The Gentle Giant Behind the Surreal Punk Pen
Most people tend to recognize Marc Ruvolo as the tremendous wit and powerhouse vocals behind No Empathy, a Chicago band that helped defined the sound of punk in the city throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In songs like “Ben Weasel Don’t Like It,” he famously mocked the singer of Screeching Weasel, but Ruvolo also helped efforts to establish queercore/homocore in the Midwest, a decision that cost No Empathy fans but also connected him with acts like Vaginal “Creme” Davis. Some may know his role as mastermind behind Johann’s Face, a label that introduced Smoking Popes, Alkaline Trio, and many more bands to the world. In addition, he owned the bookstore Bucket O’ Blood, was a member of other bands, like Chia Pet, Robespierre, Traitors, and the more contemporary, crisp, and tuneful pop punk outfit Fur Coats.
Lately, over the spell of years, he has written impressive and deft speculative/magic realist/surreal fiction and poetry, culminating in the release of his new chapbook Creep and Crow on Alien Buddha Press. Suffusing suburbs with omens, witches, and strange creatures, the collection is evocative and sometimes otherworldly, hovering between science fiction and folklore, humor and profoundness, weirdness and observation.
David: First, I can’t help but note your relocations; though raised in Chicago and spending decades there, you shifted to Austin, Texas a handful of years back, but now you live in the Northwest. Coincidentally, I’ve lived in all three as well. Do you think each place has shaped your sensibilities, whether in terms of music or writing?
Marc: I’d say that only Chicago, where I was born and raised, has truly influenced me. The other places I’ve lived, including London for a brief four months, have only been part of a nomadic lifestyle my partner and I cultivated over the last ten years. We like new experiences, new vistas. Chicago, however, is in my DNA. Patrick from Dillinger Four once joked that I was the “Quintessential Chicago Guy,” which could either be taken as a compliment or an insult. But you could also say Patrick is the “Quintessential Minneapolis Guy.” I choose to take it as a compliment.
I grew up with the city as my playground, and back then it was a far different place. An industrial wasteland: empty streets, abandoned buildings, and roaming dog packs. At ten years old, as a true 1970s/’80s latchkey kid, I wandered alone up north Milwaukee Ave. at Six Corners, haunting used bookstores filled with musty treasures. My parents worked all the time, but instilled in me a love of reading, so I bought everything that looked even vaguely interesting with birthday card money and chore money—old books, classics, pulps, British music rags.
When I started No Empathy in ’84, the Chicago punk scene was centered on bars that none of us could enter due to being underage to drink, so I booked a party room at a Loop YMCA, told them, “It’s a birthday party. We might have a cover band,” then advertised a show with four local punk bands. Almost a hundred kids turned up, including, unfortunately, the local neo-Nazi group, Romantic Violence, and it ended in a brawl, but hey—Chicago DIY was born, right?
The punks I knew were never big on flashy self-promotion. You just did your best, made music or art, and let the work speak for itself.
After that, I knew I could do shows anywhere—we didn’t need bars and clubs, we just needed to push farther out into the fringe: VFW halls, basements, warehouses, the empty spaces most normal people avoided. And, luckily, Chicago was chockfull of such “abandoned” spaces. The punks I knew were never big on flashy self-promotion. You just did your best, made music or art, and let the work speak for itself. If it was good, then others would see that and support you. It was less a rockstar mentality and more a worker or artisan mindset. I’d say in that respect, Chicago has influenced every thing I’ve ever done creatively.
David: Your store in Chicago, Bucket O’ Blood, obviously supported a range of fiction from sci-fi to gore, so no one should be surprised by your newest collection of speculative prose. But having grown up listening to your punk records, which could be quite blunt and sarcastic, I was taken by the granular description and attention to language.
We all know the devil makes the best art.
