Taking in the Trash with New Hampshire’s Chris Nichols & The Trash Pile

By John Campopiano

Back in 2010, Chris Nichols, originally from Massachusetts but now residing with his wife in New Hampshire, was searching for a new way to satiate his appetite for creative output after his days performing in local Boston area bands had come to an end. As an enthusiast for not just music but also film, specifically cult, horror, and genre films, Nichols launched The Trash Pile–a blog dedicated to finding, reviewing, and in some cases re-releasing obscure and forgotten films. But Chris isn’t all that keen or interested in releasing hard-to-find weirdo gems on digital platforms like YouTube (though he isn’t against other people doing it). Instead, Chris’ allegiances lie with a format that holds much sentimental value to hoards of likeminded collectors (including the founder of this blog): the VHS tape.

NEMMC spoke with Nichols earlier this autumn and asked him to rewind for us the story of The Trash Pile–the idea idea turned web show turned blog/podcast–and to share with us what motivates him to act as one of many faithful believers in the VHS format.

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NEMMC: While getting to know you over this past year it’s evident that the VHS format holds a great deal of meaning for you. Can you talk about how being an advocate and podcast figure within the niche community of VHS collectors has impacted you?

Chris Nichols: For years the VHS format was something my father and I shared and spent time enjoying together (although going to the theater was just as important to us). I started collecting VHS around 1991 and for years in my neighborhood the kids and families would ask if they could “rent” the movies I owned. Back in the early days of Excel, I would print out spreadsheets with details about what was my VHS inventory. I suppose that’s what led to me searching out more and more movies that I hadn’t seen before–this is also where the podcast came into play a couple of years ago. The podcast (and our old web show) were all about starting a dialogue around movies that had somehow skated under the radar of fandom or had never received a proper release here in the states.

NEMMC: This web show sounds intriguing. What was that all about?

CN: The show was done online and it followed the format of the podcast with the addition of covering new releases on DVD and Blu-ray (as well as comic books).
We didn’t really have any guests to speak of–just likeminded friends. Mark Anastasio from Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre called in once to hype their annual Halloween Horror Marathon.

NEMMC: The Trash Pile has had some stops and starts over the years. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in keeping it going?

CN: The biggest challenge I’ve faced in the last six years of doing The Trash Pile is maintaining my own drive–having the will to do it. I’ve experienced instances of bad luck, I guess, in my personal life that has left me feeling depleted creatively.  The co-host of the podcast, Jason, moved from Massachusetts to Georgia late last year, so having the ability to sync up and to record has been tricky. Really, it’s all bullshit excuses because I should just write to write, or podcast to podcast–for the enjoyment of it.

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Chris Nichols, left; Jason Potter (right)

NEMMC: Can you talk about some of The Trash Pile’s limited edition VHS releases? Have you encountered any rights hurdles with talent or production/distribution houses? If so, how have you navigated those hurdles?

CN: Most of what I do is on the grey market [unofficial buying/selling/trading areas that exist outside the perimeters of authorized manufacturing channels] and my re-edits and re-releases are always of films that are not available for purchase in the States. If something has been released here [the United States] and is currently in print, I don’t touch it. In terms of the titles I’ve done small batches of, it really just comes down to if it’s a title I, personally, enjoy. The whole idea of the grey market was something that fueled my love of international and genre films. When I was in high school my friend, Jason, and I would attend comic conventions in Boston every few months in order to search for and pick up new movies. Without those conventions we wouldn’t have been able to see a lot of these films that never made it to the States by that point (e.g., VERSUS, BATTLE ROYALE, etc.) or special edits of films that were very hard to come by (e.g., the x-rated version of ROBOCOP). Of course the distribution arena has changed dramatically over the years and a lot of these once hard-to-find titles are now popping up on sites, like YouTube, for free.

NEMMC: Has the increased availability of rare and offbeat titles on places like YouTube and via other grey market retailers that are flooding the bootleg scene making your work harder and/or is it changing the focus and scope of The Trash Pile?

