Henry Owings (Chunklet) :: The AD Interview

Chunklet has been busy of late. Earlier this year the Atlanta based institution released their latest book, The Indie Cred Test, and announced they would be handling both The Olivia Tremor Control’s vinyl reissues as well as a vinyl companion LP to the Jesus Lizard’s reunion-tour DVD, Club. We caught up with Chunklet founder/editor Henry Owings over chips and guac at the Atlanta go-to El Myr to discuss, among other things, self-publishing, the OTC, sacred cows — or lack thereof — and, of course, Whirleyball.

Aquarium Drunkard: Henry, thanks for talking to us, even though the blog takes it’s name from a Wilco lyric.

Henry Owings: Oh, it’s all right. We all have our crosses to bear.

AD: So your new book, The Indie Cred Test basically skewers Pitchfork.

HO: Well it skewers EVERYBODY.

AD: I would agree with that, but their core users seem to be your primary target.

HO: Fine, I don’t care. I mean, you know, whoever says I have a primary victim with what I’ve ever done doesn’t know me very well because I really don’t think that you can say “Oh man, we was targeting X,Y,Z.” Dude, the biggest target in everything I’ve ever done is ME. I have ridiculed myself more than anybody in the pages of anything I’ve ever done. I think that comes across. I really don’t think that anybody is spared.

AD: How has the book done? Has it been a success in your eyes?

HO: It’s done really well. It’s bizarre. It actually got picked up. Somebody bought it off the website — as everybody does because you really can’t find it in stores very much — somebody from Penguin Publishing bought it off the website, and long story short, next year Penguin is putting it out.

AD: That’s awesome. Congratulations.

HO: And all that happened from me just — and I’m not trying to pat myself on the back — but it’s like I really did — I didn’t want to concede to anybody’s ideas of what the book should be and I said, “I know exactly what I am doing.”

AD: You sent it to just one publisher, right?

HO: You know what, I’m kind of an entitled bitch. I know a lot of people hustle.

AD: So it wasn’t Penguin that you sent it to?

HO: Fuck no, I sent it to my old publisher, Quirk, who did The Rock Bible, and I had such a sense of entitlement that I was, like, well fuck it if they’re not going to put it out, I’m just gonna put it out myself. It was DONE. It was written.It was completed. And I didn’t want to fuck around, and I said “I’m just gonna do it myself.”

AD: And then you went to Kickstarter.

HO: I did, yeah.

AD: And it worked out really well, right?

HO: Very well, yeah. A local video crew called Numerica did a great series of videos for it. It was great to have a bunch of people that “got” was I was doing and also could just run with it. All they wanted me to do was like to just pretend to abduct a baby. And play Russian roulette. You know, shit like that. Stuff that normally I would be happy to do anyway. So, yeah, the Kickstarter thing did really well. I think we have a very strong fan base. And I think that if I wanted to do another book tomorrow, I’m pretty confident that the same people would contribute, just because I don’t think anybody would say that they were ripped off by anything that we did. It’s like “Wow, 20 bucks for this? It’s ridiculous.”

AD: Do you think you would use that model again — if not Kickstarter — the same model for another project.

HO: Not tomorrow or anything, but yeah. I think I’m going to do another book. I think it is going to be chronicle of all of the Chunklets, including the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor. If you took every issue of Chunklet — even the last five issues of Chunklet — that’s, like, 600-plus pages. If I got everything I’ve done in a hardcover book, I think people would like that.

AD: Do you envision a sort of “Best Of?”

HO: It wouldn’t be a “Best Of,” I just think it would be everything. I don’t think people understand that Chunklet started as one page. Literally — a page. And that was the first four issues. I think it would be great, as embarrassing as it would be for me to show it to people. It’s kind of like playing people your demo tapes, or something. Somebody’s gonna want to see it. And it’s kind of like saying to people, look — we all had our shaky starts. But moreover, I don’t want people to think that I’ve ever, for a second, considered this a career. I do it because it’s fun. I just happened to be doing this when people could actually sell stuff, whereas now — it’s like Aquarium Drunkard, where people get stuff for free. People are just so accustomed to it. I guess I’m just lucky that I can tap into people that say, “Yeah.” It’s funny, I tell my wife this routinely: I think one of my greatest liabilities is that I got into the buying and selling of hard goods. It’s anachronism [compared to] the buying and selling of ideas, or an attitude, or a demographic. I’m actually selling stuff.

