24
May
13

Interview With Avi Spivak

avi

This interview was previously published in the SOLD OUT December 2012 issue of Maximum Rocknroll. For a .pdf, click above.

Avi is in the Bay Area this week with his new work Sadistic As Hell. You can (and should) see these at Down At Lulu’s.

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You might not know Avi Spivak, but youd probably recognize his artwork from record covers, flyers, and magazines. Or you might know him as the mastermind behind the excellent comic zine Human Being Lawnmower or the illustrator of an amazing collection of stories from Norton Records known as Kicksville Confidential. Or perhaps he was just the nerd that sat next to you in elementary school who was always getting yelled at for his incessant doodling. If you like rock and roll and/or comics, then I humbly suggest you familiarize yourself with his work. And if you dont like rock and roll, you should go die.

MRR: Before Human Being Lawnmower, your comics were published in other magazines. What made you decide to do your own zine? Why did you choose a print outlet over a digital one?

Avi Spivak: Screw was my first ever “professional” gig. I met the editors one night at CBGB’s and showed them my sketchbook and they invited me to the office. I figured I might be able to convince them to run some dirty gag strips, so in the next week or so I banged out about eight or ten samples to bring over. Turns out they weren’t very good and that this kind of humor wasn’t really a good fit for me. So when I showed them they suggested I take a crack at doing a cover instead, which was great since it paid much better and it was a real thrill to be able to go to the sleaziest newsstands in New York City and see my art amongst all the vile smut. . They were a real relic from a much seedier era in the City’s history. I did two covers for them and then they went out of business later in the year.  It’s a shame really, and every now and then I’ll be drawing and come up with some sick idea that only would’ve worked in Screw. I’ve also contributed comics to John Holmstrom’s relaunched Punk magazine, Sweden’s now defunct Denimzine, and currently for Ugly Things, and every once in a while I’ll land a job doing illustrations for some “straight” magazines but not as much as I’d like. It’s really a terrible time to try to work in publishing.

I started Human Being Lawnmower mainly as an excuse to get my own work out there, and also at a time when I was a bit more enthusiastic about writing about the music that I was into, so it seemed like a natural thing to combine the two. Fanzines were an important source for finding out about cool stuff when I was a kid, I didn’t know about the internet yet, and it seemed like there wasn’t too much stuff like that around anymore—fan based stuff where you could write and say whatever you wanted and about anything you wanted. To me, having something in print to hold and touch will always be infinitely superior to the latest in digital technology. The internet is an incredible resource and it’s certainly made everything much more connected, but it’s really two different things. Maybe it has something to do with the collector aspect of it, but also as an artist there is nothing better than seeing your work reproduced the way it’s supposed to be.

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MRR: Do ever use computers for any of your drawing?

All of my drawings are done by hand and really using only basic materials. Sometimes I’ll do color work with the computer, but I’m trying to get away from that more. I saw a show last year of Jack Davis’s amazing watercolor illustrations and seeing his originals in person made me never want to color anything on a computer ever again. Also, looking at Drew Friedman’s stuff has the same effect. It’s gotta be good.

 

MRR: As far as straight magazines go, to get stuff published in those, do you have to go around to offices and show portfolios and really put yourself out there? I know some photographers that have to do that sort of thing. Is it the same for illustrators? You seem like a pretty modest dude that I dont imagine being too into schmoozing.

Avi Spivak: Yeah, I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do, but I’m not very good at it. Most of the time when I get these kinds of gigs it’s purely accidental and completely out of the blue. I’ve never been able to build a stable of regular clients or anything like that. I’d like to get more involved in this type of work, but I’m not really sure how to go about it. I’m trying to be a better illustrator. Get better at making recognizable pictures of famous people, which is what most illustration is. I guess some people go through agents or things like that. I should probably look into it more but I also know that some of these types of assignments might not work for me. I’ve always just sorta felt that if I keep plugging away and working hard on doing my own stuff and get my work seen, then the right kinds of people will find me, but I’m afraid that’s only about half of the business.

 

MRR: You used the phrase collector aspect. Do you collect anything?

Avi Spivak: Oh yeah, just the usual pop culture madness I suppose… Obviously records, old comics, weird magazines, paperbacks, vhs tapes, stuff like that…everything to fill all of the dark corners of my mind. I look to all of this stuff as reference and inspiration for the kind of work that I do, and I like digging things out of the past. I try to be really careful of stuff that I bring home though. It’s gotta really belong.

