Chickfactor: The Little Zine That Shaped Indie Music CultureCo-founder Gail O'Hara on her life pursuit.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos Courtesy Chickfactor
Gail O’Hara’s fanzine, Chickfactor, has been publishing off and on since 1992. It has outlasted many of the bands that appeared on its cover. It has outlasted the bookstores that used to stock it next to long-dead zines like Rollerderby (R.I.P.) and Punk Planet (R.I.P.). It has outlasted chillwave, blog rock and the freak folk revival. It has outlasted MySpace, Napster and OiNK. It has outlasted your favorite record store. It has outlasted the Hoboken, New Jersey, rock club where a guitarist from an indie “it” band handed me a copy of the very first issue.
It’s difficult to imagine an essentially handmade print magazine with a limited and sporadic circulation having a lot of influence. But as much as any of the big magazine critics, O’Hara, along with Chickfactor co-founder Pam Berry, has helped shape and influence sensibilities of indie pop.
The zine put Liz Phair on the cover long before she was on everyone else’s, and they gave bylines to musicians they celebrated, bringing the artists more exposure. Chickfactor was one of the first outlets to really cover indie pop as a legitimate scene and culture. O’Hara and Co. helped put the Magnetic Fields and Belle and Sebastian on the map. Indie pop bands were the antithesis of grunge, the dominant alt-rock genre back then; they simply wrote quiet gems that needed championing.
Each issue has contained the same basic ingredients: open and sometimes goofy interviews with indie pop luminaries, scads of record reviews, a dash of righteous feminism, candid black-and-white photography, insider/outsider cartoons that you’d want to cut and hang on your fridge, and zero journalistic objectivity. Chickfactor has favored a style of indie bands indebted to ’60s Brill Building pop, French yé-yé, Olympia twee and D.C. DIY ― and expected its readers to be familiar with all that.
More importantly, the magazine has celebrated female musicians and singers not as a trend but because they were just damn good. At least inside the pages of Chickfactor, artists like Georgia Hubley, Barbara Manning, Lois Maffeo and Amelia Fletcher were taken seriously — as rightful and righteous descendants of Carole King and Tracey Thorn.
In the middle of the Me Too movement and on the occasion of Chickfactor’s latest issue (No. 18), I wanted to talk to O’Hara about how she developed her style, what it was like working at Spin magazine in the early ’90s, and how Chickfactor and music journalism have evolved.
In her modest perseverance, O’Hara mirrors the artists she’s covered. For a time, she ran her own record label. In 2010, she co-directed a documentary on the Magnetic Fields. She now lives in Portland and has a job handling marketing and communications for the Oregon Zoo. She’s working on a new magazine project that she hopes will launch within the next year.
“I love it out here,” O’Hara said. “But I’ve never been able to make a living very well. If I had stayed in London or New York or D.C., I’d probably have a better career. But I do think that I’ve become a better writer and editor over the years. It feels like a weird thing to be doing Chickfactor. It’s a ’90s zine. But it also just kinda feels like another extension of what I should be doing.”
We recently spoke over the phone twice. The transcript of those conversations has been edited for length and clarity.
Why the long time between issues?
To be honest, when I have a period of underemployment, I start to kick into Chickfactor gear. So in 2012, I would say 2011, I was underemployed and I knew I wanted to do something for the 20th anniversary and that ended up being quite a big deal. Then we did a few things after that. But basically it’s just when I have time, I work on it. If you look back at Chickfactor over the years, I had a lot more time in the early ’90s to work on it before I became the music editor of Time Out New York.
When did you get into music journalism?
I went to Virginia Commonwealth University, and I was the arts editor and calendar editor at the paper. I kind of feel like that was me finding my calling in a way. It was a school newspaper, but we were doing a lot of fanzine-ish behavior.
How did you feel like it was your calling?
I come from a family of writers and editors and English teachers. My parents were both journalists. … I think I really wanted to work in entertainment and music and culture, and I didn’t know how or what I was going to do. But when I started doing that [in college], I realized it was a great outlet for me ― writing. After college, I worked at the Washington City Paper.
What was your job?
I had a series of jobs on the admin side. I was a receptionist, and then I worked in classifieds, and then I was a production artist and a contributing writer.
What was that like?
It is scary when you’re not a perfect writer and you have other people trying to teach you how to write. But they were very patient with me and I wrote a lot about local bands. … I would just, like, take on anything.
