Howardian & Japanther’s Ian Vanek: “The future is bright!”

Handmade mixed-media by B.

Ian Vanek is one of Gimmie’s favourite creatives – our editor has interviewed him several times over the last decade. Currently playing in Howardian and publishing his longstanding cut n paste graffiti collage zine, 99mm, Ian’s approach to creativity and positivity, along with his interesting art, has always been inspiring to us. Gimmie chatted to Ian about his forthcoming book Puppy Dog Ice Cream: The Story of Japanther, a tome celebrating his adventures as half of New York art punk performance duo, Japanther. They’ve played atop the Williamsburg Bridge in NYC, appeared alongside synchronized swimmers, with oversized puppets, in the back of a moving truck in Soho, at shows with giant dinosaurs, and BMX bike riders flying off the walls, in castles, museums, galleries, warehouses, painted live while riding a skateboard on a mini-ramp and so much more!

How have you been spending your time lately?

IAN VANEK: Working a lot, I do construction stuff, manual labour. Where I live there’s a big forest behind us, we just go on really long walks, you can see the mountains. We have dirt bikes and bicycles; exercise every single day. We’ve got a really good routine for dealing with all the sadness, chaos and change… just made a really hard and regimented routine, sticking to that has been really helpful. We cook a lot at home and have a really good diet. Trying to stay in that space. Doing well because of those things and some help from some good people.

I know travelling has been such a big part of your life.

IV: Yeah, it’s good to be forced to not get to go anywhere. The last time I went anywhere was January of last year, I went down to San Francisco and worked with these great people from Austria, we did a really cool show at a big museum there and a couple of places. I came back from that and actually got really, really sick… and, who knows? Because nobody really was talking about that disease outside of Asia at the time. I had a rough bout of sickness in January. After that it was, well, ok, just act like you have this disease and make sure your mum and dad are safe; take into effect that there’s greater forces at play and if you just relax, you can ride on top of a wave or you can really drown underneath a bunch of this shit. As we saw in this country, politically you and I come from a punk rock background so seeing this stuff has always been idealised, so when you see someone threatening your state and threaten all the things you grew up around, the very steady things getting shaken, I think that has a lot of people losing their mind while in these quarantine situations. We saw a really good summer here in the United States as far as civil rights and then a sad winter.

Watching it from over here in Australia it’s been crazy to see.

IV: It’s really sad, I wonder about that sometimes from an outside perspective.

In May Outlandish Press is releasing your book Puppy Dog Ice-Cream: The Story of Japanther.

IV: It’s exciting news! That’s something I’ve been doing. I’ve been working with an editor and a publisher. It’s 140 pages. It has a lot of nice photographs in it. I tried for it to be a very broad picture, so a lot of people contributed to it who worked really close with Japanther, they contributed either a paragraph or just a sentence or many paragraphs. There’s some writing by people I love. Just me trying to write down the story of a mystical weird time in my own life of being a young person that was overly driven on doing music and trying to make sure I remember that when I’m an old person, like I am now [laughs]. It’s a kind of a natural idea to do a memoir after a trip that was that crazy.

Totally! You guys did sooo much, all kinds of things. I don’t know if there is another band, at least that I know of, that’s done so much variety of things, playing in so many different situations. You really thought outside the box. I remember you saying early on that Japanther was really an art project more so than a band.

IV: [Laughs]. That was always the idea. That comes from a legacy of bands like Black Dice and Throbbing Gristle, Pussy Galore, Hairy Pussy is another one… there’s all these bands out there that definitely had the idea before us to put your music into the world much more as art and recontextualising that whole concept of – go to a show, get your drink tickets, play on time, do the thing – it’s just so deathly boring and if you’re someone that wants to see anything new, which I think great creators and artists are often looking for something new or unseen or to build something that only they envision, to play with the world and manipulate it a little bit potentially. So, we got to those places definitely on the backs of other people. With even the Ramones where a cartoon image of themselves or they’re brothers out of Queens even though they’re not, if you look at them, they have long hair and the same jackets, so why not? The Misfits are another idea of these ghoulish people from New Jersey, where really they’re just comic book nerds. I love that idea of manipulating. Somehow with Japanther we were really successful with that. I’m proud to be the one that gets to chronicle that. Often times bands let someone else tell their story and tell the shitty parts of their story first and if that’s all you listen to that’s all people fixate on. We’ve been really lucky that we have fans like you that really want to talk to us about this stuff over the course of a body of work rather than just one incident.

