The former frontperson to a trilogy of exciting punk and experimental acts (Born Against, Men's Recovery Project, Wrangler Brutes) has long written columns for the likes of VICE Magazine and more, along with his own fanzines. But his first published output came at age 12, Travelers' Tales – a patched-together local legends book assembled with a neighborhood teen.
Now he comes full circle, back to book publishing, though this time it's a bit different. He's rather grown, married, and writing exquisitely detailed, dark and humorous Los Angeles fiction about the angriest man in the world. Far from grumpy himself, the amusing gent was once known to recite Patrick Henry's famous “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech during shows.
Last week, on the eve of McPheeter's book tour to SF, I spoke with the candid author from his home in Pomona about The Loom of Ruin, life beyond the bands, his love for Microsoft Excel, and a brand new literary rag:
SFBG You've been writing for so long in different formats, why finally put out your first solo novel now?
Sam McPheeters I've been writing fiction for a long time, so I have a large stockpile of unpublished fiction. There came a point about six years ago where I realized I needed to really reconfigure what I was doing.
Part of that was that I was writing fiction on my terms [and] the fiction I was writing was very serious – I really put my heart and soul into it – and it read like that, it was a little labored and probably hard to read. I realized there was a disconnect. A lot of the art that I like – music, fine art, movies – is all on the audiences' terms. I don't like really high brow stuff in my media.
I like music that is written for the enjoyment of the listener, that is not for the artist, the musician, to work out whatever demons he or she is trying to work out. I realized I had not been doing that with my fiction. I'd been doing it with some of my journalism – for example I did a long piece for VICE that I was really proud of about Doc Dart, the singer for the Crucifucks and I took pains to provide context for everything, so that you can read it not knowing anything about punk music and still get the gist of the article.
I wanted to start writing fiction in that style and this book came out of that. I wouldn't say it was easy, it was very arduous, but it was much easier, labor aside, to really get out what I wanted to do and have it flow quickly.
SFBG I've just read the first three chapters on VICE.com so I can't speak with total authority, but to me if feels like a humorous take on modern noir. Was that intentional, to be a modern Los Angeles noir story?
SM I'm way, way, way too close to it. That wasn't my intention but it sort of developed that way. As a reader I'm really far behind the curve, I feel like I'm playing catch-up. I only started reading my first Raymond Chandler book this year and I'm really enjoying it but I don't feel equipped at all to be able to hold my own in a conversation about the literature of Los Angeles, especially noir literature, not just Los Angeles – [all of] California. But I think it definitely unconsciously developed that way, which is great. I'm pleased, but that wasn't the original intention.
SFBG So where did you come up with the idea for this main character [Trang]?
SM You know, I'm not sure. It's odd to me, a lot of people who talk to me about the book have said the character really resonated with them, which surprises me. I liked the idea of writing a character who was self-consciously one-dimensional. From page one you're told this character only has one emotional setting – I think that's a really neat comedic device that hasn't really been done the way I did it. You can do a lot of funny things with a character who is only angry. I've had those experiences in my life with a couple different employers that verged into this realm so some of this is just really crazy caricatures of past bosses I've had.
SFBG What were some of the jobs you had, where you had these bosses?
SM I've worked a lot of retail, I've worked in a bunch of health food stores, I've worked in a couple different industrial painting companies, a lot of restaurant jobs. I am kind of scraping out a living now being a freelance writer but it's very tricky so I'm always looking to supplement it with whatever else I can get.
My job stories are profoundly uninteresting, the only interesting job I had was for six weeks, for a company that designed “things” – I signed a contract explicitly stating that I would never discuss my actual work....I remember thinking, as I was signing the contract, “god dammit, this would make a really good article.”
SFBG Where did you come up with the ideas for your VICE column, they were so varied.
SM Part of that is the same process as fiction. I use spreadsheets for everything, I have for a long time. A job I had six years ago...I got my employer to pay for me to go to a seminar on Microsoft Excel. Honest to god it was like a – I don't want to say religious – but it was like a serious heavy-duty religious conversion or something where I realized how much of the philosophy of Microsoft Excel I could apply to my life.
