"The spirit of the first issue, just the act of it, was rebellious. But it didn't really become Big Brother until Tremaine came on and did issue number two."
That's Spike Jonze describing Jeff Tremaine's indelible influence on the revolutionary cult skate mag Big Brother in the new Hulu documentary Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine. Tremaine might be recognized today as the creative genius behind MTV's groundbreaking Jackass series, but back in 1992 he served as the art and editorial director for Steve Rocco's anarchic, antagonistic, anti-establishment Big Brother.
Dumb serves as a time capsule of the rise and fall of the little ragtag mag that upended the entire skate industry—and pop culture writ large—by using archival footage and candid interviews from the original Big Brother staff (Tremaine, Steve Rocco, and Dave Carnie), the pariahs of the skate world who were welcomed with opened arms (Bam Margera, Jason "Wee Man" Acuña, Steve-O), and even outsider fans who felt their gravitational pull (Jonah Hill). It chronicles Rocco's singular vision to rebel against the safe, sterile traditions of mainstream skate magazines that had become so corporately castrated that they no longer spoke to the new generation of skaters (nor would they run Rocco's aggressively lewd adverts).
So Rocco and Tremaine introduced the world to Big Brother and threw a middle finger at censorship, civility and anything resembling a moral compass in the process. Tongue-in-cheek articles detailing the most effective way to commit suicide, graphic sex tutorials and the proper way to use a coke straw (complete with a child snorting a line of a skate deck—don't worry it was Pixie Stix powder) ran next to impressively amateur photos of professional skateboarding's next big talents. Not only did Big Brother enrage conservative America, but it would serve as the urtext for DIY media that transcended the sport (this publication included).
On its 25th anniversary, Jeff Tremaine (and a surprise guest) talked to Vice about Dumb, changing the media landscape in a pre-internet world, and the legacy of Big Brother.
VICE: How did you land on Steve Rocco's radar?
Jeff Tremaine: Spike Jonze and I grew up together and at that time in '92 he was shooting pictures for Steve Rocco's World Industries and his other skate companies like Blind. So when Rocco wanted to start his own skateboarding magazine, they tried to do it all in-house but weren't really liking how it came out. Spike suggested that Rocco talk to me because I could already put together a magazine—I had been working with Spike on [legendary BMX magazine] Freestylin'. And that's how the first building blocks for Big Brother fell into place: Spike introduced me to Rocco, Rocco liked me, and then I became a staff of one.
How did you manage to wrangle this disparate group of weird, talented outsiders with similar sensibilities?
I was basically in charge of rounding up creative talent. I inherited Marc McKee and Sean Cliver, who were already artists for World Industries, and it turned out they could actually write. Then a few days later this strange guy showed up on the doorstep of the office and basically moved in. That turned out to be Early Parker. Earl was this crazy kid who made his own really funny skate 'zines . He was really quirky and I loved him. I had to take care of him though. He was like my first child really. Then we needed photographers. I had met the legendary Rick Kosick when he was shooting for POWEREDGE magazine. We hit it off so I hired him. It was this big, dysfunctional family that came together in this strange, organic way. A surrogate family, really.
How difficult was it getting Big Brother off the ground independently?
This all happened pre-internet so we all had to wear multiple hats as the company slowly started to come together. I was the art director so I did all of the layouts but I also came up with the concepts for the articles and found the writers to write them. I'm not saying I came up with all the ideas, but I had to recruit writers who I could mine for good ideas. Spearheading the big picture stuff became my main role.
Big Brother was spawned out of rejection. Transworld refused to run an ad with Gabriel Rodriguez holding a .44 magnum to his head after failing to land a trick so Rocco made a magazine that would. Did you have a definitive mission statement?
Rocco's primary focus was to make sure Big Brother was as wild as the kids on his team were. He wanted it to be the example of everything parents didn't want their kids to be exposed to. To be honest, I never really liked the name Big Brother at first because of the Orwellian nature of it, but then it started taking on a different connotation: We are the big brother that is going to show the way and tell you the shit your parents would never tell you. We were the bad influence that parents tried to protect you from.
Was there ever an ethical or moral line you refused to cross?
Dude, there was never a line. Anyone who pitched something insane or taboo, it got in. Stuff that shouldn't have gotten in, looking back, always ran. There was no line. Sometimes I regret that [laughs]. The very first article that got us in trouble with national attention was the "How To Kill Yourself" piece. We thought it was hilarious at the time because it was specifically in reaction to how boring skateboard mags were when it came to teaching you how to do tricks. Writing about how to do tricks step-by-step never made sense to us. So instead of "How To Ollie" we had "How To Kill Yourself." It almost worked as satire. It was terrible shit! But we did it all because there was no one telling us no. We were encouraged to push it so we had the responsibility to do so.
The term DIY is thrown around a lot these days. What did it mean for you back then?
It was all self-generated. Rocco funded the whole thing. He hated middlemen. He was buying state of the art Macs at the time. Fucking drum scanners, too. Mind you this used to be the type of shit you would have to send out to a big service bureau to get done. Rocco pioneered desktop publishing. He really got us everything. We'd even output our own film. I know this all sounds like a foreign language now that the world is digital but we'd do our own color separations, too. Big Brother was steps ahead of what any other DIY publishing house was doing.
How did you stand out against the bigger mags of the time?
