Interview With Aaron Cometbus
Sometime shortly after the turn of the century I interviewed Aaron Cometbus at great length, i.e., for most of the night, in various parts of Berkeley, and submitted the results to Punk Planet, who for reasons known best to them, cut large parts of it. I’m looking for the original transcript and if/when I find it I’ll post the whole thing here. In the meantime, this is the version that appeared in Punk Planet.
Interview by Larry Livermore
Over the last 20 years, Cometbus, maybe more than any other zine or institution, has become associated with Berkeley . . .
More than any institution? I think Wavy Gravy and Country Joe are more well known than me.
We’re talking about within the context of civilized, literate tastes. Anyway, I found it ironic that during much of the time you’ve been doing Cometbus, you haven’t actually been in Berkeley.
I’ve lived here off and on. I think it starts as someplace you live, and then it becomes a culture—a set of beliefs that you carry with you. I don’t know, it’s kind of a Jewish thing. The more your culture develops… what’s the word… without a country?
So Cometbus is about your own personal diaspora?
Not just my own personal account. I think Berkeley has come to represent something. My Berkeley—what I defend and try to represent in print—isn’t Berkeley anymore. I imagine someone reading what I’ve been representing as Berkeley and then coming here. It’s heartbreaking. You know, it’s like anything—I started writing about bands, then I wrote about coffee, then I wrote about traveling. I wrote about girls, I wrote about Berkeley. All those things are the stuff of life. Those are all important things that you would not want to go without. But at the same time, I’m projecting myself onto them. Instead talking about myself, I can talk about my community and what I hope for, what I care about; what I miss about it and love about it. It shows myself, it shows my friends, my influences. So, it is about Berkeley and it isn’t.
Most kids when they’re growing up spend their time going, “Grrr, my town sucks, I can’t wait till I’m grown up and can get out of here.” Whereas you grew up in a place about which kids all over the country were saying, “I can’t wait to grow up so I can move there.”
You know, I wanted to get the hell out, too.
When did you first want to leave?
I wanted to leave the first time I could think. I lived in the same house for 18 years, and I’m sure that stability had a lot to do with me being able to be focused and do something steadily. But at the same time, I wanted to go.
Was there much of a punk scene in Berkeley when you were growing up?
Oh yeah, totally. Berkeley always had a great punk scene. It was a great local scene; local bands that no one knew about in other places. The only thing that happened later was that now there’s no local scene—there’s a national scene in a small town. And that’s unfortunate because a local scene is what really produces great bands.
What bands were the heart of the Berkeley scene back then?
I think the context is that all the bands are part of the scene, and they naturally balance out each other. One plays a little harder because the other one’s playing softer. Years and years ago, I proposed to Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll to do a book on punk in the small towns and suburbs in Northern California. Almost nothing had ever come out of San Francisco, except for the first couple years of punk. I wanted to do a history of all these small towns and suburbs where all these small scenes had popped up. I proposed it and they just laughed at me, like, “Who the fuck cares?” I think it would have been a great book. It’s too late now; there’ve been too many other punk books. But the magazine—if I can segue into that—was, for the first years, all about those local bands. People always want to see the back issues, and when they do, they really aren’t interested. I had a rule where I just covered local bands. Local bands, plus later the Butthole Surfers, but that’s all. And the Ramones. Around the time I started the fanzine, there was an emphasis on localism—fanzines were about their local scenes. Flipside was pretty much the major fanzine in the country and it had scene reports from all these different cities. They were blistering with excitement. And then one issue—I wish I could remember which one—they announced, “This is the last issue we’re printing scene reports. We decided it’s ridiculous to have one person representing each of these huge states and scenes. We think you should write for the local fanzine. We’re going to write about what we know—about Los Angeles and the bands that come through here. You should go to local fanzines for your information about your own scene.” And they finished up with a list of all the fanzines. I think that was a really gutsy move. It really inspired me. And then of course Maximum Rocknroll started up to fill that gap.
Which came first, Cometbus or MRR?
Oh, I was way first. I had my little celebration for the 20th anniversary in October, 2001 and they’re having theirs in March, 2002. So I was about six months earlier.
You were quite young when you started, weren’t you?
I was 13. I’d just turned 13 when I started a fanzine with Jesse Michaels.
Yeah. We did like six or seven issues that summer, and when he moved to Pittsburgh, I started my own. I would change the name and the number randomly, every issue. So I put out like four number ones and like eight number 13s. I was just being playful. It stuck being called Cometbus and I don’t know how that happened. But that’s how names are—you just get it, and everyone’s going to get used to it one way or the other.
Did you start with the really distinctive handwriting style from the beginning?
