Interview with Sol Ramos, Mountain Goats Fan Zine Creator

Sol Ramos is putting together, in his words, “a Mountain Goats fan zine by trans people about trans identity and the Mountain Goats.” The zine, White Cedar, will be available this winter. Ramos studied interdisciplinary visual arts––a degree that let him pursue LGBT art, multiculturalism, and history––at the University of North Texas, which is located in Denton, where, he says, “it’s a little weird to meet people who don’t know ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.’” His college education informed his conviction that art is a “way to reach out and see yourself reflected, to feel some kind of connection.” Bloomington, to its credit, boasts a sizable trans community. Many people who live here may see their experiences represented both in Mountain Goats lyrics, some of which Ramos discussed with me, and in White Cedar. The cisgender people of this city, Ramos hopes, will find understanding through the zine. In addition to lyrics that relate to transness, Ramos and I talked about his primary objective for White Cedar, frontman John Darnielle’s support of the project, and how trans folks can submit their work. 

Describe your relationship to the Mountain Goats.

In the fall of 2013, I was studying abroad in Morocco, and I had The Life of the World to Come and I think Heretic Pride in heavy rotation. That was definitely a time when I was feeling really lonely and isolated, and the music was just kind of a lifeline. My relationship to them is pretty based in that connection.

Have you edited and/or contributed to other zines?

Yeah, I’ve been contributing to zines since early college to probably 2010 or 2011. The first zine I ever contributed to was called Hissy Fit. It was compiled by a college feminist organization I was a part of, and it covered the topics of LGBT rights, reproductive rights, things like that. So more political-oriented zines were the ones I really got started with––things like gender equality, environmentalism. And then I did start to get involved in more just art-themed zines.

Would you say your art-themed zines are still political to some extent?

I would say so because it’s very hard to detach a lot of things that I write from my transness, my queerness, my being a person of color. Those identities are so politicized in our world, you really can’t detach them. Even when I try to get away from politics, even actively, it kinda sneaks in.

In a tweet calling for submissions for White Cedar, you wrote: “Many of the Mountain Goats’ lyrics speak to a turbulent and tenuous relationship with one’s body and sense of identity, which are topics that heavily resonate with the trans community.” Can you point to some of the lyrics you had in mind? 

I think most of this niche trans following I talk about agrees that Transcendental Youth is the most trans album. It hits so many notes of those topics. And then Life of the World to Come, for me, is so focused on the physical aspects of having a body.

The first lines that come to mind are from “Isaiah 45:23” off of Life of the World to Come: “And I won’t get better / but someday I’ll be free / ‘cause I am not this body / that imprisons me.” I feel like that pierces right to the heart of the idea of having a body that’s not normative, that’s not understood.

Another song: “Deuteronomy 2:10” from Life of the World to Come. It’s almost like a lore. There are biblical references and mythological references that really conjure up powerful images. The song describes a maybe endangered creature that’s in captivity. I think that’s very powerful and very universal. A lot of people, I think, have felt like that. It speaks to the experience of having a body that you might not necessarily feel the best connection to––or of feeling that your interpretation of your own body is misunderstood, of that isolation.

How does Life of the World to Come manage to not be interpreted as cisnormative? 

I feel like there isn’t anything specifically gendered in a lot of the songs. There aren’t a lot of pronouns used that often, I’ve noticed.

John Darnielle shared your call for submissions and added: “Deeply honored by this. Thank you all.” How did you react when you saw his response?

At first I was pretty stunned. I really wasn’t expecting any kind of reaction or anything to it. I’m pretty shy when it comes to other creatives, people I really admire or whose work I respect. I’ve gotten in contact a couple times with different comic book artists on Twitter, and I was shocked when I got something back. I was really excited about it because it was like this wall was brought down. That’s something I love about zines: they break down barriers between those considered successful and people who are maybe less known.

[Darnielle’s tweet] got me excited, creatively. And I felt a sense of compassion towards the trans community and an eagerness to help.

Were you heartened by the replies to his tweet?

Definitely! I really didn’t see anything negative. Everyone was super supportive and excited about the project. A lot of people were saying either that they had thought of this before and would love to contribute or that they hadn’t thought of it and now realize the connections they want to make.

Why do you think the Mountain Goats have attracted such supportive people?

I’m actually a part of a few Facebook groups related to the Mountain Goats. One is trans-specific. It’s really what made me realize that this following did exist. I had my own interpersonal relationships, but I didn’t realize there was up to like at least a hundred people out there who had made this connection.

