Monday, 9 April 2012

Interview 35

Amber Tan and Andy Johnson are editors of the paper-based
Über zine and of the creative blog Purple Revolver. Here they tell us a little about their obsessions and 1990s popular culture.

Please tell us a little about yourselves, your backgrounds and where you are currently based.

Über zine editors Amber Tan and Andy Johnson are both national newspaper journalists working out of Liverpool and started the Purple Revolver creative blog which features on Google News. They have a team of 30 writers, photographers and artists across the UK, who work on the site and also Über - now into its seventh issue.

Amber, 31, is the eldest daughter of six and chased her dreams of becoming a journalist as a teenager, breaking into the world of reviews in Bristol, the home of trip-hop in 2000.

Andy, 32, is a basketball junkie. He believes what you do as a child determines what you do as an adult. At the age of 10 Andy produced a home made comic called The Laughter Times and now wants to do it for a living.

Über was launched in 2010 - how did the zine come to be? Why keep to a limited edition print run of 800? Who do you think your readers are and what do you hope to achieve by its publication?

Über zine launched in April 2010. We had it in mind as a prototype for a series of city guides and a way of collecting articles about Liverpool, Bristol and their creative scenes and it has evolved and moved in a different direction from there.

We publish it as a free zine in a short run of 800 as eight is our lucky number and we like the idea of it being limited edition, appearing on the streets for a short space of time and once it's gone, it's gone making it sought-after with our regular readers. Also, as all zine makers know printing is expensive.

Our readers are a broad cross section of people, everyone from youngsters to older artists have written to us to say they enjoy it and it covers a wide cultural spectrum. We have also picked up some mail-order readers from around the country, which is encouraging. We started
Über as a means to give us freedom of expression away from the usual tabloid fodder we've had to cover in our working life as journalists.

Without getting ahead of ourselves we'd like to see the zine grow in circulation and be able to support itself as a fully-fledged underground national publication celebrating offbeat culture. We've been able to pay the best artists and contributors and would like to develop that and form our own creative community.

We would also like to be able to support spin off publications under the Purple Revolver and
Über banner with other artists and writers. Such as the Digital Jesus - lost superhero comic creation from the middle of the past two issues, which has taken on a life of its own.

You published a '1993 Future Throwback' issue reflecting back on various aspects of popular culture during the time (e.g. thrift store chic, films and Grunge), but have also said that the zine aesthetic you have adopted is from the 1990s. What is it about the 1990s you find so appealing? And, how does this attitude carry over into the visual language of your fanzine?

We both came of age in the 90s and it seemed an especially exciting time to be a teenager. The DIY ethic loomed large with illegal raves popping up and a lot of artists were doing things for themselves. This creative vibe stuck with us and when we started planning our zine we were conscious that this 90s spirit should inform its aesthetic.

The early 90s were also the end of an innocent pre-internet era, where you had to put more effort into discovering what excited your senses, whether it was music, fashion, love or friendship.

The American influence on British fashion and culture was huge in the early 90s and teenagers had to work hard to hunt down limited edition music imports, order US fashion via mail order and experiment with a few different scenes before discovering which cultural tribe they belonged to.

Compared with today's more homogenised culture, with many genres being 'mashed up' to try and create something new and the world of social networks and the Internet means ideas, music and fashion releases move at lightning speed and are now all available 24 hours a day in your pocket.

We're both obsessed with America and have done extensive travelling over there, as teenagers and together, and we predicted the big 90s cultural comeback and wanted to be able to reference this in the zine.

But the idea has evolved and the upcoming issues of
Über will focus on this resurgence and document it using an 18-year business cycle theory that we've referenced and applied to popular culture.

We were looking into economic cycle theories for a feature and spotted the Homer-Hoyt 18-year economic cycle theory, which follows that house prices can't rise indefinitely, at some point they become unaffordable in relation to the average man's salary in the face of wild property speculation and so follows a period of boom and bust.

