Meanjin Grit Hop band Spirit Bunny: “We feel strongly about diversity and social responsibility, supporting community and grassroots art and initiatives”

Original photo: courtesy of Zang! Records. Handmade collage by B.

We love Meanjin/Brisbane Grit Hop trio, Spirit Bunny, a joyful explosion of noise from multi-instrumentalists Kate Thomas, Joel Saunders and Cam Smith. We’re super excited to bring you the premiere of first single ‘Paper Handshakes’ from their upcoming sophomore album on new independent label Zang! Records. Spirit Bunny’s sound is a perfect storm of circuit bent Casio noise and C64 synths with phat beats and whimsical melodies.

Firstly, congratulations on signing with Zang! Records. We’re really excited that Spirit Bunny has new music to share with us. We’re really digging your new song ‘Paper Handshakes’! Where did the song name come from? I’ve heard that Spirit Bunny songs often start with a title before music and lyrics are written.

SPIRIT BUNNY: Thanks! We’re super happy and excited to be able to share some new stuff again. ‘Paper Handshakes’ actually had a different, working title until right at the last minute. That’s pretty normal for us – a lot of our songs start off with working titles that are related to how the songs sound or what they remind us of. A good example of that is ‘Gold & Brown’ from our first album, which in its very early stages of being written reminded us in mood of the song ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers. Sometimes those working titles then inform the lyrics and themes, which are almost always the final part added to the song. So it almost always goes music, working song title, lyrics, and then sometimes a proper song title if we decide the working title is no good (or embarrassing). This song had an embarrassingly mundane and meaningless working title.

What inspired it both musically and lyrically?

SB: Musically we wanted something that was upbeat and really punchy. We started the writing of the album with a couple of more downbeat or weirder songs, and thought we should perhaps write a pop song. Which is what we did, or at least it’s what we consider to be a “pop song”. It was one of the first songs for the record where we started experimenting more in-depth with dual and duelling vocals, something we tried a little bit on the last record. Lyrically it’s about the sway that people with money hold over decision makers, and how that doesn’t always benefit the greater good.

How much did the song change from its beginnings to what we hear now?

SB: This is one of the songs that just kind of came out and didn’t need a whole heap of tweaking, it came together pretty easily (which can’t necessarily be said for the some of the other songs from our forthcoming album). The only significant change came right towards the end of recording, when we invited our friend Keeley Young (of Claude and Requin) to play saxophone on it. That’s something we experimented with on the new record, getting our friends in to replace our parts but playing them on an instrument that we don’t normally use, to try to get some new and often more organic sounds into the mix. So on this song, Keeley multi-tracked her saxophone to replace some of the chordal parts that Kate plays on Commodore 64.

What interests each of you in what you create as Spirit Bunny? I know you’ve all had many other bands and projects.

SB: It’s probably the most democratic and collaborative band any of us have been in, which can be challenging but also very much worthwhile. It’s definitely a project where if you were to replace any one of us you’d end up with a completely different thing. When we first got together we had an idea of what we wanted to sound like, but ultimately what came out is Spirit Bunny. It really pushes each of us in different ways, both technically and in what we’re comfortable with in terms of our roles in the band. For example, Kate is kind of the musical core of virtually every Spirit Bunny song and that’s not something she’s done in her other projects.

Photo: courtesy of Zang! Records.

It’s also very different from any of the other projects we’re involved with. Some musicians like to play in a bunch of bands that are all of a kind, but that’s not something we’re overly interested in.

Spirit Bunny shows are pretty special, there’s an amazing synergy between you; do you ever have trouble capturing the spirit you play with live in recording or do you see live and recording sound-wise as two different things?

SB: The first record was definitely a pretty close representation of the live version of the band. The new album is perhaps very slightly less so, although the majority of the record was still built around the way we would play the songs in a live context. We did try a few new methods of writing and recording this time, with a few of the songs being partially constructed in the studio instead of extensively hashed out in the rehearsal room. We also tried to incorporate a few more textures this time, and to give some of the songs a bit more space than on the previous album. We definitely try to capture the energy of our live shows, though. That’s really important, and I think both albums go pretty close to achieving that.

What’s something surprising that people might find interesting about the way you write or record?

SB: We’re all multi-tasking in this band, each playing multiple instruments at the same time. Kate plays two Commodore 64s, Joel has two of his unique circuit-bent Casios plus a bunch of noise boxes, and Cam has his looped beats alongside the acoustic drums. So everything can get pretty layered and dense for a trio, but that’s what we actually sound like. It was a bit of a focus on this record to strip that back a bit sometimes and give the songs some room to breathe.

You use circuit bent keyboards/Commodore 64 synths; where did your interest in using these come from?

SB: We like repurposing obsolete or outdated technology in a creative fashion, giving it a second life that’s perhaps outside its original purpose. It’s cool to make something that’s somewhat futuristic and hopefully forward-looking with elements that could sometimes be considered somewhat ‘retro’. Also, these instruments have inherent limitations and we like that those limitations can force us to come up with novel solutions. An interesting example of that is that the Commodore 64 has virtually no dynamics, and Cam came to Spirit Bunny from bands that were highly dynamic so he had to rethink the way that his drums were going to function in this new context, where if he played quietly he was going to be drowned out but if he played loudly he would drown everyone else out. The answer ended up being adding dynamics to the drums via the density of the playing, rather than playing softer or louder.

What can you tell us at this point about your sophomore album you have coming up?

SB: Firstly that we’re really happy with it. There’s been a lot of work to get to this point. It’s been good to welcome some new people into the fold to help us get the record to the finish line, whether it’s been various friends of ours adding their own flavours to the record sonically, or teaming up with Zang! to get the record out into the world. Listening to it now, it seems like real growth from the first album. The songs are simultaneously more extreme and also more accessible, more dense and also more spacious. It’s been a journey of discovery for us as much as it is for anyone else, perhaps more so. From within the band, everything we come up with seems to be greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

What bands/albums/songs have you been obsessing over lately?

SB: We’ve been listening to Deerhoof’s two new records a lot, always listening to lots of Deerhoof. We love the new Party Dozen album, in a way we feel like they’re kindred spirits in the Australian music community. Similarly with the new Wax Chattels. Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors is a record that weirdly influenced some of the sounds on this album, in terms of some of the mellotron arrangements and a kind of chamber-pop sound we attempted to incorporate in parts (with varying success).

We also listen to lots of local stuff, and there’s been heaps of really good local releases lately. The new Ancient Channels is fantastic, which some of us are involved with in some ways (Cam recorded it, and Joel now plays in the live band). Zang! labelmates Gold Stars have a fantastic debut album. Local Authority, Ultra Material and Relay Tapes all put out some great shoegaze and dream-pop records recently. Nathan John Kearney put out a lovely solo record, It’s Magnetic have a wonderful debut album. There’s new Grieg. We’re looking forward to the new Apparitions record. There’s so much stuff.

What’s something that’s important to Spirit Bunny?

SB: Musically we just want to make something that excites and challenges us. On a more important note, we feel strongly about diversity and social responsibility, supporting community and grassroots art and initiatives. We delved into some of these issues lyrically on the new album, which we also did on the first one but often in a more oblique way – this time we were a bit more overt in the presentation of some of these themes.

Please check out SPIRIT BUNNY. SB on Instagram. SB on Facebook. ZANG! Records.

Kim Salmon: “In the creative process you do have to look inside of yourself and express things that are at the heart of you, which by their nature is primal”

Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Melbourne-based musician Kim Salmon has been creating art and music his whole life, over six decades. He tells engaging stories with both his visual art and musical endeavours. His work is passionate, adventurous, compelling, thought sparking and journey making. Each time he creates something, he starts from scratch and has an aversion to the formulaic. Gimmie had a thoughtful chat with Kim about his work, creativity, the new Surrealists’ double LP Rantings From The Book Of Swamp and of a new Scientists record that’s done!

How was your morning walk?

KIM SALMON: [Laughs] I’m still on my walk! I can walk and talk.

Have you always been a walker?

KS: No, I used to swim because I’ve got a dodgy back and years ago a doctor told me that it was the best thing to do, but you can’t really swim in these days so I try and stay in shape by walking—I’m trying to stay alive basically.

Besides the fitness aspect of it, do you get anything else out of it?

KS: Yeah. They’ve restricted it now, down here [in Melbourne], you can go a radius of five kilometres from your house. There’s plenty of stuff to see, I’m getting to know a lot of it. I did this crazy thing at the start of all this lockdown stuff, somebody gave me these postcards that were blank, the idea was to do little paintings on them. I thought, yeah, I’m never going to do that! Suddenly, I have all the time in the world and I started sending people little paintings in watercolour of these things that are around Northcote; things like little garden cherubs and strange looking topiary and bizarre things that you don’t usually notice when you’re walking around. When you do it every day, you see lurid detail.

Art by Kim Salmon

Nice! I love being out in nature. I walk around my neighbourhood a lot.

KS: It’s nice to do that. We’re near Merri Creek and Darebin Creek, those are nice walks to go on very close to nature, you wouldn’t think you were anywhere near a city.

What do you love about painting?

KS: I’ve always done it. Music was kind of like a highjack for me [laughs]. I’ve always loved painting. I was studying it but then I dropped out of art school and became a musician, which is the biggest cliché out; isn’t it? [laughs].

It’s all creativity! I’ve seen some of your paintings and really love them. There’s this one that’s a bedroom scene.

KS: I did that one when I was about sixteen.

Do you remember painting it?

KS: Oh, yeah. There’s a piano in it.

What’s the significance of the piano?

KS: It was in my room, that was my bedroom, that was basically it. There’s a pair of clogs in the middle of the floor because it was the ‘70s and people were wearing platform shoes, often clogs, that was a thing!

Did you learn to play piano before you learnt to play guitar?

KS: No, I persuaded my mum to buy the piano because she had learnt piano as a child and I wanted to maybe take it up, I thought I might learn some piano. I could already play the guitar. I figured out a few chords and had a muck around on it but I never really developed any real techniques for playing the piano.

Art by Kim Salmon

When you dropped out of art school that would have been around ’76? That was around the time you got into music more and you had the punk band the Cheap Nasties, right?

KS: That’s exactly right [laughs].

What attracted you to proto-punk and punk music?

