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SNFU: What No One Else Wanted to Say - an interview with band biographer Chris Walter

SNFU: What No One Else Wanted to Say, by Chris Walter
11 July 2012

All photographs copyright by Jen Dodds (author portraits), Doug Humiski (SNFU 1983), and Femke van Delft (SNFU 2011).

The word prolific doesn’t begin to describe Vancouver novelist, memoirist, music critic and band biographer Chris Walter. A former addict, an ongoing tattoo junkie, and a member of various ill-remembered Winnipeg punk bands of yore, he isn’t even sure how to keep count of the books he’s written in the last fifteen years – over twenty, to be sure, but split books and anthologies of his stories in his catalogue complicate providing a definitive number. When it comes to band bios, however, there’s a nice easy number to remember – three, chronicling the Can-punk histories of Personality Crisis, The Dayglo Abortions, and now SNFU. Personality Crisis: Warm Beer and Wild Times came out in 2008, on Walter’s imprint, GFY Press (GFY standing for Go Fuck Yerself). This was followed in 2010 by Argh Fuck Kill: The Story of the Dayglo Abortions. As of July 2012, Walter’s newest and by far both his fattest and most engaging band bio, SNFU: What No One Else Wanted to Say, will be available for order – see www.punkbooks.com for more information, or join Chris’ Facebook page, which he uses to spam his friends with advertisements, tell off-colour jokes, bitch about the Canadian government, and occasionally make offers of rarities and limited editions.

Chris Walter by Jen Dodds

SNFU: What No One Else Wanted to Say chronicles the entire history of SNFU, from their days as hungry young skateboarders in Edmonton to their countless tours to their struggling final years, which saw founding guitarists Brent and Marc Belke both leave the band, a few years apart. It also delves a bit into the painful recent history of SNFU frontman Mr. Chi Pig, who, since the departure of the Belkes, assembled his own lineup of SNFU, including former members Ken “Goony” Fleming (upgraded from his one-time bass duties to the position of lead guitarist) and drummer Jon Card. Fans in proximity of Vancouver BC should take note: this current lineup of SNFU will be playing what may well prove to be one of their final gigs on July 21st, at Funky Winkerbeans, for Chris Walter’s book release party. With Goony living in Japan, chances to catch SNFU live are going to get fewer and fewer…

SNFU in 2011, by Femke van Delft

Fans of SNFU unfamiliar with Chi’s present appearance might be a bit dismayed to see how withered and weathered he looks in recent photos (all current ones are from the May 2011 “Rock’n‘Relief” Japan earthquake benefit, and taken by Femke van Delft; the black and white older shot is by Doug Humiski). For the record, Chi is still a commanding and entertaining frontman, a helluva singer, and a well-loved fixture on the Vancouver punk scene. Plus his karaoke cover version of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” trumps Johnny Cash‘s for sincerity and raw power any old day…

SNFU in 1983, by Doug Humiski

You know, I’m not exactly sure what the moral of SNFU’s story is, but I gotta say, it doesn’t seem very inspiring. It seems kind of profound on a human level, but it doesn’t make a very good advertisement for a life in punk rock. But, uh – what do you take as the moral of their story?

CHRIS WALTER: I didn’t know where the book was going to take me when I started. I knew that Chi Pig had drug dependency issues and had been homeless for a while, but I wasn’t aware that even at their peak, SNFU never really saw much commercial success. Because they were on Epitaph for years and put out three albums on that label, I assumed that they sold gazillions of units and made tons of money. Although the number of albums they sold was very respectable on a punk level, they never came close to the popularity some of their label mates achieved. That kind of surprised me, but I was impressed nevertheless by the tenacity of Marc Belke and Chi Pig, especially in view of that. After leaving Epitaph, they just carried on the same as before and went back to touring in one van with no road crew or support of any kind. As far as I’m concerned, that IS a good advertisement for a life in punk rock. Those guys were diehards, and nothing was going to stop them from touring and making records. They were in a punk band because they loved playing live every night and everything that happened in between was just stuff they had to endure. True fucking grit, if you ask me.

