John Waters on Re-Upping His Punk Education and How Halloween Meltdown Festival Is “Its Own Tribe”

The post John Waters on Re-Upping His Punk Education and How Halloween Meltdown Festival Is “Its Own Tribe” appeared first on Consequence.

John Waters is a punk who likes to party. While he’s not one for stage diving (back problems, as he tells Consequence via phone), when Waters is hosting the Oakland music festival Halloween Meltdown, he’s front and center, dancing along with the rest of the crowd. The event, which Waters has emceed for the last seven years, is a beacon to the punk community, uniting legendary acts — Kim Gordon and Bikini Kill have graced its stages in years passed — and punk protégés, like internet sensation The Linda Lindas.

This year, on October 8th and 9th, you can expect to see Waters introduce bands like Amyl and the Sniffers, Sheer Mag, and Bay Area locals, Shannon and the Clams, to name a few.

“She’s [Shannon Shaw of Shannon and the Clams] the first lady of the whole festival in Oakland,” Waters says. “I’ve introduced her more than Divine.”

Waters, of course, needs no introduction. The transgressive filmmaker first made a name for himself in the late ’60s with his low-budget, DIY flicks, before bestowing the world with his “trash trilogy,” Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, comedically indicting suburban America in the process. John Waters was punk before punk was a word, making him feel right at home amongst the festival attendees.

“I’ve made friends there that I see every year,” Waters adds. “It’s like going to a great high school reunion in reform school.”

In fact, it’s the people, he explains below, that keep him coming back to Halloween Meltdown in the first place. Check out the full Q&A with Waters below, and grab tickets to the fest here.

Since this is a return for you, I was wondering how you got involved with the festival.

I don’t know how many years it’s been, but I’ve done a lot. I think it’s maybe the sixth year, but I might be getting mixed up from John Waters Camp, which is another annual event I do every year just for a couple days. I got involved through my promoter who was in the music world that books my Christmas shows. And I think he hooked me up with [founder Marc Ribak] and I did it for the first year. Marc and Amy [Carver of Total Trash Productions] loved the festival and it went over very well and we got to be friends and then it’s become a tradition every year.

I’m in the middle of writing [my introductions] right now. I introduce 15-17 acts, however many they are, so I get quite an education in punk rock every year. I know a lot of them, but some of them are really great because they haven’t played in a while and they’re from the Bay Area. And it’s a great ground. It’s punks from eight years old to 70 years old. And so it’s its own tribe. I’ll tell you.

What do you see when you see this gathering of punks today? You’ve been like a godfather of the punk scene for a long time, whether you wanted to be or not. So what’s it like?

I never had good enough hair.

No mohawk.

I always stood out of the punk attitude. I mean, Pink Flamingos was a punk movie before there was any such word, made in the hippie years. So, we always made fun of hippies even though our audience was hippies. And to this day I make fun of punk rules in the punk world when I host this show. One year it was the gay festival and the punk festival at the same time, and maybe I feel closer at home in the punk festival because a lot of punks on the down-low were gay, and I find that even more delightful, ’cause they’re double rebels. Meanwhile, it got more conservative in the punk rock festivals, when they’re hiding if they’re gay — sometimes, not always, but I like both outsider worlds. I’ve never been a separatist. I believe I like all outsiders and I like people that don’t even fit in their own minorities.

Why Halloween Meltdown? You keep going back, you seem to love it. What about it really speaks to you, that makes you want to keep returning?

My father, every night I went out the house, he said, “It’s not Halloween.” So I keep going back because I like to cross over into different worlds and this world is very loyal and they’ve always been people that supported my movies. They’ve always been brought by the oldest person there, probably, but at the same time, they treat me with great respect and I could be rocking and screaming in the height of it all and they’d go, “Oh, hello Mr. Waters.” It’s very touching in a way. I’ve made friends there that I see every year and everything. It’s like going to a great high school reunion in reform school.

So will you be dressing up?

I always dress up. That’s what they get when they hire me, you know. I’m not wearing Ramones jeans and a safety pin through my nose, no. I never wore that, but I would look kind of silly like that. That’s what I mean. I love to see the different ages of punk rockers, how they’ve adapted as they got older, especially when they stage dive. Sometimes they get dropped.

