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Loving L.A. Means Embracing Its Dark Side, Too: A Raw Interview With Jeff Weiss of the LAnd Magazine

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hat does it take to keep the dream of an alternative weekly-style print publication alive without the aid of any corporate-sourced money in a city like Los Angeles? 

Patience, rasquachismo, and a ride-or-die love for your city—both the great and dark parts of it. 

L.A. Taco knows this grueling daily uphill battle too well. After all, us independent publications stick together.  It’s been a little over a month since the highly awaited Volume 2 of The LAnd Magazine arrived in the city. It comes a year after the successful inaugural issue was published from the shambles of LA Weekly’s infamous “Red Wedding.” 

Led by the inextinguishable efforts of former LA Weekly regular contributors Jenn Swann and Jeff Weiss, and ex-Southern California News Group designer Evan Solano, what started as an email chain and meetings at bars for former writers of the publication to commiserate metamorphosed into an ultra DIY journalism masterpiece in the form of a glossy new indie magazine documenting L.A culture. 

L.A. Taco caught up with Weiss to see how he is feeling post-deadline-fueled loathing period, why sometimes the non-hyped tacos from any truck down the street from you are the best in L.A., and why in order to fully love this city, you must also embrace its many shortcomings.    

L.A. Taco: Our contributing writer Gab Chabran would like to know, which famous L.A. personality, living or dead, would you want to get tacos with, and where?

Jeff Weiss: This is a bit of a cheat, but I’d have to go with taquitos with Eve Babitz in 1972 at Cielito Lindo. A taquito is a taco like a hamburger is a sandwich, but technically this taquito was pioneered on Olvera Street, and in Eve’s Hollywood, she wrote that those “taquitos are much better than heroin, it’s just said that no one really knows about them and heroin’s so celebrated.” So that would be my pick -- with extra cheese of course. 

Cielito Lindo was Eve’s favorite place to get Mexican food in the city of L.A., and it’s probably not the best, but I love it. Olvera Street is such a bizarre creation in its own right. It’s almost a Disneyland version of the Pueblo, but you know, there is something kind of soulful about it in a weird way. It’s both the kind of place you take a tourist to see a stereotypical depiction of L.A., but also that’s one almost 100 years old and has developed into practically an indigenous part of the culture itself. I also love wandering those stores too, buying candles or Day of the Dead figurines. 

There’s a lot of L.A. writers that I adore. Raymond Chandler gave us Phillip Marlowe, but more importantly Elliott Gould as Phillip Marlowe, my only role model. 

It’s one of the reasons why Jonathan Gold was such an excellent writer. It’s because he was from L.A., so he wrote about L.A. in a way that only a native could, as Eve Babitz did.

It’s one of the reasons why Jonathan Gold was such an excellent writer. It’s because he was from L.A., so he wrote about L.A. in a way that only a native could, as Eve Babitz did. There’s historically been a deficit of great writers who were raised and stayed in LA. I’m not the biggest Charles Bukowski fan, but there’s something very authentic to the L.A. experience about him, versus Joan Didion, who’s arguably a better writer than almost anybody that’s ever written, but who definitely brought a real outsider’s perspective when looking at L.A—or anywhere else for that matter. Of course, she spent most of her time in Malibu, which isn’t L.A, except for maybe the few hundred square feet of Neptune’s Net.

What I love so much about Eve Babitz is how L.A. she is, right down to the bone marrow. She couldn’t be from anywhere else or live anywhere else.  She’s eccentric and captures the absurdity of the city, the beautiful tackiness, and the cheap opulence. She’s emotional and nostalgic, but never overly sentimental, whimsical, but never self-serious. I love her essay on Nathanael West, who’s another one of the greatest writers. The Day of the Locust is as good as it gets, but Eve is a genius for articulating what always bothered me about the book—the fact that it’s a projection of Los Angeles that satisfies the most cynical and dismissive ideas that New Yorkers have about L.A.—or least did before they all moved here. The cliche that it’s this completely shallow, barren wasteland of strivers constantly trying to get ahead, who end up lighting Hollywood Boulevard on fire. Although I can’t exactly blame them. 

How about right now? Just you with friends or your partner, where do you go for tacos? What’s your go-to spot?

I feel basic in saying it because I feel like I should shout out some little-known stand, but honestly, I’ve been on a real Kogi kick lately. I love Kogi. Again, it feels so L.A. I grew up on the Westside and some of my best friends were Korean and Latino. No matter where you grew up in L.A., Mexican food is the predominant cuisine of Los Angeles. I also ate a ton of Korean barbeque with my friends, and when Roy came up with that, it just sort of became sort of like the taquitos on Olvera, this delicious form of native Southern California fusion. 

