Louis Black

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There is a man named Louis Black. Not the comedian…

Nobody ever says to me, “Oh, Louis Black, you’re the editor of the Chronicle.” Never. But what I do get, “Do you know there is a comedian that has your name?” I really hate that. I’m working on this, my comeback, because I’ve gotten nasty a couple of times.

Who wasn’t quite sure where he was headed…

I had no idea who I was until I was in my late 30s early 40s. I had no idea whether or not I was going to end up working in a convenience store because I don’t have normal skill sets. When I say no skill sets I mean none. My handwriting is illegible; I’m tone deaf; I’m not a sports person; I’m not an artist. Because of this, my ego was very shaky for a really long time. I was depressed for years because I didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up. And the shakier it is, the more scared you are, and the more you protect your little piece of land. And I was a moron. Early on in the Chronicle I had lunch with Greg Curtis, who was the editor of Texas Monthly at the time, and I said, “If the Chronicle folded you wouldn’t hire me, would you?” And he said, “No.”

But knew that he needed a place to speak his mind and engage the people...

If you’re not leading with your chin, why bother? If you’re not putting yourself on the line every day, if you stop caring, if you don’t live where there are going to be a certain amount of blows then why get up in the morning? I watch a lot of media that is just reinforced. I’m not looking for reinforcement. When the paper started we were punks. And then as it became more serious it was horrifying because there were certain things we couldn’t do when our endorsements began to count. The notion that people will follow you is not my idea of a good time.  Environmentalists could drive me crazy, liberals could drive me crazy. During the Bush years it was pointless to attack the left because it was impotent. Now I think the middle is really important and I’m interested to see what Obama can do. The times are horrible and depressing. I’m a full opportunity offender-I don’t pander to one group or the other.

And also share all there was to experience about music, art, and film…

It’s exciting to contribute to the culture and contribute to making the culture happen. The reason why Austin has such a great scene is that it’s covered. Even the Statesman covers it. Sometimes the radio stations cover it. There are lots of towns that would love to have a music scene like ours. I don’t believe that there is a great band in Austin that wasn’t recognized although I know there are a lot of bands that feel that way. I’m not saying we are always there ahead of the curve but I really think there are so many people in this town that love film and love music and love to think. The best thing in the world is to share something cool with other people; to drag friends to a band and have them be blown away-and this town is full of those people. I think in this community there aren’t secrets. There are so many people out there and they are writing for us or other publications.

The Chronicle grew, and so did his temper…

I used to blow up and scream at staff-I had a terrible temper. I used to think it was OK because the stakes were so high, because I was so passionate. And then I thought, Wait a second, here I am thinking I’m a good lefty; I’m a good boss. And when you work for someone that blows up all the time, even if they don’t blow up as much, if they blow up at all, you’re nervous all the time. How are they going to react? I realized I can’t be a boss this way. I don’t want people working in an environment that is tense all the time. It was about 15 years that we did the paper and it was finally then I got comfortable. Its’ one of those things that I’m always learning and the best thing you learn, is that you feel better.

And soon he was accused of mind control…

The thing that cracks me up about that is almost everything I do is to engage people intellectually and people will act like I’m telling them the truth so they are supposed to stop thinking. I wrote a column recently about conspiracy theory, which I’m not a fan of, and someone wrote, “So you want all your readers to stop thinking.” If anybody suffers from the delusion that most of the people that read me agree with what I say…I don’t. And I don’t want to. I would never be one of those right wing talk shows hosts who only want people to call them up and agree with them. It isn’t that I want people to disagree with me either, I just try and think about things and talk about them in an interesting way. I’ve been blessed with a medium in which to do that.

And became the guy to blame for, well, everything…

I realized that I’ve become this cardboard two-dimensional figure that has my name. Someone made fun of me because I was going around to doors picking up money which means I only care about money and don’t give a shit about the music. It wasn’t like I was up in the penthouse sipping champagne and hanging out with hookers-I’m on the streets working. I want to be intimate with it. In the early days I relished being attacked. But I’m painfully sincere. When I first discovered all this hostility online I tried to explain. And it does hurt my feelings. The way the paper worked in the early days Nick was the good cop and I was the bad cop. And I got used to that. And somewhere in the interim I got soft, maybe when I gave up my temper, when I stopped being angry all the time. To a remarkable extent when you read the gratuitous slams, it hurts. You don’t get a lot of compliments. I think there are people that feel good about who I am and what I’ve done but they aren’t going to write in. I’m this person that they love to hate.