KS: I was looking for my own thing, if you know what I mean? I had just met Dave Faulkner and some of his friends. I was hanging out with them and each of those blokes seemed to have a thing they were into. Dave was into Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, lyrically driven stuff; a lot of America stuff like Cosby, Stills, Nash & Young, that kind of thing. I didn’t really have a thing, my taste was really eclectic, I liked a lot of stuff, like King Crimson and a bit of prog and a bit of folk, there wasn’t really any kind of theme to it. I used to devour those trade weeklies like New Musical Express and Melody Maker. One day I saw an article about CBGB and the scene there attracted me, it was the way that the writer described everything, a netherworld full of people wearing leather jackets. It all sounded so different to everything where I was in Perth.

I read that from that article you went to track down some punk records and you came across The Modern Lovers?

KS: Yeah. I went on a quest to find what punk was! [laughs]. It was a word that was bandied about in the articles but we couldn’t work out what it was. The Stooges were mentioned, the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, I went looking for them all. I’d never heard of The Modern Lovers but I found them. It didn’t matter if they were punk or not as far as I was concerned, I loved it, so that was going to be punk to me!

Is there anything from the punk music community that you were involved with early on that was valuable that you learnt from it?

KS: A lot of friends I’m still friends with. That’s probably it you know, the people that I became friends with and still keep in touch with. [Laughs] It’s as simple as that really. We’ve all moved on along our travels, musically or in our career.

Why do you like making things?

KS: Good question! Why do people do that? [laughs]. So they can stay around after they’ve gone. It’s a way of communicating, it’s a way of being present in the world. For me I couldn’t explain it at all, I paint and draw because it gives me pleasure and I want to do it, it’s the same with music. Music is just another form of painting to me; I’m painting when I’m making music, if that makes any sense?

It does. What do you value as an artist?

KS: Some kind of originality if that’s even possible. I think everyone is unique and everyone is universal at the same time; it’s a strange thing that we can express some universal ideas through your own uniqueness.

It seems like throughout your career you haven’t ever really been motivated by money, it’s more about the process and making things.

KS: Oh yes, unfortunately for me and those around me [laughs]. Money doesn’t really drive me, money is a means to an end… it’s numbers, I don’t have anything against maths [laughs], it’s not really what drives me. Even in school, I was good at maths as far as the abstractness of it went but when it came down to arithmetic, I was hopeless [laughs]. I was good at geometry and trigonometry, I was OK with them things but… look, I think I lost ten grand in a bank I worked in one day! I’m not good at numbers.

Previously you’ve said that when you want to create something you need focus; what kinds of things do you do to help focus?

KS: It’s different for every particular endeavour. I’m one of those people that sometimes needs to set something up or I will sit around not doing anything forever [laughs]… out of inertia and fear, I suppose. Once I get going the inertia is there and I guess I keep going… it’s a big one for me. Like this pandemic, I think I’m OK, it’s kind of forced me to do something. I try. I stare at a blank piece of paper. I go down to the art shop and buy myself some nice inks and watercolours and then I come home and stare at the paper for weeks on end and finally I do something. Once it’s started I just go where the paints flows [laughs].

What kinds of things have you been painting lately?

KS: The last thing I painted was… I don’t know what you’d call it? It could be molecular size or nebula size. It’s these organic forms that I made up. I got this stuff that’s like masking tape but it’s like glue, you squirt it on the paper, it’s nice and blue and pretty and you can see where it is. You can do a painting with it and then paint over that and then you rub it all off and it leaves a white area. I did this thing that’s kind of inspired by a book of art forms in nature, done by one of those 19th Century scientist, philosopher-types who believed… it’s a book of drawings and diagrams of one-cell creatures like jellyfish and bats, birds and fungus. His point was that there are all these beautiful, symmetrical forms in nature and there was art at work.

It was my girlfriend Maxine who looked at one of my paintings with the masking thing and she came upon this book and ordered it for me. One day it showed up in the mail from New Zealand, she had to tell me it was for me [laughs]. I looked at this book and it inspired me. I put all this glue stuff over the canvas, it’s pretty big, maybe a metre across. I used a vivid ink. I just let it run and mix and carry on and paint forms around the masking material. I was really happy with what it ended up as, I couldn’t tell you what it was though [laughs]. I could see some strange monstrous forms, but I think they’re kind of beautiful. You can’t tell if it’s in deep space or at a microscopic level. It could be anything really!

Art by Kim Salmon

I can’t wait to see it. I hope you have another art exhibition.

KS: One day! If we come out of lockdown. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of Covid art out there! [laughs].

That’s OK though! When you talk about making art, I feel like it brings you so much joy!

KS: Oh absolutely! It really takes you somewhere. You really have a conversation with the paint and the paper and the canvas and the ink. It sounds a bit mad but I definitely finds it leads me somewhere—it’s quite an enchanted place.

You mentioned the book you got recently and that the guy that made it was into philosophy; do you get into much philosophy or anything like that?

KS: I try to, but I haven’t really made a big study of that. There’s so many things that I might do. There’s a lot of people around that time, when religion was being challenged by science. There were some shaman and crazy people and frauds and con-artists out there like Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky and Rudolph Steiner… I guess Steiner wasn’t really a con-artist, but what I mean is there were a lot of ideas out there being explored. It was an interesting time.

Are you a spiritual person at all?

KS: Not in any formal religious kind of way, no. I suppose everyone says they’re spiritual. I don’t know that my way of being that would seem particularly spiritual to someone else. I have my music and art and I guess that’s my spirituality really. I’m probably more scientific if anything about those things.

Why did you feel it was time to make a new Surrealists’ album?

KS: It has a funny story. The Surrealists have been playing forever, particularly this line-up, we always enjoyed playing, never rehearse, just play a gig every now and then. I thought the band deserved more than a few hundred bucks from just playing a gig, you can only do some many shows, we got a show before lockdown and I got this bright idea that we would do a show that was completely improvised and we’d record it, that would be the draw card for the show. It was Phil [Collings] the drummer’s idea actually to do a completely live album. I thought if you’re a band recording you need to have songs and stuff; how do you do that like that? Over the years I’d write lyrical things into my books that I’d read the lyrics out of but I hadn’t used them yet so I thought I’d use them, that’s what they were for this album.

We had the gig booked and lockdown occurred. We had to postpone it. A film producer that had done the Scientists… actually Scientists actually have an album in the can would you believe!

That’s great news!

KS: It’s on a US label, so who knows when that will come out. We did a film clip for the new album and he approached me about taking this idea that I had into a recording studio and it being streamed. We wanted it set up with lots of cameras in a proper studio, we eventually got that happening. We called it Rantings From The Book Of Swamp, basically because that’s what it is; it’s me singing things out of my books to have lyrical content to the things we were making up.

How did you feel in the moment when you were making it?

KS: Terrified!

Really?!

KS: Yeah, because when you do something like that… we all had ideas but didn’t consult with each other, we thought we’d just be able to flesh them out. Nothing went the way at the time that I thought it would go. Everything felt like it went wrong! It was about an hour’s worth of “oh no” and trying to fix it up. Stu [Thomas] felt the same. Phil was just eating it up, you could tell he was having the best time of his life [laughs].

It was done over two sessions, I couldn’t be convinced that it was any good. I thought, nah, that’s it, I’ve blown it! They said “no, no, it’s good!” I didn’t believe them. I ended up looking at it and thinking, nah, OK, that’s good. You can see Stu and I really concentrating and trying to make it work, and that’s what made it good, we thought about it every second of the way.  It was the most switched on I’ve ever been.

I remember hearing you mention a little ways back that it’s been a long journey and process for you to get comfortable with lots of things, being on stage, stuff like that; was there something that changed that made you feel more comfortable?

KS: I couldn’t tell you the answer to that. At some point now I couldn’t imagine being uncomfortable but I was. I’ve heard recordings of those times and I’m still the same person… that’s probably what was good about this last recording, it probably brought me back out of my comfort zone into somewhere strange, I think that’s what happens… things that aren’t in your comfort zone, as long as you can move out of them and explore them, eventually you’ll become comfortable with them. I think that’s the process. In a way this particular album is good because it’s a reminder of not being comfortable, of being lost [laughs]. I think there’s actually something good about being lost and not knowing what you’re doing.

It’s so cool that with all of your projects and records that the new one is a reaction to the previous one and you always evolve to do something different.

KS: Yeah, I think you have to do it. I remember Tex Perkins used to say the same thing too. He’d say that things do tend to be a reaction to what I’ve done before. I’m not alone in that. It’s probably a little bit more extreme in my case for some reason [laughs]. I’m a bit more of a random nut job! [laughs].

You mentioned that making the new record was terrifying but; what made it fun for you?

KS: That same thing! I look back and think it was terrifying but, in a good way. I can hear myself there and everyone that was watching it online can see me, I was making a joke out of it and trying to spin a yarn out of it [laughs], weaving a narrative.

Do you think you use your humour to deflect from the fact you are terrified?

KS: I think that’s a common trait in comedians and artists, people on a stage. I don’t think that’s unique.

A lot of your lyrics tend to be from a darker more primal place; why do you think that is?

KS: I just think that’s part of the artistic process really, in the creative process you do have to look inside of yourself and express things that are at the heart of you, which by their nature is primal. Things become a lot more elemental when you do that. Having said that, you can still do things that are the opposite of that, I don’t know that all of my stuff is like that. I’m sure I do things that are light-hearted and witty and pharisaical [laughs].

Talking to you, you seem like such an easy going person.

KS: Yeah, I am.

What’s the most personal song that you feel you’ve ever written?

KS: In a way a lot of songs are about things that are outside of myself. I often put myself in other people’s point of view… that can still make songs personal. I like all my songs for different reasons. Maybe there’s not one that’s more personal than another. In a way I probably write for other people in a strange way, even though I am expressing and doing things for myself… what I mean is that other people can look at something and project their own meaning onto it, I’m OK with that. The thing about writing songs or poetry and a lot of art as well, it’s full of ambiguity and symbolism, symbols mean different things to different people… in a way the loudness and ambiguity of words, simple words as in a song as opposed to dense literature, is the strength of it—that’s what makes it powerful and universal.

I know songs must come to you in all kinds of ways but, is there a way that they come more often?

KS: When we did this particular project, there were a couple of songs on the album that were things like walking around the neighbourhood. There’s a song “Did You Pick It Up In The Playground?” it is about; where did you get that language from? It’s about behaviour like; is that you? It also had a meaning to do with picking up Covid. I found that it was just a line that came to me, it came with a tune already. I had to try and sing it. I knew what the chords were that I was playing under the singing. The band could be on the same page as me, or not, and take it somewhere really strange. As it happened the melody and song that I had in my head was indestructible enough it was added to by what Phil and Stu did.