Ariza's might not be like a highly ranked taco, but it’s as good as a neighborhood taco as there is near me; it’s open late night. It’s never failed me.

In terms of a regular, everyday taco that I would get, I really love the carnitas tacos at Tacos Ariza's in Echo Park. It’s a super slept-on taco. It’s a well-known spot because it’s right across the street from The Echo, but I feel like people overlook it because they prefer Taco Zone, or the spot at the Carwash on Sunset and Alvarado—although honestly, if I’m at that intersection, I am a sucker for the bean and cheese burrito at Burrito King. But the carnitas tacos at Ariza's are everything, sometimes with a slice of their really fresh avocado. The Southern Californian in me wants to put avocado on everything. Ariza's might not be like a highly ranked taco, but it’s as good as a neighborhood taco as there is near me; it’s open late night. It’s never failed me. 

If Issue 2 was a song or album, what would it be?

YG’s Still Brazy. Here’s the thing: everyone always loves the first album the most because it’s the first album -- and My Krazy Life was technically the debut, even though YG had like four mixtapes before dropping it. The thing is, I think My Krazy Life and Still Brazy are both classics in their own right, but people not from L.A. tend to overlook Still Brazy. And it’s like the Eve Babitz thing, where YG translates differently to people who are actually from the West Coast. His music is just innate to the way that the city feels. 

I feel like this issue is brighter than the first issue; so was Still Brazy. People called it G-funk revivalism, but that was wrong. Sure, it was obviously influenced by it, but there’s a new modernized twist and rhythm. Take “Twist My Fingaz,” it sounds like it could have been on All Eyez on Me or something, but the drums are different, the synthesizers are the same but the pockets and rhyme schemes that he hits are different; it’s clearly a modern interpretation of what G-funk was. It starts off with “Don’t Come to LA,” which has been my mantra for a long time. Myself, Rosecrans Vic, and Cypress Moreno actually had a club night called “Don’t Come to L.A.” 

It was obviously named after the YG song, but it’s also a joke, because ultimately, you know how it is….so many transplants come to L.A. What bothers me about the transplants to L.A. isn’t that they’re necessarily coming to LA. That’s always been the case; people are always going to come to L.A., but it’s the way in which many of them pretend that L.A. doesn’t already have a strongly defined culture, and they just bulldoze in with their own impressions of what they think it is from like having watched The Hills when they were 12 or whatever. You can see it in Highland Park, where the gentrification of Highland Park is often either, rich-money Westsiders’ version of what L.A. should be, or a New York transplants version of L.A. They almost steamroll it as though there isn’t [culture], and they treat the actual native culture of L.A. like a sideshow or like a quirk or something quaint, instead of something that’s the mitochondria, that’s the fundamental part of the city and its culture.

I love “Don’t Come to L.A.” as a song because it’s not about gentrification, even though I’m sure maybe at some point it is. But “Don’t Come to LA”...you’ll get robbed at the BET Awards, L.A.’s not all this sunshine. 

My favorite things in L.A. both embody the sunshine and the dialectic that governs all conscious thought about the city.

My favorite things in L.A. both embody the sunshine and the dialectic that governs all conscious thought about the city. I think that album and this issue are trying to strive for that. The first issue was almost like a celebration of L.A.; this issue is a little darker. The design is psychedelic and bright, and Tommy Gallegos’s comics were phenomenal and they’re bright, but there’s a darkness to them too, and to the core of what it all is. There’s a darkness to the core of the issue. In the first issue, gentrification was the issue that was looming over it, which is obviously still an omnipresent issue in Los Angeles, but this one is everything from the housing crisis, the homelessness crisis, the problems with the criminal justice system that are so destructive, and especially with Jackie Lacey coming up for reelection. 

What is the theme of Issue 2? 

The theme of Issue 2 is loosely the future. We didn’t want it to be explicit like, “Here’s what the future of L.A. is,” but obviously a lot of us worry about that. There’s everything from Flying Lotus talking about traditional science fiction-futuristic things like spaceships and UFOs, are aliens real, etc. There’s a story about the future of music, the progressive future of LA according to a bunch of activists and legislators and city council people. It’s the future of L.A. in terms of food, what is going to happen after the pandemic, venues—can they survive?  It’s a magazine that’s always going to be about the stories that hit those creases of L.A. culture. 

The first issue is perhaps one of the biggest statements made against corporate media in 2019. Many would argue that wouldn’t have been enough. What kept you motivated enough to grind out a whole other issue?

