A car burns on a cul de sac in Bridgeport, Connecticut where no one seems to care about anything except maybe getting their daughter into Columbia so that they can network at various AIESEC events and maybe (hopefully) get a sure-fire internship at a fintech startup with DOD contracts if (and only if) they make sure to use to their tongues to touch the roof of their mouths and the back of their teeth hard enough. In Montreal, Quebec I have my windows boarded up and I suckle moisture from damp walls for sustenance in between pacing and chewing unreleased flavors of 5Gum. I call Atlanta short king and goth correspondent extraordinaire Thomas Morton who talks to me over the phone from New York City — Due to consuming an unholy and wholey unhealthy amount of Vice ‘content’ in preparation for this interview, I imagine him to be standing in a dilapidated Brooklyn apartment next to Harmony Korine who is taking Polaroids of burning cars from his window (or perhaps of men with their pant-legs leg rolled up cycling whilst masked through a court-mandated bike path). This is what he had to say.
Jesse: Do you collect knives?
Thomas: Do I collect knives? No. Why do you ask?
Jesse: It was in this video I watched. Someone said ‘Thomas Morton collects knives’.
Thomas: Weird. You know what happens sometimes? And I think I know what video you’re talking about. When I was making the last TV show I did, which is Balls Deep, we had this marketing department, and they’re better than a department elsewhere, but marketing departments in general aren’t great. I’ve not had an amazing experience with folks who kind of don’t get what they’re doing and also try to make a ridiculously much harder job than they should out of it. I think also because there’s a whole bunch of videos that I’ve made but haven’t seen, like I’d make stuff and then I never watch it so I have to kind of guess. Also on top of that, these videos get repackaged and retitled so sometimes somebody will ask me about a video with a very specific title and I’ve got no clue what they’re talking about, and then I realize ‘Oh Vice took that video I made 5 years ago and retitled it.’ But I know what video you mean once the context clues have been established. Was it a bunch of different people talking about me?
Thomas: Ok yeah
Jesse: It’s a really weird thing to lie about
Thomas: Well I don’t think it was a lie, I wouldn’t lie about it (unless I did, in which case it was a lie) but when I was making Balls Deep the marketing kids for whatever reason wanted to make the thrust of the marketing campaign about me, instead of the subjects of the episodes of Balls Deep. And for one, I try to be a team player but I wasn’t super on board with that, and then on top of that, I was filming stuff everywhere and very busy, so they just threw stuff together with folks around the office, just asking them what they knew about me. I think it ended up really kind of evident about how bad a job I’d done basically befriending everybody I’d been working with. I assume the collecting knives thing came from somebody who went over to my house and saw some knives.
Or you know what that actually might come from? There’s a couple different places that could come from. I bought this switchblade on one of the shoots, because we were at a gas station in Georgia and they sold switchblades (whether or not that was legal) and I was like ‘Oh cool a switchblade’. It was 6 bucks. And then I wait to put it in my check luggage so I wouldn’t get in trouble going through security on the flight home, and it wasn’t there so I was like ‘What happened to this fucking knife?’ and looked through the rental car. We had a local sound guy, and it was the first time I worked with him so I thought ‘Oh I was with that motherfucker sound guy, I bet he took it. That asshole, I hope he gets in trouble for it’ then I forgot about it. And then like a month later I got a call from a detective at Newark airport in New Jersey for the Port Authority about the fucking switchblade.
Jesse: What the fuck
What had happened was that it had ended up in the sound guys bag. I don’t think he had intentionally taken it, he didn’t know about it either, but he went through security like a month later. He’d been carrying it for a month but I don’t know how many flights he’d taken but somebody finally saw it in an x-ray, and he was sitting there in cuffs and I had to explain to the detectives what had happened. I worked with him once and so I wasn’t clear who it was at first.
But that could have been an element of it. And also at another gas station, but this one in China, they were selling these weird daggers. I don’t know why but around the world gas stations sell weird different things, and at this one it was like weird replica daggers, like old Chinese gold daggers with unsharpened blades. But again, I was like ‘Cool, daggers’ and five bucks, so I bought them. We were flying a lot and at one of the airports the little lady who was translating with us was this pretty, proper, very nice Malaysian gal in her like 20s got in this weird debate with one of the security guards, and it was getting king of frustrated and stuff, so we asked her ‘What was going on?’ and she’s like ‘I don’t know, this guys crazy. He keeps saying there’s a sword in one of your bags?’ and I was like ‘Oh sorry, that’s mine’ so I opened it up and showed them that the blades weren’t sharp, and it’s going into checked luggage. But had she’d been as close as she could get to yelling or whatever just being like ‘None of these people have swords, what are you talking about?’ So I think those things combined resulted in the idea of me collecting knives. But I don’t really collect knives, I just have a few. Although they’re all in storage now.
Jesse: Safe from the hands of security guards.
Thomas: Right yeah, they all made it through. They didn’t end up in the weird little confiscation box wherever in New York or whatever fucking airport I was at in China.
Jesse: when I was a kid one of those security agents stole my keychain and I got really upset.
