of long walks lately. I need more mental space in my life and I’m interested in doing more things that help me find some. Reading. Anything else you would like to add!? Thank you for being you.
I still remember where I was when I first heard “100,000 Fireflies” in 1991. I remember my first Magnetic Fields show at CBGB in 1992, when I was confused by the fact that Susan Anway wasn’t singing. I grew to love all the other TMF singers but there is something calming and otherworldly about those first two albums, perhaps made more mysterious by the fact that we didn’t see her perform.
I (or we) tried to interview Susan Anway a number of times for chickfactor and the documentary Strange Powers, but it never quite came together. I was more in touch with her in the 1990s, when I was the Music Editor at Time Out New York and assigned her to write reviews of Celtic albums. She never performed live with the Magnetic Fields. Susan was honored to be associated with the Magnetic Fields but was also very busy with her “powerful atmo electropop” project Diskarnate, which featured German composer-producer Armin Küster and her partner, Jack Andrews. After decades living in Arizona, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. She died on September 5, 2021. This brief interview is from 2011.
chickfactor: How did you first get involved with the Magnetic Fields? Susan Anway: Claudia called me and said she and Stephin had heard my extreme psychedelipunk band V; and did I want to audition? She sent me a tape of “Crowd of Drifters”—Stephin said it was a song about vampires. First listen I thought, O NO-O, this sounds like a Kris Kristofferson song, a Kris Kristofferson song…ABOUT VAMPIRES! I actually laughed. Joke’s on me. How am I supposed to interpret this? But at the same time, it had a strange and wonderful quality I had never heard before and I fell in love with it musically.
The audition was in Stephin’s Boston apartment. The room was pretty bare except for a lonely mic stand, keyboards, MAC, rug and HP Lovecraft book on the floor. I thought, He is going to hate what I did to his song, I sound just like a Judy Collins clone. But after the first few lines, he stopped me, and we started working on realizing the song together. Just a typical day in a studio, like we had done it for years. Kismet.
Describe a typical day recording with Stephin back then. When we recorded Distant Plastic Trees, Stephin seemed to be living on chocolate milk, cigarettes and bagels. I was commuting from Arizona, so we were fairly disciplined. We put in a typical eight-hour day, broken by a walk to Kenmore Square for “lunch bagels” and more chocolate milk. Sometimes we went out for supper afterward, because there are only so many bagels you can eat in a week.
In session I was always testing a variety of voices—Shirley Bassey, Debbie Harry, Aretha, Mary Travers, Mary Black, too many to list, even Sinatra. Vocalists often sing in character. There has to be some kind of back story. Stephin would say, “Don’t sing like you know how.” That was new. And it worked. But I still had to visualize. I think you can hear it most in “100,000 Fireflies,” “Candy” and “Tokyo A-Go-Go.”
Little-known secret: in one session Stephin handed me a hand-written lyric sheet for Tangerine Dream’s “(Further Reflections) In the Room of Percussion” and asked if I could sing it like Marlene Dietrich! I did. It was off da chain! Wish we had done it. “My god! the spiders are everywhere!” LOL Verzeihen Sie mir, liebe Marlene.
What is Stephin really like? When Ridley Scott was directing Gladiator, someone asked him if it was true that Russell Crowe was difficult to work with. He laughed and said: “The good ones always are.” Stephin is not difficult; he is simply a maestro. When you work with a maestro, you must view yourself as an instrument. The mutual goal is the execution of a shared musical intent, beautifully and descriptively, shaped by the choice and nuance of instrumentation. Ego falls away. It’s all about the music.
What were those early shows like? And the Boston/Cambridge music scene in general? Ican’t speak about the early shows or the Boston scene in the ’90s because at that time I had moved to Arizona, and was starting my love affair with EDM/electro/industrial/Europop.
Have you seen Strange Powers? I finally got a chance to view the film a couple of nights ago! I enjoyed it greatly. You might be interested to know that when the clip of “100,000 Fireflies” came on, the whole audience started singing it—including me! The film has some wonderful rehearsal/ arranging scenes and, of course Stephin’s (and Claudia’s) wry comments.
Thank you for all your many kindnesses re: TMF and my contribution to the early band sound. I am happy my disembodied voice is in the film. As a vocalist, I feel in some ways that’s perfect.
