I don't know everything there is to know about George Chen. I know he's funny. I know that when he decides something's going to get done, it's going to get done. And I know in many ways he is independent music, in the form of a warm, wry, awkward, and extraordinarily hardworking punk.
[jump] “I was at this point where I was playing in like three bands, working at Alternative Tentacles as my day job, and running my own label. And then I started doing [show promotion work under] Club Sandwich. I was kind of being insane. I mean when you're running shows two to three times a week and then going out to shows the other nights … I was doing something that was unsustainable.”
Chen's understating the sustainability of his life in live music; we're talking about the early aughts into 2010. “I kept playing bar nights in San Francisco, and my friends had all moved on to DJ nights or general domestic lifestyles,” he says. And he worries about the long term, like a lot of people do, pointing me to a really good article about a weird nerdcore rapper named Juiceboxxx, once a brace-faced superspaz, now a man wondering if continuing to retain the name Juiceboxxx is any kind of good idea.
Still, “I enjoyed it,” Chen says of his manic underground years. “I think we put on events that people enjoyed.”
Understatement is a habit with him. Boxleitner, KIT, Chen Santa Maria, 7 Year Rabbit Cycle, and Common Eider King Eider are the bands Chen's played in, most while he held that job at Jello Biafra's famous East Bay bastion of punk and radical spoken word artists, if that's what you can call Noam Chomsky or Mumia Abu-Jamal; bands currently on the label include Pansy Division and Subhumans. Then there was Club Sandwich, his booking collective that was really mostly just him.
“I guess what I was trying to create was a culture where the show itself was the reward, and to call it 'Club Sandwich' instead of 'George Chen presents' or even 'Zum presents,' was partly to keep it from being about me,” he says. Ultimately that didn't work but that was at least the idea. “I did not necessarily want to become the San Francisco Todd P,” he says, name-dropping the notable New York City DIY promoter.
But he's probably best known for Zum, the “music media mailorder” outfit that started when Chen and his sister Yvonne decided to do a 'zine when they were teenagers in San Jose in the 1990s. It somehow spiraled into a small empire of sorts, encompassing 7, 10, and 12-inch vinyl, books, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, magazines, posters, t-shirts, and more from here and abroad.
It's known for being diverse, or as he told Pitchfork, “We put out stuff like P:ano, which is more in the vein of Stephen Merritt. And the Mincemeat or Tenspeed record, even hardcore noise people might not be inclined to include that, because it's fun and has a beat to it.”
When I ask why the indie scene has been important enough to spend “over half my life on now, haha!” I tell him he's not allowed to say “because I love the music,” or anything like that. So he says something deeply unforeseen, instead:
“Part of it was probably going to a Catholic school and having this idea of 'service' pounded into me, although I'm a totally secular agnostic. Also being the first generation of my family born here, there's maybe this notion of not wanting to take up too much space, does that make sense? Being a behind-the-scenes person allowed me to be close to the thing I loved and not take too many hits for putting myself out there as an artist.” So thanks for that, Catholic school. I would never have given credit where due there.
Chen's spent serious time doing something I especially admire: producing the rare, difficult, and 100 percent money-losing kind of show known as “all-ages.” His reasons have to do with the Lowdown, an obscure noise band from Santa Cruz, my hometown for many years; the band was made up of the insufferably genius-like Noel Von Harmonson of Comets on Fire and other fames, the now-reclusive Hugh Holden, and a charming, narrow guy named Josh Alper. That Alper's life was cut short a year and a half ago has had me thinking about how great it is to get old, and to be old, since some people won't ever be it. But all-ages shows are there to be accessible to young people, those too young to go to bar shows, and I'm psyched to hear Chen mention something that was extremely near to Alper's heart.
“I took this one chunk from the Lowdown,” he says. “They refused to play 21-and-over shows. It really hurt their ability to turn into a hyped San Francisco band, but I always respected it as a limitation and on the sheer principle that you didn't need it to be about anything other than the music.”
These days George Chen is in comedy, where he's in the thick of a punk-rock-like independent comedy scene, which has its center in the basement of Lost Weekend Video.
“The thing that I do now, my own standup comedy and doing the booking for Lost Weekend Video's Cinecave, is a pretty straight ahead translation of the Club Sandwich booking. I've just transferred it from music acts to comedy,” he says. “[I'm] dealing with venues, stage managing, some 'hosting,' and just checking in with performers, and it's got the glorious bonus (usually) of foregoing sound checks!” They're 21-and-over shows. But how many teenagers can sit still for standup anyway?
There are still many things I still don't know about George Chen. I know he currently works at Pandora, and also at Econo Jam Records, in addition to the above comedy stuff. I know he sees independent music as service, as do I. (I think. I'm not 100 percent sure. I mean, what is art?) I know he admired Josh Alper. And I know he does it because he loves the music.
George Chen's next show is Monday, March 16, at the Cynic Cave; a benefit for those who lost their homes and more in the Mission and 22nd Street fire.