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Ben Vendetta - From Wivenhoe Park to Los Angeles (and back)

14 June 2014

Here are some excerpts from an interview I conducted with long-time Big Takeover contributor Ben Vendetta back in February, several months after the release of his debut novel Wivenhoe Park in late 2013. To purchase Wivenhoe Park for Kindle, go here. If you’d like a paperback copy, visit Ben’s label’s page at Elephant Stone Records.

Let’s start at the very beginning. How did you get into punk and alternative music in the ‘80s? In the book, you mention someone who turned you on to Iggy Pop back then. Could you talk about that?

BEN VENDETTA: I had a pretty normal Midwestern upbringing, though Ann Arbor is a more liberal college town. My dad is a professor and my mom was an editor and I grew up doing sports. That was the first thing I was into. I was never really all that good at baseball or basketball, but the only sport I did well at was cross country. As far as music went, I was just into stuff on the radio like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and things like that. When MTV came around, that’s when I started picking up on bands like the early U2, watching the “Gloria” video, “The Cutter” (Echo and the Bunnymen) is another one I remember seeing really early on. Psychedelic Furs, they weren’t getting much play on mainstream play, but MTV back then was really influential. The Richie character (in Wivenhoe Park) was actually based on a true story. Michael Lutz, who was in the group Brownsville Station and co-wrote “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” (with Cub Koda), was the neighbor of my parents. After his rock and roll days, he got really into fitness and so I’d go running with him and he’d talk to me about bands from Detroit and stuff like that. It was kind of a trip. Years later, Motley Crue covered that song.

So then was there a specific record by Iggy Pop or The Stooges that he got you into?

BEN VENDETTA: At the time, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was huge and I didn’t realize that “China Girl” had been done by Iggy years before that (on 1977’s The Idiot). So that was a gateway and then a friend who had an older brother in college at the time played us the Sex Pistols, so I got to hear that. The Clash was a gateway as well as the MTV stuff I mentioned earlier.

So how did you get the idea to write Wivenhoe Park? Had you wanted to do it since you were 20 or is it a more recent idea?

BEN VENDETTA: In the back of my head, that year was a huge influence on me and as time went by, I realized how important that year was. Also, another impetus was getting in touch with my old friend a few years ago (the Johnny character in the novel). There were other Americans in our program that year, but we were kind of seen as the two weird American guys who wanted to hang out with the British people. You’re going abroad and I couldn’t understand why so many Americans just wanted to hang out with each other. Marc is a musician and still is and I kind of stuck to my guns and always did things with music and last summer, we saw each other for the first time in years. He was actually one of the people who proofread my first draft. I kind of knew I wanted to write about it back then, but once I decided to write about it, I banged out the rough draft in about six months. It was really fast. It all came back to me.

Was it from diaries or all in the memory banks?

BEN VENDETTA: From memory; I did keep a journal, which is kind of referenced in the book a little. After the book came out, my mom said that she came across some letters I’d sent from there. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t read any of that before I wrote the book. It would have been kind of funny to read through that.

So how did you get it published and how would you advise any would be author to do it?

BEN VENDETTA: The person who published it is a friend of mine and is pretty well-known in publishing circles and from publishing books on the alternative knitting scene, weirdly enough, but she wanted to start doing fiction. She just published another novel and has something else in the pipeline and wanted to branch out. I had her read the book to see what she thought. She loved it and wanted to put it out. It’s perfect because we got really got distribution with Amazon, Barnes and Noble and things like that. Due to my music connections, I’m kind of the PR guy for the book. My wife Bella is really instrumental as well. She’s really good at PR as well and arranged a book tour. It feels like being a band on a small indie label, but it’s really fun.

So what happened after the events depicted in the book?

BEN VENDETTA: I came back to Michigan for a while and went to Ireland. The book is not 100% autobiographical. I didn’t go to Ireland immediately after that. It’s a bit of a twist and there’s a little bit of that “sliding doors” thing where things could have happened a different way. The Claire character is a composite of a few folks while the Julie character is pretty dead-on. I did spend a few years in Ireland in the mid ‘90s, which is why I was inspired to write about Whipping Boy.

I did see that you’re writing a 33 1/3 series book about (Whipping Boy’s) Heartworm.

BEN VENDETTA: The application process is like applying to grad school. It’s pretty thorough and you don’t find out for a few months. Whether I make it or not, I plan on finishing it anyway.

I’ve long wanted to write one of those as well, but am not sure if I would get accepted.

BEN VENDETTA: It seems like the authors all have different backgrounds and that many are academics. I’ve read about half a dozen books in the series and one that I really enjoyed was Joe Pernice’s take on Meat is Murder. It’s a straight-up coming of age novel. (The Band’s) Music from Big Pink is written as a novel as well.

