Rad People Who Make Rad Art: Christopher Norris (Stk Mtn.)
by Interviews

Christopher Norris, or Stk Mtn as he is sometimes known, once drew a boob growing out of a piece of meat. That boob would go onto become one of the most famous boobs in punk rock, gracing the cover of Against Me!'s landmark Transgender Dysphoria Blues album.

But long before he was designing famous mammaries, Norris spent time in the Florida punk and metal scenes, playing in Combatwoundedveteran and, eventually, designing album covers for bands including Fake Problems, Holy Mountain and Armalite. Norris' work shows the influence of the original anarcho bands, often referencing those famous black and white images from the early '80s. But, whereas so many other bands copy verbatim, Norris switches up the punk rock template, injecting bright neon colors into horrid images, creating a contrast between the gruesome and the gleeful.

Because Norris is on a roll with his recent Against Me! collaborations, features editor John Gentile spoke to him about the cover of Transgender Dysphoria Blues , his early history and whether he hates everyone on earth, or just almost everyone.

How did you first get interested in the visual arts?
As a kid, I feel like I drew a lot. I was a stay-at-home kid. I hated other children and never went out. I was obsessed with movie and comic books. Through that, not really liking other children and having access to a fantasy world -- and you spend hours and hours and hours of drawing as a kid and all of a sudden, you’re 18. Generally, you develop a kind of viewpoint where you are accessing things as a piece of art first.

Why didn’t you like other kids? Were they mean to you?
No, it’s the same thing that propels me to not like people very much these days. I’m just not interested in them past observing them. I never wanted to play little kid games. I was much more interested in art and movies. It’s not like I’m some one-eyed ogre who has no personality. I get along with people and did as a kid, but I just couldn’t be bothered to be interested and interacting with other people. That’s why I ended up in punk, I guess.

Were you interested in art as a serious discipline before you got interested punk rock?
I was definitely more interested in art than anything before I got into punk. Before I got into punk, I was really kind of a metalhead. I was really into Slayer and King Diamond and all that stuff. I was in my late teens when I started to really get into punk. Up until that time, I was in Tampa, and the death metal boom was happening in Florida and I was always going to those shows and was super involved in that. Then, I expanded into other areas to see where people came from. If you look at Napalm Death and Carcass, they really sort of started out as punks, then I got interested in Crass and Flux of Pink Indians -- that has a closer aesthetic to early grindcore. I was a late bloomer into getting into punk music. I really don’t think I was ever a punk kid. I was in grindcore bands and I think I became associated with the kind of punk that I am was through happenstance -- through No Idea Records. I wasn’t into Against Me! or Hot Water Music that I’ve worked with in that capacity. I don’t even know if you could call that punk. Punk and my art only really happened because I was in a band and I didn’t trust anyone else to do my art. I was in a band called Combatwoundedveteran. At that point in time, from about 18 to 20, 21 I had stopped doing art all together. I wasn’t interested in art. I was interested in movies and traveling. During Combat, I was looking at things that I really liked and things that I really hated with grindcore and metal, and just went in the opposite direction. All these bands were kind of black and white and corny photocopied. My idea was to take black and white imagery and add color and make it cartoony, but not too corny.

So, I started working with people that I thought I’d never work with like Atom and his Package. That’s how I got connected with Against Me! It was kind of a joke, because No Idea Records knew that I didn’t really like that kind of music and my aesthetic isn’t really their kind of music. What they didn’t know was Tom Gabel then -- Laura Jane Grace now -- our personalities are very compatible and we’re friends and we have a lot of the same interests and have a lot of opinions as to how records should look or even how things should be typed out. That’s how that became my staple band and we’ve been working together for like ten years now.

I’m glad you brought that up. The cover of the True Trans seven inch has the Buffalo Bill character from Silence of the Lambs on it. But, in an interview, Laura Jane Grace lamented how trans people are often portrayed as "scary trans" people in the media, so I was surprised that the archetypical "scary trans person" was on the cover of Laura’s first release after coming out as trans.
That was actually Laura’s request. I think, for her, it was appropriating and destroying something that is that. That’s my viewpoint -- almost re-appropriating this giant image. Obviously, Laura has the final say. She’s not going to be, "Yeah, whatever dude! You can do whatever you want!" That was something that Laura wanted to play with and see what I did with it. I really didn’t do much with it, really. I just put it through the meat grinder and made it look like a record that doesn’t come from that kind of band. It was aggressive.

In media, like you said, the only real portrayals of trans people are Buffalo Bill or"The Crying Game." Buffalo Bill is the most well known one -- my mom knows him -- and he’s got a severe identity problem and he’s going around killing girls. It ended up being a comment on that and throwing that under the bus.

Have you ever had to deal with someone using your work without your authorization?
Actually, no. I haven’t. There are these nightmare stories of artists that have been stolen from Urban Outfitters or people of that size taking their image or something. What I’ve heard in those cases -- no insult to any of those artists because this is a generalization -- but a lot of their work can be seen as generic enough that it could be stolen.

You made a t-shirt with a bunch of lips on it and a giant company sees it and recreates it. You just drew a bunch of lips. Who fucking cares?

