stelazine and the art of collaboration
Before she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo journalist and photo editor, Stella Kramer was a staple of the Seattle punk scene and created the now almost mythological ‘zine, Stelazine. In the late 1970’s, Stelazine put Seattle’s low-key, blossoming punk music world on display for fellow punks and music lovers. She interviewed everyone who was anyone – from local bands to the Ramones to even The Clash. Her ‘zine was the quintessential example of all the beauty, blood, sweat and tears that goes into true DIY culture. Our Founder Debra Scherer sat down with Stella to discuss their shared love of ‘zines and the DIY ethos.
Debra Scherer: So, tell us about how you started Stelazine back in 1978 and what inspired you to do so?
Stella Kramer: I’ve always been a writer and when I was living in Seattle in 1976 there was a very small punk scene. I would go to these punk shows and I’d always be writing about them. Eventually I thought, “Why am I doing this? Why don’t I just start a ‘zine and publish it?” Everyone in the punk scene was doing something - whether it be a band or what not, and this is what I decided to do. So, with the help of my friend Frank Edie with the graphics, and Tami Broadhead after him, my ‘zine was born.
DS: And what sort of machine did you use to make them?
SK: The first issue was totally Xeroxed. We found a way to remove the cartridge in the Xerox machine that tracked and counted the number of copies we were making, so that we could trick it into charging us less.
DS: So, you hacked the Xerox machine? Right on.
SK: Yes, we essentially hacked it. If I had a computer during those days, I would’ve ruled the world. When designing the ‘zine, I had to type columns and break them up around our graphics pretty much by hand, which led the ‘zine to always be a bit weird to read. We’d collage the pictures by hand as well, and then Xerox it. The whole ‘zine was black and white except the last page. It was in color. Color was so expensive, so we only used it for one page.
DS: When you talk about cutting the text up, it reminds me how I always say text is a graphic on the page. This is something that seems to have been lost in with the current generation. Text is another physical, graphic element, it’s not something you just add on after.
SK: Yes, exactly! Our first issue even had handwritten text and a smashed beer can that we Xeroxed onto it. All of these things add depth and it’s all part of the graphics of the page. After the first Xeroxed issue, we decided to get all high and mighty and move over to newsprint and get a name for the ‘zine.
DS: That’s what we use for our ‘zines as well! And how’d you decide on the name?
SK: Everyone wanted me to name it after myself, but I never wanted to. Then one night I was watching 60 minutes and they were doing a story about drugs given to housewives to make them “calm down” and there was one pill called Stelazine. My friends and I were just like “that’s it!”
DS: That is so good! So, what was the second issue, or the first official Stelazine issue about?
SK: There was one punk club that we had in town and the cops raided it one night. It was like the only night I wasn’t there. The cops broke someone’s arm, arrested a bunch of people. So, we decided to do an issue titled “Punk the National Crime.” Later on, the people who were assaulted by the cops were released because of this guy named Bob Kondrak. He was a popular part of the punk scene and never went anywhere without his camera and a recording device. He actually recorded the entire bust and they used his material in court to prove the cops were at fault. So that was basically the end of that problem.
DS: Wow. At this point, were a lot of bands traveling to Seattle?
SK: There was a pipeline of bands that would come from L.A. to San Francisco to Portland to Seattle and then up to Vancouver. So, we had a lot of California bands always coming to town, like The Scream. We had The Enemy which was a local band, Television came to town once because there was a series of two dollar concerts. We got to see people like Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Talking Heads and it’d be like a crowd of 20 people in a giant auditorium because it was such a small scene in those days. A great band called the Neo Boys from Portland, Oregon came to town. They were one of the first all women bands. For the ‘zine, I wrote about these bands mostly under pseudonyms to make it look like we had a bigger staff, but it was really just me and Frank in the beginning.
DS: That’s about twice the size of the staff I started with!
SK: Right? It takes a while, but things develop. There were two photographers in Seattle, Bob Kondrak and Randy Hall and they would just give us their pictures and we’d add them in. I never directed them, because back then I had no ideas about photos. I had grand ideas for this ‘zine though, you know? An empire! But after two issues of newsprint I was tired of my fingers always turning black.
