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Interview: Pat McGuire, Editor-in-Chief of FILTER Magazine
In an age when music publications are folding left and right, FILTER magazine soldiers on with five full issues and five Good Music Guides per year. The content of the publication is driven by its tagline, "Good music will prevail," and recent features have included everything from a major interview and photo essay with Morrissey to a nine-page spread about the history of Slayer. FILTER is one of the few major music magazines based out of Los Angeles, so their coverage of the local scene is a bit deeper than that of many other media outlets. LAist recently sat down with FILTER Editor-in-Chief Pat McGuire to chat about Morrissey, the rapidly changing magazine market and the unlikely road McGuire took on his way to becoming editor.
LAist: How can print stay relevant in such a rapidly changing media market? Publications such as Blender and Performing Songwriter have just closed their doors. Are you now a bigger fish in a smaller pond or is it still a struggle?
Pat McGuire: It's hard to say. I think we're still a pretty small fish. Print has never been easy, but it's certainly not easy right now. When a magazine like Blender goes out of print, it's kind of a tragedy, but it also means there's less competition. But regardless of what you think of another magazine, it's always sad to see people lose jobs. FILTER has always been really good at rolling with the punches and trying to even be ahead of them. It's not like music is going away. People aren't going to stop making music and art just because the economy's bad. Actually, people will probably make more of it because the economy's bad. And we'll be there to write about it.
Before I get into the magazine a bit more, I'd like to talk about your background. After you graduated from Transylvania University in Kentucky, what led you to choose to move to California over somewhere like New York?
I went to school so close to where I grew up, that I was just ready to get out. I still love Kentucky, but it was time to go somewhere else. On the last day of spring break during my senior year of college, I went to a bar and got drunk with this guy named Izzy, and we talked about what we wanted to do after graduation. We didn't know each other that well, but we quickly became friends and he said he was moving to San Diego after graduation. I thought that was awesome and we just drunkenly decided that we were both going to move to San Diego. When I saw him in the cafeteria the next morning, we asked each other, "Are you still going?" and we were both still in. It just felt good to have a plan.
What did you do once you arrived in San Diego?
Well, I was a theater major in college and I got a job at the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park, which to my surprise was actually a world-class, Tony-award-winning theater. I was the gift shop manager, then I worked in the box office.
This unicorn has obviously been up to something at the FILTER office.
How did you end up working in FILTER's marketing department? The plan was to move to LA with my friends, so I eventually moved here. One of my friends was dating this girl who worked at a magazine called FILTER, though I had never heard of it.
My friend got an internship in the marketing department on the street team and he told me they were hiring. He said, "All you have to do is wear a cool band shirt and tell them what bands you like and you're in." I couldn't believe it. I thought, "Seriously, that's all you have to do?" So I e-mailed FILTER and set up an interview. I wore a Sonic Youth t-shirt to my interview, and I swear the first thing the interviewer said was, "Nice shirt. What bands do you like?" (laughs)
They hired me on the spot and I started out on the street team. After about three months, I got a job in the marketing department. I worked hard, stayed late, and tried to make myself invaluable as an intern. The guy I was assisting went back to school, so they hired me to replace him.
How did all of this transition into writing for the magazine?
When I was an intern, I asked for tickets to shows, because that was one of the big incentives for those of us who weren't getting paid. I asked to see Les Savy Fav at the Troubadour, and I was told that the only way I could get tickets was if I wrote a review. So I went, took notes and did a write-up. When I go back and read it now, it's not the greatest review ever, but it was enough for them to say, "You can keep doing this."
I got to know FILTER writer Chris Martins, and the two of us would later end up being co-editors of the magazine. He built up this little army of young writers—he brought us up on the website and gradually transitioned us to writing for the magazine.
