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Monday
Mar302015

D2D Interview: Jaime Hernandez

When we think of high art—as in the type of stuff that hangs in museums—we think of paintings, or sculptures, or maybe even craftsmanship. Few people I know would think about comics in that same light. The same goes for high literature. When we think of the world's great novels, we think of Dickens, Hemingway, or Joyce, but we rarely put comics into the canon of great writing and character development. For those who know the work of the Hernandez brothers, however, comics might be one of the first mediums they think of. The comics drawn by Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario are far beyond the occasional Sunday chuckle; they're among some of the great artistic works of the last three decades. Jaime's Hopper world in particular depicts the realities of youth—based around two female characters: Maggie and Hopey—centered in Southern California's emerging punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s. The brothers' collaborative work, Love & Rockets, isn't merely a collection of stories about superheroes or talking dogs, it's something entirely more cutting edge. Their ability to draw intriguing images and simultaneously script engaging and layered stories of complex and relatable characters, was something that completely took the medium by storm upon its initial launch and continues to impact new artists today.

The Times of London once wrote: "The rough-edged Latin American minimalist, stylized black and white comic strips have been widely described as the graphic equivalent to the fabulism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate.”

The LA Weekly once printed: “Jaime’s Maggie and Gilbert’s Luba are two of the great characters in contemporary American fiction.”

It was in the early 1980s that the three brothers first banded together to create their own original series of drawings and helped spawn a new renaissance of underground comics. First published in 1982, the Love & Rockets series is today heralded as one of the finest of the genre, influencing a whole new generation of artists and illustrators to pick up the gauntlet the brothers had reluctantly laid down. Jaime and his brother Gilbert are so good at what they do, they've been called the Lennon and McCartney of comics—both artists with incredbile solo potential, but who work even more brilliantly together. Yet, because they draw comics rather than write novels, their names might not have been added to your book club's required reading list. But that hasn't stopped critics from lauding their incredible work along the same literary standard.

Rolling Stone called Love & Rockets: "American fiction’s best-kept secret.”

Salon named it: "A national treasure."

The Washington Post once wrote: “Love and Rockets is a high point in the comics form, conventional in idiom, but not comparable to any strips before it.”

Still don't know who the Hernandez brothers are? Well, if this wasn't enough of an introduction, our 2015 edition of Faultline Gin (along with a couple of other special Faultline releases) will showcase the work of Jaime Hernandez later on this summer and give you an even better idea of his talents. We've commissioned three labels from the acclaimed artist to adorn our bottles of St. George-distilled spirits; making the project easily the coolest thing we've ever done as a company. But before all that action goes down this year, I figured it might be nice to learn a bit more about one of the most dynamic figures in comic history (and about his drinking habits).

In this edition of Drinking to Drink, we talk about how the Hernandez brothers got started on their comic journey, how Jaime's love of beer and punk rock inspired his work, and what happens at the end of Comic-Con when all the artists end up together at the hotel bar. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of this page.

David: Can you tell me a bit about how you and your brothers started drawing comics?

Jaime: It started that we were drawing comics for ourselves. By the time we got out of high school and needed to think of our future, all we wanted to do was comics. We just tried to see where we could get published and then one day we said, “Fuck it, let’s do our own comic.” We printed up our own version of Love & Rockets and then we got picked up pretty quick by our publisher Fantographics. It’s been that way since.

David: How did you come up with the name Love & Rockets? Everyone thinks the boys from Bauhaus came up with that name for their rock band, but really they took it from you and your brothers.

Jaime: My brother Gilbert came up with that. He was just putting titles together when we were putting the comic together. He gave us the choice of two or three. He said, “What do you think of this one, or this one?” My other brother Mario and I said, “We like Love & Rockets,” and he said, “OK.” He said that he wanted to mix emotion with technology, so that was basically where it came from.

David: How difficult was it to get picked up with your own original artwork? This was all pre-internet, without so many of the communication and marketing methods we now take for granted.

Jaime: There was no alternative market, and there was no DIY thing going. I think undergrounds were still around, but there wasn’t really an alternative comic scene at the time. We were naïve to just do the comic the way we wanted to—partly because we were just cocky and young. We had no idea how the market worked. In those days, you were either Marvel or DC. We weren’t looking that far into the future, hoping that something would come about; not really putting our lives on the line or anything, just thinking, “God, I just want to be published.” I never thought about it being my job or anything. Fantographics at the time were just starting to publish their own comics, so they were kinda in the same boat. It was like, “Here we go, let’s see what we can do.” We just wanted to do comics that weren’t Marvel or DC.

David: What was the reaction when you first got published from the general marketplace?

Jaime: It was very supportive, in a small way. They said, “This is an interesting comic.” We were supported a lot by the mainstream—the Marvel and DC—artists because, like I said, there was no real alternative market to back us up. They thought, “Hey, these guys are good. Maybe they’ll work for us one day” (laughs). But we had to plan to do that. The minute we were published, I thought, “I’ve made it. I get to do the comics I want to.” I never thought of it as a stepping stone to the next thing, like maybe one day I’ll draw Spiderman.

David: When you look back at the people who have been successful at anything, it’s always to people who stuck to what they knew and what they loved, rather than those who tried to be something they weren’t. Was there never any doubt in your mind?

Jaime: By that time there wasn’t. If I would have done it five years before, who knows where I’d be? It was the right timing. I was cocky, young, and a punk rocker! It was like I had nothing to lose, really.

David: When I was younger, cockier, and into music, I would sit around drinking beer all day while listening to albums. Did you and your brothers sit around and drink beer while drawing comics?

Jaime: Yeah, in the beginning we would say, “Hey, let’s go to Mario’s house and take a twelve pack.” Then we would just sit around and say, “Hey, don’t forget about the comic. We’re doing the comic,” (laughs). We were all influenced by movies and music, it all belonged. It was all part of what we did. It’s weird, but even the stuff I didn’t like—the bands I hated, or the movies I didn’t like—it all still kinda belonged in this big plan I had to tell stories.

