May 10, 2008
NORMAN BRANNON [I]INTERVIEW[/I]
Although only existing for a mere four issues, Anti-Matter zine had quite a reputation. Created by former SHELTER guitarist, Norman Brannon, the interviews from the zine (along with selected interviews from his work with Alternative Press) have been compiled in a book recently released by Revelation Records. Brannon went onto play guitar in the hugely influential TEXAS IS THE REASON, NEW END ORIGINAL and more recently has been involved in DJing in the House Music scene. Here Brannon talks about the zine, music, life and more.
..Can you tell us some history about Anti-Matter zine? How many issues it ran for, when you were publishing, where it was located, print runs etc?
..Norman) Anti-Matter published from the winter of 1993 to sometime in 1995. Its entire output was four issues, two 7-inch singles, and a compilation album, but I feel like what I didn’t have in longevity I really made up for in content. I feel like it was a strong and complete statement exactly the way it was, and that’s probably why I decided to compile it into one book. The print-run of the fanzine was 5,000 at the end, and while that’s a decent amount of people, it was also thirteen years ago. So doing this book was about showing some of the newer kids a piece of my creative life that I’m still very proud of.
..Before Anti-Matter, you did two issues of a 'post-skinhead rag' called Crucified. Tell us a bit about that, how it mutated into Anti-Matter and why you didn't start Anti-Matter at issue #1 but continued where Crucified left off.
..Norman) Well, I wouldn’t say Crucified mutated into anything. I did that zine in 1989, when I was 15 years old, so really it has the artistic value of showing you a high school book report. But it did give me a tiny bit of publishing experience, and that was incredibly valuable when I started Anti-Matter in 1993. I felt like I knew how to put together a fanzine on a pragmatic level, so all I needed to worry about was the concept and the content. I started Anti-Matter at Issue #3 not because I felt there was a linear connection with Crucified as much as because there were a lot of fanzines that were coming out in that era that would do one issue and then disappear. I figured that if I started and ended at Issue #3, I wouldn’t be one of them. Kind of bizarre, but that’s a true story.
..What ambitions did you have for Anti-Matter originally and how did you want it to differ from Crucified? Did any established zines of the day – be it MRR, Flipside or Suburban Voice – provide inspiration or assistance?
..Norman) If I had any ambition at that time, it was mostly trying to figure out a next step. I had just quit SHELTER, I was 19 years old, I had no family to turn back to, and I lived with seven other people in a loft in Manhattan. I didn’t know who I was. So Anti-Matter was an expression of that, really. I didn’t have financial aspirations or anything like that; I just needed something I could use to express my truth. Al Quint from Suburban Voice was actually a huge help on a practical level. I used to call him — and keep in mind, we’d never met — and I’d ask him annoying questions about everything from half-toning photos to ad rates. Al always gave me the best advice. He was so unnecessarily sweet to me, and I never forgot that.
..What changes were made as the zine progressed? I’m thinking about layouts here – did you switch from cut ?°»n’ paste to desktop processing at any stage? Were you the sole person responsible for the aesthetic side of the zine?
..Norman) We designed the magazines on these crazy 48-hour stretches at an office in Connecticut somewhere. Luke Hoverman, who sang for a band called ANOTHER WALL, convinced me to do the zine in Quark Express — which, at the time, was kind of cutting edge. I mean, I didn’t have a computer at home, so I had to borrow people’s computers to save the editorial and interviews to floppy disks that we could bring to Connecticut. The look was all collaboration, really. I wanted something clean and modern–looking, something that used a lot of white space; I think Luke wanted to sharpen his graphic design chops. The look became more refined as time went on, but it didn’t really change too much. The aesthetic became Anti-Matter’s calling card in a way.
..So, Revelation Records recently published the Anti-Matter Anthology. Why choose now to publish the anthology and how did that come about? Had it been an ambition of yours?
..Norman) This might be the most boring story ever, but it was really as simple as this: I was moving house in 1998 and I came across a bunch of the old layouts — hard copies of the fanzine’s spreads. At that point, TEXAS IS THE REASON had just broken up and I was trying to tie up all my loose ends, and the idea of doing a book occurred to me. I think I’ve always wanted to make books, even when I was doing fanzines. Anyway, Revelation had just released All-Ages, so I knew it was something they’d consider. I called up Jordan with the idea about ten minutes later, and we basically agreed to make it happen on the spot. That it took almost nine years to finally come out is an entirely different — and even more boring — story. Trust me.