When choosing the words for the songs you were making in real time; did you turn to a random page in your notebooks?

KS: No, I had ones that I thought would be good. I looked at them and pored over them and had a few in mind. For instance I already had a bit of a tune for “Did You Pick It Up In The Playground?” and “Burn Down The Plantation” I had a form in my head of what it would be like; to me it was like The Rolling Stones around the 1970s, Sticky Fingers era. Whether it came out like that is another thing! [laughs]. I had lyrics that I’d written around January and doing something that was kind of Blues-based took me back to days of slavery and the Civil War. I wrote a few lines and thought “Burn Down The Plantation” was a cool line and it went with that kind of music. I was wonder if I should take it into the recording given that there is all of this Black Lives Matter protest going on. I was scared of it really, I thought, oh god, we’re just three white guys; what right do we have to go singing about plantations burning down? I thought, I’m not going to censor myself, we’ll do it.

I had a few other things that were on my mind. For the recording I put little post-it notes on the ones that I thought I’d use. I also knew that if I went scrambling and scurrying for pages I’d be very lost and it would be a waste of time. I picked ones I thought I’d be more at ease with.

With the notebooks you drew from, you mentioned that you’ve been collecting thoughts in them for a while?

KS: Yeah. Those books I have, even then there’s a story. I had set-lists and I put them in there and I have lyrics and I put them in there. I write in them in such a random way. One starts at the back of the notebook and then it starts upside down from the other way. Sometimes there’s drawings. It’s really random things, random expressions of thoughts that I have. Often set-lists though – set-lists to me don’t mean a set out list of a repertoire – I have lists of songs from my bands and I call them out to the other members.

Have you always kept notebooks like this?

KS: Yeah, but it’s kind of become more obsessive as I’ve gotten older. I have one from The Scientists’ days. It was halfway through The Scientists that I thought I should be a proper singer and have notebooks, like a proper artist [laughs]. Now I’m glad I did because then you find out about Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain and they’ve always got these books full of art and crazy things. I feel accomplished, that’s a good club to be in! [laughs].

Art by Kim Salmon

You mentioned there’s a new Scientists’ record?

KS: Yeah! We recorded it, because there was a bit of a renaissance with the band, we did a tour of Europe, two tours of the USA and two of Australia a few years back. It was all on the back of that Chicago archival label Numero releasing our back catalogue and a box-set. We did a few singles and me and the guitar player [Tony Thewlis] would send each other things, I would send him drum beats of all things [laughs]. I’d get Leanne and Boris down from Sydney and I’d show them what I had and they’d knock ‘em into shape. Tony came over here to be part of The Scientists’ getting inducted into the WAM Hall of Fame. We spent that time in Perth in a studio and knocked that album together. We’d been working on it for a long time. I got Tony to build me some riffs. I’d think up crazy drum patterns and send them to him and then he’d build riffs on that, I’d do melodies and words on top of that. I’d send that to Boris [Sujdovic] and Leanne [Cowie] and they’d be the final process.

We don’t’ know when it will come out though, it’s all ready, it’s got the cover art and we did a film clip for it. It’s very strange because the thing that The Surrealists have just done is probably a lot closer to where The Scientists were in 1983 and the new Scientists’ album has travelled somewhere different. I don’t know how people are going to take it. I’ve tried really hard to have enough elements that people accept it’s The Scientists but, we’ve taken it somewhere else. I’ve listened back to the lyrics of it and it’s not in the same place as Blood Red River.

That’s really exciting to me! Bands evolving and going somewhere new is super exciting to me. I grew up in the punk world and it was always about individuality and pushing things… your new record sounds like it’s those things to me.

KS: Yeah, we’ve done that! It’s a bit more crafted. I think that’s why The Surrealists thing got more closer, it’s more visceral… this Scientists thing has some visceral elements, it’s heavy, it’s got the brutality in sound but, it’s crafted as well because of the way we made it. It wasn’t a spontaneous process. It was put together because we thought we should do it and wanted to do it, that’s a different process to when a band is young and say “Oh yeah, let’s just do this” which is how we used to do it [laughs]. That’s kind of what The Surrealists just did! [laughs].

You said that your lyrics for Scientists now were in a different place; where are they?

KS: I was listening to it thinking, god it’s taken me to get this long to get where Dave Graney was in The Moodists [laughs]. That’s what it makes me think of. He had these songs that had bizarre stories to them; I was listening to it yesterday thinking it sounds like Graney. There is a song that references him called “The Science Of Swarve” and I talk about him and Lux Interior and Nick Cave and I kind of say that their threads, meaning their lyrical threads, their threads, their clothes being in tatters and no narrative could ever save [laughs]. That was fun putting that in there. It was all about being swarve, it’s a bit of a boast. I think it’s a storytelling yarn that Graney would have done in those days.

I’m looking forward to hearing it! You do a lot of stuff; where does your hard work ethic come from?

KS: That’s what everyone says. I sit around looking at blank paper and canvases. I sit around doing nothing and wasting my time—that’s what creativity is. Until you can’t stand it anymore and you have to do something and once you get started you can’t stop!

I know you teach people to play guitar; have you learnt anything from teaching?

KS: Yeah, absolutely. I had to get across a lot of theory that I didn’t have, things like modes for scales and various harmonic ideas that I knew about… I used to use them without knowing what I was doing. Now I know what I’m doing and it takes a bit of the mystery out of it. I’ve got a lot out of teaching. I know how songs are put together now, which I wouldn’t have had a clue before! [laughs]. I use to break the rules without knowing what rules I was breaking.

That’s funny to hear you’ve learnt how to put together a song after all this time doing it. Have you ever had a really life changing experience?

KS: Gosh! When I read an article about CBGB it was pretty life changing—it sent me on the journey.

The first one I can remember, I must have been about three and my mum always told me that I didn’t speak until I was three and then I spoke in complete sentences, she’d know what I wanted but I didn’t talk. I remember her one day showing me a watercolour set and explaining to me what it was. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t have a clue. She got the water and a brush and she started using red and she did a little loop thing. I got the brush and started filling up the page with these little strange loops of red. I didn’t know that it was for me, I just thought she was showing this thing. I thought, wow, you can say stuff with this, this is fantastic! That definitely was a thing for me! I can still see it so vividly. That’s probably where art came from for me. That was life changing really early.

It’s so cool that you’re painting now, it’s like things have come full circle for you.

KS: Yeah, I love watercolour, there’s just something about it. You get to leave some of the paper blank, you can leave some bits alone and not disturb it, and some of it you use—it all becomes one big story.

Art by Kim Salmon

And coming across all the punk rock stuff in publications was life changing too?

KS: Yeah, yeah. I guess I was looking for a place to be in my music, for a starting point, I wanted something to bring in a focus and that became it. I think it was probably the same for a lot of people.

Is painting and making songs similar in any way to you?

KS: Yes and no. I’d go so far as to say that even every song is different to make. I try to look at everything from not having a formula, I don’t like formula as much, which is a bit funny for a guy in a band called The Scientists [laughs]. I like to think I’m starting from scratch every time that I do something and not knowing what you’re doing is part of it. Learning about music sort of takes away from that so; what do I do? What I just did with The Surrealists was a way of getting back to that thing… it’s that aspect, the mystery, that you don’t know where the hell you are and you’re lost, that makes the start of creating something, not knowing where it’s going to go or where it’s going to be. You might have an idea of what you’re going to do, but you don’t know what it’s going to be in the end. That mystery and not knowing is the thing that is the unifying factor.

Being open to all of the possibilities! A freedom in that?

KS: Yeah, I think so. Like when we were talking about philosophy before, being open to ideas and not fixed and to appreciate what life has to offer. To make the best of it and not just think, this is it, this is what I’m going to do!

I’ve heard you say before that looking after yourself and simply enjoying the day are important things to you; what does an enjoyable day look like to you?

KS: [Laughs] It’s a strange combination of routine and getting lost in something, that’s a good day for me. Going for my walk and seeing something new in it and going a different way every time, to just make something different about it. With all the border restrictions and other restrictions and parameters of late, I guess it has to be that.

I guess you need to use your imagination in doing things more and doing things differently, adapting; how can I get the most out of what I have and what’s happening now?

KS: Yes, you’re right.

Last question; what makes you really, really happy?

KS: [Laughs]. I think just my life now, there’s things about it that I’d hate it to be taken away from me. I have my partner Maxine and we have a really good thing going, it’s been a few years now. I have my kids that I have a really good relationship with. I’ll be talking to my son after this and giving him a bass guitar lesson; he’s really starting to find his way, he’s twenty. All those things make me happy. Making stuff, all of it! [laughs].

Please check out KIM SALMON; KS on Facebook; KS on Instagram. Rantings From The Book Of Swamp drops September 4th – LISTEN here.

Maki of Osaka Punk Band Foodie: “The first time I listened to The Raincoats, I thought I want to make my original music…”

Original photo courtesy of Foodie. Handmade collage by B.

Foodie play bouncy, melody-laden, catchy, poppy-punk. Hailing from Osaka, Japan they’ve been on our radar for the last few years with their super fun, energetic songs. We interviewed guitarist-vocalist Maki to learn more about Foodie. Maki has also started her own label and promotions/touring venture, TOGE; before the worldwide pandemic and lockdown she was in the works to tour another Gimmie favourite, Crack Cloud!

Foodie are from Osaka, Japan; what is it like where you live?

MAKI: Osaka is the second big city in Japan. There are many cool record stores, used clothing stores, restaurants and music venues. People speak Osaka dialect.

What were you like growing up? How did you first discover music?

MAKI: When I was a high school student I met punk like everybody else. I am very influenced by their music and fashion.

Who or what made you want to start playing music?

MAKI: The first time I listened to The Raincoats, I thought I want to make my original music like them.

Photo courtesy of Foodie.

How did you start the band?

MAKI: When I started to try making songs, I found the cool guitar at the same time. It’s my first guitar and still playing it. Then I invited some friends, girls only, to make my own band. 

Why did you call your band, Foodie?

MAKI: Not so meaningful…we just love delicious foods!

Being a “Foodie”; what are your favourite things to eat?

MAKI: Sushi, Gyoza, Yakitori and Tacos.

Can you tell us something about each member of Foodie?

