Though it may not have been as widely read as SPIN or Rolling Stone, chickfactor, the zine founded in 1992 by Pam Berry and Gail O’Hara, was the bible for lovers of the esoteric indie pop larger publications routinely ignored. The tone of chickfactor was conversational and friendly. Its lighthearted interviews — always published in their entirety — made artists feel warm and personable. Other publications lionized; chickfactor humanized.
Both founders had formidable pedigrees: Berry was the singer for indiepop icons Black Tambourine and O’Hara was a copy editor at SPIN, and later the music editor for Time Out New York. The goals for chickfactor were more social than financial: In addition to sporadically publishing the zine, the pair threw regular parties for musician friends and put on shows with low cover charges simply so bands they liked could play. Their legacy is felt in their influence: Bands like The Magnetic Fields, Liz Phair and Belle and Sebastian were among the acts championed by chickfactor while they were still in the early stages of their careers.
Despite naming their zine chickfactor, O’Hara and Berry never excluded men — it was just that the music they loved just happened to be made by women. Even the male-dominated music they covered was feminist-friendly. At a time when indie rock was largely bombastic and aggressive, O’Hara and Berry dared to love lush, gentle pop.
In this oral history, we talk to Gail O’Hara, Pam Berry, Stevie Jackson of Belle & Sebastian, Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields, Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups of Versus, Mark Robinson of Teen-beat records and Unrest, and James McNew of Yo La Tengo.
Gail O’Hara: chickfactor cofounder, publisher: Back in 1992, I was working at SPIN and I’d done a little interview with the Wedding Present, and [Pam] helped to write the questions. So we thought it would be good to run the whole interview [somewhere], and that was the start of chickfactor. Working for SPIN gave me a lot of access to bands. Small Factory was a big band for us early on. We both liked a lot of Flying Nun stuff at the time, Stereolab. Beat Happening, Kicking Giant.
Pam Berry, chickfactor co-founder; Black Tambourine: Maybe it worked because Gail and I were good friends already, with the same desire to get a different kind of scoop on the bands we loved, rather than the ones we would read about in other magazines. It gave us a great excuse to hang out together fairly regularly after she moved to New York from Washington, D.C. Her ability to get things finished on time and sell the zines once they were done meant we could keep doing more. Left to me, there probably would have been one chickfactor a decade, done on a typewriter, circulation 15.
Gail O’Hara: Pam picked the name. Back in 1992, when we started it, we had seen an interview in another magazine with our pal Stephen Gardner from the band Lorelei, who was about 15 at the time. He was talking about how, when there’s a girl in the band, that band had the “chick factor” going for it. If she was cute, then the band had the “total chick factor.” We thought it was pretty silly, but in that summer full of riot grrrl zines it seemed appropriate to have a genderific, but still quite funny, name.
Pam Berry: At the time, I never thought much further ahead than the issue we were working on and didn’t really consider enduring appeal. I suppose I’m a live-for-the-moment gal. But it felt special as it was happening, because it was so much fun doing the interviews and getting together to put the issues together. People seemed to like it, bands agreed to play our billion-people-on-the-bill gigs, we got sent lots of lovely letters and records and made friends with so many fab people making zines and music.
Claudia Gonson, the Magnetic Fields: [Gail] had this unique ability to amass people around her and kind of create a social world where they enjoyed each other’s company. It was so comforting for me being in New York and finding Gail and her cool friends and their cool music.
Mark Robinson, Teenbeat records head honcho, Unrest: Chickfactor really liked [Teenbeat band] Versus, which mattered a lot to me. I didn’t think of it as a women’s thing. It was more of an indie-rock bible sort of thing to me.
Fontaine Toups, Versus: Richard [Baluyut] and I met Gail at a Sleepyhead show. She walked right up to us and said something sharp-witted.
Gail O’Hara: Our first issue we gave out at Maxwell’s [the recently shuttered venue in Hoboken, New Jersey], and our second and third issues we gave out at the parties at my house. Versus backed out of one of our parties, and that gave rise to Containe [the duo of Alkaline’s Connie Lovatt and Versus's Fontaine Toups], who became one of my signature bands.
Richard Baluyut, Versus: Chickfactor events were sort of genteel; more debonair than debauched. You could definitely bring a classy escort to their parties.
Fontaine Toups, Versus: I ate much better in those days when she would have me over to her place for those parties.
Stephin Merritt, the Magnetic Fields: At the chickfactor parties I generally felt like the only gay man, and couldn’t understand why everything was so loud that I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. I complained constantly about the volume.
Richard Baluyut: Chickfactor the zine was great, but our association with it was more about being friends with Gail than being artistically aligned. They did their thing and we did ours, and sometimes we met in the middle. I don’t think Versus was really the scene chickfactor was championing, but I appreciated chickfactor for their support despite this.
James McNew, Yo La Tengo, Dump: Gail’s support meant the world to me. I liked chickfactor long before we met in person. It felt surprising and special to be accepted by chickfactor for what I did, because I don’t think we had a lot in common with many of the other artists it featured. It often made me think, “If Gail likes it, I guess I’m doing it right.”