Marc: I was always the weird kid who read the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun. I admit it. Now I read Wikipedia. I also subsisted on a steady diet of science fiction, fantasy books, and comics. It’s just another way to explore the world, to read about places and things you never knew and might never see. And it gives me great subjects for poems—cargo cults, tulpas, rockabilly sorcerers. I can never get enough of real-world weirdness. I love language. And I love how people use it in so many ways to express themselves. It fascinates and amuses me. Most stories or songs usually contain elements you’ve heard before, so it’s up to the details to make the story, song, or poem special. The devil is in the details, as they say. And we all know the devil makes the best art.
David: The Northwest, last I was there, still had some of the greatest concentration of countercultural physical spaces, like coffee ships, record and bookstores, and eateries. And your chapbook could’ve been no more than a digital blog, so do you think spaces and handheld product remain vital, especially in an era when digital life has become omnipresent?
Marc: Having been a bookstore owner, and after putting out records for thirty years, I have a visceral desire for physical, handheld art. I don’t care if it’s “pro” or handmade, I just love the artifact, especially “lost” books and records—things that, by merely existing, give anyone who discovers them a glimpse into an obscure past created by an obscure artist. I love how these artifacts travel, often ending up in far flung corners of the world, far from home, stuck on a dusty shelf or some little shop, waiting for someone new to experience them.
If the world doesn’t end in fire, my books, my records, my thoughts will outlast me, and I find that to be a comforting idea.
Before the internet, physical objects were all you had. Dog-eared books and magazines, grainy videotapes, records, 8-tracks, and cassettes. Reel to reels. These things were windows to other worlds, other times, and I’ve never lost my fascination for them. I filled Bucket O’ Blood with many such things, forgotten creative ephemera discovered in thrift stores or at estate sales. I’d put fringe art and interesting “junk” out for sale in the store and friends would laugh. “Who’s gonna buy that?” But someone always did. These things tell a story, have history, are weathered by time, and that’s something you can’t get as easily in the digital realm. If the world doesn’t end in fire, my books, my records, my thoughts will outlast me, and I find that to be a comforting idea.
David: No Empathy started in 1984, so do you identify more with the era of Naked Raygun, Articles Of Faith, and Effigies, rather than the bands who were on Johann’s Face, like Smoking Popes? And why? I always tend to think of those earlier bands as being more... literary, in a sense.
Marc: I think I have a foot in both worlds. I was at the record release show for Raygun’s first 7” Flammable Solid and watched AOF practice at their punk house, Big Blue. I worshipped both bands—but in true Chicago style would’ve never admitted to such a thing—but No Empathy was more part of a second wave of ’80s Chicago punk bands. We, along with bands like Rights Of The Accused, were the younger kids who wanted to laugh, party, and make trouble. We didn’t take ourselves as seriously and weren’t as brooding or literary. If it made us and our friends laugh, then any style of music beyond punk was game as well—in a purely ironic sense—including dumb covers of classic metal/rock or prog. No Empathy regularly included earnest, but amped-up versions of AC/DC’s “TNT,” Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog,” Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” and Judas Priest’s “Rapid Fire” in our live sets. All for a laugh, but also because we loved these bombastic, dumb songs and just wanted to play them. I don’t think Raygun and AOF were capable of that level of goofy self-deprecation.
The Johann’s-era bands took that torch and ran with it, embracing poppier music and proudly wearing their influences on their sleeves. I think we ushered in an era of greater acknowledgement of pop culture and its ability to affect audiences. Members of Chicago live audiences were always hesitant to be the first to acknowledge something as “cool,” the whole Second-City mentality. But if you sprinkled in a song they knew, grew up with, secretly loved, something un-punk you were ostensibly presenting as “ironic,” it opened a door that our original material didn’t. They weren’t being asked to judge “art” and all that entailed. They were presented with something they already knew and, in turn, that somehow validated everything else that went along with it, so they bought our records and T-shirts and came to see us live. Cool by association. Or we knew how to throw an awesome party, at least.