CN: For me, it’s all about increasing the exposure of these films. So, if there’s a rival way for people to view it (YouTube, other grey market outlets, etc.) that’s all the better. The Trash Pile was never a money or business orientated venture, but instead a way to share fun movies with people interested in seeing them.

NEMMC: I’m fascinated by your work involved with the release of THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN (1993). Can you talk about the experience of both discovering and, ultimately, releasing it on VHS?

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VHS release of THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN courtesy of The Trash Pile

CN: Like a lot of video collectors, I try and visit weird thrift stores and yard sales, year round. You’re never guaranteed a hit every time, but it’s all about the thrill of the hunt. As far as finding THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN, I was visiting a church book sale in southern New Hampshire when I saw the film while poking through any banana boxes stuffed with analog. I had never heard of it before, though that wasn’t a new thing as there’s always going to be something you’ve never seen before–but MACKLIN was different.

I’m a sucker for ghost stories, so, the film seemed like one that was worth the .75 cents. After taking the film home I looked for whatever information was available about it online, but couldn’t find a damned thing. I then looked up information on the director, Bob DuBois, and learned he was still around and living in the same Colorado town where he shot the film. I sent him an email and began a back and forth with him about how much I enjoyed his subtle little ghost story. I’ve always believed that no film should be lost and forgotten, so I asked Bob if I could do a small batch release of the film, and he agreed.

NEMMC: What do you think the value is in chasing down and re-releasing films considered by some to be lowbrow or trashy? What excites you about this flavor of cinema?

CN: It all comes down to one thing for me: entertainment. As I said before, I don’t think any media should be lost or forgotten, so a lot of what I’m doing (reviewing, watching, re-releasing) is an effort to not let a movie be forgotten. Believe me, there are a plethora of titles that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on, but I know that there is an audience for each and every one of those films regardless of whether or not I like them all.

NEMMC: Jumping off my last question, what is the value for you of collecting and distributing films on the VHS format?

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Composite print VHS release of ALLIGATOR courtesy of The Trash Pile

CN: There will always be a new movie waiting if you continue to dig into past releases that may have missed the digital boat. There are a lot of solid digital distributors putting out titles for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray. However, there are still thousands of films that haven’t seen the light of a commerce shelf in decades and unless there is a push from fans a lot of these movies could cease to be. That’s really what collecting/distributing is all about to me; making sure that the right entertainment finds the right person. Life’s too short not to be entertained.

NEMMC: Do you think the VHS format will ever experience a resurgence the way vinyl has been experiencing over the last decade?

CN: That’s a tough question as a big part of the modern renaissance in vinyl can be attributed to, in my opinion, the fact that production of turntables never really stopped altogether. Manufacturers like Denon, Pioneer, Yamaha and Sony never ceased production on their turntables. It wasn’t long after VHS stopped being produced that the production of VCRs slowed. For a few years the DVD/VCR combo sold moderately well, but finding that option in stores is not an easy task nowadays. A VHS resurgence would require a company to start manufacturing new players, similar to what Crosley is doing with turntables. If we get to that point I believe you’ll see VHS again.

NEMMC: What does the future hold for The Trash Pile? What are some of your goals going forward?

CN: Honestly, I’m not sure. 2016 has been a ridiculous year for me due to a number of life-changing events, so, doing anything creative like podcasting and generating more VHS output seems like a real challenge for me emotionally. I have been focusing on doing some manufacturing of VHS for directors and distributors who want their titles on an analog format. For example, I just did a batch of VHS for an awesome indie film currently hitting the festival circuit called, MUTE, by A Color Green–a production company out of New York. And I’ve also had directors ask me to give their films a VHS release, like Jason Stephenson, who ask me to release his film STRIP CLUB SLASHER earlier this year. His film is now part of The Trash Pile catalog. That was a really fun project because I had the chance to reuse ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ pink clamshell cases for the release.