Aside from the anarchy of the content, Rocco made sure we were pushing it on a creative level too. There wasn't a budget to say we had to follow a structural blueprint; for one issue we created our own cereal box. We changed the format every time. I never wanted a consistent look for the logo either, so we'd change how Big Brother would appear on each cover. It was so exciting that each individual issue would get to exist as its own thing. When else would you get the opportunity to have that much freedom?
Did you feel any static from Thrasher or Transworld ? Did they ever give you shit for stepping on their turf?
Let's just say it: Thrasher was getting stale and Transworld was a bunch of pretty pictures and that was it. Big Brother came in and re-introduced the punk rock, fuck-all attitude that skateboarding was missing at the time. Since then Thrasher has gotten great again, but there was a lull in the early 90s where Thrasher sucked so we took advantage of that.
Look: We were fuck-all. We were trying to piss everyone off. We even bit the Thrasher logo and made it say Big Brother for an issue. We were picking fights with everybody! Fuck everybody! There was nothing safe. But we also turned the tables on ourselves. We would take the piss out of own staff as well. Hell, I wasn't even safe. I'd have to layout pictures of me that I did not want in the magazine but I said fuck it. I can't be precious about myself if I'm picking on other people.
Can you talk about when porn king Larry Flynt bought out Big Brother in 1997?
Overall it bummed me out. I liked when we landed at Flynt but after a short while we had one particular issue that sold better than the others, so Flynt looked at that and tried to pinpoint some sort of trend it represented. They thought because it said "skateboarding" really big across the top, it must've connected to a wider readership. So all of a sudden they started mandating that that be the logo. But what they didn't factor in is that the particular issue was also in a bag with a giant pocket of free stickers in it. That's probably why it sold better. Whatever. It pisses me off because I never wanted it have a uniform format and as soon as it began to be formatted it introduced an unwanted structure.
Why do you think Rocco wanted to sell to Larry Flynt of all people?
Big Brother never made any money. If it did it was probably only for a short while under Flynt. Rocco sold it behind my back—I didn't know that was going down. It didn't cause a riff between us or anything because we saw hints that the acquisition was coming. Rocco had sort of already moved onto the next thing. He created this monster and then we moved off campus and got our own office. I honestly think Flynt bought the magazine because we were also running a snowboarding mag called Blunt, which was just Big Brother for snowboarders. Snowboarding was blowing up in the mainstream at that time and I think that's the title they wanted, but they folded Blunt quickly. Big Brother was the one that lasted.
I stayed on Big Brother while they hired a whole new staff for Blunt. I think Flynt saw something in our punk spirit, but we just got in trouble too much. We were good when we were just in local skate shops off the radar. All of sudden Big Brother was being put on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Your kid brings that home and, if you're an involved parent, you're going to see that this is not something your kids should be reading.
Today niche voices have more platforms and wider reach thanks to the internet. It feels like Big Brother laid this foundation 25 years ago.
We were doing a print magazine the same way someone would do a podcast today. It was all birthed from this DIY spirit. We were a staff of four of five people doing everything except the physical printing of the magazine. That's a lot to do. The technology was changing so fast and we adapted to it, much like creators are adapting to tech today. Now it doesn't take a whole lot to make a TV show. I mean, just take a look at VICE, who has been a pioneer in creating great shit with small crews. It's been so awesome to see. It's very much what we were doing at Big Brother.
In a career defined by wild moments, what is the one that sticks out the most?
Dumb really pulls the curtains back on some of the wildest moments over the years and how they even were pulled off. Knoxville shot himself on camera! But I think taking Slayer to Disneyland with Wee Man was pretty great. That was a perfect representation of who Big Brother was. We didn't belong. I got my Slayer socks on right now in honor of that.
[As if they timed it perfectly, Jason "Wee Man" Jason Shannon Acuña crashes the interview.]
Hold on, my midget is here.
Wee Man: Make sure the first line from me in this interview says this: Jeff Tremaine is a dick! [Laughs]
How do you want Big Brother to be remembered?
Tremaine: I just want people to remember Big Brother for being something radical. I haven't seen anything as revolutionary on the scene since. God damnit, the artists have to step up. It's all do it yourself. You don't need The Man to publish or distribute your shit out there.
Wee Man: This doc will show that none of the Big Brother team was forced together. Like, people thought Jackass was due to some sort of casting call or something. Dumb shows how this group of outsiders coming together and at the heart of them was skateboarding. The stunts and crazy articles, that came second. All of this started from skateboarding. Period. I know the state of skating has evolved, but skateboarding for me has always been fuck the system. I was always told I couldn't do things, so my entire motivation was to be like, "Fuck you. Watch me." Big Brother was always fuck the system.
Where do you see the media landscape heading?
Tremaine: It's punk right now. VICE is carrying the Big Brother torch pretty well. But I'm expecting things to get pretty fucking wild in the next few years, especially with Trump in office. It feels like when I was a kid and Reagan was in office, music and art went crazy as a push back against him. And Reagan wasn't half the nails on a chalkboard to the artist that Trump is. I expect artists to really step up.
What's the most valuable lesson you learned working at Big Brother?
Rocco ingrained this one in me: Once you have the chance at creative freedom, you can't go back. I've never been able to not have it. If I don't have that creative space I walk away. Rocco gave me the opportunity to see that light. He was the guide who let me do whatever I wanted and inspired me to push the fucking boundaries. I never looked back. So I try to inspire people to fucking turn it up a notch. Don't be a pussy [ Laughs]. Make your own shit. Don't accept no for an answer. If there is something you want to create you have no excuse to not go out and do it anymore.