I feel really lucky to have spoken to you at different points and each time you’ve been going through a lot personal growth, I always seem to catch you at a time where something interesting is happening.

IV: I thought about that today. When I woke up, I thought of my friend and sent her a text saying: I hope you’re doing well. I love you. Then her husband texted me and said: Maya went into labour! Holy shit. That’s so cool. I feel good today… at least about that and the hope of the future and that those people, not even just the United States but Australia too, that we’ll be able to hand them something that’s just not a big pile of ash and some crumpled up iPhones [laughs]. Like, “Oh shit, that’s what I’m meant to grew my tomatoes in?” I’m just trying to look towards positive things as a responsibility of people like you and I who are in underground art making, publishing and creativity in general, not putting too big of a harness on that concept; putting that impetus on us as a community that we have to hand the world to the next people that are being born.

That’s something I’ve always really loved about Japanther—you’ve always been about community and uplifting people.

IV: We try to be, not always successfully, I’ll definitely admit to my own failures many and great but at the same time I try to be from a place of healing and making music because it’s more positive than doing something negative or aggressive in the world. Even if you want to talk about something negative or aggressive, you’re portraying it rather than committing that negative or aggressive act. Using music as escapism has certainly been at the theme of our making for a long, long time. Trying to provide and share healing with people it’s a really good thing.

How long did your book take to write?

IV: Geez, about five years. I probably started it in about 2014-2015, just plugging away. At first, I set the goal of writing around 5,000 words per year that we were in the band, that to me would equal a lot of words and a lot of pages, and henceforth would have a book [laughs]; that was really simple thinking. When I started collaborating with a publisher and an editor it became a very different project because the English language was put on top of my words [laughs]. Things were separated and weeded out. I really worked hard to keep the voice of the book 100% positive rather than focusing in on any shortcomings, while still acknowledging those shortcomings, as you mentioned before, the personal growth of writing something like this. I’m reminded of something a friend told me – I gave him a different piece of writing that I had in my zine – “It’s interesting. Thank you for sharing this writing but I think it will be most interesting for you to read this in five years from now because this is a big, big thing for you to talk about.” Which was about five years ago now, and it’s true, reading it was like, oh, wow! That will trigger ten more books you could potentially write. That’s a big reason I wanted to do it, cataloging these ideas.

I certainly talk about Australia in the book. That was a big deal for us to get to travel to places like Australia and travel to Russia with our band. I felt like I had beat the final level of the video game and then I needed to get another video game.

What’s the experience of looking back at your collection of thoughts and feelings about Japanther been like for you?

IV: Often at times, really mixed emotions, as I would expect anyone who is grappling with the truth of what happens in their own life. Writing a memoir, you have to grapple with a lot of things you don’t necessary want to go down that road and talk yourself through it or get yourself where you can be ok with it enough to write about it in a positive manner.

Was there anything that was really hard for you to write about?

IV: Oh, sure. I just read the intro to the book again, it’s written by Penny [Rimbaud] from Crass. Crass was a band that started in the mid-70’s and said that by 1984, eight years after they started, that they “were going to be over”. 84’s the year that a lot of science fiction writers’ saw – George Orwell – that it’ll start to be the future. Crass wanted to be done by 1984. Seeing him write the intro to the book and reading back on it he’s musing on coming from England and playing shows with us and where we traveled and toured with him, where we recorded with him, in a really beautiful and poetic way he talks essentially about being with us and being a part of what we’re doing, which we always tried to do with anyone that came in contact with us, is get the involved in the idea and go have fun with it and go smile, go swimming, go to the beach and try to find those moments where you find joy in the process.