AD: You’ve hinted this last issue — Issue #20 — of Chunklet might be the last one.

HO: I think it was more prophetic. It was more about how magazines just aren’t making it anymore. The “Biggest Assholes in Rock” issue sold 25,000 copies. It went through three reprints. From a critical standpoint I think the newest issue is the best. I really do. And I sold 4,000 copies of it. I don’t get too wrapped up in it. It’s not really about me. It’s more a statement about the playing field. I mean, every magazine is folding. That’s what I’m trying to say.

AD: Over Chunklet’s 18-year history, what’s the one thing you’ve published that sparked the most righteous indignation?

HO: The “Assholes in Rock” issue, which a lot of it, looking back, to me, is kind of sophomoric. Some of the comments that I’ve gotten, especially about, like, Stephin Merritt have kind of stuck with me. I’ll debate anybody, but those have been the kinds of things that stuck the most.

AD: Well, there are some pretty inflammatory stories about Stephin Merritt.

HO: Well, I mean, as Merge will say — and would defy them to debate me in print — they said to me, “There’s a reason Stephin Merritt isn’t on a major label.” And it’s because he’s an insufferable dick. To Merge’s credit, they’re able to foster [that]. It’s not like I’m trying to pick a fight with Merge, they just have to know which side of the toast their bread is buttered. I just don’t live in this insular world where I can’t say what’s the fucking truth. Why can’t I say to you, or in print, or anywhere what I would say in conversation if this tape recorder wasn’t here. I mean, Stephin Merritt is an insanely talented guy, but he’s a dick.

AD: All that said, do you have an archenemy?

HO: Fuck no. I don’t give a shit. No. [Laughs]. No.

AD: What about sacred cows?

HO: No. None. My friends, I routinely fucking crucify them in the magazine or books because I think it’s bullshit if I don’t. I’m friends with some really fey, pretentious people in the music biz and I think every one of them would say, “Henry’s a good guy, you know, he’s just joking around.” I think that what’s always been missing to me is that people just don’t know how to goof off. Here’s good example: I remember Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, etc), I did a record with him like 10 years ago, and in a letter he sent me he said, “Please don’t let this keep you from making fun of me in your magazine.”

AD: That’s awesome.

HO: Yeah, that’s my answer to the sacred cow thing. I think sacred cows are bullshit.

AD: I’m interested in what your music collection must be like by now. Do you have any idea how many records, CDs and tapes you have?

HO: Well, the only CDs I have are the ones I designed, and maybe like 20 that are signed or somehow otherwise personal. I went all digital about 10 years ago. I can’t count the records. Weeks before our daughter was born, I remember my wife coming into my office, 8  ½ months pregnant, and I had had these walls built to hold my records — I had seen this at Peter Buck’s house and said “That’s what I want” and so I gave them to myself as a present — and my wife walks in and points to the records and says, “So when are you going to get rid of these?” And I actually had to say to her, “If and when I die, you sell these to some record store, I will come back from the dead and kill you. Hire somebody to sell these records.” How many records do I have?

AD: Best guess.

HO: I don’t know — 10,000, at least? And that’s after consistently paring it down.

AD: Is there one record you could point to and say, “This started it all.”?

HO: Well, the first record that was given to me, and I think it’s a real unfair record to give to a kid, was The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl, because — if you’ve heard it — it just sounds like an airplane engine, like you can hear the Beatles bleeding in the background. But chronology of music is really kind of boring, because it was all Beatles and then stand-up comedy records.

AD: So the first time you ever walked into a record store and bought a record was…

HO: The first record I bought with my own money? I can clearly remember the first two records I bought in 1983 because they came out the same day: Def Leppard Pyromania and U2 War.

AD: Let’s talk about Olivia Tremor Control and the reissues you’re doing. Obviously you have a long history with them.

