Conversation: Aaron Lake Smith talks to Sam McPheeters

Drawn by Sam McPheeters
Drawn by Sam McPheeters

Sooner or later, there is going to be a definitive book on the 90’s punk rock scene, and when that time comes, there really needs to be at least a chapter on Sam McPheeters. The guy was a member of what in my mind is one of the greatest bands of all time, Born Against, then started the extremely underrated Men’s Recovery Project, ran the now defunct Vermiform Records, and he’s a great visual artist to boot (see above, Google image also is good). But the guy is also a great writer. Various articles in punk magazines, and his own zines “Error” and “Dear Jesus” serve as examples of this. To this day, I can’t remember which one of those zines he wrote the story in, but his description of some show he played where the opening acts entire set consisted of the lead singer lighting himself on fire is still one of the great zine pieces I’ve ever read, and I’ve always respected the guy. So when our pal Aaron Lake Smith (a guy putting out some of the best zines we have read in years) asked if we would like to post up an interview he did with Sam, I fired back a “yes” e-mail almost as soon as I finished reading the request.

I don’t want to take anything away from this great interview, so I’m done rambling. Just read it for yourself.   Aaron’s questions are in bold, Sam’s answers are not.

It should also be noted that this interview took place in October of last year, but is just now seeing the light of day.

-Jason Diamond

Have you been personally affected by the economic collapse?

I haven’t. But I have noticed there are a lot more sad people standing and holding signs on every exit of the freeway. A couple of years ago it used to be every other exit. Yesterday I was driving on this local road here in California and I saw these people from a distance—it was a bunch of young women with cardboard signs. Usually that means, like a car wash or something, and they were all laughing. I got up close and the sign said ‘Donation for Funeral’. It seemed so sad and horrible and was very creepy because they were all smiling.

What does the economic crisis mean for the readers of a small, esoteric punk magazine?

I had to catch a cab to the airport a couple of years ago and my driver was this completely badass ex-Navy Seal. The entire ride he told me all these awesome stories about all the people he’d beaten up. Towards the end of the ride he was telling me about all the guys that he’d had to taser the shit out of in the course of being a cabby, and so I asked if he’d ever accidentally tasered himself. He said yes he had. So I asked what it was like and he thought about it for a second and then he said “All I could figure out was that something horrible had happened, but I just didn’t know what it was.” And that’s kind of like what this situation is like, I think.

Some people are acknowledging that they don’t know what’s going on, but not that many people. There is a perceptional problem that can be highlighted by this. The best example I can think of is that ten years ago there was this charity set up by General Motors called Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that gave out 1.5 million dollars in grants to researchers across a wide spectrum to study what was unknown and unknowable in their respective fields. The money went to biologists and anthropologists and economists and I thought that was such a fascinating concept but they never even published the results. It seemed like this very rare instance of an organization making a token effort to acknowledge how little human beings know. You can go up and down in any direction and it’s still the case with humanity, that the majority of all matter and energy in this universe is dark matter, and dark energy. 95% of the human genome is called ‘junk DNA’. I’m guessing that junk DNA has a specific purpose that we just don’t understand. I think it’s the same principle with our government and financial systems. Humans are tied to human lifespans and base judgments on our limited pool of knowledge. Prevailing consensus on any given subject is that humans know far more than they don’t know. Bush had this unwavering self-confidence. There was that weird news meme that Sarah Palin didn’t know even what she didn’t know. Or the other day I was watching Lou Dobbs on TV and he said, “Doesn’t anybody deserve a government that works?” in that shitty, snarky tone of his. He makes two completely wrong assumptions. 1) That our financial systems and government is actually broken. This would be pretty offensive to someone that lives in Zimbabwe or Haiti and 2) that there is some kind of ideal political harmony that the United States has yet to reach. That seems like a fundamental misreading of democracy and the kind of capitalism that we have. We are a constant work in progress. The American government and the American economy are both just works in progress. Everything that’s happened in the last couple of months seems to highlight just how little I think most people grasp this concept and how much everyone wants reassurance. Who the hell knows?

Can you break down what has happened to the United States Financial system?

There has been a massive credit devaluation resulting in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which was a $700 billion dollar bailout and plus $200 more for Freddie and Fannie, plus another $100 billion going to things I don’t comprehend. It’s kind of a science fiction concept—everyone is losing faith in certain economic principles but no one is really sure to what degree. There’s only one science fiction movie I’ve ever heard of that has economic collapse as it’s theme, and its called Americathon, and came out in 1979. The idea is that it takes place in 1998 and the movie opens with Jimmy Carter getting hung. John Ritter is the President and the whole country is out of gas. Everyone lives in their cars and the country needs to come up with $400 billion dollars, which is kind of a quaint number now, so they have an Americathon, a telethon for America. Harvey Korman is the MC and it’s just every ridiculous act they can come up with over the course of 30 days…most of them are ventriloquist acts, and Meatloaf is in there. And they desperately have to come up with this money or this American Indian guy who runs Nike is going to foreclose on the country. Really man, it’s ridiculous, I don’t think you could have a totally serious movie about this concept because it’s creepy.

