Welcome to the third installment of Paging All Punks, in which I talk to writers about punk rock.
Chris L. Terry has deep roots in the punk scene. His frenetic presence in the Richmond band Light The Fuse And Run elevated the band above their noisy early 2000s peers. Chris is a great writer, as well; his 2013 debut novel Zero Fade drew acclaim from Kirkus and Slate.
His new novel Black Card takes a hard look at race through the lens of its unnamed, mixed-race narrator. I talked to Chris the day after Labor Day about 2019 Richmond punk, growing up near Boston, and the (often unfulfilled) promise of indie press. You can find Chris at www.chrislterry.com or @chrislterry.
Chris: I was thinking of Massachusetts because I know you live there. I was just eating a salad and listening to Lana Del Rey and remembering that one of my cousins, last time I was up there, was teasing me for eating a salad. He was like, “Look at you being all California!” I had New England on my mind.
Mike: You grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, right?
Chris: Yeah. My mom’s from Arlington. We lived in Newton until I was fifteen.
Mike: And then you moved to Richmond at that point?
Chris: Yeah, my dad’s from there.
Mike: Did punk rock come first or writing?
Chris: I guess writing came first. It was the first thing I ever did at school that I really plugged into. That would have been third grade. We had an assignment to write a story, and a light went off in my head. I had a lot of fun doing it. I need to be passionate about something to give it my all, and when I’m into it, I’m really into it. That was the case with writing.
But, also, I became a music geek a year later. This would have been fourth grade, late 1980s. I was getting some of the popular rap at the time, like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, and some of the popular hard rock, like Poison and Guns N’ Roses. My dad was a big music fan, so he was supportive of me listening to music.
I got into punk in middle school, through skateboarding. This was at the tail end of the era, when skateboarding was supposed to be a rock’n’roll thing and it was weird to pair it with rap music. It was cool to see that changing: “I told you I could listen to A Tribe Called Quest and skate! Come on!” It didn’t have to be so rigid.
Mike: Were you finding out about punk bands through Thrasher, or your friends, or some other way?
Chris: In Thrasher, they’d do little write-ups of a half a dozen bands every month. If I had some money, I’d go and find one of their tapes—those risks you would take before the internet, before you could vet an album. It would be, “This is the cheapest Black Flag album, so I’m going to get this one, even though it’s an EP.” And it was I Can See You, the four-song record from their later era. I was like, “This isn’t what I imagined Black Flag sounded like from reading Thrasher.”I had some of those scenarios. Also, one town over, in Wellesley, the public library got a big renovation, and they had a big music section. I remember being in the eighth grade and getting Singles Going Steady by the Buzzcocks and London Calling by the Clash and White Light/White Heat by the Velvet Underground, all in one especially serendipitous trip to the library. It set a blueprint. I could work from these old things and then work back from what bands like Nirvana were covering and start meeting in the middle.
I got involved in DIY punk in Richmond. A few months after we moved there I started going to DIY shows. My first one was a straightedge band called Four Walls Falling, who were a cult favorite in Virginia. They were the first band on Jade Tree.
Mike: It’s funny with Thrasher, because prior to the internet it was a series of happy coincidences that let me cobble together some kind of punk timeline, or history. Like I remember a picture of Ian MacKaye playing with Fugazi in Thrasher, and I was like, “He’s still playing in bands after Minor Threat!” I had no idea. Now it’s a given that you can find someone’s life work. Do you miss that, or do you like it the way it is?
Chris: I sure don’t miss spending fifteen bucks on a CD that only has two songs that I like.
Mike: For real.
Chris: I’m forty years old, so the sense of having a sense of discovery around music is less likely at this point. I appreciate the convenience of being able look stuff up, to find stuff, and go through less trial and error, because I don’t have as much free time.
It would be interesting to talk to a teenager who’s having some of those discoveries for the first time and get a sense of how they’re finding music. I’d love to hear those punk rock origin stories for somebody who was born in 2005.
Mike: Four Walls Falling was happening in Richmond. Were you clued into Whirled Records? Was it about that time?
Chris: Yeah, it was that era. I knew Pat (Snavely) and Ben (Snakepit) from Whirlybird. I haven’t talked to Pat in a long time.
Whirled Records was awesome. They put out a couple of comps. I remember they had Attaining The Supreme. It was a play on the Pizza Hut logo.