Stephin Merritt: The informal chickfactor [writing] style presented everyone as if they were your personal friend. So the reader could never quite tell which rock groups were Gail’s close friends — me, Versus, Yo La Tengo — and which weren’t; Gail’s best friends were never quite sure [when they talked] whether they were being interviewed.
Gail O’Hara: I never felt weird about covering bands with friends in them. If you can’t shout out about the things you love in your own zine, why bother putting one out? It would have felt crazy to ignore great bands because we knew the people in them, I never associated zines with a duty to be objective.
James McNew: Gail wrote about whatever she wanted, which made its content infinitely more credible. What might have seemed playful or flippant to some always felt, to me, deeply passionate and devoted.
Gail O’Hara: I don’t like “me me me” journalism. I like long interviews that show how it really goes down. A lot of time, it’s how I got to know someone.
Stephin Merritt: Stereolab should have been the biggest band of the turn of the century. They shared the cover of chickfactor [with Liz Phair]. They should have been on the cover of the New York Times. Instead of Oasis vs. Blur, the storyline should have been Stereolab vs. Saint Etienne.
Pam Berry: I can’t speak for Gail but I personally never had ambitions to make
chickfactor anything other than what it was. I could barely get organized enough to transcribe two or three interviews every couple of months.
Stevie Jackson, Belle and Sebastian: The magazine was compelling because it seemed to crystallize all the excitement at that moment in time. There was a kind of do-it-yourself aesthetic throughout the pages of chickfactor which, being in Belle and Sebastian, I could relate to immediately. We came out of the Postcard Records/Pastels independent Glasgow tradition, and I could see a connection there right away. I also liked the question/answer format of the interviews which lent to a feeling of direct communication. It was good stuff — meditations on all kinds of things affiliated with music, other art forms, photography and the like.
Gail O’Hara: It felt like a great thing to me, and an exciting time — at least to me. You could do your own thing, and all these people around me were doing their own things. And we’re still here. Pam and I are friends, and I’m friends with a lot of people I made the magazine with. In was an exciting time in a lot of ways. Amelia Fletcher said that riot grrrl was angry while we were respectful and celebratory. It was still feminist, but it was enthusiastic. I liked how she put it.
Stevie Jackson: Somewhere along the line I met Gail, who gave me a pile of magazines featuring exotic, cool acts I’d never heard of. I ended up meeting a few people that were featured in the pages, most notably Fontaine from Versus and Janet from Sleater-Kinney who took [Belle and Sebastian's manager] Neil and myself dancing to this cool club. Elliott Smith was DJing and he played “Monkey Man,” my favorite Stones song at the time. I mean, looking back, this stuff feels pretty spectacular. And it was.
Stephin Merritt: I love the idea of scenes. I grew up on the Paisley Underground, I went to Danceteria six nights a week for almost a year. I model my work life on Fassbinder, John Waters, Welles and Ozu, all of whom worked with the same actors for decades. I just don’t care for wistful guitar pop with breathy vocals, and if that’s a scene I want nothing to do with it. Being close friends with Gail made me a natural contributor and subject, but as I always said, I don’t actually like her taste in music. Or anyone else’s.
Fontaine Toups, Versus: It’s a very obvious answer, but my favorite band that Gail covered and turned me onto was Belle and Sebastian
Stevie Jackson: The [Belle and Sebastian] song “Chickfactor” is about perception, and literally being in a new world. I’d been a musician for quite a while even at that point, and I wasn’t used to getting attention — never mind being in a group that was the toast of the town, even for a brief moment. Arriving in New York and America for the first time would have been exciting enough for me anyway, as I always considered it the promised land. But the attention the group was getting on top of that blew my mind. The song was a reaction to getting all that attention.
Gail O’Hara: Belle and Sebastian stayed at our house after they came to New York in 1997. I still get people in London coming up to me and telling me how great it is that I named my zine after the Belle and Sebastian song.
Stephin Merritt: There must have been other paper zines [that arrived] during chickfactor‘s hiatus, but I can only name one. Oh wait — someone once asked to interview me for Fuck Your Mother magazine, and then was surprised when I said “no.” Idiot.
Pam Berry: I wish Gail could win the lottery so she could put out paper issues more regularly. I love the immediacy of a website, but there’s nothing quite like holding a new issue in your hot paws and leafing through it at your leisure. Her last paper issue was a belter, I would be so happy if she could somehow afford to put them out more regularly. Playing [at the chickfactor anniversary party] two years ago with Black Tambourine was great, because I never imagined we’d play together again and I miss those guys a lot. We’re all still good friends and live way too far away from each other. I’ve loved seeing everybody play at these, but seeing the Aislers Set and Small Factory play again was a total dream — really special.
Stevie Jackson: Its longevity is due to the efforts of Gail. The quality is in the content. People sharing their experiences in producing art in a very direct way is something I always find inspiring, and I know I’m not alone.
James McNew: Gail’s got the goods. No surprise.
Stephin Merritt: Next issue, she should put Babymetal on the cover.