Michael W. Dean
nov 2003 -
email interview by SEB WOOd

Hello, how are you ?? can you introduce yourself ??

I am Michael W. Dean. I live in America but it's an accident of birth. I don't have any alignment to any place. I live on the road when I'm not home preparing for more travel and visiting my cat.

I do a lot of stuff…art, music, film, write books, paint, and pet girls and a few boys. I live in Los Angeles, though I'm writing this from Houston, Texas, and I just returned from a tour of Europe with DIY or DIE. I'm here in Texas to teach a filmmaking class.

DIY or DIE was originally released on VHS and is now re-released on DVD. Correct me if I’m wrong… What are the differences between the VHS and the DVD ??

DVD has extra material, an hour of interviews and stuff that weren't on the VHS. It has updated credits, and a nice cover. And we corrected an issue with the first pressing of VHS (the ones with blank white covers) where there were a few visual glitches in the movie.

All totaled, between DVD and VHS, the film has sold about 5000 copies. I have no idea how many people have burned a DVD, but I know they exist, I've seen them.

The DVD also has an interview with Steve Albini which is not on the VHS, even though some VHS sleeves mistakenly say there is. That's because I used the same template and forgot. So to make amends to "da kids", I put the Albini interview for free download on www.diyordie.org in case anyone bought the VHS by mistake for that single reason. I don't want anyone feeling ripped off because I hate that feeling myself.  

What happened since the first release ?? Has the film been broadcast ??

Yes, it's been shown on cable TV in a lot of cities in America. The dates and places are all archived on the Website. (Well, the ones I know about.) I let pretty much anyone show it free. And they contact me, I don't usually have to contact them. This film has taken on a life of its own. I'm honored. That's very cool, especially for a first film.  

Touring to show a film as you do is quite unconventional because unlike other documentary filmmakers your tour is not passing by theatres but by places epitomizing DIY spirit. Do you think directors will tour more the way you do ??

I think we are pioneers. Me and Scott Beiben of the Lost Film Fest are, to my knowledge, the first Americans touring Europe with our digital films. I think in a year, due to us paving the way, and also because of my book, "$30 Film School" which tells how to do it, I think a lot of people will be doing it. There's another person doing one now too, the woman who made "Catching Out."

But it ain't no thang. I think if we hadn't, someone else would have. I think we just jumped in and helped make it easy. In the same way that some of the musicians in DIY or DIE made it easy for a punk band to tour by doing it themselves back when it wasn't so easy.

I think in two years, you're going to see more movies touring than bands. It will be the new thing. Mark my whiny little words.

All the people who hosted me on the European tour were amazed at how nice it was compared to having a band to feed, house, etc. (And I'm more low maintenance than a band. I'm mellow, smart, make good conversation, don't drink and even do dishes!)  

Michael Moore did a promotional tour and took advantage of it to make The Big One. What do you think of him ??

He is one of the reasons I became a filmmaker. I love his spirit. Though I do think that his movies, while coming from a great place, lack organization. I mean, in "Columbine", I was TOTALLY on his side, but I lost track of what he was trying to say. And making fun of Mister Moses at the end just seemed cheap. Moore was just picking on a sick, confused old man. And it was also a weaker ending point than some other places in the movie he could have ended with instead. I think Moore needs to work more proactively with a better editor.

Also, he pulls some cheap shots that utilize the exact heart-tugging devices that he lambastes the mainstream media for. But overall, he rocks.

The Big One is funny to me, because I thought about it several times on this trip. This trip was a combination of the DIY or DIE movie, and me playing music, and promo for my book. I did all three at most stops. And I kept thinking of Michael Moore being driven in a van to speak to 500 college students and staying in cheap hotels and he says stuff like, "This must be the most low-budget promotional tour EVER." I thought about that several times while I was talking about my book to 40 homeless squatters in Belgium, and literally running to spend my last money to catch a train, to go to France to present it again and then sleep on the dusty floor in yet another freezing squat.

And I had the time of my life. And now I'm in a warm house in Houston, wishing I was back freezing in Europe.  

