By James Currie
There are few people that are as deeply rooted to the entertainment industry quite like Heather West is. The Austinites comes from a lifetime of being around the industry starting with her hippie parents taking her to concerts at the ripe ol’ age of seven and developing into a multitalented artist that was part of shaping the community she thrived in.
Growing up in the capital of Texas, she was surrounded by friends that were making something of the small town (around 300k back in the late 80’s) that included film, television and the music scene that she has been dominating for over twenty years. Now living in Chicago, West has crafted her career to the music industry side of things marketing and promoting great bands and events like Riot Fest, but before this she participated in the movie business with friends and was a part of the indie cult classic film, Slacker. The 1990 underground film headed by her friend Richard Linklater and featured some of Austin’s music scene that included members of the Butthole Surfers and other indie punk rockers.
Slacker was a film I watched back in the day that really struck a cord with me. It was so different than what was out at the time. It was gritty, rough, people that I could relate to as common friends. The way it was shot and the perspective it gave of life of a 20 something at the time was something no one else was showing or talking about. But then time passed and I forgot about it. Until recently when I found a newly restored Criterion Collection version and the memories slowly started coming back. As I was siting watching it, I started to recognize people in it. Not just from the memorable characters, but as people from other movies and even members of bands. One such character was called, “Tura Satana Look-Alike”. The slender girl with raven black hair and Betty Page bangs. As soon as I heard her talk I realized it was Heather West. I immediately shot her out an email asking if that was indeed her and she replied, “Yep”. I had to know more.
I’ve worked with West for a few years now in Chicago on various events, mainly Riot Fest. She’s an unmistakable character that once you meet her, won’t soon forget. Her charm and sass her trademark along with her deep knowledge and passion of the music industry makes her one to watch for. Until this point, I only knew her as a publicist for music in Chicago. After, I learned much more.
James Currie: Hey Heather, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I know you’re ramping up for Riot Fest, but appreciate your time.
Heather West: No problem.
JC: As per our previous conversations, I want to focus on one particular aspect of your career that I find fascinating. You’re involvement in the 1990 indie film, Slacker. How the hell did this come to be?
HW: So, how did you even know it was me in it?
JC: Ha, well one of the things I like to do is go back and re-watch films I haven’t seen in many years and see if anyone in it is now somebody famous. As soon as I came to the part of the movie where a group of people are in a house talking and the girl with the Betty Page bangs starts reading post cards, I perked up. You somehow haven’t changed much in 30 years. I knew it was you.
HW: Oh wow, it was so long ago I guess I just wouldn’t have got that. Actually, many people have come up to me in the past and asked if I was the Pap Smear girl. And I’m like, Teresa and I look nothing alike. But it’s funny because when we made it we didn’t think anybody was going to see it.
JC: Classic. How did you feel about it? I mean the making of it and the story line.
HW: Well, Rick (Richard Linklater) had dropped out of film school at UT and he and this other friend of ours headed up the Austin Film Society. We all meet through that and all became friends. Rick wanted to make the movie and we all thought it would just be fun to do figuring no one would ever see it. I mean, this was pre internet days. When you kind of make a scene and do your thing, you don’t really think that others would like it and relate to it. You just do see the world like that outside your community you’re in. I just thought it was so inside Austin cool, that no one else would like, get it. It seemed like inside jokes to me. But as it turned out there were other people our there having the same formative experiences or whatever.
JC: So it was just like a student film almost?
HW: Well yeah sort of I mean, I didn’t see it as a true Hollywood film or anything. Just us playing around.
JC: How did that develop into a full fledge film?
HW: Well, I was on my way out of town. I was moving to New Orleans. I left before they finished so I never saw the completed film for a long time. Rick got it in some film festivals and it was getting noticed. So I finally saw it at one of these events. Oh and also, the film didn’t really have proper credits with our full names or anything. It wasn’t until later when like HBO bought it. Then they added our names to the credit. I was listed as “Tura Santana Look Alike” (Faster Pussycat Kill Kill Kill). I think when it went to HBO, they had to change the name and maybe the anniversary edition it’s back.
JC: Yeah, What I’ve seen that’s what you are listed as, as well as IMDB.
HW: Yeah, but I had the long black hair and bangs and they use to call me Tura. Friends who saw it called me up and said thing like I just saw this movie and there was a character that looked like you, but the name wasn’t. Was that you? And I was like, this film is being watched in places like NYC, what the fuck!? It was kind of starting to blow up and Rick had scheduled a screening in New Orleans and that’s when I finally saw it.
JC: So that house in the film that you were in, was that your place?
HW: No, no, that was just a co-op with some people we knew that lived in it. We got to use it for the film and I was in the kitchen reading real post cards.
JC: There was a character, that so many identify with this film as being the stand out star, Teresa Taylor right? She played the Pap Smear pusher girl?
JC: Is that the kind of friends you guys had to use at the time? Was that people from that scene local musicians?
