Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Frank Discussion and D.H. Peligro of the Feederz by David Ensminger

Feeding the Flames of Insurrection, All Over Again

In the late-1970s and 1980s, Frank Discussion became a legend; his performance rituals, shaped by Situationist-inspired insurrection, included wielding machine guns, wearing bugs, and donning transparent outfits, while the music (the first album featured a sandpaper sleeve to ruin other nearby record covers) was grisly and blasphemous (“Jesus Entering from the Rear”), anti-work (“Love in the Ruins”) or disruptive, like subverting pop fare (their cover of “Have You Never Been Mellow” by Olivia Newton-John).

Their music remained singular and unique, anything but cookie cutter punk. Meanwhile, later follow-ups like Vandalism: Beautiful As a Rock in a Cop’s Face took a similar route, from evoking Godzilla films (“Mothra”) to condemning police (“Off the Pigs”) and advocating rampant file sharing (“Burning MP3s”). The newest single, featuring D.H. Peligro from the Dead Kennedys (who drummed on the Feederz first album too), focuses on the Black Lives Matter era, including the distorted democracy underway, plus it explores sabotage and civil disorder.


David:
From what I understand, during a trip to San Francisco, Vale from RE/Search propelled you to read some Situationist texts, and you decided, “Our revolt should extend into every aspect of life.” Is that right or did you already have some background in transgressive theater, agitation, or art?

Frank: At one time I considered myself a kind of homespun surrealist. That is, until I met with some of the surrealists. They were more interested in the differences between “true poets” and “false poets” than anything else. I guess my biggest mistake there is that I took what to me were the obvious implications of their manifesto seriously.

Finally, after meeting with one of the major Surrealists who lived near Vale, I was pretty disgusted. Then Vale hooked me up with some Situationist texts saying, “I think you will find these people more to your liking.” He was right. In a big way.

Though I considered myself as a Surrealist, at least in some ways, I wasn’t terribly interested in art or theater. Agitation, yes. In fact, a number of the Feederz first actions had nothing to do with music or art, such as our communique and our press conference and a few other things.


I am not an artist. Art is a disgusting mess. I greatly respect the fine arts though: sabotage, theft, looting, subversion…

David: D.H., you lived through a slice of history many young people could barely conceive, like Section 8 housing in the North County of St. Louis, but also the segregated cotton field south, where you heard piano for the first time—the blues. Do you think that is very different from someone today whose life and music is shaped by iPhones?

DH:  Yes, it’s very different from anyone who gets music from the web or wherever. There’s no substitute for hands-on music learning or hearing it for the first time. By the way, it was guitar, drums, bass, and piano, and you can’t get the feel or smell of a pot belly stove or hear the sound of cicadas or the smell of an outhouse nor the taste of cool, crisp water from a well nor the anarchy of kids playing with tires and sticks in the projects from the web….

David:
Frank, for decades, people have focused on your “outrageous” acts—shooting machine gun blanks at audiences, donning dead animals, gluing live bugs to your head, et cetera. Those acts seem like spectacle, shock, and provocation….  Do you think your actions sometimes overshadowed the content?


Feederz – Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss? (FULL ALBUM) 1983.

Frank: Perhaps. At least for some people. But it’s a calculated risk. First you provoke, then it’s a matter of, “Now do I have your attention?” Then you get down to the real business at hand.

David: D.H., from what I understand, having dyslexia or ADD led you to being bussed to a white school with a music program and students listening to Kiss, BTO (Bachman–Turner Overdrive), and Led Zeppelin. Musically, did you begin to combine two sides— black and white music?

D.H.:  Yes, we were forced into segregation. Bussing was mandatory, and to mix and actually change music was a matter of being open to new things—being curious, if you will. Really, it was about it listening to my soul. I yearned for something more. And yes, I’ve always found peak energy points in so-called black/white music.

David: How did you save up money to get the bass drum kit you stuffed on the bus to Frisco?

D.H.: I got a job at a Mexican restaurant called the Hacienda and saved money, and I also worked at a soap factory called Brash.

David:
Frank, in “Imitation of Life,” you once sang, “Living in such luxury/With just one choice/More boredom or more misery,” hence no real choice exists at all. But what happens when the old economy stumbles, so now the super-rich 1% exist in appalling luxury, but the rest of America is opiated, looking for work in the workforce shrunk by robots, and is numbed by service sector work?


Frank: As glaringly obvious as all that shit has now become, a lot of people by and large still live under the delusion that they are living a life of “relative luxury.” It’s all a sham of course. In this society, simply being became replaced by having things—paid for through an installment plan of a lifetime of slavery. Later, even having products became replaced by appearances, so you can now have the joyous opportunity of leading an utterly bankrupt life while appearing to be “doing well.” So, we ourselves become badly advertised products, bought at a ridiculous price, of course.

David: D.H., when you traveled to San Francisco, how was your Midwest innocence re-shaped by punk?

D.H. Everything I knew had been shattered: seeing gay people for the first time, or hippies—real, live hippies. It was a culture shock, for sure. However, being open-minded as I was helped me to maneuver through the streets of San Francisco.

David:
A few years ago, though, you declared you can’t live in S.F. due to cost.

D.H.: Right down to my core it sickens me to think that all the hard work and effort we put into that city only to see it turn into a techbro hub pushing people out of their homes where they’ve been for years. It’s bullshit. Fuck them.

David: Your political music, as early as SSI (Supplemental Security Income), actually pre-dated Dead Kennedys—do you recall the topics the band zeroed in on? Were the Speed Boys and Nubs political agitators as well?

D.H.: No, the Speed Boys were not as political, maybe social-political, but SSI had songs like “Who Shot John Kennedy?,” “Kids in Saigon,” and “9 to 5,” not to be released, which was a song about not conforming to a record company.

David: Jello Biafra said you got a lot of shit for liking white people’s music. Is that true?

D.H.: Yes, very much. Most people have this picture of the stereotype, and I just didn’t fit the mold.

David: You used to hang out the Deaf Club quite a bit. Do you recall any interactions with the deaf patrons, and what made—apart from the deaf—the club different than, say, Mabuhay?

D.H.: Well, there were deaf people there. It was where they hung out. We were coming into their place, so we were kinda the outsiders, and they loved the vibrations, the look, the energy, the pogoing, all that shit…  performing art. It was like punk rock culture came to them.

David: Within weeks of playing with the Dead Kennedys, you were in the studio, cutting “Too Drunk to Fuck.” Ted (Bruce Slesinger, the Dead Kennedy’s first drummer) was jazz-influenced, so did you attempt to approximate his style, or did you intend to cut a more hardcore path?

D.H.: Yeah, I was totally me. I had been schooled by SSI, Speed Boys, and slew of other punk bands, so I brought my style to the scene.


Feederz live 1987

David: Frank, “Taking the Night” seems to be an amalgam of SI theory, Paris May 1968 graffiti—in a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society—and L.A. riot unrest: “believing in the reality of our desires… adding up our private treasons… tonight we tear it down… what’s yours is ours” you sing. Such rioting plays out again and again, like in Ferguson, Mo., but are such moments just pressure valves that allow people to vent at Wal-Marts and Starbucks rather than dismantle the state’s apparatus?

Frank: First, I have to take issue with trivializing such acts as rioting and looting as “pressure valves,” as these acts are valid acts of well deserved rage—and joy. It reminds me of how the left whined about how people burned down and looted the prisons that were “their” neighborhoods during the Watts uprising. For a moment, Watts was really theirs to burn down and they were ably to taste the joys of destroying what enslaves them. Such whining tries to deny the inherent critique of society implied by these acts. And as these implications become fully comprehended and embraced, then the real fun begins.

Of course, such uprisings need to be prolonged and extended until they are irreversible. It’s a delightful little game I believe they call “insurrection.” Sure as hell beats walking around in circles dressed like a sea turtle chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho—fill in the blank here—has got to go,” doesn’t it?

David: D.H., You’ve been frank about the hostility of some punks towards people of color. In Austin, some guy yelled “fake rasta” at you. Do you think “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” made an impact?


D.H. Yes, I believe it’s what most people were thinking, but they were too afraid to say it. We don’t let racists and fascists prey on our scene. Fuck that. Get the fuck out. People are able to make up their own minds. They see it’s wrong to judge people by what they look like.

David: Frank, critics on all sides have attacked tunes like “Fuck You” as sexist and misogynist (they suggest you treat “the media as women”) and have issues with “Stayfree” in the same manner; yet, I always felt “Stayfree” was a satire on the products that condition and control women, to keep them “clean” and “confident.” Did you have some hostility towards women, or have critics fallen into a trap of misimpression?

Frank: I sure as hell have no hostility towards women. The whole idea of being hostile to women is utterly moronic. And more than a little disgusting. If that’s what some guy with a fatal dose of testosterone poisoning gets out of that song, they are useless.

But I am extremely hostile towards submission… to husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, cops, laws, governments…. There is nothing that men can do that can’t be done as good or better by women. Period. About the only real advantage men have is that it’s easier for them to write their names in the snow with their pee. And that’s not much to base any delusions of superiority on. Really, it’s not. And by the way guys, if you don’t think women can’t see through attempts to patronize them, then you’re hopeless. Sheesh. Get a fucking life and figure out women are people and probably a fuck of a lot better than you.

“Stayfree” came from the ridiculous idea being advertised that some piece of cotton stuffed up you will somehow make you “free” or “confident.” It just makes it so you not leave puddles of blood around. I just, well, brought that little omission into the light.

David: In the same vein, in the age of trigger words, safe spaces, et cetera, the Feederz might be more controversial for your use of dead animals—yet Survival Research Laboratories used them in art too—and the sodomy/abortion references in “Jesus/Aborted Jesus,” which might be viewed less as iconoclastic—since less people are religious now—and more as homophobic in today’s climate. As someone testing the limits of free speech and art/music/performance, how do you feel about the current generation’s monitoring?


Frank:
Again, the dead animals were a means of slapping people in the face and then it’s, “Do I have your attention NOW???? “Jesus” was not an attack on gays in any way, shape, or form. But I sure as hell did take full advantage of taking their homophobia and jamming it down their fucking throats. And “Aborted Jesus” was just me taking the Christian whine of, “What if Jesus had been aborted?” to its obvious implications. People would be worshipping a bloody puddle of goo. Of course, they already worship a corpse so…. Besides, if Jesus had been aborted, let’s face it, a lot of our problems would be solved. I mean, if “Jesus is the answer,” then what the fuck is the question? Actually, I don’t think I even want to know, come to think of it.