And have you filmed parts of your trip to make another documentary on DIY places or DIY through Europe… ??

I'm done chronicling the DIY ethic. Let someone else do it. It's a good subject, but I'm sick of the same questions. I am honored to be able to be asked them, and to travel, but it's like being in a band playing the same hits.

And  this time I intentionally didn't bring a video camera. There are some video bits of the US tour on the DVD, but I didn't want to have to "work" every minute of this European tour. And I was ALONE this time. Michael Moore hired a crew.

I did bring a digital still camera, and uploaded reports from on the road. It was really fun. I was less a filmmaker at work and more a tourist having fun. These photos are all archived here:


Can you explain how your tour has been organized ??

Almost all by me, all by e-mail. I had a little help with a few shows in the UK from Lee, the guy who books the Dischord bands in Manchester. And my friend Tobi in Nurenberg gave me a lot of contacts in Germany, and also drove me for six days. The rest of the time I was on the train.

It took a lot of work, discipline and vigilance to book and maintain this tour. I brought a laptop and was on the Internet about an hour a day even on the road. At home it's more like four hours of booking a day for two months.  

What is the oddest place in which you screened DIY or die ?? I guess you must have experienced some strange moments during DIY tours, right ?

I was invited to show it at the Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It's a very high-brow place. It was cool because it was not "preaching to the choir" like it sometimes is in punk clubs. At the MOCA, it was showing it to people who had no idea that this stuff exists. It's fine to show my film to Fugazi fans, but they aren't gonna get any new information, only confirm what they already know.  

Touring in places epitomizing DIY spirit enables you to play songs. Do you consider recording and releasing these songs ??

They're mostly all already on my Website at :


I wouldn't mind putting them out on a CD if someone wanted to do it, but it's not a priority. I would do it probably if approached, but I'm too busy to solicit someone to do it.

Someone on this tour did offer to put out my old version of "Long Black Veil" on a Johnny Cash tribute compilation. That's my band Baby Opaque, with Ian MacKaye singing backup. It's a label called Scene Police in Germany.

Here's that song if you want it:


When you showed your film, I talked with someone who was disturbed by the copyright logo at the end of your film. I told him that you encourage people to burn your DVD and that you have to respect other's work…because if you don’t buy their art, they won’t be able to do some more…Someone in your film explained that everything should have a price so that people could apprehend it as valuable. It’s basically the current interesting debate about downloading albums by unsigned bands. Your opinion about all this seems ambiguous so what do you think about the copy left movement and about Peer to Peer programs such as Napster, Audiogalaxy, Soulseek…

I allow people to give the film away for non-commercial use. Putting the copyright symbol at the end allows me to take action if anyone sells copies of the film. Anyone who doesn't understand that doesn't understand copyrights, or reality, or anything. They are probably a spoiled kid who lives with mommy and daddy and doesn't have to pay rent. Or someone who lives without heat and eats out of a dumpster. I do neither.

I love punk rock, but it sure has produced a lot of idiots who have their heads up their asses.

Some things I do are DIY, some are not. And anyone who tries to block my ability to do anything I want to do is going to encounter a lot of resistance. 

I don't agree with everyone in the film about everything. Some even contradict others. I put a few opposing views in, especially in the file sharing issue. (And the Steve Albini interview on the extras, which we did after the movie was done, contradicts EVERYONE in the film who says to quit your day job and just do art, which is most of them. Albini says, "Keep your day job so you can never have to compromise your art", which I think is a great idea. I'm now an amateur musician, I used to be a pro, I'm having more fun singing now that I make my living writing books).

But overall, I am mostly pro-file sharing. Though I had an interesting experience on this tour: Someone in France asked me "May I put your whole film on the Internet for download please?". I thought for about 15 seconds and said "Yes, as long as you do a good looking encode". Then I thought and smiled and asked, "What would you do if I'd said 'no'?" He said, "I would put it on the Internet anyway".

This pissed me off, and we talked about it for an hour. And it brought up a lot of issues with me. Because I would take anything of someone else's down if asked to by the artist, and would NEVER put it up if they told me not to. But then I realized that that is exactly what Metallica was doing, asking people to take their stuff down (even though they did it in a shitty way). And I was like, "Fuck them, they can't tell me what to do".

