Get to Know Your Zinester: Vanity Projects

What was your first zine about and when was it made?

My friend Colin and I made our first zine, Omniphat, during my freshman year of high school in Huntsville, Alabama. It had two issues: Nov. 1997 and April 1998.

Omniphat mixed fairly-intelligent satire (we published an “interview” with Alabama’s fundamentalist governor and did a fake Seventeen magazine spread that took on the magazine’s body image problems by encouraging eaters to go on “strict salt water diets”) with short stories, poems, horrifically crass jokes about Tom Cruise, relentlessly mean film and music reviews, and dadaist “Exquisite Corpse”-style writings illustrated with cutouts from the Boy Scout Handbook and Disney Adventures magazine. It was a pretty frenetic hodgepodge of material, and most of what Colin wrote is still entertaining today. It also led to my first media review, in which the editor of our local alternative newsweekly predicted that I’d one day become an AK-47 toting psychopath. You were wrong, Richard Werder of Rant Magazine!

Describe your most recent zine.

I haven’t worked on a zine in a while. The last one was the Big Whup Industries zine back in 2009. It was a fanzine made by Big Whup and devoted to our friends; I contributed interviews with Jon Barba, Facts on File and Uli and the Gringos as well as essays on So Many Wizards, American Gil and the Major Dudes, and Facts on File.

For Zine Fest, I’m also doing fanzines. But instead of promoting local artists, I’ll be writing about some of my musical heroes by sharing personal narratives about my favorite songs by them. Each zine will come with a glittery cassette mixtape with the songs from the zine as well as a cover version by me of one of the artist’s songs. I’m doing Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, ABBA, David Bowie, R.E.M. and Talking Heads.

Of all the things you’ve ever made, zine-related or otherwise, what’s your one favorite?

At least as far as so-called literature is concerned, the individual creation I’m most proud of is The Audacity of Blood.

In 2006, when Barack Obama was pretty new in the Senate and people were beginning to talk about him becoming president, my band Pizza! wrote a song called “the Future?” The song tells a story of a great leader who came to Washington and promised new hope but then turned into a blood-drinking sword-wielding monster. It wasn’t written to be a serious critique on the senator so much as it was an attempt to make a joke about the messianic fervor surrounding his early days of national prominence.

The next year, my parents gave me a copy of Obama’s book the Audacity of Hope. I did not read it, but I did tear the pages out and replace them with a collages and pop-ups illustrating the scenes from the Pizza! song.

The reason I love The Audacity of Blood is because of its prescience. No, I don’t think that the president has done anything remotely like what is described in my book. But the content of my book seems tame – or at least on par – when compared to the hyperbolic reaction to the Obama Administration on the right. So in a way, I predicted the Tea Party.

Name three of your influences and how they affected your work.

My biggest zine influence was this guy I met at summer camp named James Barratt. Before I met James, I thought that punk was a style of music. After I met him, I learned that it was actually an ethos and that anything can be punk if it has the right motivation and is executed with the proper spirit. He introduced me to the band Half Japanese, and he also showed me the first zines I’d ever seen. I was drawn in, not only by the xeroxed pages and alluringly vulgar content but by the entire culture that was attached to it.

I’ve seen a lot of zines since those days, but my favorite is probably the Food and Water zines that Jon Barba made during the mid-to-late aughts. Jon’s writings were always personal, sometimes sad and always charming, and Food and Water was a nice document of a very warm and special time in the long history of Southern Californian DIY.

The underground music and zines of the 80s and 90s took on the monoculture in the name of decentralization and giving power to the people who were underserved by that monoculture. But today, the digitalization and mobilization of our culture has completely obliterated the monoculture. When Springsteen was at his peak, he was an unavoidable force and his music was a platform for advancing his worldview. His records were all over the radio and MTV and you had to hear him whether you liked him or not. It’s not like that anymore – if it wasn’t for my participation in the Mabson Enterprises compilations I wouldn’t know a song in the Top 40.

Geoff Geis

There’s a downside to no monoculture, though. Music is no longer a self-sustaining commodity and pop songs are no longer important. It doesn’t matter how good my music is these days — the only way to actually get it actually heard outside of my own little circle is to get it placed in a commercial. R.E.M., a band steadfastly opposed to selling their songs to commercials, could never be successful today because of that stance.

Punk didn’t kill the monoculture, and it was right to fight against it. But now that technology has killed the monoculture, there’s nothing equivalent in inspiration or influence to songs like “Born the USA” or “Losing My Religion.” The artists we love no longer have the ability to influence anything other than the shoes we buy or the beer we drink.

Yet when I was a kid and I wanted to become a musician, it was because being a musician was a way to make an impact on the world. If I’d thought being a musician was going to be about trying to get placed in Target ads, then I would’ve pursued something else during my early adulthood.

Thus, this zine series is a personal homage to a bygone era.

What do you do when you’re not creating and how does it help or harm what you do artistically?

For money, I work for a Korean newspaper where I design curriculum, write columns and educational curriculum and coordinate a Southern California-wide journalism program for high school students.

As an artist, my job both helps me and hinders me. My art is pretty narcissistic. It’s the equivalent of me standing up and waving my hands and saying, “Hey, look at me!” There’s not much else there.

Art can be socially important, but mine isn’t and I’m not even sure I can help that. The world does not need more perspectives of white, male and relatively privileged people like me in the arts, and I’m not equipped to expose oppression or challenge repressive norms. My work is just for giggles.

So as much as I love writing and making music and all of that, I like having a day job that requires me to think about other people and do things for them instead of only thinking about myself and my own work. A lot of artists find meaning in the art and work jobs that are meaningless in order to pay the bills — I’m kind of in the opposite boat right now.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s too much. My job is a mental job. It requires writing/editing thousands of words pretty much every day. I sit at a computer all day that is exactly like the computer I have at home. So when it’s been really busy, or when I have a really long bus ride home, I often don’t have the energy to do much more than sit on the couch and watch “Frasier” reruns with Sarah.

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