The very existence of Mike Nesmith inspired me my entire life, whether I was aware of it or not, from the time I first heard “Different Drum” until I took an early retirement from PBS.
Mike Nesmith was a fearless visionary. He was not afraid to follow his whims, and he was not afraid to defend himself. If all he had done was compose “Different Drum,” he’d still be lauded, but for decades after writing the song that would put Linda Ronstadt on all our radar, he continued to experiment and invent delightful escapes into storytelling, whether through book, song, or visuals.
Little did I know in 1966, when I was 8 years old, I was completely swept up in boy-band-mania because of the excellent job NBC-TV’s PR team did when they launched The Monkees television show. TV Guide first introduced me to The Monkees and in short order, a magazine called Tiger Beat appeared out of nowhere and featured them all the time. I also didn’t realize that the publishers of Tiger Beat had a stranglehold on the teen “consumer” market and worked in lockstep with the television networks and record companies for mutual benefit. It makes sense now, and it also doesn’t matter because it was through the pop culture mill that I discovered the Monkees, the Brill Building songwriters, and Mike Nesmith, who passed away on December 10, 2021, just 20 days shy of his 79th birthday.
The TV Guide introduction to The Monkees set them up as a parallel to The Beatles, whose own image was turned into a cartoon series debuting on television one year earlier. The story had brief bios on each band member/actor, and to this kid, they all seemed bonafide. Clearly, the TV Guide writer and editor were copying the NBC press releases as they identified Nesmith as “Wool Hat,” which was not only a stupid nickname, but never caught on. Again, I realize this 50+ years later.
During my childhood and adolescence, all things Mike Nesmith slowly seeped into my consciousness and formed my artistic preferences. It was no mystery why I liked his Monkees songs the best. He wrote “Different Drum,” a hit song for the Stone Poneys that I cranked whenever it came on the radio. When I bought Monkees’ singles, I always preferred the Nesmith-penned B-sides, particularly “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” over the hit A-side, Neil Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” And from this, I also learned about songwriters and the Brill Building, for in addition to Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin were supplying songs for The Monkees.
In the situation comedy itself, while we’ll never know if the screenwriters crafted the TV Monkees’ personalities to match the real-life Monkees’ personalities, Mike always came across as the normal one and the one true musician. Mike Nesmith set the bar for 8-year-old me and how I would evaluate musicians in the future.
During the year I started working at PBS, the organization made a deal with Nesmith’s prescient video production and distribution company, Pacific Arts, to distribute PBS produced programs (most notably Ken Burns’ The Civil War, as well as a slew of other less noteworthy bulk). At a point in the relationship, things soured, and my employer was so clearly in the wrong. When you work in law firms or corporate legal departments, you work to develop a clear separation of how you feel versus the job you must do. But this one was impossible to rationalize. My relationship with PBS lasted as long as Nesmith’s. While his relationship was filled with lawsuits and trials (in which he prevailed, and gloriously), mine was an easy exit. As a government-funded entity that must have its operating budget reauthorized by Congress every three years, many of the stations made attractive early retirement packages for employees. I took one the year that the Pacific Arts relationship crashed. Although I was a member of the legal department, I was not involved in the Pacific Arts deal. But due to my membership on this team, I was peripherally part of the ruination of Mike Nesmith – my childhood idol – and his pioneering media company.
However, by also seeing peripherally into what Mike Nesmith had forged in the media landscape brought me back to punk rock and DIY. Mike didn’t invent punk rock, but he most certainly took DIY to new heights at a parallel time. I’m sorry I never saw a Monkees reunion show, but I cherish my old 7-inch singles and will continue to travel to the beat of a different drum. I thank Mike Nesmith for putting a name on it.
It is December 30, 2021, but it feels like just yesterday, and also a decade ago that the Years of the Pandemic began dividing our time into manipulated managed segments with the end result being that I have no idea what day, month, year, or decade it is. I had to verify that the following entries on my list were all from 2021. I could have sworn I’ve seen many more movies, but that was 2020, when I was still a film fest juror and screened perhaps 200 films in 6 weeks, and then never “attended” the festival (online) because by October, after 7 months at home, in front of the computer, I longed to be watching films from anywhere but there.
In 2020, I strived to maintain some semblance of emotional normalcy during the lockdown and post-tornado recovery, and invited people over on Sundays during the summer for cookouts and listening to music in the backyard. But in 2021, I embraced the solitude and devoted my leisure time to headphone listening and viewing. The records and movies I took in were for comfort more than entertainment. Comfort AND familiarity (I’ve watched TWISTER a half dozen times this year, on cable; HARRY POTTER too) were the criteria. In some cases, confirmation bias just made me feel better regardless of the quality of the programming. I attended maybe 5 concerts in person but enjoyed countless live-streamed shows.
The theme for my 2021 in life and culture was “swaddle self in comfort; believe the women; support POC and science.”
Aimee Mann- Queens of the Summer Hotel
Sleater-Kinney – Path of Wellness
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Georgia Blue
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
Reigning Sound – A Little More Time With Reigning Sound
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Barn
Summer of Soul – documentary, director: Questlove
Movie theatres can get away with selling fewer seats to maintain a safe distance between viewers, but concert promoters cannot. I took few chances with congregate settings this year. I chose iconoclasts and I believe I chose well.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters – Atlanta, GA
Bob Dylan – Rough & Rowdy Ways tour – Beacon Theatre, NYC
Squirrel Nut Zippers Holiday Show – City Winery, Nashville, TN
Mondays – Instragram to Table – Alice Carbone Tench (Instagram Live)
Wednesdays – Sweet Home Quarantine /Live From Tubby’s – Robyn Hitchcock & Emma Swift (Mandoline)
Thursdays – Post-Apocalyptic Malone – Bryan Malone (FB and YouTube)
Dracula – Bram Stoker with illustrations by Edward Gorey (Sterling)
Crime & Punishment – new (2014) translation by Oliver Ready (Penguin Classics)
SMUG CONFIRMATION BIAS CONSUMPTION FOR PASSING THE TIME
Don’t Look Up – director Adam McKay
Being the Ricardos – director Aaron Sorkin (watched on Prime, not in theatre)
State of Terror – novel by Hillary Clinton & Louise Penny
Learn more about Theresa Kereakeshere in our 2020 interview with her.