Their comps were a great way to find DIY bands, especially ones operating in the Southeast. There weren’t really a lot of eyes on what was going on in South Carolina, for example. I don’t know if In/Humanity or Assfactor 4 were those Southeast hardcore, fuck yeah! types of bands.
Mike: I never heard them described as fuck yeah! bands, but I know what you’re talking about. [laughs].
Chris: There was a 7” comp that had a bunch of bands from Florida and South Carolina on it. Palatka was on there. A lot of those really—not quite powerviolence, but short, fast, screaming kinds of bands.
But yeah. I remember Whirled Records. Why do you ask?
Mike: Early on, like 1994 or 1995, when I was going to UNH, those guys in Whirlybird stayed with me at Boy Scout camp. I was blown away because they were my age and had a label and were touring. They knew more about what was happening in Boston than I did. That’s when I started to be aware of the community aspect of punk beyond zines—meeting people in real life instead of just being pen pals with them.
Chris: Yeah. They went on a five-week tour. Everyone’s mind was blown that they’d managed to go on tour for a month. I remember that.
I’m trying to remember when I started seeing things as a bigger picture than what was going on in Richmond, knowing that it was interconnected. It must have happened pretty quickly. It was probably through getting comps like the stuff Whirled Records was putting out. I lived in the university district in Richmond, so I could go to college-age punk shows pretty easily. I was on a pretty long leash from my parents. I was the sixteen-year-old kid at the basement show.
Mike: So it terms of seeing threads connecting towns, when do you think the idea became less of an abstraction for you? When did it become real?
Chris: I used to read lots of music zines.I got scene reports in Maximum Rock’n’roll. I really like the way Chris Boarts covered venues in Philly and New York in Slug and Lettuce. Reading those zines, I got an idea of where DIY punk stuff was popping off. It was interesting—in my head, Goleta, Calif. was as big as San Francisco because HeartattaCk was writing about Goleta. It was funny to go there ten years later; it was one freeway exit! [laughs]
I think it happened pretty quickly.Also the fact that I had moved down the East Coast. Boston and Richmond are worlds apart in a lot of ways, but it’s not a terrible drive. I remember some of the early touring I did was going to Boston and back. We never had to be in the van for more than two or three hours, traffic allowing, you know?
Mike: Was that your band, Light The Fuse And Run?
Chris: Yeah. I had a band before that called Flesh Eating Creeps. That was ages sixteen to twenty. We did a few weekend trips, mainly farther into the South and into the Midwest. I first started travelling out of town, doing shows when I was maybe sixteen years old. Light The Fuse And Run did a lot more. I was just talking to my old bandmates, and we did a count. I think we played around three hundred shows over the course of three years.
Mike: That’s a lot!
Chris: Yeah, the country got a lot smaller. I was in my early twenties by then.
Mike: You were talking about your parents giving you a really long leash. For a seventeen-year-old kid to start playing all those shows is crazy.
Chris: I was on a pretty long leash. But I’m pretty strong-headed, so I think I would have done it anyway, even if they didn’t want me to. But I wasn’t drinking and drugging. Their main concern was, “Don’t screw up in school because you’re doing this,” but they could tell I wasn’t the most passionate student at the time. I was passionate about travelling and playing music. They’ve always been supportive of my creative endeavors. My dad’s a music lover and my mom’s a librarian, so they feel the books and the records.
Mike: I went back and did some homework on your band—I watched YouTube videos.One thing that made an impression on me was how exhausted you must have been after every show. You don’t stop moving in any of those videos. It’s that herky-jerky screamo spazz dance, and you’re in it the entire time.
Chris: I wish I still had that same level of energy. I’ve always had a lot of nervous energy. You drive four hours to get to a show, you want to move around. That helped.
I remember once Light The Fuse And Run played in Connecticut. We had a long day in the van—I think we played a matinee at ABC No Rio in New York and then drove up where UConn is that night. We were hyped by the time we got out of the van. One of the locals said, “Are you on the speed?” It became a running joke that we were on the speed.
Mike: I can see why someone would ask you that. If you were going to lump yourself into a scene, who were your contemporaries at that point?
