Q & A: Chunklet's Henry Owings On The Indie Cred Test, Not Being A Hipster, And Paying Tribute To Jerry Fuchs
The 100 Biggest Assholes in Rock Issue, The Shit List Issue, The Overrated, The Rock Bible--Chunklet mastermind Henry Owings redefined the 'zine aesthetic with his deliciously wisecracking, ass-chewing tongue, dumping on everyone and their mother while taking a little bit of time to engage in some of his patented self-deprecation. (He is the same guy who emblazoned a Chunklet tee with the oh-so-perfect ethos "I Collect Records Because Pussy Hates Me," after all.)
Lately Owings has been occupied with his three-week-old daughter Charlotte--changing diapers, building a crib, having an extension built to his house. And then there's his latest publishing venture, which may indeed be Chunklet's zenith: the textbook-styled behemoth he calls The Indie Cred Test. Published with the assist of a Kickstarter campaign and compiled by Owings and a bevy of writers (including Voice scribe Christopher Weingarten), its sadistically thorough pop-culture aptitude tests include an "Online Music Journalist Application Form" and other multiple-choice quizzes and questionnaires. Once the "tests" are completed, you'll find out just how hip (or more likely, not hip) your pathetic ass really is.
I chatted with Owings while he was at his homestead in Atlanta; he answered questions lifted right from from The Indie Cred Test, addressed the misconceptions about his rep, and reflected on the book's dedicatee, the late drummer Jerry Fuchs.
In a recent review of The Indie Cred Test, you were called out as an "aging hipster."
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I guess I should thank them for being half right. I take umbrage with anyone who calls me a hipster, not that I hear it much. I've never really aspired to be on a Vice magazine level. I've always been kind of dorky and nerdy about my appreciation of stuff. When I think 'hipster' I think of somebody who's at the bar at 11 p.m. on a Friday and rubbing elbows. For me, nothing could be further from the truth. I like cuddling with my dogs and my wife, playing WhirlyBall and buying records. If that's being a hipster then there are a lot of blogs mining the wrong field. I have nothing against Vice; in fact I have friends that work for Vice. I put this politely, but they are always on the edge of telling people what's cool, but I never thought they were right. Not that I'm one to talk: I've lived in Georgia for twenty years and Vice is wildly successful! So what do I know?
You've got a rep of not being into new music, plus you reference '80s postpunk and '90s indie rock consistently in Chunklet and in The Indie Cred Test. Do you listen to music after the '90s?
Religiously! There's two bands I found out about the last couple of months: Bloodiest from Chicago--they're on Relapse for some fucking bizarre reason--and True Widow from Dallas. I am fucking smitten with those bands. I don't have the time and energy to listen to every goddamn record that comes out like I used to. But there are great places to find out about what's going on, like the Terminal Boredom and Goner Records websites. You're guaranteed that a label like In The Red is going to be dead fucking on with what they put out. You have labels like Merge; I don't love everything they put out, but they put out great records. There's a band from Athens that I've been their biggest champion and biggest fan since day one called Harvey Milk. I'm the one that beat Hydra Head over the head; I'm the reason they're on Hydra Head. My point is: I am not stuck in the past.
What are your thoughts about Pitchfork?
I was interviewed in Pitchfork once. The writer insisted on interviewing me via IM, which I was fine with and it still stands as the only time that's happened. I really think he was doing (IM) so he could do fact checking on the fly or a game of one-upmanship via Google. He then made an egregious, way out-of-left-field fuck up where he was talking about how much a certain band made at a show. I've been booking shows since 1988 and I proceeded to tell him how a rock and roll show works. I did it because I didn't want him to come off like a fucking bonehead and I wanted him-as a writer-to know what he's talking about. But I have nothing against Pitchfork; Ryan (Schreiber) is a friend of mine and I know he appreciates what I do. But at the same time, what happened during that interview is endemic of a larger problem with the website. There's this very wide net being thrown and cast out there and just because the internet is so one-clickable--in other words you can fact check something in the blink of an eye--it allows them to craft their opinion. I am not saying I am better than them. I don't need to go to a thesaurus, I don't need to go home and do research. It's because I'm a music fan. It's like a record store employee; I prefer talking to them because they know their shit, whereas a lot of journalists--and I'm not singling anybody out--there's just a lot of laziness. Music journalists might write fucking circles around me and I get it and I respect that. But I always thought being a music critic was knowing something about fucking music. That's why when I see bands creep up like Vampire Weekend, Surfer Blood or Yuck, I say "Really? In 2011, this is the best you can do?"