Thomas: Oh no, what kind of keychain was it?
Jesse: It was less exciting than a golden blunted knife. It was just a pair of collapsible sewing scissors that I found on the floor of my high school. A lot less interesting, but I liked them.
Thomas: Nah, that’s cool. It’s funny I remember growing up, and every so often I’d run into an older guy who was still carrying a pocket knife, and how that was such a regular part of your pocket. You had your wallet, you wore your watch, and you have a pocket knife. There was a joke in the Simpsons about that, about how everybody has a knife, when Bart’s in the Boy Scouts or Cubs Scouts or whatever it is. But nowadays you can’t really do that as much. And working with camera guys who usually have to try to carry some sort of Leatherman, like one of those Swiss Army knife looking guys that are more like pliers and have all these other tools that fold out. They’re forever losing those to security guards. I’d love to go see one of those boxes at JFK or some big airport, full of all the stuff they confiscate. It’s a shame that if you do any sort of travelling whatsoever, they’re going to take that kind of stuff no matter what.
Jesse: Yeah, I haven’t seen that Simpsons episode. You said it was Boy Scouts or something?
Thomas: Yeah, he joins the Junior Campers.
Jesse: And he goes down a river in a canoe? Is that the same one?
Thomas: Yeah, that’s the one. It’s kind of like a deliverance homage. The whole thing with the knife is that to get this knife, he has to pass a merit badge test. He doesn’t want to do it, and then he’s like ‘Who needs a knife anyway’ and then passes 5 situations where people use knives.
Jesse: I’m a bit younger than you. People that are like 10 years older than me are really into the Simpsons and I really appreciate it, but I struggle so much remembering.
Thomas: Oh good, yeah I was going to say, I relate to everything in my life like via the Simpsons because I was like 10 when it was first airing. I think of it the same way as a really well educated person a hundred years ago would be able to just quote Shakespeare for any kind of apropos moment. I do the same thing with the Simpsons which is pretty strongly pretty evident of the decline of syndication, at least in myself.
Jesse: I think the Simpsons is better.
Thomas: It’s more timely, yeah.
Jesse: I saw that you tweeted about Sumner Redstone who unceremoniously exploited young freelance labour without the fear of unionization, and related that to Pasolini’s concept of ‘mass culture’. How do you think Redstone impacted modern day ‘mass culture’?
Thomas: It’s funny because I guess we had some weird association with Viacom but I never worked for them. Except once, but that was all. Anyway, right after Redstone died while everybody was running their obituaries and glorifying the man Gideon Yago made these tweets. Do you know him? He’s a reporter/journalist and works for MTV (one of the good ones there) and also did a little stuff for Vice early on. He wrote the original article that became the documentary ‘Heavy Metal in Baghdad). Anyway, he pointed out how in the creation of reality television, from a managerial standpoint Redstone was establishing franchises that didn’t require qualified creative labor to make. The rise of reality television got rid of the writers rooms in a long way, and the ‘writer/director’, and the whole structure that used to exist, or used to be much more common, and what used to be the bread and butter of television networks. Like you know, you’ve got the sitcom, the hour drama, those and all other things that were written. The writers had long standing guilds that helped to protect their interests too.
Jesse: Those are the unions right?
Thomas: Yeah, they are. I’m terrible at the terminology of labor, and labor history, so there might be a difference between guilds and unions, but in my mind they’re kind of collective mechanisms by which in this case writers were able to ensure their rights, their fair treatment, and their interests in making things. And with reality television there aren’t writers to unionize, and as Yago pointed out, that wasn’t necessarily this circumstantial happenstance that occurred. It’s not by design, but it was taken advantage of by those upper management. Because if you have to deal with writers, then you have to deal with their having a share of the intellectual property, their being owed royalties, and what reality television did was elevate in a lot cases really low level producers, producers, junior producers, and associate producers to the same function that writers have, that they were ‘creating’ the work. But the problem is that they didn’t necessarily have the organization, or the wherewithal, or the experience to push and get their due of the express ownership of what they were making.
When you write a show, it’s a natural thing that you know that it’s a product that you made. And whether or not you end up owning the rights to it or whatever, there’s a pretty clear line for doing so that makes sense. Like ‘You wrote this, so it should be yours in some way’. Whereas when you’re making reality television, you’re just corralling these subjects who themselves are barely getting paid, and don’t have any sort of rights to what they’re saying on camera, or how they’re being presented in most cases. It’s hard to argue and defend saying ‘Yeah, that was my work, that was my creation.’ and it just doesn’t have a long-running or long-standing precedent in the entertainment business to go to. And so they exploited that completely, and exploited the younger folks who were coming into the industry and didn’t understand, or have a grasp of any of the history. I think the fact that the rise of reality tv coincides with at least one writer strike is also pretty clear evidence of this.
Getting to the Pasolini thing, there was the whole reality television world which was odious in a general sense, and I was reminded by Gideon’s tweets about it, that the effect it had on television networks, how they hire people, and how they manage people, and how it coincided with the rise of ‘Permalancing’ as a practice.