David: I know your sexuality became a heated issue—coming out of the closet or embracing outpunk at the time lost you fans right at the moment of No Empathy’s peak popularity—but why do you think you have sometimes been left out of queer punk history? Now, do you identify as a queer writer?
Marc: I am a queer writer and I am a queer artist. But I’ve never thought everything I write or create must reflect that. I’m gay, I’m queer. I was once bi, but I’m also many, many more things than that. When I came out in 1993, the gruff, cartoon-macho frontman of a drunken, testosterone-fueled punk band, many of our fans were not ready to accept it. Homophobia still ran rampant in the punk scene. By 1998, No Empathy went from regularly drawing five hundred plus a show to struggling for a hundred. But that didn’t matter to me. I just couldn’t fake it anymore. Everyone close to me, and the whole band, already knew and didn’t care that I was gay. People gave them shit, but they stood by me. I’m grateful for that.
I’m not only queer, I’m not only punk, I’m not only anything.
I wrote explicitly queer lyrics and both of my bands,No Empathy and Chia Pet, a funk/dance band that included No Empathy’s rhythm section, played shows for Homocore Chicago and other gay venues. I also put on my own mini-fest, The Queercore Round-Up. Why have I been left out? Again, it lies in my having feet in both worlds. My sexuality has never defined me. I’m not only queer, I’m not only punk, I’m not only anything. I travel wherever I want, with whomever I want. People like to pigeonhole you, to create a mythos around you, and I think, for better or worse, I’ve avoided that. I was always too early or too late, always running off to the next shiny target. When making art in a capitalist system, timing, perception, and who your friends/patrons are is everything, and I’ve never had the stomach—unlike others I can mention—to use my sexuality to leverage notoriety in the music scene. I’m more of a private person. In the end, I make art for myself, and if other people can identify with it, that’s a bonus. In any event, whatever your personal orientation, come say hi, I like to talk about anything and everything.
David: Does speculative or fantasy writing—and in your case it seems closer to surrealism sometimes than Ray Bradbury, et al.—allow you a kind of freedom and license to explore that Chicago style realism and naturalism, like Nelson Algren would not?
Marc: I do also write fiction with straightforward narratives, but when it comes to poetry, I love the freedom of surrealism. One of my favorite poets is Rita Dove. I find myself drawn to combinations of mundane minutiae and the supernatural, with fragmented, or “sensory image” sentences. When most people hear “fantasy,” they imagine elves and dwarves and Tolkien. But in reality, almost everyone has a rich, private, fantasy life. The human brain extrapolates, confabulates, sees patterns; it creates private worlds, private battles, most of which have never existed. Never will exist.
Fantasy is a coping mechanism.
Fantasy is a coping mechanism. Call it wish fulfillment or whatever, but we all fantasize about things we want to happen. The idea of mundane fantasy is very interesting to me. Billions of stories created in billions of minds that no one will ever hear. All because they don’t think they’re important enough to be recounted. That’s one small consolation of the internet age. You see many more stories and anecdotes recounted in the comments of platforms like Reddit or on Facebook. Not everyone will write a story or a poem, but they can pen a post about the crazy thing that happened to them. Reading these “true” stories often prompts me to create my own. Although Algren’s world of freaks and crazies is also a great place to start, reality is often more surreal than anything anyone might make up.
David: I’m always struck by the fickle nature of fame—how Alkaline Trio became huge, or how Rise Against rose from the ashes of 88 Fingers Louie, while others, like your band Fur Coats, have struggled to reach people, despite making such genuinely smart and accessible music. Is it, in some ways, about “systems”—digital marketing, algorithms, and recommenders—or has punk itself taken up troubling tendencies, like being ageist and creating narrow fanzine content?