..Looking through the book and given the relatively short existence of Anti-Matter, I wondered why you didn’t do a full zine reprint – as in page-for-page collection of all the issues in one book. What about the photos that accompanied the interviews in the book – were they part of the original layout or new additions?
..Norman) A few people have made that comment, and honestly, I don’t get it. For me, the idea of doing this book was to do something new. This was a new medium for Anti-Matter, and I wanted to approach it with fresh eyes. I think one of the coolest things about these interviews is that they read incredibly well, even today. To me, they read like a book, so that’s how I wanted to present them. I think the majority of the photos in the book were also in the zine, but there were a lot of new additions to the book as well. I thought it was important to put something out that no one could say they’ve already seen.
..That makes a lot of sense and sure beats the simple re-hash. How did you choose which interviews were placed in the book? I noticed on the cover of one of the zines the band SAMUEL is mentioned – but the interview is omitted from the book. How was the running order of the interviews in the book determined? It seems an odd place to start with SAMIAM – is it chronological?
..Norman) I used to do these things I called "Profiles" in Anti-Matter. They were basically magazine-styled features that really didn’t age well. I became much better at magazine writing, and I published a few of those pieces instead. I would have loved to publish the original Q&As for those pieces — with SAMUEL and UNDERTOW, for example — but I don’t have the transcripts or the tapes anymore. So those are basically lost forever. As far as the running order goes, I tried to approach it intuitively, by mood. I can’t really explain that, but the flow of the book is deliberate and it makes sense to me.
..Your interviewing style was quite unique at the time, in that you got into the person’s psyche. Some of your interviews read like a psychiatrist’s session! Was that a technique that developed or something you purposely set out to achieve?
..Norman) Anyone that I’m friends with will just tell you that’s how I am. The conversations I published in Anti-Matter are the same types of conversations I’d have with anyone; the only difference is that I started recording and transcribing them. I’ve just never really been one for small talk. I’ve always believed that everyone has an incredible story that is unique to them, and that is still something I’m interested in discovering.
..Given your method of interviewing – and the fact that several of those you interviewed were already friends and/or associates – what form of research did you do for interviews? Were they social conversations that progressed, or did you have an agenda for each person? How did your interviewing technique vary when you interviewed, say RANCID or SICK OF IT ALL to ELLIOTT SMITH or SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE?
..Norman) The biggest difference with, say, the RANCID or ELLIOTT SMITH or SUNNY DAY... pieces is that I wrote those for other magazines. I had an editorial "mission" that was more traditional there. But I think the RANCID piece, in particular, wound up becoming much more like an Anti-Matter interview in that those guys, at some point, decided that they really liked me. And I decided, at some point, that they were the kind of people I wanted in my life. And from there, the conversation just flowed. Because what you are reading is not just an "interview," but it’s the actual process of two people trying to get to know each other — and that’s just interesting. Those guys are still my friends, ten years later, and it’s amazing to have this document of a moment where things clicked. As far as the interviews I did with people I knew, I think people have this idea that me and Zack de la Rocha had surprise parties for each other’s birthdays or something. With the exception of Rob Fish, Alan Cage, Chris Traynor, and Porcell — people that I hung out with regularly — I knew most of these people in the way that you know someone from going to shows or being on tour or seeing each other in the street. I had a little bit of an advantage, but it’s not like we regularly traded secrets or anything. My relationships with most of the people in the zine actually became stronger after we did the interviews — like with SNAPCASE or JAWBOX. So, for the most part, there was still a lot of getting to know each other in this book.
..Talking of JAWBOX, the interview with J. Robbins suggests he was a little taken-a-back at the personal, intimate nature of your interview. What others stand out in your memory? I heard there was some kinda issue when you interviewed TOOL - rock star tossers are three words that crossed my mind!
..Norman) The TOOL story is way too long to get into, but yeah, I had a run-in with them when I was writing for Alternative Press, and the shorthand of it is that they were an extremely disrespectful group of people. We never actually managed to do the interview; I walked out on them before we hit record. So, obviously, that had nothing to do with my interview style as much as it did with their precious egos.
..Why did you, as an interviewer, eschew the subjects’ political preferences? I feel – and always have – that politics and Punk Rock are intrinsically linked, yet Anti-Matter seemed to be virtually apolitical – why was that?
