What were you doing when you were a teenager? If you were anything like me, it no doubt revolved around a disappointing mix of daytime TV and alcopops. But if you were anything like Karren Ablaze, author of probably the best music fanzine about British post-punk spanning the late 80s and early 90s, you were interviewing Nirvana, sitting in pubs with The Stone Roses and fending off paranoid criticisms from Sonic Youth and Kathleen Hanna.
Ablaze! was exactly what it pertained to be; every hand-written note or vitriolic review burned with the passion of its young editor. Karren wasn't a stranger to making enemies either, as you'll discover if you have the good taste/luck to dig into The City is Ablaze! A Story of A Post-Punk Popzine, 1984-1994. In this compendium of the zine, Karren has printed all ten copies of Ablaze!, each with a foreword about the musical climate and personal memories it was surrounded by.
When the book showed up at the office, and the bands on the cover read like a list of all the music worth listening to, I knew I needed to get Karren on the phone. So I did, and as it turns out, she’s probably the best person ever.
VICE: Hey Karren. So how did Ablaze! get started?
It came down to having the energy to get out there and push the zine forward while it was still young. Everyone got their friends to help and we were all going to gigs and just getting involved in this ever-expanding network of fanzines around the UK. Eventually we managed to start getting them sold through record distributors as well.
It sounds like a pretty serious endeavour.
Yeah, and I was really sensible about it even at that age. The very first one was photocopied and after that I got more and more printed each time so I was pretty quickly into the thousands which made the unit costs a lot smaller. I was always fiendishly into economies of scale, and being really competitive with other zine writers; they’d say they printed this many and I’d be like "Hmm, I’m going to print more than that."
Despite Ablaze! growing so quickly, it stayed very personal to you throughout. Is it strange for you to read your own teenage voice back again?
Not really, I think always quite close to that part of myself. There was just so much going on for me at that point in my life that I’ve almost never stopped identifying with it: the pain and confusion of being a teenager, and not having anyone to talk to, feels very familiar to me, even now.
Looking back, which are your favourite interviews?
God, loads of people... um, I interviewed Tanya Donelly from Throwing Muses a couple of times, she was fantastic. Black Francis from The Pixies was a really lovely interview subject, too; he was really relaxed and gentle and sat there with his guitar playing chords and explaining all his songs to me.
Just a normal day, right? Did you stay in touch with lots of the bands after they hit the big time?
Weirdly, I always felt like when someone got famous they wouldn’t want to know me any more. I don’t know why, I think it was just a natural assumption. So I kind of avoided people a lot of the time. Later on I found out that loads of people were actually pretty genuine and still wanted to be friends or whatever. Getting older helps you realise stuff like that.
You stopped doing Ablaze! when you were 24, do you think age was a factor in that decision?
There’s definitely something about reaching that age, yeah. Up until that point you can just shout your mouth off about everything, and even though I never offended people on purpose, it seemed to just happen quite naturally. But after I hit my mid-twenties I started thinking, 'If I write this about them, then they’ll be upset.' So I think that kind of adulthood cut-off point was an appropriate end to it all.
Bands often took your bad reviews very personally, responding with handwritten letters of discontent (many of which are published in the book). Out of all of the responses you dug up, whose was the strongest?
It’s hard to tell, probably Sonic Youth. I think they went to some lengths to express how pissed off they were. Morrissey just wrote me that letter, and Ian Brown just told me to fuck off, but I think Sonic Youth were, you know, really, really upset with me.
Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill said you’d “let the side down” when you hung out with Nation Of Ulysses, because it seemed like you "wanted to suck their dicks". That seems pretty unfair.
It was really weird because I thought that Bikini Kill and Ablaze! would be friends, but it just didn’t happen like that. It was another one of those things where you accidentally piss someone off, and you don’t know where they’re coming from. But yeah, that was disturbing. I think it took me a few years to get my head around because I was just expressing my passion. It was definitely difficult to write for a while after that.
Do you still find yourself drawn to expressing yourself through DIY zines?
Not that often, I’ve probably made about two zines in the last two decades. I know that it’s there if I need it, but I’ve started a publishing company [Karren self-published her book] so I’m just dead excited about doing more of this in the future.
Why did you decide to publish this book yourself?
I really wanted to do it in a DIY way. If I went through a publishing company then they would take the book to print, promote it, and distribute it. I just thought, well I know how to do all those things because I’ve already done them, so I’m going to do it myself. It’s crazy, insane hard work, but it’s a lot of fun as well. Also I’ve still got this amazing network of friends all over the country doing distribution and promoting it and everything.
Do you have any advice for budding DIY enthusiasts who are trying to develop their own zine?
Let it out into the world! One thing I’ve realised from looking back on the process that I went through, from the old, two-folded A4 pages all the way up to publishing this book, is that you have to start at the beginning. If you never do the first thing that’s in your heart to do, you’ll never find out what you’re truly capable of.
You can buy The City is Ablaze! A Story of A Post-Punk Popzine, 1984-1994 from www.thecityisablaze.com.
Follow Bertie on Twitter: @bertiebrandes