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LAist Interview: Zach Behrens, Editor

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This week Zach Behrens became the sixth editor of LAist. Behrens is no stranger to LAist staff or readers -- he was Co-Editor for nearly a year before taking the reins from Tony Pierce and contributed more than 1100 posts since 2005.

We asked Zach a variety of questions to put in perspective how and why he came to be editor of the best city blog this side of the Hudson.

Andy: When and why did you first get into blogging?

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Zach: I got my wisdom teeth pulled back in October of 2005 and took a day off work to rest. I was sitting around with pain in my mouth and decided it was time to start up a blog focusing in on Sherman Oaks. There was a lot of hyperlocal neighborhood and neighborhood council news I wanted to get out there. So I just did it.

The long story of it is that I've always been one who likes to share experiences and news with others. At New Trier High School outside of Chicago, I ran a radio show called "The Other Path" where I featured a half hour each of world, jazz and classical music. I didn't want to play Dave Matthews or whatever everyone else was listening too, I wanted to share something that would be new and different, yet exciting to people. When I discovered blogging, that became a natural conduit to continue that type of sharing.

Andy: So blogging for you began as a byproduct of having your wisdom teeth pulled. How did you first get involved with LAist?

Zach: LAist was my favorite daily read while at work. Around December, a little more than a month after I started my Sherman Oaks blog, I thought why not write the Editor and ask about how one joins the team? I noticed there was a lack of coverage in theatre and festivals, so I offered that. Within a week, I heard from Editor Carolyn Kellogg welcoming me in and my first post was on December 27, 2005 about a 5K race at 9 a.m., New Year's Day (eek! too tired, never made it that morning). My second post was about a show at one of my favorite jazz clubs in Los Angeles -- Cafe Metropol.

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Andy: What brought you out to LA?

Zach: College is the simple answer. I started at California Institute of the Arts in the fall of 1999 (this allows me to say that I've lived in the area since the 90's, heh). I would have never heard of CalArts unless it was for my mother calling me into our suburban Chicago home living room one day during my junior or senior year in high school. "Zach, listen to this. There's this college in California that is progressively avant-garde, experimental and has a 24-hour campus. And it was founded by Walt Disney and doesn't accept SAT scores or high school grades! It would be perfect for your crazy hippie friend Dylan." My first response was, "No, actually, it would be perfect for me." She laughed knowing that she would never let me go there. I'm stubborn, so I pursued it, eventually flying out to Los Angeles with my dad to audition for master percussionist John Bergamo. I got in on the spot.

Andy: What was the draw of LA/California? Did you apply to any other schools?

Zach: To tell the truth, Los Angeles was definitely not the draw. Nor was California. I knew nothing about it other than it was out there West against the ocean. I had twice been to LAX en route to Australia, but that was it. At a young age, it was engrained in my head that Los Angeles was not a good place, rather a smoggy, car chase, celebrity town. I always imagined myself moving to Boston or Seattle. Perhaps that is why I also applied to New England Conservatory of Music, Berklee School of Music and University of Washington - Seattle.

Once I knew I got into CalArts, I knew that was where I was going. I canceled live auditions in Boston. CalArts was the type of environment I wanted to be in. It wasn't about where it was, it was about what it was. I've always been attracted to the new, the contemporary and the unusual. Also, CalArts was big on collaboration between the arts and so was I. In high school, I played music in three Shakespeare productions, at least six musicals, two variety shows and danced in a STOMP-like troupe. Not to mention four years of jazz band, three years of wind ensemble and orchestra (during my senior year, 50% of my eight classes were music. Three were academics, one was kinetic wellness, err, gym. And this was a public school).

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Andy: How did you go from the music track to Web design?

Zach: The big change came when I worked at City Hall in Santa Clarita. Between my third and fourth year at CalArts, I received a wonderful life changing internship through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission to work in the Cultural Affairs Office. There, my job was working on arts education: researching, interviewing local schools, interviewing state administrators and drawing up a rough draft plan.

I've always been an internet nerd and couldn't keep my mouth shut when I saw a bad website. Once they realized I knew what I was doing when it came to websites and vision planning, they offered me a part time job post-internship during the school year to project manage the new Cultural Affairs Office website. In that time, the city's intern webmaster who had been given the project left for a real job and the full-time webmaster was stretched thin as it was. So he then said, "You're pretty internet and computer savvy, why don't we buy you Dreamweaver and I'll teach you a little. Then you can make the website yourself."

My first website looked terrible. I didn't even have Photoshop to use. But when I graduated from CalArts, the city offered me 30 hours a week -- it was quite nice to have a job the moment you walk out of college. I knew I needed to continue my education on web design if this was going to be part of my new job. I took a few classes at College of the Canyons and by the end of my few year tenure at City Hall, I was being nudged and winked at to apply to be the City's Webmaster. But by then, I had decided to go freelance and had a city contract for some projects as I gathered other clients around Los Angeles. It was time to try something new.