..Norman) There are probably two reasons for that. For one, politics are polarizing. There are some amazing people in the world who do not share my politics, and it’s terrible to think that I would never get to know them if I couldn’t get past that. But more predominantly, it was a reaction to that era in Hardcore. It felt like you had to have some sort of political checklist to even exist at that point, and between EARTH CRISIS and DOWNCAST, I felt like a lot of important issues were being over-simplified into a soundbite for a lyric or an interview quote. I just felt like it was becoming disingenuous — not with those bands necessarily, but with everything that followed. I just wanted to steer clear of that. That said, I think Anti-Matter was very political in the way that counts: It was an independent print media that paid its photographers and designers — which was rare at that point — and it was based on a subversive line of questioning that, albeit unwittingly, aimed to slightly emasculate what was, at that point, a ridiculously hyper-masculine scene. I certainly found it empowering.
..Being based in New York City when doing the zine must have given you access to everybody and anybody. How did you choose who to interview? And why were there no European bands featured?
..Norman) The only interview I ever really worked hard to get was the one with Mike Judge. He’s still a tough guy to track down. Aside from him, I didn’t really have a game plan. It was more geographical: The third issue was essentially the New Jersey issue because that was where I was living at the time. The fifth issue was the West Coast issue because I did the majority of the interviews when I flew out there for OUTSPOKEN’s final show. The fourth and sixth issues were very clearly focused on New York. Had I gone to Europe at some point during the fanzine’s stint, there would have likely been some European bands, but that never happened.
..I read an interview with you regarding yourself back in the days of Anti-Matter and you stated that, "...the younger Norman was a very depressed person. And I think my expression of that was almost subversive. I mean, Anti-Matter wasn’t exactly the feel-good fanzine of the year." What do you think was the cause of your depression? I mean, you lived in NYC, published a hugely successful and respected zine, had played in SHELTER... what deep-rooted trauma do you feel gave you a sense of depression?
..Norman) Well, I thought I was clinically depressed for a long time, but the truth is, I was just dealing with a lot all at once. I was coming to terms with being gay, I was trying to figure out my entire childhood and my fucked-up family life, I was trying to figure out how I was going to survive in New York City as a high-school dropout with no work experience. I mean, Anti-Matter and SHELTER made money, of course. But I lived in Manhattan, and that means spending more for less. I was on food stamps, you know? I think it would be hard for anyone to be happy under those circumstances, but New York was my home and my entire life was there. It took me a long time to get all those under control or into perspective.
..There is a semi-legendary story about you selling your entire collection of HC records – was this around the time you turned to Krishna? Do you regret that?
..Norman) Yeah, I sold my record collection to Venus Records for something stupid — like, $250. I just didn’t care, and I still don’t. I’m not particularly sentimental about records or zines or T-shirts or whatever. When I look back at my experience in the Hardcore scene, I feel strongly that it’s all about the people I’ve met — they’re what made the whole thing so interesting to me. We used to say Hardcore was "more than music," but I’d argue that it’s not about the music at all. It’s a community and a family. The music is a ritual.
..Besides Anti-Matter, you’ve played in a number of bands, most notably SHELTER and TEXAS IS THE REASON. Did being in SHELTER aid the progress of the zine and did doing a zine that was as successful as Anti-Matter aid the progress of TEXAS? What kind of progress did doing the zine make upon you as an individual?
..Norman) I used to joke that TEXAS IS THE REASON was the only band that went on tour and found flyers that had "Ex Members" of a fanzine. In my head, that made sense. I think that, to some extent, my contribution to that band was an extension of the ideas I tried to express with Anti-Matter. Being in SHELTER definitely made people pay attention to Anti-Matter, and doing Anti-Matter definitely made people pay attention to TEXAS... in the beginning. It’s still exciting to think that people took my writing as seriously as my music, and vice versa. Neither thing ever felt like a side project.
..How did you find working with Ray Cappo in SHELTER? Was the Krishna thing a big deal to the whole band? I think you had left the Krishna Temple by this time - did that Krishna understanding aid your path into SHELTER?
..Norman) Well, yeah, when I was in SHELTER in 1992, being a Krishna devotee was the most important thing about being in the band. It was a movement. I didn’t live in the temple anymore, but I certainly identified as a practicing devotee. I probably identified as a devotee until three or four years ago, to be honest.
