Please join us in celebration of Dan Darrah’s Perennial Fields at 1349 Queen St. West (Permanent Sleep Bookshop/ Capital Espresso) on Saturday, July 27th, 2019 at 7pm. Alongside drinks and music (provided by Platinum Playhouse) we invited friends to produce visual works (available for purchase) inspired by the poems contained within Darrah’s Perennial Fields creating a beautiful multimedia group exhibition which will also be on display.
permanent sleep press
Christopher Norris, the notoriously misanthropic artist behind bands like Against Me!, Atom & His Package, and United Nations, has penned a book about bodies coming apart.
who goes by the alias Steak Mtn.,
who has been the artist behind several notable punk album covers,
who is responsible for the visual identity of the band Against Me!,
who does not listen to Against Me!,
who has made art that is permanently inked on people’s flesh,
who cringes when reminded of that,
who once sang in the grindcore band CombatWoundedVeteran,
who is quite ashamed of that fact,
who became notorious in the hardcore scene,
who was relentlessly aped by the hardcore scene,
who has crafted a reputation as a misanthrope,
who works very hard to maintain that persona,
who probably hates you,
who probably hates me,
who is my close friend,
who designed a book I co-authored
...is now an author in his own right.
Hunchback ‘88 is Norris’ debut novel. It’s not tied to a traditional, linear structure but is instead a free fall of off-putting scenarios, grotesque word pairings, and the deranged brain droppings of an artist who is possibly a genius but possibly also completely insane. There are no chapters or page numbers so it’s easy to feel lost—stranded, really—in the dark recesses of his mind.
Those who have had the misfortune of following Norris and his antagonistic Steak Mtn. endeavors since his CombatWoundedVeteran days in the late 90s may notice a thread of similarity between his graphic design work and his prose. Norris’ trademark artistic style on the covers of albums like Combat’s I Know a Girl Who Develops Crime Scene Photos was immediately identifiable among its punk peers—a perverse heap of neon limbs, decapitated skulls, blood spatters, and seared flesh. After Norris popularized the style, a number of—to be polite—“similar” works started cropping up on record sleeves and t-shirts, leading you to wonder if they too were original Steak Mtn. designs. But of course, if you had to ask whether it was a Steak Mtn. design, it wasn’t. Norris has always had a way of always staying one step ahead of the trends in hardcore, a perpetual progenitor of provocation.
Norris has been notoriously and deliberately difficult to hire, and even more difficult to work with. He has been sparing with his design services, doing work only for select artists like Atom & His Package, Jeff Rosenstock, United Nations, and the client who has been able to stand him the longest, Against Me!. He is typically blasé and unenthused about the work he’s done, and life in general, but there are glints of real, actual excitement buried deep under his surface-level apathy when discussing Hunchback '88, which he worked on for six years, mostly writing it on his phone, and largely as a distraction. Maybe his excitement stems from the fact that this book marks the first time he has stepped out from behind his protective Steak Mtn. shield and truly put himself out there.
And so… an interview with Christopher Norris about Hunchback ‘88...
Noisey: So which of the Harry Potter books would you say your book is most like?
Christopher Norris: The ass cabin one. Yeah. That’s what it’s called, right?
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Ass Cabin, yes.
A Fun Night at Ass Cabin. I think we’re done. Thanks.
How would you describe the book?
It’s a horror book. I guess it’s rooted in horror but I always like things—movies, books—that look like one thing but are another thing. I like people who write below genre. It’s tacky to say they write above it because it means that they’re above it, but below it. So, horror movies that don’t seem like horror movies, horror movies that are smarter than they lead on.
So what does this book purport to be and what is it actually?
I’m sure I’ve got plenty of dumb, pretentious things to say about it, but realistically speaking, it all boils down to: I like seeing bodies come apart. And I like writing bodies coming apart.
Much of it feels like an exploration of space on the page, but also, there are sections that are composed of lengthy, complex, really disgusting and off-putting word clusters. Where’d your writing style come from?
At some point in time, I thought to start writing screenplays. Not like I would ever make anything, but just to see if I could do it, because I like reading screenplays. I like the skeleton of a screenplay. So then I was like, “Well maybe I’ll write a book that’s just a screenplay.” And then I wrote five movies, essentially.
