7 For Seven: Seven Questions For ... Zachary Lipez
"Art is Kid A, because sometimes art is very boring."
Every second and fourth Friday of each month, Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven” interviews writers talking about writing. This week’s guest is Zachary Lipez. Zachary Lipez is the co-author (w/Stacy Wakefield and Nick Zinner) of 131 Different Things, Please Take Me Off The Guestlist, Slept In Beds, and No Seats On The Party Car. He has written for sites ranging from The Washington Post to Penthouse, sings in the goth metal band Publicist UK, and tends bar (in theory) at 124 Old Rabbit Club. And Zachary wants you to check out … his (brilliant) newsletter Abundant Living, his band, his poetry, and his father’s mystery novel. Read this interview on your browser.
Editor’s note: Since this interview took place, Zachary’s mother passed away. He now asks that I pass along this link as a place to donate: https://www.elizabethfreemancenter.org/get-involved/donate/
Tell us: What (all) do you do? Bonus points if you show us how you got to where you are today.
I write and sing in bands and I tend bar. The order I put those jobs in depends on who is asking. I usually say “bartender” when I don’t feel like talking about the other two or if I”m talking to a bartender or if I’m outnumbered by writers and want to make clear that I work for a living just like a lumberjack.
I’ve been working in bars since, at the age of twenty-two, I quit working at The Strand bookstore. First I worked at Beauty Bar, a beauty salon themed rocker bar that still exists on 14th St., and then I worked at Mars Bar, a rocker themed junkie bar that’s now a TD Bank a block away from a John Varvatos store. If COVID/the city’s incompetent response to COVID doesn’t permanently close it, I still tend bar at 124 Rabbit Club in the West Village.
I became a music writer through a combination of bartending and being in bands that, while never being hitting the medium time, were popular enough that other musicians knew they could hang out with me without being hit up for favors (label owners were another matter entirely). At some point, the publisher of the newly formed VICE music site, Noisey, asked if I wanted to write about all the young NYC hardcore bands I wouldn’t shut up about. I did. Some of the punks were unhappy about being written about in VICE and threatened to stab me, my editor, and, on Facebook, my girlfriend’s sister. I didn’t love the thought of being a culture vulture or my girlfriend’s sister being threatened. But I was excited at the idea of writing things that people actually gave a shit about. A peace was made with the punks and eventually many of them would have publicists who would write to me asking for their artists to be in VICE. And I would! Because I love punk. (And it should be noted that Zohra’s sister, being accustomed to both reporting and building schools in their native Afghanistan, wasn’t super worried for her personal safety.)
Walk us through a typical day.
Well, with COVID, my day isn’t as thrilling as it once was. I make sure I wake up in time to fill out my online unemployment forms and send out whatever pitches I can think of. Most music sites have slashed their freelance budgets so there are not that many pitches I can make at the moment. But there’s still usually some busy work to be done, even if it’s just touching base.
My sister is a grade-school teacher and when she was teaching remotely she did so from my mom’s house. Since I couldn’t go see my mom anyway, and my sister was there, for the first few months of lockdown I did a fair amount of volunteering for God’s Love We Deliver. Now that my sister can’t be there in person, I’ve quit volunteering so I can stay at home more consistently, get tested, and then go to Massachusetts once a month to do shit around the house and hang with mom.
So, basically, besides all that, my day is: sleep till about noon or whenever the cats want to play laser, stare at my phone for a couple of hours, get off some boosterism and/or passive-aggressive tweets, get breakfast, send emails, passively watch Real Housewives with Zohra as she works on music, deal with whatever life/family shit is on the table for the day (finances and cancer treatments have been popular topics for the last couple years), maybe get pizza, and then, around 9 or 10 PM, I get to work. I listen to promos while writing and take note of the stuff that sticks. If I’m transcribing interviews, I’ll do it for as long as my back holds out. If I’m working on an assigned piece or my newsletter, I’ll usually write till about 4 or 5 AM. If Zohra and I are making music together or we’re helping each other with individual projects, we’ll usually go till about 6. We feed the cats at 7 and then go to bed. On days I have to do interviews, I do ‘em whenever is convenient for the interviewee. If they’re not in another country I usually ask to not do it too early but I realize that the promotional machine cannot always accommodate my bartender hours.
