Selling out. Uh-oh. That old chestnut. A potentially tedious debate involving much punk posturing and raised voices. It takes a brave person to research and write a whole book about it. Dan Ozzi is that person. Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994 – 2007) is that book, an ambitious deep dive into the nitty-gritty of eleven bands that signed on the dotted line and may or may not have read the small print.
For a while back there, when Dan Ozzi was writing for Vice’s music page Noisey, it felt a bit like having one of our own inside the castle walls. Articles about AJJ, Pup, Chuck Ragan, Avail, Laura Stevenson, Bomb The Music Industry!, and a host of other quality punk and punk-affiliated artists were gracing the homepage of the site, snuck in amongst those performatively aloof headlines about whatever people of a certain age group listen to these days. That’s not to say Dan was any kind of imposter; the bloke can write. The bloke can write jokes. Alongside the welcome levity that’s as much a part of a Dan Ozzi piece as the subject matter there was always a reverence, respect, and warmth for the genre and the artists, many of which he now considers good pals.
Dan left the world of corporate online music journalism in 2019. By then he’d already turned his hand to authorship, penning the 2016 biography of Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace to produce one of the most affecting music bios ever written: Tranny; Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. Billboard included the book in their list of the 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time, Laura and Dan’s effort just pipped to the number 42 spot by David Byrne’s How Music Works. Dan has since continued to document punk rock (and other lofty subject matter) on his own Substack page.
October 26 saw the release from him of another book, Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994 – 2007). It’s a hugely expansive project, documenting the majors’ combing of the U.S. punk rock circuit for that post Nevermind cash cow. Each of the eleven chapters documents the fortunes of one particular band as they climbed from the basement to the boardroom. It’s a remarkably balanced and fair-minded piece of work considering the ill-will, long-held grudges, and cognitive dissonance this topic can potentially dredge up. Stars rise, bubbles burst. There are winners, losers, casualties—there is Fat Mike and Victory Records. There’s no Jeff Rosenstock but don’t worry, he’s mentioned a bunch in this interview. Dan covers it all in his usual, pithy style. It’s very good.
Recently I had an intercontinental video-chinwag with Dan about the writing of Sellout; rock A&R people as actual humans; major label scapegoating vs. Jawbreaker’s innate dysfunction; Googling naked pictures of Blink 182 at the behest of publishing lawyers; and dead animals as his life-long zine muse. Also, Jeff Rosenstock.
When we enter the conversation John and Dan are discussing the virtues or otherwise of Skype and Zoom.
John: I think I heard Zoom was dodgy, like maybe sketchy.
Dan: I assume that any largescale app I’m using is compromised.
John: There’s a Russian listening right now.
Dan: Honestly, if they can help get my book available in Russia that’d be cool!
John: Are you doing any international translations?
Dan: Not yet. Everything’s been going so well with the book launch and that’s the only roadblock I’ve had is getting it overseas. I’ve had people saying “I’m trying to buy your book in the U.K.” It’s been frustrating and I don’t know how to help them, but I’m working on it.
John: You should ask Jim Ruland, the guy who wrote the Bad Religion book. I bought that here in Spain, in Spanish. So you should get his people to talk to your people!
Dan: I mean, it’ll happen eventually. My last book has been in seven languages, but it’s frustrating that it’s not happening concurrently.
John: So before we talk about the book a bit more, let’s do some housekeeping. You have actually done some stuff for Razorcake in the past right?
John: How much stuff? I know you contributed to the Punknews Buyout article?
Dan: That was something they kind of asked me to write. If I’m being honest, I don’t remember it too well. I remember people were mad because it was contributor run and there were people profiting… I can’t really remember the ins-and-outs of it.
(It was awesome. It was about the buyout of an independent site by a major entity and what the buyout meant. There were graphs. –John)
Dan: I feel like I’ve written a couple of reviews. I haven’t done all that much, but my name has appeared in it somewhere.
John: So anyway, when you were writing the book how much did your opinions change about major labels? You must have had a few prejudices or ideas before—how did they change during the course of researching and writing it?