The most exciting thing for me in 2021 was that Amelia and I started a record label (SkepWax). We first talked about it 30 years ago, so it’s had quite a long gestation.
I guess lockdown is to blame. Prior to this we’d never had enough spare time, and suddenly we had loads of it. We only released our own records to start with, partly because we couldn’t face the idea of messing up other people’s. But it’s gone pretty well, so in 2022 we will be ‘expanding our roster’.
Anyway, I thought I’d share my ten best things about starting a label.
The local post office. Despite the Tories’ best efforts, there are still elements of the state’s architecture that still function. The postal service is one of them. Things arrive on time. You don’t worry about your item being chucked around. The couple who run our local post office are really friendly. Occasionally other customers can get irked – it probably is annoying trying to collect your pension if the person in front is mailing fifty cassette singles to various parts of the world. But the British like queueing, and even more than that they like grumbling about the people in front of them in the queue, so this isn’t such a massive problem.
Having a song played on the radio. This was always the most exciting thing about being in a band, but it’s doubly exciting now, especially as DJs tend to be quite good about naming the record label.
Seeing your record in a shop. Again, this was always exciting but now it’s even better. There’s the thing that you have made, waiting patiently in the rack for someone to fall in love with it.
Getting to know the community of writers, bloggers, online DJs. Just under the radar of the mainstream, there are hundreds of people keeping the independent music scene alive by sharing their enthusiasm. There’s some really good writing out there too. It’s a good gang to be part of.
Getting to know people who run cool record stores. Those places were the conduit to a better world when I was a teenager (in my case, Revolver Records in Bristol) and I’m probably still a bit starstruck when I go into them. Now that we are adults and have records to sell, it’s like getting permission to go behind the scenes at the theatre. You’ve been in the audience for years, wondering who’s doing the lighting, putting the props on stage, directing the actors – and now you are backstage chatting with those people. They are immensely knowledgeable and generally very supportive.
Rubber stamps. We’ve got a ‘Skep Wax’ rubber stamp that gets applied to the envelopes for the records we mail out personally. It’s the most analogue object in the world and creates a pleasingly imperfect image every time.
Co-releasing with other indie labels. There is a very strong sense of solidarity amongst people who are working really hard to do something good without any expectation of making a lot of money.
Being local and global at the same time. Everything we do happens on the dining table, or in the spare room (with occasional trips up the road to the post office). And then, a few months later, people in Brazil, Indonesia and America get to hear the results.
Choosing which medium to release on. There are so many options – cassette, CD, vinyl, download, streaming. You don’t have to do all of them. You can choose the one that’s best for the release in question. If you want to do a 3” CD, you can. If you want to do a one-sided 7” single with a 50-page book, you can.
‘Expanding our roster…’ The fact that other bands are prepared to trust us with their art is a good feeling, if a little nerve-wracking. But it does mean that 2022 won’t be boring.
Skep Wax will soon announce Under the Bridge, a compilation album that will be very exciting for anyone who liked Sarah Records.
1) La Corneta As 3/4th of the members of The Umbrellas are vegetarians, our criteria stems from the quality of: the beans, rice, salsa & tortilla (chip quality is also taken into account). The rice in a La Corneta burrito is what really elevates this place to the top; two ingredients unseen in any other SF Taqueria: peas & carrots. The Glen Park location is walking distance from where Morgan lives, and we’ve had so many fond memories eating there before and after gigs.
2) El Burrito Express Both the Divisadero location and the Taraval location are great (and anyone who thinks the quality differs from one location to another has their head up their ass). They by far have the largest selection of veggie burritos, and an option to add french fries to any of them. All members of The Umbrellas have lived within walking distance to the Taraval location and would eat here on a regular basis. Matt and Nick in particular ate here every Thursday from 2016-2018.
3) El Buen Sabor Located on 18th and Valencia, this is the spot of choice for employees of the Chapel (where Keith works). Partially due to convenience, partially due to quality… but overall, just a consistent option. They have a great “Veg. California Burrito” chock full of vegetables.
4) El Pancho Villa Hands down one of the finest salsa bars the city has to offer (the chipotle salsa being a favorite of ours). The employees are always super accommodating (and have the spiffiest uniforms of any taqueria). When you’re on the main strip of Mission and 16th, this would be our pick.
5) Mi Familia Once known as Zona Rosa, this Haight Street staple has maintained their quality even after a branding change. This is the closest burrito spot to where Morgan and Nick work and has been a great option when hungover on the clock. Some of the absolute sweetest folks own this establishment and are nothing but kind. The real kicker is their salsas (which they used to have squeeze bottles of on their tables pre-covid).
6) Taqueria Los Mayas This Richmond taqueria is the go-to spot of your favorite fog rockers (members of The Telephone Numbers, April Magazine & The Reds, Pinks & Purples all live a few blocks away). Their focus is on Mayan fare, so they have quite unique options you can’t find elsewhere. They have a wonderful plantain burrito and excellent tortas that are both highly recommended. Their mango salsa is also some of the best in the city. Make sure to get the burrito “Dorado Style” when you stop in… You won’t regret it.
7) Taqueria Cancun How many times have we played or gone to a show at the Knockout and stopped at El Cancun as well? Too many times to count… You can never go wrong with this beloved taqueria. Their bright yellow sign and interior attracts burrito-lovers like bees to a flower. While their chips and salsa are subpar, they are free. You can never go wrong getting a little something in your stomach before a night of drinking Hamm’s next door at the KO.
