Monday, April 16, 2012

Sam McPheeters talks Danzig, writing fiction, and The Loom of Ruin

Posted By on Mon, Apr 16, 2012 at 1:32 PM

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  • Photo by John Michaels
Throughout the '90s and most of the aughts, Sam McPheeters made a name for himself as the agitated and politically charged singer for such lauded hardcore and post-hardcore acts Born Against, Men's Recovery Project, and Wrangler Brutes. But his name is also synonymous with such underground zines as Dear Jesus and Plain Truth, and he even did time as an indie record label owner running Vermiform Records, and churning out records by Screeching Weasel, Man is the Bastard, Moss Icon and the likes.

Over the last several years, McPheeters has also written for a handful of publications, including Village Voice, Chicago Reader, and recently his writings have graced the pages of "Vice Magazine," including a fascinating profile on former Crucifucks singer 26 (formerly Doc Dart), and an unwittingly epic interview with Glenn Danzig. This month McPheeters is on the road reading selections from his first novel, The Loom of Ruin (Mugger Books). Tonight he's making two Atlanta appearances, beginning with a reading at Criminal Records at 6 p.m., followed by a more intimate reading at Gato Bizco Café in Candler Park around 9 p.m. Both readings are free, and he'll have copies of the book with him.

Chad Radford: How's it going, Sam?

Sam McPheeters: Right now I'm sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of a Cracker Barrel in Lafayette, Ind., so you're getting me at my most relaxed - listening to wind chimes.

Nice. You're out reading from your new book, but I haven't actually had a chance to get through it yet.

Well, it hasn't been out for very long at all, so I would be surprised if you had, actually.

But I am familiar with a lot of the stories you've written for Vice magazine: Things like the piece you did on the Crucifucks' singer, and the Danzig interview was truly great.

I had no concept of that interview being anything. I got the job two days earlier and thought I was a good person for the job because I'm Danzig neutral. I didn't grow up with the Misfits, I like the first Danzig album a lot, but he's not a beloved guy. I don't have any beefs with him, either. I had no agenda and I thought, "I'm going to walk into this with some interesting questions and get a paycheck," and that would be the end of it. Now I have a suspicion that my gravestone - which hopefully won't be until many many years from now - will read "interviewed Glenn Danzig." Very strange.

I grew up a diehard Misfits and Samhain fan - on some days I'll even give him up to the first four Danzig albums, and I always fall into the role of the Danzig apologist. The writing is on the wall, and his flaws are apparent, but he wrote "Hybrid Moments," and some of those Misfits albums really changed my life.

Oh I know, there are other celebrities of the same tier with whom I play the apologist, and raise the same defense - no names, but this person was on such-and-such a record. It's the Neil Armstrong defense. Really, Neal could very easily be a jerk to everyone and barge to the front of the line in supermarkets and cut people off in traffic, but if I was a cop I'd never give him a ticket.

Right. The Danzig interview was so conversational and it's like the photo of him carrying the kitty litter that showed up on the Internet. It reveals something that's really human and awkward about him, more so than what you get on stage or in his songs, or traditional interviews. And really, I'd rather hear what he has to say about salad dressing than hear about the writing process for the new Danzig album.

To be fair, I threw in a few of those kinds of questions at the beginning of the interview, and they just didn't make it in to the final interview. It seemed like there was an unspoken acknowledgement between both of us that these were decoy questions. It seemed to me like I was being very obvious about asking some polite questions, almost as a face-saving thing before we talked about things like salad dressing. The weirdest thing about it, though, was just going to his house. Everyone in that part of L.A. knows where the house is, and it looks like the kind of house he would own. There have been plenty of sightings, and there are very few experiences like that where, as a writer, you get that open sesame to go someplace where you normally can't go.

Do you live in L.A.?

I live in Eastern L.A. county - Pomona. About 30 minutes outside of L.A., which greatly effects my view in that L.A. is still a place that I go to. In many ways it still feels like it's a place where I'm going on tour, which is good. I'm still happy and excited when I go there, and there's a twinge of wistfulness when I have to leave, but then I realize that I just have to go back to Pomona at the end of the night. It can be a pain in the ass, because it's a hike; like 60 miles there and back but I don't mind the drive. I can do it on complete autopilot.

You're originally from Ohio, correct?

Only for the first three years of my life. I'm from upstate New York - Albany. I went to college in New York City and then I was in Richmond, Va., for five years, then I live in New Jersey. Lived in Rhode Island. I also lived in Missouri when I was a kid, but I've been in California since '99. Longer than I've lived anywhere else.

