Forever goth:
Brandon Stosuy’s path to Basilica

Post Author: Liz Pelly

My sister often uses this abbreviation, “FTK.” It’s short for “for the kids,” and she says it’s something she picked up from her friend and co-worker Brandon Stosuy. The three words aren’t just an abbreviation, but more so a philosophy of intention, about wanting to open up space and clear a path to empower young people. Stosuy says he learned such ideas about distribution of power from the writer Dennis Cooper, whose work he studied as a grad student at SUNY Buffalo.

“Dennis taught me a lot,” Stosuy told me when we met up for coffee in Greenpoint, down the block from his office. “He is an anarchist and would tell me things like, ‘If you have power, you should immediately disperse it.’ So I’ve always tried to do that, to help people, if I have a position to do so.”

Stosuy is currently the Director of Editorial Operations at Pitchfork. He’s penned a heavy metal column, Show No Mercy, for the website since 2006. Over the years he has run a tape label, published a long-running zine on growing up in rural New Jersey, become a PhD candidate, published an anthology of Downtown New York literature, and collaborated on an art book with Matthew Barney, to name a few of his many projects. He’s also worked at a gas station, lived in a closet, and played in “a bad instrumental post-punk band.”

Stosuy is a co-organizer of Basilica SoundScapes, happening this weekend in Hudson, NY. In anticipation of the festival we talked about his creative life, how his interests in writing and event curation influence each other, his kids, and more. Here is our whole conversation.

How did you get interested in punk and art as a kid growing up in New Jersey?

When I was young, my best friend’s name was Pete. He and I discovered punk together. He had an older sister who lent us a 7 Seconds cassette. We were already not interested in things other people our age were doing, and we were learning how to play guitars.  Those tapes opened us up to new things. We would read the “thank yous” and look for the bands they mentioned. We’d buy Youth of Today cassettes and Minor Threat 7-inches and slowly learn more about it ourselves. It was before the internet so it really was a lot of stumbling and false starts.

I grew up in the country. My parents had been from Brooklyn and Queens but they wanted to have more space. My mom had two horses. I had all of this space, I had room, so I thought, I should do something with it. So when I was in middle school and into hardcore, I started inviting hardcore bands to play there. We borrowed the PA from a friend, there was no stage. Just 30 people watching these old hardcore bands cover Youth of Today. It was kind of awkward.

By the time we got to high school, we were still into hardcore but we’d also discovered Sonic Youth and Dinosaur. We had a band and covered Black Flag songs, but we started getting more into artier things, like the Pixies. The first actual CD I bought was Doolittle.

Then in high school, I started doing a zine. I would see them at hardcore shows. It was freshman year. My friend Josh and I did a zine called Nasal Spray. My dad was always using nasal spray. He always had a stuffed nose. It was kind of a joke on him.

Then Josh and I started having differences of opinion, so we went our separate ways. I didn’t agree with his politics so we broke off and splintered into two different zines. It turned out he was super religious and anti-abortion.

I named my zine White Bread. It was about growing up in this small white-trash town. Initially the zine was just reviews and music-oriented, but it slowly became just me writing about myself and what I was doing. I would try to write without editing it. I would just write stuff and type it up and put it immediately into the zine.

I knew this kid who did No Longer A Fan Zine in Philadelphia, and told me, “You can send copies to Tower Records and they’ll distribute it.” So I sent them a sample copy and they were like, “Yeah, we’ll take 300.” So then it became this thing where people started writing to me, and I’d start trading zines and cassettes with people. The whole culture popped up around me from that, and a lot of the people I met, I’m still friends with now.

The zine really took off so I kept doing it through college. By college I had also started a label called Sweet Babboo. I went to college at Rutgers in New Brunswick. For me, having grown up in such a small town without much access to anything, New Brunswick felt like this huge thing. I could walk half a mile and go to a show. Eventually I lived in a house with a bunch of people and we started doing shows in our basement. It was pretty sporadic, but The Softies played there, and Crayon.

New Brunswick was really exciting to me, just being there and seeing a lot of these older bands. In retrospect maybe a lot of them were pretty bad, but at the time they seemed amazing. I worked in this local record store all through college called Cheap Thrills.

What were you studying?

I studied English and journalism. I was way more interested in the English part of it.  Through college I was the editor of the music section of the school paper. I had written a couple of brief, pretty bad reviews, but they were enthusiastic I guess. The guy who was the music editor was leaving, and he just could tell that for my age I knew a lot about music, so he asked me if I would want to be the music editor.

