|Maximum Rock and Roll interview, December 2000 issue (# 211)|
Part I | Part II | reviews index
S: Well, I was trying to get it. But we had this weird kind of barricade on the stairway, all these weird little pieces of metal that were strung together with wire all over the stairway with a couple of stairs pulled out. And every time we went in or out, we'd have to pull out these little gates, pull these things aside, then move them back and lock them. I remember going through that and watching it in the dark, with all these little lines in this dark space, and thinking "my god, it's just so awesome to look at, I could never create anything that looked like this." And that's when I realized I could actually do a book about the experience. I've never been able to draw that thing. It was just so weird looking, no one would know what it was. It was just this abstract sculpture in the dark, you know. So that was a reason to do the halftones. Another reason I chose the halftones in certain sections was, going out with Barbara, who's African-American, and helping her with her comics which she did a few of for World War 3, I remember even when we were doing line shot artwork, she insisted on getting zipotones to do the flesh tones, because the characters could not be white, they had to be grey, and they had to be different shades of grey. Different people were different amounts of dark. And I realized, that's probably the right way to draw African-American characters, with a tone. It's just a much more accurate way to draw people of color, is in halftone rather than in flat black and white. So that caused those chapters that emphasized Tent City's characters to use a lot more halftones on them. It seemed like the more correct way to draw.
B: In the piece where you go in to talk to Zen about the rally, those are the only panels that are in halftone in that strip.
S: Yeah, it was important to me that she's black, she's very light-skinned; Terry T is black, and is very dark-skinned, and to try and preserve all these differences which do have a significance, and to try to have some sensitivity to that. I found that when I was drawing black characters, there were two ways I could go about it in ink. I could have basically the same set of outlines I would have for a white character, except different features, and the other thing I could do is create this weird kind of black silhouette with white lines in it, which was cool looking, but it kind of was too romantic or too far out, it made them look like some type of weird negative aliens or something.
B: Especially if they were in a panel with characters who were just regular white.
S: Yeah. It seemed like the most accurate way to do it was to bring in tones, which were relevant pieces of information. And I got that from working with Barbara on her comics. That educated me on that, and that's why I work that way. Which brings us to, what's this business with these two Fly's, one who's black and one who's white?
S: You have all these characters not just Fly, but all sorts of people who have this shadow who follows them around. What's that about?
F: It's weird, right?
F: I don't know, it's kind of like I could get really esoteric about it...
S: Why get esoteric about something that happens every day, like having a black shadow that follows you around?
F: I was brought up by a paranoid schizophrenic, and it was kind of like the personality changes that occurred were very pronounced and shocking, and I learned that a person was made up of several different people. In some people it's a lot more pronounced than in other people, so I kind of just got that idea about looking at people and seeing different sides to them, and seeing things that they were saying, but maybe they were thinking something else at the same time, or hearing what they're saying and interpreting it and having both of those things as part of their character, or having a character that's very indecisive and wants to do many things all at the same time. Another reason for using a multiple person is to get the action that's happening. If you see a person and you're talking to somebody, they're not still. People move, and I wanted to get a little bit of that movement in these single frames. I wanted to get that idea that things are moving on different levels, and there's not just one thing happening.
B: Like in Cubism.
F: Exactly. I love those guys (laughs).
S: That's like a real basic insight, that people are more than one person. That's what I was dealing with in my book, like with Terry T, who's this great heroic guy who tells the cops off, who gets in Bill Lynch's face and David Dinkins' face, and is also an alcoholic nutcase. He;s both people.
F: Another thing about the shadow thing is, the first time I started drawing multiple people in that way was when I was sitting in a waiting room in a hospital, and my dad had just been diagnosed a few days before that as having brain tumors, and this was a big surprise to all of us. They were going to do this emergency operation and see if they could remove the brain tumor. So I was sitting in a waiting room, and I was just drawing, for about three hours without really thinking about what I was drawing, but I ended up drawing this whole series of figures that had these shadows doing different things, and these multiple people. That's kind of the first time I started doing that.
B: That was when you were a kid?