Dan: I definitely grew up in an era that primed me as a young person to be completely averse to a major label or the words “A&R guy.” But I never really had much of a specific picture of it. It was just very shadowy. It was just an evil word—“major label”—and you didn’t really think much beyond that. But researching the book, I talked to a lot of the very real people who worked at these record labels. I talked to the bands who dealt with them, and I definitely got a more nuanced understanding of them. One of the things that I was enlightened about was a lot of times the A&R guys weren’t just guys with ponytails and suits. I mean, in some cases they were just music biz—kind of slimy guys—but a lot of times they were just guys who had played in bands who grew up doing their college radio stations and now they work at Atlantic Records and just want to help bands they knew get more popular. So I definitely got a more nuanced understanding of the A&R guy as not just this fat cat in a suit, but someone who really did care about this music.
John: To me it all kind of seems like one big, amorphous lump of industryness. Whereas now you can put faces to names at individual companies. I don’t think many people who’ve complained about majors have ever really distinguished between Sony, Warner, Reprise, and those other subsidiaries, but you must do that now. You must have that knowledge.
Dan: A bit, but I think more than the companies themselves, the labels were kind of dictated by the people who worked there. When you talk to the people who worked at those major labels, they talk about eras of the label, like, “Oh yeah that was when Gary Gersh was president and under Gary Gersh it was like this.” And then sometimes the label gets restructured, Gary Gersh gets laid off and a bunch of other people get laid off, and then it becomes an entirely different label.
A lot of the people who I talked to in bands were like, “You’ve really got to love the person who you sign with, not even so much the label.” Because, like you say, the label is this big, amorphous thing, but at the end of the day you need a number to call and ask, “Hey, can we get some more records?” or whatever. You just want that person on the other end of the phone to pick up. So I think more than labels, I was glad to put those names to the faces so we know who we’re talking about. Like who was the guy who signed Jawbreaker? Did you know until, like, last year? Because I didn’t! We just knew that, “Ooh, Jawbreaker went to a major label and that ended their career.” But, no, there was a real guy called Mark Kates, and he was friends with Mission Of Burma and he was a radio DJ in Boston. He had good taste in music and legitimately wanted to help Jawbreaker. It wasn’t some shady backdoor deal where they tricked them into being on the label.
John: I guess these A&R guys who are kind of “in the field,” they’re sort of between a rock and a hard place because they have to answer to this giant company but they’re also seen with suspicion by the scene itself, so it seems quite thankless at times.
I can identify with that as someone who’s covered indie music for corporate outlets. You are between a rock and a hard place.
Dan: Yeah, and I can identify with that as someone who’s covered indie music for corporate outlets. You are between a rock and a hard place. For me, it’s like— and I imagine this is the same approach these A&R guys take as well—“I can’t speak for any company that I’m writing for. I’m not going to sit here and defend a Billboard or a Vice or a Rolling Stone or whoever I’m representing.” All I can do is be like, “You know who I am, so I’m hoping you’ll trust me.” And it sounds like that was the same for A&R guys too, like, “Yeah, Capitol put out stuff that you don’t like. Disregard that right now. I’m one person and I’m telling you I’m a fan of your band and I want you to trust me.”
John: In the podcast you did with Chris “#2” Barker from Anti-Flag (available to listen to on Dan’s Substack page) you mentioned something called a “key-man clause,” which now just seems like such an obvious thing to have in those contracts. Even before reading your book, I was aware of bands having a hard time on majors specifically because one or two employees of the label moved on or were sacked.
Dan: It happened all the time. Sometimes bands would sign to major labels and before their record even came out there was a massive layoff, especially in the early 2000s when the internet wreaked havoc on the business and they had to restructure a lot. These bands were so excited to work with their guy, they got a good deal, and then their guy was gone. A key-man clause for anyone who doesn’t know—because I didn’t before working on this book—when you’re going to sign for a major label, you have it written into your contract that as long as we’re here, so is our guy, “Because we like this guy and if he’s gone, we’re gone.” So the key-man clause became more prevalent after they saw so much of that happening due to layoffs and restructuring.