David: Was drinking part of the ritual, or did it distract you from drawing?

Jaime: It depended. A lot of times I would go out with friends, go see a band, drink, then come home and go, “Argghh…..I’m gonna go draw!” Then I would start inking, but I’d be shitfaced!

David: Were you able to work under those conditions? (laughs)

Jaime: Sometimes, but I don’t remember a lot of it actually. But that was the fun part. I went to see a band. I got drunk. I came home. I drew. It was very simple and a lot of fun. Beer had a lot to do with my whole life at the time. Even when I was in bands, we always had the six-pack while we were practicing. We’d play a two minute song, then when it ended we would take a drink, then we would start the next song.

David: And that ended up being part of what you drew, right? You were depicting the world around you—the punks, the music—that became a part of the world in your comics.

Jaime: Sure, my Hoppers world is basically my Oxnard world, where I grew up.

David: I read an interview that you did recently where you talked about the difficulties in aging your characters over the years. Did you find it harder to relate to them as you yourself got older?

Jaime: I kept a lot of it separate on purpose. I was doing women mostly. I’m not a woman (laughs), so I had to constantly observe what was going on. My life was boring compared to my comic. The things around me were exciting, but if were to draw an autobiographical comic…boy…it would just sit there. I would run out of ideas in the first issue.

David: Who were you observing to get ideas? What did you do for inspiration?

Jaime: Friends, going to shows and watching the punks hang out, and watching how the punks interacted with the real world. Also just hanging out with my friends in Oxnard, or in LA. Just watching how we related to the rest of the world, which was pretty interesting at times, and sometimes very normal. I still had my old buddies I grew up with, and none of them became punks, but we stayed friends. We’d still get drunk together and stuff like that.

David: Did that change as your comic became more successful?

Jaime: Only that success allowed me to do the thing that I loved. It was pretty simple. I wanted to draw comics. They were going to let me draw comics. OK, cool.

David: When did you know that you had made it as an artist? When you started getting fan mail? When a group of post-punk rockers in England named their band after your comic?

Jaime: As far as I was concerned, I made it after we did the first issue because that was exactly what I had wanted to do. As far as attention, I remember Fantographics calling and saying, “Channel 4 News wants to interview you.” And we all said, “Wow, that’s kinda cool. What are we going to say?” Then I remember later that day, there was a show called Two on the Town—it was a local show at the time that would say, “Today let’s visit this part of LA”, and that kind of thing. We heard that they wanted to do an interview as well, and we all said, “Two in one day!” Later that night, one of my other publishers called me up and said, “Hey, Exene (Cervenka) from X likes your comic, man. She just sent a postcard.” And that’s when I started saying, “OK, what’s going on here?” It had all happened in one day, so I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I can handle this!” Looking back I think it was cool, but I remember being floored—almost like, “Leave me alone! I just want to draw my comics!” It was the attention trickling in here and there, it made me think, “These people like me. I’m accepted.”

David: Did you ever go out and grab drinks with these people after you became more successful? Were you more social because of that success?

Jaime: I stayed mainly within my own circles, but every once and a while someone who was a fan would want to have lunch or have a drink. It mainly happened at comic conventions, when we started doing that. After the show was over, you’d go out, have dinner, and have drinks. We’d be approached that way. I remember at the San Diego Con, there were two guys with backstage passes who approached us. They came back and shook our hands and said, “We’re with The Flaming Lips.”

David: No way! They’re one of my all-time favorite groups.

Jaime: I remember thinking, “Oh, they’re with the band. These must be their roadies,” (laughs). I hung out for about an hour with these guys, and I never knew they were actually the guys in the band. A week later, I figured it out. I slapped my head and said, “Fuck!”

David: Did it make you uncomfortable that all of these artists liked your work?

Jaime: No, it was flattering. Someone who also does art in their own way, a lot of them way more famous than me, appreciating what I do—it was very comforting. I thought it was cool feeling we like were all part of the same goal.

David: That’s how I feel working on this project with you. Not just the interview, but the thing we’re doing together with St. George and Frontier Records. Doing interesting concepts with alcohol that involve pop culture has been exhilarating for me. Even though everyone drinks at all these rock shows, or art exhibits, or movie screenings, no one considers the art of the alcohol as part of the scene. What did you think when Lisa from Frontier asked if you would do the labels for us?

Jaime: I thought it was very cool! I liked the twist. I thought, “I’ve never designed a booze label before.” I didn’t know if I could pull it off. Years ago I finally convinced myself that instead of getting nervous or feeling out of place when people ask me for things, I need to think, “Hey, they want me. They want what I do.” That makes me feel a lot more comfortable and less intimidated when I can work on something outside of my comics.

David: I hope you enjoy the liquid that eventually goes into these bottles. Are you still primarily a beer guy?

Jaime: Yeah, mostly. Every once and a while a Margarita, or some shots if we’re celebrating. I don’t drink as much as I did when I was younger. The most I probably drink these days is when I’m invited to a convention. When the show’s over, after dinner when we’re looking for the bar to hangout. A lot of times when you’re trapped in this little convention world, it’s just you and the people who are there. Your friends have been decided for you, and you kind of mix at the end of the day. You drink pints until you can’t stand anymore because the bar is in the hotel, and all you have to do is take an elevator (laughs).

David: Who are your heroes in the industry? Who are the people you wished you could have met at a convention and had a drink with?

Jaime: All the old guys. Jack Kirby, for example. They were all old men by the time I got into comics and now they’re gone. But at the same time, hanging with my contemporaries like Dan Clowes, or Charles Burns, or Peter Bagge, and allthese guys who started at the same time we did. I only really get to see them at conventions because we live so far apart. It was funny because a lot of times the comic conventions were really sad or unattended, but just having my buddies there was enough—which I guess was even more of a reason to go to the bar afterward!