F: It was when I was younger, twelve years ago. So as I started drawing these shadow people, and thinking of it kind of scientifically in a way too, because I'm confronting this whole death thing. They couldn't remove the tumors, so he had 2 months to live, and I was really thinking a lot about this whole mortality thing, and what's your body made up of? Here we are, casting these shadows, like what's going on here. And the whole idea of light as... I was thinking a little too hard. That's the esoteric stuff! Let's just say it was a difficult time, and I was trying to distract myself with scientific theories of light and falling bodies.
B: And you really love science fiction too.
F: Yeah. So say no more.
B: Alright... so, any good tour stories?
F: I gotta million tour stories!
S: And I've got two or three...
B: Well you've done a million tours, and you've done two or three. More particularly, you want to talk about how audiences for an Aus Rotten show respond to what you do?
F: Yeah, well, okay. So there I was on tour with Aus Rotten, one of my favorite bands by the way, so I was doing my Zero Content show.
B: Did they show up?
F: Well, that's the problem I have with my band. They are so unreliable, they like to get drunk, fuck around, whatever. I mean, you know them, right?
B: yeah, yeah.
F: They're fuckups, they had no transportation, they were trainhopping and hitchhiking, so the problem is they just didn't quite make it to any of the shows. So there I was, doing Zero Content shows and my band doesn't show up for any of the shows. I was definitely not to be daunted by this fact, and I got up and just did the shows myself. Actually, I recruited Corey from Aus Rotten he's the bass player.
B: I hear he's a cover boy too, a punk rock beauty queen.
F: Yeah, he's that too, him and his platinum hair. Anyway, I did the shows without the band, got up and said "This is Zero Content, and our band's not here, and our motto is " Thinking? No!'" And people at first would look at me like I was insane they were very confused. But once I got into a few songs, everybody loved it. I mean, what's not to love about Not Thinking?
B: Right. Nothing. And what was the variation you did at Seth's party? Are We Not Thinking? Yes!
F: Right! That's my new band, the Scrumpy Pukers. We're a psychotic lounge act, or so I hear. My favorite thing at that show was our cover of "Fuck You, Have a Nice Day." Roger Manning's song.
S: Alright, touring.
F: Yeah, well I've got better stuff to talk about than Zero Content, because that's well, zero content. If you really want to get into some dirt, I could really talk about some people! Not to mention any names.
S: My most story-able touring experience was when we did a show at a Border's in Winston-Salem, which is where they make the cigarettes.
F: Oh, and they cut you off, didn't they?
S: Well, Sander's band played, and they managed to deal with that because Sander's band converted to a lounge band. We got booked in this Border's bookstore, in Winston- Salem, because one of Sander's college buddies had become the manager of this Borders. So he booked us to perform there, and left before the show started. The management didn't really know what to make of us. Sander's band did a special lounge set for Border's because they couldn't blast at full volume there, then I did the slide show. And first there were like four people, some older people with their kids sitting there watching. People went into the café area to drink iced coffee or something, cause it's so damn hot down there in the summer, and that's what the place is for, and about the second or third piece in the set I started doing "Numbers," which is the Diallo piece you know, "41 shots, 19 holes, 12 pounds of pressure." I'm doing this piece, and there are all these older men in the aisles, looking at books and magazines, and they all kind of looked up at once at me, and I thought "Wow, they really like me." And a few minutes later we were being told to shut down the show because we had offended the local sensibilities. So we got chased out of Border's books in Winston-Salem, and we had to calm Sander down because he decided to be the person to get angry for all of us. I thought, why is it that he's angry and not me, because my set was cut off, and I think it was because he was so angry I couldn't allow myself to be emotional because he was being emotional. But it was like us coming into conflict with a big chain, the conservatism of a big chain, and it had a lot of symbolic importance. And it was about the only time we did a bookstore show. The rest of it was in clubs and punk shows where people were really appreciative of everything we did; it was pretty nice. For me, it's a pretty new experience to actually get in front of an audience, stand there and show them stuff, be seen by them. I'm very used to working on my artwork in the middle of the night, sending it out somewhere and never really knowing what the interaction is, never getting anything positive or negative or even knowing if there's a person there at all. [To Fly] You've been doing that a lot, because you're also a musician, and I wonder what the difference is between those two ways of working.