I liked the idea of writing a book but I always thought, ah I’ll never be able to do it, or I’ll never be able to do it in a way that I want to do it. So I started finding writers that I actually like, because I also don’t read a lot. I like the idea of reading, and the rhythm of words, but I thought I’d never be able to do that. Because even though I have an art background and understand abstraction and things like that, you think, “Who’s gonna have patience for something that’s all fucked up and weird?” So once I started finding things that were similar to movies but in novel form, I was like, oh this could happen. I don’t have to have a three-act structure. I don’t even have to have a fucking ending. Books are way more forgiving than any other art form. You could spend 20 pages describing something that doesn’t really matter.
I notice on the cover you did not put Steak Mtn., you put Christopher Norris. Why?
Because Steak Mtn. is so stupid. I think this is the first thing that I’ve ever done that’s not dealing with bands or things like that that… I’m not gonna say I’m proud of it, but it seems more in line with any creative ability that I have or would rather align myself with. Also, Steak Mtn. is a thing that’s gonna follow me around forever, that I’ll never be able to schuck. You name yourself something stupid when you’re 18, and then all of a sudden it takes off and you can’t avoid it. So I didn’t want to put Steak Mtn. on the cover. And Matt Finner, who put the book out, was… I don’t think he was bummed about that but he was like, “Oh, well... I kinda gave Steak Mtn. a book option.” And it just looks tacky, it’s such a stupid name.
If I may psychoanalyze: I think you’ve often used Steak as a veil to hide behind and poke fun at people and things with some level of anonymity. Would you agree?
Yeah, 100 percent. Are you kidding me? It’s a hammer.
So is it scarier then to have your name on this? It’s harder than writing it off as just fucking with people, which has been the premise behind Steak Mtn.
It would be scarier if it was the beginning of my career, if I was more sensitive to things like that. A lot of it is a little weirder, but for those who know Steak Mtn., chances are they know my name anyway. It’s a little scary, because I don’t know if it’s good, but I know I liked doing it. It’s like most art where it doesn’t actually matter if it’s good.
Who do you think your followers are at this point?
Like, 40-year-old hardcore kids and sweaty teenagers.
Sweaty, teen Against Me! fans.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s kind of how it’s been for ten years. And most Against Me! fans don’t know Steak Mtn., either.
But certainly they see some congruity between the band’s albums and the merch and Laura [Jane Grace]’s book.
You would think. But I don’t know if anybody’s that perceptive. I think if you are sensitive to art and aesthetic and aren’t just consuming it at face value, or you think this looks “sick,” but you don’t create that timeline in your head… I don’t think people are that smart.
How do you think the average Against Me! fan would feel about Hunchback?
There’s a version of Hunchbackthat’s way sketchier, way meaner, that’s way more… I wouldn’t say sexist or misogynist, but I would say treating sexuality in a really abject, transgressive way, that I pulled out, like a month before it went to press. It maybe made me nervous a bit. It also just felt unnecessary inside of a book that’s full of unnecessary things. Most of it was kind of not very PC sex stuff that makes people nervous. But again, books are different because people will read something fucked up and will not get as super offended as if it’s in a movie or a fucking song by somebody. It’s strange what readers—proper readers who love reading—will take. I like that idea that movie fans or music fans never really wanna get out of their lane, but readers will read almost everything.
I couldn’t believe the lack of depth of the average online reader when I saw the reaction to that “Cat Person” story—people getting angry about a character being called fat and what not.
Absolutely. In general, a writer writes personalities and lets them bounce off each other. So, of course if you have a person who sucks, they’re gonna say shit that’s awful. Sure, it’s in the mind of the writer who’s like, “What’s the worst thing this person could be called?” But obviously we’re in this strange culture of… not even knee-jerk, not even trigger-finger. It’s crazy—you don’t even finish the sentence and you’re in trouble.
There seems to have been a movement in recent years of older, artsy hardcore dudes writing books of poetry of dark novels. Do you consider Hunchbackabove that or is it part of that?