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VHS limited release of THE LAMP courtesy of The Trash Pile

Chris Nichols and The Trash Pile project are a fun and creative insight into one of the many different ways in which collectors and VHS enthusiasts are keeping the format alive while simultaneously introducing or re-introducing the public to a variety of largely forgotten films of yesterday. Those of us who share their passion hope that Nichols can keep the creative juices flowing and continue to expose us to more analog craziness in 2017 and beyond!

Sifting: Technology, Trash, & Digging for Memories

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[Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture blog header image] Courtesy of It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
Do you remember those light up Santa lawn ornaments seen just about everywhere around Christmas back in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s? Well, they’re actually known as plastic blow mold light up lawn decorations and we had three of them when I was a kid: 2 3-foot candles and a Santa Claus. Once a year these objects lit up my life until, sadly, they finally burnt out and were relegated to the trash bin.

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[Santa lawn decoration] Courtesy of Homecolorideas.com
In the years since, I’ve thought of these objects frequently – in all their faded yellow and fire hazard beauty – and have longed to replace them. A reasonable person might ask, “Why? These things are just worthless trash.” Precisely. Oddball objects from my childhood (objects often created with a finite lifespan in mind) tend to be burrowed at the forefront of my mind and imagination. Fueled by a nostalgia for what was unquestionably an exciting and loving childhood, I find pleasure in scouring the various outlets (both in digital and physical) in the hope of finding items of yesteryear. And it turns out I’m hardly the lone traveler on this hazy sentimental quest for the forgotten and unsavory.

Brian Farrell of Abington, Massachusetts, first appeared on my radar when I stumbled across his ItsTrashCulture Instagram account somewhere in early 2015. From the moment I saw his colorful and entertaining posts (documenting everything from his flea market finds to obscure limited edition Halloween cereals) I was an admirer. It wasn’t just that I found his posts about “trash culture” entertaining, and his rationale for why trash culture is valid familiar, it was discovering someone who shares a strikingly similar appreciation for those material objects that appear to have been forgotten and swept away into the vast, shady corners of pop culture memory. Here is someone acting as a kind of pop culture archaeologist. My interest was piqued.

NEMMC sat down with ItsTrashCulture a.k.a Brian Farrell to talk about his motivations for collecting, his successful blog Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture, and how technology fits (and sometimes doesn’t fit) into his entire operation.

NEMMC: What is trash culture?

ITC: It’s an appreciation for the oddball and the obscure, the type of stuff that the masses might consider worthless or a waste of time.

Not everything is going to be [Ernest] Hemingway, [Steven] Spielberg or The Beatles, and that’s okay. Learn to celebrate the bizarre and the unappreciated with the same vigor usually reserved for “high art.” Trash doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. It doesn’t have to be thrown away. It shouldn’t be thrown away. Whether it’s art, music or a physical object, these things deserve to be preserved. We treat so much of our culture as disposable, moving on when anything shiny and new presents itself, and that’s criminal. You can find something worthwhile in even the trashiest of things if you look hard enough. Something worth celebrating. Something worth saving.

Not everything is going to be [Ernest] Hemingway, [Steven] Spielberg or The Beatles, and that’s okay. Learn to celebrate the bizarre and the unappreciated with the same vigor usually reserved for “high art.” Trash doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. It doesn’t have to be thrown away. It shouldn’t be thrown away. Whether it’s art, music or a physical object, these things deserve to be preserved. We treat so much of our culture as disposable, moving on when anything shiny and new presents itself, and that’s criminal. You can find something worthwhile in even the trashiest of things if you look hard enough. Something worth celebrating. Something worth saving.

NEMMC: Is there a connection between saving material objects from your youth and possessing a resistance to entering adulthood?

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[Movie novelizations for Dick Tracy] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
ITC: Resistance is maybe not the right word. There’s an element of avoiding adult responsibilities when you’re out hunting for or surrounding yourself with things that were intended for ages 8 and up. I don’t think that being an adult and enjoying childish things are mutually exclusive, though. It’s a distraction, maybe; a form of escapism in seeking out the types of things that you enjoyed in your younger days. I wouldn’t say it’s any different than binge-watching a television series or reading a book. Some people enjoy doing crossword puzzles and others like to complete their collection of “vintage” Toxic Crusaders action figures.

