For more than fifteen years, George Chen has served as a incredibly important figure in the Bay Area experimental experimental music scene, not only as someone playing in groups such as Chen Santa Maria, KIT, 7 Year Rabbit Cycle, Common Elder King Elder amongst others, but as a show promoter, stand-up comedian, zine editor, and founder of the brilliantly eclectic label Zum. Chen is an individual who is able to transfer a love of music, comedy, and art into an interactive setting, ultizing Twitter, podcasts, and other forms of "new media" to provide fans with hours upon hours of engaging and entertaining content.
Approaching the work of George Chen can be overwhelming, considering the immense diversity of his output in both form and style, but ultimately it is extremely rewarding as this plethora of different projects adds up to an experience that is funny, engaging, strange, meditative, and transcendental. Check out an interview with George after the jump.
As someone with much experience in both the business and creative ends of music, how do you approach the kind of "musical end-times" rhetoric that is pushed out in the popular as well as "indie" music press? Headlines like "Death of the album... Record sales plummet... Musicians unpaid..." Do you see a new business model emerging? Is this chaotic reporting truly accurate?
I have been doing this for a while but have never really understood how to make money with it. The only releases we've ever run out of have been 7"s, and then sometimes I make the mistake of doing a repress in a rare streak of optimism. That said, I'm going back and putting more old releases in the digital realm. I had a theory that I should hold off on putting some of these older CDs on iTunes until I had a chance to sell the physical versions, but some of these are hitting a decade and I'm definitely in the "blood from a stone" mode.
Does it mean end times for the record business? Probably. Models have to adapt, making a living seems the province of the few, but there are still successes out there to monitor, I would not claim to be one of them. I may have hit my own personal "musical end-times" though.
Sorry to bring up your busyness again, but how do you deal with a kind of "public reaction" to records you play on personally, given that you are a part of many projects, etc? Do each of your collaborations have their own particular fanbase?
My public is fairly private still. If there is a "public reaction" to things I'm involved in I'm usually last to hear about it. I am happy on the rare occasion when someone tells me they liked a show I played, or a record that I am on. There's not a flood of those types of responses though, more like a trickle. But it's a strange delayed trickle, like someone on the BART randomly saying "you were in 7 year rabbit cycle. I saw you guys at the Smell. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen." that actually happened once, years after the fact. I can't take much of the credit for that. The last two Common Eider, King Eider releases got some attention, but I don't appear anywhere on the "Sense Of Place" book/cd/dvd. I'm glad it gets people to pay attention to the body of work. I am all over "Worn" and I play drums on one track on the new one, but I'm not sure when that's coming out.
Within your stand-up comedy act, I see much more of a connection to the "spoken word" sets by people like Sam McPheeters or even Henry Rollins than most stand-up comedians. Are you influenced by that kind of aforementioned storytelling? Do you see this as part of your musical identity?
I would get offended when people in comedy called it "spoken word," but I get what you mean and I did approach it that way for a long time. I wanted it fairly spontaneous and "real" for a while, but now I think I get the differentiation between standup, spoken word, slam poetry, and storytelling. I've been going to open mice where there is a mix of all those things, and they tend to elicit different responses. If elements of any of that work, then they are useful. The job of standup is specifically to elicit laughs.
Sam McPheeters does readings mostly, which you can't get away with in comedy because you need to make eye contact with an audience. Not to diminish his skills, he's excellent at voices and characters. I saw Rollins in the past two years and was surprised at how funny he can be. It's impressive that he can go two hours without notes.
I don't really see the comedy being part of my musical identity in that I've never really been "the singer" in a band, I don't think I had that frontman personality. I'm a drummer or guitarist, and usually in bands with much bigger personalities than mine. I liked being goofy on stage but my bandmates didn't. Sincerity works better for this type of music than goofiness, although the bands I got excited about when I was starting to play blurred a lot of performance art and physical onfrontation lines. My first band that I count as a "real" band, meaning played shows and out out a record, was heavily influenced by Andy Kaufman and had these gimmicky stunt actions. What did we do - we had a guitar piñata, wore costumes, we just wanted to fuck with the audience but in a nerf way - diet aggression. We were young and thought it was edgy at the time.
Can you describe your relationship with Twitter?
It's a pretty involved relationship. It was an easy way to spread one liners and I have been a social media jumper-onner for all of the '00s. I remember making it a goal in like 2001 to be the first "George Chen" that showed up in a search, cause the #1 guy back then was a weightlifting George Chen from Stanford. I liked the relative meritocracy of Twitter at first - the best quips would be retweeted, and early on there was not as much clutter or spambot going around. They've gone into paid ads which is annoying. I definitely don't keep up with the feed as much as I used to and no longer expect others to follow me as closely, there's just too much out there. I just got a handful of conservative Christian followers because of a drone joke I made, so the downside is it doesn't provide a context about people, it's not gonna replace having a real website. Since I hadn't build a comedy site, it was the most consistently funny thing I have as an online presence.
