For Ex-Zinesters Only: on chickfactor’s Influence in the Digital Age
Let’s get this elephant-sized full disclosure out of the way: Our story begins in the office of Washington City Paper. Actually, it begins on the floor of the office of Washington City Paper.
“Pam [Berry] and I would come into the office at 8 in the morning on weekends when no one else was working, and we’d be lying on the ground, laying it out,” Gail O’Hara recalls over the phone from her current home in Portland.
“I remember giddy nights with lack of sleep,” Berry, who now lives in London, writes in an email. “They were just heaps of fun.”
The year was 1992 and—scissors and saddle-stitch staplers in hand—O’Hara and Berry were compiling the first issue of their indie-pop fanzine chickfactor. Its beginnings were humble, but over its decade-long run chickfactor became a veritable indie bible. It centered on casual and, often, before-they-were-indie-famous interviews with artists like Neko Case (describing her fans, issue No. 12: “They’re generally about 40 and they work for newspapers in Charleston and Indiana and places like that”), Cat Power (on whether she’ll be playing music in 15 years, issue No. 10: “Probably—not for other people though”), and Stephen Malkmus (on why he asks for towels on his rider, issue No 12: “I use them to blow my nose”). Thanks to its chatty, off-the-cuff tone and thorough coverage, chickfactor cultivated an international readership and was immortalized in a Belle & Sebastian song of the same name. In its later years, it had a print run in the thousands and looked more like a glossy music rag than a handmade zine.
Two decades, 15 issues, and innumerable papercuts later, Berry and O’Hara are reuniting to celebrate chickfactor’s 20th anniversary with a series of shows in New York, New Jersey, Portland, and Washington, D.C. Well, Rosslyn, actually.
This weekend’s two-night bill at Artisphere includes some local legends (popgaze luminaries Lorelei and dream-pop outfit Lilys, both veterans of influential, locally formed Slumberland Records), as well as Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson and current-generation Slumberland popster Frankie Rose. But it was the announcement of Saturday night’s headliner that really sent the indie-pop world into a tizzy: Berry’s old band, Black Tambourine, hasn’t played together since 1991.
In a lot of ways, the half-lives of chickfactor and Black Tambourine have charted opposite courses as technology and changing media habits have reordered the indie canon. Black Tambourine played only a handful of shows in the D.C. area in the late ’80s and early ’90s and recorded only a handful of songs; more revered at the time was Velocity Girl, the band in which two of Black Tambourine’s members also played. (City Paper staffer Brian Nelson played in both bands.) “From what I recall they were noisy, and not all that well-attended,” Berry says of the early Black Tambourine gigs.
By the mid-2000s, Black Tambourine was considered a foundational act in noisy American indie pop—a big deal, given the genre’s current lo-fi leanings and the success of groups like Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts, and Dum Dum Girls, who have all mined Black Tambourine’s sound. chickfactor, meanwhile, has gone from a must-read window into a relatively tiny pop underground to an occasionally revered footnote in the histories of the bands who went on make indie rock the stuff of NPR worship and Billboard placements, like Belle & Sebastian and The Magnetic Fields.
You can learn a lot about the way we discover indie rock from the history of chickfactor, which helped shepherd the genre in the direction of the mainstream right up to the point that the Internet was able to finish the job. And you can discover a lot about the legacy of zine culture in a digital age. Indie rock may have gone big-time, but the mostly defunct chickfactor has stayed resolutely DIY.
In early 1992, O’Hara moved from D.C. to New York. She landed a job at Spin, where one of her first assignments was interviewing a hero of hers, David Gedge of the U.K. pop outfit The Wedding Present. Giddy, she called Berry and they compiled a list of questions. The transcript ended up being thousands of words, exploring Gedge’s songwriting philosophy and the differences between U.S. and U.K. pop bands. O’Hara says her Spin editors just wanted a blurb about The Wedding Present’s latest single.What to do with the excess material, which would surely be interesting to people who loved the band as much as O’Hara and Berry did? Easy: Start a fanzine.
Since the late ’60s, fanzines have played a pivotal role in music journalism—those were the days of Bomp! (in which Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus had early bylines) and Crawdaddy! If the punctuation tells you something, it’s that the common denominator of all fanzines is enthusiasm. Zines were important in capturing the excitement of early punk in the late ’70s. In the early ’90s, they experienced something of a renaissance, thanks to a strong underground music community and the spotlight on the zine-crazed riot grrrl movement.
