Keeping Maine Strange, Part I – The Beginning

By John Campopiano

In this multi-part series, NEMMC sits down with Brendan Evans, curator of curios and creator/owner of one of the few independent multimedia shops left in New England, Strange Maine. An unassuming honey hole of obsolete media, found photographs, and punk rock t-shirts, Strange Maine has been a local Portland staple and out-of-towner “must-see” since April 2003.

In Part I, Strange Maine founder, Brendan Evans, sheds light on how a compulsion for collecting and binge watching horror movies on VHS led to the creation of a tiny storefront that has grown into a small mecca for those determined to feed their passions for collecting all things local, independent, and offline.

fullsizerender-5
Strange Maine interior, 2017
NEMMC: What was the genesis of Strange Maine? How and when did it first open?

Brendan Evans: When my friend, Shea Mowat, and I were in our early 20s we were diehard movie junkies. We watched videos until 6am almost every night–with heavy a emphasis on horror, low budget, and art films. During the day we would drive all over Maine and New Hampshire visiting mom and pop video stores–which back then could be found in every New England town. Around that time they were all upgrading to DVD and selling off their VHS tapes for $1 each, 2 for $1, even 4 for $1–and these were gems! There were so many obscure 1980s horror videos in particular. We would fill Shea’s trunk with bags and bags of horror tapes. We had shelves, milk crates, stacks of these things. In fact, once a cop pulled us over at 2am for having a tail light out and he noticed all of these suspicious looking bags in the back seat. We told him they were all full of horror videos but he really didn’t understand what we were doing.

At some point we started talking about opening our own video store–even though we really didn’t have much money. I was working as a projectionist at a third-run movie theater in Portland while Shea worked in a group home with schizophrenics and the mentally ill. Between the two of us we only had enough money to buy mountains of tapes that no one else seemed to want. Initially, we thought we would buy an old van and drive around southern Maine like a bookmobile and rent these tapes out to people: drive a circuit and come back to each town at the same time every week to recollect our tapes and rent out more, etc., all the while continuing to scour thrift stores and yard sales for new inventory.

But we never got the van.

It was an idea that we knew was absurd and, though we were sincere, it just never really took off. But the seed was planted and we had acquired all of this stuff and wanted to spread it around to people. Meanwhile, after four years I quit my projectionist job. It had become very routine. After taking a month off (and watching more movies than ever– sometimes ten a day or the same one three times in a row) I realized that I couldn’t get another job. No one wanted to hire a high school drop out with no phone, no car, and dreadlocks down to his butt–just an overall bad looking dude.

fullsizerender-6
Congress Street in Portland, ME, circa. 1985. The local arcade, Starcade, would eventually become the second (and current) location of Strange Maine

But I tried. I applied to be a parking garage attendant, a night watchman–any low impact, menial labor–but the no phone, no email thing was a major stumbling block. So, I started looking at store fronts that were for rent. Even though this was 2002, rent was still pretty pricey: it was looking like $1,200 – $1,500 per month for second story office spaces or out of the way storefronts which I would have had to take a bus to get to. It was all pretty discouraging. But then one fateful day I saw a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window of a place right in the middle of downtown Portland (and only three blocks from my apartment.)

By that time I realized that I would need to sell records, too, in order to make a shop feasible, so Shea and I decided to open a kind of media thrift store with no particular emphasis on any format. Strange Maine was born.

NEMMC: And this was back in the early 2000s?
BE: Right. We signed a lease in February 2003 and had the keys on March 1. We worked seventy hours a week for a month and had our grand opening on April Fool’s Day of that same year. In those days, most of the contents in the store I had hauled over hundreds of separate trips from my overflowing studio apartment–from my place to the shop and back again. Over and over. Pile by stack by crate by sackful. This was all during the US invasion of Iraq and my route went straight through an occupation of anti-war protesters who were camping out in Monument Square. Most days I’d take a minute and add my voice to the chorus of the disaffected–it was an exciting and emotional time for me. I felt like I was joining society for the first time in my life.
fullsizerender-10
Interior of the original Strange Maine location, circa. 2004
NEMMC: So, was the majority of what was sold at Strange Maine originally from your personal collection?

BE: Early on we put a sign on the door stating that we were buying records, tapes, videos, DVDs, books, etc., and that folks should just drop in while we put the shop together. A lot of the early content in the shop came from those drop-ins, most of whom were willing to trade for store credit. Tons of punk rock kids would drop by with their hardcore 7-inch records and zines, which were previously collecting dust in their closets because no one would buy.

When we finally opened for business on that Tuesday, April 1 in 2003 there was a line of people waiting to get in–many of whom had credit slips and wanted to scoop up the stuff I had been putting in the window display in order to generate interest in the shop. Most of those things were from the cream of my own collection. I had emptied my apartment in order to jumpstart the shop and many of those records, books, and videos I sold I still miss today. But, of course, it was worth it to have some cool stuff in the shop.

I was 23 years old and only wanted to make enough money to pay my rent and eat three or four 7-11 hot dogs a night.

fullsizerender-8
Paul Reubens, aka, Pee-wee Herman, visits Strange Maine in 2005
NEMMC: It seems like, even today, that Strange Maine leans a little more heavily on cult and horror films and music. Was this always the case? 

BE: I did notice that some people were really excited about particular records and movies; passionate about books; thrilled to find 80s punk demos on cassette for $1, while other folks had the look of sharks or vultures when they’d find something they could flip for a profit on the Internet. But I think the punks who came to the store really dug the socialist approach I had toward that stuff and they really championed the store. I was there five or six days a week, noon until midnight, sometimes later. It was a great time.