I like the singer in Tool's attitude. He says, "My music is not yours to give away". I think there's no way to enforce that, but I like that he says it. But then again, I've downloaded his music. (And further, I didn't like it!)

I think the answer to "Is file sharing OK in every case?" is not a simple yes or no. It's such a new issue, I am not completely sure how I feel, even though I do it.

I just wish more people would release DVDs without copy protection. And just for the record, the publicity generated by me doing that actually made me money. This was not my goal, but it did work out that way. I sold more copies AND people got them free. I like that. I think there should be more business models, in all industries, that combine selling with giving.

Also, I worked REALLY hard getting subtitles done. You show me another un-funded no-budget indie DVD that has really good subtitles in five languages. This thing was a labor of extreme love and loving act of extreme labor. So that guy who didn't like the fact that I copyrighted the film can rim me gently, all night long.

He probably wouldn't like the fact that I made money on this tour. Punk artists are supposed to starve. I made $1200 on this trip. But that works out to about $25 a day for an insane amount of work and travel and crappy conditions, not counting the time I spent booking it. And I would like to see what he's done artistically. I doubt he's done anything of the magnitude of hours of work into a single project that I have. And I've done dozens of projects (film, records and books) this complex.

Photo by Michael Dean  
Cat in France, with 700 Euros of tour money.

Give that dood my e-mail and have him drop me a line.

(SWd: I don't know the guy whom I spoke with about copyright and copy-left. I had not even seen him once before... Anyway, he was just playing the smart guy because he thought I knew the foxy girl who was sitting next to me...)

Also, copyright protects the film from being used in derivative works out of context. Copyright can be used to protect the integrity of the film, not just the money aspect. Without a copyright, some liquor company could slap their logo at the end of it and broadcast it. I don't want that to happen, and I doubt that guy does either.

Back to the Steve Albini thing, filmmaking is not my job, it's my hobby (though I try to do everything as well as I can, and work harder at even my hobbies than most Americans do at their job). And my film only cost $5000 US to make, so you aren't taking bread out of my kid's mouth by making one copy. Ya know?  

In my opinion, DIY or DIE is more about having an alternative lifestyle and convincing people to join than helping them out. It focuses on the why, much more than the how. The VHS headline was ‘how to survive as an independent artist’, which implies to deal with how to survive. The film concentrates on why doing it. Is it really what you wanted to do in the first place ?

This question is oddly worded, and I'm not sure what you're asking. I sure don't think DIY is a club and I'm not out to recruit anyone. I'm just showing something that's important to me.  

Are you saying, "The film should have been called "D.I.Y. or DIE: WHY to Survive as an Independent Artist"?

If so, several people have said that. That's one reason why I made "$30 Film School". It's more HOW. The book (and the CD-ROM that comes with it) and the movie go together. The book actually references the movie a lot for examples too.

I just finished writing another 520-page book called "$30 Music School", which will be out in January 2004 by the same publisher. And I've been writing "$30 Writing School" on the trains in Europe. When they're all out in the world, I'm gonna move on to something else. But these three books (and the three CDs that come with) and the movie, about a hundred bucks total, taken as a whole, are pretty much a complete course in making and promoting ALL art in a way that you can't get in school. I take them all together as a unit, though they definitely each work well individually.

Why did you choose to take into account famous indie icons (Lydia Lunch, Ian McKaye, Steve Albini, Richard Kern) and lesser-known people (Madigan Shive, JG Thirlwell) and to put them at equal footing ?? Is it to show that everyone’s able to do it, be they famous or broke ??

Yup. And to show that fame ain't the goal. It's the byproduct. I wanted also to show people based on how cool their mind was, not on how many records they sell or whatever. A few people in the film have never sold ANYTHING or even shown it outside their apartments. 

You played in the band Bomb which was signed to Warner. You said that being signed to a major killed your band. Could you elaborate on that please??

