Not far from the rural farm communities of Vermont is the city of Burlington. Among the city's residents are Magic Boy and Girlfriend, James Kochalka, Superstar and his wife Amy.
Kochalka is the author of numerous comic books, including Tiny Bubbles, Kissers, Magic Boy and Girlfriend, the current and delightful Monkey vs. Robot, and the soon-to-be-released Sunburn and Peanut Butter and Jeremy.
The sign on the door declares their apartment to belong to "James, Amy and Spandy," and although Amy was not home on the day I travelled to Burlington to interview James for my radio show, Spandy was home. The cat appeared quite put out by our presence, especially our attempts to get her to pose for a photograph. It's a testament to the cartooning skill of my interview subject that I really, truly felt bad for the cat, who I had read so much about in many of Kochalka's excellent independent comics.
I was joined for the interview, Sunday August 14th, 2000 by Marshall O'Keefe. The interview took place at Mr. Mike's Pizza in Burlington.
It's a tribute to my journalistic skill that Marshall was the one who noticed James was wearing an orange tee-shirt. Come to find out, it's the official tee-shirt of the Carrot Boy the Beautiful rock opera, available on CD (Kochalka is also a prolific musician).
James Kochalka: This orange tee-shirt is the official costume that I wore in the production of Carrot Boy the Beautiful.
Marshall O'Keefe: I can tell an official Carrot Boy tee-shirt when I see one.
Alan David Doane: How long does it take to perform the whole opera?
JKS: Well, about the length that it is on the album, I guess, about 20 minutes. Maybe it takes a little longer--
MO'K: There must be technical preparations, and a lot of--
JKS: Well--no. (General laughter).
MO'K: A lot of complicatet sets and special effects!
JKS: No, we don't have any sets, we just play, like, y'know, the way the Who used to play their rock opera, just as a rock band. But I do have little costume changes. Like, as the Scientist, I'll wear a white shirt, like a button-down shirt with a bow tie and black pants, and I wear glasses. And then I take the glasses off and the shirt and the bow tie off and I have the orange shirt underneath and then I'm Carrot Boy. So, some songs I have to--they'll, like, pause for a second in the middle of a song while I, quick, make the change again.
ADD: My kids now, I can play the karaoke version of Stormy Weather (from the Carrot Boy CD), they've got the words down now.
MO'K: So does your band play out a lot, or...?
JKS: Not a lot. Although I am playing two shows next week.
JKS: One here in Burlington (Vermont) and one in New York City, at Parkside Lounge.
ADD: When is your next comics work--you said Sunburn and Peanut Butter and Jeremy...
JKS: They're at the printer right now.
ADD: Are they coming out at the same time?
JKS: We're gonna delay one by a week so they don't come out at the same time.
ADD: Are they both (from) the same publisher?
JKS: They're both from Alternative Comics.
ADD: Alternative published Monica's Story, right?
JKS: Yes. All my publishers are people that were fans of my comics before I was published. Like, when I just made photocopied mini-comics. And they liked them and then became publishers and wanted to publish me. My kind of comics really are not what's going on in either the mainstream comics world or even the alternative comics world, I didn't really fit in that until these new publishers started.
ADD: You weren't mainstream enough for the mainstream companies, but you're also probably not weird enough for some of the--
JKS: Well--it's plenty weird, it's just weird in a different way.
ADD: Yeah, but it's weird in a real, sort of...
JKS: A more personal, like, yeah. It's not like goofily, randomly weird, or shocking. It's not shocking, that's the main difference.
ADD: It might be to some people.
JKS: Oh, I suppose, yeah (laughs). If they were expecting Caspar the Friendly Ghost it would be shocking.
ADD: What are Sunburn and Peanut Butter and Jeremy about?
JKS: Well, Peanut Butter and Jeremy is about a cat named Peanut Butter, and a crow named Jeremy. And the cat wears a tie and hat and thinks he works in an office. But he's really just a housecat. And the crow is kind of a nasty, wiseass sort of character, who basically tries to cheat Peanut Butter.
ADD: Has Spandy given you a lot of insight into cats?
JKS: Oh, yeah. Yes. Basically, getting a cat totally changed my whole life.
ADD: Was she your first cat?
JKS: No, but...the first one since I was a child. Like, when I went away to college, I hadn't had a cat since then. Until we got Spandy.
MO'K: So for the first time you've had an adult relationship with a cat.
ADD: I get the impression from all of your stuff that you think a lot about the minutae of everyday life...
ADD: I mean, it really sort of--weighs on you.