MAKI: Bass player is Masaki. He is also a vocalist of the band called BRONxxx. Drum player is Haruro. He is also a vocalist and a guitarist of the band called manchester school≡.

You recently released cassette Storks Talk; can you tell us a little bit about it?

MAKI: New member Masaki joined us and we totally changed our style. (We used to play with switching instruments.) We stopped playing old songs, and make new songs with him. Storks Talk is the 1st recordings of new Foodie.

One of our favourite songs on the EP is ‘Do My Best’; what inspired that song?

MAKI: I think many people interfere in other people too much. I wanted to say leave me alone.

The last song on the EP ‘星屑’; what is it about?

MAKI: 星屑 is stardust in English. It’s a song about nameless great artists.

What bands have you been listening to lately?

MAKI: The World, Table Sugar, Crack Cloud and The Goon Sax.

Can you tell us about one of the most fun shows Foodie has ever played?

MAKI: We had 5 shows in Southern California in 2016. Honestly bad thing happened too, but it was a great experience. Every bands we played with were so cool. We met many lovely people. We miss them.

What do you do when not making music? What’s your day job?

MAKI: I’m working at my friends’ restaurant. (He is from US.) Serving foods and helping him making bagels. I also started my own label / promoter named TOGE.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Foodie?

MAKI: We planned to go to US and have some shows in May, but we couldn’t. I think every music venues are in difficult situation now. We want to save them. We wish we will be able to have shows not only in Japan but also other countries soon. We are making new songs for next time we can see you.

Please check out: FOODIE. Foodie Tumblr. Maki Foodie on Instagram.

Melbourne-based Indie rockers Dianas talk about new LP Baby Baby: “trying to navigate our way through life and love and defining ourselves as people, the sadness and hope in growing up”

Original photo by Tom Mannion. Handmade collage by B.

Dianas dropped a beautiful, dreamy sophomore album Baby Baby last month, it twists and turns through tracks as polyrhythms unfold, and their melodic interplay and charming vocal harmonies build around them. It’s dream pop, but it’s no nap, it’s a wild and energetic lucid dream. We caught up with them to explore their Perth-based beginnings, their move to Melbourne and the crafting of their new LP.

How did it all begin? How did Dianas get together?

CAITY: Nat moved into my house something like nine years ago and soon after broke up with her partner so we started hanging out a lot. Nat had been playing acoustic guitar for a while and writing songs, and I had stolen my brother’s electric guitar with the intention of learning to play but hadn’t got very far. We kind of just started playing together and tentatively writing songs whilst drinking a lot of cheap wine and generally annoying our neighbours. It’s kind of funny because I remember that as a really good time and Nat remembers it as one of the worst of her life, but either way that cocktail of boredom and heartbreak was essential to get us started because we’d probably have been too shy and awkward otherwise.

NAT: That story pretty much sums it up! It was definitely one of the worst times of my life but also the best, and the absolute best thing in my life has come out of it so it all balances out. Some of my fondest memories are learning how to play Best Coast, The XX and other extremely indie covers on bass and guitar together and just thinking it was the coolest. Also Caitlin taught me how to play bass!

What’s the story behind the name?

CAITY: We don’t have a good story behind the name. I’d love to say it came from the goddess Diana, of hunting and the moon, but actually it came from an op shopped Princess Diana portrait that had been tastelessly defaced for a party and was lying around our lounge room.

NAT: We were literally sitting in our lounge room naming stuff we could see so it was either Dianas or Sofabed. Fun fact we were originally called Undead Dianas but thankfully dropped the Undead before our first show.

What kind of musician would you say you are?

CAITY: A lazy one. I never had enough motivation to learn to play anything properly – despite the fact my mum is a music teacher who tried repeatedly to teach me piano – until Nat and I started playing together and writing songs. So maybe I can say a collaborative or a creative one – I’m never going to be a great guitarist but I love the process of turning ideas into songs especially when the input of other people makes it into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

 NAT: That’s a hard one! I’m all over the shop. I really enjoy trying to fit in with other people and what or how they’re playing, move with them while still trying to fit in whatever it is that I want to do or hear.  I think similarly to Caity I’m not really the kind of musician who gets great joy out of being totally technically proficient, but can take pleasure in playing with others and for others, trying to make something out of nothing.

Dianas are originally from Perth; what prompted the move to Melbourne? Nat wanted to pursue sound engineering, right? Was it a hard/big decision to move the band there?

NAT: I was always staunchly against the idea of moving to Melbourne, cos it just seems like the ‘classic’ Perth thing to do, but I also really wanted to get into sound engineering, and Melbourne was the best place for it. I didn’t really admit to anyone at home for ages that I’d moved out of embarrassment for totally flipping, and I planned to only come for 5 months but still here 5 years later! Caity and I initially did a long distance thing, flying between cities to play shows, but eventually she missed me too much and followed me over here

CAITY: I was staunchly for leaving Perth at some point so yes, I followed Nat here. I guess I figured I’d have at least one friend and something to do even if I couldn’t get a job!

What do you think of Melbourne now you’ve been there for a little? How is it different to Perth?

CAITY: It’s colder – I do miss the sun and the beach. But there’s a bit more going on culturally (sorry Perth) and in terms of the music scene there’s a lot more venues to play at and local festivals and things going on.

NAT: Quite a few winters in and I’m still not used to how goddam cold and dark it is. But I’ve also really loved getting involved in the music scene here, although there’s some similarities, it’s pretty different to Perth I think, obviously way more bands and venues, but there’s also this collective feeling of experimental space. Also being able to explore up the coast and make new friends all over this side has been amazing.

Photo by  Tom Mannion.

You recently released your sophomore album Baby Baby into the world; what do you love most about the record?

NAT: I just love how ‘us’ it sounds. We’ve put so much of ourselves into every aspect of it, from obviously the writing and playing together, but then the whole recording and mixing process to all the design and videos and releases. I’m not sure how I’ll feel in the future but I’m just honestly really proud of this thing that we made.

Can you tell us a bit about the writing of it; what was inspiring it lyrically? Do you feel there’s an overarching theme? I picked up on love, relationships, self-love and a mood of sadness.

CAITY: I think those are themes that are always present in our music and how they show up just shifts and changes depending on where we’re at personally at the time. The lyrics are usually pretty simple and direct but hopefully capture a specific mood or feeling that other people can relate to. The inspiration is mostly just our own little lives; trying to navigate our way through life and love and defining ourselves as people, the sadness and hope in growing up.

One of my favourite tracks on the LP is closer ‘Learning/Unlearning’; what sparked this song?

CAITY: ‘Learning/Unlearning’ was just me trying to tell myself not to have regrets about the past – a self-help song! I think a lot of women especially can look back and see that the way they thought about themselves and allowed themselves to be treated was ill advised and damaging, and it’s hard sometimes not to see that as wasted time. There’s a lot of bad ideas we internalise that take a lifetime to unlearn, so it’s really about going easy on yourself and allowing for the fact that you have to go through things to learn from them.

I also really love the piano, drums and bass combo in song ‘Jewels’; how did that song get started?

CAITY: ‘Jewels’ started with just the piano and vocals, which Nat and Anetta then added their parts to. We had a song on our last album that was just piano, bass and drums that we really liked so I suppose we were going for something similarly simple, but then we ended up adding lots of different vocal layers to the second part in the recording and it became a bit of a different beast. We really like this song though, possibly because it’s the newest and we’re not sick of it yet. We actually only had a chance to play it live once before all our shows got cancelled!

You recorded the record at Phaedra Studios, Nat recorded it; why did you decided to self-record? Can you tell us about the sessions? What were the best and most frustrating bits?

NAT: It sort of started off from a place of necessity, I’d dipped my toes into half recording us on our last EP, as the result of another tumultuous breakup leaving us without our usual recording engineer halfway through the recording process. I was a bit hesitant at first that I’d be able to do it but Caitlin said I should and I just do what she says. (Caity’s edit: not true)

Having the space in the sessions just by ourselves was really amazing. There was no pressure to try and fit in with anyone else’s views or notions, we could just be ourselves and get down and do it. In the past we’ve maybe struggled with communicating what we want or how we feel, but I think that we’ve learnt and grown a lot over the years and there were only minimal tears this time – a record! I think the hardest part was just trying to keep up the confidence and objectivity that what we’d done sounded good, I guess the flip side to doing it ourselves is we then only had ourselves to look to. I just had a really fun time mixing it too, I learnt a lot and had a lot of space to experiment. I think there was only one thing in the end that we had to compromise on (too many delays in a chorus vs not enough!), and I’m real happy and content with how the album sounds as a whole.

 Dianas harmonies are really cool; how do you approach making them?

CAITY: Usually one of us just starts singing and the other one joins in when they feel like it. We’ll keep going over things until we find something we like, but it’s not really planned out. At this point it’s just kind of assumed that we’ll both sing in one way or another on a song, rather than have a single vocalist. At least I’ll usually make Nat sing along with me because my voice is kind of weak on its own!

How did you first find your voice? Is confidence something that’s come to you over time? Do you really have to work on it? Are you still working on it?

CAITY: I don’t know if I would ever have got up onto a stage if Nat hadn’t encouraged (forced) me to – or even maybe sung at all. I tried to make her be the front person and just sing the songs I wrote herself but she refused, which I’m now thankful for because I really enjoy it. We’ve definitely become a lot more confident on stage than we used to be, which has just come from time and practice, but we are shy people by nature and can tend to be a bit too self-effacing at times. I think we’ve learned to own our voices a bit more and have hopefully stopped with the “what I don’t even know how to play a guitar hahahah” interview style/stage presence. But it is something we are constantly working on yes.

Baby Baby’s cover art is by artist Tamara Marrington; how did you come to her work?

NAT: We’ve known Tammy for a while (I guess since Perth days!) she’s one of those artists who just elicits a complete emotional response from me, I don’t think there’s been an exhibition of hers I’ve been to where I haven’t had tears streaming down my face. She was very patient working with us and our often indecisive natures, and we’re just so happy with how the record looks

You’ve made videos for the tracks off your LP (people can watch them all over at Baby TV) ‘Weather Girl’ is a favourite; what was the thought behind that one? I really love the fullness and chaotic-ness of this track!

CAITY: I just wanted to make a video about witches, but the kind of less cool TV witches of my childhood from shows like Charmed or Sabrina. The track was always pretty chaotic and only got more so when we recorded it so it seemed like a good fit for a narrative music video involving love potions and a stabbing (sorry spoilers).