First and foremost, my co-conspirators, Jenn Swann and Evan Solano. Jenn being the co-editor and Evan being the creative director. It’s completely unthinkable to even begin such a demanding undertaking without them. We all kept each other in check and in-line, and it’s a naturally chaotic working process, just because there’s only three of us and we’re trying to do a million things while working full-time jobs. They definitely made it so easy—I mean, not easy, nothing about this was easy, but at the end of the day, we felt like we created something that was really special, and it was initially sort of by accident. 

...We wanted to create a better version of what L.A. Weekly had been. Not to dismiss that, but you know, you have to make it different and apply your own vision.

I think in life, you have to take those things, not necessarily as a sign, but you have to really appreciate those things because they’re rare. There're a million publications that have started over the last 10 to 15 years with a coherent plan and they have funding and they have a financial plan. “This is what we’re going to do for X, Y, Z,” whatever niche they’re trying to cover. We didn’t have any of those ideas, other than we wanted to create a better version of what L.A. Weekly had been. Not to dismiss that, but you know, you have to make it different and apply your own vision.

It happened, and it was more of a success than we ever could have envisioned; people were excited about print media and we were all floored when it came to the prospect of making a second issue, which was such a gargantuan, overwhelming task. The truth is, there were a million reasons why it shouldn’t have gotten done, but I don’t think it was ever really considered that we weren’t going to do it. Then, of course, the pandemic hit. 

We wanted to do something that we were proud of and embodied the best and the worst in the city. I’m not so naive to think that any print magazine in 2020 is going to change the scope of L.A. life. I’d love to think that, but I don’t think that’s reality. I can’t handle the thought of being silent, and I’m assuming that’s for all of us, we want to be on the record about these things. Personally, I did a Flying Lotus interview, a Mike Davis interview, and I spoke to all those activists and politicians about the future of L.A. The idea was to talk to some of the smartest people to try to figure it out because this is the dialogue we need to be having, and honestly, it was comforting to talk to them. I spoke with Sheila Kuehl of the County Board of Supervisors who is brilliant and courageous and a legend. Mike Bonin is incredibly smart and passionate and has great ideas. The same with Kevin de León. 

It’s a really scary time and we can’t necessarily let all the focus be on national politics, 2016 reminded us that we also have to focus on what we can control in our own backyard.

For my own selfish reasons, I wanted to be able to speak to the smartest people and ask them about the future of L.A. and how we can make it a better city because it’s dark right now. It’s a really scary time and we can’t necessarily let all the focus be on national politics, 2016 reminded us that we also have to focus on what we can control in our own backyard.

Give us a quick rundown of the stories you packed in there.

Well, we had the interview with Mike Davis, who’s as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest L.A. thinker ever. I know Carey McWilliams gets a lot of praise, and he’s kind of the OG that laid the groundwork, but Mike Davis is a prophet and his ideas of L.A. life have been validated for the past 30 years. We have another column from Henry Rollins; we have a great story from Miguel Garcia about three different young Black rappers and entrepreneurs who took Nipsey Hussle’s inspiration and applied it to their own neighborhoods. That’s G Perico from the Broadway and Main area of South L.A., 2Eleven from North Inglewood, and Desto Dubb from Watts, who sells his “That’s An Awful Lot of Cough Syrup” clothes online and was close with Nipsey and actually did tattoos for him.

We ran a really beautiful piece on dim sum by Gina Mei about her childhood memories of eating it, and how that connected her to her ancestral roots. It’s also about how the pandemic will impact the economics of so many of these dim sum places, many of which had already been closing down over the last decade. Lastly, it’s a search for the best dim sum in LA, which I look forward to going to whenever this shit is over.

What would you say is the hardest part of publishing an independent publication covering LA in 2020.

Finances. None of the editors or the creative director got paid. There just isn’t an economic model in place, especially during a pandemic. We had an offer from a tech company to potentially invest in it and we turned them down; they were actually really nice, but they just didn’t fit with what we wanted to do with the publication, in terms of what we wanted to represent. On some level, if you’re taking money from a tech company, you can’t really have the slogan, “Corporate magazines still suck;” you took money from a tech company. Doing it DIY has been impossible, it’s kind of a miracle in its own right that we’ve survived. It definitely feels very much like Hanukkah, where I’m like, “We made it eight nights on so little oil,” but people have been really supportive and bought the magazine on pre-order, which was a tremendous help, bought our T-shirt, which is an enormous boost. 

No one’s doing this to satisfy their ego.

