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Friday, May 25, 2012

Q&A with chickfactor's Gail O'Hara

Posted by Courtney Ferguson on Fri, May 25, 2012 at 11:14 AM

chickfactors Gail OHara

It's chickfactor's 20th anniversary, so fanzine co-founder Gail O'Hara and I sat down at the Moon & Sixpence over some beers in a sunny patio to jaw it out. She's been hosting anniversary parties across this great nation to celebrate the little fanzine that could. (Read the article here). The Portland party is going down on Wednesday, May 30, at Bunk Bar with Joe Pernice, the Softies, Lois, and Selector Dub Narcotic (Calvin Johnson on the steel wheels). Gail's also got a photo exhibit opening on Thursday, June 7, at Reading Frenzy, which will be up all month.

MERCURY: Has your taste in music changed since the chickfactor days?
GAIL O'HARA: Probably not. A lot of the same bands are still going. I don’t know. But Fleet Foxes [which we'd previously mentioned]… I might’ve told [Willamette Week’s] Robert Ham the same thing, so maybe I won’t tell you, but they’re just too uplifting for me. It’s almost too spiritually perky or something. I need something more dark and edgy. There needs to be some melancholy. It’s pretty… I should like it, it’s just something doesn’t stay with me. I haven’t seen them before, so maybe that’s what’s missing. Do you like them?

I do like ’em.
Certain bands, it’s like, “You haven’t seen ’em live, so you don’t get it.” So maybe that’s the problem.

I’m excited for the chickfactor show.
Yeah, me too. Pitchfork, when they originally mentioned it, everyone assumed all the same bands were going to come out for it. Like all the same bands I had for New York, like Black Tambourine and the Aislers Set, and all those bands. They were like, “That’s going to happen in Portland.” I wish it could, but even if Portland… it’s just so hard to have a ticket price that high in Portland that we needed to do in New York.

[Hit the jump for the rest.]

Was it at a big venue in New York?
Yeah, it was much bigger than any show I used to put on in New York. Like 500 tickets sold each night at the Bell House, plus like 75 people on the guest list, and that’s not even including performers and there were a lot. It was really fun.


I’m very excited to see the Softies.

Have you seen them before?

I have, but it’s been a long time.
You were 12.

Oh no! Much, much older.
I’ve been trying to get [OPB's] Jeremy Petersen to do something with them on the radio. I mean, Jen [Sbragia] lives here. It’s so special that they’re playing. And so regional.

I’m going to the show with my two best friends from college. We were joking that we should squeeze into our old Softies shirts for the occasion.
[Laughs.] They had some new ones at the show in New York. They sold out of all of ’em pretty quickly. Maybe you can get a new one that’s not huge like in the old days. I have a couple crates full of indie shirts that are as big as pillowcases.

They did used to make them big!
I have a Dump shirt that’s big enough to fit James [McNew] from Dump. It’s that big. Maybe it was his.

I’ve seen quilts made out of old band shirts. So is chickfactor co-founder Pam [Berry] coming to the Portland show?
No, she’s kind of a nut about flying. It took a lot to get her to the East Coast from London [where she lives]. It’s tough. She’s really bad at flying. We need to do a Kickstarter to hypnotize her. How much does it cost? I always see that ad on TV, Positive Changes, or whatever it’s called. I think hypnosis might be a good thing for her. But we got her to the East Coast. I don’t think it’s going to happen again for a while. It’s tough because other guys in Black Tambourine [Berry's band] all have kids now. It’s just hard—it doesn’t look too likely that it’ll happen again. They just put out a new record, it’s so good. It’s a Ramones covers EP, double vinyl 7-inch.

But yeah, I wish she was coming. I didn’t want to have any parties without her. But I live here, and I’ve lived here for almost three years. I’ve set up a couple things at the Hollywood Theatre, but I need to get in a habit of doing stuff here more.

I like to do these shows where there’s three headliners. Lois [Maffeo] hasn’t really played here in 12 years, as Lois. So I hope it’ll bring out some old-timers. So it should be good. And the special guest used to live here too. We have a special guest. It all starts really early, and probably be over early, because everyone has kids. Jen from the Softies was like, “Really, we’re going on at 10:30 pm? That’s still late.” She’s got two… twins. I don’t know how they do it.

Thanks for bringing me some issues of chickfactor.
That’s the last one we printed [#15], although we might do one this year. I just laid out a photo book that’s shaped like a 7-inch single. I’m hoping to get that out. I have a photo show in two weeks, so I’m trying to get the book ready for that. It’s hard to get these things done, but anyway, this is the last one we printed. I did #16 online, and then #17 will be the new one, if we do that this year.

