Right. So, Victor Banana, how did that come about? Did you just want to start a band and put up flyers?
I had some friends and we had this kind of game we played where we would randomly generate topics to make songs, kind of like the Oulipo thing where you say like, okay, pick a random word from the dictionary and that’s gonna be the name of your song. So I ended up writing a bunch of songs that way. And then it was a matter of forming a band to play them and then this girl I went to high school with, she played the stand up bass, so I knew I wanted to have a stand up bass. Just friends that I knew, a guy that I knew that played the drums, and he knew a girl who played viola. You know, it wasn’t really a band situation, a collaborative kind of thing, it was more like I wrote these songs and I taught the band how to play them. That’s also why I moved away from playing concerts, because it’s just kind a weird situation where I was the main person. I think it was because I wasn’t open to that, I was more afraid, ‘cause I was younger and I wouldn’t say I was exactly a control freak because I was definitely conscious of how other people wanted to be involved in what I was doing, but… I mean, it wasn’t a band, it was just of kind of like, we were playing these songs pretty much. Everything was all centered around me writing songs and that’s kind of what taught me to be a writer, if I am one, doing that weird random topic generating thing to try to be creative [laughs].
Do you still do things like that with your comics?
I think when I got into comics it was more like, you know, we’re gonna be publishing this thing and we need you to do something. So I would come up with something to draw and I think the influence was more like I didn’t worry so much about how inspired I was, I was just like, I gotta come up with three pages, so what if I did this?
I saw on your website you had some videos posted of Victor Banana on public access television. I think those are from around that time. How did that come about?
I think we just played at a show and someone came up and said do you wanna to play on this public access thing and it was in Pasadena. Yeah, and we also played at a preschool graduation party; somewhere there’s a funny picture of that. We just played all of our major key songs and when we wanted to be done we just said, “Oh, there’s cake over there” and the kids ran off. [Hodler laughs] You know, a lot of times if the band is going pretty well, all those situations kind of generate themselves I guess. Similar to somebody considered to be doing well in comics, how people just all of a sudden get in touch with them and say, oh, do you want to do this or do you want to do that or whatever.
Right. So when you left school, that was basically as much of a plan as you had, to continue with Victor Banana performing?
I don’t know. You’d think that because I grew up in this show business, musician environment I would have some acumen or some ability to figure out how to make a living being a musician. But I think because my dad was always working as more of a studio musician that I got it in my mind that I was expressing myself rather than… I never could figure how to make a living at it. If I couldn’t interest somebody in making a record, I’d just do it myself. You know, the soundtrack to the Velvet Glove thing, I tried to figure out how to have a record company. I have no idea how to do that [laughs].
Were you working too?
I was trying, yeah [laughs].
What were some of your early jobs?
There was one part-time job I used to have where we used to go and just put check bank statements in envelopes all day, kind of office temp jobs like that. I worked in a place that made safety films for fire departments and stuff and I took care of the paperwork revolving around that. I worked as a proofreader of wedding invitations.
[Laughs.] I didn’t know they had those!
Yeah, [laughs] that was a strange job. It was a place which did thermography, which is this kind of printing that involves raised ink; when you feel it, it kind of like has a tactile sense to it. It’s kind of hard to proofread wedding invitations because they’re all pretty much the same. You know, on this day, so and so meets so and so and gets married on this date or whatever. And we did business cards and there was one guy who would be offended if there was anything vaguely pornographic in the business card and he would just stop work and walk outside if that happened.
What would set him off?
I don’t know. I mean, you know when you get into these editor type jobs or like a proofreading position too, sometimes there’s a skewed moral sense that [Hodler laughs] comes into play that transcends whether words are in the correct order. That happened when I was working in closed captioning too, because you’re sort of not supposed to make mistakes. I mean, the general gist of it is, as a proofreader, don’t make any mistakes. We definitely had certain people who had a frame of mind like “I don’t make any mistakes; that’s why I’m here.” [Hodler laughs.]
I was just trying to imagine what could be on a business card that would seem immoral.
[Laughs.] Well, you know, I couldn’t say that it made any sense. What shadow economy needs a business card? I was just trying to come up with an example of something interesting from that job. [Hodler laughs.] It was difficult. I remember that was in the days when there were Photostats, so I remember the smell of chemicals they would use to develop the negatives, because the job was in the printing plant that actually printed the invitations. And there was a room and you would just have a desk and sit there and you’d get these Photostats of a bunch of all these identical wedding invitations, and it definitely had this weird loneliness kind of aspect to it because you’re just looking at people who are getting married all day, and then you’re just thinking, I’m just here by myself. [Laughs]
So you were living at home, you were making music, and working these temp jobs. And then, comics had gone away at that point?
You know, we still had around the house tons of comic related things, but there was a certain point where my dad and I stopped going to the comic store regularly. I think that comic store might have closed, I don’t remember. I ended up rediscovering comics in college through Lloyd Llewellyn and Love and Rockets and all that. I’m sure I was still reading newspaper comics every day, and I was still drawing here and there. But the focus was on music. I got really blocked when I was working on comics and had a hard time coming up with ideas and following through on them. I think as you get older you get more of a sense of … sometimes it feels like being a cartoonist is just being able to endure all the bad news [laughs] and just keep going forward. [Laughter] I got really slow at drawing comics and didn’t have a determination to keep drawing. I would get an idea and would follow through on the idea I had but I didn’t have them all that often and I was busy doing other things.
How many albums did you record as Victor Banana?