For fanzines, amateurism can be a virtue. But because of their experience in publishing, O’Hara and Berry had a professional edge from the get-go. The first issue of chickfactor, which came out in September 1992, has a decidedly handmade feel, but it’s also got a lot of the hallmarks of a regular magazine: pull quotes, nice design, and a signature aesthetic, thanks in part to illustrations from its “resident comic genius” Shawn Belschwender.
chickfactor sprung from O’Hara and Berry’s enthusiastic music-geekery: O’Hara was on the cutting edge of breaking bands from a variety of genres, while Berry was more of an indie-pop purist. The voice was sassy and feminist, though there was plenty of talk about crushes (the Gedge interview ends with a fake marriage proposal). Above all, chickfactor feels humanistic: Its frequently unedited interviews captured its subjects as people rather than distant celebrities. “That was our way of showing people as they really are, as it happened,” O’Hara says. “Pam and I [learned] to interview people by disarming them, but that meant they ended up telling us things they might not tell everybody else.” An interview with Superchunk’s Laura Ballance became a frank discussion about politics and birth control, while the Q&A with Case found the up-and-coming singer revealing embarrassing party stories.
That’s not to say chickfactor’s editors didn’t make enemies. O’Hara says Pavement bassist Mark Ibold wasn’t too happy about Belschwender’s recurring comic “Pavement Boy” (which followed the exploits of a mop-topped slacker who picked up chicks with the line, “So I’m in this band? Pavement?”), and she fielded plenty of angry missives from bands who’d had their records reviewed by a certain cantankerous writer named Stephin Merritt. That was another thing: Most of the writers had bands of their own, which meant they had inside dirt. In the eyes of some detractors, that gave chickfactor an exclusive vibe, but for loyal readers and the people who attended chickfactor shows, it bolstered a sense of community—it meant you were a part of something. “Sure, there’s glamour; there might even be a scene,” Jackson wrote in the linernotes of a chickfactor CD. “[But] it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is the continuous unraveling mass of informative sharing of experience.”
Fast forward to 2003. File-sharing had upheaved the way people discovered new bands, and thanks to MP3 devices, listening to music would soon become a more solitary activity. Around the same time, MP3-dispensing music blogs took off; 2003 was also the year of the last print issue of chickfactor.
“It was a zine out of D.C., right?” Frankie Rose says when asked if she’s ever read chickfactor. “I’m painfully ignorant,” she confesses sheepishly. “But I know that it’s a zine.”
Rose, who’s of a younger, Internet-savvy generation of indie fans, shouldn’t feel guilty. After all, chickfactor’s Web presence is scant: An article or two from each issue is up at chickfactor.com, but the rest of the content is in the hands of people who have held on to print issues. (chickfactor Nos. 1-8 are out of print, while the later issues are still available for purchase on the site.)
For a lot of former zinesters, the Internet has prompted complex questions about archiving. Do you upload all of your back issues online for free? Do you document its entire history on the open-source site ZineWiki? Or do you eke out a space in the ivory tower by donating your archives to, say, New York University’s Fales Library, which now houses an impressive collection of queer and riot grrrl zines? O’Hara says she hasn’t archived chickfactor’s content online because the original text files were lost, and uploading the content would require typing everything in manually. But she’s also grown wary of “content stealing” after seeing some of her photography used online without proper attribution. For now, the zine’s history mostly belongs to the group of people who lived it. “Basically this whole reunion, it’s like a friend reunion,” O’Hara says. Some vibes never die.
It’s easy to set up a false dichotomy between zines and blogs and assume that the Internet killed chickfactor—but that wouldn’t be the whole truth. Berry left the zine when she moved to London in 1998, and chickfactor’s print run came to an end because, after a decade, O’Hara was “burnt out from writing record reviews,” got sick of dealing with irresponsible distributors, and because, after she too moved to London in 2003, the logistics got too tough.
Like much of ’90s zine culture, chickfactor’s influence is paradoxical: Looking back, they may seem secondary to the music they boosted. But their editorial DNA lives on in the long-form interview style and enthusiastic, buttoned -down tone of sites like Pitchfork (for which I write), Stereogum, and the Quietus, whose impact is far greater than chickfactor’s ever was.
In 2005 O’Hara put out one last issue of chickfactor—as an online-only edition. She’s hoping to put out another print edition this year and maybe even a best-of book. So this is chickfactor in the digital era: still all about friendship and community, but not afraid to mine the benefits of the digital world. Just don’t think O’Hara will be live-tweeting Black Tambourine’s set. “I do miss the golden days when people just stood there and watched a band,” O’Hara says. “I want everyone at the shows to keep their cell phones in their bags the whole night. I’m trying to make everyone party like it’s 1992.”
The chickfactor anniversary shows take place Friday and Saturday at Artisphere. Single-day tickets are $25-$27; a two-day pass is $45. Images courtesy Gail O'Hara.