My vision for the space and its contents continued to grow and I became very possessive of the shop–it became my world and Shea, who still had a day job, felt excluded and left about six months after it opened. Occasionally I would close for a day or pay a friend to man the shop so I could have a day off, there were  a couple of occasions where I handed over the keys to a regular who’s name I didn’t even know with the hope that they wouldn’t do anything too heinous. I didn’t have a computer still, or a cash register, and I didn’t accept credit cards…but I was proud of the fact that if the power went out the only real affect it would have on the store was that it would be marginally dimmer (though it was already the darkest record store I had ever been in, having just three or four 60 watt track lights for illumination).

Back in those days it was a very simple, funky, rinky-dink place. Some folks still view the shop this way–but now it’s very tidy, organized, efficient, and much more of a capitalist venture now than it was back then.
img_4789
Strange Maine interior, 2017
In Part II, NEMMC and Evans discuss the darker (at times morbid) side of Strange Maine. Coming soon…

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.

trashpile_logo

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.

393248_177225832412711_1075465086_n
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?

trashpile_macklin_vhs
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?

green
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.

10987617_579056028896354_1407618860581366647_n
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!

Rustic VHS: Digging at the Tape Barn

By John Campopiano and Matt Spry

Stretching over 20 acres with more than 400 vendor spaces, the Hollis Flea Market (established in 1964) in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, purports to be the largest and oldest flea market of its kind in the Granite State. The outdoor market is so busy, in fact, that according to the official website, “we need two Hollis police officers to direct street crossings.” While the market offers countless options for vintage fashion, antiques, and novelty handmade items — on a recent visit we spotted a toilet seat fashioned into what appeared to be a four-string bass — a rust-colored barn on the outskirts of the market’s main drag is of particular significance to media-heads. [Authors’ note: John scouted out the location first, nearly two years ago, and urged Matt to visit, remarking in an August 2014 text that he’d “never seen anything like it.”] More than 400 miles and a hundred purchases later, this characterization still holds up.

The “Tape Barn,” as we’ve affectionately come to call it, really consists of two distinct entities, neither of which references the VHS format at all: Murphy’s House of Books and Ruth’s Book Barn. The main proprietor of both of them, Mark Murphy, has been a vendor at the Hollis Flea Market since 1998. Just three years later, he began a business relationship with another vendor, an elderly woman named Ruth, and integrated his book inventory with her movie inventory to help her with the weekly rigors of maintaining her vendor space. By 2004, this full collection of books, DVDs, and VHS tapes was moved into the barn as it exists today. More than 15,000 VHS titles adorn its shelves — most were purchased from private collectors over the years as video stores went belly up —  with an additional 25,000 titles (Mark’s estimate) residing at Ruth’s home as overstock.

IMG_20160527_170722
Matt’s fresh picks from the Tape Barn as of May 2016

On any given Sunday from May through October, Mark and one or more of the Barn’s other workers can be found moving stack after stack of crates full of tapes to more than a dozen outdoor tables for easier access. The barn itself is appropriately simple, with only daylight to brighten your view of the shelves, and more than a few cobwebs to add a uniquely woodsy touch. There are three narrow, floor-to-ceiling aisles to navigate that extend about 20 feet back from the entrance. Unlike your favorite video rental store, which likely arranged titles by genre and displayed the front box covers, the Barn’s tapes are ordered alphabetically and show the box’s spine text, the way libraries shelve books. (A stiff neck is a common symptom of scanning the shelves over extended periods of tape-digging — the bottom shelves are the absolute worst in this regard.)

And, as most repeat visitors will likely discover, it’s not just them who feel the aches and pains from tape-digging at the Barn. Occasionally, as a result of being exposed to New Hampshire’s seasonal elements (wind, rain, snow) tapes will emerge each spring a little worse for the wear. Ultimately, it comes with the territory when you’re dealing with a grassroots project such as the Barn. With such a massive inventory and the lack of a staff, it’s not surprising that addressing preservation issues and performing general upkeep of every tape is essentially an unachievable goal. For the avid tape-digger, however, the questionable condition of some of the tapes is less a deterrent as it is an added element of intrigue and perhaps even excitement. The issue of ongoing preservation of their inventory is something that may continue to plague the keepers of the Barn while simultaneously grabbing the attention of like-minded collectors and admirers of the medium.

The patrons with whom we’ve shared this unique space seem to be film fans like us — people in their late 20s through their early 40s who have defined tastes in genre films, perhaps horror or direct-to-video action — with some material nostalgia for the VHS format itself. More important, most of them probably hold the notion of serendipitous discovery in high regard; stumbling upon an obscure or even a personally sentimental title in the “wilds” of a flea market or vintage store is somehow more satisfying than getting a used copy from an Amazon seller, or winning an eBay auction. In discussing her fondness for flea markets in a prior exchange with John, makeup and special effects artist, Stacy Still, articulated this idea, saying that “as a massive tape collector, I’m always on the hunt for new tapes, ones that I remember fondly from my childhood at the video store.” There are few people for whom the act of poking around a cramped and dusty barn to simulate the past experience of video store browsing still holds appeal, but there are even fewer places that provide this opportunity in the era of media streaming.