8) Los Coyotes This is another taqueria on that main strip of 16th Street between Mission and Valencia. Sometimes this taqueria feels more in the vein of fast food, as they have french fries that closely resemble that of McDonald’s fries. They have an incredible Veggie-California burrito, which incorporates these McDonald’s-esque fries. They have a stunning selection of salsa and El Yucateco hot sauce bottles on every table! There are lots of extra accoutrements like: grilled poblano chiles and onions, pickled carrots, and extra spicy peppers. This is probably the most fun you’ll have at a taqueria, given the amount of space their restaurant has and all of their options.
9) El Farolito Often cited as the best and most popular taqueria in San Francisco, there is a reason there are five locations throughout SF and South SF… The burritos are GOOD. El Farolito embodies what every taqueria should aspire to be: filling, cheapish & consistent burritos. They are the least stingy when it comes to stuffing a burrito to the brim (this is especially appreciated with the amount of avocado they manage to pack in). Most of their locations are open until the wee hours of the morning and is a must before catching the OWL bus home. Many folks have their opinion of El Farolito, but we felt we couldn’t have a list of “Best San Francisco Taquerias” without at least mentioning El Farolito.
10) Taqueria Zorro (Voted Worst) For fun, we included our most despised burrito of San Francisco… Zorro’s burritos should not be consumed under ANY circumstances. Even if we were stuck on a desert island and it was the only viable option for sustenance, we STILL would not go anywhere near one! Located in the heart of North Beach, right next door to The Hungry I gentlemen’s club, we don’t know why we were expecting a decent burrito from a neighborhood that’s known for its exceptional Italian fare. The burrito was dry, the atmosphere was strange, and we were lamenting on the fact that Golden Boy Pizza was right up the road. Next time you’re in North Beach, please don’t be adventurous… Just go get pizza and eat it at Vesuvio like a normal person.
We are two grown up English punk girls. We write a blog and make a print zine called punkgirldiaries, so people often assume that we’re forever harking back to 1976 with Siouxsie and Poly Styrene. But that’s only part of it; we try to trace a line of women in innovative rock-based music that probably starts with Suzi Quatro and Fanny and continues through punk, no-wave, indie-pop, shoegaze, riot grrrl, pop-punk and we also love to promote some of the music that women and girls are making now.
So here’s our list of a few great 2021 songs, with links to the videos — mostly women musicians — that caught our attention and that will live on in punkgirldiaries playlists:
All-female trio Peaness are great musicians who got together at uni. Their most recent song has that melodic stop-start thing, the gorgeous harmonies and a wiseness beyond their years. It was really fun interviewing Peaness for our Blogzine 8.
1994 was a pivotal year: The art and music community on the East Coast was rocking and filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley made a film called Half-Cocked, which featured many band people including Rodan, Slint, Freakwater and the Grifters. Now they have curated, along with Tony Kapel, a new art show called Shooting Blanks: The Art of Half-Cocked, opening Nov. 29 the Seven Seas Motel during Art Basel Miami that pulls together art, photography and ephemera related to the film and the broader community. Some call it nostalgia; others call it historic documentation. We spoke to Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley about their work and the exhibition. Photographs by Michael Galinsky
Chickfactor: How did the art show “Shooting Blanks: The Art of Half-Cocked” come about? Michael Galinsky: About this time last year Tony asked me to be on his radio show that airs in Miami and online. He wanted to discuss Half-Cocked and my mall photos. We had a great conversation, and he also had several other people involved in the film on the show in the following weeks. Part of our discussion had to do with his surprise that the film wasn’t more widely known, so it was his idea to build an event around it during Art Basel. He suggested showing my photos and the film. Since Half-Cocked was such a collaborative project, and everyone involved with the making of the film is an artist we decided to make it more of a celebration of the kind of creativity that the film was meant to document. We also wanted to loop in others who documented that world, and people like Theresa Kereakes who helped inspire that kind of documentation.
CF: Who is Tony Kapel and how is he involved? Suki Hawley: Tony is a musician/artist who does curation and puts out records and cassettes. This made it a very easy collaborative effort. The other day he mentioned that he started telling everyone about this event right after we decided to do it, but that no one really believed we’d pull it off. I laughed when he said this because this was part of the secret of getting Half-Cocked made. I kind of knew that if you told people you were doing something you kind of had to do it. At the very least it puts a fire under your ass.
CF: Please describe Half-Cocked the film. MG: Suki was in graduate film school and was frustrated and annoyed because it wasn’t nearly as useful as her undergraduate program had been. I was a photographer who wanted to make films. We met at her roommate Cynthia’s birthday party, and shortly after, she started to book a tour for Cynthia’s band Ruby Falls, and she used all of the contacts I’d developed in booking Sleepyhead’s first tours. So that summer, she went on the same route that we often took and met many of the people we knew. That summer she also shot listed the film Party Girl because she was the director’s assistant and the director came from theater. So, she realized she kind of knew enough to make a film. We understood that it’s best to write what you know, and since we knew all of these amazing musicians in the South, we wrote about that. We did a lot of brainstorming with our roommates Cynthia Nelson and Steve Thornton respectively and then Suki and I would write for days at a time. We got a rough script together in a month. I sent it to my dad, who panned it. “Where the fuck’s the conflict?” he scrawled on the title page. We made another pass and sent it to everyone we hoped to have in it. Jon Cook had ideas for a crazy subplot that involved murdering a pizza delivery guy. It kind of exploded what was there. I mentioned this to Sean Meadows the other day, who was also in the movie, saying there wasn’t a way to incorporate it. He asked why not? I guess he was right, we could have done that. However, we really wanted to make something that could get seen. Even in my band we weren’t exploding the boundaries of expectation, just gently pushing them a bit. I loved work that exploded them, but it wasn’t my impulse to do so. SH:Half-Cocked is about a bunch of kids who steal a van full of gear and pretend to be a band in order to stay out on the road. The stakes are not as high as Some Like it Hot, but it does borrow some of that kind of slapstick at times. The other inspiration was teen riot films like Over the Edge and Suburbia. There were a lot of other more serious film influences as well; The Last Picture Show and Stranger than Paradise come to mind. The idea was to write a skeleton script and have everyone fill in their roles. We wanted to document the world we were a part of without making a “documentary.”
