In the introduction to her book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, Kaya Oakes writes: “If we understand culture to mean something more than a style of music, a visual aesthetic, or a literary mode and try to define it from its Latin root, cultura—“to cultivate”— then we can see how indie artists have traditionally worked together to cultivate many things: credibility, freedom, the ability to promote their own work and to control how it’s promoted, self-reliance, open-mindedness, and the freedom to take creative risks. Likewise, if a culture is truly a group of people working and living together, independent artists have traditionally embraced the value of networking, making connections, and striving toward doing their art, their way. If being independent in your choices about what you listen to, look at, read, and watch implies a lack of compromise, then many of the people still making music and art independently would absolutely fit that definition. Indie’s ambiguity can partially be chalked up to its emphasis on making its participants feel individual and unique. But before any of us were able to be creatively independent, we had to build on the practice of our independent predecessors. Because indie’s history is in many ways a shadow history— one that parallels and reflects mainstream culture but also poises itself as being a subculture of outsiders— the threads connecting the twentieth- and twenty- first-century indie movements are not always readily apparent, especially in this day and age, wherein young artists face a plethora of choices about what kind of art they will make and how to distribute that art. Young fans often encounter art that builds on traditions of independence with which they may not be familiar.” (The entire intro can be read here at Oakes’ site). In the book, Oakes (who co-founded Kitchen Sink magazine) set out to examine the evolution of the indie movement and the scope of its impact. My thanks to Oakes for her time and insight into the DIY dynamics.
Tim O’Shea: In the preface, you concede that you “did not manage to interview a number of people” that you assumed astute readers may “have liked to hear from”. How did you go about deciding who to interview and who to not?
Kaya Oakes: Mostly it came down to two factors: availability and willingness. Interestingly, those are not the same thing. Lots of folks were willing but not available and vice versa. My initial approach was very typical of DIY: I just asked people I knew who they knew, working the network. After that it was a matter of sending out lots and lots of email queries, explaining what the book was trying to do. One of the first people I talked to was Ian MacKaye, who of course answered the phone at Dischord when I called. When I described the book to him, he initially said, “that’s a terrible idea! You can’t define indie!” At that moment I thought, oh shit, I am screwed. But after two hours on the phone, he got that I was trying to do more of a series of historical snapshots and we had a great conversation. Other people were happy to talk but scheduling didn’t work out. Others have left indie behind and have no desire to discuss it. In one case I discovered someone I wanted to talk to was already collaborating on a different book and there was a conflict of interest. And others were willing and available, and that’s who you see in the book.
O’Shea: In the comments section of a Cleveland Plain Dealer review of the book, you engaged in a respectful and enlightening dialogue with the critic. Coming out of that, you mentioned “One of my post book projects is compiling an indie city guide for the book’s website” How is that project going?
Oakes: Ah, abandoned. There wasn’t enough time available to make it appear in a timely fashion close to publication, but maybe I’ll pick it back up again, along with learning the banjo, how to knit, finishing several abandoned poetry manuscripts, cleaning the bathroom, and various other things I don’t have time for at the moment.
O’Shea: In analyzing the evolution of the indie culture can you point out certain breakthrough moments in your research that became some of the lynchpins of your final analysis?
Oakes: A big “aha” moment came talking to Peter Berg of the Diggers. When he described some of their methods of communicating and putting on happenings, something clicked. He talked about putting out live news sheets while Digger events were going on, using the printing press the Diggers owned, and I thought, hey, that’s just what zines were doing, and what we do now with the internet. I’d always known we took from the 60s counterculture in the 80s, but I hadn’t previously thought about how closely the two cultures mirror one another since punks had such a bad relationship with hippies here in the Bay Area. Secretly, I think many punks admired the hippies, but the problem for many people in my generation was that the hippies were our parents.
O’Shea: You toured to support the book, in fact your plans were “This tour is happening DIY style: I’m flying to Seattle on donated frequent flyer miles, no media escorts are involved (Google maps and public transit will suffice), I’m crashing with family and friends, and I’m hoping to make it on a budget of about $20 a day. If I can manage that, my reward will be spending lots of money at the stores where I’m reading.” How did the tour go?
