Q & A : Going Underground with George Chen

Anyone who has an even modest interest in music at the outer fringes in the Bay Area has—whether knowingly or unknowingly—encountered George Chen. Since the midnineties George has been a ubiquitous presence at local art spaces, warehouses, and clubs, mostly as a booker and musician, but also as a scribe, and occasional comedian. George made his first contribution to the musical landscape with his high school fanzine Zum, which later sprouted into an even larger operation as a distro and record label that remain active today. His all-ages booking service Club Sandwich has, for several years, served as an essential resource for everyone who performs and enjoys “difficult music.” And until recently, George also held a day job, helping to keep things moving at Jello Biafra’s long-standing Alternative Tentacles label. On stage he is no less prolific, performing in music projects, including, KIT, Chen Santa Maria, 7 Year Rabbit Cycle, Common Eider King Eider, Vholtz, and Rhys Chatham’s two-hundred guitar ensemble for the composition “Crimson Grail.” Chen’s wide-ranging interests, impeccable sensibilities, and natural enthusiasm are reflected in his stellar August lineup for L@TE, sponsored by Amoeba Music, which features performances by the likes of drone improviser C. Spencer Yeh, guitar-savant Sir Richard Bishop, performance artist David Horvitz, and Carla Bozulich’s incomparable Evangelista, among others.

How did you go about assembling your lineup for L@TE?

I had a pretty long wish list that had to be narrowed down. I tried to think of less traditional rock bands and thought in terms more of stuff that would be interesting in that space acoustically and visually. I narrowed it down and mix and matched a few people in interesting ways. I hadn’t thought about it in an overt manner but Spencer Yeh and Horvitz are both Asian American artists that sort of occupy similar intersections of art and music.

I was also aware of trying to have more of a gender balance, but some people’s schedules didn’t work out. I think having a strong presence like Carla Bozulich definitely covers a lot of ground in that regard.

The David Horvitz “performance” seems like a real mystery. What should we expect from him?

David Horvitz and I vetted a lot of ideas and narrowed it down from a field of like thirty. He’s not traditionally a “performer” but has done things that I consider performative, like sitting on top of a ladder while selling merch for Xiu Xiu or having people pay him $1 over Paypal to think about them for one minute—he sends an email to them at the beginning and the end of that minute. David is almost treating this like he has a subcommittee, and he is all about collaborating and bringing diverse elements together. Some people on the subcommittee will be Joshua Kit Clayton, a musician and artist in San Francisco who says he will “just involve people, movement, and possibly conversation.” Zach Houston is an old friend of David’s and is known about town as the “Poem store,” a man with a typewriter spewing poetry on commission. Andrew Sofie is creating a specific text-message based instruction for the night. Another part of the performance will be a Skype drawing booth, with Mia Nolting in Portland drawing BAM/PFA attendees, and posting them in a way where we can project the drawings as a video.

How did the Sir Richard Bishop slot come about? Have you worked with him before?

I had wanted to put Richard Bishop and Bill Orcutt together in 2010 at L@TE, but he was touring Europe at the time with his project Rangda, a supergroup of sorts with Ben Chasny and Chris Corsano. That idea popped back up when I had the chance to do these lineups. Knowing he used to live in Oakland and had some connections here, I guessed he might be into coming down from Portland. Really excited to see him do a solo electric guitar set, I’ve only ever seen him on acoustic on his own and with Brothers Unconnected. I did get to see a full Sun City Girls set at the Hemlock around 2003.

You’ve booked shows at some of the more under-the-radar gems in the area like East Nile and the sadly now-defunct 21 Grand. What are some of your favorite spots to see and perform music in the area?

I had a strong relationship with 21 Grand, there’s definitely a void in the East Bay for the kind of programming that was happening there. Props to Sarah [Lockhart] and Darren [Jenkins] for keeping it going as long as they did. A decade of running any type of venue in the East Bay is like compacted Inception years.

As someone just attending a show and not being involved in the production, I enjoy John Benson’s bus, Terminal, Life Changing Ministry, East Nile, certainly.

As a performer, I have good memories of playing at Totally Intense Fractal Mind Gaze Hut, a spot in the warehouse district of downtown, so you get this interesting mix of academic Mills alums and oddball touring acts.

I am also working on a blog post documenting a warehouse space called Grandma’s House that was very active in putting on shows between 2002 and 2006. It will be somewhat like Gimme Something Better or Please Kill Me in terms of oral history of anarchic lifestyle debauchery and Wild West artistic excess.

It seems like the Internet has sort of killed the idea of a regional scenes to some degree. One scene may have better bands, but aesthetically and musically most of what is in vogue here is also happening in other cities across the country. Do you think the Bay Area scene is distinctive in any ways?

This was brought up at a Living Room salon at SFMOMA recently. We were asked to discuss Bay Area underground art histories and Nate Boyce mentioned this interesting mixture of seeing really heady academic experimental music and film, but in post-apocalyptic wasteland spaces like The Compound. I do think the confluence of having many universities nearby and a cluster of art schools means there’s always an influx of young people seeking their way here. It’s a great place for personal reinvention and attracts a lot of people who might have grown up as freaks in their hometowns. There is the sense that the Bay Area is super accepting, but a lot of the music that has come out of here seems very harsh and unwelcoming. There’s also a lack of pressure to be “commercial” here, so it is a great petri dish for things to develop in art and music. Those things tend to get developed and monetized elsewhere however, so that does feed into that question of how one sustains a creative pursuit in this very expensive part of America. I wish I had an answer for that. I would also say that the Internet hasn’t really killed regionalism, it’s made “hyperlocal” a buzzword—we just need to find a way to apply that to supporting local musicians.