Cali Thorhill Dewitt"Anyone could love their friends and make it an important thing."
In Los Angeles, Cali Thornhill Dewitt is considered by many to be one of most selfless participants and aggregators of the city’s DIY culture. Dewitt runs an independent record label called Teenage Teardrops, maintains a 500 page deep photo blog called Witch Hat and hosts a weekly radio show on KCHUNG Radio called Zen Mafia—a moniker for a veritable gang to which he belongs, although actually who or what the Zen Mafia is remains decidedly unclear. Dewitt also organizes art shows, concerts, makes fliers, posters, t-shirts, zines... It’s honestly hard to keep up. While creative work for many people seems ultimately oriented towards some kind of career, Cali Dewitt has refused any system oriented towards turning creativity into capital, instead making his “work” about supporting and empowering the people around him- his friends and family.
Where were you born?
I was born in Sidney, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. In my first three years we lived in Port Renfrew, Prince George and Salt Spring Island. My dad was a logger. We moved to California when I was three.
Why did your family move to California?
Because my dad went to college here. He loves California. He ate his first taco in 1963 at the age of twenty, on Sunset and Alvarado. He had lived here and loved it until he got a draft notice, so he boned out back to Canada.
Where did you live when you moved to California?
The San Fernando Valley. The gigantic suburb, the endless suburb. Late ’70s / early ’80s SFV was very Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
What got you into music?
I think it started from my dad. He loved jazz, and was really well versed in it. I didn’t like it when I was a little kid, but there was always music in our house. My mom listened to country, my dad listened to jazz, and somehow that meant they had a Rolling Stones record. My first favorite song was “Paint It Black.” There was always music playing in the house.
So you were into rock and roll?
Yeah, and my dad nurtured the things that that I liked. He took me to see Rock ‘n’ Roll High School in the theater. He took me to see The Decline of Western Civilization in the theater when I was like seven. He took me to see the Who movie, The Kids Are Alright, when it came out.
I think those things affected me more than I think he thought they would. He just thought they were funny, the rips in the Ramones’ jeans, Darby Crash’s attitude, but I was really into it.
What kind of work did he do?
He does home renovations and finish carpentry and stuff. He turned 70 this year, and he still does it.
So did you play music at all?
No, never. I have tried to learn the piano a few times but I don’t have the discipline for it. What I would want—my fantasy—would be to play piano like Chico Marx, but I don’t have the determination for that I don’t think.
So with music you’ve always been OK in the audience?
I’m a fan first, and music was my first favorite thing.
Were you going to shows when you were a teen?
All the time. My first show was a D.O.A. show in 1982 when I was nine. I had a twelve-year-old friend who took me.
What kind of punk shows were you seeing?
I would go and see stuff like the Butthole Surfers where some goth band would open and some shitty hardcore band would be on the bill. That was cool. It was the late ’80s, so there was great hardcore- D.R.I., C.O.C., Cro-Mags, Born Against—all the straight edge, youth crew stuff—Pushed Aside, Inside Out, Chain of Strength, etc. There were also bands like Infest and Man Is the Bastard starting to play and get on my radar.
Were you intimidated by the hardcore scene?
I mean, punk shows were super violent in LA. It was scary. I remember walking into a fucking Descendants show when I was thirteen, and within five minutes I had gotten head butted by a grown man, in the face. There was a lot of violence, a lot of fighting, a lot of stabbings. We had a lot of gangs in LA at that time, and I was not about that.
But you still went.
I still went because to me it was like the best thing that you could do. There was freedom in that music. That’s why the fighting tripped me out, because it didn’t seem to have a place in it. It seemed like it should be like a safe place instead of an unsafe space.
Were you into art in your teens?
Yeah. My dad always took us to the museum and there was always a lot of books in our house. I liked art and always drew, but I never even knew that there was such a thing as art school until I was like thirty. Which is weird because I think that’s something I would have probably done if someone had told me about it. Actually I probably wouldn’t have done it, but I would have considered it.
So what were you doing between the ages of like eighteen and thirty?
I was having a mostly harsh time. I was doing a lot of drugs; I did drugs until I was twenty-eight, and that commanded most of my creative time.
When did you start doing drugs?
I started doing drugs young. I dropped out of school when I was sixteen. I had lots of friends, was very social, but really didn’t do anything. I really think I didn’t do anything except for party. I had all kinds of like fun. I mean, it was fun until I was twenty.