It’s part of that because it’s unavoidable. Somebody like Wes Eisold or Max Morton, people who are working in a transgressive manner, I’m definitely writing in that mold. There’s a new term called “horror-adjacent” that I’ve been hearing a lot—horror movies that aren’t horror movies, the artsy horror film. So I think in general, hardcore men and women who are writing these books, they’re obviously like, “I’m in line with that because my interests are like that.” They like seeing bodies come apart, or they like tales of drug abuse, they love [Herbert] Selby and people like that or Peter Sotos. And I like all that stuff too.
Do you think you’ll retire Steak Mtn.?
I would love to retire Steak Mtn. I would love to not have to rely on it for money. Let me rephrase. I would love to not have to rely on it for the occasional money. Because I’ve set up Steak Mtn. so that I don’t do Steak Mtn. very often. There are stretches of time where I don’t do work, because I’m either turning it down, or I’m goofing on bands where I take the work, drag them along, and then fucking dump ’em. So sometimes the persona of being Steak Mtn. is more interesting than making the art. So to me, being difficult is the most fun. And I have the option to abuse people in a very PG way.
So being difficult is an integral part of the Steak Mtn. body of work?
Always. The whole body of work is about being difficult, and testing people’s limits of what they’ll take from you.
I noticed a parallel between sections of Hunchback and the I Know a Girl Who Develops Crime Scene Photos LP, in that it was this word vomit of well-strung, disgusting phrases.
And even going back to the Amputees art you did, I feel like there’s a real similarity between the two. Do you see that or no?
My goal on that work back then, when [Dan] Ponch and I started Combat, we were seeing all these bands, bands that we loved—Crossed Out, Man Is the Bastard, No Comment, even the San Diego stuff like Antioch Arrow and Heroin, fast and loose, crazy grind stuff or jumbled insanity—what we were seeing was a lot of dumb black and white stuff that I looked at and said, “I don’t want to do that.” I want to do that, but I don’t want to put a fucking dead baby on the cover that’s been blown out on a Xerox machine. We’re gonna take that dead baby and we’re gonna give it bat wings and we’re gonna put it on a fluorescent pink background. Because it’s familiar but it’s different. That’s how the work has always been. I’m drawn to these dumb things. I’m drawn to skulls. I’m drawn to dead, idiot things. But I don’t want to do it that way.
After you made a lot of the Combat art, did you see a lot of similarities cropping up in hardcore?
I think there’s a lot of similarities but I think also these things happen like zeitgeist. They happen in four different places and you have four different people doing…
Parallel thought. The brain is complex but it’s not that complex, and the human condition all works with the same details. So it’s not surprising that some idiot kid in Minnesota, and me, and somebody in California, and somebody in New York, and somebody in Germany all had the same idea.
A lot of that Combat art was based on the design for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. That had a huge effect on me, that insanity, Gary Panter’s design, and that color and that strangeness. And even something as silly as like, the work that Rob Zombie was doing in White Zombie—La Sexorcisto and all that stuff. He was drawing these proto-Coop stupid devil doll girls on fluorescent green backgrounds with zombie heads.
You and I have talked a lot about using a work to analyze the author’s view of the world. How do you think someone would interpret your worldview through, any of your work really, but Hunchback specifically?
They probably would think that I don’t really care much about people. Which is true. I think people would just think my worldview is sour. But also, it’s kind of like this: you’ve got a villain and a hero. And chances are, there’s somebody above the villain that’s a supervillain. The supervillain understands empathy and all the honesty of the world, they just don’t like it. They shit on it. And that’s why they’re supervillains. So I’d love somebody to say, “He’s a supervillain. He just doesn’t give a fuck about the human condition. He wants to take it apart.” Also, I think that somebody would just think that I like fucking with people, because that’s what the book is, too. It’s a mystery that doesn’t need to get solved. Everybody’s so worried about a resolution and I’m not.
Hunchback ‘88 is out now from Permanent Press.
Also, disclosure: Christopher Norris works in the VICE equipment room though he doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of his colleagues.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.
Antonin Artuad said that “life is a burning up of questions.” What questions does Standing At The Edge Of The World concern itself with?
