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Interview: Stuart Wellington (The Flop House)

Picture by Sarah Hampton Photo

The Flop House is a podcast about bad movies. Some iteration of that line introduces each episode. Yet, while that’s the concept, the podcast itself can be finely defined as three friends having a conversation. Dan McCoy and Elliott Kalan, two writers from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, are joined by talented everyman Stuart Wellington, and the three launch into a bonkers back-and-forth that weaves its way in and out of tangents and digressions like the post-movie bar conversations you always wish you were having. The trio’s wit and comedic timing is unique, earning them heaps of critical adulation and an obsessive fanbase of ‘Floppers’ bent on spreading the gospel. That said, deities they ain’t; their perception and approach is so human. They don’t swing their viewpoints around in the manner of philosopher kings. They make you feel as though they’re your friends and you’re separated only by the time it takes to write them a letter. Needless to say, they have a knack for connecting.

Personally, I always gravitated towards Stuart. His easy-going personality is ingratiating and his jokes are charmingly offbeat, eliciting chuckles a few seconds after the gag when your brain finally catches up. Still, it was his command of kitschy horror that originally made me take notice. His references to Phantasm and the filmography of Stuart Gordon rekindled a feeling dormant since my childhood, the one I spent absorbing similar spine-tinglers and outrageous schlock. He seemed to ‘get’ it, that ‘good’ horror is often terrible, but there’s a certain amount of joy in internalizing a formula, recognizing familiar rhythms, and seeing how wildly someone can screw those equations up. It’s all part of a greater horror language. Put simply, you don’t often come in contact with another person who understands the significance of “BOOOOOOOOOOY!” Stuart does. And to hear him say it inspires a little voice in the basement of your brain to say, “Holy hell, we’re not alone.” Again, it’s all about the connection.

Down the line, I discovered Stuart is a metalhead and he surfed around my haunts. His musical tastes, like his cinematic preferences, ran more towards the classic. We first performed the feeling-the-other-out tango to Sacriphyx’s The Western Front; that intricate “dance,” as Stuart describes it, where you cautiously explore whether this encroacher is really into metal or really into Slipknot. Success: Our passports/credentials checked out. Suddenly, we were trading recommendations. Funny how quickly the wheels start moving when there’s traction.

So, given his equal affinity for Phantasm and Entombed – after all, “Left Hand Path” quotes the Phantasm theme – I thought he’d be a perfect interview subject to probe regarding the crossover between the cultish appeal of ‘bad’ movies and underground metal. I gave Stuart a call and, as he does so well, we connected.

— Ian Chainey

How did you get into metal?

I got into metal in a roundabout way. I was born in 1980. I think one of the first albums I ever bought was Nevermind. I was into grunge, alternative stuff like the Pixies. The first band I got really into were the Melvins. The Melvins were my gateway to heavier music. But, at that time, metal had such a specific stigma attached to it. It was such a scene. To me, it was like horror movies. I was interested, but I didn’t know if it was for me. I quickly got over the horror movies thing, but it took me a while to get into metal. Then, I got into industrial stuff. Finally, I started getting into, you know, Maiden and Sepultura.

Now, as an adult and having less time to hang out with friends, metal has been an easier hobby to spend time with because there’s just so much stuff you can read about it. And, in some ways, metal can be a very solitary hobby. So, yeah, I guess that’s how I got into it.

It’s interesting you mention metal as a solitary hobby. You don’t need to have friends to pursue it, yet you need an in-roads. As you said, there was a scene and a stigma. When you first were getting into metal, was there a particular obstacle keeping you at bay? Was the scene too insular?

Well, I wouldn’t say the scene was insular. I think, growing up, metalheads had a look of tough guys or cool guys. They were the kids in school who were outside smoking. I played by the rules. I didn’t think I was cool or tough enough to be a part of that scene. I don’t think I was socially ready to make that step. At that time, grunge and alternative music was such an easy thing to like. You weren’t making a statement by saying you liked the fucking Pixies.

[Laughs] But, down the line, you felt you ready to take that dive?

Yeah, as you get older and stop giving a shit, you realize you don’t really care about the stigma. I think the big thing for me was that I had a buddy in college that got me into a lot of hair metal. This was in 2000, which was obviously a little late to be getting into Dokken or Def Leppard.