F: Yeah, they're very different. I kind of like that they're so different. It's kind of a good escape, the one from the other. It's really fun being on tour, being in different places every day, being very temporary without much responsibility besides having to play the show, and you blow in and out of a town fast enough that you don't get complications going on. You get the thrill of the adrenalin rush and being on stage, and maybe people are going to hate you. I got such an adrenalin rush every time I did a show with Aus Rotten, because I was really scared going on a stage in front of all these people. They're waiting for Aus Rotten, and they get ME! (Laughs) All these punk as fuck kids looking at me with these faces, these expressions, they're like what the fuck is this? And here I am, standing up on stage, yelling "Thinking? No!" And doing all these songs like "Viva Zapatos! Long live shoes!" The songs are all completely stupid, but they're all completely real. That one's based on actual graffiti someone wrote, wanting to support the Zapatistas, and they're like "Viva Zapatos!" So it's like pointing out all these stupidities in a way that I thought was really funny and entertaining. You have to be able to laugh at yourself, right? There's a lot of activists who I don't think have enough of a sense of humor. So that, and being able to talk to people. I had my comics with me on tour, and I put them out on the table with all the merchandise, and actually having people recognize my stuff and talk to me about stuff they've seen of mine. It was a really great think being able to have some contact, some feedback, about what was going on with what I'm doing with the comic, with Zero Content (which is nothing!). But it was really good to have some feedback that way. And I wasn't just doing Zero Content, I was doing other spoken word stuff too. And there were two other spoken word artists who were on the tour too. They were both doing things that were a lot different than what I was doing, so I thought it was a good variety. It was also good to have some contact with other people who are doing written work and performing it. I don't really get a lot of contact with those people anymore. I used to do a lot more of that, and I don't really anymore. After touring for long periods of time, it's nice to not have to tour and work on something without all the distractions and excitement. It's nice to have a break from that too.
B: I've seen a lot of your notebooks from on tour, that then wind up in the books.
F: Yeah, and a lot of that was on tours with God is My Co-Pilot, and we toured a lot for a couple years, extensively all around the world. Japan, Europe, U.K., everywhere. Several times to Europe. So a lot of the tour stories, and the whole idea of crazy transient existence is from touring. And I had my sketchbook with me at all times. And I can mention another book I'm working on now, which is called "Peeps." Because I've done so many portraits of people I really like talking to people and drawing them, and while I'm drawing them I don't make them sit still and pose, I just talk to them, and I draw them while I talk to them, and I get stories from them. Then I write out the stories around the portrait. And I've got such a collection of these that now I'm going to put out a book that has most of them, all these infamous people and their stories. So that's going to be one of my next books. And of course, also "Dog Days," which is the epic travels of K-9 and Dug Bey (illegitimate son of Hakim Bey). So, any other questions?
B: Yeah. [To Seth] Are you punk rock? And what's that smell, anyway?
F: Someone cut the cheese? Oh man, Seth! Well, I'll tell you about this punk rock thing.
S: Well, I used to go to CBs when it was $3 to see Patti Smith and the Talking Heads, so I guess that's pretty punk rock. I think it's changed a lot what that means.
F: Yeah, exactly, and there's a lot of ways you can interpret that. I mean, people always describe me as punk because I listen to the music, I perform at the shows, and I hang out with people who are considered punk, or look like punks. So does that make me... hang on a second [suddenly the phone rings, and it's Craig Flanagin from GodCo] Hey Fly, it's Craig, it's Thursday, I'm calling to say hello, and we should hang out sometime I've been really busy...
F: Should I...
S: It's up to you, it's your phone.
F: I'll call him back. See, now he's going to know I didn't answer the phone and I was here, because he's going to read this interview.
B: Right, I'll transcribe every word: "Suddenly, the phone rings, and it's Craig Flanagin from God is My Co-Pilot..."
F: Wait, what was I saying? Oh the whole thing about punk. So does that make me punk? I'm involved in this community that's called punk, but I don't go around with this label emblazoned on me. The thing is, it's like an attitude, supposedly, I guess, but there's different ideas about what punk is. I mean, if you read the pages of Maximum RockNRoll, this is a debate that's been going on...
B: Since 1974?
F: Yeah, since Episode #1, there's this never-ending debate about What Is Punk, and I think that a lot of kids, when they're first getting involved with it, it's a very idealistic thing, and that's what attracts a lot of people to it in the beginning. Then a lot of people get burnt out because they realize that this idealistic thing that is not in fact working in this utopian way.