He set his sights on creating a conference inspired by the city he loves…

This is Austin. When Orson Welles made Citizen Kane they asked him what movies he watched to prepare and he said, “Stagecoach, Stagecoach, Stagecoach.” Whenever anybody asks us what our secrets are for SXSW it is, “Austin, Austin, Austin.” I came here and I fell in love with this town. I’m still in love with this town and I channel that. It’s like when we were kids in our 20s: we would have dinner, go listen to music until 2, we had a projector at home so we’d go watch movies after that or go write-to me that’s what SXSW is. It captures that experience.

And made it for the people…

Even when you have as many bands as we have now, some phenomenal percentage of those sets, those bands, are at their best because they know they’ve got 40 minutes and all these people have come out. There are so many ways that SXSW can help you but I think the most common and consistent is when some band gets blown away by some other band and then tells all the people they know. I think it’s about community. I think it’s totally about community and it’s about collaboration. And people that get off on the culture. It’s not about star trips. All of our parties are open to everybody-some might be just for filmmakers or musicians, but they are still about community. People hang out.

I still live for that moment when I hear an album or see something or read something that just blows my mind. I think that’s true for so many people. I think people live to see the moment with the band they love, or have that moment when the electricity just hits you. Sometimes you’re listening to a song on the radio and it just blows you away and then other times you’ll be listening and it just doesn’t. It’s not as dynamic. But at some point you’ll listen to it again and it will. “Heat Wave” is one of those songs. I can listen to that song 40 times and it won’t do anything for me and then the 41st, I’m just there. There are so many songs like that. At SXSW I think so many people are having such a good time and it is reflected in what happens.

And by the people. A lot of people and a lot of work…

Sometimes the people I work on all year to get to come, I don’t ever get to meet. As Roland Swenson says, “SXSW is not for you.” We’re so into making sure it works right. There is nothing that makes me happier than a filmmaker or a band or a speaker that has a great experience and there is nothing more depressing than if something goes wrong and they are bummed. It’s about logistics. We are always going over details-we are obsessed with making it work right. That’s literally what everybody is concentrating on because that’s what makes the experience.

One year Woody Harrelson was there with us. He operates on what Ron Mann calls “Woody time”. We were supposed to go to this party and he kept taking us to different places. Finally I lost it and left him somewhere to go to this party. He shows up about 20 minutes later and he stays there and talks to everybody that wants to talk to him. And once again, I’m the dope. He might have gotten there a little late but he was wonderful. I get so wrapped up sometimes I can’t see the forest through the trees. For years, I would walk into a screening and there would be 50 people there for a film I was really excited we had and I would be so bummed. And then I would see the filmmaker and I would go over and apologize and he or she would invariably say, “No, that was the best screening I ever had.” Because they weren’t getting more than 50 people anywhere else and the questions were so great. You would think if this happens again and again you would notice it but I was so obsessed with what was going wrong I didn’t see what was going right. I missed it.

But the payoff is priceless.

One evening I ended up in front of the Driskill with Jim Jarmusch and Ron Mann. We sat there for an hour and a half talking about film, and it’s the most down conversation you could imagine, it’s just film fans that are excited and want to share stuff with each other. Those are the times that really make it for me. Last year Fab 5 Freddy, the person who translates hip hop for the mass audiences, was there with Jonathan Demme and Elvis Mitchell and some of my friends from Cannes-all together. It was like one of those things where everybody was enjoying everybody else and moving around to talk to each other. That’s what I regard as peek times.

He’s loved Austin for many years…

Austin is a candy store experience. I don’t understand the people that write in about how much Austin sucks–why don’t they leave? I think the reason why people get frustrated is that if you’re not doing something in Austin, that’s your decision. You have to make it happen. There is nothing stopping you. It’s not like I started out rich, I was broke when we started-most of us were. And the question was, let’s just do it. And again, even now, let’s just do it. I have more resources than I used to, but that doesn’t mean that they are guaranteed. I can barely type and I look at these people here that are in the band, and on television and writing. It’s amazing.  There are people who like to be unhappy. And by the way, I love to be unhappy. I consider it strength of my character that despite being one of the luckiest people I know I could still be in a miserable mood most of the time. I just don’t blame Austin.

And over the years he’s watched it grow and change…

You used to be able to go to a movie five minutes before you wanted to see it. The clubs are more expensive. Some of my old favorite restaurants are gone. But now there are great bookstores, a lot more music stores, and new amazing restaurants. And the thing that always defined Austin was the people. Yes, it used to be a lot cheaper and easier to live here than it is now. But in terms of the experience, it’s really enriched. People can make a living here now. If you are doing a project you can hire someone from out of town to work with you because there is money.