Describe more about how you work; how do you do what you do?
The tending bar part is pretty self-evident I assume. The writing part isn’t much less so. I sit in front of my computer and do the work. I usually have transcribed interviews, notes I wrote on my phone while on the subway, or just the art I’m discussing to get me started. I drink an ungodly amount of coffee. Occasionally I’ll take a non-prescription adderall. I mention that not as (pretty pathetic) gonzo-esque brag. But I think it’s important to note that I use whatever means are at my disposal, without embarrassment. For most people, drugs aren’t a great idea (and I for one can’t write if I take even a sip of alcohol), and when most people find adderall useful it’s purely as a tool for needed concentration or to make research bearable. I find it conducive to creativity. But mileage may vary. I’ve also learned that I should wait a few hours before pressing send on anything written under the influence. Not that my editors don’t appreciate the extra 2,000 words on the subversion of continuity in Keith Geffen’s Ambush Bug 1980s comic books, and how that sensibility informed his later Justice League of America run, but occasionally they like some clean copy, as a treat.
With edits, I usually try to get to them during business hours, with just coffee and daylight as fuel. I take my editors’ suggestions largely on faith (they’re usually right) and will only push back when I feel like something significant is being lost. Or when a reference is hilarious and profound and it’s only being lost on the editor because they’re twenty-seven years old and haven’t read as many comic books as I have.
In terms of doing interviews; I always start by telling the subject that they should feel free to tell me to fuck off if a question is annoying and also to please not say anything so offensive that I have no choice but to focus on it and ruin their career. The latter part is probably unprofessional but I don’t care. I don’t give a shit about being pals with the people I interview but also, as someone who makes music and who has had negative interactions with the music press, I’m essentially (and barring them being a complete scumbag) on the artist’s side. Anyway, after the preamble, I just keep them on the phone for as long as I can and ask them a lot of questions about their parents and what music they listened to. I’ll ask about their new project of course but only as much as is necessary/interesting. Too many questions about specific songs or whatever generally leads to either boring answers or answers that you’ll think are charming until you see the same quote in every other interview the artist does. I don’t begrudge artists for repeating the same anecdotes (after all there are only so many ways to say “this song is about how I hate Trump and love Weezer”) but the few times I’ve had profiles that shared quotes with contemporaneous profiles on other sites, I’ve wanted to set myself on fire.
Then, if an assignment’s budget allows for a transcription site I’ll use one. Otherwise, Zohra or I do it.
What’s your trick for when you’re feeling stuck?
Though I’ll certainly go long periods of not being inspired to work on my own stuff (like fiction or lyrics or poetry etc), I’m rarely so stuck with the work at hand that a good, short walk (or even pacing around the apartment) won’t fix it. If that doesn’t work, I’ve found grabbing a poetry book off the shelf and opening it at random helps. I don’t read poetry for meaning (which usually eludes me anyway) but for the language. All those bomb-ass words floating around. And nobody will notice if I just take one or two. If all that fails, I’ll just take half of an adderall and cancel whatever plans I had for the next day to get work done and/or not be depressed.
List some of your notable influences, past and present: writers, books, works of art, anything and anyone that has inspired you. Also: The best article you read recently?
My formative influences, besides my dad’s writing and my mom’s talking, were/are Stairway to Hell by Chuck Eddy, the lyrics of Andrew Eldritch, the lyrics of “Club Mekon” by The Mekons, MRR columnists of varying quality/morality (I pay heed to both my inner Jes Skolnik and my inner Ben Weasel), the poetry of James Tate, and Lisa Crystal Carver’s Rollerderby ‘zine. Eddy probably had the biggest influence on my writing and Carver, for good or ill, the most profound effect on my worldview. I’m lucky that Bukowski never did it for me and even while I loved Harry Crews, I never got too hung up on writing like a real man. In my twenties, I discovered the plays of Wallace Shawn and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Both of those fucked me up pretty good (especially the last scene in Killer of Sheep, where they’re slow dancing to a Dinah Washington song … dang). I also went through a heavy Saul Bellow phase but not so much that I ever subscribed to the notion that being a study of “real human types” excused tedious racism. Since then, I’m influenced by a fair share of music writers, either in the positive or negative. I’m not going to list even the positive influences because I hate those twitter lists of writers to follow that invariably leave someone out who thought they were friends with the listmaker. Our purview is too nerdy to justify cliques. Other constant influences are Mishima’s Temple of The Golden Pavilion (sorry!), and the lyrics of billy woods.
Things I’ve read recently that I’m most stoked on are Maaza Mengiste’s wonderful The Shadow King, and Gary Suarez and Craig Seymour’s extremely useful newsletters. I don’t know if Mengiste’s novel influenced me per se but, if she did, my next book is going to be good as hell. I’m violating my previously stated “let’s not list music pals” rule because Gary helped me set up my substack and is, therefore, besides being a boss journalist, largely responsible for my largest source of lockdown era income. And when Craig Seymour, who I don’t know personally, ends each missive with “Until next week, be cool, be kind, be creative, be yourself.” I say to my phone, “OK, Craig. I will do my best.” and my day is improved.
And, of course, my biggest influence is my partner, Zohra Atash. Besides a decade of artistic/philosophical give and take, Zohra reads all my writing and it’s only through her influence and kind critique that I’m not torn apart and/or canceled every other week.
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Advice time: What’s a piece of wisdom that you wish you first heard when you were starting out?
I’m hesitant to offer advice for a number of reasons. For one, my background. I’ve always had to work for a living but I also always knew that if the bottom fell out I’d at least be able to borrow money from my mom. She’s a retired nurse practitioner but her mother married a lawyer after escaping Austria in ‘38 ... so, without apologizing for my mother’s work/good luck or her mother’s hussle/incredible good luck, there have always been resources available to me that are unavailable to others. While not so rich that a life of leisure was ever in the cards, I’ve always had a safety net that most (young, new, otherwise marginalized) writers simply don’t have. It would be grotesque of me to offer professional advice.
In terms of advice that I wish I’d gotten? I don’t know. I loathe getting advice as well. I’d probably be more “successful” as a writer if I’d stayed in high school and/or gotten more than a two-year degree in college? I’d at least understand other writers when they reference Foucault or Hobbes? But I liked not going to school and I liked tending bar and I even (occasionally/often) liked being in bands that didn’t make it. Now I’m in bands that have some fans and write stuff that some people read and I have a perfect girlfriend who never fails to lift me up. Not to mention two cats with personality to burn. What would good advice have done? It’s not like continuing my education would have made my MySpace bulletins any less regretfully edgy. Since I didn’t even start writing for sites/magazines till my mid-thirties, I could say “ignore those 30 Under 30” lists and don’t let the pressure to “succeed” affect you. But I def let those lists bum me the fuck out and who knows if I’d ever gotten anywhere if I didn’t? I have always been angry and dissatisfied and that has served me fine. Maybe I’d be a senator now if I’d been more zen in my twenties but maybe not. Sorry, all I have to offer is neurosis and defense of bad impulses. If you’re in the market for refrigerator magnet advice for stardust souls, there are websites for that.
“Art”: What the heck is it?
Woof. I dunno. Art is the last scene of Killer of Sheep. Art is Tony Curtis saying, “The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river” in The Sweet Smell of Success. Art is Louis Malle imposing his humanist worldview over Wallace Shawn’s intention for My Dinner With Andre to be a caustic indictment of his class because art is oppressive as heck. Art is No Home’s Fucking Hell. Art is Tom Cruise smiling at Vanessa Redgrave in the first Mission Impossible. Art is Kid A, because sometimes art is very boring. Art is the TV show Justified and, by extension, Elmore Leonard and, by extension to that, the drumming on the new Protomartyr album and, by extension to that, the album’s critic diss track, and therefore all critic diss tracks. So art is Nick Cave’s “Scum.” Obviously. Art is the final frame of The 400 Blows and art is also Pauline Kael calling my dad a wimp for telling her that the scene made him cry. Art is that photo of Ariana Grande looking up at Pete Davidson (as an inverse of the saying about art, you know it without seeing it). Art is Sheer Terror’s “Roses.” Art is “lemonade was a popular drink and it still is,” and art is Bruce Willis crying in the backseat in 12 Monkeys. Art is every version of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Weirdly, no version of “Wagon Wheel” is art. Go figure. Art is Noura Mint Seymali and art is Godflesh’s Streetcleaner and art is Ahmad Zahir and art is the Angus soundtrack. I dunno. Who cares. What’s art done for me lately (that song is DEFINITELY art). In the words of New Bomb Turks: “Art is just a job.” Which sounds dignified and awful.