CF: Who are the artists involved with the show? Tell us about a few pieces in it. MG: We tried to be as inclusive as possible, both directly inviting people and making it known that we wanted people to contribute. We focused on the creative community in Louisville and Chattanooga, where Rodan and Boondoggle were from; bands we met on our first tours. However, we also pulled in people like Ron Liberti, from bands like Pipe, Small 23, and Clok Lock—as well as a brilliant poster artist. We have videos from [the late] Letha Rodman (from Ruby Falls), her sitcom Apartment 6, as well as a few of her collages, and a short film we made about her work. She was a huge supporter of all of our efforts. We will also be showing a film made by Ian Svenonius and Alexandra Cabral, The Lost Record. Ian brought a great deal of wit and panache to Half-Cocked as the owner of the van that gets stolen. We have photos from Pat Graham, Theresa Kereakes, Allison Wolfe and others. We have just a growing body of art and documentation and hope to take the show on the road to other locations, and maybe make some kind of book.
CF: We’ve talked a lot about community and documentation. Are those central themes here? What else were you hoping to achieve by wrangling these artists together? MG: The most exciting thing to come from this effort is a short film that Suki cut from Andrew Bordwin’s video footage of the Ruby Falls tour. I’d never seen this stuff and it’s really funny because there’s one section where Ruby Falls has their show in Chattanooga canceled and they find out in John Moses’ record shop. Almost the same scene takes place in the film and I had no idea that it had happened on their tour. So, in the short we cut in several scenes from the film that mirror what’s going in their footage. It adds so much to the idea of documentation. There’s a performative aspect to Half-Cocked that’s different in the color video footage. Together, the short video and the film capture something so much deeper than the individual pieces do. SH: There’s not much wrangling going on. Everything has fallen together pretty organically. Not everyone could get their shit together to send stuff, and a lot of people don’t have much of their older stuff. However, everyone is still involved in making art in some way. I think it’s all very inspiring to look at and sit with. It’s like mini museum show and hopefully the beginning of a much larger project.
CF: Michael, when did you start taking photographs? MG: I started making pictures in high school in a photo class. I took to it like a duck to developer bath. Really, I was the only one in the class who was obsessed right off the bat. I spent many a lunch hour in the darkroom discovering the magic of images forming in the developer tray.
CF: What was your first camera? MG: My first, and really my only 35 mm SLR camera was a Nikon FG 20 with a shit sigma 3.5 lens. I ran that thing into the ground. The lens was kind of soft, but that gave the work something of a distinctive slightly out-of-focus look, LOL.
CF: Tell us about some of the books you’ve published. MG: My first book was Scraps, and it was put out by David Simkins on his Sugar Free Records label. He was a music fan I met in Chicago I think and when he moved to NY he offered to put out a book. I had another book that is still not published, of my early music and tour photos. Scraps is a reference to what was left after I made that book, but it’s also about the scrappiness of the underground DIY world. After that I made a couple of books of my mall work. All the books are out-of-print, but I want to make some new ones. I want to make a book that combines Scraps with the unpublished one Lost. I want to make another one largely based on what I have pulled together for this show. I also want to get to work on the color stuff I shot after 1995 when I got a point-and-shoot camera.
CF: How many films have you made together? SH: Michael and I have made nine feature films and countless shorts (many of which will be playing in the gallery). We have three or four long-term doc projects in various states of disrepair. CF: What are some of the biggest challenges facing creative artists these days? MG: There is just a veritable flood of content of all types. I can see how overwhelming it is for my daughter. Everyone is competing for our eyes and ears and so much of that work is overly slick and produced, even the stuff that’s meant to be messy and fucked up. No one wants to pay for creativity or “content.” It’s a shit show.
CF: How would you describe the Half-Cocked era compared with 2021? MG: What we wanted to document in Half-Cocked was a world that was unconcerned with the expectations of the larger world. It wanted to be separate and disconnected. Now that’s happening in a million different ways in small groups—but also wildly connected through social media, and with so much intention. I’m glad we got to do what we did then. CF: Half-Cocked came out around the time the internet truly took over our lives. What was better before personal technology changed everything? Everything. And nothing.
CF: Explain what the Soundwave Art app is and how it will be used in the show. SH: Soundwave basically turns each image into a QR code. So when you point your phone it can bring up whatever reference we want. It makes the show so much more interactive. Michael has a lot of spoken word and music that goes with his photos. It just makes the whole thing much more interactive. We can link to videos by band, or sound pieces etc. It adds a great deal. CF: What are your future plans? MG: I really want to tour with the film again so that we can see the world but also celebrate the art that went into it. So many of the acts are still making work, and hopefully this will help them get more attention SH: me too!
Shooting Blanks : The Art of Half-Cocked will feature work by the filmmakers Suki Hawley & Michael Galinsky (RUMUR), as well as past and current work from the cast, crew and artists connected to the scene documented in the film:
Akeo Ihara / Allison Wolfe / Amy Davis / Andrew Bordwin / Barbara Johnson / Brian Lynch / Bob Fay / Cynthia Nelson / Catherine Irwin / David Pajo / Erin Smith / Gail O’Hara / Greg King / Ian Svenonius /Janet Beveridge Bean / Jason Noble / Jon Brumit / Jon Moritsugu / Jon Moses / Kevin Corrigan / Leslie Gomez-Gonzalez / Letha Rodman Melchior / Luis Collazos / Jeff Mueller / Jennifer Rogers-Anderson / Maitejosune Urrechaga / Michael Galinsky / Ron Liberti / Pat Graham / Sean Meadows / Suki Hawley /Tara Jane O’Neil / Tara Key / Theresa Kereakes / Tim Furnish / Tim Foljahn / Thom Snively
Half-Cocked is a 1995 film that documented the DIY underground music scene in and around Louisville, Kentucky, in the early ’90s. It was a vibrant, creative community that had a powerful impact on musicians around the world. This show will celebrate the art and the artists associated with that scene, then and now.
