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Ugly Things magazine turns 40

Music publication a longtime labor of love for husband and wife

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: September 9, 2023, 6:04am

SAN DIEGO — Mike and Anja Stax are surely not the only husband and wife who have played together for years in a psychedelic garage-rock band. But they are unique for also publishing a music magazine, Ugly Things, which celebrates “wild sounds from past dimensions” and this month marks its 40th anniversary.

“We work side by side, holding hands!” said the German-born Anja.

“We sit, a few feet apart, at the same desk,” added the English-born Mike, who launched Ugly Things in 1983 to share his love of wildly rebellious rock bands from the 1960s.

“I think most people would hate to work this close with their spouse!” Anja said. “But, for us, it works.”

Mike and Anja live in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa with their music-loving son, Philip, 17. A senior at San Diego High School, his first concert was by The Loons, his parents’ acclaimed psychotic garage beat band. Philip was about 4 years old at the time.

“I knew pretty early on about my parents’ involvement with music and with a music magazine,” Philip said. “What my parents do is pretty cool and they have introduced me to great old bands, like the Pretty Things and Love.”

Mike, 61, is the editor and publisher of Ugly Things, as well as its longest-tenured writer.

Anja, 52, has been the quarterly magazine’s cover designer since shortly after she and Mike were married in Julian in 2000. She also helps oversee Ugly Things’ subscription payments, social media and marketing, as well as events related to the magazine.

A majority of the magazine’s readers are either longtime subscribers who grew up with the music the magazine salutes, or younger new readers eager to jump down this electric guitar-fueled rabbit hole.

“Every issue of Ugly Things is chock full of really great stories about both well-known and very obscure artists,” said Tim Mays, owner of San Diego’s mythic music venue The Casbah. “It offers such a great wealth of knowledge.”

The Monks! The Creation!

Mike was 18 in 1980 when he moved to San Diego from London to join the ’60s-steeped band The Crawdaddys. He launched Ugly Things three years later to chronicle and celebrate the music he loves.

But not just any music — and not just any era.

The multi-pronged essence of Ugly Things is raw, gritty garage-rock, ear-bending psychedelia and freak beat, with a strong dose of — to use the oft-quoted description of The Who’s music, circa 1965 — “maximum R&B.”

“I was a super Goth as a teen in the 1980s and really into bands like Sisters of Mercy and Einsturzende Neubauten,” Anja recalled. She had an epiphany when she saw the Who-fueled 1979 film “Quadrophenia,” which depicted England’s mod music scene of the mid-1960s.

“After I discovered all the 1960s stuff — the best music ever! — I didn’t like new music anymore,” Anja continued. “Since 1985, it’s been ‘60s music for me: garage, psychedelic, freak beat.”

Mike, who hosts the Ugly Things podcast, smiled in agreement.

“The 1960s is the core of what we do in Ugly Things,” he said. “But we do delve into the ’70s quite a lot and, a few years ago, we did a feature on the Cleveland band Death of Samantha, who were active from the early 1980s until 1990. A main criterion for us is that the bands (we cover) are no longer active.”

Accordingly, Ugly Things revels in shining a light on obscure artists who made memorable music but had little, if any, commercial success. Not only are one-hit wonders featured — sometimes alongside articles on The Kinks and Ramones — but so are many no-hit wonders.

Their magazine proudly showcases the work of such bands as The Monks, The Downliners Sect, The Flamin’ Groovies, The Lyrics, The Chocolate Watchband, Thursday’s Children, The Creation, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, The Petards and the Pretty Things — Mike’s all-time favorite and the inspiration for Ugly Things’ moniker.

How proudly?

The latest issue features Mike’s 25-page interview with Texas-born singer-songwriter PJ Proby, who moved to England in early 1964. Proby had a few hits there soon thereafter, and has been a cult artist ever since.

Mike’s 1997 Ugly Things interview with The Creation was 21 pages. His 2022 interview with two of the original members of The Troggs — best known in the U.S. for their 1966 hit, “Wild Thing” — was 18 pages.

His definitive profile of the Riverside-bred band The Misunderstood appeared in four parts, starting in Ugly Things’ 20th issue. It was spread out over four issues. Each installment was 30 to 40 pages.

“It was basically a book about a cult band that moved to the U.K. in 1966, released a couple of singles and broke up!” Mike said.

“I just love stories like that. Because they also reflect what was going on in the culture at the time, with the war in Vietnam as a backdrop. No one is going to read a 50,000 word article on their phone, but they will in a magazine.”

In fact, Mike’s series led to him and The Misunderstood’s former lead singer, Rick Brown, co-writing the 2007 book, “Like, Misunderstood — a Band, a Journey, a Dream, a Disaster.”

Mike’s degree of dedication makes Ugly Things a goldmine for a select audience. It’s an audience that welcomes taking deep dives into largely underappreciated music from the past.

A good example is Laurent Bigot.

He is among the coterie of Ugly Things writers across the country and in England, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia. They are happy to contribute to a magazine that resolutely is published only in physical form, not digitally. Ugly Things’ circulation is more than 4,000, up from 200 in 1983. Each issue is priced at $9.95.

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Bigot began reading Ugly Things in 1985. He wrote his first article for the magazine — about 1960s French freak beat band Les Problèmes — in 1992. His interview with the band’s rhythm guitarist, Luis Rego, ran in this year’s spring issue.

“Despite living 5,000 miles away from San Diego, I have met up with Mike regularly since 1989 and I first met Anja in 1998 in London. I still find in them the same devotion to the sounds of the 1960s,” Bigot said via email from Paris.

“I’m really amazed with every issue of Ugly Things. It’s been 60 years since the 1960s. Yet, there are still enough people breathing to tell the tales of those overlooked bands that are still very much alive on our turntables. The stories in Ugly Things are always compelling. I still read every word of every issue, always, starting with the record reviews.”

Mike chuckled appreciatively when told of Bigot’s comments.

“Ugly Things is not a historical journal,” he stressed. “But I don’t want to cover current music. Because, once you do that, you become beholden to so many forces — publicists and record companies — and if you want to write about one of their bands, you have to write about another of their bands.

“If you only write about the past, you don’t get that pressure. I think that’s helped us keep our focus, because we don’t have to stay current.”