The Barn is just one of several remaining VHS treasure troves of which we’re aware, but unlike Scarecrow in Seattle, WA, or Movie Madness in Portland, OR, it doesn’t have a well-lit brick-and-mortar location to sell its wares. Its staff isn’t comprised of film buffs with a fondness for 1980s slashers or 1970s kung fu epics. Instead of engaging customers online through a dedicated Twitter feed or even a website, Mark relies on a local Craigslist post that he periodically refreshes throughout the market’s open season. Many VHS enthusiasts will visit the Barn and see a collector’s paradise; its selection, trade-in policy, and prices ($3 a tape or four for $10) really can’t be beat. Despite the breadth and depth of his inventory, it’s not evident that Mark shares the same enthusiasm for the format or the nostalgia that his patrons often do. (He owns “a few” VCRs and acknowledges that interest in VHS persists because “not everything is on DVD,” but also says that his books might actually outsell the tapes.)

IMG_5999
Some of John’s favorite VHS covers found at the Tape Barn

With a presence at the Hollis Flea Market spanning nearly 20 years, and more than a decade of selling VHS specifically, it’s unlikely the Barn will be going anywhere anytime soon. (Ever try to sell out an inventory of 40,000 tapes? Not an easy venture.) It’s difficult to gauge Mark’s plans for expansion or advancement — he alluded to creating a searchable image database for his titles — but the beauty of the Barn is its simplicity. There’s magic in its dusty floors, in the awkward positions in which you need to contort your body to see certain rows, and in the pockets of crisp air near the back wall on a warm July morning. For purely selfish reasons, we don’t want any changes at all, because we’ve never seen anything like it.

John’s purchases from The Barn:
-Aberration (1997, Artisan Entertainment)
-*Batteries Not Included (1987, MCA Home Video)
-Blood Link (1986, Embassy)
-CHUD II (1988, Vestron Video)
-Circuitry Man (1989, RCA Home Video)
-The Club (1994, Imperial Entertainment Corp.)
-Code Name: Zebra (1990, Star Classics)
-Count Yorga, Vampire (1970, HBO Video/Orion)
-Cutting Class (1988, Republic Pictures Home Video)
-Cyborg Cop (1993, Vidmark)
-Dark Breed (1996, PM Entertainment)
-Dark Universe (1993, PRISM Entertainment)
-Death Drug (1986, Academy Home Entertainment)
-The Dirt Bike Kid (1986, Charter Entertainment)
-The Dive (1989, M.C.E.G Virgin Home Entertainment)
-Eat and Run (1986, New World Video)
-The Evil Within (1994, A-Pix Entertainment)
-The Expectant Father (1993, Video Treasures)
-Florida Straits (1986, Orion Home Video)
-Forgotten Warrior (1986, Monarch Home Video)
-Freddy’s Nightmares: The Series (1991, Warner Home Video)
-Gargantua (1998, 20th Century Fox)
-Ghosts That Still Walk (1986, Interglobal Video Promotions)
-A Gnome Named Gnorm (1994, PolyGram Video)
-Graveyard Story (1992, Goodtimes Home Video)
-The Haunted Lantern (1997, Asia Pulp Cinema)
-Jack Frost 2 (2000, A-Pix Entertainment)
-Jaws of the Alien (1988, Star Classics)
-Kuddly Kittens (1990, MNTEX Entertainment)
-Little Monsters (1989, MGM Home Video)
-Lobster Man From Mars (1990, IVE)
-Meridian (1990, Full Moon Entertainment)
-Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983, MCA Home Video)
-The Meteor Man (1993, MGM Home Video)
-Mr. Nanny (1993, New Line Home Video)
-My Mom’s a Werewolf (1988, PRISM)
-My Uncle: The Alien (1996, PM Entertainment)
-Planet of Dinosaurs (1993, EDDE Entertainment)
-Playing Dead (2000, Academy Entertainment)
-Prehysteria! (1993, Paramount Home Video)
-Project: Alien (1989, Vidmark)
-Proteus (1996, Vidmark)
-Psychic Killer (1975, Embassy)
-Psycho II (1983, MCA Home Video)
-A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987, Warner Home Video)
-Screamers (1980, Embassy)
-Shallow Grave (1990, Paramount Home Video)
-Short Circuit (1986, CBS Fox Video)
-Spaced Invaders (1990, Touchstone Home Video)
-Stepmonster (1993, New Horizon)
-Strange Invaders (1983, Vestron Video)
-The Surgeon (1993, A-Pix Entertainment)
-The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986, Media)
Matt’s purchases from The Barn:
-Abraxas (1990, United American Video)
-Angel of Fury (1992, Imperial Entertainment)
-Anguish (1987, Key Video)
-Bad Blood (1981, Academy Entertainment)
-Band of the Hand (1986, Columbia TriStar Home Video)
-BrainWaves (1983, Embassy Home Entertainment)
-Cage 2 (1994, Summa Video)
-The Carpenter (1988, Republic Pictures Home Video)
-The CBS/FOX Guide to Home Videography (1983, CBS FOX Video)
-Chinatown Connection (1990, Southgate Entertainment)
-Cut and Run (1985, New World Pictures)
-Dead Tides (1997, Live Home Video)
-DeepStar Six (1989, IVE)
-Double Blast (1994, Vidmark)
-Dragonfight (1990, Warner Home Video)
-Eye of the Eagle (1987, MGM Home Entertainment)
-A Fight for Honor (1992, York Home Video)
-Fist Fighter (1989, IVE)
-Free Spirit: The American Biker (1991, Visual Entertainment Group)
-The Joy of Natural Child Birth (1985, MCA Home Video)
-Laser Mission (1989, Platinum Disc)
-The Legend of Gator Face (1996, Lions Gate)
-Link (1986, Home Box Office Home Video)
-Making Contact (1985, Anchor Bay)
-Merlin and the Sword (1986, Vestron Video)
-Mindfield (1989, Magnum Entertainment)
-The Moon in the Gutter (1983, RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video)
-Nightflyers (1987, IVE)
-Ninja Enforcer (1976, New Pacific Pictures)
-Ninja Mission (1984, Media Home Entertainment)
-No Retreat, No Surrender (1986, New World Pictures)
-The Playroom (1989, Republic Pictures)
-Raw Courage (1984, New World Pictures)
-Rock House (1988, Coyote Video)
-Rooftops (1989, Avid Home Video)
-S.A.S. San Salvador (1983, Vestron Video)
-Sudden Thunder (1990, AIP)
-A Taste of Hell (1973, Star Maker Video)
-Thunderground (1989, SGE Home Video)
-Torment (1986, New World Pictures)