I never interviewed Joe Pernice and he’s somebody that I liked back in the day, but now I love him. If I had paid closer attention early on, I think I would’ve put him on the cover. Because I think he’s a genius. I just think he’s amazing.

When you mentioned a special guest were you talking about Joe Pernice or someone different?
Well, we had special guests at all the other shows in New York, like Dump, Mark Robinson, Franklin Bruno. It was just a coincidence that they were all men, except for Pam’s other band, the Pines. I just asked all these girls, but they were all going to be out of town. But there’s another special guest for Portland, but it’s a secret.

Okay. Do you have any plans to archive chickfactor online?
I might do a best-of book. A few people have been bugging me to do it. As you can see [opening an issue of the zine], here’s an example of before we got my graphic design friend to make everything look better. I was transitioning out of the old look. This is the first issue I did without Pam. The bold isn’t bold enough, and I didn’t use our usual fonts. As far as doing it on the web, I just don’t know how to do it.

Oooh, look, Jukebox Jury!
There’s a lot of Jukebox Jury in chickfactor. I think the world needs more Jukebox Jury. There’s also a really great etiquette guide with all these poll questions we used to ask and they’re really funny. I loved the poll questions, they were one of my favorite things about chickfactor. This is a good one: Daniel Clowes, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon… it was conducted by Lemony Snicket in San Francisco.

I’ve interviewed Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) before. He was really funny.

Isn’t he funny! He writes for chickfactor. He’s the only who’s done anything for the new issue that hasn’t come out yet. He’s always like, “I don’t want to write for the internet, but I’ll write for something on paper.” We’re just going to do a smaller print run, because we kinda got carried away expanding and the industry just started to die. The ’90s was all about growth, “Let’s print more CDs! Let’s do more stuff!”

I love chickfactor’s origin story, where Spin assigned you a short blurb about the Wedding Present and you had this mega interview with frontman David Gedge, which you used to start the zine.
It’s funny, it was just such an honor. [Pam and I] were so into the [Wedding Present’s] Sea Monsters record at the time, which I missed their recent performance of here in town, because we had the chickfactor DC show that night. But I got to go out to dinner with the Gedge. His parents were here, and we went to Kenny & Zuke’s in November. His girlfriend is from Seattle or something, and the four of them were driving up there. His parents had never been to the US before. It was cool! I mean, I’ve met him before, but it was nice to sit down after all these years. We tried to make it work so he could play at some of these shows, but...

Is there another anniversary show after this Portland one?
Well, I haven’t set anything up. I had tried to put a show together in San Francisco in May, but we pushed it back. I think we might do something in LA and San Francisco in late summer or early fall with some of the same people maybe. Some variation of Rose Melberg [of the Softies] will be there. A few other people are onboard. Then we have London in November, three nights. That’ll be the last thing.

I’m sorry, did you answer the question about archiving chickfactor?
Not really, I didn’t. I’m sorry, I’m just rambling. I don’t know about putting it online. It’s just a lot of work. We don’t have digital files of most of these issues. We would have to start over, typing stuff in and scanning. I mean, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s a lot of work that I haven’t done yet. Sometimes these interviews are 6,000 words. There’s a lot of editing and styling that needs to go into that. It’s not like I’m being difficult (I love this song [playing over the bar’s stereo]), I just don’t want to do all the work. I don’t know, I might try to do it. I really do feel like we have a lot of stuff that is super entertaining and people would want to see it. The first 10 issues are mostly sold out. This one is pretty rare [pointing to issue #10]. Do you recognize her? [Pointing to group shot with Carrie Brownstein’s picture on the cover.]

Oh yes.
There’s Nikki McClure—she’s interviewed in here. That was a party at Lois’ house. This’ll be one of the photos in my show at Reading Frenzy. It’s “The Salsa Party.” I just love that picture. I don’t know if Carrie likes this picture.

How come? She looks great.

She always looks good. Yeah, [that picture] was from ’96 at Lois’ house. Lois made a million different kinds of salsa. I met her in 1992, like so many people from the chickfactor history. I guess because I moved to New York like a lot of people in the pop scene. When you have an apartment in New York with enough floor space to sleep on, you become very popular. If I do put together a chickfactor book, I want to go back and look at all the bands that stayed there. The Softies, Tiger Trap stayed here.

You should make a plaque, like “George Washington Slept Here.”

There should be a plaque on that building. That was the only way that people could come and play in New York, by staying at my house, ’cause they weren’t getting fancy hotels.

Do you feel like chickfactor was a precursor to music writing now, with its long-form Q&As?

