Random Rules: Henry Owings

The shuffler: Henry Owings, chief architect of Chunklet, the long-running magazine that hilariously tackles such world-shifting topics as the "100 Biggest Assholes In Rock." Owings just published The Rock Bible, which offers commandments for bands and fans—all based on loads of real-life experience. ("If you hand out business cards that emphasize your musical ability, you should focus more on the business-card industry than music.") But don't let the opinionated sarcasm fool you: Owings is a diehard music fan who just knows what he loves and isn't shy about what he doesn't.

Volcano Suns, "Polythene Pam"

Henry Owings: This is something that's going to be on a reissue they're doing next year. I'm a rabid, rabid fan. It's just weird how over the years you start to amass things by bands you love—especially in this digital age, getting that stuff is more and more easy. I had a box arrive at my front doorstep that was supposedly [singer-drummer] Peter Prescott's tape collection. This was part of it, so I encoded it. It's going to be on the reissues that Merge is doing in January. Oh my God, this outtake stuff is just absolutely vibrant and explosive and incredible. I absolutely adore Volcano Suns. I always think they're a bit tucked away compared to Mission Of Burma, who I love equally as much. Goddamn, what a great band.

The A.V. Club: That was enthusiastic! Do you think people don't expect you to be enthusiastic, based on the tenor of Chunklet?

HO: Possibly! I also think that if people think that, they're mistaking themselves. I'm looking right now in my office, and I just had record shelves put in—floor to ceiling. It was my birthday present to myself. I ran out of space to put records. Anybody who thinks that probably doesn't understand what I do. Yeah, we make fun of stuff, but we're also extraordinarily overqualified to make fun of this stuff. We do own every Captain Beefheart record; we do own every Frank Zappa record, every Bowie record. We might make fun of The Decemberists, but shit, in 2008, who shouldn't?

Walter Yetnikoff, Howling At The Moon book on tape

HO: This is such a great second submission… The week before my wife and I got married, I was in L.A. at Amoeba Records, and there were like five of this book on tape. It's the guy who ran Sony Records in America and—I'm gonna have to check my facts on this, but I think he went on to run Columbia Records in the '80s. If you want a snapshot of record-label excess, listen to this book on tape. Not only does he read his own book, it's absurd how many drugs he did, the crowds he kept with. So when we were driving back from getting married, from the Tennessee mountains back to Atlanta, we could not stop listening to it. You know that book The Kid Stays In The Picture? It bothers me that this isn't in that pantheon of completely insane… Within the first chapter, he has personal interactions with Jackie O, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger—that's all like within one day. He did so much cocaine that he and his wife used to call it "milk." They would talk about having to go for milk runs, like "Are we low on milk?" It's an extraordinary, hilarious peek into what I would guess is now a dying breed—this guy that could speed-read contracts, one of those Hit Men types. It's a hilarious book. It's kind of like the book Crazy From The Heat by David Lee Roth; every time I see it, I grab it and give it to somebody. Every time, people say, "I can't thank you enough for getting me this."

AVC: Would you put something like that on your iPod?

HO: I put books-on-tape on my iPod all the time. Right now on my iPod is the Barack Obama book, but for some reason it's indexed weird, so it shuffles around between chapters. I listen to books on tape religiously, especially when I travel.

Olivia Tremor Control, "The Giant Day (Peel Session)"

HO: This was on a record I put out for them [on Owings' Drug Racer label] back in… 1995? God, I'm old.

AVC: You were in the middle of that whole Elephant 6 thing, right?

HO: I sometimes feel like an indie-rock Zelig, because I've been able to participate in so many of what I would consider very important things—not just to me, to culture. Being part of the Elephant 6 thing back in the mid-'90s was extraordinary, and I feel very, very lucky. Not only were they my housemates and friends, but I got to put out records by Elf Power, The Olivias, put on house parties with Neutral Milk Hotel. Then I moved to Atlanta, and almost the same thing happened again with Mastodon and The Black Lips and The Carbonas and Deerhunter. I feel like I'm just a pleasant spectator of all this stuff—not just a spectator, but an active participant. To say that it's humbling would sound cheesy, but it's true. I just feel really happy to be involved with all this. The Olivias reunited a few years ago, and I was on the Comedians Of Comedy Tour every goddamn time they were reuniting, so I never got to see them. But I have plenty of very fond memories of them playing living rooms and little clubs in Athens, and assembling records with them back in '95 and '96.

Uncle Dave Macon, "Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy"

HO: He was a banjo player from before the Depression. He was, if not the first, one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry. I think he had like 19 different banjo-picking styles. He grew up learning how to play banjo from transients in Tennessee. He was a gregarious, larger-than-life figure. Any photo I've ever seen of him, he's just holding a pipe and wearing a suit. I went to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville, which I don't recommend. I got to see Uncle Dave's suit, one of those things where it's behind glass… There's Dolly Parton's rhinestone-covered dress, and there's Uncle Dave Macon's suit and suspenders. But you know what really fucking pissed me off? Right next to that was Billy Ray Cyrus' T-shirt. Let me get this straight. Not only was it just a T-shirt, it was a Gap T-shirt. So here it is, one of the true stars of country music, Uncle Dave Macon, and then there's like Glen Campbell's jacket. Then you have this jackass with a Gap T-shirt, behind glass. It made me really, really angry.

AVC: Do you think that, for lack of a better word, the hipsters of a hundred years from now will find Billy Ray Cyrus records and think he was a genius?

HO: I always get pissed off when people bring up what hipsters would be into. If they do, I hope that putting bullets in your head is of-the-moment. Jesus Christ, what a shame. [Laughs.]

AVC: Are you at war with hipsters, or the word "hipster"?

HO: I'm no more at war with the word "hipster" than I am at war with the term "schmooze." I hit 40 this year, and the idea of "hipsters"—and I use quote marks when I say "hipsters"—makes me think of people that aren't genuinely into something that they're into. People bring up, "Oh, you like the Vivian Girls, that's so hipster of you." And I'm like, "What the fuck are you talking about?! It's a great record!" When I think "hipster," I think something that people kind of clench their teeth and endure instead of something that they're legitimately into. I'm not more at war with hipsters now than when I started listening to music. I just want to like what I like. And I sometimes think that when I see a blog or magazine extol the virtues of one band or one genre of music, and I think "Are you fucking serious? This stuff is unlistenable!" There are many, many examples, but I would prefer keeping this conversation on the up-and-up.

AVC: Dammit.

HO: Do you want me to smack-talk? I can totally fucking smack-talk. Look at something like Of Montreal, for instance, which is a glorified eighth-generation Spiders From Mars. I'm fine with there being an eighth-generation Spiders From Mars, but I've got a better idea—why don't you listen to the Spiders From Mars and learn where they're cribbing every last one of their stage antics from? Go and buy some records from the '70s and late '60s, and watch some DVDs, and you'll see where they stole everything. It might be some of the least imaginative shit that I could imagine. I have nothing against their success, but give me a fucking break.

AVC: Not to take this conversation into too serious an area, but are you then discounting the idea that people might just actually love that music? Surely people like Of Montreal just because they like how it sounds.

HO: God bless 'em. I had a long discussion about guilty pleasures… But if somebody likes the music, God bless 'em. There are things that I like that people make fun of me about. I'm not one to say, "You can't listen to this." I just roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders.

AVC: Are you skipping something?

HO: [Laughs.] I'll go back. If you want to talk about hipster, this is as hipster as it gets.

Flower Travellin' Band, "Satori, Part 2"

HO: They were from the early '70s in Japan. Have you heard about this new book by Julian Cope called Japrocksampler? They're on the cover of the frickin' book. The Japanese have never been very good at creating something original, but they're very good at taking something inherently not from their country and making it incredible. Anything from industry, or the arts… Look at music: Guitar Wolf or Teengenerate or The Boredoms. It's inherently American music, and they take it and reinterpret it and send it back even more insane. The Flower Travellin' Band is a prime example; they take something from American music in the late '60s and completely reinterpret it and make it unbelievable. But I know they're sort of a band of the moment. I was out promoting the book this week and I saw the record everywhere, and I was like "Fucking awesome!"

AVC: How many hours a day do you listen to music?

HO: Every one of them? I work out of the house, so I'm really lucky that I can just listen to music all day. If you told me when I was 17, when I was buying music that I still listen to today, that I could listen to it all day… The only time I don't listen to music is mostly when I'm traveling. I don't put in my iPod and zone out. I love ingesting sights and sounds, so I won't carry my iPod in Berlin or New York. I like being able to absorb everything. But when I'm at home working, I absolutely listen to music all day.

AVC: What's the biggest part of your day? Chunklet? Freelance design?

HO: Mostly design stuff, but it really changes from day to day. I do a lot of design, a lot of Chunklet, putting out records. I manage this band from Athens called Harvey Milk, taking care of stuff for their tour. But if you did a pie chart, it would mostly be design work.

Barbecue Pants, "I Trusted You"

HO: This song is so fucking funny. Listen to it for a second. This was a joke band from Athens. This is a recording from when they performed before Dinosaur Jr., maybe last year. The lineup was two of the guys from Hayride, Dave Schools from Widespread Panic, and Kyle Spence from Harvey Milk. All they did was covers, like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith. This song is "I Trusted You." I don't know how familiar you are with Andy Kaufman's performed work, but he did this song, which for eight minutes is just him saying "I trusted you." So for this song, they had J. Mascis perform with them. It was the most surreal eight minutes of one riff you could possibly imagine. I don't think anybody in the crowd really got it, but I was laughing my fucking ass off. That sense of humor is right up their alley. Dave Schools—say what you will about his day job—it was some funny, funny shit. Then they did a Led Zeppelin song, and then came back and revisited this song later. Fucking brilliant. I just love the name of the band, Barbecue Pants. It's a very Southern sort of name. I got my barbecue pants on.

More Random Rules