Justin Pearson is a real prick. I don’t mean personally; he’s actually a really nice guy. But essentially, Pearson is a mirror to the austere elements of his world – one that is violent, tragic, and absurd. In today’s indie/punk music scene, there is no one quite as notorious as him. The 34-year-old has amassed a track record well beyond his years, while always remaining artistically one step ahead of the curve and never once compromising his terms. Beginning with the avant principles and sounds of emo-hardcore outfits Struggle and Swing Kids, to founding the truly independent label ThreeOneG, to the perverted brutal sex disco of All Leather and the mass-hysteria inducing experimentalism of The Locust, Pearson’s beliefs, work ethic, vision, and aesthetic have garnered worldwide fame fueled on a hand-to-mouth and shoestring existence.
Completely unlike any other band to ever exist, The Locust’s ability to perplex audiences and garner the most proactive crowd interaction, albeit negative most of the time, is completely singular. Not unlike early Expressionist plays, The Locust’s performances have caused outright riots while still holding a weird esoteric integrity, with Pearson at the eye of the aesthetic storm. His new book From The Graveyard of The Arousal Industry, published back in May by Soft Skull Press, is a candid look at the experiences that made the artist who he is, the reactions garnered as well as spewed forth from a sometimes horrifying, sometimes funny, and definitely interesting life.
Skyscraper: Although written as a memoir, From the Graveyard of the Arousal Industry is among the first real glimpses at the history of D.I.Y. 1990s hardcore. I was jolted seeing the names of bands like Born Against and U.O.A. in book print, even though I suspected you would mention some of those bands at some point. Have you come across any “officially” published books dealing with the genre, however peripherally, other than yours?
Justin Pearson: My book isn’t really supposed to be about the history of 1990s hardcore. However, I’m well aware that I was part of that time and genre of music. I’d like to think and hope that what I wrote is more general than that. For one, I have always tried to not directly identify or align myself with a genre or subculture, if you will. With books like [Brian Peterson’s] Burning Fight coming out, which is obviously trying to document a genre and history of music, I wanted to go beyond that, or actually not be specific to something like what he published.
For one, I’m not educated to write about anything historically accurate other than my life. And then after that, it’s all a matter of opinion, really. I think with a documentation of D.I.Y. culture, or what have you, it’s hard to cover all the bases. My book is just a linear selection of short stories that are pertaining to my life and my life experiences. But back to your question: I know of a few books that are starting to surface or that are in the works, which are about the very topic you are mentioning. I think there are only so many books that can be written about The Clash, so it might be time to move on.
Skyscraper: Even though your book doesn’t aspire to do this, do you think it’s important for such a history to be written? So much of the music of that era was about immediacy and intimacy, about living in the moment and connecting with the people and the music on a personal level. Is there a risk in historicizing it now? So many of those books about The Clash and the first wave of punk, as well as more recent books like American Hardcore and Our Band Could Be Your Life, tend to obscure the past in a wave of nostalgia, and instead of focusing on the culture and the community, just create rock star personalities and a canon of the “best” bands and recordings.
JP: Great question. I’m not sure if it should or can be documented. However, I think it will be in due time, in some way – be it a book or something else. I think things like the Arab on Radar Sunshine for Shady People DVD captures a moment in time, and accurately places the viewer there in a realistic seat. The thing I noticed about a lot of books and films that have surfaced about music related aspects of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s are that they tend to be so romanticized or overly dramatic. Granted with films like Control or something of that stature, you need it to contain more dramatic elements. Not that aspects of the film were inaccurate, but plenty is left out for the viewer. For one, there is so much down time. So, it’s all of the extreme points rolled into one thing. And two, its just a perspective. Like with my book: it spans most of my life. There was plenty of boring, average stuff left out. And even with that being said, there is only my perspective being told. No matter how hard one tried to accurately document anything, it’s never precise and hardly 100% accurate. Even textbooks pertaining to history in school tend to be inaccurate.
Skyscraper: Did the book arise from tour journals? Did you ever keep tour journals with The Locust, Swing Kids, or any of the bands you toured with?
