An Interview with Steak Mtn. About His New Horror Novel, 'Hunchback '88'
Christopher Norris, the notoriously misanthropic artist behind bands like Against Me!, Atom & His Package, and United Nations, has penned a book about bodies coming apart.
who goes by the alias Steak Mtn.,
who has been the artist behind several notable punk album covers,
who is responsible for the visual identity of the band Against Me!,
who does not listen to Against Me!,
who has made art that is permanently inked on people’s flesh,
who cringes when reminded of that,
who once sang in the grindcore band CombatWoundedVeteran,
who is quite ashamed of that fact,
who became notorious in the hardcore scene,
who was relentlessly aped by the hardcore scene,
who has crafted a reputation as a misanthrope,
who works very hard to maintain that persona,
who probably hates you,
who probably hates me,
who is my close friend,
who designed a book I co-authored
...is now an author in his own right.
Hunchback ‘88 is Norris’ debut novel. It’s not tied to a traditional, linear structure but is instead a free fall of off-putting scenarios, grotesque word pairings, and the deranged brain droppings of an artist who is possibly a genius but possibly also completely insane. There are no chapters or page numbers so it’s easy to feel lost—stranded, really—in the dark recesses of his mind.
Those who have had the misfortune of following Norris and his antagonistic Steak Mtn. endeavors since his CombatWoundedVeteran days in the late 90s may notice a thread of similarity between his graphic design work and his prose. Norris’ trademark artistic style on the covers of albums like Combat’s I Know a Girl Who Develops Crime Scene Photos was immediately identifiable among its punk peers—a perverse heap of neon limbs, decapitated skulls, blood spatters, and seared flesh. After Norris popularized the style, a number of—to be polite—“similar” works started cropping up on record sleeves and t-shirts, leading you to wonder if they too were original Steak Mtn. designs. But of course, if you had to ask whether it was a Steak Mtn. design, it wasn’t. Norris has always had a way of always staying one step ahead of the trends in hardcore, a perpetual progenitor of provocation.
Norris has been notoriously and deliberately difficult to hire, and even more difficult to work with. He has been sparing with his design services, doing work only for select artists like Atom & His Package, Jeff Rosenstock, United Nations, and the client who has been able to stand him the longest, Against Me!. He is typically blasé and unenthused about the work he’s done, and life in general, but there are glints of real, actual excitement buried deep under his surface-level apathy when discussing Hunchback '88, which he worked on for six years, mostly writing it on his phone, and largely as a distraction. Maybe his excitement stems from the fact that this book marks the first time he has stepped out from behind his protective Steak Mtn. shield and truly put himself out there.
And so… an interview with Christopher Norris about Hunchback ‘88...
Noisey: So which of the Harry Potter books would you say your book is most like?
Christopher Norris: The ass cabin one. Yeah. That’s what it’s called, right?
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Ass Cabin, yes.
A Fun Night at Ass Cabin. I think we’re done. Thanks.
How would you describe the book?
It’s a horror book. I guess it’s rooted in horror but I always like things—movies, books—that look like one thing but are another thing. I like people who write below genre. It’s tacky to say they write above it because it means that they’re above it, but below it. So, horror movies that don’t seem like horror movies, horror movies that are smarter than they lead on.
So what does this book purport to be and what is it actually?
I’m sure I’ve got plenty of dumb, pretentious things to say about it, but realistically speaking, it all boils down to: I like seeing bodies come apart. And I like writing bodies coming apart.
Much of it feels like an exploration of space on the page, but also, there are sections that are composed of lengthy, complex, really disgusting and off-putting word clusters. Where’d your writing style come from?
At some point in time, I thought to start writing screenplays. Not like I would ever make anything, but just to see if I could do it, because I like reading screenplays. I like the skeleton of a screenplay. So then I was like, “Well maybe I’ll write a book that’s just a screenplay.” And then I wrote five movies, essentially.
