Chickfactor 25 – An Interview with Gail O’Hara

Founded in 1992 by Gail O’Hara and Pam Berry, Chickfactor is a stalwart of the indie pop scene, publishing one of the longest running and consistently readable zines, put on numerous awesome shows and events, and inspired a Belle & Sebastian song. Currently based in Portland, but with a past that takes in Washington DC, New York, and London, we sat down with Gail to talk about Chickfactor’s history, the upcoming 25th anniversary celebrations, and her Magnetic Fields documentary.

So how did Chickfactor get started?

Pam and I were already very good friends. We were living in DC and both working for The Washington City Paper. We were both kind of playing around with Quark Xpress on the Macintosh. Mostly I was just learning by making things. I moved to NY in February 1992 and I was working for Spin Magazine and I had an opportunity to interview the Wedding Present. It ended up being like a half page story with a few quotes, but I had interviewed him so thoroughly that I had this really long interview. Pam had written a lot of the questions. I think that was the catalyst for us deciding to start a zine.  It was like “we’ve got this interview!”  With these bands we liked on the east coast, like Small Factory and Honeybunch, it was a really vibrant time in indie pop. Slumberland Records were our friends as were Velocity Girl, and we knew Unrest, so it was a cool time.

From Fanboy Memoirs, an illustrated zine from Kevin Alvir of The Hairs

We ended up having friends write things and we just threw the first issue together. Then we handed it out at a show at Maxwells in September 1992 and it was free. We gave it to everyone at the show. We had written over them in silver and gold and magic markers. It was juvenile, no it was fun. It was really good.

When I was in college I was learning how to be a zine editor, and the Washington City Paper job helped move it along. But it wasn’t until we started working with a friend who was a graphic designer around issue 12, that the photos started looking a lot better. Because I didn’t really know how to use photoshop that well.

So Pam and I were just good friends and Chickfactor was a way for us to hang out. When I went home we would work on it, but a lot of time was just spent goofing around. I had to get her to focus to write her reviews. We would just sit around in the production room and eat ice cream.

To clarify, Pam is Pam Berry from Black Tambourine.

She’s been in a million bands. But Black Tambourine, Gloworm, Sea Shell Sea, Cast Away Stones, The Pines. These days she plays with Withered Hand in their live shows, and also with Pete Astor sometimes. She’s a very talented singer, and she was part of the crew who started Slumberland Records. They were a big influence on me.

Pam quit Chickfactor in 1995. When you look back, we did a lot of issues between 1992 and 1995. Then I got a job as music editor of Time Out New York so I just didn’t have as much time to devote to a zine. I probably did one a year after that until I moved to London and I kind of stopped for a while. I did one issue online and that was a mistake.

In terms of who you cover, is gender important?

No. The first issue was a lot of guys really. I don’t think it was ever that female centric, but we were focused on interviewing that one girl in the band, because you know, in the 90s every band had the one girl. We always wanted to talk to her because she never got to speak. So it would be like Laura from Superchunk. We just sort of did what comes naturally.

When did you move to London?

2003. So Chickfactor was really active for the first ten years and especially with the shows. We did a lot of shows in New York when I was living there.

How did you get into putting on shows?

It was really just that we wanted a chance to give out the issues to our friends. You could just set up a show at Under Acme in the East Village. You could rent it out like a party room for $150 and then keep the door money. It was so laid back then, nobody got carded, it was just really chill, before Giuliani ruined everything. So it was really fun. The first time we had a show was 1993 and I think there were like 11 or 13 bands. In some cases people just jumped up and did a song, like they weren’t even on the bill. It was just really fun. So that really spawned just a style of show where we would have a lot of bands play really short sets, share a backline and have tons of fun. Nobody would do it for the money because there were so many bands, but people would drive from DC and play, they didn’t care about the money.

Our second show was at the same place during a blizzard, and six bands showed up to play out of nine, including people from DC.

You made a documentary about The Magnetic Fields (Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields, 2010).

Oh yes, that was a long time later. So the second Chickfactor show at Under Acme, The Magnetic Fields played, and they played a lot of our shows before they became more popular. So my relationship with Stephin … I worked at Spin Magazine and I hired him as a copy editor when I was there, so we became friends in 94/95. Spin is a monthly magazine, but they would do everything really last minute so three weeks of the month there would be nothing to do. We had a lot of time to faff around or go eat junk food and walk around Chelsea and take photos. So he was kind of hilarious as a copy editor. He actually quit working there when they did this thing called the Spin Alternative Record Guide and they described him in some capacity as being like Warren Zevon. He fought it and they wouldn’t change it, so he quit.

That friendship and my access to him as a friend more than just a photographer or zine person… I did interview him and everyone involved in the band a lot and would go on the road and take pictures and in 1999 I got a little video camera and started shooting footage. That went on about 10 years and then I got other people involved who were better at shooting footage than me and so we shot around 300 hours of footage. That’s how the film came about.

How does your photography come in to Chickfactor?