Yeah, and if you look at the old ones, you’d laugh, because it’s the handwriting done by a 13-year-old. I grew up writing in all caps, imitating my mom’s handwriting, so it’s always just been the way I wrote.
Would you have published a zine if there was no punk scene? Would you have written about something else instead?
I don’t think so, because it wasn’t so much writing as applying myself. I didn’t realize I was writing for a number of years. I was just interviewing bands and writing about bands. So when I finally realized I was writing, it was kind of a shock. But I love print. I’ve always been attracted to it—not just books and newspapers, but the ink itself . . . flyers . . . handbills . . . There was a certain allure to that kind of medium that I felt totally drawn to.
Was that something that came through your family?
Somehow it must have, but I didn’t read a lot as a kid. Every once in a while I’ll catch myself sitting at a desk covered in papers, spilling coffee everywhere and biting my fingernails down to the nub, growling, crossing lines off a piece of paper, and then I’ll be like, “Wow. Dad.” My dad was a professor, and he’d sit at the table doing that, correcting papers at the kitchen table all night, every night.
Do you remember who the first band you interviewed was?
Yeah, the first band I interviewed was the Ramones, and it was very exciting. I was 13. It was a coup. We cornered them leaving KALX, and demanded like a one-minute interview. It was certainly legendary that we’d managed to interview the Ramones, me and Jesse. I’ve written about that since, where we asked them, “What do you think of people that idolize the Ramones?” Johnny says, “Oh, it’s nice, you know, but you can’t take it seriously.” And then I went home and played with my Ramones dolls. Homemade Ramones dolls. That was in the last issue I did with Jesse. For the first issue I did myself, I’d written to Black Flag and asked for some band information. I always try to remind myself of that now, when people write and ask me to send them all these things, no stamp, no nothing. I got this huge thing in the mail a couple weeks later, and it’s from Henry. This was right after he had joined the band. He gave this full description of their tour, and this kind of Tiger Beat questionnaire thing with all the members. It was awesome.
Obviously if you start out with the Ramones and Black Flag, you’re not going to have too much trouble working up the confidence to talk to the neighbor’s band.
I wasn’t self-conscious until later. When I was like 15 or 16, I got really self-conscious. But before that I didn’t care about anything. I was too young to know any better. Jesse would try and teach me—he’d try to explain to me what guilt was, what all these feelings and doubts were that I didn’t have.
Were you and Jesse really close before he moved away?
Oh yeah, we were best friends.
Did you play music together too?
We played some music together. I’m trying to think in terms of being young and in the scene later. It wasn’t until much later that I thought about it, that I realized that some of the people in the scene had been kind of making fun of me. I was too young to know if they were feeding me bullshit. But a whole lot of people were almost heartbreakingly supportive when I think about it now. KALX DJs, the people who ran the local punk record store, the people who put on shows, a lot of the bands . . . everyone was way more supportive than I can even imagine. Obviously I want to try to be that way for other people. Not just younger people, but anybody. They took it seriously, and that was the nicest thing that could have happened. They didn’t treat me as an adult, they treated me like a kid, but in the way that a kid wants to be treated. Those bands that I interviewed, later I thought, “Man, I called them up all the time for news. They were probably having sex or something! Maybe they were on drugs. They had a personal life, which I was interrupting. And I was totally oblivious.” In a way, it’s sad, because I was part of the whole scene and part of their lives, and it’s nice in a way that it was never intimate. I don’t know how they lived. I’ll never understand how they lived. I mean, I didn’t play in bands back then, I didn’t stay and party with everybody. I didn’t go to that many shows. I was sort of the number one fan, but still on the periphery.
Why did you get more self-conscious when you got older? Was it after you started getting some recognition and you became conscious of the fact that people were taking you seriously?
No, no, it wasn’t that kind of self-conscious—it was teenager self-conscious. I just became a miserable teenager. I had a terrible issue that I pushed through, and I almost quit. I thought about it, and I told myself, “Fucking push it through, put it out, keep moving,” and luckily I did. I think I was really lucky to have this outside thing, this outside community that obviously a lot of people in high school and junior high don’t have—this whole other world where they’re loved and supported. Even loved as a pest is love.
The first Cometbus I saw I found on the 43 Masonic bus in San Francisco. Somebody had left it on the seat.
This was 1985. I was really intrigued with the magazine. It was extremely quirky, I guess you could say, and distinctive. But it was not too long after that you gave up doing it.
Yeah. I gave it up in 1986, it was issue Number 23. I got really bad on the business aspect. I was in way over my head. I was barely sleeping, trying to do too much. It’s exciting when you’re young and you’re trying to prove something, like, “I’m only eight and I’m doing this fanzine.” Like it’s cool to get letters from Finland and Brazil and stuff, but you’re still irresponsible and your life’s a mess. So I stopped. And it was three years before I decided to start doing it again.
