Carlos Gonzalez is a deeply inspirational figure in the underground comics and music scene. His influence is manifest in much of the genre and horror-driven work that appears in the current generation, but his presence seems to be more of a rumor, even a legend. Perhaps this is due to his scarce distribution, a DIY approach that prioritizes making stuff over marketing it, and a genuinely mysterious persona. Gonzalez is more likely to be found on tour in various subterranean venues than at a comic convention. The lack of a publisher's support has not stopped him from creating a vast body of work- the Slime Freak sci-fi saga alone would weigh in at 500 pages of the most delirious, funny, and surprising comics ever made. As years tricked by, his pamphlets would manifest like black and white bouquets of rare flowers at shops like Desert Island or Family, or online at PictureBox. A persistent nerd might score one at a show he played as Russian Tsarlag. Lately the veil has begun to drop a bit: first a Facebook fan page and now an official Tumblr account with a new label moniker "Wasp Video Roadhouse" have made it easier (though less rewarding for connoisseurs of obscurity?) to follow this singular artist.
I met Carlos after the Wunderground art and poster show in Providence, 2006, when he showed me some of his astonishing home videos. Edited in-camera, they were like Tarkovsky had been channeled through the Kuchar Brothers and thrown up on a public access station. At a show I booked for Russian Tsarlag at the Cakeshop in 2007, he began the set by crawling the length of the venue to the stage, where he perforated some hanging bags filled with green slime. Allowing the slime to drip onto his face, he sat behind a drum kit, and aided by a 4-track recorder and a heavily reverbed microphone, pounded out a set of haunting and hilarious tunes. The comics, music, and videos are all united by one vision: Apologies to those who have an aversion to thinking about anything besides comics.
Carlos seems unlikely to slow down his dream factory any time soon, and so the time seems right for a True Believer to pump him for some insider information. Part one of this interview was conducted by email, followed by the second part via phone in May 2014.
Matthew Thurber: Correct me if I'm wrong: You grew up around Tampa, Florida and lived in Bloomington, Indiana, then moved to Providence in the mid 2000s. Can you tell our readers a little about your life story? Do you recall any formative experiences that put you on the path to making the work that you do?
Carols Gonzalez: Yeah, I grew up in Tampa, Florida. For the most part a nameless suburban area with a Chili's and a Walgreens right around the corner. When I was pretty young, my dad worked for a magazine distributor. His job was just to drive around in a truck delivering magazines and Marvel comics to local newsstands and convenience stores. So he would bring me extra or damaged copies of the comics he would be delivering.
This was perhaps my first exposure to all the wild concepts and cliches that are so prevalent in super hero comics. In my early teen years I worked on the weekend at local comic shop for store credit. Gorging my heavy metal-loving mentality on really awful Chaos Comics of the mid and late nineties. I've since tried many times to re-read my old copies of this stuff and it's total garbage. But for a 13 year-old boy who is into horror movies and Pantera, it's pretty much the pinnacle of creative expression.
After high school I moved to Bloomington, Indiana for two years. The only reason really being that it was somewhere outside of Florida where I knew somebody. I played lots of ragged underground music during that time and worked menial part time jobs (not much has changed) While I was working the drive-thru window of a Rally's Hamburgers I started daydreaming about creating some kind of crude science fiction mythology. I would read Asimov's Foundation books during my lunch breaks in the back room during this time period, and it definitely informed my young fantasies.
Did Russian Tsarlag start in Bloomington? As Russian Tsarcasm? Can you describe what that project was like at that time? What was the Kinky Noise label all about?
I started the music project Russian Tsarcasm in Tampa in the summer of 2002. This was the summer before my senior year of high school. I spent a large part of that summer alone, just kind of aimlessly walking and biking around my faceless neighborhood. I'd been doing bands and obsessing over music for years at this point. During these walks I came up with the idea to just do music alone, since no one was around so often. When it started there were no "songs" to speak of. It was just shitty electric guitar playing with scraping sounds and pieces of garbage rubbing against each other. It was around this time I was first hearing kind of 'wild' abstract/non-punk/metal type music, So I was just going for it.