S: Well, that's really funny to me, because in the 70s, it was totally different.
F: I know, it was all about nihilism. That's what I'm saying, that there's different ways to interpret it. Like what was it in the so-called beginning? It was what, a marketing tool?
S: Well, if you look at the first issues of Punk Magazine (which I bought when they were fucking new, because I'm an old fart), Holmstrom is thoroughly right wing on a whole range of things on women, on food...
B: This is who you were hanging out with last night, buying you beers?
F: Hey listen, I will not turn down free beer! Excuse me? Hello? Punk rock!
S: Right, but he was funny, he was cool, but the points of view expressed in Punk Magazine #1, #2, #3, would horrify a lot of kids today who do shows at ABC No Rio. Like, Fran Luck put together a really nice poster show at No Rio of all the posters produced by the squatters movement in the 80s and 90s, and had some of the posters for the first Squat or Rot concerts that John Whalen and I worked on, along with Ralphie and them. And she had a poster for a show that didn't happen, a show that almost happened, but it had a list of bands on there, and it included Warzone and the Bad Brains. And the kids coming into No Rio were looking at this and bugging out, saying "Those bands did a squatter show?" They thought these bands were very politically incorrect bands, and I don't really know the details of it. But it seemed like such an opposite attitude from what punk was in New York in the 70s and early 80s, when it was very much about being very irreverent and not valuing anything too much. It seems to me that people have reinterpreted punk in a much more leftist way.
F: Yeah, well I think that part of it isn't so much that it's been appropriated, it's just kind of evolved into a way of looking at this whole thing. Like in the beginning it was this whole "Fuck Society", and that was good, but once you fuck society, then what do you do? It kind of like turned into more of a focus on DIY, and once you destroy the system, then how do you live? So it's more focused on things like being in control of your life. Not putting your music into the hands of some corporate entity that's going to make a lot of money from you and you're going to make shit, and you are completely under their control. So it's things like that, and people involved in it also being involved in political stuff like Food Not Bombs, like squatting, and all these political activities. The Seattle thing, the IMF thing that's going to happen in Washington. I think that people became a lot more aware also because a lot of people did get destroyed by that early, really decadent way of living. A lot of people didn't make it, and a lot of people got burned out by the cynicism of that whole way of thinking. I think a lot of people were looking for something a little more positive when they burned out on that. And the whole idea of punk has become, as a cultural identity is that what you call it? It totally has become that for some people, like a way of life. For some bands, who are involved in running their own labels and doing their own distribution, it becomes a serious way of life. You have to work incredibly hard to make sure you get money back from things you invest in, you're making CDs or making zines and all this stuff, and if you're distributing it yourself, it's a lot of work to make sure you're getting enough back to support this thing. And a lot of people don't understand that in order to do all that, you do have to make a little bit of profit from something in order to support it continuing.
S: I think that in the late 70s in New York, the word was out that there were people from big record companies going around looking for bands, and that created what I've seen in a number of different things on the LES, this kind of gold rush mentality, where all these people started bands hoping to get that, or became superficially punk, hoping to get that. And at a certain point, there were lots of them, there were no more A&R men, and it kind of caved in on itself. And at that point I think people started doing the more grassroots stuff, and that became a really important network for our magazine, World War 3. If it weren't for Mordam Records and the punk scene, I don't think we ever would have gotten the magazine past the fourth issue. It just created a whole other distribution system for ideas and things we were trying to say. In that sense, whether I as an individual am punk or not, I think the art we produced became part of the punk scene, the more political punk scene, I think Holmstrom would come right out and say "a more leftist, commie punk scene." It became a mechanism for getting stuff out there. So yeah, we're punk in that sense.
F: There's a confusion, also, between people who look punk and people who ARE punk. There's a whole argument there, too, because it gets to be this whole fashion thing. A lot of the younger kids are really a lot more into the fashion end of it, when they first get into it especially, which I'm not saying that's bad. I love all that crazy stuff, the clothes, it's great.
B: Last Saturday afternoon I went out to the Long Island Anarchist Flea Market, which was this thing Weinberg, the Solomons, and some others were speaking on "Why an Anarchist Revolution Now?" And there were all these 19 or 20 year old punk rock kids selling their CDs and zines, so many of them, and they were cute...