I didn’t read that one, but I did read Meat is Murder and Colin Meloy’s Let It Be (The Replacements). Both are, as you said, straight-up coming of age novels and they are my favorites in the whole series.

BEN VENDETTA: I haven’t read Colin Meloy’s book.

Those are more interesting to me than the ones that break down the record, but a few of those are really good, though.

BEN VENDETTA: It depends on the book. The one about The Afghan WhigsGentlemen is really well-done. I think what matters is how much research is done and he (Bob Gendron) made it come to life like a documentary. There is one part when Greg Dulli meets a stripper in some club, takes her back to the studio and high on cocaine and whips out all of these vocal tracks with the stripper and whoever else was in the studio as his audience. It brings it in a larger than life context. I prefer that as opposed to someone trying to decipher the meaning of a song lyric.

The one about Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces is pretty tedious, academic and dry. It’s all about chord progressions and what not and since I’m not a musician, that sort of stuff bores me.

BEN VENDETTA: There are a lot of rock and roll musicians who don’t really know how to read music, so they’re not musicians in the general sense.

My experience is that most don’t. Even Elvis Costello (since we were just talking about him) didn’t know how to read music until the early ‘90s. He learned when he recorded a record (The Juliet Letters) with The Brodsky Quartet. It’s definitely not a requirement to make really good music (obviously).

So why did you move around so much?

BEN VENDETTA: I always kind of wanted to go to Los Angeles and my wife is younger than me and her parents were really close friends with my parents in Ann Arbor, but I only knew her as just a little kid when I was growing up. Years later, we went to LA on a visit and Bella’s mom was visiting my mom at the time and she said while you’re out there, you should look up Bella. So then we just hit it off and I would visit her in LA all the time and she came to Boston for a while and then moved to LA with me. She had been in LA since her high school years. After about 10 years, she got burned out on it. I got kind of burned out on it fast. LA is an amazing place to live in if you’re a multi-millionaire but it’s a really hard place if you’re not and especially working in music for a label and doing this under the table DJ’ing for cash because it was so expensive.

What part of it were you in?

BEN VENDETTA: The first year, we were in the Fairfax area and then the last few years we were smack dab in the middle of Hollywood, two blocks from the Chinese theater. (Conversation continues about the cost of living in LA and New York, etc.)…In New York, it just blows my mind. We were out there last summer for the first time in a decade and it blew my mind. At one point, we were on Houston St not far from where Jack Rabid used to live. I know Jack going back to the late ‘80s and I remember staying with him in 1989 or so and it was downright scary back then. But now, I know he’s moved Big Takeover operations out of there because everyone has gotten priced out of there. It’s a total yuppie area now. (more talk about New York and the gentrification of the Lower East Side/East Village)

So how did you meet Jack?

BEN VENDETTA: I met him through reading The Big Takeover. I can’t remember the exact issue, but it was right after coming back from England so maybe my senior year of college, 1987 or 1988. I just remember writing him a letter and he wrote back and we exchanged letters and we became pen pals. He was definitely an inspiration. I started writing some crappy fanzines that were test runs before I got it right with Vendetta. He was an inspiration as far as the whole DIY thing goes. You don’t have to go to music school to be a musician and so it’s the same thing. You don’t have to take writing classes to be a writer! I am in a really lucky situation for my day job. I work for a news bureau which is open 24/7 so I can work from 2 in the afternoon until 11 at night. It’s definitely not for everyone, but for a professional job, it has more rock and roll hours. It’s perfect for being a writer on the side._

Is that how you ended up in Ohio?

BEN VENDETTA: We’d been to Cleveland a few times because when I was doing Elephant Stone, there were a few bands on the label that were from Cleveland and it’s a cool place. It kind of reminded of a more cleaned-up Detroit. I knew what to expect in the Midwest. My wife is an artist and she shows her work in galleries and stuff. I still need the day job, but we wanted somewhere which is a cool place to live but where the cost of living was much lower. It gets kind of impossible unless you have a job that pays out of this world.

Do you miss folks in the different cities you used to live in?

BEN VENDETTA: Definitely. I miss old friends in Boston and my parents are in that area as well. They just celebrated their 50th anniversary in December, so I got to catch up with some old friends. You just realize how long it’s been in an “I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since we hung out” sort of way. My wife’s best friend is getting married in California over Memorial Day weekend, so we’re gonna see some friends from there for the first time in a while. You can talk to people online, but nothing replaces having drinks or talking to someone and just catching up.

So who inspired the Nick Danger character in Wivenhoe Park?