I kind of felt like that was more of my journalism major. It was hands on and learning on the job. It forced me how to figure out how to do things pretty quickly. Learning to assign things, finding the right writers. It also just made my writing better. My writing was super long-winded and over the top and way too rambly.

By the time I got out of college, I felt like I didn’t really know enough stuff to get a job. I didn’t want a job.I had been in a pretty bad band in college, it was a noise band, and we had done a split with Noggin, this Bellingham band featuring Michael Griffin, a violinist who became a mentor to me in college. He was in his 60s and still doing this stuff. It showed me a path to being able to do that. He was also in that Kill Rock Stars band Behead the Prophet. He was sort of my idol at that age.

My band had played a show in Portland, and I liked Portland, so after school I decided I was going to move there. I just wanted to write and not know too many people. In New Brunswick, I knew I would just be going to shows every night and not focus. So I moved to Portland in this overtly romantic way. I had a cargo van and moved with just what I could fit in the van. I didn’t have a bed or anything. I moved there with a sleeping bag and my desk was made out of milk crates. It was pretty bad.

My friend Eric who was in Noggin, he let me stay with him for a few months. He had a big closet that I lived in and he didn’t charge me rent. He worked at Odwalla, the juice company, so he would bring me all of the day-old juices and that’s what I subsisted on. It was this very bare-bones existence.

When I was in college, after the record shop got shut down and turned into a Sam Goody, I went and worked at Borders. So when I moved to Portland I was able to transfer to the Portland Borders. Which was good because no one goes to Borders in Portland, they all go to Powell’s. It was a super relaxed atmosphere and my manager was this guy from this band Bugskull that I really liked and he would encourage us to steal books. I was in charge of the political science section so I would just make these big Noam Chomsky displays and sit there.

After I’d been living with Eric for a while, I stayed with my friend Matthew who was in this band New Bad Things. I slept on his couch, and then I stayed with my friend Jeff who ran this amazing cassette label. But eventually I knew I had to get my own place, so I got an apartment with my friend Amy. But it was a one bedroom. She got the bedroom and I just slept in the living room. Again I just had a sleeping bag. I did that for maybe like nine months.

Then I met this woman from Calgary through my zine, and we started dating so I snuck into Canada and lived there for a couple of years. It was pre-9/11 so you could just drive across the border. I had my cat with me too. And a van full of stuff. I lived with her for a couple of years. The zine stopped at that point. Initially I didn’t work, I would just go to the library every day and read, and go to the pawn shop and sell a guitar, or sell an amplifier. Then I worked at a gas station. Once I moved to Canada and was living in an actual real apartment with furniture, I realized I kind of missed that. It’s actually kind of nice to have an actual bed.

At that point, I was doing all of this reading on my own and was kind of all over the place. I realized I should go to grad school and focus my reading and writing. My friend Kate who I knew from Borders—she was older and had been a librarian and knew every writer—would recommend writers to me and she knew I liked Samuel Delaney. She said to me, “Samuel Delaney is teaching in Buffalo now, you should go to Buffalo.”

So I went to SUNY Buffalo. It ended up being cool because it’s a very cheap place to live and a lot of people are doing stuff there. There was this place called Squeaky Wheel, an independent media center where you could make videos and rent out cameras. I started working with Tony Conrad on his public access show. I helped him film it. I was in a really bad instrumental post-punk band called Tree Line Highway. The bassist, his girlfriend Leah ran an art space—actually, the project I did in Troy last weekend with Prurient and Matthew Barney was at the space that Leah runs now.

I was going to get a PhD, but then I realized I didn’t want to be a teacher necessarily. I was going for literature. I originally wanted to study James Joyce, but once I got there I realized, there are already so many books on him. It seemed boring. Then I started reading a lot of Kathy Acker, and for a while I was going to do something on Kathy Acker. But then I discovered Dennis Cooper and really had this strong connection with his work.

So I ended up doing my grad work on Dennis Cooper, which was cool, because he’s still alive, and I was able to have back-and-forths with him. I wrote him via email and he was excited about it. In his mind, he was always wrote about as “a gay author” and he just wanted to be seen as “an author”. He saw I was coming at it from a different angle and was very receptive to helping me out.