Remy Veselis: I take away a lot of open ended questions with this record that I don’t know if I will ever have the full answers to. Why do we care about things, why do we make the choices we do and how do you keep going in life when you don’t want to are some that spring to mind.
Maurice Santiago: “Do I really want to keep on living?”
Will Canning: The underlying question asks “how far can a single human’s spirit be pushed?”
Our relative youth and inexperience allows us to view the world in a wondrous way, and we are all relatively happy people. The lyrical context of the record concerns itself voyeuristically with the struggles of loved ones and friends. It is their narrative, not mine.
If Death Bells provided the score to a single moment, describe the scene and what it would it look like.
RV: What I love so dearly about art is that whatever you think something means, that is what is right for you personally. For me, Death Bells has provided the score to some major events of my my life so far because I have been living within Death Bells since I moved back to Australia. I’m not sure I can pinpoint an exact moment, but there are a few that stand out. One would be standing in an empty carpark in the Los Angeles hills overlooking the city and reflecting on how my life got to being able to tour with my best friends in a foreign country. That moment was full of joy. A more sombre one, but one that gave me hope, was being able to contribute to songs that pulled from some tragic deaths that occurred in the lead up to writing Standing At The Edge Of The World. Some of those songs score the feelings that I had inside of me after grieving with my friends, and writing guitar parts influenced by those experiences helped with overcoming that horrible period of time.
MS: All my close friends sitting atop Angel’s Point in Los Angeles with two 30 racks of Modelo as the sun sets on the first night of the rest of our lives.
What’s changed for you as a band between this record and the last? As you mentioned touring has had a profound impact on you as well as some tragic life experiences, what events shaped Standing At The Edge of the World?
RV: A lot changed, actually. We are all still very young, but the EP seems like it was a lifetime ago, even though it only came out last year. How the EP sounded was born out of necessity. Our first drummer left the band before we begun to record and we also didn’t have much money to invest in the recording. We decided to use a drum machine and Will taught himself from scratch how to record music. This was, frankly, incredible. He achieved so much in such a short period of time. Maurice, Will and I lived in a delipidated terrace house across the road from where we put the banners up for the album artwork, so we just recorded it in between work and other life events. With “Standing At The Edge Of The World”, we had a few more resources like having someone to drum on the record and being able to record with our friend Elliot at Chameleon Sound, so sonically I think this record sounds “bigger” and “brighter” so to speak. As for the writing side, we are constantly evolving and going through different experiences. I can’t speak for Maurice, Will, David and Aron, but for me my contributions were heavily influenced by life events that were mostly negative. I wouldn’t say I’m a negative person, and I used those aspects to reflect on and take as much out of as possible, but there were some hard times. There were a few deaths that took a toll. A friend passed away on the same night after spending the day together and that really had a profound impact on my whole outlook on life. Seeing people you care about suffering, when you can’t do anything to fix the situation, is a heartache I don’t ever think I will ever be able to be okay with. Professionally, a company I loved working for moved completely to the US, so I was out of work in a field that was very specialised and a role I valued doing. It was my first experience with professional business where one person’s choices can change a company, so that was interesting to see. Life kind of got turned upside down for a while, but working on this record and having friends and loved ones around to support each other was my saving grace.
WC: Since returning from the tour over a year ago, we had to reinvent ourselves a little bit as a band. Playing around with drum machines and synthesisers was a positive thing for us, but we sorely needed to make a record that contained immediacy within the music. That was the catalyst, I think, for doing a proper ‘band’ record. The music reaches new heights and required a lot of emotional energy to do so. The recording process was fraught with illness towards the end, from being stifled in a room. That was my least favourite part of all this. Writing was cathartic and positive. It is nice to have 40 minutes of music that reflect the experiences, both positive and negative, of those close to myself and the others.
Thematically, the record centres on people in my life who have faced mental illness, addiction, death, unemployment and other struggles with tremendous bravery. I hope that the record can be a way of putting to rest a lot of the sadness around us all.
Death Bells seems very calculated in a time when many bands and artists appear to simply be going through the motions without being self-aware or critical of what they are creating and how they present it. What do you attribute this to?
