Pop punk, constipation, and Hell World: A chat with Luke O'Neil

Hello, let us talk about books today. Consider this the first edition in a literature discussion series entitled, uh… I’ll call it READPLY ALT for now and think of a better name for it later. (I absolutely will not think of a better name.)

Today’s edition of [INSERT BETTER NAME FOR READPLY ALT HERE] is about Luke O’Neil and his new book Welcome to Hell World, based on his very popular email newsletter of the same name

While I was working at Noisey, I got to publish Luke a bunch of times and I always liked working with him, namely because he doesn’t waste time with formality. Most freelancers begin pitch emails with crap like, “Hello Mr. Ozzi, I do hope your weekend treated you most splendidly. I’m writing to you today to inquire as to whether you might be so inclined to publish an article I intend on authoring about some top-notch pop punk tunes.” Whereas Luke would just fire off an email with no message body and a subject saying something like “lol should i interview that emo dipshit going viral?” To be clear, you can only get away with that if you’re Luke and I trust you. And the reason I trusted Luke was that he was reliable and turned around reasonably clean copy within a couple hours because Luke’s beard is made of Adderall.

Together, we published an interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. about pop punk, an interview with the dude who plays the organ at Fenway Park, and an essay about his struggle to get his song “Punch a Nazi in the Face” on Spotify. (As well as some more serious investigative reporting, like his exposé on the Boston Police Dept using facial recognition technology at music festivals.) He and I were also kinda responsible for that whole Weezer/Africa thing. Sorry. 

But some people don’t like working with Luke, cowards mostly. He is a notorious bridge burner who has been very public about publications slighting him. Earlier this year for example, The Boston Globe, Luke’s hometown paper, pulled an op-ed he wrote after a bunch of right-wing crybabies filled their diapers up about it because Luke joked about pissing in Bill Kristol’s food. Luke did not take kindly to the Globe’s handling of it and ripped the paper in The Washington Post. But Luke lets the fires from the bridges he burns light the road ahead, and now he’s standing atop a heap of ashes called Welcome to Hell World.

Even though I am quoted on the cover of Welcome to Hell World (very respected and famous author) and could’ve probably pulled a free review copy, I pre-ordered it with my money instantly because I believe in supporting my friends. What can I say I’m just an incredibly nurturing man in that way. Humble, too. Unfortunately, though, I had the book sent to my parents’ house so it’s likely I won’t get to read it for many weeks. (Enjoy, mom!) But having long followed the newsletter upon which it’s based I can say pretty confidently that I know what I’m getting into.

Welcome to Hell World delves into the darkest and most dire corners everyday people are shoved into as a result of… well, everything going on at the moment. A cruel administration, oppressive climate change, crumbling infrastructure, a failing healthcare system, internet-related brain poisoning. Luke absorbs all of the world’s sorrows and offers it in digestible daily missives to his readers. A sin-eater for an online generation.

I recently called Luke up after he got home from covering Boston’s so-called Straight Pride March to talk about writing while constipated, emo nite, and not takin’ no shit offa no one. 

How was the Straight Pride Parade?
Luke O’Neil:
Oh my god. I just put out a Hell World where I talked about the experience. It was sickening in a lot of ways. One is seeing those guys all together in one place. Just looking at their stupid, smiling faces. They’re playing grabass and hootin’ and hollerin’. It makes you sick. In Massachusetts, where I live, there’s plenty of Trump people, but I can go a significant amount of time—weeks—without seeing a MAGA hat. But to see them all there in one place, as soon as I got there I had this sinking feeling in my stomach.

I’m forgetting, are you pro straight people or against?
I’m agnostic about straight people. But then worse than the MAGA choads was the police. I’ve never seen so many police in my life.

Just protecting them, right?
Yeah, they’d lined up barricades for miles. If you know Boston, it went from Copley Square to Faneuil Hall, basically. They had barriers lined up. These are major, touristy areas of Boston and they shut the whole thing down just for 150 assholes. The cops were also itching to beat up some of the dreaded “Antifa thugs.” So it sucked. And even worse than that is that I was constipated the whole time so I didn’t get to take a shit before I went, so it was very uncomfortable.

That’s something that doesn’t get talked about in journalism school—when the best time to shit is.
You’re joking but in a way I think that’s part of the appeal of doing a newsletter like we’re doing. Because isn’t it sort of pertinent to know when you’re reading something in the Times or the Post that the guy or the woman who’s covering it had to shit the whole time? That does change things in a way, I think.

I’d like it if the New York Times reporters would start a log of their logs.
Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. Also, I’ve always had this idea... I don’t know what they call it because I don’t play video games anymore but you get the health bars at the top of the screen. When you’ve got your little author photo, one, there should be a rating for how much money you and your spouse make. Two, it should note how drunk you were when you filed it. And three, how much waste there is in your colon.

Maybe how many cups of coffee in your system.
Yeah, exactly.

I wanted to ask you about the unique position you’re in. With this newsletter, you now have the dream writing gig where you having a paying, loyal audience which allows you the freedom to never have to answer to anyone. But the tradeoff is that you’re bound to cover the darkest stories imaginable. It’s like you got one word wrong when wishing on a monkey’s paw.
I told this to Boston Magazine the other day, it’s super depressing and it sucks, but even though I have my own problems and I write about those—whether it’s my physical or mental issues—my life is fucking blessed compared to the people that I usually write about. So I try to keep that in perspective. No one I know has been shot dead as of yet, I’m not in jail for something I didn’t do, I can keep a roof over my head and all that shit. So I may not outwardly seem like a person who has any perspective from Hell World or my posts on Twitter but that’s something I’m trying to do now—direct my empathy to where it belongs.

