July 2016. I walk into the dimly-lit café from the tables outside because, as usual, I arrived some 30 minutes earlier than I should have. I don’t even know who I’m looking for; all I know is someone named Jack Fowler is hosting a meet-up here for anyone that wants to be more involved in the music scene. Now, how he or anyone else can guide an ex-Flagpole writer into the Atlanta beat, I can’t fathom. But what’s the harm in trying, eh?
By now, a small group has congregated at the bar. I vaguely recognize the tall man that everyone seems to be talking to, so I walk up and introduce myself. This is, indeed, Fowler, and he greets me warmly, just as he greets everyone else who has braved the potential storm to come here. Someone brought a few CDs to give away, and Fowler inquires all about it – who’d you find to mix this, how were the rates, and so forth. When the meeting begins, he gathers us into a circle and simply asks: “OK, what do you need?”
I met one person in that café. We’re still really close friends to this day. But I never saw Fowler again.
March 2017. I’ve parked on a narrow gravel road between two houses. Today, I know exactly who I’m looking for: I’m here to talk to Jack Fowler, founder of the Megafuss booking/label collective, frontman for alt-rock trio Flower, and also a former member of pop rock group exwhy. And — I’d just learned this the other day — an illustrator that a few in the scene still recall with some disgust, thanks to one picture he released back in December, of someone cutting what looks like a strip of bacon from their wrist.
I didn’t have to come here. Chronic writers like myself often resort to emailing questionnaires to their subjects, especially when the story isn’t that crucial. And, in most cases, a three-track EP wouldn’t warrant an interview. However, when you name said EP Death By Internet, and promote that with a drawing of a computer devouring a girl’s head, alongside a website revamped into a text adventure… well, there’s something else going on there.
Fowler meets me on the front porch, leaning on the banister. For a split second, I don’t recognize him — his hair is up, his features seem slightly more haggard than I recall, and he greets me with a trace of wariness. On the other side of the porch, three folks are lounging in chairs and laughing; we say hi briefly before Fowler leads me in.
Immediately, a tan boxer (Ares, like the Greek god of war) bounds up to me, which I pet furiously. Fowler guides me to the kitchen and offers me a drink; there we meet Liz, his “partner-in-crime,” who suggests a “beermosa” with Miller Lite and orange juice. I gently decline and ask for straight OJ, which Fowler pours as I watch a little goldfish in an aquarium by the sink.
With drinks in hand, we settle into the sitting room, where a cutting board lies on the floor, a box of prints set above it on a table. Fowler explains that he’s putting together swag bags for his upcoming release show at the 529, which will contain four prints of art from the EP; a download code for Flower’s debut LP, Waste of Life; the EP itself; and a Flower patch. So, if I didn’t mind, he’d split prints while we talked. And of course I don’t; I also don’t mind Ares bounding in again, but Fowler leads him out (wouldn’t want him to run into the blade, he explains). Thus, with me on the couch and Fowler cutting away on the floor, we begin.
Kill your computer
As a hopeless nerd, I want to talk first about the new website, which Fowler has transformed into a point-and-click text adventure. All of the usual links one would expect on a band’s page — videos, audio, upcoming events — are hidden in a second-person narrative, set between a dimly lit room and a scarcely used kitchen. “The website was made because I wanted to circumvent your expectations of what kind of experience you would get if you go to a band’s website,” Fowler explains. “Not only that, but there’s this cookie-cutter way of how we do everything, to being artists. And we have to do that, or nobody finds us, or recognizes us, or gives a shit about us, so we have to go through the proper channels. But I think it’s important for us to also subvert the channels and fuck it up a little bit. “
After visitors find the key, they can walk down the hall to the locked bedroom, where they’ll walk right into the EP’s cover art — the aforementioned dead girl with her head stuck inside a computer monitor. Here, one can tease out the themes and lessons Flower hope to express through Death By Internet: not just that computers can isolate us, but also that human connection can still prevail. “I wanted to tell the story for those who don’t really read the lyrics, but maybe they’d be willing to go down the path in a different facet,” says Fowler. “Because being idealistic and telling a story and teaching people things is really important to me.”