But, after school, I started going to work for a company called Games Workshop. They’re the company who makes Warhammer. A lot of the guys I worked with, and a lot of the customer there, were into building and painting miniature soldiers. So, I was running a bunch of these hobby shops and these guys would come in, hang out, and paint their soldiers and talk about orcs and battle plans; all kinds of shit. So, my job was basically hanging out and talking about geeky shit all day. Not surprisingly, these guys were into heavy metal. You know, like, Bolt Thrower and what not.

[Laughs] Naturally.

And just being surrounded by these people constantly, it was like, okay, it’s fine to be into this kind of stuff.

Why did you think there was a crossover between table-top gamers and the metal community? What’s the singularity bringing those forces together?

I think the general stereotype is similar. Gamers are depicted as comic book guys – bearded, geeky, unwashed – and that’s not too far off from how someone on the outside would describe a metalhead.

In a lot of cases, it’s the fantasy element and, maybe, a detachment from reality. You have horror themes, fantasy themes, battles; I think you’ll find a lot of metalheads and people who are into strategy games are into that stuff.

The defining trait of a metalhead to me is we’re really good at digesting the ridiculous. I think we’re uniquely able to pull back, see something as silly, and still sink into it as though it’s the most normal thing in the world. Is that ability learned? Or is it just a naturally occurring trait and that’s what drives metalheads together?

So, you have people who are that kind of guy and they just happen to run into those kinds of people?

Yeah.

Well, I don’t think metalheads are more predisposed to that. When you’re talking about a culture encouraging that kind of behavior, I think, deep down, people who get into those type of things. . .there’s something that’s. . .I don’t want to say missing from their life. I’ve spent a lot of time getting people excited about hobby stuff. I think those guys, sometimes, want to be reminded of something from childhood. Something they can still hold on to. And, at some level, I think getting into metal is the same thing. It’s kind of giving into your childhood giddiness. There’s detachment. There’s ironic detachment, sure. But to truly get into it, you can’t be fully detached.

To highlight something you said, there might be some ironic detachment: Is that what drives people to bad movies?

The culture of bad movies is a pretty big one. I’m not as versed as some, but there’s a huge culture of people into watching bad movies for the sake of bad movies. Some are good-bad movies which are fun to watch, but there are others that are miserable. And people get off on that; movies so bad they sap your will to live. And, yeah, I feel there’s a fair amount of irony to it.

But, I think the crossover is more that people want to walk their own path. Like, This is for me, everyone else doesn’t understand. Metalheads and punks have that same attitude right?

Yeah, like people need something to push back upon.

Yeah, like with any interest it’s hard not to have ironic distance. With bad movies, I feel like there’s a lot of that. Oh, I like this, but I don’t really. . .

In metal, you have albums about Scrooge McDuck.


[Ed. Note: Welcome to the wonderful world of Tuomas Holopainen’s The Life and Times of Scrooge.]

[Laughs] No comment.

I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to buy it.

I mean, the cover has Scrooge McDuck holding a pick-ax.

[Laughs] Do people take that story super seriously? Is that something we can’t understand? Like, it keys into something incredibly important to them?

Well, as you know, a lot of the things we think of as children’s stories have ancient origins and Scrooge McDuck is actually derived from an Old Norse tale about the gods.

Wait, really?

I’m kidding.

[Laughs] C’mon, man, I’m looking to you for answers.

Anyway, I think ironic detachment is a key part of being into bad movies. I think in some sense, that exists in heavy metal culture. Generally, the metal community has to view the over-the-top tough guy image as silly, yet you like it all the same.

For example, the magazine I’m looking at: You have these spreads where there’s half a page of script and the rest are promo photos where it’s five guys standing in a field – looking pretty serious. And it’s guys standing in front of a fire – looking pretty serious. And I have to be a little detached from that.

Yeah, but it’s like the mere act checks a box and you think, They get it.

The ones that speak to me the most are the ones where it looks like they’re having fun with it.

Well, that’s kind of the thing. You take those tropes so seriously when you’re younger and you approach those same tropes later on in life and expect it to ignite that same fire. But, at that point, you realize those old idols probably didn’t take it as seriously as you ended up doing. Like, hey, here’s a bunch of guys in front of a brick wall and that guy has a saw blade affixed to his codpiece because he thought it was funny.

[Laughs] To use my experience as an example, it was images like that scared me away from metal. Oh, these guys are too cool and tough, I can’t get into metal. And now it’s just. . .check out these guys in front of a brick wall. Huh.

[Laughs] I mean, is that the appeal for metal and bad movies? A wink-wink, nudge-nudge thing? I know that you know that I know?

I don’t think that’s the key appeal, but there’s something there. I’m not into metal because it’s a goof. There’s something it stirs deep inside. Hearing a blastbeat, hearing a good guitar riff; it stirs something much deeper. But, you have a good point. At a certain point, you feel like you’re in on the joke and you feel like you’re part of the culture. Same with bad movies. I feel like I can enjoy this terrible movie because I know it’s terrible and I can enjoy the imperfections better because of that.

That brings up another good point. When a lot of those movies were released, they were considered objectively awful. So, how did they evolve into cult objects?

I don’t know what it is. I wonder if it’s exclusively time. I’m trying to figure that out. I wondering if it’s taking the material and divorcing it from that particular period and using it like a weird time capsule? I don’t know.

I’m going to turn the question back around. Can you think of any good examples of music that has done the same thing? I know a lot of movies that started out, no one cared, and they’re now classic.

Yeah, in the critical sense, I think the classic one is Led Zeppelin. Reviled by the critocracy of the time. Then, younger critics wanted to differentiate themselves from the mass opinion and wanted something from their childhood to be important.

And now they’re a foundational stone for all of rock music.

Which is weird, right? Golden gods, to pyrite idols, and back to golden gods again.

Yeah, that makes sense. With movies, I guess a good example would be Army of Darkness.

I was thinking along those lines. Starship Troopers would be another one.

A lot of Verhoeven is like that. The difference is Verhoeven movies made money. But, Starship Troopers is an instance of critics getting it finally.

Army of Darkness, though. Critics didn’t really get it, and it didn’t make money, but so many kids grew up watching it and loving it. And now all of those guys who grew up watching it are making movies. You have guys like Adam McKay, he produced Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which is very indebted to Army of Darkness. It has the same tongue and cheek fantasy element. I think the problem was, it wasn’t until after the movie was released, he realized, Oh shit, Army of Darkness didn’t make any money.

[Laughs]

You have those movies where the director thinks, Man, that movie was great, how come people don’t make that kind of movie anymore? It’s because it didn’t make any money.

Verhoeven is a good example, though. They recently remade Robocop. Are you familiar with The Dissolve?

Yeah.

They dedicated a week’s worth of editorials analyzing the original. I can guarantee you, when Robocop first came out, no one thought it would have a ton of thinkpieces written about it.

[Laughs]

So, there’s some ironic detachment. Half man, half robot cop.

Let’s switch back to metal for a second. Thinking of these NWOBHM bands that are reuniting, do you think there’s a market for them now because people are simply trying to differentiate themselves from the masses?

How so?

Well, I think one of the main drivers of humanity is to be perceived, personally, as unique. . .

Ha, yeah. I feel like every man wants to be an explorer on some level. Every dad wants to show his son a new thing. The dad doesn’t want the son to show him stuff. He wants to teach the son. Like, my dad got super into Cirque du Soleil one year. So he gave me DVDs for Christmas.

Oh god.

Yeah, like DVDs were going to capture the majesty of the experience.

But, do I think it’s because people are trying to set themselves free or separate themselves from the pack? Sure. However, I think people just want to rediscover gems. Bad movies are the same way. People love digging through used VHS boxes. When Blockbuster was going out of business, people were posting pictures of weird old DVDs fished out of bargain bins. I know a guy, Matt Carman – he and his wife, Kseniya Yarosh, put out a great zine called I Love Bad Movies and I’m a contributor – and he loves this set of Canadian VHSs that are, like, telenovela romances.

[Laughs]

Matt walked around Brooklyn looking for people throwing stuff out and he found this huge set of Canadian tapes. Just an old TV show. I feel that’s similar to heavy metal guys trying to find something no else knows about. The under-appreciated gem.

Is that the driving factor bringing yesterday’s kitsch back? Is it just a curatorial aspect? We’re all hunters?

I think that’s easier in some ways than finding new things.

Or creating something new yourself.

[Laughs] Yeah. Looking backwards is much safer than looking forwards. I guess it’s easier to take something that is overlooked and championing it than finding something brand new and being the first person to support it.

Do you think this is a quirk that’s new to humanity? Like, we’ve gotten so used to performing these instant reappraisals? I have a hard time believing in the 19th century there were people rifling through penny novels. . .

[Laughs] I can’t attest to what people were like back then. There’s no historical record.

[Laughs]

I mean, I would say the sheer amount of information available now and the connectivity of it all; it’s so easy to find an opinion on something. Whether it’s Yelp – I can’t believe I said Yelp because I hate Yelp – but, anything you can find an opinion on, you can find it. There’s something inside some people that makes them want to share. There’s a guy who wants to review cat toys on Amazon. I mean, there’s actually a forum for it now. People can go to message boards and complain about whatever they want. I’m sure there was a club somewhere in Victorian England where people would meet every week to talk about this under-appreciated painting.

It’s just weird it’s moving so quickly now. It took 300 years for us to figure out Bach was cool. And the same thing is going to happen to that Triptykon album next month. Are we just freaked out by our own mortality so we go on these searches to say, Yes, this person’s time was well spent. I hope someone does this with me.

Yeah and it’s people obsessed with their own self-importance. They want the things they’re experiencing now to be just as good as yesteryear. It’s why you see so much hyperbole. There’s a deep-seated need to justify your appreciation of a thing.

Is that the great cosmic irony? I’ve wasted my life listening to crappy ’80s demos in a search to validate my life spent listening to crappy ’80s demos?

If you want to talk about wasting your life, every other week I spend at least an hour and a half watching something totally terrible.

[Laughs]

And yeah, for the sole purpose of sitting around and being an internet loudmouth.

[Laughs]

It’s weird. I’m terrified of the time when people start reappraising these movies. It actually surprises me no one has counter opinions about these movies we watch. No one says, Grudge Match is hilarious and great and you guys are wrong. But, there will come a day when people recognize the greatness of sassy Kevin Hart mixed with the saltiness of Sylvester Stallone.

[Laughs]

So, I don’t know if the validation is happening that fast. But, the time-frame between crap and kitsch is getting shorter.

Right.

It goes back to people needing to be explorers.

Do you feel weird being on the spot of the feedback loop you currently inhabit? Do you feel, like, Whoa, hold on, why are you listening to me about this?

Yeah. Elliott is really concerned about spending too much energy knocking or tearing down someone’s efforts. The podcast initially started with us just talking shit about a movie. I feel like we’ve moved away from that. I think a lot of our audience get that, too. The whole point of the show isn’t to critique things but for three friends to sit around and make jokes about what they’ve just watched. We want to make people feel like they’re included in the conversation.

Speaking of, we do have a very active Facebook group. If we stopped making the show and came back in 10 years, it would still exist and it would be a weird civilization.

[Laughs]

But, I don’t think we actively encourage the opinion. On some level, we influence the opinion of some people. But, I’d feel bad for making people feel bad for liking something.

So. . .that’s a long way to say, yes, I do feel bad.

[Laughs] I like the idea of the enduring Facebook group. That’s the craziest Harlan Ellison novel. . .

[Laughs] It’s crazy that I’m getting to know these people. And members are now genuine friends. I’ve never participated in message boards. So, I’m shocked now people will schedule a ‘group watch’ where they’ll independently watch a movie that’s streaming and they’ll shoot comments back and forth. And we’re talking thousands of comment.

I kind of think you cracked the code. I think we go out of our way to develop these diverse interests and then we use it as social lubricant. We just want to connect with another human. . .

Yeah. Obviously, the internet has shifted that connection. But, I think a big part is just finding people of similar interests. To justify your tastes.

So, yeah, I think a community based around bad movies is similar to heavy metal in that both make their own rules. There’s a unifying understanding.

Good point. Both are so referential.

Yeah, that’s fair. A lot of the language is referencing the past.

I think that’s the appeal of listening to the Flop House. You go off on these tangents that would cause other people to stare ahead blankly. Yet, for the diehards, it’s a fleeting moment of a shared experience. Oh, these guys lived the same thing I did.

It’s being with likeminded guys and talking about goofy, nerdy bullshit.

That’s it. Nailed it.

The Flop House, part of the All Things Comedy Network, is available on iTunes and other podcast hosting services. You can get a full rundown on their many activities, including details on live events in and around New York City, and other information at their website: http://www.flophousepodcast.com.

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