Kinky Noise Records was a cassette and CD-R label that I did from age 13-21. Most releases would be limited to anywhere from 2-15 copies. My first band on the label was Satanic Zombie Faggots. Our first tape was called Offensive Noise, so that probably gives you a pretty good idea of the mentality of the "label" in it's early days (1997-99)
When did you start making videos? What were your early videos like?
When I was about 13 my mom gave me her old High-8 camcorder. S.Z.F. would make videos of ourselves dancing in my bedroom, playing guitar, prank calling people, and smashing dinner plates and clock radios.
When I was 21 and first living in Providence I started making home movies with my friends at the time with absurd plot devices, cheap face paint, and a wide array of crumbling post-industrial locations.
I've been doing movies with my friends ever since. They're all primitively edited and I've never written a script in my life.
When did you start Slime Freak? and could you describe what it was like making the early issues? (I've only seen issues 6 and beyond) For instance, how did you draw the pages? What was your process of coming up with the stories? Did you write scripts or wing it? Do you work in a similar way now?
I started Slime Freak in April of 2006, while I was living in a small attic apartment in Providence.
My process has not chanced much since those early days. I never write scripts or thumb nails. Everything is drawn with #2 pencils from Family Dollar. A large part of the reasoning behind this process is to just keep it stimulating and dynamic for myself. I usually have a rough idea of the main "arc" of the story, but I like dreaming up concepts, details, and sub-plots on a day-to-day basis. Leaving plenty of room to throw in weird segments from whatever is on my "radar" at the time. The only difference now, is drawing on bigger paper then I used to.
You are extremely prolific. Your comics are feasts of narrative often running into the 40-50-page range. How do you make time and space for yourself to get in the zone, to accomplish all this work? What sort of rituals do you have? Do you have role models for your level of productivity?
I guess, when it comes down to it. If I'm not jumping into some kind of weird dream mental state on a daily basis, I feel pretty dead. I wanna do this kind of stuff as much as possible and the more I do it the more I actually want to continue being alive.
The only real rituals I have are fairly mundane. A big cup of coffee and a stack of great records and tapes to listen to while I'm at it. Sometimes I'll have to take a walk around the block to straighten out some plot or dialog issue in my head.
When it comes to role models in the realm of comics and productivity, there is no bigger inspiration then Jack Kirby. His body of work is so vast and powerful. Across different genres and publishers, everything I read of his feels like a piece from this giant, weird collage from one person's internal world. It blows me away. Not just the artwork, put the plots and concepts as well.
The idea of creating this kind of monument of stories, images, bad jokes, dream totems, actual debris from your own life. Just chiseling at it your entire life sounds like one of the only things worth doing in this world.
Can you describe the world of Slime Freak a little bit, like its structure? It seems to take place in Yub City. There's an "Ability Zone", there's Crud Systems...various doctors and scientists and recording engineers and special effects artists. Can you give the Comics Journal readers a little map of that world and kind of an overall synopsis of what happens? I think this might be useful to people who may only have an issue or two.
There wasn't much of a "grand design" when I started it. When I drew the first issue it was planned as a six issue mini series. Around issue six, I started approaching it as this ongoing saga that would continue throughout my life and around issue 11, I wanted to start wrapping it up so I could do different stories. There are two main "worlds" in the series. A sort of squalid, modern city and a dreamscape world with lots of fleshy, organic buildings and creatures.
Looking back there was perhaps more then a hint of inspiration from Jim Shooter's Warriors of Plasm series of the early '90s. Within that city there is a doctor who's in a coma, so in addition to these two worlds, you spend time in his coma vision. Within the dreamscape, there is an underground cave organization (CRUD) of plastic surgery freaks and criminals, and there's quite a bit of time spent there as well.