I was probably in over my head occasionally. It was good training. I was searching for a community after college, like the way you have that access to music when you’re in college ― at least in those days, like college radio and concerts and all this stuff. I found that at City Paper. I found that community. That’s where Pam [Berry] and I met and basically learned the skills to do a zine.
My friendship with Pam just kinda got deeper, even though I moved to New York around the beginning of ’92 and she stayed in D.C. And then a lot of our early days of Chickfactor were from me taking the train down to work on Chickfactor at the City Paper office ― which we did until probably issue No. 10 or something.
You went up to New York to take the job at Time Out New York?
I got hired to be a copyeditor for Spin in early ’92, and then I got promoted to copy chief within a month. So I was the copy chief at Spin for three-and-a-half years. I was there during the whole grunge era. It was strange and very male-dominated and kind of goofy. It was a weird time — it was very fraught all the time.
I had a lot that I wanted to say and write about. Working at a monthly magazine like Spin, where I was a lower person on the staff, I didn’t have a lot of control over anything. I took what I wanted to do and did it somewhere else ― which is Chickfactor.
Anyone at a monthly magazine knows it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are, a lot of them just aren’t gonna make it into the issue because there’s only so much space.
How was the culture there? You mentioned it was sort of male-dominated.
The office was kind of a shithole. I would say the art department was really nice and looked like a fancy New York apartment with wood floors and stuff. [Spin founder] Bob Guccione Jr. probably had a decent office ― not that I spent a lot of time in there. The back area where the editors were, we were in these crappy little cubicles with chairs that look like they were pulled out of dumpsters. But it was a great time to be in New York, and being at Spin was wonderful for me as a way to experience music because I had people offering to put me on the guest list all the time. I had access to music.
I worked there until 1995, and then I went to Time Out New York when they launched. I worked at Time Out New York until 2000. I would say during that time period, ’95 to 2000, is when everything changed a lot, and most people were cashing in and selling out, a lot of media outlets that were peers of Chickfactor in a weird way. I would say at one point Pitchfork was even on Chickfactor’s level. But Bust and magazines like that, some of them sold themselves and then they bought themselves back later or whatever.
But Chickfactor just didn’t. We never had offers or we didn’t try to sell ourselves or whatever. It was always just a side thing, but I think, for me, having control over everything is really important.
I often felt like, at least in the beginning, Chickfactor was sort of a refutation of that sort of bro music culture. And it was in your face in that way, like we’re not hiding it or apologizing for liking Velocity Girl or Unrest or whatever it was. We’re talking about fashion or talking about girl groups or whatever it is.
But at the same time, we were giving people a different take on those people. Those artists were also all over the place in other magazines. You remember it was way fewer music outlets, media outlets then. But Velocity Girl was huge in a tiny way. Spin was giving Unrest a little review in the back, and Chickfactor was putting them on the cover. And that’s the difference.
What was it like for you to navigate Spin?
So I tried, I’m sure, quite a few times to get a proper job there where I was in charge of some music — where I was assigning and doing more with stories than just copyediting them because I deserved that. And I can see why some of the guys there would be like, “She just doesn’t have the right sensibility.” I never got promoted to one of those jobs. I was copy chief, which is a great job. I’m not frowning on that. As newspapers discover nowadays, when you fire all the copyeditors, shit gets bad.
Yeah, for sure. Was there a story that you really wanted to tell that ended up in Chickfactor, but you thought it could be in Spin?
I had written a story about Morrissey fanzines, fans, and I really liked it. I wanted it to go into Spin, but Bob Guccione Jr. killed it because he thought it was sacrilegious.
Because of the way that the fans treated Morrissey in those days, like a god or Jesus or something. And they really did. But it’s not something sacrilegious.
It seems like a story that’s perfectly fitting of the times.
I should’ve just gone and taken photos of Morrissey fans and done a photo essay for somebody else. But anyway, I remember when that story got killed. And that day, around that same time, I went to see Morrissey somewhere in Midtown. And then I got on the PATH train and went out to Maxwell’s [a club in Hoboken], and I just really realized how much I didn’t need Spin, because I had this other thing, and it just didn’t matter anymore.
Must’ve been a really nice moment realizing, “I have this other thing that’s all mine.”
It was very freeing ― and also just because I wasn’t getting very much done at Spin. They did let me write a few reviews here and there, and it was kind of exciting, but for me, the heyday of Spin was, like, 1985. And they were all just like “Perry Farrell this” and “Soundgarden blah blah blah.”
