As Indie-pop zine ‘Chickfactor’ celebrates its 20th birthday, cofounder Gail O’Hara offers her Notes on Twee

'Chickfactor' zine cofounders Pam Berry and Gail O'Hara in 1997 (Gail O'Hara)
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Just as No Depression was the '90s music magazine that chronicled “alternative country (whatever that means)” so Chickfactor, run by ex-Time Out New York music editor Gail O'Hara, could be understood as the chronicler of “indie pop (whatever that means).”

Sometimes in describing it, though—actually, a lot of times when describing it—people use a particular word that begins with T. Not O’Hara, though.

“I don't think of what I do to be particularly twee,” said O’Hara, who co-founded Chickfactor with Pam Berry in 1992. The zine celebrates its 20th birthday beginning tonight, with three evenings of music at Brooklyn’s Bell House. Each show features four advertised bands—many reunited, including Berry’s group, Black Tambourine (Tuesday; sold out), the Aislers Set and the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group (both Wednesday), and Honey Bunch and the Softies (both Thursday)—not to mention a few unnamed “special guests.”

“We have probably two special guests every night,” O’Hara said. Given her deep connections with the indie-pop world, she could mean just about anyone.

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Most prominently, O’Hara directed the 2010 Magnetic Fields documentary Strange Powers. So, maybe a Stephin Merritt appearance? She indicated no. “There’s a lot of bands on the New York bills that I did ask to play that aren’t playing for various reasons,” O’Hara said of another Merritt project. “Future Bible Heroes is one of those.”

But though O’Hara can be coy about just who might be rounding out the bills (“I would definitely say to get there at 8, especially on Tuesday . . . I just was communicating to two of the special guests [who] are sharing a guitar”), she’s forthright about the T-word.

“Definitely, when we started Chickfactor in ’92, Pam was much more of a purist in indie pop than I [was]. She likes just as many different genres of music as I do, as well, but I think her vision for Chickfactor was much more out of Sarah Records. And a lot of it was like that. But I really think if you look back through the old issues, there's definitely a lot of different kinds of music in there.”

O’Hara continued: “I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little bit of twee-ness. I don’t think of a lot of these artists as being twee any more than Doris Day, Cole Porter, Chet Baker, or anyone like that, so it doesn’t really make sense to me to call it twee. I just put a couple of mixes together for the events. I was thinking how easy it is to roll a Clientele song into Gal Costa, and how to roll Tracey Thorn [into] the Dolly Mixture. You wouldn’t call that twee.”

In my defense, I told O’Hara, I didn't believe I'd actually said the word “twee.”

O’Hara laughed. “I am a little bit defensive about it,” she admitted. “I have been through phases in my life where I listened to or went to see Led Zeppelin. I have been through a lot of phases of music, but Chickfactor is not about macho rock or anything like that.”

That, of course, was precisely the zine’s draw. Chickfactor’s debut coincided with a mainstream-media surge in the often-homemade music O’Hara and Berry championed: Liz Phair was on the cover of the third issue (alongside a separate photo of Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier) only a year before she was on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The tone was insider (lots of “thanks” from interviewers at the end of Q&A sessions), but convivial, as with the second-issue sit-down with British group Heavenly. Q: “Mathew, what’s it like being in a band with your sister?” A: “I view Amelia less as my sister, more as the queen of all indiepop, and–as such–I am happy to serve as one of her privvy counselors.”

Chickfactor's roots go back to the late '80s, when O’Hara first met Berry when both worked at the City Paper in Washington, D.C. After O’Hara moved to New York in the early '90s, she began copyediting for Spin, eventually landing Stephin Merritt a job doing the same thing.

Before moving over to Time Out in 1995—where she became music editor a year later, staying until 2000—O’Hara and Berry collaborated on a co-interview of David Gedge of the Wedding Present for Spin.

“The Spin article was a half page, and it hardly used any of the quotes, but we had this massive interview,” said O’Hara. “I was like, ‘Let's start a fanzine!’ Spin were not letting me do stuff that I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time coming there coming up with ideas and they never got done. Chickfactor opened up this whole world of creative control for me that was really exciting. I think Pam went along with it but it was probably more of me pushing.”

The first issue was handed out at a Heavenly and Lois co-bill at Maxwell’s. Soon after, O’Hara began booking her own Chickfactor-centric shows, which endured some distinctively indie-pop technical dilemmas.

“The first show we did it ended up being eleven bands,” she said. “That kind of set the tone. It was really funny, because all eleven bands used the same drum kit, and the band whose drum kit it was drove up from D.C.: ‘They're not here yet, so we can't start sound-checking.’ The soundmen were just mortified.”

Berry bowed out as co-editor in the mid-’90s. When she moved to London in 1998, O’Hara began to visit, eventually moving there herself in 2003, and then relocating to Portland, Oregon, in 2007.

O’Hara got to London, she says, “Because I had a visa in the ‘highly skilled migrant’ program. People used to ask me, ‘What’s your skill?’ If you read my visa packet, I have these letters of recommendation from Stephin Merrritt and Lemony Snicket like, ‘You should let Gail come and live there.’ I portrayed myself as a cheerleader of British pop culture that British media didn’t care about, and it seemed to work.”

The Chickfactor 20 shows mark the first time O’Hara has booked bands in a few years. “When I lived in New York, I set up shows all the time,” she said. “What you have in a place like that is a lot of people who are going to come out. It was so easy and so great. In London, setting up shows is much harder there—more like a pay-to-play kind of thing. In Portland, it is just really hard, especially if it is summer. People want to be outside, because it is the only time of year that they can go outside.”

She’s on happier ground booking shows in New York and D.C. O’Hara has been planning the Chickfactor 20 concerts for more than a year, requesting wish lists from followers of the zine’s Facebook page.

“They’re still musicians," O'Hara said of some of the bands playing the event. "They just haven’t played in a really long time and need to be asked. I think that is my role: asking and bugging people to play.”

One of the acts that took longest to convince was Black Tambourine: When Slumberland reissued the band’s out-of-print discography on a single CD the group pointedly didn’t tour behind it.

“They actually said two years ago in some interviews, ‘We're not re-forming!’" said O’Hara. “It's pretty funny. It's exciting that they're doing it. I think they have kind of found a younger, newer audience in recent years, and I think they're just worried about living up to that mystique or whatever. I'm sure it's going to be great anyway.”

Is "living up to the mystique" sort of common among the groups that are putting appearances in at Chickfactor 20, following long absences?

“I can't imagine what it's like for these people who were in high school when the Softies were around, and now they're getting to finally see the Softies. For me, it's hard to imagine what they're expecting, how different these people are going to look from their photos,” O’Hara laughs. “I don't know—I think mystique is something that is missing from a lot of stuff nowadays.”