After two years of marketing, I realized that my interests lay elsewhere, and right around that time the magazine was going through some changes. Editor Gregg LaGambina had left, and one day in 2006, the publishers called me into their office. At first I thought they were mad about something I had done marketing-wise (laughs), but they offered me the job as co-editor of the magazine. Chris and I were co-editors for a little over a year, then he wanted to be a freelancer and write more, plus he was getting married. So he left and they made me editor-in-chief, and this issue is my 10th.
How does the creative/marketing group relate to the magazine? Is there ever overlap?
Honestly, as much as possible, we try to be church and state. I mean, people will always accuse magazines or TV of hand-holding or whatever, but the truth is, we want to write about the best shit out there. When there happens to be overlap with something the marketing department is working on, that's convenient. But although we're in the same office, we might as well be on different planets when it comes to most of what we do.
Who was the first person you ever interviewed?
I had a column in my college newspaper for a year and a half. It started out as this thing called "Pat Talks to People You Should Know" and I walked around Lexington and interviewed people such as the guy who owns the music store and the guy who owns the art film house.
The first interview I did for FILTER was a Web interview with Atmosphere. He was playing at the Fonda. I had 10 minutes and I was a wreck, but it turned out really well.
McGuire vs. the piñata
Last year you went on the road with Band of Horses to write about their tour. What was your favorite moment? Well, that Band of Horses trip for me was the coolest thing ever. Those guys have become really good friends of mine and the trip was the genesis of that. There were so many special moments, but it culminated at the Hollywood Bowl when they opened for the Decemberists and Andrew Bird, and I was on the stage when they played. Another great moment was when we watched the Fourth of July fireworks from the roof of our hotel in Redding, CA.
One of the things that comes up when people talk about your writing is that it's incredibly well-researched. If you're doing an interview, how much time do you spend in preparation? What's your process?
I don't write quite as much as I used to, because I can't write until everything else for the magazine is put to bed, and that's usually a window of negative three days. It just kills me. When it comes to research, I've done interviews where you have to wing it, and it doesn't go as well. But for me, research is fun; it's not a job. For the most part, you're researching a band that you like.
I just interviewed Will Oldham, who is one of my heroes. I already knew a lot about him just by being a fan of his music, but still, in the days before the interview, I listened to his music and did a lot of reading—none of which I really used in the interview at all, but it was still a confidence booster to have all of that in the back of my mind.
Speaking of interviews, how did FILTER land that exclusive interview with Morrissey?
We tried to get Morrissey three or four years ago, and apparently he said yes, then in true Morrissey fashion, he canceled. So every now and then, when he had something new coming out, I'd write an e-mail to his publicist and I'd hear back that he wasn't doing interviews.
Six months before he said yes to this interview, we got an inkling that he might be entertaining the idea of doing it because he likes FILTER. That has really been our biggest asset. You can get baby bands to do interviews no matter who you are, but to get a true artist like that who hates press and is so concerned about his image and everything, that's always incredible.
So he finally said he would probably do it, but we didn't get a final answer for a while. That was right before Thanksgiving, and I was going to Europe for two weeks on vacation. I got to Paris and checked my e-mail, and there was a message from Morrissey's publicist saying, "Yes, he's in. He wants to do it tomorrow at your office." Luckily, I had prepped the interviewer, Cameron Bird, so I sent an e-mail to him and we set it up.
How did you get those great photos in the cemetery?
Our writer and photographer snuck Morrissey into the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They got run out eventually, but we became friends with the people from the cemetery and convinced them to approve the photos we shot there.
We have developed a great relationship with the unbelievably talented photographer Michael Muller through our mutual love and respect for certain artists. Michael has shot bands such as Flight of the Conchords and the Shins for us, and his Morrissey photos turned out to be absolutely amazing.
So the whole thing came out really well and what's funny about that interview is—and of course I wasn't there—but Cameron is really young, 24 or so, and Morrissey kind of fucked with him at the beginning of the interview. On the tape, you can hear that Cameron was a little unsure of how to take it, but he totally won him over and they had a real conversation. It's really awesome and I'm so proud of that one. Cameron is an amazing writer.