I really can't get into a rough synopsis of what happens, it's quite convoluted. It's been years since I've read any of it beyond a few panels here and there. I'm proud of its existence, nonetheless.
Your character names are hilarious...Larry Hat. Mr. Chair. Ralph Region. Exitframe Irene. Zeus Rimley. Liquid Mark. Do you have a favorite character in Slime Freak?
I think as I got deeper into it I enjoyed drawing and developing the teenage girl, Eddie. For some reason, Keeb Congo got my motor going as well.
Tell me about what confusion means to you, and mystery. For instance, readers might never be able to get a clear picture of the whole story of Slime Freak. Does it matter?
Well, the majority of life is mysterious and confusing. There is rarely closure, as there often is in most stories and plot lines (my own included). Almost everything I encounter is in fragments. Most of the comics I read are from the quarter bin. I'm just jumping into some ragged issue of The Eternals, Dreadstar, whatever...
I like that. You don't need to read every issue of my comic, or any other ones to appreciate a weird hand touching a door knob, or a swollen, exotic mask being applied to a damp face. That's just good stuff, take it for what it is.
I hope people enjoy the journey they take with each issue, but whether it's "clear" or "practical" is not a huge concern.
Perhaps related to the question above: according to Tsarlag lore, you have played 24-hour-long shows in basements that no one saw. You played 12 shows in one day which no one could have seen all of. Your project "Bleach Party" (?) was a special performance enacted for one person at a time in a warehouse basement. Can you fill me in on Bleach Party and tell me more about some of these 'special' shows? What is it like to do a performance that one, or none, or a handful of people might experience, and then for it to disappear into legend?
Bleach Party was supposed to be like a late night show, like Johnny Carson or something. But instead of watching it on TV, you're there in person with Johnny. No other audience members. Johnny touches you a little bit even. Tells jokes, maybe sings. An intimate mini-showcase that is ongoing, so you start to have a little personal history with the 'host' of all the wild times you had together. Smelling stuff, crouching, looking at crumpled xerox 'guests'. It was really fun.
I like performing, but sometimes I really hate all the other shit surrounding it. A horrible club, a miserable sound guy, a bunch of people who are not there for the performance, but to look over their shoulders in restless ADD-fueled romantic longing. So you remove all that stuff. Just a small room, a stereo that you're familiar with, one person who went out of their way to be there alone or with one other person and it's pretty much the perfect show. You control the vibe and you can slow or speed things up at will and know that the audience is with you on it. It's something I'd definitely like to continue in the future.
What would have happened if one called the "Slime Freak Hotline" as advertised in issue 7 ("11PM-6AM only")?
You're calling me. You're calling me at night. What is this some kind of sex thing? I'm not sure. They might hear a radio station, water/piss sounds, leaves rustling, me barking. Barking is a pretty safe bet. Barking with radio in the background.
Crud, garbage, green slime, destruction and noise... but on the other hand...there is a special glamour, maybe even grandeur to Russian Tsarlag. Maybe its occasional haunted covers of pop royalty like the Beach Boys and Ricky Nelson. This contrast seems related to comics too, the feeling that a flimsy xeroxed comic booklet can be the ticket to such a rich fantasy world. Is garbage the ticket to fantasy? Tell me more about your indulgences, pop music or otherwise...
I'm not sure. I like a lot of elements from "the street". A mentality, a look. But I also love "classic" stuff. Black and white movie stars, old Hollywood, fake flowers, The Cadillac Coup De Ville. So, I like trying to combine it. It's a fake cardboard cutout of a classic car. A picture of an old actress that is blown out by compulsive xeroxing, slow dancing in a puddle, etc...
Once you showed me the slasher film The Mutilator and you mentioned you made a Mutilator zine. What was that like? What was it about that film that inspired you?
Are there other zines you've done like that, lurking around?