I used to work at Time Out New York, and someone at this wedding I recently went to said, “Do you think Time Out started that whole thing?” But when you think about, I think the Paris Review had things like that. Interview magazine was a big influence on me in the ’80s, it’s hard to believe now because it’s a shadow of its former self. It was such an amazing magazine with huge long interviews, and it was always some great amazing person interviewing. I was a college student—everyone knows how old I am now, I don’t care—and I remember reading it, saying, “Wow, Dolly Parton is an amazing person, like who knew?” It was really, really good. It was probably an influence. I think the Q&A probably goes back a while. But these long things, we didn’t have them before the internet, so it was unusual to see that. As you know, I’m sure, the art director rules the paper. They’re like, “You need less text, bigger pictures, more white space, and all this kind of stuff. It’s not about the words.” I think the magazine world has gotten more and more blurby and things shrink and the picture gets bigger. Now you can get away with putting that huge thing on the internet, though someone will complain… all those trolls.

Evil trolls! They’re so evil.

I think if you’re going to run a website where commenting is allowed, you need to pay attention to what’s being put there and if you don’t remove things that are outrageously offensive then it makes your publication look bad. There’s just a lot of bad comments. It seems like a lot of misogyny, but there’s a lot of hatefulness directed at men too.

[Courtney rants about misogyny and trolls.]

Anyway, what were your favorite interviews that you did for chickfactor?

Lois was one. We interviewed her in DC, but it was a funny interview, as you can imagine. Stephin Merritt over the years is always good for an interview. In the olden days, when I used to interview every member of the Magnetic Fields in every issue, he wasn’t as jaded as he is now. Hmm, who else? I’ve just been really lucky to know these people over the years. [Gail wrote me an email to add to her interview response: “Hey! I thought of a few more favorite interviewees: Sally Timms, Neko Case, the Clientele, Daniel Handler, Trish Keenan from Broadcast, and Debsey Wykes from Birdie/Dolly Mixture/Saint Etienne.” ] Oh, and Pam [Berry]! That was fun. I made her do an interview. She hated doing that. Because she quit and I couldn’t decide what to do at the time.

Had she moved to London at that point?
No, she quit chickfactor. I think it was after the ninth issue, I think it was ’95 or ’96. She did it to spend more time on music. She moved to London in ’98. But I always pretend that she’s still my cohort, because I’d rather be doing it with her. And we’re still best friends. Sometimes it’s good to have your friend there and be like, “Should I use this picture or this picture?” Someone needs to vet what we do.

Did you ever live in Olympia at all?
I never lived in Olympia, I just know those guys because Lois was putting me up at her house. I think it started with Yoyo-a-Go-Go, then I met and interviewed a lot of people there. I was part of the first Ladyfest show, and Lois sublet my apartment [in NYC] one time when I went to London.

You must have a bazillion photos from back in the day.

I do. I’ve been talking with some other photographers to start an archive for all of the stuff that we have. We all kinda have a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be hidden away, And none of us have signed with Corbis or anything. There’s a lot of photos hidden away.

When is your photo exhibit?

On June 7 at Reading Frenzy. I think it comes down July 2.

What am I forgetting to ask?

I feel rude, like I should be asking you questions. How long have you lived here?

Well, I think we’re done. Wanna just shut this recorder off and chat? I’ll see you at the show on Wednesday.

The reason the show is on a Wednesday night is to accommodate Joe Pernice, because he has shows the next day and the next.

How are ticket sales?
I’m a little worried, because it’s the week after Sasquatch. I know that’s bad for Seattle, but I’m hoping it doesn’t matter for Portland. Our biggest concern is that I hope it’s quiet when people are playing. The Bunk Bar can get pretty noisy. That’s a huge thing for me with chickfactor—I don’t know if you noticed that I was trying to get people to leave their cell phones behind. The other venues we had shows at, there’s always another room where people can go and talk and have a drink and chill out. Bunk Bar doesn’t have that. I’m hoping that people will be nice, because all the bands are pretty quiet, you know. It’ll be fine, I think. The Softies will go on last, because they’re so rockin’. No, I’m kidding! [Laughs.] Douglas Wolk is going to emcee, so he’ll be good to tell everyone to stop talking.

Is Calvin Johnson DJing at the very end of the show?

He’s doing the beginning and in-between and after.

Is he going to do his crazy dancing while he DJs?

Well, I asked him to play, but he doesn’t do that unless it’s an all-ages show. But he said he would DJ.

I saw him at the Built to Spill show at the Crystal awhile ago.
Did they do the Halo Benders? “Don’t touch my bikini!” I love that song. I feel like he should be in animated feature films. He’s got such a great voice for it. So cartoony.

Okay, I’m shutting this thing down and getting another beer.

Yeah!

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