Thomas: ‘Permalancing’ is when you keep people as freelancers, or as independent contractors instead of full pledged employees, as a way to avoid paying them benefits and as a way to keep them from unionizing or collectivizing in any sense. But what had struck me, besides the labor management aspects of the rise of reality television, was the viewer facing effects. There’s this weird thing where people kind of took it as normal, this idea of appearing on television and not necessarily getting paid for it. It became this entire mentality.
I remember growing up, and you’d meet people who wanted to be famous but they didn’t represent the entire population, or at least the vast majority. Maybe it’s a little cynical or paranoid of me but I see this across our entire culture, especially in comparison to other cultures, and it really struck me more so when I got to travel a lot, when I’d go to places that are actually fairly well developed like China, which in terms of society struck me as similar to middle American culture in the 70s and 80s. In that there wasn’t this weird expectation of fame amongst everybody, and there wasn’t this weird camera hunger that was ladent in everybody. There wasn’t the idea of them one day becoming famous, or just being seen that way. It really felt like reality television had damaged something really fundamental in the American psyche. It had really deranged how what Americans not only saw as entertainment, but also how they saw themselves, and how they saw their lives, especially in relation to these wild media spectacles.
How I thought about that in terms of Pasolini, was in the 60s he made 3 movies: The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, and The Decameron that were kind of based around this thinking and what he was witnessing, and I think it is pretty analogous to how reality television was fathomed, as this confluence of media, finance/banking, government, and consumerism that was completely changing the lifestyle of regular Italians in a massive way.
Jesse: That was going on during Operation Gladio with all the American state and Italian fascist control of Italian media.
Thomas: Yeah! And by fascists who were being supported by our intelligence services which is amazing. And I do recommend getting into Pasolini if you ever have the urge, because he called out a lot of that stuff very early on, when it seemed like ‘conspiracy theory’. When it was ‘conspiracy theory’.
Jesse: I think most people would still deem ‘American collaboration with ex-Nazis’ as somewhat controversial.
Thomas: Absolutely, but Operation Gladio is on the books, it’s a real thing that happened. The CIA was propping up all these far-right political parties in Italy of all places (which makes sense historically if you consider that Italy had the biggest Communist party of anywhere in Europe). But to say ‘the American CIA is funding all these small Italian fascist political parties and militias, as well as promoting the nation’s media empire of Berlusconi, and there’s collusion with the fucking Vatican’ and all that stuff, even now, saying it out loud sounds crazy except that there’s very direct evidence that it did happen that came out at the end of the Cold War. Pasolloni called that, and it’s possible that’s why he died.
Jesse: Yeah, you can’t rule that out. I think once you start talking about Propaganda Due, that’s where people would be hesitant to believe it. Even though it all happened!
Thomas: Exactly. It’s a real thing, there’s actual evidence of it. There’s the Masonic lodge that the fucking Vatican’s banking administrators were in with Silvio Berlusconi, and with the contemporaneous prime minister and his little clique. And they called themselves Propaganda Due! It’s maddening. It sounds like shitty fiction.
But just in connecting this with Pasolini, I feel like reality television which was fundamentally a way to keep from having to pay writers, and a way to turn the creative aspects of television into just ‘content’, and making it so you don’t have to worry about the construction of the product, or the payment for, or somebody else owning it, or royalties, and making so it’s just this thing you get to have that was made by other people’s labor and that you get to profit off of. That the effects that it had outside of the media, was just equally as bad. It had ruined something a little more, it diminished the quality of regular American life. I think it devalued people’s existence outside of television.
You see aspects of that in social media, and the way people present themselves. There’s just this quest for whatever the fuck public recognition is. You smell it on people, it’s this weird kind of rotten sort of desperation, and it’s very much taken for granted, it’s taken as natural, that’s the worst part of all.
And so I feel like Pasolini was watching that happen in real time in the 60s and that was his whole thing. That ‘mass culture’ in Italy was destroying not just a specific lifestyle, I want to say he called it the ‘daily rhythm of life’, essentially like a way of living that had existed as long as people had. And that was something to watch out for. I do a bad job of explaining that sort of stuff, and I’m throwing around Pasolini quotes like some sort of college professor or something, which I’m not. But I hope that maybe answers the question. I’m not sure.
Jesse: I think all that also just engineers people into feeling this deep sense of loneliness all the time. It’s an epidemic.
Thomas: Yeah, absolutely, I mean especially now. My god.
Jesse: In one of the episodes of ‘Night Library’, you mention this book called ‘Class: A Guide Through the American Status System’ by Paul Fussell. It seems like this varied ethnographic account of collegiate experiences amongst American students. Can you tell me why you’re so interested in it?
Yeah, it’s one of my favorite books. So Paul Fussell was a poetry professor who had fought in the Second World War, and he’s written a bunch of books I really love that break down American Culture. He’s a good cultural analyst for different things, and he wrote a book about different aspects of World War II. But Class is a short book with illustrations. It’s not a dense, ethnographic, anthropological, kind of tome, it’s a very light paperback where he breaks down the signifiers of social class in America. I’m trying to think of a good for instance, but one of my favorites are these little tidbits about how people take care of their lawns, and the image that they’re trying to project.