Oakes: Good and bad, like any book tour. In San Francisco I got something like 5 people, the next night in Berkeley more like seventy, the next night in Seattle five again (that was the night Michael Jackson died, which made me worry about being cursed), then at Powell’s in Portland a big turnout again. Since the summer jaunt I’ve also gone to LA and did a great event at Skylight Books with a panel of indie people, and the final event was just this past week in Berkeley, another panel. The panels turned out to be a great idea because it’s not just me reading from a book; it helps other people showcase projects they’re working on and encourages audience involvement. Oh, and I did buy a lot of books.
O’Shea: In the acknowledgments, you thank your agent, Michelle Brower, describing her as the “first person to take this project seriously”. How long had you been contemplating the book before she threw her support behind it–had you faced a great deal of pushback to the idea before then?
Oakes: Michelle actually sparked the idea for the book. I’d written an essay for the magazine I co-founded and edited, Kitchen Sink, about the underground music course I teach at UC Berkeley. Somehow Michelle got her hands on this small circulation magazine and asked me if I wanted to develop a book proposal around the article. So I consider myself absurdly lucky; she has had my back the entire way.
O’Shea: I love the conflicted tone of your writing (scholarly while irreverent)–case in point on page 74: “In 1987, Livermore took an interest in another local band. Green Day was less politically engaged that Op Ivy, but had a tremendous advantage over many other bands: its music was catchy as fuck.” How enjoyable is it for you to take tonal shifts in your analysis while writing?
Oakes: The shift between more scholarly prose and vernacular really mirrors the way I speak. While I do teach writing to university students, I am not a traditional scholar in the sense that I don’t primarily write for scholarly journals, nor do I hold a PhD (I do have an MFA). Although I speak at academic conferences, sit on committees, judge literary prizes and do other typically academic things, I also come from a zine writing background and a small press, alt weekly, indie magazine background where the informal style is more typical. My writing has always gone back and forth tonally, which drives some people nuts, but the way I speak drives some people nuts too. It’s a love it or hate it kind of thing, I’m afraid.
O’Shea: Speaking of Livermore, that seems like the case of where success ruins a business. Is that a fairly common trend in DIY circles?
Oakes: Yes and no. Merge is doing great even after Arcade Fire and Spoon blew up, but they’re a rarity. In Lookout’s case there are many reasons why it didn’t work out. Larry gave me some of the story, but if people are interested in hearing more, I’ve been reading Gimme Something Better, the new oral history of Bay Area punk, and that details the demise of Lookout from multiple points of view, including the bands they worked with. It’s a sad story but ultimately other indie labels seem to have learned from it.
O’Shea: Have you heard from Pavement fans who picked up the book because of the familiar title, but ended up enjoying the book even though it may have not been what they expected?
Oakes: Only on sites like Goodreads where people like to rank books based on things like titles and paper quality without actually reading them. The original subtitle, by the way, was the Evolution of Independent Culture, but “indie” seemed more marketable to certain parties so we changed it. The word indie has gotten me into more misunderstandings and confusion than the Pavement reference. It’s a polarizing term for sure.
O’Shea: When you originally set out to write this book, which did you want to do more: entertain or inform the reader (or a mixture of both)?
Oakes: Both. I’m a big, dorky person in real life, but I also know my shit, and ultimately I’d like both of those things to come across. The biggest pleasure has been reading and getting comments from people who say this book made them want to start a zine, make music, make art. I wanted to honor the people who created the subculture but hopefully to inspire or at least nudge others to keep it going.
O’Shea: In a down economy like this one, what part of indie culture benefits the most and the least?
Oakes: Based on what I’ve seen and heard lately, the really small scale stuff is doing fine, whereas medium to big indie projects are suffering just like independent businesses are suffering. It’s similar to the one or two person small press publisher versus the indie press that tries to do multiple books a year. The multiple book press is suffering because they have to spend more but take in less. I think micropresses, people having shows in their living rooms, mini comics, web zines, crafting… those kinds of things are hugely appealing right now because start up costs are minimal.