Rose Marshack on life with Poster Children and her new book
Formed in 1987 at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana alongside fellow loud-quiet-loud purveyors Hum, Champaign, Illinois’ Poster Children helped spread the gospel of injecting beauty in the cacophony of what would come to be called alternative rock. The quartet’s early albums, such as 1989’s Flower Plower and 1991’s Daisychain Reaction, are underground classics, and the latter’s “If You See Kay” is an unheralded classic.
Still together after well over three decades, Poster Children’s story saw the usual ups and downs and ins and out of major label interest and rejection while the band repeatedly criss-crossed the United States in a van. Slowly but surely growing their reputation through energetic live shows, Poster Children were also at the vanguard of music’s online presence via news boards and online tour diaries.
Those tour diaries form the basis of bassist Rose Marshack’s new book, Play Like A Man: My Life in Poster Children, out this week from University of Illinois Press. In it, excerpts from the tour diaries pair with Marshack’s recollections and reflections on her own history, as well as that of Poster Children. It’s an intriguing, involving read which tells the story of someone not just at the heart of the alternative explosion of the early ’90s but also its concurrent boom on the then-nascent Internet.
All of this and the recent vinyl reissues of those first two records via Kansas City’s own Lotuspool Records were discussed when we hopped on Zoom with Rose Marshack last week.
The Pitch: When did the idea for this book come about?
Rose Marshack: I think that this—the whole “me writing these tour reports”—came about from my partner, Rick [Valentin, guitar/vocals]. He said, “You should just keep a tour diary. Why don’t you do that?” It might have been the time where, you know, “if you practice something for 10,000 hours, then you get good at it.” It might have been one of those things because I remember saying, “I’m not any good at writing,” and I think he just said, “Well, why don’t you just try it anyway?”
At that same time, we had access to Prairie Net, which was an amazing freenet. We had access to being able to put web stuff up online. One could put paragraphs of text up on the internet and share it that way, and then anybody could see it, so that would be self-publishing and I was like, “Oh, that’s fantastic.”
We considered ourselves to be so self-important. When we were touring around, and we’d run into other band, everybody was brilliant. We had these great conversations ’cause really all you could do in the van is read. You didn’t have phones or anything, so you’d take books with you, and you’d be in the van for six hours traveling and reading, and God help us if we had a day off. We would stop at a museum or something, then we’d have lots to discuss so, I figured, “Well, why not? Why not just document and put it on the web?”
Over the years, people have told me, “You should compile that into a book. It’s so entertaining to read.” That’s where the idea happened, I think. When I compiled all of the tour reports into a book, and I calculated it out, and it was like, over a thousand pages, and I was like, “Oh, that’s too big. I’m not David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon. Not for a first book.”
Then I was like, “I wonder if University of Illinois Press would put this out,” and somebody from University of Illinois press contacted me and said, “You should try. Make a proposal.”
“Okay, I’ll do that,” so I did that. It’s just like my whole life is somebody’s saying, “Why don’t you do this?” and then me going, “Eh, all right, I’ll do it.”
The book is the tour diary, but it’s also your commentary at several decades’ removed. Going through a thousand pages of tour diaries, were there things that jumped out at you?
Somebody told me, “You’re gonna have to contextualize,” and I knew II’d have have to pick out some, because a thousand pages is too long. I knew I had my greatest hits—the parts that I thought were funny, like Patricia Arquette’s boobs and whatever happened to us at Lollapalooza—and there are themes that emerged, too.
The first theme that I came out with was teachers. I’m really into the teachers. Shannon [Selberg] from the Cows is my teacher. The first inception of the book, the beginning was all about teachers. And then, well, I can have a “famous people that we met” section ’cause people will wanna read that. That’s interesting to people ’cause then they can connect who knows who Poster Children is: “I know who Weird Al is, and if he met them, then wow, I can connect to that! I can relate to that.”
There will be these themes, but what struck me was just that there’d be a sentence somewhere. I wanna use this sentence. This sentence is really funny, but it goes along with these three days of tour reports and then something that happened a week before that.
One of the other themes was just the road, like how the road looks. I love just looking. I used to say if somebody showed me a photograph of a section of highway, I would know what state it was in. There were themes from the road that I wanted to put in, and there’s no way to do it without this whole week of tour reports. I understood Wim Wenders and, like all of the five-hour movies: “No, it has to be five hours long; otherwise, you’re not gonna get it!”