Monitoring? What the fuck? We already have the ultimate behavior monitors. They’re called cops. And I’ve always had a problem with cops of any kind.


The Feederz – Jesus Entering From The Rear

David: Though fiercely frenetic on “Dead Bodies” and “Bionic Girl,” Feederz always stretched the boundaries of punk sound, including: the soft, lulling intros to “Jesus” and “Fuck You,” the ambient version of “Jesus,” the spoken word of “Psychward,” the wailing avant-gardism of “Gut Rage,” the brutal choppy stop/starts of “Day by Day” and “Stop You’re Killing Me,” the media mash-up/cut-ups of “Off the Pigs,” and more. Are you always trying to assault the routines of punk music making as much as anything else?

Frank: Yes, I learned to play guitar by trying to learn Trout Mask Replica. It’s one of the reasons I play using my fingers instead of a pick. The Feederz have never tried to fit in and do anything the way everybody else does things. We don’t make very good sheep, I guess. By the way, who the fuck made the “rules” about how “punks” are supposed to sound, dress, anyway?

David: D.H. your drug habit—cocaine, crack, heroin—began peaking and draining your royalty checks. Now, the drugs plaguing America seem to be opiates and crystal meth. Do you see any connections between eras?

D.H. Yeah, and by the way, heroin was the downfall … man, it’s all the same when it brings you to your knees.


The Feederz – Teachers in Space (Full Album)

David: Frank, the cover of Teachers in Space advocated “refusal to pay is your only real freedom of choice”; meanwhile, in 2002 (the era of rampant file sharing and decentralization of music), the sentiments of “No more dealing with records stores/no more dealing with fucking whores…” found on the tune “Burning MP3s” embraced free culture and disintermediation, cutting out the middle man. But what do you think now that Spotify streams Feederz albums?

Frank: I think the best answer is the fact that most our stuff can be readily downloaded off our site.

David: You once quoted Situationist International, saying the “train of occupation” is everywhere, so the occupation has been globalized, but where do you see the most intense revolt— WikiLeaks/Julian Assange, Russian hackers, elsewhere?

Frank: Actually, they got that one slightly wrong. What I said was: the terrain of occupation is everywhere. Hacking is a delightful form of sabotage but the Russian hackers work for a state, and a not very savory one at that. If the terrain of our occupation is everywhere, the terrain of our revolt, it’s a simple matter of looking at what is used to suppress and enslave us and see how you can turn it against them.

David: You think artists like Tristan Tzara, Luis Buñuel, and Marcel Duchamp never lost their bite, never sold their dreams. But in the last fifty years, who has duplicated their approach, other than you? The street artist Banksy?

Frank: The only one I can think of is Guy Debord—Situationist International, author of The Spectacle of the Spectacle—off hand. Sad, ain’t it? I just hope I can live up to that. I’ll do my best, of course.

David: You still prefer the politics of disruption and subversion, as “Stealing” sets out in lines like “fuck the right, fuck the left… I prefer total subversion with a dash of theft… set the world on fire.” Did the election of Trump catalyze your urgent nihilism—since politics as usual are hollow and meaningless?


Frank:
Look, Trump’s election ripped apart the last tiny shred of “credibility” the United States, and the entire “free world,” (cough cough) could pretend to. So, of course, I had to jump into the fray since I haven’t lost my taste for a good street fight.

If it isn’t obvious to people by now that the society of things and their price tags is utterly bankrupt, then they are ridiculously easily fooled. Let’s face it, you have three choices: submit and tolerate the intolerable, walk around in circles in large numbers and whine, or fight back… insurrection. But you’d better hurry up and decide because time is running out. There is nothing left to wait for. We need to take things in our own hands. Now. And if we make mistakes along the way, at least they will be our own and not some fucking asshole’s in Washington.

David: I might be wrong, but “Sabotage” seems like the first Feederz tune sung 1/3 in Spanish and is an anti-colonial stomp for a not-so-civil war. Is that where America seems to be heading, towards a clash in the dying embers of white racialism? Was this ethnic awareness always packed into your agenda, but maybe not understood?

Frank: Of course, it has. The blatant outrages against people of color, here and all over the world, have always been the most obvious and the most disgusting. What’s almost funny is that the white people are now being fucked and colonized in a big way, and a lot of them are just too fucking stupid to realize it. Oh, and don’t forget, a not-so-civil war can be enjoyed right here and now too!

David: “Sabotage” addresses the violence aimed at blacks and Mexicans, and the promo photos feature the Feederz armed to the teeth. For you—having known segregation, discrimination, and public housing firsthand—do you think revolt and direct action are the best forms to stir change?

D.H.: The guns were props, but if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.


Feederz ‎– Vandalism: Beautiful As A Rock In A Cop’s Face (Full Album)

David: Like MDC, Feederz music has always condemned the presence of police, and “Stealing” envisions a marauder “drop[ping] another cop.” You don’t think the police can be redeemed, can become tools of the people rather than the powers-that-be?

Frank: No. Cops sign on to do one thing and one thing only: to oppress and to keep us all “in line.” Anyone who has ever claimed to “redeem” cops has merely used them for the exactly the same purposes themselves.

David: A friend told me, if all the punk rock in the world could not stop the ascendancy of President Trump, then punk rock has failed. What would you say to him?

Frank: Why in the hell depend on punk rock to do that???? Did anyone really think punk rock could save the world on its own? Music is a tool not an end in itself. It’s a convenient way to say what everyone’s already thinking. We don’t “speak truth to power” because we are not on speaking terms. Sure beats the hell out of standing in front of factories handing out flyers, though.

D.H. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.

David: D.H. in 2004, you told Mark Prindle, “This country is run by fucking Enron and other global organizations.” Do you think President Trump is the culmination of that, or just another stooge for the corporations?

D.H. Both. I think he’s a corporate, sexist egomaniac who wants to keep big pharma, oil, gas, coal, all the Koch Brothers, and the one percent rich and destroy the country in the process.


Feederz – Taking the Night

Chris Gethard Podcast Interview (with full text) by Kurt Morris

The Chris Gethard Show is unlike any other talk show on TV. It has an ethos of being okay with failure, which is good considering how bizarre and chaotic it is. Sometimes you’ll find Will Ferrell being escorted out of the studio after professing his undying love for a newly married woman (for whose wedding he served as the best man). Or you’ll see Jason Sudeikis eating a chimichanga over a bag of dog shit with a studio audience comprised entirely of dogs. Other times, the cast of the show will tape an entire episode after having been awake for thirty-six hours. All throughout it retains a very DIY, community aspect with fans calling in via Skype or the phone as well as leaving comments on the website, with Gethard and cast responding in real time. And while most episodes are capped with a musical guest, you’re much more likely to see a band like Shellshag or Lemuria than anything else.

Host Chris Gethard started his program at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater as a live show and moved it to cable access in 2011. In 2015 it switched to the Fusion network. In addition to being the host, Gethard is also a comedian, podcaster (Beautiful/Anonymous), and actor. And seeing the type of bands on the show, it seemed highly likely he was a fan of DIY punk. After an extended run of “Career Suicide,” his off-Broadway one man show about mental illness, he had time on his hands to chat with me over the phone from New York City about his experiences in punk and with depression.

Interview by Kurt Morris

Kurt: Having watched your show, I get the impression you’re a big fan of The Ergs!. Is that correct?

Chris: Yeah, that’s very fair to say. For sure.

Kurt: Has anyone ever told you that you look like Mikey Erg?

Chris: I’ve gotten this a lot. Mikey and I are good pals. He plays drums in the house band of my TV show. I think he and I both agree that our friendship makes a lot of sense. Thematically, we identify with each other a lot. One of the great honors of my life is, when one of the members of Screaming Females tweeted at me from their account: “You are the fourth Erg.” That was really high praise and I wrote back and asked, “What do you mean?” They said, “You have glasses and you went to Rutgers. That’s pretty much all it takes.”

Kurt: Wow. Who knew it was that easy?

Chris: They were like, “You lived on Hamilton Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and you look like Mikey. That’s the joke, man, don’t overthink it.”


Mikey Erg on the first episode of The Chris Gethard Show

Kurt: Whenever I talk to people about their experiences with punk, one thing I always want to know is: who was the person that got you into punk rock?

Chris: It was really my older brother and his gang of friends. In particular, he had a buddy named Mike D who ran a fanzine in North Jersey and organized a bunch of shows. I’m lucky my brother always had really good taste. He has great taste in comedy and music. He always knew what was good. We grew up in North Jersey in West Orange. WFMU is based out of East Orange and they were an amazing thing to discover. My brother was listening to WFMU when he was in sixth grade.


Mike—who is one of my brother’s best friends, who’s also one of my best friends to this day—he organized a show in a church basement in our town and I went. I was in eighth grade and I’d never been to a concert in my life. It was three local bands—real small-scale stuff. I remember going. I was tiny. I was an eighth-grade kid and a late-bloomer. I was a little guy. I remember going up to the guitarist from one of the bands after the show and saying, “I want to do this. I want to be you when I grow up.” He was like, “I’m four years older than you.” It was such an eye-opening moment. That’s one of the things that everyone says about punk. It’s that realization that you can just go do it. There’s the infamous legend of The Ramones telling The Clash that you don’t even have to learn how to play your instrument. Just go make a band. I had that moment. My first-ever experience seeing live music was seeing kids a few years older than me putting on a concert and everybody flipping out. That really did it.

Kurt: Do you remember the names of the bands you saw that night?

Chris: Yeah. The Missing Children—I bought their seven inch that night. One of the members, Frank, he went on to be in the Degenerates, which is a pretty well-known New Jersey band. This band called One Nature—they were from Bound Brook, New Jersey. I bought their double seven inch. They had a real melodic hardcore thing. I’ve mentioned this concert on my show and in interviews and the guy from One Nature reached out and I was oddly starstruck. “The dude from One Nature!” It’s like, wait, they’re a band from New Jersey in the ‘90s. There was another band called Felix Frump. If you were going to shows in New Jersey in the ‘90s, you definitely saw them. They played so many shows. I bought their tape and a T-shirt. Looking back on it, they pretty much sounded like the Descendents. I didn’t even know who the Descendents were. That was the first punk rock I was hearing. Just seven inches and cassettes from local bands.


