Of all the skate magazines to have come and gone in the past quarter-century, there are none more influential, none more controversial, and certainly none funnier than Big Brother. The magazine was founded by Steve Rocco, the man behind World Industries, 101, Blind and more, in a response to his frustration at having a 101 ad rejected from the mainstream skate press for being too offensive. He created a magazine where anything goes, and it often did.
From the fairly innocuous (prank calling skater’s mums, or a how-to guide on creating fake ID’s), to the more outrageous (Steve Olson kickflipping over a pile of burning bibles for the cover of Issue 9), the magazine attracted more than it’s share of controversy and indignation from conservative middle America, all the while amassing a loyal legion of readers, mostly comprised of the teenage sons of conservative middle America. This devoted readership hardly paid the bills though, and it was losing $50K (fifty thousand) an issue at the time Rocco decided to either shutter the title or sell it on. Financial salvation came in the unlikely form of Hustler’s Larry Flynt, the adult entertainment industry’s very own Jabba the Hutt. He bought the magazine and moved operations to Hustler Towers, where they remained until the eventual death of the magazine in 2004.
Over a decade on, DC have teamed up with Big Brother to release Shit, a coffee table book celebrating every last one of the magazine’s 106 issues, with insight behind each edition coming courtesy of Dave Carnie and Sean Cliver, two of the mag’s longtime editorial staff. In addition to the book, DC have made Dave’s dreams a reality and produced his very own signature shoe, first designed for the pages of big Brother back in 1997. I caught up with Dave and Sean at the book’s European launch party to talk about deliberately bad cover design, the upcoming Big Brother documentary, and what it was like for a bunch of depraved man-children to work in the offices of a porn empire.
Big Brother feels like it’s more about the culture and lifestyle that the staff were living at that time, with skateboarding being just one aspect of that. How much did you think about the target audience of skaters, and how much of it was just you guys doing whatever you wanted?
Dave Carnie: I don’t think we ever really thought of who we were writing for, we did what we wanted to do and what we liked – it’s a formula you don’t really see that often, especially like in the fashion industry it seems like everybody is worried about what everyone else thinks and they’re only concerned with doing what everyone else has already done. I think it was Homer Simpson that said “Don’t say anything unless you know that everyone else feels exactly the same way you do”.
Like Sean has said before, at the very beginning of Big Brother all we did was just to see what it would like like in a magazine. All the weird shit that we were doing looks even more weird when it’s on a printed page and a lot of times we did it just to have that giggle.
The Worst Issue Ever cover (below) was no different. That was Rick Kosick’s idea, one of his best ideas ever, but I think when he originally came up with the idea the blood wasn’t part of it, and also the fat girls weren’t part of it either, but it just kind of kept getting worse and worse. “Why don’t we pour blood on ‘em?” “Why don’t we do it with fat chicks?”
It’s like you said in your intro to the new book, it’s like throwing a rock through a pane of glass just to see what happens.
DC: Yeah, you know what happens when a bottle breaks but you still do it all the time just to see it again and again.
What was the article you were most excited to see on the printed page, or to see the reaction to?
DC: I don’t really know. The second the magazine was done, I never wanted to see it ever again.
Sean Cliver: You never really had time to think about or see the reaction, it was always on to the next issue.
DC: Especially towards the end when we were doing it monthly, year after year. Once that thing is out the door, the only reason I would look at it again was to see if there were any fuck-ups, which happened a lot.
Especially in the early years of the mag you can really see that attitude of “let’s see what this looks like” in the cover designs, it looked like a different magazine each issue.
DC: With the covers a lot of what we tried to do was just to do it wrong. I think Tremaine at the very beginning on the Simon Woodstock cover, the font is in 4 point because he just asked “what is the smallest font that I can print the title in?” We would just do everything wrong – the title’s supposed to be big, let’s make it as small as possible.
SC: Let’s do a cover in Spanish!
DC: There were so many inside jokes on the covers as well, always just so much weird shit on there, whatever jokes we were into.
SC: A lot of it was just to amuse ourselves, we didn’t really care about anybody else.
And the Quotes Section in each issue seemed to be just full of in-jokes.
SC: Yeah, they were really inside at times.
DC: That Quotes section is the one thing I miss, because I still capture quotes and I don’t know where to put them. That could be a quote! I hear things all the time and I just think fuck that would have been great for the quotes section.
How was the transition from World Industries to Larry Flynt Publishing?
DC: It was a big move for me because I moved from San Francisco to LA, I became actual salaried staff at that point. So for me it was really exciting because Larry Flynt started actually running it like a business. Before him, these fuckers (points to Sean) wouldn’t pay me for months at a time when it was under Rocco it was just sketchy, like whatever, we’ll put it out whenever we feel like it. So the idea of moving to LA and having a pay check on a regular basis was kind of exciting to me.
SC: The biggest change for me was moving offices and that change in the atmosphere in general, going from World to a formal office environment. But it saved the magazine because it was losing a lot of money for Rocco and I don’t think he was going to put up with it for much longer so the fact that Flynt did come in did give us a second life.
What was life like like working in the offices of Hustler?
DC: They wanted to give us a dress code when we first moved in there!
