LAist Interview: Jay Babcock from Arthur Magazine
February 8, 2008
Whether it's free bands by the river, obscure films at the Silent
Movie Theatre or music festivals featuring great non-mainstream
bands, Arthur magazine has improved L.A.'s sullied corporate
reputation by organizing eclectic, margin-friendly events that embody
the magazine's mission to represent "transgenerational
counterculture." Case in point: Arthur's Sunday Evenings series at
McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, which continues this weekend
with eccentric songwriter Michael Hurley and next Sunday evening with
psych-rock band Wooden Shjips. On Feb. 13, the magazine also presents
a launch of Abby Banks' new book Punk House at Family on Fairfax. The
book features photos of punk houses from across the country a few of
which are reprinted in this month's issue of Arthur. We asked Jay
Babcock, guru of Arthur magazine, a few questions about the upcoming
shows. Continue on to read more about the dire state of L.A.'s
all-ages scene, the mysterious absence of our rock 'n' roll elders,
and the fall and rise of Arthur magazine.
Tell me about the bands you've chosen for this series.
Michael Hurley is a legendary folk nomad, one of America's great
weird individuals, who's been around the block many times. His newest
record is on Devendra Banhart's record label. Alela Diane is another
one of these amazing musicians coming out of Nevada City. The Rough
Trade record shop in Europe said her album was the best of the year,
and they had a point. Matteah Baim put out a really good record last
year, a dark folk sound, ice-ghost sort of thing, headed toward
Nico's stuff. On the 17th is Wooden Shjips, a psychedelic raga band
from San Francisco; Mariee Sioux from Nevada City; and Headdress also
wandering nomads who sound like an even darker, slightly more country
Brightblack Morning Light. But with several of these artists, I've
never seen 'em, so there's a bit of mystery there for me just as
there probably will be for most of the audience. Which is part of the fun.
It's good to see some decent bands on the Westside. How did you land
on McCabe's as the venue?
Jared Flamm at Everloving encouraged me to get in touch with Lincoln
Myerson at McCabe's, who'd told me a while back that McCabe's and
Arthur might be a good match. McCabe's have been around for 50 years
and haven't used an outside booker/curator since the early mid-'90s.
Lincoln let us book whoever we wanted to do whatever they wanted
musically within reason, of course. So, the size of the venue
dictates a lot of things, like how much money you can offer your
talent, and we had to think about who we could afford to put in there
and keep the door price low, and also who was available. Given those
parameters, the goal was to put individual line-ups together who
would form an interesting evening and also attract a mixed-generation
audience. I really wanted to work with McCabe's because it's very
simple it's about music, it's not about alcohol sales. Also, it's an
all-ages venue. Ever since we did Arthur Ball at the Echoplex, which
was 18 and over, I've been insistent that we only do all-ages shows,
because I don't think anyone should be excluded from good music.
Also, I wanted a transgenerational group of artists. We call Arthur a
"transgenerational counterculture magazine," and we mean it. There is
a coherent counterculture that runs from the beats to the hippies to
the punks, forward. They have more in common with each other than
they do with the mainstream culture. In any of our festivals we do,
we try to include older artists as well as younger ones. It's truly
"all ages" onstage, and we'd like to see that more in the audience.
There's so many great artists that live here in Los Angeles Tom
Petty, Joni Mitchell, John Fogerty, Ray Manzarek, Dylan lives here
sometimes and you never, ever see them at shows. I assume they don't
participate in the local culture because they got burned one too many
times with overhyped crap, or it's just too much of a hassle to be
out in public. Or maybe they just don't have any interest and they'd
rather roll one more at home and listen to Jim Ladd rhapsodize about
the past rather than get out there and do something. But they should.
'Think cosmically, act locally' is a great credo, you know? You live
here? Then BE here. A lot of cool stuff becomes possible when you mix
the energy of the youth and the wisdom of the older folks: think of
Allen Ginsberg's continuing, lifelong interest in the best young
artists his advocacy for them whether it was the blues guys or jazz
players or the hippies or the punks, it was all the same to him.