 

MRR: Whats an example of something that didnt make the cut? Is your apartment meticulous, or will we one day find you buried under urine soaked books and magazines with rodents nibbling your face off?

Avi Spivak: No, it’s nothing like that I’m afraid. I just mean like if I bring something home it’s gotta be something I can really get some use out of, like a book I’ll wanna read or look at more than once or a record I’ll keep going back to. I’m constantly reevaluating my stuff. I mean these things are objects and they exist to serve you not the other way around. I wouldn’t call my place meticulous but I think I have a general idea of where everything is, it’s part of the whole New York City apartment deal where you need to make a small amount of space go along way. Kinda like comics…

 

MRR: In Human Being Lawnmower you have gotten to talk with the likes of Gary Panter, Jesse Hector, Flamin Groovies, Lauricewho was your favorite person to interview in or what has been your favorite feature so far?

Avi Spivak: A lot of the time seeking interviews is really just a ruse to talk to people I’m interested in and who I feel deserve to tell their story. Probably the most exciting one was meeting and talking with Jesse Hector because it was completely unexpected. I’d been a huge fan of his for years and just think that he had the most amazing career, really spanning the entire history of British rock n’ roll. Anyway, I was in London looking around at this record store on Portobello Road and I find a single of his from the ’90s. I asked the guy at the shop if he was still around and the guy was like, “Yeah, mate, I put that record out and sure you can find him most days hanging around so-and-so pub in Camden…” So, before too long I headed over there and showed the record to the lady bartender and asked if she knew the guy on the sleeve. She was amazed. She said, “Sure I know him. He’s the bloke who comes in here and orders half pints of cider,” but she had no idea this old guy had any kind of rock’n’roll career. Turns out he wasn’t around, but I ordered a drink anyway and before too long I get a tap on the shoulder and it’s Jesse Hector saying, “Excuse me, I heard you were looking for me.” He was really the coolest guy, and had the greatest stories. We talked for hours and he was totally humble about everything; there was no bitterness at all for a guy who was there through basically every innovation in rock’n’roll and is still relatively unknown. A true unsung hero.

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MRR: Do you read other zines?

Avi Spivak: I’m not as up on current stuff as I could be. I really enjoy finding old magazines, stuff on rock’n’roll, comics, movies, sci-fi, etc. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the subject is, just the fact that some lunatic had devoted their time and energy to their obsessions is what it’s all about. True fandom. As for current stuff, Savage Damage Digest is pretty great and Galactic Zoo Dossier is a wonder to behold.

 

MRR: Aside from comics in various publications and band flyers, you also do commissions?

Avi Spivak: Occasionally I’ll get pretty random illustration commissions. For example, I’ve done more than one wedding invitation, but usually it’s people in bands wanting art for record sleeves or t-shirts and stuff. I used to do anything, but recently I’ve started to turn some things down if I don’t think it’ll be a good fit, or if it’s something I don’t want to be associated with. I wish I had time to do more paintings because I think that’s what people are more interested in, you know like something for decoration.


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MRR: You have recently worked with Billy and Miriam from Norton Records on the awesome Kicksville Confidential. There are so many amazing stories there and the illustrations are perfectI read it over and over. Its just mindblowing stuff. How did you guys decide what to include? I imagine there are tons more crazy stories?

Avi Spivak: Kicksville Confidential came about because it was the 25th anniversary of Norton Records and they wanted to do something special to commemorate the occasion, and to share some of the stories about the artists that have made the label so great for all these years. It was hard to decide what to include on some of the people in there, and also it was important to try to get everyone represented. It was really a dream job and i feel like my art improved tremendously over the course of working on it. I generally have a pretty slow process and this book forced me to turn in to a comic book machine for about four months, I was feverishly cranking out pages to meet the deadlines. There’s some amazing stories in there and some of my all time favorite rock n roll heroes too.

 

MRR: What is your favorite story from Kicksville Confidential?

Avi Spivak: It would be hard to pick a favorite story. Off the top of my head I would say that Hasil Adkins eating the old Andy Warhol soup can is pretty legendary. Esquerita and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins getting into a fistfight is pretty great, too. Or The Mighty Hannibal riding through midtown Manhattan on a stolen circus elephant. Like I said, it’s hard to choose.

 

Who is your favorite turbaned Norton Records musician?

Avi Spivak: I would go with Rudy Ray Moore. I mean, you can’t really fuck with Dolemite! Although the Sun Ra doo wop collections are pretty out of this world.