The magazine and movie were not actually connected. Mutilator magazine was a precursor to Slime Freak. It was a zine of just some shitty, weird drawings. The Mutilator movie is actually really boring, but the end, like the last 10 minutes is insane. There's something so so good about being bored for like 80 minutes and becoming comfortable with it and then getting your mind totally fucked. And screaming out loud. You're barely moving, if you had a bag on your head someone would assume you've been asleep for 80 minutes, then all of a sudden you're screaming! Good stuff!
Micro Pitch is the most hilarious baseball comic I have ever read. It's from a fairly recent period when you also made a romance comic Lost Canyon What does it mean to you to work in these genres with their conventions?
It's just fun to work in a medium that already has all this history and these archetypes. They become props that you can use to just spring board off into weirder stuff. It's all it amounts to with those stories. Using the "big game" at the end of a sports story to get into something you wouldn't have came up with if you didn't have that archetype. Same with a romance story, a character has a romantic dream, kissing fantasies, and using that to go somewhere you didn't imagine you would with a story.
In recent comics you have begun to incorporate bits of collaged floating "stuff" into the comics pages. The characters have always had a feeling of merging with their environments. But now its more like they are in a noisy or polluted world. Around the edges of many a Gonzalez comic the reader often encounters collaged stuff, a degraded photocopy of the Creature from the Black Lagoon or something. Can you talk about collage a bit? It also enters your recordings and performances, and seems like an important element of your work.
Yeah, on a primitive level, it's just fun. It's always an intuitive thing and I'm not even sure why I started doing it. I like making collages and I'm always copying shit, so there is always source material laying around in my bedroom to cut up and move around. I love xerox and just pushing that medium and seeing how wild it can get. With music, sometimes that extra sound. Like some random combination layered over a pop song can give it this richness that I usually enjoy. So maybe it's like that with comics. Putting this random combination over the frame of a story just to thicken it up.
Living in Providence, since it has its long running music-art-comics, uh...
MT:What's it like there now compared to the last 8 or 9 years you've been living there off and on, how has it changed, what do you still like about living there?
I guess like a lot of towns its different but its still pretty much the same. Maybe its got like certain hot spots where the culture of it has seeped out of town onto the radar or somethin'. I feel like its always swirlin' around here in all the time I've spent there, there's always a huge core of people who are just rippin it, you know chasin' the dream and that's definitely one of the main things I love about it....seeing whats going on, gears turning with everybody, its always an inspiring thing...besides that, I like New England in general, I like the vibe of Old America here, I love the fall and like this whole region has that kind of fall air of it all year round....somethin' about it...I feel like weird nostalgia feelings in the fall sometimes, or these kinda extra feelings that I feel like I get a pretty consistent dose of that kind of stuff here, being here and walking around here...
Is the energy of that scene, you say its inspiring, is it also distracting from regularly doing work or do you feel like that's not an obstacle?
Um. Like, for doing creative work or for doing like, nuts and bolts kind of work?
I was thinking creative work but also, I don't know, jobs?
No, I don't think its distracting at all. If you wanna ignore it or you wanna like kind of hibernate away from it, I think that's pretty easy too, even though the town is pretty small, you can just stay in your room, stay in your neighborhood, and like not see that side of it if you don't want to. Its never had some opposite effect on me where I feel paralyzed...its usually something that's like swishing around and it pumps me up.
Since there's so much activity going on, and opportunities to play music and tour...
Oh you mean like socially or something?
Does that make it hard working and supporting...do you have a job or are you eking out survival on music and zines and stuff?
No I have a couple part time jobs here, I don't think I could eke it out with just the music and comics shit, it helps sometimes, its like a little boost. I try to keep my life expenses as low as I can and try to make my connections to money as limited as possible so that I don't have to constantly run around and then I can have that time to do the stuff that I love to do. But on the other side of it, the social thing, that side is easy to ignore if you don't want to. Personally I haven't been playing shows in a while, I've taken a long break just to focus on other stuff. I feel like in general people are respectful of that too, like they understand when you need to like avoid colored lights and party atmosphere and that kind of stuff....its important to have that time alone.