DS: Yes! We’re like an office full of chimney sweeps here.
SK: Exactly. So, we moved to a heavy white bond paper.
DS: One of the challenges that is really fun when printing only in black and white, is that you only have two choices, so everything else has to revolve around that.
SK: Yes, and I like that it doesn’t age well. When I started, ‘zines were supposed to be instant things. You made them, people looked at them, and then they were gone.
DS: Exactly, and that used to be true of all magazines. Magazines were always supposed to be these things that came out every month and as soon as the issue was done, we were thinking about the next one.
SK: Sometimes even before you’re done with the current one you’re ready and planning for the next!
DS: Yeah. There’s a flow and continuity to your ‘zine and old magazines that I love. That’s why we call them paper movies, because each page is a story and there is a common thread throughout them that ties them all together.
SK: Yeah, but nowadays you have advertisements that look like editorials and it completely throws off the continuity.
DS: Which is a huge problem. I feel like all the stories in The Culture Crush are talking to each other. The artists and writers are all tied in and we invite the reader to the conversation.
SK: I totally get that. And back in the Seattle punk scene, we had that cohesive vibe that spilled over into the ‘zine. Everyone was involved. Whether it be working the door at the venue, or breaking the stage down after, or making a ‘zine, no one just showed up. Everyone participated.
DS: Do you read through those interviews and still find they are interesting today?
SK: Hell yeah. Everyone was so cool. I interviewed XTC, the Ramones, members of Blondie. Everyone would come to town and I’d call hotels until I found them. I told them I was a reporter, put a friend on the phone who pretended to be an editor, and that’s how I got access.
You could also just walk back stage and meet them. We had party houses in Seattle too, and that’s where you’d meet a lot of people. I just had this drive to do what I wanted, if I wanted to meet them, I was going to meet them. I’m still friends with some of the bands that I met 40 years ago. Everyone just hung out together.
That’s pretty much how I met The Clash. On their first trip to the U.S. they started in Vancouver, Canada and then went south. We all went up to Vancouver to see them. They were my favorite band and when they came out the first song they played was my all-time favorite, so I went insane.
DS: And what song was that?
SK: Complete Control. Afterwards, I walked right backstage and started talking to them.
DS: That is amazing. I still find in certain venues you can do that today. Places like Bowery Ballroom and Rough Trade, but never somewhere bigger than that. How many more issues did you make after that interview?
SK: We stopped after the fifth issue. The least successful one was our interview with The Clash, which I know sounds surprising. Unsuccessful meaning, I have the most left-over copies of this issue!
DS: How did you distribute them?
SK: We’d just hand them out at venues and record stores. We never did any advertising.
DS: Same with our ‘zines.
SK: One of the most fun things to me, about making a ‘zine, is the collaborative aspect of it. People just don’t collaborate that much anymore.
DS: I know. We’re always talking about that and we’re always trying to accomplish that here in our studio. Even with our writers, we’re starting to work well with combining our voices together to create the “The Culture Crush” tone.
SK: And that’s the way it should be! Collaborating is the best thing, but now it’s really hard. The digital world is very self-oriented. We’re all looking at our own screens. There’s also something to me about the tactile that is very important.
DS: Why is the tactile so important to you?
SK: Because it’s real and real things are important to me. I don’t exist that much in the digital world. I don’t have a cell phone, but I do have an iPad. To me, I want to be where I am and be aware of things. It’s very easy to lose the sense of something that is real when it is on a screen. I had a blog on my website for a while called Stelazine and it just wasn’t the same. I don’t want to feel compelled to have to do it. The reason we stopped the ‘zine was because it just became too difficult and I can’t imagine doing it in the digital age now.
DS: It’s really hard to get it done.
SK: Yeah, and it was just two of us. And then it became this big thing and wasn’t fun anymore.
