A rather epic chat with Justin Maurer of Clorox Girls on writing and music

justin-maurer
Strange how little vagaries of the Internet can lead to some great talks. While checking out the Tumblr of artist Tom Lowell in reference to the Young Leaves single I posted last week, I saw some art he’d done for some upcoming Clorox Girls shows. Tied in with some of those shows were speaking engagements by the band’s Justin Maurer. After several hours of reading various excerpts from Maurer’s new book, Seventeen Television, in addition to the majority of his output for punk mag Razorcake, I reached out and asked the writer and musician for an interview. He was kind enough to answer the many questions I put to him via e-mail.

Both of your books have been named after songs you’ve written (“Don’t Take Your Life” by Clorox Girls, “Seventeen Television” by Suspect Parts). How do these songs tie into the books’ content?

Well, with “Don’t Take Your Life” my publisher and I were arguing goodnaturedly about what to call it. The title that almost made the cut was “Amplified Heart”, but he had another book coming out with the word heart in the title. I suggested “Don’t Take Your Life” ’cause it was kind of the “hit” off of that first Clorox Girls album, and it reminded my editor of a Cure or Smiths song title. haha That title stuck.

“Seventeen Television”? Well, I’ve just been obsessed with that title and concept for a long time. I used to have a record label called 17 TV that released the first press of the first Clorox Girls single (Jonny Cat Records did the second press), and a couple of other records. 17 is my lucky number or at least I like to think so and television is related to “channel”.

There’s this weird experience I had awhile ago and someone told me that I was a channel, as in, a medium for a higher power to communicate through. The person told me that all musicians and writers are just relaying a message from a higher power as a middle-man. This may sound ridiculous, but when you hear about amazing performances, the audience always says something like, “Jimi Hendrix, he was going so nuts up there, it’s like he was having an out of body experience and it was like it wasn’t even him playing…” I’m not comparing myself to a virtuoso like Hendrix, ’cause I don’t even come close … but if you really think about it, you have to be in the right “mood” to write a song or write a story, and when it’s finished, it flowed so naturally that you are almost astonished with what you have done because what you created didn’t exist before.

Weird I know, and I’m going on a tangent … I’m not a religious person, and the west coast definitely has a lot of hokey new age beliefs out there … but I’d like to believe that I’m here on earth for a reason, and that reason is music and storytelling.

book-cover-seventeen-television“Seventeen Television” is limited to 200 copies. Is this an outgrowth of the singles you’ve put out in the past, or simply a matter of making sure you’re not sitting on boxes?

It’s actually not limited to 200 copies … that was a hoax intended to sell more copies. So far it hasn’t worked. I’ve been printing them up myself and usually I can only afford to make 20-100 copies at a time. It’s a hard life as a starving artist, you know.

It seems that quite a few of your readings are tied to performances with Clorox Girls. Does this help garner more of an interest in your readings — i.e., people who know you’re part of the band?

Yeah, it helps a little bit for sure. I think most fans of punk rock don’t read very much, but the few that do have been really surprised and generally supportive of my little books of stories. To get taken seriously, you have to accomplish something noteworthy, and some writers do it because of some band they were in. Most of these writers are pretty bad.

The stories I’ve read from “Seventeen Television” have a certain “moment in time” quality to them — you don’t belabor the point. Is this intentional? Are you looking to drop the reader into these locales and leave them wanting more?

Yeah man, it is. Short, sweet and to the point. The locales or the settings of the stories are really important to the overall vibe. I want people to be able to taste the food, smell the air, and hear the local dialects. I’m working on my L.A. book now and I want L.A. to be so vivid in the story that the city is like a character itself. And a good song or a good story should always leave people wanting more.

razorcake-logoYour interviews for Razorcake are really insightful. As both a musician and writer, what do you bring to an interview that someone else can’t?

Thank you. Well, I try and be observant and find nuances in things. Most band interview questions are so predictable and boring and so in turn, the band seems really boring. Most people, especially band dudes, aren’t skilled at giving articulate interviews, I’m not saying I am, everybody gets nervous for these things. But, Jesus, have you read any band interviews lately that you were impressed by? By and large, they are so boring to read.