I wanted to ask you about your friendship with cartoonist Christopher Forgues (CF), he seems to have been for a long time a peer, an important friend. Can you talk about your influence on each other? Do you discuss comics?
Yeah, he's one of my best friends, and when I first moved here, and was trying to get more focused on drawing in general, he was one of the only people when I was first giving it a shot, or just trying to like run with it, who was telling me, "Yeah! This is awesome! Keep doing this!".... So for any artist to get support from people you respect is like so important. We're always checking in with each other, I'm always interested in what he's cooking up, and we'll talk about brick walls that we're hittin' and ideas or experiments that we're tring to fuck around with, give each other input...I love that, to be able to just kind of talk shop with someone else you feel like you trust on a fairly deep level is something important. Its a friendship that I definitely value a lot.
Also you've collaborated a lot musically and in performance with Alley Dennig who also makes zines and performs as SHV. Is she another important peer you could talk about the nature of?
CARLOS: Yeah. I mean these people are huge, you know...yeah, she's an incredible artist, and just... the way her brain is wired she knows how to tap directly in there. To work with her or collaborate with her on movies or anything is always super easy because she inherently knows what is weird or funny or beautiful about what we're trying to do or trying to get out there. So its always awesome to be able to do that with her, or just watch her flourish, she's just like a tornado who's spinning, and you're just getting blown away...her music is definitely like, we're on the same family tree. Just so personal, and the aesthetic of it and the attitude behind it is so real and so twisted at the same time, that its like perfect, its something i always want to be side by side with.
Are there any other artists that are your peers who you wanna talk about?
As far as other peers...this guy Ryan Martin in North Carolina who does Secret Boyfriend, his music is also so close to my heart and I feel such a kinship with. Suzy Poling who lives in Los Angeles and does Pod Blotz, her music and her photographs and her videos, everything that she does is so next-level in the way she carries it out. And she's also got that same sensibility, every time I see what she's coming up with next, it keeps me motivated or re-inspires me...
She's kind of like a creator of a science-fiction influenced, alternate-reality, mythology...
Definitely, I mean, Dr. Who, Logan's Run, all that stuff, through this amazing, warped, moss-covered...She's just cultivating it in such a perfect way. And Justin Rhody. His photographs and slideshows and just his internal fire as a person...he's a guy that I've known for a decade, we lived together in Indiana. He just keeps raising the bar too, he's got a perfect eye for the mundane and the surreal cohabitating. And I've gotta say Robert Pickle too, who's acted in many of the videos. As an amateur video actor, he's one of my favorite people to work with. As a person and as a friend he's so solid, and so funny and generous, and a guy who just inspires me by being alive.
I know you recently did a show at the RISD Museum, can you talk about that project?
That was last summer. They were doing this huge exhibition of local artists...it involved people who weren't you know neccesarily part of college or art school or art world, a carousel of people doing stuff like in the underground community or street stuff. Jacob Berendes was curating a week. I've been doing this new video project and it was when I was just starting it. I screened a 25 minute video I made in the late summer. Its about this dentist who's had a mental breakdown and kind of like, goes on the road to try to clear his head. He's just travelling and meeting different people and doing dentistry on them to make money, and interacting with them and struggling with his own loss of perception or something...I screened it at like 1 o'clock in the afternoon...there were a few random people there...at the beginning of the video there was some found footage of a woman pissing, so we got that in there for the afternoon crowd. That was the extent of it...It was cool or novel in that way, exhibiting your stuff in a setting that's definitely not the usual setting, so that was interesting in that regard...make a little money, it's cool.
Was there a stilted Q and A afterwards?
No! I'm terrified of the Q and A. Maybe when I'm in a wheelchair and stuff I'll get up to that point where I'll, like, ramble on in the Q&A for hours, but, no I didn't do anything like that. That movie would be scary to do that because a lot of it barely makes sense so I'd look like a fool.