..Given the agnostic (if not atheist) preferences of Punk Rock and Hardcore, how do you think Krishna became virtually accepted by the NYHC set of that period? What drew you to that doctrine – and more to the point – why did you defect from it? Are there any aspects that you still follow?
..Norman) The relationship between Hardcore and Krishna consciousness in New York was probably different than it was in other places. I mean, even aside from the CRO-MAGS, there were always a lot of Hare Krishnas in the scene — at least from the point that I started hanging out in late 1986 and early ’87. I don’t know what the instant connection was, but a lot of my really great friends in the Hare Krishna movement today came from the early-?°»80s New York Hardcore scene. I think that connection still exists now. As far as my own involvement goes, that’s a long story. But essentially, I was looking for something intangible and I found it there. I ultimately left because my passion for the whole thing just wasn’t really there anymore. I didn’t want to just go through the motions simply because I had been involved with this thing for fifteen years — you know what I mean? It was part of a larger reevaluation process that was really important for me.
At this point, I’m more of an agnostic — in the generic sense of the word, anyway — but I appreciate and respect the Vaisnava philosophy and lifestyle greatly. I mean, I would still count the guru that initiated me into the movement as one of the most important people in my life. I’ve known him since I was 15, and I’m 34 now. He’s like a father to me.
..Are you surprised at how TEXAS IS THE REASON has become a legendary band? I mean, that one album and the few singles have reached the heady status of being regarded as classics – and quite rightly so. Just why did the band split when it did?
..Norman) I always thought Scott nailed it when he once said, "TEXAS IS THE REASON broke up because I hated my three best friends." That was really it. We loved each other and we loved the band, but it really felt like we had to make a decision between the two things. I’ve always been proud of the fact that we chose each other over that band.
..You toured Europe with TEXAS... also. Looking back, what were the immediate differences between touring in Europe and touring in America? Was there a different attitude in Europe?
..Norman) I think Europe accepted us a lot faster. I mean, at least that’s how it felt. We had good shows in the U.S. when we started, but I felt like we were dealing with a lot of Hardcore baggage, too. I felt like there was a much stronger divide between what we were doing and what kids felt a "Hardcore" band should sound like here. But I remember our first tour in Europe — and especially in Germany and the UK — it just seemed like people were game from the start. Plus — and I think this is still true of Europe over America in general — the audiences were always more uninhibited. When a European audience decides they love you, they put that feeling out in a way that feels quite unadulterated. It feels pure.
..TEXAS?°¦ got back together for a few shows last year. Why did the band reform? Were you nervous and how much rehearsal did you have before the shows? You guys get along OK now? I assume it is not going to be an on-going reformation - why not?
..Norman) We decided to get back together over the summer of 2006, about five months before the shows. We were all at a birthday party for Chris, our drummer, and we started talking about how ?°»Do You Know Who You Are?’ had just turned ten years old — and there we were, still best friends, still hanging out. It just felt like a special occasion, like a reason to celebrate. The rehearsals were just so much fun, and we loved playing those two shows, but no one in the band was really in a position to do it in any sort of long-term fashion. I mean, I can speak for myself when I say I wouldn’t want to do it any longer than we did. It was perfect the way we kept it — those shows were perfect, the experience was perfect. Things are so rarely perfect in life that I had no desire to fuck that up.
..Why did you leave NYC for Chicago and then San Francisco? How long did you spend in each city, what drew you there and what changes were there between those two cities and NYC?
..Norman) I spent two years in Chicago and almost four in San Francisco. I moved to Chicago mostly because I could. I grew up in New York City, so I felt like it was time to live in a different environment — to see what kinds of new things I might discover about myself in a new place. I moved to San Francisco to do NEW END ORIGINAL, but I wound up dedicating most of my energy to the house music scene there. I think I got what I needed from those places, but to be totally honest, I wouldn’t rule out going back to Chicago. Next to New York, it’s probably the city where I feel most at home.
..Since TEXAS?°¦ split, how have you been actively involved in music? I heard you got into the House scene, ran a record label in SF and do some DJing now – that true? What drew you to that sound?