Difficult things to write about? Yeah… it was heartbreaking to leave Japanther. All I ever wanted to do was be in a band that got to share a collective experience with people and get into a trance state, get people to dance and smile. Literally babies were born and all kinds of crazy shit happened, this music being a catalyst. It was heartbreaking to let go and to close a chapter of your life, and to write a memoir that says, yeah, well definitively I’m not going to do this thing no more. I’m very serious about not doing this anymore, here’s this published work, it’s what happened if you’re interested in knowing what happened, it’s all there. If you get to the last page, that’s all there will ever be; I like that concept. It’s difficult to do.

That gave me goosebumps! I’ve always wondered what happened to Japanther? You were there one day and then just not.

IV: It’s in the book if you want to read it. I talked to this woman, her name is Bibbe Hansen, she’s incredible artist that is associated with some incredible artists. Her dad was a Fluxus artist [Al Hansen] and her son is a giant rock star [Beck Hansen], but it’s most important to talk about Bibbe because everyone talks about her dad and son. Bibbe is so cool, I met her in Upstate New York. She’s someone that was around Andy Warhol and so many amazing artists. I was talking to her about my book and we were talking about what we were just talking about, closing a chapter of your life successfully, she had immense perspective having seen people that saw themselves as whatever they saw themselves as in New York City, plus seeing her father in that world and seeing her son skyrocket in the music industry. What she shared with me was that everything has an ending, it’s really up to you how you react to that, how you move past that and how you open the next chapter. There’s no magic key other than just going through it, through the process. She said it much better than all that though.

It helped me so much to do something like this. To write the last three or four chapters were really difficult. Dealing with an editor, Will, and dealing with Kyle the publisher at Outlandish Press, they really forced me to push through that stuff because they’re producing a product and you can’t just have a product that vaguely dithers into nothing. I’m excited to be pushed in that direction by an editor because that’s what something like that would take for me rather than just writing ten more albums, which I have; I’ve written ten more albums since then and I feel good about that.

I’m really excited to read it. I pre-ordered it as soon as I saw it was available. I’m glad that it’s written in first person and it’s a narrative non-fiction memoir. I’ve read the introduction by Penny. I found it interesting when Penny was talking about the river, how it flows and how it branches out to other things.

IV: I’ve talked about that too in other writings and also this book. When Penny was staying in our apartment, it’s on the East River, which is more of a canal not really a river but still, it’s a tidal flow and it produces a lot of energy. I live here in the Puget Sound in Olympia, it has an immense energy, it has a tidal flow. The Mississippi River in New Orleans has an immense flow and immense power coming from all of these other places and to me that creates sound, that creates the idea and want to make sound because you’re carrying and gathering all these other energies with great ease or what seems like great ease if you’re able to channel that. Penny writing about a river was another one of those serendipitous moments where it’s; how did you see that?

Did you choose Penny to write it because he’s a friend of yours and he’s had influence on what you’ve created?

IV: He played in Japanther on several records, he talks about that in the intro, he played with us and toured with us. On the night we met, like a lot of the people that we met, we were very clueless as to what was actually happening until someone was like, “You know you were just talking to…?” We’re like, “No. Who?” And people have to tell us. That was just someone who just wandered up to us and we’re like, “Whoa, this guy is a weirdo!” Then when he started playing, we’re like, “Oh, that’s the guy. Oh cool.” He was like, “Can I play with you guys tonight?” We were like, “Without a doubt.” We’re always seeking failure, trying to find a place where you could fail in a really good way and he was in the same place of, let’s just play and have fun and play music, and a lot of people don’t really understand you’re playing music and that’s back to what you were talking about before, an art project—play, experiment, play, experiment, success! Oh success, wow! Failure, failure, failure, failure, failure… I feel really happy about that. Getting to work with Penny from Crass was… like many people that talk in this book, a real gift. We worked with people down in New Orleans like Rusty Lazer and Sissy Nobby, Nicky da B, all these amazing Bounce artists, rappers. We’ve worked with tons of people across the art world that are doing really interesting things, sculptural work, performative work, animation work, had the same attitude of working with Penny: yeah, let’s try it out and see if we can fail and if we don’t fail and we get success, wouldn’t that just be incredible. This book feels like a success.