We looked back to the last recession in 1992, drawing comparisons and we believe it can also be applied to the worlds of fashion and music and other creative endeavours, which are now adopting a similar DIY ethic to overcome a lack of money and artistic funding.

Also in terms of the visual language of the zine, we're big fans of the cut and paste style, which gives us an opportunity to explore our own artistic ambition, the physical texture and depth you can get from cut and paste on the page is like nothing else. Being able to stick a packet of Rizlas and adding your own backgrounds before scanning it gives an extra element to interviews, especially a spread we did with Howard Marks.

Unfortunately due to the time-consuming nature of physical cut-and-paste we've started recruiting graphic designers to layout some of our articles and they have some amazing tools in their arsenal, but the end result does not feel the same. With cut and paste each hand-crafted page is unique like a thumbprint.

Do you feel there is a tension between what you do as a press agency (Purple Revolver) and the underground, Indy, DIY ethos of fanzines?

We have a more commercial outlook for what we do as Purple Revolver and even more so for our work as tabloid journalists.

Über was born in many ways as a rebellion against what we had to do for the mainstream media. Purple Revolver began as a way of being able to write about what we wanted - music and film. Über takes it a stage further with its 'Take No Prisoners' attitude and we've found it to be one of our most well received projects.

Some people might sneer at the fact that we spent time writing for national newspapers like
The Sun, The Daily Star and glossy women's magazines, but we've also spent time writing for publications like The Times and The Telegraph. This sharpened our writing style (tabloid writers have half the amount of words at their disposal to tell the story compared to the verbose nature of The Guardian). Also our business sense as to what would appeal to readers and enable us to produce an independent publication on a tight budget.

We've also been able to pass on what we've learned to writers and other creatives who've worked with us on the zine.

What fanzines do you recommend that we should be reading?

We always pick fanzines up when we see them on our travels and are big fans of the zine libraries in Shop, Bristol and the Salford Zine Library. Smoo Comics in Bristol is a great one for the artwork.

We're also trying to track down some zines to add to our collection such as
Everyone Needs A Hobby about Tim Burton (from 1994) - because we're looking to focus on Ed Wood for our 1994 Future Throwback issue and Passing Wind about Peter Cook.

Über zine has a theme - The Money Issue, The DIY Issue, Future Throwback Issue, Christmas and New York and the latest 1993 Future Throwback issue and if anyone wants to check them out they can find them on our website.

Thank you.

Interview 34

Dom Raban produced political/music zines Frayed Edges and later, between 1980-85 Proper Gander, whilst living in Sheffield. These days he spends his time as Managing Director at the design and communications agency Corporation Pop based in Manchester, UK.

Please tell us something about your fanzines and how they came to be.

I started my first fanzine, Frayed Edges, in Southampton in early 1979. At the time I was a young activist in the Labour Party Young Socialists (as well as being a punk). The fanzine was initially put together by a group of us at the LPYS (on the fringes of that group was John Denham - now an MP and former cabinet minister) and reflected our political as well as musical interests. As I moved away from the Labour Party towards a more anarchic political doctrine so did the fanzine - I think the Labour Party stalwarts finally took umbridge when I took to the streets of Southampton with a spray can to publicise the mag. I ended up producing five issues before moving to Sheffield to start a Zoology degree.

I didn't take my degree very seriously (dropped out at the end of the 2nd year) but in my first term I started another fanzine called Proper Gander with a group of friends. Proper Gander was similar to Frayed Edges in that it mixed music and politics (though this time without the Party connections). It was an exciting time to be in Sheffield - with Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League hitting the mainstream and new bands like Pulp, Chakk, ABC and many others emerging from the scene. Politically too there was lots going on - Sheffield was 'the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire' and the miner's strike was on our doorstep. Proper Gander documented all this - and many of the main players in the music scene were regular contributors. Between 1980 and 1985 we produced twenty issues. In 1983 or 4 we officially became a Workers Cooperative with help from Sheffield City Council's Cooperative development team - though this 'official' status was short-lived because we were too stoned to keep up with the bureaucratic paperwork. From about 83/84 we had an office in the newly opened Leadmill, which at the time was one of the 'must play' venues on the live music circuit.