Andy: Are you still involved in music? Do you wish to play/compose again?

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Zach: After CalArts, I composed two feature length documentary scores with a film student I went to school with. One, The Century Plaza about the dirtiest hotel in Portland and the people who lived there, competed in the LA Film Festival. The second one was about the the state of public education in Oregon. I believe it aired on PBS in that state, though I'm not too sure. Both were a blast to do. In the performance realm, I had the opportunity to work with Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields for a few months on theatre project at REDCAT at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. He composed music for Peach Blossom Fan, a Chinese opera/music of sorts. It called for a marimba and I got that call. We played a three-week sold out run and recorded an album that you can even buy in iTunes ( Showtunes, 2006). How weird, I can buy myself on iTunes.

Other than that, my music career is that. I fell in love with local government work at City Hall and loved using my non-traditional approach of an arts school background to a political and human service field. However, I do plan to buy a marimba and piano someday when I own my own place. It would be nice to wake up and play some Bach and Avro Part at sunrise.

Carolyn: Strangest thing you've done for LAist?

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Zach: People think it's weird that I keep on posting about male strippers in relation to the number of internet queries a month it gets. I was analyzing Yahoo search results for the phrase "Los Angeles" and found that "male strippers" was in the top 20. I had to share.

Other than that, I was sitting around with my cousin this weekend and the phone rang. I looked at it who it was and saw that it was a pornstar I interviewed for a recent set of posts on the industry and health(one, two). It was a nice little "I live in Los Angeles" moment. Without LAist, how else could I have a cell phone contact list full of pornstar/strippers, a New York Times bestseller author, Zuma Dogg, and city officials?

Michele: You've written over 500 posts in the last year...which one has been
your favorite, and why?

Zach: These sort of questions are very weird for me. I always put something down, then it goes to publish and I go "doh!" I forgot about this one, or that one. I shoulda this, shoulda that. One that sticks to mind right now is the Kayaking in LA River post because it was so spontaneous.

My bedroom window faces the LA River, so I'm pretty sensitive to unusual sounds that don't belong out there, mainly people. Right now, the LA River outside my window is locked and people are not allowed in. So when I hear people, that can sometimes mean trouble: a transient, crime, graffiti, something. But this time, it was a father and son kayaking. In the summers, I sleep in the nude, so I jumped up, got dressed as quickly as possible, grabbed my camera, ran to my bicycle and pedaled fast trying to keep up with them. I ended up at about four different spots in my first 10 minutes of my day following them.

That's the kind of blogging I really like. Just being outside in the streets of LA, all the blogging and stories come to you. Take a walk in your neighborhood and I'm sure you can find many stories to write and pictures to share about Los Angeles.

Carolyn: Favorite movie(s) about LA?

Zach: Each of these movies share some very real truths (some a bit out there though) about Los Angeles, current or past, but not the whole picture: The Big Lebowski, Collateral, Mulholland Drive, American History X, Boyz in the Hood, Down in the Valley and Training Day. I'm sure I left some movies that I liked out, I always do when this question is presented.

Andy: Are you the LA City Nerd? If not, wtf happened to him/her?

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Zach: No, sorry. It's nice to think that I'm on the top list of suspects for this honorable title. It's nice that people with the Mayor's ear say this about me, but it's untrue. Sure, I may be an LA City Nerd in my own right, but am not THE nerd him/herself.

As to WTF happened? The last I heard was that it was time to give it a break, concentrate on other things and maybe make a comeback in the near future. It was a good run, for sure.

Adam: So WHO is the LA City Nerd?

Zach: No comment. ;)

Andy: Your Dad is a Reverend and well-known philanthropist in Chicago. How has he influenced you and in what ways were you involved and/or interested in what he was doing when you were a kid?

Zach: My Dad is a huge influence on my life and the way it was, is and will be. I am an untraditional PK (Preacher's Kid), just like he an an untraditional Minister. He doesn't have a church where he preaches weekly. Rather, he was a street minister.

No, no, no. Not that insane street minister who would preach at the corner with the rest of the crazies. He lived nocturnally and walked the streets of Chicago in his clerical collar, meeting, befriending, helping, chatting to and with homeless, drug users/addicts, prostitutes, pimps and other street nightlife that approached him. And it wasn't about converting to Christianity, it was about a presence of the Church on the street and if someone wanted to talk God and religion, they could, if they just wanted to talk about other things, they could do that too. My Dad also has a degree in social work, so you can think of that in that way. All this was done under the non-profit, The Night Ministry. Back then in the 70s, it was just him, an organization of one green/hazel-eyed minister on the streets at night. Now, the Night Ministry has a staff of nearly 60 and thousands of volunteers. The best way to describe the nightlife mission of the organization is the title of a New York Times article about them called "Cookies, Condoms and Conversation." It's all about a consistent presence on the streets.