Felix Frump at Mike D’s 18th birthday part. At 9:40 you can see a very young Chris Gethard in front.

So my friends were putting on shows and putting out fanzines. There was a guy from my high school gang that worked at Kinko’s. He would load up gift cards and we’d be making zines off of stolen gift cards from Kinko’s. From a very young age I was around it and it was cool. Then my buddy Mike D, his younger brother—and I feel like this is a real accomplishment—my friend Fran, he had every single seven inch that Mutant Pop (Records) put out, which is kind of impossible. It tells you the people I was coming up around in high school.

Kurt: Did you ever do a fanzine?

Chris: I did. I did two issues. The third one crapped out. My senior year in high school I put out two issues of this fanzine called No Sign of Charlie. It was only a handful of issues that would get handed around locally. But I remember having this realization that I didn’t know how to play guitar, I didn’t know how to play drums, but I could make things. The music reviews in it were like, “This thing is pretty good.” But all I was focused on was making jokes and trying to write funny articles. And that’s what people responded to. People in the scene were like, “This is not the most well-made thing I’ve ever read, but it’s fucking funny for a kid to be making this.” It was one of my early times of like, “Well, maybe comedy is my version of this ‘thing.’”

Kurt: So you never played an instrument or were in a band?

Chris: I played cello when I was a kid in school. Then I tried to pick up bass because I know how to read music in bass clef. When I was a sophomore in high school, me and my friend Carson formed a band. We had one song. We had a cool name: Ground Zero 1945. We practiced twice in his basement and that was it. That’s the extent of my being in bands. One song, two practices. I don’t remember anything about the song except the first line was, “Right way down a wrong way street.” How sad is that?

I had friends who had a band in high school and they used to play together. I started an improvised band that would sometimes play first at these shows they’d put on in garages. But that I wouldn’t even call a band so much as an excuse for my friends to bang on instruments while I said crazy shit. Looking back, it was an early improvised comedic attempt at something. I was piggy-backing off the freedom of the punk scene around me.


Chris Gethard on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Kurt: What kind of improvised shit were you saying?

Chris: Mostly it was writing songs about other kids we went to school with who I knew would be at the show. I had a friend named Pat and then all the sudden he was like, “No, call me Charles. It’s my middle name.” But he would never explain if Patrick was his middle name or Charles was his middle name. So I remember I wrote a song called “Hey Patrick Cobb, what is your name?” Just things like that. I knew my audience. In high school there were two bands, they played together all the time, and it wasn’t like they were inviting other bands. This is real small-scale stuff. We’d go in my buddy’s basement or my other buddy’s garage and they’d put on a show. There’d be twenty-five kids from my high school so I knew if I really focused in on the twenty-five people at the show and write songs about them they’ll probably pay attention. It’s probably fair to say that was my earliest attempt at crowdwork.

Kurt: Yeah, that’s a good point. What kind of music were you listening to at that time?

Chris: I was listening to a lot of pop punk. Being a white guy who grew up in the suburbs not too far from New York and who was born in 1980, I also listened to a lot of hip hop. I listened to a lot of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. One of the bands that really hit hard for me in those early days was Weston. They played locally a ton. We all really loved Weston. It’s funny, we had Beach Slang play my TV show last year and it was exciting because Beach Slang has a lot of “buzz,” as they say, and then they showed up. I said hi to James and said, “I’m the biggest Weston fan in the world.” I was geeking out about Weston to the point where I could kind of feel him looking at me like, “Aren’t you going to say anything about Beach Slang?” I really love Beach Slang, too, and I eventually got around to that but it was really important to me to talk about Weston a lot.

I got really into J Church when I was young. I had a buddy who said, “I think you’d dig them.” I still love J Church a lot to this day. MTX, Love Is Dead, was a huge album to me. We all loved Screeching Weasel and that Minor Threat discography.

I’ll never forget my friend Nick—who was part of the gang I mentioned who put on shows—he had an outdoor afternoon show in his parents’ backyard. It was a barbeque show. It was five bucks or four bucks if you bring an item of food. It was a potluck barbeque with two local bands: Thirsty and The Lavalinas. Then there was one band on the bill and we were like, “Who is that?” The guys who organized the show said it was a touring band that was passing through the area and needed a show. They were from Florida. So in 1994 I saw Less Than Jake play a backyard barbeque for maybe thirty-five kids. It was before they even put out Pezcore and I went all in. We all were there. We were like, “What the fuck just happened?” We saw Less Than Jake play a backyard barbeque in New Jersey a year before they really had that first wave of momentum. I really loved them all through high school. I think a lot of high school kids have that story of loving Less Than Jake but I’m pretty proud that I can say I love them because I saw them in that environment and bought a cassette tape off of them.


This is how young I was—and I just thought of this as we’re talking—I’ve always had a real phobia of getting shots. But I was so young when I saw Less Than Jake that I remember listening to their tape while getting shots at my pediatrician. I hadn’t stopped seeing my pediatrician. I was that young. I was still seeing a kid’s doctor—Doctor Small up on Pleasant Valley Way.

Kurt: [laughs] That’s a nice plug for him.

Chris: I was blasting music with my eyes closed just to get through the shots. I was listening to a Less Than Jake tape. I was a kid.

Kurt: You were allowed to listen music while you were getting your shots at the doctor’s office?

Chris: I was such a baby about getting shots that anything that would work, they let me do. Of course the band I’m most obsessed with in my life is The Smiths. I found out about them through the punk scene, too. Maybe it’s a little less so now, but when I was a kid—at least where I was from—in the punk scene there was a real reverence for the Smiths. I think everybody knew they were sort of a punk band, but sort of not. Musically they were not, but attitude maybe. J Church had a seven inch where they covered “Girlfriend in a Coma” and this local band, The Lavalinas, they always covered “Ask,” and then I saw H2O, they covered “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” So I kept hearing all these covers and people would say these covers were by this band called The Smiths. I’d vaguely heard of The Smiths. Eventually I was like, “All these songs really stand out to me.” No offense to The Lavalinas from Little Falls, New Jersey, but “Ask” is maybe setting a little bit of a higher bar than the rest of their material. And then I went all in on The Smiths. I don’t know if you get this impression, but for people younger than me, The Smiths have become progressively more of a nostalgia band and less of something that matters to the punk kids as much as they used to.

Kurt: Could be.

Chris: I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a salty old man.

Kurt: I see what you’re saying.


Chris Gethard & Friends as The Smiths at Fest 14

Chris: I remember, too, that there weren’t so many shows in Jersey so you’d see a pop punk band, a hardcore band, and a ska band all on the same bill, which was pretty cool. But then to see bands from all these different genres were covering this one band, The Smiths, it was like, “Who is this one band that everyone seems to like?” It didn’t seem to matter what corner of the world you were in. It was a universal thing.

Kurt: Yeah, they’re amazing. It’s interesting how even hardcore bands cover them. Everyone seems to have this respect for them. It’s interesting, too, how Morrissey has a big following in the Latino community. It’s this whole other thing how all these Latinos in L.A. are really into Morrissey and The Smiths.


Chris: Yeah. I briefly lived in Los Angeles and the first time I saw Morrissey was in 2004. It was right when You Are the Quarry had just come out. I saw him in L.A. I showed up and was like, “These are some tough fucking dudes with Morrissey haircuts.” Eighty-five percent of the crowd were Mexican dudes from L.A. who have Morrissey haircuts but who otherwise seem like real tough kids. It was pretty cool. I remember even in Jersey that my buddies went and saw Morrissey—I didn’t go for some reason but they went and saw him—and said it was a skinhead riot at the show. Like skinheads are really into Morrissey, too. There’s a weird thing with The Smiths where the music has a reputation for being very complain-y but the lyrics are actually super fucking tough when you listen to them. I think there’s a real thinkpiece that’s ready to be written in 2017 about how Morrissey might’ve been one of the first people to really say, “Gender is bullshit and I’m feminine but that doesn’t mean I can’t—” I mean he has lyrics about “I’ll kick you in the eye” or “I want to break your teeth.” They have lyrics like, “If they dare touch a hair on your head I’ll fight to the last breath.” That was right in their first single, just this anger and toughness. I think a lot of people who only know The Smiths on reputation may be surprised at the actual content of their lyrics.

Kurt: You have a couple Smiths tattoos, don’t you?

Chris: Yeah, Morrissey signed my shoulder and I got that tattooed. In the summer of 2012 I fell off the wagon and did a shitload of MDMA and it really fucked my life up. In the middle of that stretch I got on my right bicep, “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” It’s a lyric from “I Know It’s Over.” I don’t regret it, but I kind of wish it wasn’t on the same arm. I wish I didn’t have a Morrissey arm. Maybe I could’ve spread it out a little bit. Outside of that, no regrets.

Kurt: Do you have other tattoos?


Chris: I have the words “Lose Well” on my shoulder. It’s kind of a catchphrase that sprung up from my TV show at some point. It’s this idea that at a certain point, if you’re a loser you’ve got to own that. It’s pretty okay to strike out in life. Just get good at it and hold your head up high. If you’re a loser, that’s what you are and be cool with it. There’s a bunch of fans of the show who have that phrase tattooed on them and that means a lot to me. I have it in solidarity with them.

Kurt: Mentioning your show—are you the one who picks the bands that play on it?

Chris: Well, we have bookers now, but in the early days I was booking them. A lot of it was just asking friends. You’ll see a lot of pop punk bands and Jersey bands on the early days of my show, but you’ll also see a lot of these weird bands. I have this philosophy that I want the show to be kind of open source—people could actually access it. You could call in and you could make your own jokes, you could tell me if the show wasn’t going well. I could take it. I had this philosophy that even with bands maybe we’ll have a bit of an open door policy and let people pitch themselves.

So I was getting emails and pretty much any band that reaches out I was putting on. One of the members of my house band grabbed me one day and was like, “Dude, some of these bands are very nice kids but their second show cannot be on your TV show with your name on it.” I thought he was right with that. I brought in some bookers. My friend Zane, who played on the show in a couple of bands—he was in these two different, weird, high concept art bands. Then he played a third time. He had a concept album where he wrote a rap album from the perspective of a small boy. And finally I asked him if he wanted to book the bands on the show since he was already in a large percentage of the bands playing it. He brought in my friends Heidi and Kiri. When you watch my show there tends to be stuff that’s a little more avant-garde and that’s Zane. The stuff that’s more punk or pop or hip hop is Heidi and Kiri.

