Interview with Zine Publisher Aaron Cometbus

Opening up the digest sized zine, Cometbus, you'll often see handwritten text within the obscured cover art. The insides appear to be undoubtedly created without the use of a computer, yet Cometbus heavily inspired the publication of Giant Robot. The writing was insightful and something I aspired to. I never met Aaron Cometbus, however we've corresponded via snail mail long ago and since then has become occasional emails. He penned a nice foreward for the Giant Robot Oakland Museum of California exhibition catalog. (photos by Chrissy Piper)

GR: After researching just a bit, it turns out you’ve been in more bands than I thought. Some are from the early 80s when you were probably in your early teens. How did you get into music at that age?

A:  Eric, I’m ashamed of you! I’d expect it from some no-brain scum, but a legendary magazine editor and toy store mogul like you shouldn’t say “researched” when they mean “typed your name into a computer.” I’ll pass on that question rather than respond to half-truths.

GR: When I look back at some of the GR issues, it’s hard to believe I was able to kill myself each issue and then come back to life for the next one. That’s the part that I can accept as legendary. Either way, I’ve only heard of perhaps two of the many in “that” list of bands. I don’t know much about being bands, but that’s a lot of people to deal with.

A: That’s a good description of doing a mag: killing yourself and being reborn. And it’s addicting in a way. It’s healthy at first, and then it ceases to be. I’ve never been able to quit, though I’ve certainly tried. I’m curious how not publishing feels for you. If you tell me that, I’ll tell you about the bands.

GR: Not publishing was crushing since it was my way of life. You miss it at first. But having problems that stemmed from our 2009 economic crash and the changing tide of information consumption made the bills including employees, payroll, and health care a near impossible burden. It took two years to untangle that mess and those two years were the most fascinating. This was one of my greater accomplishments that no one will ever see or understand. I wouldn’t wish it upon others but it was a tough test of survival and learning a little more about what it takes. After that, not publishing was easier.
A: I have to keep up a certain level of denial, just to trick myself. But it’s funny when you say that bands are alien to you because being in a band is very much like being an editor. At least for drummers, which is what I am. We’re known for our editorial comments, famously unwelcome but usually correct. And we’re the somewhat invisible motivating force. Part of the reason the online stuff annoys me is that it’s not just inaccurate, but also incomplete. I’ve played with maybe 120 people. But then again, I’ve published 400. It’s the same intense engagement and collaboration.

GR: Drummers have a funny reputation. Although they’re behind the scenes, they often shine in other ways. I suppose you fit that generalization. 400 is a ton. My only numbers similar is that I’ve had 120 employees come and go, and 400 art exhibitions. I suppose it’s still different since I’m the sole owner without any partners who have an equal voice. Maybe that’s why collaborative projects are always so enticing and fun.

A: It’s exactly the same with me. Collaboration and partnership are great when you’re used to getting your way.

GR: I’d guess you’re plenty serviceable as a drummer judging by who you played with including Billy Joe and Blake S. Were you ever hellbent on becoming a player like Neil Peart?

A: Nah. I’m not a musician, I’m a bandmate. I accompany people and we make something together. It’s a fun process, which often consists of realizing you can add the most by being heard the least. Besides, I play along to the vocals, or maybe even the lyrics. I don’t follow the bass. I’m not a very versatile player but I do have my own style, and I think it’s added sizzle to some songs. My real talent, though, is in arranging.

GR: You were at the core of the music scene in the East Bay. Obviously Green Day was the shining commercial star. But from that era I dug Samiam, J-Church, Jawbreaker, Monsula, and tons from Lookout Records who toured through LA. Why did Green Day get there while the others didn’t? I figure you’re closer to this and might have an insight. Maybe it’s because I’m out of it, but I haven’t heard much about the East Bay music scene since.

A: Green Day wrote catchy songs and had great voices. They stayed together and kept touring, which very few bands managed to do. Plus they had that special magic something almost from day one.  At this point they’ve had 7 or 8 great albums, and who else but Dylan and the Beatles can I say that about? I admire them for keeping it going. Plus they brought me to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, which was super fun.
  As for newer Bay Area stuff, I’m a Songs for Moms fan. My era, however, was before everything you mentioned. The truly great East Bay stuff was happening in 1981-1985, and will remain obscure, which is fine. But during the supposed heyday I was very sad about what was already lost, and my lyrics definitely reflected that.

GR: The earliest Cometbus issues predate tons of the big zines and my own knowledge of zines. Were you looking at the V Vail projects and maybe MRR or was it something else?

