A conversation with Eric Morse, author of “What Is Punk?”
I loved picture books as a child. I loved how you could go into different universes and meet wacky characters. They existed in worlds where your mother would say, “Ice cream for dinner!” instead of, “You’re 4 and you need to stop throwing shaving cream at people because you think it’s funny, but it is not funny; it is actually just rude.”
I’m not going to lie, though—there were times that “Rainbow Fish” just didn’t cut it. I wish I could’ve given myself a new picture book called “What is Punk?”
Written by Eric Morse and illustrated by Anny Yi, it gives an overview of the early punk movement through rhyming couplets, paired beautifully with Claymation-inspired illustrations of cultural icons such as constructed from Play-Doh. A St. Louis native, Morse has a deep background in music, from playing in bands, to being a music journalist, to running digital marketing at Warner Music Group.
He’ll be hosting a “Punk Rock Playdate” at Subterranean Books this Sunday, which will include a reading, a coloring activity, a sing-along and probably yours truly wearing my favorite onesie from second grade (hey, the event is ALL AGES)! I got to speak to him about his book, along with his involvement in music.
Rima Parikh: What inspired you to write a children’s book about the punk movement?
Eric Morse: I was living in Brooklyn with my wife and my son, Eli, who was about 2 at the time. We were talking a walk one day, and we saw a book on the side of the street at a stoop sale, and it was called “This Is Pink.” It was, you know, a book of things that are pink. But out of the corner of my eye, I accidentally read it as “This Is Punk.” My wife and I were like, “Oh my god, that would be amazing.” It turned into running joke with my wife, like, when are we going to find punk rock children’s books for our kids? So in 2013, I quit my job and decided I would write the book.
RP: What’s your background in music? In writing?
EM: I grew up in St. Louis, I went to college in Indiana and I moved immediately after college to Olympia [a small area outside of Seattle]. In my 20s, I was in a few bands; I was a DJ for about eight years or so. Olympia is where Sleater-Kinney came from, Bikini Kill, Kurt Cobain lived in Olympia for a little bit during the beginning of Nirvana, so it’s a really tiny town with a super tight-knit scene. There was a lot of creativity going on there. There were a couple of influential record labels—Kill Rock Stars and K Records, things like that. I fell into working—as I mentioned, I joined a few bands at that point—but I also studied writing in college and realized that I could use my writing skills for the better. So it was just a natural, organic process for me, where I loved to write, I loved music. I naturally fell into writing about music. I had a column in the Seattle Daily and The Stranger and fell into the music scene.
RP: You focus on the early punk movement in the book. Did you have to commit to “real” punk? Or did you consider adding more contemporary examples of what punk means?
EM: Experts on the punk movement have a line in the sand, where they feel like the “pure” punk movement either died out or turned into something else around the early ’80s. It’s hard because the book is called “What Is Punk?” and you can’t talk about that without talking about these bands that were active in ’77 and ’78, like the Clash, Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, etc. But fast forward 20 years, and we have our own definition of punk. Personally, I’m a huge Fugazi fan, and I don’t even want to use the word “punk” without mentioning Fugazi. So yeah, it was definitely a challenge to focus on this one period and I know that there are people, like my friends that are music journalists, that are going to argue with me about why did I left this or that band out, but ultimately, it’s a fun read for kids. It doesn’t have to be a full encyclopedia.
RP: How did you balance condensing historical information while still making it readable for kids who probably don’t want to sit through a book for a long period of time?
EM: That was harder than I expected. I was like, I’m a writer; I’m sure I can just make it rhyme and it’ll be great. I feel like the standard for rhyming couplets is Dr. Seuss. And I wanted it to have that rhythm, those simple rhymes that are easy to read—something a parent could read to a 6-month-old or that a 5-year-old could try reading by [itself]. But it was hard, especially because the subject matter itself is, you know, pretty adult. How do you talk about punk without talking about the Sex Pistols, you know? It took lots of revision. I picked out the bands and artists I wanted to highlight. I knew that I was going to lose some as I cut it down and focus it.
