NOTE: The following article contains adult language.
The rock club CBGB is a legend, an ideal, a hallowed foundational stone. But it wasn’t always like this. Back in its heyday, CBGB was just a claustrophobic, graffiti-covered, beer-soaked downtown New York City dive bar. But it had two things going for it: 1) a great sound system, and 2) a stage where any up-and-coming band could have a shot at greatness. This lead to the creation of an authentic, once-in-a-lifetime scene, a place where “street rock” became punk rock, new wave, and everything since. A place where the Ramones, Talking Heads, Televsion, Blondie and Patti Smith transcended the Bowery. A place where people found love and salvation in music.
“CBGB: The Comic Book” is a four-issue anthology series from BOOM! Studios that attempts to take that lightning and capture it on the page. The book features stories of the people in and around the club; the die-hards and the dilettantes, the believers and the bartenders, the guitarists and the gutter-dwellers. The passion, the music, and even the screw ups.
I’m Sam Humphries, a contributing writer to “CBGB: The Comic Book” and this is the second in a series of interviews with my fellow colleagues as part of a regular feature exclusively here at CBR. This month, none other than Ana Matronic, singer and songwriter for the glam-fueled, Grammy-nominated, world conquering pop band the Scissor Sisters. Ana’s story, drawn by Dan Duncan, appears in “CBGB: The Comic Book” #2, which hits stores today. The issue also features a story by Sheldon Velaand and a cover by Chuck BB.
The Scissor Sisters released their new album “Night Work” in June and are currently between two globe-spanning tours. Fueled by a love for comics, the music and robots, Ana found time this summer to kick off her comic book writing career in the pages of “CBGB” and also made time to speak with CBR News about her debut.
Sam Humphries: You and your band just released a new album and kicked off a series of tours. Can you tell us a little bit about where you are, where you’re going, what the whole experience is like?
Ana Matronic: Currently I’m on a short break at home in New York. Scissor Sisters just wrapped up our album launch which took us all over, from the UK and Europe to Australia and Japan. It was nine weeks in all, very exhausting but really fun. I love playing festivals and we got to play several of our favorites: Glastonbury in England, Splendour in the Grass in Australia, and Fuji Rock in Japan. We also got to play in countries we’ve never been before, like Slovakia, Estonia and Latvia, which were all really incredible and have inspired the notion of touring the former Eastern Bloc. In between all these gigs were lots of interviews, photo shoots, a video shoot, a recording session, lots of handshakes and hugs, and lots and lots of airplanes. Our American tour starts August 21 in Atlanta, and there’s something very reassuring about being on home turf, on a tour bus. I’m really looking forward to it.
You’re part of a mega-successful pop band…why write comics?
First and foremost, because I love comics. They are such an amazing way to tell a story. They are, in essence, the storyboards for a movie, but without the limitations inherent in moviemaking. There’s no budgetary constraints, no set to build and light, no producer breathing down your neck, no actor personalities to juggle – just you and your imagination, and hopefully an amazing artist to bring it to life. I have a few stories that started out as scripts and screenplays, and they grew in such a way that to actually put them into production would cost a pretty penny, so comics are the best and most natural medium to realize them in. But at the end of the day I’m a huge geek and I’m so excited to be a published comic author.
As a musician, you’re a natural fit for a book about a legendary club. Besides that, what was it about this book in particular that persuaded you to take a plunge into comic book authorship?
I am in the process of writing my first comic series, so writing a short story about a place that means so much to me seemed like a great way to dip my toe in the water. CBGB was one of the places that inspired me to move to New York City, the music that was born there has been a big part of my life, and has inspired a lot of my work. Sadly, it’s gone now, so it’s important to me to remind people of the movement that came out of the place, and to get to be a part of its legacy in this way is really cool. The main character in my story, JT, started out as part of a stage show I’ve been working on, and this story acts as a little “prequel” to her larger, more involved saga.
What was your first encounter with comic books? Have you had a “long term relationship” with them?
My mother is very into fantasy and horror and she passed that love on to her two daughters. We were really into the Sunday funnies as kids, and my sister and I collected anthologies of things like “Garfield” and “Bloom County.” I lived for “Opus” back in the day. But long-form comic books seemed like “guy things” to me at that time, and we’re talking about the ’80s here, so the sort-of “literary expansion” of comics past the usual super hero tights and titties hoo-ha was just starting to happen. It wasn’t really until my teen years, in the early ’90s, that comic books really called out to me, and the one that reeled me in was J. O’Barr’s “The Crow.” Shortly thereafter “Sandman” and Alan Moore sealed the deal. My sister Kate really got into comics and eventually came to co-own her very own comic book shop with her husband Aron in Seattle, WA called The Dreaming. It’s to them I owe my knowledge and love of comics – they keep a box for me there – and Aron’s always sticking titles in there for me that he thinks I’ll dig. I’m into fantasy and horror mostly, anything Lovecraft-inspired or remotely witchy or occult floats my boat. My current favorite series are Matt Wagner’s “Madame Xanadu” and “Bayou” by Jeremy Love, both for their storytelling and incredible artwork.
Your stage name is a morphed version of “animatronics,” you have a tattoo of circuitry and a confessed affinity for robots. Where does that love come from? Is there a sci-fi story inside you, waiting to be told?
There was a lot of really great sci-fi happening when I was a little kid, so my love of robots really comes from all that great seventies stuff: “Star Wars,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Buck Rogers,” etc. Rediscovering the “Bionic Woman” on cable when I was studying pop culture in college was a revelation, and Jaime Sommers became a sort of muse and postmodern messiah for me: the nexus of nature and technology in one body, a representative of humanity’s participation in their own evolution. It was through studying her in a pop culture way that I discovered the writing of people like Donna Haraway and Ray Kurzweil – people who are really into robots.