RV: I like your observation that you you think we are a calculated band. That is definitely something I have kept in mind, as now it is so easy to do things because the access is far more wide ranging than in the past. We do the things we do because that is just how we are as human beings. Collectively, we all care about what we do a lot, and if you are putting so much time, effort and energy into something, why settle? For me, I have always connected to authors and musicians who have a clear vision, an aesthetic and a reason as to why they do the things they do. I try to ask myself the question of why a lot in my life, so I don’t just go floating through this precious existence without doing what I want to do.
MS: You need to make people have an affinity towards you and your music. I had played in the hardcore scene for years and I think the nonchalance of just making music for the sake of it was a huge part of that community and it was more regressive than anything. I didn’t realise this until I was like 20 and wanted to start this band. We are doing it for real this time.
WC: We have collective good taste. Why would we waste that? It’s important to give a shit.
Recently a friend and I were discussing how we no longer felt that we connected with music, literature and art in the same meaningful way we once did. We have access to everything all at once with minimal effort and as a result we simply consume art without letting ourselves feel the weight of it and truly be affected by it. Has a shift in how we consume content affected you at all?
RV: It absolutely has 100%. There are positives and negatives of the increased accessibility with all aspects of life, but I do think as a generalised statement that people aren’t connecting with art as deeply as they have previously, because now there is no downtime in life unless you force yourself. I see most people’s first reactions now is to pick up their phone instead of being present in the world, and for me to connect with something I need time to process it. I can’t consume a record on Spotify and then know if I love it or not straight away. Because access is no issue now, new art isn’t as highly valued because there is so much more of it being released so frequently. You don’t have to put the time in to find cool stuff now, which I think takes away a little bit of the “special” factor of music for myself.
WC: I went on a cruise recently and it felt wonderful to be out of everyone’s reach for a little while. There is no phone reception in the middle of the ocean. I consume music much the same way now as I always have. Maurice and I run a record label, but I’ve never been avidly involved with vinyl fetishization. I’m very happy to have lots of music at my fingertips. It’s nice that people can send us music they’ve been working on via email. Maybe I’m typically millennial.
I have gone back to your self-titled numerous times and I certainly connect it to specific moments and experiences in my life over the past year. After only a few listens I could feel that Standing At The edge Of The World would carry that same weight. I think you’ve already alluded to numerous reasons why this may be, but how does the idea of connecting with people vs creating something to be consumed play into how you’ve conducted yourselves as a band?
RV: I think it is an enormous part as to why we do what we do. I want to make songs that are an expression of myself and that can also be interpreted by the listener however they want to. Humans thrive on connections, and I would much rather connect with strangers on some level with art I make then just make something that is marketed to be consumed by the masses and then never revisited and forgotten.
WC: I really hope people connect to the words. Universality was something I thought about when writing. I didn’t want to sing in metaphors or make allusions to our own context. Specific events and places are much less important on this album than previous record. I want the statements made to resonate clearly and boldly now.
Because I love lists, what are some books, movies and records that influenced you and Standing At The Edge Of The World?
RV: Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha always has an influence on any art I make. It’s my favourite text and I think it always will be. I don’t intentionally pull similar guitar tones from other music, but I am heavily influenced by those around me who inspire me, such as Melbourne based group Dormir. Adrian Borland, HTRK and Nick Cave are other musicians that have influenced me and what I brought to this record, but these influences aren’t necessarily shown within the sonic sphere of the record.
MS: Luv Is Rage
WC: My last year has been fairly insular. I’ve engaged mostly with the art of my peers, and that has been the biggest inspiration.
Please walk me through the creative process for Death Bells and what if any are the responsibilities or roles of individual members and how you collectively exercise restraint while remaining active.
RV: As the band has bloomed we’ve shifted around a lot creatively, which I think is a good thing. Some stages it has been one person writing the majority of material, to then taking more of an electronic approach and starting songs with a beat on a laptop and expanding from there. For “Standing At The Edge Of The World”, we incorporated spontaneity a little more. We were all in the same room every week working on songs on the spot, whilst I was also sitting at home most nights writing guitar parts that were a reflection of how I was feeling during that time. We also shifted around instrument wise, with Maurice now playing bass. It cannot be understated how his bass playing helped develop those songs.
