Arthur magazine: back from the ashes but still looking for a lifeline
By Jennifer Maerz
Published: August 8, 2007 – SFWeekly
Arthur may have a low print run of 50,000, but its influence is unquantifiable. The lefty counterculture magazine has been ground zero for antiwar activists, psychedelic drug enthusiasts, and, most importantly, weird-ass music. Arthur has been an early enthusiast for aberrant strains of exciting, adventurous artists, from the bone-quaking drones of SunnO))) to Devendra Banhart’s mystical folk and international beatmakers Delia Gonzales & Gavin Russom. The free publication carries with it an unflinchingly anti-corporate, anti-soundbite attitude, running rants and expositions on the far-flung subjects captivating its writers. And even when you didn’t want to slog through, say, a 10,000-word feature on magic mushrooms, it was good to know that there was a publication so forceful and singular in its vision and so timelessly relevant in its musical taste.
Arthur championed its unique tastes regardless of the publishing date of a new release or its place on Billboard, and created an international following in the process. In June, London’s Sunday Times wrote, “[Arthur has] its finger on America’s eccentric and softly anarchic countercultural pulse,” and the New York Times has lauded it as an important leader in the new folk movement.
So when trouble hit Arthur’s ranks in February, it seemed we were witnessing the loss of a significant voice in tastemaking music journalism. Citing irreconcilable differences to the press, publisher Laris Kreslins left Arthur, and editor Jay Babcock told the Village Voice his publication was dead. As we reported here in March [“Rest in Peace,” March 7, 2007], Babcock tried to buy out Kreslins, but their inability to come to agreeable terms locked Arthur’s credit line and put the magazine on indefinite hiatus.
That’s when San Francisco came to the rescue — at least in part. Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny worked out a benefit gig in Los Angeles to help raise money to keep the mag going. “Some great Bay Area folks came down and did some gratis work for Arthur in June,” says Babcock on the phone from his Los Angeles home. “Ben Chasny and Elisa from Magik Markers did their first-ever duo performance in the United States at a benefit gig June 27. That whole benefit was Ben’s idea; it was his present.”
Arthur may be headquartered in Los Angles, but there’s always been a heavy Bay Area slant to the idiosyncratic mag. The publication often featured local acts during its four-year, 24-issue run. Its last three covers spotlighted such NorCal favorites as folkie Joanna Newsom, heavy rockers Howlin Rain, and ambient-pop trippers Brightblack Morning Light. Arthur also showed an affinity for our loud punk and metal outbursts, publishing profiles on High on Fire, Comets on Fire, and Jello Biafra (not on fire). And fringes of San Francisco and Oakland freak-folk, garage- and noise-rock, and art-pop were constants in both Thurston Moore’s Bull Tongue column and the “C&D” reviews section, where you could find ink on Deerhoof, 16 Bitch Pileup, the Gris Gris, the Cuts, Sic Alps, and the Mall. Experimentally leaning bands that barely hit critical consciousness around town were championed worldwide by this increasingly renowned rag. Says local Birdman Records owner David Katznelson about Arthur, “There are few clear voices in the underground music community. Arthur has spearheaded a scene that takes many genres of music and congregates them in a meaningful, colorful way. The label is richer and so are the bands because of what Babcock has created.”
This month Arthur resumes its six-times-annually run with a new publisher. It’s hitting the stands some time in August with a cover story Babcock is stubbornly keeping mum about. He did divulge, though, that there’s yet another Bay Area angle inside, with a piece on Henry Jacobs, the improvisational sound artist who has hosted programs on local radio and public television stations. Otherwise, Babcock will only say, “It’s gonna be full-color all the way. It’s gonna be brighter, bolder, sharper, basically more bang for your buck. But since it’s free, that means it’s an infinite bang,” he adds with a laugh.
On the heels of successful Arthur-curated festivals in Los Angeles, Babcock also hints at expanding the magazine’s gigs up north (Arthur is sponsoring a performance of ’60s guitarist Bert Jansch at the Swedish Hall on Aug. 26). “We have a lot of events coming up. We’re looking at doing something in the Bay Area and we have some really good offers on the table,” says Babcock. “We’re going to figure it out and do something before the end of the year.”
Even as Arthur expands both its showcases and its Web presence (Babcock recently signed a deal with Yahoo to host an Arthur blog on that site), the magazine is still far from a business success. Babcock says the magazine was turning a “slight profit” when it went on hiatus — its revenue comes from advertising and from $30-a-year subscriptions — but he admits that his print run is low. More importantly, Arthur lacks large financial backing. “I still have zero investors. Nobody believes in the magazine enough to put money into it, so I just keep eating cans of beans and hope that things change,” says Babcock. “I’m entering my fifth year of [being] below the poverty line and it’s getting weird.” The editor is adamant about keeping his cultural outlet alive, however, adding that Arthur’s presence is “a big fuck-you to the people who say it can’t be done. If you’re willing to embrace poverty, you can get a buttload done.”
He’s also admirably adamant about striking out against culture becoming commodified by big corporations’ homogenous attitudes about music and art. “Culture is devolving week by week at this point,” Babcock says. “There’s a basic banalification that’s happening. We’re an antibanalification device.” All of which bodes well for the Bay Area, as Babcock continues to scour our musical landscape in search of groups that, like Arthur itself, truly break the mold.