David: Do you ever get to have drinks with the people you don’t know?

Jaime: Not always, and I wish I could because sometimes I just go and say hi, and I wish I could get a drink with them so that I could be more relaxed around these people.

David: Do you find that drinking relaxes you and allows you to open up?

Jaime: Yeah, I was raised on social drinking. When I was a teenager, I would go with my little brother and my friend and get a six pack. We would have two cans each (laughs). We would do it to get drunk because it was cool. Then it was going to parties and punk gigs. It was rare that I had a drink by myself. It was always a social thing. When I did drink by myself, when I couldn’t find any friends to hang out with, I would get a six-pack and watch TV and get so depressed! Now I could handle it, but back then it was depressing. That’s when I realized that drinking went along with socializing for me, and I guess for most people.

David: What do you say to people who still ask: “Oh, you named your comic after that famous English band?”

Jaime: They stopped asking after a while. It’s our name, man! I know the guy who came up with it!

David: When it comes to the real Love & Rockets legacy, what are you most proud of as an artist?

Jaime: That to the best of my ability, I was able to tell it like it is. I was able to show Southern California culture—and Southern California punk culture—in a true light. Part of the reason we did this comic was to correct all the stereotypes you would see on TV from people who didn’t actually live the stuff. We would see punks on CHIPS or on Quincy, and we would think, “Man, you still got it wrong.” In comics, it was even worse. There were a lot of old cartoonists who knew nothing about rock and roll. They would draw bands and I would think, “That’s not what a band looks like. The way that guy’s playing the guitar—what the hell is that?” We tried to correct that stuff. We tried to do it the way that it actually was. Bringing more truth to comics is what I’m most proud of.

David: Did other people ever contest your interpretation?

Jaime: Yeah, I remember when I started to get my detractors. They would say, “Love & Rockets isn’t realistic,” and I would say, “No, it isn’t realistic, but it’s truthful.”

-David Driscoll

Monday
Mar302015

Wrestling With Expectations

I had an absolute blast at Wrestlemania yesterday. I didn't take many photos (just a quick iPhone shot of Lesnar in the ring), nor did I buy any souvenirs (but I did get to keep my limited edition folding chair). I simply went in as a fan, enjoyed the show, cheered when I felt like it, and came unglued like everyone else around me when Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to steal the victory and the WWE Heavyweight title from the main event superstars. All in all, I'd say it was a pretty spectacular show. Even my wife loved it, and she's not a fan in the slightest.

My friend Ben, on the other hand, walked out disgruntled and annoyed; not at all pleased with many of the results. He's a hardcore pro-wrestling fan, even though he tries to disguise it with common sense and a carefree attitude. He's the kind of guy who looks at every booking decision through a micro-lens and weighs the long-term impact of each decision made in the ring. Every win is scrutinized and every loss is lamented. "What's this going to mean for Bray Wyatt going forward?" he asked after the Undertaker pinned him cleanly. "Who's going to care about the legitimacy of his character now that he's lost at Wrestlemania two years in a row? I don't see the point of having that match." The more Ben kept drinking last night, the more upset he became and the less he was able to control his disappointment. By the time we got back to the car, he had become a ball of sarcastic negativity.

"If this is bothering you so badly, then why do you keep watching it? Why are we even here?" asked Ben's wife incredulously.

That's the question analytical superfans of any hobby hate to hear because it completely misunderstands and misinterprets their anger—at least in their mind. Ben wasn't upset at the events of Wrestlemania because he hates pro-wrestling. He was upset because he loves it with all of his heart and he wishes it could be better. It's no different than what happened when Maker's Mark fans went ballistic over the company's decision to reduce the proof, or when Johnnie Walker fans decried the loss of the beloved Gold 18 year. It's the same thing that happens when legendary labels lose their age statements, or when brands decide to discontinue certain expressions. Just like professional wrestling, whiskey has its own following of serious fans who become emotionally attached to the fates of their favorite characters. And, just like with the WWE, those fans become upset when they feel the politics of business interfere with the quality of the product. Ultimately, however, it's not their business to run, so there's nothing they can do in the end but vent their frustration.

Of course, guys like Ben could always stop watching, but that would be like asking a parent to disown his or her child. "Just because they make bad decisions doesn't mean I don't love them!" they would probably say in response to such a suggestion. Just like parenting (I imagine), it all boils down to expectations. If you expect perfection and everything to be done to your own set of standards, then I guess disappointment comes easy. But if you know going in that mistakes are going to be made, it's much easier to focus on the positives than the negatives. Nobody is perfect (except for former WWE legend Mr. Perfect). You can't ever expect things to go exactly the way you want them to.

I don't ever expect perfection from my wrestling or my whiskey, and maybe that's why I'm able to enjoy both hobbies for what they are. There are times when I think I should hold both businesses to higher standards when it comes to quality, but ultimately that level of fanaticism comes with a price. Yes, I have my own opinions about what constitutes high art in both the squared-circle and in the bottle, but I'm not willing to ruin my enjoyment (or the enjoyment of others) in pursuit of them. Like most of what I enjoy in life, I try to focus on the great moments while they're happening, rather than constantly bitch about why they don't happen more often. I've been that guy before. I've felt like Ben does about wrestling and many other things in my life that were important to me—including booze. You can have certain standards of quality as pertains to art. That's ultimately what taste is. But if you can't alter those standards to fit reality, then really those expectations are just fantasy.