MS: I start with a bass line that makes me feel nostalgic. Not nostalgic in a way that it sounds like something from a previous era, but a melody that can take me to a certain point in time that has relevance to me. For instance the bass line in ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ when it goes back into the verse from the chorus reminds me of landing in LA and driving down Sunset for the first time. Creating a melody that, like you said, scores the soundtrack of your life.
WC: I don’t play instruments in this band anymore. For me, that was a load off that helped me to focus on my writing properly. I finalised most of the lyrics that I had been throwing about on a trip to Melbourne earlier this year. The industriousness of that city made it a really productive time. Organising thoughts and feelings can be hard for me if it is rushed, so it was nice to do the recording over a 6 week period. That gave all the ideas a bit more breadth.
I think there is an interesting relationship between bands and the general public, a band is a collective group of individuals and a separate entity but often times members become known and defined by the band and the actions of the individuals within that collective. How do you separate your identity within Death Bells and as an individual? How has being in the band affected yourself as an individual?
RV: That is a good question. I don’t know if you can truly separate yourself as an individual when you are committed in a large capacity to an overarching group, but we all have different interests and other projects outside of Death Bells. Maurice and Will run the label Burning Rose, DJ and play in Muscle Memory. I’ve been working on a new band for a while now and have recently changed paths career wise and David and Aron all have different bands going on too.
WC: It is a strange world to shift into, being at a show or being on stage. I am a fairly reserved person most of the time, but when I sing it is different. When we perform it is nice to be able to make loud noises and express ideas in a way that most would not allow themselves to. It seems like when we perform, everyone in the band has a different norm.
Do you think the style of music Death Bells plays lends itself to a sense of nostalgia or is that feeling simply a result of drawing from specific moments and feelings you’ve experienced which people connect with?
RV: I honestly don’t know about that. I think it is open to each individual’s interpretation of our music. Individual interpretation can be wildly different. It was fascinating to recently see some people compare Only You to bands that I have no connection with at all: Paramore and Anberlin. That is what makes music so interesting though, there is no right or wrong. We have had many people comment about how our music reminds them of past bands and times in their life, but that is not something I have tried to force in our writing. I can see why people feel nostalgic with our music, but I draw on my feelings and modernise older genres I like when writing guitar parts, so maybe that’s where that sense comes from for some. We aren’t trying to be any other band, Death Bells is Death Bells.
WC: We are modernising a lot of older styles of music. We are conscious of making the sounds proper, and have no aspiration of being a band that panders to lo-fi romanticism. People might compare us to Joy Division or something but that’s very short sighted. We are drawing on our own different narratives to create something new. I think our music is far prettier than a lot of ‘post-punk’ to come out of Australia in recent years. And whilst I love our ugly counterparts, I wouldn’t want to mimic them. We’d do a poor job at that.
Anyone that has spent time touring knows the majority of it is spent either in the van driving or simply just waiting. In my experience how this time is spent is cause for concern and great debate, often responsible for meltdowns between band members. How do you kill time before load in or while on the road?
RV: We genuinely enjoy spending time together so we haven’t had too many meltdown issues besides Maurice losing his mind in America last year. Generally we like to sleep a lot in the van or play savage card games like Coup which exacerbates any tensions there might be, but it is so much fun that it is worth the arguments that playing it entails.
MS: Coup and McDonald’s.
WC: Lots of cigarettes, card games, and conversations with new people. We spent just one night with the band Draa, and I count them to be some of our closest now.
What are you looking forward to most over the next year?
RV: Escaping the mundane existence of working a full time job and touring a lot more than what we have this year. We have some big plans in the works so hopefully they come to fruition. I hope that the record takes us to new geographical locations and people connect to it in some capacity too, I think that will help validate the time and energy we have spent creating it.
MS: The unpredictability of it all; the uncertainty of where we will be a year from now.
WC: It feels nice for this record to be out and to be able to turn over a new leaf. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been through a bad breakup and experienced a lot of change. Hopefully it’ll set this beautiful heaving mess of a band on course. We have been doing our own thing for a long time now, and whether people embrace it or not I think we all want to take it to a new place.