Dennis taught me a lot. He is an anarchist and would tell me things like, “If you have power, you should immediately disperse it.” So I’ve always tried to do that, to help people, if I have a position to do so. He totally did that to me. When I told him I was going to leave my PhD program and move to New York, he helped me out. NYU had just purchased a bunch of his archives and Dennis told them, “I’ll send you the rest of the archives if you hire this guy to archive them.” So he got me a job at NYU.

Then I was working in the NYU archive 3 days/week, but thinking I wanted to get back to writing, so I slowly started freelancing. At first nobody got back to me. But eventually I started writing for the Village Voice, and Time Out, and Pitchfork. As that work increased, I was able to do less stuff at NYU.

Around that time, I went to Oslo to cover Oya festival for Pitchfork and while I was there I met Amrit from Stereogum. We got along very well and when I got back they had just gotten some investments. At the time Pitchfork was super small. We got paid like 10 bucks for a review. Stereogum was like, “We really like you, we just got all of this investment money, we want to hire you and give you a salary and health care.” So I went there for a few years. It just wasn’t the right fit for me—I’m not really a blogger.

One night, I was at Jessica Suarez’s going away dinner. I really liked working with her at Stereogum. I was checking emails on the walk home and saw I had one from Mark Richardson that said, “Hey can I talk to you about something?” And we talked on the phone the next day and he asked me to come work for them and offered me a salary. So I just jumped ship.

Just to backtrack a little bit, what drew you to Dennis Cooper?

He’s a Los Angeles writer but he lives in Paris now, because his boyfriend is Russian and he couldn’t get an American visa. So they ended up settling in Paris. He’s been there for the last few years. I think in Paris he’s more respected; he’s compared to William Burroughs, whereas here he was always marginalized.

His writing is super intense and pared down, which is what always appealed to me about it. I always liked that about Hemingway, but Cooper wrote about subject matter I could see myself in to a degree. He was writing about like kids at shows, people hanging out listening to Joy Division. It struck a chord with me.

When I first wrote to him I was a little nervous because so much of his stuff was so realistic and intense and violent. As I read more of it, I realized it had this romanticism to it. The more I talked to him, he told me about this boy he was friends with when he was young named George Miles. They were friends, and he sort of loved George, but they lost contact. He started writing all of these books about George. There’s this 5-book series called The George Miles Series and that’s mostly what I wrote about. When he published the fourth book, he found out that George had actually committed suicide. So the last book of the series is this super skeletal, emptied out book with no emotion to it. I bought all 5 and read them over a few days and was blown away by it—the personal nature reminded me of zine making to a degree.

I visited him in LA once at his house. He’s helped a lot of young artists, so he has all of this amazing LA art and a tree branch growing through the window in his apartment. He’s always just wearing the same grubby black mock turtleneck with a hole in it.

He has always championed young writers in a big way. Sara who is reading at Basilica, he’s really helped out with her writing a lot. He’s also into bands—he loves Iceage. Part of it I know must be because Elias could be a character in one of his books.

His writing to me is very blunt and chiseled down, and when I started working at NYU I had a chance to study his manuscripts and saw how it was really a process of subtraction. He would just keep removing words. He created these scrapbooks for each book, of images he would cut out from teen magazines. He’d cut out images of what he wanted characters in his books to look like. And he’d write text about them and make these weird collages. I remember this one collage of a kid sitting on a cake with a gun in his mouth. Stuff like that. Some of them were less nihilistic, and more beautiful.

While I was at Buffalo I went down to NYU a few times, and would just look at the manuscripts. That’s what got me – it all seemed very simple, but it was very complex. It was not trying to be shocking. It felt very honest to me. It didn’t feel like he was trying to freak people out, it was just what he needed to write about.

I did a conference while I was in Buffalo and I had Dennis come read, and Eileen Myles; writers who were part of this whole ‘new narrative’ scene and also younger writers who were inspired by them. As a kind of a hilarious side note to that—I had become friends with Matt from The National during that time period, and ended up booking The National to play at this really small conference. Dennis Cooper read and then The National played, which is hilarious in retrospect. I thought Dennis would be into it but he was like, “ehhh.”

I read somewhere that during grad school you were working on a novel. Are you still working on it?

It’s kind of in a scrap heap, at this point. All of these other shows and projects have gotten in the way, but I see them as the path is presenting itself now. I’ll return to it eventually. I have done some books though. Matthew Barney and I have done a book together, of more zine-type stuff. We’re working on another one now of his art and my writing, based on the art installation we did up in Troy a few weeks ago.