He’s seen his share of hard times in this city, but believes SXSW will survive…

The way the music industry is now with major labels only doing superstar acts and not developing new and younger acts, there are so many independent labels and so many bands managing themselves that SXSW is the one place that still makes sense in a bad economy. There’s no other place for a midlevel act or an independent label where you can do so much business and interact with so many people. The film festival is doing great and having Jan Pierson run it turned out to be just a grand slam home run. Jan and her husband John Pierson were producer’s reps. They worked with Rick Linklater and Kevin Smith and Spike Lee-on their first films. So she has so many contacts in the business and that’s really been a benefit to us. Overall the numbers are kind of flattish, but Interactive is just going through the roof. I really think what happened there was the only time those people get together is computer shows in Las Vegas, which is not their cup of tea. I think when they discovered SXSW they all started coming here. Those numbers keep increasing because I think it’s the once place where the visionaries of hardware and software get together and talk-it’s perfect for that. I’m sure our revenues are down a little in some areas because it’s unavoidable. And I’m nervous about the next year or two. But the model is so right that in the long run it’s going to do just fine. And people love to come to Austin, thank God. I’m braced for 2 or 3 years. It’s not fun. I’ve been through it before and I don’t want to go through it again. Worrying about money makes me really crazy. If you have to lay people off it’s the most depressing thing in the world. I have no idea what the next few years are going to be like but I’m completely confident in SXSW.

And that the Chronicle will continue to thrive…

The Chronicle pretty much runs itself at this point. It’s amazing how devoted people are and how much they are willing to go the distance. I love working with people who always want to go faster and further and harder and do more because that’s fun. We’re not slave drivers. They aren’t in a sweatshop, sewing. At the end of the day everybody I’ve worked with and collaborated with feels really good about they have worked on. I know I do. Sometimes I look back at all those Chronicles and I smile.  It’s an army that puts it out.

And that he will continue to be amazed by some of the people who write into the paper…

I wrote my page 2 recently where I came out on guns. I also said something about the Constitution, about what it would mean if you believe in strict interpretation of it-which I don’t. But these people just honed in on that because they wanted to attack me for being anti-gun. They went where they could get the best shot just to be able to throw things at me. But I still enjoy it. It amazes me sometimes where it will come from. We did a cover story on women’s menstrual cycles and what they use–they came out in favor of more natural methods-and the amount of mail we got on that blew me away. It seemed to me a throw away. The issues that trigger people…you just never know. We talk about state cuts of health care for a million kids and we won’t get much response. But anything with cats and dogs, forget about it. The response will go through the roof.  Like that dead cats cover. I’m not a pet person, I’m barely a human person; I thought we should put dead cats on every cover. To an extent it upsets me that people care more about animal shelters than they do about some of the human issues our country faces

Through it all he has learned about community and collaboration…

It was after SXSW started, and 12 years after the Chronicle started, that I began to feel a little bit comfortable. It took me a long time to relax and enjoy collaboration. I think people who are gifted feel comfortable. I don’t feel totally comfortable now but it took me to my late 30s early 40s before I felt comfortable enough.  I can’t tell you the difference between when you have a shaky ego and are scared about everything and when you can relax and say this isn’t my idea,this is this person’s idea, and I get to sit back and make it happen. To not feel threatened. Now, I love to give credit where credit is due, I don’t have a need to take credit where it hasn’t been done. I love working with other people. I love when I’m in charge because it’s my project and I love it when someone else is in charge. Nobody is going to take it from me and they can’t. Once you relax you have ownership, if you don’t you never have any ownership. Sometimes during SXSW I’ll show up to be a pair of hands because the volunteer is in charge. It took a lot to discover that it’s not about me and my ego. It’s about collaboration and getting stuff done. Sometimes I’m a driving force. The only thing I do truly alone is write and nobody would read what I write if it wasn’t for this amazing group of people at the Chronicle.

It’s this community. I’m not stupid. When Willie comes to Austin, things change. When Linklater decides to stay in Austin, things change. When Robert Rodriguez and Mike Judge and all these bands. I’m constantly surprised by who has moved here. My job as the editor of the Chronicle is to make people aware of all of that and think about all of that. But it’s not like I make that happen and it’s not like I’m an idiot enough to think I do. I think it’s a privilege. What I get to do is a gift from God and I never forget or lose sight of that.