I understood that, but I didn’t do that.
The tour diary material is the inverse of Henry Rollins’ Get in the Van in that this is a remarkably positive about touring and being in a band, which is the antithesis of most music autobiographies, because your enjoyment of what you’re doing. Is that selective editing, or is that how it is?
It makes me so happy. You’re not the first person who said that. That’s what I wanted this book to be. It’s just finding the joy and just being in awe of everything that’s happening. That’s kind of how I am. I mean, our van caught on fire while we were driving somewhere and it was pouring rain, so while they were fixing it, we had to sit inside, and it was cold, pouring rain, wherever that happened. Isn’t that the most amazing thing in the world? That’s fantastic.
I mean, these are the things that you remember. I remember saying that, sitting in that Hardee’s or Wendy’s, wherever we were—I was like, “This is the thing that we’re gonna remember, though. We’ll play thousands of shows, but the alternator caught on fire in the van. When does that happen? It’s amazing.”
The book captures this transition period into online technology really changing people’s lives. The idea that you could cart around bulky laptops and be able to hook them up to a phone, dial out and put something online while you are on tour now is de rigeur. Every band does it by holding their phone up and shooting a quick video. At the time, though, that was revolutionary, and that’s what will make this book fascinating even to people who don’t know who you or Poster Children are, is that you’re also documenting this transition. What is the connection between music and technology that appeals so much to you?
The technology allows us to be a lot more in control of our message and in control of being able to get the message out. That’s what’s wonderful for me. I remember even talking to some of the major label guys, who were perplexed, like, “You guys are so good with computers. How come you’re not making computer music?”
And we’re like, “Ew, why would we do that? This is just a tool for allowing us to have more outreach.”
As a professor of creative technologies, how has your musical career informed your work as an instructor at Illinois State University?
My background is computer science, and then I have an MFA in digital media art. Somehow, I got this amazing job at Illinois State University teaching music business and digital art. They were looking for somebody who could do both those things, and I was like, “Rick, it’s either you or me.” He was happier with his job at that time, so I’m very lucky to have come in to teach music business.
I was thinking, “Should they get like somebody who’s a little bit more corporate than me?” Then I was like, “Well, wait, I did the whole corporate thing. I got the corporate label guy drunk so I could hear what was going on in there. I have all the inside information, and then I have the indie rock information too, you know, so I have more than one angle of looking at that, so that helps.”
If you’re in a band, and you’re writing music together, you have to know how to collaborate. You have to have empathy for other people. You have to understand where they’re coming from. You have to understand how to communicate with them and how to build something with them, and that informs my teaching because you have to understand your students.
The release of Play Like A Man comes very fast on the heels of the reissue of your first proper LP, Flower Plower. Daisychain Reaction got reissued a couple years ago. With these reissues and going back through your tour diaries, what’s it been like revisiting all of this stuff from three decades ago?
I’ve never really thought about my take on this, but I do have a take. At least for our first record, I’m not a formally trained bass player, so I just picked up a bass and was playing it, so I’m listening to those bass parts, and I’m like, “My God. Who wrote those?” I thought I was like a funk bass player or something.
Listening to Flower Plower, at least, it was like unbridled, complete naivete in bass playing, but it worked with everybody else. As the records progressed, it was more like, “Hey, you need to fit in ’cause we’re gonna record here,” and “Everybody shouldn’t be playing at the same time,” and “Don’t play too many notes,” and stuff like that. Then I went through my minimalism phase, which probably everybody does.
Going back to these weird naive bass compositions is amazing, and listening to the songs on Flower Plower, it’s kind of like, “Wow, there’s our crazy, youthful energy.” The whole word “naivete?” I like to walk through life bewildered. That’s my whole thing, and that seems like a naive way of looking at it.
When [Everything Everywhere All At Once] came out and Waymond talked about how his naivete is his way of fighting, I was like, “Oh, that’s me too.” That’s exactly the best way to be: Just have your eyes just open and process everything and just be glad that you can.
Rose Marshack’s Play Like A Man: My Life in Poster Children is out now from University of Illinois Press. Reissues of Poster Children’s Flower Plower and Daisychain Reaction, as well as their most recent LP, Grand Bargain!, can be had from Lotuspool Records.