Then you spent eight years not having fun?
For me it’s not fun to have to be a drug addict. I don’t regret it, and I had a lot of important experiences during those years, but at a certain point it became clear that I was living an incredibly selfish and wasteful life.
At the same time, you spent a lot of time with some really creative people during that era, right?
I was witnessing great stuff ever since I was young. I was always in the middle of something important. If I liked something I was pretty passionate about it. I always liked to find the thing that feels the most honest for that moment. So I would put myself in the middle of it.
But you didn’t really participate?
At times I was part of a community, and when you are active within a group of people you are participating in a way, but I definitely could have done a lot more. I had a lot of opportunities to be a part of different things. When I was young I felt like I was growing up faster than my peers, like I was ahead of my time, but now looking back I was an incredibly slow starter. I couldn’t get to the next step of producing things. I was on drugs and I was afraid.
Did you have any opportunities to work in the music industry in the ’90s?
I used to think when I was a kid that a good job for me would be an A&R guy. That was something that people wanted to be then, and I got that job when I was 21.
What label were you doing it for?
Geffen. I didn’t make a lot of money at all, but I had an office that I was supposed to go to. I would go there and sit there and not know what I was supposed to do. I was so confused and bummed out the whole time. Seeing how major record labels work and how people treated music just really solidified what I learned when I was like thirteen from Crass Records.
Just be fucking independent and create your own world and your own reality and don’t try to play with those people. Just don’t do it. If you can say no to them directly, do it, because it feels good. They are used to people lining up to kiss their asses.
What brought you to sobriety when you were twenty-eight?
I mean I had been brought to sobriety many times in my twenties. I had been in lots of rehabs and I had had much uglier moments in my life. I knew what to do. I had been going to AA for like six years on and off. When I finally got sober I was a bartender. I did that for three more years.
So you really don’t mind being around drugs or alcohol?
I should say that I’m pro-drugs. I think drugs should be legal. I think a lot of people benefit from them. I think I benefited from them at first. And if someone I know is really fucking up, I might not even say anything to them. If they want to talk about it I’m down to talk about it any time, but preaching doesn’t work in any area.
Once you got sober you started being more active creatively?
I had been involved in things as much as I could be already. I always booked shows and made flyers, but my lifestyle at the time made me not totally reliable. I mean I wasn’t a thief, I wasn’t ripping anyone off, I just couldn’t always be counted on to show up. When I was sober I started being more active. I was just trying to nurture my community, whatever that was. I realized that good intentions were one thing, but not enough at all.
So you’ve been involved in music. Have you ever produced it?
Like sitting in a studio? No. I don’t like that part of it; I don’t like editing. Anything that feels like school doesn’t appeal to me you.
So it’s more like making the record happen?
Yeah. At first I was working with other labels but there was always compromise when you worked with other people. I don’t want to compromise. I would rather work to make the money and spend it myself on making something.
So that is why you started Teenage Teardrops?
Yeah. Since 2006 we’ve put out almost fifty releases.
Has it always been vinyl?
It’s vinyl, tapes... there have been some books. A “release” on Teenage Teardrops can be anything I want it to be.
What were the books?
I put out my brother Pat’s first book, which I should really reprint. I put out a book of Mark McCoy, who is a Brooklyn artist that I love, and a dear friend. There’s been a bunch of zines in there. I released a zine of my mother Susan Dewitt’s photography.
How do you choose who you work with?
Everyone I’ve worked with on Teardrops is a friend. When I decide to work with someone, I already love and respect them as people and as artists.
When you started were you thinking of it as a business?
It wasn’t a business idea because I didn’t know how it would work. It became clear over the years that it was not a business for me. I understand how you can make it a business, but for a truly independent label to make a little bit of profit you have to work very hard in a certain way. Some people are down to do that, but I’m not down to do that. I’m not down to like hire a publicist, I’m not down to take out ads. Anyone who I make a record with or whatever, I say, “We’re going to make it as beautiful as you want it and as we can, and it’s going to be so nice, but I’m not a real record label.” Just so they understand and they don’t have expectations in that realm.
How involved are you in the production?
I get as involved as they want me to be. I really like designing the covers, and usually they let me do that, but they don’t have to. The best case is if we collaborate somehow because that’s really fun.
And you distribute them afterwards?
With declining sales in the record world in general, I just wind up mostly selling them one at a time through the mail.