It’s like if everyone at a Dodgers game, all 25,000 people suddenly looked at each other and were like “What the fuck are we doing? This is a children’s game.”


So we’re just waking up to our make-believe consumer economy?

This situation that we’re in right now was a fault of de-regulation, specifically the Glass-Segal Act that kept investment and commercial banks separate which was a basic safeguard of the New Deal. That was eviscerated by the Graham-Leech-Bliley Act, which I can only remember the name of because it sounds like it was written by three obese politicians. That came out in 1999 under Clinton, and the motivation sprang from this deep Republican philosophy, this anti-big-government strain that may or may not have died this past Fall. This antagonism against government goes back to Jefferson. The version we live with right now is only a little bit older than me. It was championed by Goldwater in the mid-60s and then popularized by Reagan. It just kills me that the day these Republicans cracked open the first morning paper and read SHIT JUST GOT REAL in all-caps, 96-point type, the large majority of them tossed their convictions out the window. You could say that Reagan is clawing in the inside of his casket, but of course he was just fine with the government as long as his defense contract buddies got a slice.

Is Conservatism in its current incarnation dead?

I feel like the bailout has more consequences than the election. This Goldwater-Reagan antigovernment horseshit has inspired this wide range of political thought across the spectrum, with the new Centrist Democrats. It was Bill Clinton who said the era of big government is over. It’s not just mainstream across the parties. There are Libertarians who talk about how much they hate the government. Every leftist I know talks about ‘the government’–“they think the government is the enemy when in reality reductive thinking is the enemy.”. One would hope after all this there would be more perspective in left-wing circles, but you and I both know that’s not going to happen. What I’m thinking is that government regulation would have prevented the meltdown in the first place. Controls aren’t always bad. For that matter, government isn’t always bad. I was pretty bummed at the 2000 election recount, but you know what? It was nowhere near as bad as the Mexican Congress getting into a fistfight mosh pit after their election in 2006. I was embarrassed to be Mexican after that one, and I’m not even Mexican.

I’m sure there’s literally dozens of Republicans who this time last year, never in their wildest dreams would have imagined that they’d be voting for the nationalization of any kind of American financial institution. It’s just a matter of what kind of political rhetoric is offered to future lawmakers. The government spends 25 billion dollars a year on the drug war. Legalization seems like a hippie pipe dream right now, but ten years from now, who knows?

How serious is this, really?

Nobody knows what’s going to happen. It’s just too large to grasp. The grand total for the 3 biggest projects of the 20th century, the Marshal Plan, the Manhattan Project and the Moonwalk total up, in 2008 dollars, is under 300 billion dollars, less than a third of the bailout package. Regardless of whatever you think of these programs, they’re all staggering feats of human ingenuity. One landed a spacecraft on a moving planetoid and the other invented the means to kill everyone on earth. I think that those are impressive, and it seems weird that there’s been no discussion, or little discussion of the scale involved this time around.

What does the economic meltdown mean for subculture?

I would love to see a real thinning of the herd, and seeing less bands and less shows. That would be wonderful. I don’t think there are that many people who aren’t teenagers who really enjoy going to shows these days. There’s just too much stuff. Every large city you go to has these telephone poles covered in faded fliers that have stapled there by bands that are never going to go anywhere, by people who aren’t particularly creative, who aren’t amazing songwriters. That is a direct result of the 90’s, when this country just had too much money. I would rejoice if there was a drastic reduction of the American underground. With an actual Depression in the range of The Great Depression, if things got apocalyptic, there would still be bands, but they would be playing on the 19th century model. Touring banjo acts, touring vaudeville shows would come through town maybe get a can of beans, or get enough gas or hydrogen or whatever the hell it is we’re using to fill up our cars. Maybe the next generation of kids will use rocks and old tennis shoes to pretend that they have iPods and cell phones.

Is this the post-apocalyptic folk-punk fantasy we were always hoping for?

God, I hope not. But look, even if the next fifteen years are as bad as The Great Depression, so what? Everyone survives. People survived the Great Depression. There were a dozen big recessions or panics—Panic of 1907, Panic of 1894, The European Depression in the 1870s and 1880s. These things happen, man. I’m not particularly worried about civilization. The thing that does scare me is that this country for a while will be like someone recovering from a long bout of pneumonia.

