by Kaleb Asplund
Photos by Christopher Schenberger
Full disclosure: Poster Children are my favorite band and have been since I was 17, more than two decades ago. My story isn’t particularly unique: Band sounds amazing, they have lyrics that both resonate and challenge, they put on THE BEST LIVE SHOW EVER, you become obsessed with all their b-sides and make sure you never miss one of those live shows, and one day you find that all the lyrics and interviews and conversations and stories and the music that makes you feel like the biggest, most euphoric body in the universe have fashioned you into a new, better person. You know that story, the one about you. But this is about Poster Children, and specifically their core couple, Rick Valentin and Rose Marshack.
Q: What is the point of Poster Children?
Rose Marshack: “Teaching energy. Disseminating it from the stage, I just do it.”
Anyone who’s seen Rose Marshack’s leaping, crashing, rock-god performances on bass – with her singer/guitarist husband Rick Valentin and the rest of Poster Children – knows this for fact. And odds are that they’ve put that energy into some fresh creative endeavor. Unusually for an indie rock band of their era, Poster Children’s inspiration left as many programmers as musicians in its wake.
“I was born a teacher, when I learn something I immediately want to share it with everybody,” said Rose. She and Rick met at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) in the mid-‘80s, fresh-faced geeks exploring the yet-to-explode worlds of indie rock (still just called “punk”) and the internet. Now they’re both Arts Technology professors at Illinois State University up I-74 in Bloomington-Normal, but both have always been obsessed with computers, and more specifically the new creative possibilities they opened up. In Champaign, anchored by the government-funded National Center for Supercomputing Applications on campus, they found like-minded friends who pursued artistic passions through musical and digital means. Future members of Wilco and Hum were among the musicians cycling through the scene, and according to Hum co-founder (and current Austin resident) Andy Switzky, Rick and Rose’s band stood out for one big reason: “Poster Children always had really good songs.”
Poster Children spent the ‘90s touring non-stop and releasing records full of those caffeinated, thoughtful and explosive anthems (see playlist at the bottom of this article), while pioneering a wide range of ways to create culture online. They weren’t just early adopters of email, electronic graphic design tools, DIY websites and fan discussion forums like bulletin-boards and listservs. They were active participants in those forums and discouraged talk about their band in favor of free-ranging topics to build community. Rose started posting real-time tour reports (i.e., blogging) in 1995 and designed an interactive virtual-reality “university” included as a CD-ROM with their 1997 record RTFM. (The “syllabus” items included video of the band writing one of the album’s songs together and a beginner’s guide to HTML.) Rick and Rose launched a pre-podcasting internet radio show called Radio Zero in 1999, which is still going and more active than ever. The entire lineup of Poster Children (including sixth drummer Howie Kantoff and Rick’s brother Jim on guitar) formed an alter-ego band named Salaryman that released three albums of improvised instrumental electronic music, heavily influenced by groups like Can and Tortoise but still packing Poster Children’s distinctive crunch. Between all that, Rick founded 12 Inch Records to put out Hum’s first album, and subsequently released records by a half-dozen other Champaign-based bands.
25 years after its release, Daisychain Reaction doesn’t sound like an album made by computer geeks. Notorious analog loyalist Steve Albini recorded it in 1990, following up on an earlier basement session he’d done with the band that made up half of their 1989 debut Flower Plower. Fourth drummer Bob Rising’s drums are clear, powerful and bursting with creative fills, while the guitars from Rick and (future Hum member) Jeff Dimpsey alternate between itchy riff duels on songs like “Cancer” and the Pixies-ish “If You See Kay” and a swirling haze that adds majesty to the Fugazi-esque foundation of album centerpieces “Space Gun” and “Water.” Valentin’s lyrics are atypically obscure for much of the record, mumbled counting or chanting hints at unsettling suburban scenes in songs like album closer “Where We Live,” while more pointedly sneering at the idea of “Love” and raging in a breathless rant against greed in “Want It.” A band fascinated by restless rhythms, the alliterative vocals propel the songs as much as any of the other instruments.