The exhibition will include screenings of Half-Cocked, other Rumur films, and a slideshow + Q&A on Galinsky’s photo book Decline of Mall Civilization. In 1995, the Half-Cocked soundtrack was released on Matador Records. The cast included members of the bands Rodan, The Sonora Pine, June of 44, Ruby Falls, LungFish, Slint, Nation of Ulysses, Shipping News, Boondoggle, The Grifters, Sleepyhead, Freakwater and Crain.
PUBLIC HOURS Tuesday, November 30 – Saturday, Dec 4 / 11 am — 6 pm Sunday, Dec 5 / 11 am — 5 pm
IN THE COMMON SPACE SATURDAY Dec. 4, 2021
4pm The Decline of Mall Civilization Book slide show and Q&A with Michael Galinsky
6:30 pm Half-Cocked Film Screening and Q&A with Suki Hawley & Michael Galinsky
8PM Live Music Gown BORRI Rat Bastard Nightly Closures Pocket of Lollipops KC Jankem
I first met Mike Schulman when he was recommending spot-on records (such as Juvenilia and “100,000 Fireflies”) to me at Vinyl Ink Records in Silver Spring and the other folks who were involved with early Slumberland were Pam Berry (chickfactor’s cofounder and Black Tambourine singer), Archie Moore, Brian Nelson, Kelly Young, Rob Goldrick, Berny Grindel, Bridget Cross, Dan Searing (of Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl, Whorl and other bands). I wrote a story about the label for Washington City Paper 30 years ago! before our zine was formed. They’ve been a prolific and excellent label ever since and we did a label spotlight on them even though everyone reading cf already knows all about them! Meet Mike Slumberland…
What year did you start a label? Where? Why? We started Slumberland in 1989 around Washington, DC/suburban MD. A small group of us knew each other from high school, U of MD and the MD radio station (WMUC) and were into a lot of the same music—Postcard, Creation, K, Rough Trade, C86, shoegaze, lower east side NYC noise rock, the Mary Chain, etc.—and decided to start some bands in that vein. Eventually we decided to put out a few records to document what we were doing and it just grew from there.
What has been the most fun bit about running a label? It’s the absolute best feeling to hear some new music that you like and being able to help get it out there. It’s why we do this. Of course it’s *especially* fun when a record resonates a bit and reaches a wider audience, but even so there’s nothing like that moment when you open the box of a new album, send some to the band, send out the first mail orders… It’s great.
What have been the biggest challenges? The biggest challenges are rather connected: a) the financial side of keeping it all going, and b) getting enough visibility for the records to create enough demand to drive enough sales to satisfy a). It’s always been hard to get press for the kind of records we put out, and without press it’s equally hard to get into the shops. While internet sales and the demise of traditional print music magazines/zine have leveled the playing field a bit for the really small labels, it’s also meant the overall sales are down which just makes everything harder. And of course we take no pleasure at all in the challenges that have beset traditional music press and record retail—in a lot of ways I wish it was 1995 again, but with the press actually liking what we do, ha ha.
How have things changed over time in terms of marketing and distribution? The rise of digital media—downloads/streaming, online zines/blogs and social media—has changed a lot of the specifics of how we get the music out there. While it’s great that music production and distribution has been demystified and democratized by platforms like Bandcamp, it’s also true that there is more music than ever and it becomes harder and harder to capture a little bit of attention for any given band or release. There is a tangible desire for the new and novel, and albums seem to have a much shorter shelf-life now. Catalog sales are barely a fraction of what they were before downloads and the retail apocalypse, so one feels compelled to push even harder during those few weeks before and just after an album release, and we’re increasingly resigned to the fact that we’ll need to let more records go out of print sooner.
What new stuff are you working on now/soon? We have a new album by SF project Chime School (totally classic Rickenbacker-fueled jangle) along with a new pressing of the East Village singles comp. Farther in the future we’ve got new records by The Reds, Pinks & Purples, Artsick, Kids On a Crime Spree and Jeanines all in production, plus some *super* cool reissues we’ve been working on for ages.
What other merch do you sell? Every now and then I do a batch of shirts, but TBH I’d rather spend the label’s money on new releases than merch.
What labels have inspired you? Creation, Postcard, Bus Stop, K, Sarah, Rough Trade, Factory, Fast, Subway.
How do you find new records (not on your label)? I keep an eye on Twitter and Instagram to see what people are talking about. Sometimes if I have a bit of time I’ll check out the Bandcamp profile pages for people who have bought SLR stuff and see what else they’re listening to. I listen to a bit of online radio, mostly BBC 1Xtra while I’m getting Prince SLR ready for school in the AM. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of new bands that I’d like but I’m also still buying loads of jazz, soul, techno, etc. and there’s just not enough time to listen to everything.
Can people get your releases outside the U.S.? We have worldwide distribution, but of course the records are more expensive outside the US and it’s even harder to get stores to commit some money and rack space. Unfortunately overseas postage rates skyrocketed several years ago, which all but eliminated what was until then a pretty consistent overseas mail order biz. We’ve recently been experimenting with having our friend Alvaro at the excellent Meritorio label in Spain fulfill mail orders in Europe, which helps with costs and delivery times, but since it costs a LOT to get records over to him it really only works for records that we press in Europe. Still, it’s something.
What would you like to say to Louis DeJoy? We see you.