These responses were for our 20th anniversary issue (CF17, 2012): What was the best record / live show / artist in 1992? Record (other than The Wayward Bus) Magnum Force Performance: Sielwolf
What is the best record / live show / artist of 2012? Record: looking forward to Delerium’s Music Box Opera. Performances: The Roots & Combichrist, for sheer sustained intensity and crowd motivation
When it comes to indie-pop flame keepers, few do it better than the East Coast band Jeanines. We love their 2019 debut album and cannot wait for the next one out early next year on Slumberland. We caught up with Alicia Jeanine and Jed Smith (My Teenage Stride) to see how they’ve been holding up, what they’ve been listening to and doing over the past few strange years since we saw them play in January 2020 in a chilly basement record shop in Portland. Interview by Gail
CF: What has changed since the pandemic happened? Did you have to cancel plans? Change residence? Change your working style? Alicia: The week we were supposed to leave for Europe to play the Madrid Popfest plus two other dates, the entire world basically shut down. That was super disappointing, of course, but we hope to get to Europe eventually! I also graduated library school in May 2020 and moved to Western Massachusetts for a new job this February, which totally changed our working style. We used to go to our practice space together weekly and work on recording stuff, but now we have to do almost everything separately. Jed helped me get a super basic recording setup in my apartment here, but things still take much longer and aren’t as fun, unfortunately. Jed: What Alicia said, plus a West Coast thing in September that got canceled. Since Alicia moved we’ve seen each other plenty, either me up in Massachusetts or her down in the city for shows, but we can’t really practically record in the same way, so that’s a bit frustrating and the process definitely isn’t as fun.
What were you like as teenagers? Alicia: I was socially maladjusted and had very few friends. I was definitely slowly getting into more and more indie bands, but not many people I knew were into that kind of thing. I was pretty isolated and grew up in suburban sprawl not super close to any cities. Jed: From ages about 13–18, I was more or less completely asocial. So all of junior high and high school, basically. I wasn’t picked on or anything and actually had good social skills—I remember people even trying to befriend me and I’d just…not take them up on it. All of my teen years were spent alone recording songs on a 4-track pretty much as soon as I picked up drums and guitar at 14, doing special effects makeup (I kid you not), and painting (poorly). I can’t really regret not hanging out with anyone during those years because I spent it being creatively productive. Oh, I did have a weird sort of uh…love triangle in like 11th and 12th grade with two girls at school—I was totally in love with one of them who had a boyfriend and the other one had a crush on me and it was fraught and sad and stuff but this all happened at school—I never hung out with them outside of school, nor did I try. So yeah, I was a weird, very much intentionally solitary teen I guess. Okay, that was wayyyyy too much info sorry.
Are you from musical families? Alicia: Yes, my mom has a degree in music and used to teach piano. She only cares about classical music, though. I’m glad to have that foundation (I was forced to take piano and violin throughout my childhood) but I never wanted to be a classical musician. I definitely think some of my ability comes from my mom, though! Jed: Yeah, my grandmother was a piano player, basically a stride piano player like Jelly Roll Morton or Fats Waller; she was a virtuoso with perfect pitch, wish we’d recorded her. My grandfather played drums a bit in church jazz bands and my mom is a jazz musician semi-professionally. So I grew up with a lot of jazz.
When did you write your first song, what was it about, what was it called? Alicia: I didn’t write my first song until about six years ago, actually, with the encouragement of Jed. I don’t remember what it was called or what it was about, though! Jed: The first song I remember writing, which I can still recall completely, like arrangement and everything, was when I was 7, and it was called “Salt Water Up My Nose.” It had a sort of music hall McCartney arrangement with groovy drums and bass arpeggios like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. I didn’t start playing instruments till I was 14 though, so I had no means to record any of my ditties till then. I was always obsessively doing it though.
What is your songwriting process like? Alicia: Usually I sit down with the guitar and try to will something into my mind, the beginnings of a song. Often it works but sometimes it’s just not the moment. Other times I’ll get a little snippet of a melody or a phrase in my head and sit down and try to work it into a song. Jed: Either a song pops into my head and I go record it, or I think about a song I want to exist and I work out the arrangement and everything in my head, including the production aspects, so it’s more like writing a record than a raw song. I don’t sit down with an instrument to write, so it’s an entirely uh…cerebral process, which makes recording it a joyless, obsessive sort of act of transcription. Working with Alicia changes that process and it’s way more fun.
Where do you write and record? Alicia: I write songs at home. Most of the recording happens at the practice space in Brooklyn, but now I do some recording in my apartment in Massachusetts. Jed: I write when I’m doing something mundane like shopping or cleaning or showering—mowing the lawn used to be a good time for thinking of songs. It’s good to have the nervous part of me busy with some other task so I can free up the good part of me to think about songs. I record everything in my practice space/studio in Bushwick.