 

MRR: Do you have a favorite that was not included that you would like to illustrate should there be a Kicksville Confidential #2? Will there be a #2?

Avi Spivak: I’m not really sure about a Kicksville Confidential #2, although I hope that if people are responsive enough to #1 then it could be a possibility. There’re certainly enough stories to fill several comic books. I mean, we had to fit so much stuff into #1 where acts like The Sonics, The Flamin’ Groovies, and The Dictators were all covered in one panel. Surely there’s a ton more you could say about lots of the groups and musicians covered.

 

MRR: Do you like doing this sort of historical comic work, or would you rather do autobiographical work or completely make stuff up, if thats even possible? Is Rags Riley a real person?

Avi Spivak: Yeah, I like doing the historical stuff, and I think that comics are a good format for that type of storytelling. I’ve always enjoyed true crime type stuff and I read a lot of non-fiction. I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about autobiographical stuff, and have a couple of stories worked out that will probably end up in the next Human Being Lawnmower. With writing, this is the kind of stuff that comes the most naturally to me, and I happen to know a lot of people where it’s not too much of a stretch turning them into cartoon characters. And then I guess I’ve done my share of comics that are completely made up nonsense and exist in a weird fantasy universe. That’s kind of where Rags Riley comes from. It started when I was asked to do a monthly comic for Sweden’s Denimzine. The whole mag is in Swedish, but they wanted the comic in English, so I intentionally tried to dumb down the stories, and I’m not really sure how well it worked. It seems the character became very one dimensional and didn’t have any supporting cast with conflicting morals to push the stories along. I was pretty much winging it from strip to strip and there is no cohesive narrative. It was good practice, but I found that kind of process doesn’t really work for me.

 

MRR: You mentioned to me in a previous conversation that you like comics where the artist really bares it all. Do you have plans to do such a thing?

Avi Spivak: Of course, but not just in comics. I tend to feel that way about everything: music, movies, books, etc. I really admire comics artists that can do this because it must really blur the realities of their life and their work. The latest Chester Brown book about the sex workers is pretty amazing, and even if you don’t agree with him you have to respect his level of honesty about it. He really opens up and takes you inside that world. R. Crumb is probably the king of this…all of his sick fantasies come out in his work. It helps that he’s the greatest artist alive and a legendary voice in comics, but even if people are repulsed by his images and ideas, you can’t argue with his honesty and the level of truthfulness he’s able to reveal about himself, it’s undeniable. I tend to be drawn to art where you can see that there is some sort of compulsion driving the work…that it’s something that has to be done for whatever reason. When you can really see the madness behind every line. Art is like therapy.

 

MRR: Mark Twain, in trying to write his autobiography (I’m currently reading this – not just weirdly pulling it out of my ass) was convinced that it isnt possible to tell the whole truth about yourself remarking, “I have been dictating this autobiography of mine daily for three months; I have thought of fifteen hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of, but I have not gotten one of them to consent to being on paper yet.” He couldnt even do it when he had an agreement drawn up that his autobiography wouldnt be published until 100 years after his death. Do you think it is possible?

Avi Spivak: I have to agree with Twain on this one. I think that people will always be inclined to omit certain details about themselves. And if you’re talking about your own life and experiences it’s hard to see it any other way than how you want it to be.

 

MRR: Sometimes I think people add things in, as well as omit things. Some people like to portray themselves as nerdier or more introverted or weird than they actually are. I like seeing the different ways comics artists draw themselves and others.

Avi Spivak: Sure, people will always see things the way they want to. The mind is fucked up and probably has some kind of mechanism to make things seem more pleasant than they actually are/were. Comic artists are no exception.

 

MRR: So, you grew up in Peekskill, New York, not too far from New York City. Despite being a place many people may not have heard of, several famous-y people are from or have lived there, like George Pataki, Stanley Tucci, the Fleischmann yeast company, L. Frank Baum went to school there, Jackie Gleason lived thereand two comic artists Herb Trimpe (of Incredible Hulk fame), and Peter Bagge, and now you. What makes Peekskill residents want to draw comics?