For me, the wrestling itself is fantasy enough.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Mar282015

The Indy Scene

Yesterday we finally got in some of the independently-bottled Cognac we tasted on our last trip to France. If you remember this post here, then you'll remember us talking about Jean Grosperrin: one of the coolest, and most forward-thinking bottlers in the independent French brandy scene. "La Folle Blanche" is a 100% folle blanche distilled Cognac, which makes it the first of its kind I've seen available state-side (almost all Cognacs are distilled from the much milder ugni blanc). Not only is it made entirely of folle blanche, it's made entirely of folle blanche planted in Grand Champagne terroir and the label carries that highest of vineyard quality designations. At 43% there's just an extra bit of lift. The coolest part for me, however, is the kookiness and the fun-loving nature of the bottle. The label is obviously French modern, but the bottle itself is an opaque black with a flip-top seal much like you find on old German beer bottles. Staunch classicists with snooty opinions about Cognac will not be pleased, but I think it's fantastic.

Jean Grosperrin "La Folle Blanche" Grand Champagne Cognac $99.99 - Lighter and more fruit-forward than most Grand Champagne Cognac we often taste, the Grosperrin is fresh and alive with the inherent flavors of the spirit, rather than added caramel or wood. A blend of brandies from the 2003 and 2008 harvests, the flavors are much more spicy and intense than what one typically finds in ugni blanc distillates. Overall, it's a refreshing, modern, and forward-thinking take on a category that definitely needs a dose of fresh blood. We couldn't be more excited about it.

Seeing that we're still months away from any new K&L-direct Cognac shipments, I decided to make a power-play on one of my favorite expressions available normally within the U.S. The Giraud family has been making Cognac since the mid-1600s and they're one of the few producers that we know of who uses zero caramel. While the expressions carry standard Napoleon, VSOP, and XO designations, the Cognacs themselves are all from single vintages, meaning Giraud doesn't blend different brandies together to maintain consistency; the Cognacs will change from year to year. We got a hot, smoking deal on the VSOP, so I grabbed everything we could get. This is similar to the Guillon-Painturaud VSOP in quality, but about $20 cheaper per bottle. It's an outstanding value and I'm glad we have plenty of it.

Paul Giraud VSOP Grand Champagne Cognac $40.99 - Soft vanilla, mild stonefruit flavor, and altogether elegant in its execution, the VSOP Cognac from Giraud showcases how delicious Grand Champagne brandy can be when you take a step back and let the quality of the grapes speak for itself. Normally $60 per bottle, we managed to negotiate a hot price for this lovely little brandy.

Speaking of the indy scene, I got off work at 7 PM last night, walked down 5th Ave behind the Redwood City store, hung a left at the Hometown Noodle, a right on 4th, and within ten minutes I was at the Sports House watching Ring of Honor wrestling. Samoa Joe, Jay Lethal, Jushin Liger, and a whole roster of other folks tore the house down. One thing that made me laugh, however, was how the "serious" fans in the audience tried to out wrestling-fan one another. One guy would yell something "insider" and clever at the wrestlers, and then look around to see if any other "smart" fans in the audience had noticed. It was like a competition to see who knew more and who could interject themselves the most into the actual match. While it was initially kind of sad, it started to make me sick after about twenty minutes. I said to my friend Ben, "It doesn't matter what the hobby is, no matter where you go there are always going to be a few insecure guys with something to prove."

"You've got all these guys that watch other fans on TV and can't wait to imitate them the first moment they get because they want to participate, too, " Ben said in response. "Now that certain super fans are starting to get recognized online at multiple shows, these guys here ultimately want that same type of attention, so they're all competing with each other to see who the coolest, most saavy wrestling audience member is. It's crazy." My head about exploded at that point. Wine, and whisky, and wrestling.

That's when I looked at Ben's shirt and said, "You've got it down." Grab a beer. Watch a match. Take it easy. Live simply.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Mar272015

Rey & Don

I reached out to my friends at Diageo this week about attending a Don Julio-sponsered event going on in Santa Clara Thursday night. Tony and David are the absolute best to work with; not only are they always incredibly helpful, they're probably the two best things to happen to Diageo since I started working directly with the industry giant a few years back. I knew they would do everything they could to help me and my camera get into this VIP event. "As long as you're going, we're coming with you to check this thing out," they said in response to my email, so I met my two buddies for tacos and reposado on the rocks at Taste: the hot nightclub in the South Bay.

What were we doing there? What special event was bringing a retail spirits buyer and two Diageo reps to the backroom of a Santa Clara nightclub? Seeing that it's Wrestlemania week here in the Bay Area, it must have been wrestling-related, right? We were actually there to see a live interview and podcast recording with former WWE champion and lucha libre legend Rey Mysterio Jr. He was planning to meet with ticket holders and wrestling super fans for an exclusive autograph session, but my friends thought they could pull a few strings and get me a few minutes alone with the Mexican wrestling icon. I was thrilled, so I threw down a few tasty tacos, a couple glasses of Don Julio, and sat patiently waiting with my friends for Rey to make his entrance. I absolutely love that a major liquor brand with ties to the high-end side of the market didn't think they were too cool for a professional wrestling event. Don Julio is definitely interested in putting on fun and interesting events, which makes them much more fun to work with than other stuffy brands.

I wasn't expecting much, just the chance to exchange a few words and snap a few photos on behalf of K&L and Don Julio. Our pal Guillermo was able to arrange for a private table, however, complete with Don Julio tequila, ice, and private bottle service. I felt like a famous celebrity.

The best part of the evening was that my best friend Ben (who I'll be attending Wrestlemania with this weekend) was able to drive over from Modesto, and we were able to sneak him backstage as well. We were pouring a glass of Don Julio 70 when Ben said, "Holy shit! I think that's Kevin Sullivan behind you." It was. The former WCW legend and Dungeon of Doom master was indeed on hand to take in the festivities. He was super cool and allowed Ben to pose for a photo with him.