He was writing it in the 80s, so I think it was kind of the earliest period when people would wear shirts with company’s logos on them without necessarily working for that company. People would wear Coca-Cola shirts, or BP, or whatever, and Paul Fussell wrote about what the choice of wearing that kind of attire meant, and how you could see different aspects of this between classes. You’d see major brand logos being worn by people from the working class, and the upper working class, whereas instead, you saw more middle and upper class folks put college stickers on their cars, and carrying the classic Paris Review and New Yorker tote bags. He wrote about things like that, and breaking down the psychology behind all these different little weird aspects, and it was interesting too, because social class isn’t something we really get into too much in America. Usually we focus on things like race, and then… (well mostly just race) but there are major stratifications of class, and he does a thorough but quick and fun job of identifying a bunch of its traits. It’s one of those books that I read that if I were ever to get my shit together enough to write a book, I’d love to write something along this line. Something that’s observant to the culture around me and explains things without having to be super academic about it, and without trying to turn it into a science or bringing math into it. It’s just writing in a direct and personal sort of way.
Jesse: I’m excited to read the Wikipedia page, and then read it in half a year.
Thomas: Whenever’s clever man.
Jesse: What do you think of the British television show “Nathan Barley”?
Thomas: Hahahaha that’s an amazing question, I love it. We used to get accused of being the source of material for Nathan Barley, like ages ago, and it’s funny because I remember at the time (and not just to distance Vice from it) that it was more about like Dazed and Confused, that magazine, and its editor, and their whole scene. It’s a funny, weird little portrait of that time in England, which I’ve never been but I have a lot of friends who worked there at the British version of Vice, and it’s a caricature that we were always a little bit like ‘Actually Nathan Barleys not really about Vice, or is not really supposed to be.’ I still got a stick up my ass about it, and there was even a Vice issue of Sugar Ape magazine, as I remember. But I loved the show, it was funny as hell. It does feel like it’s a little close to home-ish in a really kind of mean-spirited, classic, British way of being just devastating in the dark aspects of it, of that hopeless nihilism at the heart of their comedy that you don’t really get as much in America. It’s a funny show, but I do still have a stick up my ass about being like ‘That shows about Dazed and Confused.It’s not supposed to be about Vice’.
Jesse: That’s such a good thing to be annoyed about.
Thomas: Hahahaha yeah, and to this day.
Jesse: What do you think of David Farriers’ Dark Tourist?
Thomas: Oh shit, yeah, I saw that. I mean, I hate to say that somebody went and re-shot almost everything I had done with a taller, British host. But that’s exactly what it seems like.
Jesse: Dude, he’s from New Zealand.
Thomas: Oh he’s from New Zealand? I didn’t know that. I remember having it recommended on my Netflix account a few years ago and then going through the episodes and being like ‘Oh, Atomic Lake? That’s interesting, I shot a thing there five years ago’ and then being like ‘Oh the illegal immigration theme park in El Alberto, Mexico? Okay, I shot a thing there eight years ago’ and just going like that one by one through each of the episodes. I never sat down and watched a full episode, but even with the Atomic Lake, like people have filmed those things before and taken pictures, but to my knowledge I guess like me and him now are the only people that took inflatable rafts or canoes out into it. There’s that tenuous ‘Oh this guys ripping me off’ but you know, if every single thing I did was redone by them, and then every other piece they did that I didn’t do was based on a Vice piece, then it’s just like somebody really made their career by just regurgitating you Vices greatest hits from 2008 to 2015 and then you know, didn’t bother saying so.
Jesse: Oh yeah, for sure. Absolutely. They even ripped off the Hamilton’s Pharmacopoeia intro.
Thomas: Yeah, and like you know, it’s one thing to hope that stuff you make inspires somebody else, but that’s that shit’s just straight up theft right?
Jesse: Oh yeah. I’m not a huge fan. He’s like a private school guy.
Thomas: I can’t imagine being him or being whoever helped him with that show, whether he had like one producer or a bunch. I would feel terrible, it’s like plagiarism which is something I’ve just never gotten. How do you even feel good about yourself directly taking something somebody else made and just remaking it as if you came up with it, in the hopes that you’ll get away with it. It’s an alien mentality to me. I can’t imagine.
Jesse: He did a set of commercials with Spark who are a New Zealand telecommunication company and this dickhead Kiwi fintech company, then proceeded to write an article about how he was upset that someone in public called him a cunt for being in a commercial with Spark. It was really funny. He was trying to be all smug and tongue-in-cheek about it, but it’s like dude that’s what happens when you become rich and do expensive commercials. It was so funny.
Thomas: Yeah, not shit. I’ll have to look that up. That’s hilarious.
Jesse: He’s done stuff that I think is pretty entertaining and interesting, but when you grow in New Zealand and you go to a state school, you just automatically hate private school kids, and I guess never get over it, even when you’re an adult. I don’t know how it is in America.