McCabe's has such a great history, and is a venue a lot of those
people have played at, and it's so pure in its only interest being
music (as opposed to alcohol sales) that I'm hoping some people older
than 50 see what's going on, something that may have more of a
spiritual, political or aesthetic resonance with them than they may
at first think.
Arthur shut down for a spell in early 2007, then resurfaced with a
redesign. Do you care to talk about what happened?
My partner for many years was looking to not be the publisher anymore
and eventually, he didn't want to own it either, so he wanted me to
buy him out which I couldn't afford to do. That's when the magazine
died. Then we made an arrangement that allowed me to gain 100 percent
of the magazine. We'd already planned the transition to Mark Frohman
and Molly Francis as the new art directors before the whole thing
went down, so that's just a coincidence. After I got full control of
the magazine, we decided to go all color and go for it. We're just
continuing to do what we've been doing for five years. And there's
always new blood coming in. Next issue, [author] Erik Davis is going
to start doing a column for us and there will be a lot of other
surprises. So basically, I just took on more credit card debt and a
lot of people loaned me money and we were able to go forward.
What sort of things do you hope to do with the magazine that you just
aren't able to right now?
Well, it'd be nice for everyone to get paid what they deserve. We
work from our homes in Atwater, we have tea at India Sweets & Spices
or lunch at Tacos Villa Corona or Viet's new noodle place, we sit by
the river for inspiration and excitement … It's not the toughest
life. But as a business? We're making a go of it, but we do want to
be monthly and we want to have more pages. There's so much good stuff
to cover. The rest of the media is collapsing and there's a lot of
really good writers, photographers and cartoonists who deserve a
wider audience and no one's giving it to them for some reason. So the
main pressure on us is to jam as much stuff into the magazine as
possible without making it an aesthetic mess. If we had more pages,
it could breathe a little bit more and we could cover a lot more of
the good stuff that's going on.
And you obviously have a love for print.
The free magazine model is a really solid one, and it's working, and
it's gonna work better in 2008 for us. Print is near-perfect. It's
portable, it doesn't require batteries, you don't have to squint,
it's a bigger window, you can do more design things than you can on a
computer screen and it gets out there in front of people who aren't
looking for it necessarily. With the web, mostly what you get are
people who are already looking for you. And of course, you can read a
magazine by the river. Try looking at a website there.
Is it your mission to book a lot of smaller acts that you don't see
as much in some of the bigger 21-and-over venues?
For a city this big, it's absurd there aren't more places where
people of all ages can get together and hear something other than
mainstream arena pop and rock with good quality sound in a
comfortable setting. The only real venue in this city where people of
all ages can gather together to hear music at a low price with good
sound in a comfortable setting at a reasonable hour is Amoeba. You're
in a bad situation as a culture when you're dependent on a store a
place of commerce for the presentation of music to the public. We've
written about this in Arthur in our all-ages series. You know, if
you're into music, bars are not the ideal venues. You don't want to
hear other people talking or the cash register ringing or bottles
being dropped in a garbage pail. You don't want to be hanging out
with a bunch of amateur drunks. That has a place, but not all music
is right for that. There just should be a greater range of venues.
It's also bad for the bands. You can't build a career by getting one
chance to intrigue the hipsters. And if we can help raise the profile
of some of these artists by putting our brand name on it, then good.
It's very hard for artists to break in because everything is so
calcified on radio and in venues.
Arthur is developing a real presence in the L.A. music scene.
We're working with people at a very local level who are in it for the
right reasons the folks at Family and at McCabe's and The Cinefamily,
it's all labor of love stuff. We like labor of lovers, basically.
Doesn't really matter what it is they love. It's the loving that is
important. Those are our people, those are the people we want to hang
out with in such grim times. We're just trying to use whatever
profile or heft we may have to hopefully help other people do what
they love too.