I was also asked to write a children’s book for Simon & Schuster. They have a children’s imprint called Little Simon. It’s for ages 0-5. I have a 2 year old and a 5 year old, so it’s perfect. It’s about music. It’s called “Music IS…” and it’s teaching kids about music, but also about opposites. “Music is loud, music is soft.” Things like that. We’re just figuring out the illustrator now. The guy who runs the imprint is this guy Jeff who I sort of knew because he used to be in that hardcore band The Orchid. So, it’s another one of those funny, full-circle things.

My way of thinking is, when things like that present themselves, I think you just need to follow them …if you get too intense about, “I need to just focus on this one thing!” all of the time, then you’re missing all of these other things. Eventually I will probably return to writing a novel, and when I do return, maybe I’ll just be better at writing.

What else appeals to you about being the sort of person who is ‘always working on multiple projects at once’?

I think part of why I work that way is because I used to spend too much time on things. But often my initial impulse was the best one. A lot of my early reviews for Pitchfork were so bad because I would overthink them. Now I’ve become more comfortable with my writing voice, and more comfortable with decision making on shows and events.

It’s good to just get an initial idea out. And then you can refine it. The thing that I did up in Troy with Matthew, the initial idea I had was totally different from what it became. But we were like, “let’s just get the main ideas out” and then move on to something else. So because I removed myself for a while, I could come back at it and see, “This is what I need to do.”  It’s kind of like problem solving. Not fixating on the same thing kind of allows you to see it from a different perspective. It’s like when you’re editing your own work, and you come back and realize you missed all of these things. It allows me to see things fresh constantly because I’m not just always focused on one thing. So for me, it’s helpful to juggle a few things because you can return from a different path.

I feel like working with lots of different mediums allows you to have ideas, and then just connect with people in different ways.

Totally. There’s a certain strain of music writers who are so narrow-focused—like the kind of person you’ll walk up to, and they’ll ask you, “SO what are your top 10 rap albums of the year?” I’ve never really identified with that. I’ve always seen myself as a person who writes about music, but also does all of these other things too. I don’t want to have that narrow of a focus because I like coming into contact with different kinds of people and ideas. A lot of the people I think of as close friends have nothing to do with music, which is nice, friends who are visual artists or involved in other worlds. It’s nice to have friends who just don’t even really know what Pitchfork is.

Samuel Delaney, who originally I went to SUNY Buffalo to work with, wrote this book called Time Square Red, Time Square Blue, which was about the gentrification of Time Square. For him it was a huge place where people would come together and have these interactions. In that book he talks about the difference between contact and networking. He thinks networking is this kind of poisonous thing where you go to a conference and give someone your business card. And contact is more—when you share interests, or you’re working on projects and you meet someone new and develop these meaningful relationships.

For me, I enjoy that, being surrounded by people who you’re actually making these lasting connections versus like—people who are just trying to rise up and promote themselves in this false, really empty way. When you meet people, you can tell when their interests are pure, and it’s easier to be friends with those sorts of people versus people who are clearly just trying to get something out of you.

You come from a world of punk and DIY, a realm that values autonomy—how do you reconcile that with wanting to get shit done, having goals and ambitions?

When we were doing stuff in college, music was so different. No brands were interested in what we were doing. It was never like, “Hey TopMan wants to come and sponsor your DIY show!” It wasn’t an issue because it wasn’t happening.

As I’ve gotten older, some of this stuff I still turn down because it just seems wrong. For Basilica, we’ve been approached about things that just don’t feel right—like Red Bull. That’s just not what we want to do. I’d rather Basilica be this sort of thing where every time someone buys a ticket, that’s how we are covering the costs. And as a result, we’re getting bands who understand where we’re coming from, and are understanding of the spirit of it.

Sometimes, for Pitchfork, the things I book will be sponsored by a brand. For those, I see it as different because I’m doing it for work. If it’s my own thing I’m doing on the side it’s different. Basilica doesn’t have any sponsors, the Tinnitus series doesn’t have any sponsors. Sometimes you just need money to get a project done but I feel lucky that I’ve been able to avoid it in my own personal pursuits.

For a while, though, I was doing this series of metal shows with Scion. They would give me money for each show. For a while Scion was into metal for some reason. It wasn’t a lot of money but I could book these really small bands and they would give me $500 and I could completely cover a band’s travel costs to drive here from, say, Virginia. I saw that as a good use of funds because all I had to do was put out a table of Scion socks. I didn’t have to put their logo on the flyer or anything. All of these metal people at these shows thought it was hilarious. I don’t understand what Scion got out of it quite honestly. It seemed ok to me. It just felt like some extra money to pay the bands.