Had you left Berkeley yet when you quit?
No, no. I actually was doing the scene reports for Maximum Rocknroll then, the East Bay scene reports. So I stopped doing my magazine, but I did the scene reports more and more. What happened then was in the scene reports I started writing more and more about other things besides the bands and clubs. I’d write about the clothes, the donut shops, the walking around, the crazy people, daydreams, whatever. I thought, “Hey, I’m really developing something.” Yohannan thought so too—he said, “Cut that out.” He started editing it out. So Eggplant said, “Hey, write about that stuff for me. Write about it for Absolutely Zippo,” another fine local publication. So I was writing about just that stuff. In hindsight some of it was pretty bad—it never should have been reprinted.
You and Eggplant still haven’t quite sorted that one out?
We have not quite sorted that one out. But, you know, we’re still friends. Eventually I stopped doing the scene reports in MRR, and I said, “OK, I’m on to something, I want to start my magazine again.” When I started Cometbus again, I thought that the punk scene was losing blood. I was seeing all these people leaving it, leaving maybe to greener pastures, maybe to great places. But I wanted to find some way to keep those people in the community, or at least have some kind of line for them to report back from where they went. I wanted to throw this at them, to make our scene bigger, and make it so you can go into real life without leaving it. I realized what I liked the most about interviewing and writing: just cut the band stuff out, and instead of talking about their tour, just talk about traveling. Talk about the things their songs were about, without the music. That was what I started out to do when I went back to the magazine, and that was kind of like my second wind—that’s the Cometbus that people know. Here I was, having my first bands, my first taste of independence, first houses of my own, first girlfriends, while at the same time all the people that I looked up to were disappearing.
You’re talking about the pre-Gilman scene?
Yeah. Almost without anyone noticing, things really shifted. I just wanted to have both. I think it was a very hopeful measure. I was saying, “Look, I’m still young enough to put my all into this, while you guys are older, and I want you to put some history and some good writing and some intelligence and maturity into print. Plus this youthful excitement.” I also—obviously—wanted to take punk outside the arena of bands.
Was touring with your own band the first time you’d traveled around the country?
Totally. I felt Cometbus was a way of bringing it all back home. It was a calculated move against bitterness—the first five years of doing it again were very much like totally against that certain kind of apathy, that “old days” attitude. When I started the magazine again I was like, “No ads, no bands, no reviews.” I wanted to focus on punk as a culture, which people hadn’t talked about that much.
At some points in the magazine you’ve gone off into what might be called “serious scholarship” in the fields of history and sociology and anthropology. Is that something you were conscious of?
Oh yeah, I was totally conscious of that.
Do you think not reading books while you were growing up had something to do with you developing your own very idiosyncratic style?
There’s nothing good to say about not reading books when you’re young. I feel like I didn’t use my brain to my full potential. The earlier you’re exposed to certain ideas, the less you’re pressured by bullshit fears and the more knowledge you have, the more options you have. I mean, whatever. You’re just talking about writing style.
I was. I think you’ve got an instantly recognizable style.
Part of that is because it’s a vocal style, a narrative form, but it’s been totally influenced by what I read. The more I read, the better writer I become. I’m jumping ahead here, but after I toured with bands, I started traveling alone more, and I ended up spending a lot of time alone, and became more comfortable with that, and spending a lot of time in libraries. I’d read the same book in each town, in the library, when it was available. I’d read 30 pages in one city, take the bus to the next, read a hundred pages, take the bus to the next.
Would you agree that not everybody continues to become a better writer? That some people maybe start out as pretty good or even great writers and then get stuck or deteriorate? And it’s not just writers, but bands, too.
That’s a problem, this idea that you have to get better or worse instead of looking at the whole. You put out one record and the next record, you say, “You know what, we don’t have to say all this; we don’t have to play all this. Let’s try a softer touch, let’s try doing it this way.” I think that’s a creative path. I do that with my magazine. It’s not supposed to be better, it’s supposed to be different. It’s part of a larger picture. It’s like each day when you wake up, does it have to be better than the last one? Does each cup of coffee have to be better than the last one? There’s some good, there’s some bad—you’re trying to make a whole range.
But you might be faced with the problem that if you put out one issue or one record that in most people’s opinion stinks, they’re not going to bother reading or listening to the next one.
And that’s a disaster. I have that. I can tell you which issues have had that happen. Sometimes I’ll be like, “Look, I just want to interview all these people in a cafe.” I want to explore this one theme. I want to put out a whole issue of comics. And each time I know that it’s going to be unpopular. I have to have another issue waiting, like a pinch hitter. I’ll put out three issues that everybody will not get right away, and then this one is just going to clear all the bases and bring everyone back. But after a while, fuck, it sucks. That’s a lot of years of that pressure, trying not to lose people. And you do lose people each issue.