Chris: We were on Level Plane Records. The label was emblematic of that early 2000s music—people call it skramz now. Chaotic scream. We used to play with Hot Cross a lot. We did a record with them. Off Minor. City Of Caterpillar. We toured with Transistor Transistor, who are from New Hampshire. We were lumped in with that scene, but I’d say we weren’t as chaotic as those bands. A little bit more rock’n’roll. I think we had more in common with Refused and Fugazi. But we were definitely in that dyed black hair scene, white belts.
Mike: There were videos where everyone in the band is playing with their backs to the audience.
Chris: Very performative emo stuff.
It was funny because that scene had a reputation for pretense. We were a bunch of beer-drinking goofballs from Virginia. It could be funny sometimes. I think that scene gets a bad rep.
Mike: I remember I got a lot of CDs for review back then had some bullshit manifesto inside where they ripped off Nation Of Ulysses.
Chris: Right. That sounds about right. It was an Ebullition Records thing to do.
Mike: Sure. Even though I didn’t agree with everything Kent (McClard, from HeartattaCk/Ebullition) said, I admired that he carved out a space to say what he did. That was different than band manifestos because I don’t think they all realized Ulysses was a take on the Black Panthers.They didn’t know what the source material was.
Chris: The cool thing with Kent McClard was that you got a through line with all the music he was releasing. You saw it as a big picture movement. Ulysses was pulling from the Black Panthers, and I think there were also some academic art movements, like Situationism, which I’m not terribly aware of.
Also, Ulysses was slightly tongue in cheek. To me, they were funny. That was totally lost in translation to some people.
That was a weird era, with the push and pull between black radical aesthetics and Caucasian punk aesthetics. There was a band in Richmond called the (Young) Pioneers, with some guys from Born Against. They were a precursor to folk punk. They use a lot of Black Panther in their art, a lot of black radical stuff from the ’60s. I figure that probably not wouldn’t fly in 2019, but it was a revelation for me at the time. I was in high school, experiencing some discomfort that I’ma black person who liked punk rock, which was not a common thing then. So it was cool to see these politics I was already aware and interested in, like seeing a picture of Eldridge Cleaver on a punk rock flyer. I was like, “I can like these things!” It was another thing like, “See? Skateboarders can like rap music!”
Mike: In terms of the Black Panthers, the gateway for me was the Democratic National Convention in 1968, learning about the Chicago Eight. Johnson passes this civil rights bill, but sneaks in a clause that crossing state lines to incite riot is a federal crime.
Chris: That’s interesting. For a freelance job I’ve been doing, I’ve been researching the white backlash against the civil rights movement. The time I’m covering ends around 1968. I didn’t know that part. It’s interesting to hear some of the Black Panthers talk about LBJ. They hated him! [laughs]
Mike: During the time you’re playing all these shows, you’re putting out a zine called gullible, right?
Chris: Yeah, I started doing that in high school. I guess I was about sixteen. I did it on and off. I did the last one maybe ten years ago. I slowed down by the time I was in my early twenties. I was getting a creative writing MFA about ten years ago, and I was like, “If I’m going to go into all this debt for writing, I should put my energy into a book.” So that was the end of that for now. It was an early outlet for my writing. A personal zine. To be honest, I’m mortified to go back and look at it. I don’t like revisiting my old artwork. I’d like to remember it fondly or just continue being embarrassed by it.
Mike: The gratitude people our age have that not everything is available on the internet.
Chris: Oh, man. Yeah.
Mike: I go back and I read my own stuff now and there are so many adjectives, so many adverbs. The prose is so bad that I’m grateful nothing is up any more.
Chris: I don’t even want to read my first book, and that came out six years ago.
Mike: Your MFA was in Chicago, right? Columbia College.
Mike: A lot of people I know who went to school for writing in Chicago seem like they’re plugged into punk. It must’ve been a nice spot for you, and a fairly easy transition from band stuff to writing.
Chris: It was. Are you thinking of Joe Meno?
Mike: I’m not thinking of him specifically. Todd Dills went to school in Chicago. Do you know him?
Mike: Susannah Felts used to go there, too. The way they’ve described it to me sounds punk rock. Todd used to do the 2nd Hand, which I ripped off for Cabildo Quarterly. And Joe Meno was there too, like you said. Did you know there was going to be this punk aesthetic to the program?
Chris: Joe Meno was how I first heard about it. I was interning at Akashic Books, who did a few of his novels. It was right when The Boy Detective Fails was coming out. He was a professor there. I knew that I wanted to get an MFA in a couple years, so I had the school in the back of my head. And I wanted to live in a major city.