Collector Communities & the Magnetism of Obsolete Media

The rush. There’s a rush you get when you’re rifling through boxes and crates of VHS tapes hoping to stumble upon that rare gem you’ve been looking for since high school. These boxes seem to always have a similar scent, that faintly familiar smell of a basement closet or a relative’s apartment (and that relative is always a heavy smoker.) The hunt is something I know all too well about. Since middle school I’ve obsessed over horror films and have spent (and continue to spend) hours researching, hunting for, and collecting movies on a variety of (mainly now obsolete) formats: laserdisc, betamax, VHS, and more recently DVD and blu-ray. (I also have some Video 8s tucked away.)

IMG_4520
John Campopiano with part of his movie collection, 2015

In my seventeen years of collecting I’ve come to realize that certain movie genres have greater appeal than others with respect to those diehard collectors: horror, exploitation, sci-fi, action and kung, and the more vague drive-in style trash/cult genres typically from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

11013157_811156125622476_5601210726155442614_n
Lynne and Steve Salvail, owners of the now defunct American Video (Seekonk, MA)

Like many others, I wax nostalgic about being a wide-eyed kid in our local rental store (American Video) browsing the horror aisles. (Certain VHS covers are permanently burned into my brain.) Indeed, it seems as though even within a relatively small subculture of collectors there exist distinct subgroups who favor or specialize in specific areas from genre to case style (clamshell vs. slipcase, for example).

Below are some favorite hard-to-find tapes from my VHS collection. (Top, left to right: NUKIE (1987); GANJASAURUS REX (1987); WHEEZY! (asthmatic dragon video for kids, date unknown); THE BRAIN (1988, Greek version). Bottom, left to right: SLITHIS (1978, aka SPAWN OF THE SLITHIS); TREMORS (1990, screening tape with alt slipcase); TO CATCH A YETI (1995).

 

In her 2014 article for The A.V. Club,”Direct From Video: The Rise of the VHS Collector“, Katie Rife talks about some of the quirky particulars we collectors often experience when she says,

These fetishists fall into two broadly defined camps: the nostalgists, who are looking to relive childhood memories, and the aesthetes, who are drawn to the roughhewn beauty of low-budget horror. Both, like any group of collectors, err on the completist side—collecting every title from long- defunct distributors like Unicorn Video and Midnight Video is a common goal—and live to unearth hard-to-find or undiscovered videos that will make fellow hobbyists seethe with jealousy.

But regardless of your collecting preference, one needs outlets and venues in which to share, trade, buy, sell, collect, and get educated. Today, with so many subculture communities meeting and exchanging information via the Internet, finding these kinds of opportunities to meet fellow collectors in the physical world has become rarer and rarer.

Thankfully, however, there are people like Joe Fay at the Lyric Hall theater in New Haven, CT, who recognize that there’s not only a lingering interest in the VHS format but also a need for events and opportunities for collectors to come together to share knowledge and search for that long lost copy of something strange, or bizarre, or maybe even beautiful. So, when I learned about a VHS swap meet and screening event, Magnetic Fest, happening at the historic Lyric Hall theater (once home to regional vaudeville shows and variety acts) this past fall, I made sure I was there. After the event NEMMC caught up with Joe to talk tapes, Lyric Hall, and the increasingly fascinating world of VHS collecting.

11751760_965255593494676_6903838915436170529_n
Lyric Hall theater, New Haven, CT

NEMMC: How and when did the idea for Magnetic Fest originate? 

Joe Fay: As soon as I started programming for Lyric Hall in October 2014, I wanted to host a VHS swap at the theater. It’s a grand old dame of a place, really a one-of-a-kind setting for watching movies, music, theater, dance, and other creative arts. But I really thought that a VHS swap and screening day would work well in the theater, to mix some old with some older, in terms of the age of the theater compared to the age of the VHS format. Somehow it made sense, to roll in what is essentially a dead format to many people, and give it new life at a place that has survived for over a century. I had attended VHS swaps in Texas, where I lived for most of my life.

1560574_1022979607727229_4988309528625158807_n
SEVERED event flyer

Then, last year, a friend and I drove to Pennsylvania to attend SEVERED, pretty much the premier VHS swap in the country. I think it was about two weeks after SEVERED that we had MAGNETIC FEST on the schedule.

NEMMC: There were some special events scheduled throughout the Fest. Can you tell us about whom you asked to curate these events and why they were asked?