I’ve never made money off of Basilica. I like doing it. If we got a sponsor, I probably would be able to make money off of it. But I’d rather keep it how it is and break even, as long as I’m not losing money. I’m lucky that I have a day job and can do that and it balances out.

I personally feel like—it can be okay to do those sorts of things for work, if it allows you to keep doing your own projects on the side and maintain a balance. I remember you used to do a column on band’s day jobs for Stereogum, and it seeming like you are interested in the relationship between “music” and “work”.

I’ve always had jobs. When I was 13 I had my first job working at a blueberry farm. And then I worked at a convenience store, and later I worked at a gas station in Canada. I always saw work as something that’s just there—I was never just like, getting a check in the mail. Most of my friends in bands always had to work too. I remember when I was younger, my friend Kurt who was in the band Lilys, he got one of his songs in a Calvin Klein ad, and he got a check in the mail, and we were all like… “What??” We all had jobs.

I think about how even someone like Franz Kafka would work during the day and write at night. Or like, the way that Raymond Carver was a security guard. He wrote short stories because he only had so much time on his breaks. I’ve always really liked thinking about the way time shapes work. For me, having two kids now, my time is so scarce, it’s changed the way I think and the way I write.

I do think—having jobs, having to interact with the world in that way—for me, it makes music stronger. Sometimes I’ll be a bit negative about things. One time I tweeted that I would never hire someone as a manager if they had never had a minimum wage job. I think you have to have known that sort of struggle in order to know how to tell someone what to do. I was having this discussion with my friend Summer the other day, who runs the production for Basilica. We were having this conversation about “humble hustlers,” people who are humble and chill, but get a lot done, versus people who are loud mouths. And about how people who have known what it’s like to deal with the service industry have a better view of the world. I think I maybe trust those people’s work more.

When you really like a band, how do you decide whether to write about them or to book them a show?

I’ve been having that problem recently. I love Deafheaven. I didn’t know them when I first heard their music. But now I’ve done so much with them, I’m become friends with them. So now I can’t write about them anymore. It kind of sucks because I actually have a lot to say about it, but I just can’t at this point. I love Rabit, but the person who runs their label is one of my best friends. In that situation, I can’t write about them, but I can say, “Hey Rabit, come play this show…”

What are you going to do with all of your ideas about Deafheaven?

I’ll tweet them. Or I’ll have my son Henry write about them instead. He’s really into Deafheaven. My other son, Jake, his favorite band is the Ramones.

How has being a parent changed your approach to your creative life?

The first thing is—there’s way less time. It’s definitely made me focus on only taking project that I really especially want to do. My wife, Jane, and I talk a lot about how having these two little characters around helps us see a lot of stuff that we would overlook normally. They make us stop and just—witness. They’re learning about stuff, and we’re kind of watching them learn. It’s magic in a lot of ways. The way Henry hears music seems very profound to me. They’ve definitely inspired a lot of my projects. There’s no way I’d be doing a kids book otherwise. Henry reads constantly. He reads like 20 books a day.

Having them go to Troy to watch Prurient perform was cool.  Because they’ve grown up with Matthew, they thought his piece there was hilarious, because it was Matthew bouncing on a trampoline. To them, they don’t see him as Matthew Barney, they see him as Matthew who they’ve known since they were two  days old. They’re just like, “Why’s Matthew doing that?” It takes you out of your headspace.

Taking them to see Bjork at Carnegie Hall was the same thing. When we got there, Henry was like, “Are these all Bjork’s friends?” He was like, “woah,” and I was like, “no people pay to see her perform,” and he was like, “…..really?” When she came out onto the stage he was like, “Look she’s doing a funny dance.” He just sees her as a nice friend of ours, so to watch him watch her perform was cool. Jake just slept the whole time.

Jake’s new thing is—the other day he was like, “Dad have you heard the Ramones?” and I was like, “yeah,” and he was like, “no you haven’t.” Even at two years old, kids always think they know more than  their parents.

I have way less time now than I used to, but I think I use the time way more wisely. It’s made me better at saying no to things. I realize I can’t do everything, and I have to prioritize. It encourages you to do more—you feel refreshed. You have these people who you are teaching the world to, so it makes you feel inspired to do more stuff.