Chris Clavin is best known for being a part of folk-punk band Ghost Mice and running Plan-It-X Records. Currently on tour in the UK playing songs and telling stories from his new book Free Pizza For Life we had a very, very long chat with Chris after a house show in Coventry, about just about everything; from the label to the current tour.
How’s the tour been so far?
It’s good. It’s been fun. Travelling by train is really different for me, compared to a US tour where I’d normally drive. But yeah, it’s been really, really fun. It’s been a learning experience. The UK trains, I’ve learnt, aren’t as reliable as European trains [laughter]. I’ve had a couple of surprising moments where I’d show up and it’s like “this train is cancelled.” And I’m like “what? You can’t cancel the train” [laughter]. I went up to the booth and asked if it was really cancelled and they were like “yeah, yeah. It’s cancelled. You’ll have to take the next one in an hour and a half.” So I learned my lesson about the reliability of trains. Sorry for the random train tangent [laughter].
Has it been mostly house shows or have you been playing venues too?
Yeah, it’s been a really big mix. Some cafes, a few house shows, a few pubs and then like a few spaces. There’s a place called JT Soar in Nottingham which is really cool. And the Audacious Art Experiment in Sheffield, similar to JT Soar. Those places are really cool for me. The first few tours we did in the UK, it was really shocking to me playing a pub every night. I was just like “this is so weird, you’re just renting this expensive place out so we can have a party here. And they’re really mean and they’re kicking you out at exactly 11PM.” For me, it was just shocking because it did not feel like punk rock. We’re used to like house shows and illegal DIY venues. You can start a show at 10PM and it’s no big deal, yunno? You can carry on playing ‘til like 2AM and no one cares.
So it’s been really exciting, in the years I’ve been coming back to the UK I’ve noticed more spots like that popping up. It’s like “alright, you guys figured out that playing in a pub every night sucks too.” So it’s been really good. I think it’s been about three pubs or less on the whole tour. So that’s been awesome, having a different experience.
How do you find it in Europe? Is it like the same kinda thing?
It’s mostly like squats which have bars. It’s a kind-of pub feel, but has a more punk feel to it. But sometimes it’s too the extreme, where being in a band isn’t punk enough for the venue and then you feel weird because you’re like “oh. This is an anarchist or activist collective and we’re just a boring band.”
There’s also very few young people in Europe who come to “concerts” as they’d call them. It’s mostly people in their upper twenties or early thirties, and they just standing there drinking beer, looking very serious. After a few weeks of that, it can be great, they give you a lot of delicious vegan meals every night. You sleep in a bed with sheets and pillows which has been washed. It’s not like a total punk environment. They’ll say “this is the band room” and you’ll just be like “wow.” They’ll ask what time you want breakfast and feed you breakfast. Then they’ll pay you like 200 Euros even if no one shows up because they have funds from cities and the governments will give money to the arts council. All this weird stuff.
Do you think more people come out to shows in Europe?
When people talk about Europe versus the US I’m always say what’s great about Europe but I also talk about what we have great [in the US] which is more chaotic; more about friends hanging out. Europeans will say “oh, I heard in the US no one makes you food and you sleep on the floor of a punk house or sometimes you won’t get a place to sleep” and I can’t tell them that’s not true. Well. It does happen, not as much to me because I know people and I’ll stay with my friends, but if you’re a first timer on tour you’ll experience all of that horribleness. You might get paid 20 dollars even though 40 people were there and you might not get a place to stay. Like, I still occasionally on the microphone have to say “hey, can we stay at your house? Please let us know.” And that’s a really weird thing to do when you’re being touring for years. Like, I’m on tour a hundred miles from home and still have to beg for a place to sleep.
But what I like about the US is that sometimes you’re at a show and something weird happens or the cops come and someone will say “hey, my friend has a warehouse. We can move the show there,” And everyone will go there. Everyone will call their friends and it’ll end up being an even bigger and better show. That kinda stuff couldn’t happen in Europe. That’s what I like about the US scene. It’s chaotic and it’s got its negatives. Even though in Europe sometimes you’ll get smothered and treated like you’re a real band even if you’re not but get schedules and food and money and it just feels so weird. On the nights that it works, it’s great, because it’s like people liked you and had a good time. But even if ten people are there, you’ll still get treated the wrong way. It sort’ve feels inappropriate and weird. If people don’t like our band they shouldn’t give us 200 Euros, yunno?
Do you think there’s less spontaneity then?
Right, that’s the main thing. Sometimes in the US when you show up to a house show the promoter doesn’t do anything at all. The PA’s not set up, they don’t know the running order then you’ll go and find the other band people. That’s if they’re there, even in the US the bands won’t always show up before the show starts. I’ve been guilty of that too. Sometimes you’re running late and some bands have already played, and go in like “oh cool, what’s going on?” Then they’ll say “oh yeah you can play now or you can play later” and it’s really weird. It’s a mess but it’s kinda fun sometimes. And sometimes as a band on tour you have to take control of the show. You have to ask about the PA and stuff. Where the equipment is. Then I’ll go and set up the PA and make it work. In some ways it feels more community based or more DIY. It’s nice to be treated good when you’re on tour but at the same time it feels weird because bands and the people who come to the show should be treated the same way. So it’s weird when you’re being given food and money and they do everything right for you. In the US it’s more just about playing shows.
