Punk and hardcore have never really been known for hilarity and lolz, but that didn’t stop Matt Saincome from starting an entire website dedicated to poking fun at a genre that for the most part takes itself very, very seriously. In fact, that sort of dour state is what inspired Saincome, a writer and front man of now-defunct straight edge hardcore outfit Zero Progress, to start The Hard Times in 2014.
A longtime lover of punk with a wry sense of humor (in Zero Progress, he played the part of “The Champ,” a hyperbolic version of the super macho punk singer), Saincome started the website as an offshoot of his tongue-in-cheek zine Punks! Punks! Punks! The first article, “7 Dead, Hundreds Injured After Joke Told at Punk Show,” struck a chord both in the community and outside of it, and within a month The Hard Times had hit a million views.
I spoke to Saincome about where he gets his inspiration, satire as a love letter, and what’s coming up next for The Hard Times.
What inspired you to start The Hard Times?
The Hard Times was originally just an idea I had for a new section of my zine, Punks! Punks! Punks! It was a print zine that allowed me to interview some of my favorite musicians, like Ian Mackaye.
I have always had a satirical sense of humor, which was displayed in my zine and my old band Zero Progress. For example, I reviewed shows and assigned “punk points” to everyone’s actions based only on my own random whims. In the back of the zine, there was a list of everyone I knew, ranked from most punk to least punk based on their punk points, which I would explain had scientific backing. I even came up with a formula for people to calculate their own. Hilariously, I made some lifelong enemies by taking away people’s punk points.
But anyways, I graduated high school and had to chose a major for college and thought, “Well, I like making zines, so I’ll do journalism.” Once I started learning how to write real news articles, I thought, “Maybe I should make a comedy news article section in my zine where I poke fun at myself and my friends?” I told some people close to me about that idea and they told me I was an idiot and to shut the fuck up—so I did.
“In the back of the zine, there was a list of everyone I knew, ranked from most punk to least punk based on their punk points, which I would explain had scientific backing.”
Years later, I became an actual journalist and started writing for SF Weekly, Vice, and Noisey, among others. I quit my hotel room service job—where I had to wear a bow tie and was propositioned for group sex by customers on an oddly frequent basis—and started freelance writing full-time (which basically meant I had a lot of free time and was losing money very quickly). So I asked people close to me whether or not I should try starting up this old idea for a “Vice Onion” again. They told me I was an idiot and to shut the fuck up, but this time, I decided to sink all the money I had left into creating TheHardTimes.net anyways.
I didn’t know much about The Onion actually, and only engaged with it in a serious way after people repeatedly told me the idea for my site was a stupid rip off and I should shut the fuck up—so I checked it out. I was blown away. I had seen headlines before, but when I really dove in, I started to understand the level of truly hilarious, timely, smart, and powerful writing that makes you laugh—but also think—that they were churning out. I loved everything about it, but as I dug deeper through their archives and read their stories, I noticed lots of jokes about putting your kids to sleep, mowing the lawn, or fighting with your spouse. They were funny, but didn’t connect with me (a 22-year-old punk at the time) on a deeper level. That’s when I knew what my site was going to be about: It wasn’t going to just be punk jokes, it was going to be a high-quality satire site for alternative people, millennials, and music subcultures.
So I would say my inspiration for The Hard Times was punk zines, The Onion, Vice, and Noisey.
With your old band Zero Progress, you started to play with the idea of a caricature of a hardcore front man. How did that high concept joke go over in the scene?
About as well as Phil Anselmo’s first apology video.
Matt Saincome as “The Champ” in his now-defunct band Zero Progress. Photo: Julian Berman.
Why do you think the punk and hardcore scenes lend themselves so well to satire?
I think there are two main reasons. One is that there are lots of extreme opinions and personalities that you can put into different situations. For example, I’m straight edge. That’s an extreme position to take, so it’s fun to pick apart with comedy, which I do all the time—especially at band practice with my straight edge band PURE.
The other reason is that there is an element of self-seriousness that pervades much of punk. When you combine extreme positions with self-serious people, it’s easy to envision situations you could potentially put those characters in for comedic effect.
A recent The Hard Times headline.
When curating content specifically for a satirical site, do you feel inclined to make the pieces timely or “trending”? Do you make a conscious effort to tie-in themes that people are talking about right now?
It depends on the situation, how strongly I believe it resonates with our audience, and how long of a lifespan I believe the story has in the public consciousness. There are cases where I make the decision our team has to rush 100mph to get a headline out in time to comment on a “trending” public discussion, and there are other times when we aren’t concerned with timing or tie-ins at all. The timely stuff is definitely an important part of any good satire project, and I think we do it really well—just not exclusively.
Our bread and butter (and the posts that make me most proud) are the ones that connect with large segments of the music community not because of a current event but because they touch on deep, often-unspoken, or overlooked idiosyncrasies people who hang around the scene have. The articles that bring to light those little, funny things that are universal in whatever town your band ends up in that night. Those are the ones that really make me crack up and feel connected to our audience on a deep level. Our weekend editor, Mark Turner, wrote the perfect example of one of those stories with “Man’s Tattoo A Constant Reminder of Time He Stabbed Panther In Face.” That’s a joke that makes sense to anyone who hangs around in DIY spaces and will catch fire and “trend” any day that we debut it. Or, as they call it in the newsroom, “evergreen.”
With satire, the act of riffing on “news” is basically what the Internet actually does to make things trend anyways. So it’s almost like skipping a step, which makes us wonder if [The Hard Times] has to adhere to the same “rules” as news sites.