 As well as doing Dianas Nat does Blossom Rot Records; what’s one of the coolest and hardest things about doing your own label?

NAT: It’s been really cool to just do things on our own terms, in our own way, and on our own time – not having to stick to anyone else’s schedule or run anything by anyone. I think the hardest thing has just sorta been having to write about my own band and trying not to sound too wanky. Definitely looking forward to working on some other releases! It’s also great working with Sophie, I feel like we balance each other out perfectly, she’s the boot to my scoot.

What’s next for Dianas?

NAT: I’m not sure about the others but it’s actually been a bit of a relief for me to be able to slow down, and not get too wrapped up in the constant next step motion. Having said that it will be really really nice when we’re able to play again, we’d love to reschedule the tour we had booked at some point but I’m not in a massive rush to do so until its super safe and would be enjoyable. I think for now I’d love to get back to our roots and sit at home together with some cheap wine and write some more songs 🙂

CAITY: Personally I have not found this time to be a relief at all, and I’m definitely looking forward to that tour. Looks like we’ll be waiting out the winter though so revisiting our roots sounds good – I think I’ll splurge on some nicer wine this time around though.

Please check out: DIANAS. Dianas on Facebook. Dianas on Instagram. Blossom Rot Records.

French Sci-Fi Psych Rockers SLIFT on New LP Ummon: “It is mainly inspired by Homer’s Odyssey”

Handmade collage by B.

SLIFT’s music takes you on an epic journey to the far reaches of the Universe and back! Their latest slice of heavy sci-fi psych-rock album Ummon is excitingly one part Homer’s Odyssey and one part sci-fi trip. We interviewed guitarist-vocalist, Jean F. to find out more.

SLIFT are from Toulouse, France; what’s it like there? Can you tell us about your neighbourhood?

JEAN: Toulouse is a beautiful city made of red brick, and there are a lot of musicians here. Many very good bands, one of my favorite is Edredon Sensible, they are two percussionist and two saxophonist, They play a groovy and heavy trance, with free jazz elements. I think they will release their first album this year. There’s also BRUIT, evocative post-rock, and Hubris, krautrock warriors. We have a bar (Le Ravelin) where psych and punk bands from all over the world come to play. It’s the last bar in the city to regularly book great bands that play loud and fast. Many venues have closed, the city’s politics sucks and prefers to set up hotels in the centre of town rather than clubs and venues. But I hope things will change in the near future.

What have you been doing today?

JEAN: Today, we are going to pack vinyl to send them as quickly as possible despite the health crisis. Post offices are idling right now and that makes things more difficult. And then, as we are out of town at the moment, we are going to walk in the hills. We play a lot of music as well.

Two of you are brothers (Rémi and Jean), you met Canek in high school; what kind of music and bands were you listening to growing up?

JEAN: When we were kids, our parents listened to the Beatles, and a lot of blues, like John Lee Hooker and BB King. We’ve always loved the blues. Personally, I like the idea that we are still playing the blues with SLIFT. A different blues, but a blues anyway. In high school we listened to a lot of punk stuff, Rancid, Minor Threat, then Fugazi, No Means No and Melvins. In the van on the way to the rehearsal room, Canek’s father introduce us to South American music, psych stuff and jam bands. And of course we are extremely fans of Jimi Hendrix.

When did you first start making music yourself? You played in punk bands?

JEAN: We started playing together in high school. Rémi was still in college, we played punk in Green Day mode at the very beginning. It’s all good memories! We quickly started to add instrumental phases in the compositions. Then we played in different bands before meeting again and forming SLIFT.

Who are your biggest music influences?

JEAN: The Electric Church of Sir Jimi Hendrix.

Photo by RABO.

What made you start SLIFT?

JEAN: We came from punk, and after discovering Hendrix, we started to lengthen our songs, to stretch the structures and especially to jam. It was 4 years ago, we wanted to start a band and play these new songs. We did not know at all the modern psych scene, when we had the chance to attend at the last minute a Moon Duo concert in a museum in Toulouse (we grabbed the last tickets by begging the porter to let us in). This concert was an important event, it was just after leaving the museum that we decided that we were going to record and tour. After that we have of course dug up the modern psych scene, there are so many great bands! People often associate us with this scene, and it’s very cool, but to be honest, today we don’t listen to bands like King Gizzard or Oh Sees anymore. We are more on the groups which, I think, influenced them. Like Amon Dull, Can, Hawkwind, all the 70’s German scene, 70’s Miles Davis, electronic and prog stuff. Among the current groups, we really like the Doom scene, and we particularly love a trio of English bands: Gnod, Hey Colossus and Part Chimp. We listen to a lot of film music. I would love so much that one day we have the opportunity to make one!

What does the band name SLIFT mean?

JEAN: SLIFT is the name of a character from a novel, La Zone du Dehors by Alain Damasio. Read it, you wouldn’t regret it. This author also wrote a masterpiece, La Horde du Contrevent. Probably my best reading experience.

How do you think SLIFT’s sound has changed over time?

JEAN: At first we just wanted to play a lot live, so we recorded quickly, and we composed quickly. Today and for the first time on Ummon, we took our time. The composition method has also changed. On our first two recordings, we all composed together in the rehearsal room. Now I mainly compose on my side, which allows me to go to the end of the ideas and to have a precise vision for the album. Then we test the songs in rehearsal and in concert, we jam the songs, and we talk a lot about where we want to go, what sound, what we are talking about. Personally, it is for me a more accomplished and coherent record, because I have the feeling that we have put a lot of personal and honest things in it, whether in the music or in the concept and the conception of the album. And in terms of sound, we often listen to new things, so it’s always enriching the way we play music I guess. Maybe in two years we will make an album with only percussion (… still with fuzz haha).

You are influenced by cinema and books, especially science fiction stuff; what are some of your favourite books and films?

JEAN: La Nuit des Temps – Barjavel, Rick and Morty, Hyperion cycle – Dan Simmons, Le Dechronologue – Stephane Beauverger, La Horde du Contrevent / La zone du Dehors – Alain Damasio Alien / Prométheus.

Your album Ummon is s real journey for the listener; what inspired the songs themes? It tells a story? It’s a concept album?

JEAN: It is mainly inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and science-fiction trip. The first part tells of the titans’ ascent from the centre to the earth’s surface. The construction of their Citadel on a drifting asteroid, then their departure towards the stars in search of their creators, a journey which will last forever. The second part talks about Hyperion (a Titan born in a Nebula during the endless drift through space) and his exile from the Citadel. After wandering for millions of years, he will return on Earth, alone, then dig the Son Dong’s cave with his bare hand. Hyperion rests at the far end of the cave, and its body will be the breeding ground for life which will soon climb out of the abyss and cover the Earth.

Where does your fascination from space come from?

JEAN: When you are a child, space is synonymous with adventure and wonder. Growing up, what I find cool is that it’s probably endless.

Can you tell us a little bit about recording it? It was recorded at Studio Condorcet by Olivier Cussac, right?

JEAN: You’re right, it was Olivier Cussac who recorded it, and we both mixed and mastered it, we wanted to have as much control as possible over the sound of the record. Olivier is a very talented musician, he play a lot of instruments, and he’s a very good arranger. He mainly composes film music. He has a fascination with vintage stuff, so his studio is a real museum. It is a dream to be in a place like this. He liked the album project a lot, so we took a full month to do it. The atmosphere was super chill, we had the best time!

What is your favourite thing about Ummon?

JEAN:  It is a team effort. We feel fortunate to work with very talented people who passionately love doing what they do. Guthio (who designs the clips and makes the video live), Olivier, Philippe Caza (who designed the artwork), Clémence (who came to sing), the fearless Vicious Circle Records and Stolen Body Records. Hélène, who made so that everything goes well and that ensures that we never sleep on the floor after the shows. And the coolest thing is that these people become a friends.

What do you strive for when playing live?

JEAN: We try to never do the same concert twice. Some pieces are lengthened. We don’t want to recreate the record on stage, its two totally different listening experiences. The record, you can listen to it at home with headphones, it’s an intimate and personal experience. Concerts are an experience of the body, it’s about feeling the volume and the vibrations and seeing humans playing live music.

What do you do outside of music?

JEAN: We do Bonsai!

Please check out: SLIFT. SLIFT on Facebook. Ummon is out on Vicious Circle and Stolen Body Records.

Artist, Publisher & Creator of Punk Magazine, John Holmstrom: “I always felt the goal of punk is to free up your mind…”

The first punk zine to exist – Punk Magazine – launched on the 1st of January 1976 featuring a cartoon cover of Lou Reed drawn by John Holmstrom, who also interviewed Lou for the début issue. Punk mag helped popularise the term “punk” as well as the CBGBs scene. Their first issue had an interview with the Ramones before they even had a release; an outtake from the photo shoot accompanying the interview was used as the image for their first record cover. Holmstrom would later illustrate the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin albums. Punk was also pioneering in giving space to female writers, artists and photographers, at a time when publishing was very male-dominated. It would go on to inspire countless other punk zines that came later including UK zine, Sniffin’ Glue.

Holmstrom would also go on to work on zines Comical Funnies and STOP! and later edit and become the publisher of marijuana counterculture magazine, High Times, throughout the ‘90s. 2020 sees Holmstrom at the helm of yet another magazine called, Stoned Age, which “intends to bring back the fun of 20th century marijuana culture, when it was the choice of hipsters, beatniks, jazz musicians, hippies, and other misfits.”

We talk to John about all this and more: the C.I.A. sabotaging Punk, life as an artist, being arrested for smoking weed, creating a social movement, freedom of speech, interviewing Lou Reed, Ramones…

Why do you love to draw?

JOHN HOLMSTROM: Well, I don’t really love to draw [laughs].

Really?

JH: It’s work. I loved to draw as a kid, but once it’s your job it’s… sometimes it’s fun. There can be very fun moments, but most of it is pain! It can look horrible but you have to keep working on it to make it look good. The best moment in life is when you finish a piece and it looks good. I remember times, like when I finished the cover of Punk #1, or a record cover or something; there’s just no feeling like it, it’s better than sex [laughs]. The pain and suffering and trauma you go through – at least I go through because I am such a perfectionist – is gruelling. You’re just sitting there saying, ‘what can I do to make this look better? It looks terrible. Why am I even trying?’ At times I’ve abandoned drawings because it’s just not living up to my standards.

