Picking the easy targets since 1993
Interview by CHRIS AUMAN
Jake Austen has his hands in many pots. He also wears many hats and is perhaps a renaissance man—if the renaissance was understood to include comics, punk rock, puppets, dancing and paying homage to late, great and sometimes forgotten luminary figures of this nation's colorful musical past. Jake started his long-running Roctober zine in 1992 and has never looked back. Actually, he may very well have looked back and why not? What's wrong with looking back? In fact, that's kinda the point of this interview, so let's get to it.
You’re sneaking up on twenty years of Roctober, any special plans to commemorate this amazing feat of accomplishment?
We are going to start a little early, in Fall 2011, with a book of our best interviews coming out from Duke University Press, plus our 50th issue. I may also do a record and another book in Fall 2012. And hopefully some par-tays!
Do you see twenty more years of Roctober ahead?
It gets rough these days with costs and sales and ads, but if I have to go back to being a 16 page xerox zine I'd likely do that before folding (or going all Internet).
Who was the first band you interviewed for the magazine?
Sleepy LaBeef, the 1950s rockabilly behemoth. I had gone to see him a few times in Chicago when I was teenager and in college when he was gigging at a massive Chinese restaurant (I think it was called Chan's Egg Roll and Jazz). Me and some friends decided to go out and interview him and it was great. The best interview subjects are people with long, interesting, huge life stories who, for whatever reason, have not been interviewed much, or have never been interviewed at great length.
What was happening in 1992 that made you decide to start a magazine?
We had done the Sleepy interview, which was supposed to be for a punk zine some friends were doing, and they couldn’t get it together, so I realized I had so many talented friends who could draw, write, do comics, take photos, I could just make my own zine around the interview.
I think the earliest issue I’ve seen is Roctober #8, was Roctober #1 the fully realized version of the magazine in terms of the coverage and the aesthetic?
It was a 16 page xerox zine, hand collated and stapled, with some crayon lettering and an individual drawing of Sleepy LaBeef in each issue. But it did feature a lengthy good interview and it did feature some great comix by talented cartoonists, so I would say it was pretty realized. I think most of the text was typed on typewriters, I may not have used a computer for anything on that issue. And I used the typewriter in the office of a secretary at the school, who I used to always be extra nice to, so she would let me do stuff like that, and made sure any paperwork or official stuff I needed got done quick. Best lesson I learned at college: be nice to secretaries. I once made her a little painting of John Travolta because she loved the way he talked to those babies in that movie.
It’s obvious that the underground publishing world has changed in the past twenty years, have any of those changes been for the better?
Internet makes research and reaching out to people easier, which in some ways takes the mystery and magic out of tracking someone obscure down, but easier is always easier. And it's nice to have more people read something when you put it online. And even though I lose a few cents, getting money paypaled to me never makes me think I've wasted my life, which can happen when times get tight and the only check you get in the mail for the week is for $4.
Monkey rock, robot rock, midget rock, to what do you attribute this fascination or obsession with rock and roll sub genres?
I think absurdity was more novel before the Internet. Now you see midgets and monkeys doing nutty stuff all the time, but I like the historical aspect of documenting exhaustively something that has not been previously documented for good reason.
What were your first obsessions as a kid?
Wow. Kiss and Halloween were the answers I was expecting. How long have you been in Hyde Park?
I have lived a few miles south of Hyde Park most of my life, with a few years in Hyde Park right after college (I went to high school at Kenwood in Hyde Park, but I left Chicago to go to art school in Rhode Island)
What are the advantages of living on the south side?
Less Cubs fans. Italian Fiesta pizza. You can get WHPK on your radio. Pretty soon it will be the ability to drive to Indiana for sub-$4 gas.
What’s the best thing about the south side?
For me it's being in proximity to all the Chicago music greats - famous and obscure. Here you grow up where some classmate's uncle or grandpa was in the AACM or you're in the bank line with Pops Staples or you see Oscar Brown, Jr. perform for kids or see Mitty Collier at her day job. I once spent a year looking for the elusive local host of Soul Train, and when I finally found him he lived 6 blocks from me.
Any pre- or post-presidential brushes with Obama?
I have not spoke to him or seen him since he became President. Years ago I was talking with him at a low-key political fundraiser/party (not for him, for a different candidate), where people were doing the Electric Slide, and I asked him if he was going to dance and he joked, "I don't do the Electric Slide, I've never been on a cruise," which seemed kinda dickish. However, a friend of mine who's a jazz singer bought his condo from Obama and the speaker system was sick...with cables in the walls and lightswitch controllers so you could have music in every room during your parties, so I'll give him that.
Shifting gears to Chic-a-go-go for a minute, what’s Ratso Huxtable Grebeck’s story?
Ratso started in the Punk'nhead comic in Roctober and I had an art school friend do a puppet when I started the cable access dance show. I originally wanted both Punk'nhead and Ratso, but that would have been a mistake, because rats are great for telling jokes because of the whole eating garbage thing.
What is the most surreal or bizarre thing that has happened on Chic-a-go-go?
Maybe when Vanilla Ice freaked out over Ratso, claiming he was deathly afraid of puppets. It may be a white rapper problem, because later Lady Sovereign cancelled the interview as soon as she saw the puppet, and the Streets stopped the interview after 30 seconds, and was so rattled he cancelled all his other interviews that day. Other journalists got mad at us and let us know we screwed them.
Has any performer or band ever crossed the line of appropriate kid show behavior?
We had one noise band that came drunk and was kinda mean to the kids, and they got banned. We had one dancer show up naked covered with balloons and we sent him home. But those are two incidents out of over 700 episodes and fifteen years, so not too bad. Even super filthy guests know how to be great with kids. We've had Rudy Ray Moore on and Samwell, who is famous for an Internet anal sex song, and both were delights with youngsters.
You are well on your way to becoming a Chicago cultural institution, are you allowed to induct yourself into the "Hall Of Dynamic Greatness" or are there rules against that sort of thing?
I would never qualify for that, but I was surprised on episode 500 or 600 when Miss Mia presented me with a 'Chic-A-Go-Go Heritage Award,' including a portrait of me by Derek Erdman who does all the portraits, so that was like me giving myself an award.
Are you still in touch with the rock group, The Goblins? Any news from those cats?
They are working in an Indian casino as a Goblins cover band.
Speaking of prolific rock acts, what your favorite Woodrows record and why?
I like Buy-Curious, their concept album about about capitalism and gay pride.
Cool! That’s my favorite triple album after the Clash's Sandanista and Mozart's Magic Flute. Thanks Jake!
BOOKS BY JAKE AUSTEN
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