Johnny Temple: Pages For The People -By: Liam Sweeny
Written by Staff on September 10, 2021
It seems like with everything, there’s an establishment, and there’s an anti-establishment. In music, there are huge conglomerate record labels, and there are Indie labels. In the book world, it’s no different. Behind the scenes, you have about five major publishers that dominate your local bookstores, and a wild west of indie publishers. And one of the handful of sheriffs in this vast Dodge is Akashic Books.
Akashic was founded by Johnny Temple in 1996 to gather and preserve the world’s cool literature from the prophesied global destruction of Y2K. Nah, I’m making that up. Welcome to literature. Johnny was also a bassist in the DC music scene.
I sit down with Johnny to talk about the Oxford comma and the rising cost of ink.
RRX: You’re not just a bassist. You’re also the publisher of Akashic Books, a Brooklyn-based independent publisher that has been pretty much an oasis in the indie scene. As a writer who has books chugging along in indie, it gives me a warm fuzzy to know that you’ve been around since 1999. That’s practical immortality for indies. How?
Akashic started as a record label in 1996, and then we published our first book in 1997. I never thought it was going to be easy to start a book publishing company, but I had the great fortune of starting the company as a hobby when I was a full-time musician in Girls Against Boys, and we had a few years where we made a lot of money, so when we signed to Geffen Records in 1996, I had disposable income for the first time. So I started the company with two friends, Bobby Sullivan and Mark Sullivan, basically as a hobby, and Mark and Bobby walked out of the company early on, but I kept it going. I had this really great grace period of like four or five years where the company didn’t need to make any money. I don’t think I could’ve gotten it off the ground without that grace period.
Also, I think, anyone who runs a record label, or a publishing company – you do it because you think you have good taste. And I think I have good taste. That’s what the success of my company ultimately comes down to, being able to identify great books. We publish a lot of African American authors, writers from the African diaspora, Jamaican writers, Trinidadian writers, and we’ve helped to launch some really important literary careers.
I’ve always thought that if you can somehow manage to keep the doors of your business open, you’ll allow for the possibility of success to come along at some point. And in 2011 we had a mega smash hit, our fake children’s book for parents called “Go the Fuck to Sleep.” And that book has sold several million copies, and just continues to sell large amounts of books year after year. Singlehandedly, that book stabilizes the company and allows us to keep going.
RRX: Akashic’s tagline, from the Google machine, is “reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” And it taps into something that writers know that many people, including readers, don’t. There’s a social strata, an elitism. Is reversing that a founding principle of Akashic, or was it something you ran across in the business, and picked up the cause?
That’s a great question that I don’t think I’ve ever been asked. That was a founding principle, It wasn’t something we came up with – that tagline was devised by fellow DC punk rocker Chris Thomson came up with that, a number of years into our company’s existence. He came up with it based on the work we were doing. I don’t like the elitism in the book publishing business. Sometimes it feel like the book business is largely based in Manhattan, a bunch of very well educated, mostly white people, gazing adoringly at themselves and their classmates from Ivy league schools and publishing, sort of, one another. And then complaining that no one reads anymore. Whereas, when you say no one reads anymore; have you tried to sell your books to everybody, across the social strata? It seems to me that huge swaths of the population are not marketed to with books – basically ignored by the book business. And that’s slowly changing, but we want to be part of that change. We need to get more books to more people, and more relevant books to more people, and that’s one of the more exciting challenges of publishing books.
RRX: One of your authors is Les Claypool, bassist from Primus. He’s such an amazing player, and he’s constantly collaborating with people. I can say he’s stellar, but you’ve worked with him. I’m guessing you knew him before he publishing with Akashic, but what the hell do I know? What’s his story, with his book, or with any random hijinks?
Before publishing Les, I had met him. Girls Against Boys had played in a festival in Belgium. We shared a stage with Primus, and I think I met him in passing, but we didn’t know each other. The book actually came to Akashic through a literary agent, the book publisher’s equivalent of a rock ‘n’ roll manager. When the book was submitted to us, I was very excited. This is Les Claypool’s novel, “South of the Pumphouse” I read the book, and I loved it. We decided to publish it. We’ve been very successful with it. We’re in the tenth or eleventh printing. And then, along the way, Les and his team talked to us about publishing an oral history of Primus. So we did the Primus book, which was also just such a great process. Les and Primus; they have so much integrity. Talk about process, you know, it’s like they do everything right, and they’re wonderful to work with. I don’t have too many hijinks, other than… this isn’t hijinks, but Les will play every once in a while in New York City, and whether it’s Primus, or part of another band, I’ll go to the show, and I’ll get to go backstage, and it’s very interesting to be backstage at a rock concert as a book publisher. Whereas I’ve been backstage at thousands of rock concerts as a musician.
I hope to do more books with Les Claypool. He’s got a lot of stories, obviously, inside of him, and I’m a bass player, and he’s a huge inspiration. What he can do with a bass is just sort of jaw-droppingly. There’s so much that he does that I would never be able to do.
RRX: Before Akashic, or actually during, you were the bass player in a band called Girls Against Boys, that’s been signed to a number of record labels, including Geffen. Can you tell us about the band?
All of us in Girls Against Boys are originally from Washington DC. So we all came up out of the DC punk/hardcore music scene, Dischord Records. We had three of the four of us in Girls Against Boys play in SoulSide, which recorded from Dischord Records. In fact, during the pandemic, SoulSide put out a new seven inch from Dischord. When SoulSide broke up in ’89, like a year or so later, most of us moved up to New York City and started working jobs in New York and playing music. So me, Scott (McCloud) and Alexis (Fleisig) in Girls Against Boys were in a band called Little Baby with another DC musician named Mike Fellows. That evolved into Girls Against Boys, with me, Scott, Alexis, and Eli Janney. Eli had started Girls Against Boys as a studio project, originally with Brendan Canty, the drummer of Fugazi. They were just messing around in the studio, making experimental sounds, and at some point, they pulled in Scott, and then me and Alexis. And we just messed around and made some recordings. And we ended up becoming the very first Girls Against Boys.
A little while later, when me, Scott, and Alexis were in New York, Eli was still down in DC, and we decided to turn GAB into a proper rock band, post-punk, whatever you want to call it. Noise rock. For most of the band’s career, we were a New York band. We put out our first EP with Adult Swim, which is a branch off of Dischord Records. Then we put out three albums on Touch and Go Records in Chicago. Then we signed with Geffen, and put out a record with Geffen in, I think it was 1999. And then in around 2001 or 2002 we put out our last Geffen record, “Jade Tree” and now we’re independents. A few years ago, we put out an EP, and right now, we’re writing new songs. It’s an old band, but we’re active once again. And we’ll be doing some touring in February.
I’m in a new band right now, called Fake Names. Diane Baker on guitar, he was most famously played for Minor Threat, one of the two biggest hardcore bands of all time, and this guy Dennis Lichsen, Swedish, and he is the singer of a band called Refuse, this incredibly popular Swedish hardcore band. So the two of them, me, and Mike Fellows, who’s another DC musician who played in a band called Faith. Over the pandemic, we put out our first album, and we just released an EP with Brendan Canty from Fugazi.