Avi Spivak: Wow, you’ve done your research. Yeah, Pataki was the mayor. Obviously Bagge was a big one for me. I was a huge fan of Hate before I ever knew he was from Peekskill. It was the only comic book I’ve ever been into that I remember anxiously awaiting new ones. I’ve always been more of a back-issues kinda guy. Gleason is another great. He built this round house shaped like a flying saucer out in the woods with a giant telescope coming out of the roof in the center. He was completely obsessed with UFOs and paranormal activity, like he owned thousands of books on all this stuff. The story goes that his old golfing buddy, Richard Nixon, took him to see the corpses of dead aliens that were being stored at a base in Florida somewhere and Gleason was never the same after that. I’m always skeptical about these types of things but if I’m gonna believe anyone it’s gonna be Jackie Gleason. The bus depot in Brooklyn is named after him too, which is cool. Didn’t know about Trimpe, but I can’t say I’m familiar with his work either. I’m not sure about the comics connection, though it’s probably some kinda escapism that goes with living in a small town.

 

MRR: Have you ever lived out of New York or thought about it?

Avi Spivak: I spent about a year in Seattle when I was around eighteen. Right after high school me and a pal took off in his parents Chevette and drove across the country. I guess the idea was to get as far away from home as possible and see the world a bit. We spent a few weeks going through all these towns and cities and ended up in Seattle where we had a friend to stay with. It was also around this time that the car we had been living in was completely driven into the ground and we had run out of money. I spent a while doing labor ready type work and ended up doing the oddest of jobs—tiled a Jack In The Box restaurant, assembly line at Microsoft…I eventually landed a glamorous gig washing dishes at a restaurant in the Pike Place Market which meant steady pay and free food. Before too long I had an apartment downtown and was really digging it out there. It was like right out of the pages of Hate! But after about a year or so I felt like it had run its course and decided to head back to New York.

 

MRR: Did you always draw since you were a little kid? Were you influenced by anyone in your family? Are any of them artists? Are you self-taught?

Avi Spivak: Yeah, I guess I was pretty into drawing as far back as I can remember. I was never the most natural or gifted artist, but I just sorta made it my thing. My older brother was a big influence for me. He was always the better artist and was responsible for there always being comics around the house and eventually punk rock, too. Looking back, I was pretty lucky to be exposed to a lot of that stuff early on, like having all these underground comics and punk records lying around and stuff like that. My mom was pretty creative too and was into the whole arts and crafts movement.

 

MRR: Did you get in trouble at school for drawing and not paying attention?

Avi Spivak: Oh yeah, all the time. I’d say that’s basically how I learned to draw. I’ve never been diagnosed or anything, but it’s probably some form of ADD or whatever. I’d literally compulsively fill up entire notebooks with drawings when I was supposed to be taking notes or paying attention to something. I still have some and they’re kinda neat to look through, like this one from American History class where I would draw all the events that were covered in class, lots of cowboys and Indians and Civil War battles.

 

MRR: I have a friend that did the same thing. The teachers would always glare at her and then I think they figured out what she was doing and usually didnt say much. People learn in different ways and Id rather look at her drawings than my notes. At what point did you decide to publish your drawings or pursue a career drawing comics?

Avi Spivak: I’m not sure. I guess I can’t really imagine doing anything else. I’ve had all manner of straight jobs over the years and have always just wanted to work on my own projects. I’ve constructed this fantasy land where I live and a lot of it is about just living the kind of life that you want and ignoring everything else, so I figure out how to get by and still have enough time to do what I want. Right now things are pretty good. The publishing part of it was just as a way to get stuff out there. I mean there’s basically no money to be made from this type of stuff, so why not just do your own thing the way you want it to be done? It’s very direct and immediate. It’s a weird time right now for publishing. Everyone says it’s over and everything’s gotta be digital and this and that, but don’t you think there has to be some sort of backlash from that? I think there will be and it’s gonna be through a lot more self-publishing and small press outfits, kinda like what happened with records.

 

MRR: Do your early works make you cringe now? What is the worst comic/drawing youve ever done?

Avi Spivak: Absolutely. I have a hard time looking at almost all of my old work. I think that as an artist you can only see mistakes you made and what you could have done differently. It’s a good place to be when you feel that all your newest work is the best thing you’ve ever done. Sometimes I find little zines and mini-comics that I used to make and they’re absolutely horrible. The worst part about it is that when I see these things I fear that some of them may actually be floating around somewhere because I used to xerox these things and actually give them out to people. The worst thing I’ve ever drawn? That’s a tough one… have you ever seen any of the 45 sleeves from my old band Skin Disorder? Yikes!

 

MRR: I have seen one. I think the drawings look more like your drawings than the photo of you actually looks like you! Once I think I said something to you along the lines of, “You should draw this…” and then I immediately thought about how annoying that must be. Do people often tell you what you should be drawing?

