As music fans in the early ‘90s immersed themselves in the sounds of Seattle and the English music press debated the merits of Blur versus Oasis, cities from Brighton to Olympia were busy turning out zines that championed the bands largely ignored by the mainstream media. Chickfactor, a zine birthed in DC but raised in New York, was one of them.
Chickfactor was formed in 1992, (six years before Belle & Sebastian wrote a song about them), by former Spin editor Gail O’Hara and Pam Berry of the seminal jangly pop band Black Tambourine. Armed with an interview from The Wedding Present’s David Gedge and a handful of contributions from various friends, the first issue was handed out at a Heavenly gig in Hoboken, NJ and quickly became the go-to resource on bands coming out of England’s C86 scene.
As Chickfactor grew in popularity, Gail used the publication as a vehicle for her photography and compiled a massive portrait archive of bands like Pavement, Guided By Voices and most of the important independent musicians of that time. Her complimentary label, Enchanté, released tracks from The Aislers Set and The Clientele, and her longstanding post as the official photographer for Stephin Merritt blossomed into Strange Powers, the 2010 documentary she co-directed on The Magnetic Fields.
As a sort of a Rodney Bingenheimer for underground zine culture, Gail and her various projects have certainly done their part to nurture the careers of countless indie musicians and impact the genre they helped define.
SHAYLA HASON: What was the musical landscape like when you started chickfactor back in 1992?
GAIL O’HARA: The general music press was very skewed in a major label and domestic direction back then. A lot of imports were ignored, so if you wanted to find out about British music, you had to read Melody Maker and NME. Option was one magazine that did do some coverage in the U.S., but a lot of times it was very hard to find. There was no Internet, so you couldn’t just Google someone and listen to their Bandcamp or SoundCloud. It was a hard time to find like-minded people, and a lot of it was just about connections you made through the mail.
SH: Was creating a fanzine something that you always wanted to do?
GO: I was kind of a fuck up in high school, but when I went to college at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University], my friends began calling me the “media queen.” I worked at the radio station and newspaper, and it opened me up to a whole new world that I didn’t know existed. And then just having the freedom to write opinion pieces or criticism was really freeing. We were putting Gwar and Death Piggy on the cover of the newspaper and getting in a lot of trouble for it. That’s where I learned to be a fanzine editor. It was about creating content and not using the pictures and words the record company sent out, and it became a great outlet for my writing and photography.
SH: The photography in chickfactor had a really distinct look. How would you describe your style?
GO: I think I disarm people, so I get different things from people, especially curmudgeonly mean people or smirky people. I’m very fast; sometimes people don’t even know that they’ve been photographed. I’m in and out. I don’t take a lot of time to do it. I think there’s old fashion glamour to some of the pictures and kind of a smudgy, blurry, dreamy quality. I don’t know, there’s kind of a mixture of old-world glamour and punk rock ‘90s I guess.
SH: Your work spans a lot of disciplines: publishing, writing, photography. Have people ever told you that you need to concentrate on just one facet?
GO: I’m not sure what my greatest talent is. I feel like people appreciate the super-fandom that I have for certain artists. I’m almost like a career supporter of certain people in a way that makes them really appreciate what they’ve done, and I think that‘s the most important part of what I’ve done.
SH: What kind of legacy has chickfactor created?
GO: I think chickfactor had a spirit and enthusiasm that was really important at the time. A lot of people needed help finding out about other kinds of music that they couldn’t find out about elsewhere. Even if it was just seeing an ad or a picture of some band that made you think, “This looks like something I might like,” and you could write and send $5 to the label and get the 7-inch. It was a way to bring together like-minded people, and in that way, I think it’s served a purpose.
SH: Do you think zines still have a value in the digital world?
GO: Some are really beautiful and you wanna take them with you in your backpack when you’re on holiday, or to read on the plane. Personally, I don’t like reading things on a screen, and I look forward to long periods of time where I can read a book. All the blue light from these screens that people have, it’s not healthy. We spend all the time on the Internet and looking at our phone. It bums me out. Being at a show and someone standing in front of you holding a phone the whole time, getting a really shitty picture from far away and you’re just like, “Give it a rest, dude. You’re distracting.” But I like fanzines. I think there’s always room for some lovely products. It would be nice to be really eco-friendly and have all of our stuff on one little thing, but those other things are creating toxic pollution that we can’t get rid of. At least paper can be recycled, right? Besides, you wouldn’t want to take a Kindle with you in the bathtub. It’s just…
SH: It’s weird. Is there any music writing or zines you’re into now?
GO: I don’t know if there are that many [zines], really. I feel like there are, but we live in Portland. It’s not typical of the rest of the country, is it? I don’t read a lot of music writing these days. I do like [British writers] Peter Paphides, Laura Barton, Jude Rogers, Sukhdev Sandhu and Bob Stanley. I wish that Stephin Merritt wrote more criticism; I truly think he is one of the smartest writers out there.
SH: You were photographed for the cover of The Magnetic Fields’ Get Lost album, and took some photos for their 69 Love Songs album. How did taking photos of Stephin Merritt lead to making the Strange Powers documentary?
GO: Stephin worked for me while I was editor at SPIN magazine and then at Time Out New York. We had a lot of time to kill back in those days so we would just walk around Chelsea and take pictures for fun. Over time I became the band’s photographer and traveled around with them on tour. I started bringing a video camera and shooting, and then I got some other people involved (co-director/co-producer Kerthy Fix), which really helped. I was a big fan, friend and supporter of them. Stephin and the band are very private, and there were a lot of rules that needed to be followed. But during the long process of making the film, he became far more revealing than he probably ever intended.
SH: How has the response been?
GO: The Magnetic Fields have an international audience, so we were able to show the film at some very prestigious festivals all over the world—London Film Festival, SXSW, Full Frame—and it showed for two weeks at the Film Forum in New York. I think that exceeded all our expectations.
SH: You seem to have been completely embedded in New York music scene. What made you leave New York and come to Portland?
GO: I started thinking about moving to Portland in 2006 because I loved the pace, the weather. The West coast as a whole seems to have better food and drinks. Compared to the East coast, people drive slower and I like that. It’s probably one of the most European cities in the U.S. I came out here specifically in 2009 when BuyOlympia.com hired me to help open Land [their store and art gallery space]. For the interior, I came up with a design idea based on a store in London called the Magma Product Shop. I no longer work there, but I still admire what they do. I like the entrepreneurial enthusiasm in Portland and the fact that it’s cheap enough to actually be entrepreneurial. You can make all the jokes you want about Portland, but it’s awesome here. It’s beautiful and I love it.