RP: Is anyone nervous that this book is going to create little anarchist toddlers that want to burn s— down?
EM: People have asked me, “Should you be telling kids about these guys that were belligerent and anarchists and addicts?” At this point in our cultural history, though, punk is like an industry. Nobody is going to grow up not knowing what punk is, in one sense or another. They’re not going to grow up with people in pop culture being belligerent or addicts or anarchists—a–holes in one sense or another. So the point of the book is not, “Hey kids, let’s burn everything down” but rather “There’s a thing out there called punk—let’s talk about how it started and why it was great.”
RP: Is there anything that you had to omit in the book that you really wish you had been able to keep?
EM: We didn’t get the Runaways in there. Anny and I talked a lot about Dead Kennedys, but there just wasn’t really a place to put them because I had formatted the book geographically, through scenes [in different cities].
RP: How did you connect with Anny Yi, the illustrator?
I did some research online, and looked through my participant network from when I was running an online magazine. I found Anny Yi, who’s an artist in Los Angeles. She had a blog called “Hey! Ho! Let’s Doh,” and it was pictures of the Ramones [created from Play-Doh], and I was like, “Holy s—, this is exactly what I’m looking for!” Her work is warm and kid-friendly, but she also has a really great punk aesthetic. Anny’s illustrating style has a 3-D effect—they pop off the page. It has a certain energy to it that fits with the punk scene.
RP: Anny Yi’s illustrations are really cool. Did she come up with making the figures out of Play-Doh?
EM: Yeah, she’s super interesting. She was actually a fashion designer. It’s still her day job—she works for a clothing line, but she has this punk vibe. She does static images, but she also does a lot of stop-motion animation, and I think that—I shouldn’t speak for her—but my sense is that she started doing the Claymation stuff and that’s how she settled on doing stuff in Play-Doh and clay.
RP: Do you see yourself writing a comprehensive guide of picture books devoted to music?
EM: I’m already working on “What Is Hip-Hop?” I do hope to expand on the [first] book, but I think we’re going to go through a few different genres before zeroing in on punk. Anny and I have been talking, and we’re excited about doing a book on new wave—a little clay Devo and David Bowie would be really fun.
RP: What are the most important events or parts of punk history that affected you?
EM: Oh, man. The answer to that question, for, me, is going to sit in that weird no-man’s land where—you just mentioned it and I just mentioned it—what we call punk now, some people debate on whether it’s “real” punk. But as I mentioned, living in Olympia in the ’90s, it was a very [do-it-yourself], early indie-punk world. It was great because that was where I started DJing and I immediately got swept up into the scene. I went on tour with the band—I was DJing with them on tour—we played with Modest Mouse, which had just formed. We played with Fugazi a couple times, which was my favorite band in the world. It was fun because that tour was a national tour. We were on the road for seven or eight weeks. It just exposed me to a wide range of “the life.” We’d go from sleeping on people’s floors; then we would play a show with Fugazi in front of 2,000 people. The headliner of that tour was a band called Hovercraft, where Eddy Vedder played the drums. By the time I went on tour, he wasn’t still playing with Hovercraft, but he would come out to the shows at a few stops along the way, when we were in New York, he came out [to the shows]. We’d go from sleeping in a van in Dayton, Ohio, and then literally having to rush Eddy Vedder and Tim Robbins out the back door of the club because there were crowds following us.
RP: Living in Olympia sounds like it was incredible.
EM: It was a very small town and a very small scene. It was both an inviting and surreal experience. All those people [in the scene] are just like your friends. We played with Sleater-Kinney on tour. Like, Carrie Brownstein was in Sleater-Kinney, but she also worked at the coffee shop. Kathleen Hanna and I worked together at a club, but then she’d get on stage and blow everybody’s mind.
Come see Eric Morse at Subterranean this Sunday, Sept. 20 at 11 a.m.
You can check out Anny Yi’s work at www.youngestindie.com.