BONUS: Cats or dogs?
Cats. But dogs are nice too.
BONUS BONUS: Money time! What's a specific piece of financial advice that you wish to pass along to a writer just starting out?
With the necessary caveat of the previously stated disinclination to offer advice, I’ll just advise not to be embarrassed about a side (or main) gig. Tend bar. Wait tables. Whatever. If all your friends are writers, it ain’t going to be good for your work (or personality) in the long run. And if you are a young writer who doesn’t do cocaine, but for whom addiction doesn’t run in the family, consider taking it up. (That advice applies to culture writers only. I don’t know what weird shit actual reporters get into.) I AM OF COURSE JOKING. But I see so many advice-givers acting like “just doing the work” is enough. If you can afford to gladhand editors/other writers, using whatever social lubricant is currently in vogue, it may help. Or not. I’ve never actually understood how any of that works. I’m just full of dark suspicions. Either way, don’t make out with anyone either above or below you in the social hierarchy. Probably safer to just not make out with any writers/editors if you can help it. Along those lines; people also always say “don’t be a dick,” but that feels more aspirational than pragmatic. You will invariably run into people who will, for reasons maybe known not even to themselves, try to destroy you, psychically and/or financially. These people do not deserve your PMA tattoo. So perhaps better advice is “Don’t be a dick first.”
BONUS BONUS BONUS: Pick a piece of writing that you’re proud of and walk us through how it was done: How you got the idea, how you confirmed it was going to happen, drafting the piece, editing it, and publishing it?
Most of the stuff I’m most proud of in the last couple of years has all been for The Washington Post, but I don’t know how instructive/interesting the details of the process would be to a reader. I pitch the editor there, David Malitz, at least once a month. He usually (nicely) says no but a few times a year he says yes. So I do a shit-ton of research and listen to the artist’s catalog and new album steadily for about a month. Then I either interview the artist (most recently Jarvis Cocker and Algiers) on the phone or in-person (occasionally traveling to do so … that’s where the bartending money comes in especially handy). Then I procrastinate for a week. Then I transcribe the interview(s) and write and submit a billion words. Then David writes me back and (nicely) says, “These are too many words.” Then I agonize over cutting a single gorgeous word, either mine or that of the interviewee. Then I tell myself to stop whining and cut a thousand words and resend it. Then David writes back and (nicely) says, “Can you maybe cohere all these threads? Why is there a paragraph about The Mekons?” Then I reread all my interviews and see if there’s a single thread that I’ve overlooked. There is. Then I rewrite the piece with that as the throughline. Then David cuts a bunch of needlessly obscure references, asks me to clarify any sentence with more than six commas in it, and shows me a final draft.
As a rule, I try not to compare the final draft of any piece with the original in more than a fact-checking manner. It’s important to not give ego more than an afternoon to assert itself and then induce any hangups about gorgeous sentences sent to a watery grave. Invariably they aren’t as hot as the ego may think. And if they are, I throw them in a novel-notes scrap heap, for some character to someday say and really wow the shit out of a theoretical reader. Anyway. Then David and I bounce a few potential headlines back and forth. In my entire time as a writer, no editor has once accepted my headline idea. So I mainly just suggest ones to be a good sport. Then the piece runs and I promote the shit out of it (DEF PART OF A WRITER’S JOB … anyone who tells you not to retweet praise wants, in their heart of hearts, for you to fail) while aching for that first feeling of my first Washington Post piece when everyone on Twitter was so impressed. While that first feeling of “having made it” is irretrievable, I take comfort that my small success might, in some small way, cause my enemies pain. If I couldn’t believe in that possibility, I wouldn’t be able to pitch in the first place.