Slated for a fall 1990 release on Twin/Tone (Replacements, Babes In Toyland), Poster Children fell victim to the label’s financial dependence on suddenly-bankrupt Rough Trade USA and Daisychain wasn’t released until the following summer on major label Sire/Reprise, which bought their contract from Twin/Tone. Their friend Albini used the scenario as an example of the way record labels take advantage of ill-informed bands in his famous 1993 essay, “The Problem With Music,” but Rick and Rose were fully aware of the dynamic before they found themselves caught up in it. As Bitch Magnet’s Fine described it in Your Band Sucks: “After five years and three albums they left the label, intact and with a recording studio they’d bought with money saved from their advances. Their time on a major label left them more independent, an outcome that basically never happened to anyone else.”
Kaleb Asplund for Ovrld: Let’s start with Daisychain Reaction. How did the record come together?
Rick: It was just the classic second record, songs we hadn’t recorded yet that we were playing better with more live performance along with some we wrote to fill it out.
Ovrld: It’s one of your most cohesive records in part because of the Albini recording, but it still has that Poster Children impulsiveness to explore many different kinds of songs.
Rick: I like bands and records that skip around. I had a laser record player that could actually fast-forward or rewind to different tracks, it would scan the grooves and find the next song. But is it cohesive? It’s easier for some people to stick with a band or an album that’s cohesive, but Daisychain Reaction was not designed that way. Twin/Tone even made us change our tracklist around!
Ovrld: What is it like to play these songs again?
Rose: Amazing, it feels like tasting 12 different desserts!
Rick: I was really worried that it was going to be difficult, that it would feel like I was regressing or turning back. As a creative person, that’s your biggest fear, to stop moving forward. But it’s been very interesting and challenging, seeing how I did things 25 years ago is very much like learning from another person.
Rick: Rose cracked her head at our recent show in Seattle, and now I’m just remembering that she did the same thing at Emo’s!
Rose: Hmm, maybe I hit my head a lot…
Rick: But I think it was during the show at Emo’s, which was much more impressive.
Rose: People keep asking us about tour stories, and I keep coming up with these “well, we changed this person’s life once.” And the fact that you just said you were raised conservative and then you read an interview with us, to me, those are the stories that I live for.
Rick: We saw Minutemen and Hüsker Dü and they had power not from 100,000 fans but from connecting in a small club. To change a life with that kind of power, to know it’s accessible and possible, that’s what drove us, and still does.
Ovrld: Anything else in Austin?
Rick: Rose said “I guess so” to me outside of Emo’s…
Rose: We’d known each other for ten years, and we’re sitting in the van and I’m like “fuck you, dude.” Our drummer’s wet sweaty pants are hanging all around us in the van, and you pull out your wallet and go “I have something for you.” I’m like, “oh god, what is it?” And he pulls out this little folded piece of paper that I gave him ten years ago. It said “This is the next phase, maybe we’ll be together forever.” Because the first phase of our relationship we were kissing each other nonstop, like with our tongues [laughter] and then we stopped. We were like “Do you wanna kiss anymore? Nah… I was like, oh, I guess we’re done.” Oh, maybe we’re not done, maybe there’s something else we could do. But we’re like, geeks, right? We’re both computer programmers so we don’t do any of that shit. So to be kissing each other was weird enough. And the piece of paper said “Maybe there’s another phase, Phase 2.” That’s what it was about, and you saved it for ten years. And then read it back to me in front of Emo’s and you said “Will you marry me?” and I said “I guess so,” and then we played a show. There is nothing about this in my tour reports at all, until a couple weeks later and I’m like, “I guess Rick asked me to marry him!”