What did you think of Perry Farrell and Soundgarden?
I don’t know what Soundgarden even sounds like. I’m sure I’ve heard them before in Spin’s office or whatever. But it just doesn’t make any sense to me. Perry Farrell just seems like a total goofball.
The other editors didn’t always have control over things, either. Sometimes they just have to do what Bob Guccione Jr. wanted, which was a “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” issue or something like that. There was only so much that can go into any issue of Spin, and that’s fine.
I treasure the time I spent working there, I was grateful to have a job at Spin, it was cool. I’m not bashing the whole experience at all. I just definitely feel like I felt … it’s like how I think about concerts, too. The audience doesn’t have to be the biggest audience in the world for me to feel like a success.
There’s just a certain type of review that I like. I think it’s the type that we publish. You get a sense of what the music is like, even if you don’t hear it. But mostly the bands nowadays are on Bandcamp. You can go listen to it immediately. There’s really no need to have this many reviews.
What was it like to have Belle and Sebastian put out the song “Chickfactor”?
It was like a fricking dream come true. It was shocking and awesome. Again, this is because I was at their first show in the United States, in September of ’97, with a pile of fanzines for every member that I could give them to. The fact that Stevie [Jackson] was reading Chickfactor on the airplane home ― we became part of his experience I guess.
It was a huge honor and a privilege, and it means everything. Especially, it’s on probably one of the greatest albums they ever made, too.
The song’s good. What if the song sucked?
It’s funny because Belle and Sebastian’s fans are very fickle, but in general, they’re not always that excited about the non-Stuart [Murdoch] songs. But I think it’s a great song, as are many of Stevie Jackson’s songs and other band members’ songs.
I remember trying to listen to a live tape of it or something. I went into Chris Lombardi’s office, at the Matador [Records] office, when it was on Lower Broadway, and I tried to listen to an early version of the song, and I just couldn’t believe it.
What was it like when you first heard it?
It was kind of shocking. He quotes things out of Chickfactor in the song.
Do you think that music journalism has gotten better or worse or more inclusive? It seems like it’s more business-oriented in some ways.
Everything is. It’s because everything’s moving too quickly. And there’s just so much of it. It’s kind of exhausting to pay attention to all of it. But I feel like there’s just a million people every day that post like, “So and so has a new record out, and here’s this blurb that we basically rewrote [from] the press release.” It’s very rare that you read a piece of music journalism that you remember or tell your friends about.
I want funny, smart writing. That’s what I want, and it doesn’t have to be long-winded or super intellectual. I just want it to be fun and interesting. There’s more media outlets than the world could ever need, and so much of the media, as you know more than anyone, it’s being run by digital marketing people. A lot of times they’re firing a lot of the longtime editors, the old analog people like myself, and they’re hiring young interns to do all the work.
Do you think that we still value music the way we used to?
I feel like it’s hard to compare the early days of Chickfactor with now. There’s just so many media outlets now. In the old days, something like Huffington Post would not have been covering music. It’s like sometimes you see a new record premiere in The Wall Street Journal, and it’s like, “What? The Flaming Lips record is world premiering with The Wall Street Journal?” It makes no sense to me.
If anything’s vaguely interesting, everyone finds out about it right away. All of a sudden, Lindsey [Jordan] from Snail Mail is on NPR and in The New York Times because everyone knows about her already. Well, she might be more interesting in five years. Maybe not. I’m not saying she shouldn’t be. I’m just saying people used to have time to develop and grow as an artist before they were discovered, before they were made a big deal of.
She’s only done an EP, and now she has an album coming out, and already …
I think social media has a lot to do with that. You and I both probably follow hundreds of other journalists, and if somebody writes something, you’re like, “Hmm, this looks interesting.” It just grows like wildfire, and then maybe by the time her record comes out, that buzz will have gone away.
I do think that it’s just changed the way that artists have time to develop, but also the way that artists interact with media platforms. I remember Stephin Merritt being very protective of his material when things like Napster came out, and nowadays he probably would never play any new material at a live show just for fun, because it will be on YouTube the next day as an unreleased song.
There’s no place for people to just have fun and just experiment. Everything you do is documented so heavily, so if you do something horrendous, it’s all over the place. I’m thinking of Amy Winehouse, an artist who should have had many more years ahead of her, but she screwed up so epically that whenever it came crashing down around her, it was all over the place. The whole world knew about it.