Kurt: Do you still weigh in and say, “I want this band!”?

Chris: I do. Public access was just this rolling thing where it was like, “Just bring in whoever.” I got thrown some suggestions and we had a big list. We were up every single Wednesday night and we don’t take any weeks off, so we had to just crank it out. Now we get ten episodes a season, so generally I’ll sit down with them and I’ll go, “I want to make this happen.” Out of the ten weeks there’s maybe two or three weeks where I say, “I really think we can make this thing happen.” The rest of it they make a big spreadsheet and a lot of the bands they put on it I’ve heard of and then the ones I haven’t, they give me links and give me a chance to say, “I think this fits the vision of the show or some of the overall things this season is trying to accomplish.”

Kurt: How are you hearing about new bands nowadays? Are people turning you on to them or are you finding out about bands by going to shows?

Chris: I do go to shows but not as often as I used to. I still make it out. Particularly in New York, Shea Stadium is a place I know is pretty reliably a good gang of people. If I have a night that I’m free and I’m bored and they have a show, sometimes I’ll pop in because I know it’ll be good stuff. Really, most of the music I’m exposed to now is because I’m extremely lucky I’m married to a lady (Hallie Bulleit) who has impeccable taste in music. She has a high amount of knowledge on it. She plays on my show and is in Hiccups. A lot of people probably know her from The Unlovables. She is a super cool person who has great taste.


Hiccups, “Teasin’”

Sometimes I get addicted to—there was a stretch where if it came out on Dirtnap I was getting it. Sometimes I’ll go through modes like that. There’s a certain pipeline of stuff that’s reliable and I try and support. Also, with our show, a lot of the bands that play are in the circuit that tends to play The Fest in Gainesville. That’s a big gathering point. As my show became a hub for a lot of The Fest bands to stop in and play on their way through New York, we started hearing from more of them. A lot of times they’d say “We’re playing Fest” and that was their way to let us know they were credible and that was a good sign for me to download their shit because it might be in my wheelhouse.

Kurt: One of the things I’ve noticed in the past few seasons of your show is that you’ll have these well-known comedians and then you have these bands who, for most people, would be really obscure. What’s the reaction of Will Ferrell or Seth Meyers to seeing these rather unknown bands playing? Do they ever have any comments on that?


The Chris Gethard Show – Speed Weddings with Will Ferrell

Chris: I’m actually really glad you noticed that. That’s been a real point of pride for me. The show was extremely underground on public access and then it becomes a job and a network is giving you money so you have to step up and get eyes on it. Celebrities are a big way to get eyes. I was very insistent that the bands remain. I don’t know how a lot of TV shows work, but my assumption is that there are publicists and A&R reps pitching, then a booker who looks into it, and they probably have a whole system in place. But it’s a system.

And, historically, the bands I’ve always loved and the mentality I’ve always loved has been outright against that. As my show has become more money-driven and more corporate just by the nature of it becoming a job—some big bands on a major label that might want to play our show, that’s cool. That’s nice. But it’s a platform that’s not going to do much for them. It could do a lot for us if we get eyes on the show. But I know I’m in a position where some of the bands I put on—it could do something for them. People who don’t know them might see them and that’s very cool. I remember a band from New York called Bad Credit No Credit. My show is so weird that bands would show up and I’d be like, “Thanks for doing this. I know it’s kind of a strange thing.” And Carrie-Anne, the lead singer of Bad Credit No Credit, interrupted me and said, “Dude, this is the TV show we get to play. You don’t have to apologize for it.” And I thought that was rad.

Sorry for the rambly preamble, but to answer your question, to be honest, a lot of time we will have celebrities do some crazy shit and they will want to go decompress in the green room. But there have been a bunch of people who have stepped up. John Hodgman was on an episode. We had the Pitch Black Brass Band on. It’s a brass band, hip hop outfit. They now have linked up and they play all his shows. I see them constantly tweeting at each other. There have been a handful of times when you see the celebrity hang out and watch what’s going on.

It always reminds me that the people I’ve befriended in the comedy scene over the years. It’s nice that a lot of them have gotten famous, but then with some of them it’s like, “I came up in the trenches doing weird shows in basements and bars to ten people,” and they still have that inside of them. If I remember right, Ellie Kempter, who is from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was on the episode where we had War On Women. And she watched them and her face went like, “Holy shit, what is going on?” I remember Pete Holmes hung around and was dancing on the episode he was on. It’s always cool to see. I’m not arrogant—our show is very weird and it’s not for everybody. But one thing I will say is that I would put our music booking up against anybody. There are people who probably get bands that have sold a lot more records—bands that have sold out arenas and festivals and that’s great for them—but as far as relevant shit that matters on the ground, I think our show can stand up to anybody’s booking.

Kurt: There are some great guests on it. I loved seeing Screaming Females and you were really into when Underground Railroad To Candyland was on. You looked really excited.


Underground Railroad To Candyland on The Chris Gethard Show

Chris: Yeah, well, when my wife and I got together, she was like, “This will be your band.” And I started listening to them and Toys That Kill and it was a no-brainer. I saw them when they came through New York and people flipped out and were wearing crazy outfits. It seems, mentality wise—and I can’t speak for what’s in Todd’s (Congelliere) brain—maybe some of the impulses on what’s driving his thing is what’s driving our TV show.

That episode they were on—thank god for them—our network wanted us to do a special from San Diego Comic-con. I said, “That sounds great. But we’re in the middle of our season. We’re really low budget. I don’t know how we’re going to organize a show in San Diego. We’re already running right at the end of our ropes. I’ve got producers sleeping overnight in the office. No one is getting paid what they should.” But the network said they would handle it all. They were going to bring in a crew and all the ticket requests would go through them. They told us all we had to do was show up and be funny. We said, “Great!” They said they put tickets on sale and four hundred requests came in within a couple of hours. And we thought that was great. Our fans stepped up.


We show up and there’s no people. There’s nobody in the room. And we were like, “What is going on? You said you had four hundred ticket requests.” They said, “Yeah, we don’t know.” And I thought, “We should’ve handled this ourselves.” Also, the website said it had been sold out for weeks and I’m getting tweets form people saying they’ve been huge fans for years and it sucks they can’t come. I’m tweeting back ten minutes before the show, “Please come. There’s no one here.” It was really weird, but I tell you what—about halfway through the show the members of Underground Railroad To Candyland realized, “Oh, this is a show where nothing matters and it’s not even going that well.” And I’ll never forget that we had some bit involving throwing VHS tapes through a basketball hoop and one of the guys from Underground Railroad just picked up a VHS tape and flung it across the room and it smashed against the wall. Then the next thing I know, Shannon, who’s on the show, just picked up a microwave and smashed it on the ground, and I’m like, “Yes! Yes! Yes! This is everything I’ve wanted my TV show to be! It’s a disaster where it’s clearly been a failure for the first twenty minutes and then the way we try to handle that is by smashing apart our own set.” I think it was Chachi (from Underground Railroad To Candyland) who just went, “Fuck this!” and went nuts. He started smashing up the set.


The Chris Gethard Show – San Diego Comic-Con Special

Kurt: That’s awesome! The show has a very DIY aspect to it. That’s one thing I like about it. It still retains a punk aspect to it. Is that a conscious thing on your part?


Chris: It is, but I don’t think it comes off as we’re trying to force a DIY feel or co-opt it. We were on public access for over four years. To me, that’s the definition of DIY. We had a show where we had less than an hour to set up, soundcheck, check the lights, and get the set up and running. The whole set fit in the trunk of my car. I poured my own money into it. For years we just scrapped it out. We did an episode where halfway through the lights turned off because the studio was so fucked up. We had a week where we showed up and the guy who ran sound at the studio said, “We have a situation.” And I was like, “All right, here we go.” He said, “The mics are here. I know the mics are here because I can hear them on the sound board. But someone has misplaced them and we don’t know where they are.” We had to have an Easter egg hunt to find the microphones. It really was DIY.

Before public access, it was at the UCB Theater in New York. It was a cult phenomenon. You couldn’t get a ticket to that thing. Then we switched to public access and the comedy fans just bailed. They didn’t come with us. The first few episodes were pretty awkward and weren’t what they were used to. It was really grim. I was like, “I’ve made a big mistake. I went all in on this and put my name on it. I don’t want to go on auditions anymore. I don’t want to do pilot seasons. I want to do this.” And all of the sudden, nobody really liked it.

But then the fans who were coming out from Brooklyn were the ones telling us it was cool. I remember the So So Glos, when they played they were like, “This shit’s rad.” And I thought, “Okay.” We had Plow United play when they reunited and I remember one of them saying to me, “I wish this show existed when I was in high school.” And I thought, “Okay. Okay. People are getting what I’m going for here.” I think we had the DIY mentality. Our house band always involved people who were involved in the punk scene in New York for many years. Mikey Erg played our first episode. I think it’s clear I had a real admiration for the DIY scene from the start and was approaching our show in the same way. But then on top of that, the DIY bands were the ones that kept me going with kind words over the years before it really found an audience.

Kurt: That’s awesome. And it kind of leads into my next question, which is: how has punk changed your life?

Chris: That’s such a huge question. I got exposed to it so young that it felt like a skeleton key, if that makes sense. It was like, “Oh. I don’t have to do things a certain way.” I realized that when I was a kid. You’re little and you’re listening to a record and you wonder, “How does this even happen?” I’m thirteen years old and I’m at a punk show in a church basement and these kids have records and I see that’s how it can happen. You just decide it’s going to happen and you make it fucking happen. I think that to this day with my career, there’s things in my career where I decided, “I want that to happen” and I don’t quit on it until it happens. There’s gotta be a way. If there’s a thing I think should exist and has a right to exist, then I’m going to find a way to make it exist. To me, that just goes back to being thirteen years old and seeing kids putting out their own records. That was huge for me.

I’m also really lucky because the entertainment industry is very image conscious. There are certain festivals you want to get into. There are certain late night sets you need to play, and these are the things that are supposed to unlock your career. I think for a lot of people that really works, but I don’t think I was ever destined for that. I don’t think my sense of humor lends itself to those things. To always have it in my head as, “Why? Why does it only have to be that way?” I remember when I was a kid, I bought Another State of Mind, the documentary about Youth Brigade and Social Distortion. I remember they interviewed this guy and he said, “What if I don’t want a picket fence and two kids and a car in the driveway? What if I don’t want that? What is there for people like me?” I remember hearing that and thinking, “Right. If you abandon all the safe stuff, there might be something cooler on the other side.” And that was really big.

