Thirteen years ago, Shane Smith used to call up fellow co-founders of Vice Magazine, Gavin McInnes and Suroosh Alvi, at four in the morning. He was in Ottawa at the time, getting the then Montreal-based magazine established there. “We’re going to be so fucking new,” he’d say. “We’re going to be so huge . . . I can’t sleep!”
These days, Vice boasts an international circulation of 1.5 million in countries as far-afield as Japan, Australia and Sweden. They have an enviable record label roster that includes chart toppers like The Streets and Bloc Party from the UK; Chromeo and Death From Above 1979 from Canada; and Charlotte Gainsbourg and Justice—the hottest DJ duo du jour—from France. Now the lads are upping the ante with the introduction of Vice Broadcasting Systems (VBS), an online video streaming network poised to conquer the internet frontier. On VBS you can see everything from an investigative report on the dwellers of the world’s worst dumpsites in the Philippines to footage of dwarf bunnies watching clips of sweaty bands in dingy practice spaces. The aim is to deliver content that will make you go, “Whoa, what the fuck?”
Still jetlagged from an excursion to North Korea, where he shot the Arirang Games for a VBS clip, Smith lunches in Montreal on salad, chardonnay and sparkling water—the healthiest things he’s touched since leaving on the trip—and chats about the last-standing communist state, Vice-haters, and of course, VBS.
MAISONNEUVE MAGAZINE: So you just got in last night. What were your impressions of North Korea?
SHANE SMITH: I went there with a guy from the L.A. Times, some guy from Newsweek and someone from Al Jazeera. We had special minders who were very political whenever they answered anything. Ask a question like, ‘Why is the grass green?’ They would say, ‘The grass is green because the great leader Kim Jong Il determines that the grass is green.’
They were giving us the hardest time. I thought it was because Vice was the only organization doing video, but it was that they knew the other guys were journalists and they couldn't peg us because we were being weird and horsing around and shooting stuff.
Their default position for something they don't understand is ‘Oh, they're spies.’ So, they took our cameras, went through them, took them apart and wouldn't let us go anywhere. We finally got drunk with them one night and they asked, ‘What're you doing here?’ And I'm like, ‘Oh, I'm trying to be a movie star.’ And then they go, ‘Oh, OK, fine.’ And then I could do whatever I wanted after that."
MM: So you went primarily to witness the legendary Arirang games [a two-month gymnastics and artistic festival to celebrate the birthday of North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung], anything else you saw of interest?
SS: The games were crazy, but the International Friendship Palace is the most insane thing I've ever seen in my life. It's a 4000-room treasure museum cut into the beautiful MyoHyang—which means "fragrant and irregular”—Mountains.
It houses Kim Il Sung's treasures: gifts that have been given to him. You'll see punching rifles from Ceausescu, cars that Stalin gave him, trains from Mao Tse Tung. The best one is of this alligator holding a tray of rum punch from the Sandinistas. If you stopped for one minute in front of each treasure, it would take you a year and a half to see them all.
MM: Sounds like propaganda at its best . . .
SS: Well, yeah, it’s smart. It shows him giving his treasures back to the people, and more importantly, that the whole world loves North Koreans, that the whole world thinks they're the best. Let's say Jimmy Carter sent in an ashtray or something, it would show that even American presidents are sending gifts in beloved reverence to their great leader.
There’s a wax statue of him that China gave North Korea. You walk up to it reverently; bow to it and then do all this stuff. We're kind of like, ‘OK, we're bowing to a wax statue.’ There was a huge group of women coming up bawling their eyes out at the statue. They were apparently so happy to meet the president, the great leader. They believed they met him.
MM: You were given privileged treatment in North Korea, was it like that everywhere you travelled?
SS: No. The place where I really felt alienated was Jamaica. We went to Pasa-Pasa, the most hardcore party in Tivoli Gardens, which is the worst part of Kingston. It's thrown by the Shower posse, the biggest drug cartel in the world right now. When you drive there, you drive 100 miles an hour, you drive through red lights, and we're like, ‘what are we doing here?’ We were literally the only white people that had ever been there.
There's a guy with an AK on every street corner there. And they're like, ‘dem a lot of gunshot down here.’ When you get there, there's a wall with speakers and dancehall. These guys go nuts having this great crazy party, but they were also taking out guns, waving them in our faces. They hated us and it was obvious that they didn't want us there. It’s their music; it's their own thing.
MM: Has the rest of the world been receptive to VBS’ mission of turning Vice articles into video so far?
SS: We’ve been in the top 1000 sites in Croatia or Slovenia and lots of people in Yemen are watching it. We get a ton of people from Russia. I don't know why. A lot of people from Korea are watching VBS. At a bar in Beijing, this was after leaving North Korea, all these people come up to us saying, 'Hey, I know you. You're from VBS.' And that's weird. We never thought that people would know us there. It’s great.