SNFU 2011, by Femke van Delft

What emotions came up for you when writing this book?

CHRIS WALTER: Dude, you have no idea. My emotions went from pure, unadulterated happiness in some places to deep depression and grief in others. Some parts were so inspiring, so exciting, but others were very sad and hard to write. It was like being the passenger in a stolen car piloted by reckless young men with a serious death wish, and every time I thought we were going to crash, they somehow steered around the obstacle and kept on going. Some nights I was physically and emotionally drained after writing all day, and I would lie in bed thinking about the story and wondering how they managed to keep going for so long. I found it very difficult to separate myself from the book, and I was always thinking about it on some level. Perhaps I simply dug deeper on this project than I did with my other biographies, but it really affected me deeply. Even thinking about it now stirs up a flood of thoughts and memories. It was tough at times.

Do you ever wonder if punk has served you well? I mean, on the one hand, I don’t know if I’d still be alive without punk rock, but every now and then I wonder if I hadn’t ever fallen in love with punk, I might be some semi-successful yuppie with lots of money, a job, a house, a car… all that good shit that we’re supposed to want. You ever think like that? You ever wonder if punk isn’t a little too negative, a little too glorifying of pain, failure, anger, and alienation to be entirely healthy?

CHRIS WALTER: Of course I need money to survive, and I’m always aware of that, but I’ve never had a game plan, and I just go by instinct. I’d hate myself if I was a “semi-successful yuppie with lots of money, a job, a house, a car… all that good shit that we’re supposed to want.” This is my life, and I can choose my own destiny. That’s what punk means to me, and there is nothing negative about it at all. I feel that punk mirrors the world around us, and if people see pain and failure, then maybe they need to take another look.

SNFU 2011, by Femke van Delft

If you’ll indulge a pretentious question: it seems like, whatever the “philosophy of punk” might be, writing detailed band bios of bands with cult followings at best, who were never huge to begin with, and who a lot of people don’t even remember now, is very much in keeping with it. It’s great stuff from a punk rock point of view, but it’s never going to get you a condo and a Lexus. Would you ever consider turning your talents to a more mainstream band, in the interests of making more money? If a band like Green Day or Bad Religion or NOFX approached you, for instance…

CHRIS WALTER: Again, money has never been a motivating factor and I don’t want a Lexus, but I haven’t made any vows of poverty, and if my writing leads me to money some day, I won’t turn it down. I’ve learned a lot with each biography, and I wasn’t ready for any big projects in the beginning. That’s partly why I started with a band [Personality Crisis] that only made one album. The other reason was that I wanted to pay homage to the Winnipeg scene that was so important to me coming up. While I still plan to write more fiction, I also intend to cover bands that found a little mainstream success. Other than Dookie, which I still think is a good pop album, I’ve never been a fan of Green Day, but I wouldn’t rule out other big bands. Although I would never cover a band that isn’t already in my music library, I warn readers that I listen to some fairly “successful” bands. [Chris declines an invitation to elaborate – he says “people will just have to wait and see”].

SNFU 2011, by Femke van Delft

Would you agree that Mr. Chi Pig does not seem to be someone who has been served well by a life in punk…?

CHRIS WALTER: I feel that Chi Pig is in a much better place than he would be if he didn’t have punk rock. Instead of being a punk rock icon, damaged though he may be, Chi would be dead or stumbling around on East Hastings street like the living dead if it weren’t for punk. [Note: East Hastings is the central strip for Vancouver’s poorest and most troubled neighbourhood, rife with addicts, homeless, the mentally ill, and the otherwise disenfranchised, who are often the subjects of Chris Walter’s many novels]. The other members of the band were able to move on to careers that actually earned them money, but Chi is not simply equipped to hold any sort of “square” job. Art has always been the only thing in his life, and punk was the way he chose to express it.

