Sharon Cheslow interviewed by George Chen for Penny-Ante #Three, 2009 (below are some short excerpts from a long conversation)
George: So. I'm here in my apartment [in Oakland, CA] with Sharon Cheslow and Sharon lives in L.A. currently but I met her when she was living in San Francisco which -- you were here for quite a while. When did you first move here?
Sharon: I moved here in the summer of 1990. I lived in San Francisco almost 15 years. And I was trying to remember when we met.
George: Um, yeah, I knew about bands you had been in because I had the Suture record, but you were doing a couple bands.
Sharon: I remember you, me, Marisa [Meltzer] and Jeremy [Campbell] hung out once.
George: Did you and Marisa tour together, right?
Sharon: Right! That's right, I forgot about that. She was on the Cha Cha Cabaret tour that Jen Smith organized and I was in the Electrolettes at that point with Julianna Bright. So what year was that?
George: That must've been '96, '97. The irony is, I didn't actually see that tour. I didn't see...what was Marisa's thing that she did?
Sharon: She did... that's a good question. What did she do? Oh! The Skirts!
George: Right. That was a band, right?
Sharon: Right, yes.
George: My only involvement with that whole thing was that Jen asked me to help her book it and I don't think I could do anything (laughs) so that's all I knew about that. So you were in the Electrolettes when you were in San Francisco, and what other music projects did you do? And what brought you out here?
Sharon: I decided to just go out [to San Francisco from Washington, DC] that summer of '90 to get involved with Epicenter. Were you ever involved in that?
George: I wasn't directly involved with that. I had booked shows through other people there, but yeah, I knew that you had done that. You, and I know Honey, also...
Sharon: Honey Owens, yes.
George: But it started with, there was money coming in from Tim Yohannan to start Epicenter. Just like Gilman, like, money coming from Tim. How involved was Tim in, like, the basic stuff of that? Or was he more just like I want this to happen you guys run it?
Sharon: (laughs) It was both him saying, yeah, here's some money, and let's do something like Gilman, you run it, but he was very much a father figure and would put his foot down if there were ideas people had that he didn't like. It was supposed to be a collective, but he definitely had the final say. So when I came out here in the summer of '90 it was really just to help Epicenter get started and to be around other people, and I decided I wanted to move here so I basically in the fall of '90 moved here and then started doing music and art and then I got some teaching work in the San Francisco Unified School District and did that for about six years.
George: And what grade level were you teaching?
Sharon: (laughs) Middle school. Horace Mann Middle School and Potrero Hill Middle School.
Sharon: And were you studying English at that point at UC Berkeley?
George: I didn't study English. I studied... I took a variety of things. I did what was called the American Studies major.
Sharon: Oh, okay. That sounds interesting.
George: Yeah, yeah. It's sort of an interdiscplinary major. A lot of what I took was like Ethnic Studies, film, some anthropology classes. I was really into one professor there who was really popular, Alan Dundes, who was the folklore professor.
Sharon: Yes, I've heard of him.
George: He passed away a few years ago. But, um, you know, that was definitely influential in my thinking process...
Sharon: So when you were at UC Berkeley in the early '90s and you started to write and promote, had you been doing creative work? Had you been doing creative writing or art or playing in bands because I know those are all things you do now.
George: Yeah, I mean, well it's funny. When I started when I was young, I think that the only thing I was good at was causing trouble and drawing. So I did a lot of illustration and drawing and I wanted to be like a cartoonist and that was like what I wanted when I was a kid. And I kind of phased out of that a little bit, and I did do some like creative writing like fiction writing, and, you know, I didn't pursue like a fiction writing path or anything like that. I kind of just, I didn't really know. I did a bunch of different stuff all at the same time and I didn't really know what was gonna stick.
Sharon: I think you and I are very similar in that way. Because we do a lot of different types of activities. Some creative, some supporting other people. Some trying to build community. And we do a lot of similar things. And, someone said to me recently, "It must be so hard when you're interested in so many different things to pursue one particular thing."
George: Yeah, yeah.
Sharon: And I said the same thing that you just did to me -- I don't really think about it, I just sort of follow my inspiration or just go where an idea leads me and don't think about it too much.
George: It's not very calculated.
Sharon: You know, I really loved [Boxleitner]. That was you and Gabe [Mindel Saloman] and Ceci Moss?
George: Yeah, and Ian Connelly. And a couple different people were in and out. We were the kind of band that was... at the time we started it was like '99 and at the time in the Bay Area it was, you know, the music scene in the Bay Area was still very indie rock and it was this weird thing where we...it was funny, it was like me and Paul Costuros would like hang out with like, The Aislers Set people, and like, I still like that band now, but it was this time when there were so many bands just kind of doing that thing, and you know, Paul and I at the same time just sort of started these bands that were kind of reactionary to that.
Sharon: And I loved that. I remember, because I really did not like indie rock that much in San Francisco. Coming from me, coming from a rock 'n' roll, punk/hardcore background I loved the energy and excitement in live performance and I felt indie rock had a very sort of staid, subdued performance aesthetic which I never related to very much. So I was really grateful when Total Shutdown and Boxleitner started. And then I was also thinking that's right around the time when Spockmorgue started. Did you and Paul start that together?
