Justin George is the creator of one of my favourite punk zines, Wasted Opportunities. The interviews he features in his Brisbane, Australia-based zine are both thoughtful and insightful. After reading Justin’s work for some time, I finally met him in person recently at the Zine & Indie Comic Symposium he helped organise where we got to have inspiring (albeit short) chats. I wholeheartedly recommend checking out Justin’s zine.
Like me, I know you’re a huge punk rock fan. Firstly, tell us about your relationship with punk rock. What is it that drew you to that community? How has your association with it shaped you as a person and influenced your creativity/creative output?
JUSTIN GEORGE: Punk rock was a game changer in my life! It’s so intertwined with who I am, my memories, how I view the world, how I try and engage with the world. The music and ethos continues to inspire me on a daily basis and gives me energy and focus. Punk rock helps me take strength and courage to be on the outside of things, to be a little different so my relationship with punk rock is very deeply rooted in a very personal way. I have always been, or at least felt, on the outside of things, a little bit of a loner, not one to easily relate or connect with people, with the things they like or lives they wanted.
I was a class clown and still act a fool in a variety of ways as I don’t feel very comfortable with a lot of people. I find it hard to relate perhaps. It’s hard to say but I’ve spent a lot of my time on my own, doing my own things. Throughout high school when I came across punk rock I had friends but I didn’t socialise much outside of class. So when I was hitting puberty the downside of the grunge explosion was occurring and the rise of the mid-90s punk resurgence was in full swing. I was a later comer to all the grunge music, I was listening to earlier stuff like The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac, got into the grunge thing but it was some of my friends who skated and surfed who picked up on Pennywise and Fat Wreck Chords and once I got a taste of that via some CDs tubbed to tape, I realised that I wasn’t that depressed like a Kurt Cobain, that the energy and self-empowering message of a Pennywise really hit home. It just clicked with who I was much more, that it was music for people who perhaps didn’t feel they really belonged resonated too. Yet it retained a positivity in its outlook. I could be an individual and that’s ok, I can be me and fuck everyone else. Obviously that’s always easier said than done but it struck a chord, it was a light-bulb moment for sure.
Why are zines important to you?
JG: Zines are important to me for what they represent and what they enable. I had chances to learn how to play music and didn’t follow through on that. I always had something of a creative streak so taking the chance to express myself, and in a creative manner is really important on a personal level. More importantly I love the self-empowered, DIY spirit of a zine, anyone can do it, anyone can create, as anything can be a zine. The form in many ways is about possibilities. It’s a way to have a voice, however limited in reach, that otherwise is difficult to have. I think that’s very important especially in times of centralization and privatisation of media and information to create something that has more meaning than just a tweet or facebook post. There’s a creative process and then a response to that process that makes them very important to me. Zines are the intersection of my passion, my politics, my very human need to feel heard.
How did you first discover zines?
JG: I can’t recall when I first discovered zines. No one revelatory moment as such. They’ve always been in the background, sitting on the shelves of Rocking Horse and elsewhere. I knew of them but didn’t necessarily follow any or regularly purchase any for whatever reason. I guess being around punk music it came with the territory but for many years I never thought of myself as a creator and looking to establish that relationship with others work. It’s only been much later that I really started looking for different zines and creating my own library. Prior to that I found out about bands or things I loved via different means- liner notes, the library etc.
What inspired you to make your own zine?
JG: A few different things contributed to me finally taking the plunge on my own zine. I had a lurking, frustrated feeling of wanting to create but being limited in my skills and ability. I can’t paint or draw very well, and I couldn’t sing or play an instrument. I had things to say and a desire to be heard but no clear avenue to do it. I wanted to create but didn’t the medium I could employ. Along with this I had started reading Razorcake and MRR regularly as a means to find new music that hadn’t been filtered through websites. I wanted to find sources for new music that had greater diversity and perhaps weren’t getting as much coverage. Reading Razorcake really inspired me, the attitude and view on the world felt very similar to my own. And that’s when all the pieces came together, I knew I had some ability as a writer, and at the very least it could be improved much more easily than learning the guitar for example, I had some inspiration to write about the bands and music I loved, bands that moved me, and I had the impetus to create, to put my voice out there. I was a bit slow but finally it clicked that I should do a zine. For me it had more meaning, more weight to write my words and put them in print, I’d take the process of writing more seriously if I was publishing such writings too. It felt less disposable. Zines required me to be involved in the entire creative process rather than just writing a blog and having my words lost in the shuffle of the internet. That didn’t appeal. So I started the zine and am so glad that I did.