Part of the reasoning, I have to say, is John himself, the persona that comes with a lot of his beliefs, which I think he’s not shy about sharing––support for women’s rights, reproductive rights, LGBT rights. I think it would be very difficult to be a fan of the Mountain Goats and not share those beliefs. A lot of it comes through within the music.

Darnielle is a notable figure in part because he often shares these progressive beliefs through the lens of his Christianity. Do any of the Mountain Goats lyrics that pertain to transness also pertain to Christianity? 

Absolutely. All of the song titles on Life of the World to Come are Bible verses, and there’s religious imagery throughout the album. Which I personally love, and I think a lot of Mountain Goats fans connect to that imagery. I think a lot of us were raised religiously, for better or worse, and it’s just another point of connection.

And The Sunset Tree, I’m sure you’re aware, deals heavily with an abusive stepfather. That’s something I personally relate to. I know a lot of trans people, statistically, also relate to it. That album, when it looks at things through the lens of Christianity, can explore some of the positives but also the abuses that can come with being under someone utilizing a faith in a way that can be repressive.

What do you make of “Pale Green Things” as the closer to The Sunset Tree?

It’s definitely a song that, for me, can be hard to listen to. Forgiveness, and finding solace in understanding a person and their flaws, can be very hard. A lot of times you might feel––or, I’m trying to use “I” statements; you can tell I’ve been in a lot of trans support groups. I definitely feel that righteous anger and knowing that someone has hurt you can be very powerful. They can help in the short term. I don’t want to knock that. But I think that finding solace in understanding a person’s flaws and seeing them as a whole person and knowing why they got to their actions can be healing for a lot of trans people.

In the first episode of the podcast I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats, John Green––I don’t know what you think of John Green or his work, but I like this quote––said that the Mountain Goats’ music has helped him “imagine the lives of people who are distant from [his life], or feel distant from [his life].” Are you hoping that White Cedar will do for its readers what the Mountain Goats’ music has done for John Green?

I’m not that familiar with John Green, but I really appreciate that quote. My #1 goal is finding a way to connect trans people with each other because, honestly, I think the sense of isolation is key in what is frankly our extermination. For people trying to get rid of trans people, I think the most powerful tool is our sense of isolation. When you don’t have any kind of representation of yourself or a sense that you’re not alone, it’s very easy to succumb to your own demise. So this is my number one goal: connect trans people with other trans people.

But I’m aware that a lot of cis people are going to read the zine. I do think it would be really important for them to have that bridge to the other side and understand where we might be coming from, what our struggle might look like. And then hopefully, in a very politicized way, I would hope they’d feel galvanized to take action in their daily lives, if they’re not already, to combat transphobia––whether that be by voting on legislation, or [by talking] with relatives and friends who might have transphobic views.

Do you plan to include in the zine specific recommendations for how cis people can fight transphobia?

I thought about that. I didn’t know how political I wanted to go with it. Personally, I am a very politically active person, but I know not everyone is necessarily looking for that. The idea behind it is not to be politicized because it can be taxing to always be in a political space as a trans person. So I’m not sure that I would have a step-by-step like “This Is How You Should Tell Your Grandma to Stop Being Transphobic at Christmas Dinner.” But maybe I’ll open the floor to people thinking about it. I do want to have some kind of forward––a message that says, “Hey, this is going to cover things that we’re going through. If you feel compelled by any of these words, that’s great.”

What are some of your other goals for the zine?

I’m focused on the artistic aspect as well. The draw to zines as an art form is that it breaks down barriers not only in access––who gets to put work in and whose work gets to be seen––but also in quality of work. The truthfulness of what’s coming through in a piece can supersede how well done people think a work is. This is really my goal: to have trans people, a lot of whom are poor and can’t afford to go to art school.

What forms of artwork would you accept?

My motto for zines is anything that can print. Really, there’s no piece of art that I can’t imagine putting into a zine. It could be collages, photography, comics––I love comics; I’m a big fan of comics––and of course writing. I’d print any kind of reflection on personal experiences with lyrics, or maybe anecdotes about trans identity, poems.

How should people submit?

I can always be reached for submissions through my email, which is jnramos.art@gmail.com.

I also have a Facebook page for Caribou Orca Zines, and that’s where I post updates on the zine’s process.

And how will people be able to buy White Cedar?

I have an Etsy page.