My latest interview was with Mark Baumgarten, a journalist and editor-in-chief of City Arts magazine. Mark has just written his first book, a narrative nonfiction called Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music. We Seattle natives are no strangers to the word of K Records and the deep-rooted influence it has had on our music scene: being a teenager in this city meant automatic exposure to the music of Beat Happening, Mt. Eerie, and Bikini Kill. We should consider ourselves lucky; realizing that for some, it took a childhood in the midwest and an introduction to college radio to expose them to this music. Mark Baumgarten was one such person. Two years ago, Mark set out to write the story that we Northwesterners think we know so well, that Mark says none of us know the half of. In his own words,”There was no master narrative…I wanted to write the book that I wished was around 10 years ago, when I started to learn about the history of the music in the Pacific Northwest.”
Mark will be reading an excerpt of his new book on July 13th for the Record Release Party at the Henry, as well as on July 18th at Elliott Bay Book Company.
Read on to discover what Mark had to say about the trials and tribulations of writing his first book.
On the experience of writing his first book:
It was life changing; it was really intense. I’ve been working in magazines and periodical publications for 12 years, which is great and really fun, but as for individual stories you’re telling, you can only really skim along the surface. I was able to interview people involved in the history of K Records, immerse myself, and get really deep into this story I was telling. It was a transformative experience of understanding how to really tell a story. I feel like I was able to experience great empathy with my subjects and really connect with them, which was super satisfying and something I have never experienced, and that I want to experience again.
On the challenges of writing a book:
The biggest challenge was getting over myself as a journalist. As a person learning someone else’s story, you need act as though you are the least educated one in the conversation, and admit that you don’t know anything. Typically in conversation, you want to encourage a person on with a story so you don’t ruin their flow, but I had to learn to encourage tangents to learn the whole story. For example, if Calvin Johnson was telling me a story and he mentioned Steve Connell, I had to ask who that person is, and ask Calvin to dive into that tunnel. Then it’s important to bring it back and include it in the bigger story. As a journalist, it was surprising that this was such a great challenge to me. I had to really reach out to people and ask them to share their story with me, which a really difficult emotional challenge.
On the interview process:
I probably interviewed about thirty-something folks. I wish I had another year to interview more. You feel like you’re collecting information for psychoanalysis when asking people about their past. There is definitely a therapeutic element, where some of these people haven’t told these stories since they experienced them 20 years ago. For most, they were really happy to share. As the process went on, I had more of an idea of what the story really was. I was able to kind of form a correct idea of what was happening through my questions. One thing I wanted to do with this story is figure out what it all means, without imprinting my understanding of the story. The problem with opinions is that they distract from the story.
On choosing K Records as the subject:
I grew up in the Midwest; in Wisconsin. I went to school in Minneapolis, then I moved to Portland and got my first job as a music editor there. I wanted to move to Portland or Seattle, because all the music I was listening to was from here. I’ve always been really focused on the music that’s being created in the city that you live in, so when I moved to Portland I really wanted to learn the music history of the city. So I dug deeper into the Northwest artists that I had already been listening to when I was in college. I’m a story teller, so I want to understand where these people come from. So as I was digging I began to discover what the community was in the PNW, and it would always come back to K [Records]. Nirvana, Sleater Kinney, Kill Rock Stars, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, all this music that I was so into, go back to this record label. At the time, there was really nothing, no master narrative. I knew there was a story there.
On playing music:
I’ve definitely played and recorded songs. Music for me is therapeutic…if I have a bad day I go down to my basement and bang on my guitar. I was in a band in Portland that was an improvisational electro dance band. It was more of just like finding rythums and playing single string guitar circles over and over again. We really had no idea what we were doing, but it was all very charming. Music has never been a communicative art form for me. its always been something more internal. It just isn’t my form.
On the impact:
This is a story that people need to hear, whether or not they are a huge fan of K music. Even if they just like one of the bands on K Records, this book will give them a chance to see what K Records was really about, which was building a creative community based around an ideal. I hope that the stories in the book find further expression. I know that’s vague. I hope that it results in works of art. I hope that it results in songs and works of art, and that people think about works of art while their creating things… which I guess is the very definition of inspiration… I hope it lives on in other art forms. I guess the main thing is that im not too hung up on what the critical response will be, but im more interested in readers who are creaters taking aspirations from it. That’s what I’m interested in.
Many thanks to Mark for the interview, and see you all at the reading on July 13th!