MRR started as a radio show but is mostly known as a written publication. I’m unsure if many of its contributors who write often or periodically consider themselves writers, but I consider Sam Lefebvre a writer. In addition to MRR, Sam has been published everywhere from our local papers to major magazines. I wanted to know more about what he does outside of our seemingly insulated world of writings from the underground…
Have you always been a writer?
Sure! I remember entertaining the idea of becoming a writer when I was a kid. Then I lost a spelling bee. The defeat rattles my writerly self-image to this day. I wrote a Russian alcoholic story in fourth grade, a psychosexual analysis of Dr. Strangelove in fifth grade, and a paean to the wind in sixth grade. Somehow, I have yet to exhaust embarrassing writing topics, thus my focus on punk.
When did your writing mix with music such as doing zines? What zine are you currently working on?
I wrote lyrics in my early teens, notably a conceptual protest opus about Karl Rove for my first band, and started a zine when I was about seventeen. I felt inspired to make a zine because nothing like that was happening in my peer group. The impulse sprang from a void. I worked in a record store, consumed music voraciously, and felt possessed to try to express how songs made me feel and examine them in their cultural context, which is the same thing I do today.
My main zine project is Degenerate (aka Etrenegade/Degenetrenegade/ Appendegenerate), though I prefer to call it a “mag” and tend to think of it as more of a persisting sickness than a “project.” As an ongoing endeavor, making Degenerate is equal parts self-harm, penance, exercise in writing style, and feverish outpour.
How’d you wind up getting involved at MRR and Alternative Tentacles?
I discovered MRR at the Che Café in San Diego, where I’d take the bus to from the suburbs a lot. On visits to the Bay, I’d call MRR HQ and come over to green tape records. Mariam Bastami encouraged me to move and become a shitworker. Before moving, I also went and saw Jesse Luscious play in his then-reunited Gr’ups and interviewed his bandmates. He mentioned that he ran Alternative Tentacles, I stayed in touch, and he offered me an internship once I moved. I haven’t volunteered at AT for years, and only contribute to MRR sporadically nowadays, but those opportunities initially inspired me to move.
How did you start writing for the SF Weekly and East Bay Express?
A friend passed a copy of Degenerate to the music editor at SF Weekly, who got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing a concert. I started contributing to the East Bay Express to diversify my outlets, where I became the music editor earlier this year, which ended my Hidden Agenda column and contributions at SF Weekly.
How’d you wind up contributing to Wondering Sound, Spin, and Consequence of Sound?
I pitched to national outlets because contributing to the weeklies mostly limited my scope to local music. Amusingly, one opportunity came after I felt like a well-known publication poached some of my reporting and angle on a local artist for their own story. Instead of getting mad, I reached out and pitched.
How do you feel about bringing the underground to the masses? Do you feel that you’re doing any of the bands you cover a disservice by inviting people who are more mass consumers into the mostly non-corporate DIY world you cover?
What an accusation!
The traditional under/above-ground musical divisions are increasingly flimsy, definitely in the eyes of what music writers decide to pitch. Beyond that, once a recording is released, it’s severed from the artist’s intentions and enters into conversation with the surrounding culture. That’s the case for punk and pop and chip music. I try to engage in that dialog. I write about other genres, but punk is particularly resonant with me on an emotional and physical level, so my coverage skews towards it.
About doing bands a disservice, no. I actually don’t have that much power. Bands disservice themselves by acting foolishly.
As far as the “more mass consumers” bit, I don’t think we should pretend that punks somehow consume less or with more discernment than non-punks. People who just download pop music use a lot less plastic/paper/oil/trees than people whose apartments are full of records.
One of the coolest things about punk, to me, is that it reveres collective, ritualistic activities, like shows. Punk shows can be these amazing environments for celebrating deviance and momentarily subverting the power dynamics that mar the outside world. But a rare balance of venue, people, and sound is needed to make that happen. When punk shows are full of tourists, they’re less likely to tap that potential. I don’t think my writing has invited many tourists into punk shows; regardless, I hope that it has extended conversations instigated by punk to tourists.
These questions have an air of “what we do is secret” ho-hum. Recently, I interviewed a seventy-some-year-old theater organist. He’s played his entire life. He’s never been recorded. He performs with his back to the audience and doesn’t turn around. He’s always the opener. What he does is secret. What punks do is ego-driven and flayed on Tumblr, just like any other niche sort of music. It’s cool that punk retains regional character and homespun scenes despite that, but let’s not be precious.
What zines do you read?
I like some zines because they look great, others because I discover new things, and others because they have provocative ideas. As for recent publications, issues of Distort, Accept the Darkness, Ratcharge, Nuts!, and Make-a-Mess have combined all of those qualities. Honestly, I mostly read magazines lately. While I’ve never been very interested in perzines, I have tremendous respect for writing and self-publishing as a way for people to tell their story in their own words.
What music writers do you follow?
To paraphrase Cranked up Really High, an unjustly ignored book about punk by Stewart Home (who’d maybe prefer to be plagiarized), I tend to reject the list as an organizing principle. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend Fvck the Media, which sort of falls outside both the zine and music writing camps, The Quietus for essays, and Collapse Board, where I look for good contrarian takes on hip bands.
How can we best keep up to date on your writing?
Well, I have articles basically every week in the East Bay Express. My freelancing activity varies, though I have pieces appearing in Wondering Sound pretty consistently, a site I recommend in general. Otherwise, I’ve capitulated to the usual social media platforms.