Do you get to travel much—especially to festivals like SXSW or Coachella? What's been one of your favorite experiences so far this year?
Yeah, I go to the festivals and they're great fun. FILTER has day parties every year at SXSW, but for the first time ever, this year we did night parties. We had Grizzly Bear, Dinosaur Jr., Primal Scream, the Black Lips and Delta Spirit play this tiny stage. It was crazy.
The Spring '09 issue of FILTER Magazine
What are some of your favorite features in the current issue of FILTER?I read this interview with Woody Allen a while ago where someone was asking him about his work and about his movie that was coming out and he said something like, "Man, I haven't thought about that movie in a year and a half. I finish it, I wrap it, I put it in a little canister and send it off, and I'm done." The only thing you can do when you revisit your work is get mad that you should've done something differently. I live with it for so long, three months at a time, and it's my whole world. Then it's done and I can't change it ever again, and if I saw something I wanted to change, I'd go nuts.
I'm not doing a very good job at marketing this issue, am I? It's like I said—church and state. They shouldn't let me market things. (laughs) But seriously, I love the Animal Collective story in this issue because they are a band that trusted us for being FILTER and for being cool. They've done very few photo shoots and interviews—actually, the first line of that story is how much they hate doing interviews. But it's just an honest account of a bunch of dudes who love to do what they do.
There's a story on Slayer that is huge and epic and it's an oral history of the band from all four members. Slayer's one of those bands where people might ask, "Why Slayer in FILTER?" but that's why it's a perfect fit. They're just a band that appeals to so many people. We've also got a Conchords story that's pretty funny, and we got this great EndNote where Andy Samberg did this hilarious thing featuring Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues.
Since the magazine includes interviews as well as reviews, have you ever faced an awkward situation where you have an interview in the magazine followed by a scathing review a few pages later?
I'm sure. Again, people sometimes criticize FILTER for not being negative enough, but we're celebrating good music. If you need to slag off some shitty band, more power to you, but that’s not what we try to do.
How does the Good Music Guide fit into the picture? Is it complementary?
The magazine comes out five times a year and the Good Music Guide comes out five times a year. They're sister publications. It's basically just a different manner of distribution with new content. It's a separate beast and it incorporates a little bit more tech. It's cheap in the sense that the paper's cheaper. FILTER has a spine, and you put it on the coffee table and it's like a book. When it comes to the guide, you can just throw in your pocket or read it at a show.
McGuire and some "Bagavagabond" friends suited up before their semifinalist tourney run at the 2008 AdiCup soccer tournament.
FILTER recently ran an online feature in which some of your writers talked about their first music purchases, but I didn't see your name on there. What was yours?My first music purchase was in the fourth grade. I bought MC Hammer's Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em at Disc Jockey in Lexington Green. There was a song on the album called "She's Soft and Wet" and even in the fourth grade, I knew enough to keep it from my mom. So I only played songs like "Pray" for her.
Then the first CD I ever bought was The Ultimate Experience by Jimi Hendrix.
What's your take on the LA music scene? Do you get to see many local shows?
I moved to California to live at the beach. But I live in the Mid-City area now and it's the closest to the Eastern scene I've ever been. I like Silverlake and I like Echo Park, and when you think of the LA music scene, that's often what you think of, but I'm just now starting to become familiar with all of that. I went to the Silverlake Lounge for the first time in my life six months ago. I mean, I've been to tons of shows in LA, but it's always more national bands that play the Troubadour, Wiltern, El Rey or whatever.
In LA, it's almost like people feel they have something to prove, because it's so easy to hate on LA if you live elsewhere and we always have to defend ourselves. There's such energy and thought going on, and not everyone is out there just to make money and suck out every last drop of cash. There's so much more to it than that. I've lived here for six or seven years and I'm just now really getting to know the city outside of my little bubble.
What are some of the most memorable LA concerts you've seen in the last few years?
