Saturday, February 20, 2010

Punk Anthology Interview #2 - Matthue Roth

I decided to ask the same questions of every author to compare their responses. I wanted to learn what was similar, and what was different, in their thoughts on punk rock and DIY. Here is the second interview in a series of interviews with the writers who contributed to the anthology, Punk Rock Saved My Ass (launching Spring, 2010). 

Matthue Roth wrote the Orthodox Jewish punk-rock road-trip novel Never Mind the Goldbergs, as well as the novels Losers and Candy in Action and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go. He’s also a performance poet. He has a daughter whose favorite band is The Dead Milkmen (she’s 14 months old) and a wife who hates punk rock, but is kind of down with They Might Be Giants. They live in Brooklyn, but only physically. He keeps a secret journal at

How do you personally define punk?
I'm really bad at personally defining anything -- I just do what I do. But a lot of what I love is punk, and so that rubs off on the stuff I write and the person I am. So I guess that makes me punk?

Punk, I think, is anything that flies in the face of what you'd expect. Punk is yelling at the top of your lungs when you're expected to be quiet, and it's acting like a full-on gentleperson when everyone expects you to stage a riot...or the exact opposite.

But it's more than that, I guess. It's not just going against what people expect of you. It's really ignoring the idea of expectation itself and doing whatever you want or whatever you're feeling. I'm talking about art, mainly, although I think it still holds true with everything else.

What is NOT punk?
Most punk music isn't punk. And a lot of punk art isn't punk at all; it just looks a lot like what punk art was 20 years ago, or 30, or 100. But almost everything else might be punk. You can never tell until it leaps out of the speakers and kicks your ass.

What punk song/band changed your life, and how?
The first real music I liked was Weird Al Yankovic. I discovered They Might Be Giants pretty early on -- they were the ones who forced the transition. I know they're not "punk" per se, or by the books, but it
was like a ray of light from heaven, the realization that you can be nerdy and badass at the same time. I heard "Put Your Hand inside the Puppet Head," and it was like, holy shit, they're creepy and unpredictable and flammable as anything. They're the kind of nerds that might have some sort of deadly chemical cocktail in their back pocket. They're badass.

What has punk taught you about yourself and your life?
It's taught me to question everything. It's taught me how to believe in things. It's taught me that you can't be laid-back or casual about something you care about, whether it's a social issue or a band or a crush, or else it will stop meaning something to you and it will wither up and die.

What surprised you about the punk scene?
The way that people depend on each other so completely. The way that sometimes, that sort of depending-ness falls through completely. And the way that, sometimes, it doesn't.
If a person is interested in learning more about punk/DIY, what would you suggest they do?
Hunt down other people like you. I grew up in an area where I thought I was the only punk-rock kid for hours. Years later, it turns out that three of my best friends all grew up in the area, and were all into
the same things I was -- I just never knew them because I was too busy trying to run away.
But surround yourself with alt-culture. Track down the good stuff, and not just what ever's in the front of the music store or the front page of Amazon. I'll say, because I'm egotistical, my book Never Mind the Goldbergs is a great place to start -- and I'm saying it because I kind of wrote it for my 15-year-old self as the book I wish I could've read. There's a zillion of those types of things out there -- songs, websites, text-message novels. Anything can change your life. The important thing is to realize what they are when you find them.

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