MM: And so is the fact you have Spike Jones on board as VBS’ Creative Director. How did that happen?
SS: Eddy Morretti and myself were already writing and producing a film with him for three years, then we started working with him all the time. MTV had offered Spike to run production and he was offered to run Current TV; both times he suggested they talk to Vice because we had the content they were looking for. Then he just said, ‘Why don't we just do it?’ So we did. He thought we had some great articles to shoot and so we asked ourselves how we’d shoot them. We got cameras, but we'd never shot anything. We didn't know what the fuck we were doing—it was like we were publicly going to production school.
MM: Why VBS?
SS: Vice is in twenty-two countries, so we’ve been able to go out into the world a lot more and see more stuff that makes us say, ‘Holy shit! We're not seeing any of this [back home] and why don't we know about this stuff? What's going on?’ We thought we were informing people with the magazine, but there's a whole audience out there that doesn't get or read it.
More people watch VBS a month than read the magazine worldwide and we print about 1.2 million copies. We've got deals with Youtube, MySpace and Joost, so it's going to be 5 million to 6 million people watching in a month, and I'm not going to print 5 million magazines.
MM: Do numbers like that make the magazine less relevant?
SS: I don't think so. People still love it. It's distributed in hyper-urban centres, and it goes in three hours. It's actually a different demographic. VBS is mostly for people that wouldn't go to those places who spend a lot of time online finding out cool shit, you know, the suburban or secondary market, little city kind of kids, wanna-be cool kids that don't know much about anything. Vice is for urban hipsters that are well-educated, rich and all that comes with it.
MM: Your videos seem to present a “the world is fucked” perspective. They show that there are people outside North America who are as insular as we are here. You see that what seems fucked up to us about those people’s lives is normal to them. The videos give a completely fresh take on other cultures, not PC at all, and quite an eye-opener.
SS: We get nailed for not being more . . . like in my Sudan piece . . . pro-Sudanese. But my job isn't to educate people in Sudan; my job is to educate people in America because a lot of them don't know anything. We have to really dumb things down to show them what, say, Sudan or Darfur is. We're not trying to do this for a hyper-well-educated, politically astute demographic because they can figure it out for themselves. We're trying to do this for the huge disenfranchised group of young people from say Oklahoma or Kansas City who don't know and aren't really interested in politics beyond ‘I don't like this thing happening to me.’
They don’t have a fucking clue! North Koreans think they're great, but these Americans think that they're God's gift to the world and half the world hates their fucking guts.
MM: With that in mind, how do you feel about people who resent Vice for 'not being what it used to be?'
SS: For the past thirteen years, I’ve been hearing things like: 'Vice was better when it was just in Montreal,' when we went to Ottawa and Toronto. When we went national, it was: 'Oh, it was better when it was just in Ottawa and Toronto.' When we went to the States, it was: 'Oh, it was better when you were just in Canada.' When we started Europe, it was: 'Oh it was better when you were just in Canada and the States.'
I'm like, 'Did you read the fucking magazine back then? Because I was writing it, it was shit. I mean, go back and read the old issues. They were crap! We wrote about drum and bass!'
I've been there the whole time. I have every single magazine. I go back and go through them for our ‘Best of’ books and it's hard as hell to find anything from the first five years. When we were in Canada, we were feted as the snot-nosed-punk-kids that made it. When we went to the States, it became, ‘Oh fuck Vice, Vice is lousy, Vice sold out.’
Well, OK, can you go to twenty-two countries? Can you start VBS? Can you do books? Can you do records? Can you do all the stuff we're doing in Montreal? No! We had to get out. We're the first Canadian magazine to go to America and the world and do well internationally.
SS: We just won an award for best magazine in the UK, the top trendsetting magazine according to the Cassandra Reports three years in a row. We won this huge award in Germany and it’s our first year in Germany. We’re the biggest and only magazine that goes into all of Scandinavia. We throw parties in Italy and people are saying they don’t have anything like this there crying, ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life for this kind of stuff.’ We were just in France and there were riots during Fashion Week at our fucking parties because they’re so hot. In England, our pub just got voted the best music pub…IN ENGLAND!
We’re Canadians, we left and we’re the hottest things on the web right now, we’re the hottest fucking magazine in the world and we’re 100% owned by us! And Canadians are like, ‘Vice used to be so much better.’ When? When was it better? The only country we ever have a problem with ever is Canada and we’re from here! Like, what’s a better Canadian magazine, uh Strut?
There’s a joke that the guys from DFA 1979 say: ‘There’s a bucket, an American fisherman and a Canadian fisherman. There are two lobsters that are coming out of the bucket, they’re about to get out and the American fisherman says, “Oh you’re going to lose your lobsters,” the Canadian one says, “Ah, don’t worry, they’re Canadian lobsters their buddies are going to pull them back down.” And we really get that.