They give bands a lot of false hopes. And when you have those hopes, you go from just making cool music because it's fun, to having to meet those goals and hopes. And expectations are appointments with resentments.

And also you comodify your art: It becomes a product and if you don't "move enough product", that system brands you as a "failure" and "drops" you, which is what happened. And we were REALLY fucking good.

The music is here if you wanna check it out:


Your film deals with the need that we have to ‘create and make that creation meaningful’ (as someone puts it in the film) and to take care of it instead of waiting for someone to take it in charge, someone who will pay for it. I’m not trying to undermine your work here but don’t you think that someone signed to a big record company doesn’t have this longing to create, to compose ?? I think you can’t just lose it (eg: Sonic Youth, Lou Barlow, Nirvana…).

Absolutely. Some of my favorite records are on major labels. Everything from Pink Floyd to Black Sabbath to Jane's Addiction to whatever….probably more music I like is on majors than not. I dunno, maybe it's half and half. I don't hate majors, I just want to show an alternative.

I don't take sides and not everything is black and white in my world. My new book series is not on a DIY company, it's with a rather large educational publisher. And I'll say this: They pay when they say they will. Whereas there are independent distributors who STILL owe me money for my self-published novel, and even for Bomb records we put out ourselves fifteen years ago. And faux indie magazine "Thrasher" still hasn't paid Bomb the hundred dollars they owe us for being on a compilation. And we're not the only band they screwed. I think they're dishonest. I asked them for the money, they never returned my calls.

I know people who've ordered records from different indie labels and still haven't received them a year later. And it's not that the people running the labels are dishonest, it's usually that they take on too much stuff to do.

I love the idea of indie business done for the sake of art rather than money, I'd just like to see them all follow through. And sometimes they come off as hypocrites. The louder you are at being anti-capitalist, the more you have to be on top of your own business ventures or it drowns the message.

(For what it's worth, I ALWAYS ship orders the day I get them. But then again, I'm an anal retentive.)

And I'm in Texas doing this interview by candle light on my battery powered laptop in my friend's house with the power cut off. His flaky anti-capitalist anarchist artist roommate forgot to pay the bill. FUCK! People should keep their shit together. It's hard to advance or overthrow ANYTHING when you can't wipe your own ass.

But I'm set, I'm ready, I'm powered up and ready to go. I'm still working. I live to work. Bring it on: I'm ready.

Ian MacKaye managed to remain independent and release great music with Dischord but some people would tell you that they respect Dischord very much but that they no longer embody DIY for them, which is not my opinion. What would you say to these people apart from the fact that they started DIY ??

I don't think Dischord invented DIY, but I think they did put it on the map, the same way Ford didn’t invent the car, but he put one in every barn in America.

I think Dischord is still more DIY than ever, and these pundits and wags of which you speak are darned wrong. I deal with them, buy from them, sell through them, and have been to their office recently.

My only complaint about Dischord is I don't personally love all the bands they put out these days, whereas I used to love ALL of them. But that's just a matter of opinion.

I'll say this for Dischord: They send people the shit they order, promptly. But then again the same can be said of Microsoft or Atlantic Records. Big companies often have their shit together more than the little anti-corporate indie-as-fuck labels. But Dischord have walked their talk, forever. And I've watched them forever. They run a tight ship.

As for music, I don't usually have an affinity to all the output on ANY label. Just like I don't usually love a given director. Fight Club is my favorite all-time movie, but the Fincher-directed "Alien" put me to sleep. And Panic Room had a cool look and feel, but the story was just a rip off on the old sixties flick, "Wait Until Dark".

I like it very much when someone says in the film "I hate people who say ‘I used to like to draw but I don’t do it no more ’cos there's no money in it'". At the end, Ian MacKaye explains that he likes to play the piano but if he’d have to do a piano competition he would probably end up being the last one. The point being to just do what you feel you need and don’t take into account critics when they are mean-spirited. Could we sum up the film’s message this way: "Don’t become resigned and don’t end up living your life like a ghost??"