..Norman) I’ve always been involved with music, and I reckon I’ll always be. I ran two record labels in San Francisco, Primal Records and PR2 — which was like a Tech-House sub-label of Primal — and I was a working DJ for most of that time. I discovered House and Techno in the mid-?°»90s on tour in Germany, and when I came back to New York, I started really researching the history and buying the records. I’ve always found that underground House and Techno had so much in common with Punk Rock. I mean, it started out by a group that felt oppressed and economically distressed — the iconic instruments associated with House were discarded drum machines that middle-class people sold to pawn shops because they supposedly sounded cheap. But lower-income kids in Chicago and Detroit invented an entire genre of music based on them. It was a huge statement for creativity in general, and that whole concept of "making something outta nothing" has always resonated strongly with me. I’ve been working more on production these days, under the name Zodiac Social.
..A few ?°»Anti-Matter’esque questions – when and why did you last cry?
..Norman) You know what’s funny? I always cry at the end of this television show called ?°»Intervention’. It’s a documentary show that traces addiction, and at the end, the family surprises the addict with a make-or-break intervention. They make all these ultimatums, and essentially say, "If you don’t get on a plane and get help right now, at this very second, you will never see us again." It’s fucking heartbreaking. But the reason I always cry is because I see how much love that family has for him — and how much the addict loves his family — and that resonates with me because that’s something I’ve never really had.
..Since the split of TEXAS... you changed your name from Norm Arenas to Norman Brannon - why? In the Anti-Matter book, you state you had a physically abusive childhood - do you associate the Arenas name with that and does it harbour a lot of bad memories?
..Norman) Eventually, I’d love to write an essay about it. A book, maybe. But the fast fact is that my family made a conscious decision to estrange themselves from a relationship with me, and I didn’t think that was the worst thing that could have happened. I spent 30 years dealing with people that were toxic to me, and I needed to reclaim myself. Changing my name was more symbolic than anything else. It was a chance to look at my name or hear my name and realize that if the word "Brannon" has any baggage attached to it, then that was okay. Because at least it was all mine.
..Do you feel this abusive childhood lead you directly to becoming a, and I quote the book again, "knucklehead-skinhead walking around the city with a hammer in your jacket."
..Norman) Well, indirectly, maybe. But for me, mostly, I think I went through life looking for a surrogate family, someplace to feel safe. For a little while, my skinhead friends were that to me. But I was, like, 14 years old. I carried a hammer around with me — that’s true — but I never used it. I was just trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak.
..How have you evolved as a person - from an adolescent, through RESURRECTION, SHELTER, 108, FOUNTAINHEAD, TEXAS IS THE REASON and NEW END ORIGINAL, Krishna, Anti-Matter, House Music and changes of location? What is the main difference between Norman Brannon now and Norman Arenas 20 years ago?
..Norman) That’s just a massive question. There’s no way to answer that properly. But I will say this: I love myself today and I’m not so sure I could say that 20 years ago. Just that simple fact alone means that we’re talking about two completely different people.
..What’s next in line for Norman Brannon – any more bands or books?
..Norman) Musically, there are a few different directions I could take if I wanted to. I have over an album’s worth of guitar-based songs that I’ve demoed. They’re acoustic, influenced by a lot of classic pop records, and I sing on them. I’ve talked to different people about recording them properly in the studio with a full band, but I’m a bit conflicted by the whole thing. Honestly, I just don’t ever really want to go on tour again. So I’ve thought about just recording it on the cheap and giving it away online or something like that. Or they might just die on my hard drive. I haven’t decided. I’m also doing work as Zodiac Social, and I’ve been thinking more about actually making an album in that genre. Programming electronic music, however, is extremely time-consuming — way more than writing something on guitar or piano — so again, it’s something I’ll have to contemplate.
My immediate concern right now is that I’ve gone back to college. At some point last year, I volunteered for 826 NYC, which is an amazing group of people that work with kids here in Brooklyn. I wound up at a high school in Park Slope, co-teaching an English class about journalism for about four months. It was totally life-changing, and it really inspired me to reach back to a desire that I’ve been suppressing for a long time — to actually become a high school English teacher. So that’s where my head is at right now. I’ve still got a couple of years of school left, and I don’t want to lose sight of my goal. A lot can happen between now and then, of course, but right now, I’m focused.
..Anything you would like to add?
..Norman) Not really. But thanks for the interview, and thanks to everyone who’s cared enough to support me over the years. I’ve been blessed with a creative life and a solid group of people who believe in it. I will never take that for granted.
DIRECT LINK TO ARTICLE