I was introduced to music in the late '80s and early '90s and we had Mudhoney. I am sure some grandpa old fart lent 'The Stooges were much better.' But at least Mudhoney had attitude and swagger. I just think there's a very English Music Pressitis in the blogosphere now. There's these bands being built up almost instantaneously. Here's an example: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. They're drawing flies, then a couple of blogs just happened to shoot their manload over them then they're playing to tons of people and they realize they suck live. Or maybe they don't suck live but they aren't as good as a band should be. A lot of concert-goers don't understand what makes a really good band over a bad band. Case in point: Grinderman, who are one of the top 10 live bands in the world right now. Independent of you knowing music that you just can't feel like "Holy shit! I just got my balls torn off and put in my mouth!" There's so many fucking examples: I saw Cults. I was like "Really? People give a shit about this?" They can barely play their instruments! Or the CSS. Dude, they're playing to a backing track! I understand people need help and it's ultimately about the music. But for fucks sake! I just want to be moved. I am not saying I am not into new music. I just saw a band from New York called White Hills who were fucking phenomenal! Or Double Dagger. Or Mayyors from Sacramento. I listen to new music all the goddamn time.
As a proponent of buying music, what's your take on Record Store Day?
I had the privilege of introducing The dB's for Record Store Day here in Atlanta. I've listened to The dB's since... Jesus Christ... 1985? 1986?! It was the original lineup. I don't live in fucking New York. It was the first luxury where they had come to me [to introduce them], when often it's me going to the bands. They played to a packed house. The same night was this music festival called the Atlanta Mess-Around and all these phenomenal bands were playing--Oblivians, Testors and Mind Spiders. I gave the show a shout-out to a room full of old dudes on Record Store Day and I was met with fucking crickets, absolute silence. I remember saying to these people who were supposedly into music 'You guys are standing in a fucking record store and you don't buy records?'
I will do anything in power for people to go to independent record stores. My only regret is that it's only one day a year and it bums me out that people are only supposed to care one day a year. The major labels do predatory shitbag moves and I will call them out on this. I take personal offense to them charging $13-$14 for John Fahey and 13th Floor Elevators seven-inches. I'll happily buy music and I do every fucking day. But I'll be goddammed if I'm going to spend $14 because a major label is not knowing how to spend money like an indie does. They are just going around destroying shit and not realizing how vital and important independent record stores are. You don't even have to say independent record stores anymore because there are no chains; all the big chains are fucking gone! Independent record stores changed my fucking life.
You certainly don't seem like the hater you are made out to be.
Ultimately what I want is for people to have a good time. If people communicate what I do as hate, they don't ultimately know what I'm trying to accomplish, nor do I really care if they get what I am trying to accomplish. I always just wanted to amuse and entertain myself and if I do that, great. If people have misapprehensions about me, so be it. I don't care--I got shit to do, diapers to change, I got orders to fill, shows to put on and I got posters to design. Leave me alone (laughing)! I feel lucky that I could love music into my forties whereas I know tons of people who exit their twenties not being able to listen to music. I'm lucky and I love that he can do this. I was beaten up a lot growing up and the one thing I have in my defense is my tongue--being able to talk back. I wear fucking Brooks Brothers shirts and J. Crew pants; I just happen to wear the shit out of'em so they don't look brand new.
How and when did the concept of The Indie Cred Test materialize?
Issue 14 of the magazine originally had a three- or four-page version of it, which was mostly written by me--a skeletal version of what the book became. I thought with all the resources I have at my disposal, mostly with writers and designers, we can hit this fucker out of the park. It was the same thing with The Rock Bible--it was concepted in a couple of emails and then it turned into one enormous email tree. The Rock Bible happened in eight weeks; The Indie Cred Test in thirteen weeks. I am certainly not being flippant about writing a book but it's insane what could happen with all the assholes and fuckups who write for my magazine. When they're good, they're really fucking good and when they're bad... still pretty fucking good (laughing)! With The Indie Cred Test, it was me being the mechanic, the organizer and the architect of saying "This goes here and this goes there," and letting other people do the writing. I tend to wrangle. If someone has a kernel of a good idea, I'll rewrite and re-contextualize it, send it back out to someone else to punch it up, and then have it come back and I'll work on it again. It's a very non-traditional process. But like everything else, it was just a fucking goof.