Marc: “Success” is often all about picking one image and a style, then sticking to it. David Bowie ruined that for me while I was still a tween. Changes. Right? What type of music does Marc Ruvolo make? Punk, hardcore, indie rock, slowcore, synthpop, weirdo, whatever, yeah, huh? Some people may like one of those styles, but not feel the others. If you look at Alkaline Trio, god love ’em, they’ve made the same record over and over for twenty years. Same, to a lesser extent, for Rise Against. And I’m nowhere near as cute. Not a bad thing— consistency can be a virtue—but we should never discount the power of an attractive person making decent art. I mean, once the general public got a gander at Christopher Cross it was all over for him, right? Labels and gatekeepers, moneymen look at the whole package, too, and who can blame them? Putting out records is an expensive, thankless endeavor.
I don’t think music coverage is ageist, per se, but the “systems” are surely geared towards young people. It all goes back to putting on the perfect party. Good live music feeds off the energy of the audience, so new music needs energetic, engaged young people to sustain it. Older people have been there, seen that. They know in their hearts nothing is ever really new, just a remix drawn from a more obscure source. They remain happy in their nostalgia. Fans of No Empathy have no need for Fur Coats because it’s not really my art they value, but the era it reminds them of—their youth, their first loves, the drunken revel.
All I can do is create things, setting them in motion like broken windup toys, then leaving them to their fate.
Since I make art for an audience of one, myself, I don’t think my obscure references and in-jokes can reach a broad audience. And that’s fine. It’ll stop when I stop, and then maybe someone will try and make sense of the mess I’ve left behind, try to get some enjoyment from a life spent searching. All I can do is create things, setting them in motion like broken windup toys, then leaving them to their fate. It keeps me sane, keeps me moving into the future, hopefully minus the baggage of the past and the expectations of some imaginary audience or fanbase that may have only ever existed in my head.
David: As I discovered photography more and more, I often felt more comfortable with the idea of completion and final product: that is, the photos feel “done” after a few adjustments. But, for me, writing and music always feel incomplete, imperfect, awkward. I keep pondering the choices I made leading to a line, phrase, drum part, or recording. Do you have any similar experiences?
Marc: Yep. I listen to music I’ve released and think, “Oh, we should have done that or added an extra part here,” or “I should have re-sung that.” But music can be expensive, and sometimes you only have the budget and time to do the best you can. At some point you have to say, “Good enough.” The idea of music as a snapshot or photo interests me, too. A song can be an audio snapshot of a moment in my life. I remember when I first wrote it, when the band first learned it, what the lyrics are about, and what caused me to write them. Each record I’ve released is an era of my life, filled with different people and occurrences. It’s awesome to listen back once in a while and have my memory jogged.
David: As punk’s first and second generations near retirement age or going on all-star line-up tours—the kind we used to make fun of, like Creedence Clearwater Revival, with one original member, in the late 1980s!—what experiences do you think have been ignored or dismissed? For me, I suddenly realize that much of punk might have actually led to the kind of Trump disruption, anti-mask mandate/anti-vaccine, freedom first, conspiracy theory rabbit holes.
I’m definitely not a conservative. I don’t want to go back. I wanna see change. I wanna see the future!
Marc: Sweatin’ to the oldies! Whenever I see punk reunion show stuff, I’m always amazed how so much time has passed. It’s the same as listening to classic rock was twenty years ago. I’ve been to a few of those nostalgia fests to hang with friends and seeing these reunited “classic” bands really did nothing for me. I remember seeing Big Black reunite at the Touch & Go 25th Anniversary and Steve saying something like, “See! There ya go. It wasn’t that amazing,” or something similar after they finished a song, and that made me laugh. I reunited with No Empathy for Johann’s Face’s 20th Anniversary for a few shows and that was fun, but it’s not like I want to continue doing it. So much of that stuff is just Blueshammer to me. It’s tired. I like new challenges, new music, new bands, music that makes me go, “Wow, never thought of it that way.” I’m definitely not a conservative. I don’t want to go back. I wanna see change. I wanna see the future!