So you’re saying that you’ve got to keep taking chances, trying different things.
Look at all the ’77 punk bands who got that idea; who thought, “We have to change, we’d better get keyboards and violins.” Yes, it’s a dialogue with your audience, and yes, you want change. You should try things if you want to try things. It’s not a matter of pleasing people. Just write what you want to write—just write what you believe in and what you care about. Performance anxiety is really maddening. Personally, I try to do things just because I’m interested in them. At the same time, it is a communication thing with your audience. It’s like a lover. You’re always trying what you think might work, you’re always trying what you know has worked in the past, but you don’t want to get boring either.
How big of a role has being on the road so much played in keeping things fresh and new?
If anything, it was really disruptive. You can write about traveling, and to you it’s all new experiences, but to somebody else, it’s just another fucking travel journal after a couple issues.
And yet, along with Berkeley, the “wandering Cometbus” is probably the dominant image people have of you and your writing.
Well, there’s a few different ones. I think people forget that while my writing has been important in the magazine, and been a big part of it, at the same time, I think I’m a better editor than a writer. A pretty large percentage of the Cometbuses have been, actually, other people’s work, and it’s been me facilitating it. Helping create it, giving it a form and a voice, prodding people, or sometimes just editing the hell out of them. Or assigning: “Look, why don’t you write about this?” That isn’t what’s the most popular; I think most people like the stuff I’ve written myself. But my vision of the magazine, and my only solution for retaining freshness, includes other people. A lot of them are the same people who are in the stories, a lot of the ideas are different shades or different takes on the same ideas, or different opinions on the same facts.
Those of us who’ve lived around Berkeley a long time can recognize certain characters in Cometbus, and I’m sure people who live in other cities can recognize characters there. You change most of the names, so it’s often hard to say whether a character is basically a fictional character inspired by a person we know, and how much of it is simply an account of that real person with a different name to protect his or her privacy.
It depends. It’s both. That’s the secret of writing: sometimes it’s very literal, and sometimes it’s not. That’s the whole formula: the least believable stuff is the truth, and the most believable stuff is fiction.
Do you run into much conflict with your friends?
No, my friends don’t read the magazine. I wish they did. On one hand it keeps me from taking it too seriously. On the other hand, it keeps me from feeling like the different parts of my world all connect. The people might be recognizable to you, but I think the characters have taken on a life of their own.
Do they start doing things on their own in the magazine?
I think I’ve forgotten that I’ve written about people—I’ve forgotten. really, who’s in there. It’s the same weird thing where all these bands that sing about girls—it turns out that all the songs about the crazy girls are actually about themselves, you know? You project yourself onto other people. The me in Cometbus is not exactly who I am. Sometimes I’ll take on roles in there, say things that are not exactly what I think, not exactly what I believe, not exactly something I’d do. But if you’re going to assign those things to other people, you’re going to have to take some yourself. It’s good to try out a little role-playing, to go. “Oh, look, I’m going to be misunderstood one way or the other; I’ll just misrepresent myself as well.”
I’d like to ask about how you got to traveling. You mentioned your first time traveling across the country was with your band, and I think a lot of that story has been told elsewhere. It didn’t work out according to plan, did it?
Oh, yeah. I was leaving on my first cross-country tour with my first real band. After six shows, half the band and the roadie left and we said, “Good. Fuck you.”
It never occurred to you to give up then?
No. We’d already decided ahead of time. The signs were there that this might be coming and we said we wouldn’t give up no matter what. But when you actually do that, and you don’t give up, it’s different than just saying it.
It’s not as hard if you’ve already made the plan?
Ah, it feels really good. Every time. It still happens to me, where I feel like, “This is something that I thought might happen, I prepared for this eventuality, and I can’t believe that I’m actually able to take control of my life and live it the way I want.” So it was a good feeling just to say, “Good. Leave. Goodbye.” Then the van drove off, and we kind of sat there and said, “Hmm.” We had a couple drums and a guitar, and some T-shirts. Neither of us knew how to drive, and they’d taken the van anyway. It was a very good feeling, but . . . there was a little nervous laughter going on. I still go back to that place sometimes and sit and laugh a little bit more.
What did it look like? Was it just like a street? A parking lot?
Ah, that’s not important. Anyway, that wasn’t so much a travel thing, it was more like one of the first times I was like, “OK, either I have faith in myself or I don’t care. If you take the chance, you’ll win.” Later, that’s gotten me into so much trouble that it’s almost unbelievable. I had to unlearn that lesson. But that time I was very lucky. The timing was right, the place we got dropped off was right, our luck was right, and we were young and charismatic. People liked our band. I’ve tried to recreate that same situation many times since, and it hasn’t worked as well.