ADD: So it's not that it's an important thing that happened during the day, but for some reason you find it to be the most significant. Whatever it was.
JKS: Yes. Right. And they appear, although I draw it daily, it appears as a weekly strip in the local paper, the Burlington Free-Press.
ADD: So every week there's six of them nobody gets to see?
ADD: That's tragic.
JKS: It also appears monthly in Vice Magazine, which is a free magazine that's in New York City and Montreal.
ADD: Is there ever gonna be a collection of those?
JKS: I may have found a publisher to put out a collection of them, but I don't know for sure. None of my regular publishers want to publish it, although, I think it's my best work.
ADD: When I was writing a review of Monkey vs. Robot, I had this flash at the end (of the review) where it suddenly hit me, that you were writing all about people, and yet there were no people. Interestingly, the story is about the previous incarnation of people and the next incarnation of people, Monkeys and Robots.
JKS: Yes, the past versus our future.
ADD: Was that deliberate?
JKS: Um--yeah. There's many levels about it. It could be, like that, our past versus our future. It could be just two sides of ourselves, animal nature and analytical nature, which--we've developed this analytical nature, but we haven't given up our animal nature, we're still as much animals as we ever were. And then, of course, it's a fun story about monkeys and robots fighting. (General laughter).
ADD: It's almost amazing to me that nobody ever thought of it before. It's such a great idea, and it seems so obvious.
JKS: THat's the way the best ideas are. The sequel will be called Monkey vs. Robot: Battle Wars.
ADD: Will there be a video game?
JKS: I would love to have that--they should.
ADD: My wife is very unhappy with me because I let the kids watch the Welcome to Earth cartoon on the Internet.
JKS: Oh. Yeah. (Laughs).
ADD: I looked at it and said, "You know, these kids both know about peeing, I really don't see--" I certainly don't consider it pornographic.
MO'K: That was kind of an angst-ridden little...
JKS: It's from my first CD, The True Story of James Kochalka Superstar.
ADD: I'm curious, do you think that worked better as an animated cartoon, or as the four panel comic strip?
JKS: I think it works better as the animated cartoon.
ADD: Did you do the voices for that?
JKS: Yeah; they're kind of crazy voices. (Laughs)
ADD: I watched it and said "There's no way I can not show this to the kids. I know my wife is gonna be mad and the kids are gonna be shocked, but it's great, it's funnier than hell."
JKS: I do have some cartoons that you could show your kids. I did a couple of things for Nickleodeon.
ADD: Are your students at the college you teach at aware of your other career?
JKS: They didn't know that they were, at first, they just thought I was the guy teaching their class, and then they were playing the radio, it's a painting class, we were playing the radio, and my song Hockey Monkey came on. It was a big hit this past winter at a radio station here. And I was like "Oh, this is my song." And they couldn't believe it, their eyes popped out of their heads.
ADD: Did you have to prove it?
JKS: No. They took my word for it. They were all pretty impressed with me then.
MO'K: Do they come out to your shows and cheer you on?
JKS: No, no.
MO'K: Did you ever play at the school?
JKS: No, I haven't done that either...the last show I played, I usually play at regular bars, it's 21 and over to get in. The last show I played in Burlington was all ages, and I couldn't believe--there were just all kids. There were like 400 kids there between the ages of 12 and 17. And they were just going crazy, like when I sang Hockey Monkey, they were just screaming like I was the Beatles or something. There were actually kids there as young as, like, 8. This woman had brought her whole elementary school class to the show, so I was like the first rock band these kids probably ever went to see.
MO'K: And a good thing too, you could be a good influence on those kids.
JKS: Well, I felt a little bad, some of the songs were a little bit dirty, and there's drug references and stuff in some of the songs...
ADD: Did you do Bad Astronaut?
JKS: Yeah, we did Bad Astronaut (general laughter). But, well, what can you do?
ADD: I'm not really a big subscriber to the theory that words are inherently evil or bad themselves.
MO'K: "If my child hears this word, he'll become a moral degenerate."
JKS: Like I sang this song, Even the Clouds Get High. And it's like, "Okay kids." I made this little speech before it, I said "Have you ever been at a party...and...someone offers you pot...and you're not sure whether you should smoke it or not...well, this is a song about how you should smoke it." (General laughter). I went on to explains that I don't really smoke pot myself, and I do go to parties, and people will offer pot to me and I don't really want to smoke it, so just for fun I wrote a little song to myself about trying to convince myself to do it. And that's not on any album yet.
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