How did your approach to Rain Songs differ from previous publications?
Every past project I’ve ever made started with a goal to work toward. Sometimes this was only a desired aesthetic or themes I’d aim to incorporate. Rain Songs differed mostly in this way, that I didn’t plan it out or even know what the individual pieces were while I made them. Instead, I was reading a lot, both poetry and prose, and having fun writing as much as I could. I made writing a priority over nearly everything. Another difference was that I was trying to write “naturally,” whatever that may mean, probably different things to different people. For me, it meant not thinking about who or what it was for, and trying to work out what I was thinking in the moment. Some of the pieces worked and some didn’t, but eventually I had what I felt like was enough to comprise a book, and I was happy with what I had.
Did critically looking at various aspects of your life over the past year and writing about them affect how you interacted with these experiences or give you any new insights?
Yes, but only afterwards. Much like losing weight and seeing an old photo of yourself and realizing how much you had let yourself go before getting into shape. I wrote all these things nearly everyday, simply documenting thoughts and feelings that interested me, concepts, and dreams, but I didn’t really know why. I just wanted to write, to exercise that part of my brain, especially when I was stuck or in-between working on short stories, the same way I might sketch before drawing something polished. Then, cut forward to a year or more later, and the book is done and printed, and a lot of my life is majorly different now…my relationship, where I live, my diet, and daily routine. So all these menial thoughts and things I extracted from my life, now seem like snapshots of who I was at that time; and although I thought I was happy and doing pretty well, looking back I can see I was looking for escape, I was trying to find order and control where I had none, and I was avoiding changes I needed to make by writing about them instead of acting. It’s weird to look back and think about the day-to-day of the period. I guess that’s how life is for everyone though when or if you take a moment to stop and reflect.
You had mentioned that often you’d write what would become the material for Rain Songs in between working on short stories. I’ve always considered poetry to be autobiographical or a glimpse into how one internalizes experiences while the short stories I have read by you tend to be fictional. Could you maybe discuss how you decide what scenarios or ideas you want to explore in the form of a poem versus a short story or how your approach to both differs?
Personally, poetry that is relatable has always resonated more with me than poetry with the primary function of demonstrating a mastery of words and technique. Therefore, when I write something I consider poetry, I’m mostly trying to find words and phrases that capture the sentiment I’m chasing, which is usually brief simple language. With fiction, there must be more of a conceit to the idea. As all writers do, I work some personal elements of my life and personality into my characters and the scenarios they inhabit, but I’m more concerned with representing them than I am with my own traits. So fiction takes me much longer, and I sit with the ideas for quite a while trying to decode what it means to my subconscious so I can fully explore the concept.
In the poem Love you pay tribute to some of the great musical and literary icons which have influenced you. I was wondering if you could discuss some musical or literary influences you’ve consumed over the past year while working on Rain Songs?
With Love, I wanted to boil down some of my favorite things into one succinct poem, so while it could have went on and on, I certainly didn’t want to overdo it and lose the effect. Outside of those mainstays, I was listening to a lot of newer post-punk, country music, and various stuff like Nico, Cohen, Swans, and Townes Van Zandt. I was reading mostly southern literature, especially that from the 80’s and 90’s, like Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Tom Franklin, Chris Offutt, etc, but also these oddball stories and poems by Dennis Cooper, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver, Ottessa Moshfegh, Amelia Gray, Amy Gerstler, Lydia Davis…kind of sprawling I guess, but it all feels connected in a way. What I’ve realized is that I enjoy stories of ordinary (often working class) people, but mostly the peculiar and uncomfortable situations they find themselves in. I also love stories about really bizarre, extreme situations and people. I think these writers exemplify both of those concepts. I’m interested in the way people attempt to connect with each other, usually fail to do so, and what happens when they realize that and stop trying. Connection can take on so many forms but at the core it’s all just sex and violence.