The website, of course, is just one of many creative outlets for Fowler. “I’ve made video games that I’ve never put out, and I’ve made stories. I’ve written a quarter of a novel and never did anything with it. I get really excited about things, because I get really vivid ideas. And I’ve found that, with music, I’m able to bring it to fruition all the way, where usually with other projects I’m usually not well-equipped or experienced enough to do that. So I wanted to use that as an opportunity to do a little extra.”
Granted, as a storyteller, Fowler values his writing the most, which leads us, naturally, to the EP and its central message: that internet usage can become an addiction. “It made me want to kill myself, because I went too hard into that addiction,” Fowler confesses. “I got to be socially awkward, and my way of resolving that awkwardness was to reinvent myself through social media and stuff. If there’s something that can steal my focus that has relatively instant gratification, I have a pretty bad habit of swaying towards it. And with the internet, I can post something and have empathy in seconds. And being an empathy-driven individual, it lends to a lot of dosing for self-gratification. And then the problem is — you don’t get any real human interaction from that. Nobody holds your hand. Nobody stares into your eyes, or stands by your side.”
Fowler then talks about how that’s affected folks in real life — how we judge each other silently in public spaces, yet can’t bring ourselves to just say hi. And I find myself agreeing. As a perennial wallflower in social settings, I find it nearly impossible to start conversations with strangers, or express — and here I hesitate, too scared to say “my nascent sex drive,” so I settle on “romantic energies.” To my relief, Fowler consents completely. “I just recently got into a serious relationship after, like… seven years,” he admits. “And I’m a hopeless romantic, so it was incredibly hard for me to go that long without love.”
Death By Internet addresses that disconnect in three phases — three songs — in terms that resonate with Fowler. “‘Hysteria’ is definitely to slap you in the face and say, ‘Look, there’s a problem,'” he explains. “‘Ritalin [Taught Me to Hate Myself]’ is to say ‘This is how we got here.’ And then ‘Pitiful’ is to say, ‘If we don’t do anything about this, this is what’s going to happen.'”
“Ritalin,” in particular, refers to Fowler’s own experience with managing an attention deficit disorder when he was younger — or, rather, with how adults tried to manage his ADD for him. “I took Ritalin in high school, for a very long time,” he says. “And it gave me a split personality, in a way, because I had to interact as a person on Ritalin, and as a person off Ritalin. Two completely different people. Someone who’s on Ritalin doesn’t fucking talk. Conversation is terrifying. It’s literally like vocal paralysis. You just can’t bring yourself to talk. It kind of feels like a prison — well, if you’re being pessimistic about it. Let’s be realistic, it’s not all that bad for everybody. But for me, it was. The other side is — here I am, an extroverted individual that’s TOO extroverted, in a way. And so I make people uncomfortable. So eventually, I just had to learn how to regulate that and be in control. But the thing is, society told me I needed Ritalin, because I was broken, right?”
At this point, Fowler reaches down into his box of prints and pulls out one with a crucial lyric from “Ritalin”: “They write and paint and won’t stop talking / We’re sure they’re fucking broken / so we’re helping them to concentrate / focus on their letter grades.” Of course, the line refers to Fowler’s experience as a teenager, but I’m reminded with a sharp pang of a quiet girl with long blonde hair, who hid herself in books, and pecked away at her face. You didn’t need Ritalin to feel displaced or dysfunctional in high school.
The EP’s closer, “Pitiful,” follows that dejection to its nadir. “It’s THE song that I wrote when I was feeling the most suicidal,” he tells me — a jolting admission to be sure — but he continues before I can inquire further. “It’s talking about how people just kinda shunned you — Go home, we’re all filled up here — and that I felt like I put a lot of energy into what I was doing, but it didn’t really hit right. And then — It’s pitiful, isn’t it, to feel so ineffective in a world so disconnected? Even though we have cell phones, and computers, and an infinite number of ways to communicate, we’ve still managed to become disconnected.”