Avi Spivak: Yeah, sometimes. Or like, “You should totally do a comic about this…” I guess you never know when a good idea will happen and real life is as good a place as any for inspiration. It’s a good way to think that whatever happens around you is valid, and that everything is a story.

 

MRR: Who are your influences or favorites? What, besides other comics, influence your comics?

Avi Spivak: It’s a hard question to answer. There’s always some type of vague ideas or obsessions. I look at a lot of different kinds of stuff and it’s usually guided by impulses or instincts. All of my favorite things have a place in that strange fantasy land where I live…books, movies, records, dreams, etc. For comics I guess I like a lot of the obvious stuff—Crumb, Clowes, the Hernandez Bros, the underground stuff, old MAD and MAD rip-offs, too many to mention. Some of these guys are like machines, their work just looks so natural and effortless it amazes me. There’s other types of artists that I really like too, people like Kim Deitch and Spain where you can actually feel the struggle in their drawings and it can cause a very different and equally appealing experience. The form has such a rich history, and much like rock’n’roll, you’ll always be able to dig deeper and deeper.

 

MRR: Do you dream in comics? Like do you ever dream you are a cartoon?

Avi Spivak: Man, I can’t say that I ever have, though I have done weird comics based on my dreams before and it’s something I always think about. I heard there’s some stuff you can smoke that will turn everything into a cartoon land but I’ve never tried it. It’s supposed to be legal too.

 

MRR: Many of your comics feature music, and clearly you have an interest in music. You mentioned you were in the band Skin Disorder, an Oi! Band. When was that? Have you been in other bands?

Avi Spivak: Skin Disorder was an Oi! band I joined as a teenager. We put out a couple of singles and played some cool shows. After that I was in a group called Prowler that was this three piece punk/R&B outfit and that lasted a couple of years. There are some recordings that were done by Carl from the Templars that just came out last year in Germany (I guess they’re a little behind over there), and I have a live set from CBGB’s that I feel better captured the sound of the band and maybe I can get them to put that out, too.

 

MRR: Do you listen to many newer bands?

Avi Spivak: Unfortunately I’m not as up on this stuff as a I once was and a lot of the time the only way I ever know about or hear new bands is when people I know are involved. But there is stuff that I like and once in a while I’ll hear something good enough to get excited about.

 

MRR: How did you get into punk?

Avi Spivak: I think from very early on I had a penchant for mischief and juvenile delinquency. It wasn’t like discovering punk opened up a whole new world for me, it just kinda made sense. And like I said before, I had an older brother who would always have punk records and tapes around the house, and even my dad was moderately into it and took me to see The Ramones when I was in the eighth grade. By the time I was fourteen or so I’d already seen The Ramones, The Dictators, Iggy, etc. I’d say that my path was defined pretty early on. I’ve always just embraced it.

 

MRR: Do you have any pets?

Avi Spivak: Yeah, I live with two black cats. A few years back I lived in an apartment in Queens with an ex-girlfriend and one of our neighbors had taken in a pregnant stray cat and when the kittens came they needed homes. Of course we were unable to turn them away and ended up taking in two of them, including the runt. When I moved out of that place I took them with me. I work at home a lot and they’ve turned out to be pretty good company.

 

MRR: Since the last Human Being Lawnmower depicted the end of the world on the back and this might be the last issue ever of MRR, I suppose I should ask you about the end of the world. Do you really think the world is going to end? Did you know that the people who have made the interpretations of the Mayan calendar signifying an end to the world are just bad at math and ignorant of how Mayan calendars work in general? Do you wish the world would end? It doesnt matter what you answer since no one will read it because well all be dead.

Avi Spivak: The back of Human Being Lawnmower #3 was just a sensational ruse to try to sell more copies. Obviously, I don’t think the world is really gonna end, certainly not because of a calendar that is probably just the end of some kind of cycle anyway. When I was younger I was a pretty paranoid person and felt that it was a definite possibility. That’s probably why I never planned for the future or anything like that. It’s gotta be some kind of ego trip to feel like you’ll be part of the last people to exist on the planet. Like what could possibly come after this? The way things are going maybe there is an expiration date. I’m just not sure it will be in our lifetime. But who knows? Anything can happen.

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Bibliography:

All three issues of Human Being Lawnmower and Kicksville Confidential #1 are available through my site at avispivak.com and Human Being Lawnmower #4 is optimistically scheduled for 2013.


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