So growing up in that environment definitely influenced me in the do-gooding realm. I would spend every Christmas visiting the homeless and my Mother would freak out every time they tried to hug me (you know, I was little, she was being a mother, and they were really really dirty). Recently, my dad was honored by Chicago Magazine as a Chicagoan of the Year and by the State of Illinois as a Lincoln Laurate. His leadership in our hometown has really made a difference and a lot of that has transferred to me in my passion on working on Los Angeles city issues. He's done a great job for the homeless in Chicago, especially homeless teens (a major focus of The Night Ministry), and now I need to convince him that LA has a huge homeless problem too that he can work on. Truly, he's a hero, no matter where he is.

Deanna: If you had a month to live and were given a blank check by Donald Trump (or some other god-awfully rich s.o.b.) with absolutely no limitations, what would you do?

Zach: I can't lie, I would definitely treat myself to some fun: Brazilian Carnival, Alaska, and lots of massages. But most of my joy comes in fixing things for people that make life better. And since LA is my game, let's fund this public transportation system, let's fix the housing crisis/homeless situation, let's get that LA River project done and let's build a great community of good people, happy people.

Thank you Donald Trump!

Jeremy: Why the Valley?

Zach: To be honest, pure serendipity. I had a good offer and a good deal from my roommate when I decided it was time to move from Castaic in the Santa Clarita Valley (where CalArts is). I moved in, then discovered the Valley was much more than all the jokes made about it. It's truly a gem, it's really a great community. Sure, there are some ratty parts, that's what you get from terrible decisions in planning in the 60s-80s, but for me Sherman Oaks is quite perfect in many ways. For one, access to Hollywood/Downtown or the Westside is closer than anyone thinks. If you're at UCLA and I'm in Sherman Oaks and we're all heading to Hollywood, I'm going to get there a lot faster. Same for vice versa. Plus, in the Valley, it can be sunny all day while at the beach, the marine layer never goes away.

I'm not saying I'm going to stay here forever, I do have a fascination with living Downtown, but I do have Valley jingoism and it will always be held near to my heart. The people here are great!

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Julie: What's the best thing about being a vegetarian in LA?

Zach: I can go pretty much anywhere and be satisfied. People say the other West Coast cities are great veggie/vegan places. True, Seattle does have street vendors who will cook you up a veggie bratwurst. True, Portland is very veggie conscious as a whole. True, San Francisco is a mecca for it.

But LA has a lot going for it and I can't stop finding places that are going out of their way to have homemade, hand selected vegetarian items on their menus. Sure, there are the staple hardcore selections of purely veggie/vegan restaurants (think Follow Your Heart or California Vegan). Beyond that, there are plenty of places you would never suspect to be veggie friendly, and that means more than just having an overpriced frozen Gardenburger on the menu. Who knew that Dupar's makes their veggie burger from scratch, same goes for Stanley's Bar & Bistro on Ventura Blvd. Then there are places that do serve a Gardenburger, but dress it up well like Barney's Gourmet Burgers or the Hollywood Bar, Tiny's K.O. This list can go on and on and on.

Jessica: What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you in Los Angeles?

Zach: Oh gosh, you mean I have to dig into my vault of blocked memories?

Okay, so here's one from when I was the emcee at Concerts in the Park in Santa Clarita. There's about five to six thousand people in the audience and the band has just finished playing. So my job is to get the audience to give one last rousing round of applause and then announce who's coming out next week. It was a Modern Country band and when I said it, I thought Modern Rock in my head. But I caught myself mid-sentence and what came out was a mixture of Rock and Country, which is "crock," which awfully sounds like "cock." Yes, Santa Clarita, you family town, we have some modern cock for you next week. Oh my god... good for laughs.

Bobby: Facebook is telling me it's your birthday this Wednesday, December 19th. What are you doing in honor?

Zach: I'll be actually spending most of my birthday on an airplane back to Chicago. That is just pure timing on getting a good rate for a flight. I've never been a huge "look at me, it's my birthday" kind of person. I'm not one to announce it and throw a big party. Usually, I end up with a good friend or two. For example, a few years ago, my then roommate took me hiking at Vasquez Rocks up the 14 Freeway. On another recent birthday, a friend took me to a show at the Knitting Factory where I discovered an excellent band, Waking Ashland, that is now unfortunately defunct.

Since my birthday is so close to Christmas, I always am home in Chicago on or near it. And the tradition since I was in junior high has been eating food from my favorite restaurant back home -- LuLu's in downtown Evanston, home of Northwestern University. It's an eclectic Asian eatery that covers Japanese, Thai, Korean, Chinese. I love it!

Photo of Zach in a red chair by Akiva Rubin
Photo of Zach drinking while blogging in Tony Pierce's closet by Lindsay William-Ross/LAist
All other photos by Zach