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[Toxic Crusaders toy collection] Courtesy of Zombiehamster.com
NEMMC: What drives your collecting?

ITC: There’s this jolt of electricity when you rediscover something from your childhood that you’ve nearly forgotten. It starts as a spark, but that energy spreads quickly. Suddenly remembering this thing also means remembering how you discovered it the first time. It can transport you back to being a kid again, those hazy days of yesteryear or perhaps a memory far more specific. You might recall a sleepover at your best friend’s house simply by finding an old He-Man toy at your local Savers Thrift.

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[Recent acquisition of VHS tapes from local library] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
It’s more than just adding another piece to your collection. It’s about reawakening and reconnecting with a part of yourself that you thought you’d lost.

…It’s partly driven by nostalgia, but there’s also an element of satisfying that primitive hunter-gatherer still lurking deep inside. Some collectors are content to purchase on eBay, knowing exactly what it is that they want and how to get it. That feels like cheating. You have to go out and really search for stuff – leave no flea market or garage sale unsifted. There are times where I enjoy the act of digging through bins and boxes more than anything else. Not knowing exactly what you might find inside, the strange new things you could discover, or perhaps there’s an old “friend” you’ll reconnect with. And sometimes you find nothing at all, but that’s okay. There’s always next time. There’s always a next time.

NEMMC: Have digital technologies impacted the way in which you source and preserve ephemeral objects?

ITC: Absolutely, yes.

..I find it difficult to express myself properly here. It could be that I feel so disconnected from a time when I didn’t constantly have a smartphone on hand to use as a resource and a tool. Possessing the ability to document every single aspect of my life: What I had for breakfast, what I was reading on my lunch break, the weird things I discovered when I stopped at the thrift shop after work. If there’s something I don’t recognize there, I can likely identify it via a search engine in just a few seconds. Or I can check in with one of my many collectible-based Facebook groups to see if anyone can ID it. [A primary example is the public Facebook group, Vintage Toys and Action Figures.]

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Snap a picture and share it on Instagram. Immediate preservation and there for everyone to discover.

Old VHS can be uploaded onto YouTube and then tossed away. A landfill of obsolete plastic and magnetic tape thanks to digital videos.

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Screenshot, 1980s diet infomercial

Commercials people haven’t seen in twenty years are suddenly available at the click of a button. Be careful, though, because it’ll lead you down a dark path where you’ll waste away hours of your life watching animated ads and ancient infomercials. Remember when Max Headroom was trying to sell Coca-Cola?

Catch the wave, kids.

NEMMC: What do you see as being the relationship between “trash culture” and that which would be considered by the masses to be high art or material culture of lasting value and significance, such as jewelry?

ITC: People have a strange relationship with the things they enjoy, whether it’s considered high art or something else entirely. The concept of guilty pleasures, of “so bad, it’s good”, and everything else in-between is sort of mind-boggling to me. Value is an arbitrary thing that we assign to objects and to art; who’s to say that you can’t find true merit in the works of R.L Stine? Why is CITIZEN KANE (1941) more culturally relevant than HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN (1988)? It usually comes down to the product’s quality – perceived or otherwise – and that’s not always fair.

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[Poster] Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)
You may have an artist that is more technically proficient than another, but that shouldn’t devalue the latter’s work. Both are as equally important to different people.

You should never be embarrassed to enjoy things that may be seen as “trash” to the masses. There’s obviously something there that speaks to you, and you should never apologize or make excuses for your passions. While these things may appear worthless or bad to others, it’s the value and significance that you assign to them that truly matters.

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[Assorted comic books] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
Trash and high art are actually the same thing if you look at them the right way.

The same holds true for material things; a bottle of Crystal Pepsi could be worth its weight in gold and jewels to one person. It sounds crazy, I know, but I’ve seen people drop $50 on boxes of Hostess Twinkies before…

NEMMC: Items that are assumed to have a finite existence, or perhaps deemed outright ephemeral (here I’m thinking of fast food toys, stamps, toys with no clear association to an external product such as a film or television show, etc): What is the appeal of or draw to these things?