Rick: I don’t think about us being together in the context of our band. Both of us are parents, and that’s more of a reason for it, less music and more family history. My brother said that at our wedding…
Rose: He’s not a big talker, but one of the things he said was “I think Rick and Rose will be ok getting married because living in a band is like being married to four people.”
Rick: It’s a good way to find that out with anyone! If you really want to get to the core of whether or not you can get along with someone, spend at least two weeks in close quarters with them. If you’re at a certain level of success, then—
Rose: You don’t have to like each other or talk to each other! We do other things together, we’re both computer programmers, we’ve always worked at the same companies. We both did design work, then I guess Poster Children was next and now we’re both professors in the same department at ISU! I think that people can be in bands together and they can work together and stuff like that, but once you’re trying to raise kids and the kids are like, shoving knives in you and trying to separate you, pit one against the other, and one of you was brought up different from the other… That’s been the hardest and I can see how that could separate people.
Rick: In terms of a couple getting along, that’s definitely much more challenging than being in a band, just raising kids!
Rose: As far as staying together, the band stayed together after we got off the major label too. Bands often break up after that. I think we’re driven by other things. I can get mad at you for different things, and I’m sure you get mad at me for different things, but it’s not like, “oh, that’s enough! I’m gonna go find somebody else!”
Rick: Maybe we just don’t know when to quit! I’m trying to think of a way to say this, but you can make a choice any time. It’s like, we could break up the band and start a different band if things got frustrating or weird, but then that’ll take a lot of work and it might not work out and it might be worse. That makes it sound like playing it safe, though, and that’s not it, it’s just a balancing act. Obviously we haven’t thought about it that much, and it’s probably a good thing.
Ovrld: In the Daisychain Reaction fanzine, Jon Fine writes that “The smaller cities of America, and the stalwart bands like Poster Children who lived in them, were maybe the most crucial nodes of our network. In such places you could hole up, burrow in, and headquarter yourselves in a way that made doing this easier, thanks to the economics and the mellower vibe and the likelihood that our kinds of bands could rewire much of the town’s music infrastructure to our specifications.”
Is there a relationship between the success of that effort and the kind of “nerd victory” sometimes discussed in mass media markets? Is that a double-edged sword from a musicians’ perspective? There are so many more things to do for these “outcasts” and so many more ways to find people who are like you.
Rick: I see that as a question of what happens when your subculture becomes mainstream. Our friend Andy (who lives in Austin now) was a comic book guy too. In 1985, that was not what it is now, it was a very small subculture, an odd thing. Even two years later it exploded. He was part of that subculture and we got into that subculture too but then it exploded in a kind of midrange before now where it’s just part of culture.
As far as things to do, there’s more distraction, but it’s more acceptable to spend all day devoting a large portion of your life to video games, or devoting a large part of your life to comic books, or devoting a large part of your life to music. 30 years ago, that was still definitely outcast territory.
Rose: Is there more time now?
Rick: I don’t think there’s more time, it’s just that a shift happened.
Rose: At least people are more connected because of the internet.
Rick: Yeah, I guess there’s a feeling that there’s a social connection…I guess it’s just that everybody started using computers! We were computer science, engineer people, and there were plenty of musicians that were on the engineering side too, a lot of the people I knew at that time in college and our type of bands in Champaign, they were engineers.
Ovrld: Did the computer science department pick up guitars?
Rick: Yeah, the underground indie rocker people were not art school people, a lot of them were engineers.
Rick: Right, there were computer science majors, but at the time, you didn’t have to have a degree, obviously. To get a job, you could be just a hobbyist. In a weird way, it was kind of like a punk rock thing where you didn’t have to be authorized. This is obvious now, like that Whole Earth Catalog thing that happened in the ‘70s and that weird hippy-ish evolution that went into technology in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, it kind of parallels indie rock and punk rock. There were these weird scenes of people who thought “Oh, can you do this? Is what you’re doing good?” instead of “Oh, you’re a rock star so that means you have authority” or “You have a degree in computer science so you have authority.” It was not about that, it was more of a crowd of freaks. And then the computer became mainstream and all of the nerdy things associated with the computer too. My dad brought home a computer because he was in that world, and so I saw that early, but then later on you’d have businessmen and once the computer took over in all those places they’d have a computer at home and their kids would get into it, and all of a sudden it became, instead of a weird, freak subculture: mainstream.
