Earlier this year, Travis Fristoe and Aaron Cometbus released Radon – a book that offers a local take on the popular 33 1/3 book series about popular albums, with two extended essays on what else – Radon. The authors delve into their first experiences hearing the influential Gainesville band’s music and what it means to them today. It’s a fun read that pulls apart some of Radon’s lyrics and adds context to their active days of playing shows in Gainesville. I sat down with Travis a while back to chat about the book and about Radon. We talked about everything else as well, so this interview has been edited down a bit for length and staying-on-topicness. You can pick up a copy of Radon at No Idea Records or look for it in independent book stores.
Radon is playing at Boca Fiesta this Saturday. It’s a benefit to help cover costs associated with heart surgery for drummer Bill Clower’s daughter. Not to be missed! You can read more and donate here.
How did the idea for the book come about?
I’ve known Aaron (Cometbus) for a while now and he would always, always ask me about Radon. This happened over a good number of years. So, I said, “Aaron why don’t you just write a book about Radon?” And he responded, “No, I think you should write a book about Radon.” Then, finally, I said, “Ok, let’s each write about Radon.”
I had a very different idea about the project. Particularly about interviewing the band. He immediately said no. No band, particularly Radon can’t see themselves objectively. That was his logic. Understandable. Same with objectivity.
What was your idea in interviewing them? Was it going to be more of a biographical type thing?
My idea was loose, amorphous. My memories of seeing Radon are vivid. My ideal interview is to sit down with them with the list of rumors.
How did it come into this book form, the 45 rpm series?
Aaron makes Cometbus (his own very successful fanzine that he self-publishes). He has a printer that he likes in New York. The book makes a Radon type of sense. And isn’t an official part of the 33 1/3 book series. Just as Radon occupies a funny space in punk and Gainesville history. Their record is a 45, not a 33, so both are much shorter. The John Darnielle one (in the 33 1/3 series) about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality is perfect. I will say that.
I haven’t read them, I actually didn’t know about them until I saw that this was kind of a parody of the 33 1/3 in a way.
Parody, homage, just a design format…
Yeah, I mean loose, not like a scathing type parody.
Hopefully covered under copyright laws!
Were you somewhat concerned about infringement or something?
I had a little more anxiety because I used my legal name. It seems far-fetched, but who knows? I was more worried that any Radon member (or anyone mentioned in the book) would be angry about something one of us had written.
I didn’t see anything too inflammatory. Did you see them here a lot? (I interviewed Travis at Boca Fiesta, which used to be the Hardback in Radon’s active days.)
I did. Here and at the old Covered Dish. There was another band, Spoke, from the same time. They were the only two bands that I really knew and followed. I thought, in a ridiculous, inexperienced way, that these guys were in bands. Now everyone’s in five bands. Nothing against that! But back then, even the idea of going to Miami to play a show was mind-blowing.
You said the Fest changed Gainesville’s parameters of what local bands might expect and what success entailed. Did bands expect anything then? Do they now?
This was also when No Idea was in Var’s living room. There were big parties to stuff 7”s into the zines. None of it could ever felt like it could evolve into a job. Even something like the success of Nirvana and Green Day felt like a fluke.
Now we’re on FEST 10 or 11? People know Gainesville because of the FEST. Even though there’s a million other bands doing different stuff.
You said that you moved to Gainesville when you were 17, was that for college?
It was, nothing special. I didn’t graduate early or anything. All-ages shows were a big deal. Spoke and Radon played those sort of shows, so that was really encouraging. When I moved here the bands were grungy and Melvins-esque. Scary older dudes.
I was talking to Var for an article a while back and he kind of talked about that. He said that he was a certain age in Gainesville, he liked to go to shows, but he was too young for the crowd that was the scene in the late ‘80s and then when Spoke and Radon happened he was their age, so he was like, “Whoa, these guys are awesome.”
Exactly! Everything changed. A groundswell. Most people here graduate and move away. With the Radon record — their songs are so enmeshed with those shows that I thought the record couldn’t hold up. Actually, before Aaron and I started the book, I was a little worried about listening to the record! But, no, it’s so much better than I remembered. So much richer.