Something that comes to mind when I think about Hell World is Darren Rovell’s famed tweet, “I feel bad for our country, but this is tremendous content.” Do you ever feel like you’re reducing people’s suffering to content or do you think you’re doing a public service?
I think there’s a fine line between sensationalizing tragedy and processing it. Maybe sometimes I’ve fallen on the wrong side of it, but I think, if anything, what I do is reminding people that these are human beings these things are happening to. I think it’s one thing to hear about how shitty the healthcare system is and it’s another thing to talk to somebody who’s literally being told that they’re too poor to save. And so when I’m doing my best, it’s its own reminder of our humanity. But I don’t know about this public service. A lot of what I’m doing is extrapolating off of what real reporters have actually done. But the ones I dig up on my own, I’m particularly proud of those.

But even if you’re going off of others’ work, what you are doing is putting this beam of information directly into your brain, which is something a lot of people are doing now. I feel like this administration has turned people into news junkies. So on a personal level, do you have any methods or advice on detaching? I know you’ve had some back injuries which have kept you from exercising, which is often a good respite from that.
No, unfortunately, for the past couple years my main method of choice has been drinking. It’s weird because I’d always drank but it never occurred to me that I might be an alcoholic until a couple years ago when I had those injuries. Exercising has been a major theme of most of my life. When you’re running or lifting, you can’t look at your phone, you can’t be thinking about the news. You’ve just got something heavy in your hands and you’ve got to focus on lifting it off your body so you don’t die. So, sadly, once I couldn’t do that much anymore, I transferred that energy into drinking, which has not been great. So no, I have zero healthy coping strategies at the moment.

Do you worry about that?
I go to therapy and we talk about it. I like my time with my wife. We have nice, peaceful times together. I haven’t been playing music as much but that’s always a good release. Emo Nite’s a lot of fun but I’m kinda getting fucking sick of that after five years of playing Straylight Run songs.

Amazing that playing Straylight Run songs would not have the shelf-life one might expect!
We actually had a really big Emo Nite on Saturday after the Straight Pride March. It couldn’t have been the more opposite feeling, seeing a few hundred kids come together to yell out the words to songs they love. There’s no beef or hatred. It reminded me of the power of music! I’m joking, but also, sincerely. 

You’ve historically been very public about the professional bridges you’ve burned and I’d love to know, if you had to psychoanalyze, why do you do that? Why do you have this compulsion to clap back, or whatever kids call it, with a publication that has slighted you?
I’ve been doing this not quite 20 years and that’s just a long time of eating shit and being mistreated, almost entirely as a freelancer. I remember six or seven years ago, I did some post that was like, “Here’s what I make at every outlet I write for.” It was kind of controversial.

Yeah, I remember that going around in our Slack channel or whatever the fuck and our editor-in-chief at the time saying you shouldn’t have done that or that it’d be bad for your career.
Right, and now look where we are, where we have Study Hall and things like that where it’s becoming more accepted. I’m not saying I’m the most important freelancer of all time, but in a way… I am. I’m just kidding, but I do think a little of that, without self-aggrandizing. Don’t misrepresent this as me thinking I’m important, but somebody has to say this shit. When someone fucks you over, why not say it? I just started saying that shit and hoped it would help things improve.

To quote the Menzingers, “a little Boston in your attitude.”
Exactly, there is that too. Well, the Massachusetts thing is to keep everything boiling up inside of you forever until you die and you hate your entire family. But when it’s not your family and someone fucks you over, it’s like, fuck me? No, fuck you! I think it’s probably been good for my career. Maybe I’ve been lucky. Maybe you have to go all in with it. 

I think if you’re going to be a bridge burner, you have to be the pioneer of it. You have to be the one who strikes the match.
Right, and then it’s also possible that I’m just a prick and I’m wrong. I’ve certainly been wrong a few times but I think the general thinking is that if a boss mistreats you, you are completely justified in shouting it from the rooftops: I’m being fucked here.

It’s weird, because yes, a respected longtime freelance writer getting fucked over by a notable publication like the Boston Globe is probably of interest to people, enough for you to air your dirty laundry. But at the same time, I feel like Twitter has allowed 22-year-old assistants to openly complain about their bosses, and I wonder if that will net them the result they’re looking for.
I think, in a way—and it’s probably unfair—I didn’t start bitching too much until I was ten years into a career. But the important thing for those younger people—and I’m definitely not gonna do a “millennials are snowflakes take”—is that there’s probably a smarter way to go about it with these unions that are starting up and places like the Study Hall message board. 1. It’ll get the pressure out of your brain just by saying it out loud, and 2. People can start working together on solutions to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

My last question—and keep in mind that my readers are gonna tear you a new one if you hit a wrong note—is what are three of your favorite pop punk albums off the top of your head?
Oh god, well, I’m gonna give you this one just so you can make fun of me: Under Soil and Dirt by The Story So Far.

You fucking idiot, yeah go on.
I’m gonna go with, fuck it, I’ll put in Dookie.

Oh hell yeah.
And one more... can we count Motion City Soundtrack? Let’s go with I Am the Movie by them.