Area Punk, Founder of ‘The Hard Times’, and Entertainer of Millions Lands Major Interview with RiotFest.org
Chances are, you’ve seen the headlines splash across your Facebook or Twitter timelines: “Dog Wearing Misfits Bandana Can’t Even Name Three of Their Songs,” “Fan Brings Earplugs to Morrissey Concert in Case He Talks,” and “Strict Metal Dad Won’t Let Kids Open up Pit Until Christmas” are some of the more popular stories of late. Maybe you’ve even been fooled by a headline or two (don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone). There’s no doubt that the satirical news outlet the Hard Times has shot through the punk scene faster than a grindcore band’s setlist. It’s become a must-read website for members of the underground, from band members to industry folks to plain ol’ DIY punks, and it’s even begun catching on with the mainstream. What’s even crazier is the Hard Times got to this stage in three short years, and according to founder Matt Saincome, they have no signs of slowing down. We caught up with Saincome just before he headed off to Japan for a well-earned vacation to discuss creating fake punk news, and all things Hard Times.
RIOT FEST: What made you want to start the Hard Times?
MATT SAINCOME: I was a journalism major in college in 2010, and I had a local zine called Punks! Punks! Punks!. One of the things I did was in the back of the zine, I arbitrarily gave and took away punk points from members of the local scene. You spilled a drink? Negative 200 points. You stopped a guy from stage-diving? Negative 500 points. People thought it was funny, and it went viral locally.
Once I went to journalism school, I had this idea that maybe I could write comedy news and put it in my zine. I told some friends about it and their response was, “You’re an idiot, comedy news already exists. It’s called satire, the Onion already does it.” I didn’t know too much about the Onion at the time and I absolutely loved what they were doing, but I noticed it was presumptuous that their “area man” was a very specific type of man: 35 years old with a wife, kids, and a white picket fence, had to mow his lawn… That was their everyman. I looked at my life and my friends’ lives, and it was all about music. We were part of a punk scene, we went to shows, we played in bands, we went on tour, so I thought maybe there was an opportunity here to write satire that assumes our everyman is very different than theirs, and become the younger, more non-traditional version of the Onion, like what Vice did with the New York Times.
I started brainstorming stories for the Hard Times as early as 2012 — one of my first ideas was “Band Pretty Sure It’s Safe To Park Van Here Overnight” — and I had them on my computer for two years. But my friends told me it wasn’t a good idea, so I went back to playing Starcraft. Then, in 2014, I decided to go for it. The first week had 500,000 visitors. The second week had a million visitors. It was spreading like wildfire. Nowadays, there aren’t too many people in our part of the culture who don’t know about it.
Were your doubting friends the biggest hurdle you had to overcome early on?
In the beginning, the biggest hurdle was probably be the fact that we had no money, and we were competing with very large institutions that had legacies and coffers. We don’t compete head-to-head, but if you’re gonna put up satirical news, most people are going to compare you to the Onion. They have a lot of full-time people, an office, a photo department, copy editors, social media strategies, and a budgets for articles — all I had was a bunch of punks working in their spare time. It was a little bit of a David vs. Goliath situation, but I think punks have a certain element of getting things done DIY-style more than people realize.
The punk scene is certainly ripe for making fun of, but it can also take itself extremely seriously. There are a handful of bands — Jud Jud, Emo Summer, Good Clean Fun — who have poked fun at the scene, but not a lot of punk-related humor has had legs. What is your relationship like with the punk scene at large?
I personally don’t care. I played in a band for a long time, and I played a character who was a bad guy in pro wrestling, who would just go out and insult crowds left and right, trying to start fights. I don’t particularly shy away from that stuff naturally. But with the Hard Times, the positive-to-negative ratio is — and I am not exaggerating — 50,000 to one. When I get notes from people saying “Why did you write about this topic, it’s not funny,” I usually ignore it. I don’t have time to argue with idiots.
I feel like younger people — if you’re really in the thick of it still, you are super-super serious about the scene — I think the Hard Times is kind of not funny to you. If you’ve been involved for a very long time, long enough to see the various idiosyncrasies of punk, I think that’s when the Hard Times becomes more funny.
Scandalous things happen in the punk scene all the time. Take, for example, Jesse Lacey’s recent downfall after being accused of sexual misconduct. At what point is something too sensitive to be made fun of? Is anything off-limits?
Personally, I say no, I don’t think any topic is off-limits. Jesse Lacey is a guy, but he’s part of an overarching pattern. So we talk about overarching patterns. What is he a part of? How can we use this to attack a topic or a bigger issue that’s a little more meaningful? I think a lot of people like the simplicity of taking down a single band, but the idea of guys in bands dating underage girls is not something limited to Jesse Lacey. We ran a headline after that happened that was “Pop-Punk Frontman Reunited With Girlfriend After Performing At 18+ Show.” The person who wrote that, Chrissy Howard, knocked it out of the park. We ran it a week or two after the Jesse Lacey thing and turned it into a more powerful, evergreen topic for discussion. I think it’s better than just looking at the one bad man.
So much of social media culture these days consists of people reading headlines and getting outraged, then sharing these headlines without even reading the stories. Oftentimes, they don’t realize the news is satirical. How often do you see that happening with the Hard Times?