The first few issues were printed by various 'radical' printing outfits around at the time - including Rochdale Alternative Press and a similar print shop in Leeds whose name I have forgotten. But - following the true DIY ethic - I learnt to operate an offset-litho press at a community print facility in Sheffield and printed the remaining issues myself.

By 2005 (or thereabouts) I stopped producing the fanzine but my experience of 6+ years with Cow Gum, typewriters and particularly print fostered a love for design and production and so in 1988 I set up a design company on Thatcher's Enterprise Allowance Scheme.

Clearly politics and music have played a key part of your passion for doing a fanzine. I read in an excerpt from Vague (No.6) that you were 'scooped' in getting the interview with Devo. I don't know if you remember this, but it is interesting to note the competitive use of language.

'June 9 Devo at Southampton Town Hall. Chris Johnson was pictured posing in a Devo hat as he scooped the Southampton fanzine Frayed Edges for this interview with Devo's Jerry Casale.'

Was this reflective of a competitive spirit between producers of music fanzines to get the band interviews during this period?

We weren't so much competitive as territorial. I don't remember the Devo incident but I do remember Vague. At the time Southampton was a one fanzine town and we were it. Vague hailed from Salisbury - a cathedral town whose biggest claim to fame was as the home of Edward Heath - world's apart from the multicultural port of Southampton. When we travelled to other towns and cities to see and interview bands there was a definite and delicious sense of trespass – and I think there's an element of this in the Vague comment.

You've produced zines in cities which would be considered 'provincial' by some, but foster strong regional perspectives. What is it about your zines (either through content or graphic language) where you feel this is reflected?

Frayed Edges definitely reflected a small town scene and a regional perspective. Punk took two years to travel down the M3 to our coastal outpost – but when it arrived we greeted it with the same fervour it had received in the early days on the Kings Road. By this time the London scene was on its knees and had become little more than a photo opportunity for Japanese tourists. Down in Southampton we were re-inventing the DIY ethic and finding our own self-expression (I earned the nickname 'why pay London prices' from one wag because I made my own clothes and screenprinted T-shirts with artwork ripped from my favourite album covers of the day).

But Sheffield and Proper Gander was entirely different. You could justifiably be lynched for calling the Sheffield of 1980 provincial or regional. We were the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. We had dirt cheap public transport, workers coops and David Blunkett leading the revolution! We didn't take any notice of the dandy pirates and indian squaws that characterised the London scene of the early 80s. We had industrial funk and took pride in the fact that the best music of the day originated from Steel City. Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League and later Chakk, Hula and Heaven 17 as well as a host of local bands were defining a new music that influenced London - not the other way round.

Sheffield did for the early 80s UK music scene what Detroit and Chicago did for the music of the latter part of the decade. The politics of South Yorkshire also defined the era. Whilst the south of England was waving bunting for our boys in the South Atlantic we had troops on the streets fighting pitched battles with the miners. There was a genuine sense of revolutionary fervour - albeit clouded by a fug of ganja and a plentiful supply of magic mushrooms just a 4p bus ride away. Proper Gander documented most of this - both the politics and the music - and our fluid editorial team often included musicians from the bands which were shaping the city's music scene.

What other zines from the 1970s/1980s were considered to be key in establishing points of views that influence music and politics of the time? Or, at the very zines which you feel would give us some sort of historical insights into the UK scene.

Sadly I've lost the copies of the fanzines I used to collect at the time and my memory is hazy when it comes to recalling all the movers and shakers of the day but one that I'll always remember from my punk days was Kill Your Pet Puppy. I loved not only its outrageous and provocative title but also the graphic style which, with its brash colours and bold typography embodied the zeitgeist of the time. Later on when I was in Sheffield it was City Fun over in Manchester which provided the model for us to aspire to.