I was first aware of Sam McPheeters years and years ago as the singer for the band Born Against. I remember that my first exposure to them was from the magazine Flipside. It was a good read if I remember correctly but I never paid any attention to the band until right when it was about done. Suddenly I heard a bunch of of thier records and read some of Sam’s printed zines and writings and was impressed with both. Here was a band that at least to me sort of carried on with the same sort of spirit of much earlier hardcore bands that I enjoyed. Plus they were sort of a combination of outrage and having a sense of humor at the same time, which is a pretty good thing.
Anyways I started to write a few probably gushing fanboy letters and that is sort of how I know Sam. Except I really don’t know him at all. I met him once at a Wrangler Brutes show here in Raleigh years later and it was sort of nice and awkward, sort of like meeting someone you only know through say, Facebook.
I have enjoyed much of whatever Sam has done as it has come along, and only recently I had learned that he is preparing the release of his first ever novel, a brisk two hundred and sixty two page effort called THE LOOM OF RUIN put out by Mugger Books and set to be released April 1st of next year. I have read it and it is definitely entertaining, funny and sometimes sort of..well, real weird. If you have ever liked anything that Sam has written before then you should have no problem at all enjoying his book.
This is by no means the greatest of interviews but it was still fun to do and I thank Sam for answering some fairly off of the cuff questions.
I definitely don't think the wall of tradition has been as high as it is now. In "The Filth And The Fury", John Lydon talks about having to ape Richard III for his Sex Pistols stage persona because he had nothing else to go on. So while I agree that everyone draws on something, it's usually the more remote influences (meaning those coming early in a genre) that produce the most unique art.
Personally, I haven't done anything musically I'd want to hand anyone. Born Against and Wrangler Brutes had some shining moments, but both were self-consciously retro pursuits. And MRP was a little too unique.
Brian: Can you think of at least five records off of the top of your head that came out of hardcore punk rock (whatever you want to call it) back in the eighties that you think still hold up and you can imagine easily putting on anytime because it is timeless? Why do you think it is timeless?
Sam: I don’t have an interesting answer. The hardcore I listen to now – Minor Threat, SSD, Void – is essentially indie-mainstream. Millions of people listen to these bands and still feel like they are participating in something illicit. It reminds me of the way me and my childhood pals treated "Star Wars" as our own private wellspring of in-jokes thirty years ago. I don’t, however, consider any of these records timeless. 1980's hardcore is too deeply entwined with both my own personal nostalgia (high school, the secondary high school of the ABC No Rio scene) and a specific era (Reagan-Bush America) to be anything other than a product of its time.
It is interesting to me which albums defined which parts of my life. In my 20’s, I listened religiously to “Damaged” (the soundtrack for people who have lost their marbles). In my 30’s, I listened and relistened to the Cro-Mags’ “Age of Quarrel” (the soundtrack for people who view themselves as struggling underdogs). In my 40’s, I rely on daily doses of Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” (the soundtrack for conquering armies [and best selling authors]).
Brian: There are a lot of things I want to know so forgive me if this is somehow common knowledge. I discovered Born Against right at the very end of the band’s existence. I was amazed at what I thought about the band; good music, interesting lyrics, a total “no compromise” approach to thing matched with a sense of humor. You had a history of being pretty vocal about things. Did your band ever get into trouble with people because of it? I love that phone machine message in the “Born Against are fucking dead” song. Were your lives ever threatened? When those moments happened did you have butterflies in your stomach? And when you look back at all of that, what do you think?
Sam: There were frequent close calls with violence. BA's guitarist Adam was generally braver than me, but I think it was hard on both of us. That many (though not all) of our woes were self-inflicted makes my memories confusing. At the time, I felt like I was doing something very important. This is probably how people in low-level cults felt. I don't know what the lesson of Born Against should be. I'm glad it happened. I'm bummed about some of the things I did. A lot has happened since Born Against broke up.
Brian: The band moved to Richmond Virginia and from what I think I had read, pretty much disbanded two weeks after arrival. Did you move down there to continue the band initially? And what did you do after the band broke up?