CF has always tried to photograph its subjects. When there’s an interview we try to take photos. I have a pretty ridiculous archive of stuff and I would like to do more with it, show it more. I made a small book five years ago and had a show then.  I’ve had exhibitions at Reading Frenzy, Other Music and Ladyfest 2000. I’m most proud of a lot of the Stephin Merritt ones because he was so fun to photograph in those days and he’s really changed. I think every artist becomes more guarded, and they get sick of being photographed all the time or interviewed or whatever.  I feel really lucky that I was there a lot of times for people when they were new and not sick of it yet.

Chickfactor is having anniversary celebrations in New York, London, and Portland. How are you feeling about it all?

I mean, it’s kind of shocking that it’s been that long, but to me I make these trips every so often to see my friends in those cities and it’s just an excuse to make everyone play and people are always really happy about being there. I do feel a bit like it’s a service we are performing, especially in a year as hideous as this one, to have a sort of “friend” reunion where we can block out the bad stuff for a couple of days and bask in the good stuff. It’s tricky, like right now I’m going through all the pre-show flurries of emails about drums and backlines and guest lists, and it’s awful, but it’ll all be fine. I do feel like this is the last anniversary I’ll do. I don’t want to do any more. Like I said, I’d probably be going there anyway, and its just like “take the party out of someones living room and put it in a venue”. It is annoying if you are a Pastels fan in London and you never heard about the show and now it’s sold out. But that’s the way life is. Sometimes you have to pay close attention.

Chickfactor 25 Poster

Who is playing Chickfactor 25 in Portland (Dec 9/10)?

Rocketship is playing. They are an indie band from 1990s Sacramento. Dustin Reske has lived here for a long time. Most of the current band members are new, it’s all his thing. It should be fun. They haven’t played a full band show since 1996 so that’s a big deal. Kites at Night is Rose Melberg and her husband Jon Manning. Their band used to be called Imaginary Pants. Jen from the Softies is playing with them on bass I think. Lida Husik is an old friend from DC. She used to be on Astral Werks, in the old days. Calvin Johnson is dj-ing.

Rocketship

I’m also doing an indie pop brunch the next morning at The Toffee Club. It’s going to be me, Jen from the Softies and Janice Headley from KEXP who is Chickfactor’s webmaster so we’re all going to DJ for an hour. Janice ran a zine called Copacetic back in the day. She is an enthusiastic supporter of people like me, she also runs Yo La Tengo’s website and a lot of other people’s websites.

Belle & Sebastian wrote a song called Chickfactor (on The Boy With The Arab Strap LP). How did you feel when you heard about that?

We were in Glasgow in October or November of 97 and that’s when I interviewed Sarah and Isabel from the band. They told me about the Chickfactor song and it was very exciting. Pam was over in London in December of 1997 and she heard the song live for the first time. I think I heard it for the first time at the Supper Club in New York. We were blown away, it was so cool.

Are there any new bands or any things that you are excited about now?

I am excited about a lot of things. I really like Sacred Paws a lot, they are a girl duo. I love Girl Ray but I’m finding it really hard to put my hands on a vinyl LP of theirs. They’re from London. I’ve been listening to this band Lake Ruth, they have a Broadcast vibe, really good. One good thing about doing Chickfactor is that I can be like, “hey everyone send me records”. I get a lot of records sent my way, and I do a lot of research on Bandcamp to see what’s coming out. There is so much good music happening, it’s an exciting time. I love Alvvays and I love the new signing to their label, Anna Burch. She’s from Detroit. There’s a million things I love.

Has there been a time when you’ve been doing the zine and just thought, there’s nobody, this is a terrible time for music?

No. Then again I’ve definitely had periods where music hasn’t been as big of a deal in my life for whatever reason. I feel like there’s always something out there that maybe isn’t the cutting edge but it still sounds really nice. It is strange to have bands that are keeping the flame of 1991 era Creation Records alive. But maybe that’s ok, if they’re really into it. I also really love Brazilian music – it’s like an antidepressant – for me that’s what I want right now. I want a soothing balm of music. Like The Clientele. Their new album, it’s like thank god, something beautiful to wash away the nasty stuff. Without going into politics, it’s an important time to delve into creative projects and lose yourself in karaoke or soccer, or whatever your thing is. Just get out and don’t dwell on all the bad stuff. The Chickfactor parties and the zine will provide a tiny bit of escapism for someone. That’s all I hope for for myself – to not think about all the stuff that is going on.

The Portland Chickfactor anniversary celebrations are as follows:

Saturday, December 9 – Bunk Bar

Rocketship (first full band show in Portland since 1996)

Kites at Night (featuring Rose Melberg)

Lida Husik

+ DJ Calvin Johnson

Get tickets

Sunday, December 10 – The Toffee Club. Free, daytime 11am–2pm

Indiepop Brunch chickfactor special featuring DJs Gail Chickfactor, Jen “Softies” Sbragia, and Chickfactor webmaster Janice Headley at the Toffee Club (no tickets required).

Issue 18 of Chickfactor zine will be available in early 2018. For more information click here.