Yeah, well, we did the one album which was pretty much our live set, and then after that the band kind of broke up. But then I continued using the Victor Banana, you know, trademark name or whatever and we made an EP, which was the Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron soundtrack, and then I made another album, which was an anagram of my name, Neil Smythe, and I recorded a million demos of different songs that you know, some were recorded and some weren’t. That’s pretty much my whole recording output right there [laughs].
So, it was ’89 when you graduated from school?
No, I guess… I’m really bad at that kind of stuff.
Some time in the ‘80’s though?
I’m thinking early nineties maybe? I graduated high school in ’84, yeah, so I must have gone to college for about 5 or 6 years [laughs]. It must have been before ’89 because I can remember going to the comic shop when the first issue of Eightball came out. Dan Clowes was in the process of doing the album cover for the first Victor Banana record and I remember going to comic book store and I got the first Eightball and I was like, this guy is drawing our cover and this new comic is a million times better than his task at hand with us. I was just totally blown away. I mean it was such a step forward from the Lloyd Llewellyn stuff.
Was it just a coincidence that he was doing your cover?
No, I was aware of his comic and I believe I wrote him a letter and sent him a tape of the record. And I believe from what he has said, was that he got this and it was an unusual situation because he had listened to it and actually liked it. [Laughter] You know, most of the time when someone says, oh, I want you to do our album cover, it’s not usually maybe something you’re looking forward to. Sometimes those situations can be awkward anyway. [Laughs] But it turned out we ended up having things in common and when I finally met him we had a lot in common.
That remind me of that story he did, “The Party”, where he meets the guy who compliments him about some album cover he drew, and Clowes is thinking about how much he hated the band.
Yeah, he did some work for Sub Pop. I definitely think there were a few album covers that he did where he would just like… I remember he did an illustration of the group Jane’s Addiction that was in the LA Weekly, which is the alternative paper here and I remember sending him a postcard at that time saying something like, why did you do this? And he said, “I needed the money.” Because it was just like he must not like Jane’s Addiction, right? It just didn’t seem like his kind of a thing or whatever.
[Laughs] Yeah, it seems like kind of a mismatch.
I went to see them play one time because my friend liked them a lot and my memory of the concert was sitting outside waiting for it to be over and there was this mother and she had her hands together in supplication, waiting for her child to come out of the concert, like she was really worried. [Hodler laughs.]
You were into Devo. What other kind of music were you in to?
I mean, I was pretty much into New Wave music at the time. English New Wave a lot of the time. I liked Madness a lot; I was into ska stuff. In high school, I tried to be mod. Most of my friends were punk, and there weren’t very many really good mod groups at all, but I liked wearing suits from thrift stores. The ska stuff was good, but the mod groups, there was like The Merton Parkas and the Chords, these groups that really weren’t so hot. I don’t know if maybe it’s bad to say that. [Hodler laughs.] I never had a scooter, my parents wouldn’t let me do that, and then I tried to get a parka but the only thing I could find made me look like a Vietnam vet, because the hem of it wasn’t far enough down. I looked terrible. [Hodler laughs.] You’re supposed to have patches and I couldn’t find them, so I tried to paint my own. [Hodler laughs.] I would paint my version of a British flag and a terrible Jam logo. You know, it’s mortifying when I think back about it now.
It might have looked cool!
[Laughs.] That’s true. But, yeah, I don’t think so. [Hodler laughs.] And then after that I quickly got out of that. During that time period it seemed like there was this weird parallel progression of revivalism where people who were into the sixties thing were mod and then they became kind of like Small Faces mod and then they were psychedelic, and so on. But at that point, I kind of switched and dyed my hair orange. I actually had a shaved grid on my head like Archie, you know, the grid on the sides of his head. I had a barber who would do that and then he would shave polka dots in my head and I dyed them pink and all these different colors. I got beaten up by skinheads at one point; they said how come you have to dress like a girl or something. I was dressed in a gabardine suit and I think I had black lipstick, but they didn’t say anything about that, I don’t know. You know what I mean. After I got beaten up, I stopped wearing weird clothes, and my sub-culture thing sort of went underground. I tried to look really nondescript, solid color t-shirts and slacks [laughter].
That was in high school, or that was later?
Yeah, that was later. That was around Victor Banana time. Then when we had Victor Banana. We had uniforms we wore that I made, that were fabric paint with feathers glued on them. We’d put on these shirts, and, you know, you couldn’t wear them more than once at the shows because of the perspiration. We made a sort of papier-mâché drum kit and put these contact switches underneath the drum heads, so when you hit them, lights would go on and off. So we did all these experimental things I guess.
What’s the story behind the Victor Banana name?
One of the people I went to elementary school and junior high and high school with was this guy named Victor and he used to bring these bananas to school that were black. They were super ripe, so I used to think of them as Victor Bananas, and I don’t know… It’s obviously a pun on top banana too. I found out years later there was a video game called Victor Banana, but I didn’t know that. This guy Victor, his parents were teachers and we used to do a zine together in elementary school called Fantastic! We tried to sell it around school. It was kind of like MAD Magazine, where he did a parody of Oliver! that was called Oh Liver! [Hodler laughs]
Do you remember any of your contributions?
You know, at that point, his were better than mine. That Oh Liver! was better than what I had come up with.
Do you know what happened to Victor?
I think he’s a doctor now. He was always a really good student and responsible person and everything. I went to one of my high school reunions. Because I was in the San Fernando Valley, a lot of people were entertainment lawyers and stuff. It was a weird thing going to the reunion because people weren’t actually old enough to inhabit their adult selves yet, they were kind of like almost there. My dad says at the later ones the worm turns, as he puts it.