When did you first publish your zine? Did you sell it? What are your thoughts on putting a monetary value on zines?
JG: I only started making zines in the last two and bit years and had the idea for a good 6 months before that just letting it mull in my head. Prior to that I had been like many others and had tried to start and maintain a blog on various platforms but never stuck with it. It kinda felt like I was offering up something of myself into an empty void, it didn’t click in a satisfying manner which luckily led me to getting my act together and starting a zine. Up until the last issue I’ve given away all copies of my zines, I’m happy for others to resell it to cover their costs, but I didn’t put a price on it. I didn’t think it was worthwhile asking someone to pay for my publication. More importantly I wanted people to read it and getting something for free usually reduces people’s resistance to checking out something they otherwise wouldn’t bother with. I liked the idea of creating and doing something nice for people with no expectation of monetary return. I figured it helps the bands get wider exposure (in context of how far my ‘reach’ actually was/is), helps the zine get better exposure and it avoids all the crap about money.
All that said however this last issue I’ve charged a few dollars for to cover some of the postage costs. I still lose money from every issue sold, but not as much as I otherwise would now that postage rates, particularly international postage has gone up considerably. I’m still not sure how I feel about putting a monetary value on zine, or at least on my zines. I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with earning a living off of what you love (not that I’m anywhere close to that with WO nor ever will be), so earning money to live off what you create is inherent of the economic system we live in. I’ve never subscribed to the mentality that to subvert such systems that you need to drop out of them completely, I find that has an opposite effect in regards of reaching similar minded people. There is a grey area between making a living and being a cash grab.
I have more concerns with a lot of the high-end/art zines that now sell for $15+ in certain exclusive locations. Perhaps their costs are high, but to me that’s the opposite of a zine – which should be affordable, accessible, easy to produce. To me zines are a great format for equality or egalitarianism for creators and readers. If I need to spend almost $20 on a publication that could be produced and sold for a quarter of that then I object to that. There’s an exclusivity to that price that limits who reads it. That’s excessive and I worry about what precedent it sets. But it all comes down to the publication and what it’s offering. So my concerns are contextual to some extent. Charging for a zine is just a small part of a bigger issue of how do you fund/cover your costs, perhaps earn some beer money or whatever as a zine maker. You either forget about it or charge for an issue/ run advertising space. To me having adverts at the moment is more compromising, I don’t have the confidence nor the established experience to run adverts from bands, companies, labels etc. and not have that weigh on me regarding my writing, whether it’s up to scratch and whether I would feel pressure to write differently. I want to write on anything I want in a truthful manner. So asking a small amount for each issue to cover some of my costs is a good compromise at this point in time which I’m still reviewing before each issue. I may go back to doing it for free if I can afford to.
Why the name, Wasted Opportunities?
JG: Coming to zines a little later than many people, feeling that I’ve had lots of potential to create, to be involved in the things I love but never taking up certain opportunities all contributed to the name. It felt like it’d be a good way to make up for those wasted opportunities, to be proactive finally. My Canadian friend Dan Clarke pointed out the possible dual meaning of ‘wasted’ and that gave me the hook I needed for the final interview question I always ask and I ran with it. Kinda sounds punk rock too…I hope!!
For those who aren’t familiar, please do your best to describe WO?
JG: For the many who aren’t familiar, Wasted Opportunities is a punk rock fanzine that really follows my various tastes and whims but overall covers bands that fit closely to the Ramones-inspired/influenced side of punk rock, pop punk- fast, buzzsaw guitars, some melody. That’s sort of the focus as it’s grown and the bands I want to talk to start adding up so the zine’s identity formed somewhat naturally. Along with the interviews I include a few articles either personal stories that I feel a compulsion to write about and share, or they can be on a topic or issue that grabs me that usually has some relevance to music. I write record, book and show reviews, some rants, include some photos and that makes up the zine! So it follows the basic format that many a punk fanzine has followed from MRR onwards.
I really enjoy the interviews in your zine; how do you approach the interview process?