While I’ve done my part by putting bands on my show that I think are really doing cool stuff and have something to say—I think I have this reputation as a DIY comedian and that’s nice—but I do feel bad that I don’t label myself as DIY too much out of respect that a lot of the bands have to sacrifice a lot more than I do. Comedy has never had a culture where if you’re a sell-out, people react almost violently. I’m allowed to have my cake and eat it too. It’s something I feel bad about. I think I can be DIY and people can respect that. People who are involved with it can see the shared DNA but then I’m also allowed to go make money, which a lot of times DIY bands say, “We’re going to do this in a way that is going to cut us off from some financial opportunities and sacrifice big.”

And I don’t have to do that. I’m very happy to be associated with it and share some DNA with it, but I’m also aware that when I go out on the road as a comedian I don’t have to sleep on a punkhouse floor where I’m going to get scabies and bedbugs. I’m not going to drive all the way to the middle of Nebraska to do a show and then get there and realize the kid who said he was going to set up the show just didn’t do it. I never have to deal with that. So I also want to be on record and say I’m respectful of the fact that my version of this is easier than what the bands opt into. But I’m very happy it rubbed off on me because if there’s one thing I can say for myself it’s that I’m not the funniest comedian by any stretch and I’m far from the most successful comedian, but I do think I’m up there amongst the most honest. I also think I’ve behaved with a lot of integrity as far as the things I choose to do. And that all comes back to punk for me.


Kurt: I think you can see that, too, in your ethos—listening to that interview you did on Fresh Air last year when you were talking about getting mental health stuff out there. You use your platform for some good instead of just making money.

Chris: Yeah. One of the things about punk that I always loved is that they would very often say things that weren’t easy to say. Or even say things that other people weren’t going to like. I think back to when I was the fourteen-year-old boy with a chip on my shoulder and I liked the anarchy of that. “That’s fucking cool when people are mad.” But as I get older, sometimes musicians, especially from the world I love, they’re saying something that nobody else is saying that maybe needs to be said. I know this is very melodramatic, but it’s true; the Minor Threat lyric of, “You say that I make no difference, but at least I’m fucking trying. What the fuck have you done?” When you hear that as a kid you think, “Yeah, what the fuck have you done? Put up or shut up.”

Talking about the fact that I get depressed or that I’ve had some suicidal issues in my life is not easy. I don’t know of many comedians who are going all in on that. [laughs] In some sense, I think I’ve maybe sacrificed some momentum doing that. In another sense, I’m in a place where if I can talk about that and if it helps some kid in a way that gives them some help that wasn’t available to me when I was a kid, then I gotta do that. There’s no way around that. Put being a good person first. If you have a platform, use it for stuff that’s noble and good and worth putting out in the world. I don’t think that’s too pretentious to say.

I’m actually in a funny place now where I’m more secure than I’ve ever been. My career is more stable than it’s ever been and that’s nice, but it’s put this thought in my mind where I’m like, “I have more to lose now.” I still have to remind myself that I can’t be quiet and back away from the things that have got me here, which is kind of doing it my way and not necessarily caring what the consequences are. A lot of that comes back to music.

Kurt: How do you mean?

Chris: For example, my podcast, (Beautiful/Anonymous) has caught on with different kids. The Chris Gethard Show, those are all DIY kids, even if they don’t know it yet. Some of them straight-up are. I don’t think I’m more popular anywhere than I am on the campus of SUNY Purchase, which is the artsy DIY school, because those kids love me. But also, there are just some nerdy kids who love comedy and find it. Now they all listen to Jeff Rosenstock and Screaming Females because they saw them on my show. And I’m like, “You didn’t know it, but there’s this whole world out there that speaks to you.” Those kids get it.

But as my name gets out there more and as I do things like get interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, sometimes the people finding me now are not necessarily the people just like me in their background and mentality. It’s nice that there are more people now. It’s nice that I can go on the road and there are more people to buy tickets. There are also more people to piss off who might not buy a ticket if I say the wrong thing. But I have to remember that if I stifle what my gut tells me to say in the name of “What if that person doesn’t buy a ticket someday?” that’s just not how I came up or how I thought. I have to consciously remind myself that even though things are going better now, I still have to be who I’ve always been. I can’t get gun shy or scared about that.

Kurt: I think it’s great you’re speaking out on mental health. I’ve dealt with it; most of my friends and family members have too. I appreciate you being blunt about it. Also, I’ve met so many people in the punk scene who are depressed and anxious people.


Chris: Yeah. I think a lot of people in the music scene romanticize it. And in comedy, too. In comedy, there’s this whole thing about (John) Belushi, and Chris Farley, and Robin Williams were all so fucked up but they were so funny. And in music so many people who have been addicts or suicidal are legends. I think people have this mentality, still, of thinking that if they go take care of themselves then they won’t be as creative as they used to be. My personal opinion—and you’re allowed to think what you want—but I think that’s bullshit. I bought into that one for years and I regret it because when I first went on medications, I thought I wouldn’t be funny anymore. I thought I’d have to figure out a new life path but at least I’d be alive. But it turns out that I’m actually way more funny and organized and able to have a career now that I’m able to have my head on straight. That one really bums me out.

Kurt: I did the same thing for years. I thought I couldn’t be on medication because it would zap my manic phases where I’d be really productive.

Chris: But with the manic phases where you’re really productive you say, “Oh I just stayed up for twelve straight hours and I wrote fifty pages of shit!” And then you go to sleep for a few days, you come out of it, you read those fifty pages, and there’s like, maybe three paragraphs that actually make sense.

Kurt: Yep. Exactly.

Chris: “Most of this reads like the ramblings of the Unabomber.” Or it’d read like some Nostradamus-level rambling. Cool. Great. I’m glad I fell in love with that.

Kurt: No, that’s true. You’re totally right. When you were in college and going through tough times, were there certain bands that spoke to you and music that got you through those situations?

Chris: It’s funny because I actually know the answer to this one. First of all, The Smiths—

Kurt: Yeah, of course. I should say, besides The Smiths who got you through tough times?

Chris: Yeah. Let’s just assume we’re putting The Smiths on a loop. But I went through this very strange phase for a few years where I almost entirely stopped listening to new music. For a few years all I listened to was The Smiths, Things Fall Apart by The Roots, Love Is Dead by The Mr. T Experience, Nostalgic for Nothing by J Church, and the first Servotron album (No Room for Humans). And that was it. For two or three years, those are the albums I listened to. I just fell into this very bizarre phase where my head shut down on me. I just obsessed over things and those albums happened to be in that rotation of me obsessing over things.

Kurt: Why those albums? Did they speak to you in a particular way?

Chris: I think a lot of it was just that was the shit I was listening to my freshman year in college and that was when things first got really fucked up for me. Therefore it was almost this arrested development thing where I wasn’t going to move beyond that. But MTX’s Love Is Dead, that just makes sense. “When they’ve been doing it again I’ve got to thank you for not being one of them.” That’s a lyric that’ll speak to a depressed college kid.

The J Church album—I still have so much fondness and love for that album and that band. But that album in particular is the one I’ve loved the most. I think I also always loved Lance Hahn as a guy. He felt like a really honest dude. I loved that J Church was definitely respected but not quite beloved. I think a lot of people always looked at them as a less good Jawbreaker, maybe? And not as cool as Crimpshrine. I loved that they were the underdogs and that their songs maybe weren’t recorded the best and maybe they put out a little too much stuff. But I think I loved the idea of the underdog.

And then that first Servotron album is just so fucking weird. This is sad to say, but that Servotron album probably speaks more to where my head was at than any other album during my depression. It’s a concept album where robots sing about going to war with humanity. You wanna know where my head was from about 1998 to 2004? Listen to that first Servotron album and then consider that I was listening to that album in its entirety about eleven times a week. That’s where my head was.

Kurt: Wow. Yeah. Well, I appreciate you speaking out on a subject like mental health, which is really important to me. It’s good to see someone getting good messages out there as far as helping people.

Chris: Well thanks. I’m just trying to do my part before I get hit by a bus.

chrisgeth.com

 

Interview with Meghan O’Neil Pennie of Super Unison by Nicole X

Since the release of their self-titled EP in 2015, Super Unison has quickly proven to be a great combination of seasoned musicians, capable of combining shared and disparate roots alike to form a path that feels both comfortingly familiar and refreshing.

Meghan O’Neil Pennie (vocals and bass, ex-Punch), Justin Renninger (drums, ex-Snowing), and Kevin DeFranco (guitar, ex-Dead Seeds) form a sound that brings to mind post-hardcore with riot grrrl leanings—think elements of early Sleater-Kinney and Fugazi—while tossing in a slight undercurrent of math and shoegaze.

I recently sat down with Meghan to talk about Super Unison’s formation, process, and making music in the San Francisco Bay Area. Known for myriad unlike things—punk and tech, high rent and 924 Gilman—the Bay Area has long been a unique backdrop for massive amounts of consistently relevant creative output. As prices continue to rise and feelings toward Gilman shift, I especially appreciated the perspective of a steadfast native on what it looks like to stay put.

(Justin and Kevin were scheduled to join us but were unable to make it across the bay as early as hoped. Once reunited at the venue, Super Unison played a great show.)

Nicole: Justin and Kevin are both from the East Coast?

Meghan:
Yeah, they’re both from the East Coast and I’m from here.

Nicole: So how did you all find each other?

Meghan: Kevin moved here first and then Justin moved here. They’re longtime friends and had bands together in Philly.  And I met Kevin through mutual friends. I saw him at shows and stuff, and actually met him at a Christmas party at a friend’s house.

Nicole: How did you all come together and start making music?

Meghan: They started playing music first. They had a singer that didn’t work out and a bass player that didn’t work out so they asked me to sing. Kevin moved from guitar to bass. And then I was like, “Well, if I do it, I want to play bass, too.” At first when they asked me, I was like, “I don’t think I’m ready to be in another band…” (Meghan left Punch in 2014.)  and then I was like, “I’ll just come to one practice and check it out. It just really clicked. It was like, “Okay, we’re a band. See you next week!’”

Nicole: So, how did you choose the name Super Unison? It’s a Drive Like Jehu song.

Meghan: Naming a band’s really hard and it was one of those things where we were stumped, of course. And I was like, “Well, think of bands you like and look and look through their song titles…” and that one had a good ring to it. So we do like them but also, naming a band is hard. [laughs]

Nicole: The art is beautiful.

Meghan:
Oh, thanks! For the LP.

Nicole: Actually, the EP too, but the LP is especially. It’s really cohesive—I like the pink silhouettes and obscured eyes.

Meghan:
I liked how the 7” came out. They were all 35mm pictures I took while traveling. I think they were all pictures I took in Europe years ago. And then for the LP I just wanted to do something a little more high impact and memorable. I had presented the idea to have our—they’re almost like our author photos. Because the theme of the record—amongst other things—is telling your story, giving other people space to tell theirs; just taking people at their word on their experience. Telling your story—and telling your story through music—you can hide a little better. In lyrics you can use metaphor and such so that’s why I was like, “Okay, it’s our photo but our eyes will be covered,” and that’s all I told Justin. And I had our friend, Derek Yarra, take the photos and he really ran with it. He did so many different versions and different colors and different effects and I’m really happy with how it came out.

Nicole:
How does it feel to have your face on the cover? Does it feel strange?

Meghan:
I feel okay with it. I sell merch and it wasn’t until last night—our first show with it—I was like, “Oh, I have to sit here at the merch booth [laughs] with it,” so I kinda took that for granted. But, in general, I think there’s plenty of precedent with people having their face on a record. I really like how Justin made it monochromatic and the eyes are obscured and stuff so it’s not as simple as a photo of me, I really think he made it art, which is what I intended. So, I don’t really feel weird about it except I’m also the merch person, so I have to sit there like, “It’s a picture of me!”

Justin and Kevin also have their photos. It’s a gatefold so it’s all three of us. I was like, “Put Kevin on the cover!” because all the songs are so strongly influenced by him but then they picked me and that’s fine. I get it. [laughs]


Nicole:
That kind of takes it back to the author thing. The image of you at the merch table, it’s like at an author signing.

Meghan:
Oh, totally. And that was the inspiration. When you’re reading a book and you look at the back and it’s their photo and their bio. That’s where the idea came from.

Nicole: And I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but you could think of the lyrics as being the bio.

Meghan:
Exactly! When you’re writing songs, it’s pretty autobiographical but you can hide a little. You don’t have to totally put yourself out there. So that’s kind of the idea.

Nicole: It seems like Kevin is the main songwriter?

Meghan:
Totally. We had another guitar player on our last record. He wrote one song for this and everything else is Kevin. That’s why I was like, “Put him on the cover!”

Nicole: Does that mean Kevin wrote “You Don’t Tell Me?”

Meghan:
Uh-huh!

Nicole: Oh! That’s…

Meghan:
I mean, not the lyrics! He writes everything musically. I write all the lyrics. No, Kevin did not write a song about mansplaining. [laughs] That would be too perfect. He did not mansplain me to write a song about mansplaining.

Nicole: Okay, that makes sense. The other bands you all have been in—Snowing is pretty different. Punch is pretty different. But Dead Seeds, I can kind of hear Dead Seeds in this.

Meghan:
Kevin and Danny, our old guitarist, were both in Dead Seeds. This was pretty derivative of that. With the LP more than the 7”, we’re exploring it more and doing more of our own thing. More melodic and a little dreamier, and we’re going to continue to move in that direction but still have the same base.

Nicole: Did you play bass before Super Unison?

Meghan:
I played bass for a little bit in a friend’s project. That was kind of how I cut my teeth and how I got started on it. But, it was definitely—I’ve grown a lot. I couldn’t really sing and play at the same time before this.

With the other project I was the bass player. I would sing little parts here and there but even before I started doing that I could barely play bass. It’s been maybe four or five years since I started bass. Leading up to the 7”—because we recorded before we played shows—I only played bass or I only sang because I wanted to be really practiced for recording. I really wanted to nail the recordings because between the time I started practicing with them and the time we started recording, it was just two months. So I had five songs to learn the bass parts to, write the lyrics, etcetera.

And then after we recorded, I started putting them together, but my bandmates put a lot of faith into me. I mean, that’s what practice is for. And I think because I practiced them so much separately it was easier to put together, because the muscle memory was so strong. But that’s how I get better at stuff, just doing it.

Nicole: Just toss yourself in the deep end.

Meghan:
Exactly, because I’d wanted to play bass for so long. I’d taken lessons and played at home but I lacked the motivation. But to be in a band, the pressure’s on. I have a big thing with not wanting to disappoint them and to not be the one who holds us back. I always want to do my best for other people. For them, it’s a good motivator. Versus sitting at home going, “What song do I wanna learn? I dunno,” I do better with a deadline.

Nicole: Has it changed the way you write songs?

Meghan:
No, no. It should change how I write songs. [laughs] It should. It would make my life easier. I write the melody for the lyrics and I don’t think whether it will be hard or easy to play with the bass. I’ll just figure it out. And leading up to a show or recording, I’ll just put the songs on my phone and just listen to it so much. Then you don’t have to think too much, you just know it. Rather than having to focus on the details, repetition is helpful.

Nicole: So you write the lyrics and melody. You take it to Justin and Kevin and then do they flesh it out alone? What’s your general process?

Meghan: Kevin brings the music to practice to show us. We might help with the structure a little bit. Justin will write the drum part. Kevin even helps me with the bass line and then I’ll write the lyrics and the melody. They have some input into that. At recording I’ll ask if they like it or not. There have been some things they didn’t like and I’ve taken out. I’ll come to them and ask Kevin if he imagined me singing over a certain part when he was writing it or ask if he’s okay with me not doing what he imagined. There’s working together, but we’re definitely different departments of it.

Nicole: That’s a good way to put it. Semi-connected to that—your performance style has changed. You have to hold the bass, so there’s less movement. But do you think the music itself also lends to a more restrained performance style?

Meghan: I don’t know—I do think about how it would be different if I weren’t playing bass and I could be a free-hand singer, would people be more likely to mosh or dance along? I think the answer might be yes. Because I’m anchored to a spot pretty much. But I also get a lot more fulfillment out of playing bass and singing. Then I think, “Would I get a lot more fulfillment if people were singing along?” But I’m happy with how it is now. So, yeah, that’s part of it, but the music is too. Probably a little bit of both.

Nicole: What do you mean fulfillment?

Meghan: I’m just happier. I mean, this is probably not valid, but I feel more like a musician than I did before. Before it was like, “I’m in a band.” Now I feel comfortable saying “I’m a musician.” I’m sure I was before and, of course, someone who vocalizes is a musician too, but for me, it feels good.

Nicole: You can define that for yourself!

Meghan:
Totally.

Nicole: You write all the lyrics and, thematically, they seem pretty personal. They touch on a lot of things around gender and culture. Do you have anything you hope to get out of touching on those topics?

Meghan:
It’s a way to process feelings and a lot of catharsis. It is pretty personal and I do try to veil it a bit just to protect people. If I’m going through stuff I don’t want to put people on blast, but it’s important to me to work through it. In terms of some of the more political stuff, it’s still me processing it. I don’t think I know all the answers, but if I can help people understand things or create a dialogue or something, that’s an important role of punk. Even if I don’t have the answers at least we’re all processing that stuff together.

That’s kind of part of the theme. A lot of those problems are people not listening to each other or making assumptions about what other people are going through. Whether it’s women or trans people or any other minority. Just feeling like we know what they’re going through or what their issues are. Like, just shut the fuck up and let people speak for themselves. They know. If someone tells you they’re experiencing x, y, and z, they are. So, telling your story for yourself but also giving other people space to tell theirs.

Nicole: So it sounds like you feel comfortable holding a certain space in “the scene.” Do you?

Meghan:
I mean, I guess so. But also I know my place. I’m a woman. I can only speak for women and I’m white. I can’t speak for people who aren’t white. I’m straight. I can’t speak for people who aren’t. But I can say, “Hey, listen to those people, too.” I also want to practice what I preach and not take up more space than is okay.

Nicole: Do you think about how things will be perceived or received as you’re writing?

Meghan: Not really. I try not to overstep any boundaries, which I don’t think I have with this record. Because a lot of it is really personal or things I see going on around me. It helps if people don’t make assumptions, and that goes for me too. I don’t profess to have all the answers. I’m not better or smarter than anyone else. I just have a platform so I don’t want to use it to whine about my problems.

That’s not good enough, I don’t think. Yeah, I do some of that—it helps me get through stuff. If people are listening to me then I hopefully can at least encourage people to be more open-minded and caring and receptive to the problems of others.

Nicole: I definitely wouldn’t call anything I’ve heard from you as whining.

Meghan:
Yeah, I guess it’s not whining. Some of it—there’s a song we play that’s hard to play but it’s a good reminder to myself that, “You felt this way. Your feelings are valid,” but I can help myself in my dark times by remembering that I wrote that and I felt that. I’m fine.

If I can do that for myself, hopefully I can do it for someone else who needs it. And if not, that’s okay too, I guess. [laughs]

Nicole: Do you keep playing that because your catalog is still growing or…

Meghan:
No, I like the song but on bad days I’m like, “Fuck, this is too real.” But it feels good.

Nicole: Are there any artists that you feel fill that need for you? Recently, G.L.O.S.S. has been big for a lot of people, but now…

Meghan:
G.L.O.S.S.’s so important in that they showed people they had a space, they had a role. They definitely did that for me as a woman. Hopefully, I’ve done that for people. Anyone who is helping broaden the contributors to punk is so important.

When there’s a bunch of straight white guys doing it, people think that they don’t belong and that’s not true.

Nicole: So, you’re from California?

Meghan: Yeah, I’m from the Bay Area.

Nicole: Oh, from the Bay Area specifically! What do you think sets this community apart from other places, based on touring or living experience?

Meghan:
That’s hard because I’ve never lived anywhere else. But we’re spoiled for choice. Most nights you can have your pick of multiple shows to go to and I like that there’s a lot of crossover—a lot of different types of shows and people float between punk, hardcore, metal, indie, etcetera. I think it’s a good network of people. Things are fluctuating all the time but in a small scene where things are fluctuating maybe there’s not something like an all ages venue right now. Or the one guy who was doing shows graduated college and moved away. But in the fluctuation that happens anyway, at least there’s more of us doing stuff. I feel pretty lucky and supported.

