JOHNNY TEMPLE with Williams Cole and Theodore Hamm
Johnny Temple is the bassist for Girls Against Boys, New Wet Kojak, and publisher of Akashic Books.
The following conversation took place in late February at Akashic’s home in Fort Greene.
Williams Cole and Theodore Hamm: You’ve done independent music and independent books. How did you move from one to the other?
Johnny Temple: I always wanted to start an indie label, because I liked music and had always been in bands. I worked for an independent reggae record label when I was in high school, RASRecords, and I really loved that. Then, when my band (Girls Against Boys) signed to Geffen in ’95, I finally had some money and so I started the label and put out a few releases. That was a fairly uninspiring experience, but then, on a whim, I published a book. It was such a great experience because the book got a lot of attention.
Rail: Which book was it?
Temple: It was The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian, which was later picked up by Simon & Schuster. It just got great reviews and all of the indie booksellers and stuff loved it and were supportive. So, after publishing it, I realized that I really was enjoying the publishing and that I wasn’t enjoying running the record label despite the fact that that really was my ambition. One thing lead to another and I just stuck with the publishing and stopped with the record label.
Rail: So tell us more about the Geffen connection. What happened?
Temple: They gave us a lot of money [laughs]. Our band got caught up in a bidding war in ’95. We were in the right place at the right time. It was when all of the indie rock bands were getting signed up. We weren’t so sure that we wanted to sign with a big label so we were a little bit coy about the whole thing, which was, in retrospect, a brilliant way to be because it just got them really worked up and, even though there are only five major labels, we somehow had 15 major labels trying to sign us—because all the various arms of the various conglomerates were competing against each other. We were on a European tour and they were all chasing us around Europe, putting us up in fancy hotels and all this stuff. It just built up and built up. We didn’t want to sign a deal that was going to be a very run-of-the-mill, crappy deal because we were set up pretty well with Touch and Go, a Chicago-based independent, but it reached such a fever pitch that they were making us offers we couldn’t refuse.
Rail: Did the band have any internal conflicts or debates about going with Geffen?
Temple: Oh, yeah, we probably spent 200 hours discussing it. I was the one who was opposed to it. I was the one saying, “No let’s stay indie,” and I’m glad I was outnumbered because there’s no way that Akashic would have started or that we would’ve been existing as a band for seven years now with no day jobs—I mean, I have a day job, but not a paying one. That would not have been possible had we stayed independent.
Rail: Let’s talk about some of the similarities between indie music and indie publishing. As an indie publisher, do you feel any resentment toward the conglomerates?
Temple: I resent what the big, corporate publishers are doing to our culture, but I don’t resent any writers for signing deals with them. It’s the same as music, in that they have a lock on all the major forms of promotion. In music, it’s radio—if you don’t have something happening on the radio, your label just doesn’t give a shit about you. In publishing, if you’re more of a grassroots operation, like Akashic, which isn’t relying on investors or some huge amount of money, there are very, very few marketing and promotional avenues that are open to us. I will say in defense of Barnes and Noble that they have a program called the Discover Great New Writers Program and they’ve selected two of our books: Some of the Parts by T. Cooper and Heart of the Old Country by Tim McLoughlin, and that’s a wonderful promotional opportunity. But because of the way that people buy books, if you want to sell a lot of copies, you have to have your book at the front of the store. When a new Akashic title comes out, it’ll be at the front of the store for maybe a week or two and after that it just sort of disappears and you’re lucky to even keep it on the back shelves. But, once it leaves the front, the opportunity to sell a larger volume of books basically disappears unless you’re able to get a really strong buzz or word-of-mouth thing happening. The only way to keep your book in the front is usually to buy it yourself. It’s the publishing version of payola and it’s a shame because there’s so much great stuff that’s happening on an independent level and these are things that are just not open to us.
Rail: In corporate publishing as well as in music, more money is put toward fewer artists or writers, thus perpetuating the star system. Do you try to expand the terrain a bit?
Temple: I like to publish books by authors that are tied into some sort of subcultural network, whether it’s a young feminist network or a zine like Punk Planet. These are people that are really active and out there in terms of building networks of people and building community, which is just crucial in terms of getting a sort of word-of-mouth going. On the other hand, I’ve published plenty of authors who are loners and hermits and if you publish an unknown fiction writer who’s a hermit, it’s almost impossible to sell their work. Unless—and this has never happened—their book’s literary merit is just shining so bright that it gets nominated for a gigantic award or gets selected for the Oprah Book Club or something like that. But other sorts of subcultural networks and countercultural networks can be a key way to combat the absence of major cash flow. In general, our mission is to publish writers who are ignored by the mainstream or have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers. For instance, right now we’re publishing a new novel by William Heffernan, a best-selling mystery author, who willingly took a step down to Akashic because he knew that he wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle here.