BEN VENDETTA: I made the character English, but parts of it like the scene where he goes back to see Nick’s apartment and seeing wall-to-wall records, was inspired by first going to Jack’s apartment. He’s a little bit older than me, so I always looked up to him as kind of a cool older brother character. I remember looking at Jack’s records and magazines and thinking that he’s like a walking punk rock and rock and roll encyclopedia.

Having been to that apartment many times, I still remember having to crouch a little bit to fit myself in between the racks of CDs in the entrance. It was insane. I don’t know how he fit that many CDs and records in that place. I had a lot of good times in that place. I remember watching videos of The MC5 there.

BEN VENDETTA: When I left Dionysus Records (in Los Angeles), I became friends with Michael Davis (of The MC5) and his wife Angela Davis as I actually trained Angela to take my spot at Dionysus after they moved from Arizona. Thus, we actually watched A True Testimonial (the great MC5 documentary that was pulled) at Michael and Angela’s place. We borrowed moving boxes from them when we moved to Cleveland. We actually did get to see them before we passed. We did get to see them before he passed. They did a DKT/MC5 with Mark Arm and it came to Cleveland. That documentary is amazing. I hope it sees the light of day. Anyway, I try to live by the “create or die” motto. There are times when I have been steered away from doing creative things and I’ve been incredibly depressed. I need some kind of outlet whether it’s writing, putting out records or doing something more than just being a fan.

So to just go back to the book, I know that you’re planning a sequel to Wivenhoe Park as well as a 33 1/3 book. Could you talk about that a little?

BEN VENDETTA: The 33 1/3 book could almost be a mid ‘90s sequel. Before I even saw that they were doing a call for submissions again, I had already written a mid ‘90s sequel based upon the time when I’d come back from Dublin to Boston. My ex-wife and I had split up and my working title had been Portholes for Bono, which is a lyric from Whipping Boy’s Heartworm. I had been playing that record a lot while I write. I do listen to music when I write. It really works for me. Strangely enough, that was all happening and the 33 1/3 thing came up and it almost fits perfectly with what I’m doing it now. If they let me do it, it would fit in perfectly.

So it would be one and the same then?

BEN VENDETTA: If I don’t get 33 1/3, I’ll still do it. It might not be as Whipping Boy-centric. I don’t know if my goal is to do a rejected 33 1/3, but I’m definitely gonna finish it. I had been out of touch with the lead guitarist of Whipping Boy (Paul Page) for a long time. We used to correspond quite a bit and then he randomly started following me on Twitter and we’re in touch again and he really wants to help out with that project. I’m excited about it, but the application process consists of a bunch of essay questions. There is a huge one I just finished talking about which books you liked in the series and which books you didn’t like. I think they wanted to weed out folks who weren’t really serious about doing a book from those who are.

What was your original motivation to start Vendetta?

BEN VENDETTA: I wanted to promote the music I liked at the time. That Brit-pop stuff was pretty popular and I wrote about some of that, but I also wrote, about Whipping Boy, The Pernice Brothers. I have some old issues in front of me from ’96 that are good to reference for what I’m writing now. I see an interview I did with Kurt Heasley of The Lilys. I guess I was on a mission to promote music that I loved. It was just wanting to share things that enrich your life, really.

I know that you interviewed The Go-Betweens for Vendetta. Could you talk about that experience?

BEN VENDETTA: I saw them twice and I never interviewed them together. I interviewed Robert Forster once by himself and the same with Grant McLennan. I just remember them being just really nice, friendly people, down to earth. When they got back together, I think there was a much more relaxed attitude. The mentality is different when you’re coming back because you’re not trying to be rock stars and you know the people who are there to see you know are the people who love your records to death. I remember both of those interviews being really good ones and exactly what you want out of rock and roll. (more talk about The Go-Betweens) The tougher sounding stuff tends to be Robert and the more sensitive stuff tends to be Grant.

I know you’re planning to do some promotional reading for the book in the South. Is there anything else planned at the moment?

BEN VENDETTA: I’d definitely want to do New York and it would be silly not to do Philadelphia since it’s so close. We have some friends in Delaware. I did have a band on the label called The Situation who were from Philadelphia and some of those folks are still around. It would have to be scheduled around my day job, though. The Southern thing just kind of came together because Bella’s older brother is getting married in North Carolina and we’re gonna start off in Chapel Hill.

So what’s the current status of Elephant Stone?