No more crossed fingers
As we exhaust the EP, I find myself at a loss of where to go next, or how exactly to circle back to Fowler’s brush with suicide, and that wrist-slitting picture. So, rather clumsily, I lead into a question about Megafuss, and what Fowler’s tried to do with the community — but, at the word “community,” he laughs to himself, as if I’ve just stumbled into a sick joke. “It’s a little too obvious, isn’t it?” he says. “‘Hysteria,’ I wrote because I’d just made a piece of art that the community deemed too offensive, because it glorified self-harm…”
“Oh, wait a minute, someone was telling me about this,” I say. “You mean that piece where someone was peeling off skin, and it looked like bacon? Yeah, do talk about that.”
Fowler does so, without hesitation. “I don’t cut, personally,” he begins. “I had my own ways of self-harm, but they weren’t cutting, necessarily. But I tried to be as good as possibly could to myself, but I’d still get to points where I’m like, ‘I wanna do something destructive.’ And I admit, that when I made that piece, I was doing it to basically express what I wanted to do to myself. So the whole reason I fucking made it was, I wanted to cut myself. And, you know, so many people feel that. So I was really confident that, when I put it out there, it’d be a conduit for people to express, or at least feel through that, the kind of catharsis that I got out of making it. But that wasn’t the case. It was very, very harshly criticized.”
Several people that I talked to complained that Fowler posted his art without any “trigger warning,” with the implication that folks with suicidal tendencies would be driven to attempt their life again if they saw it. “What do you want me to do?” he asks his critics, exasperated. “Do you want me to protect you from everything that’s going to make you think about these things? And where is the line between what a ‘trigger’ is and what is coddling? Because this is a dangerous and fucking painful world. And the truth is, the only way you’ll know how to protect yourself and stay alive is by getting hurt a little bit, and facing pain.”
But why, exactly, did Jack want to cut himself? He brings me back to last year, when he was still with exwhy. Relations were souring between him and that band’s leader (and his former best friend), Jason Murray. “We were just going in different directions,” Fowler recalls, “and I can’t really nail down his feelings. I think I knew what mine were. But the one absolute truth that I can provide was, we weren’t understanding each other, and the communication was not happening.” Only now, as I type this, do I remember Murray from the meet-up last summer: also tall, trim beard, polite to the point of reticence, stubbornly shrewd. He wrote an op-ed piece for Immersive, just before that evening, discussing his thoughts on privilege; that night, he was trying to tell me that he never played in Athens, because venues were “always closing.” (I lived in Athens for two years, and the only bar that folded in my time was a novelty ‘80s club.)
In any case, exwhy went on tour and during their stay in Philly, Fowler got in an accident in the tour van. “It was totally my fault, and incredibly embarrassing, and I was beating myself up for it,” Fowler says. “And I don’t want to demonize Jason — we both made mistakes on that tour — but basically, we got into a dispute. And I’m not going to side for myself, and I’m not going to side for Jason, but it was a dispute. And I ended up with a bloody nose, I ended up walking away from the van. Long story short, we ended the tour half a week early, went home, and exwhy breaks up.
“I had already quit my job, and then I got in another car accident… So I’m running out of money. I’m living with someone who’s kind enough to financially watch out for me as a good friend, but our social dynamic is waning, because we’re not the same people [that we used to be]. So I don’t enjoy where I live, my band is breaking up, and everything’s tumbling down around me, and I’m losing myself entirely, and I don’t have support. I’m feeling completely lost, and alone.”
Hence, the urge to cut — and hence, the picture that incensed parts of the DIY community enough to cast Fowler out. With his last support net ripped from under him, he then fell into his darkest thoughts. “I got seconds away from taking my own life, and I… I just couldn’t do that to myself. I couldn’t. So I took off a week to just not think about anything. And I’ve been through a lot of tragedy in my life. I don’t like failing, and I don’t like stopping. So I decided I needed to reinvent myself, and I needed to step away.”
So Jack found a new job, migrated away from the old house he was living in, cut ties with former bandmates, and started working only with his closest companions. “I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to help people like I used to,” he tells me. “I wasn’t going to do it until I was ready. And I’d get there, but I needed to rebuild the foundation, because I wasn’t just going to cross my fingers and hope that the community was going to be nice. Because I did that once and it didn’t work. And I decided that I wasn’t going to give up, I was going to keep going. And the only way I was going to do it was if I made that culture — and all of the things about it that were hateful and evil — my enemy. Destroyed it.