What bands/records are you really excited about? There’s been so much terrific music coming out of the bay area over the past few years—The Umbrellas, The Reds, Pinks & Purples, Cindy, Tony Jay, Chime School, Blue Ocean, April Magazine, Seablite and on and on. If it wasn’t for COVID, we’d have amazing gigs to go to every week! I quite like the US Highball albums, the new Ducks Ltd album is amazing, The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness, the new Massage LP, the Dummy LP, the new Saint Etienne LP!!
What are you drinking, eating, listening to, reading, watching these days? Somewhat surprisingly my alcohol & food intake seemed to actually go down during lockdown, and we’ve gone mostly vegetarian at the urging of Prince SLR. I’ve always got a few books on the go—usually non-fiction science writing or political theory, but I’ve been adding in some fiction now and again too. We have a hard time scheduling blocks of time for movies so we watch a fair amount of TV. We’re watching Back To Life and Pen15 right now, recently watched and liked Don’t Forget The Driver, Motherland, The Detectorists (finally). There’s just too much to watch, I don’t know how some people seems to get through all of the prestige TV happening today!
Has the vinyl supply-chain bottleneck affected you? YES, and it’s an ongoing nightmare. Albums are being delayed over a year, planning and budgeting is almost impossible. Getting represses in a timely fashion is impossible, so we can’t respond to demand if a record does well. It’s just a mess and TBH it could be fatal for some small labels. I’m still trying to get my head around how to make it work.
Do you have a day job? Are you in a band? Do tell. I’m between day jobs right now, which was actually pretty helpful during lockdown and home schooling. I’m the shouter in a punk band called Hard Left that is intermittently active; we released an album in 2015 bookended by a handful of singles, and we’re (VERY) slowly working on our long-awaited (ha ha!) follow-up.
Hobbies? Interests? Pets? Kids? Fave record stores? Leftist politics, tinkering with computer tech stuff, our two cats, my lovely family, record collecting.
Anything else you would like to add? When SLR started over 30 years ago, I couldn’t really imagine getting past the first few releases and now we have over 250 and are still counting. Running a small label is awfully challenging right now and the rewards are quite scant, but I still love to hear new bands and help them get their music out there. Now more than ever we need beautiful music and art in our lives!
Lotsa Pop Losers was a two-day music festival that took place at the American Legion Hall in Bethesda, Maryland on October 26, 1991, and the late d.c. space on October 27, 1991. Organized by three young independent labels in D.C. (Simple Machines, Slumberland and Teen-Beat), the festival was clearly inspired by the International Pop Underground Convention while also reflecting an East Coast pop/punk/indie/etc. music scene that felt pretty damn awesome at the time. The lineup was:
Saturday: Jonny Cohen, Swirlies, Kickstand, Lois Maffeo, Kicking Giant, Flying Saucer, Tsunami, Velocity Girl, Edsel, High Back Chairs Sunday: Lorelei, Versus, Tear Jerks, Eggs, Lilys, Linda Smith, Sexual Milkshake, Small Factory, Sleepyhead, Unrest
We checked in with the organizers (Jenny Toomey + Kristin Thomson from Simple Machines and Tsunami; Mark Robinson from Teen-Beat and Unrest) and some performers Erin Smith (who played with Unrest at the event) and Michael Galinsky (Sleepyhead) to see what they could remember about the fall festival three damn decades ago. —Compiled by Gail O’Hara
Did you attend Lotsa Pop Losers? What made you want to go?
Mark Robinson (Teen-Beat, Unrest): I did. The bands, the people, the fun. Erin Smith (Bratmobile, Teenage Gang Debs): Of course! It was a no-brainer that I was going to go. The 3 labels involved were some of my favorites, and the scene then was relatively small and insular—it seemed like all of my friends were playing! Plus, I am from Bethesda—and it was just too cool that one entire day of the fest was going to be held there. I’m very into Bethesda punk history. It might blow people’s minds now, but there were punk shows and venues in Bethesda, and certainly plenty of punks from there. I was very proud to introduce out of town visitors like Kicking Giant to my hometown! Michael Galinsky (Sleepyhead): Sleepyhead played and a lot of our friends were also playing. I can’t remember where we stayed, but I do remember that Otis Ball came with us. In NY we played with Kicking Giant, Versus, and Flying Saucer a lot so I think we were the NY contingent. We also played with Small Factory and I guess that made us the Northeast contingent. We had also played quite a few shows with the bands like the Swirlies and Eggs.
Were there other festivals like this you’d been to before? How was this different?
Erin: I had been to IPU (International Pop Underground Convention), which had just happened in Olympia, WA, 2 months before, in late August, 1991, with I believe only Kicking Giant, Sleepyhead, and Lois playing both fests. This was kind of cool in that it was 20 bands condensed into 2 days—so one long day in Bethesda at the American Legion Hall, and one long day in DC at dc space. It gave us a lot of time to all hang out together in one place! Mark: I think this was probably my first festival like this. Maybe my first music festival of any kind. Michael: We had also played at IPU and Lollipops and booze in Cambridge. This was more akin to IPU on a somewhat smaller scale. This was a bit more intimate and it was different for us because by this point we knew a lot more people so it was more like a reunion than being overwhelmed by a ton of new people. Somehow we were given a really prime spot on the bill. This was maybe the only time we played with Unrest, a band that I had a really profound respect for, so that had some meaning. Kristin Thomson (Simple Machines Records / Tsunami): Yes! We’d just attended—and Tsunami had played—at the International Pop Underground in Olympia, WA in August 1991. Jenny Toomey (Simple Machines Records / Tsunami): I’m sure we were inspired by IPU. We’d been to festivals before, but nothing as organized, three dimensional or as delightfully weird, as IPU. I’d spent 6 weeks in Olympia the previous summer after my first band Geek had toured the US with Superchunk and Seaweed. Aaron Stauffer talked me into coming back west and Candice was traveling so I rented her apartment and was living in the heart of the scene. So I’d experienced the strange time travel of the place up close. There were ways that Olympia was a north star and felt like it was way out ahead of the rest of the world, super feminist, queer positive, everyone was an artist and there were so many folks building and experimenting together—so much possibility. It was absolutely utopic. But there was also this darker, retro backward flavor to the town as well, a bizarro element, like a sci-fi novel where you walk through a time door and everything is cherry pie on the surface and sneaky drugs and violence and grudges underneath. Beat Happening had that mix in spades, like a caramel apple with a razor blade center. I think IPU was so great because it had that depth. It wasn’t just twee “hey, let’s do something fun and pretty”; it had a combination of bands and events and happenings that stretched across all that territory. Things that were public and celebrated and joyful and things that were hidden and dark. It was also so various; it had a “choose your own adventure” element. Some of the things I remember most was the happenstance of the event and have equal weight to the shows. Like, being in line at the grocery store between a Melvin and Jad Fair. Having to pitch a tent in the Capitol Theater because the recycling room in the Martin Apartments where you thought you were going to sleep was already taken by (I think) David Lester, and the Capitol Theater was full of fleas.