SC: Yeah, there was a whole employee handbook.
DC: There was a bit of a feeling out process in the beginning because it was a corporate environment and they wanted us to wear business casual and we were like “we’re a fucking skateboard magazine! When skaters come in here all the time it’s going to look kind of weird if we’re wearing khakis and shirts tucked in.”
SC: I think Tremaine wore suits for maybe the first six months or something.
DC Really? I don’t remember that. As a joke?
SC: Yeah, he was playing at being this big business guy.
How did you get on with the Hustler guys?
DC: They thought we were really weird. They called our suite the Animal House –I’ve never been into a fraternity before, but they called our place the frat house. Because we were just acting like retards, understandably because we were essentially little kids working in a fucking porn empire. So they would open the door to our suite to see what we were doing and there’d be porn on TV all the time, Pontius is jerking off in his little office corner, we’re skating in the hallways, it was just a bunch of dumb skaters in a fucking porn office. You would think the porn people would be the weirdos but they thought we were fucked up.
SC: The porn guys were all like real businessmen. It was a weird place to work.
Did you have to deal with Larry Flynt himself much?
DC: Not really, he was a cranky old businessman.
SC: He had a frontline of business executives and vice presidents, we dealt with all those people. Occasionally we would get access to Larry for the videos or something. He was pretty good spirited dealing with the nonsense we asked him to be a part of.
DC: I broke my leg, so I Larry Flinted my crutches – I made my crutches gold and I put tassels on them. His office was on was the top floor, and he just had the worst taste in art, it’s just complete crap everywhere, really gaudy reproduction gold shit everywhere. So that was an example of like can we just get a picture of Larry with my gold crutches and his gold wheelchair and it would look funny in the magazine, and that was fine.
There was some weird office politics. If you became friends with the right people at LFP, you could get anything you wanted. You make friends with the Hustler people so that you have never ending porn. I made friends with Stephanie Pasquale, Larry Flynt’s assistant, I’d just go up and hang out with her so then any time we needed something from Larry it would be no problem. He was always very obliging.
Sean, in one of your articles in the mag, you visit a fetish zine convention, for the fun of it, and your final line in the piece is “You’d too this too if you had a magazine”. Was the magazine kind of an enabler for some of the things you did?
SC: It definitely helped. It was the social life I never had, it enabled me to do a lot of stuff I never would have.
DC: I think we all were sort of like that to begin with. But because we had the magazine we could always take things a notch up.
How was the process of putting together a retrospective book? Did you look back and find things that you’d forgotten you’d done?
SC: Not so much – I’m cursed with a really good memory for most things so it was mostly just tedious, just scanning all the shit. All the spreads in the book are hard copy scans because there’s no digital archive that exists. Most of the binders for each issue have been pillaged and the photos have been lost so all we had to work from was just scanning direct from the magazines, which actually didn’t turn out all that bad. All that scanning was all me.
DC: The one thing that surprised me or that I’d forgotten came up because of the launch party. They wanted a playlist for the event so I found a website called skatevideosite.com, and these nerds have lists of all the soundtracks for the Big Brother videos so I just cut and pasted that and sent it off to them but I actually listened to a couple of songs and I was like “Oh fuck, I forgot about this song! like that Belly Roll one.”
Were you ever expecting Big Brother to turn into a coffee table book?
DC: No, that’s why I already did the book of all my stuff from it. When Big Brother died it dies very suddenly and there wasn’t any kind of a send off or a proper funeral or anything so we’ve always kind of wanted to do a coffee table book or a documentary or something on it.
Yeah, there’s been rumours of a Big Brother documentary happening for years now.
DC: There’s one actually in the works right now with Hulu.
SC: Yeah Hulu are doing a series on pop culture stuff and somehow they picked up on Big Brother.
DC: I have no idea how that happened. Patrick O’Dell is a director on it.
SC: It should be out end of this year or early next year I think.
Amazing. I think that’ll turn out really good.
DC: I don’t! Actually, that short little video we did for the book turned out pretty good I thought.
SC: For the shit show that it was, they managed to make something out of it. I was surprised.
What’s the story with the ad that went in the first issue after World Industries had sold the magazine, the ad that Steve Rocco went crazy about?
SC: We were assembling that issue at World while it was being sold, it was all done in the right format for LFP to print, so it was a real transitional issue.
DC: Wait, I don’t remember, what ad was this?
SC: Simon Woodstock’s ad with the World Industries Devil buttfucking Rocco. That issue came out once we had moved to LFP, and per the terms of the sale, World was required to carry 7,000 issues of Big Brother to distribute. So when they got that shipment of magazines, they were so pissed off about that ad that firstly, they sued Simon Woodstock and Rich Metiver, but also they had the workers in distro tear out that page from all 7,000 copies.
Where there any other ads you ran that stick out as favourites?
SC: Oh! The thing I rediscovered going back through the magazines that I’d forgotten about was how horrible the advertisements were! We had Snakeboard ads that I’d completely forgotten about!
DC: Remember one company called Paylay or Paypay or something? We had weird ads from companies that weren’t even skate companies, a photo of some guy jumping off of a step with some shitty jacket on. We had the worst fucking ads.
SC: We took whatever we could get I guess.