It's funny how trends can change at the drop of a hat in the booze business. I was hanging out with Don Julio brand ambassador Luis Navarro while we were waiting for Rey to arrive, and we were both chuckling about the change of fate for Don Julio 70. Suddenly it's the hottest tequila out there, after a rather inauspicious start. It's not unlike what happened with the Kavalan Vinho Barrique this week. I was almost ready to drop the price on the Taiwanese whisky until the WWA awarded it "Best Whisky in the World" and all of sudden we were selling through our entire inventory in minutes. A similar thing happened in Mexico with the 70. This particular expression, an añejo tequila filtered to look like a blanco, went from a very slow launch to become the current top selling tequila in Mexico. It seemed gimmicky when it was first released, but once enough people tried it, the soft, enticing flavor spoke for itself. Now they're having trouble keeping it in stock.

Finally the man of the hour arrived: Rey Mysterio Jr. I first met Rey outside the Spanos Center in San Diego at a WCW Nitro event in 1997. He wasn't wearing his mask and I didn't realize it was him at the time. I was an eighteen year old college freshman, a gigantic wrestling fan, and Rey made my entire day by hanging out with me and my friends before the show. Almost twenty years later, things had really changed. He had gone from a small, under-rated, cruiserweight sensation to one of the biggest names in all of wrestling. He had a line of fans waiting patiently to take photos and get an autograph. Lucky for me, I was allowed by security to hang out behind him and chat with him while he did so.

Rey had a glass of Don Julio añejo on the rocks by his side, and every now and then he would turn around to take a sip. That's when we were able to exchange a few words. Rey is a big tequila fan, and he iterated his and his wife's love of the agave spirit during the brief interchanges we had. Despite all of the action and attention he was demanding, he was incredibly friendly and appreciative of everyone there. As someone who's constantly watching the behavior of others (also why I like hanging out at these events), I was really impressed by his customer service skills.

The part that most impressed me, however, was how Rey reacted to our secondary task of the evening. My friend Ben is a teacher in Modesto for kids with special needs, and when one of his students found out that Ben was going to meet Rey Mysterio that day, he wrote a letter to his hero hoping that Ben would deliver it to him. We weren't sure how much access we were going to get to Rey, so we explained to a member of his entourage what the letter was and why we were giving it to him. Later, however, when I got some one-on-one time with Mysterio, I was able to tell him who the letter was from and how important it was to this kid that he got it.

"He even wrote his address on there," I said. "That way if you want to take a drive to Modesto you can visit his home. Let me know when you want to go and I'll give you a ride."

Rey laughed, and replied, "Well the least I could do is send him something."

I got the feeling that he really planned on doing it. I headed out at that point and left the major festivities for the hardcore fans. Hip-hop artist Wale was due to arrive shortly and the club was scheduled to turn into a Vegas-style afterparty. I had a smile on my face all the way back to the car thinking about Rey Mysterio sending that kid something in the mail. It's fantastic when the people you look up to in any business are as nice and as caring as you hope they'll be. That goes for the folks at Don Julio, too.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar262015

D2D Interview: Rob Van Dam

With Wrestlemania in town this weekend, did you really think this week's Drinking to Drink Interview wasn't going to be with a professional wrestler? Not just any professional wrestler, by the way—not Savio Vega, or the Repo Man—but a legitimate, bonafide superstar. A former WWE champion. The man who beat John Cena for the strap at the Hammerstein Ballroom back in 2006. We're talking about Mr. Monday Night. Mr. Pay Per View. RVD. Or, perhaps you know him by his ECW nickname: the whole fuckin' show. Even if you're one of the few people out there who doesn't know Rob Van Dam's body of work, I know you've watched an NFL game where one of the players scores a touchdown, turns to the camera, and does the double thumb point to the shoulder pads. He didn't just make that up. He's emulating the man in the photo above. Say it with me now:

ROB......VAN......DAM. 

Since high school, when I watched Rob infiltrate the ranks of the WWF's Monday Night Raw program, I've been a huge fan of RVD. I experienced his amazing 700 day run as television champion of the legendary Philadelphia-based promotion ECW, I've seen him invent new forms of high-flying acrobatics (including the debut of the "Van Terminator" in person), and sat in complete awe as Rob laid down his patented "Five Star Frog Splash" on many an opponent night after night. Rob isn't only still going strong at age 44, he's still a huge draw in the industry. This Saturday night, on Wrestlemania eve, I'll be heading down to Wrestlecon in San Jose to watch Rob team up with his old ECW partner Sabu and take on the one of the greatest tag teams in WWE history: the Hardy Boys. The show is sold out and the atmosphere should be electric because RVD is still the whole F'N show. But, before then, I wanted to pick Rob's brain about a few things, and I was lucky enough to speak with him before the craziness of Wrestlemania week overtook his hectic schedule. He was every bit as cool, mellow, and friendly as his on-screen persona suggests.

In this edition of Drinking to Drink, we talk about the emergence of the internet fan, who Rob's best ECW drinking buddies were, and how—much like with craft spirits—sometimes it's better to ride the independent circuit than grind out the corporate schedule. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of this page.

Photo courtesy of TNA

David: One of the reasons I’ve always wanted to interview a wrestler for the blog is because I've always felt there’s such a huge similarity between wrestling fans and whisky fans, and I really wanted to see if things were as similar as I suspected. There’s been a shift over the last few years since enthusiasts have used the internet to become more educated about both hobbies, and that’s lead to an entire community of online super fans sharing their information with one another. What’s interesting, however, is few of them have any access to the industry or any professional experience. It’s mostly just opinion based on enjoyment. Sometimes that perspective can be incredibly refreshing and at other times it’s painstakingly bad. As someone who has experienced this on the wrestling side, what’s your take on modern day internet fandom as it pertains to your industry?

