When looking back to the roots of American hardcore, most punks might quickly rattle off names of those early archetypal architects like Ian MacKaye or Henry Rollins or look to bands like Bad Brains, SSD, Seven Seconds or possibly the Dead Kennedys. But for those of us weaned at the teat of ‘90s DIY-infused hardcore who are obsessed by the output of folks like Kent McClard, Brian Dingledine or Tim Barry; those of us who, kneeling at the altar of Rorschach and His Hero is Gone; those of us who know what “power violence” means and what “emo” really means— Sam McPheeters is hardly a stranger. In fact, for some of us, he was our best imaginary friend growing up, someone to help navigate the murky waters of conscious punk rock activism and teen angst rebellion.
McPheeters’ endeavors have always been marked by his special brand of antagonism, emotion and insight: from his bands like Born Against, Men’s Recovery Project and Wrangler Brutes; his record label, the seminal (now defunct) punk/hardcore/freak-a-leek Vermiform Records and his contributions to Maximum RocknRoll, Punk Planet, Vice, the Village Voice and others. It’s also worth checking out his earlier zines Dear Jesus and Error. He has contributed artwork to various projects, most notably the Southern California band the Locust. Some of you might also fondly remember his dramatization of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech as a finale to the Wrangler Brutes show at the Banks Street warehouse in 2004.
McPheeter’s most recent foray into writing is a socially apocalyptic novel called Loom of Ruin, published by Mugger Books. It has been getting glowing reviews since its release. He will be in New Orleans this month to give a reading and spoken word performance at a couple of venues around town. We caught up with Sam, who had already embarked on his reading tour, and picked his brain about some of the chapters of his life, from threatening answering machine messages to grilling Glenn Danzig. And while Sam was certainly not the fire-breather of his younger self, he’s still no idiot, still no stooge, not brain dead and definitely not an end table.
How is the book being received so far?
Wonderfully. Good reviews, great readings. It’s been a weird experience, having strangers comment on something I privately labored over for years. There’s some disconnect. Occasionally someone will comment about one of the characters, and my first reaction will be ‘how did they know about that?!’
Do you find that there are people who follow your writing who aren’t familiar with your musical history and are making it out to the readings?
It’s happening slowly. I’m okay with that. I know who my audience is and I have no problems starting within the circle of people who know my name. But I do see outsiders encroaching into this circle. In DC, a whole group of folks came out based on the recommendation of my profile in the Washington Post. That was neat.
Have the rest stops gotten any better since your days of touring in bands?
No, but my public restroom Spidey senses have. And there are now a world of iPhone apps for finding clean, decent facilities.
Do you miss touring as part of a band at all? It seems to be something that inspires your writing a lot, though you usually speak of it in terms of how uncomfortable it was.
I don’t. Band touring isn’t really travelling. On band tours, you’re only seeing one small microcosm (gas stations, venues, sleeping bag space) over and over again. I’m glad I got to step into North Dakota and Alaska, but I would’ve much preferred to see those states in some other context that would’ve actually allowed me to visit museums and see sites.
Do you have any other books planned?
I do, both fiction and nonfiction. And because I was so good about never assembling my past writings into any sort of collection, I have 320,000 words of columns, essays and reviews that I’ll probably do something with. Someday.
I read that interview you did with Danzig for Vice and– at least, online– it seemed like a lot of the comments were critical of your questions. Did you get any weird backlash from avid Danzig fans over your gentle prodding?
I got feedback that I got feedback– I don’t read comments myself so I can only gauge the level of animosity against me by comments my friends make on comments they’ve read.
What was your personal reaction to the interview, assuming that the Misfits played an important role in introducing you to punk rock. Was that the case and how did your perception of Glenn change, if at all, after the interview?
I’m actually Danzig neutral: the Misfits played no role in my life. I don’t know that I could name five Misfits songs. So, by my logic, that made me a good fit for the interview. I had neither a hidden agenda nor any fanboy reverence. The whole thing sort of struck me as a long chat with a pal’s dad. Definite dad vibe.
Do you ever get really visceral, nasty feedback from your other articles or interviews?
Not reading comments, I wouldn’t know. And I’ve already been inoculated. Online venom is pretty weak sauce when placed next to threatening phone calls or large, threatening audience members.
Born Against was a band that certainly stirred the pot, most notably in the now iconic answering machine message threatening you to “be careful about who you talk shit about.” Did you know the person who left that message? Can you provide us with a backstory? Also, what were some of the scariest moments regarding “large, threatening audience members”?
The message was left by our pal John Woods, singer of Hell No. It’s a fake. We were playing off the cartoony martyrdom of our own public image. Most BA shows, at least in the first two years of the band, had some scary person in the audience: drunks, skins, random wackos. But our scary moments consisted almost entirely of close calls, not actual confrontations.
On that same note, you mentioned in one of the BA compilation liner notes something to the effect that when the band started, punk rock was full of all kinds of people and by the end, it was all disinterested young white men with backpacks in the audience. It did seem like a lot of the danger of punk rock drained out during those years, that it became gentrified and safe. As someone who grew up with a certain degree of privilege and being a young white man yourself at the time, how much of that is a personal critique?
[laughs] I really have no idea.
How do you feel about all of these old bands getting back together? Do you think they’re having trouble telling their ending?
I completely understand the reasoning behind band reunions. Being in a band is exciting. For many people, it fills the role— once occupied by vaudeville or the merchant marines— as the easiest route to adventure and travel. Going from a touring band to a desk job is not exciting. So even though I wouldn’t reunite any of my old bands, I certainly don’t begrudge anyone their own reunions. I don’t go to reunion shows only because those shows sound boring, not because I’m morally outraged or anything.
Spoken word and speaking engagements seem to be the natural progression of frontmen, obvious examples being Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra, etc. Do you feel like a part of that, for lack of a better word, “fraternity” and also, how do you feel about the thin line between spoken word and stand up comedy, where artists like Rollins and Biafra especially seem to stray over? Is that something you worry about in your own approach?
At the level I’m operating on, “spoken word” is code for “comedy that doesn’t have to be funny.” I use the term only to provide some sort of reference point for my potential audience. And I’m only doing spoken word shows to sell my novel. I’m a writer, not a performer. In 2012, writers need to hawk their books any way that can.
It’s hard to maintain the kind of anger that a young person has when they first get involved with hardcore or subversive culture in general, but at the same time, our serotonin dips and biologically it’s harder to be happy as time goes on. Where does that leave you and your current outlook on things?
“Things” is kind of a broad topic. I’m a short-term optimist and a long-term pessimist. This time 100 years ago, the Titanic was the worst horror the world had to deal with. We’re probably in store for some bad times in the 21st century.
After all these years, do you secretly believe that Sick of It All won the argument on moshing?