John: So that’s the labels themselves. What about your opinions of the bands you covered? For instance, Green Day and Blink 182 come out of it seeming quite level-headed and mature, like they knew what they wanted and went for it, whereas bands with more credibility like Jawbreaker and At The Drive-In seemed almost naïve at times. Like, “Well what did you expect?” Especially At The Drive-In—they didn’t want people stage-diving and crowd-surfing and then signed to a major. They were playing these massive festivals—of course “the norms” are going to be coming to those shows.
A lot of the bands that were a little bit more conscious of their effects on their crowd, it was a very conflicting thing for them to see growth, because with growth comes growing pains.
Dan: Well even though Blink and Green Day came from these local punk scenes, they both had that trait in common where they were both very confident in what they were doing and their potential. With At The Drive-In, I wouldn’t say they weren’t confident, but they were certainly more conflicted about growth. With Blink 182, they just got bigger and bigger and they knew how to handle that. At The Drive-In—when they got a hundred more people coming to the shows, it seemed like there were a hundred more problems that they had to worry about. And, as the guy with the microphone, I feel like Cedric felt the responsibility fell on him if somebody got hurt. A lot of the bands that were a little bit more conscious of their effects on their crowd, it was a very conflicting thing for them to see growth, because with growth comes growing pains.
John: You mentioned certain bands having certain traits. As I was reading it—I know you didn’t write it as any kind of guide, like, “How to sign to a major,” but I was trying to see any kind of patterns or trends that a band might need to survive that would determine whether a band sank or swam. And I couldn’t really find any.
...[A]t the end of the day it all comes down to luck, and I feel like a lot of these bands were really hardworking, but some caught the lucky path and others didn’t.
Dan: Well, because there’s no set technique that’s going to work for everybody. There’re just a lot of freak strokes of good luck. I think a band like Jawbreaker probably did everything right in hindsight. They made a fantastic album with the guy who’d produced Dookie (Green Day’s massive major debut) and they used the same video director as the guy who did the Dookie videos and Blake (Schwarzenbach, Jawbreaker frontman) was a really charismatic guy. They really did all the things they should have done. But, for whatever reason, it just didn’t catch a spark. That’s all it came down to. I’m actually really glad you said you couldn’t pick up a pattern because at the end of the day it all comes down to luck, and I feel like a lot of these bands were really hardworking, but some caught the lucky path and others didn’t.
I think Rise Against is a really good example because that band grinded, going around playing okay shows and in another world Rise Against would maybe be a band that does okay tours for a while on Fat Wreck Chords. But they had this weird, crazy fluke with “Swing Life Away” (very melodic, accessible acoustic single released in 2005) and took off to become this massive band. Record labels know how to position a band, but at the end of the day it comes down to what resonates with people and you absolutely cannot predict that.
John: Like Rise Against in particular, it seems the politics of a band doesn’t necessarily dictate their fortunes. Like you might think Against Me! are bound to have a hard time because of everything they’ve said and done and their position on things, and Anti-Flag as well—but Anti-Flag did all right—like two albums on RCA, and Rise Against I think are still on a major?
Dan: Yeah, I mean they can probably do major label records indefinitely at this stage.
John: So having staunch anti-cap politics won’t necessarily mean you’ll have a good time or a shit time.
Dan: I mean, Against Me! Are a band that I truly love, so this is not to speak ill of Against Me!, but at that time they were really cocky. And it was very much a love ’em or hate ’em attitude because they were so confident. And, when you’re that arrogant, you do kind of paint a target on your back and people are waiting for you to fail. With Rise Against, they didn’t really have that arrogance. They were just kind of underdogs and even Razorcake, when their album came out, the review said something like; “Well this is their major label record and I hope they do well, because they seem like nice guys.” When do you ever hear a fanzine say something like that? So a lot of the backlash did have to do with how the band had positioned themselves. Jawbreaker used to go on stage all the time and be like, “You might have heard that we’re signing to a major. Well, that’s bullshit, we’re not gonna do it,” so of course people were going to be angry when they changed course.
