Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Giant Robot Interview

Here’s another interview. It’s Martin Wong, founding editor of Giant Robot , which is probably the best magazine on the Planet, at least the best magazine about Asian and Asian-American pop culture, with a nice side little business on pointless pop trash, vinyl figures, exploitation cinema and pretty art.

Seriously, if you have a decent newsstand near you, see if you can pick up a copy.
(The interview was done for my friend Dave’s webzine, Crackpot Press.)
***
GREG: First let me get all the embarrassing fanboy gush out of the way so we can move on to more manly things. It’s in the form of a question, so it’s not totally inappropriate.

So, in 12 years you’ve gone from a zine to a freakin’ media empire (a magazine, four storefront galleries, a restaurant and an online store), you have done an amazing job keeping it, well, real. Through a decade of change, you’ve managed to imbue a sense of wonder and guilelessness into every issue. There is no bullshit, no lazy irony, no exploitation, just people talking about interesting stuff they believe in. In other words, it still feels like a zine in very much a good way. How’d you think you’ve kept it that way?

Martin: It’s super important to us that we believe in what we write about. We don’t feel like it’s our responsibility to reflect what’s big or report on things that are trendy. Fuck that! The whole point of having our own mag is to write about what we want. I think readers can tell that we are honestly into the topics of our mag, and not writing articles from press releases or fluffing products from advertisers. By covering a range of stuff—and not just music, toys, art, movies, or whatnot—we not only turn ourselves onto new things every issue, but we lead readers to check out things they blow off otherwise. For example, someone who buys GR for movie-related articles may read something about an artist and get into it. If that reader never reads art mags, the article could be mind blowing! That’s how we feel every issue.

GREG: Your masthead reads “ASIAN POP CULTURE AND BEYOND”. Are you guys on some kind of mission? Do you have a pillow at home with the Twelve Giant Robot Directives sewn into it? Seriously, what sort of responsibilities, if any, do you think you might have to the subject matter you cover? Do you guys have any ambassadorial duties? Do you ever feel protective of your subjects?

Martin: We’re on a mission to document and promote new, neglected, up-and-coming, obscure, and underdog Asian, Asian-American, and hybrid culture. We want readers to know about the stuff that inspires us, and hope it inspires them, too. We are protective, sure, but we are also proud of them and think the world would be better served if it knew about them. The other mission is to get as big as we can without sucking!

GREG: Do you keep the old zines lying around? Do you ever take them out and experience a personal montage sequence, starting at age five when you first saw Ultraman and ending at exactly the moment you found the old zines, stuffed in a shoebox you found in the trunk of the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow you drive now?

Martin: We totally have old copies. I look at them and can hardly believe we crammed so much stuff into each issue. Some of that is because we came out quarterly and didn’t believe in trimming articles. Another factor is that Eric was still doing the design. When Wendy came in, she brought all these new concepts like readability to the table! As for the Silver Shadow, that’s in the shop. I drive a Mazda station wagon. Eric is driving his dad’s old mini-van!

GREG:You see more and more aesthetics from Asian popular culture being appropriated for the US market. Do you see yourself as informing this trend at all, or are you outside of it? Do you ever want to say “I was into those guys since before you were picking your granny’s ass?” And why would you say such an awful thing? Dirty.

Martin: Well, I enjoy the white man’s culture now and then—certain pasty British bands and alcoholic novelists with dysfunctional families. So why can’t others appreciate interesting Asian culture? In the end, I’m all for the evolution and sharing of culture, which builds up to new hybrid manifestations. For example, Guitarwolf is a band that took rock ’n’ roll from America and turned it up to 11. Or a guy like Johnnie To has taken gangster movies and made them beautiful in addition to violence. Then bands or filmmakers from the west take their work and get inspired. Sharing like that is cool. Besides, if we had to rely only on Asian readership, we’d be dead. Most of them have average tastes just like most white, black, brown, or other people.