I spent some of my mid-twenties trying to do something besides punk, which didn’t work out very well. It was refreshing to move to Chicago and meet people who were in my age bracket living reasonably responsible adult lives, playing in bands, and being active in the DIY scene. Also, I had more free time because I was in school, not working full time. I could go to shows, and I fell in love with punk again while being in school in Chicago. I went to see This Is My Fist! and the Arrivals, Canadian Rifle—a lot of good bands.
Mike: Were you trying to do something specific besides punk, or were you burnt out on it?
Chris: I was burnt. Light The Fuse And Run broke up when I was twenty four. I finished undergrad and was feeling stuck in Richmond. I felt like I needed to go somewhere else so I could do something besides work in food service. I was also starting to think more about my identity as a black person. It seemed like there wasn’t a lot of room to do that in punk in the early 2000s, so I wanted to step back from it.
Mike: I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been growing up as a black guy in Boston, which everyone in the country thinks of as this amazing progressive liberal town, but we both know is one of the most backwards and cement-headed towns in the country.
Chris: I usually say I’m black with an asterisk; I have really pale skin, and I often pass by accident. I look pretty Caucasian. I don’t get racially profiled very often. Day-to-day stuff in Boston wasn’t terribly difficult. I didn’t experience a lot of overt racism. I know there’s some systematic or institutional stuff I wasn’t aware of because I was a kid.
The real eye-opener was moving to the South. It isn’t passive aggressive. It’s in your face. There are confederate flags everywhere, confederate monuments. White people say the n-word. That was the eye opener.
I was pretty sequestered in the Boston area. Newton was affluent. A lot of my classmates were Jewish kids who had similar features to me. I didn’t start thinking bout race too much until I was a pre-teen.
Mike: Obviously, the themes of race and identity are in both books—Zero Fade and Black Card, which just came out.
Chris: Zero Fade is more about masculinity. It’s a middle school kid having all his misconceptions about adulthood and masculinity proved wrong. It’s all black characters, that’s in part because I knew I wanted to write about mixed race identity, but worried that if I tried to do it while I was writing my first novel,I’d have a total meltdown and not be able to pull it all off at once.
Mike: When I first became aware of you, it was because you had reviewed my Minutemen book. You were going by CT Terry. I was like, “This dude really loves being from Connecticut.” And I meant to talk to you about this at the Razorcake Quinceañera. We were at the same party and I didn’t get to meet you because I was having such a good time.
With Black Card, you’re Chris L. Terry. Can you tell me about your name changes? Do those have anything to do with having an unnamed narrator in Black Card?
Chris: It’s kinda humorous, but maybe more quotidian than you think. In the 2000s I was doing childcare work, and I didn’t want my writing to be Googleable by parents who I was working for. I started going by CT. Chris is a common name for people my age, so a lot of my friends call me CT.
A couple years later, I was like, “Fuck it, I want to write as Chris Terry.” I was starting to write short stories, and they were getting published. I figured I should own my name. But then I discovered there’s a Chris Terry who’s an English guy who trains drug dogs. There’s a former NFL player with a coke charge named Chris Terry. There’s a guy who writes books about tattoo named Chris Terry. There are a few other Chris Terrys out there. L is my middle initial. It stands for Logan. No, I was not born at the Boston airport—it’s my grandmother’s maiden name. So I started going by Chris L. Terry.
The narrator of Black Card is unnamed. That’s a nod to Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. It’s one of my favorite books, and one that I had in mind writing about mixed race black identity in Black Card.
Mike: One of the ways that I hip my students to media and cultural criticism is with pop culture tests and tropes for movies and TV. The Bechdel Test is fun to talk about, and the Magical Negro is fun to talk about, too.
Chris: [laughs]. Oh, man. Yeah.
Mike: I didn’t put it together! You make it pretty clear throughout Black Card that the character Lucuis is not entirely of this world. In one of the early scenes, he flys in through a car window. I didn’t put the idea of the magical negro together until the reveal. So congratulations! It was fantastic how you did that.
Chris: It came down to calling the book Black Card or Magical Negroes. I went with Black Card.
I hope I’m not spoiling anything for anyone who hasn’t read the book. I thought it was obvious that some of the characters throughout the book are imaginary. People don’t always seem to be getting it, based on the reviews.