HW: Well, sort of. I mean, Austin was a much smaller town back then. Nothing like it is today. Everybody just kinda knew everybody especially if they were in the art scene with music, film and whatnot. All the people that were into bands were also into films it seemed and everybody would just bump into each other at some point. Someone would have an art show and everyone would go. It didn’t matter what scene you identified with (punk, rock, film buff etc.) everybody just went and supported each other. Everything then was more cross-pollinated. I feel like here today people just kind of stay in their scene and that’s it.
JC: Well, to a degree, but I know quite a few music fans that love it all and support it all.
HW: I mean, there’s always exceptions, but you know, it’s just not like it was back then and down there.
JC: What do you think contributed to that?
HW: So, it was really cheap to live in Austin back then. People could get around town a lot easier too. Nothing like the traffic we have here. People just wanted to get out and listen to live music there. It’s just what you did.
I mean, I was raised by hippie parents. I was going to shows since I was like seven. So you go see a band that your dad’s into. With my parents, it was like they were on the cusp of things. You could either have parents that were into music and hippie parents like mine, or they just listened to easy listening and didn’t do much. Austin was just a really hip town to music. Has for years. The town was just like a cultural melting pot with UT there and all. People came in from Dallas and Houston and we all just kinda hung out and learned from each other.
JC: Wow, yeah, that’s a close nit group.
HW: So for example, out of everyone in that movie, I only didn’t know like two people from it. I mean, I could look at the film and go, Oh that’s my friend Jamie, I’ve known him for 30 years and he was in this band.
JC: So you must have had some influence in some of the characters that were in it then?
HW: I know I must have, I can’t remember, but… well I remember being in this restaurant at one time and hooking people up with things. It was really Rick’s vision and everything, but we all could have some input and help out with things like other people to help out with it and characters.
No one really auditioned, it was just, if he liked you’re repartee or you had an interesting vision he’d bring you on.
JC: So he just kind of looked for real people? He was looking for real characters already developed in Austin life?
HW: Well, yeah kind of. So like in my part, I read those post cards. He wrote those, it wasn’t like I just made things up. He had a vision on what he wants to see, but wants it real from the perspective of that culture we were in. I was like a real fast talker, witty and a joker and I guess he just kind of liked that. He wanted me to be just kind of snide to my dumb roommates.
HW: But all my metaphysical parts of it where we’re just talking about reality and whatnot and is this really happening was all him. That was his direction. That was all scripted. But the UFO guy had a very limited description and he had like, here’s the idea of what I want and just riff off it.
JC: Ok. I get that. Did anything else develop either naturally or from direction between people that led to any band formations, jam sessions or other projects?
HW: Well, a lot of the people involved are today in the film industry. Like for real involvement after the release of it. Things really opened up for him after Slacker. The doors opened up and his next project just took off, you know, Dazed and Confused?
JC: Yeah, yeah, of course.
HW: Well, that just really took things to another level since it brought in stars like Matthew McConaughey (an unknown local boy from Texas). Parker Posey was in it and at that point a lot of the crew that were in Slacker, where also on that film. People were learning fast on how to work on a bigger budget Hollywood film. I can’t really think of anyone that went on to form a new band after that, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen and I just didn’t know it. Because so many people in that movie already played together either before or during that movie in things that already existed.
JC: So what turned you more towards the music side of the entertainment industry rather than film like so many of them went on to?
HW: Well, by the time we were making that movie, I had already been working in the music business already. I started working in live music bars when I was sixteen. And by the time I was nineteen I was working for a concert promoter.
JC: WOW! You were into music at an early age. Obviously you knew you wanted to be in music since you were very young.
HW: Yeah, I was working with everything from Mile Davis to the Ramones in these 3000 to 8000 capacity clubs. That’s basically where I learned I know. After that I took a couple years off and ran a restaurant then became a talent buyer at Antone’s blues club. Then after we finished the movie, I moved to New Orleans and run record label there. So, it had already been my path. The Hollywood way is not my way. It’s just not my style I can’t do that.
JC: Is that when you started to work with Taking Back Sunday?
HW: I ran that label in New Orleans that was like traditional New Orleans music with people like Solomon Burke. I got engaged to someone from here in Chicago. I was working with a distributor in town as well. So I got a really small apartment and split my time between Chicago and New Orleans for a while actually like six years. We sold the company to e-Music. The idea was to become a production house and they would own the masters and do the marketing. But almost right after we did that, the dot.bomb happened and so the deal just went away, disappeared. So at that point, I had to get a job, so that is when I went to Victory. Taking Back Sunday was like my first band there.
JC: So that is what brought you to Chicago full time then.
HW: Yeah, exactly. Then I left Victory and went to Bloodshot. And from Bloodshot, I started my company and have been doing this ever sense.
JC: How did you know that it was time to start your own thing?
HW: I don’t know, it just felt right. I had friends from New Orleans that did a festival and kept asking me to do press for it. And other people kept asking me to do the same. I was here with my husband and he was just like, you should go for it. And so, I did.
JC: And that was around 2008?
HW: Yeah, I think so because I started working with Riot Fest around 2009. Do you know the poster artist, Jay Ryan?
JC: I am a poster collector, the name is familiar. Maybe if I saw his work.
HW: I think you would. He’s done lots of work for the Metro and Empty Bottle and others around town. Anyway, he did a poster for Slacker that was pretty incredible with little cartoon drawings of each character. Real limited edition and run but really cool.