A: How could I look at MRR? It didn’t exist when I began. It’s, like, Cometbus’s little brother. As for Vail, he was an absolute prick when I was a kid, spouting off at every chance about how everything that came after ‘79 was fake. In his mind, everyone that came after him was an imitation, but for that reason alone, I never bothered with his work. Besides, there was so much exciting stuff going on when I first reared my head. So much! While his mag, Research, had all the excitement and spunk of a wet fart.
  He’s a nice enough guy; I’ve met him since. Dad types tend to get warm and fuzzy when they hit middle age. But the only reason his old work is known now is that he keeps blowing his own horn. The truly excellent rags of the day were manifold, and they were bursting with excitement. Ripper, Damage, Creep, Cramp, Decline, Forget It, Poke-a-Dot—and that was just in the Bay Area alone.

GR: Wait, I’m losing the time line here. Weren’t you in elementary school when MRR was created? Which then forces me to ask, how? I remember at or around 1983, I had two Black Flag albums and a Suicidal Tendencies album, but still had never seen a zine. I’ll admit I went to no gigs at that time, so perhaps that’s why.

X: I started Cometbus in 1981, at the beginning of 8th grade. How? I sat at my little desk, in my own world, making imaginary projects, just like I do now. It was weird, but kids do weird things, as evidenced by the fact that there was a 7th grader at my school who did a fanzine too. It may have been different in Berkeley than it was in LA, but didn’t you go to Licorice Pizza to buy records and see copies of Flipside, OC Shitz, Playpunk, Ink Disease, For Your Skull, and We Got Power?

GR: I remember the shop, but no recollection of zines. I did make an anti-Japanese School zine in the early 80s come to think of it. I did it anonymously. I guess that’s a zine.

X: Send a copy for my files, please. But high school underground papers aren’t zines. If they were we’d have to count The Monthly Duck, which my brother put out in 1974. Chris from Crucifix was a contributor.
GR: I hate to say it, but I don’t think I’ve seen most of the zines you mentioned. I guess that means I need to “research” them. I think I discovered Cometbus maybe in the early to mid 90s and it was an influence in the creation of Giant Robot. I’m thinking the parts I enjoyed most was the freedom and flow of your work. Where does your writing skill set come from?

A: The flow didn’t come naturally. Quite the opposite, in fact: I go over and over every word until it feels smooth. Like some statue of a saint! The harder you labor at something, the more natural it ends up feeling. But I did try to express a sense of freedom in my words, and that helped me shed some of my own chains. I was a very uptight person growing up. Embarrassing myself in print helped overcome that.

GR: Was the writing from schooling, reading a ton, or something like Zinsser?

A: It was from doing scene reports in Cometbus, and also, later, in Maximum RocknRoll. I began including non-band stuff, and then slowly, the bands were entirely phased out. But most of my writing is still scene reports.

GR: I remember Lance Hahn once said that zine writers who are influenced by the writing of other zines are “bad” (I don’t remember if he said, “shit,” “lame,” or “crappy”). What do you think? I got quiet when he said that, and I still cringe when I think of this, since your work influenced my own writing.

A: When a woodworker or a dancer says I’ve influenced their style, that’s a cooler compliment than if it comes from a writer. But if a magazine as different and unique as Giant Robot was inspired by mine, it’s the same, great boundary-crossing feeling. Anyway, inspiration should never be shameful. Our mission is to convey excitement to others, and if they catch it, that’s a wonderful thing. One of my all-time favorite zines was by a 50-year-old New York lesbian who was just coming out, figuratively and literally, after thirty years of caretaking her folks. Her work borrowed my style a bit, but took it somewhere I’d never been, and gave me a perspective I’d never considered. Where is she now that I’m close to being in her shoes? Closer, at least, than I ever thought I’d get.

GR: Does she know this? What zine was it?

A: She doesn’t know, but I’m hoping she’ll see this and find out. It was called Good Morning, Unknown.

GR: How much of Cometbus was a reflection of your actual life versus just small parts you wanted to share? I’m guessing it began more with the former and changed even more towards the latter.

A: The magazine may have a personal feel, and I hope it does, but how much of my life or feelings did I ever really reveal? If anything, it reflected the opposite of what I was going through. When times were tough the writing was light and upbeat. When things were great I wrote about failure and loneliness because I thought: “Enough with this twee crap! Literature should capture the struggle of life, or what the hell is the point?”

GR: Are you comfortable in calling your writing Literature?  At one time I thought an artist was Van Gogh or Picasso, but not my friends, so I suppose a young man such as yourself produces literature, right?

A: Sure. I’m filed between Colette and Conrad. Literature is a bit different than fine art, because there may be no match for Picasso at the moment, while a lot of the literary “classics” simply don’t hold up. They don’t have the delicious, gossipy ring of truth, which is what good literature is about. But I’m a little offended by your question, to tell the truth. What is our if not literature or journalism or history? My writing doesn’t always fulfill its mission or its potential, but it’s still better than half of the authors that are considered hot.