With the world we’re living in, people forget about things immediately, the next day. But for the artist, I think that’s probably really crushing, soul-crushing. You just want to die. I’m sorry. I’m getting really dark here.
You’re bringing up some interesting points. You go to shows now, and a good chunk of the first couple rows are people who are filming it with their phones or taking pictures. Not a lot of it can be just undocumented. Now almost everyone is potentially paparazzi.
We put up signs at our 20th-anniversary parties that said that this is a party circa 1992, and we encourage people to put their phones away. Some people still have their phones out, but I feel like it really makes a difference, just to think about it. Any time you’re holding a phone, you just don’t experience a show in the same way.
So much of what passes for music journalism these days is, “So and so tweets something.” And that’s a whole story. Or like the Arcade Fire covering a song.
Yeah, it’s clickbait. The interview you did with Governess was amazing. I didn’t realize they were mothers. I didn’t realize they came from day care. It’s just incredible. It’s a great story. And then Gerard Love, the stuff that Lois Maffeo got — you got a real sense of where he came from.
I really appreciate that, too. My biggest fear is that I’d do all the interviews, and no one else contributes. And that kind of almost happened, but Lois’ interview and Rachel Blumberg’s interview of Marisa Anderson are amazing. Marisa is somebody, even in Portland, that has a very low profile. She’s on Thrill Jockey now, but she’s a very understated person. I feel like that interview is just nothing like anyone will ever have.
Without sounding too braggy, I feel like each interview is very different from the others. So it doesn’t feel like we’re saying the same questions. Some issues of Chickfactor, it’s like, “Who do you have a crush on? What’s in your fridge?” We really did get a lot of interesting takes on people. And the Alvvays girls, too, they don’t need to be in Chickfactor, they’re big. But they’re also so perfect for Chickfactor in so many ways. So I’m glad that they’re in there.
And I did really make an effort to be more diverse this time ― it’s not diverse enough ― but to be more diverse and to have more variety. Because I don’t want it to be just middle-aged indie rockers who were in their heyday in 1994.
What was it like meeting Kendra Smith and doing the interview? Were you nervous?
Yeah, yeah, of course. It’s been a huge thrill and delight to meet her and be emailing with her, and even just to get feedback from the interview. I feel like her choosing to live a life this way, when she could be cashing in a lot more — she’s amazing.
So I drove down to near where she lives in Northern California in early December to do the interview. It was raining torrentially, and the roads were horrendous, and I thought I was gonna die. It was really dramatic. I think my body was so stressed out from the drive down that I was just wired for days. I don’t think I slept.
If anything, I feel like I didn’t wanna piss her off. So I probably stopped the interview too early and should have gone on for another hour. We probably should’ve taken a break, had a coffee and then started up again. I should’ve forced her to take more photos, because I’m a good photographer, but I took only 10 or something. For me normally, if I’m doing a big cover shoot or something, I would take four rolls of film, six. But it doesn’t matter. It is what it is. There may be a part two. She’s just a force.
I wish that I could convince her to make tons more music — that’s all I want. But I’m happy if she never makes anything again, if that’s what she wants to do. She’s done enough, and she’s been living off the grid for 30 years.
What did you learn from her, you think?
I guess it’s what all of us should be doing: Do whatever the fuck you want. Who cares what everyone else wants.
You seem OK with the readership that you do have. Unlike a lot of journalists, you are not trying to constantly expand.
My little community is what matters to me. It would be nice to have more people, but sometimes that just makes things more messy. Like, Yo La Tengo follows me on Twitter ― what more do I need?
Age was a thread as well in the issue. Motherhood and growing up and community and the sense of time and sort of keeping going and being comfortable with who you are at that stage or evolving into a working musician.
I was already out of college when we started Chickfactor so I was an old zine editor then, and now I’m a middle-aged zine editor. So it’s a weird thing to be. And you don’t even have to call it a zine — it’s a publication of some sort. I’m proud of it. I feel like this is kind of what I do.
And it doesn’t have to be over because you’re a certain age. The same way that someone who’s 50 years old can write a song, and it doesn’t make them somebody who’s having a reunion. They’re just doing it. Like, what’s the big deal?
I want someone to pick up this zine in five years, and it’s still gonna seem like an interesting read. I don’t want it to be about the new album. I don’t want any of those questions that are time-specific. I just want it to be a long-term thing that you wanna hang on to.