Rail: Are you opposed to doing trade books? Is there anything you won’t publish?
Temple: I want Akashic to represent something new and unique, so I think I have to be careful in my judgments. But when I look at the other independent publishers who have survived for 10 years, who make enough money to pay people and to pay people half decently, I think of Cinco Puntos Press, in El Paso, Texas. They publish Latin American children’s books and they sell tons of them, and that’s one of the things that becomes one of the pillars of the company. Akashic lacks pillars. Now that my musical career is tapering off to some extent, and I’m not making the kind of money I was several years ago, something needs to change around here because we can’t otherwise keep the company open. So I’m very much looking for some sort of solution and, if it means publishing books that aren’t my first passion, yet fit within the Akashic framework, I’m all for it. I would publish cookbooks if they somehow fit our mission and could help bring some income. Am I willing to make compromises? Absolutely. In order to bring in some income, I’m willing to make drastic compromises.
Rail: What if Rush Limbaugh sent you something?
Temple: I wouldn’t go that far, but I do like the idea of breaking the left/right paradigm a little bit. I identify myself very clearly as being left-wing and progressive, but I think much of the left has become stale and there has been a divorce between politics and culture that is becoming increasingly problematic. It’s interesting to see that a lot of your typical left-wing publications haven’t really noticed Akashic as a left-wing publisher because we’re more fiction oriented and we’re not publishing the obvious left-wing nonfiction books. I see part of our mission as making left-wing politics less obvious and making them taste fresher.
Rail: As a parallel to the Geffen thing: If a conglomerate wanted to buy Akashic, how would you react?
Temple: I hope that I never have to do that. I love publishing books. It’s what I want to do. I want to keep playing music too, but I want books to become, increasingly, my full-time thing. I need to find a way to keep it going. I think there are many things I can do—many heists I can pull to try and keep it going, but I’m going to be very resistant to just closing Akashic down because I can’t make ends meet. I really aspire to building a company that will not just compete with the big companies, but will somehow destroy them. I would love to be a part of putting the big corporations out of business. But I have nowhere near enough hubris to ever think that I will ever get there. I would like to be clear about the fact that I do want to be providing an alternative. There’s too much self-congratulatory behavior among independent companies and it leads people who support independent art to not realize how shut out we are. So I don’t pretend, yet, to being able to even come close to being able to compete with the big companies and I don’t want to form a company that’s just going to sell out to Bertelsmann. But, having said that, I think that there’s a real role for Akashic and if the only choice were to shut down or make some deal with Bertelsmann I don’t know what I would do. I certainly never would make a stupid deal with Bertelsmann and, if Akashic were in a position where Bertelsmann was trying to buy us, I think we would have many other options that would be much more appealing. I can’t say I would never do it, but I sure hope that I’m never in a position where that’s the only way to keep the company going.
Rail: If you start publishing Rush Limbaugh books as a Bertelsmann subsidiary, then we’ll start to worry [laughter]…Let’s talk about your background before music. Tell us about growing up in D.C., where your father was a civil liberties lawyer.
Temple: In the ’70s, for thirteen years, my dad ran the D.C. branch of the ACLU. My mom was a public defender. So I had two liberal lawyer parents—proud, card-carrying members of the ACLU. So the liberal thing is in my genes, practically.
Rail: Did you grow up in D.C. proper?
Temple: Yes. I grew up in D.C. I grew up off 16th Street, in the Northwest. It was a middle class, black neighborhood, and I went to private school until high school. Then I switched myself into a big public school. The school I graduated from (Wilson) was 10 percent white, but that was considered the white public school because it had so many more white kids than others. The D.C. public school system was, at that point, three percent white. So to switch from an excellent private school to the best public school and to see the difference there––and there was a chasm, you know, academically. In D.C. people will say, “Oh, Wilson is just as good as any of the private schools.” Well, no it’s not, and you really experience the difference in resources between a private school and a public school. It was just really interesting and so much of my life has grown out of that experience—everyone I played music with is from the public school system. I also became really interested in issues of race. And in college I ended up studying African American Studies at Wesleyan University and then I got a master’s degree in social work from Columbia.
Rail: And so were you involved in the go-go scene? Tell us about your musical experience in general.
Temple: Yes, I was part of the go-go scene. I even wrote the liner notes for one Trouble Funk album. In general, I was a huge music fan, having worked at a reggae record label in high school. I didn’t pick up the bass until my sophomore year of college, but then, in my junior year of college, someone quit a band in D.C. and I was asked to join. I was still struggling to learn how to play bass in the punk rock tradition. But now I really jumped in and learned as I went along, which became my musical schooling—the reggae thing on the one hand and then punk rock on the other. In D.C. the two were, in many ways, a bit fused, or there was an area of overlap dating back to the greatest hard-core band of all time, Bad Brains, who played reggae and punk and were from the D.C. scene. Reggae always had a lot of respect in D.C. punk and so it was nice to have a foot in each world and, working for the reggae label, I used to go down to Jamaica during the summers. I went to Reggae Sunsplash and had a backstage pass and used to hang out with all of the reggae stars. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of reggae up until ’85.