GR: Looking back, can you see eras of especially great issues versus a slide in quality of your work?

A: I think of it as putting men on base, with the occasional grand slam. Most issues should be base hits. They should be taking a chance, and trying something weird that won’t appeal to everyone. Then right when the readers are about to lose their patience, you hit it out of the park and bring everyone home. The problem, of course, is that what I like and what the readers like isn’t the same. I like being an editor, and less visible.

GR: After all of those issues where it’s all about you, you’re telling me you’d rather be behind the scenes?

A: I’ve been the narrator, but never the subject. I’m showing the reader a world through my eyes. That’s not the same as showing myself.

GR: What’s your snail mail like then vs. now? Have any great memories of packages, letters, gifts etc. that came your way?
A: Sure, a pen pal sent a box of chocolates yesterday. Once I received a rice maker anonymously. Are you dropping a hint that that was from you? I have not just one, but two PO boxes, so I have to write a lot of letters in order to keep them filled. That’s PO Box 1318 Cooper Station NY, NY 10276 and PO Box 4726 Berkeley, CA 94704 in case anyone wants to write.

GR: No, sorry. I never mailed a rice cooker although now I wish I did. I figure you’d get great snail mail. Perhaps it’s from the hand written pages of your zine. That aesthetic bring a level of comfort. Can you talk a bit more about that choice? It’s a signature at this point.

A: The handwriting looks nice, but eventually it got in the way of what I wanted to express. There was the polish/Polish problem, and the rhythm is just different in all caps. Plus, I’m fond of italics. Now people cry that it’s not homemade and handmade anymore because it’s typeset, but the truth is that I still fret over every single line in terms of how it’s spaced and how it breaks.

GR: The graphics you’ve developed from manipulating copy machines is also its own look. Perhaps a highly underrated aspect of your canon. When I see it, I know exactly who did it. Artists work hard towards getting there, much like in writing, and some never do.  

A: Again, you’re talking about the distant past. My visual work fell off and the writing took over long ago, which was a complete surprise to me, but an interesting one. I ended up finding more playfulness and power in the words. I’m proud of my artwork, and it expresses a side of me I don’t quite understand. But I’ve done maybe three pieces this century. I’m really fine with these changes, and I enjoy the way the work leads me instead of the other way around.

GR: What changed for you if at all, in the later 90s when zines became hot commercially?

A: Again, the real change is that in the wake of that hype, it’s harder than ever to get fanzines distributed and in stores. When no one knew what they were, it was relatively easy. Just last week I had a magazine distributor call Cometbus a “throwback to that 90s zine thing,” pronouncing zine so it rhymed with “sign.” I bit my lip, because I need whatever distribution I can get. Of course, it’s insulting to be seen as part of a trend that’s passed, especially since I predated it by a long stretch. But as far as I am concerned, making affordable and odd-looking publications is not an idea with an expiration date. Fanzines are an absolutely essential part of the media food chain.
GR: Yet although it’s difficult, you still get Cometbus in shops and are able to continue publishing. I believe it might be the only publication which existed before 2010 that I carry and can sell. Are you actually working with magazine distributors rather than doing the harder way of contacting shops directly?

A: I hustle every which way, including whatever lying, bluffing, or flirtating it takes. Distributors, yes, but I spent two whole weeks telemarketing stores for the newest issue, and sending out samples. Of course, I shlep them around town, too. 

GR: Was there a reason for your moves? Was it for significant others? I recall there was a North Carolina stint. Asheville I believe.

A: You’re thinking of a different fanzine editor who traveled to every state ostensibly on a mission, but who was actually chasing women. That wouldn’t have worked for me, since women only found me attractive in Berkeley. Even still, I was desperate to escape. Growing up, I was just really, really restless. I felt cooped up. Every band interview I did was about being on the road. When I finally got to cut loose, I went on three tours in two years, then had the band drop me off in the first city where I could find a room.
  So I’d made it out, but then came the news: my mom had cancer. I spent the next fifteen years going back and forth—caretaking first her and then my dad when they were doing badly, and when they were in remission, I’d get as far away as I could. When both were dead, I moved to New York, where I’ve lived ever since.
  That’s my life, in a nutshell. Which answers your earlier question about how much the fanzine reflected my personal life. Not so much.

GR: Do you remember the era of zine/small magazine distribution companies going bust? Were you part of that or affected by it?

A: The companies that went bust were the ones who came across as professionals—either that or purists. Yet when it came time to balance their books, they proved to be total fuck-ups. I blame myself partly for having faith in them when I should have placed more faith in my own abilities. It took me years to realize that the power really does lie in our own hands. No one can do it better than you can do it with a little patience and a lot of nerve. It’s also important to note that Cometbus and Giant Robot are still around not only because we’re stubborn, but because we stayed out of debt. Debt has sunk a lot of good ships.