RVD: For the sake of the analogy, I guess that makes me the whisky, right? With wrestling I’m the actual product, so I get a bit defensive about criticism when people want to analyze or breakdown what’s right or wrong about the art from their perspective. I believe that if art is really an expression of the artist, then it shouldn’t be compromised to meet the demands of the fan. If the fan is truly a fan of the art, then he needs to receive it as it is being delivered. Having said that, however, I appreciated that the fans in ECW were the highest possible standard of fan, the most educated and the most opinionated probably ever seen in the industry. I’m thankful that I got to learn to perfect my craft and cut my teeth in that kind of environment because it did make me that much better. As a perfectionist, I had to really sharpen and tweak my skills so that I didn’t mess up in front of a crowd that couldn’t wait to chant: “You fucked up! You fucked up!” (laughs)

David: Right! The fans in ECW always felt like they were in on the act, and that’s ultimately what made them so devoted.

RVD: Yeah, that put a lot of pressure on us. But when fans want to come out online with comments like: “I think the company is misusing this person because they should do this or that,” for me that’s just chatter amongst themselves. 

David: What’s funny is that whisky companies feel the same way now. There’s an entire community of online whisky fans analyzing what these companies do and making comments about where they think the business should go. I don’t think these major corporations ever anticipated that type of fan involvement. I even get commentary like that about this blog, and I’m not even famous! I get emails all the time from people telling me when I’ve messed up or telling me what they think I should have written. How do you think wrestling has evolved since the invention of the internet and this type of fan?

RVD: Evolution is necessary. I was a big part of how the wrestling style evolved from the way it used to be, back when you had bigger, almost 300 pound guys who didn’t necessarily do as many athletic or acrobatic skills in the ring, but that wasn’t what they were marketing. I think I was one of the pioneers who thought outside the box, who dove over the top rope, or did back flips off the guard rail. Now the style is a hybrid of what I did, plus what guys who originally watched me as fans were thinking about when they were coming up. Now they’re grown up and they’re actually in the ring doing it. As the style has evolved, so have the fans. Their perspective and their understanding of what’s going on have also evolved, and that’s been necessary, too. When I was first touring the country as a young, green kid not even old enough to drink alcohol yet, I remember there was a newsletter—it’s still around—called the Wrestling Observer.

 

David: By Dave Meltzer.

RVD: Right, you know it.

David: Yes, I’ve read it and mimicked it.

RVD: That was the original behind-the-scenes look. It was like a double-edged sword though. On one hand you had a guy trying to expose business that was normally kept behind closed doors, but at the same time you wanted to get your name in it because you knew other people in the industry would be reading it. It exposed, whether true or not, what the wrestlers felt like when they left the arena, the fights that happened back stage, and contract disputes. Back then if you wanted to read the Observer, you had to go out of your way to subscribe or find someone else’s copy. Now everyone has access to the internet—on your phone, on your watch—it’s three seconds away. You don’t have to be the special private investigator to find this information; it’s everywhere and every fan has their own blog. Plus, the whole business is looked at more as entertainment now than as sports competition, and for that reason the fans feel like their opinions hold more weight. And maybe they do, I don’t know. They’re definitely more educated on what they’re talking about, which is good. Just like with mixed martial arts, I know that fans today understand it better than ever because there’s so much of it out there. You have guys like Joe Rogan explaining what’s going on in the competitor’s mind, what they’re trying to do, and how they’re going to have to shift their body in order to do it. And then you watch them do it! So even couch potatoes have a better understanding of MMA today and the same thing goes for wrestling.

David: I wish I could bring you to some of the meetings I have with brands so that they could understand what’s happening from a greater perspective. This is the exact same shift that is happening with boutique alcohol right now. Just take out the word “wrestling” and replace it with “whisky”. Do you feel like catering to the internet and its fans might be dangerous in terms of their actual potential to completely support business? I remember WCW crumbling at the end when they started changing their product to fit the demands of the online fans. I think they ultimately forgot about the silent majority of fans who weren’t vocally participating online.

RVD: That could be true. I’m not as familiar with what was going on with their creative department towards the end because I was in ECW then. My understanding of it—from what I remember of that time period—was that you had guys like Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and their friends in control, doing whatever they wanted to do on any given night, and ultimately that wasn’t good for business. That’s the way that I understood it. But that’s the thing, you know? Sometimes now they’ll have these special nights where the fans can vote on things, and apparently it’s legitimate. They use the WWE phone app and they’ll let fans vote on who should wrestle who, or decisions like that, and they’ll have us standing by in the back waiting to see what happens. That gives the fans an awful lot of power, and in my opinion it’s enough. That’s enough power (laughs).

David: As much as I want to ask you more about wrestling, it would be weird if I did an interview about alcohol and didn’t ask you directly about that subject. You enjoy drinking, right?

RVD: I do. I’m not known for it so much because I’m known more as a marijuana advocate. A lot of people seem surprised when they see me with an alcoholic beverage in my hand. People who have known me for years will see me and say, “Rob, I didn’t think you drank!” But that’s not true at all.

David: What do you normally like?

RVD: I’m pretty limited with my knowledge. I like to drink beer, but I don’t know about all the different kinds out there. I like Japanese beer like Sapporo. That’s a big treat for me to go to a Japanese restaurant and have a Sapporo or an Asahi, or maybe even a Kirin. I like Yeungling, but I just found out the other day that it’s primarily an East Coast thing. I had no idea. When it comes to liquor, I have one drink that I’ve ordered for more than fifteen years—since I bounced at this country bar in Florida when I was like 21—and that’s the Kamikaze, which recently has been traded in for Fireball.

David: Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is taking over the world. You like it, too?

RVD: Yes, it goes down so smoothly I don’t understand why everyone makes the face when we do a shot.

David: I’m definitely getting you a case of Fireball now. When you’re done wrestling a match, do you usually go out for a drink afterwards or do you go home?

RVD: Unfortunately, there’s no going home after work with a job like this because you’re on the road and home is a flight away. You’re probably not going home for several days because you’ve got several gigs. After the matches usually you’re going to look for some food, which means that you’re gonna hit something that’s open like Denny’s. You also might go for a bar/restaurant like an Applebee’s or something of that nature. Quite often it’s a social event. We’ll get invited by the owners or fans who want us to come to their place for a drink and it’s always a good time. It’s a spirit lifter. I like to order my drink and have it down before my food gets there.