Your debut album is awesome! What were you going for when you recorded it? Alicia: I always say I write sad folk songs and Jed turns them into indiepop gems. So yeah, I handed them to him as simple acoustic things, and he transformed them into pop hits! We both were super into adding lots of harmonies. Jed: Thanks! Alicia’s early songs were more often than not minor key songs written with acoustic guitar. I liked the idea of up-tempo, super short minor key pop songs, that’s really the main concept I personally had in mind. I couldn’t think of that many examples of it that were contemporary besides Veronica Falls. We also both really love multipart harmonies including hymnal stuff.
What’s it like being on Slumberland/WIAIWYA? Alicia: Being on Slumberland is a dream come true, and Mike Schulman (Papa Slumber) is the nicest, best person you could hope to have on your team. Working on the EP with John from WIAIWYA was also great. Jed: Same as Alicia, having a record on Slumberland was always a dream and a lot of my friends over the years were in bands I really loved like Cause-Co Motion and Crystal Stilts, who had records on Slumberland—but my first Slumberland obsession was Aislers Set, and I still consider Linton to be one of the greatest songwriters and pop musicians of the past 20+ years. Their stuff was really inspiring to me. WIAIWYA are another great label with great bands and it’s been an honor having a record there.
What is the pop community like where you live? Alicia: In Brooklyn the pop community is doing all right, perhaps not as vibrant as it’s been in the past. It definitely skews older currently. In Western Mass I’m still trying to find any pop community that might exist! Jed: Brooklyn/NYC has had a lot of great guitar pop…some you could call indiepop, for whatever it’s worth, but some like the aforementioned Cause Co-Motion and Crystal Stilts, who for me were more part of the continuation and mutation of the sort of 60s music that’s always been the core of my musical DNA. Right now it’s disjointed. But there’s always great music being made everywhere, even if the people making it aren’t letting anyone hear it.
Whose lyrics do you adore? Alicia: Nothing is coming to mind right off the bat, but I’ve always found the Siddeleys’ lyrics quite clever. Jed: I’m always reticent to say it, but I think Mick Jagger is one of the greatest lyricists of all time when he’s not being childishly misogynistic, and weirdly underrated in that sense…especially considering they’re the second most famous band of all time. Other than that, Linton from Aislers Set’s lyrics are one of the things about them that’s exceptional and makes them stand out from other bands associated with indie pop. I also think Kim Deal is one of the most underrated lyricists of all time, especially on Pod. Chris Knox also.
Where in NYC are you living now? If we came to visit for one day, what should we do? Alicia: Jed lives (and I used to live) in Ridgewood, Queens, right next to North Brooklyn. Depends what you like to do! Ridgewood has some great restaurants and bars (both old and new). The music scene right now is kind of in flux/trying to emerge from the pandemic. Jed: I live in Queens right over the Brooklyn border next to Bushwick. NYC is a horrible place for a day trip or a several-day trip, I think it’s best experienced by actually living here.
How has NYC changed since the crazy time started? Alicia: A lot of places have closed but some haven’t. A lot more outdoor seating, of course! Jed: It’s weird and traumatic and wonderful as ever. The music venue situation is upsetting but I think it’s finding ways to mend. Andy Bodor deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. Cakeshop forever.
Can you cook? What is your specialty? Alicia: I can cook but don’t like to. Sometimes I make this thing with green beans and kidney beans that sounds boring and bad but tastes quite good. Jed: For about four years, I was an obsessive bread baker—like three times a week or so, back in like the mid-2000s. Other than that, Mexican and Italian are my things since forever.
What’s in the fridge? Alicia: Eggs, yogurt, fruit, salad stuff, seltzer. Jed: Yogurt, too much cheese, beans, too much seltzer.
What day jobs have you had? Alicia: Librarian, proofreader/editor, software tester, admin stuff. Jed: Special education, barista, video store/music store, proofreader/editor, copywriter, internet “journalist,” music lessons, recording engineer/producer, soundtrack composer. Past couple of years it’s mostly been copywriting and recording/producing, paid work–wise. I also do wet work for the CIA occasionally. Not really though. OR DO I REALLY THOUGH?
What are you reading/watching/eating at the moment? Alicia: I’m about to start reading something that looks really good, but I don’t remember the name! I’ve been watching so much Masterchef, it’s very dumb. Jed: If I visit Alicia it’s nonstop Masterchef, so I guess I have to count that. World/American cinema from 1935 or so to 1985ish. Reading, I’m on a Joan Didion kick right now and just finished Kiss of The Spider Woman by Manuel Puig. I also read books about sharks and deep sea life as often as possible.