He still speaks his mind…

…On Politics…

I think that there were unrealistic expectations for Obama. I think he’s done a very good job so far but he’s not going to part the Red Sea any time soon. I think when he began acting like a normal president people were disappointed. We’ve watched the Republicans spend a trillion dollars on nothing, as far as I can tell. Getting up there and telling us they don’t want to leave our children with this tax burden-I just do spit takes. Obama is making a genuine effort to be bipartisan and then they decide this makes him vulnerable so they are being deliberately not bi-partisan. It just drives me crazy.

…And the people they affect…

I think people have always been more engaged then you think they are. Not always in politics because I think for most people it seems distant. But people are engaged in culture and the sense of what this country is supposed to be. The big contradiction is: how much freedom do you have as an individual compared to how much responsibility you have as a member of the community? There’s not a clear cut answer and there never will be. I think people are very engaged in that. Because of the economy, the level of commitment is enormous because it’s affecting everybody. When I was a kid there was the draft. The anti-Vietnam movement was huge. And when the draft went away, it shrunk. When you are on the line in some way it makes a difference.

…On television, video games, and the internet.

People say, “We don’t have a TV in our house because it’s the idiot box.” And I say, “So you are against getting information all the time? And tons of information?” It’s like saying after Gutenberg invented the Printing Press, “We don’t read books.” There’s so much information out there. When I started as a film graduate student, I could spend weeks literally putting together a filmography of a director. Now I’m at home and I go to IMDB and I get it in three minutes. So the parts where I’m thinking and making the connections and doing what I want to do, there is so much more of that. I don’t understand why people bad mouth video games either. I have no hand/eye coordination. My son has terrific hand/eye coordination because he played video games and got good at it.

It could have turned out differently…

Three or four years ago at the Toronto Film Festival someone asked me to apply for another job. I had never been recruited, lots of my friends had; it was a cool job. Everything I had done I had built up myself-with other people. Neil Young was being interviewed by Elvis Mitchell and I went to it. I thought he would be diffident and pissed off and monosyllabic but he was brilliant and funny. What I realized about him is that he follows his muse. When you hear about how he is going to record with Crazy Horse and then he shows up, fires Crazy Horse, and hires studio musicians it’s because if it feels wrong to him he won’t do it. He’s not being a jerk he’s just totally devoted to his art. This was really a revelation for me. When I got back I decided I wasn’t even going to apply to that job they were offering.

But then it wouldn’t be his…

We just put out the Shooting Match, Eagle Pennell’s first film. When Eagle died we did a wake and showed a print of the film and it was awful-the sound was terrible. So I started trying to find a good copy and couldn’t find one in any media. I hooked up with this guy in France and he found a pristine print in Germany and we showed it at SXSW and other film festivals. The DVD just came out and it’s getting wonderful reviews. It was a project that took so much time–I edited the booklet and executive produced the whole thing–and will never make any money but it was so gratifying to do that because it’s an obligation to our past. This year at SXSW Tobe Hooper who did Texas Chainsaw Massacre, had done an earlier film called Eggshells-a psychedelic film that everybody had said was lost. So we really concentrated on finding it and we found one and we are going to show it at SXSW this year and if everything works out we’ll put it on DVD. It’s all of these projects that make me feel renewed.  Of course, SXSW every year is like drinking at the fountain of senility.

In the end he has some time to reflect on the once small staff and cinder blocks…

One of my favorite moments ever, I went to a rap show and I didn’t know what rap was but it sounded interesting. And Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five came out and just blew me away. And at the end Grand Master said, “Remember we’re not a band, we’re seven men and two turntables.” That just stuck with me. One of the things that I want to say about what I do is that anybody can do it. We started out in rooms with cinder blocks and boards for bookshelves. We were not part of the elite. I come from middle class but no money-there was no safety net; I just went out and did it. I have a lot of energy which admittedly is an advantage, and I’m a white middle class guy which in this society is a total advantage. But everybody can do it.

The choices he’s made…

I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think that there were enormous amount of people to engage, even if it’s to hate us, and that it was a value to the community.

And why, he made them…

People had more talent, were more gifted than I ever was, but got scared or were afraid to stick their neck out. If I fit in who knows would have happened. My advantage was that I couldn’t. I have no abilities and in a way that was a blessing. What made the first 25 years of my life very, very difficult has made the last 2 or 3 decades pretty much fun.
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1 comment

  1. Russ

    WE LOVE YA LOUIS!