Do you have a favorite Radon song?
Aaron completed his essay first and wrote about “Grandma’s Cootie.” That song stuck with me, then and now. The idea of this grandmother on the rollercoaster! How can you have a chorus that champions things like loneliness and death? And to make it – and sorry if I sound like a bad version of myself in the book – but Radon somehow make the scene sound triumphant. Then the further layers of listening to the record alone instead of with a room full of dancing maniacs. To answer your question, I’d say that “Science Fiction” is my favorite Radon song. I likely focused on Dave’s songs over Brent’s in the book, so I’m
glad Aaron talked more about those.
Had you not listened to the record in a long time?
Yeah. Not out of a conscious boycott, but in the intervening years, I worked at Wayward Council record store for 10-plus years. I worked at No Idea. And I would buy records every time I went on tour, so the number of records that grew around the Radon LP turned into shelves upon shelves.
In the back of the book it says you play in Reactionary 4 but I thought the name of your band was Reactionary 3.
It is, but we always joked that our friend Mary (from Little Rock who always took us on tour in her van) was the fourth member. None of Aaron’s bands are real either… My friend Caroline, when she saw the back of the back, was like, I don’t get any of this, is this whole thing a joke?
Ha, did it throw off your credibility?
I didn’t know how to answer that. It just seemed the only appropriate response to Aaron’s bio.
You mentioned going on tour.
Reactionary 3 did a bunch of tours and that was great. I went with Fiya a few times, including a great summer with Against Me! that was lovely. Then we met up with them again on a Reactionary 3 Euro tour.
Who played in Reactionary 3 with you?
Ryan Quinney who bartenders here. He drummed in Fiya and now in Holopaw (and Careeners) and then Mikey Stoltz who’s in film school in LA now.
You’re playing in die hoffnung now?
I am. They’ve always been one of my favorite bands – any of Jim and Jon’s (Marburger) bands. They asked me a couple of years ago to join. Since they’re siblings who’ve played together for many, many years, I was a little worried, but it’s going really well. They’re both working parents so we’re on a different schedule but I still love it.
Some of the things that you mentioned in the book kind of reflect and compliment the quirkiness in Radon’s lyrics about Florida. You mentioned sinkholes, right after I read the book was when that huge sinkhole swallowed a man (in Tampa).
That was harrowing.
I know, it’s awful. You also wrote a word I don’t think I’ve seen before that I had to look up.
Do you know what it is? Do you remember using some 100 dollar words?
I use a lot of pretentious words. I’m an English major.
It was mondegreens.
Oh, I’m gonna take no credit. There’s a local band, Nervous Systems, with a song called “Mondegreens.” Joe explained to me that mondegreens are misheard rock lyrics.
And you had one in here! “Away from big Doritos and banditos.”
Yep. Wendy, Dave’s wife, busted me on that. It’s actually “big egos.” It wasn’t intentional, that’s how I always heard it.
Were there any other ones that you’ve discovered?
No. Neither Bill, Dave, or Brent (or even Jeff London) have said, “you got it really wrong,” which I’m grateful for. Thanks, guys!
Obviously Dave and Bill were at the book release event; have you heard from those guys since they’ve had a chance to read it?
I reached out to Brent and Jeff London just to make sure they had a copy of the book. That stuff seems so important. It’s weird enough mentioning someone in a book, but to make sure that you give them a copy, just seems basic journalistic ethics.
You mentioned Jeff London and I assume that’s the Jeff you referred to here in the book, and is that the Jeff who is on the cover?
Yes. Small town.
I know him, I don’t know him personally, but I know him as the
singer of Fay Wray and King Friday. What is his involvement or relationship with Radon? I assumed they know each other, but you said it like he’s a deeper…
He was always at the shows, he always had the mic, he’s the one who explained different aspects of Radon to me, and I guess he collaborated on some of the lyrics. So, in that way, that seems significant. I never saw him play music with them, but inevitably within any band there are people heavily linked.
And King Friday has a song called “I Wish I Was in Radon.” Have you heard that?
I don’t know that I have, but…wow.
It’s on the last album that came out a few years ago, it’s a funny song.
I bet. Jeff’s a hell of a lyric writer.
It’s good. They have a deeper connection than I knew then. Who’s Pablo?
Pablo’s a good friend. He’s also from South Florida but a bit younger. That really is him on the cover, shirking. Pablo also plays in Nervous Systems. When the Radon record came out, I was like, “Pablo, you’re on the cover!” And he said, “I was so scared I was going to get hit with that mic!”
It’s a small book (44 pages), but there was a significant section in my essay where I did visual analysis of the pictures. But in Aaron and I going back and forth editing, he was like, “Man, no no no!” Would that have made any difference? I don’t know.
You talked about in the song “Radon” about the “bad things” and likened it to a horror movie. I’ve kind of gotten that from a few of their songs. It’s not outright, but it’s almost like a horror show on the verge of some kind of sinister vibe.
To me, it touches on two things. Horror movies and poetry, I think both depend on a mystery and lurking things. Dark shadows, or hints of dread. And also open interpretation, things so horrible that you can only talk about them in these weird ways.
That might be what it is, questions presented that aren’t answered. The lyrics and imagery in “Facial Disobedience,” are so bizarre, in my interpretation anyway, it’s like an early Tim Burton movie.
It is! The backdrop of the first Iraq war is important to factor. At least for me and my friends, in order to get financial aid we had to sign up for selective service, so we were like, “Damn, if we get called up are we going to go or are we going to let the other people fight.” I knew I wanted to stay in Gainesville and see Radon! I don’t want to go die somewhere in a pointless war.
You said your part of the book could have easily been about a few other bands.
I don’t know don martin 3.
That’s likely a wingnut theory I have of like generations of bands and genealogy. First was Spoke and Radon, then Palatka and Don Martin 3, who were from St. Augustine. They played here often and only released one 7” and one 12”. When I went to London to work in a library, the first show I went to someone was like, “You’re from Gainesville, what do you know about don martin 3?” They’re not even a Gainesville band. But there are no real pictures on their records. To some people their record is way too emotionally raw, but there’s a lot of true believers out there who still feel it. They, much like Radon, went on one bad luck tour.
What happened with the Radon tour? I’ve heard about as much as you said in your book about that tour where they got in an accident, I’ve heard about that much before and that’s it. Like you said, nobody talks about it.
There was a time, as I mentioned, when I wanted to ask, but that’s not part of the book. Matt (Sweeting) knows some things.
He might have been the one who mentioned it to me in passing.
I heard someone was hurt and I knew that they were going to play with Archers of Loaf. Those are the things that stuck with me. Would the band have stopped anyway? Was this their one shot at fame? All that’s like fantasy baseball, some speculation that doesn’t mean much in the present.
Yeah. That kind of stuff is kind of fun in a way to have a little bit of myth and questions around bands.
Sure, at the library we had cartoonist John Porcellino visit. We started talking about the Replacements and he’s from the Midwest. He swears that Paul Westerberg encouraged Bob Stinson’s drinking. I’m like, “I’ve never heard that, it’s got to be a myth.” But maybe it’s true, you’re never going to parse that.
You said you’d like to do more of this stuff in the future. Do you think you would do more of these?
I did really mean if there’s another co-author that wanted to do it, that I would love to write about any of those albums mentioned at the end of the book.
Since this has been published, do you have any regrets like, “I wish I had mentioned that,” or, “I wish I had said this differently,” or anything like that?
No. It’s funny, I hear my friends that draw comics say they work so hard and so long on something and then somebody can read it in an hour. Now I understand! Or the time it takes to make and produce an album, and then anyone can listen to it as you cook some pasta. So, seeing how small the book is doesn’t correspond in my mind (with the amount of work). No regrets!
Interview by Matt Walker, photo by Amy Trachtman