Kristin: There were so many parts of IPU that I loved. The Melvins playing an outdoor afternoon show. The Cake Walk. The Planet of the Apes movie day. And, honestly, one of the most emotionally raw Fugazi shows I ever witnessed. I also remember the jolt of joy I got when our event passes came in the mail, cut with pinking shears and hung on fat red crafting yarn. The entire ethos of IPU, and K Records, was very inspiring. Jenny: We had a lot of experience organizing shows because of our involvement with Positive Force and from being in a band and booking tours. At those shows, in addition to bands, there were typically speakers, tabling, and sometimes there was also a die-in, or a punk percussion protest, or a march. But Lotsa Pop Losers was very different from a Positive Force show. It was way more whimsical and it was a joint effort, and it was a moment the newer labels were finding each other, and imagining the possibilities of what we could do together. When Kristin joined the Simple Machines crew, we just egged each other on into making every little thing extra with the label. So, before a tour, we’d do things like hand silk-screen and individually monogram thrifted golf jackets for every member of our band, and for the bands we were touring with. (Wish I still had that jacket). And Mark Robinson certainly had a bit of that “extra” in how he was running Teen-Beat, with the numbering of everything and hand making record covers and with the way he followed his passions with abandon. Mike of the three of us seemed to know a lot more about what was actually going on in the broader music sphere and out in the world, likely because of everything he saw as Vinyl Ink. So we were really able to bring our fetishes together for Lotsa Pop Losers.
Organizers, what do you remember about putting it together?
Mark: Jenny and Kristin from Simple Machines came up with the idea and were the ring leaders. They then generously asked me and Mike Schulman if Teen-Beat and Slumberland would be involved, respectively. They made tons of cool merch. Trading cards for all the musicians/bands, Lots of Pop Losers t-shirts, posters etc. Kristin: It’s funny to look back now and realize that there were only eight weeks between playing IPU in Olympia, and Lotsa Pop Losers in DC. You have to remember, this is pre-internet, so all of the organizing with Mark at Teen-Beat and Mike at Slumberland happened in person or on the phone. To add to this, both Jenny and I had full-time, non-rock jobs. So, to me looking back 30 years, the fact that it happened on an eight-week timeline is astounding, just on a logistical level. How did we confirm 20 bands in time to get Peter Hayes to design and for Jeff Nelson to screen a three-color poster that included all the bands’ names? Lots of post-work Big Gulps and late nights. Jenny: I tend to forget the things that were difficult, particularly so many years out from the event, but in my memory it seemed to come together with very little effort. We were connected to and incredibly inspired by the Dischord scene, who also had a kind of boundless energy for running at things they were curious about. Knowing them made it easy to get the beautiful posters made by Jeff Nelson and Peter Hayes. We were beginning to feel proud of the other labels in the DC area—Teen-Beat and Slumberland. I know there was a lot of mutual admiration among our labels, so it was easy to call Mark and Mike, and just delegate responsibilities for inviting all of these new bands and pulling everything together.
Kristin: Lotsa Pop Losers was an opportunity to add some handmade, community-driven extras. We designed and silkscreened “Teen Slumber Machine” t-shirts. We put together sets of “DC Treasure” baseball cards, highlighting some of the cool people and places in the scene. And the show included an indie rock scorecard, so audience members could run up to the front of the stage to get their card stamped after each band. We’d had some practice with Positive Force shows putting together booklets, and Simple Machines probably had six or eight releases by now, but I’m sure being at IPU, being on tour, reading new zines, buying new 7-inches, and working with Teen-Beat and Slumberland, we were bursting with ideas about all the fun things we could pack into a show. (A sidebar on what was also happening Sept/Oct 1991: I just noticed while looking through some archival folders for this article that we also organized a Positive Force show at the American Legion Hall in Bethesda in the same eight-week period— September 30, 1991—with the Melvins. We got a noise complaint from the police, but instead of stopping, the Melvins continued to play on volume level 1 and stage whispered their lyrics. And, of all things, the famous Nirvana show at JC Dobbs in Philly was the next day— October 1, 1991. I didn’t go up to Philly for this, but Jenny did.) Jenny: And it’s hard to remember that back then we were touring without (and largely living without) the internet so on the road there was little to do but read, journal and imagine the next amazing things you’d work on when you landed.
Performers, what did it feel like to be there? What were the fans like?