I’m sure it’s the same as L.A. Taco, it’s constantly a shoestring operation, where you’re trying to make it go. It’s a sacrifice to do this, but it’s worth it. No one’s doing this to satisfy their ego. Me and the other two members of the editorial collective are products of hip-hop and punk [I grew up on hip-hop, they grew up on punk], and I feel like the original code of punk ethics and the original code of hip-hop ethics was to always keep your artistic integrity and try not to sell out. Not to say that we wouldn’t work with a brand or anything, because everyone needs to survive, but at the same time, we’re trying to figure out a way to do that without compromising our ethics. We wanted to be able to pay writers, and will always want to pay writers more, we want to pay photographers more. That’s been the real struggle of this and hopefully, when the pandemic is over, it won’t be a media apocalypse. We want to be a part of the solution, whatever that means. 

How did you handle being an editor and publisher between being a prolific-ass, experienced writer?

For sure a lot of help from Jenn; Jenn stepped up in a major way. Part of the reason why the magazine took so long to come out is that we’re all just insanely busy.  I still edit almost every story on POW, especially from the newer writers. The older writers have been doing it for a long time, so I try to let them run with it, but with the younger writers, I’m editing them and all of a sudden two hours are gone, and a lot of the stories in this issue of theLAnd—it took three or four drafts to get them right. It’s so difficult. It’s just so much time. I feel like I try to be a hermit as much as possible because the only way to do it is to just lock yourself up and try not to talk to people. I try to get off Twitter as much as I can, but it’s always an enduring difficulty. 

A lot of weekends, nights working; I can’t remember the last time that I didn’t work on a Sunday. It’s just a seven-day-a-week thing. It gets really hard though when you’re doing big stories, when I’m doing a story about Drakeo [the Ruler], and it’s a 6,000/7,000-word story that you have to write. I guess we were working on the magazine last summer when I was covering Drakeo’s murder trial, so I couldn’t do anything for about a month because there was stuff going on in court 40 hours a week, and every spare second, I’d be writing this story which ended up being 12,000-words and didn’t get published until July. 

Get that article done, make a zine, make a 10-page zine. It’s the same idea that it always was, except now because of the internet, it can go much wider than it could have back when you were making a punk zine or something.

I’d love to be able to get paid as much as say a third-tier lawyer one day, but I’m not really banking on that. Our dream for this is to just be able to employ a few people full-time. It’s funny how our expectations for media are so modest now. It’s not like ‘I’m going to build a media empire.’ It’s more like ‘man, it would be so cool if we could have 5 people on staff and we could afford to pay their healthcare.’ Can you imagine if you have five people on staff at L.A. Taco; you’d be amped. Three would be incredible.

We know this pain all too well, Jeff. On that note, what’s the best way, in your opinion, to start, with your experience doing The LAnd from the ground up?

I started with a blog. I started with a blog for the reason that nobody at the LA Times or LA Weekly would hire me. I didn’t know anyone there, I was just a young writer. Now, it’s obviously not the blog-era, now I guess people are just getting jobs by being funny on Twitter—it’s probably the best way to get noticed. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to become a good writer, certainly not to become a good editor. As difficult as it is, you almost have to remove yourself from the notion of your expectations. You have to come to terms with the fact that it is the process, that is when it’s most meaningful—it is that struggle: to finish a story, to put out a magazine, even do a blog post, whatever, it’s still difficult. 

I would just tell people to start. Don’t look at the top, keep your eyes focused on the immediate present in front of you. Get that article done, make a zine, make a 10-page zine. It’s the same idea that it always was, except now because of the internet, it can go much wider than it could have back when you were making a punk zine or something. Maybe you could only give it to the local bookstore or something, but now, you can put it up online, you can make a Big Cartel account, you can sell it all. For us, we were able to sell all over the world. Part of it was the fact that I had been doing it for almost 15 years before the magazine; I started Passion of the Weiss in 2005. Phillip Roth said, “Every writer needs their poisons.” For me, the LA Weekly getting bought and gutted by Orange County Surf Nazis was a poison. It made me so angry, and I think it’s valuable to know what you’re not and what we didn’t want to be; that is valuable. 

We knew what we didn’t want to be, we didn’t want to be the LA Weekly, so it gave us a reverse compass.

I would also tell young writers, “It’s about what you like, but it’s also about what you’re not, what you don’t want to be.” We knew what we didn’t want to be, we didn’t want to be the LA Weekly, so it gave us a reverse compass. Another thing I tell young writers is: “You have to have values.” I’m not saying be a sanctimonious self-righteous asshole, but think about what do you prize? What do you want? If you have values, if you think about a place, or you think about yourself, or you think about a culture, and what you want to share with the world, that makes it a lot easier to know where to go from there. You have to have your feet on the ground first. At the same time, you’ve got to just keep experimenting and finally figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Are there any topics or narratives or issues that you couldn’t squeeze into the second issue, but you think are worth people, here in the city, paying attention to in particular?

