1997 was an iconic year for some, particularly Roger Gastman, creator and publisher of While You Were Sleeping magazine. At just 19 years old the dastardly entrepreneur and art enthusiast put out the premiere issue (a whopping 24 pages) of his graff — and all things seedy and related — periodical. Fast forward from then, and while most of us were literally snoozing , Mr. Gastman went on to grow his evil empire. He helped foster the then blossoming careers of some of the biggest names in contemporary art including ESPO, Shepard Fairey and Ron English, along with publishing WYWS magazine all the way until 2003 and becoming the publisher of more than 30 prolific art related books thereafter. How’s that for a self-proclaimed dictator (as it reads on his current business card)? Mighty swell, we’d say, considering the fact that he’s also recently released a hardcover compilation of his infamous magazine dubbed, The Worst of While You Were Sleeping. Interviews with Ron Jeremy, photos of people’s naked sisters, graffiti, and lessons in distribution for everybody!
Mass Appeal: First off, much respect to you and the While You Were Sleeping legacy. I just looked over the book this past weekend and it was pretty mind-blowing how amazing, ahead of its time and full of madness it all was!
Roger Gastman: Thank you. I think that’s been my problem with almost everything my life, it’s that it’s always been a little bit too soon.
MA: I guess being ahead of your time is almost a good problem to have. Or no?
RG: It’s both. It definitely works both ways.
MA: What made you put the book together now after so much time?
RG: While You Were Sleeping was a very interesting and early part of my life and it pretty much took over most of my life and was my life. We were writing about the things we were doing, my friends that were not writers, not photographers, etcetera. Everyone was contributing something really silly and stupid that happened and we’d put it in WYWS.
[When] I left WYWS I honestly kind of shut that chapter in my life. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t something that I’d really mention when people asked me what I’d done. It was over, it was done. The last five years maybe, I started thinking about it a lot more and going back to that way of thinking — where anything can be fun, almost [like] the more juvenile the better — and try and have fun with it, and if you’re not having fun with it why are you doing it? And I applied those rules to a lot things that I was doing and had better outcomes and better results. And a lot of those things all came back to reasons why I was doing WYWS. More and more people were talking to me about it too. They realized that I was the guy that had done it. People you’d never expect. From creative directors of agencies that were straight cut and straight laced or however you’re supposed to say it. I was hearing about WYWS from all different angles, I should say, and I really realized how much fun I had doing it. So many of my friends that were contributors at the time, I was still friends with. A lot of them were married, had kids, were lawyers, whatever they were, everyone’s life had gone on. A lot of the artists that we had put in it were just so popular now and there were a lot of very early interviews and information with them and I just figured, “I have all this content, I’d love to get it back out there and remind people that it existed.”
MA: I hear that you were heavily into music when you were young. What did the DIY elements of musical subcultures like punk and hardcore teach you in terms of catapulting or producing independent material like what you did with WYWS?
RG: I got into punk rock really early, 4th, 5th, 6th grade. I could almost pinpoint when I got a certain band’s tape and how I got it those years. By early 7th/8th grade I was getting into hardcore. I started going to shows in probably ’91/’92 and realized that a lot of these things I wanted — records that I wanted, CDs that I wanted — while I could go to Tower Records and get a few, I had to really seek a lot of stuff out. I had to mail order, send a letter out to someone or call a store in some random city. If visiting my aunt in Chicago, they had a record store that would have more Chicago-based stuff. I could go there and get it. If I wanted older Chicago stuff, it would probably be easier to get it there than it would be in D.C. I realized that there were these huge networks of people that you could trade with, buy music from, etcetera. I saw the distribution line from very early on. And then I started becoming friends with a lot of people in bands. A lot of those people in bands wrote graffiti. They wrote graffiti in New Jersey, they wrote graffiti in California. By the time I was 14/15 years old in 9th grade I had a fairly decent group of friends around the country that were graffiti writers, most of them several years older than me. We were trading photos back and forth. You’d send them 20 photos of what was going on in DC, they’d send you 20 photos of what was going on in their town.
Through that I just built a network and that network was totally do-it-myself. The guy in Chicago would turn you on to someone in Milwaukee, the guy in Milwaukee would turn you on to someone in another city and so on. Through that network is really the way I distributed WYWS, especially the first several issues and one of the reasons why it wasn’t so scary to print 3,000 copies of a magazine and not know how the hell I was going to get rid of them. Yea, it was scary, but I at least knew, “Hey there’s these 12 stores I know of that exist in these cities that carry this kind of stuff. I can send them a copy and a letter, maybe they’ll buy some.” While I definitely had not a clue what I was doing, I at least had an idea of where to start.
MA: In this digital age — very different from the print and analog golden era of of the ’90s — do you think the internet has made it easier or harder to get ideas up and out there?
RG: Today, I think it’s easier and harder at the same time to do something. It’s easier to spread something and grab a global audience very quickly, but it’s harder to actually print and then sell an actual object because everyone wants the information so quick via Instagram, via a website and many other digital options, whereas print magazines, in a way, have been dying. I think 80% of the stores I used to be able to sell WYWS through and other people used to sell magazines through up to five years ago, so many of them don’t exist anymore. The distribution model is so different and so much harder. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It makes people work harder if they really want it. But it’s still possible to do.
