A talk with Sam McPheeters

This punk is a writer
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  April 4, 2012


One of the most interesting people to emerge from the second generation of US punk rock, Sam McPheeters has had a pretty full life. Twenty years ago he was the singer of Born Against, whose outspoken political snarl stood out among the conservative ethos of late '80s New York streetpunk bands. In the '90s he started a band called Men's Recovery Project, an utterly destabilized performance art meditation on the themes of futility and refusal. In his late 30s he fronted Wrangler Brutes, an ironic pro-war hardcore band and vessel for his increasingly arcane personalities.

Throughout, he's been a writer: in VICE (where he most frequently contributes the hilarious "Brutality Report"), The Village Voice, and The American Prospect, though sammcpheeters.net can stuff your afternoon with a vast and fascinating archive.

The night of April 5, McPheeters comes to Portland to read from and discuss The Loom of Ruin, a modern, dystopian, and very funny fable centered around an unlikely hero — Trang Yang, a Chinese-American gas station tycoon living in LA, unable to feel any emotion except anger.

We spoke with McPheeters about the novel, the transition from cult persona to professional writer, and the blueprint for the forthcoming literary magazine, titled Exploded View, he's creating with former VICE editor Jesse Pearson.

SOME OF THE MORE RECENT PROFESSIONAL WRITING YOU'VE DONE — PARTICULARLY THEVICE STUFF LIKE THE ANTI-MUSIC ISSUE AND "THE BRUTALITY REPORT" — SEEMS TO CONTAIN MORE POINTED CRITICISM OF AMERICAN CULTURE THAN THE STUFF YOU WERE WRITING BEFORE. HAS THAT BEEN A CONSCIOUS THING? I guess not. I used to do a lot of columns and writing in fanzines that was very pointed . . . to the point of incoherence. I think if anything I've gone in the other direction. My first articles were on soft targets: what's her face...she's not even in the spotlight anymore...Simpson. Ashley Simpson. And the Dead Kennedys that are touring without Jello Biafra. Really very easy targets. (My editor and I) decided that these would not be attack pieces, that I would be actually engaging these subjects as best I could, and that it'd be fine to present their shortcomings but not to do it in a nasty, snarky, attack-zone way.

WHAT I MEAN IS THAT THE STUFF YOU'RE WRITING ABOUT HAS TO DO WITH CULTURE-AT-LARGE AS OPPOSED TO PART OF A PUNK SCENE . . . Yeah, sure. If I write about punk stuff now I'm writing in such a way that anybody can read it. It seems logical, but that was actually a weird decision I had to make. I did a piece that I really like — that's probably the best thing I'm ever gonna do, for nonfiction — on Doc Dart, the guy from the Crucifucks. I wrote it (with) a whole preamble that (explains) the hardcore scene, blah blah — written for someone who doesn't know or doesn't care. And I got feedback later like, "I don't know anything about this world but I really enjoyed this article." That was a signal that I should not be doing stuff that was geared toward, I don't know, like 100 people somewhere.

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