Roger Gastman Went to Town While You Were Sleeping
Find out how music, graffiti, pornography, and people's naked sisters helped Roger Gastman learn about business.
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 graf—and all things seedy and related—periodical. Fast forward, 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, 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.
I guess being ahead of your time is almost a good problem to have. Or no?
It’s both. It definitely works both ways.
What made you put the book together now after so much time?
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.”
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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!”
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?
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.”