JP: I had been asked to do some tour journals for both The Locust and Some Girls a few years back. Before that, I had never taken the time to document stuff like that. So, the bulk of the book content is just from avenues of my memory. I had utilized the downtime of long drives on tour to start to document stories, which originally was what I was doing for the journals. I shared them with a couple people, and some suggested that I write a book. So, I think that initially got me going on what had become my actual book. Of course, there were some who said that I am a horrible writer, be it the actual literary aspect or the context. But hey, everyone is a critic. I just figured there is a lot worse out there than what I did and will do. Plus, I’m aware that what I’m part of – writing a book, playing in bands, et cetera – is not for everyone. Not everyone will get it, and not everyone will enjoy or appreciate it.
Skyscraper: But certainly there are people out there who will appreciate it, and I imagine you’re writing for them, as well as for yourself. Apart from encouragement by friends, what sparked you to write a memoir now? You’re only 34 years old, so it’s not as though you’re nearing the end of your life and sentimentally longing for the glory days of your youth, which is when most people sit down to write their autobiographies. Do you feel like you have something to prove, or that you need to set the record straight on certain parts of your life, or that others can learn something valuable from your experiences?
JP: That’s just it, I never called it memoirs and its not an autobiography per se. That is why I wanted to have the stories short at times, with no table of contents, and whatever else I did to avoid it reading that way. It was just a collection of stories originally. And at some point, I filled in a few blanks making it more linear. I’m sure it’s setting a lot of stuff “straight,” as you put it. But I don’t have anything to prove per se. It’s just my perception of things pertaining to my life, simple as that. Maybe the fact that I’m not a trained writer – I can hide behind that statement saying it’s not memoirs or even that I’m not a writer. It just is a “thing,” a collection of stories, or a piece of “work.”
Skyscraper: Were you at all self-conscious or cautious of what you were (and often were not) telling? What was that process like, deciding what to put in the book and what to leave out? For instance, when I read the promotional blurb describing the circumstances of your father’s death, as any reader would be, I was intrigued. It immediately smacked of an “angle,” though, that a publisher would latch onto and include in a press release in order to engage prospective readers and sell the book – I’ve worked in the industry and it happens. Though when I actually read the book, to be honest I was confused as to why you didn’t go into more detail, however speculative, surrounding his death. Can you explain your decision to only go so far with those details?
JP: Of course, I was both. It’s my story, my perspective. There was a lot that I had to leave out of the entire book, to avoid getting sued for one. But as far as the story pertaining to my father’s death, of course I don’t tell every single detail. How could I? I was only 12 when that all happened. As for the publisher and editor, there was nothing on their part to alter what I wrote to dumb down a story, or to beef it up. I think working with an editor strictly gave me the perspective of a legit third party, where constructive criticism came into play. And again, the only time an “angle” was put forth by the publisher was strictly to suggest avoiding a lawsuit. And even with that, I pretty much just ignored listening to reason. After the fact, I think a lot of the stories could have used more detail. But again, this was my first attempt at legit writing.
Skyscraper: Your bands, and you personally, have long had a reputation for being provocateurs. Obviously, you even say there was concern that some of the stories you have to tell might get you sued. Did you ever feel obligated to emphasize the more sensational and controversial parts of your life?
JP: I’m not sure really. I know I tend to be provocative in many respects. But with that, I think those engagements typically fall on some sort of social or political belief. Maybe it’s my subconscious challenging people, or even challenging myself. But as far as an obligation to emphasize something in specific, I don’t know that I was aware that I was supposed to, or was doing so. Now that I can reflect on the book as a whole, I think some of the stories that connect the more absurd stories are a bit bland – or maybe not as relevant to, say, someone who has no idea who I am or who the people pertaining to the stories are. And now I’m trying to write a piece about a specific two-week period in my life, and I’m approaching it in a different manner. I’m trying to focus on me, and use me to explain the other parties involved. The situation was ridiculous, and for lack of a better word, retarded… not by my choice. But I was part of the situation. So I want to try to point out that it was what it was without sounding like I am talking shit, or criticizing someone else. It’s about my direct involvement and what I did and why I did it.
Skyscraper: Have you received any negative feedback from “fans” about the book? More importantly, have there been any consequences with friends, former friends, or family of telling certain stories? What has the outcome been thus far?