“For me, the most important thing about Flower and this whole project is that I create an environment for people to come and let out everything that hurts them, let it out and leave it at the venue, and go. And I felt like this subject had to be touched on in order for that to continue for me.”
“My last bastion”
I sit in silence for a moment, as Fowler continues to split prints. “Dark times, huh?” he jokes.
“No, this is fine,” I answer, gathering my journo self off the (metaphorical) floor. “I could listen to people all day.”
Fowler leads into the present day, and what he calls his “last bastion”: Mom’s House, the house venue and communal hub he and Liz have been working on since January. Not only will the Moreland hang host all-ages house shows, but the duo also plan to build an above-ground pool and a halfpipe in the backyard.
Their primary aim, he tells me, is to dissipate the “clique nature” he’s seen in Atlanta ever since he settled here in 2013. “I saw it a lot with the art rock music scene,” he says. “I don’t want to name any names, by any means, but that scene — and ‘art rock,’ what the fuck is that even, that’s just the name I give it — but it’s the scene that came just before the scene that is currently bubbling about. And I thought it was incredibly narcissistic, exclusionary. And I grew up in the hardcore/emo scenes, where if you knock somebody down, you picked them up immediately after, and you cried on each other’s shoulders.”
When Jack moved to Atlanta — he was from Georgia, but defected to Brooklyn for a year — he found his first foothold in a gang he dubbed the “Ratpack.” And here he jumps up, slips into the living room, and returns with a small black patch that he hands to me. “I found more people that wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do, which was live in the city without having any friends,” he says. “So we all banded together and got a house that had two rooms and had five people live in it, and pay about $70 in rent, while we all found jobs off of the limited savings, and we all separated slowly as we got our feet on the ground.”
As exwhy jumped through hoops to land their first gig at the 529, Fowler decided to open the Ratpack house to shows for other outsiders in the same plight. “I invited ANYBODY,” he stresses. “I had one band play [the first time]. Then I invited ANYBODY to play, period – whether they had drums, or just a guitar, it didn’t matter. Anybody could play. And so we had 150 people come. And we had about 20 people play that night. If you didn’t get there soon enough, you didn’t play, but they still stayed, because there was an entire community of musicians bubbling around there.”
That kindled Fowler’s drive to help other musicians, which led, slowly but surely, to the Megafuss collective, through which he canvassed the community for its needs. “I know that I’m capable — I’m very confident, sometimes cocky — that I can create whatever it is you want me to make, you just need to tell me what you want. So I started asking the community, ‘What do you want? ‘They said they wanted to book shows. So I said, ‘OK,’ and I started making it so that they could book their own tours, and teaching them how to do it. And then, eventually, that led to so many fucking contacts that it was like, ‘You know what? Let’s create a database.’
Thus, Fowler created tourdiy.org, a resource for independent musicians to find venues and places to crash. But that — like many of his other efforts under the Megafuss banner — faltered to a halt after he felt community overlooked or took advantage of his generosity. “So it was just a shell, to start something, but it never really went where it could have gone. So many things are like — you put a feeler out there, you see if it works, and then you just step away.”
After the artwork debacle, Jack plans to shelf the diplomatic arm of Megafuss — at least, for now. “My goal was always to make things easier for musicians,” he says. “Now, today, I have no shame in admitting that my goal is to make things easier for myself. I also feel like I’m not worried about musicians anymore, I’m just worried about people now. ‘Cause I feel like there’s too many people that want to kill themselves.”
“Wait — these are our songs”
The conversation stalls again. Two people in the living room are watching a video, something vaguely Mario-related. I watch Jack slice more posters for a while, reeling from the tremendous ground we’ve covered in 45 minutes. An odd feeling compels me to keep this conversation going for as long as Fowler’s still cutting. So we meander into a philosophical discussion about the move on social media — “I think people are worried about Facebook in the way that they worry about their permanent record,” Fowler muses — when bassist Jacob Cauthen walks into the room and introduces himself.