Todd, editor at Razorcake does a great job at flushing out interesting details because he has a fine-tuned eye for exactly what he wants. The LA Record does some great interviews as well, I’ve done a few for ‘em, and most of their writers do a pretty great job. So I try and set a high bar for myself and try and get more out of the bands then, “Yeah that was cool,” or “Yeah, that was crazy.”

Writing music is usually a collaborative effort, whereas writing stories, et al, is a solitary exercise. What is the appeal of both means of expression? Conversely, what are the downsides?

It’s great to collaborate with people on music. If they are the right people they can truly turn a rock into a diamond. Also onstage, you have a wall of sound behind you, drums, amps, backing vocals. Reading stories in front of people at first for me was pretty harrowing to undertake. I was so used to having drums and amps behind my vocals. The naked sound of your own voice in a microphone reading something you wrote can be pretty scary. As far as the work goes, it can be pretty lonely as far as writing goes, but I enjoy it so much and it’s only me who can discipline myself, there’s no one else to sabotage it besides me. And when it’s done, once I’ve edited a group of stories to death, usually I’ll hand stories over to a trusted editor who helps me fine tune it.

Sometimes this back-and-forth of 1st and 2nd and 3rd drafts goes smoothly and is satisfying, other times it can be frustrating, like the editor is trying to make you write a different story altogether then you intended in the first place. But with both music and writing, sometimes you have to set your ego to the side and really listen to what your partners in crime have to say. Because sometimes your reaction at first might be to storm out of the room or scream or yell or even punch them in the face, but ultimately their suggestions are for the greater good of the final product, and these people who are working with you deserve to be listened to.

I’ve been really lucky so far by being able to work with great musicians and patient, skilled editors. As a means of expression? Well, both have helped me make sense of the world and not turn into a criminal or crazy person or manic depressive. Everyone needs an outlet and for me I’ve been really lucky to have access to these two.

clorox-girlsClorox Girls never really broke up, did they?

After we did a South American tour a few years ago, the band went on a hiatus. We had been on the road straight for a long time and were arguing about the future of the band. I decided to stay in Brazil and Argentina for a little while and recorded some solo 7″s as Clorox Girls. When I came back to Portland from Brazil, I played with the Red Dons for awhile then decided to reform Clorox Girls for the 3rd album. Clay, the drummer said that he would record the album, but he didn’t want to tour as intensively, and Colin, the bassist said he didn’t want to play on the album ’cause he didn’t agree with some of the label’s business practices; which was a smart decision actually, they ended up screwing us over.

So we got Richie, our friend from L.A. on drums and Daniel, a friend of Observers, Red Dons bassist, on bass. So it ended up being a totally different lineup with a totally different sound, which alienated a lot of our fans, but we toured our asses off and ended up proving ourselves I’d like to think. Uhhh… this is going on forever … so then after the last lineup of the band owed shitloads of money to our record label and other people I stayed in Europe for almost 5 years and lived and worked in Madrid and London until I lost my work visa and had to move back to the US.

cover-clorox-girls-genocideWhen I came back, Richie and I decided to do some Clorox Girls shows in California and recruited Tommy on bass. That ended up turning into a 7″ and a ton of shows and a couple more members (Cezar and Kevin). We pretty much did the whole westcoast a few times. Then there was an idea to reunite Colin, Clay and I for a couple reunion shows. So far we’ve done two of those and they were a lot of fun, so now there’s 2 more planned in Portland and Seattle. Long answer to a short question. Probably no new recordings coming out, but I’m pretty proud of those 3 albums and 10 singles, so live long and prosper. If you want us to come to your town, buy us some plane tickets and we’ll be there.

Is there something freeing about being part of a band that plays when and where they want, rather than having to maintain some sort of recording and touring schedule?

Yeah, it is, but it was also nice to have solid goals and really to bust ass out on the road and be a real rock n roll band. I miss it a lot. Now we are old and have to have steady incomes to survive and pay rent and car payments and bills like everyone else. When we were on the road it was all about getting to the next town, booking the next tour. That’s why touring Europe was so great because they would feed us, give us a clean, quiet place to sleep, and pay us really fairly.

