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An interview with Beck Levy /
by Katie Alice Greer

I have a bizarrely intimate and simultaneously distant relationship with Beck Levy's work. Hearing her D.C. band Turboslut for the first time was one of those unique instances where you hear something a stranger has made and it is powerful and confusing because you feel like you're hearing an unfamiliar part of yourself. Like a stranger is telling you about you? It is a very strange thing! What I mean to say is, sometimes you hear other people's stories and are so grateful to them, because now this is a story you will not have to try to tell.

I think I understood that Turboslut lived in the same city as me, but I didn't really get it that I could just go see them live or something. (I can't remember if they were still a band or had just split when I first heard their 12".) I didn't really get a lot of things. (Still don't). I still don't really know how to adequately thank Beck for the music she's been a part of making (her current band Hand Grenade Job's cassette will never get it out of my head), for the posters she's printed that now hang in so many show spaces and friends homes, for the "pro-choice anti-christ" patches on a lot of jackets. There's a lot more. Beck Levy is responsible for a lot of underpinnings in the framework of modern-day DIY/underground culture happening in the USA right now. You could say I am a big fan. I was very psyched to have this conversation with her about scene reports, show-booking, punk as activism (or not), and creating culture in the mess of late stage capitalism

Katie: Who is Beck Levy? What does she do?

Becky: I'm 27, from DC. I miss it dearly but am living and working in Oakland, CA now. I'll be staying put here for a while. I'm a gorgon-identified artist constantly fighting against the restraints of space and time. I'm a printer, mostly letterpress. My partner and I have a Vandercook Universal One letterpress, which is about 2,000lbs, and about as much type. I do some linoleum carving and polymer plate designing (the modern way to create relief plates for printing) but mostly I use letterpress to communicate with text. I'm also a writer.

The art I make, whatever form it takes, is inspired by a radical, anarchic, binary-busting, anti-oppression, critical, witchy, prison-abolishing feminism. It's also colored by my life in DIY/punk and my love of science fiction/the occult/the fringe.

Tell me about some things you've done in the past.

Musically, I was in a band with my best friend in middle school, called Flat Tummy. After that I wasn't in bands, besides Halloween joke/cover bands, until Turboslut. Then the Gift and HGJ, with some solo misfires throughout.

In terms of other stuff, I spent the intervening decade between high school and now messing around in all sorts of activism, anarchism, and punk endeavors. The major highlight of those years was getting involved at Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, where I learned how to letterpress. Now I'm in school at Mills College, finishing up an undergraduate degree in Women's studies with a double minor in journalism and book arts. Or in other words, I am getting certified in using the word as a weapon to destroy prisons.

Can you tell me about the first show you went to?

I can't, because I was raised by a musician. My parents took me and my sister to a lot of shows when we were little. I think one of the earliest ones I can remember is Pearl Jam. It’s because of my parents that I heard bands like Fugazi and Bad Brains. I started going to concerts of my own volition when I was in middle school. Me and my best friend Sarah, who I was in Flat Tummy with, we went to see the Foo Fighters at the Black Cat and stuff like that.

I've been wandering around crowds of freaks and falling asleep in recording studios since I was a kid which probably contributes to why I've always felt like an outsider in punk scenes. Punk wasn't this thing that saved me from my adolescence or made me feel less alone, it was just one other venue in which I felt alienated.

The first DIY punk house show I went to was at Chris Moore's house across the street from our high school. Either Magrudergrind or Twin Cheek Assault. Sarah and I used to go to shows at St. Andrew's in College Park. I remember seeing a lot of bands there. The shows kind of blend together in my memory because I was so anxious and uncomfortable the whole time but I remember seeing so many bands, Fairweather, Strike Anywhere, Darkest Hour when they were a sick thrash band. For some reason I'm remembering seeing Dashboard Confessional there which is hilarious, and Age of Ruin when they had fire breathers which doesn't seem right cause it was a church but we were always contending with fireworks in that space for some reason.

Me and my other best friend, Eva, would go to shows together too but more the kind that were associated with anarchist or radical conferences and held in churches. Me and my dear friend Leeza, who got me into so much of the music I still listen to, went to shows together sometimes in Baltimore too. I moved in with Chris and Nick from Coke Bust immediately after we graduated from high school. We lived at Harvard and Georgia a block away from a house of slightly older kids who worked at the Black Cat and played in Exosus and Tradition Dies Here.

I went to so many shows back then. My life was totally organized around going to shows. It's unfathomable to me now because I'm so much more in touch with my comfort zone which largely excludes big social gatherings. Anyway back then most of the shows happened at the Warehouse Nextdoor, where I very briefly worked and where I booked my very first show. Lots of things happened at that show that changed the course of my life. 

Can you tell me much about the show? I'd love to hear about that!

I used to write my favorite bands from other parts of the country and ask them to play shows in DC. One of those bands was a blackened crust-punk band with strings (cello I think) from Portland called Garmonbozia. Down to the Twin Peaks reference, that basically sums up my favorite genre of music from like 2005 or whenever this was. So folks from this band had my contact and when their side project wanted to tour, they hit me up for a show. They were called Hex, an instrumental experimental band with tubas and bass drums...and cello. I think no guitars.

So I became a show-booker. I was going to make this terrible collage about break-ups for the flyer, because I'd just gone through my first adult one, but then luckily for everyone Jerry Falwell died. So I made the show into a celebration of his death, rife with libidinous satanic queerness and other ecstatic practice. 

The show was in many ways a template for every future show I'd book. It had all the ingredients: a flyer that I used as a soapbox for my personal gripes, a mixed bill. I had my high school sweetheart read poetry to open the event, Henry Mills. He's still around doing hip hop, poetry, and maybe heavy music too. I had Ingrid play. They were one of my favorite local bands. Ashley Arnwine on drums, Joey Doubek on guitar, very KARP-y. There was also a band I wanted to hear from Blacksburg, VA called the Two Funerals. I'd heard they were an all-girl punk band so I asked them to play too. Jesus, Blackburg is so far. I hope I knew to pay them too. Jesus Christ. I can't believe I'm stressing out about this now. I'm still friends with those ladies to this day. Back then they had ska-parts. I think they've been a band for about ten years now.

At this show my friends Jean and Katie approached me and asked me to sing in a band. That later became Turboslut.

What do you think is more central to the punk experience: more fully realized conceptions of community and like-mindedness, or that of alienation?

I don't know. My punk experience in DC was really different from other people in DC, and even though there are some gross generalities across the continent, DC is really different than say, New Orleans or Oakland, which are the other two cities I call home.

Not that there would be a monolithic experience of any of these places but if you had to explain these cities to someone who'd never been, what would you tell them?

DC punks are more political but also less welcoming, more uptight, and comprised of privileged kids in general. 

I don't think that music is activism. There might be exceptions, and I don't mean to suggest that playing music isn't a political act for some people, but there is this air among some DC punks that by being punks, or being into hardcore, one is actively participating in a counterculture. I just don't agree. Like I said, there are a bunch of benefit shows that happen in DC, and I do NOT take that for granted. But that's sometimes a requirement for having the show at certain spaces, like La Casa or St. Stephens, and that type of activism sort of falls under Alice Walker's idea about activism being your rent for living on this planet.

I came into the radical world in DC through activism and working at the (now defunct) anarchist infoshop. DC has a lot of old school, lifer activists, and there's not much overlap any longer between those folks and punks. (There's still a ton of overlap in term of the DC queer scene and activism/radical stuff, though). Punks don't show up to housing rallies and most weren't around for Occupy stuff, even. (Not that Occupy was that tight.) This is a bit of a change--there was a lot more overlap when I was coming up in DC, the same kids who were radical cheerleaders at protests and demos were at punk shows. This might have had something to do with the AU scene at the time, shows happened there as well as NCOR (National Conference for Organized Resistance, or the National Conference on Hanging Out and Making Out, NCHOMO, as we called it). 

These days, being actively radical in DC looks different. The usefulness and frequency of large-scale political demos is behind us, for the most part, and since the infoshop is gone there isn't a geographical locus of community. Perhaps the absence of large demos means that punks who are more into the performativity aspect of being radical are out. It's also worth mentioning that a lot of folks in DC who are in the punk scene have jobs at non-profits and NGOs, and maybe do their radical work on the clock.

It probably seems right now like I'm saying two different things -- that DC punk is more political than other cities, and that DC punks aren't invested in building radical community or supporting grassroots DC projects. Those are both gross generalizations, of course, but I think there's truth to both of them.

DC punk has a lot of turnover because of the many colleges in the area. This was certainly the case in the early-late 2000's, not sure if it is still that way. The scene is definitely in the long shadow of Dischord and seminal DC punk in many ways, and both benefits from that and is stunted by it. One of the ways it benefits from its history is the preponderance of benefit shows and politicized punk events. Most DIY bookers are committed to all-ages events. DC punk suffers from the high rent and good DIY venues often don't last long, and a dedicated DIY venue is pretty much a practical impossibility. Even though the different sub-genres of the scene can seem pretty factional at times, DC is at its heart a small town and there is a lot of crossover, like between punk and hardcore, I suppose. The scene would benefit, I think, from careful crossover and bill-sharing with garage rock, indie, and noise. Punks gotta go to Sonic Circuits events and make creative booking choices.

New Orleans is sort of my home-in-my-heart because that's where I have the largest number of friends and it's the only place I really feel that I have a community of friends, rather than a constellation. I met and got close to folks down there through doing shows with and for Thou and becoming good friends with Bryan Funck, who has done so much for the scene there. My friends Osa and Candice (of New Bloods and Necro Hippies/Mystic Inane, respectively) both live there, book shows there, and are brilliant amazing artists. The Community Print Shop is tight as hell and if I lived there I'd be there all the time. I just visited New Orleans instead of DC for the holidays and it did feel like coming home. I'm the associate editor of a New Orleans based monthly magazine, Antigravity.

The punk scene there is awesome and extremely punk as fuck. Generator shows happen all the time, people dance hard, and live in squats--people organize their lives around being punk, in a way that isn't found in DC. Of course, living in NO is a lot cheaper than living in DC too. No comparison. It seems to me like there is so much music happening in New Orleans that even though it is a small town in the way DC is, it feels bigger. There are some connections between the Iron Rail, the NO infoshop, and the punk scene, and many between the print shop and the punk/queer scenes.

Apparently one of the hardest things about being a punk in NO is that bands break up super fast. People are always going out of town and traveling and moving and it seems really hard for bands to make it past a few shows and a tape a lot of the time. That's a damn shame. Two cool NO projects are Queerspiracy/Endless Gaycation, an annual queer arts and music conference, and Not Enough Fest, which is the new annual fest for new bands with women and queer folks. There's also a push for the first ever NO Girls Rock! Camp this year.

I only moved to Oakland in July and I have only been to a couple punk shows since then, partially because of being busy, partially for health reasons (I have a broken bone in my foot right now and walk with a cane). The Bay Area is fucking huge, there are a zillion different punk scenes, and multiple shows every night. That's what I can say about that.

I kind of think about cities and their punk scenes in a really particular framework. My personal litmus for what a scene is like is watching how they deal with toxic and abusive people. I've seen how each of those cities deal with those situations, and it's pretty telling. Because making non-specific statements about these situations can be damaging, I'm actually not going to comment further on what I've seen or the conclusions I've drawn, but I would like to offer that it is an important way to gauge a "community" or whatever.

What do you think of witches? There's a stone in the ground in front of a cathedral in Germany and everyone tells you to spit on the stone because it's where the buried a witch. Would you spit on this stone or kiss it?

I'm definitely a witch. I try to avoid talking about my spirituality and ritual practice too much because it makes me feel self-conscious, and because my practice is constantly evolving, a work in progress. I also try to avoid talking about it because the wyrd has become appropriated by the mainstream as a currency of hipness. This actually doesn't annoy or surprise me, really, because that's the nature of late-capitalism. It actually interests me quite a bit, because I think it says something about the historical moment we are in, the point in an economic cycle where supernatural, transformative power is appealing to the masses because we lack other forms of more material agency.

Are you meaning an appropriation of, say, literal currency or wealth, is being replaced by an appropriation of culture? or Ideas? 

I meant that signifiers of occultism like the inverted cross, pentagrams, and crystals have found their way into the mainstream and the hands of the careless. It's a cultural trope for not giving a fuck or coolness or something. I don't mind because, like I said, that's the nature of late capitalism. Like Debord wrote, our social relationships are mediated by images. But that is why my spiritual practice is mostly personal.

I always think of this advertisement I saw for a toilet bowl putt-while-you-shit mini golf course. Like you literally hold the putter with your pants around your ankles while you're on the toilet. I think that was the idea of the product. Someone posted it on the Internet with a caption like, "ah, the products of late-capitalism,” like implying the hilariousness and absurdity of the whole thing. Can you talk about what late capitalism means to you, how it does or does not influence your work? Are there things you try to protect from the monster, or does that sort of feel futile? 

There's no opting out. Thinking you can opt out of capitalism is the kind of cultural/lifestyle activism that I'm just not into. Basically if you try to build your political analysis around a specific practice you do that you feel helps protect you from capitalism, you are going to end up in a cult, a religion, or a subculture. You'll be totally irrelevant. The extent to which you're able to evade the panoptic gaze of the state is basically the extent of your privilege. I think that commercial would sum up late-crapitalism better if it was obvious that the product itself was manufactured in prison and marketed to people who weren't currently in prison as a way to demonstrate their leisure and safety, as a result of the rest of the population being in prison. Because I am both extremely neurotic and extremely anarchic, I am constantly attempting to apply theory to life, both in art and in my relationships. 

I had an instance recently where I felt like I was being "mined" on the internet for my interests and valued influences, not in an effort to better understand where I was coming from, but in an effort for a business to sell something. My reaction was to stop "like-buttoning" friend's bands and other things genuinely important to me, and instead just "like" random pop videos from the early 00s. (This wasn't disingenuous, I really like a lot of radio music from that period especially, but it seemed like a good prank too.) It strangely sent me in this direction where I have been seriously revisiting a lot of what I would call "trash from my youth" for lack of a better word. It is commercial bullshit but I found value in it as a kid, and can actually still find value now, in a different way! Do you ever think that the act of creating right now in this "historical moment" you referenced earlier involves some attempts to "upcycle", or is that too optimistic? Does working with trash just beget more trash?

I know the feeling of being like-mined. I try to be compassionate with people because when I was younger I didn't always know how to identify my own interests or pursue them adequately. But essentially, posers are going to be pose hard no matter what. The best practice is to keep your cool, play your cards close to your chest, and never have anything to prove. If you play the game you lose.

As for cycles, consumer culture and pop culture definitely move in cycles in terms of eras and rebranding/remarketing eras. Like Mad Men being cool, or the 90s being cool (unless you're black and/or a woman, unless you lived in Yugoslavia). But this sort of falls under the type of theorizing I try not to get too invested in, because it's trying to recognize patterns instead of looking at the thing that is producing them. The reason social media is successful is because it helps people construct, maintain, and market simulated identities. Obviously social life has gotten to a point where that is a widespread necessity.

For more scholarly work on this topic, I recommend perusing the Debord work I referenced earlier along with the updated Cyborg Manifesto (Haraway), Neuromancer (Gibson), Fucking Computers (Olenick), and a whole bunch of excellent work in the disability studies discipline.  I love disability studies because it goes even further than queer studies sometimes in pushing back at normalness and looking at the way bodies are controlled.

What is my point? Oh. Something about thinking of Facebook as a social prosthesis. I don't know.  It's normal to get defensive about your interests and if you feel it happening to you, you should remember that:
a) you were conditioned in a restricted set, an economic model involving scarcity
b) there's no transitive property about fandom
c) caring about being cool is a stupid waste of time 
d) both you and the other person can exist because the free market model is a bad fit for everything involving people (see #a)
e) maybe you're an introvert and should spend all your time working on your own stuff
all of the above

I think I have alluded to this before but the Turboslut/Pygmy Lush record is very important to me. The first time I heard the Turboslut side I felt like I was stepping on a landmine in my soul or something, like all of these intense feelings I had were being given a release in hearing this music, and then when I read the lyrics I actually cried! It was very like, “oh my god thank you someone for saying these things for me.” I’m wondering if you could talk about any records or songs or artists who have made like a super powerful impact on you? Doesn't matter if it's from a long time ago or now or whatever. Just stuff that has moved you in some kind of way.

Thank you! I still really only experience a pretty narrow range of emotions (unfortunately), most of which TS articulated adequately, and sometimes I wonder if producing more songs isn't just redundant, but I keep doing it anyway.

When I was growing up I listened to a lot of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins. My parents were peripherally alert to DC punk/hardcore, so I was also into Fugazi and Bad Brains. When I was getting older I listened to a lot of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Tori Amos. When I was in Turboslut I listened to a lot of PJ Harvey and Born Against. When I was in the Gift I was most inspired by 45 Grave and (Baltimore band preceding Celebration) Love Life. I listened to Portishead a lot, inspirationally, during HGJ. Right now I mostly am using music as a way to do something very specific to my nerves and so I am listening to a lot of chilled out over-produced pop and over the top ridiculous metal. In other words, I am actively not seeking to move myself emotionally by listening to music. I am mostly using it as an oar. But I can quickly think of some of the artists that have inspired me the most--Nina Simone, Hope Sandoval, Nina Nastasia, Prince, Lucinda Williams. But I think movies can be inspiring to music, like Born in Flames was such a major inspiration behind Turboslut at least for me. I also find the projects my friends are working on incredibly moving, and it's impossible to know if I'm the luckiest person in the world and my friends are beautiful geniuses, or if my perception of their art is affected by my feelings for them, or both. But it means that a lot of my favorite music is stuff that's way different than what I like to play or listen to normally--I'm thinking of bands like the Ambulars and Small Bones here.

You're talking about "using music as a way to" … I've definitely seen value in pop, or other music in this way! In terms of the fear of creating redundantly, how much does this impact what you're doing, whether it is with letterpress or music or writing, or anything. Do you often feel, like, the clutter of the world around you when you're working, or perhaps just the clutter of your self or your history, and does that impact what you do or don't make? I guess what I am wondering is the equivalent of, do you ever feel like "Nah I don't even want to think about drawing right now it'll just be a waste of paper."

My art practice is both a respite from the clutter and an organizing ritual of it, particularly since most of what I do is very solitary these days.  It's easy to psych yourself out about originality and redundancy, and I think that contributes to ruts and creative blocks for a lot of people. That's not something I experience. That's probably for a lot of reasons. One is that I'm a chronic over-committer, so I always have a couple projects queuing and no real chance to try to figure out what to do with myself. Another is that the need to create things is pretty compulsive for me. I always gotta be doing it. But I also don't feel the need to share everything I make. I think this is a pitfall for a lot of artists/writers/musicians these days. Just because you draw something doesn't mean you need to post it to your Twitter/Tumblr/Pinterest/Facebook and then self-publish it. Giving myself the space to create without the expectation of sharing has been valuable. David Lynch's book on creativity, "Catching the Big Fish," had a big impact on my process, despite the transcendental medication aspect (not into the corporate cultiness of it or the production of docile bodies). I listened to the audiobook, which he reads. Highly recommended.

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