We progress, then, to the history of Flower itself: turns out, Cauthen and Fowler met in 2010 or 2011, back when they were both gigging in the Dacula, Ga. “scene.” “The explanation for the scene was, there was a venue,” Cauthen jokes.
“It was horrible, just a hole-in-the-wall,” recalls Fowler. “In a church. Most of the venues up that way are built out of churches. Which is funny. I don’t think any of us are religious.”
Cauthen and Fowler didn’t play together, though, until 2014, when Fowler brought his friend into exwhy. The move was a swift one. “I saw a post that a friend had tagged me in about exwhy,” says Cauthen, “and, two months later, I’m going on tour with them. And I’d never been on the road. As soon as I get that opportunity, I just go.”
Flower’s current drummer, Patrick Friend — who joins us later, as we’re winding down — was also once a misfit without a home. “He’d spent a lot of time in the local scene and doing things,” Fowler explains, “but never really got with people who could really buckle down and make an album or things like that, or buckle down and make a tour happen. And Patrick is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my whole life, and he also has a punk passion like we do. So I tried to get Patrick into Flower when we already had a drummer! I tried to fandangle the possibility — and it wasn’t a popular idea, so it didn’t happen — of having two drummers.” So, naturally, when Jack rebuilt Flower after the crash, Patrick was his go-to guy to start over with.
The first form of Flower blossomed shortly after exwhy dropped The Feels in February of 2016. “I wrote The Feels, and then after that I just kept writing, because I love to write,” says Fowler. “And I was being heavily inspired by Nirvana and Brand New and that sort of stuff. So I started writing a lot of grunge, and they didn’t like it. And I didn’t want to keep writing the dance-y pop type thing — I wanted to evolve. So I ended up making Flower, as another project; and because I didn’t have a job, I thought I was able to get away with having two bands.”
“We had songs written, ‘cause we couldn’t get the other members of exwhy to work with us on the creative aspects,” adds Cauthen, “so we ended up writing a lot of stuff already together that we brought them, and then we were like, ‘Well, wait. These are our songs.’”
But that second endeavor, muses Fowler, could have rubbed the exwhy blokes the wrong way. Cauthen clearly believes so: “Usually people don’t have time for two bands, but you did,” he says, addressing Fowler. “You absolutely did. You didn’t give more to one or the other, and I think that’s why that tension started, just because they were like, ‘OK, you need to commit more to exwhy, because that’s more serious.’ They wanted it to be 60 / 40, or 70 / 30.”
“Yeah, that did happen,” agrees Fowler. “And then we’re on a label, and the label doesn’t wanna release an album for another two years. And I was like, ‘Are you fucking serious?!’ “ Megafuss, then, became a vehicle to release Flower’s output without the contract — particularly now, when Jack needed a creative outlet more than ever. “With this EP, I was just like, ‘Well, we’re gonna release an EP, and we’re gonna do it now.’ And then we just stared moving on it, set a date, and made it happen.” And thus, after tapping everyone he knew, and finding a new manager in Atlanta Record Label Fest founder Juliett Rowe, we arrive at where we are now — the EP, the imminent show at the 529, the four stacks of prints on the floor.
By this time, Friend has entered the room and is standing in the doorway. Fowler splits the last poster and announces that he’s done. This seems like the natural point to end the interview, so I turn off the recorder here. The band plus one (a guy named Will) gather round to begin stuffing the prints into bags; keen to help (and reluctant to leave), I stay a few minutes longer and join them in a circle on the carpet. That’s when Fowler starts to grills me on how I found out about Immersive, how I came to Atlanta. Not 10 minutes in, though, someone notes that if they’re going to practice, they need to do so now, because it’s 8, and someone has to leave by 9. So I, who always have a ton of writing to do, jump up to leave.
Fowler’s a hugger, so he embraces me before I go. I’m normally not a hugger, but I accept the gesture gratefully. I walk out to the car with a bounce and a big smile. It seems like we’re both in a better headspace than either of us were a year ago: Fowler has found a new community and forged a path for his art and ideals, and this house bustles with such life and camaraderie that I feel I’m parting from a happy family. My gut tells me I’ll be back.