George: I'm trying to remember who started Spockmorgue. What preceded Spockmorgue, I remember, was an Egroups list which was...Egroups was like the mailing list program that you would use that was before Egroups got bought by Yahoo or whatever so the whole "Mocspourge" thing came from that, it was just "Egroups.com" backwards. And actually that was all a reaction to me and Paul and a few other people on this thing that had started in '98 that was called SF Indie List...
Sharon: Oh, I was on that.
George: Yeah yeah. So yeah, basically anytime we would talk about Black Dice or like, Gravity Records or you know, anything like that, [SF List members] would be just like, "Oh did you hear the new Belle and Sebastian? Blah blah blah." And you know, I think there were enough people that were on that list that were like, there's this whole other thing going on that we wanna talk about that just gets lost in the noise of the whiny SF Indie List which I have not rejoined.
Sharon: But you know, it coincided with the heyday of technology in the Bay Area. We got really affected by, obviously, the whole dotcom thing. Now that I live in L.A. I realize that it wasn't as big of a deal in other cities when I tell people how the dotcom crash basically destroyed San Francisco and the Bay Area. They don't understand what I'm talking about. It did not affect other cities I think as much as San Francisco, and maybe New York. But one thing I think that helped a lot of creative people in the Bay area at that time was that we were all so inspired by new technology and used it in a creative way...There were things like Spockmorgue and the SF Indie List and I think those then reached out into the whole country, and now you have blogs and ways in which people can connect. But at that time when technology and the Internet was still new in the late '90s I thought it was a really utopian feeling, and that, I think, ended maybe by 2000, 2001 maybe?
George: (Laughing) So it was about three years, is what you're thinking? Well I mean it's interesting...
Sharon: Well no, cause I think it started, I think I got online in '95 and it was really through Horace Mann Middle School. I helped the school get online. I wanted to help teach students how to design their own web pages, you know take the DIY aesthetic and infiltrate students with it (laughs). But I think maybe starting around '96, '97 is when I started to see how it was helping creative people in the Bay Area. So maybe from around '96/'97 to 2000 was this very utopian period...I think that because of blogs and social networking sites it's now maybe a little bit easier to have information disseminated so in one way it's positive because people can then just focus on one thing whether it's, you know, being in a band or doing art, but I often wonder if we're sacrificing regional communities, tight-knit communities, because of the way things are changing. What do you think?
George: It's interesting, because I think, well, as a good example, looking at that Faith Void poster [for Chris Duncan's art show of the same name] it's like there was this way that things worked early on where when punk labels started and everything was sort of based on regional scenes. And it seems that's not the case anymore with most labels that exist. It's hard to judge whether a community is healthy on whether it has a good record label because there's so many other factors...But I do think in a way the Internet and like newsgroups, social networking, all those things do help community, and actually have an international community. I know more now about things like oh, there's some noise dudes in Belgium. I never would have known that ten years ago. The odds of me being able to go hang out with them is less because the economy sucks, but you know, actually, I feel like...
Sharon: Yes, I feel more connected to people all over the world now.
George: Right, right. At the expense, maybe, of having a local scene or a local community.
Sharon: Yeah, I think one of the things I wanted to do when I very first started to collaborate with other people and then with Coterie Exchange and getting people from different cities to work together was to take the idea of building these tight knit regional communities and then take it outward. You know, what if people from all these smaller communities then connected and could share ideas and create? And I think that what I was interested in just seemed to mirror what was happening organically.
Sharon: It was fun collaborating with you, when I collaborated with KIT. We were trying to figure when it was...It was either 2003 or 2004, that was really fun because that was actually one of the earlier collaborations I did. I collaborated with Yellow Swans and I collaborated with KIT.
George: Yeah, we have a recording of that, that came out in a box set you did. With the gold foil.
Sharon: Yeah, I did a short run CD-R called Uncertainty Rides the Waves that had some of the collaborative pieces I did. Uh, there was the first Sonic Triptych which I did for Ladyfest Bay Area in 2002 on that. That was the first time I did that.
George: And you did it in a couple different cities, right?
Sharon: Yes, I've done it in L.A., New York [Williamsburg], and San Francisco.
George: And that's the same format every time?
Sharon: It's based on the idea of self-representation. So basically I have an instruction score that I give to people that says take some sound-producing action that you have previously written or performed, and you can either play it straight, you can redo it, you can repeat it over and over, but in some way take something that represents yourself. And then, play it with other people. And it's structured so that three sets or three sequential sets of three play. So depending on how many people I have, you know, will determine how many sets of three there are. But, it's based on that basic idea, but in each city it varies in terms of the sound, because the instrumentation changes. Like the version that I did in New York was mostly electronics. Having it with [M.V.] Carbon and Jenny [Graf Sheppard] from Metalux, and Chuck Bettis and Kevin Shea and Brooke Gillespie. It was really fun...But that was the only time I ever did it with video. Have you ever done anything with video?
George: I did..have I done video? I was gonna say that I had done the Triptych in Oakland.
Sharon: Oh that's right! So you did, yeah. San Francisco, Oakland, L.A., and [Williamsburg]. Yeah, four times.