Oakland author Kaya Oakes' book Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture was recently published by Holt Books. Oakes was the co-founder of the respected magazine Kitchen Sink, and her accolades include winning the Utne Independent Press Award for "Best New Magazine" in 2002. Since her book hit shelves, Kaya has been quite active doing readings up and down the West Coast. Tonight, October 17th, as part of Litquake Litcrawl reading series with Small Press Distribution, she will be reading at The Marsh cafe on Valencia between 21st and 22nd in San Francisco, from 8:30-9:30pm. The Amoeblog caught up with the author to talk about indie culture and her new book.
Amoeblog: Why did you decide to write Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture?
Kaya Oakes: The book came together for a number of different reasons. I was approached by an agent right when the final issue of the magazine I helped found (Kitchen Sink) was coming out, and she asked if I was interested in writing a book about underground music, which is the topic of one of my courses at UC Berkeley. I came up with the idea of doing a broader overview of indie culture, since in my experience it means a lot more than just music. Plus, I felt like indie had given me so much that I wanted to give something back in turn, and I had time on my hands for a big project for the first time in five years. It was a strange coincidence to have one thing ending and another beginning, but I’m glad it happened.
Amoeblog: For those who haven't yet read your book, how do you define "indie culture," and if you were to stamp a date and place on it, when exactly did "indie" start and where?
Kaya Oakes: Indie, of course, means independent. But it’s a lot more than that: it means collaboration, working with others toward a common goal, most often one that involves promoting or releasing or creating art – music, film, literature, comics, crafting, etc. It also means reinventing the idea of what indie means due to economic and cultural shifts in the larger society. The version of indie I’m most familiar
with personally is rooted in the 50s and 60s creative subcultures, where we really saw people cooperating and collaborating across genres for the first time on a large scale.
Amoeblog: How long did you work on Slanted and Enchanted between research, interviewing, and actual writing/rewriting, and how challenging was the experience?
Kaya Oakes: Sheesh, two years from start to finish in terms of research, interviews, writing, revising and editing. It was very hard work – the actual writing was nine months, because I was on a deadline, and 80
thousand words in nine months is a lot of writing – I was at the computer twelve hours a day, and teaching on top of that. Researching and interviewing can be a grind, but if you like your topic it makes things easier. However, I got pretty chubby sitting at my desk for that long, and I haven't listened to indie rock in ages after listening to it daily -- I'm now on a strict musical diet of classical, hip hop and country.
Amoeblog: I imagine that the book took unexpected turns during your research. Was that the case and what things did you discover that surprised you in your research?
Kaya Oakes: I suppose many of the suprises came in thinking about how indie has come to be such a cliché. When you think about the roots and original versions of it from the past, it seemed so unique and interesting, something you had to seek out, and now you can buy your packaged “indie” identity at any Urban Outfitters store. Finding out how and why that transition occurred turned up some very surprising information (See chapter 10! I’m not giving it away yet…).
Amoeblog: I liked reading the parts in your book about indie book publishing. You make the point that -- not surprisingly -- most writers or indie publishers of zines and books do it all out of love and rarely make money. Will this always be the way do you think?
Kaya Oakes: Yes. If you make money doing something you love, you’re a lucky fucker. Especially in publishing. Books and magazines are a financially losing gamble except for a teeny, tiny percentage of
titles, and the ones that sell a lot tend to be crappy. Sorry, but it’s true. If you can accept the fact that you'll never make money, it's much easier to be a publisher.
Amoeblog: How much has your history, especially with the insights gained from being a cofounder of Kitchen Sink, helped in the molding of this book?
Kaya Oakes: The book would not exist without Kitchen Sink. Not only did I learn a lot from the people whose writing we published and my fellow editors and designers, but also it was my first experience of being a part of something that was truly a collaboration. We worked with visual artists, musicians, comic book people, even stand up comedians (yes, there are indie comedians). When that floundered and collapsed due to larger shifts in the publishing industry and the economy, it was painful to let it go. And that’s the experience of far too many people in the indie community. It’s incredibly hard to make something that can self sustain for years without outside support. I am in awe of any independent label, publisher, gallery, magazine or comic that lasts for more than a couple of years.
Amoeblog: I love how you write a lot about Bay Area music & zines (KALX, Gilman St., Cometbus, etc). Do you thnk that the Bay Area is more nurturing a place for indie culture than LA or NY?
Kaya Oakes: It has been for me, but I was born and raised here so perhaps I’m just tonally on a Bay Area wavelength. I do think the communities in LA and NYC are by nature bigger than ours, which can make them more difficult for outsiders to navigate. There’s also still some degree of East vs West coast bias in indie (and in everything, frankly) – since the book came out, a lot of reviews have complained that it’s too much about the West coast. My reaction to that is well, there are already tons of books about the East coast indie scene; can’t we speak for ourselves? And I’m stoked that the book on East Bay punk came out right after mine; hopefully, we can have parallel narratives. The more books about the Bay Area, the better.
Amoeblog: "Indie culture" continually grows and shapeshifts. Since you finished writing your book, what new developments or new offshoots in indie culture have you witnessed that you would include, were you writing the book today?
Kaya Oakes: The internet, of course, has played a massive role in the shifting of indie, but it changes so rapidly that anything I wrote was in danger of being very dated by the time the book came out. So I chose to only touch on it briefly, which some people have disliked, but everything I said about the internet already looks dated. For example, I talked about MySpace in a couple places, and these days it’s nothing but porn and spam. That happened very quickly. Twitter was barely a blip while I was writing. Facebook had only just opened up to people other than college kids. You didn’t see iPhones everywhere. Those tools have really changed the game, but, again, it’s happening faster than the pace of book publication, which can take years.
Amoeblog: Any plans for a follow up? What is next on the table for you?
Kaya Oakes: Something completely different, as Monty Python would say. I think I’ve said my piece about indie for now, and I’m ready to explore totally different topics. I occasionally blog about indie on my website oakestown.org, but it’s time to let others chime in.
Tonight from 8:30pm to 9:30pm Kaya Oakes will be presenting a Litquake Litcrawl reading with Small Press Distribution at The Marsh in San Francisco at 1062 Valencia St, (415) 641-0235.
And on November 4th at 7:30pm she will be in Berkeley opposite the Telegraph Ave Amoeba Music at Moe’s Books as part of the indie culture panel with Liz Lyle (Watchword Press), Nicole Neditch (BayVan, Kitchen Sink), and Noella (Issues), plus music by surprise artists.