You said when you played you’d been finding it awkward, being on your own, especially with the spoken word stuff. Is it a positive kind of difference?
For me it’s just been fun to challenge myself with this tour because I’ve been playing music for so long. So it would’ve been super easy to just book a music tour. But I wanted to do something which made me nervous again or afraid. I get nervous just playing music but being by myself makes me way more nervous,especially doing something a bit different. It has been a big challenge for me. After years of touring I was like “I can’t just book another tour.” I wanted to do something different by myself, have sometime to think and put myself out of my comfort zone and have that anxiety.
The bad part is when you’ve had a bad show you have no one to share it with. Especially on those nights where I’ve been travelling by myself, not even with friends I knew in towns, I’d be like “oh why am I doing this?” [Laughter.] I’ve done some shows like that in the US like that. Sometimes when the show will be over there will be a party at the house and no one will talk to me. I’ll just be sitting on a couch and someone will be like “what’s your deal?” And I’ll say “oh I played a show here earlier.” They’ll say “oh cool, so what are you doing now?” And I’ll just be like “oh I’m waiting for all of you to leave so I can sleep on this couch” [laughter]. It just makes you feel like you’re wasting your life or something. If you’re with your band you can walk down the street or drink beers in the band and wait for everyone to leave. But if you’re by yourself you just have to wait. But I like doing it, it’s a challenge.
How do you juggle touring and managing the label?
Yeah, it’s always been a sort’ve problem. I used to just hire one of my friends to do it. Now, it’s a lot easier because people just aren’t buying as much music [laughter]. I used to have to train someone really well to run it while I was gone, I’d get about 30-40 orders a week. I’d pay them like ten dollars an hour or something. Then I’d get random emails like “what about blah blah?” And I’d have to explain something else which I’d forgotten [laughter]. It was hard to teach someone the whole thing. Orders now though are about 25 percent of what they were three or four years ago, though, so it’s a lot easier now.
What’s your favourite Plan-It-X release?
That’s hard. That’s really hard. It comes and goes, I change my opinion on that a lot. I’m certainly proud of This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb. So excited to be a part of that world. Especially when I read articles about the origins of folk-punk. They’ll say “Against Me started folk-punk” and I’ll be like “fuck you” [laughter]. This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb played folk and punk mixed together, 100 percent. Electrical punk music but playing all folk songs. I saw them a few times and became friends with them. So that was awesome. That was the real beginning, they were the flagship Plan-It-X band for a while. We toured together for a while and yeah, that was a really good era.
Who are you planning on working with next?
I don’t know. I can’t really imagine releasing much more music. I probably will, but I always think that I can’t imagine doing any more. It’s so financially hard right now. I really liked the era when I could put out CDs and sell them for like five dollars. It was easy and everyone could afford it. It was easy to bring on tour, in a small box. Now, if people do buy music, they buy vinyl which I’m not honestly even that big of a fan of. I don’t have a nice record player, I do have a record player but music sounds better if I listen through my iPod plugged into the same stereo. I kinda think it’s part of the DIY punk scene to not give a shit about collecting records. Most of my friends don’t. Before, when we bought music, we did because it was the only way to hear the music. You could ask your friends to copy it for you, but otherwise there was no real way. But when you saw a band you liked you’d buy the music.
When I started Plan-It-X, I never wanted it to be a business; I never wanted to put out nice records which would be stuck on someone’s shelf. It was more like “oh you guys don’t have a record? That’s horrible. I’ll put out your record.” Yunno? That turned into like putting out 108 records or whatever. Some of those sold well which would make me think it was actually a good idea then I got too reliant on it being a functioning business, even though I never intended for it to be a business. Then suddenly I realised this was dying really, really rapidly. So many other labels have given up already. I’m kinda fine with it. I don’t wanna push it on people. I’ll never be like “oh you gotta support vinyl.” Because I don’t care. I’m fine with people buying digital music or coming to shows which I think they will. I think if people go to shows they should donate to the bands. It’s just a different era. If you go to a show and you’ve downloaded all the band’s music you can always donate a bit more money instead.
It’s really rough thinking about DIY music because it isn’t even about paying people. I mean, you come to the show and you donate to the bands and it’s really nice. But there really is no real reason you should pay your friends to make an album yunno? In theory, we’re all friends and you shouldn’t have to pay. It’s a weird time, basically.
Have you got any future plans?
No, not really. I try not to plan the next tour until I’m back home. But I’m sure we’ll be back in some form. We might do a full band Ghost Mice tour with ONSIND. Ghost Mice has still never played with a drummer so that could be fun. Just share some members, do it both in the UK and the US, yunno? So that might happen at some point.