John: And Against Me!’s DVD (We’re Never Going Home) too…
Dan: Yeah, they made that whole DVD about how silly the whole major label thing was and how they were swindling them. And, within six months, they’d signed to a major label. Fat Mike says it in my book: “You can’t have it both ways.”
John: There was something Fat Mike says in the book that I had a question about, actually. He said something along the lines of Against Me! could have been the Fugazi of that era because they could have been the band that were known to be completely independent and that was their selling point. That was the reason so many people were attracted to them in the first place. Is there an equivalent band now who, if you were their manager, you’d say, “Don’t sign any major stuff because you’ll do better as an independent artist with your reputation intact?”
Dan: The person I think of—I love him dearly as a person and I think, in my opinion, is the bridge between that world and the modern world— is Jeff Rosenstock because that’s a guy who has his principles, yet seems to keep growing. But people are supportive because he’s very transparent with his fans. Jeff’s been very good about keeping things accessible to his fans and being very forthright, maybe even to a fault! Jeff is in a fortunate position because I don’t think he’s a guy who people would begrudge if he broke strict anti-capitalist rules. Like, sometimes he’ll be like, “Hey, you want to go to The Bean or Starbucks?” He’s not so anti-capitalist, he just applies ethics to his own music that he believes in. But that doesn’t mean he can’t license a song to The Office (“Can’t Complain” did in fact appear on an episode of The Office), he just has a limit where he wants to maintain that indie ethos.
John: Of all the bands that struggled, which of them were doomed anyway and the major wasn’t necessarily the main contributing factor to their failure because there was something internal that was already fucked?
I think Jawbreaker were at the point where they were thinking, “Maybe we should break up, but maybe also we should try and get a lot of money for a record,” kind of like have a baby to save the marriage kind of thing.
Dan: Jawbreaker, because you get the sense from the book and also from that documentary (Don’t Break Down) that was made about them—everybody at the time was like, “Well the major label killed them.” But the truth of it is they were having a hard time as a band. I think they were at the point where they were thinking, “Maybe we should break up, but maybe also we should try and get a lot of money for a record,” kind of like have a baby to save the marriage kind of thing. And so they made the record—in hindsight a great record—but they just couldn’t hold it together. I don’t know if there’s a universe—even if that record had taken off—where they could have held it together. I think major labels got a really bad rap for killing Jawbreaker, but the truth is they were not super functional at that time.
John: They’d already broken up once hadn’t they?
Dan: Well they started playing music together at college and so it was kind of off and on then, but the making of Dear You (Jawbreaker’s 1994 album on Geffen, largely reviled at the time, since heralded as a classic) is not one of their strongest mental periods.
John: It is one of the sadder chapters in the book. There seemed to be a lot of general unhappiness throughout that era. They seem like decent guys. I don’t want to paint them as a depressive band.
Dan: And now time has proven that album’s worth and that band’s worth. They got to have a victory lap reunion tour over the last couple of years. And that’s when I actually interviewed them. I interviewed them the morning of the night when their documentary was going to premier in Brooklyn. Had they not had that comeback element to their story, I don’t know if they would have been as primed to talk to me about the end of Jawbreaker.
John: What’s your favorite dinner party factoid from the book, those little interesting facts you can drop into a conversation and they’ll be like, “Well I did not know that”?
Dan: I’ve been doing that for a year! I’ve got a lot of friends who work at indie labels and they’ll be telling me about something and I’ll be like, “Well you know what’s funny? When Thursday did that…” I’m sure they’re so sick of hearing my stories! The stories that I always think are so funny and I loved asking about were when I’d ask about courting, or “wine n’ dine” stories, as they were called. Sometimes you have these kids who are twenty-two and they’re like, “Let’s go out on the company card!” and they’re at a steak house they could never afford and pretty much just embarrassing themselves. There’s a great story that Geoff from Thursday told me about how Island/Def Jam took them out and they were at this really fancy Chinese restaurant. There were these bowls of hand sanitizer and they used them as dipping sauce for their dumplings! Just really bumpkin stuff. I love that dynamic of these kids going out to Ruth’s Chris, you know?
John: The one I had in mind was that politician, Beto O’Rourke (Democrat, ran for U.S. Senate in 2018) being in a band with Cedric from At the Drive-In.
Dan: Yeah, I remember there was a thing that happened recently where Beto didn’t support Bernie Sanders and Cedric called him out for it. But, yeah, they’re both Texas guys and they played in this band. There’s actually this video of them online.
John: Of all those obligations that you have to do when getting a book published, what’s been the weirdest one, the one you didn’t expect?
Dan: What’s always funny to me is the legal read. That’s when a lawyer reads your book and then they tell you what wording you might want to change to protect yourself from a legal aspect. And that’s really funny because you’ll be on the phone with this guy and he’s like, “On page 181 you say Fat Mike gave this guy cocaine. That’s illegal, so why don’t you say this guy got cocaine from somewhere else?” So I always love this lawyer guy correcting my punk stories. It’s just such a funny dynamic.
John: I imagine when it’s stuff to do with business, and there’s money involved and grudges that still exist—so like that guy from Victory Records, who seems like an absolute bell-end. One quote’s just like, “I thought he was a complete asshole.” I mean, I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know what is potentially libellous, but that sounds like it might be… defamatory is the word I’m looking for.
Dan: The U.S. and U.K. have different libel laws. I think ours are a little bit looser. I don’t think there’s a rule about calling someone an asshole in print, but if there’s something that could cause his business damage then there’d be grounds for lawsuit. But then that’s why there’s a lawyer who looks it over and he tells me if I’d be on the hook for something.
I think Blink 182’s penchant for nudity is very well documented. But the lawyer flagged that for me and said, “But can you prove that they were naked?”
Oh, you wanna hear the funniest one!? The lawyer read the Blink 182 chapter, and I’d described their first Australian tour with Pennywise as being something like “a blur of naked mayhem”. I think Blink 182’s penchant for nudity is very well documented. But he flagged that for me and said, “But can you prove that they were naked?” So I’m Googling Blink 182 naked and I emailed him back and said, “I guess I can’t, but here’s a video,” and I sent him a little tour documentary. They weren’t naked but they were shirtless for the entirety of it, and he said, “Okay that’s fine. You can keep ‘naked.’” I think Blink had such a reputation for being a nude-positive band that I think that got me off the hook. But I thought that was such a funny detail, that I had to prove to him that Blink was naked on tour.
John: Searching for naked Blink 182 pictures. That’s your job Dan.
Dan: I was sending him photos like, “Look, they’re kind of naked here” and he was like, “It’s fine.” Then I keep sending him the photos, and he was like, “Dan! We have it. You can stop sending me these photos!”
John: At the end of the book, you say that majors aren’t really financially interested anymore in this type of music. There’s no incentive for them to be signing punk bands. Do you think the stigma of signing to a major from a band’s point of view has reduced a lot?
I think that we just let corporations dig into independent music for seemingly no payoff, which is very unfortunate.
Dan: Yeah, and because I think if you’re a band now—unless you’re very indie and just playing punk venues—and you’re on a Hopeless Records or that level of indie, you still probably have some kind of corporate clause dug into you in some form. Even if it’s just you’re playing Live Nation venues or your music is on Spotify. I think that we just let corporations dig into independent music for seemingly no payoff, which is very unfortunate. So now if a band is operating at that level—even if they’re independent—there’s some corporate interest in their career, so I think signing to a major label wouldn’t be so stigmatized because nobody is so pure anymore. That was the thing about Jawbreaker. Everyone saw them as these white cloth, pure angels who would never touch a dime from the corporations. Then, when they toured with Nirvana, everyone was like, “Wait a second… I don’t like that.” Then when they went to Geffen, then they were tainted. But I think most indie bands at a mid-level have some corporate blood on their hands.
John: I often think that so many people are complicit in bands having to make those ethical compromises because nowadays everyone’s probably downloaded an album for free. It gets harder to lecture a band about selling out when you’ve facilitated the necessity of doing that sometimes, not to say that hypocrisy is new or anything.
Dan: We’re all just playing the hands we were dealt right now. In the ’80s and the ’90s it was a lot easier. I describe it in my book as being a lot more black and white—and you could operate independently a lot more easily or you could go to a major. But now everything seems like one big blur, and the money is so much harder to make, that fans grant their favorite bands a little bit more grace than they might have used to. I’ve listened to albums on Spotify and that band probably isn’t getting any money from me, so who am I to criticise a band if they could get an opportunity to get money through a bigger label?
John: Another thing I didn’t really consider when I was younger was the class element. It was often middle-class, upper-middle-class young people slamming working class bands for seizing the only opportunity they might ever have to have any kind of financial success.
Dan: For sure. I found an interview with Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day) that I couldn’t find again, but I think he was asked one time in an interview about the socio-economic factors behind selling out—because he was from a really shitty town called Rodeo, which was primarily a factory refinery town. His dad died. His mom was a diner waitress. And so you give this kid the opportunity to make some money and feed his family and people get on their high horse and begrudge him for it. Did anyone ever consider what Billie Joe’s home life was like, and that a few thousand dollars would change his life? There’s a great line from Tim Macllrath from Rise Against in the book where he’s like, “Good for them, they have families.” Nobody’s ever said that in the history of punk.
John: I think Mike Dirnt (Green Day bassist) also had it pretty harsh.
Dan: Well, this is one of the things that got cut out of the book, the really early Green Day stuff. I think his mom moved and he didn’t want to leave, so he moved in with the Armstrong family. He legitimately didn’t have a place to live.
John: But does that excuse the last couple of Green Day albums?
Dan: [literally rofling] Well I think they’ve got enough money now that we can start criticising them again!
John: So you must have read a shitload of zines when you were researching the book. You must have a huge stack of cool old zines from a certain era.
Dan: One of the most helpful things in terms of research is the Maximum Rock’n’roll archives are all online, so I went through all the back issues of MRR. But it gets a little tougher to find the smaller-run ones. And there were so many instances where I was squinting my eyes at these grainy scans of these old punk zines that I found, trying to make sense of them. There are a few libraries that do have punk zine archives. I also had to buy a bunch of issues. Like if it said on Wikipedia that a 2001 issue of Alternative Press had a profile on Against Me!, then I’d have to go and track that down. So I ended up buying a bunch of old magazines on eBay. I bought this magazine called The Face, this British style mag that’s no longer around because they had a big profile on Brody from The Distillers and I think that cost me, like, fifty bucks. So I still have a stack of magazines over there. Maybe I should sell them back on eBay now!
John: Do you have any old Punk Planets? That was so good.
Dan: Well, speaking of Jeff Rosenstock, three years ago I told Jeff that I wanted to write this book. I told him what my idea was and Jeff said, “Oh, yeah, like that Punk Planet issue?” and I was like, “I’m sorry, what?” And he was like, “Yeah there was an old issue of Punk Planet that was kind of about that.” And Jeff just had a big stack of Punk Planets that he must have—I think it was a curb alert on Craigslist, someone was just giving them away—and so I was at Jeff’s house and he found it, and it was a really interesting article by Kyle Ryan, who I interviewed for the book. But it’s funny because the bent is so different. I think the article was written in 2001, and the article positions it as, “Well, this is over. Green Day has run its course, Jimmy Eat World didn’t work out. Jawbox, Shudder To Think, these were all failures.” But, obviously as time went on, Green Day had this wacky comeback story with American Idiot and then Jimmy Eat World had Bleed American and became a platinum selling artist. So it was so funny to look at an article whose premise was so similar to my book, but all of the information in it had changed over the last decade. But thank you to Jeff for digging that out of his stack of Punk Planets in his hallway!
John: I’ve done that eBay thing of looking for issues of Punk Planet in the U.K. and they’re hard to find, even though they had pretty good distribution there. I think you could get it in pretty big chain stores in the U.K. My friend bought a few of them and I’m massively jealous of his little stack of Punk Planets.
Dan: There’s also that book We Owe You Nothing in which they compile a bunch of their interviews over the years. So there’s one with Kathleen Hannah which is really great and one with all of the members of Jawbreaker that I think Trevor Kelly did. I think Jawbreaker was reissuing Dear You and he interviewed all the members so it was like a post-mortem on Jawbreaker—another kind of snapshot in time because—as a modern reader—you know Jawbreaker’s going to have this crazy comeback story, but at the time talking about Jawbreaker like it was so final and over.
John: Anne Elizabeth Moore, one of the Punk Planet editors, wrote a pretty good book called Unmarketable that was kind of like a more radical No Logo (Naomi Klein) about the appropriation of DIY underground culture. It’s pretty old now though, maybe a bit out of date.
Dan: Interesting. I’ll have to look that up.
John: What about your own zines? You must have written zines when you were younger, when you were in school and stuff.
Dan: I did and I liked it. They were like what early zines always are, which is a young person ranting about things that aren’t actually that important and about which I wasn’t actually as knowledgeable as I thought I was! And I was so resistant to what—at the time they were called “webzines.”
John: Dude! I even hated the term “webzine.” I was like, “There’s already a name for those. They’re called webpages.”
Dan: I know. I was really resistant to that transition and I remember writing something in one of my print zines about how, “We need to resist! We need to resist webzines!” But eventually I saw the writing on the wall. “Well, this is where people are reading about music, so if I want to be read that’s where I should go.”
John: What was your first zine called?
Dan: It was called I Have My Reasons, and the first issue of it had this picture that my friend’s cousin took at the beach. It was this woman who had found a seagull who had its neck wrapped in those six-pack holders and she was trying to help this flailing seagull. That was what I was into as a kid—any time a demo or flier or fanzine—it had to have a dead rat. I was just drawn to dead things. I still am. The other day I was with Jeff Rosenstock and we were walking. There was this possum that had been nailed on the side of the road, and the way it looked—it was just like a perfect blood splatter. And all my friends recoiled and kept walking, but I had to stop and take a photo ’cause I’m like “I know I’m gonna make a fucking zine out of this!” I never outgrew that childish predilection for repulsive, gross stuff.
John: Fair play. Maybe that’s your next zine, just a compilation zine of those photos of dead animals. It might get you arrested.
Dan: I feel like there’s a fine line in art where you can be doing something for art’s sake or doing it ’cause you’re a fucking creepy weirdo. So, I feel like if I use it sparingly, I can be the former, but if I made a whole zine that might get me onto some kind of watch list.
John: The photography then, is that something you’re going to pursue as much as you’ve done with writing?
Dan: It’s something I’ve been getting into more and more over the last few years. Basically, the genesis of it was one day I was backing up my photos. I’d been covering music for a few years and I’d seen so much cool stuff. It’s not like I’d seen Nirvana’s first shows or anything like that, but I had all these photos of these bands that I loved early on and all these photos were blurry, grainy iPhone photos. And I was like, “Man, I wish I had a better document of my very weird life that means I’m privy to a lot of these very cool moments.” So I bought a camera, taught myself how to use it, and brought it wherever I went. I asked everybody who I interviewed for Sellout if I could take their photo and I made a photo book out of that.
John: Major Label Debut right?
Dan: Yeah. And so I’ve just been trying to get better at it. Not so much because I want to be known as a photographer, but because I write for the internet and people tend to like visual things on the internet. So, oftentimes, it’s just a way of drawing people to the actual writing.
John: I mean they’re really good. I’ve seen way worse in actual exhibits. Wait— that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but they are good! I would definitely think about—this is a very L.A. conversation to have—but to find a gallery and put them on the wall. You could get people through the door and have a nice little chinwag with people, like, “Yeah, I took this one at this show.”
