Pure rage on the page: An interview with Sam McPheeters


By Clark Allen

Sam McPheeters is best known as the frontman for 90s hardcore bands Born Against and Men’s Recovery Project, and more recently Wrangler Brutes. He has put out a number of cult-classic zines, and in the past few years he has gained prominence as a writer, attracting an audience both familiar and unfamiliar with his prior music projects. He is currently on tour in support of his new novel, The Loom of Ruin, which is not to be confused with his old blog of the same name.

McPheeters will read at McKeown’s Books and Difficult Music (4737 Tchoupitoulas St.) at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 11, and later that evening he will do a spoken word performance with New Orleans zine stalwart John Gerken, at 7 p.m. at the Mudlark Theater (1200 Port St.). Ethan Clark might also make an appearance.

McPheeters spoke with Room 220 last month about his new book, Jonathan Franzen (of course), and other stuff.

Room 220: Except for a handful of short stories, you’ve written mostly journalism. When did this novel come to seed?

Sam McPheeters: I’ve actually been working on fiction for a long time. I had a novel that I started in 1990 that took me almost over 15 years to finish, and it didn’t work. I was so crushed by the experience  because I had put so much time into it, including about a year and a half after the last band I was in, Wrangler Brutes, broke up. I had an office job and for that period of time I did nothing but work, come home, take a nap, get up and write for four hours, have dinner, and then go to sleep. I destroyed my health, just totaled it, became a fat piece of shit—which is fine because it was in the service of doing this book—and then the book just didn’t work out. I couldn’t find a buyer for it. It needed some work, I acknowledge that, so I thought, “Well, I need to really, really quickly get back into this, otherwise it’s just gonna be a scene cut and I’m gonna be a sixty-eight year old man who’s just bitter, telling everyone how the publishing industry screwed me.” So then I wrote this book, The Loom of Ruin.

I’d like to write more short stories. I really enjoy it. I’ve collected tons of notes, half-finished pieces. There are a few that will hopefully get published at some point, but they need work. It’s harder to write short fiction than novels in some ways, which maybe sounds weird. You have to be so compact in writing good short fiction. It’s very easy to write bad short fiction.

The other part of that, though, is that it’s so hard to find a market for fiction, whereas it’s pretty easy to find a market for journalism. Especially music journalism, which I’m not great at, but I have people that buy my stuff. So that equals me being more prominent as a non-fiction writer than as a fiction writer for now, which is fine. I’m really proud of that piece I did on Doc Dart. It’s clearly one of the best things I’m ever going to write in my life. So it’s nice to finally, finally, have something that I like to show people, which has not always been the case.

Rm220: I’m curious about the title, The Loom of Ruin, which was the title to the blog you’ve been running for some time. Where did the title come from and what, exactly, is The Loom of Ruin?

SM: The book had a couple of different phases. The first name was Folded Noses, which was going to be a series of ten fanzines, ten chapters each, each with a cliffhanger ending. But it was a stupid idea, because I don’t have the money to do ten fanzines. I would easily have gotten, what, three fanzines in and just gone broke and ended up not being able to do it. So then it changed to this novel.

The novel was The Loom of Ruin until 2007, when I hit a snag with the plot. So I shelved it and used that title for my blog, which was very different in original conception, though it just kind of turned into any other average-Joe blog. When I picked the novel back up and figured out the structural problems, it was called Unleash the Walrus. Then about two weeks before I sent it to the printer, my editor, Jesse Pearson, former editor of VICE, convinced me that The Loom of Ruin was a good book title and that Unleash the Walrus really was not. I needed to forget about what, to me, was a colossal marketing problem—the concern that everyone would think it was my blog, because really, “everyone” in this case is, what, 400 people? I don’t have a massive audience.

McPheeters, as Abe Lincoln, performing with Men’s Recovery Project in Hartford, CT, 1998

Rm220: I checked out the three preview chapters of your novel on the VICE website and there seems to be a theme of total disappointment with society, combated with humor—there’s the moment where the cop wants to shove his stupid partner’s face into his cake, there’s the part where the main character calls out another guy for wearing a Kobe Bryant shirt. Is much of this coming out of personal experience? Will we be reading some catalogue of real life cameos?

SM: I think all fiction I think is kind of like that. “You have asshole face on your shirt” is something that was said to my friend—and now publisher, Anthony Berryman—when he wore his Gorbachev shirt into a Russian restaurant in Los Angeles. People just tell you stuff and it works its way into your writing. A lot of times people tell me stuff and I say, “I’m probably going to use that for something, sorry,” and I write it down in front of them. There are lots of little bits of my own life in there that are probably not recognizable to anyone who isn’t married to me or one of my parents. It’s definitely not a book that has anything to do with my experiences with bands or music, because that would be really boring and I don’t have anything to say on the subject that I haven’t said before already.

Rm220: It’s good to see you making a break from that. Pretty much any search for you on the internet lists you as a musician first, which I imagine is to your chagrin a little bit? Is it a good feeling to be separating yourself from your past career?

SM: I’m not looking to separate myself in any way at all. I’m not embarrassed by any of the bands I’ve been in, although I probably should be. The things that I like about certain bands I was in are not things that are confined to the world of bands or music. I wrote a lot of lyrics and made art that I’m not terribly proud of, but in that batch of stuff there are things that I do like a lot, and this is just a continuation of that. There were some Men’s Recovery Project songs that were stories, I did artwork that was in the vein of the cover art I did for this book. I think there’s enough continuity there so that people who liked my past stuff would like this. It doesn’t feel like there’s a huge break to me.

