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Rich Gutierrez On His New Novella, Finding The Inspiration To Write

Rich Gutierrez – “Heaven Is a Place” Novella

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The multi-medium artist discusses what drives his many creations

/ November 2, 2016

Photo by Jesse Riggins

“Cause I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just telling a story,’ and then ultimately I realized that’s what writing is. Writing and documenting histories is something I think academia messes up. They rarefy the idea of smartness so that people think that the knowledge they have, that has been passed down to them, that they have from people telling them stories – it makes them second guess that as real knowledge.”

Rich Gutierrez wants to help people using art. The San Jose, CA artist’s work spans music, writing, and visual art, always stressing the importance of self-documentation, healing and togetherness. His prolific creation is the beautiful outpour of a person always trying to change himself and his surroundings for the better.

While he’s published online and in zines for years, Gutierrez’ self-released his first novella, Heaven is a Place, earlier this year. Consistent with his works’ typical concerns with self-documentation and self-preservation, it’s an autobiographical account of his 6th grade life with his friends, his neighborhood and his family relationship. His stories transport you to a place where the sun and nostalgia beat down heavy on your skin. It is heartbreaking, honest, and warm. He recreates childhood innocence throughout, in one passage describing the small freedom of a weekend as “an empty field with locked gates, hop over or climb under and blend into the surroundings.”

Rich Gutierrez Heaven is a Place novella, in Spark Mag

Gutierrez’ visual work is based around similar themes of the personal, his life in San Jose, and the struggles of black and brown people in America. He creates everything from record covers – such as the cover of Bean Tupou’s solo project Try The Pie – to his own bold posters. The pieces often center on lines from his zines and poems, such as “I have historically gravitated towards pain instead of softness,” or simply highlight a single word such as “Vulnerable.”

Sourpatch, Gutierrez’ first well known band, was a “four piece 90’s pop-worship ensemble” that “endorsed a gender freeing, queer positive, feminist thinking, body positive, crush worthy lifestyle.” They put out three records and toured extensively, establishing a legendary status in the North American underground. Today he fronts hardcore quartet Busted Outlook and backs up Brontez on drums in Younger Lovers, among other projects.

Despite being busy in so many fields, Gutierrez prioritizes channeling his talents into building and sustaining San Jose’s Think and Die Thinking Collective. Since its inception, the collective has worked “toward evoking a trend of DIY, all ages, youth-affordable and youth-accessible events within an accountable community.” They create shows, festivals, and a new Youth Art and Music Program where everyone – but specifically trans people, queer people and people of color – can feel safe and empowered to create and to have a voice.

I was able to catch Gutierrez for some questions before the Younger Lovers show in London, on the curb of the Lock Tavern in Camden.

CHARLIE JOSEPH: What attracted you to hardcore and keeps bringing you back?

RICH GUTIERREZ: I think about that a lot, cause I don’t really understand. I think there’s something special about it that is unexplainable, the way you can siphon anger in a way that is accessible to a lot of people. Cause I know a lot of people don’t have access to violence normally, or were brought up around it, and hardcore allows for that release. I find that personally, being able to emote in that way is constructive and really important. I remember being younger and being really angry but also timid in my own way, and it allowed for me to express myself in a way that you can’t really express in words sometimes. I feel like it sounds like I’m talking about poetry or something, and there’s definitely people who take it to a point where it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I like to use it as a constructive way of expressing, or emoting.

When did you start creating zines and why?

When I was really young, I started creating zines just because I think when I first got into punk and I was homeless, that’s the reason I guess. People are like “Oh, punk saved my life,” and I feel like it really did. Like, I was homeless and the only people who took care of me were older punks in San Jose who would let me stay at their house and crash for like weeks, or take me to shows, feed me, introduce me to new things. I feel like I’m very lucky in that sense. I might go on a weird tangent here, but I feel like I’m lucky in that sense because a lot of people today access information at a rate that’s really fast and in a way that’s kinda toxic, where they’re walking on eggshells, afraid to not know. I was lucky to be around people that were older than me, who didn’t treat me like I was stupid or treat me like I was just a young kid. They were really excited to show me radical politics and I was like any kid, I said stupid shit. I learned by their example, or them introducing me to things and hearing people talk, and I was like, “I’m listening, I’m listening to everything you say.” There was this one friend, Cat, and she was always really nice to me, and would always show me new things. And she had a friend who had a zine distro. She invited me to their vegan potlucks and I remember me and my friend John made our first zine, I think it was about living for free or something, and we made a zine of all these scams we used to pull to get free copies, to get free food, to get free stuff. That was my first zine ever, so I think I was like 16 or 17 at that time. Probably 16 but I don’t think I created another zine until way later, like my mid 20s.

You have an extensive internet presence and often use the screen name “Supreme Nothing” – where does that come from?

Do you like the band Tiger Trap? Tiger Trap’s this old indie-pop band from Sacramento, whose most famous member is Rose Melberg, she played in The Softies. She played in Go Sailor, she played in a million great bands. Tiger Trap is really influential to me, and they have a song called “Supreme Nothing.” I feel like I started to use it for things, and I just can’t let go of it.

You often use an asterisk as a signature in your visual work, where does that come from?

Well, initially there was this band from New Jersey called The Degenerics – they were like a hardcore band – and on all their artwork they had asterisks, really big and is kind of always stood out to me. When I was picking up on punk and hardcore aesthetics, I thought it was a big deal. I immediately started putting it on everything, anything I’ve ever done. I started using it a lot specifically in artwork, because the idea of an asterisk, it’s like there’s more to the story. So any time I use it, it’s like, “this is what you see” – it’s like poetry – but depending on the context, it can mean differently to different people. There’s always something extra in life that you don’t see.