Spontaneity is difficult to reproduce on demand.
It’s just that I had felt at the time that the world would open up for me if I took the chance. And I feel the world’s great, still, but it doesn’t owe me anything. It’s still worth taking the chance, but it’s foolish to think that just by taking the chance you’ll succeed. And obviously what I considered to be “working out” was certainly not what the rest of the band would have considered working out. Those six shows we played before the rest of the band left were the best of the tour—there were a lot of people, we got paid. The rest of the tour was a disaster. But to me it was like the starting point of the life I grew up hoping for and thought that I wasn’t going to be able to get. I thought I was going to get drafted or be a fucking drone. You’re so scared when you’re young. Today I shudder thinking, “What if I hadn’t taken that chance?” It paid off, from that tiny little investment of hope. But I could have been wrong.
It’s ironic that you considered the first six shows, with the whole band, to be “great,” yet the rest of those “disaster” shows are a big part of what made that band legendary.
Oh, yeah, and they were legendary for me, too. A great show isn’t necessarily the best thing in the world. The only thing that was important to me was to keep going no matter what. That was a great success for me. We pretty much re-booked everything from on the road. And let me take this opportunity to thank Kamala for booking the tour. Bless her soul.
Did she re-book it while you were on the road?
No. We didn’t even have a car half the time, so we had to cancel tons of shows before we finally got a car. Then it was breaking down everywhere and it only went 45 miles an hour. I’m just saying, thank you again, Kamala. That’s what it’s all about. It isn’t just about your personal expression. If you can facilitate someone else’s creative thing that they wouldn’t have been able to pull off otherwise, it’s incredibly rewarding. I always saw my role in the punk scene kind of like Kamala’s role: sort of behind the scenes. So a little shout out for our friends behind the scenes. Yay!
Just to finish up with this tour—it seems like the experience of a lifetime . . .
The tour that will never end, in a way. The key thing, too, is that I was 20 at the time, and I was the oldest in the band. I thought it was too late for me to tour. Every band I ever cared about had broken up years before, and I thought it was much too late to start playing and to start touring. So you’ll see this common theme through me talking now, through Cometbus, of constant renewal. I think I’ve gotten more chances than I deserved or than I ever expected. To have gotten this chance when I thought it was already over just blew my fucking mind.
You thought it might be your only chance because at 20 you were getting too old?
Well, when you’re 20 you feel very old.
I know. I never felt so old in my life as when I was 20.
But you know, it could have been over. The good decisions I made then keep paying off.
As incredible an experience as it must have been, I’m guessing you didn’t have much time to write about it when it was actually happening?
No. I have a little journal of it, and I’ve only kept maybe three journals in my life: one in third grade for a couple weeks; one in eighth grade for a couple weeks; and then I kept one on this tour for six days. I don’t keep journals. The magazine is not my journal. I’m always kind of offended when people think it is. But this time I did keep a journal, for six days. And on the sixth day, it just says, “I think there’s some trouble on the rise.” And that’s it. The rest of the journal’s blank. I never had a minute again to write.
If you don’t keep a journal, what is your process for getting it all down? Is your approach that after you get back from the road, then you sit down and write about it?
I usually like to write with a little bit of hindsight. In terms of travel stuff, I just try to avoid it at all costs. I make a little reference to it in the new issue; I walked from Minneapolis to Wichita a couple years ago, and I was really proud that I’ve written only one story about it. One one-page story. There’s 30 pages, rough draft, to that one story, but it ends up as a page or two. The travel stuff is something I think I unfortunately took a little too far, so I try to avoid it now. I’m not a traveler. What do I do? I spend all my time on this fucking magazine. In a way, I’m the most sedentary, stable person there is. I’ve been playing the same fucking beat on drums for like 15 years. It’s true that I like to move around a little bit. I’ve lived in a number of different cities, and I used to tour more, and travel more. Doing that walk was great. But I don’t travel a lot nowadays. I like to live places for a few months at a time. To other people, that sounds like traveling.
Look at it from the perspective of the people who stay in Berkeley, who stay in the other cities where you’ve lived. They see you coming and they see you going.
