John Chiaverina is a writer and musician based in New York City. His project Rustbelt recently released their debut EP on Dangerbird Records.
A little over 20 years ago, in my suburban Milwaukee hometown of Mequon, Wisconsin, I started to make music under the name Juiceboxxx. When people who don’t know about Juiceboxxx ask me about Juiceboxxx, I have a hard time finding a way to explain it to them. At different points, the music I made could’ve been considered rap or punk or pop or electronic, but it never really fit anywhere. Some people thought it was funny, but I always took it seriously, even and especially when it was actually funny. For the first decade, I performed mostly solo, with only a Discman and then later an iPod for a backing track. Because I didn’t know how to drive, I would jump into vans with bands or tour via train or Greyhound bus. The second decade was mostly performed alongside a guitar player and drummer. The one constant was the confrontational intensity of the live show. I would scream and take off my shirt and jump into the crowd and climb on things and people and hit myself in the face with the microphone and generally freak out. Shows were often under 20 minutes.
That doesn’t completely get to the heart of how convoluted this thing was. So maybe I could talk about the time I embarrassed myself on live television and became a viral laughing stock, or the fact that I once toured with Public Enemy and have performed in 18 countries. I could mention the hundreds of shows I played at warehouses and dive bars for 10 or 20 people, or the record label I ran that also doubled as an energy drink company, or the time someone smashed a bottle of hot sauce on my skull in the middle of a set in Orlando. I moved through culture in a chaotic nonlinear fashion. I played punk sets at dance clubs and then tried to play pop music for punk kids. Everything was all backward. I thought I wanted to be famous and successful, but I also wanted to play shows with noise bands. I was making mostly counterintuitive career moves. I cared more about being cool for a small group of people than I did about financial security and success. The reality is that I achieved neither.
I spent most of my 20s in a deeply unstable, transient mode. I went to college for a little over a year, but dropped out after I witnessed a sandwich delivery driver get murdered on the porch of my house in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Riverwest. All I remember: a young man refused to give up his money after another young man flashed a gun in his face. Then there was a struggle, then the sound of a single shot. Then I ran up the stairs and called 911. Then there were more shots. The delivery driver was 21 and grew up in rural Wisconsin. The assailant was 24 and came from a disadvantaged background in the city. The sandwich shop purportedly had a policy that if money was lost during a driver’s shift, they would not be reimbursed. The whole thing was surreal and dark and I don’t know if I ever fully processed it.
After that, life felt too fleeting to be in school. I had to hit the road. My career went in fits and starts: I would get some attention and make a little progress, maybe go on tour with a bigger band, maybe get flown to Japan, but I always ended up back at some punk house. When I wasn’t touring, I was moving between couches in Los Angeles and couches in Milwaukee and couches in New York City. After a minor financial windfall facilitated by putting a song in an advertisement, I spent 2014 crashing around New York City. At one point I was sleeping on the floor of a basement in Far Rockaway, Queens. After a year of this, I ended up with my first real apartment in a long time, a Brooklyn unit I shared with three roommates, all of whom I had sublet rooms from before I was able to get a permanent spot. At first, I slept on a cot. It took me some time to get a bed.
It was at around this point that I got an interview to be a paid editorial intern at an art magazine. The way I landed that interview was probably the most ridiculous way anyone could possibly get an interview to do such a low level job: someone was in the process of writing a book about me. If that sounds like a brag, you should read the book first.
The book was called The Next Next Level by Leon Neyfakh. Way back in 2003, Leon had seen me play a show at a church in his hometown, the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. Whatever chaos that went down during my set that night must’ve stuck in his head because despite not being a fan of any of my peers, he remained a diehard Juiceboxxx supporter throughout his stint at Harvard and on into the New York media world, where he constantly tried and failed to force his writer friends to like my music.
Leon and I had remained casual friends that whole time, and he had started to interview me when I first showed back up in New York City in the fall of 2013. At first, Leon’s intentions felt fairly amorphous. The result of these interviews could potentially be a magazine article, or something else entirely. An excerpt from what would become the book would end up being published as an article in the magazine n+1 in the winter of 2015; later that year, it would be released in the form of a “non-fiction novella.”
In the book, the author used my own confounding saga as a failing rapper as a vehicle for him to explore some of his issues with culture and his own life. Take, for example, the fact that Leon and his friends used to divide creative people into two groups: geniuses and critics. “Under our definition, a ‘genius’ was someone so certain about what it was that made them special that they could move through the world with an un-self-conscious sense of purpose — someone who couldn’t help but be the way they were, and had original, immaculate visions that poured out of them as if by magic,” Leon wrote in the book. “‘Critics,’ meanwhile,” he continued, “were calculated and careful — people who conducted their lives with effortful competence, but in the end could do nothing more than react to the geniuses in their midst.”