Vulnerable art work by Rich Gutierrez

Who are you inspired by design wise?

I definitely like Linda Sterling. She’s a big inspiration. Obviously, I feel like a lot of my art looks German post-punky. I think it’s just the negative space. The main influence in Busted Outlook is always clear. My normal influences are a lot of punk flyers, post-punk artwork, but also a lot of Black Panther propaganda, like that shit is so sick. The imagery is really bold, and I like the way they use statements in the pieces, cause even if the artwork is really nice, the statement really brings everything together. I feel like it’s really relatable to anybody and it’s angry, so I like that.

How do you create your distinctive text style in your visual work?

I used to have a lot of rub of letters, but in America the company Letraset is no longer around. You can get peel off letters, but it’s really hard to get rub off letters and those are specifically cool because they crack. It depends on what the thing is. Sometimes I like to try different texts, but mostly I like to print things out now and cut them up, copy them, scan them.

I just really enjoy negative space, and it’s kinda hard to describe the process. But I enjoy, and I feel like this is gonna sound kinda cheesy – not cheesy, but I don’t wanna sound like a goon – but there’s like that documentary Helvetica, which is stupid, but there’s one part where they talk about design before computers and the idea of design being hand done, and the amount of time it took was really cool to me. Cause I feel like the best design is usually hand done or through a process that is basically like fucking something up, not actually creating something but taking an image and decaying it a bit.

What’s the situation looking like in San Jose at the moment?

In San Jose, there’s not a lot of resources for people. We’re far from San Francisco or Oakland, like far enough that resources don’t get down here. And it’s getting really expensive and people are being pushed out and displaced right now, which is really sad. And kinda strange how that works everywhere that as soon as prices go up and people can afford less, art really explodes. Art and creativity explode cause it’s something that you’ll always have. So there’s a good group of people that were all trying to create spaces and try and change the narrative in San Jose. I think it goes pretty well, it’s just really slow moving and sometimes it’s really disheartening, because we put in a lot of time and emotional labor and sometimes it’s not that big of a payout. But every once in awhile, there are one or two things that happens from it and it makes it worth it. Especially Think and Die Thinking, which is a collective I’m a part of. When we started and it was just my band Sourpatch and we did a fest one year. And now Think and Die Thinking has evolved – we do a festival, we do shows, we do events, we hold workshops, and now this month we just started a youth music and arts program. And we’re hoping that we can actually turn it into an after school space and a center.

Taking a sort of Black Panther approach to servicing the community?

We want to so bad. I mean, not on that level, I guess. But yeah, cause there’s no space for marginalized groups in San Jose, they’re really being pushed out. Like trans and queer, youth specific, there’s no space for them in San Jose. There’s a lot of black and brown kids in San Jose, but really no options for them. There’s no real community space for them to express themselves, and there’s always this push to spend money, there’s always this push to be productive in a way that is, you know, capitalism telling them to be productive to someone else, not to themselves. I guess we’re trying to combat that. The reception’s been a lot better and we’re trying to incorporate a lot of other groups in San Jose and we’re creating a lot more resources. But it’s doing well. I get really excited lately, actually, cause there’s so many groups popping up and they’re all like our friends and we all do different things. And there’s a really big focus on writing, and people are really picking up on it and I think it’s really cool, especially to see young men trying to write. It’s really cool.

poster for think and die thinking collective in san jose california

How did you first get into writing?

I never thought of it as something I was, I never considered myself a writer cause I always thought a writer was something else. I mean I dropped out, like I was kicked out when I was 15 and I was homeless until I was 17 and a half. So I dropped out of high school; like on paper I have a 9th grade education, so I just stopped. Way later in life I just started trying to write down stories of my family that I didn’t want to forget, or things that people have said. And then I got encouragement from friends, telling me that they liked it and I was surprised. Cause I was like, “Oh, I’m just telling a story, ” and then ultimately I realized that’s what writing is. Writing and documenting histories is something I think academia messes up. They rarefy the idea of smartness so that people think that the knowledge they have, that has been passed down to them, that they have from people telling them stories – it makes them second guess that as real knowledge.

You’ve just published your first novella, can you tell us a bit about the process of creating it? How did you develop your voice writing-wise?

How did I develop it? By reading, I think. Cause I was just telling stories, and then I never considered myself a writer until I was like, “You know what? I’m a writer.” And then the more I read, the more I decided I wanted to write. And just trial and error, deciding, writing a story, rereading it, and figuring out what I want people to pick up from I write. I don’t know what people pick up from what I write, actually.

That’s the point of what I do, it’s therapeutic. My dad found out about the book somehow and he wanted one, and I talk about him a lot in it. I was like “fuck it, I wonder how he’s going to feel about this,” but he liked it, and I think it was because I think I talked about things that he would love to be able to talk about, but he can’t. He liked that someone else said it for him. But currently in the way I write, and where I want to go with it, is definitely to show that good and bad don’t really exist. There’s always, especially with radical politics, a line in the sand or something. Someone wrote in a zine, and I can’t remember what zine it was, or maybe it was a poem, and it said, “When you draw lines in the sand, but the whole beach is poison.” And in order to grow, you have to understand the duality of people, and I think that’s what traps a lot of people, “Oh, I’m a bad person.” I know that’s how I felt, I was all “I’m dumb, I go to the dumb people school.” So I think I’ll try to portray that more in my writing.