I understand that. But to me, when I live other places, then I live there. I’ve been able to scrape by with magazine money and a little bit of band money. So my time is my own; all my time is working on my own things. Three months, four months, six months is a long time when you’re not giving someone else your time. So it doesn’t feel like traveling to me. There was a kind of excitement some of the times when I’d be on the Greyhound—I developed a kind of love affair with the American city. I started to understand how cities were set up, to look at the similarities and differences, the different types of people. America wasn’t as homogenous as I thought it was. It didn’t matter if there were shows in Billings, Montana, you could just go there—you could go to the library, you could go to the coffee shop, you could just walk by the river. When you’re on tour with a band, when you’re the freak band that pulls up at the gas station and comes in for one minute, makes their surprise appearance . . . It was much more rewarding to go by myself, get off the bus at five in the morning, walk an hour into town from the Greyhound station with packs of dogs following me and the steam rising up off things, to go have breakfast with all the old people at the diner. It was wonderful. I miss that at times. But it isn’t where I’m at right now. Actually, I think a lot of things are a response from that first tour in a way. I have less tolerance for shitty shows. And I have no tolerance for people who are not a hundred percent into what they’re doing. The more dedicated to what you’re doing, the more chances you take. I started to realize, well, I miss a certain excitement of touring, but it would be better to just go by myself on the bus, and when the bus started getting too expensive and uncomfortable, as I grew larger and my nerves got shot from so much fucking handwriting, I was like, “Oh, I’ll just walk.” So I started walking. I still don’t know how to drive, and one of these days I would like to learn. One thing with the touring, I think there’s always a total fear of being a washup, a punk has-been. It’s bad to have your name be Cometbus, but it’s worse to have it be “ex-” something. Maybe I’ve been a little too manic in always trying to do new things so that even if I’m known for what I did in the past, I’m known by different people for different things.
Is this a factor in why you’ve played with so many different bands?
You play in bands and you hope that they’ll last, and a lot of times they don’t. With writing, you start to understand that the end of the story isn’t always the most important part. You realize that the end of every story is depressing. “I had a friend.” “What happened?” “He died.” “I had a friend.” “What happened?” “We’re not friends anymore.” It’s okay to look at just part of the picture. “Oh, you know, I had a fucking great girlfriend.” It doesn’t matter if in the end she burned down my house or if it ended in a horrible disaster. You can write a story and call it “She Burned Down My House.” But you can also write a story saying like, “Man, I loved her.” I think being in bands taught me a lot about life, about being aware that the beginning of a story is its own story, the middle is its own story, and the overview is a whole bunch of stories together. With bands, sometimes you get that band that will stay together for years and I think it’s really rewarding. For me it’s been more rewarding to be a hundred percent in smaller doses. I think some of the short-lived things never would have gotten tried except that they were short-lived, whether they were relationships or bands. Once they’re tried, sometimes they were really cool, and sometimes they continued on for years. That fear of the future worries people too much.
A lot of what you do is very labor intensive because you don’t use computers or other electronic storage devices. If you want to start re-publishing your old writing, doesn’t it mean a lot of hand copying?
I’ve never been obsessed with having everything in my own handwriting. Other people think that’s integral to the stories. I don’t think so. Sometimes people go, “Why don’t you use the computer? It would be easier.” Well, it would be easier to sit at home in my underwear and drink beer. I don’t do anything just to be contrary, it’s just that as you go, you get better at what you do, and if you’re getting better, you don’t want to change it. But in terms of the labor part, I don’t think I’ll ever handwrite a whole issue again.
There’ve been jokes made about creating a Cometbus computer font.
Yeah, yeah. How funny is it? It’s like, “Gee, we’re gonna replace you with a computer.”
But you just said you don’t want to handwrite another issue.
Yeah, and technology could probably re-create you in a little box and you’d be easier to deal with. You speak with whatever voice seems true to you. People always make that joke to me, and I’d like to say now: “People, please do not make that joke to me. I find it kind of offensive.”
Where do you see the magazine going in the future?
I don’t know what I’ll do with the magazine in the future. For me it’s been a long time of always trying to do something new, always trying to do something better. And every time it’s heartbreaking to have it come back from the printer fucked up.
Does anybody notice this alleged fucked-upedness besides you?
Who knows? Sometimes it’ll just have the same paragraph eight times. Sometimes people don’t notice because they have no idea what it could have been. Each issue is a struggle, with the printing, with the distributors—they’re always going under; they’re always screwing you over. With the stores, each time an issue comes out, there’s new people working in the store, and I have to fucking sell myself all over again. In a way it’s great. You can’t just rest on your accomplishments. But I’m really looking forward to putting out an anthology and being able, for the first time, to take a breath and go, “Look. Let’s look over the work that I’ve already done.”
In light of all these troubles that you enumerate with respect to self-publishing, if somebody comes to you and says, “Write us a novel, we’ll publish it for you,” what do you say?
People have come to me—I have a list—and every fucking one of them, when you start talking numbers, talking price . . . I can sell 11,000 copies of an issue at two bucks apiece. And they’re offering to do a thousand at 10 bucks apiece. I don’t necessarily want to publish everything myself. I like the idea of other people putting out my stuff. I’d love to have that kind of a collaboration with a publisher, if it was right. But the publishing industry, both small—especially the small publishers—and big, seem to have their heads up their asses. They never accomplish what we already accomplish every day in the punk scene. I’ve been publishing my own stuff longer than most of the small publishers have been in business. With a lot of punk stuff, people spend all their time doing the hardest part themselves, only to turn it over to someone from above who’s just reaching down and not doing any work, and doesn’t know what they’ve got. In this case, with the anthology, I finally came to the realization that I just could not put it out by myself. Or I could but it would kill me—and probably still wouldn’t turn out the way I wanted. I wanted to save my energy and resources for the new stuff.
Indie publishing doesn’t seem to have had the same kind of success that independent record companies have. You’ve got punk rock record labels that succeeded because they did things cheaper, simpler and smarter. It seems to a large extent that small publishers have not yet figured that out.
Yeah, it’s crazy. Even the punks haven’t figured it out. They put out a little book and charge 10 bucks for it too. My heart is not really in the two dollar price tag, but at the same time, I can sell it for two dollars and make a profit. Price isn’t the bottom line always, but everyone likes to get something for cheap. But if they do a book, they think it’s a different world or something. But I’ve still found that I can sell 11,000 copies of that fucking novel, doing it the way I did. Again, numbers aren’t even the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if you sell a hundred if it’s the way you want it.
But it’s even better to do 11,000 the way you want it.
Exactly. I was happy. It’s one of those rare times when you get away with being morally upstanding, and also totally succeed. That’s what a lot of the punk stuff is about. It’s a total joke, because everyone else is running around stabbing each other in the back and failing, while some of us are operating not just according to some doctrine, but out of moral beliefs, and a lot of times it works really well.
In all of your writing that I’m familiar with, you’ve rarely mentioned any overt political beliefs. You’ve never talked about who you might vote for, or if you’d vote at all. Or about going to demonstrations.
Oh yes I have. All the time. And I’ve been at the demonstrations every week for the last four months, so that’ll tell you something.
Are you going to tell us what particular demonstrations these were?
Oh, the demonstrations against bombing Afghanistan. I think political writing is incredible. But when I’ve tried, even when I really feel what I mean, it comes off sounding insincere or a little hokey. Personally, I haven’t been as successful doing that. I’m kind of obsessed with politics, and I’m obsessed with history, but I’ve been like a typical Berkeley inactive activist. At times, when it’s demanded, I think I can rise to the occasion. I did write some pretty fiery flyers during this war, and during the Gulf War. I have my own propaganda campaigns that go on outside of the magazine, you know.
I didn’t know.
Yeah, I do. But that’s a frustration of mine, too, that I would like to be more astute that way—be more articulate.
I’ve never had much of an idea where you would place yourself on the political spectrum. Most of the things I’ve read in your writing involved a more personal kind of politics, things like the destruction of old neighborhoods, which aren’t necessarily left- or right-wing issues.
I don’t think there’s a polemic like left and right. I’m not going to place myself on some imaginary map. If there’s an issue, I have an opinion about it—and probably two contrary ones as well.
I’m a bit surprised to hear you talk about demonstrations. Were you expressing opposition to all war in general, or just to this particular war?
To this particular war. I’m not against violence or war at all. I think there is such a thing as a just war, wars to end oppression. I think there are a lot of things that are totally worth fighting for. But this particular war was a total travesty of justice, a mockery. It wasn’t even a war, just like a bloodletting. I feel very strongly about it.
You’ve often spoken about how—while not being religious—you have a strong attachment to your Jewish roots. I’m wondering if that puts you in a strange position with regard to the Middle East conflict?
Oh, not at all. I’m not pro-Israel.
Are you anti-Israel?
I don’t think you have to be anti-Israel to not be pro-Israel. The American Jewish community in general is not pro-Israel. As a Jew, you can be a citizen automatically, and it’s one of the only countries in the world I would never want to be a citizen of. It’s a complicated issue that I don’t want to answer in one paragraph, but yeah, I think Israel was a mistake. We had a bunch of choices, we had like Brazil, Madagascar, and Palestine. I think we made the wrong choice. More than that, it could have been done better. Every step that they take is further down the wrong road. I’m glad I’m not really old right now. If I was dying and seeing this, it would break my heart. But there’s a big movement, there’s a lot of Jews who never believed in Israel, never were pro-Israel before Israel even existed. The diaspora is part of the Jewish experience. Part of that experience is being without a homeland, of being spread out around the world, of being exiled from somewhere. It continues to fascinate me—reading about different cultures where they’re alienated from their host culture, but they’re also alienated from the culture from which they came. They’ve been removed from both. That’s definitely part of the Jewish experience.
Sounds like a part of your experience.
It’s part of my experience and I think it’s part of the human experience. But I think it’s beautiful, too. There’s like a heartsickness to it.
I didn’t want to go too much further into politics, but I am curious about whether you’re hopeful or despairing about the direction and future of your own country, your own city or cities.
Without getting too into it, I’m very despairing about the direction of my city, and I’m pretty hopeful about the direction of my country. I really can’t elaborate that much, but there seems like nothing worse than being a hippie and emerging into the ’70s, and then the ’80s. Nothing could be worse than the fucking ’70s and ’80s after you’d come of age and tasted some of the fruits of freedom. I’m starting to slip into an older role where I think like, “OK, I’m ready now to bunker down for like 10 or 20 years if that’s what it takes, and not worry about each new way the wind is blowing.” I know the values I hold are intrinsic human values, and I know that there’s always going to be some people who will be keeping some of the things I love alive. So it’s time to buckle down and nurture that, and get the roots going. In terms of Berkeley, I really don’t want to argue it with you because I think we feel very differently about it. But I almost can’t go out without being sick. There’s a warmth that I feel is missing, and a sense of empathy and understanding that I feel is missing. Also, a respect for us all being in it together, whether or not we’re different. If I talk about it, I just get angry.
Well, we’ve still got Gilman. I think that’s one thing we could pretty much agree on, that it’s an ongoing miracle.
It’s a great feeling, having an institution that you can come back to and sometimes like, sometimes dislike, but that’s ours. And not only that, but one other people have made theirs too.
One thing that’s been nagging at the back of my consciousness is the thought that, given the changes that are happening in Berkeley, Gilman can’t go on indefinitely.
What, is it going to go another 15 fucking years? We’re at a weird point in time. But look, my fanzine has got to end sometime too. Do I want to do it for 80 years? Does Gilman last 150 years? It’s already been so long for both of them, it’s a miracle.
It’s just that if Gilman were to end, what would be left of Berkeley?
Well, the people would be left. There’s this illusion that every thing disappears, But it doesn’t disappear, the people don’t disappear. They just become less visible. But I think of it the same in terms of my magazine, or in terms of punk, things that facilitate something to have in common. Like with Gilman, you can go there and just sit outside and drink on the tracks, you can go in the show, you can have an opinion about it, but it’s there to discuss, and I think in a way I try to do the same thing with the magazine.
You were one of the—I guess I think of them as lucky—people who were there from the beginning. And I just wondered whether during those first couple years, which to a lot of people are legendary, did you have that feeling when it was happening?
I thought everything I was part of that was exciting was going to go down in history. But it hasn’t.
So you never had any idea which of them would and which wouldn’t?
Well, you know, we’re the ones writing the history.
You got 86’d from Gilman for a while there, didn’t you, for drinking in the bathroom?
Once or twice. I’m glad it didn’t close just so I could see it from different sides. Every time I go there I think it’s so funny to have spent my youth there, and now I know the adults there. There were always older people there that I didn’t know. It’s nice to have so long to try it out, to try and figure out the different parts of it that you value. Different people come to play basketball than for the shows; others come to hang out outside or drink on the tracks. People of all ages. It’s turned into more of a whole society, which is awesome. It wasn’t like that at first.
It was all teenagers and their bands.
Yeah. And now I think Gilman has mirrored the way punk has gone, where the music has taken a back seat. The bands aren’t the most important thing there, and everybody knows it. But every once in a while, I’ll go in just to use the bathroom and there’ll be a really fucking good band playing. And I’ll stay until they kick me out.
6 thoughts on “Interview With Aaron Cometbus”
That was very interesting. I had no clue Aaron and Jesse interview the Ramones, especially at such a young age. That’s really awesome; lucky guys.
Aaron’s a really intelligent guy, and Cometbus sounds so interesting. Thanks for this interview, Larry. 🙂
I read COMETBUS 53 and it made me feel all sorry for myself mid-lifey but then I thought to myself, hey, at least I’m not as old as Larry Livermore then I walked into Yohan Schimmel’s and had matzoh ball soup with Aaron.
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I’m writing to let you know that this blog post was linked on my magazine’s blog today, at http://www.cheekteethblog.com/2011/08/in-defense-of-self-publishing-zines-and.html
We are really excited about the post and glad that your interview with Cometbus was linked in our post. If you like what you read, please re-post and tweet the link so that others may read guest blogger Alissa Nielsen’s great writing in defense of zines and self-publishing.
If you have any questions, please email me. Thanks for your time, and glad to be connected.
~Katey Schultz, Associate Editor TRACHODON Magazine