Nicole: Can you think of ways things can be better?

Meghan: Things that are going on at Gilman. That’s where I went to my first show. That’s where Punch played our first show. And now for a lot of people to feel unwelcome there, that’s tragic. And that goes back to other people making assumptions about people’s needs or going, “Oh, you’re overreacting. You’re being PC.” But, no, their feelings are valid and I don’t know what’s punk about excluding people from the subculture. That could be better. It’s unfortunate.

Nicole: For people who aren’t local, do you want to give some background on Gilman?

Meghan: Some people expressed concerns about feeling safe there or hosting certain bands with dark and ugly histories. Other people thought they were overreacting in voicing those concerns. It’s just crazy to me to assume you know how people feel. If they say they feel unsafe, they feel unsafe. Now they don’t feel like they can go to a place that is supposed to be a haven—and they’ve been going for decades.

Nicole: The Bay Area is known for being really expensive and having a high cost of living. How do you cope with that while making music and art?

Meghan: I work all the time. I have one day off a week. Credit card debt. Hope that we can stay in our apartment forever. I think that people just work really hard. Sometimes I have days where I wonder why I work so much and is somewhere else better. But I’ve only ever lived in a twenty-five mile radius of either San Francisco, Oakland, or Walnut Creek.

I’m not really ready or willing to move somewhere else. So, this is what I have to do. I have two jobs and the band stuff—which I’ve never really made money from, or maybe a little here and there—but it’s way less than I would have made if I’d just worked elsewhere. It’s just making it work. That’s what everyone does, because what other choice do you have?

Nicole: Does the ebb and flow ever make you nervous?

Meghan: No, because I’ve lived here so long. I lived in SF for twelve years and the last two years were really shitty, but I was able to move to Oakland before the rents started spiking over here.

I think knowing people is helpful. If you were ever to just try to find housing online, that would probably be impossible. I guess I live my life knowing there are things I have control over and things I don’t, so the things I don’t have control over, what can I do? And the things I do, I just try to do my best.

Nicole: The album’s great. It’s one of my favorites.

Meghan:
Thank you! It’s crazy because things take so long to come out, so the songs are a year old at this point.

Nicole: Do you feel like you’re ready for the next round?

Meghan: Yeah, we have five new songs, half a new record. So it’s weird because I have this thing where, it’s not like I’m over the record, but I’m thinking about the new stuff. It’s like I’ve moved on, but then I remember it’s new to everyone else.

Nicole: It’s like you had a child a year ago but everyone else is just meeting it.

Meghan:
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. “Here’s our new baby. We’re thinking about our second!”

Nicole: Do you have anything that I haven’t given you the opportunity to say? Last words?

Meghan: Go vegan. [laughs]

Nicole: What’s a place someone can go in Oakland if they want vegan things?

Meghan: Oh, you mean Timeless Coffee? I’m kidding. [laughs]

Nicole: That’s exactly what I meant!

Meghan: Staff’s pretty nice, pretty good food. I’m just excited that the record’s out and people seem as excited about it as we are. I’m excited I get to continue to have a platform to express myself. That’s really what it’s all about.

And like I said, just make room for other people to express themselves in whatever way works for them in hardcore and punk. Whether it’s being in a band or writing or taking photos. Just listen to other people’s needs and make space for them. It can only help make better music and better understanding.

https://www.facebook.com/SuperUnison/

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Nicole X lives in Oakland where she spends her time immersed in anything involving music, mental health, and/or libraries. https://www.nicoleverto.com/

We Were There: Voices from L.A. Punk’s First Wave | An Oral History hosted by Alice Bag

(Originally run in Razorcake #79, April / May 2014)

My name is Alicia Velasquez, but I’m better known as Alice Bag. I grew up in East L.A., the daughter of Mexican immigrants. In the late 1970s, I was the lead singer of a band called The Bags, one of the first wave of Hollywood bands alongside such groups as The Screamers, The Weirdos, the Zeros, and the Germs. We all performed at a basement in Hollywood called the Masque, a club started and run by a Scottish immigrant named Brendan Mullen. The Masque scene was very short-lived. It was open just about a year or so before the Los Angeles County Fire Marshal shut it down permanently, but it made a huge impact during that time, functioning as an incubator for the nascent punk scene. It was a subterranean basement where being different was not only welcomed but celebrated, a place where creativity, art, and music flourished and found support outside of the mainstream.

The 1970s Hollywood punk scene was a space where I could be with other, like-minded individuals who also felt disenfranchised or alienated by the communities where we had grown up: our schools, our families, our neighborhoods. I wanted to join a Chicano student organization when I was in high school, hoping to find solidarity with others who were motivated to make positive change. I ended up not joining after I perceived being judged unfavorably based on my weird appearance, so I know what it’s like to be the recipient of negative bias.

As I write this, I want to state that it is not my intention to deny or diminish those deeply personal experiences of perceived bias, spoken or unspoken. I simply want to add my voice and the voices of others who were present in the early years of the Los Angeles punk scene in hopes of providing a more balanced narrative and a counterpoint to what is in danger of becoming “the official story.”

A few years ago, three University of Washington professors curated a museum exhibition called American Sabor, which aimed to show the influence of Latinos in U.S. popular music. I was lucky enough to get a personal tour from one of the curators during the first installation at Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum. The show was well received and it was picked up by the Smithsonian as a traveling exhibition in 2012. I took my friends and family to see it when it got to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ. Now, a smaller version of the exhibit is at Cal State L.A. I was happy to attend the opening reception and thrilled to experience the show at my old alma mater (I got my Bachelor’s degree and my teaching credential at Cal State L.A.) I planned to tweet links to help spread the word. But, I noticed when I chanced upon the Smithsonian’s webpage for American Sabor that some of the information was wrong and misleading.


For example, the Hollywood punk scene predated the East LA punk scene; they were not concurrent as stated on the Smithsonian website. They were separated by a period of roughly two years. The Brat was never an all-female group. The assertion that Westside venues would not allow Eastside punks to play in the early days is also inaccurate. There were many Mexican Americans from the Eastside and other places and cities who were integral members of the Hollywood punk scene (myself included). We played at a variety of venues on the Westside.

I spoke to one of the original curators who told me that her text had been changed by the Smithsonian. She asked me to write a letter to them, but I didn’t feel a letter was enough. I felt compelled to do something more, so I approached Razorcake about letting me research and write this piece in response to those inaccuracies.

Most disturbing to me was the implication that the early punk scene was inhospitable to people of color, specifically Latinos. The scene I experienced felt pretty egalitarian, but I wanted to engage my peers in the conversation. so I decided to interview some members of that early Hollywood punk scene to get their impressions and tell another side of the story that’s been so often left out in order to perpetuate a dramatic storyline that never really existed—or perhaps existed for only a handful of people. What follows are those conversations. We were there and we can tell you first-hand how we were treated and how we treated others. I asked for concrete, specific first person accounts only and that’s what you’re getting.


Hollywood Punks Presente!

For the sake of brevity, I’ve listed the participants’ OG punk affiliations alongside their self-designated ethnic identities rather than give a lengthy list of their subsequent achievements.

Moderator, Alicia Velasquez: Aka Alice Bag, Chicana, The Bags

Tito Larriva: Mexican, The Plugz

Trudie Arguelles: Hispanic, The Plungers

Robert Lopez: Mexican American, The Zeros

Margot Olavarria: Latin@, The Go-Gos

Sean Carrillo: Mexican, artist

Juan Gomez: Cuban, Human Hands

Margaret Guzman: Chicana, artist

Seal Sanchez: Hispanic, roadie

Hector Peñalosa: Mexican American, The Zeros

Javier Escovedo: Mexican American, The Zeros

Kid Congo Powers: Mexican American, Gun Club/The Cramps

X-8: Mexican/Spanish/Native American, FlipSide writer

Hellin Killer: Argentinian, Plungers

Mike Ochoa: Mexican American, Nervous Gender


L.A. Punk’s First Wave: Punk as Its Own Race

Alice: Did you ever personally experience racism from other punks, bands, club owners, magazine writers, or record promoters involved in the early punk scene?

Tito: I don’t recall ever being discriminated against at all by anyone involved in the early punk scene. I believe that the punk scene was about the freedom of ideas and in order to have that, you had to remove any preconceived stereotypes. That was what made it exciting; you were included because you wanted to express yourself, not because you were Mexican, Black, a woman, Jewish, gay, whatever. That was the whole point, I thought.

Trudie: The scene actually broke down the walls of racism. If you wanted to be in our scene, you were accepted no matter who you were—after a certain hazing period.

X-8: It was a lot of young kids coming together for a variety of reasons, but most importantly it was about the music and having fun.

Margot: Without denying that racism is institutionalized in the broader U.S. culture, I can’t say that I experienced racism from folks involved in the early punk scene, in L.A. or elsewhere. Back then, I identified first as a punk rocker—that being the source of discrimination I experienced outside our Hollywood counterculture, be it from law enforcement, academia, work environments, etc. Secondly, being in an all-woman band—following the punk ethos that anyone could pick up an instrument and play—I identified as a woman musician. I sometimes experienced prejudice from the male-dominated music business, especially as my former band, The Go-Go’s started to become more commercially successful. I don’t recall strongly identifying as Latin@ within the punk scene back then, because I was not prejudiced against on that basis.

Alice: Yeah, I agree with you. When you feel like there’s nothing to push back against because you’re being treated like everyone else, you have no need to differentiate yourself. In those days, I didn’t think of myself as a female, Chicana, bisexual musician because within the punk scene I felt like we all just interacted as creative individuals. It was only on the outside that those things could make you the subject of stereotypes or discrimination.

Hellin: Girls and guys were equals for the first time ever in the music scene!

Alice: Within the punk scene nobody would bat an eye at female musicians, but out in the mainstream people still made sexist comments.

Hellin: Now, I did feel discriminated against by the general population of average people.

Alice: I think that’s one of the things that strengthened our bonds and made us feel like a family.

Sean: One of the first “aha” moments for me had to do with you, Alice. I remember perusing one of the magazines and there was an example of a real “punk” wearing a big crinoline undergarment as a skirt and leaning back on the hood of a car. It identified the young lady as “Alice Bag,” but as I stared more closely at the image I realized it was my old classmate from French class, Alice Armendariz.