Chi’s difficulties in recent years have been made much of – they were the subject of a movie, even (Open Up Your Mouth and Say… Mr. Chi Pig). I actually felt a little uncomfortable with the film, to be truthful. It’s an important film for punks to see, and I learned a lot about what Chi has been through, but he really ends up quite vulnerable and exposed, and … well, let’s put it this way, did watching the film inform the way you approached writing the bio? Were there areas you were particularly concerned about how you approached things, areas where you thought – “hmm, I don’t want to do that?”

CHRIS WALTER: No. Although I thought Open Up Your Mouth and Say… Mr. Chi Pig was well done and informative, a documentary can’t really go as deep as a book can. I hope I made some of Chi’s issues more understandable, and I wanted readers to see the whole picture. I left out some of the squabbles between various members, but I didn’t try to hide the problems they had. Chi wasn’t the only member who suffered for his art, and Marc Belke also stuck with the band longer than was healthy or wise. But I digress…

SNFU 2011, by Femke van Delft

Something I’ve noticed about you is that you seem very politically supportive of gays and lesbians, at least in your recent writings (I don’t know if it was always thus). You aren’t always the most politically correct guy, and I know some of the jokes you’ve posted on Facebook and MySpace – often at the expense of blondes – have lost you some business and friends; but you seem very conscious about avoiding homophobia. How did your consciousness about homosexuality evolve from your time as a Winnipeg punk? I assume that it was similar for you as for me – that you were growing up in a pretty homophobic society, that not many people were “out” or demonstrative about being gay, and that there were good reasons for their concern. Did you know punks back then who were gay? Did you partake in homophobia that you had to confront in yourself? Was there any sort of an alliance between gays and punks in Winnipeg, similar to what one hears about in the early Vancouver scene?

CHRIS WALTER: Some of my best friends are blondes, and they understand (vaguely, haha) that they are fair game because there is no one else left to bully. I wish I could be even more politically incorrect, but jokes about gays or minorities just aren’t funny to me. I’ve lost Facebook “friends” by bashing our [that is, Canada’s] Conservative government, and I’ve lost others by defending addicts and homeless people. The gay thing is something entirely different, and I’m truly happy to see how far the punk scene has changed in regards to that. There was a fair bit of homophobia in the early punk scene—not just in Winnipeg but everywhere—but I think a lot of punks went along with it simply because they didn’t want to be targeted by other their peers. Homosexuality makes straights uncomfortable because they’re unfamiliar with it and don’t know how to react. Now that gays are out in the open more, people realize they have nothing to fear, and it’s a huge fucking relief to them. The metrosexual thing is a bit much for me because it seems that straights are just trying to horn in on the latest trend. But to answer your question; there were gays in the early Winnipeg punk scene, but very few chose to advertise it, and I applaud those who did. I remember one dude who wore butt-less leather chaps to shows at Wellington’s, and the punks were too stunned to react. That guy was awesome, haha.

The first time I saw SNFU play, in the post-Belke incarnation, I had no idea that Chi was gay. And I was very aware of a sort of theatrical homophobia in his lyrics and gestures. He was making gestures with his mike that suggested fellatio, sticking it between his legs for guys up front to sing into like it was his cock, and he was singing songs that seemed kinda politically dubious, like “I Think Fine Art’s Fine,” which kind of mocks Andy Warhol‘s sexuality, say, talking about how he took it “up the backside” and such. Not knowing better, I associated it with other punk homophobia that I’d encountered – in Descendents or Fear songs, say – and felt duly uncomfortable, as it is my duty as an ineffectual liberal to do. And then I found out Chi was gay, and it put quite a spin on my understanding of things. So – what do you make of Chi’s psychology when it comes to how he deals with homosexuality in his lyrics and onstage?

CHRIS WALTER: As a performer, Chi Pig simply likes to push peoples’ buttons, and any reaction he gets from them is better than no reaction. God knows what strangers think when they see SNFU for the first time, but true fans laugh loudly because they know it’s just Chi being Chi. That’s what he does best.