JF: We had three screenings during the festival: RUN COYOTE RUN (1987), NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985), and FRANKENSTEIN (I SWEAR ON MY MOTHER’S EYES) (1983). As it turns out, all three came about as the result of friendly relationships I had built with each of the releasing companies. The first movie, RUN COYOTE RUN, was distributed by Bleeding Skull Video (distributed by Mondo) in Austin, Texas, and I’m friends with one of the two guys who runs Bleeding Skull.

NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR was distributed by Vinegar Syndrome, based in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had met some of the fine folks who run Vinegar Syndrome at Connecticut HorrorFest, then worked with them at Lyric Hall on some screenings, including the amazing RAW FORCE (1982)!

Lunchmeat_Logo_Color

They’ve been amazing partners, and hopefully we’ll continue to see the partnership between Vinegar Syndrome and Lyric Hall blossom. The third film was released through LUNCHMEAT Magazine, whose owner, Josh Schafer is just the best we have going in the world of VHS. Josh is one of a handful of people who truly lives the life of VHS, and he’s a wonderful champion of the format. When I was trying to fill out the screening schedule for Magnetic Fest, I needed a third screening. I actually announced the festival without a third screening. I billed it as “COMING SOON” or something like that, and was confident that I would find somebody to screen something in the meantime.

COzQ2gVWgAAqVMXNo more than fifteen minutes after I posted the initial rundown of Magnetic Fest, Josh contacted me to see if I wanted to run a movie as a SECRET SCREENING because the movie was about to be released on VHS as a surprise offering, and it was too early to announce the title of the movie. I jumped at the chance to show the movie, and of course did so sight-unseen. If it was good enough for Lunchmeat, it was good enough for me. We were able to tell people a day or two before the festival, and it turns out that the movie, FRANKENSTEIN (I SWEAR ON MY MOTHER’S EYES) had its world theatrical premiere at Magnetic Fest in little ole New Haven. Subsequently, the movie was released on VHS by Lunchmeat.

 

NEMMC: How did you solicit vendor involvement for Magnetic Fest? Who were some of the vendors that participated? 

JF: Vendor involvement was all solicited through the Lyric Hall website and social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter. I personally emailed several prominent VHS collectors in the New York area, but not one of them was able to come. The lion’s share of vendors were local, which pleased me to no end.

12108220_1009950039025231_3782674110335909735_n
VHS for sale at Magnetic Fest 2015 at Lyric Hall in New Haven, CT

We had one vendor from Massachusetts and a late entry from Long Island, but the rest of the vendors, including me, were from the New Haven area. Interestingly, one of the vendors from the New Haven area just happened to come to one of our weekly exploitation movie screenings, and saw the poster for the event in our lobby. Turns out she worked for CBS Fox video in the ’80s, and she brought original production pieces and other marketing materials from RAISING ARIZONA.

NEMMC: What (if any) sort of feedback did you receive about the Fest?

JF: I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews about the event. If we do it again, I will tweak the amount of time we keep the vendor’s room open, because I think seven hours was too long. Also, we’re toying with the idea of opening the vendor’s room for free, and charging for the screenings. But, we’ll play around with it if we decide to do it again. I’m assured that everybody who came had something good to say about the affair, so keep an eye on the Lyric Hall calendar.

NEMMC: Lyric Hall is clearly a historic space and therefore a fitting venue for those interested in VHS and obsolete media to congregate. In the past it served as a vaudeville outlet and silent movie auditorium for those in the New Haven, CT area. Can you tell us about the history of Lyric Hall and how you became involved with it?

JF: Lyric Hall opened as a silent movie theater in 1913, and later served the vaudeville crowds until, I think, the ’30s. At some point, the theater fell into disrepair, then served as an antiques shop for awhile before John Cavaliere bought it about eleven years ago now. John has lovingly restored the Hall to its present glory, and continues to tweak its look and feel.

My involvement with Lyric Hall started with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL in August 2014. I had just moved to New Haven from Texas, and was looking for a movie theater to get involved with, to do some, any kind of programming. I saw a listing for a screening of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL that I had just missed that previous weekend at the Hall. I called up and talked to John, explaining that I wanted to schedule and host movie screenings, something that I had done in my backyard in Texas, and always wanted to do in a more formal way. From the start, we were a match made in heaven. He pretty much left me free to schedule whatever I wanted. We did a month of Vincent Price movies

around Halloween, a month of rock musicals of the ’70s, a special screening of the New Haven movie DEATH COLLECTOR with the director, Tom Garrett, LIVE in person, and a bunch of other cool movies. Magnetic Fest was a logical extension of the movie programming, and fit alongside it just perfectly.

NEMMC: There seems to be a small yet passionate subculture of VHS enthusiasts who live and breathe collecting and trading. In your opinion, why do you think interest in the format has persisted well after its heyday?  

JF: It’s one part nostalgia, one part preservation, one part community, and two parts fun. Nostalgia: most people who collect VHS want to remember the thrill of the video store. Preservation: there are hundreds, even thousands of movies on VHS that have not graduated to later formats, so it is absolutely vital that we have collectors out there sourcing and preserving these movies. Community: serious genre movie nerds feel very comfortable with their own kind. It’s just like any other subculture, where people find meaning, identification, and self-worth in knowing that there are like-minded people out there pursuing the same “dead” technology that they love.

I don’t think this current trend for VHS will last long. In fact, it’s already on the decline, if you ask me. What will be left is what is always left after a trend goes away: the truly serious collectors. And thank God for them.

NEMMC: Jumping off the last question, what do you think are the primary drivers for VHS collectors? It’s certainly not for the superior visual quality!