F: They are, they're so cute, at No Rio there're these kids, about 13 or 14, and they got their spikes, and all their stuff on, and they're really, really cute. You know, I think that's great, there's nothing wrong with that at all. But I think that if then that is attracting somebody to a punk scene that's great, if they then get interested and involved in activities that are going on and the politics that're holding the thing together, that's got to be the next step. But I think people who actually live a DIY lifestyle don't necessarily have to wear it out on their sleeve.
S: I think it's important for us as artists and activists not to be condescending towards people younger than us or new on the scene. I can think of like when I was 17 or 18, the things we were doing were a lot less intelligent than the kids running No Rio. I just went out and did a civil disobedience training at Bard, where the Bard students were training to do direct action to shut down the World Bank. And a lot of friends were there as trainers, and they said "Oh, you're here to run a workshop," and I said "no, I'm here to learn what you're teaching," because there are things that people have been developing that I never did. Like jail solidarity is a completely alien concept to me. This idea that hundreds of people would make it as difficult as possible for the police to let them out of jail, and that would be their action. I mean, I've been arrested 20 times, and I always tried to get out of jail as fast as I could. So this is like a completely new concept that I wanted to learn. So I found that a lot of these kids at Bard knew the issues a lot better than I did. They knew a lot more about the World Bank. They were right on top of it.
F: There are some really amazing things going on right now. I'm really inspired by this new wave of kids who are getting involved in political actions. It's great, it's a really positive thing. Everyone's really enthusiastic, and not really so jaded yet. They actually have a sense of humor.
B: And really creative ways of doing these actions.
F: Really creative ways. Like building a frog to inhabit in the garden. And doing these huge dance parties as ways of occupying and reclaiming streets.
S: I feel like in 88, 89, you had the phenomenon of a lot of stoned kids and a few activists getting them into stuff, and right now I get the feeling that there's a much broader understanding of what's going on. The kids who were locking down in that garden, they knew exactly what they were doing. There's a much broader political education in society. I think we're just coming out of a really dismal historical period, where people were really dumbed down, really numb, and we're kind of used to people being really out of it. And this is maybe more the normal human state, this level of intelligence. So it looks kind of amazing to us, that yeah, people actually have brains, they actually function and think with some sensibility, and they're not all wearing "Fuck Iran" buttons, you know. It seems to me that there's a lot of consciousness out there right now.
B: So you've both got a lot of hope about where things are going?
F: Yeah. I'm just inspired, really just impressed and happy, because there was a point when I was just wanting to get detached from any forms of activism, just cause it was all getting a little too boring and self-serving in some respects for me. Now I see some really amazing stuff going on.
S: If you'd asked me that question a year ago, I'd be like "no." Just a year ago.
B: Well, a year ago was the first Reclaim the Streets. And I remember right after that, it was as if you'd had a sea-change.
S: It was, because we were part of a movement that although there were ten squatted building on the LES out of 30 that were squatted, as a movement, we basically had our asses handed to us. We lost control of the park, so many of our friends got evicted, so many of our friends got beat up by the police, and it got to where you felt as though you were beating your head against the wall. When they had that fence around the park, it stayed up for a fucking year. I was going out and getting arrested virtually once a week, and spending half my week in the courtroom or the prison. And it just became useless, a waste of time. And people started blaming each other, they got very frustrated, they factionalized, a lot of the less committed people didn't want to deal with that, so they split, and we were left with a few die-hard nut cases who were the craziest people on the scene, and we became very cynical in that context. And right now, there seems to be a whole new scene developing. It will have its own contradictions, it will have its own problems, which will be maybe different from the ones our scene had. But it seems like there's a lot of possibilities. There's a new homeless organization that's started, that's very similar to the old Tent City, but it's being organized from Harlem, and is actually connected to the Reverend Al Sharpton. But they have very similar concerns to Tent City, though what's good about them is they're rooted in a more established black organization that can provide more of an authority structure and a support structure than we were able to provide to the homeless in Tompkins Park. And people have come up with more sophisticated ways of doing civil disobedience, and whole new tactics that make it more effective. It seems like there's a new game being played, it's different. And I feel pretty good about it.
F: And Seth doesn't even spike his hair up any more.
S: I didn't spike it up, but I did dye it red. It was short, and I did dye it red. I didn't spike it.
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