People will keep touring no matter what.

A friend of mine’s nephew is in some touring punk band in one of these subgenres whose name I probably wouldn’t even recognize. I was asking him about this six or eight months ago when gas was $4.50 a gallon and he was just saying that they were doing it anyway. They were just so committed that they were just going to go for it and that there were tears on the phone when he talked with relatives, but that they just weren’t going to stop. I think a lot of people are driven that way. When I was in college, in bands in my early 20s, we would talk a lot about the hidden motivations of corporations, and corporate research. But what I’ve come to realize in the years since is that the flipside is just as real. If your lifestyle is on the line, that is just as much of a motivational force that can drive people to drastic measures. If you feel like your artistic integrity is on the line, man. People will do insane things to protect what they see as their vision of artistic integrity. People’s self-delusional capacity to continue in the face of economic adversity I think is much stronger. I know that because I was in that position more than once. I’ve been on some tours where everyone felt it was completely futile, but we had that feeling that our artistic integrity was on the line. I think for people younger than me are still laboring under the illusion that things matter.

Are we just harkening back to the past and refusing to live into the present?

I don’t know enough about punk rock at this point to make any statements about where it’s going. I don’t feel like I’m involved. I haven’t gone to shows in a long time because it would bum me out. I do think that all artistic mediums reach the point that punk and hardcore have been at for the last 15 years, which is being faced with this wall of tradition. Every year there are exponentially more bands acting more out of tradition than out of innovation. Not by any fault of their own, but that they had the fine misfortune of being born when they were. I was born in 1969 and started going to shows in ’85, and that first year all the people I hung out with at shows all they talked about was how it was over, how Minor Threat had broken up and the whole thing was up. When I started doing bands, my friends and I were acting out of tradition as well, because we were saddled with this precedent. That’s a bad combination when you stack it up with almost unlimited physical production because CDs made recorded output a lot cheaper in the 90s. And also now, anyone can get the software for a couple of hundred bucks and the hardware and record anything they want in their house and post it online. So obviously, that’s going to mean a glut in the marketplace of ideas.

Has access to the means of production resulted in a surplus of consumable, creative products?

I have been very interested in the last couple of years with this realization that I’ve made that rock music ended its evolution in the late-90s. You could make an argument that grunge was a new entity, but no one is making an argument about all the sub-genres now—indie music, pop-punk, emo, whatever the hell you call it—they all have the energy of rock and roll music, but none of the innovation. No one is claiming that these are innovative genres anymore. It’s a lot of people acting under the impulse of tradition. I feel strongly that in the 21st century, rock music is going to be what the Wild West was to the 20th century. It’s going to be this period of American culture that is going to be deeply mythologized in new, artistic format—I don’t know what those will be yet, although the insane success of Guitar Hero in the last three years gives us some indication of where we’re heading. I don’t foresee there being anything new happening in any subgenre of rock music and that definitely includes punk music. I think that the evolution of those genres has been capped. I understand that that might be some kind of an offensive premise for someone who’s young and just gotten into a band and maybe doesn’t understand that you can be wildly enthusiastic about what you’re doing but at the end of the day, it’s not the same thing as Woodstock, or the No-Wave scene, or being a touring hardcore band in 1984. I completely feel that lack of innovation about every band I’ve been involved in—I don’t think hardcore has really been innovative since 1986. Not my fault. I had the fine misfortune to be born in 1969 and missed the boat completely. If there is some serious Economic collapse, that will be good for everyone artistically, because it will help people to create some new art form that can be just as vital as American punk or American hip-hop was, or jazz or hip-hop or vaudeville, or any of these other great creations that are unique to our cultural perspective.



  1. The fuck are there no comments?!??!? This interview was amazing! Macpheeters’ answers have a rad , stream-of-consciousness lateral thinking, combined with an analytical side that balances it out. Seriously I’ve been bugging my friend for a week to send me the link to this shit and I got to say it did not dissapoint. Rock on.

  2. This is an insanely good interview. Sam is fucking awesome. Plus he’s funny, in a sad but true way. I especially liked the bit about artistic integrity. Ha. How cheap it is to record can be awesome but at the same time makes things too easy for the people who don’t really care. Look at the plethora of weak vaguely dance “punk” music bands making totally facile shit these days, aping what was already done well in the 70s and 80s. You can let it bum you out or you can turn it off and put on something better instead.

    And I don’t even want to think about the economic crisis anymore. I studied political economy in college for two years but it was just too depressing. Same with the concept of music going in the direction of Guitar Hero. But there will always be plenty of weirdos out there doing their own thing, and at least a handful won’t suck and a few will end up blowing my mind. And for that I am thankful.