It's seems like you have a great rapport with your writing crew.
I have an insane stable of writers but I never try to take the credit or take away credit. There's some fucking great writers and even if they write a one-liner that just kills me and it's the only thing they write, I am going to give them credit in the book. As somebody who has a history writing for alt-weeklies, all I ever wanted was to be appreciated. Fuck it, if I'm not going to get thanked, I'll write my own shit, And the fact the one that I wrote for the most never did (give me credit), that was all the more reason I've done Chunklet.
The book was self-published and you used a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. Doesn't Chunklet have enough pull and cred that a publishing company would have seized the opportunity?
OK, here's the thing: I'm a spoiled fucking bitch when it comes to publishers. The first book, The Overrated Book, I sent to a grand total of one publisher and they published it. The second book, The Rock Bible, I sent it to a total of one publisher and they published it. Any writer will know how insanely rare this is. Being the entitled little bitch that I am, I sent a manuscript out for this book. I knew it was a little bit more of a concept piece. I tend to be very motivated to produce. I just don't want to sit around with my thumb up my ass saying 'I just wrote another book.' I want to keep producing and just have stuff at the ready. Call me old fashioned but I want the physical copy. I want it in my hands. When they politely declined publishing [The Indie Cred Test], I was like 'Man, I don't want people shutting the door in my face, telling me my idea is wrong, or stupid or it's not going to sell.' Fuck that, I'll just put it out myself. The great thing about using Kickstarter was it spoke to my fans. It spoke to people who do believe in what I do. The flack that I got from some people doing Kickstarter was offset by the people that--and I say this with all humility--supported me. Ultimately, who's laughing now? Moreover, I am in a position where I have enough notoriety where people will say "I'll back this." And in return, you'll get some pretty rad shit!
Do you think namedropping (Don Caballero drummer) Damon Che--who's notorious for his erratic behavior and for quitting Bellini onstage during a show--in The Indie Cred Test is passé at this point?
Ummm, yes! I read one review where we it said we didn't have any current references. I'm trying very consciously to make a book that's not dated. I wanted something that made references, but didn't sound dated. I wanted people to say "Oh, this guy clearly knows stuff about in the past," but I didn't want it be overabundant in mentioning something like Best Coast. There are fucking easy targets, but there are pretty well-thought-out jokes in the book.
Now I am going to pose some questions to you from your book, starting with the one about Che. What's the most fucked up thing Damon Che has ever said to you in passing?
I didn't write that joke! Damon is one of my oldest friends. I'm from Pittsburgh and went to grad school and I met him years ago. Damon is unbelievably talented but he's just such a social fuckup. Yeah, he's genius and more talented than most people would give him credit for.
What does a day of work consist of for you?
You want me to take you through a day in the life of Henry Owings? Right now, it consists of getting no sleep, a lot of diapers, designing and writing in front of my computer, going to shows when I can and hanging out with my awesome wife, my awesome dogs, my awesome friends and my awesome daughter. A normal day is a lot of work but a lot of fun.
Do you ever think about Stephen Malkmus when you aren't listening to Pavement?
Only during my fourth jerkoff session of the night.
Which Hüsker Dü member do you prefer? Bob Mould, Grant Hart or Greg Norton?
Norton, of course.
What is your position on sports?
Keep it the fuck away from me. It's a fucking jock and I hate fucking jocks. I fucking hated jocks in high school; why would I care about them now?
When was the last time you wiped your ass?
I had an insane shit this morning. I took the shit of my life and thanks to Howard Stern I use baby wipes. It gives me a spring in my step. I wish I knew that when I was 19 or 20. Between that and medicated powder, it makes living in the South great living.
When was the last time you exercised and what did you do?
I do a ton of racquetball and a ton of Bikram yoga. The Bikram yoga has changed my life.
Why do you think anybody would be interested in your analysis or opinion about anything?
Exactly! It's funny... nobody is ever impressed with your record collection as you want them to be... ever. Ever. It's the same thing as to why we would anyone care what you think about music? Why as dudes when you go into somebody's house, the first thing you do is look at their books or their records? "This guy is a douchebag because he has this record but he doesn't have that record?" What the fuck?!