So maybe that’s what happened, all the things associated with weird, freak subcultures, like comic books and indie rock and playing video games, it all got mainstreamed and acceptable, and diluted. And you can find people too, so it’s not just you and two other people in your town or in your school, there’s hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people spread out around the world. So it means that you’re not as desperate. It used to be, “I’m a weird art school person, but then all these other people are in bands and then there’s some of those weird computer engineering freaks and we’re all gonna hang out together because we don’t have all the same interests, but we have overlapping interests and we’re all kind of social outcasts, we’ll hang out together.” Whereas now you can be much more specific. I don’t wanna hang out with this other type of nerd, because I can hang out with every comic book nerd on the planet now, all the different types of nerds don’t need to clomp together. So there’s less cross-pollination now, maybe?
Ovrld: I wonder if people don’t challenge themselves or they’re more interested in policing their norms. Fine talks about that with respect to indie rock in the ‘90s.
Rick: You can argue that happens with everything too, that’s the same with punk rock. When I say punk rock I look at when The Ramones and Talking Heads could both be punk rock, but within two or three years it changed. People have an ideal, and if that ideal is in the past then they probably have a misconception of what reality was. People saying their idea of what is normal and right are basing it off a fictional construct, not reality. And we all do it.
Rick: The Steve essay was written right when we moved to a major label, and so of course we talked with him about it.
Rose: He taught us everything we knew!
Rick: BUT, we synthesized it. I think that was always the difference with us, one of our characteristics. When Steve Albini tells you this is the way it is and this is what you should do…[sarcastically] listen! It’s not Steve, it’s just that whenever I hear an authority tell me what I should do, I put it in the memory bank, but I also go get other information and I check it against that because I know that everybody’s unique. Steve’s approach to the way he does things is great and it’s perfect for him, but I also know that we’re not Big Black. The common thread was that we kept our eyes open and made choices based on what we saw. And so there were two sides of it, there was the indie rock side which was you support your community, you help your community, it’s not just about you, it’s about a scene. And we knew that, because we were at the shows with those 30 people!
Rose: You don’t attack those in your scene, you uplift them. And then when you go around, you don’t disparage them, you talk about how great your scene is.
Rick: And it was also the bands we liked. We had the luxury of seeing shows like Hüsker Dü, but if Hüsker Dü reunites now they would be playing these gigantic theaters, it’ll be like the Pixies tour. The first time I saw the Pixies, the first time I saw Hüsker Dü, was with maybe 100 people in a tiny club. So there’s the idea of these incredible bands, but they weren’t playing to even theater-sized groups of people, they were playing these tiny clubs.
Rose: You’re talking about having realistic expectations of what might happen on a major label…
Rick: Yeah, so when you operate on that smaller scale, helping other bands and talking about scenes and watching other bands, when you see a band like the Pixies, you’re not like “This amazing band came out of nowhere!” You’re like “Oh, they kind of sound like Throwing Muses, oh, they’re on the same label, oh, they played together.”
The Quaker, who ran the record store, would put out the Pixies EP and would call it a “baby” or “sibling” band of another band from the same scene that you’d hear of or have a record of, but then there’d be the next band from that scene and you start realize that’s how it works. It’s not just that there’s one cool band, there’s two bands, oh there’s ten cool bands from Boston. And then Mission Of Burma, their record came out two years before this Volcano Suns record and has a guy from them in it! You start doing the math, and so that idea of helping other bands… it wasn’t that we were smart, it was just the way it worked.