Punk Magazine Issue #1

Before I went to art school it was more fun, I’d just doddle in my notebook to distract myself from high school teachers. I got in trouble once for drawing a caricature of them, he saw it and I was forever in trouble ever after with the authorities. It was hard work going to school and trying to learn how to become a professional and try to learn to actually get paid for what I do—which is really tough. The rates artists get paid are pretty much identical or even less than what we made in the ‘70s. It was a golden age, the 20th century, for publishing. It all disappeared. People don’t pay you very much for your work on the web. I don’t know how these kids do it? I guess they know how to work social media. It’s always been tough to get paid for illustration, I always made more money from writing; that’s how I fell into writing and becoming an editor. When I couldn’t get someone to publish something that I did that I liked, I’d publish it myself, that’s where I learnt the business side of publishing. That came in handy when I was the publisher of High Times magazine in the 1990s. One of the frustrations of doing art, when I take on a commercial job, the client always makes some demands and you don’t always enjoy what they want, as opposed to when you do something for yourself; people don’t really want to pay for that ‘cause it’s not what they’re looking for.

I understand what you’re talking about, my husband is an artist and he struggles with the exact same thing, as well as chasing up payment from clients; clients can have such unrealistic demands or want you to do something you just know in your heart, as an artist, it’s just not going to look great.

JH: Yes! Exactly! They’ll want something like two inches by two inches and they want it to be a crowd scene with a million people and everything has to look prominent—it’s impossible! If you can actually do it, then it’s your fault it doesn’t look great, you can’t give them what they want. Art Directors recently of a national magazine, would be tasked with a publisher’s idea of a good cover and they thought it was a terrible idea but they would do it because it’s their job, then when it doesn’t sell they get the blame for a bad idea. There’s always the idea and the execution of the idea.

Being a publisher for yourself and for High Times magazine, which also ended up being for yourself; what are the things that you think make a good publication?

JH:  Well, that depends on what your goal is. I’m actually enjoying the response to my latest publication, Stoned Age. It’s kind of like my revenge on, High Times! At High Times we were always told you have to put this much information about this and you gotta do that; even though it was a really creative place to work, there were still restrictions. So I’m putting out the kind of magazine I would have liked to put out back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s getting a fantastic response. I’m working with a great Art Director, Kevin Heine, who worked at Screw for many years, and a very understanding publisher, Harry Crossfield. It’s the art of collaboration to put out a good publication. It’s like being in a band as opposed to being a solo musician or a stand-up comic. If you put out a personal zine and do everything yourself, you have a limited audience, at least if you’re a control freak like so many of us are, you get to say what you want. If you’re going to put out a publication that is going to reach a lot of people, put it out frequently and attract advertisers and the rest of it, you gotta work with good people—that’s the first thing you need to put out a good publication.

Your team needs to understand your goal and the objective, for lack of a better term “the mission statement” that branding people and corporate types like to bring up, which I think is kind of stupid. It’s all about the idea and the execution of the idea. Whenever if comes to anything, whether you’re in a band or you’re an artist or a cook, right? The thing about magazines that we often talk about is… if you’re going to bring out canned beans, you want to pretty much bring out the same thing, you want consistency, you always want the beans to taste good… but when you bring out a magazine you have to bring out something that looks different every week or month, but then stays the same—that’s tricky. It has to be recognisable. You can’t put out the same thing and information every month but you still have to appeal to the reader.

One of the things I really love about Punk was that you did interviews but the format you presented them in was in a comic book style, I feel like it really gave interviews a new life and was different from how I’m used to reading them.

JH: That was an idea that I got from Harvey Kurtzman. He interviewed two of the greatest actors of the 20th century for Esquire magazine in the ‘60s – Marlon Brando and James Cagney – he did it in an illustrative cartoony interview style. That impressed me a great deal. I’ve always enjoyed integrating photographs into comic books. Jack Kirby did it a few times back in the old days of Marvel, he would run a photograph in the background and put a cartoon character on top of it, it really struck me. Getting the best of both worlds, integrating comics with photographs and text is fun!

I watched a documentary a little while back that featured you in it and you mentioned that you were known as a “Bigfoot” artist, that you draw characters with big feet and grotesque features; where did this style develop from?

JH: That’s the official name from the kind of cartooning style, it’s called “Grotesque” or “Bigfoot” by people in the business. That’s where you exaggerate features, you’re not trying to capture real life, you’re trying to stretch reality into a more exaggerated style. The cartoonist, the funny guys that I liked were, Don Martin and Jack Davis; they had very original crazy styles that were never to appeal to a lot of people. I like weird stuff, the weirder the better. There’s also Basil Overton, he does the most grotesque of all-time; when I was in 8th Grade he did a series of bubblegum stickers, ugly stickers as I remember, they were very popular with kids back then. You know how at a certain stage you love monsters and stuff? R. Crumb, Robert Crumb, was a big influence on me.

What’s been one of your proudest moments as an artist?

JH: That first issue of Punk. I knew the moment that I sat down with Lou [Reed] and asked him about comic books, he named the artists, he named Wally Wood and Bill Elder and EC Comics—I was so impressed… I always thought there was a thread that joined music and art and I’ve seen this happen a lot, a lot of musicians are visual artists or appreciate visual art and vice versa… I’ve always thought that comics and rock n roll music, popular music, often express the same popular idioms. Like in the ‘50s when you had rock n roll music starting off, you also had EC Comic books. Both Elvis and EC Comic books were supposedly promoting juvenile delinquency. In the ‘60s you had acid rock and the psychedelic bands you also had underground comic books, which were influenced by LSD, marijuana and open attitudes towards sex. When we brought out Punk I feel we were continuing that tradition; punk rock was happening and the magazine was creating the visual imagery. It helped propel the punk thing into a movement. I always say that Punk magazine is when the punk movement really began because when it was just music and it didn’t have that visual element it wasn’t a full blown social movement the way it became. Not many cartoonist can say that they helped create a social movement like that, so that’s a pretty proud moment!

I have a copy of that first edition of Punk #1 that my husband bought me for my birthday. I remember when I first slid it out of the plastic packaging it was in, I just stared at it, at your art on the cover, for the longest time. I couldn’t believe I was actually holding it in my hands, I even got a little teary. As I started to unfold it and take in each section it was a really special moment. Still to this day I haven’t seen anything like it, it’s really unique and special.

JH: Thank you. I don’t think in that first issue there is any typeset whatsoever, every single advertisement, every whatever is hand-lettered. As you can imagine, I’m not too fond of the digital age. People are always telling me that I should turn my hand lettering into a font, but what’s fun about hand lettering is that each letter can look different; if it was a font every letter would look the same and it wouldn’t be hand lettering. I like analogue technology and I think digital strips away creativity and a lot of imagination.

With Punk magazine, from what I understand is that, you were trying to get people to rebel. When you did High Times magazine also, that had a rebellious spirit also; have you always had that in you?

JH: Oh yeah! I got into a lot of trouble when I was a teenager. I was growing up during the Vietnam War, when I was around fifteen/sixteen, it dawned on me that when I turned eighteen I would be drafted and sent over to the jungles to kill people. That’s a real wake up call, to be that young and face that kind of reality. Some of the other kids that had come back from there would say, “Whatever you do, don’t get drafted and go to Vietnam! It is the most horrible experience that you could ever imagine.” It was hell. I saw it with my father too, he was a veteran of World War II. He was captured in his first mission and spent the entirety of America’s entry into World War II behind barbed wire. He was an illustrator and he did a book when he came back from the war and published his sketches. He even worked on The Great Escape, he was a Forger; if you’ve ever seen the movie The Great Escape, they have a character that represents the Forgers. I grew up around art, it didn’t seem like a big deal for someone to sit there at a drawing board and make a living doing it. Sorry I got a little off track; what was the question?

Have you always had a rebellious spirit? It seems to be a commonality running through all you do. Also, you seem to be in places at exciting times with a current of change, you seem to act as a conduit that helps bring things to a greater audience.

JH: At school I was an A student before high school. I always did really well in academics, but by the time I got to high school, they were teaching a bunch of bullshit that was irrelevant to my life. I saw these smart kids, these academics just swallowing it all and to me it was like—wake up! A lot of people were provocative back then, I always related to provocative art, stuff that would be shocking and make you think, that gives you a different perspective on things; that is the most important things people can do. I’m not a bomb thrower, I’m not a revolutionary, I think politics is a bad thing for artists to get too involved in, especially now with all the crap you see in The ‘States about Trump. Who cares who the President is?! Politicians are all horrible people, it not like Trump has a trademark on being a horrible person. All politicians suck! We had a funny comic in Punk that Bruce Carlton did where we turned sacred cows into hamburger, I always liked that. Whenever people have this belief system that, this politician is such a good person they’re going to save us or whatever, or they idolise a musician, I’m against it! I’m a “Groucho Marxist-John Lennonist”. I was always influenced by a lot of things Groucho said, he had a great philosophy – “I wouldn’t join any club that would accept someone like me as a member” whatever it is “I’m against it”. It was great stuff. I was very influenced by The Marx Brothers in high school. Comedy is something that should be provocative. It’s having a hard time right now, there’s just a political correct philosophy and people who are expressing unpopular ideas are being attacked and even censored and banned. It’s horrific to me! I believe in the Enlightenment, one of my heroes was Voltaire. One of the famous stories about Voltaire is that he had two houses, on either side of the border of two countries and whenever he got one government pissed off at him and they wanted to throw him in jail, he’d just go to the other house across the border. Then when that government came at him he’d go back to the other house, he just kept avoiding the authorities. He had so many wonderful writings and philosophy.

People should be able to say what they want. They also have be aware that what they say could have repercussions but, they should still be able to have a voice. It’s ok for people to have different opinions.

JH: It gets beyond that because the philosophy of free speech in my mind is that free speech is not there to defend popular rights, it’s there to defend unpopular speech, even hate speech. I got into a big argument with a friend of mine, Rufus Dayglo, we were together at a comic book festival, he wants to ban hate speech. I just couldn’t understand this. Hate speech is horrible, it would be good if people would not use hate speech but, on the other hand, if you squelch it then how are people going to understand what hate speech is and why it’s horrible and how stupid the people are who use it. It’s like, you gotta trust people to be adults about things and make up their own minds. A lot of the attitudes that people had a hundred years ago were really horrible, the racism and the intolerance they had… that gets back to it; what is tolerance? What do you tolerate? What is intolerable? Hitler was intolerable, that’s why the world went to war to get rid of that guy. But if you don’t publish, Mein Kampf, you might not understand how evil works and how people get fooled into accepting horrible ideas.