Maybe. If I had to encapsulate the film, I think it has two messages. I think one is pretty much summed up in the last line in the movie proper, when Dana says, "If no one ever knows who you are, at least you knew why YOU were." And I think the other message is, "Don't compromise, and do what you love. And maybe you'll make a living. But maybe not." Which leads directly back to the Dana line.

In Europe I encountered a lot of people (especially penniless squatters) who were mad because they felt this person or that person in the film wasn't "True DIY". These people telling me this are just scene police.

In making this flick, I was just making a point, not writing a law. People ask me to be the judge in these contests, even regarding people who aren't in my film, and they want me to give my opinion about some band that "used to be cool but sold out".

I couldn't care less. And I think there's bigger problems in the world than which rockers are selling sneakers.

Jeez. Most of the people asking me this were nice kids, but I feel like telling them, "Get a life."  

Apart from interviewing all these people, did you come up against great difficulties doing this film ??

Dealing with the 30 egos of the 30 artists and pleasing everyone was tough. And I picked people, by design, who were less egotistical than average.

Why did you choose to include J Mascis in your film ?? Was it recording what he did back in the 80’s and home-recording ??

It wasn't planned. I went to interview Mike Watt, and he was playing with Mascis and Asheton, so I interviewed them too.

I just like him, and think he put grunge (and thus indirectly, punk) on the map. Without J, you wouldn't have had Kurt Cobain.

He still records at home, by the way.

OK, now comes our usual off-beat questionnaire:

“Was you ever bit by a dead bee ??”

Nope. I've heard it's possible though. But back when I did drugs, I shared a needle with a guy who it turned out had AIDS. In 1986. I didn't get it. I'm HIV-negative, and he's dead. Who knows how this stuff works?

The guy was my friend Eddy Caranza, one of the two people (the other is my mother) that the film is dedicated to at the beginning.

What’s your favorite pick-up line ??

I don’t use pickup lines. My favorite pickup line is when a girl I like picks ME up.

My favorite line for them to use, and this happens, is some variation of "Your art has touched me in special places. You changed my life. Take me."

I didn't hit on any girls on this tour. I was there to do a job, and I did it. I kept to myself, slept alone. And I had the best six weeks of my life.

(Actually I didn't always sleep alone: I slept with cats a few times. French cats, German cats, Irish cats. Belgian cats. Dutch cats. British cats. I am fluent in all variations of the cat tongue.)

What freaks the hell out of you ??

When I'm petting cats, and they're purring, but then they bite me.

What’s that smell in the woods ??


What’s your favorite curse word ??


Is there a question you cannot help asking yourself ??

"How can I EVER complain about anything when my life is sooooo cool?" (I complain a lot).

Which Hollywood star (dead or alive) would you most like to date ??

I had a crush on a well-known actress, then I moved to Los Angeles and happened to met her and we became friends, and now I'm glad we never dated. Since she's my friend, I'm not gonna say her name.

Would you prefer wearing a douche bag for a day or having tourette’s syndrome for a day ??

Wearing a douche bag? Or do you mean a colostomy bag?

I love crazy questions, but yours are pretty fucking odd. Is it because you're French? Lol……

Who is the best Lee ??

The dead one who was in the Crow.

Or my friend Lee in Manchester, England.

What question would you ask in this list ??

I would ask one that's not on this list:

"What kind of cat would you be and why?"

My art assistant, Lydia Lam, made that up. I've been using it. Jonathan Richman liked it. Joan Jett didn't. How was I to know her cat died that week? I felt bad.

Not a question, but here's a statement:

Show "DIY or DIE" film, help cats, help you.

From now on, anyone who wants to can do a showing of my film, "D.I.Y. or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist" in their home town, and keep up to half of the money for you or your organization to cover your time and expenses.

Don't send the other half to me. DONATE IT TO YOUR LOCAL ANIMAL SHELTER. If you don't have a local animal shelter, donate it to the ASPCA. ( e-mail them at donations@aspca.org )

Details: http://www.kittyfeet.com/europe/helpCats.htm

To join Michael W. Dean's e-mail list, send an email to kittyfeet69-subscribe@topica.com  


/dec 1st 2003/