David: You and my wife!                                         

RVD: Yeah, you’ve gotta get the right mindset going!

David: When you were on the road with ECW, who were the best guys to go out and get a drink with?

RVD: With ECW you didn’t have to go out to get the alcohol. The Sandman would always have five beers in his pocket and he was usually dragging a cooler with him anyway. Sabu, Fonzi, Sandman and I hung out a lot. Sometimes Little Guido. Those were really good times. Sometimes you’d have a cooler brought into the locker room, but that was kind of rare. Overseas, though, that happens a lot. In Tokyo, or something like that, after the show there will be a cooler of beer in the dressing room, especially when there are certain guys working the main event who like that kind of thing. It’s always a part of celebrating. I’m actually in Las Vegas right now and I’ve been doing a great job of helping to promote the Fireball product here (laughs). I have a lot of friends who hook me up here. I get a lot of love in Vegas.

David: That’s what makes drinking fun, right? I associate my best drinking experiences with socializing and meeting up with friends. But I also work in the industry, so it can get dangerous when you can’t separate work from pleasure.

RVD: I’ll go long periods without drinking as well. I used to go months in between drinks and sometimes only have a beer if I was at a Japanese restaurant. When it’s been a long time and I have that first drink in however long, I catch myself thinking: “Man! They do not talk about the medicinal side of alcohol enough.” For someone who has a real physical job like me—after the matches when your back is all stiff and it’s causing you to vibrate at a negative frequency—you’ll notice that you’re exuding a rather grumpy attitude just because you’ve got pain in your body. I’ll take a sip of the beer and the effect always hits me quickly. I have durability and I have endurance when drinking, but it always hits my head real quick, and I’m amazed at how much better I feel. Then I get it. It’s a spirit lifter, and that’s what people look for. If that’s not medicinal, then neither is going to the pharmacy.

David: And those are the origins of alcohol, right? When you get all geeky and research the history of alcoholic beverages, you’ll find that a lot of it is health-related. Speaking of that, you’re easily one of the most talented wrestlers of all time, and you’re known for your physical ability—you can do the splits, and you do flips and martial arts-style kicks. You also put your body at risk with loads of high-flying maneuvers. Because of that you would think that your body in particular would have taken more of a beating than other wrestlers, but at the same time you’re still going strong more than 20 years later. You obviously take really good care of yourself, but what do you attribute your longevity to?

RVD: First off, I think there’s no denying genetics. My mom and dad must have blessed me with some really good genes. Even if people are impressed with my offensive set—I try to amaze people with my moves like you mentioned—one of my greatest strengths is the amount of punishment I can absorb. Besides genetics, I attribute it to stretching. A lot of other guys do not stretch, but it’s been a strong aspect of my regiment for my entire career since I learned about stretching in high school, and through martial arts I’ve always applied it. I can’t feel like I’m at my best unless I go through my entire stretching routine, at which point I’m ready to take on the world. These other guys, they spend two minutes rolling their shoulders around and then they get in the ring. To me, that’s asking for an injury.

David: I feel like there were a good amount of guys in the business who didn’t take the physicality as seriously as you do. They thought maybe because they were former NFL stars or had good physiques that they could hack it in the ring. Did you come across people in your career who didn’t take the athletic side of wrestling, as in the actual training, as seriously as they should?

RVD: Sure, but most of those guys are weeded out early on. The first day you go to a wrestling school they let you run the ropes—sometimes it can take several weeks before you’re even ready to do that—and just running the ropes really hurts. Usually after the first day you do it you have huge purple bruises underneath your arm and that’s not counting the other impact you get from hitting the mat. So usually the headaches and body aches you go home with after the first few days in the ring are enough to weed out the people who aren’t tough enough. It looks fun to a lot of people and they want to wrestle for that reason—they’re fans. Then there are people who tell me they want to get into wrestling just to get into shape.

David: You hear people who say that about the military, too. But then they get a dose of reality.

RVD: Right, you have to be a super human to get to that point. It’s crazy for someone to be incentivized to do professional wrestling just for fitness. I could pick them up and body slam them one time and they’d be in horrible condition after that (laughs).

David: Did you see other guys power through that learning curve and make it despite that?

RVD: The style has changed so much now, so you have to be at an even higher level these days just to have a job in the WWE. When I was there from 2001 to 2006, there was still room for guys who maybe weren’t all that great in the ring, but had good bodies. The office would try to push them and then have them plowing over all us other guys. But when the fans didn’t accept that wrestler, the office would give up after a few months, but only after they’d left a bunch of broken carnage in their pathway. Those of us who were abused trying to get this guy over, we were then trying to recover from the damage he had done to us. And then they’d bring in the next guy. That’s how they would traditionally do it. There were a lot of big guys—really big dudes—and they’ve always loved that for some reason in the WWE. Vince (McMahon) has always loved really big guys. That’s how the WWF boomed and exploded and took over the world back in the Andre the Giant days. People would pay to see the freaks, but now it’s different. The wrestlers have to be of a certain caliber or standard. That’s not to say they don’t still have guys who are a bit green, still coming up, but they’re at such a level that those guys I mentioned before would never have a job today. There’s no room. It’s too competitive.

David: When you were with the WWE, after ECW consolidated, who would you go get drinks with? Who were your buddies at that time?

RVD: I was really happy to see the ECW guys when I went back because I didn’t even know that the revival was going to happen. I made my return; I sold out and I was ready to cash in on the legacy (laughs) and my artistic substance. I was very happy to see Tommy Dreamer and then he threw me an ECW t-shirt and I realized we were actually there to represent ECW on WWE’s stage. That was awesome; that and the alliance with WCW. That was a fun time. I was happy to see Dreamer, to see Rhino, and all the old ECW guys. We were like family. That’s not to say that Dreamer drinks because he doesn’t. He’s a sober dude straight through, but he does eat hot dogs out of toilet bowls.