I was thinking about the concept of the magical negro a lot. Usually there’s a story about white characters and then a black person shows up, and the only thing they’re there for is to help the white people do something. Like Bagger Vance teaching white people how to golf pops into mind immediately. Or like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost—she’s a shamanistic black woman, a medium who helps Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore get in touch in the afterlife.
That idea of a black person being there, but not to do anything for themselves, to help white people—I was thinking of the ways that could flow when writing magical negroes.
The Lucius character is the arbiter of what’s authentically black and what isn’t for the narrator. The narrator treats Mona, his love interest, as a magical negro—no matter what he says, he seems interested in her because she’s black. He wants to pick her brain about race matters, because he doesn’t have anyone else to talk to about them.
And the narrator investigating black culture and reporting it back to his white bandmates makes him a magical negro for them. So there are stations of the magical negro in the book.
Mike: Which makes me think of Crass before I think of church, so there you go. [laughs]
Chris: You know, I liked your Minutemen book.That was the first time I’d heard your name. That book unlocked Double Nickels on the Dime for me. I was happy when I saw your name in Razorcake, too.
Mike: Thanks! Yeah, because I started doing these tours for my novels with Mike Faloon, who’s been writing for Razorcake forever. When the Minutemen book came out, I did a little tour and I was by myself. I didn’t have a network of people in towns I could tour with or read with. Since those novel tours started in 2012, I discovered that that same sort of underground extends through the writing scene. You must’ve noticed some similarities with that, right?
Chris: Very much so. And my wife is an experimental filmmaker, so I see a similar type of network springing up around underground film festivals in different cities.
But, yeah. It’s been nice to revisit that DIY network of people around the country and have it be about books instead of music. I get to revisit some of my favorite aspects of being in bands, like doing readings and travelling. I did a tour for Zero Fade in 2013, and I was like, “I remember doing this drive with my band, but now I’m in a rent-a-car with my wife. And it smells way better.” [laughs].
Mike: My wife and I do a lot of touring. There’s no money in it anyway, so it’s not driven by finances. I understand that I have the privilege to afford this. We don’t have to do twenty hour drives, and we can stay with people. And we don’t have to lug any gear! My band is getting ready to play again, and the thought of moving my drums to Boston for a night is daunting.
Chris: It’s a lot of those things. It’s easier to sit through a reading than wait through four bands on a weeknight. I can be a little more choosy with the stuff that I do, which is nice.
Mike: The last thing is that I got a copy of your book from your press, Catapult. Your press agent…
Chris: Megan Fishmann?
Mike: Yeah! She’s been more on top of bugging me than any publicity person I’ve ever dealt with.
Chris: How do you feel about that?
Mike: It’s awesome!People like you and me who came up in the punk scene understand the allure of the small press. There were so many record labels that would make promises they couldn’t keep and were huge flakes. Then bands signed to majors. It’s awesome that Catapult has the infrastructure to be more sustainable and follow up on all the promises.
Chris: Megan has been incredible. She’s genuinely passionate about the book. I like her a lot.
It’s been a great experience working with Catapult. I agree that coming into indie publishing from apunk background has certain expectations. They’re usually lower expectations—I know I’m not going to be on Geffen or whatever. I’m going to have to take control of a lot of things and do a lot of the work myself. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I feel like Catapult is plugged into the publishing infrastructure. I have to remind myself to be more hands off sometimes and let them do their thing. I know what my capabilities and limitations are, and they have more capabilities than me. They’re getting me in places I never would have gotten myself. I really like the book itself, too, like the cover.
Mike: It’s got that Letraset look to it, which I like.
Chris: I gave them a bunch of old punk flyers for reference.
Mike: No shit!
Chris: They were going to make the cover, and I was like, “This is your deal, and you’re better at this than me, but it’s a book about punk, but not about people with green mohawks and black leather jackets. It’s a different kind of punk, a different aesthetic.” So I sent them some old Vermiform Records stuff.
They struck a nice balance between modern design and nineties photocopy art.
Mike: It looks really good. And it’s been awesome to see you getting up on so many webpages, too. It’s great that you’ve been getting so much notice.
Chris: Thanks. And thank you for taking the time to talk to me about it.
If you want to hear Chris read some sections of Black Card and talk more about it, give this podcast a whirl.