GR: I’m glad that you mentioned having more faith in your own abilities. I once mentioned that had all of us stayed away from those “professionals,” the shops—both big and small—would have eventually come to us directly. We’d not have been screwed so many times. It’s amazing how fucked up this all was. What were some “wrong” pieces of advice you’ve received?

A: All the advice I remember was good. Wait, do you mean in terms of the mag?

GR: Yes I meant for the mag.

A: Ah, well, all of that advice was bad! And yet, I understand. My friends get tired of me complaining, so they tell me I should get on social media and get an agent and cut the stubborn caveman shtick. What they don’t get, though, is that some people dig it. The support of the underground, it seems like kind of a nice thing, right? And yet everyone tells you to throw it away. That’s always their advice: move out of this dump. As if trying for mainstream success would make a lick of difference. There’s nothing stupider than doing it the official way. It’s so obvious that it doesn’t work.
  Part of it for me is that my mom was an artist, and she worked all of her life and was neither a failure nor a huge success. She made a ton of beautiful work, had great friends, and led a difficult but dignified life. I’m a lot like her, and that’s my plan, too. So far, so good.

GR: Like the indie bands getting big record deals, did you ever have anything like multiple novel deals, etc. come your way?

A: I got taken out to lunch a few times by the big guns. I had a scheme in which I’d secure their interest, then use it to entice a large independent to take me on instead. Like all such intrigues, it ended up a total mess with no one satisfied.

GR: What’s your opinion of the giant zine scene today?

A: I assume you are being sarcastic. Or maybe you’re referring to artist monographs, which are incorrectly being called zines. A wide variety of printed material qualifies, but not these. Still, I have to take the high road, because otherwise I get too low. I just think fanzines are cool, and I believe that the best time to do them is now. Let’s not underestimate the power of cool. What’s the alternative? Have you looked at the mainstream lately? More than ever, the phrase “death culture” seems appropriate. It’s actually sickening.

GR: I sway with the times. You’re right, they’re not all zines, but “zine fests” are now gigantic with thousands of people who are willing to show up and spend on these “monographs.” Are you attending any of this? I believe New York must have these.

A: I laugh about it publicly while crying about it privately.

GR: Do you enjoy the smallish zine nostalgia? I hear small chatter about zines from the 90s. I also wonder if you think anything more will happen for “us” zine makers with the growing nostalgia? I see punk rock being beginning to be celebrated commercially for perhaps it’s lowest common denominator—it’s aesthetics.

A: A lot of your questions are framed in terms of a divide between now and then, or technology versus the traditional ways. But that’s more about you than it is me. You’re projecting, which is fine, but it doesn’t quite apply. I’m a pretty consistent guy, and it’s been pretty steady for me all the way through. I like the old stuff, I like the new stuff too. I even like nostalgia. And punk aesthetics? I love ‘em! That’s a fact.

GR: I think I create a line because I’ve spent a lot of time moving forward instead of being more excited about my past. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for no longer publishing. So there is an “after publishing” period where there’s a line. I never thought of it, but there it is.

A: The past is interesting. There’s such a stigma about dwelling in it, and yet, we didn’t get to enjoy it the first time around because we were so worried. Anyway, I doubt your publishing days are completely in the rear-view mirror.

GR: Ever see the “collectors” market for zines? The Oakland Museum of California paid $60 for a “first printing” of Giant Robot 1 (it was in fact the larger 2nd printing). I would have just handed them a reprinted copy for free.

A: For a copy of Cometbus #1 I’d charge a lot more than that. Or for a copy of your anti-Japanese school mag! It is sad though to lose money in order to make something affordable, only to watch some jerk turn a huge profit off of it. But we absolutely have to disconnect ourselves from worrying about the marketplace. We have to. And we absolutely have to try to remain moral and just in spite of it all.

GR: What’s the hardest part of doing a zine today?

A: Every part of it is hard. You’ve caught me at a bad time for that question. I just finished an issue, and it fucking killed me, flat out. I’m dead.
GR: What’s your take on the rise of the blogs? Has any electronic medium ever been of interest?

A: The who?

GR: So what are your indulgences? I can picture you watching cable TV and surfing the net.

A: We as a people need to return to the idea that some things are not worth talking about.

GR: How about your outside businesses? Do you talk about that? I remember that was something you were hush about for some reason or another. I remember trying to find your outdoor business when I was in Brooklyn many years ago.

A: I’ve never talked much in print about my jobs. Or my relationships. Or my bands. Or where I go to write, and where I go to eat. For someone with a reputation for revealing things, I’m a fairly private guy. People stop by my work wanting to talk, and I think, “Would I interrupt you at your job?” Though they mean well, I know.