John Holmstrom 1977

I read that you’re working on your autobiography?

JH: I’m working on my book proposal, my agent is interested.  Stoned Age has really started taking off though and I haven’t had time to work on it recently. It’s something that I would like to do, I’ve had an interesting life. I think people don’t really know the extent of some of the stuff that I’ve been through, like people hear I grew up in Connecticut and they assume that I grew up having a sheltered life and probably didn’t go through much, but the opposite was true. My parents had almost no discipline, I could do whatever I wanted to. I was hitchhiking all over the country when I was sixteen years old. I saw quite a bit, I went to rock festivals. Here in New York it was a rough time, it was not a safe place to live, some crazy things happened. I was homeless for a while…

That was just before you started Punk, right?

JH: Yes. It was pretty crazy, I went from sleeping on a friend’s floor to being on top of the New York City rock scene in a matter of months. Then I ended up almost homeless again a few years later [laughs].

I read that there were issues of Punk that were ready for printing but they didn’t make it; weren’t they lost at the printers?

JH: Yes, there were lost issues, it was so heartbreaking. Our ninth issue was going to put us over the top! I actually think that the C.I.A. infiltrated Punk magazine and put us out of business. I don’t talk to Legs McNeil anymore, I’m just over dealing with difficult people at this advanced age… one of the last times I saw him, he told me that he was roommates with this guy that was working with us and that he came across this briefcase and there was all of this classified government information in there, I think he was working with the C.I.A. I didn’t say it at the time but I thought about it and I was like, why didn’t you tell me back then? I did a stupid thing, we decided to fire the publisher, he just burnt through this huge investment that we got, he just threw it all away ‘cause he was pissed off at me and wanted to get back at me. He figured he’d put us out of business. Then this other guy who worked with him was running things… it’s right after I went to Australia, I fired the publisher, I had to leave for Australia, my mother took me and my sister down there. The trip was so important to her, her own mother had died the day before we were going to leave, and she skipped the funeral to go to Australia. It was the biggest thing in her whole life. When I came back, I’m returning to the office and I see a dead rat in front of the office on the sidewalk, I go inside and Legs just said he killed the rat that was going out of the back… we always had mice and roaches but all of a sudden we had rats, it became unlivable there. I was told that Punk went out of business, all this terrible stuff had happened while I was gone. I think it was sabotaged. We did manage to bring out another issue. It’s such an incredible story I hope I get to tell it all—this is what it’s like to work in the underground.

The F.B.I. and our intelligence agencies were so determined to supress rock n roll then, in the underground, and in the ‘60s, that they would hire prostitutes to have sex with the underground newspaper editors and give them a venereal disease… a lot of crazy stuff happened! There’s a program called, Cointelpro, look it up… one of the people who helped us out the most was Tom Forcade – he was the publisher and founder of High Times and was also at the top of the list of underground newspaper people that the government wanted to stop; he actually ran the underground press syndicate, which consisted of over 200 newspapers and magazines covering everything from Native American rights, gay rights, you name it. Punk was among his favourites, I think that’s why we got in trouble with the powers that be, it’s why I think there’s credibility to the theory… I mean we probably would have went out of business on our own, ‘cause we were stupid inexperienced kids but… you know, they couldn’t risk us being successful.

Out of everything you have been through and all the successes that you’ve had; how do you define success for yourself now?

JH: That’s a good question. I feel like I’ve been successful because my work has been… lately it’s just exploding! My work is on permanent display at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, my archives went to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University in Connecticut near where I grew up… but, I don’t really have a lot of money, I really struggle financially, that’s how it is when you’re an artist. Nobody wants to buy your stuff until you’re dead! Then the prices go through the roof, we’re always more valuable dead than when we’re alive. I can’t, for myself, consider financial success as any kind of marker. I’d like to be financially successful and I try but, life is what it is. You have to accept what you can’t change and change what you cannot accept, and all those clichés.

I find it really inspiring that no matter what you’ve been faced with, you keep going. Following all the things you do, I’ve noticed that you always seem so positive. Even in an interview I’ve watched where someone poses a question to you where it’s obvious they’re looking for a negative answer or just want gossip, you turn it around into something positive.

JH: Thank you! I get accused of being negative all the time [laughs]. People have said I brood, I’m Scandinavian, we tend to be a little on looking at the dark side of things. I try to stay positive. If I succumb to hopelessness and despair, I’ll end up homeless again. I work to live. I need to keep making money, I need to keep doing things. It’s always nice to be recognised, one thing about being an artist, you don’t hear the applause… when you’re a musician or a comedian or actor you go on stage and people applaud and you get all this recognition for what you do… when you’re an artist you’re sitting all by yourself, Harvey Kurtzman called it “the loneliest job in the world” ‘cause you’re all by yourself doing a drawing for hours and hours, days and days, sometimes even weeks; I barely talk to anybody. You have to believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing and really I think the ultimate goal is to do something that everybody likes. A lot of people don’t like comics or cartoons, it’s a difficult thing, and people that usually like them are cartoonist themselves. There’s not a vast audience of people that spend money on comic books and cartoons, comic books are going out of business left and right. I heard that Marvel is no longer going to print comic books!

What?!

JH: Yeah, apparently they did market research and most of the people that see the movies aren’t even aware that these characters first appeared in comic books. Even the best titles only sell about 30,000 copies. Our local comic book shop, St Marks Comics, just closed; a lot of unhappy people about that. They’re going to sublicense their titles and have other publishers take the risks. It’s so difficult now to print anything, energy cost and shipping costs so much. 10 years ago I could ship things overseas, I have an eBay page and I can’t sell anything to Europe or Australia or even Canada because it costs a minimum of $35 for one magazine. Selling a something for $5 and then charging that much for shipping, it’s an impossible economy.

I totally can relate to that, having done zines for 25 years and shipping all over the world, the shipping is crazy. I have a book coming out next year and I’m really terrified of how much postage will be to post it to people.

JH: Well, hopefully that’s where things like print-on-demand will help. There’s a book store here in New York called, Shakespeare & Company, if they don’t have the book in stock, they’re going to have the technology to print it in the store and sell it for around what the book price is.

Wow!

JH: Technology is pretty amazing. Bringing out Stoned Age, we couldn’t have afforded to stay in business if this was twenty year ago, back in the day when you had to take pages and shoo them on film and put the film on plates and use the plates to run off the paper. I remember hearing in the ‘90s they were already developing disk to paper, which blew my mind… that’s what a PDF is and how they all are producing these publications. Instead of the old technology, paying for the plates and film and set up, with the PDF you’re just running off a photocopy, you’re just paying for paper and ink. Very cheap to print newsprint, but what’s costing us an arm and leg is shipping it. The West Coast is where our biggest demand is, but we’re afraid of what the shipping bill will be. I recently sent some to my friend Lindsay [Hutton] who does Next Big Thing in Scotland, he’s a great guy; one of the early 1970’s fanzines inspired by Punk. It was pretty interesting that within months of our first issue there were similar fanzines coming out all over the world.

I remember seeing the cover of the first issue of Punk in a book in my local library, as a teenager I’d never seen anything like it. The work you’ve done is influential, you started punk zines, something which I have spent my life doing. People found out about punk because of you guys.

JH: Thank you. One of my favourite stories is that, when I visited Sydney in May or June ’77, I’m with my mom and sister walking down the street and I saw Rock Australia magazine on a newsstands… I picked up a copy and I opened it up and there was this huge image of Punk #1 inside! I was like, “Mom! Look at this!” They were like, huh?! I can’t remember who the editor was, but he was really nice to me and looked after me wonderfully. He took me to the local club and introduced me to The Saints and Radio Birdman. The Saints were doing their big farewell gig a couple of years later and I couldn’t attend because we were on a tour, I missed that. I went to White Light Records, are they still a thing?

No.

JH: Aww that’s sad. They were a great, great record store. The owner gave me a copy of The Sonics LP. Everybody treated me so wonderfully. One of The Saints was so down on New York, he preferred the London scene [laughs], he gave me a hard time, bunch of punks!

I’ll send you a mixtape of Australian bands that are around now. Australia really has one of the best music scenes in the world, so many incredible bands that the rest of the world doesn’t even know about yet.

JH: I’m glad to hear that! I try to bring this up when people asked about punk starting in New York or London, well The Saints had single of the year in 1976, “(I’m) Stranded” was a huge punk single. How do you explain that? Punk was a worldwide thing, everyone was influenced by the same bands – Alice Cooper, The Stooges, MC5 etc. etc. It didn’t’ start anywhere, it started everywhere. Australia… even when I was working at High Times, we’d hear about Nimbin, a famous hippie commune place and hearing about how wonderful it was down there… it’s an interesting part of the world. Australia is a very interesting island continent.

People have always told me with my writing, making zines and stuff that if I really wanted to make it I’d have to go to New York, Los Angeles or London, but I always thought that well, if everyone goes to those places, who’ll be left here to make stuff?

JH: I would enjoy if I could have to stay in Sydney. There was an interesting fashion thing going on, women wearing this really interesting style of makeup… I remember seeing all of these buildings going up in Sydney and it really looked like a place that was going to take off and really become cosmopolitan; it was really like New York in a lot of ways… big city, interesting neighbourhoods, an underground scene—you don’t see that everywhere.

Doing the magazine Stoned Age and being the editor/publisher of High Times; do you smoke marijuana yourself?

JH: Right now I’m not a big user. The thing about my marijuana use is that I smoked a lot of pot as a teenager, I really got into it. I started when I was fifteen, in a few months when I turned sixteen and got my Driver’s License I was arrested with some other kids. Being sixteen, one other was my age and the other’s younger, so their names weren’t even in the newspaper—it was the most traumatic event of my life.

Wow!

JH: Yeah. It ruined my life. I smoke pot now and then through the rest of my life. At some point I’m like, I don’t’ want to smoke it until it’s legal and safe. It’s still not legal here, I want to go into a store and buy it. I don’t’ always enjoy it, it’s not something that I like to do socially, it makes me feel self-conscious and it screws with your sense of time. I enjoy it mostly when I’m cleaning my apartment; I get stoned and always end up cleaning my apartment. It has its use. I’m an insomniac and I’ve heard that there is certain strains of marijuana that can help with that. They keep saying that they’re going to make it legal in New Jersey but there’s an incredible push back against it, all the media is focusing on is the negatives and how dangerous it is. I’m a good example of how dangerous it is to make it illegal, when I was arrested I was almost put in prison, some of my friends from high school were sent to prison and they were raped. Now it’s like, what’s worse? Smoking pot and getting paranoid or getting thrown in jail and getting gang raped and getting AIDS and dying. It’s insane. The prohibitionists, the people that want to keep it illegal are out of their minds! Not to mention, the intrusions into privacy rights that the drug wars have created.