What radio shows/DJs/podcasts do you love? Alicia: Lately into podcasts by Jamie Loftus; the current one is about Cathy comics. Also love Maintenance Phase (about bodies/dieting/health fads) and You’re Wrong About (rehashing historical moments with witty banter). Jed: My friend Neal Ramirez has a great show called Sound Burger, and my friends Owen Kline and Sean O’Keefe both have wonderful, unpredictable shows on this indie station called K-PISS (no, really.)
Fave record stores? Alicia: None in particular, but I love places with a great and well-priced used selection. Jed: Earwax, Captured Tracks store, Academy Records, Deep Cuts, and Rough Trade, all in Brooklyn except for Deep Cuts, are/were all great.
How do you consume music? (Platforms, formats) Alicia: Spotify and records, mostly. Jed: I rarely listen to music casually so it’s usually one song or piece, on YouTube, staring at the screen, or my iTunes library. I think YouTube is the best option for music on the internet outside of Bandcamp (for newer/smaller artists).
Do you use any apps or software in to make music? Alicia: Logic to record; Voice Memo to jot down ideas. Jed: Logic for recording and production, voice memo to remember a vocal melody occasionally. In the past I’ve also used Audacity and Garageband.
Who is your style icon? Alicia: No one? Jed: No one. Though David Hemmings’ white pants in Blow-Up make him 10x more foxy.
What are your day jobs? Hobbies? Pets? Kids? Alicia: I’m the outreach librarian at the public library. Music is my hobby, I suppose. I have two beautiful cats—a calico named Heidi, and a gray and white tabby named Biscuit. They are delightful. Jed: I’m a copywriter as my regular thing, peppered with recording/mixing/soundtrack work throughout the year. My extremely lovely black cat Elsa is my familiar.
What would you do this summer if money and COVID were not in the way of your dreams? Alicia: Travel more and maybe tour. Jed: Buy a car and do a road trip across the country and then drive up the coast of California listening to “Babylon Sisters” on repeat. Help some friends out.
What bands/venues do you want to play with/at? Alicia: Dream pairings that won’t happen—Aislers Set, Dear Nora. Jed: Alicia’s picks are good. My Teenage Stride played in this cool outdoor venue at Primavera years ago. I’d like to do that again but having rehearsed more.
Future plans? Upcoming tours/records? Alicia: We have a new LP coming out in early 2022 and we are hopefully playing some dates in California at the beginning of January around the SF Popfest! Jed: New Jeanines LP in early 2022 on Slumberland as well as new Mick Trouble LP on Emotional Response in January, with a special limited edition w/flexidisc bonus thingie for Rough Trade which I’m excited about. Touring Jeanines and Mick in SF Popfest and the West Coast in January also.
Records Alicia Cannot Live Without Dear Nora – Three States The Siddeleys – Slum Clearance Les Calamités – C’est Complet The Aislers Set – How I Learned to Write Backwards Nice Try – S/T (2016) The Mantles – Long Enough to Leave Elliott Smith – all? Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing Go Sailor – S/T Connie Converse – How Sad, How Lovely
Songs That Jed Cannot Live Without “All My Hollowness,” Tall Dwarfs “Nothing But Heartaches,” the Supremes “This Angry Silence,” Television Personalities “Anything Could Happen,” The Clean “Myself When I Am Real,” Charles Mingus (from Mingus Plays Piano) “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” The Four Tops “Luck of Lucien,” A Tribe Called Quest “Back Up Against the Wall,” Circle Jerks “Doe,” The Breeders “Quick Step,” The Adverts “Ready Teddy,” Little Richard “Hit It and Quit It,” Funkadelic “They Don’t Know,” Kirsty MacColl “Don’t Believe the Hype,” Public Enemy “Oogum Boogum,” Brenton Wood “Lady Rachael,” Kevin Ayers “Solace- A Mexican Serenade,” Scott Joplin “Dawn,” The Four Seasons “Get Right Back,” Maxine Nightingale “I Bet You,” Funkadelic “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath- Black Sabbath “Theme de Camille” from Contempt/Le Mepris soundtrack- George Delerue “Queen of Fools,” Barbara Mills “Do I Love You,” Ronettes “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” Cyndi Lauper “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home,” Kinks “Gideon’s Bible,” John Cale “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers “Mona,” The Beach Boys “Electric Funeral,” Black Sabbath “Sweet & Dandy,” Toots & The Maytals “Into The Groove,” Madonna “After Eight,” Neu! “Your Heart Out,” The Fall “No Side To Fall In,” The Raincoats “Street Fighting Man,” Rolling Stones “When I Grow Up,” The Beach Boys and every Velvet Underground album
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