Yeah. I’ve only crowd surfed once and I luckily wasn’t dropped.

Every year I want to do it, but I have back issues, but still I thought one day I just want to run and jump there, but I told Marc if we ever got to do it, it would have to be so planned and then it won’t be as good. One day. Maybe I’ll do it.

Are we allowed to know what kind of costume? Any hints?

I don’t ever wear a costume. I think fashion is a costume. What I wear every day is a costume. I will wear something theatrical, but I’m certainly not coming dressed as a ghost or a goblin. I always feel like a bad Diane Arbus photo when I see people in Halloween costumes. I personally never go in costumes because of my father always saying, “It’s not Halloween.” But certainly I like to see that people are coming in costumes, too, but in a punk rock festival, it’s hard to tell. Because everyone tries to look scary anyway.

Are there any particular acts that you’re really excited to see this year?

I’m a big fan of Amyl and the Sniffers — I’ve seen them before — and The Spits, I love that they’re coming back. They were really good, I saw them before. Lydia Lunch, I’ve toured with before, so I’m excited to see her again. And of course, Shannon [and the Clams] who’s been through such a tragedy this year, but she’s the first lady of the whole festival in Oakland. And so I’m always glad, I’ve introduced her more than Divine.

Music has played such a big role in your movies, and in your life and career in general. But what draws you to music festivals?

I used to do my spoken-word set on the festival circuit, but they don’t do comedy anymore, which I miss. I love playing those kinds of festivals. I hosted Orville Peck’s giant concert in Denver, and I did all kinds of Western jokes, so I can cross over. I do know music pretty well. I still keep up with it. Music has been the narrator of all my films. I still go to punk rock clubs in Baltimore, I’m in touch with the Baltimore community, which would be Beach House and Future Islands. There’s a whole bunch of them. Snail Mail.

So there was definitely a big music scene here. Debbie Harry was just a counselor at the John Waters Camp this year and I’ve had her in my films. Ruth Brown. Sonny Bono. I’ve always had musicians. Chris Isaak has been in my films. So I’ve always used singers and musicians to act in my films, too.

In preparing my questions, I was reflecting on how music has had such a big part in establishing the irony of your films.

Certainly it did. It’s used the same way. Flying Saucer was the first novelty record I ever knew, where they used lyrics that were sampled to tell a story, which I thought were hilarious and really influenced me so much that I still do it 50 years later.

Absolutely. That’s why I love punk music, because I think it does love to play into novelty and I think punks just have more fun with what they do. They don’t take themselves so seriously.

They have fun at this festival. Believe me. They do have fun. They hate everybody in the world but themselves.

Hearing you talk about the Baltimore punk scene, it’s really great to see that scene stay so strong.

It was certainly very important when I was growing up from Washington. The 9:30 Club and then there was a lot of punk rock bars. The Congress Hotel was the first punk bar I ever went to, the Marble Bar, and so I had my 40th birthday party there and a stripper jumped out of the cake and broke her leg.

Sounds like a great party.

It was a good one. Yeah.

We’ve talked about how music has been a big part of your life, your career, your films. Do you play any instruments?

No. I would’ve exploited that if I could sing. I did have a couple records that came out. I had “Prayer to Pasolini” that came out last year, which I went to where he was murdered and spoke in tongues and prayed to him [legendarily controversial Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini]. And I had another record on SubPop label which was “Make Trouble,” which was about my commencement speech. I have a new one coming out this Christmas and I’m not allowed to talk about it yet.

Having been to the festival for a few years now and looking at it in the future, what do you see? How do you see punk evolving?

I do see that we have run out of classic punk people that are my age that are in punk groups. So we’re getting a lot of young ones and I love to see that. Last summer, we had The Linda Lindas, you know, and some of these bands that I’m writing introductions for now were formed two years ago. So it’s great. You have to have the young punks, too. You have to have Amyl [and the Sniffers]. She’s not old, she’s young, too. So the new new new new wave — that’s what we’re looking for now.


I don’t know that anybody still can top Iggy.

Yeah, I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re in the market for topping anyone.

Maybe in punk, it’s bottoming.

halloween meltdown poster
halloween meltdown poster

John Waters on Re-Upping His Punk Education and How Halloween Meltdown Festival Is “Its Own Tribe”
Maura Fallon

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