To him, I clearly belonged to the former group. I was the All American Punk Rap Madman and Leon was the Ivy League-educated son of Russian intellectuals. This narrative was a lot to take in. The desperate, attention seeking side of myself couldn’t help but be flattered that the book even existed, and I’ve always liked Leon as a person and respected him as a writer. A more critical voice felt like my story was getting fed through a This American Life-branded shredder and then dumped into a New Yorker tote bag. It felt like my story was getting bent to suit somebody else’s. More than anything, though, it felt like I was the subject of a book about music that was written by someone whose knowledge of the kind of music I made was limited.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t relate to a lot of the book. I could yell at you for hours about seeing bands like Japanther and Neon Hunk at roughly the same moment that Leon saw me perform, their imprint on my brain so pronounced that I will still occasionally search YouTube for old sets. But those bands didn’t exist in a vacuum for me. They were portals to entire universes of culture. For Leon, I was a singular entity, a device to compare-and-contrast, ultimately, a device for an entire book. As the book unfolded, though, things got more complicated, and Leon learned that I had more critic in me than he previously thought. It’s a revelation that had unforeseen consequences: If you told me in 2013 that a few years later I would be showing up to an office building in SoHo wearing a button down shirt, I probably wouldn’t believe you.
It was only a few months after I had learned that Leon’s writing was going to be turned into an actual book that I had reached out to friends about jobs in New York. Leon was one of the few people who got back to me. The interview he hooked up went surprisingly well. The world of underground music has overlap with contemporary art, and I had a decent network of contacts that did one or both. My grasp of art history was limited, but I did have a handle on certain niche communities and subcultures. I pitched a few ideas for recurring online features, one of which ended up running for my entire tenure at the magazine. Somehow I got the gig. Three days a week. Modest hourly wages.
It is still sort of amazing that I was able to do the job in any capacity. The magazine’s voice wasn’t academic, but everyone there was smart and educated in a way that I was not and never will be. If anything I wrote for the first three or four years sounded smart, it was probably the result of a good editor. My ego and ambition were so tied up in being a musician that I was able to approach the work pragmatically: I tried to write in the right voice about things that I felt were not out of my depth and I tried to be easy to collaborate with. I also wanted to be respectful to the people I profiled. After over a decade of being misunderstood in print, I knew how horrible it could feel to be on the other side of the pen. It felt pretty weird to be the one asking the questions. I can’t say I always or even mostly succeeded; in fact, I learned that the less sensitive peers I modeled my work after produced better work than myself. I was mostly OK with what I was writing. Occasionally, though, the dissonance between my malleable journalistic voice and my personality led me to quietly question my own sanity. After a point, “John Chiaverina, Writer” became as much of a character as Juiceboxxx.
During the years that I juggled my time between musician and journalist, there are a few moments that stick out. I remember being outside of a fancy art fair in Chelsea, on the phone with my record label, discussing the possibility of playing a private show for alternative rock radio programmers on a riverboat in Kentucky. I remember being recognized by a noise musician while covering a gala on the Upper East Side. I remember conducting a phone interview with an artist from a hostel bunk bed in Amsterdam in the middle of my own European tour. I remember being stone cold sober and having an internal mental breakdown while talking to some artist at some party at Art Basel in Miami. The fact that I had to write party reports is still funny to me. This was a specialized artform I had no real reference for. I grew up reading Maximumrocknroll, not The New York Observer. It felt surreal to be wearing a blazer at some gala Uptown, trying to get halfway interesting quotes out of halfway drunk socialites. I don’t think I ever really figured it out, but I did once interview Mike Meyers and slip a bad Austin Powers joke into the writeup. There was something initially novel about being in these kinds of rooms, but that wore off fairly fast.
There are a lot of similarities between contemporary art and indie or underground or whatever you want to call music that lives in small clubs and warehouses and is made by young people with weird haircuts. Both are filled with varying degrees of privilege. Both are insular, frequently myopic cultures that often alienate outsiders. But only one is driven by a marketplace that is primarily accessible to some of the wealthiest people in the world. Buying a record from a young band or rapper or producer is a lot easier than attempting to purchase a work from a rising artist. Even if you had the financial means to buy one of these artworks, which can run into the six figures, unless you or your family have been collecting for decades, there is a chance the gallery would still not sell it to you.
I’ve seen people move between these two worlds and wrestle with the compromises needed to survive in either. The art world is a confusing system, but so are most systems. I have empathy for any creative person trying to stay afloat in an absurd world. I did enjoy talking to artists, especially those at later stages of their careers. There is a certain kind of clarity that comes with a sustained output. It’s easy to be misunderstood in the short term, but there is no substitute for time and hard work. To go over decades of an artist’s work and life and then talk to them about how it fits together was always inspiring. I genuinely liked all of my co-workers, too, though I never completely felt like I knew how to act around anyone. When colleagues would occasionally bring up my music career, I didn’t know exactly what to say.