Touring the US sucked. You would get a shitty slice of pizza, a warm Bud Light, get paid not even enough to cover gas, and be sleeping on nasty carpeted floors with cat hair, dirty laundry and used condoms. True story. So I don’t miss touring the US, but I do miss touring Europe and Canada and South America. Fuck, we had a blast. Now I’m just stuck writing about it, I guess! I will play music though until the day I die, and my goal is to go into the studio and record new stuff at least once a year… so far I have, and my new bands L.A. Drugz and Maniac have some records coming out soon.

Having lived in so many places, why end up in Los Angeles? Is it tied to music, screenwriting, or otherwise?

When I lost my work visa in England, I was really scraping by at some under the table part-time bartending jobs. My Dad who was a dental supply salesman, had this little dental supply company with my Uncle, and they offered me a job in L.A. My girlfriend had recently lost her job in London as well, so it seemed like our only choice. Also, we romanticized living in sunny Southern California after living in rainy, dismal London. The experience selling dental supplies for my family’s business turned out to be a living hell, and I wrote about it in a screenplay called “Pulling Teeth”.

After shopping the screenplay around to 300 Hollywood agents, only one read it and rejected it in a polite and kind way. Since then I’ve worked a ton of shitty jobs, but things are looking up and music and writing will always be a part of my life. I was born in L.A. and moved to the Pacific Northwest when I was 11, so I had my childhood here. It has been cool to live here again at this point in my life and get to know the streets and the neighborhoods and the people.

I grew up on L.A. punk like Black Flag, the Germs, the Adolescents, the Controllers, Weirdos, all of that great early so Cal punk. Later on I got into 60s L.A. stuff like Arthur Lee/Love, The Byrds, Seeds, Buffalo Springfield and all the old L.A. writers too: John Fante, Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski and Dan Fante. I’m a huge fan of film noir and classic Hollywood cinema from the 40s, 50s, and 60s … so as well as being sort of both a native and a transplant, I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring and unravelling this city. It’s a great place.

You talk about exploring the city. I assume you mean this literally, rather than figuratively. What’ve been the discoveries that made you step back in amazement?

When I lived down in Long Beach, I was really impressed by the area of town called “Naples” that had canals and bridges, much more beautiful then Venice Beach. In L.A. proper, if you go up the hills and check out the views from Griffith Observatory or the Hollywood Bowl overlook, you can see how insanely vast this city is. You think that at any given moment a beautiful and ugly moment is happening in the city below. A baby is being born, someone dies, someone is embraced, someone is murdered, it all happens like in any city, but there’s something very special and unique about this one for sure

skid-row-laI was also amazed to find out that 15 thousand people live on L.A.’s Skid Row. When the shops around Skid Row close for the night, people set up tents and cardboard boxes and sleeping bags and pull in their shopping carts and suitcases and huddle up for the night. They have a few homeless shelters and gospel missions around the area, as well as SRO state-funded apartment housing and cheap motels, but among these 15 thousand are the hundreds of people who sleep outdoors night after night in a tent or on top of a cardboard box. The US likes to think of itself as first world, but in our cities we truly have people living in a very third world way, real abject poverty.

If you drive down a couple of the major east to west streets like Sunset Blvd., Santa Moncia Blvd., Olympic Blvd. you can see how everybody really lives in LA from the working class and recent immigrants on the eastside, to the middle class, to the very wealthy on the westside. You can see this just by driving a street like Sunset or Santa Monica from downtown or the eastside all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Um, one of the best parts of L.A. are the restaurants and bars where old Hollywood used to hang out at, people like Robert Mitchum and Sinatra, Chaplin and Garbo, and the huge parks, like Elysian Park and Griffith Park, the canyons you can hike through. I live in East Hollywood and we’re near a canyon called Bronson Canyon. Recently they found a decapitated head there in a garbage bag, some middle aged ladies walking their dogs, and the dogs ripped open this plastic garbage bag that had a human head inside of it … anyway, Bronson Canyon — if you hike up one of the trails has this cave, and it is actually the cave used as the Batcave in the intro of the 60s Adam West Batman TV show, the opening credits where he drives the Batmobile out of the cave … I grew up watching Batman reruns every Saturday morning, and as a 30 year old man, it still felt so cool walking through the original Batcave. Man, that is awesome.

For more information on Justin Maurer, as well as to buy his books and music, visit his website.