ITC: Speaking of strange relationships…

I hate seeing things simply tossed aside, which can be occasionally unhealthy living in such a disposable culture. Parent purchasing odd toys and collectibles for their children that get tossed aside when something new comes along. A couple months, maybe even weeks, and here’s the next big thing for kids to obsess over. Maybe those same children have decided that they want an iPhone instead. So, these families end up with boxes of Pogs and Pokemon cards sitting up in the attic for a decade or more. They’ll eventually be donated to the Salvation Army, but who’s going to  want them now?

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[Intellivision video games] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
That’s where I step in.

I feel oddly protective of these ephemeral things. I’ve talked before on my blog about taking unwanted and unappreciated objects, toys and books and VHS, taking them home with me to clean them up and treat them right. Like a sick or injured animal, I want to nurse them back to health. If no one else wants to protect and preserve them, then I’ll do it gladly. Sometimes I’m able to connect with someone else who can appreciate these things, and that’s even better. I’m always happy to get them into the hands of other collectors that will treasure them. Spread the wealth. Share the trash.

NEMMC: Talk about venues for sourcing prime trash culture: Flea markets, thrift stores, estate sales, antique stores, and so on. What, if any, significance, do these spaces hold for you?

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[Flea market hunting] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
ITC: It all comes back to the hunt. You’re not going to be able to walk into a big-box retailer and discover the kinds of treasure that are hiding away in places like flea markets and thrift shops. Literally hiding away. Part of the allure in visiting second hand sellers is the actual act of digging through boxes of stuff and not knowing what you might find. What others may have deemed as worthless junk, well, it could be exactly what you’re searching for. You’ll never know what’s lurking in bins of beat up toys, though, unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty. And your hands will get plenty dirty at the flea market.

Look at it as a form of pop cultural archeology; excavating long lost remnants of decades prior to best remember where we came from and where we’re heading.

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[Food soldier toys] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
Why would anyone want to forget about the Troll doll resurgence of the early ‘90s? There’s no better way to preserve such a culturally relevant period than discovering a “burial ground” of Battle Trolls at your neighbor’s garage sale. Future generations will thank you for your dedication and hard work. Your name will be synonymous with saving something truly meaningful from being lost forever.

NEMMC: Why start a blog and Instagram account and blog? What do you get out of maintaining these digital venues?

ITC: The idea behind starting up Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture was a simple one. I wanted to write about the stupid and wonderful things that catch my attention, whether it’s waxing nostalgic about VHS or showing off the decades-old party supplies I find at liquidation outlets.

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[Homemade sculpture, rescued from local thrift shop] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
The blog was intended to be a place where I could share things I’m passionate about, hoping that it would allow me to connect with like-minded individuals with a taste for the odd and the obscure. It’s difficult finding people who enjoy similar films/music/books/whatever in your day-to-day routine, but the Internet opened a door to meeting good-natured weirdos who just want to chat about Happy Meal toys and the films of Fred Olen Ray.

Expanding into other social medias, like Instagram and Twitter, have allowed me to reach an even larger audience. There’s a glut of nostalgia and pop culture- based blogs out there, and it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but by broadening my reach, I’ve been able to connect with more readers and several of my blogging peers. Instagram, especially, has been an important tool in building the It’s Trash Culture brand. Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing a picture of my latest VHS finds.

After our interview I found myself with even more questions for Brian about trash culture and his own collecting: How does he interpret this concept of “preservation” with respect to the material objects he collects? Where is the line between the indiscriminate amassing of stuff (some might call it hoarding) and targeted collecting? Does he possess any kind of cataloging system in order to monitor what he has in his collection? What’s more, how has the formation of larger collector communities supported and/or hindered the aspect of object discoverability? Finally, I would love to probe further into the restorative work he is embarking on with some of the objects he unearths. I look forward to following-up with Brian sometime in the near future.