JP: Shockingly enough, I have gotten no negative feedback from “fans”… yet. Other than that, my mom was pretty bummed on aspects of the book.
Skyscraper: I can see how your mom might react that way, though it’s clear from reading the book that you have the utmost love and respect for her. By chance, have you come across any friends who are bummed that you didn’t include them or certain events in the book?
JP: Ha-ha! Yes. And a couple of them should be in there, but for whatever reason I avoided writing about them. I suppose the situations were not as black-and-white in my mind. Like, maybe I would criticize them, even constructively criticize them, or better yet criticize myself pertaining to the specific situations. But things have changed over time, and it was not appropriate for whatever reason. Also, I capped the stories at some point. I didn’t want to write about everything, everyone, and every time that I could remember.
Skyscraper: What are some of your favorite rock musician autobiographies or memoirs? Was there anything you gravitated towards for inspiration or vantage point before or during writing the book?
JP: As for “rock musicians,” I have read a few [of their books] in my time. Since I was a little kid, I would always read John Lydon’s books. Nick Cave, too. But most of the “rock musicians” that I have read books about were biographies, not autobiographies or memoirs. So, there is that obvious feeling of legitimacy missing when it’s not told from the actual artist. As far as inspiration or even vantage, I think the direction that my book went in was sort of based on how I perceive art, music, and lyrics that I’m part of. I suppose the most obvious being the short pieces, or “chapters.” And then the fact that there are elements that make the book not so traditional in the way it’s written. For one, even with music, I have had no “proper training.” I just dove in headfirst and did whatever I wanted to do.
Skyscraper: The looser format and conversational tone of the book suits you and your background. Plus, the best writers don’t necessarily tell the best stories. But are you suggesting that biographies are less factual or less insightful than autobiographies? Isn’t it true that authors of autobiographies or memoirs have more of an incentive to bend the truth or omit certain important details, or simply forget or misremember things? And aren’t there times when having multiple perspectives on a topic or event are valuable?
JP: Totally. The stuff I wrote about is only my perspective, as I explained earlier. But again, I’ll avoid that criticism by saying I never called it memoirs or an autobiography. It’s like a get out of jail free card anytime I’m asked a question like this. And again, the way one person tells a story is tweaked to fit that specific memory or vision.
Skyscraper: I’ve always been engaged and confused about The Locust’s ability to incite crowd interaction, particularly to negative effect. I’ve never quite been able to tell whether it was the band that propagated it or the audience. I once asked Gabe [Serbian] this question, and he told me “assholes and good kids are a dime a dozen,” which didn’t really clear things up too much. I think he thought I was sucking up to him. Anyway, can you explain the haters? Was it something that happened quickly at the inception of the band and spiraled into a very major attribute of The Locust’s trip? Or was it something that, once happening, you cultivated?
JP: To be completely honest, I can’t explain this. I, too, have pondered the reaction that, say, The Locust gets (or more so got, as we have managed to alter the way the crowd can and can’t react to us). But one thing I’m sure about: there are a lot of bands out there that nobody could give two shits about. And well, if people are talking about a band that I’m in, that beats not getting noticed at all. Plus, the negative publicity is often 10-times more effective than the positive, as far as reaching some sort of end goal. It sure goes a lot farther than “those guys are so nice.”
I suppose the biggest downfall to this is that the real point is often missed. Great example: when people will talk shit about The Locust, it’s rarely about the music. Even when they do talk about our musicianship, like stating that we are untalented or that they can play our songs one handed, I just have to laugh. I mean, all I have to say is two words: GABE SERBIAN. From a guy who has a list of “forbidden beats,” I can only say that the people who he chooses to play with have to be able to hold some sort of musical relevance.
But again, this is just my opinion (insert shit talking by a “fan”). The live element of heckling and even physically fighting us has been curbed drastically since The Locust’s live set was one fluid piece for the last few years. There is no chance for banter, and with no chance for banter, typically there is less chance for confrontation.
Skyscraper: Would you like to say something to totally incriminate yourself in this interview?
JP: No. I think I already did that in my book.
Photo of Pearson in Locust outfit: Raquel Medina.