Gradually, life started to go a little bit better for me. I continued to write for the magazine part-time while continuing to make music. After around a year of the job, I quit drinking. A year after that, I got a real record deal, one with a label that understood me and had financial resources. The magazine switched owners three times. The first two were fantastically wealthy but still had a habit of paying their employees late. Throughout it all I kept my head down. It was my first job in media and I had no real reference point for anything that was happening. There was possibly room for me to advance within the company, but I foolishly gave up the potential of more money and responsibility for the ability to take weeks off at a time and play mostly the same kind of spaces that had defined my teens and 20s. I don’t think I had any idea of my worth as a writer. I still don’t. I was just amazed to be getting paid. Even though writing presented a possible pathway to an adult life, I couldn’t help but cling to the thing that had defined me since I was a kid, the thing that no matter how stupid or flawed had continued to give my life meaning. It never really gave me any sort of happiness or stability, but it gave my life meaning.
Whatever changes that were actually happening in my life were mostly happening in secret. Unless you were in the New York art world, you probably had no idea about my dayjob. I rarely talked about quitting drinking publicly and I surely didn’t make it into my narrative as an artist. I didn’t want to use what I felt like was a private moment of growth as a chip for PR because I still didn’t feel good. I felt like someone who had lived a chaotic life and was now trying to pick up the pieces and move forward. Though I had struggled with mental illness my whole life, I never felt comfortable talking about those issues publicly or folding them into my work, either. If I addressed these problems at all, they were coded through the gonzo language of rock & roll. The last thing I wanted to do was pivot to wellness. I ate a lot of McDonalds. I put out an album called Freaked Out American Loser.
As the years went on, my personality became more and more bisected. The character of Juiceboxxx was growing increasingly absurd and performative on social media, but outside of that I was slowly withdrawing from the communities I had participated in for over a decade. Unless it was part of my job, I rarely went to art openings. Unless I was performing, I rarely went to shows. I don’t think I fully knew it at the time, but I felt a growing unease with who I was and how I wanted to represent myself. The shows were still rowdy, but there would be moments where that confrontationalism felt regressive. I existed in an uneasy stasis between reality and a dying dream.
The process of making the next Juiceboxxx record was elongated and stressful. In July of 2019, I was let go from the magazine after their new parent company wasn’t able to accommodate my part-time employment situation. I made a lot of sacrifices in order to play shows for eight people in some Midwest basement. All the while, the release of the next Juiceboxxx record continued to get pushed back. I had always talked about stopping Juiceboxxx; after a point, my insistent threat to quit became a definitive part of the project. The whole thing was about humble triumph in the face of failure and humiliation. Leading up to the release, though, I began to actually rethink the future of Juiceboxxx, seriously this time, for real. The record finally came out in late February 2020, only a few weeks before the world was shut down. All of my tours got called off. In September of that same year, my old apartment building caught fire.
I’ve spent the past few years housesitting for a family in Brooklyn. I stopped posting on social media for a good portion of this period and released no new music. I took freelance writing work when I could get it. Mostly, I was alone. For the first time in 20 years, I had nothing on the books. Juiceboxxx had ground to a halt. Because of forces outside of my control, the thing that I had said I had wanted to do for almost half of the project’s duration was now actually becoming a reality. It didn’t feel good or bad. It was just something that was happening.
As the world slowly opened up, I had no desire to return to the rhythms of my old life. What was I going to do, attempt to make yet another lateral move into a different hipster microculture? Try to be the aging lifer surrounded by a bunch of cool 20-somethings? I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that, but that part of my life felt over. The only problem was I had nothing to replace it with. I didn’t feel like Juiceboxxx anymore, but when I did go out, people still called me Juiceboxxx. I didn’t correct them because I didn’t want to be annoying. I also didn’t know who I was or where I was going. So, obviously, by the fall of 2021 I had started serious work on a four song EP of music under a new project name: Rustbelt.
There is a major part of myself that feels finished with making stuff and then putting it out into the world to be judged and ridiculed. 20 years is a long time to act like a jackass, to keep performing some twisted version of myself for the approval of strangers. But then there is a different part of me, clearly the part of me that is writing this and continuing to make music, that still has the desire to process and chart my life through some sort of public creative output. It is painful to look back on my life, all my failure, all my stupidity, but most of my good memories are centered around music and the kind of relationships and opportunities that it has afforded me. All of my best friends are people I know through music. Everything I have been lucky to experience as an adult, from international travel to a sort of career in journalism, it is all ultimately because of music.
I have no choice but to keep going. I still get writing work, everything from party reports to non bylined SEO jobs. My old label put out the first Rustbelt release. As a fan, I continue to be invested in new music and culture, though I know how juvenile that pursuit can be. I have a positive relationship with Leon, and we have talked about working on projects together. Even so, I fantasize about going dark. Quit social media, move back to the Midwest, learn how to drive, and become invested in local sports.
This is all to say that I haven’t found a resolution. So here I am, taking it one day at a time, rocking for now, neither a genius nor a critic, just someone trying in vain to change their life.
Rustbelt’s self-titled debut is out now.
(Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne)