People We’re Into: The Alex Brown Interview
Des Moines is not known for being a mecca of progressive people to say the least. And I don’t mean that to take a condescending tone of any kind. The people of Des Moines are typically very grounded, conservative (but Iowa is a traditional blue state somehow), hard working, salt of the earth kind of people. Yet there are several anomalies of that stereotype that call Des Moines home.
ALEX MOTHER F’N BROWN is one of these people. Most people would walk right by him or sit next to him at the bar having a casual conversation and never realize he is an accomplished, world renowned fine artist, was a guitar player in one of the greatest hardcore bands ever, and is an all around kick ass guy. He’s one of Des Moines finest, and we’re not only proud but lucky to call him a friend of the Subsect family. Enjoy.
Dan: You’re both an accomplished artist and musician…what came first and how old were you when the madness started?
AB: Art. Since I was a cool kid…
Dan: Yeah right, I’ve met you and you are not cool my friend (laughter)
AB: Ok maybe I wasn’t cool but I was always drawing, always…but music too, listening to my parents Mamas and Papas records and bullshit like that. I think music and art parallel each other, for me at least.
Dan: When did you pick up a paint brush or an official art medium not just fucking crayons that every kid does? And when did you pick up a guitar?
AB: I’ve always drawn from grade school all the way through middle school, then in high school I had a great art teacher who saw I was talented or serious about it or whatever, so that’s when my art really started. Guitar wise I got one as a kid, but I could never really get it because I don’t have natural ability to play one you know? But I started getting into hard core (that’s a type of music for all you younger readers to explore and stop worshiping lil’ wayne) got a guitar when I was 19, and an amp, and started bands here in Des Moines, then moved to NYC.
Dan: How old were you when you moved to the city?
AB: I moved there when I was twenty and did a nine year sentence.
Dan: Weren’t you going there for school like NYU or something you hotshot?
AB: I knew I wanted to be in the city so I used school as a vehicle to get me there whether it led to art, or music, something, I knew I wanted to be there.
Dan: So you got to school, guitar in hand, now how did the music scene open it’s arms to you in that jaded ass city?
AB: It was easy I just took my shirt off. (laughter)
Dan: I’m sure the people in NYC had never seen a full grown man with a prepubescent 12 year old girls body before.(lots of laughter)
AB: My second day there I went to a CBGB matinee with Death Before Dishonor, Bold, and Youth of Today headlining. (all legendary bands in the hardcore scene)
Dan: Jesus that was you first show in the city!?!
AB: I remember walking through the city trying to find the Bowery and I see this tiny little fat skinhead inside Ray’s Pizza on St. Marks and it turned out to be our drummer later in the Gorilla Biscuits. (one of the greatest bands ever, AB was in it, no big deal.) So yeah from that show I started hanging out with Youth of Today guys and started playing with guys from the Revelation circle.
Dan: So how did you meet Civ and Walter and get that magical ball rolling that would eventually lead to one of the greatest hardcore bands of all time?
AB: I don’t really know…I remember meeting Walter at a show, he did a stage dive and elbowed me in the face. He was a cool, charismatic, smart kid. Civ I don’t remember meeting but he was a roadie for Youth of Today in 87’. When Youth of Today came back from that tour they were immortalized.
Dan: What do you mean?
AB: It was like the Beatles going to Hamburg, they left and they were just a band but when they came back and played the Anthrax they fucking blew everyone’s minds. Then later I was in a Revelation band called Side by Side that wasn’t too serious, then Walter asked me to join the GB….which thinking about it later, I always thought was weird because they’re all talented musicians and I suck. (laughter)
Berlin Wall, fall of 1989 L to R; Jordan Cooper of Revelation Records(back facing camera), Walter Schreifels(kneeling), Civ, Lukie Luke, me, Mark Hayworth aka The Cruiser aka Helmet.
Dan: So were you militant vegetarian?
AB: I wouldn’t say militant but coming from Iowa and being a vegetarian made Thanksgiving interesting. I mean, we’re raised on meat and potatoes here, so I’m sure my parents were like, “what? you’re not eating meat you faggot?” (lots of laughter)
Dan: Ok so the band thing is in full swing, when does the art kick in?
AB: They kicked me and Luke out to do a more rock n’ roll thing or something, I never really knew why. It was a pretty gnarly kick in the balls so I got my own place then.
Dan: Is that the one you’ve told me about where 20 Chinese immigrants would be on your roof hijacking your long distance, calling the homeland three times a day? (laughter) You should give a quick breakdown to our readers of the high life you were living in the slums of NYC.
AB: Yeah the one and only, what a fucking dump. The power came out of an extension cord from the next building.
AB: I swear, it was so sketchy! I hooked up my own gas line. Telephone line would just clip into the main line on the roof. I would pick up the phone and hear people speaking in either Chinese or Spanish then I’d run up on the roof and they would scatter like cockroaches, it was insane. That building too was a big time junkie scene, full drug addicts nodding off in the halls, prostitutes, like total heroin connection, my parents would have died if they saw that place.
Dan: But those were the last great years of NYC.
AB: That’s true, NYC was a total different place than it is now. This time is known now as the pre Giuliani era before he threw everyone in jail and cleaned the place up.
Dan: So did you get back to Iowa?
AB: Just a living situation gone bad. Tried to line up another sketchy place with a guy who was converting a commercial spot to a apartment without anyone knowing and it all fell through. At that point NYC had broken my spirit and I needed a break. My parents built a rad house in southern Iowa with guest quarters and everything and they needed my help building it, so I just moved back for a break.
Dan: So you were painting in isolation in southern Iowa on a farm? That doesn’t sound too glamorous for a rags to riches art story but I bet you finally could flourish without the city distracting you huh?
AB: Absolutely. I felt this amazing freedom that no one was going to see my work, unlike NYC where people are constantly dropping by, blah, blah, blah. I could do whatever I wanted that was really liberating for me and they had a certain look that I loved.
Dan: Do you still have any of the works you did on the farm?
AB: I do for sure, I have a few…hang on I have to flip this record.
Dan: So you parlayed that into moving to Des Moines?
AB: Yeah my dad had an apartment that I moved into up here, got a shitty studio that I worked in for ten years, it was only 400 sq feet.
Dan: Dude your pieces were huge then weren’t they?
AB: For sure. I was doing lots of large work and that place was a fucking juggling act.
Dan: So when did you have your first success as a fine artist?
AB: It was 1997, I went to NYC with some old connections and they set up a solo show for me. It was a total high to have strangers come up to you and gush over your work.
Dan: What would people say when they found out you were producing these awesome works in Iowa?
AB: It was basically a conversation killer. You know the art world wants everyone to have that inner city rags to riches story you referred to earlier. To say you’re working in Iowa, it instantly makes the work seem minimal and insignificant which is ridiculous.
Dan: It’s total bullshit actually.
AB: They’re confused because if they don’t come from a neighboring state there’s no reference point for them. They have no idea what it’s like living, creating, in a place that’s NOT a mecca for art to be produced.
Dan: I asked Jeff Wright this exact same question. You guys both have amazing successes outside of Des Moines. All of the vistors I bring with me by your studio always get blown away and they ask me, so now I have to ask you guys: WHY ARE YOU HERE?
AB: Of course there are pros and cons. You’re in total isolation for work, so you’re not bothered. Art studio space alone is way, way, way cheaper to find a space like this (Al’s art studio is fucking amazing). The disadvantage is culturally, socially, the pools are very shallow to draw from inspiration wise , so you literally are channeling from within. The best part of living in the city is having great people around you at all times. My friends there are super talented, super smart, super creative, and very motivated. It’s a synergy that just doesn’t exist in a small town and it’s contagious.
Dan: People that haven’t been to the city really don’t understand that when you walk out your door the city has a life of it’s own. There is an existing synergy already in flux and you can either run with it or that shit will chew you up and spit you out…..but it’s awesome.
AB: Yeah totally, it literally propels you into being creative, or at least getting off your ass and doing something because everyone else you hang around is.
Dan: Back to Des Moines before this gets depressing. So Jeff and Fatty have the bar thing going, and I know you’ve been DJing on the side, tell me what that’s like here.
AB: I don’t consider myself a DJ. The first time I did it was at GT’s (one of Jeff/Fatty/John’s bars) in like 96’? I’m not even sure how it happened. I think I just was bored at the time and got sick of listening to the same music at the time so it was cool to just show up with a tape deck, cd, turntable and it was cool.
Dan: So do you actively pursue doing this little hobby DJ thing still?
AB: DJing is weird, especially in a small town, or a place like DSM that has a small town mentality. Like, people will walk into a place and if they don’t recognize the music, and it’s different in any way, first they get scared, then they get mad.
Dan: Wait, mad at you? Like “Hang the Dj?” Morrissey style? Maybe you should just play, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, and “Freebird” and you’d be set.
AB: I think people from small towns feel slighted by others’ success or expressiveness as if THEY should be the ones doing it. I mean you have to pay your dues. You mentioned Jeff and Fatty, do you know how fucking hard it must be to put up with ALL the BULLSHIT those guys get owning bars and Hairy Mary’s? What a nightmare.
Dan: I grew up in Iowa, I know what it’s like. I joke with Heath and Jeff about wanting to get the 7 cool people in DSM together all at once and time travel at one of our parties. Of course I’m kidding about the 7 cool people thing but really I want to fuse all the cool people together at least a couple times a year and get that sort of creative synergy going here in DSM.
AB: Well your parties are certainly doing that, last night was insane. (this was the night after the Fozzer/Odell art show)
Dan: It’s funny you say, last night was awesome for sure! But I guarantee that someone will be mad at us for it no matter how hard we try to just have fun, some idiot is always not getting enough attention and wants to bring everyone else down like crabs in a bucket. (this did happen by the way a month later)
AB: Well don’t stop doing it no matter what. When you guys come back it’s always so damn fun.
Dan: So what’s your relationship to skateboarding?
AB: I went to boarding school in New Hampshire in 1981 and some kid had a Thrasher and it was totally liberating. It was what I was looking for, two fingers in the air, fuck off punk rock, and DIY attitude through and through. There was a total synergy between music, action, expression.
Dan: So Thrasher did it?
AB: Well I had skateboards like a Logan earth ski, a Hobie, then I got a Dogtown one at a store in Beaverdale and I was blown away. The synchronicity was so evident between music, art, and skating it’s so obvious.
Dan: Yeah I talked about the relationship with the biker world and the skate world, now music and skating, art and skating, which I think is more a creative thing.
AB: Yeah maybe, but it’s all about individuality right? Who doesn’t want to do that.
Dan: What would come first? You doing a piece for the shop or having the fucking Gorilla Biscuits play a show on the third floor of the shop?
AB: Come on, me doing a piece for you! There are four guys you’d have to get here and have us practice first and all that…that’s really expensive.
Dan: I met Walter, he’s a natural, he doesn’t have to practice at anything.
AB: You’re right, he wouldn’t care, but everyone else probably would.
Dan: Last question, are you staying in Des Moines?
AB: I think so. Despite the grass being always, always, greener I really do appreciate things here that I have. There are good people here, I can afford it, and if the fine art world business picks up again the dollar goes really far here in Des Moines and I can just fly out to visit my friends.
Dan: Well thanks Al I really appreciate it. Des Moines is a better place with you in it. I mean, the people here have no idea that one of their own had a signature shoe on Vans, that’s fucking saying something.
AB: Well it is kind of nowhere but it’s MY nowhere and I think that’s why I stay.
Dan: I know EXACTLY what you mean, love you pal.
AB: Thanks, one more useless thing to have in my life, love you to buddy.
You can find some of Al’s work here: www.fodderland.com