interviews with zinesters – karl erickson and gretchen larsen

Note – I am slowly going through and cleaning up my folders on our hard drive. I just came across a bunch of old interviews I did with people while I was a journalism student at Columbia College Chicago. I think this interview is from an article I was working on for a magazine writing class. I am not sure. I only vaguely remember working on this project. You can tell from my repeated questions that I had some thesis that I was trying to cover, but I can’t remember what it was specifically. I think they are from 1999. At that time, I was a dumb kid, so I probably didn’t appreciate the time that these people took to answer the questions. But I do now. Thank you very much to Andrew Scott, Dan Sinker, Matt Cordell, Karl Erickson, Gretchen Larsen, Julie Halpern and Katherine Raz. If you are one of the interviewees and want your interview taken down, please let me know. I am putting them here for posterity and nerdy archival reasons.

Karl Erickson and Gretchen Larsen – Cakewalk

Why did you start Cakewalk? What made you decide to do it? Was there some event or some thing that made you want to do it? What were your goals? What did you hope to accomplish? Do you feel like you’re filling a void in Chicago’s zine scene?

Karl Erickson: Mari Eastman, Elliot Joslin, Liz Mayer and myself started Cakewalk a few years ago. Mari, Liz and I all worked at another art magazine and, I at least, felt a bit of dissatisfaction about content. Not that that magazine was doing anything wrong, they were and are serving their audience just great. But I wanted to see different stuff and I wanted to have more of a decision making role. Plus, I thought it would make me look cool. I’m really not sure why anyone else has joined on, other to bask in the warm glow of the Cakewalk machine.

Gretchen Larsen: Yes, the glowing machine was definitely a draw, but for me it was an opportunity to do some cool design. We all have a very similar aesthetic, attitude and sense of humor, so it’s way more fun to produce something with your good friends than for your no-good, unimaginative boss.

KE: But what I think what really started it was that Mari and I were having an unsupervised, over-caffeinated day and decided to do it. Our goals are to, from my point of view, continue to have artists and people interested in art talk about this interest and their other interests. It builds a sense of community and, I hope, allows people to get to know each other outside of more professionally orientated magazines. I like to see people talk about whatever in a more informal, but still critical way. Also, the more strange drawings we can publish, the better.

As for filling a void in the Chicago zine scene, I’d say sure we do. I only know of a couple other art magazines in Chicago and each has their own flavor.

How long ago did you start Cakewalk? Is it your first zine? Were there other zines, are there other zines that you work on?

KE: I think Cakewalk started in 1998, but it may have been 1997. It comes out very sporadically. All of us have worked on a variety of magazines.

How large is your operation? Do you employ anybody? Is it mainly just you? How do you feel about that?

KE: We have a revolving cast, but there is a 5 or 6 person core (Steve Anderson, Mari Eastman, Gretchen Larsen, Liz Mayer, Josh Rothkopf on drums and myself.) We don’t pay anyone, though I have used some of our advertising money for bus fare. I would love to make money and pay people, but I’d also like to be Hugh Hefner.

GL (Designer & Karl’s girlfriend): The hell you would!

Is everyone friends? Is it larger than when you started?

KE: We are all friends and the great thing is that we get to be friendly with the writers and artists involved. It is larger now in that we actually get around internationally. People are always saying Oh, I saw you in Singapore or UNICEF was including issues in a drop. Kind of surprising, really.

Do you think of your zine as a Chicago art magazine or an art magazine that happens to be in Chicago? Why?

KE: Definitely an art magazine that is based in Chicago. And not even that too much, as our writers are from all over, Mari is in LA. There is so much complaining in Chicago, particularly in the art scene, that we don’t get enough attention, blah blah blah and one of the things I think that Cakewalk does is just ignore the idea of regionalism. If it is good (or not good but we are interested in it) then it is in. This brings the world to us and us to the world.

Do you feel that there’s a sense of community among Chicago’s zinesters? Is it a strong community? Weak community? Do you feel that you’re part of it? How would you improve it?

KE: I really don’t know if there is a community among zine producers. If there is, I don’t feel part of it. That said, the folks at Quimby’s are very nice and supportive and I imagine are a focal point of the scene. Cakewalk is more centered in the art world then in a zine world, if there is one, so most of our contacts and sense of belonging are there. It would be interesting to hear how everyone else gets their magazines out in the world and into the hands of those who thirst for their brand of knowledge. But I hate group meetings. If somebody asked me to be part of the zine scene, I would say sure.

GL: I can’t say I really feel like we’re doing “‘zine” in the proper sense anyway. I’d say, rather, the “independent publishing” scene in Chicago has been pretty great, but I don’t know if I often feel part of a scene either. We all just sort of do our own thing and maybe run into each other every now and then. Karl mentioned Quimby’s, has picked up a few of our articles, Punk Planet has given some good advice, Reckless Records has been super nice to us – anyone interested in printed matter, really – which may or may not qualify as a community. The reaction has been pretty positive and most people are like This is cool, can I mention/sell you in my ‘zine/website/bookstore/shout from the rooftops? Everyone has been very giving and sharing and they play nicely with others.

Are you happy with how Cakewalk turned out? Is it what you had envisioned when you started it? How would you improve it? Where do you see yourself and your zine in five years?

KE: I am pretty happy with Cakewalk. I think it is great because sometimes it doesn’t make any sense and confuses me and sometimes it does make sense. I love our covers. I think Cakewalk has an internal logic that we just haven’t figured out yet. Oh, there could be all sorts of improvements. We could have more money, we could become “legit” and be business-y and probably have people give us money and it could be in color and have more than a thousand issues printed and people would turn stuff in on time and I could be super organized or hire organizing monkeys and actually present more new ideas to the world that make people think. In five years. Good God. If we are still around, it should be quarterly, at least, we should not be doing it from our mother’s basements or “borrowing” office supplies from other jobs, and have a nice website like and we should be able to impress people by saying I work on Cakewalk. And have meetings in hot tubs.

GL: It would be dreamy if we could make enough money to do it for a living. But it would probably take more than five years for that to happen. I could see it continuing casually as we have for another few years. Maybe more color, better print quality. But I can’t see the feel-good factor ever changing, I think that’s our biggest asset.

Is there a step by step process that you go through in putting together your zine? What is it? This includes everything, from brainstorming to final product and distribution.

KE: Kind of. First we talk loosely about what the magazine should be about. Then we take this loose idea and present it to different writers we are interested in who might be interested in us. Then we start to get in a few article suggestions and that usually spurs on other article ideas. Sooner or later we end up with most of the articles we need and we go about designing it. We usually have an internal theme that we work with that doesn’t really have anything to do with the article themes. For instance, last issue, a lot of the articles dealt with rebellion and the artists place in our society. But we decided that the internal theme would be all you can robot. Before that, it was country western. This just gives us the structure we need to have a cohesive design. So after it is all designed we send it out to be printed. Then we get it back, send some to our distributors, who take it and do something with it, I am not sure what. They don’t tell us. The rest we self-distribute, putting them on consignment and sending them to friends around the world. Probably the easiest thing to forget but the most important thing to do is send issues to people who are in the magazine or who have helped you out.

Has it changed since you put together your first issue? Is it smoother now? Is it always evolving or do you have it perfected?

KE: It is far from perfected, though we are moving away from doing the editing and designing at the same time. That is a recipe for pain. So, it is smoother.