MA: Very true. I mean even back then, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for you. You fell into it, yea, but had to take advantage of the opportunity, right?
RG: WYWS, in a way, was my college education, I learned as I went. And the people that I see today doing print magazines, I look at it and I just say, “This is hard. I have a lot of respect that you’re doing this. I know how hard this is.” And even when I saw Mass Appeal start up again I was like, “This is hard to do, it’s not an easy thing!”
MA: The book is full of so many stories, features and things. Is there anything you regret not doing. Or anything you’d want to do if you could go back and get the opportunity to?
RG: The book is so big, it’s like 500 pages, which is still only a fraction of what I wanted to put into it. And we printed it on thin, crappy paper just like when we printed the magazine. It was probably the only way we could jam in all of the stuff that we wanted to. It’s still full of errors just like the magazine was. I put in a lot of my favorite stuff. There were always stories that I wanted to do. What exactly they were, I probably couldn’t tell you half of them because I can’t remember. We did put a couple of new stories in the book that were along with what was going on in my office at the time for the most part. Just to kind of keep it fresh. They were only a couple of pages. We also expanded a few stories with some extra photos I had. And one of the things I really like too is that we revisited a lot of the stories with the original artists they were about or the original photographers and the original writers of the story.
There’s a lot of text on the stories themselves — at the beginning, at the end, on the side columns that revisits the story 10 years/12 years, whatever it is, later from the band the story was about and the writer, the photographer, and what they think looking back now. Those were really funny and really fun to put together. I think that gives the stories a lot more depth and gives the book a lot more depth. And the artists and everything about it have a lot more depth, from quotes here and there from contributors and what they were doing at the time to where they are now. That’s one of the things I’m proud of with this book. We didn’t just rescan old pages of the magazine and put it back out. It’s redesigned, rescanned, sort of. We, of course, had old Quark files to work with, so we did need to redesign and rescan a whole lot of stuff, but we didn’t redesign it where, I think, we lost how WYWS looked. We used a lot of the same fonts, a lot of the same logos, headers. We used as much as we could, but we still needed to make the book look like one consistent piece. I really think the designer did a great job in keeping with the old shitty aesthetic of, “Learning as we go.”
MA: The book’s so rich in its details and crazy stories. It makes you feel uncomfortable looking through some of the wilder stuff, but also want to keep flipping through it because it’s interesting. It’s sort of like the antithesis of all the clean stuff you see in all these gentlemen’s guides and magazines nowadays. I feel like WYWS is just more interesting because it’s crude, Whereas the modern mags can get real stiff and boring with their tame style guide approaches.
RG: We wanted people to feel uncomfortable when they looked at it. A lot of people have been like “Aw man, you’re an asshole, I can’t believe you reprinted what I wrote 12 years ago.” Or, “Why did you print that story of me when you were asking me the most ridiculous questions?” I wanted to kind of jar people again. I had a really ridiculous release party planned here for this, which I don’t even want to say what it was because I don’t want to give it away and maybe one day we’ll be able to do it. Every sponsor was afraid of it and that would’ve been my last WYWS thing that I ever needed to do because people were going to leave it feeling so awkward, disturbed and think it was funny just like they did with the magazine, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.
MA: What was the biggest lesson you learned while running WYWS?
RG: I learned a lot about business, life and responsibility. All of the adult things that you wouldn’t think someone would take away from a juvenile magazine like WYWS. We learned about distribution, we learned about ad sales, we learned about staff, personnel, all of those things. Balancing budgets, things that I didn’t think I ever wanted to learn or would learn or needed to learn. I just thought I could do stuff and have fun, but it doesn’t always work that way. But on top of that I learned that it also gave us great access too. The access we could get to things, to people, to concerts, to free clothes, free porno, whatever we wanted! We had such great access because of this silly magazine that I was making in my basement.
MA: Would you have any advice for any up-and-coming talent that’s still trying to come up with analog street creditability in this digital age? Artists looking to start their own zines and foster their own scenes?
RG: Don’t think too big. Think local. Think who your network is. If it’s good product it’s going to grow from there. It doesn’t need to happen with the first thing you do or the second thing you do. Don’t think too big because if you’re doing it yourself you’re probably paying for it yourself. Go with your friends, go with your local connections and build from there. And if you [make] a good product people are going to like it, you’re going to hear about it and that’s when you’re going to make more. The next one, you’re going to make more. There’s nothing worse than sitting on boxes and boxes of magazines or books and all those things that you’ve made and not knowing how the hell you’re going to get rid of them. Because in your head you’re going to have a lot more ideas of what you want to do but you have to get rid of that first.
MA: Any last words?
RG: WYWS was a lot of fun to do. At the time that we were launching there were a lot of other magazines, Mass Appeal was one of them. Whether I wanted to admit it at the time or not, we were looking at it, we liked it. I think there was a rivalry — some friendly, some not — back then with a lot of the magazines. But in the end I think we were all just fighting for the same advertising dollars because they were so few and far between and it’s kind of awesome to think that, while we were all very different, we were similar in the eyes of a lot of the advertisers with the audience we were reaching. And to think there was able to be that much media being put out there independently at the time is awesome. I definitely miss a lot of that. I’m happy that the WYWS book is out and the best place to get it is on Amazon.