LAist Interview: Jay Babcock from Arthur Magazine
by Nikki Bazar
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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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 Frances 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.