What does success feel like or look like to you? How do you define it for yourself?

IV: I love underground art. I love print making, zine making so success to me looks like making a print run and getting that print run to someone who wants to read, to fold back the spine and get their hands on it and get inspiration and go, “See, I knew if I bought this little pill, I would get to the next level of what I’m working on. I knew that if I read this book, I would take that risk.” That sounds like success to me. Anything beyond that is just the icing on the cake, so participating in that moment of icing is always fun too, but it’s not always good for you, right? [laughs]. You should just keep your head down and do the next project. Success to me is getting this thing into people’s hands but I’m also looking at the folders on my desktop that are for the next projects. I just published another zine and I plan to publish another one after that and after that and after that.

Then there’s another Howardian album too that’s coming out this year that you’ve done demos for, right?

IV: Yeah, in 2021 we’ll release a record on Starcleaner Records. We just finished our dealings with the people that are going to release it in New York. It’s called Too Big To Be Quiet. I’m really excited about that. It’s another thing that, I just can’t stop moving my hands, in the time [leading up to] we were supposed to be on the phone, thirty-five minutes, I did half a painting. I was like, “Oh, I just have to bang something out while I’m waiting for this stuff to happen.” I can’t stop using my hands which is what I’m trying to say. Making music is a super natural part of my day, I have musical instruments six inches to my left, microphones and drumkit. Collecting 25+ demo songs is really easy, now we’re working on mixing and mastering those. They’ll be mastered by this guy Tim Green, my brother’s mastering them, I love working closely with my brother, I’ve always worked closely with him.

Didn’t you start a record label with your brother when he was fifteen and you were nine?

IV: A different brother, but yeah. That label is still in Montana and still putting out records, it’s called Wantage USA. I have two brothers. My brother Matt is really an audio head and really good at something called 500 Series Gear, it’s digital analogue equipment that you can get big racks of and you can have some very fancy equipment in very small digital form. He’s really good at mixing and mastering. This amazing heavy metal studio called Louder in California, Tim Green, he’ll master it and that’s someone that I was lucky enough to work with as a teenager and we reconnected recently on the internet and I said, “I’d love to mix with you.” Something I read recently that kind of addresses what I’m talking about now; how do you use your government stimulus cheque to spend it on small business and find small businesses? To go, ‘Cool, I have a little bit of money, if I’m going to get something mastered here’s $250 rather than taking that money and going to Target or wherever.’  Just picturing how to use those government stimuluses for good.

I always try and support small businesses and my friends’ businesses, especially my friends that are artists and musicians. It’s important for me to support my community in the way I spend money.

IV: Yeah, it seems like a no-brainer for someone like you or I, it’s definitely something that we have to remind people that, if your friend has a show and it doesn’t even seem like your type of thing, go. There’s a tape for sale for $6; why not give them $10? I have to remind myself of that shit too. It’s a really good practice, I’ve been getting better at doing that, especially in this time of online shopping. If your friend puts up a sweatshirt and you click, click, click and buy it and then forget about it and it turns up and then you’re like, “I know someone who will love this” and you’ve gotten to support a cool person. It’s win-win! I love that idea.

I’ve been enjoying time to reflect and time in silence, having time to read books and doing amateur mechanics stuff in my garage on the dirt bikes, which is awesome. It’s always enjoyable and rewarding to see something you start have a finish to it. You screw it on and it’s ‘Oh, it works and now we’re zooming!’, it’s a really different thing than making a record or painting, which is an ongoing never-ending process or writing which is always in revision, revision, revision. Where the mechanics is very, you better oil it, make sure it works, get it going, do everything you have to do then have fun.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?

IV: Oh yeah, that the future is bright! Things will be great. My mom and dad got a vaccine. Soon we’ll all get to that place where we can get a shot in the arm and we can go to punk shows, sweating on each other again.

Please check out Ian’s book Puppy Dog Ice Cream: The Story of Japanther out May 2021 on Outlandish Press (you can read the introduction by Crass’ Penny Rimbaud here too). For Ian’s cut n paste graffiti collage zine 99mm and music go to ianvanek.com. On Instagram: @japanther.

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