And yes, there’s definitely a scif-fi story inside. At least one.
Did you ever check out CBGB? Did you ever play there?
I went to CBGB a few times, never to see any band in particular, more just to drink in the place and feel the history. I put a candle outside after Joey Ramone died, and I went the night their lease expired, a couple months before they officially closed – I still have the wristband from that night. Never played there, sadly.
The main character of your story finds a salvation of sorts in the musical scene of New York in the late ’70s. Before you joined the Scissor Sisters, you used to perform and run club nights in New York. What was that experience like? Any memorable stories you can share on the record?
As anyone involved in promotion in New York can tell you, it’s tough. I was part of a collective that put on a new show every week with a different theme and new material, so there was a lot of work on top of just trying to get people through the door. Also, in New York there is the dreaded Cabaret License – if you don’t have one, people aren’t allowed to dance in your establishment. Have you ever heard such ridiculous draconian Footloose bullshit in your life? Yeah, well the place we did our show didn’t have one, so there was the added annoyance of having to tell people not to dance. How stupid is that? “Excuse me, could you please stop enjoying yourselves?” We got around that by doing runway shows, walking up and down the length of the club posing and voguing and doing chair shows. There was also the great trick of drawing the curtain and dancing on the stage – then nobody could see you getting down! We had a lot of great themes, such as Dada a Gogo, Aerobic Rapture, The Self-Destructothon, and Origami Orgy, where I will never forget my friend Christy Love’s rendition of “Turning Japanese” dressed as a giant sushi roll. She even had paper piles of ginger and wasabi onstage with her – and the little plastic grass shit! Amazing.
Your character also feels torn between two different mediums – do you sympathize, now that you have one foot in two vastly divergent forms of creative expression?
They do say “write what you know,” don’t they? I’ve always been interested in doing many things creatively and having lots of pots on the stove. In addition to music and comics, I’ve directed and acted in short films, love folding origami, designing costumes and jewelry, doing makeup and hair design, am currently designing a home with my husband, and I’m also a member of the Joshua Light Show, an amazing psychedelic light show that originated in the late 60s at the Fillmore East. You know all that bitchin’ oil-and-water liquid visual stuff that would play behind Jefferson Airplane? I know how to make that! So yeah, JT is an embodiment of my creative multiplicity – and my creative frustration.
How is storytelling different between songwriting and comic book writing? Do you think telling a story is integral to song? How was it writing for a medium where narrative is more explicitly expected?
I am much more comfortable writing prose than I am writing a song. Songwriting is closer to poetry, where you can work more in abstraction, you can string words together to evoke a feeling, not necessarily telling a story. There are songs that contain stories in them, yes, but storytelling is not central to the process. Being succinct, however, is. I’m not exactly good with succinct, or let’s just say, spinning a yarn is more my thing. Writing for me is a natural extension of talking, and lord knows I can talk.
In 2010 we’re making comics about CBGB based in part on the love that people still have for the place. As someone who used to run a club night of your own, you were in a position to observe that kind of relationship bloom between audience and club. What is it about a music venue that can win such a special place in people’s hearts? Is there a club from your formative years that owns a similar place in your own heart?
There’s something about being the right place at the right time, and CBGB was that, for sure. I think it’s probably something to do with its openness and its ease in allowing people to be creative, supplying a demand for these bands to come and make their noise. I had a similar experience in San Francisco with the club Trannyshack, which was this amazing drag night that happened every Tuesday at this club called The Stud. There was an open-stage policy, anybody could come and perform, and I ended up there every Tuesday for three years. What you see me do onstage with Scissor Sisters had its seeds sown at Trannyshack.
I asked Kieron Gillen this same question – do you think any other club in the world could justify an anthology? Or is there something special about CBGB?
Absolutely, there are others. Cabaret Voltaire, Taboo, the Cotton Club, Love Saves the Day (which inspired a panel in my story), Birdland, Jackie 60, Trannyshack – just to name a few. And now that you’ve mentioned it, what a great idea for a series – are you reading this, BOOM! Studios?
OK, fantasy time. If you could book the club for a night with bands from any era, what would be your dream CBGB lineup? And who would be your dream date for the night?
Oh God, it would be an all-nighter: Babes in Toyland, Bad Brains, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, New York Dolls, Ramones, Fugazi, John Spencer Blues Explosion, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television – that would be quite a night. My dream date? Jim Jarmusch.
Until recently I had no idea how crazy popular the Scissor Sisters are in the UK. It’s stunning. Here in the States you are critical darlings with a strong following, but over there you headline three days at Wembly Arena. Why do you think that is?
Well, first of all, our record deal was signed in the UK, so they’re our home label. But the biggest reason is radio in the UK: there are DJs and radio shows that get played to the entire country. DJs like Jo Whiley and Pete Tong were the first to play our songs, and “championed” our records to their listeners. In the States the only radio that gets played nationally is talk radio, and radio stations only play a certain type of music – it’s so much more varied in the UK. Since our sounds are so eclectic, I think there is confusion in the States as to where to play us, so it limits our exposure. We are very fortunate with all the success that we’ve experienced, and I love having variety in the size of venue we play: we get to live out the rock star fantasy in arenas, and also get to play shows that feel like a party in your parents’ basement.
I know you’re on the road through the end of the year, but is it too soon to be thinking about your next comic book story? Are you ready to dive back in?
Luckily, when you’re touring, you can find time here and there to work on writing. I’m working on my comic series now, and there are many more little stories playing out in the back of my head.