Rail: Did you ever have dreads?
Temple: No [laughs]. I sort of started to go down that path and then didn’t, but the singer of Soulside, the band I was in, he had nappy hair and he’s the one who had the dreadlocks and they suited him well. He managed to be a white boy with dreadlocks, who did not look like a trustafarian. Even that band had a reggae and a groove element, but we listened to a lot of go-go music. One of the really great things about D.C. punk was that it did take influence from reggae and from go-go and from funk music. Nearly everybody listened to funk. I listened to more hip-hop than probably any other musical form. So those have been the major influences musically.
Rail: How would you describe Girls Against Boys?
Temple: We’re kind of like a hard rock band. Sometimes I call it noise rock. It’s really an aspect of our band that I like, which is that we have all of these influences—go-go, hip-hop, and so on. But, unless you have a really discerning ear or really know our music, you wouldn’t necessarily hear that because we don’t have a straight reggae song or a go-go song. Our music is very rock, but it’s a groove rock. Most indie rock bands are more melody driven, and it’s just a noisier version of what you hear on the radio, whereas our music is rhythm driven. That comes from a deep appreciation of groove music. So though our music is hard rock, it’s a groove-based hard rock. I don’t think there’s that many bands like us. I think that’s one of the main things that makes our band unique. We really have sculpted our own sound and it has to do with being rhythm based.
Rail: So, how would you respond to John Strausbaugh’s argument, which is essentially “Don’t trust a rocker over 30”?
Temple: I think Strausbaugh would cut my band a break. I obviously don’t agree with him point for point, but I do think that, as musicians grow older, they have to find really creative ways to address the fact that they’re not young anymore because any rock that has loud guitars really taps into a very young spirit and I don’t think you can play your loud guitar as hard at the age of 30 as you can at the age of 20. So, if you’re still trying to do the same thing, I would agree with Strausbaugh that you’re not going to get as far doing the same thing. As people get older, they start liking jazz music more and I think it’s very natural.
Rail: I know you’ve published some books about music. Have you thought about using your knowledge and connections in the music world to develop a line of books specifically about music?
Temple: That’s a tough question because the answer is perhaps, which is sort of a development of where I was a year ago. By now I’ve played on 10 or 15 albums and been in a number of bands, so when I started doing book publishing, it was such a welcome break from music and the business of music. I just got so burned out on the music industry. Even on the independent level, I just don’t like all the hype and all the ego that comes along with music. Popular music seems to be half the art of the music and the other half is this image and the crowd and the fans, whereas, in book publishing, it’s much more weighted in favor of the art, because the author is so often invisible. Even if authors get hyped––
Rail: Rarely are they great showmen––
Temple: Yeah, rarely are they great showmen. Rarely will showmanship carry book sales because, to read a book takes many, many, many hours of commitment and it’s a much more serious endeavor than listening to music. Not as a rule, because to listen to music for some people who like classical music and jazz, can be extremely serious. But in general you can play music in the background and do other things. But though I didn’t want to publish music-related books, I’m kind of being drawn back into it and I do have a huge bank of knowledge myself about music, not just rock music, but reggae, funk, hip-hop, indie. Still, of the 35 books we’ve published thus far, maybe two or three are music related, although we do have some more in the works. I don’t think it will ever take over, but it could develop into a proper line, where we’re publishing two or three books per year on music-related themes. It’s starting to appeal to me more. It makes sense because it’s natural for me as a musician, but I’m sort of coming off of this anti-music perspective.
Rail: Are there any connections between playing music and fiction, perhaps. Is there some way in which you see what you’re doing as a continuation of your music?
Temple: I think so. Playing music is so great. It’s just so fresh and it’s not literal and it doesn’t always take itself seriously because it’s not dealing with words and necessarily concrete concepts. Whereas with fiction, you’re obviously dealing with words, and there’s this sort of suspension of rules. You can make this world and you can do whatever you want, and, in that way, I think there’s some sort of analogy between music and fiction, whereas nonfiction is fairly literal. There’s a sort of surreal and fantastic element to playing music that’s also there in fiction, and that appeals to me. But I don’t want to leave nonfiction behind because I care passionately about issues of social justice and I think the world needs more independent publishers challenging people’s beliefs. Nonfiction is an important part of Akashic and I definitely want that to grow as well.
Rail: Let’s close the interview on a personal note. Tell us, Johnny, what’s David Geffen really like?
Temple: I only met David Geffen once.
Rail: Was he nice?