JG: Interviews are what I really value with making the zine. It’s very important to me to hold up my end of the process if a band is going to take the time to speak with me or more often than not to write written emailed replies to the questions. They don’t have to do that, my zine is not necessarily going to help them to any great extent. So I value the process, I value people taking the time to respond with respect. I want my interviews, my questions to be more engaging/interesting than the standard type of Q&A that’s thrown out there. I need to have some type of connection to a band to want to interview them- I need to love an album, love a band for a long time, find them funny or interesting in some form. I think that really helps in shaping the questions as I’m coming from a perspective of someone who’s given their music, lyrics, career or whatever, some more thought than just a staff reporter on a crappy music publication that’s meeting a deadline. So I’ll write the questions down that come to mind, that I want to know outside of the usual stuff. I listen to albums, pull apart themes, draw from liner notes and my own knowledge and sketch together a number of questions. Only then will I do some research of other interviews and see what they’ve been asked previously, see if I can expand upon it, see how I can add to what I already have. Usually by then a set of themes emerge- a bunch of questions on their music, on the band’s perspective on life, or whatever. So that helps and then I can balance things up between the music and the people creating it before sending it off and nervously wait!
Who has been your favourite interview so far? Who is on your interview wishlist?
JG: That’s a tough one. As I really try and provide meaningful questions I’ve really enjoyed each of the interviews I’ve done as I find out answers and get to know a band or background to a song that I didn’t know before. So the fan in me has liked them all. I think the Masked Intruder interview I did was really fun, so easy to write, the band has such a great sense of humour I knew if I set them up they’d knock it out of the park with fun responses. So I had a good sense about that interview from the very beginning which is not often the case. I really liked sitting down with local band the Undead Apes and shooting the shit over some beers. My first interview with Tim from Elway which I did over skype was great too, I got a real sense of accomplishment being the first one I ever did.
I don’t have too much of a wishlist, I’ve had some bands I’ve wanted to interview and they’ve never replied or their PR people have stonewalled me for whatever reasons so it killed some of the enthusiasm. I guess they would still be on a wishlist.
I love Propagandhi and I love Star Trek, so interview people involved with each of those things would be great but also more nerve racking than the usual interviewees I’ve spoken with. So coming up with questions I felt were intelligent, respectful and engaging for the band that I love and has had such a huge impact on me would be difficult and perhaps unwise.
How do you choose who to interview?
JG: I write from an emotional, passionate place. If I’m not feeling it, then my writing, my questions don’t flow very well at all. So the bands I’ve chosen to cover are those I really love, that have something interesting to say, whose work I have some type of passion for at the moment. I also get a feeling that I can ask questions that perhaps they haven’t been asked before, or not often anyway. So it’s a combination of feeling like I can bring something to the table in interviewing them and a band whose work speaks to me enough to inspire questions in the first place.
I understand that you have ‘a background in radical political theory’; tell us a little about this.
JG: When I first started listening to punk rock bands like Pennywise, Bad Religion and Propagandhi really opened my horizons in how to conceive of the world and where to find more information on critical perspectives about it. I did political theory at university as somewhat of a consequence too. Out of those 3, Propagandhi was a big source of information especially on an alternative system to capitalism and state-based forms of socialism called Participatory Economics (Parecon for short). G7 Welcoming Committee Records was run along Parecon lines for example.
Parecon’s co-creator Michael Albert who also runs ZNet was in Australia at the time I was discovering it and listening to him speak about it, about political tactics and long term visions for a better society for all I really became passionate about such ideas. So I use to write and promote such concepts, as well as featuring them in my postgraduate study. There was also a failed attempt organizing a group in Melbourne to apply and promote such concepts that fell over pretty quickly. Other than that I’ve always been supportive and open to critical, reasoned arguments that highlight the inequalities of capitalism, as well as sexism, racism, homophobia, speciesism. So after several years of trying to be involved in such efforts, in protest movements I became a little burnt out from the slow nature of progress both within such movements and broader society. So that in a roundabout way led to me wanting to write more about something that I loved in punk rock, about something that gave me joy rather than about how crappy the world is. Oddly enough doing my zine has led me into being involved and creating a zine and comic community and fair in Brisbane that reflects some of the values above. So it feels like it’s come together in many ways.
What is your favourite part of being a zine maker?