DS: I’ve had to do some deep thinking about it all before, too. For us, the ‘zine is just one of the things. I don’t consider The Culture Crush a magazine at all. We put our hearts and souls into everything we do, but I see the ‘zine as merely part of our merch. It’s only one aspect of what we do.
SK: The ability now is that you can expand it into so many different areas. In 1978, there was no expanding past a ‘zine. I’ve always been a print person. I have so many copies of ‘zines that I just can’t let go. I guess in my head, you don’t throw out printed things. You never know how they’re gonna connect you with other people.
DS: It’s almost like you’re leaving behind evidence. Cultural evidence that the digital world has none of. Stuff stored on the web is just a bunch of server farms that can disappear.
SK: Yeah, I think about that all the time. I’m glad I’m not a photographer because that would freak me out, unless you shoot film.
DS: Yeah, I have a drawer full of hard drives that don’t even work with our current computers.
SK: That makes sense because technology changes so fast without any archival interest.
DS: Yeah, again, just because it’s not digital doesn’t mean it’s a shit technology. You know, like they’re never going to get digital music to sound as good as this Steinway piano.
SK: Yes! Because it is reality. With digital, there are a lot of things you can’t figure out what they actually are. When I look at an image I can’t tell what’s been done with it. It could be completely constructed and I would never know, and that to me is a really scary thing. I need to feel the ground below my feet.
DS: People are starting to write about this now. With voting machines, already, we’re going back to paper ballots. Just because it’s not digital doesn’t mean it’s not the best way to do it.
SK: These days there are a lot of people who think the only way to do things is digitally. What happens to all the creativity if digital platforms get hacked or shut down? It’d freak me out if I went into a home and there were no books and just a Kindle sitting out. There’s this whole idea, like you said, that the digital is better.
DS: But I feel like the pendulum is swinging back.
SK: For sure, you can see it with the resurface of records and shooting film. People are going back to the type of technology that works.
DS: Especially with creative stuff, it’s not just that it works, but the creating of it is a whole experience. It’s beautiful in a different way. What we’re trying to get at with The Culture Crush is “What going on in the actual world?” I feel like with the data stuff, we’re at a conversation model similar to the past second-hand smoke conversation. You give your number to some guy at the bar and now a bunch of companies have your data.
SK: That’s the thing, it’s reality vs creative reality. To experience something digitally, people tend to react to things in the same way. To experience something in real time, people tend to react differently.
DS: That’s so true.
SK: That to me is why reality is better, even though it sucks overall, but it’s more personal. If we’re both looking at a meme on the web we will probably both be like “ha-ha” and that’s why there is so much in society that isn’t unique anymore. Everything is made for the largest amount of people.
DS: So that it can scale!
SK: Exactly, and I don’t want to have the same experience as everyone else.
DS: Whether it’s better or not, real is still real. We are living in the real world and not the digital world, which is why there’s this panic now. This is why I think the work we’re doing now is more important than ever.
SK: It’s like when you see an interview with some celebrity and you’re completely disappointed because they don’t really say anything. It’s just a really unsatisfying experience. With The Culture Crush, real people are telling you real things. It’s important to get back to people saying things and talking about their feelings on things.
DS: I never thought about it that way, but you’re right. We want people to talk about how they feel about the world.
SK: There’s enough falsified, Photoshopped perfection out there already. Each issue is different, but there’s a continuation. When I work with photographers one-on-one, I ask them “Do you want to be Walmart or do you want to be a specialty store?”
DS: Right. So, what exactly are you feeling in the air right now? You were speaking to a ‘zine making class at Parsons when we ran into each other..
SK: It was so cool, but I was shocked at how constrained they were. I took one of the students work and started to collage and put things next to each other. He puts it up on the wall and steps back and goes “Oh my god, that’s great!” And I explained to them, you want something to stand out, you want people to wonder how they feel about it. You can do whatever you want! I’m always of the idea that you want to challenge people’s preconceived notions.
DS: We live in an age now where you log-on and you’re suggested 10 different templates to use and I don’t think enough people say “no, I’m going to start with the blank page.”
SK: You’re right.
DS: And I guess it’s our job to teach that.