JF: See above for most of the answer here, but the question of quality is a good one. I don’t understand people who, given the choice between a high definition, widescreen version of ALIEN or the pan-and-scan VHS of ALIEN will pop in the VHS of ALIEN. I don’t get that. Have you SEEN the blu-ray of ALIEN!? It’s AMAZING! To watch ALIEN on VHS today seems to me to be nostalgia just for nostalgia’s sake, and that doesn’t interest me. In the recent Noah Baumbach movie, WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, there’s a scene where a Brooklyn hipster played by Adam Driver pops in a tape of THE HOWLING. This character is really into vinyl, VHS, and other retro stuff, and so naturally he enjoys THE HOWLING on VHS. But why? Shout Factory just released an amazing blu-ray of THE HOWLING, and it’s GORGEOUS! VHS-Logo.svgYet, this chump still finds value in watching this great movie on VHS. To each his own, I guess, but that’s not for me. Give me the better picture quality and sound, and leave nostalgia at the door for movies like ALIEN and THE HOWLING.

Now, I would think differently about watching something like NIGHT VISION (1987) on VHS. The movie itself was SHOT ON VIDEO, so it’s natural to watch it on its original format. As my friend Zack Carlson is fond of saying, “Why would you want to watch a movie shot on a camcorder, on blu-ray?” And he’s absolutely right.

There is also one other issue to me that helps me forgive people watching sweeping epics on VHS, and that concerns access to and availability of titles on home video. Many, many people have built large collections of movies on VHS $1 at a time by shopping at Goodwill and other thrift stores where VHS is cheap. You can certainly amass movies much faster this way than buying blu-rays at $20 or $25 each. And that is certainly understandable as a way to enjoy movies on home video. You just have to stop caring about presentation, which isn’t such a big deal to most people, sadly.

NEMMC: Are you a VHS collector yourself or do you merely admire from a distance?

vhs-398740_960_720JF: Yes, I am certainly a collector of a sort.I’ve always had some sort of video collection, going back to my dad buying two VCRs and dubbing movies in the ’80s. Just because ofmy age, I started collecting movies mainly when DVD hit, so most of my collection is composed of DVD.

I was one of those format snobs who left VHS behind for the greener pastures and correct aspect ratios of DVD. I wish I had tempered that transition more. At the present time, my focus on VHS collecting lies in two main areas: shot-on-video movies and movies not available in any other format. In that direction lies salvation.

Also, this:

Sifting: Technology, Trash, & Digging for Memories

TRASHHH
[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.

sd006127-hard-plastic-blowmold-40-christmas-santa-claus-outdoor-yard-decor-light-up-8
[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?

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 9.59.04 AM
[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.

SONY DSC
[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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 9.54.30 AM
[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.]

539651_3571554057365_1618557766_n

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.

grapefruit-45-steak
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.

hellcomestofrogtown
[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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 9.58.11 AM
[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?

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 9.56.22 AM
[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?

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 9.56.18 AM
[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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 9.59.21 AM
[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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 9.54.49 AM
[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.

The Good, the Bad, & the Nostalgic: Exploring the World of a Vaporwave Artist

By John Campopiano

What sorts of things inspire and propel your creative pursuits? How about neon lights? Swanky hotel lobbies? 1980s or 1990s designer clothing? Elevator soundtracks? Carefree cruising on the boulevard? What about mid-summer rooftop cocktail soirées? Or the hissing of muffled analog? Dead media, the 8-bit era of video game consoles, or TV commercials from your youth? These images, eras, and ideas – somehow simultaneously familiar and yet foreign – are some of the primary themes and creative drivers behind the electronic music genre known as vaporwave.

Since  2012 one musician in particular, Luxury Elite, has been experiencing a steady rise in exposure as well as popularity.

Luxury Elite's 2015 album, World Class.
Cover for Luxury Elite’s 2015 album, World Class.

With 16 digital releases available (via their Bandcamp webpage) in addition to several physical releases on cassette, Luxury Elite has been pumping out dreamy, nostalgia-drenched grooves and, as a result, witnessed a healthy growth in followers which has only helped further cement vaporwave’s place in an ever-growing sea of electronic music sub-genres.

Excluding their own music-making, Luxury Elite also spent time running the now defunct Fortune 500 – a music label with heavy leanings toward vaporwave artists as well as a kind of, LE stated in a 2014 interview with Hong Kong Express, “last resort label” for artists unsure of where to take their music (but who also wanted to make a larger splash than most self-releasing efforts can achieve.)

We recently sat down with Luxury Elite to talk about everything from their creative inspirations in and process for music-making to the nuts and bolts of the vaporwave genre including some of the elements LE feels define it. We also touched on how they source some of the found sounds, “muzak“, and other samples that can be heard in their music, as well as some of the legal issues they worry about encountering along the way.

Screen shot 2015-10-23 at 11.48.02 AM

New England Media & Memory Coalition: Can you give readers a basic primer on what vaporwave is?
Luxury Elite: [Vaporwave] is sample-heavy music, usually sourced from jazz/funk/disco songs from the 70s, 80s, even some 90s material. It’s sort of like when you were a kid playing with your sister’s boombox and you had fun speeding up and slowing down her cassettes you were listening to. It sounds silly when written, but there’s just something about the genre that really makes a person feel nostalgic about your childhood, about the 80s; it’s like a rose-colored glasses sort of vibe. It really romanticizes the 80s especially.

NEMMC: Can you talk a little about what your compositional style and whether or not you’re performing on any of your albums, or if at the moment LE’s music is 100% sampled?

LE: 100% sampled for now. I cut and chop these songs myself via a WAVpad editor and then add effects from there. I used to use Audacity but now I am playing around with Audition. I’ve almost included original composition on Crystal, because I felt like it felt empty, but I felt like my composition was really bad so I didn’t include it. I would like to include them one of these days, I just need to stop being so down on myself in regards to it. It took me months to actually do Luxury Elite because of insecurities but I did it, and look what happened.

NEMMC: Since the birth of this sub-genre has it evolved in any way or has the genetic makeup of it stayed relatively unchanged?

LE: It has evolved quite a bit. In the beginning, the genre was a bit more simple. Lots of looping, very simplistic stuff going on. As it gained popularity, new artists came along and then sort of went into their own directions. It’s been going into a more ambient direction, sort of a strange cryogenic ‘chamber-y’ feel, and I think Dream Catalogue [a vaporwave/dream music label] has a lot to do with that. I’ve also been noticing the new trend of trying to make vaporwave without samples, too, which I think is really neat when pulled off effectively. With all of these new directions, though, I feel like everybody still has a parallel path to the vaporwave sound and feel.

a1981406536_5
Cover for Luxury Elite’s 2013 album, TV Party.

NEMMC: You’ve said in past interviews that the music you create transports you to a different time – a different life. Can you talk more about the transformative outlet vaporwave music provides you?
LE: You know how certain shows can suck you in, where you feel like you’re in that show? Twin Peaks was like that for me, I felt like I got lost in that world as I watched it, and I didn’t want to leave. That’s how vaporwave has felt for me since day one. It’s like I’m stuck in this world of aerial skyscraper videos and 1980s commercials. When I work on Lux, I imagine this world where Lux is a real person, living a life of grandeur. Never runs out of money, always with a wine glass in hand and the nicest pair of earrings. I’ve noticed when I am feeling down is when I make the best Lux music, because I run away into that world and use that as my escape from the real world. Sometimes the real world is too much to take, sometimes it’s good to escape. But sometimes is key, you can’t let yourself escape from the real world forever.

NEMMC: Can you talk a bit about the found sound / samples you use in your music, and how you they’re sourced?
LE: I usually find my music through hours of searching for tracks on YouTube. Music searching puts me in a trance, but there have been many times I have gone through and have found nothing. I am extremely picky with my samples.

843c752e3577d8221b740875acf1895d
Luxury Elite’s album, Fantasy, on cassette.

NEMMC: On an aesthetic level what kinds of sounds are you attracted to? Would you say Luxury Elite has a “signature sound” or characteristic — even if buried underneath a sea of other sounds?
LE: I’ve noticed a lot of my songs have claps in them, I think I have a thing for songs with claps. They really have to pack a punch for me to fully enjoy them, or be one of those types of songs that gets stuck in your head, an “earworm”. I really like songs that ignite the imagery I like to use for Lux: skylines, beautiful people, lots and lots of gold. I like the songs to sound rich.

NEMMC: Would you say that your musical inspirations and creativity is at all fueled by nostalgia? Please talk about how nostalgia and longing have impacted you personally and musically.
LE: Nostalgia has been a huge motivation throughout my life. As a kid, I was obsessed with watching television with my parents and my sister. I’d be obsessed with watching MTV (fun fact, Sinead O’Connor made me cry at four years old, I guess her tears affected me that hard) and Mary Tyler Moore and Jenny Jones. I lived in front of the television when I wasn’t playing outside, and I know people usually frown upon that kind of thing but I sort of thank my parents for it because it really shaped how I am today. I am obsessed with pop culture and nostalgia and I am so thrilled that the 90s came back into style especially; it brings back all of those old memories for me.

Screen shot 2015-10-23 at 11.05.23 AM (2)
Image from Luxury Elite’s video mashup, Fantasy VHS.

Another fun fact for you: I used to really hate the 80s…I thought the fashion was cheesy, the music was awful, and it was just a bad time. My feelings on that started to change in 2011, which happened thanks to Tobacco, one of my all-time favorite artists and biggest inspirations. He released two DVDs called Fucked Up Friends that were filled with ridiculous commercials/porn/exercise tapes and the Fantasy VHS thing I did a few years ago totally ripped from that. But anyways, Turntable.fm came along and my girl Liz (from SPF420) got me into hypnagogic pop, especially James Ferraro’s, Night Dolls With Hairspray, album and LA Vampires’ release with Matrix Metals. It sucked me into a vortex. Around the same time I got way into Midnight Television. I knew of vaporwave because of Vektroid, who led the way into getting me into vaporwave. I would have never heard of it had it not been for her, Laserdisc Visions, release. I didn’t really get that release at the time, nor did I fully grasp the vaporwave concept until I got into Midnight Television the same week I fell in love with LA Vampires. I lost internet [access] shortly after that; Mr. Elite and I were too broke to pay the bill. MTV-Logo.svgThe rest of the summer was spent going to the library, getting albums to fill my fix of the lo-fi, tape hiss, 80s sort of vibe. I could not quench it, it became my life. (I’ve sort of gone off subject with this.)

Following getting my internet back and getting active on Tumblr again, I started a blog called ‘familyshowcase.’ I’ve told the story tons of times before, but I’ll quickly summarize: I was inspired by my peers who were posting tons of screencaps from various 80s commercials and I decided to do a blog of my own. I am on a torrent site that hosts hours and hours of old VHS rips and I downloaded lots of those as well as a ton of commercial blocks from YouTube and went to town with capping. I got totally lost in those hours and hours of blocks, to the point that it affected my real life. I was unhappy at that point in time; I was frustrated with my job and my financial situation was awful and other personal stuff was happening and I sort of blocked all of that out and lived life through these actors in these old damn commercial blocks. I was full-on in love with the 1980s and I was all for whatever these commercials were selling to me. I felt like a kid again, channel surfing and eating up all of the commercials. I loved it, but it became sort of a strange addiction. I ended up taking a break from the internet because of depression and other personal stuff; that’s actually right around when Lux started.

Screen shot 2015-10-23 at 10.46.38 AM (2)
Images from LE’s Tumblr account, ‘familyshowcase’.

Nostalgia is good and bad for me. I’m one of those people who focuses more on the past or looks to it when the present is not satisfactory and the future seems daunting. But nostalgia is so fucking inspiring. When I stumbled upon a commercial in the ‘familyshowcase’ days of perfume, jewelry, electronics, and saw these beautiful ladies sporting business suits and looking absolutely elegant, I would cap them like crazy. Those would be my favorite commercials, and those commercials really shaped how I wanted Lux to be. High class, rich, no cares in the world (well, outside of superficial, materialistic things of course). I work on Lux with that in mind and I pick what I sample carefully. Like I said, I’m extremely picky. I felt like vaporwave was sort of made for me, it’s why I am so passionate about it. A genre that plays around with old songs and rehashes them into something fresh, with heavy use of screencaps to accompany the sound/provide the visuals of what your song is going for…I didn’t live in the 80s, I was only 2 by the time 1990 hit, but vaporwave made me feel like I was a kid in the 80s and seeing all of the commercials, watching television with my parents and my sister. It just felt right.

0001013430_36
Luxury Elite’s album, Late Night Delight, on cassette.

NEMMC: It isn’t news to musicians/music lovers that vinyl has come back in a big way. We’re now even seeing a resurgence (albeit in limited markets) in cassettes. Can you talk a little about your views on how music is released – with regards to the medium? Have you released any of your music in a format other than digitally? What drove your motivations?
LE: Originally I had no desire to release anything on cassette, mainly due to copyright fears. But when the opportunity came along with the Late Night Delight cassette, I was too starstruck by the idea of it to say no. Cassettes are cute and tiny and fairly cheap to make (compared to vinyl) and much cheaper for a vaporwave fan to buy, and with vaporwave, I feel like vinyl doesn’t work as well. I mean, it does since releases in the 80s were either on vinyl or cassette, but vaporwave and cassettes go hand in hand. They’re more personal. The labels releasing them are doing them all themselves, and you have more say in the matter on album art, how the j-card will look, the color and design of the tape shell, all of it. It’s so worth it when you are holding your physical release in your hand. I prefer cassette to vinyl anyways, I think tapes are more fun to collect and cooler than vinyl.

NEMMC: How has the copyright and ownership of the content your sampling been addressed? Have there been any logistical challenges with reincorporating other music and sounds into your LE compositions?
LE: Copyright issues are terrifying to me. I am so afraid that somebody will find that I sampled their song and get absolutely pissed off and try to sue me. I try to not focus on it really, and just comfort myself by saying that I am not big enough for people to notice such a thing but it’s always something that stays in the back of my mind. There was a close call once with one of my tapes but the label was a total lifesaver and was ready to defend me to the death. Nothing ever came of it thankfully. The fact that my music is on Spotify and other digital distributors isn’t very comforting to me but like I said, I try not to focus on it. I’ve heard of bigger artists slipping through the cracks and never getting into trouble with their samples, but I’ve also heard of smaller artists getting C&Ds [cease and desists] for their samples. I can only hope that I never get detected and targeted…

NEMMC: Finally, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on the recent news coverage of the Aurora man who digitized a few years worth of Kmart store music from cassette to the Internet. Does this kind of preservation of the seemingly ephemeral fascinate you? Might the KMart music be fodder for future Luxury Elite tracks?
LE: I had so many people link me to the Kmart rips! It’s hilarious because my mom used to work at Kmart, so it’s sort of this full circle thing for me. Props to that guy for never throwing away those tapes and holding onto them for so long. My favorite part is that all of the rips are tagged as vaporwave. He knows his target audience! I am messing around with some of those songs, but I may use them for another project. We’ll see. 😉

It’s clear to me after speaking with them that for Luxury Elite – and perhaps other vaporwave artists? – the vaporwave genre is as much an escape as it is a creative outlet. I’m fascinated by these feelings of nostalgia that one can possess for an era or lifestyle in which they’ve never actually experienced before. For Luxury Elite, seemingly forgotten or overlooked visual media (perhaps seen by some to be ephemeral or even unworthy of preserving) provide creative inspiration that so often drives everything from their sound to album artwork. Indeed, YouTube is a rabbit hole that seem to offer endless material to those waxing nostalgic for aesthetics signature of a different time and place.

Of course the very issue of repurposing content of which you are not the owner is a complicated and highly debated one – fraught with legal and ethical considerations – it is one I will not seek to unpack here. That said, I do feel it’s important to note that artists of any medium would be wise to address more directly the issue of copyright and, at the very least, possess a familiarity of the challenges that borrowing and recycling other individuals’ work can present.

Ultimately, I’m fascinated by the drivers behind what vaporwave artists create. I think there’s something to learn in this exploration into the nostalgic mind, the loss of original context, and the creation of a new context in which new realities and meanings are created, shared, and sometimes recycled all over again.