BEN VENDETTA: It’s definitely on hiatus. I renew the barcode every year thinking I’ll do something. The way the music industry has changed means that the model to go to for indie labels now is limited edition vinyl with the download codes. Thus, I think anything I do would be vinyl with digital. Things are better now with vinyl. When I was doing Elephant Stone before, all the plants would have minimums of 500 to 1,000 copies and back then it was harder to sell vinyl. And even now, I know vinyl is hip again, but it’s definitely expensive. The people who are converted are converted, but I know that Bomp Records reissued The Telescopes records on vinyl in limited editions of 500 and it’s still available on their website. In 3 years, they haven’t sold 500 copies of the 1st 2 Telescopes albums, so people are buying vinyl but not that many. But you can do really small runs, but just the whole climate has changed now.

Even now, it’s one plant that does the majority of new vinyl (United Pressing in Nashville).

BEN VENDETTA: That’s where I did the Outrageous Cherry 7” I put out. All of the stuff from Dionysus was done there.

And I think the price differential between vinyl and other formats now is due to good old fashioned price gouging.

BEN VENDETTA: I noticed that, too. On some labels, it’s twice as much but on Slumberland, it’ll only be a few dollars more.

And those are the ones I tend to buy!

BEN VENDETTA: If I can get the vinyl at a decent price, I’ll do it. I’m at the point where that’s my first choice now. I’d like to have a physical product of some sort even if I’m gonna listen to it on the iPod, but I like listening to records and CDs at home. As long as the physical product is an option, I’ll always opt for that.

So when did you become a writer for The Big Takeover?

BEN VENDETTA: I’d say around 1990. I did an interview with The Pale Saints that I was gonna do for my own fanzine, but I offered it to Jack for some reason. It was a 1990 cover story that was an interview I did with Ian Masters. And I think that was the first thing I did, right after The Comforts of Madness came out. I somehow got to know the publicist of 4AD and got the interview that way and I was shocked to find out that he put it on the cover.

Have you always done interviews on your own or have others helped out as well?

BEN VENDETTA: They’ve mostly been done on my own, but for one of the Go-Betweens interviews, an old friend of mine who I lost touch with (Frank Sibel) went to a couple of things with me. He’s a massive Go-Betweens fan and he also interviewed The Frank and Walters with me. He used to live in Boston, so we were pretty close friends when I lived there.

Are there any bands today who have the spirit of some of the bands you grew up with and who are covered in Wivenhoe Park?

BEN VENDETTA: I feel like I go through waves when I’m into new bands and then I’m not, but one of the bands I like that has been going on for a very long time is Brian Jonestown Massacre. I wouldn’t say Wooden Shjips or Moon Duo (their side project) are similar, but I really like bands these days that are into that psychedelic sound. Hearing Psychocandy was so unique and weird at that time, so to me it was just like hearing the Sex Pistols. It was a life-changer kind of record. It’s hard to say if I’ll ever hear another new band that blows me away in the same fashion. In terms of new bands, I feel like Slumberland is my favorite label now. So much of their stuff is brilliant. I definitely dig where they’re coming from. What Mike Shulman is doing is probably the closest to what I remember as the excitement of hearing bands in the ‘80s.

I like that label a lot, too. I feel like half of the records I’ve bought in the last 5 years have come from there or Captured Tracks and maybe a few other labels. In particular, Veronica Falls, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Wax Idols are great and the label puts out better stuff than they did in the ‘90s.

BEN VENDETTA: I admit that I like some bands that are more copycat types, though. I don’t own anything by them yet, but that band Cheatahs sounds exactly like Swervedriver, who I loved. It’s strange hearing stuff come full circle. At the time when stuff like Swervedriver came out, they did get some airplay in America, but that whole so-called “shoegaze” scene was really ignored at the time. I felt like me and a few other friends were a small minority as almost every music person I knew at the time was all about Sub Pop, but we were all about Creation. It was kind of funny.

One of things I identified with in the book is that you were different from everyone in your family because you liked sports and rock and roll over classical music and academics. I come from a very similar background in that I’m the only one in my family who is into rock and roll and I got into sports and played some as a kid, too.

BEN VENDETTA: They liked the book or at least they said they did, for what it’s worth. I think it’s a fair stance given where my head was at during that age. When you’re 20, the highs and lows feel so much higher and lower. It felt so weird putting myself in this head space now with the book I’m working on now where my character is 10 years older. You start to feel jaded about certain aspects and you start to appreciate certain aspects of life more. I felt like it was definitely more of a “me against them” kind of mentality at that time. I think they didn’t really understand me when I was doing the sports thing, but the whole obsessing over rock and roll thing was definitely something they didn’t figure out, either. I do have a sister who is a professor and a younger brother who works for NGOs and has spent time in Haiti, so the whole rock and roll, record labels, writing about music was a little bit of a curveball probably.

 

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