HO: They’re some of my oldest friends. In a nutshell, I just love them to death–they’re just bros. I mean in 1993, in Athens finding any other freak in town was, like, a sign of relief, because it was a very kind of played out scene. And Jeff (Mangum), who went on to found Neutral Milk Hotel, and Will and Bill–they were in a band called Synthetic Flying Machine, who I saw routinely. They were kind of like this beautiful mash-up between The Minutemen and Syd Barrett. It was incredible live. They never put out anything, but they would always go out on tour and then they came back and became the Olivia Tremor Control and Jeff was still in the band. And then he left and moved to Denver or Louisiana or something. But Will and Bill and I just became really tight really quickly. And I think a lot of it was, we just “got” each other. It didn’t take very long before I said, “ I want to put out a record by you guys.” So I did “The Giant Day,” which I’m still really proud of. I moved to Atlanta and we kind of drifted apart, but we were still really friendly–they’re just nice guys. The funny part of this story is that before I met my wife, I was dating this girl whole stole those Olivia Tremor Control records on vinyl, so I called one of them up and said, “Hey, can I buy a copy of one of those records off of you?” And they were like, “Dude, we don’t have any.” So I went on eBay, and I was like, “Holy shit, these records go for, like, $100.” So I just said, “You know, can I put these out?” They were going to put them out themselves, but just never got motivated to do it. If it takes a fan/nerd like me to put them out great. I’m more than happy to be that guy.

AD: What do you make of the whole Cult of Jeff Mangum thing?

HO: Nothing against the guy, I mean I saw him play a lot of great shows. I think a lot of it is revisionist history. How is it any different than Slint? How is it any different than Mission of Burma? How is it any different than any band that nobody ever saw and now all of the sudden people become obsessed with the records and then want to see them. That’s where we are. I never got to see Mission of Burma in 1982 because I was 10, but when I got the chance to see Mission of Burma, I was thrilled. I can’t really fault a kid for being really into music that is pretty damn and genuine and legit.

AD: How about a defunct Athens band that people you feel doesn’t get enough respect these days?

HO: The one band that shocks me, that people forget about, that people don’t remember is Macha. They were so fucking good, especially toward the end. They were just doing crazy shit.

AD: Biggest guilty pleasure?

HO: The first U2 album. But I have a problem with the idea of “guilty pleasures.” I always think that that’s a cop-out because it makes it seem like you have to fake “pleasure” in anything. If you like something, you like something and you shouldn’t have to justify it.

AD: But you did have an answer to the question.

HO: U2 was just such an important band to me as a kid and you just look at what…shit merchants they are now. I just do not care about them now, but I sure did love ‘em.

AD: You and your Team Chunklet like to challenge touring bands to games of WhirlyBall when they pass through Atlanta. For the uninitiated, what, exactly, is WhirlyBall?

HO: WhirlyBall is polo and bumpercars.

AD: And Team Chunklet is still undefeated?

HO: Yes, still undefeated. It appears to have dried up a little bit, but there where a number of years there where we were going up there to play, like once or twice a month. But it was very innocent. It just happened to be that, like, my friends in Mogwai or the guys in The Shins would want to come and play. But, yeah, we’re 71-0.

AD: So is there a band out there…

HO: That could come close?

AD: Who you haven’t played that you think might have a shot?

HO: No. However, two things: One, if we ever play Arcade Fire again, they’ll beat us. They’re all jocks. They play tons of basketball. They came this close to beating us. Win is a really huge basketball player, and he’s massive, live 6’5”. For a band that never played before, they came really close. They’re a couple of bands that have said they beat is, which is an absolute fucking lie. One is American Analog Set because they said we “forfeited,” but I was, like, “Dude, I was out of the country!” And then Les Savy Fav said they beat us, which I still think is a complete lie.

AD: That must have been an insane match…

HO: We’ve played them now, like three or four times. They’re good, but they cheat. I just like to think that anybody who comes to Atlanta, and they want to do that, that it wouldn’t be an ordeal. Because what little time I’ve spent on the road compared to a lot of these bands, you just pray for that night of relief. Something different, that’s all I’m trying to do. words/ j kress

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