Is that the movie that you talked about coming out as 2 VHS tapes...last time I was up there you were talking about some kind of epic-length...
Yeah yeah yeah yep yep this is it. Its called Forgotten World. I've been doing it in chunks over the last 8 or 9 months. There's gonna be two different cuts of it. One of them is gonna be 3 hours long. Kinda rambling but its got these vignettes, and a protagonist and goes in and out of these stories. And then I might do another cut that's short, 15 or 20 minutes that has no narrative, and has just visual set pieces with a few kind of like monologues or something. I'm still thinking about it. What I showed at RISD was like the first chunk that I did.
Are you planning to release it or make an edition of it?
CARLOS: Yeah. I wanna try harder, I know that with the videos its probably what I've been the worst at distributing to the public, I haven't made many of them. This one I wanna try to like maybe make 100 VHS or DVD-Rs, I'm definitely gonna try to push it a little bit more out there...as far as like movies, I've been going for it a little bit harder, so I want to push it a little bit harder.
Didn't you have some screenings on the West Coast?
CARLOS: Yeah I was out there for a few weeks with my friend Robert. Most of the trip we were just driving around, doing a bunch of camping and hiking, but I set up a few screenings mainly just to make some gas money. I did one in L.A., one in Portland, and one in Oakland. I showed an hour chunk of the movie. It went well, for the most part. You know, I enjoyed it, as I was watching it among the people my belief in the project held firm...it was cool to do that.
MT: It seems like new people are getting introduced to the projects.
CARLOS: Yeah, maybe so, maybe now that Not Not Fun Records, maybe they've got a built in audience of people who maybe I wouldn't normally rub shoulders with, or people who would hear my music through other channels, maybe that has something to do with it. That's the only thing that's really different. I've just been doing the same shit for so long. Or just the fact that touring regularly, just like word-of-mouth shit...But. That's cool that there's people there. I know there's years where there was nobody there. So, I'm sure in 20 years there will be nobody there again. So that's a nice little...change.
MT: Is there anything else coming up in the near future you would like to plug?
CARLOS: I'm about to put out a Russian Tsarlag double cassette. I'm mixing it now. I feel really excited about it. This summer that movie should come out in some form, and the third and final issue of Test Tube should come out this summer, so all that shit's coming down the pipe, and I'm excited about all of it!
INCOMPLETE CARLOS GONZALEZ CHECKLIST
Slime Freak 1-13, 2006-2012
Slime Freak Special 1 and 2, 2011
Test Tube 1 and 2, 2013-14
Lost Canyon, 2013
Micro Pitch, 2012
Rats Cocoon/ Lung Damage, with Anya Davidson, circa 2007
Kramers Ergot 6, 2007
Off the Press anthology, edited by CF, 2013
Weird #1, 2011 (edited by Mr. Freibert)
Weird #2, 2013 (edited by Mr. Freibert)
Drawings #2 (Friends and Relatives)
The Crystal Ball (video-self released)
Bazic Street (video-self released)
Drop Me On the Drill, Aunt Stacy (cassette-Unskilled Labor)
There's A Snake in My Cash Register (cassette-Hexagon tapes)
Bleach Party (cassette)
Ugly Encounters (cassette)
Golden Bag Woman of Super Life (cassette-Friends and Neighbors)
Crawling in Blue Traffic (compilation- Wasp Video Roadhouse)
Living in the Past (cassette-Wasp Video Roadhouse)
Blue Shift/ Russian Tsarlag split (LP)
Midnight at Mary's House ( LP-Not Not Fun)
Secret Boyfriend/Tsarlag split (LP- Hot Releases)
Open Casket (LP- Hot Releases)
Community Death Tube (LP- NIght People)
Gagged in Boonesville (LP)
Classic Dog Control Booth (cassette-Night People)
Live at Channel 3 -(cassette-Stay away from Ghosts)
Let Your Dreams Touch Air (cassette)