GREG: Your coverage of art and artists is pretty low key. Not a lick of fancy-pants Art in America theory stuff. What sort of artists end up in Giant Robot, both in the magazine and the galleries?

Martin: To quote Lux Interior from The Cramps, “I don’t know about art but I know what I like.” We can’t really say who’s important or what’s going to last, but we can say what we like. It’s important for us to say why we like things, too, though. That’s one thing that separates us from a vanity publication by some dude jerking off to his rare toys or whatnot.

GREG: Is there much interest in Giant Robot in Asia? Like when you approach folks that live and work in Shanghai, or Hong Kong, or Manila, or Tokyo, how do they respond to the magazine? I know Asia is hugely diverse in culture, so perhaps it’s a crude question, but what the hell, I’m going for it.

Martin: We have fans all over the place, but it’s kind of like here. Average schmoes—Asian or not—just don’t get it. They’re rather read about mainstream crap like what the Friends are up to or what Tom and Katy’s baby burped yesterday. Just like here, we get the arty folks, the punkers, and the geeks. Only fewer, because most don’t read English!

GREG: GIANT ROBOT is at least partially about living in California, isn’t it? It has a California vibe, to be sure, just like the old Thrasher I read as a hairless 7th grader in the early ‘80’s did. How much is your editorial voice is informed by being Californians?

Martin: Well, we are in L.A., and that’s one thing that informs us when it comes to art, music, food, and everything. We can surf in the morning, drive a couple hours, and snowboard at night. Then skateboard when we get home! When I was in college, it seemed like single band that matters comes through town, and now it’s the same way with artists and filmmakers. That helps us put together a mag that’s local, but not incestuous. And, damn, we have the best of every type of food. Not just Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Vietnames, Korean, Thai, Malaysian, Hawaiian, and any other Asian-Pacific cuisine but also Ethiopian, Cuban, and whatever else.

GREG: Your magazine does great travel pieces, covering stuff off the Lonely Planet path. Has there ever been any moments were either of you fellas, or one of your writer got into some deep shit when on the road? Rip-offs, cops, explosive diarrhea, vicious animals, one eyed pimps, etc.

Martin: The sad fact is that I hardly ever travel! If you read the travel pieces they’re usually friends who are on the road for work, play, or whatever. Eric gets out now and then, but the most exotic place I’ve gone lately is San Diego.

GREG: Any major plans (Sixty second Superbowl spots, Giant Robot Days at Magic Mountain, subscriber-only orgies, etc) for Issue Five-Oh?

Martin: Wow, that is coming up soon, isn’t it? I think we should have a Japanese New Year type thing where people line up to get slapped by Senator Inoki.
GREG: Name the three best dishes at GREats, Giant Robot’s restaurant out on Sawtelle Blvd, in West LA, home of The Cabbage Patch (the dance). You have eight seconds (honor system, since we’re on email).

Martin: Tofu Tacos (spicy) – Off the menu, but you can ask if Chef Nelson is there
Curry with Tofu Meatballs – Added to the menu by popular request (of me)
Whatever the special is – I don’t eat meat, but if I did I’d eat nothing but the fish specials. Chances are, Eric’s uncle caught something that was too big for the family to eat!


GREG: Finally, are you Punk Rock or New Wave?

Martin:Well, that’s not for me to judge, but I hope it’s punk rock. New wave styles come and go, but punk rock is for life.

##

You can check out Martin’s blog here.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Christopher said...

Very cool! Nice work, fella. I'm going to check out the magazine.

5:43 AM  
Blogger G. said...

Good stuff, I've always admired Giant Robot from across the news stand, just never had the chutzpah or good sense to pick up a copy.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Greg Mills said...

G -- You need to.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Mammacita said...

Greg, that was brilliant.
You were so amazing.
So amazing, that I am going to put the kids to bed right now (6:30 p.m.) and take my pants off and wait for you to come home.

Be ready when you enter the door.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Greg Mills said...

My wife. Heh.

8:34 PM  

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