Erin: Much like with IPU, with so many bands, the venues being small, and the acts themselves being pretty obscure—the fans really were the other musicians. There was not a clear demarcation between the bands and the fans. A lot of mutual admiration society going on, with bands watching each other from the pit. Bratmobile were slated to play, but weren’t able to given that we were all in college and living on 2 different coasts. I did play 2nd guitar with Unrest at the dc space show, which was incredible— they were one of my favorite bands! I played probably 3 or 4 songs with them—I did this twice live—the Lotsa Pop Losers show, and later in Chapel Hill. Mark: I seem to remember that there were almost as many performers in the audience as there were “fans.” Michael: This felt a lot like a community event than a fan event. The audience was likely 50 percent people in bands who were playing. That made it more intimate. It made it both low pressure and high pressure at the same time. We always wanted to bring everything we had to every show, and since we were largely playing for peers, the stakes were higher in that regard, but there was also a sense that people understood us so we had less to prove. Kristin: I remember it being a really joyful, eager, friendly crowd. Jenny: …and it felt like a lot of the audience were in the other bands. It was a community event. There wasn’t that divide of performer/artist vs consumer/audience. Kristin: …which was also cool! It was a time when most of these bands were just starting to tour, so we were all pretty excited to watch each other perform.
It seemed like an exciting time for the East Coast pop scene. What did the community feel like then?
Jenny: It felt alive with possibility. It wasn’t like we didn’t love the Dischord scene—I was obsessed with the Dischord bands and wouldn’t miss a show—but the next generation of labels were also coming into their own and putting out great records and I loved them too. It felt really exciting. We were still living in the Positive Force house at that time, and there were people who didn’t think it was punk enough and who were very suspicious of the Sub Pop commercialism, which was beginning to influence so much of the independent music scene. Some of our housemates would spend hours arbitrarily deciding which of the pop groups were sufficiently punk, adding logic loopholes exempting the groups they liked. It felt like they were fighting the world’s smallest war and the unnecessary heavy atmosphere was one sign that it was getting time for us to move out into the first Simple Machines house. Erin: In 1991, with Gen X just starting to be able to take a little tiny piece of the control of the media from Baby Boomers, it felt like everyone I knew in the local punk community was starting to get nationally recognized at the same time. Things like Sassy Magazine (for which I was the Washington Bureau Chief) started to take notice of the DC bands and give them some national press. SPIN and the Washington Post started to write about it more and more, too. This is just about the time Nirvana broke and things got really crazy. Mark: Small. But there was definitely a connection between the DC and NY/New England bands—like we were doing something new and somehow connected to each other. My band had already been around for 8 or 9 years at this point, so it was interesting and great that we were included in this movement, scene, or whatever it was. Michael: Having a bunch of bands that we regularly played with and saw at other shows created a pretty powerful sense of community. Everyone in bands that we played with was involved in other creative activities and that created pathways for all kinds of creative connections. I feel like that community made it possible for me to find a foundation to be creative.
What performances do you remember? New artists discovered?
Mark: Pretty sure this was the first time I saw Versus play. Not only was their set amazing, but they would quickly become my favorite band. One interesting thing about this festival that there were a lot of New York and New England bands… My band had played CBGB and other places like that in New York countless times, but in 1991 we had started playing different venues like the Spiral which was a kind of hub for bands in this new scene. Michael: Kicking Giant roaring through their set. Unrest being unreal. Lilys. Jenny: I remember Jonny Cohen had a great set, and it might have been one of the first times we saw Small Factory who were a fan favorite for the VG crew. And, of course, Unrest and Versus, who to this day remain my favorite, favorite bands.
What was the vibe in general?
Jenny: It felt like a new scene. It also felt established … not a beginning, but an actuality. Like “here we all are, of course we are here.” Kristin: There was also a really great ratio of women performing. DC had a number of women who were either in bands or played important roles in the punk scene. And even though this wasn’t a deliberate plan, it’s affirming to look back and see just how many of the bands playing at Lotsa Pop Losers had women in them. Mark: The vibe was just one of having fun. Michael: pleasant low-key calm, with some intense musical moments.
Was it covered by mainstream media then and if so, did they get it?
Jenny: My memory isn’t good here. I think a person from SPIN or Option came down, but we thought it was kind of weird to have mainstream interest. I have a memory that Mark (Jenkins) from the City Paper may have written something. Kristin: Lotsa Pop Losers might have been even a few months too early for the mainstream music press to be interested in this East Coast indie scene. I feel like the Providence Indie Rock Explosion, which happened about six months later, attracted more music press attention. I believe that was one of Belly’s first shows, and by then you could really feel the momentum building around some indie rock bands. Michael: I recall seeing some stuff in zines but not really the media.
Anything else you remember?
Erin: I was not a fan of the name Lotsa Pop Losers—a play on both Lollapalooza and Sub Pop’s use of “Loser” at the time—because the fest was full of some of the most underground and amazing bands I knew, not to mention the coolest people! No way were any of these people “losers”! Michael: I remember doing “surrender” with Otis. Mark: Each label got to choose approximately one-third of the bands that would perform. I also wanted to screen a film, Hippie Porn by Jon Moritsugu, so we did that on the first day at the VFW hall. There was a TV and VHS player set up in the corner and perhaps 2 or 3 people gathered around and watched it before the first band played. I remember it being kind of cold since it was the end of October, but I was still wearing shorts. It always took me a while to change my wardrobe to match the seasons. I also remember not being completely in love with the name of the festival; that it was kind of named after Lollapalooza—and that we were “losers”—ha ha. Jenny: Looking back 30 years, I think it was just one of those moments when things came together. They happen from time to time where a lot of complementary energy just shows up in the same space. For us that was exactly when a few different labels and bands became intertwined in such a strong way. Out of it came records, tours, friendships. When I finally joined Facebook about five years after it started, someone advised me to only friend people who I would let sleep on my couch. As a couch surfing and couch sharing musician, that was a pretty long list, but when I look at my friends list today, all the LPL alumni are there. It’s awesome to see so many of them are still creating, collaborating and sharing music with the world, and if any of them are ever up in Catskill (Kristin: or near Philadelphia!) you can let them know we’ve actually got a guest room now.
Read this 2013 oral history in Washington City Paper for more quotes about the event!
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