Did you name your newborn after a favorite musician but not a common or popular name?
The closest I came was pitching names initially like Exene or Nico. I knew we wouldn't...my dogs have awesome names. But I wouldn't name my baby "Lydia Lunch Owings" or something like that.
Is it really notoriety when you have to tell people you're important? How do you explain to people who you are?
Do I tell... ? Absolutely not! I've worked with legitimately famous people and you learn very quickly how to handle yourself if you hang out with them. People would come up and ask for their signatures and just to watch how gracious and generous they could be you realize whatever micro-micro-micro celebrity I might have... oh, dude, I'm nobody. I'm still the same guy who will drive two hours to see a show. I try to have as little ego as possible. You don't get to be an 'aging hipster' without having a certain amount of notoriety. But do I flaunt it? Fuck, no!
Have you been slammed in a blog or 'zine? Did it hurt and how did you get revenge?
I traditionally don't care--which I think is always the best outlook. The great thing with blogging and bloggers' comments on The AV Club or Brooklyn Vegan is they are notorious for slamming people, myself included. You kinda learn to not care. I learned that lesson long ago back when mail was big--not email but stamps--like writing people.
That wraps up the Cred Test portion of the interview. How's it living in Atlanta?
The movie Athens, GA--Inside-Out changed my life. I moved here without knowing a soul, just a wide-eyed kid. Then to watch my friends become noted or famous, was something few people get to experience. Then when I moved from Athens to Atlanta, I had to experience it again with the bands in Atlanta. I am proud as a mother hen to say I'm from Georgia. I'm a transplant but this is home and this is my family. And to think I'd be talking to you twenty years later to you on the phone, talking about Georgia, is fucking bizarre.
You dedicate The Indie Cred Test to your good friend, the late Jerry Fuchs [who died in 2009]. Can you talk about your friendship with Jerry?
I met Jerry when he was a freshman at the University of Georgia. We immediately connected over our love of late-eighties math rock like Bitch Magnet and Bastro. He was in a band from Athens called The Martians. In '93 or '94, when he was in college, he had quit The Martians. Jerry was 20 years old and the guy that replaces him was Kyle Spence (of Harvey Milk)--two of the best drummers I've ever seen were in this band, and one replaced the other. So, Jerry left the band and he was just a student. Jon Fine, the guitar player for Bitch Magnet was looking for a drummer for his band Vineland. I emailed Jon and said "Look, the best drummer in Georgia is available right now and he worships the band you used to be in." Long story short: Jerry goes to New York because of that, he worked the stock market and through that he went on to be in Turing Machine. His legacy speaks for itself. He was a great illustrator and he used to draw stuff for Chunklet. We would spend nights on the phone or on IM, just fucking making each other laugh so goddamn hard. We would turn those jokes into visual pieces for the magazine. When he died, I was one of the first five people to find out. Not to get heavy, but it was 3 a.m. and Fred Weaver called me up and he was crying.
I then became the bummer for all of our friends in Georgia. I was the one calling everybody and communicating that, crying and talking to friends I haven't talked to in ten years. The whole thing what I was saying before about being from Georgia, that this is my family and this just hit me like a ton bricks. I wrote a eulogy on the Chunklet site because I was up for a shitty fucking day that started at 3 a.m. I was just calling person after person just saying 'I just want you to hear it from one of us rather than seeing in on Pitchfork or The New York Times.' I genuinely miss that fucker to death. I am not a religious guy but I feel there was a sense of divine intervention that the last time I saw him was six months before he died, we just happened to run into each other in a hotel lobby. We were both at North By Northeast in Toronto and he was playing there with The Juan Maclean. I don't know...I've always been attracted to drummers both in bands and as people. Some of my best friends are drummers. I felt like if there was one thing I could do for Jerry it would be to dedicate this book to him because he was one of the funniest fucking dudes. Not only was he one of the best drummers I have ever had the pleasure to have watched, he was just a great, great person...sweet, crazy, like the way most drummers are. But just a sweet, sweet human being. It was the least I could do (dedicating the book to him). It truly genuinely comes from the heart. I say that without irony and complete humility and I love that guy and I miss that I will never see him again.
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