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Interview with Chris Estey

Chris Estey and I go back a ways. We trolled on the same message boards in the late 1990s, but didn’t really get to know one another until I moved to Seattle in 2006. While at first glance Chris may appear intimidating, he’s really an incredibly sweet guy with a great sense of humor. He’s also a fine writer, whose piece on Phil Ochs was part of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing collection in 2010. Chris has led a really interesting life and if you ever meet him, you should ask him to tell you the story about how he kicked Henry Rollins out of his bed back in the ‘80s.

What’s your connection with the documentary Spokanarchy!? How did you get to doing press for it?

I told you some stories about Spokane.


Like the one about kicking Henry Rollins out of my bed. And Joey Shithead getting mad at me for chasing people with fu-fu haircuts at a party at the group house that D.O.A. was staying at. You know, after I lost my testicle.


Well, my parents were living in Spokane and I was living in Seattle back in the early 1980s. I was doing a bunch of political stuff over here like a Marxist-Leninist faction. I was doing a lot of protesting, like pro-abortion protesting and anti-Reagan war in Nicaragua protesting. So my parents had moved to Spokane from another town in eastern Washington, Kennewick, and I decided to go live with them because I had no money or friends left in Seattle after donating my life to the cause. I was an administrator for a group called North American Anarchist Network. So I thought I could go to Spokane and do that shit and I did for a little while until I basically got run out of town. While I was there I made friends with everyone who was in the movie. Basically everyone in the movie I know except some of the people who were in the bands later on. The principal filmmaker was Dave Halsell and he worked with four other people. It was a five-person team who did the movie. Dave was the guy I knew. Dave was in a band called the Sow. Actually, their full name was An 425 Pound Yorkshire Sow. It was a noise performance art band that would freak people out. And he was one of those poor unfortunates in the punk rock scene in the 80s who got sent to a Mormon boot camp. His parents were Episcopalian but they decided to send him to a Mormon boot camp in Utah. When I entered the Spokane scene everyone loved Dave. He endured a year of that shit and then eventually made his way back from Utah. So he was kind of a martyr to the scene when I got involved with it. I knew him briefly before he left and then when he came back.

When he got a hold of me, Spokane was having a bunch of reunions. Some people had emailed me and wanted to know why I wasn’t responding to peoples’ emails. And I’m not a big nostalgia guy. I had some very bad times in Spokane; most of them caused by myself. It was almost all my fault and I didn’t want to relive it. Then when the movie was done and I found out it was Dave, I told him I’d send him a list of publications where it should start being reviewed. I just thought it was going to be a punk rock doc but I knew that Spokane is weird so I knew it was going to be a weird doc.

While Dave and I were never particularly close back then, I respected him. He said he’d like to have some help with where it needed to go. And even though we hadn’t seen each other for almost 30 years we got together at the Elliott Bay Bookstore here in Seattle and spent five or six hours talking. He had read my interview with Steve Ignorant of Crass and knew I had handled the Black Angels and knew my work with Light in the Attic Records. And I changed my mind about being involved. I decided it would be interesting to be involved, especially since I had felt completely ostracized and cut out of that scene.

Why had you felt that way?

At some point in my life I felt that everyone in that town hated me. I felt I had been driven out of that town due to my behavior.

What had you done? Just drugs and drinking and stuff?

Well, without naming names, I’d do something like walk into a club and punch the bouncer in the face. I burned a guy on a speed deal and that guy has never forgiven me. I asked Dave why he was getting involved with me, because I was under the impression that people still hated me and he said, “I don’t think so.”

So this kind of came out of nowhere, but Roy told me that you did this movie with Calvin Johnson called Have You Ever Grown A Beard? What was the impetus behind that?

I do have to ask you – have you ever grown a beard?

I’ve tried but it doesn’t turn out well.

Well, you’re a good-looking man, so I guess you don’t need to hide.

So what happened was I got that story published in Best Music Writing 2010

Phil Ochs?

Yeah. It was from a fanzine and never intended to be in any mainstream, commercial thing. I sent copies to a bunch of different people and one of them was Daphne Carr, who at the time was editor at Da Capo. So it got published. And then a year ago this woman, Kathy Wolf, meets me. She’s going out with Pat Thomas, who wrote Listen, Whitey! They’re kind of a creative team and they decided to do a movie.  I don’t know how they came up with it, but they thought it would be interesting for me to interview Calvin Johnson. They didn’t know if I had ever met Calvin Johnson before.