When I started working at High Times, we got a report that the Attorney General, Ed Messe, was planning to put us all in prison for the crime of publishing the magazine. The government tried several times to put High Times out of business. Now years later, politicians are praising marijuana because it’s going to save their economy!

Now that’s two publications you’ve created that the government has wanted to stop!

JH: Yeah, well I tell people, I hate the Two Part System because the democrats put me out of business and The Republicans –Jimmy Carter was president when Punk was put out of business – tried to put me in jail and put me out of business. I hate politicians! I hate all of them!

I saw an original artwork of Punk #1 come up for sale and I think it went for $19,000?

JH: The original artwork, yes. For what I understand, I gave it to Harvey Kurtzman when the issue first came out, I felt I owed him everything… he kept it, this guy Denis Kitchen that was running his estate decided to sell some of Harvey’s art collection, Harvey’s widow, Adele, needed some money and they’d determined that it was the most valuable piece in Harvey’s collection, which is amazing really! He would have had so much great art work for so many different people, I was surprised, I figured R. Crumb would be worth more. They put it up for auction and it sold for $16,000. I read in the New York Times that Rubén Blades, the Latino musician, had acquired it. I looked into it more, apparently he worked with Lou Reed and he bought it because he was a fan of Lou’s. They even did a recording with Dion from Dion & The Belmonts and I think David Johansen was involved. Rubén sounds like a cool guy! I emailed him through his website and I offered to authenticate the art. I have seen bootlegs of my artwork. Someone brought up a “Road To Ruin” artwork and we couldn’t work out where it came from, it looked a lot like mine but it had a different title on it. I think someone traced it and used it as a bootleg.

Do you have a favourite issue of Punk mag?

JH: Mutant Monster Beach Party! That was #15. That was my masterpiece I think. It was so much fun. It pretty much put us out of business, it sold terribly. Now it seems people have come to appreciate it. The entire issue for the most part was a photo comic starring Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry. We had guest stars Any Warhol, Edith Massey and Peter Wolf – who was very famous as the singer of the J. Geils Band, he’s married to Faye Dunaway, one of the most famous movie actresses at the time – he called us up because he wanted to appear in a photo comic, we had the perfect role for him. Andy was very cooperative, very approachable, his factory was just on Union Square, downtown in the neighbourhood. It was so much fun. We scribbled cartoons and graffiti-ed all over them and drew a monster in. That was the best!

At the time did it feel like a real pinch yourself moment?

JH: All the time. I was hyperaware at the time that we were doing something important. I saw some article recently that said something like, “no one would have ever believed in the ‘70s that some day the Ramones’ music would be played in a football stadium.” That was the first thing that I thought when I saw them. I was like ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ would be perfect to play in a stadium [laughs]. I’m not shocked at all that their music is played at sports events, I was amazed that it didn’t take off right away and they’d be like The Beatles! They were so great. Their music was amazing. This is why I think that something was afoot! It took twenty years for people to catch on… its very strange.

We have a huge Ramones vinyl collection, they’re one of our favourite bands. There was a band we saw just the other night at our local called, The Arturo’s…

JH: [Laughs] I think I’ve heard of them.

It’s amazing that these things that you caught onto early, and helped give visibility – the Ramones were in your first issue – is still having an impact and people in my city all the way over here are influenced it.

JH: I saw someone at The Continental years ago, I forget what the show was but, there was a guy there that had the Road To Ruin art tattooed on his back. Seeing tattoos of my artwork is always the most amazing thing. Someone had a large pinhead with the “Rocket To Russia” on his arm. I’ve see so many tattoos, it’s really great. I remember years ago they had a festival in Australia where bands were playing Ramones…

The Ramone-a-thon!

JH: Does it still go on?

No. It ran from 2000 to 2007 in my hometown Brisbane and raised money for charity.

JH: I thought it was one of the best things ever.

With the Road To Ruin artwork, I understand that you redid/reworked an idea of art that someone else had done, but then you finally got to design something yourself from scratch with the Murphy’s Law record, right?

JH: Yeah. I thought that doing Road To Ruin would lead to doing more record covers but for some reason it didn’t sell that well and I think I took some of the blame for that, even though I was just following orders. I was working at High Times and Jimmy [Gestapo] the singer and some other band members came around and they wanted to me to do a drawing. I did a bunch of sketches, I still have one of the rejects around here somewhere. It was terrible because I did a record cover and they shrunk it down to a CD size, it lost all its impact; I think it would have looked great 12×12! It kind of disappeared, I did have a crowd scene around it. It didn’t look terrible but, it looked better as a poster. They were great to work with, really great guys, put on a great show. The hardcore scene…I wasn’t immersed in it, I was too busy working and trying to make a living. It’s an interesting phenomenon here in New York City. Was there an Australian hardcore scene?

Yes, very much so. There’s still one. A lot smaller of course and a lot of bands were influenced by New York hardcore bands, West Coast hardcore punk bands or Japanese hardcore. I grew up listening to NYHC and L.A. ‘80s hardcore punk, Washington D.C stuff too.

JH: I never liked the L.A. stuff too much, like a lot of New York bands I’m not so crazy about. It sounds better now than it did then, it’s crazy… I like the Ramones but I didn’t like hardcore… like what happens with the Ramones, it takes twenty years to get accustomed to it and then you like it [laughs].

Do you still listen to music a lot?

JH: Oh yeah! I don’t listen to a lot of new music. Right now I’m listening to a lot of Velvet Underground, it’s one of my favourite bands of all-time. I got into them very heavily when I was going to school here in New York. That’s like, when I got to Lou [Reed] it was like, wow! The man! I’m such a big fan of all of his stuff. Jimi Hendrix, I like. What else? All kinds of weird stuff. I like the Phil Spector stuff from the ‘60s. I’ll play it on YouTube and then I’ll get all these random songs pop up, I end up listening to all kinds of stuff, the way you would if you listened to the radio.

One interesting thing is punk rock from behind the “Iron Curtain”. They really censored punk rock. Some guy wrote a book claiming that punk rock brought down the Berlin Wall!

Punk really has had an effect on so many things, it’s incredible. You were there when it was forming. It just blows my mind.

JH: It blows my mind too! I was lucky, but then I’m so unlucky in everything else, like making money. There’s punk rock millionaires, people that have made a lot of money from punk… I’m like, oh, I missed that bus, along with a lot of other people in punk. Money isn’t everything though.

No, it’s not. I’ve been doing what I do for 25 years, interviewing, making zines, bringing visibility to bands and art that I love, sharing that with people, I work part-time in a library to pay bills. I get to do what I love just because I love it, there’s no compromise.

JH: Oh yeah, I look back at my life – I’m old and probably not going to be around much longer – but I think about my life and think, wow! I got to go on the Sex Pistols U.S. tour! I got to talk to Lou Reed and hang out with him so many times, he loved our first issue. I became friends with the Ramones and would go to their shows all the time… so many interesting experiences—you can’t trade that for anything! You have people now, like rich people, that buy “coolness” and spend all this money on old rock n roll clothing… you can’t buy cool! Sorry.

Totally! Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?

JH: Let me think… we’ve gone through a lot. You’ve done a really great interview, it’s been so nice talking with you. I’m always honoured that anyone would care enough about my work to talk to me about it. It’s always an extreme honour and privilege. I hope you encourage people to check out my work because I’ve done some interesting things.

Absolutely! I really wanted to talk to you and share what you do with others, I think you are extremely underrated! Talking to you has been a dream come true, you were the pioneer of what I do. Your resilience and your positivity is inspiring.

JH: If you read what I have to say I think people could see things as negative, especially people who want to suppress hate speech, freedom of expression, marijuana – how could you encourage people to take marijuana you must be out of your mind, you belong in jail… that kind of attitude. I guess those people would see me as negative. I’m a baaaaad influence! [laughs].

I’m really looking forward to “The Art of the Interview” event I’m doing this Thursday. Steve Blush is interviewing me, like you, he’s interviewed a lot of people. He interviewed Robert Plant for High Times. We dug up an old photograph of Robert Plant where he had apparently been arrested for marijuana. There were all these hippies around with signs that said ‘Free Robert Plant’ and ‘Legalise Pot!’, Steve showed the photo to Robert Plant and he got pissed off and walked out of the interview.

Wow!

JH: Interviewing people is interesting, right?

Totally!

JH: ‘Cause once in a while you get the unexpected ‘cause it’s real life and we’re really talking to each other.

Yes!

JH: We’re not inventing it.

It’s one of my favourite things in the whole world. When I was fifteen and in high school, my mother would drop me off at the front school gate, I’d walk out the back gate and go to the train station, catch one to the city and find bands I loved that was touring and interviewed them.

JH: Where would the interview appear?

In my punk zine.

JH: That’s really cool!

All the bands I loved wouldn’t be covered in the magazines I’d buy at the newsagent and I loved them so much and wanted to let everyone know, that’s why I started my own publication.

JH: Have you ever reprinted them or made a book out of them?

No. But I am making a book that will be out this year. I’ve been working on it for 15 years. It’s on punk and spirituality. Not religion, but spirituality and creativity and navigating life on your own terms, doing things yourself, D.I.Y. I’ve spoken to over 100 people in the punk community about living a creative life. I hope it inspires people to create in their own life.

JH: When I worked at High Times, the editor got into “Cannabis Spirituality”. He even did a book called that, interviewing people about marijuana… because a lot of people feel spiritual on marijuana. Spirituality is kind of a difficult word, people get weird when it comes to their belief or disbelief in God. I was Atheist for a long time, I believe in everything now. The world is a lot stranger than people can comprehend. I think what you’re doing is a great idea, I’d really love to read your book. It would be great to see what other people have to say about it. I always felt the goal of punk is to free up your mind and that brings along the soul and the spirit and everything else along with it. I hear from people sometimes and they say, “Punk saved my life! Thank you so much!” There are some heavy things around punk. I applaud you. I applaud you.

Check out: johnholmstrom.com & Stoned Age.