I've always had a strange relationship with California.

Many people do. I hated Los Angeles for years, but when I'd get there on tour we all acknowledged that it was the oasis. The shows were great, the weather was great, and you could always find plenty of places to eat that weren't fast food. I don't understand to this day why I would bad mouth it so much.

I nearly moved there in '98. I went to scope it out and was invited to a party where Traci Lords was supposed to show up. I got kind of freaked out over how vampiric people at the party were about her being there. I also blew a couple of networking situations that I didn't fully grasp until the car ride home.

Yeah, I think Los Angeles is just more susceptible to bad first impressions than most cities.

We should probably talk about The Loom of Ruin; it's a work of fiction?

Entirely. I've written fiction for more than half of my life - I've worked on short stories since I was a kid, and I always wanted to be a writer, that's what I was aiming for. When I was a kid I always told people I was gonna be a writer. The fiction that I wrote in the '90s, including a novel that I finished but it's not published, just didn't work. Part of the reason was, for me, I hit it with everything that I had. I was trying to write serious fiction - trying to get down on paper my thoughts on life and love and loss and all of these big concepts, and I felt really brutalized by the level of rejection I got from agents and publishers - mostly agents because publishers want you to have an agent before they'll even look at your stuff. I quickly came to the realization about six years ago that I need to write something else quick, otherwise I would let that defeat end that part of my ambition and I'd be done.

Then I thought all of the art that I like - music, fine art, TV, movies - is approached on the audience's terms. Not stuff where you need to deduce the artist, author, or director's motives. It's done for the enjoyment of the audience. I've done art and bands that were on my terms and later realized that I didn't want to do that anymore. Actually, with the last band that I was in, Wrangler Brutes, we defined ourselves as being on the audience's terms, and our entire goal was to be a really good live band, and not let any external problems get in the way of us giving a good performances - even if it was for four people, which we did a few times. I realized I wanted to write a book like that, something that a fan of mine would enjoy reading, and where there would be no stretch. To me, this book is very much the continuity of everything I've ever done. Anyone who enjoys anything that I've done, writing or music, will probably enjoy this book. Part of that was making it very rapid-fire: 109 chapters that are all pretty short. There are a lot of cliffhangers, and it moves at a pretty fast pace, and there are enough jokes that someone is going to laugh at something, if they don't laugh at all of it.

There's a lot of violence, and writing violence in the vein of Tom & Jerry is very tricky, and you learn that some of it is just wording. There are things that you write about people getting beaten horrible and you look at it and think, "Wow, that's not funny." Then you change a word or two and then all of the sudden it is really funny. So some of it was a real learning process. But the basics of how to write a novel - the mechanics and what is required in terms of pacing, structure, and dialogue - wasn't insurmountable. I had already immersed myself in that stuff, so I kind of had a handle on it.

One word can change the world when you're writing, from Ulysses to a 150-word record review. Have you encountered situations where you mean to get something very specific across, but then someone talks to you about it later, and they've done something completely the different from what you meant?

Yes, that would be called the Danzig interview! [laughs]

It comes up frequently, and as a reader I do it, too. There's a really interesting book by Nicholson Baker called U and I where he goes through his memories of John Updike's writing, and later compares his memories of a sentence with what the sentence really was, and what he finds many times is that he just got it wrong. He had superimposed what he wanted a thought to be, but had gotten a few key words wrong. I find that a lot. It's a slightly different phenomenon, but it's related. I also encounter willful obliviousness a lot - people almost intentionally misinterpreting something that I've said to fit their view of what they wanted me to say.

This is in no way a complaint, but something that's interesting to me. More and more as I get older I read the complaint that I'm an old curmudgeon. My writing now is not curmudgeonly at all, and I don't view myself as old. I'm only in my early 40s, and I'm not even all that old for someone who was in a hardcore band. But that's kind of the way that some people need to view me, and it's how I fit into whatever their world view of me should be, which is based on a fictional character being the singer of Born Against. That's fine, it's slightly frustrating at times, but mostly just interesting. I've had that experience before - back when I was in Born Against I was, for a long time, allegedly a very violent guy who would go around punching people in the face, but I've never done that. I haven't been in a fight since I got beaten up once when I was a kid. There were other things like that, but the rumors that would get back to me were as if this entirely fictional but physical version of me was out there doing these wild things that I would read about on message boards and fan zines. So it feels like an extension of that, and it's an occupational hazard of trying to be in the public eye.

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