JC: That’s cool. So it sounds like Slacker has kind of stayed with you for years. Or at least comes back through your life from time to time.
HW: Yeah, I guess so. The weird thing is people will come up to me and say things like, weren’t you in that movie Slacker? Or message me and say, were you in a movie from the early 90’s? It’s hard to believe that people saw it and still relate to it.
JC: Well, it did the same to me. I had friends like that back then too. I think it’s something that most can relate to who’ve been at that age. Everyone has a couple weirdo friends, or is that friend.
So did you do any other films? Cameos or anything?
HW: Not really. I mean, I did a spot on another Austin Texas movie called, Honeysuckle Rose with Willie Nelson, but I don’t think I was credited in it or anything. It was just a small part.
JC: Hey cool, yeah I know that one as well.
HW: It was cool. I did some other bits like dancing in music videos but that’s about it.
JC: Anyone we’d know?
HW: There’s this girl called, Kelly Willis. An Americana alt country type thing. I also danced with this guy called, Charlie Robison who was this really tall singer songwriter. And Kelly is married to his brother Bruce. It’s funny, the connections are just still happening in that scene.
JC: Are you planning on doing anymore acting?
HW: No, you know, I just really don’t like the camera. I have such stage fright. I don’t even like to be on stage with a band and get seen. I mean, I couldn’t even do a video chat with you for this. I just have never really been dying to have a camera on me.
JC: So how did you do it back then?
HW: We’ll I did it as more like a favor for a friend really. Just helping out a fellow artists in our community. I just thought of it as doing something for my friend Rick. I wasn’t nerve racking because we never thought it would amount to anything. Especially not of the level it got. I think that maybe if I did think about it more or like that back then, it would have freaked me out a bit and I might not have even done it then.
JC: Is the movie something you can watch or have watched in recent years? Or does it bother you seeing yourself on screen and give you a little panic attack?
HW: I haven’t watched it in a while.
JC: Would you be interested in doing a part 2 if Richard asked? Maybe something set in real time that would revisit where you all are at today?
HW: Maybe if they gave us all like walker canes or something, but yeah, I’d consider that. He could make it work. But I don’t think it could happen. Some of the people in it have died. Most don’t live in the area anymore either.
JC: I get it and understand life happens. It’s tough, but what are you gonna do.
I know I’ve kept you for quite a bit of time now, but I wanted to touch on how you got involved with Riot Fest? How did that happen?
HW: They were five years old, doing it at clubs in town and needed a publicist to help get the word out about it and make it something more than just a underground club scene. A writer friend asked me to help out. They knew I had a pretty vast background in punk rock music and could help. I mean, I’m one of the only people I know that have seen the Misfits on their first tour. It was so loud, that my friend and I had to tear up her paycheck to put in our ears.
JC: (ha!) Wow.
HW: So anyway, I had a meeting with them and just hit it off right away. I knew the music and just kind of went for it.
JC: Nice. I was going to those early shows before the festival started. Those club shows around town. I was cool, but kind of just word of mouth. Like you said, it felt kind of homemade and DYI for sure.
HW: Well, I was kind of around back then too. At least during the second or third year, we were still in the clubs. It moved to the festival event because there was just too much going on before in the clubs and just too much for people to follow around town to get to them all.
JC: And obviously you’re still doing well. You’re still with them all these years later. And it’s a nice milestone year for you guys.
HW: Yeah, yeah, for sure.
JC: So are you still a music fan? Do you like going to festivals and discovering new bands?
HW: I do, but I’m more of a club girl. I like Wicker Park Fest. Not the giant ones. Empty Bottle and small night clubs are cool. But yeah, I still love to go to live music. I really do love Riot Fest. I mean, they get what I like. The vibe there is just different. People are just cool. They are there to just have fun, a more low key event. People are there to have fun and lift each other up. Not to be agro. Our safety record speaks for itself too. The vibe there is just really positive.
JC: It’s still the one festival I look forward to going to every year.
HW: I do too.
JC: So is there anyone in particular that you are interested in seeing this year?
HW: I will definitely see Slayer. I hope to catch some of Bikini Kill. Generally I’m in the pit to help with headliners. But one of the things I like is the undercards. I mean, everyone talks about the great headliners we get, but the earlier smaller shows are just like, I mean, Hot Snakes, Selector, Andrew W. K., Surfer Blood and the Village People. I’m gonna shake my booty for sure.
JC: (laughs) Yeah that’s right. That will be an interesting gig.
HW: I’m super stoked about Nick Lowe, you know. It reminds me of the year we had Bootsy Collins, Billy Idol, Merle Haggard and Motorhead. It’s diverse as hell.
JC: They do an amazing job. Riot is about real people and real music in a low key environment.
Well, I guess that’s a good point to end with.
HW: Yeah, cool. Thank you for talking with me.
For more on Heather West’s Western Publicity, click here
Riot Fest is this weekend. Staring Friday September 13th and running to Sunday September 15th. Tickets are available at riotfest.org
For more info, including Riot Fest 2019 line up click here
For more info on Slackers, click here