SNFU 2011, by Femke van Delft

Were there challenges for you in dealing with Chi’s sexuality in the book? (You do a pretty good job, actually – you seem to keep a respectful distance, but you do give a sense of how things must have been for him). Were you shy about delving too deeply, or was there stuff that Chi did go into detail about that you decided you didn’t want to include?

CHRIS WALTER: Chi was very candid about some of his encounters, but I didn’t dwell on the sex lives of other members, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to talk about Chi’s stuff too much. Biographers have to figure out which things are germane to the story, and it’s hard to decide which things stay and which things go. I didn’t want readers to dwell on Chi Pig having sex in a tree because it might cause them to miss important things. Besides, who really cares about that?

Similar questions could be asked about his struggles with mental illness and addiction.

CHRIS WALTER: I feel I covered as much of that as the story needed, but again, some of that stuff is highly personal and every biographer has a duty not to cross certain lines. It’s hard to see those lines, but they do exist.

I gather from some of your posts on Facebook that Chi wasn’t always the most reliable person to schedule interviews with. Can you give some details of that? How frustrating did that get? Did you end up with everything you wanted?

CHRIS WALTER: Chi has no phone, so he agreed to meet me at Pub 340 on Tuesday nights. He was there in the beginning, and I got all the stuff I wanted about his childhood and the formation of the band, but he dropped out in the middle and his presence is almost negligible during the Epitaph years. It wasn’t until I warned him that the book was going to be mostly about Marc Belke that he began making an effort again, and he gave me what I needed in regards to his homelessness and mental problems. He came through in the end, and I conducted the last interview in his room at the assisted-living hotel where he has resided since 2007. That was an emotional experience in itself. He’s been there for years, but never put any art on the walls because it doesn’t feel like home. Just cans of ready-to-eat food lined up on the windowsill. I wondered if he ever eats that food, or if it was just there for decoration.

SNFU 2011, by Femke van Delft

How much of writing the book was “tracking people down?” Were there any people you really wanted to find that you couldn’t?

CHRIS WALTER: Not really. The only band member I didn’t interview was drummer Ted Sim, and everyone else was agreeable enough. Ted thought he’d been fired, but in reality, they simply chose Jon Card instead for various reasons. Ted is a fine drummer, but not only is Jon Card is one of the best punk percussionists anywhere, but Chi liked Jon as a close friend as well. Jon is one of the few people who Chi can’t bullshit, and Jon isn’t afraid to tell Chi what he needs to hear whether he likes it or not. That said, one of Marc Belke’s two main regrets was that they didn’t go with Ted when the band reformed in late ’91.

Muc (Marc Belke) seems like a pretty interesting guy. When I spoke with him a few years ago, he had a lot of what counselors would call “leftovers” with SNFU and with Chi, a lot of feelings that he was struggling to deal with and not altogether ready to communicate (which I assume is why he declined to be interviewed for the film). Had he come to better terms with things when you approached him? Was he at all reluctant to participate?

CHRIS WALTER: Marc is a very interesting guy, and deeper than I’d guessed. He was very conscious about how he would come across in the book, and made a real effort to keep his personal gripes out of it. Once in a while he would slip and say something bitter, but he stressed Chi’s strong points as well and was not stingy with his compliments. He knew this was his chance to tell his story, and I could tell that he considered all my questions carefully. Marc too was hard to reach at times, and I can’t claim that I always knew what was going on in his head, but even more than the others, he tried his best to give 100%. With Chi, I was never quite sure if he remembered how events actually occurred, or if he was simply offering the most interesting version. I mean, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

SNFU 2011, by Femke van Delft

He does seem like a bit of an “unreliable narrator” at times. Anyhow, I’m curious if the process of participating in this book was particularly helpful or meaningful to any of the people you mentioned. It must be quite something for Brent or Marc or Chi or anyone who was in the band to read the book and look back on things and try to get perspective on their history together. Have they given you any feedback? Were there any surprising reactions from people?