In your interview with "the Out-Door," you mention Bay Area performance art. Do you have an interest in performance art? Have you ever personally engaged in any acts? Do you see the impact of performance art on your music or other experimental Bay Area artists?
I have a pretty funny arm's-length relationship with the art world. Despite that, some of the gigs I'm getting now are at SFMoMA! My social world overlaps with the art world and there is a lot of bleed over in the music scene I was involved in and the art scene. I had a sour grapes, "this is bullshit" kind of reaction when I first learned about some conceptual art early on. I loved to draw and valued the skill and craft of that format. Underneath that attitude I probably was just jealous because I figured out that there was more funding for it than for me making a wall of feedback. The people I knew in college who did art, I was baffled that they were able to get away with so much. There was a guy who taught New Genres at Berkeley who seemed to give everyone permission to do what they wanted, and this was the '90s/early '00s, so it was just getting called Social Practice then. Art also seemed to just be for the very wealthy, which was my own knee-jerk punk attitude about everything, not a reasoned critique.
Like I said, I thought of my band as a bit of performance art and comedy and happening. I occasionally got pulled into things with my friend who is a dancer which I treated like improv. San Francisco may just really blur a lot of boundaries. I did participate in film and dance collaboration things, I usually just agreed to any kind of multi-disciplinary things people invited me to be in. Also the lines are more like circles - a lot of visual artists get into sound or vice-versa, they all get into video/sculpture, it's real loose. Everyone out here seems to live their "life as art" dream however they see fit, super California, brah.
On YouTube there is a great video of a L@TE event that you put together: L@TE: C. Spencer Yeh / David Horvitz Something I like a lot about this video is that it seems to kind of physically encapsulate much the kind of multimedia aspect of your career (podcasting, comedy, Twitter, releasing records, etc) in a "real-life" setting with everything that is going on at the event: poetry, Skype drawings, C. Spencer Yeh playing, etc. How did this event go? What is is about experimental art that can breed so many multi-media aspects? Do you have any multimedia projects you have yet to pursue, but would like to?
I would put a lot of the idea behind that event on David Horvitz. I just knew that he would use the space and opportunity in an interesting way, so I basically deputized him to do what he wanted and then he deputized another layer of people, most of whom I also know, to make something like a show and tell, art carnival vibe. It was sort of a viral/zombie experiment. David doesn't even really do performance per se, so it was a challenge that was hard to wrangle,but we managed to pull it off, semi-successfully. I did two other events that were more like straight music shows, but you are right in that this one encapsulated a lot of genres.
I like art that is entertaining and i like entertainment that is somewhat challenging. So I tried doing a talk/variety music show in 2011, it was just so much work for such little pay off, but people enjoyed it. The closest thing I do to that now is this comedy monthly show called Talkies. We show a lot of weird videos, some of which are from legit artists that work in a comedy context - we've shown videos by Chris Sollars, Shana Moulton, and Peter Burr. The comedians will do PowerPoint presentations and videos, and we've booked some non-comedians like MOM - she's kind of her own weird deal between performance art and music, and her set ended with her peeing in a box.
Ideally I would have a budget in place for me to organize these types of events all over, and that's the advantage of working with a bigger institution like the Berkeley Art Museum, but it's hard to get funding and space in the bay. I don't know if the private sector is willing to go for it just yet, but this is the thing that I'm learning to work with and navigate. There's a different set of economic realities and ethical conventions between the punk world, the art world, the commercial/marketing world, and the booze-driven comedy world.
In the band KIT you play "stun guitar." I've tried Googling it and it seems to be a part of the Blue Oyster Cult lexicon? Care to elaborate?
I'm trying to remember where that description came from. Was it on Upset the Rhythm site? I am not super familiar with Blue Oyster Cult. It might have just been someone trying to be funny - does it mean "stunning"? I'm usually loud. It might have meant "stunt", like Evel Keneival. Which would still not be accurate. I'd say my playing is more "blunt." BLUNT guitar sounds so stoney.
What are some future Zum releases you are looking forward to?
Nothing is on the docket right now. There were some projects I had to ice because of money concerns. I got laid off in September and it didn't seem wise to double down on this industry. See your question #1. Right now I'm thinking that I might try doing a digital-only release as the next experiment. There's lots of music that I really like, but I now know that I have very limited things I can offer a band. If someone is looking for Pitchfork fame, I cannot offer that. I'm also putting the label on the back burner to focus on the comedy right now.
"Pro-Tips With Mom"
George Chen interviewing V. Vale