We’re going to do that soon. We have a special election zine coming out in a few weeks, and there’s going to be a piece on George Gascón and his race against Jackie Lacey for D.A. I think that’s a huge, huge thing coming up for the city. I think everyone is rightfully focusing on the presidential election because it’s terrifying to consider another four years of Trump, and I understand that everyone doesn’t like Joe Biden, I don’t particularly like Joe Biden, but at the same time, people make a big deal about what Trump will do if he’s elected for another four years, and I think all of that is true. It’s a deeply horrifying specter, but we often forget in LA, a lot of real criminal justice inequities are occurring every day. 

It’s another thing to actually watch it with your own eyes and understand the magnitude of how dire it is and how hopeless and helpless people feel when they’re trapped in the system.

For me, it’s not to say that Drakeo opened my eyes to these things, but it is different when you’re sitting in a courtroom every day, versus when you’re interviewing a rapper and they’re telling you a story about them or their friends or their brother who is getting railroaded by the system. It’s another thing to actually watch it with your own eyes and understand the magnitude of how dire it is and how hopeless and helpless people feel when they’re trapped in the system. Just watching Drakeo’s case, it made me want to scream into the void; you want to scream to people like, ‘Look at what they’re doing, this can’t be right!” But it is, because of how the law works, and Jackie Lacey, she’s a failure. People I’ve spoken to say that her department has completely run amok—a bunch of strong personalities doing whatever they want without leadership; that’s what I’ve heard from my reporting. 

Also, there are some sexual harassment scandals in the D.A.’s office that have been reported on, but there has largely been no substantial accountability for them. The number of gang enhancements they use; you have a sheriff’s department awash with gangs, and Jackie Lacey’s department is literally taking the sheriff’s department at their word—these actual gang members—to classify other people as gang members. The CalGang scandal with the LAPD is wild, but no one talks about, “Well, what are the sheriffs doing, because the sheriffs don’t have body cams!!” That’s the only reason why the CalGang scandal was even exposed; I would’ve loved to publish something deeper on the sheriff’s department malfeasance, and Jackie Lacey, but we didn’t have room for it. I think Jackie Lacey needs to go. Melina Abdullah and the BLM movement are 100 percent right. You’ve got to give [Melina] a lot of credit, she’s been focusing on this from day one.

One of the most beautiful things about the uprising was the ability to get people’s eyes on what’s really happening. I mean, Madonna coming out against Jackie Lacey, like what? Eric Garcetti rescinded his endorsement, Adam Schiff rescinded his endorsement, all these people that were blindly lining up behind Jackie Lacey just because she had the power of the incumbency and she was in the system, and people are now questioning that. I would’ve loved an article surgically unpacking the problems with everything she’s done. She’s sent 22 people to death row, all of them were people of color, there were 610 people murdered by police during her tenure and basically no prosecutions, just stuff like that. People know the specifics now thanks to BLM, but I would’ve loved a 10,000-word investigation into the inner workings of the DA’s office, that would’ve been my dream.

We talk about the Green New Deal; we need almost a “Municipal New Deal.” We need people to dedicate their lives to working in the housing authority, we need people to dedicate their lives to urban planning, we need people to dedicate their lives to these random bureaucratic positions that have seemed unsexy and unglamorous for so long but are crucial. 

Will there be an Issue 3?

Sadly. There will. We have ideas.  We’re planning something around the election, a little before the election, so that’ll kind of be Issue 2.5. Hopefully the pandemic ends, because it’s been really difficult. We had to do a small run this time because where do you even put the magazine now, not many places are open. But there will, there will be an Issue 3; it might kill me first, but there will be.

If you were to take away one thing from Issue two, what is it?

L.A. is in trouble, but the situation is not hopeless. We really have to be engaged as a city and that doesn’t necessarily mean only following elections and voting in elections; we need a class of young people. We talk about the Green New Deal; we need almost a “Municipal New Deal.” We need people to dedicate their lives to working in the housing authority, we need people to dedicate their lives to urban planning, we need people to dedicate their lives to these random bureaucratic positions that have seemed unsexy and unglamorous for so long but are crucial. 

The nuts and bolts of the city have gotten ignored for so long. We need honest people of integrity to be the next city council people and county supervisors, we need to run a progressive sheriff, a progressive DA, we need it to be the city that we imagine it to be, not the city that it actually is. This has always been the case with L.A: what does it see in its head versus what is the actual truth. 

Thank you for speaking with us. 

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