Rose: I’d like to interject! I don’t want to go off subject, but you’re not a mean person. You’re positive and I learned to be positive from you.
Rick: Because you used to be a mean person! [laughing]
Rose: No, it’s just that if somebody was mean to me, I was taught, my people are mean back. I was driving down the street today and the license plate said FAMOSO1 and he cut somebody off and I saw his license plate holder said BACK OFF. And I just wondered what kind of person buys that? In a neutral territory, on the road, that’s how you’re going to portray yourself? And so, I was thinking there are people in the world like that. I didn’t want to think that there were people like that, but there are. And we weren’t.
Rick: What we did I never viewed as a competitive sport, and I don’t think it’s anything inherently wonderful about us, it’s because that was the scene we were in. It was a much smaller scale, and it was all about community and you couldn’t do anything with your band unless you teamed up, the people who came to your shows were the other people in the bands in town. If you knew about a cool out-of-town band and you brought them to town, or your friend brought them, and went broke paying them to put on the show, it was all in your best interest to support them, scrape up whatever money you had to pay your friend and you’d at least pay a couple bucks, three dollars instead of five, just to help them out. It was all such a small-scale thing, but it’s the same now where you know if you don’t give somebody money, it’s not gonna happen for you or anybody else, and if a cool band comes to town and no one’s there, stiffed, then they’re going to tell their friends from their cool scene that Champaign sucks.
Rose: This is what I tell my students now in Bloomington. I tell them to go see shows, it’s for your degree. They say “What?!?” It’s going to make your degree worth more. Just think about it, some band comes through and they have an amazing time in Bloomington and then they go and they talk up how great ISU is and other people hear about it and then you go apply for a job and it says ISU on your resume, people will say “Wow, I’ve heard that is a fantastic place!” It’s just like being from Austin!
Rick: Because we already had the computer background, we quickly understood this was a way to make things easier. We don’t have to xerox tour dates and mail them to everybody a month before our tour. Instead, we can put it up on a website, we can email them. It’s just an easier way of doing everything, and now it’s obvious. The reason why it was obvious to us is that we’d already been primed. We’d been using the technology, and being in Champaign-Urbana where MOSAIC, the first mainstream web browser, was developed and one of the first freenets was there. It wasn’t even that we were using university computers, it was the university supporting the idea of community internet access.
We went to one of the first meetings for PrairieNet and thought “Hey, now we won’t have to sneak on campus anymore!” My dad worked at a national lab, I already knew in 1980 that you have a phone and you put the phone in the suction cups and you can communicate with a computer externally. That was already familiar, but it cost a lot of money. But once the web started happening, here was the freenet that let you access everything, they’d give you a little bit of space on their server to build websites, and it was free for anybody in the community. It was building off The Well in San Francisco.
So for our band, we were just thinking this would be so much easier! We can just put something up on the web, we can email people to let them know. I don’t know which came first, but our fans were already nerdy, techy computer people anyway, so that meant they were early adopters so we could make that leap earlier. Other bands couldn’t because they could put up a website but none of their fans were online. I don’t know if computer-literate people discovered us because we were online or we just had a base of fans that were computer-literate.
And at that point, it’s so obvious that it’s better! Now we can sell records to people directly, we don’t have to figure out how to get them into stores. There’s a way to let them know about other stuff we’re doing. We were at the right place at the right time and had the right background, we didn’t have to learn the computer side of it. We had already learned that and were looking at computers as creative tools, not simply technical tools. I guess we were creative people and we liked computers and were lucky enough to pursue both of those things.
What I realized when I first started teaching 6 or 7 years ago, is that we were still a home for “freaks.” People who were creative, musicians, visual or theater nerds but also liked technology, and they did not fit anywhere else. Our program was the only place where they could say “I’m interested in all this stuff” as opposed to wanting to be a set designer or a painter or a bassoon player. The arts were still divided up even that recently. Our program’s much more popular, parents like the idea of “creative stuff with computers”!
One problem with that though, is the assumption is that people who are 17 or 18 years old, all of them are computer people. The idea of “digital natives” and the technology is burned into them automatically. And you realize that’s not true, even though the computer has been mainstreamed. The idea of using the computer as a tool and digging deep, I feel like even five years ago there were more people who thought that way than do now. If you think about the iPhone, and any kind of device that people use now, there’s a huge layer over it. You take pictures with it, you do creative stuff with it but a lot of people do creative stuff with the technology without ever understanding it. The people that have built Instagram or Facebook understand the technology but everybody who uses it doesn’t. The only reason I’m where I’m at as an artist, as a human, as a creative technologist or whatever buzzword you want to choose, is because I knew how the technology worked and I was part of a creative community. You’d think now, technology is everywhere and everybody understands it, but they’re not. Because a different kind of layer has been put up.
Before that, access was money. Unless you were at a school or your parents had access, you wouldn’t know about the special little world of technology. Now, everybody has access but they don’t know how it works because it’s so accessible that you don’t need to know how to do it, there’s a service that does it for you. The bar is much lower, technologically speaking. What that means to me is that it’s similar to the indie rock, punk rock thing, understanding the technology is as important as supporting your scene. It might be idealistic, but the world is all being filtered through this technology and if you don’t understand how to manipulate and change it, or just present stuff to people with the technology, somebody else will do that. And the whole world will be filtered by other people! And the whole point of this technology is that there aren’t gatekeepers! You can compete with Sony, with Apple, with Google and build something that will pierce through all of that stuff. You can compete with Facebook, but if no one believes that or learns that or understands the technology, all those companies will beat us.
I say this all the time about artists, artists have always been on the outside, throwing bombs over the wall. This is an actual technology that allows you to blow up the world! Reconfigure the world, rebuild the world, rebuild someone’s perception directly ‘cause they’re all viewing it through this technology, through this screen. You can change it directly as an artist! It’s no longer “you’re an outsider and you have to yell and scream and slowly the world might move toward what you’re yelling and screaming about.” You can actually rewire people, directly, you have access to it. It’s all open right now, for now, but we’re constantly giving that access away.
So that’s my militant punk rock thing, technology is as important for people to learn and understand. It doesn’t have to be everyone, it’s the same as punk rock and indie rock, it can change people’s lives but it’s not going to change everyone’s life. It could have a powerful impact 10 or 20 or 30 years later. That’s the obvious thing with technology, there were a bunch of people who made a bunch of decisions about technology in the 1970s, and that’s started to revolutionize the world. Those little choices they made, let’s open this up, use a networked model, an open model, an unregulated model, let’s see what happens. And now, those choices that were made by those freaks, and it wasn’t just technical people, they were creative people, cyber-hippies or whatever you want to call them, they made these choices and it’s come to fruition. And we should continue that path!
Rick: It makes me a little sad that music isn’t that pathway, but it’s because there are more pathways. There’s more opportunity. Indie rock was my pathway and now the next generation’s pathway is technology, the online world. And hopefully the window hasn’t passed. And that’s the thing, punk rock didn’t happen. The revolution that was supposed to happen in 1977, that was supposed to be, just like the 60’s revolution, that was supposed to be my revolution, my generation, but it didn’t take, because the Baby Boomers didn’t let it or whatever. But it still happened, it just took 20 or 30 years. And with the technology side, you could even say the hippy revolution didn’t work, but all the people who got disappointed with it and then went into the technology side and integrated some of those ideas into the technical side, it happened 30 years later. I feel like there was this great Wild West era of online culture and now it’s starting to get locked down. Now that I think about it, it’s obvious that the whole world is being turned upside down. We’re in the beginning of a gigantic free-for-all.
Kaleb also curated a Poster Children playlist for you to enjoy, give it a listen: