To those who don’t know him, Thax Douglas—a.k.a. That Guys Who Reads Poems At Shows—seems like a loveable eccentric or an outright weirdo. For nearly a decade, Douglas has been a ubiquitous presence at Chicago rock shows, introducing hundreds of bands—from unknown to well known—with esoteric verse. Although his shabby clothing and unkempt beard may lead people to assume he’s a vagrant or mentally impaired, Douglas is neither. His low-key demeanor belies a sharp tongue known for its brutal honesty (just ask his opinion of Thax, an upcoming documentary). Before becoming the indie scene’s poet laureate, Douglas played a major role in the city’s poetry scene before growing disenchanted with it. Now, long-stewing disenchantment with his hometown in general has inspired the lifelong Chicagoan to move to New York, where he hopes to make an easier living being Thax Douglas. To help his transition, friends have organized three benefit shows, the first of which is Thursday night.
The A.V. Club: If it’s too expensive to live here, how’s New York going to be better?
Thax Douglas: It’ll be easier because there isn’t a glass ceiling there like there is here. I’ve managed to just barely get by through charity or something like that. But I haven’t even been able to get any sort of job related to the arts field, so it’s time to move on.
AVC: You’re recording an album there. Do you have a label?
TD: That’s what started this whole thing. It’s a very tiny label called Shinkoyo. There’s a band in Brooklyn called Skeletons And The Girl-Faced Boys; they have a little label, and they said they wanted me to record. I’ve been looking for an excuse, any excuse, to move for a long time.
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AVC: What bothers you about Chicago?
TD: Just in the ’90s especially, and it’s still true to some extent today, there was an atmosphere of fear because of these labels—like Albini and company and Thrill Jockey and Drag City and stuff like that. There’s just a feeling of the big brothers that were watching, and you couldn’t be creative because there was an atmosphere of fear. And unfortunately, these labels sort of cultivated a group of acolytes that were, quite frankly, stupid… It’s tied in with what I clumsily call the “indie-stry.” That’s not going to go away. It’s only going to get bigger.
AVC: Do you think that climate comes from Chicago being such an indie metropolis?
TD: A little bit. There are plenty of good things about Steve Albini, but it’s always annoyed me that when people bring up Chicago, they bring up that name. I’ve read for Billy Corgan a number of times, but I’m not great friends with him or anything. To me, Chicago is a pop music town. Back in the early ’90s, when Smashing Pumpkins and Material Issue and Liz Phair, who was good at the time… To me, that is what Chicago is all about. Stuff like Big Black came from the West. Al Jourgensen, who vulgarized Big Black, came from the West. It always irritated me. These people who weren’t from Chicago took over Chicago and presented this idea of Chicago that people still have.
AVC: You said in an interview, “I think most people think I’m a goofball, no different from the characters on the corner of Damen and Milwaukee and North.” How does affect what you do?
TD: It affects why I’m leaving the city. It’s basically this: Chicago isn’t a community. It’s sort of like being in an office. They say to you, “We appreciate what you do. You’re really important to us.” Yet you don’t get paid as much as everyone else, you get a crappy office, then eventually you leave. That’s how I feel. There’s no incentive for me to stay.
AVC: What would be your ideal situation?
TD: I’m not too far way from my ideal situation. I don’t need a lot of money. The ideal situation is basically doing what I do, but having a little more leeway, being able to have an array of projects to choose from. Being able to go places, not having to beg people for a dollar for the bus. It’s the poet’s calling; I’ve learned to accept it, but I’d rather it not be that way. Being a poet is sort of like being in a minority group: People have a lot of goofy misconceptions about what you do, and unfortunately a lot of time it’s validated, but sometimes those people feel like they can be nasty to you. But that’s true with anything. I guess the point of what I’m trying to saying is what I do is unique—not any poet can go up there. I have a strong personality, and people are attracted to that. That’s another reason I’m moving to New York: It’s a media center, an art center, you can be a personality. In Chicago, you’re a goofball—but in New York, you’re a personality.