So I keep these vast spreadsheets for everything, and part of it is just lists of ideas. I do triage, maybe that's a good non-fiction idea, but that's a good idea for fiction....I'm a really good hoarder of ideas. Anyone can come up with stuff on the spot but I don't need to, I have this tool.
I'm very careful whenever anyone comes over, if the spreadsheets are on my computer, I minimize it, because it looks like I'm a crazy person. The spreadsheet I had for Loom of Ruin was this massive color-coded thing. One friend saw it once, and they said 'I don't think that's how a book is made.' I said, 'that's very much how a book is made. You need these little road maps.'
SFBG Are you also still making music?
SM No, the last band I was in ended at the end of 2004 and I realized that was a good way to just, gracefully bow out. I had some talent as for dramatics on stage, I think when I wanted to be I was a good performer. But there's not much range in what I can do. I can yell and I can do some funny voices and that's it. At a certain point it really felt like I was repeating myself. Also I just am not excited about music right now anymore. The bands I listen to – with a few exceptions – it's all the same music I listened to in high school and I stopped trying to fight that.
SFBG So you don't miss the performing aspect of it?
SM No, no, oh my god no. I would get headaches as I got older. I was in a band in my mid-30s and I'd get really intense headaches, headaches that felt wrong, like I was doing some kind of damage to some part of my brain.
I realized at one point – in the middle of a show that people aren't designed to scream. I mean, we can scream for certain things but to scream every night for 40 minutes straight is not something we're built for physically and it does really weird things to you. So I think even if I wanted to I might be prevented anyway.
SFBG As someone who wrote zines when you were younger and has always had a DIY approach to creativity, how has the rise of blogs and the Web in general affected your work?
SM I really enjoy my blog, the way it fulfills my life is absolutely the spot that fanzines used to inhabit. In 1999 and 2000 for awhile I was all set to do a weekly fanzine – I mean, it's a blog! It just didn't occur to me that I could do this online.
I was really excited about [the weekly fanzine], but when I sat down and did the math...I got really discouraged, it didn't make sense. And even this book actually, was supposed to be originally a series of 10 fanzines and the skeleton of that design is still kind of there. So it took awhile for me to shift, to realize that doing a blog filled that spot in my life perfectly.
The big disadvantage obviously, is that it's harder and harder to find an audience, just 'cause your slice of the pie is getting smaller and smaller every year, there's just more and more competition. The people who read my stuff now, and also the people who are paying attention to my book, are almost entirely my pre-existing audience, it's been really hard for me to find new people to notice my stuff.
I think a big part of that is just too much competition. It's nice to have a physical book, it turned out the design looks really nice and it's a solid object you can hold. There had been some talk for awhile about doing only e-publishing and I'm completely receptive to e-publishing and all its formats, but it feels like it takes the very high hurdle of having something physical to get people to take notice.
SFBG Are you currently working on anything else?
SM Of course, yeah, I'm starting a new magazine with Jesse Pearson, former editor of VICE. It's called Exploded View, it's a literary quarterly that will attempt to fill the gap between very saccharine twee lit magazines and super-serious chore lit magazines that one wants to read to be a good person but that are just simply not fun. We want to find a middle ground between [those].
Good long-form journalism, a lot of fiction, a lot of photography, a strong emphasis on humor. It's just been a huge amount of work, and clearly this is the wrong time in my life to take it on, while I'm doing a 40-city book tour, but this is what I've been shooting for for a long time. It's an odd coincidence that all these things converged on 2012 for me, but I got what I asked for and I absolutely cannot complain.
The first issue will be out in September. My god, which is only what, four months away? That's a little scary.
The Loom of Ruin reading
Wed/2, 5-7pm, free
3253 16th St., SF
Sam McPheeters spoken word
Wed/2, 7pm, $5 donation
FB: The Secret Alley
The Loom of Ruin reading
Thu/3, 7:30pm, free
420 40 St., Oakl.
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