Rm220: You’re putting this novel out through Mugger Books, and when I first started looking for information on the publisher there was no web presence for it yet. How did this come about?

SM: Mugger Books is run by my good friend Anthony Berryman, who is an English and philosophy teacher at Compton High. We’ve known each other for over ten years. I’d been having a really hard time finding a larger publisher for this through my agent, and Anthony really wanted to start his own publishing company. The two things coincided and I’d realized that no matter who published it, I was going to be busting my ass to promote it. I’m really grateful that the person that I have to coordinate with is someone who I admire—and much more importantly, someone that I trust. I’ve had very bad experiences with other small publishers that have resulted in my not getting published, and as a result I have a significant level of distrust for parts of that world.

Rm220: What’s put you off in the past?

SM: I’ve had offers to do other books. I had interest in the first novel I wrote but was subsequently treated with comedic disregard. I don’t want to name names because that would just seem petty and vindictive on my part. I’d rather my punishment for them be that they have to see my novel in airports across the world for the rest of their lives.

McPheeters reads in San Francisco, 2012 (photo: Taylor Keahey)

Rm220: Yeah, good. So you’re going to be busting your ass promoting this, and nowadays there’s a lot of social media involved. It seems like what you post about it is done with a sort of polite disdain. How do you think this affects the promotion of your book?

SM: There’s sort of this big raging debate on how social media is affecting publishing, and what it’s doing to writing in general. On one hand you have Tao Lin being hailed for carrying conversations in Gchat in his books, and then on the other hand Jonathan Franzen is out giving speeches on how it cripples proper literature. I’m wondering how you fit into it, or if it’s even a concern.

I am one hundred percent grateful that I have all of these options open to me, and I’m embracing all of them. I really don’t like Facebook. I had very serious problems years ago in my life with depression, and Facebook is clearly a depression trigger. I just hate it. But I acknowledge that I have to be on it. I’m on Twitter a lot. I only like Twitter inasmuch that it’s a good writing challenge. If I felt I had the choice to not be on Twitter, I wouldn’t be on it. I really enjoy working on my blog, though I’m on a forced blog hiatus because I’m switching websites right now and there are weird coding issues with blogspot—oh my God what a dull sentence that was. But yeah, I definitely do not fall into the Jonathan Franzen camp, which sounds weird to say, but I don’t think any of this is having a negative impact on the world of literature. I reject that argument. If it ever does seem like I am wary or weary of these things, it’s just the very temporary exhaustion of these last few months seeping out. I do wish I was in a position to have someone help me with the booking of my tour and all the stuff that goes along with that. It’s significant, but that’s an observation, not a complaint. This is what I wanted. I wanted this opportunity and I’ve gotten it and I’m making the best of it, so hopefully, Jesus, I really hope my Twitter account doesn’t convey the impression that I’m being grouchy about all of this, because that’s not how I feel.

Rm220: No, I don’t think it does.

SM: It’s a weird intersection, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this for a while because it really fascinates me. There’s this world of bands and this world of books. In the world of bands, particularly this micro-micro-subculture that I come from, I’m old, old news. I’m also an old person. But not actually literally an old person, I’m still a pretty young guy. I’m in my early forties and in the world of books that I aspire to enter, I’m a young person. It’s only in those two spheres that the overlap is really glaring. So I’m aware to the people who know me though bands that I am really grouchy, or a curmudgeon. I got called a grouch by VICE maybe two weeks ago, on Twitter! So that’s a weird perception problem, which for other authors could be pretty serious. It’s not serious for me though because I’ve dealt with mammoth perception problems for two decades, so I know that this one will pass in the way that I was completely insane for four or five years in the 90s. When I was in Born Against there was a period of about two years where people who didn’t know me would hear that I was prone to fly into violent rages and punch strangers in the face. In the late 90s I was considered really windy as a writer and would go on and on, and that I was a bore. So being a grouch and a curmudgeon could be a hell of a lot worse. It’s not a schtick, and I’m fine with that. But it’s weird that it’s facilitated by Twitter. If I post anything that seems grouchy, I notice that it’s the thing that will get picked up on, so I keep an eye on that. Man, that was a long winded answer to your question.

Rm220: Totally fine. I think being a grouch in the literary world might be kind of a boon in some ways.

SM: Jonathan Franzen is such a fucking grouch! He just seems like, say he moved in next to you and you think, “Man that guy’s awesome.” But then, aw fuck, he’d come over to complain that your hedges were too high or something.

Rm220: Hahaha. Totally. That about wraps up what I’ve got for you. Unless there’s anything left that you want to say about the book—like what it’s about, y’know?

SM: Haha, the book itself? It’s a hard book to pin down, genre-wise. I can say that The Loom of Ruin is a tale of corporate espionage set in modern day Los Angeles. The story revolves around a man who is neurologically incapable of any emotion except pure rage. The book definitely does not conform to any one genre, and blends satire, thriller horror…

Rm220: Why the “pure rage” protagonist?

SM: I just have notes for stuff and things get sorted out. I’ve had a couple of bosses who were him in many respects, but sometimes you just come up with weird plot device things where you’re in your car and you think of something and you just write it down.

In a way it’s kind of a gross process, because really what you’re doing is capturing this byproduct that people just sort of let go. My job, writing fiction, is to collect those things. It’s like having a big jar you keep your toenail clippings in, but in this case you’re putting them on a spreadsheet and eventually they work themselves out.

There are only three chapters of the book out there, which means there are about one hundred and three more chapters that I can’t really spoil. I will say though that many, many people get beat up in this book and that was a point of contention with several very large publishers.