Dan: Well before the pandemic Jeff Garlin, the actor from Curb Your Enthusiasm, he’s also a photo hobbyist. I felt a real kinship to him because he’s primarily an actor and he’s around Larry David, Christie Brinkley, and all these famous people. So he started carrying a Leica on him, on set. So he has all these great photos of these cool moments. So I felt a kinship to him because I’m a writer primarily, but sometimes I’m around Against Me! and Pup and Jeff Rosenstock and people who are very photogenic. And so I went to his photo exhibit and I was explaining this kinship to him and he thought it was cool. Actually, I just got hired by a musician friend to write their bio—which I’ve done a million times—but also to take their press photos, which is new to me. And I took the photo part of it so much more seriously. I had the lights set up and I mapped out where the locations would be. I’m sure if I did it as a living I’d get tired of it, but as a hobbyist I found it so exciting.
John: And it’s another string to your bow, right? You’re a journalist, and it’s another form of that.
I don’t think it’s even possible to be just a writer anymore. I know how to edit photos, I know how to edit audio podcasts, I know how to edit videos, I know how to do HTML—all these things they don’t teach you in journalism school...
Dan: Yeah, for sure, I feel like I’m a very compulsive documentarian, so it makes sense for me to have a camera. But also living in the modern world, I don’t think it’s even possible to be just a writer anymore. I know how to edit photos, I know how to edit audio podcasts, I know how to edit videos, I know how to do HTML—all these things they don’t teach you in journalism school but guess what: you’re gonna have to learn them eventually even to a base level if you’re gonna get by making things for the internet.
John: On the topic of having to expand and diversify your skills: podcasts. Is that something you’d like to do more of? Because, again, so much stuff that would have been a written interview a few years ago is now a podcast. I know you kind of do it tongue-in-cheek because I’ve listened to a couple of the ones you’ve done with your mate David Anthony (No Plus Ones), and you say, “Oh, this is just us speaking,” but they’re pretty good. Is that something you’d like to “lean into,” I think is what they say now.
Dan: Not really, because podcasting now is treated as such a proper business. It all seems pretty uniform to me. They all have their little theme song, they have the same ads for Casper mattresses, and it has to have a bent to it. It has to have a positioning. So I hate that. I like podcasts that are just people talking. I feel like every podcast I listen to, half the episode is the host asking me to like and subscribe and give them a good review on Apple. I despise all of that. I just want to shit talk and record it and people can listen to that.
John: Is that less or more annoying than when they try and cloak it in some kind of irony?
Dan: Yeah, they’re just making jokes about the sponsor, which I feel like at this point is the new just being sponsored. I think at this point sponsors are approaching hosts with the hope of getting a little bit roasted and getting the product a little bit roasted. So I don’t put any ads into any podcasts that I do. I don’t ask people to like and subscribe. I’m really just trying to put out things that I like, which also explains why I don’t make any money off of it, but still, I’d rather have a big following and just not annoy people than have to pump people for subscriptions, reviews, and likes.
John: Well I’ve listened to two or three of your one with David and there was one in particular about that gig the Cro-Mags guy put on in New York during COVID. That was cathartic because it was like listening to what I was thinking and probably what a lot of other people were thinking. A good point you made was that scene [New York brocore] being so much talk, but so little action…
Dan: About racism, specifically! That episode pulled us out of podcast retirement because we were so angry about it, not so much that they had a show in New York during COVID when we were just starting to think about opening up, but the way they handled the backlash to it. They were positioning it as like, “Over the last year we’ve had protests, and this is our protest,” and the way a lot of them were doing it was really delegitimizing Black Lives Matter and the anti-police protests that we had and people worked so hard for. So if you want to play a show in the fucking park, play a show in the fucking park. There’s no need to make a political statement about it as if you’re Black Lives Matter. You’re fucking not. You’re just some white guys in their fifties who wanted to play music. Fine, but no need to rope BLM into it.
John: Yeah. Well Dan thanks a lot, I really appreciate this. Have a good day. It’s really weird because you’re back in time for me.
Dan: Yeah, I’m going to get some lunch right now.
John: I’m going to make some dinner. That’s crazy!
Dan: Great, well thanks so much, I appreciate it.
John: No worries, thanks a lot. Bye!
John Miskelly is thirty-five and lives in Gijón/Xixón in the north of Spain. A number of his short stories and interviews can be found on the Razorcake website. He is on twitter @JohnMisk and Instagram @johnmiskelly86