David: (laughs) Were you surprised when they actually gave you the belt during that run, or did you have lofty ambitions going in?

RVD: No, I never thought I would get the belt. I was not and had never been their guy, the person they would push forward. Me being my own man and a non-conformist, I thought that would always limit how far I would get, which was fine because that’s just who I am. They have their people that they can control like puppet masters and they make the best faces for the company. I understood that, and that I didn’t share necessarily all the same values as the office. I don’t even really like doing the storylines or the promos—that’s my least favorite part. I like to go out the ring and show off. I don’t like trying to convince the fans that I’m really angry at Booker T and that getting my hands on him is more important than anything else right now (laughs). That kind of stuff has always been something I can do without.

David: Despite that….

RVD: I thought there was no way that I was ever going to be the champion. The only reason that happened was because I changed the entire playing field by bringing ECW back. When we did the alliance, after Vince bought out WCW and ECW, I went to him sometime later about doing a pay-per-view and bringing ECW back.  At this point all the energy from ECW had died down, and I think I was one of the only original guys still there. We didn’t do the ECW pay-per-view until 2006; the whole thing with ECW and WCW versus the WWE had already completely died out. Then when we brought it back at the event, we brought it back as its own brand with its own show on the Syfy network. That was super cool for me as an artist, and for the fans who really breathed with that ECW spirit. That was a great time for me in my career, and I was the right guy to be the ECW champion and move that forward.

David: Since the inception of the craft whisky scene, there’s been a lot discussion in the industry about how best to market a product and often about the pros and cons of operating on a smaller scale. How do you compare working in the WWE versus the independent circuit? What are the drawbacks to working in a corporate environment as it pertains to wrestling? Is it mostly a monetary thing due to better marketing and exposure?

RVD: The money you earn in the WWE isn’t necessarily what people think it is. You would assume that being with the WWE means a bigger payday. Long term, big picture: you’re going to be better off. But for a single gig, on an indy show versus any single WWE show you could be surprised at how it actually ends up. With the WWE you get kicked in the balls a lot, on the road, day after day after day, and sometimes you’re looking at your cut—your piece of the pie—and you’re saying: “Wait a second, I had to pay for my hotel room, and my rental car, and this is what I made today?” But, that being said, at the end of the year after you’ve wrestled 250 times, then you add it up and you say: “OK, that’s a lot.” Also, you’ve got your merchandise deal, which is where a lot of money comes through. Then with the pay-per-views, you get a bonus based on the buy rate. So you get disappointed a lot, you get beat up a lot, but then sometimes you get pleasantly surprised. When it averages out you sometimes find yourself in a better position despite getting beat up so much.

David: The TV exposure must be the biggest advantage.

RVD: Yes, the real advantage is the TV. WWE is king. They have the best talent, the best product, the best marketing, the best merchandise, and to be associated and known as part of the WWE makes your value higher if you do eventually want to do indy shows. But with the indy shows there’s room for anybody. You can still see some of the wrestlers that you and I grew up watching. You can still see Greg “The Hammer” Valentine wrestling (laughs), so the standards are a little different. The level of organization can also be different. There are some events that are run by fans that don’t really know what they’re doing, and then there are other indy promotions that are well-known and respected for putting on the better shows. Basically, for me right now, it’s way better to do a few indy shows here and there, and do some autograph signings, because that allows me a lot more time off to do other things, whereas working with the WWE is so time consuming, there is no doing anything else.

David: Let’s talk about doing other things. You do a lot of different things. You’ve done action movies, and some martial arts stuff—everyone knows about that—but I just saw that you’re doing stand up comedy! And you’re performing on the Peninsula this week on Friday, right?

RVD: So Friday night, yes, I have the stand up and then I’m wrestling Saturday night at Wrestlecon. That’s gonna be a big one with myself and Sabu taking on the Hardy Boys. On Friday I’m headlining a stand-up event, just like I’m currently doing here in Vegas. It’s something that I’ve done since 2006, so I’ve done it for a little while, but I don’t do it that often. I’ve been getting a lot of dates lately, but I’m not really looking to get booked; it just kind of happens. Around LA, where I live, there’s a million comedy clubs. I’m not really looking to travel to Dallas to do comedy, you know? Then you’re talking about travel expenses, but as a hobby it’s fun for me. The inner artist enjoys the expression. I enjoy the writing and the delivery of it. It’s not something I’m switching my career path over to, but it’s fun. There’s something about engaging a room full of people in that manner that is mentally stimulating for me, whereas wrestling is not.

David: If you could have a drink with someone, or maybe in your case smoke a joint, who would you want to hang out with?

RVD: One guy who comes to mind is Jack Herer. He was a friend of mine and a mentor in the marijuana legalization movement, and he was the strongest force in educating the world about hemp and the 25,000 uses there are in legalizing it, versus the zero reasons for prohibiting it. That would be cool. Then there’s the Sheik. The Sheik is my hero, the original Sheik who trained me in professional wrestling. I don’t think he really got to see the level I made it to before he passed on, so let’s bring both of those guys back for a round of shots.

David: And I have to ask, because both of you are individually and separately heroes of mine, but have you ever actually met Jean Claude Van Damme? Seeing that you got your stage name from him?

RVD: Yeah, just briefly and recently actually at the gym.

David: No way, really?

RVD: Yeah, it was real funny. He was in a deflective mood, and I get like that where I try not to look people in their eyes because I know everyone’s looking at me. He was in that kind of mood. I tried dropping a name of someone we both worked for on a movie and I said, “Do you remember so-and-so?” and he said, “Oh yeah, I remember your face.” He thought we had worked together before and that I looked familiar (laughs). Then he shook my hand and walked off.

-David Driscoll