Henry Owings is the most feared man in music. Judging by his photo—fake mustache and all—it hardly seems possible that a mere music writer, occasional show promoter, roadie, and indie label head would be the kind of man who could generate intimidating levels of disruption in his wake... but he does. And it's brilliant. Owings runs the infallible Chunklet, a fanzine turned magazine that has brutally—and with a level of humor untouched by its peers—laid waste to all things sacred in music. Chunklet published a Billboard-esque list of the biggest assholes in rock, created the indie rock cred card (complete with a very thorough music quiz to weed out poseurs), and even put their money where their mouth is and offered cold hard cash to bands who were willing to break up. And now—in a direct affront to God, as well as the past 60 or so years of rock history—Owings has penned The Rock Bible: Unholy Scripture for Fans & Bands.
The Rock Bible is not a book about rock music; it's the book about rock music—a hilarious, list-heavy journey that deconstructs and demolishes the hallowed myths of rock culture. Presented in a fire-and-brimstone, condemning nature, The Rock Bible basks in its villainy and cruelty, all the while vying for the role as definitive guide to all things rock. This includes drummers ("All drummers wearing headset microphones should be required to take a food order."), keyboardists ("No song in the history of rock has ever required a keyboardist to drag their hands back across the keys. Ever."), singers ("Unless the song ends with 'deep in the heart of Texas,' don't engage the audience in a clap-along."), and just about everyone else involved in music—from writers to promoters to the fans themselves. No one is safe.
MERCURY: Before you wrote The Rock Bible, did you think you had to read the actual Bible?
OWINGS: Well, as a recovering Catholic—I was an altar boy my entire childhood—I read a few Bibles in my life. Down south it's a very popular thing.
With Chunklet, do you feel that you have to raise the bar with each issue as far as the criticism goes? It feels like you've entered your late-era, GG Allin status of the magazine—if you don't cut yourself and defecate onstage, then people will think you're holding back.
To be completely frank with you—and I'm not trying to sound egotistical here as much as factual—as long as no other publication comes close to us, I'm really not going to worry about it. I think most quarterly or monthly or weekly publications, just because of the mere drain of doing it, they have to phone it in. But the great thing with Chunklet is I don't really ever over-analyze what I do or how it comes out. If it's making me laugh, I'm sure it's going to make someone else laugh. So, do I think I have to take it up a notch? Not really. To me it's all about being funny as well as being out there.
Were there every any takers for the "Pay Not to Play" issue of Chunklet?
There were a number of people who were seriously interested. I got a couple of calls from Josh Homme [Queens of the Stone Age] late at night. The Rye Coalition tried. The Locust were one. There were a number of them, but my favorite example was Bratmobile. I was on the Mr. Show tour and in San Francisco, and I was telling them about that part of the issue, and all three of them just kind of went silent and looked at each other and said, "Can we get back to you? We might wanna do this." But then when we started coming up with all the rules about "one of you has to move in with your parents, you have to give us a piece of your equipment, etc.," once all of that started happening, people backed off really quickly. I have no problem putting money down, but you have to put up, and I'll happily pay. I still will; even though the deadline has come and gone, I will still pay for bands to break up.
Do you feel that your writing has given you a reputation as this incredibly jaded, if not cruel, person?
I think that sometimes people have to understand that in Chunklet I make more fun of myself than I do anybody. Probably more than I would even make fun of the Decemberists, or bands that are like nails on the chalkboard to me. But if I poke fun at myself, which I think I do more than anything in the magazine, I'm pretty decent to people. My mom thinks I'm cool. I want the magazine, and everything else I do, to be entertaining to me. If I think it's cool, then that's really all I care about. If everybody thinks I'm a jerk without ever having known me, fine. Even if they did think I was a jerk after having known me, you can't make everybody happy. It's not a popularity contest.
Well, it's pretty clear that in your writing—especially in The Rock Bible—even the harshest of insults are coming from a true fan of music, someone who has devoted his life to this.
Publications as varied as Vice and Arthur, even though people say, "they're keeping it real and good quality," it's still all about money for them. It's that age-old argument about Pitchfork: Have them pay for your site and take away the ads and let's see how fucking powerful you are. With Chunklet, I've been doing this shit for 15 years, and I have always tried to have a very considered opinion about what I do. When I got older and started to do things—and when I say "do things," I'm talking about putting on shows, designing posters, putting out records, going on tours, booking tours, managing bands—when I started to get involved with that, I started to see everything from a much broader perspective instead of this "punk rock" or "DIY" vantage point. So along the way with Chunklet, what I've been able to do is be friends with similar freaks, people who have done what I've done. Tour managers, musicians, promoters, comedians, or other writers that I like—it's the vast array of knowledge out there that I tapped into for The Rock Bible. That's why when you look at the contributors, there's Henry Rollins, Andy Earles, and Patton Oswalt. It's crazy when you start to tally it up.
So, is this book an attempt to crossover to a larger audience and then offend them as well?
What I tried to do with The Rock Bible, as compared to Chunklet, was I wanted to make it as non-inside baseball as possible. I wanted it so somebody who picked it up at Barnes & Noble wouldn't have to get every joke that's in there, they could just be like, "Shit, this is really funny because they talk about guitars!," or whatever. But I also wanted it so when the worldly people, such as yourself, when they picked it up they'd be like, "Oh my god, these people nailed it." There are so many pet peeves with music that sort of manifested themselves in that book. It makes me really happy to know that there is finally a book out there for it.
Okay, here's a little experiment. I'm going to name a few musical acts performing here within a few days of your reading, and I want you to explain why music fans should not attend these shows, and instead save their hard-earned money to spend on your book.
Girls can't rock.
Job for a Cowboy.
They're a metal band.
You can't take a metal band seriously with that name. Job for a Cowboy? Seriously, you have to be joking with me; that can't be real.
Vic Chesnutt and Elf Power.
Oh fuck! They're my friends. Here's a good one: Unless it's black metal, you can't have any Dungeons & Dragons-themed lyrics in your music.
What can we expect from your reading here in Portland?
Instead of reading from the book, which I'd be happy to do, I'm reading things that were deleted or removed by the publishers because they were too racist, sexist, or homophobic. Everybody nowadays is doing [a] "deluxe edition," or the stuff with deleted scenes. Basically I'm giving people a leg-up when 10 years down the line they re-issue "The Unrated Version."
You mean like they do with those American Pie sequels?
Yeah, kind of like American Pie. I cannot comment on whether or not it will be funnier. For Portland especially, I think it will be hilariously offensive.