I went to see a friend's band play and Fleet Foxes opened. This was before people really knew who they were. My friends and I were just hanging out at the Troubadour amidst a loud, annoying Friday night crowd. My friend said, "Watch this. They're about to go on." And within 10 seconds of when the band started playing, the crowd went silent. When a band has that quality, you remember it.
The best show I've ever seen in LA was Will Oldham at McCabe's three or so years ago—just because it's the first time I ever saw him, he's my favorite and McCabe's is so cool.
You've appeared at a number of 826LA events, such as being a judge during their Battle of the Bands events and appearing on their "Writing About Music" panel. How did you first come into contact with them?
We had a Wayne Coyne interview a while back and wanted to take him somewhere unique. The writer decided that the Time Travel Mart would be the greatest place to take him. I knew of 826 just through being aware of McSweeney's and Dave Eggers and stuff, but I didn't know there was one in Echo Park. Afterward, I e-mailed 826LA executive director Joel Arquillos and let him know I wanted to do more to help. Everyone there is on the same wavelength as a lot of FILTER's stuff, and we run in the same circles—Mitchell Frank and Liz Garo at Spaceland/The Echo and Neil Schield at Origami and so forth. As big as LA is, everyone still knows each other in this community.
Bagavagabonds at the 2008 Celebration For The Arts Pier pARTy on the Santa Monica Pier.
Your 826LA profile mentioned that you're a member of the "poorly-categorized LA art gang," the Bagavagabonds. How would one appropriately categorize the Bagavagabonds?
You don't. (laughs) Bagavagabonds comes from the fact that my friends and I basically decided to name our friendship. Then we had this idea to do a movie about traveling cross-country in an RV and the rule was you started out with $20 and you bought stuff at a thrift store. Then you went to the next town and sold that stuff so you could buy new stuff and that's how you got from town to town. That turned into other creative ideas.
Bagavagabond butts at the seventh annual BV Labor Day "Top of the World" party.
Eventually, we got involved with this really great charity in Santa Monica called For the Arts, which is dedicated to putting money for the arts back into public schools. We put on some events involving short films and painting and collage and so forth. We had fun events that blossomed into this thing called the Bohemian Circus. We did four nights at the epOxybOx in Abbot Kinney/Venice. We held it two summers ago for one Friday night a month, and 500 people showed up. We had the Stilt Circus perform, as well as our friends' bands.The other cool thing we did was something called "5 for 50." Everyone would write down a bunch of words and put them in a hat, then whatever was pulled out would be the theme for a short film. You'd have to make a five-minute film for $50 or less. We did a screening every three weeks, and although it was just an exercise, there were some really cool films that came out of that. The now-antique website can be found at bagavababonds.com.
You also had an event called the Art Explosion. How did that begin?
Well, my friends and I had been to so many art shows where we were so sick of the pretense and the exorbitant prices and the staunch white rooms. So we threw our own parties and picked themes for the Art Explosions. The first one was animals, the second one was the Beatles and the third was pop. The goal was for everyone—kids, famous artists, adults, whoever—to sell their art, and nothing could be priced over $50. We sold everything that night and all the money went to For the Arts. We had bands and screen-printing and photo booths, and we held it in the penthouse of the Pacific Electric Lofts. It was like a circus!
We had some semi-famous artists do things and some four-year-old kids do things. It was fun and family-friendly and we even had some stuff for sale for a dollar. The kids especially were so thrilled when someone bought their work.
Will you bring back this event anytime soon?
We've kinda taken a hiatus because a bunch of people are traveling or are on tour right now. So it's on hold. Plus the first of us got married last weekend. Adulthood is sneaking in, but we're trying to keep Bagavabagonds going. We may even take it on the road at some point—we'll see!
Thank you for speaking with LAist, Pat!
The Spring '09 issue of FILTER with Animal Collective on the cover is on newsstands now. To subscribe to the print edition and to read exclusive online content, visit www.FILTERmagazine.com.