Sam: The band broke up during a two-month collapse in my and Adam’s lives. I’d gone broke, he’d split with his girlfriend, most of our old pals hated us, and our landlord sold our house. Richmond had been one of our favorite cities to play, and we both knew we could live there for a fraction of what we were paying in Jersey City. We’d booked the final show before we moved. After that last show, I spent a year decompressing. I played a lot of basketball, learned how to ride a bike, made some zines. It was a nice break from a stressful period.
Brian: How long have you been living in Pomona, and of all places to live, why did you pick the town that Pillsbury Hardcore are from?
Sam: I moved to Pomona in autumn 1999. At the time I had a record label I could run from any part of the country, and no attachment to the east coast. My girlfriend was from L.A. County, so I agreed to give it a try. Although I'd known about the town from the Man Is The Bastard guys (and Pillsbury's "I Love Pomona"), I'd already spent years here as a kid, when my grandparents lived in Pomona.
Brian: Did you know at a certain point years ago that writing and maybe even your upcoming novel was going to be your future? Was it something that you had already been interested in long before these things started to happen? And perhaps the inevitable question (hey this beats asking about your musical influences or singing idols) is who along the way writing wise had some influence on the style that you have carved out with writing?
Sam: I've wanted to write fiction since before I could write. I've been working on novels and short stories since 1989. I like a lot of writers. John Updike was a huge inspiration to me, but it wouldn't be fair for me to list him as an influence, since I'll never be as good a writer as he was. Certainly I'd love to be able to write competent satirical fiction like Richard Brautigan, John Kennedy Toole, or Kurt Vonnegut.
Brian: Wrangler Brutes seemed to break up suddenly. What was the inspiration for getting into another sort of HC sounding band after MRP?
Sam: I wanted Wrangler Brutes to be far weirder than it was. I also wanted it to be a great live band. There were some complicated interpersonal issues involved, so I settled on getting one of my two wishes.
Brian: Your new book is a very entertaining read throughout with some laugh out loud moments in it (at least I did). You certainly were right when you said that if you liked the writing you did in the past then you would like the book. How long have you been working on it?
Sam: Between mid-2006 and late-2009, with a 9-month break in the middle. Also, thanks!
Brian: I couldn’t help but notice that the book takes place in your adopted hometown of Southern California and the Los Angeles area. Coincidence? Did you know right away that you were going to base it in L.A.? Why or why not?
Sam: I like Los Angeles because I don't live there. I'm in Pomona, 30 miles east. LA still has a weird mythical quality to me. I've never gotten used to palm trees. Driving into Los Angeles has that strange feel of a nice interlude in the middle of a long tour. I'll probably write more about LA in the future.
Brian: I would have assumed that if you ever had an opportunity to do a book that you would have to re-print some of your writing from your various zines all of the way up to your now standard bigger pieces for publications. Instead, we get a fiction novel. Would there be any plans in the future to unearth some of that stuff in that format in the future?
Sam: I have over 300,000 words of freelance and fanzine material, but only a small fraction of those pieces are good. Any collection of my past writing would have been second-rate. Since I've closed out the part of my life where I do second-rate projects, it'll probably be a while before I release any anthologies. Hopefully someday I'll have enough quality pieces to do so.
Brian: Do you have plans for writing another fiction book?
Brian: Could you see yourself getting back into music at this point? Why, or why not?
Sam: I don't believe in music any more. Bands no longer make sense to me. I wish it were otherwise. But even if I still bought records or went to shows, I still wouldn't sing in any further bands. Who wants to see a 42-year old version of me jiggling across a stage? That'd be gross.
Brian: At this point, have you been able to carve out a living based on your freelancing? I live in sort of this half assed world where I can combine my artistic projects with a part time job and maybe two months out of the year I am not stressed out. How about you?
Sam: Freelance is definitely a scramble. I wouldn't say I've made a consistent living at it. It's been hard finding supplemental jobs, although not impossible. After 2008, it definitely seemed like a lot more people were in the situation you and I are in.
Brian: I will conclude this with a Joe Preston question. What would you prefer, his cover of "The Trees" by Rush or the prospect of him doing a super exciting medley of songs from the first Bl'ast! album?
Sam: I would prefer an album of Joe Preston blasting apart trees, like in the 1908 Siberian explosion. Come to think of it, the album could be recorded in Siberia. I would proudly purchase that in a record store.
Pre orders for Sam’s book begin next month. Also, a book tour has been threatened. Bother him for more information at: http://loomofruin.blogspot.com/