I liked the idea of writing a book but I always thought, ah I’ll never be able to do it, or I’ll never be able to do it in a way that I want to do it. So I started finding writers that I actually like, because I also don’t read a lot. I like the idea of reading, and the rhythm of words, but I thought I’d never be able to do that. Because even though I have an art background and understand abstraction and things like that, you think, “Who’s gonna have patience for something that’s all fucked up and weird?” So once I started finding things that were similar to movies but in novel form, I was like, oh this could happen. I don’t have to have a three-act structure. I don’t even have to have a fucking ending. Books are way more forgiving than any other art form. You could spend 20 pages describing something that doesn’t really matter.
I notice on the cover you did not put Steak Mtn., you put Christopher Norris. Why?
Because Steak Mtn. is so stupid. I think this is the first thing that I’ve ever done that’s not dealing with bands or things like that that… I’m not gonna say I’m proud of it, but it seems more in line with any creative ability that I have or would rather align myself with. Also, Steak Mtn. is a thing that’s gonna follow me around forever, that I’ll never be able to schuck. You name yourself something stupid when you’re 18, and then all of a sudden it takes off and you can’t avoid it. So I didn’t want to put Steak Mtn. on the cover. And Matt Finner, who put the book out, was… I don’t think he was bummed about that but he was like, “Oh, well... I kinda gave Steak Mtn. a book option.” And it just looks tacky, it’s such a stupid name.
If I may psychoanalyze: I think you’ve often used Steak as a veil to hide behind and poke fun at people and things with some level of anonymity. Would you agree?
Yeah, 100 percent. Are you kidding me? It’s a hammer.
So is it scarier then to have your name on this? It’s harder than writing it off as just fucking with people, which has been the premise behind Steak Mtn.
It would be scarier if it was the beginning of my career, if I was more sensitive to things like that. A lot of it is a little weirder, but for those who know Steak Mtn., chances are they know my name anyway. It’s a little scary, because I don’t know if it’s good, but I know I liked doing it. It’s like most art where it doesn’t actually matter if it’s good.
Who do you think your followers are at this point?
Like, 40-year-old hardcore kids and sweaty teenagers.
Sweaty, teen Against Me! fans.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s kind of how it’s been for ten years. And most Against Me! fans don’t know Steak Mtn., either.
But certainly they see some congruity between the band’s albums and the merch and Laura [Jane Grace]’s book.
You would think. But I don’t know if anybody’s that perceptive. I think if you are sensitive to art and aesthetic and aren’t just consuming it at face value, or you think this looks “sick,” but you don’t create that timeline in your head… I don’t think people are that smart.
How do you think the average Against Me! fan would feel about Hunchback?
There’s a version of Hunchback that’s way sketchier, way meaner, that’s way more… I wouldn’t say sexist or misogynist, but I would say treating sexuality in a really abject, transgressive way, that I pulled out, like a month before it went to press. It maybe made me nervous a bit. It also just felt unnecessary inside of a book that’s full of unnecessary things. Most of it was kind of not very PC sex stuff that makes people nervous. But again, books are different because people will read something fucked up and will not get as super offended as if it’s in a movie or a fucking song by somebody. It’s strange what readers—proper readers who love reading—will take. I like that idea that movie fans or music fans never really wanna get out of their lane, but readers will read almost everything.
I couldn’t believe the lack of depth of the average online reader when I saw the reaction to that “Cat Person” story—people getting angry about a character being called fat and what not.
Absolutely. In general, a writer writes personalities and lets them bounce off each other. So, of course if you have a person who sucks, they’re gonna say shit that’s awful. Sure, it’s in the mind of the writer who’s like, “What’s the worst thing this person could be called?” But obviously we’re in this strange culture of… not even knee-jerk, not even trigger-finger. It’s crazy—you don’t even finish the sentence and you’re in trouble.
There seems to have been a movement in recent years of older, artsy hardcore dudes writing books of poetry or dark novels. Do you consider Hunchback above that or is it part of that?