The scary part of this whole project is no matter what you put out there, there is always a percentage of people who will take it as real. It’s bizarre and unfortunate, and it makes me sad about the level of comprehension in the world. None of our satire is meant to trick you, but we trick people all the time, and it’s kind of horrifying.
Maybe my favorite example is one I wrote a long time ago, “Crust Punk House Made Entirely Out Of Patches.” Not only did people believe it, I saw people saying they had seen it personally, that they had been there. They weren’t joking! They were trying to be cool about it.
We have some on the trickier side: “Billy Joel Quits Green Day,” for example. We have a new video game satire vertical called Hard Drive, and Kevin Spacey does voicework on one of the Call of Duty games, so when that story came out about him being removed from a movie he was in due to sexual misconduct allegations, we ran a story called “New Patch Replaces Kevin Spacey In Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare With Tom Hanks.” Not only did someone fall for it, they messaged us and said, “Hey, I can’t find the patch, how do I get it?” We told him to call Xbox customer support.
What have been your favorite interactions with punk celebrities because of the site?
We have a lot of punk celeb people that like us. Brian Fallon is a big fan. Ryan Adams is a big fan. The guy from Third Eye Blind is a big fan. All the members of Green Day except Billie Joe follow us on Instagram.
At Punk Rock Bowling, Brian Baker from Bad Religion came from backstage to find the Hard Times tent and told us he was a huge fan of the site. As a straight-edge dude whose life Minor Threat had changed, I’m into that. At that same festival, though, I remember specifically seeing Jello Biafra walk by, see our tent, get a look of disgust in his face and keep walking.
How do you respond if a public figure doesn’t like your website?
Early in our existence, one of the members of Deafheaven tweeted something that was like, “Hard Times isn’t funny, fuck the Hard Times.” That kind of gave us the green light to be funny. So the very next day, we came out with an article about them: “Deafheaven Bassist Falls Asleep Onstage.” The guy ended up deleting his Twitter account.
How do you decide what’s going to go on the site?
There are a whole bunch of different perspectives in the punk scene. I started off writing from only my perspective, but I wanted to get a whole lot more perspectives. I never liked the traditional way of “writer pitches editor, editor accepts or rejects.” At the Hard Times, we have a comedy test. If you pass it, you get put into a group. You don’t pitch the editor; you pitch the group. So everyone sees the pitches, and they all get a say, so it elevates the role of a freelancer or contributor into someone who has editorial sway. Someone will pitch an idea and it will have a lot of votes on it, and I’ll ask what the merit is, and people will chime in and explain its significance. We’ll have these discussions in an open, transparent way.
In that way, the articles are already tested. Not a lot of these stories are shots in the dark. It’s kind of our secret to our success: comedy crowdsourcing. The idea is it helps finds the editor’s blind spots. There’s a story we ran called “Punk Band Booked At Sober Space Makes Another Trip To The Van.” As a straight-edge guy, I would’ve missed that, but the group elevated it.
Are you purposely trying to broaden the Hard Times’ comedic horizons to include more mainstream culture?
Punk rock isn’t all that we are. I like photography. I like politics. As you grow up, your interests become more diverse. I think that our hope is there is room for growth, and that we can do it in a way that wouldn’t completely alienate our base. We want to comment on culture from a DIY punk perspective. We started off as an Onion for the alternative world, but what it we could grow into a true alternative to the Onion? What if we could take everything we learned from punk and do some broader topics? It’s worked out really well.
Has all this time poking fun at punk affected your relationship with punk? Can you appreciate punk for being punk, or are you always looking for an angle?
I think in order to satirize something, you first have to love it. To satirize it well, you have to understand its flaws and accept it as a whole. I’ve loved punk my whole life. I understand it has a whole bunch of flaws, but I’m gonna stick with it and satirize those flaws and continue to be a part of it. A lot of the stuff we make fun of is done from a very loving perspective. It is a little hard to not get jaded. I’m a pretty jaded guy. But I think you have to be kind of jaded to make this website.
You poke fun at lots of other people, but how much of the site’s humor is aimed toward you?
Oh, I write about myself nonstop: “Just Because I Don’t Dress Like It or Go to Shows or Believe in Any of the Core Tenets Anymore Doesn’t Mean I’m Not Punk” is one of my favorites. I write a lot of stuff based around me in the idea that I’m not that unique.
What do you think the Hard Times’ Mona Lisa is?
I really like “Punk On Shark Tank Wants $25 To Make Some Pins.” The idea of the punk thinking so small on Shark Tank; I really enjoyed that one. One of our editors, Eric Navarro, wrote “All Warped Tour Stages Moved 100 Feet from Audience to Comply with Sex Offender Laws” — it was read by close to a million people. Bands at Warped Tour were talking about it onstage. We had Kevin Lyman telling people on Twitter that it was fake. It became a part of our community’s culture. That to me is really special. I love that we created a platform where that is possible.
What are your goals for 2018 with the Hard Times?
We’re working on a TV show — I wrote the pilot episode, and we’re going to pitch it to some people. I’m really excited to see where that leads. I think a book is very possible; we have some publishers interested. I want to do more live events and put comedy tents at festivals, and do more video on the website too. That is enough work for one year, I hope.
You can read all of the funnies at TheHardTimes.net.