Interview by Colin Peden • Jun 15, 2015
I’m inside what looks like it could be a college library or a research institute. People sit quietly working at desks and tables, surrounded by shelves full of periodicals and rows of storage boxes that are neatly indexed by color and symbol. Lydia Athanasopoulou shows me around. She’s the senior content coordinator here — kind of like the head librarian.
“We have guests visiting from literally all over the world,” she tells me. “From Mexico, Finland, Canada, Barcelona, Japan, and Germany.”
That’s just to name a few. That’s because this quiet place has a lot to offer—walls of vinyl records, for example, that stretch as far as the eye can see. Athanasopoulou shows me the massive database of albums she’s working on. “This just goes, and goes, and goes, and goes, and goes, and goes, and goes, and goes,” she says.
This is Maximum Rocknroll, the headquarters of an international punk network. It’s where a horde of people produce and publish a punk magazine that’s been around since before most of them were even born. They put out a weekly radio show, records, and maintain an archive of zines, photographs, and punk rock ephemera. They also maintain a record collection that keeps growing and growing.
I ask Grace Ambrose, another content coordinator at Maximum Rocknroll, just how many records they have right now.
“Forty-seven thousand, plus,” she tells me. “And counting. We get at least 150 new records a month.”
There’s an entire pallet of record jackets waiting to be stuffed with Maximum Rocknroll’s latest release, a double LP from hardcore Latino punk band Los Crudos. That will be so much vinyl that you’ll need a forklift to move it. Then there are the decades of historical materials, old zines with names like Flipside, Cometbus, and Profane Existence. There are cabinets full of old punk photographs and there are reels of tape. Like any archive, it all needs to be organized.
Athanasopoulou shows me how the record singles are organized. “As you can see, each bookshelf has a color,” she says. “So this is pink. That’s orange. Further down is green, blue, and then each tier has a symbol. And then each box has a number on the back.”
Coming up with color-coded filing systems may not sound very punk, but it’s necessary. That’s because the mail never stops coming in.
Maximum Rocknroll’s distribution coordinator Eli Wald shows me a bin overflowing with mail that he just brought back from the post office.
“Demos submitted for review, we’ve got zines submitted for review,” he says. “Every time we get back from the post office it’s like Christmas morning.”
The best present of all is the music.
“Here’s a demo from a band,” Wald says. “Wait. It’s not a band. It’s a comp called Suicide Bong: Mixtape/Philly’s Dopest S*#@ Volume One.”
This is organization done for punks by punks about punk. The unpaid coordinators can’t do this alone. That’s where the army of volunteers comes in.
“We call our volunteers s*#@workers,” Grace Ambrose tells me. “I don’t know if you can say that on the radio.”
I tell her we’ll bleep it. The s*#@workers do everything here. They write reviews. They lay out the magazine. They stuff envelopes. They make the radio show and they shelve the records in the archive.
“There’s a sex section. There’s a satan section. There’s a f*#@ section. There’s a chaos section.”
Maximum Rocknroll has an international audience, shipping 2,500 magazines worldwide every month. In May, it presented a global day of punk and hardcore gigs in Borneo, Mexico, Serbia, Russia, and the USA, to name just a few. Maximum Rocknroll is a maker and an archive of a movement on vinyl, paper, and the airwaves.
It all started as a radio show. In 1977, Maximum Rocknroll founder Tim Yohannan and a few friends began broadcasting on KPFA in Berkeley, focusing on what they called “working class rock and roll.” The show aired Sunday nights at midnight and still airs on radio stations worldwide.
Yohannan died of cancer in his apartment at the Maximum Rocknroll headquarters in 1998, but his strong views and opinions on punk rock and its relation to personal politics shaped the institution.
He thought that many of the bands playing on the radio needed documentation. They were releasing 7” vinyl singles, but nobody had archived it all in one place.
So in 1982, Yohannan and Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys put together a compilation double album covering the Northern California and Nevada punk scene for the first time. They called this compilation “Not So Quiet on the Western Front.”
The lyric pamphlet for that compilation album became the first print issue of Maximum Rocknroll. Maximum Rocknroll #0. Maximum Rocknroll #1—the July/August issue—came out in the summer of 1982. It hasn’t stopped since, not even after Yohannan died.
The content coordinators live at the headquarters and work unpaid. They have day jobs to support keeping all the organizational systems and the magazine up and running, 386 issues later. The DJs also put out a new radio show each week.
Recent Maximum Rocknroll radio episode #1455 featured new punk music from Siberia. If there wasn’t a MRR radio show to listen to, I never would have known that there was a punk band called “Dead Bieber’s” from Yakutsk.
Punk rock through Maximum Rocknroll’s lens is antifascist, anti-racist, and anti-corporate. It’s pro-queer, pro-feminist, pro-punks of color. The last two covers have featured Downtown Boys’ bilingual lead singer Victoria Ruiz and Sadie Switchblade, the transgender woman lead singer for G.L.O.S.S., which stands for “Girls Living Outside Society’s S*#@.”
This isn’t some Old Boy’s club, but it is hard work. People like Grace Ambrose and Lydia Athanasopoulou take their roles as critics, arbiters, and active curators seriously.
“The first thing we do every month we listen to every single record that comes in,” says Ambrose. “So we know if it is eligible for review in Maximum Rocknroll. It is a grueling session.”
“I love it,” chimes in Athanasopoulou.
There you have it. It’s grueling and they love it. And so do I.
Originally posted on the KALW website: http://kalw.org/post/maximum-rocknroll-punk-magazine-radio-show-record-label-and-vinyl-archive-1977