It’s part of that because it’s unavoidable. Somebody like Wes Eisold or Max Morton, people who are working in a transgressive manner, I’m definitely writing in that mold. There’s a new term called “horror-adjacent” that I’ve been hearing a lot—horror movies that aren’t horror movies, the artsy horror film. So I think in general, hardcore men and women who are writing these books, they’re obviously like, “I’m in line with that because my interests are like that.” They like seeing bodies come apart, or they like tales of drug abuse, they love [Herbert] Selby and people like that or Peter Sotos. And I like all that stuff too.
Do you think you’ll retire Steak Mtn.?
I would love to retire Steak Mtn. I would love to not have to rely on it for money. Let me rephrase. I would love to not have to rely on it for the occasional money. Because I’ve set up Steak Mtn. so that I don’t do Steak Mtn. very often. There are stretches of time where I don’t do work, because I’m either turning it down, or I’m goofing on bands where I take the work, drag them along, and then fucking dump ’em. So sometimes the persona of being Steak Mtn. is more interesting than making the art. So to me, being difficult is the most fun. And I have the option to abuse people in a very PG way.
So being difficult is an integral part of the Steak Mtn. body of work?
Always. The whole body of work is about being difficult, and testing people’s limits of what they’ll take from you.
I noticed a parallel between sections of Hunchback and the I Know a Girl Who Develops Crime Scene Photos LP, in that it was this word vomit of well-strung, disgusting phrases.
And even going back to the Amputees art you did, I feel like there’s a real similarity between the two. Do you see that or no?
My goal on that work back then, when [Dan] Ponch and I started Combat, we were seeing all these bands, bands that we loved—Crossed Out, Man Is the Bastard, No Comment, even the San Diego stuff like Antioch Arrow and Heroin, fast and loose, crazy grind stuff or jumbled insanity—what we were seeing was a lot of dumb black and white stuff that I looked at and said, “I don’t want to do that.” I want to do that, but I don’t want to put a fucking dead baby on the cover that’s been blown out on a Xerox machine. We’re gonna take that dead baby and we’re gonna give it bat wings and we’re gonna put it on a fluorescent pink background. Because it’s familiar but it’s different. That’s how the work has always been. I’m drawn to these dumb things. I’m drawn to skulls. I’m drawn to dead, idiot things. But I don’t want to do it that way.
After you made a lot of the Combat art, did you see a lot of similarities cropping up in hardcore?
I think there’s a lot of similarities but I think also these things happen like zeitgeist. They happen in four different places and you have four different people doing…
Parallel thought. The brain is complex but it’s not that complex, and the human condition all works with the same details. So it’s not surprising that some idiot kid in Minnesota, and me, and somebody in California, and somebody in New York, and somebody in Germany all had the same idea.
A lot of that Combat art was based on the design for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. That had a huge effect on me, that insanity, Gary Panter’s design, and that color and that strangeness. And even something as silly as like, the work that Rob Zombie was doing in White Zombie—La Sexorcisto and all that stuff. He was drawing these proto-Coop stupid devil doll girls on fluorescent green backgrounds with zombie heads.
You and I have talked a lot about using a work to analyze the author’s view of the world. How do you think someone would interpret your worldview through, any of your work really, but Hunchback specifically?
They probably would think that I don’t really care much about people. Which is true. I think people would just think my worldview is sour. But also, it’s kind of like this: you’ve got a villain and a hero. And chances are, there’s somebody above the villain that’s a supervillain. The supervillain understands empathy and all the honesty of the world, they just don’t like it. They shit on it. And that’s why they’re supervillains. So I’d love somebody to say, “He’s a supervillain. He just doesn’t give a fuck about the human condition. He wants to take it apart.” Also, I think that somebody would just think that I like fucking with people, because that’s what the book is, too. It’s a mystery that doesn’t need to get solved. Everybody’s so worried about a resolution and I’m not.
Hunchback ‘88 is out now from Permanent Press.
Also, disclosure: Christopher Norris works in the VICE equipment room though he doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of his colleagues.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.