Do you think people haven’t taken your work because it is so provocative?
I think the work that I do, I’m not making things that are really marketable. My style jumps around a lot and I’m not known for one thing. I’m not like Buff Monster or Brian Ewing, people that have a very specific style and draw very specific things. I don’t draw very specific things. That’s no slag on them. If you can find something that translates to bank account money, and you are happy doing it, draw a fucking bunny holding a gun all day long. That’s fucking awesome. That’s not something that I would want to do. That’s not what makes me want to sit down and draw. So, I haven’t had any problems with that. Also, my personal work, there’s not a lot of it. I don’t really draw for fun, or even because I like it. I draw because there’s work to do.

On my off time, I’m not laying out a stupid t-shirt or something like that. On my free time, I watch movies. So, I don’t have a lot to steal from that’s not already been paid for by someone that would take legal action. If someone takes anything from Laura, the hammer’s coming down. There’s not so much that isn’t commercial work out there, so I’m harder to steal from.

Really, the most personal work that I’ve done is the "I Probably Hate You" watches that I’ve done. Before that, my last personal show was in London two years ago. From a certain perspective, I’d love for someone to try and steal from me. It’s flattering to a certain degree.

I get the impression that you are not a "sensitive artist."
I’m not really sensitive about my work. I have found in my peers, creative people, are very sensitive people. Even a kid that draws skulls really well feels a certain connection to that work or that it betrays an aspect of his personality. I don’t really feel that way about art. I feel like I’m more of a mercenary than a sensitive kid. If someone stole from me, I’d be like "that sucks dude." I don’t want anyone to go and seal my work, but I’m not real sensitive about it.

The Vannen "I Probably Hate You" watches have really taken off. What does that say about society?
I hope I’m doing my part in bring down society -- that would be cocky to actually mean. To me, they are just selling to kids that are filled with anger and hate. That’s indicative of a reach outside of punk. But realistically, they are selling to punk kids. I mean really, hate and love don’t even mean anything anymore. They’re a commodity. As stupid and as tacky as a sentiment of "I probably hate you" is, it’s playing into the hands of a bunch of angry kids. I knew as a kid I hated everything. Fuck, as an adult I still hate everything. To me, it’s not really about a rude sentiment -- it’s a bumper sticker. Well, what does it say about society? Fuck. Who knows? Everybody is angry and mad. I don’t know how many happy people there are. Do you? People are all kind of tired. We’re all gonna die anyway, so it doesn’t matter. I’m just happy that they are popular.

Who is someone that you don’t hate?
[Pauses] My… wife… You for doing this interview, because that’s really nice. A couple of the bands that I work with. Hate for me is like a sport. Some people are good at baseball. I’m just really good at hating things. I don’t even really mean it. That fact that you hate something doesn’t really matter and in a bigger expanse, nothing really matters. Whether you like or dislike something, doesn’t really matter. You have to make it through the day, just don’t shoot yourself in the fucking face.

I hate people as a whole. But I like some people individually. Each person has their own math equation and you might click with them on an individual level. But, when I look out onto the sea of New York, I go "we could flush this whole thing into the fucking ocean, myself included." Maybe I’d put my wife on a door so she could float away and doesn’t go down. But, pretty much everybody else, we could burn it to the ground and that would be fine.

This is why I don’t usually do phone interviews… because I talk so much unnecessary shit.

Well, Chris, I think you are answers are wonderful. They come from a very unique perspective. I would say despite your misanthropy, there’s a certain playfulness in there.
Ha! Well, good! That’s getting back to what I was talking about with Combat -- there’s a desire to be comical about very serious or disturbing things.

What does the cover of the new Against Me! Record -- it’s either a dissected boob or a boob as a piece of meat -- mean to you?
That comes from personal work. I actually didn’t make that specifically for the record. Laura bought that from me from me at a personal show years ago. We had different art for Transgender two years ago -- completely different art. This has really been a road for Laura. The record was done -- I had a record layout finished. Usually we start early, but it takes us forever to do the art. White Crosses took forever and we fought with Warner about the art. Once I started getting lyrics, we revisited the art and Laura was like, "let’s just scrap it. I want to use this piece that I bought from you."

That art actually started from an illustration in a Combat record. Then I made it into this grainy photo. That art is very Cronenberg-y. I’m very interested in the body and body horror and dismemberment and mutation and dumb shit like that. I like the idea of a breast on top of an endless piece of meat. I liked the idea of the sexualization of something so gross and abject. Even at the time that I made it, I was working in the adult industry. I was around pornography and weird stuff. It seemed fitting to cap this legacy that Laura and I had. Looking at some of the art now, it seems like they are clues to what I didn’t even know what was going on. This seemed like a capper on Laura’s journey.

It’s also cool because it’s kind of an aggressive image. Laura is not an aggressive person, but she’s a person that has a big personality and stands up for what she believes and pushes boundaries. It’s kind of a gore metal cover but it also sets a tone for the record and what it’s about and the transformation. It’s something that’s a little bit wider and weirder -- even for a band in their genre. It really sets them apart from their peers, because most punk art is terrible. That’s not to say that I’m great, but different is better than run of the mill.

What do you have coming up?
There actually is an Against Me! watch from Vannen coming out. It’s a cool thing where it’s icons of the past 10 years where we’ve been working together. I’ll probably do a record for the Holy Mess. I might be doing something with Chris Mansfeld. I expect 2014 to really pick up.