Thomas: Oh for sure. No, it’s not as pronounced I think as it is in UK and Commonwealth countries, but there’s definitely a puppet private school divide in America. The thing too, is that I grew up in Georgia in the States and with the private schools there, there’s not even this ‘tradition’ that it’s tied to. The majority of the private schools there started in the 50’s in response to desegregation, and so literally these are just kids whose parents are richer than yours. There’s no pretense about it, there’s no tradition, it’s just straight up parents paying to keep their kids out of schools with poorer people with them, and with black people in them.
Jesse: And now it’s just transferred to Ivy League education popping out the liberal ruling class that are going to destroy the world more.
Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. Who all ascribe to the same set of values, and come from the same background.
Jesse: What have you been doing post-Vice?
Thomas: Not much, just trying to find work. A fair amount of writing. Moving around a lot. That’s been about it. Nothing major. The pandemic kind of threw a wrench in the works, and I’m just trying to find odd gigs wherever I can to keep the bills paid. I did a bad job of keeping on track, or learning how to get jobs. I started at Vice when I was 20, and I worked there for 15 years. It was the last salary job I had applied for, so re-learning the ropes to that, and how one gets jobs, how one gets work in any way, is its own challenge. It’s a younger man’s game and I’m closing in on 40 too. It’s tricky, but we’ll see.
Jesse: What’s your favorite Cure record?
Thomas: Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is probably my favorite. It’s the first one I bought. That or Faith, which I think was the second one I bought. But that varies from time to time. Do you like the Cure?
Jesse: I do like the Cure
Thomas: They were like my Beatles in high school, they were The Band I liked and identified with, and had enough of the catalog that I could kind of go through it. And this being before the internet so you had to save money and physically buy the albums on CDs one at a time. But those two records are really the ones I like the most, the ones I listen to the most often. Disintegration is the masterpiece, the celebrities favorite. And all of the people started saying they’re really into Pornography, even though its’ kind of a more difficult album. But I think early Cure: Faith, and later Cure: Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me are where I tend to land.
Jesse: I like Pornography I think its a good record.
Thomas: It’s a good record, absolutely. You see guys who can pass for jocks propping up Pornography, and its like ‘Yeah, you just learned which record to say and is the right one.’ but you know, they don’t sit around and listen to that. Though who knows, that could be unfair to folks. Cure fans come in all shapes.
Jesse: What’s your favorite video that you’ve ever made?
Thomas: It’s a little tricky because I realized recently when I was trying to catalog things to make a resume that I made something in the neighborhood of 40–50 videos, and there’s just maybe one or two that I’m not super fond of. I kind of stand by a bunch of them, but I think the video that I like the most is the one that I made with my colleague Bernardo Loyola and the editor of National Geographic Brazil, Felipe Milanez. We did this thing in the Amazon, following the murder of husband and wife activist, Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, and his wife Maria. They were peanut farmers in the Amazon who had been radicalized by being driven off their land by extremely moneyed ranching interests, and they started to get a big audience, doing TED talks and stuff like that, and making the international rounds. Then they were shot to death in the jungle, and their killers were never caught.
We went to the Amazon not very long after they died, like maybe a month, or 2 or 3 weeks. The piece was originally titled ‘Toxic Amazon’, and it was part of this environmental series we did called ‘Toxic’, which I always liked because it was less focused on the direct ecology or wildlife, and more on the social aspect of it. This was particularly the case with this Amazon piece because it was fully about the people and the divide between the folks who lived off of the jungle, like the peanut farmers (as well as other forms of labour that were involved) that were using the forest, versus clearing it and using it as pasture for cattle which was the big other side, the ranching interests. And it tied them to all facets of Brazilian culture, and local commerce too.
There was a thing we shot with the members of the Landless Workers’ Movement there, or ‘Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra’ (MST) in Portuguese, who are agriculture workers that don’t own their own land. That video comes to mind as a favorite. I’m not good at promoting things I’ve worked on or been in, but I remember being happy with how it turned out, proud maybe, and trying to promote it and get people to watch it. I think it’s something that I was lucky to be part of the team of people who made it, and I think that they did a great job nailing the subject. So to answer your question, ‘Toxic Amazon’.
Jesse: Sounds like environmental anthropology stuff.
Thomas: Yeah, that’s a good way to describe it.There’s a heavy element of that. It was environmentalism through a social lens.
Jesse: What have you been doing during the pandemic?
Thomas: I’ve had to move houses 3 times, and I guess it’s going to be 4 in another week so that’s taken up a good amount of time. I feel like I haven’t done as much reading that I once would have, and I think maybe that happened to a bunch of folks. Everybody said that they were going to watch all these movies and read all these books, and I guess you do that for a little while, but then after a while get burnt out a bit. The first couple months were a little hairy because I was upsate, properly isolated, so getting down to Brooklyn and being able to physically see people face to face, in the flesh, even if it’s from a few feet distance, is monumentally different than just being completely by oneself. I’ve been doing normal shit but with a mask on. Just walking around, and that kind of shit.