JG: I love finding an avenue for expression. I love that my zine is mine and mine alone and so I can control the creative process throughout and take real satisfaction from that. Finishing an issue, that takes months to make and having it printed and in my hands gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. I love the networks and friendships that it has opened up. So there are things I love about zine making from the start through to the end of the process that make it worthwhile.
Are there any challenges you feel you face as a zine creator?
JG: There are both external and internal challenges. Externally keeping costs low is a big concern. So far I’ve been lucky but finding cheap printing and cheap ways to post zines without charging large amounts of money to recoup costs has been a challenge and one I worry about in the future. I want my zine to be accessible to as many people as possible and to be of a good quality. Building an audience is another challenge to a degree. Finding stores such as record stores or whatnot that will give you the time of the day can be tough too. The internet and online stores has made that less of a necessity though.
Internally the challenge is always to improve as a writer, as an interviewer, to improve the quality of the zine. I’m trying to learn new software so I can have that tool available to assist with my layouts and the aesthetic side of the zine which isn’t my strong point. Those are the challenges that I usually focus upon more as I want to improve, to be better at what I do. I feel that if I can continue to work on it, to be consistent to improve the quality of my work then people will find a way to check it out no matter the external challenges.
You’re one of the driving forces behind ZICS. ZICS was recently successful with a crowdfunding campaign; what was your experience of going this route? Was it stressful? What are your personal thoughts on crowdfunding?
JG: It was really interesting being involved with ZICS and with the crowdfunding path. I’ve seen others attempt it but there’s a thrill to having to hussle a little to make your shared goal or dream a reality. The amount of work that goes into one of those projects is so large, you definitely earn any money you receive. I know I found it very tiring and I wasn’t spending as many hours as another of ZICS driving forces Jeremy Staples did on the campaign. So it’s a big group effort to get over the line.
As we are a community event run by a community group of volunteers, all non-profit its hard finding funding sources that aren’t either corporate sponsorship or charging the public an entrance fee to the zine and comic fair. We wanted our event to be open to as many people as possible, to be free. Zines and independent creators have enough trouble cutting through in the mainstream and being heard we didn’t want to add a financial disincentive for people to stay away too. So shying away from those options in our first year didn’t leave too many alternatives available.
Government funding was another option that we missed the boat on this time around so given the nature of our group we thought it’d be a good reflection of what we were trying to do by having a crowdfunded campaign. We could involve as many people in the community as possible. So it’s definitely a resource, a tool that perhaps is better suited to some projects than others. I don’t have a problem with the process as such, not one that jumps out immediately anyway. It’s obviously something that’s reaching a saturation point in terms of the amount of projects out there all asking for people’s help and money. But I think its great people are seeking alternative means to fund projects. For our project while it was very stressful in reaching out to networks, asking loved ones to assist in any way they could, in wondering whether we’d reach our target, the success of that campaign allowed for the success of our event and has helped us establish a community space or network of zines and comic creators that possibly didn’t exist before that. So positive things can come out of the stress, can come from crowd- sourced funding paths. That’s not always the case but it allows for the possibility perhaps more than before.
Other than zines and punk rock, what’s something you’re really passionate about?
JG: Politics, specifically how we can make the world a better place for everyone in it, not just a select, privileged few. So that’s a passion that bubbles on the inside for the most part. I’m passionate about veganism, which again I temper for tactical, outreach reasons. I have a growing passion for community events, for event management so to speak. I have a passion for travelling, for having meaningful, fun, loving times with friends and family as much as I can. We all want to live meaningful, fulfilling lives in some form or another. So the personal and political passions all meet up to achieve the same goal.
I love how you finish up your interviews with asking your subject about an opportunity they’ve let go to waste! I wanted to finish by asking you that same question; what’s an opportunity you’ve let go to waste?
JG: Good question- hahaha! I’ve got too many to mention- never progressing from my early musical lessons to actually master an instrument is one that I often think about. Probably more broadly was the opportunities I let slip throughout my life where I let fear, let being afraid, limit my actions- whether it was taking a trip, or pursuing a creative endeavour earlier, chatting to a band after a gig, or striking up a conversation with a stranger. Those are the things I look upon and feel I let those little moments go to waste. So I’m trying to make up for that now, not 100% successfully, but I’m approaching life with a different perspective and I can thank my zine in many ways for kicking that off and putting me on a path where I will hopefully have less wasted opportunities in the future. Fingers crossed!
*Photo of Justin by the lovely, Sarah O’Connor.