Yeah, there’s a really interesting comparison between our timely content and just a funny friend’s Twitter feed. Both react to and satirize the news of the day, but one thing that makes us stand out is our team’s combination of comedic and journalistic skills. I used to be a music editor at SF Weekly, so it was my job to decide what was worth covering and when. I now use those same skills (or “rules”) to decide what is worth satirizing and when, and then just deploy a set of comedic (instead of journalistic) skills to cover that topic. So your funny friend (or the Internet in general) might fire off a million jokes a day about a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t understand, including a few that you really enjoy, but he won’t have our level of quality or consistency. Also, with the Internet, you sometimes have to dig through a bunch of shitty memes before you find the one that makes you cry from laughing so hard. But then who made that meme? Where does that comedic voice come from? Because that’s what you’re really a fan of. And because your friend probably just shared it from someone else, who stole it from a comedian, it’s hard to track down that voice again in the future. With us, if you like our comedic voice, you’ll always know where to find us: www.thehardtimes.net.We are also over 150 people, and only share 1 or 2 posts a day, so our standard of comedy should be a bit higher than your funny friend. But if it isn’t, please tell that friend to contact me because I have a job for him.
And about making things trend, I don’t think that is all about riffing on news. I’m a really big believer in the idea that getting someone to “share” an article has a lot to do with an underlying emotion. The share (or retweet, or reblog, or re-whatever the fuck) button is just one click, but the reason people click it is very diverse, and in my opinion, often emotional. Love, hate, outrage, rage, disgust, sadness—that’s what fuels people, not funny jokes about something in the newspaper.
“Love, hate, outrage, rage, disgust, sadness—that’s what fuels people, not funny jokes about something in the newspaper.”
And I think a lot of that has to do with how we want to project ourselves to the world. Basically: what am I saying by sharing this article? “I’m well-read,” “I get this joke,” “I’m a part of something,” “I find this bizarre, so I’m going to share it with my friends,” “I’m a good person,” “I’m controversial,” “I mourn the death of this artist.” If you can create an article that really connects to the emotional pulse of a group of people—so much so that they want it to become part of their identity—you’ll have a piece of trending content.
It seems like a lot of things in life are about virtue signaling—why exactly do I wear Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts? Deep down, I’m trying to show I associate with the punk/hardcore/oi sub culture, even if I have to dress up for this particular occasion. Or, as our article puts it, “Punk Wears Fred Perry and Cleanest Black Jeans to Sister’s Wedding.” We create our personas with fashion, music, and now social media. Sharing a Hard Times article can be like wearing a Black Flag shirt in high school—it’s how you let the other kids know you’re a punk too and want to be friends.
How do you stay inspired to write new stories? Are they mostly anecdotal from your past in the scene, or do you still stay closely involved in what’s going on in the genre?
I used to draw inspiration from the people and places I experienced while on tour with Zero Progress, but now, I actually just have a lot of those people writing about themselves on the site. We have a crack team of over 150 contributors from all over the country and underground music communities making sharp insights about themselves and their friends.
When I was an intern at SF Weekly, I was lucky enough to be part of a group interview with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia. I asked them about how they keep the show fun and avoid being overly mean-spirited or cynical, and Brownstein said to me, “We’re not on the outside looking in and targeting people. Like, we are these people. It’s a world we love—but also one that we know the parts of it that can seem kind of ridiculous or pretentious.”
That phone call really stuck with me, and that way of thinking is why everyone involved with our site, from the woman who runs the actual behind-the-scenes technical aspects of the website to the dude who edits the photos, is deeply involved with underground music. We’re making fun of ourselves, and criticizing our community.
“Is this funny enough to get beat up over?”
What do you take into consideration when writing fake stories about real people/bands? What is the response like from those people in those situations?
“Is this funny enough to get beat up over?”
Nah, I, along with my co-founders Bill Conway and Ed Saincome, consider lots of things. If it’s a pointed criticism, we think about whether or not they deserve it. I’m mostly of the opinion that if you think you should be able to hold a microphone and stand in front of large groups of people, you hold a lot of power and deserve to be criticized.
Most the time the response is positive, because we often write about ourselves, our friends, and people we really love. For example, I wrote an article making fun of Ian Mackaye for being in every documentary. But the truth is, I love Ian Mackaye. I love his music, his message, his way of thinking, and his kind personality. When I was in college, he was super gracious with his time and let me interview him extensively for my zine. He even sent me some postcards afterwards to keep in touch. I have them above my desk still. I truly think he’s a great man. I just don’t think anyone is above some light teasing, myself included, but especially the elder statesmen of punk and hardcore.
What is your favorite story or stories that you have published on the site?
Recently, “Godsmack to Play Coachella with Holographic Audience” and more generally “Old Guy Looking out of Place at Show Apparently Local Legend.”
What do you ultimately hope to achieve with The Hard Times? Is it just for laughs, or do you hope to make a bigger impact on the punk and hardcore scene?
There’s lots of depression in the punk and hardcore scene. One of the main goals of the site is to make people laugh and brighten their days. The best and most important part of the site is our fans—we’ve got over a million of them checking in every month now. They are the only reason that we are still around, and nothing makes me happier than when I see a comment like the one we got today, “Brilliant! Even on my worst days, you all never fail to make me laugh!”
I’ve worked on the site for over a year now, but hearing things like that makes it all worth it. It’s not easy to find a job where you cheer people up everyday. I was working insane hours as the music editor of SF Weekly before I (recently) went full-time at The Hard Times, but I would get home at 10pm after a production night there and get right to working on The Hard Times. It makes me feel good about myself.
What’s coming up next for the site? And for you?
We’re going to make videos. We are excited that The Onion reached out to us and we’ll be working with them on some ad stuff. We get to remain in complete ownership and control of the site, but get access to their infrastructure, which is great for our fast-growing site like ours.
For me, I wake up everyday and work on The Hard Times until I fall asleep. That is my future.