CHRIS WALTER: I wasn’t surprised by any of the reactions, but several of the principal members told me that parts of the book stirred up old memories that were almost painful to read. Marc mentioned on Twitter that it was a bit surreal to be reading the story of his life in book form, and I can see that. Imagine the story of your life on paper, available for all to see. I’ve experienced that myself on a smaller scale, and it’s a weird sort of a feeling, like people are watching you through an open window or something.

I like that you appear as a minor character in the book, but never venture into first person testimony. It gives it a more objective feeling, seems very professional. All the same, I wonder – you kept various stories out of the book where you WERE a firsthand witness/ participant. As I recall, you once told me about fleeing a party with Chi when it was raided, and I know you were at a very memorable SNFU gig at The Cobalt (RIP) where Chi was carried Christ-like across the top of the crowd from the stage to the bar to get a beer. I kind of expected those stories to pop up, but they didn’t! Why not, and – are there any other similar stories that you left out?

CHRIS WALTER: The book isn’t about me, and there were many stories I didn’t include because they weren’t relevant to the story of SNFU. I was at a fair number of the shows and know many of the people involved, but it wouldn’t have made the book better to include that stuff. I did mention a story about Chi crowd surfing off the stage and out the door because there was no room to put him down, but I think that happened on more than one occasion at The Cobalt.

SNFU 2011, by Femke van Delft

How hard is it to satisfy the needs of all players in a book like this? When you gave the book to people who you interviewed to fact-check, did they ever argue with each others’ testimony? How much did you have to compromise between different versions of events? Is there stuff you had to leave out because it was too contentious?

CHRIS WALTER: That can be very difficult, and some of the bandmembers, embarrassed by stuff they did as young men, wanted me to remove various parts. In some cases I did, but in other instances I left the stories in because they were too funny to leave out, and I know readers love that stuff. Musicians sometimes want to whitewash things they’ve done, even when it’s harmless, because they don’t want their mom or daughters to read it or whatever. I have to decide what stays and what goes, but I would never publish anything that could actually harm my subjects. I have a responsibility not to do that.

Do you have a favourite story in the book?

CHRIS WALTER: Not really. There were so many peaks and valleys that it’s hard to pick out any particular parts. Even if the book did start to read like a travelogue, the Epitaph years were probably the most exciting because the band was so active. Several stories do spring to mind, but I’m not going to give them up for free. Buy the damn book.

What was your first encounter with SNFU? (I’m rather proud that I started with “Victims of the Womanizer” when the BYO comp first came out). What are your personal favourite SNFU songs, and why?

CHRIS WALTER: “Victims” was the first song of theirs that blew me away, and I love those background gang shouts, but “Time to Buy a Futon” really knocked me out. The power of that song is incredible. While writing the book, I grew to love many songs including “Electric Chair,” “Big Thumbs,” “Painful Reminder,” and “Drunk on a Bike,” that weren’t really on my hit list before. I’d written off the Epitaph records without giving them much of a chance, but they all contain at least a handful of really good songs. Of course, In the Meantime and in Between Time is just fucking great. In my opinion, it would be impossible for Chi to top that album at this point in his career. If that is the last thing they release, SNFU certainly went out on a high note.

Having written three band bios now, you really seem like you know what you’re doing – they keep getting better and better, and the SNFU one seems pretty polished and solid and confident. Have you learned any abstract rules that you can share – “how to write a successful band bio?”

CHRIS WALTER: I’m still learning, and I don’t really know what I’m doing. Like my other books, I just bullshit my way through them and hope for the best. With the bios, though, I’ve learned that the more effort I put into them, the better the results. But I guess one could say that about everything…

I’ve been trying to guess what other bands you might do bios of. Do you plan to continue with Canadian punk bands? Would you ever be inclined to write a bio on an American or British band? Would you ever write a bio of a band that wasn’t punk – someone like (departed Canadian rockabilly legend) Ray Condo, for instance?

CHRIS WALTER: I’ve also been giving that a lot of thought, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my next bio is about an American or British band. I have a lot of respect for Ray Condo and I dig his stuff, but I’ll stick with punk bands for now.

Chris Walter by Jen Dodds

 

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