Jesse: How do you see the quarantine affecting freelance journalism?
Thomas: I’m not sure. I think that’s a really good question. It’s interesting because I was thinking about this while I was reading an article recently, about a reporter who had gone to this place called Disaster city in Texas, which was this big workshop where EMT and first responders can go to train with simulated disasters. They get volunteers from the community to be victims who they put makeup on, and then plant them in these buildings that have collapsed and this big fake train wreck. EMTs go in and find these people to treat and pretend it’s real. This all obviously happened before the lockdown, but it was interesting because I was thinking about it and how there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be more opportunities for freelance journalism in that the need for writing is as high as it’s ever been.
People have tonnes of time to spend reading, but there’s only so much you can write from your room. I guess there’s plenty of analysis that can be done, but not so much reporting. The ranges that I have were eaten the second the pandemic started. Magazines closed up shop, along with a lot of the kind of jobs that require writing. Reporting is one of those industries that have taken a big hit especially. There’s been more layoffs at Vice and Buzzfeed, and places like that.
I’m bad at keeping track of that stuff but it’s tricky. My hope is that people keep writing for their own sake. I do that, I think. I kind of write compulsively whether or not somebody is paying me for it. I just do it. I keep journals and write things that I put up online, and I also try to help sell writing, and figure out ways to maybe pass the hat around. I’m hoping that kind of shows a lot of people that to practice this thing you don’t necessarily need the structure of a print magazine, or a website, or a publication. And maybe it’ll lead to more people involved. I mean I was excited when you reached out to me and to hear that you have a zine, and I wish more people had zines. I hope it’ll encourage people to create their own things instead of just glomming onto established institutions, inspiring to be part of some corporate team, even if it’s a corporation that’s in a good standing, or seems to have a good basis. I’d definitely like to see more people make things their own way, for themselves and other people.
Jesse: Fuck yeah, I totally agree. I’ve been reading a lot of Maximum Rocknroll from like 10 years ago. They stopped printing last year, but all these columns and stuff that people did for free were great.
Thomas: Yeah, it was sad that they finally had to close up. I mean those guys were old when I was a kid. It’s one of those institutions that I’ll miss going away. Those guys cultivated a good community.
Jesse: Yeah, absolutely. I was always stoked when my friends in New Zealand would get a review in this foreign zine.
Thomas: Hahahah great. They were good about reaching far for their material.
Jesse: What do you think of the recent rise of independent conflict journalism?
Thomas: Anything being done independently I admire, just for being able to do it. That’s a skill set I wish I had. But in general, I think it’s interesting because especially with video projects, the thing that really appealed to me about Vice when I started was how it was this tiny little company but also a scene. Everybody who was working there were more or less friends with each other, and were on a very similar wavelength. And all the people that we got to contribute to the magazine, all the different writers and photographers etc, were also friends and part of this weird little community. Both in New York and spread around the country in different places.
We weren’t united by a set of politics or backgrounds, except I feel like there was a punk aspect to everybody in that almost everyone involved had been Punk in their childhood but that had sort of gone away. I was never really punk, I would hang out with the punks but I was more into Goth music and shit like that. But it was a weird little family in the way that a music scene can feel like that. Or some other sort of community.
Some of the lessons I feel like I’ve learned, and one of the things that I’ve been trying to process about what happened to Vice was that there was this point in which it grew and it was okay, and it just felt like our weird little scene was getting larger, and getting more people of similar mindsets involved. And then at some point it went past that and it felt like it got too big. Obviously by the end of my time at Vice there were thousands of people working there, and I couldn’t tell you 9/10ths of their names. But where exactly it goes from being good to have collaborators and a little community around you, to becoming a rich corporation and becoming a problem, is an interesting question. In general I think doing things independently as a person or a small team is good, and almost 99 out of 100 times a better way of doing things, that ultimately leads to a better product. The idea of keeping that spirit when things get large and when money starts happening and all that jazz, is a tricky one to manage.
Jesse: How do you feel about Vice re-uploading Balls Deep back to YouTube, and re-editing things?
Thomas: It makes it weird that they told me my job was redundant. Ultimately it’s tacky of them to do that without telling me, and to do that having fired me without paying any sort of royalties while re-editing and re-titling things. They do such a bad job of it these days, that it’s embarrassing in a way. And how loveless behaviour on their part? It’s disappointing more than anything.
I’m glad more people are seeing it. The idea of making all that stuff was that people would watch it, and it makes me glad that’s happening. I get a lot of feedback from it, and it’s insanely positive, so it’s a bummer that it has to feel bad just because of the fact that I’m not part of it, and not receiving any sort of benefits from it outside of having done something that people like.
Jesse: It definitely seems exploitative!
Jesse: In your 2006 Vice article titled ‘I joined three cults simultaneously’, you mentioned ‘this other cult I joined but I’m not at liberty to chat about’, has the statute for that expired?
Thomas: Hahahaha no it hasn’t because the statute of limitations is a million years. It was Scientology. I spent a month there. I was just interested in general with them, and wanted to do basic ground level reporting on what goes on during that first month of recruitment. It was just a strange place and it bummed me out that I couldn’t publish this whole thing I wrote. I wish I had a copy somewhere, but I think I lost it in the course of moving around. It ended up on a laptop that died and I’ve looked for it on hard drives and things like that, and I just don’t think I have it anymore, which is a shame.
But I remember that in order to take part in anything to do with them, you have to sign this extraordinary dubious million year contract that just completely gives them the right to anything that has to do with themselves. It’s essentially a cosmic level non-disclosure agreement. I was pretty cavalier about spilling in, doing the investigation, and signing the thing. I changed my name slightly, but not very much, and then ran it by our lawyer at the magazine at the time, but he just told me ‘No. It’s what they live for. These guys live for suing people for doing this. There’s no way you can get around it.’ And so I rewrote it with all the names changed, but even still he said ‘I’m sorry but no, I’m not kidding. You will get sued, and you won’t have a leg to stand on because you signed this thing.’ It wasn’t even him being a shitty lawyer who was just trying to cover his own ass. And so I had to scramble and join a fourth cult.
Jesse: I’m glad that you just straight up told me it was Scientology.
Jesse: Yeah, how do you see Balls Deep and the content you’ve done for Vice in general as participating in long-form visual anthropology in America?
Thomas: I’d like it if that’s how it was received. I don’t really have any formal training whatsoever in either video making or anthropology, and so if it’s taken as that then I’d feel flattered. Because that was definitely the mindset within it. It was like a really dilettante attempt at amateur anthropology. I described it at some point as extremely amateur pop anthropology.
Jesse: How do you see yourself as participating in the legacy of writers from Atlanta?
Thomas: Not very well yet. I’d like to hopefully get more writing under my belt. I’m definitely being eclipsed by Blake Butler in terms of contemporary Atlanta writers. But I don’t know, and also I have a weird connection with Atlanta, I think. I mean I grew up in the suburbs, so there’s already a little bit of a disconnect, and then the second I turned 18 I headed to New York City. There’s a fire under my ass to get some actual writing done so hopefully one of these days I can get around to that.
Jesse: Do you think the work you’ve done for Vice would have been vastly different under another more engineered and more obviously codified network base like Conde Naste?
Thomas: I don’t think I would have ever worked for one of them, and I don’t think any of them would have given me the free reign that I had at Vice in it’s good days. It just wouldn’t exist, and I don’t think I would have stomached staying there. Vice was when I joined, a very unique place, and that’s just become all the more clear with time. It feels weird and braggy, or braggadocious in a way to say this because I worked there, but from what I’ve read and understand about places like Rolling Stone at the end of the 60’s, or Spy magazine in the 80’s, or National Lampoon in the 70’s, these really innovative and revolutionary publications that also involved a tight knit circle or scene of creators and contributors and things like that, I think Vice was definitely was one of those for print culture in the early 2000’s. It’s the only place I would have wanted to work, and I was sure because I was fucking psyched as hell when I did.
Jesse: I don’t think the segment in ‘Around Balkans in 20+ Days’ where you interviewed that guy from Kosovo about the Osterode Roma refugee camp, and about how the UN totally fucked over and then continued fucking them over would have flied under a Conde Naste publication at all.
Thomas: It might not have, yeah. You just reminded me of this fantasy project I had with the guy who I concocted that Balkans trip with, which was just this omnibus piece about the way NGOs in general (but specifically in Africa) have totally fucked up every society they’ve interfered with.
Jesse: Have you read ‘Lessons of Kosova on Humanitarian Intervention’?
Jesse: It talks about how American imperialist NGOs created their own economy, and how it exploited and fucked over everyone in Kosovo.
Thomas: Oh for sure yeah. Well not just America, Western Europe too. Just the whole NGO mindset and the way they operate. Not to excuse the Americans, but the Dutch are major bad players too. Especially during the Bosnian War.
Jesse: You were telling me about this fantasy project you have about talking about NGOs?
Thomas: Oh just yeah, exactly that. Just tracing the effect that NGO culture has had on all the different societies they’ve attempted to help. It’s uniform across the board, and hopefully that’s getting addressed. Hopefully they’re aware, because the whole reason the idea came up was from hearing from so many people who worked for NGOs about just how fucked up everything they did was. Any step they took to try to help things would just inevitably result in the worst possible side effects or direct counterbalances.
Jesse: I’m interested in DARPAs research into neuroscience that was documented in ‘How To Hack A Human Brain’ Especially regarding ‘Trans Cranial Direct Current Stimulation’. It kind of looked like Joe Rogan nootropics meets Jolly West sodium pentathol MKULTRA bullshit. Is there anything about your experience doing that segment that wasn’t on that video?
Thomas: Nah, nothing interesting. There’s nothing on the cutting room floor that we weren’t allowed to say. I mean for me, what freaked me more about the whole thing, was the amount of money that gets thrown into it. I like scientific research, and as a boy I was brought up on Sci-Fi and weird gizmos and crap like that, but just the idea of how much money was spent on that project was ridiculous. You never know what leads to revolutionary jumps in science, and maybe that will, but it’s essentially an extraordinary device that can be duplicated by a cup of coffee or any sort of stimulant. Who knows where that could lead to for good or bad, but if it does lead somewhere that’s probably going to be like decades, and decades, and decades away.
You deal with those folks and always have this secret hope that’s it’s going to be a little creepier than it is, and that they’re going to seem a little more like spooks but for the most part, once you’re filming and comfortable off and on camera, whatever’s at play and whatever could be at play secretively happening is not as directly sinister as one might actually hope. Which is a fucked up thing to say, and a fucked up endeavourment, but it’s true. All the folks involved with that thing and on camera and stuff like that, they’re doing exactly what they say they’re doing. Mostly it’s just crazy that we give so much money to them.
Jesse: In the episode ‘The Rich Are Preparing For The Apocalypse Better Than You’ you point out another book called-
Thomas: God, these titles.
Thomas: That’s okay. It was supposed to be called ‘Apocalypse Soon’ and then there was a whole bunch of like the S is a dollar sign, and E was a Euro sign, anyway, hahaha.
Jesse: Oh good. So you point out another book called NASA Dark Mission, that you said you really like. Can you tell me about it?
Thomas: So Richard Hoagland has this whole theory that during the moon landings there was evidence of life there that was kept out of view, and that the astronauts were all hypnotized upon landing. He’s also really big into the face on Mars, have you ever seen that? It’s like a geological structure that looks like a face, but only from certain angles. He also believes that NASA is hiding evidence of an alien civilization that has very thoroughly colonized both Mars and the moon. I think he’s linked it to the Egyptians too in a weird Ancient Aliens kind of way. It’s a fun reading, but it’s pretty ridiculous. James Shelby Downard wrote a piece about the Kennedy assassination called King Kill 33, and I put those things in the same camp. Well, Hoagland I’m sure believed it. He does not come across as though he’s just playing with ideas. But do you know the writer Robert Anton Wilson?
Jesse: I do not.
Thomas: I recommend checking him out. It seems like you’re into conspiratorial matters.
Jesse: Yeah, to an extent, but I’m more into government conspiracies.
Thomas: Well exactly right? I mean I’m the same way. It’s funny because everyone has these kinds of beliefs but there’s always a limit, and usually the limit I find with most people is aliens. But there’s people willing to push it past that. I highly recommend Robert Anton Wilson’s writing in the 70s about this. But Hoagland believes that there’s all these hidden alien things, and he uses his NASA credentials to lend a greater air of gravity to his theories, but unfortunately they don’t really hold up to much scrutiny.
There’s a lot of weird geometry involved, and he tries to kind of concoct theories to prove that these rock formations on Mars are actually artificial. It’s fun stuff and it’s very interesting but it’s definitely beyond the pale. It made sense to me that people who are investing that amount of money into a doomsday silo would be interested in that kind of thing. This guy has exactly the kind of thinking that would be bedside reading for them.
Jesse: How do you feel about being described as a journalist on Wikipedia?
Thomas: I didn’t realize I am on Wikipedia. It’s funny, just in that it’s another thing I have this kind of pointless stick up my ass about. Although a pointless stick is probably the best kind of stick to have up your ass. But it’s just I was never you know, a ‘journalist’. I dropped out of, and didn’t pursue J-School. And I did so because I’ve got real issues with the way that kind of institutional mainstream journalism works in our culture. Ultimately at the heart of things is that when I started, Vice was still a humor magazine with a weird little cultural thing going on.
There’s two things to it. One is that I’m a writer and I’m nobody’s journalist. I’m decent at writing and describing things, and might be okay at doing interviews, but I’m no journalist. And the other thing is that there’s this classic style guide where instead of referring to somebody as a physician, you use the more common words like ‘doctor’, and that applies directly to journalists. You call them a reporter and editor, and that’s just the standard style. There’s something a little highfalutin and self-congratulatory I find that’s just unfortunately very common in journalism. Which is not to say that anybody who’s ever called themselves one is terrible. There are people who are great journalists operating right now. But, yeah, it’s not something I’d ever call myself. I don’t care if other people call me that.
Jesse: When I think of ‘journalists’ I think of institutions like Conde Naste, and I think of the people that are in and around the ruling class. A lot of older people in New Zealand have really contentious connotations of ‘journalists’ because of the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent boycott against The Sun.
Thomas: Well that’s the thing. When somebody gives you their story, there’s a tremendous level of trust they’re taking in you and not everybody respects that about their subjects. The Sun is a great example. The British press is full of assholes like that unfortunately, and especially the tabloid press. There are people who just don’t give a shit about what the effect of their fucking words are, and that’s a shame. Unfortunately I feel like what you’re describing is more common in capital J journalism. Institutional and mainstream media journalism has a real callousness to the subjects that they’re covering both in terms of the idea of the subject, but also the people they talk to and whose lives they’re reporting.