There is a certain kinship between the seemingly bleak south of Larry Brown and Harry Crews and the midwest you portray in poems such as Braindead Midwest Memories. In both cases there is a dichotomy between the beauty and simple way of life and the harsh landscape and isolation it provides. There is a certain level of disdain towards people yet a need for connection which reduces people to those almost animalistic acts of sex and violence. I think these settings resonate because they seem to speak universal truths, everything is stripped away or slowed down and the beautiful brutality of the land and people feels like both the primitive beginning and hopeless end of time. Do you think that poetry is a way to connect with people on a more intimate level or do you think it serves to satiate that need for connection while remaining more isolated?
I think people read to feel a sense of closeness when they are experiencing a lack of connection in their lives otherwise, but also when they want it without having to put themselves out there by interacting with people in person. Reading allows remote access to the human experience of others. Coming across something that feels like your own thoughts can be self-affirming, or even revelatory at times, and that’s a powerful feeling. For me, writing is definitely more of an act of isolation, but putting work out into the world is a way can be a part of something bigger than my own life and sometimes meet and connect with others through it.
Could you tell us about the cover photo you chose for Rain Songs?
I knew I wanted the book to have a photograph on the cover, no drawings or graphic design as I’ve done with my previous zines/books. After thinking about the type of photography I prefer, I thought of Noah( aka Wulfticket)’s work. He’s someone I’ve met a couple times through mutual friends, and have communicated with through social media ever since. I sent him all the poems and he began shooting photos on black and white film right away. A month or so later he sent me 40 pictures, all of which were incredible. The one I ended up using was my favorite, and I love how anonymous it looks. Sort of nostalgic but also a little creepy in a way. I thought it was perfect.
I know you were a bit concerned about your parents reading Family Funerals, what was their reaction to it?
I was really only worried about the “Family Funerals” piece since it portrays my father’s side of the family in a not-so-flattering way, but I don’t want to censor myself out of fear of what anyone might think of me, parents included. I also think the poem reflects on aspects of family that many people can relate to, especially here in the Bible Belt. Thankfully, my parents empathized with my viewpoint and there weren’t any hard feelings or weirdness. They also told me it sparked a conversation between them about the space and setting they want to provide for their own grandchildren, that they want their home to be a welcoming and inviting place for everyone to have fun within, which was really nice to hear.
Do you feel any connection between tattooing and writing?
If anything, through writing I can express thoughts and ideas in an exact way that visual art has never allowed me to do. After tattooing for almost 12 years now, I feel like I’ve removed my ego from my work as much as possible, it’s a service and a profession I enjoy, but it doesn’t challenge me the same way writing does. I also don’t admire or idolize visual artists nearly as much as I once did, yet writers continually captivate me. Reading challenges me and moves me unlike anything else.
I think the publishing world seems distant or closed off and exclusionary to many people but there seems to be a shift towards small independent press. Could you talk about your experience navigating this world, creating Sistine Press and perhaps any other publishers or authors who inspire you within this context?
It probably seems closed off because most people only buy and read young adult genre fiction, so publishers can’t profit from the things that small presses publish. From a consumer perspective, I actually prefer this because I can faithfully follow small presses and trust the curation of their roster the same way I follow record labels. The biggest difference is that small presses are willing to take risks and print books they believe in instead of chasing profit or trends. Therefore, while it’s fun as a consumer, it must be grim to try and make a living as a writer. The “famous author” persona now seems to be a thing of the past (with the exception of J.K Rowling and Stephen King I suppose), which is a little sad but I guess that’s just life, things change.
I started Sistine Press in 2009 because I wanted to make zines and experiment with paper, packaging, and design, and I thought presenting them as releases from a small press would appear to give them more legitimacy. While that notion of legitimacy seems silly to me now, starting Sistine Press did give me the urge to sustain and foster that concept of a label, and kept me consistently working on projects for the first few years.
Heartworm Press and Calico Grounds were both inspirations for me when I started. Joshua from CG was actually a huge help when I was first getting things rolling, and we often traded releases which was amazing. Zach Hazard Vaupen, and the artist who creates under the title “Give Up,” were also really influential for me.
Any final thoughts you’d like to speak on?
Thanks to anyone who supports small presses like Permanent Sleep and Sistine Press, who shares literature with others, and who encourages more people to read in a world with endless, meaningless distractions that do nothing to enrich your life or your mind. Buy books for your friends and your children. Keep investigating and exploring, challenge yourself.