Kathy never told me why she chose Calvin and I as a topic. I actually didn’t know Calvin. I knew of him. There’s a venue here now called Columbia City Theater and it’s a beautiful old, historic theater. Kathy wanted to film a documentary there. The idea would be to have me read from the book, so that people knew who I was and then have me interact with Calvin. My take on it is that it’s just a film version of the live fanzine I like to do. As opposed to reading discographies and discussing specific histories – basically I take the place of the audience because I’m as big as the audience collectively. [laughs] And I sit up there and I usually get very drunk and ask knowledgeable questions but also fucked-up questions. I make it meaty but also weird where anything can happen. And that’s what I tried to do with the Calvin piece.

So how do you feel about it? Are you happy with how it turned out?

Oh, I’ve never seen it. [laughs] It’s showing in Portland on February 24th and Calvin’s going to be there. But because I don’t leave within four blocks from my home I won’t be there. But I will make it up to Capital Hill in Seattle for the March 5th showing at the North West Film Forum and I think Calvin’s going to make that too.

It’s a short film – about a half hour at the most. I’ve seen some clips and they’re very good. I thought it was interesting Kathy gave me a bottle of Jack Daniels about halfway through it. I was reading from the book and I was sweaty and itchy, but once I had the liquor in me I was doing better. And then we did the interview. I think the first question I asked him was “Have you ever had a beard?”

Was he receptive to this process or did he seem taken aback to being interviewed by you?

Calvin is a gentleman. He’s a sweetheart. When he initially met me I was sober and we were able to talk and things were going very well. I think after I ingested the Jack Daniels and he had performed he seemed a little bit nervous about what was going to happen and my questions may have been a little strange for him. And there was no audience. I think if he had had an audience to play to it would have been a different thing. But what had happened was, because of the nature of his persona, which I don’t think is contrived at all, when it was juxtaposed with mine I think it created an interesting energy. Which is I overshare and spill out everywhere. And his work is appreciative of that. He’s passionate about flakes and losers and freaks like me. So as different as we look from each other, I think people will be interested in the juxtaposition of the similarities and the differences.

How was it different than the other interviews you’d done in a similar setting with Eugene Robinson from Oxbow, Steve from Crass and David Yow from Scratch Acid?

Not very because Calvin and I are really passionate about what we’re doing. And even though Calvin isn’t as aggressive musically or socially like those other guys are, he’s still an extremist. He’s still a freak. All the people I’ve interviewed and all the people I’m interested in are people who try and re-define reality in their own way. They’re not really happy with how society projects itself on other people. People don’t want you to be strong or mindful because it takes away from how they can manipulate you. The stronger you are with yourself, the more off-putting it will be for those people who don’t share those energies. So every single interview I’ve done, including this one with Calvin, has been with someone who has basically said, “Fuck you! I’m starting a house where all the weird kids can hang out.”

It seems that music has affected you more than any other thing in life and I’m wondering why you think that is.

That’s an interesting question. I think all the stuff we’re talking about – it all leads to one thing: Punk really wasn’t about punk. A lot of this was about learning a way of life: how to live and create a reality that isn’t imposed upon us by others. You can get all socio-political about it but I don’t think that’s necessary. I think reality – not just society, but reality – really sucks. If I turn on the TV, the most asinine crap will be screamed at me and I’m supposed to accept that as reality. When you realize how lonely people are you realize reality isn’t doing them very much good. Whatever they’re clinging to in terms of sanity, it’s all really based in vanity. The only thing we can do is to find mutual self-indulgence, which is to really enjoy the passions of others and ourselves and make that as mutual as possible. And if it seems reckless or childish, then I think that’s probably it as its most transcendent. Being there for other people in joy and in the pain is the only meaningful moment in the world.

I think in punk rock – as Jaime Hernandez of the Love & Rockets comic said – punk rock was how you drank your coffee in the morning. And he doesn’t answer that – how you drink your coffee in the morning. It’s how you do it. And what it is, is that you wake up and you know the day is fucked and you’re basically going to kick at the darkness as hard as you can. Or laughing at it as hard as you can. But the reality is such a sheer, horrible burden, so fuck the shit out of it. Just enjoy the fuck out of the moment. Whatever you’ve been given now is awesome, but it’s also on loan and hopefully your shoelace won’t break. But it will. [laughs]


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