Alice: I remember French class with you! I think one of the things that threw people off was that so many of us had punk names that didn’t overtly display our ethnicity so we were forcing people to view us primarily as punks. I was Alice Bag. Margo was Margo Go-Go. I recently saw Dave Drive (from the Gears) at a concert in my neighborhood and was surprised when he told me he was Latino because you know “Drive” doesn’t sound Mexican [laughing].


Sean: Right! At that moment I realized that this music, this movement, this time in history was ours and we would be a part of it. After that it was an avalanche. I remember hearing the Plugz on Rodney (Rodney on the Roq, KROQ) and then seeing them live the first time. With surnames like Larriva and Quintana, it was not difficult to detect their ethnic identity. But the best part of all was the part that I feel most difficult to describe. It wasn’t that their last names were Spanish that was significant. It was that their art, their music, their creative output was also a part of a larger musical movement. In other words, this was not “Chicano” music. It was “punk.” That meant “we” were punk and nothing and no one could ever make us feel as if we were not an integral and important part of this burgeoning movement that I knew would live much longer than us and in fact burned brightly and quickly when it did.

Alice: For many of us, the strongest part of our identity during that time was being outside the mainstream, being punk.

Juan: Really, it was like “Who gives a fuck?” We were interested in the moment. Nobody thought about identity that much except for our punk identity, which was all-embracing. I felt embraced for who I was.

Hector: I never experienced any racism from any other people in the punk scene whatsoever. The punk scene was made up of a bunch of society’s misfits, regardless of race. What brought everyone together was not accepting society’s norms, and that included racism.


Margot: The early punk scene in California was a close-knit, inclusive community. We took care of each other for the most part, sharing food, putting people up, and helping others with survival regardless of ethnicity or gender. Although punk in the U.S. and U.K. was predominantly white, the L.A. scene had many racially-inclusive bands, especially in terms of Latinos. Some of the racially mixed bands back then were: The Zeros, Plugz, Nervous Gender, The Bags, Germs, The Dickies, Eyes, Alleycats, The Controllers (after adding drummer Mad Dog), and later Los Lobos, Kid Congo joining The Cramps, and others.

Kid: I never felt any racism in the first wave of punk. It was an open field for everyone, all races, women, gays, and men! I do know that the idea of labeling was taboo, so there was not politicizing of anyone’s roles. As a matter of fact, there was no talk of it. Same with the gays involved, we knew who was fucking whom, but there was never discussion—besides occasional gossip—about it. There were too many Chicanos involved to ever feel racism from within the scene. The Plugz, The Zeros, The Bags all were Chicano led bands that were extremely popular. We were seeing ourselves as if from a truly alternative perspective. We were something not constrained by labels.

Margaret: I didn’t experience racism directly, though there did seem to be a bit of underlying hostility or non-acceptance from a few individuals.

Alice: Like what? How did the non-acceptance display itself?

Margaret: It wasn’t out in the open. Once I remember Philomena, from Slash (Magazine) was talking to me and she told me I looked Spanish, when another girl who was in the room added, “She doesn’t took Spanish. She looks stone-cold Indian.” The non-acceptance was in her tone of voice.

Alice: How did you react?

Margaret: It caught me off guard. I just let it go, probably walked away.

Alice: Did you tell her how you felt?

Margaret: No, but I get that, even from my own people. It has to do with skin color.

Alice: You know, I would take “stone-cold Indian” as a compliment.

Margaret: Well, it wasn’t meant that way!

Alice: Yeah, I get it. I wish I’d known you better in those days so we could have called the girl out on her bullshit together! I always felt like I could speak my mind and I felt respected in that scene, so I’m sorry you had to go through that alone.

Trudie: I never experienced racism, because I don’t look ethnic. I am very white. Although, once I did experience whitey hate…

Alice: That’s racism, too!

Trudie: But that was not in the scene; it was much earlier.

Alice: It was rare in the Hollywood scene.

Good, Mean-Spirited Fun

Trudie: Remember the Plunger Hate List? We put any insult we could think of to fit each person. Not that I’m proud of it, but I can’t pretend I was a goody-goody. [Laughs]

Alice: What is this, confession time? You had a slam book. We made one of those in Cholita years later. It was good, mean-spirited fun! [Laughing]

Trudie: At the same time, we had no prejudice at all! [Laughing] It’s hard to explain, but I think you know what I mean. We liked to spout obnoxiousness to get a reaction, to instigate chaos! We were kind of like belligerent drunks—actually most of us were belligerent drunks)

Alice: I was a belligerent drunk a lot of the time and I said and did my share of distasteful and insensitive things, but I always felt like all those punks were my family. I will be the first to admit that I sometimes did pick fights for sport. They never had anything to do with race, but that’s a whole other story.

I think it’s important to note that nobody was denying their ethnicity and we did speak about each other’s backgrounds. We sometimes even joked about it. My rhythm guitarist, and later roommate, Craig Lee was Jewish and he and I often made cracks about each other’s heritage, but we laughed about it. It was funny because we knew, trusted, and respected each other.

I once went to a dinner party where a man I had just met made a joke about some dolls that were popular at the time. He called them Beaner Babies instead of Beanie Babies. I stared a hole through his head and the whole dinner party struggled to recover even after the guy apologized to me. There was no trust in that situation and I didn’t want to give him permission to continue to joke along those lines. So, yeah, I know what you mean Trudie. We trusted each other, so we could tease each other and laugh about it.
The Masque was one of those places where sacred cows and political correctness were definitely not in fashion. You couldn’t take yourself too seriously in the early days because punk was rooted in irreverence. If you did take yourself seriously, either by posing as a more adept musician, someone who had industry connections, or any other claims to political or artistic importance, then you might not be welcome.

Hellin: To the best of my knowledge, anyone and everyone was welcome at the Masque!

Hector: Anybody with an electric guitar, drums, bass guitar, singing or non-singing voice was pretty much accepted in the punk scene. The philosophy of the punks was DIY. It didn’t matter if you played the guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. On the contrary, just making something happen regardless of musical technique was the objective. Assholes were not welcome: skinheads, narcissists with delusional rockstar syndrome, and a few others.

Trudie: All sorts were welcomed, as long as they showed that they were loyal to the cause, usually by cutting their hair off. [laughs]

X-8: Everyone was welcome as long as you were different from the boring, mainstream music and people at the time—disco and Fleetwood Mac stuff.

Kid: The only requirement in my eyes was that you had to be bucking the system
twenty-four hours a day.

Margot: In 1977-8, the scene welcomed punk bands in general and by 1979, you began to see more diversity in genres: surf punk, death punk, goths, art bands, cerebral bands, folk punk, romantics, rockabilly, while some bands chose to evolve into pop or new wave. Those not welcome into the early scene were hippies, posers, spoiled rich kids, old rockers—back then that was people over thirty who did not appreciate our aesthetic or music—but certainly not on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, or gender. When a few punks started to wear swastikas, there was a backlash, best expressed by Jewish lesbian folk punk singer Phranc’s “Take off Your Swastikas.”


Alice: That was the cool thing about it. We took responsibility for our scene. Shannon Wilhelm , my roommate, and I made stenciled shirts that read “Die Nazi Scum” especially for the neo-nazis who started to come around. We harassed them until they took off their swastikas. The Masque and the Canterbury were like our homes and we may have been slobs, but we cleaned house on that occasion.


Seal: It was a very accepting scene. All kinds of people were welcome. Scrawny, pimple-faced misfits in bad fashion… no matter what you looked like, you could be cool. Even if you sounded bad and couldn’t play an instrument you could be accepted. Or, you could be a roadie! It seemed that everyone had ideas. Conversations happened. Fast friendships were formed.

Alice: Yeah, unlikely friendships that cut across all kinds of imaginary boundaries. People came from all over the place to be part of the burgeoning punk scene.

Mike: The scene was very small and everyone would tell each other what bands were coming up. If you went to more than a couple shows, people would begin to recognize you and start talking to you. It made me feel included. It was a way of keeping this scene growing. People had to talk to each other to make sure the bands were being supported—social networking before cell phones. We were Nervous Gender—a band made up of two gay Mexicans, a gay Irish guy, and a Jewish lesbian. I do not remember any band that was not welcome.

Alice: You would fit in at the Masque, if you were going to fit in anywhere! I know some people feel most at home in the place where they grew up but for those of us who were too different from those around us, that just wasn’t true. Back in 1976/77, I sometimes had my bands practice in my parents’ living room in East L.A. When we walked around outside in the neighborhood, people would look at us like the circus was in town! I was a freak in my own backyard! I think people reacted negatively not only to the way we dressed, but also to the music we were playing.

X-8: People thought we were crazy to like bands like the Ramones and the Germs. We used to argue with people in high school, who were into Genesis and Led Zeppelin. There was a faction of kids who thought they were cooler because they liked The Cars [laughs] Whittier was a very boring town. Although, as you know, it had great thrift stores. Nixon came from there and it was very conservative. We went to Hollywood to get away from that.


Mike: Growing up, I felt like an outsider. I do not fit in the Latino community or gay culture. Many people I met at the punk shows also seemed alienated and disenfranchised from where they came from. The overall feeling I got was that the world did not want us, so we all came to Hollywood to find a safe place to be.

Lands before Punk: Sexuality and Glitter

Alice: Ways of expression that are uncommon within your own ethnic group might lead to suspicion. Some of the stuff I was listening to was promoting ideas that challenged traditional values, especially in regards to sexuality and gender roles. I’m thinking of pre-punk bands like the New York Dolls, whose male members wore makeup and sometimes dressed in women’s clothes.


Seal:
I didn’t realize I was different until the cholitas targeted me for listening to The Runaways. That was where my life changed: punk rock and gay…I was ready to fight!

Alice: The people doing the policing were often operating within patriarchal paradigms, which were threatened by the gender-bending of bands like the New York Dolls and the androgyny of performers like David Bowie or Patti Smith.

Robert: I saw the New York Dolls at an all-ages club when I was fourteen years old. It was JJ’s in San Diego, Saint Patrick’s Day 1974. My parents drove me and my two sisters. I was front row center.

Alice: Did people in Chula Vista make fun of you or give you a hard time for liking the New York Dolls?

Robert: They didn’t know!

Sean: The Dolls seemed to reflect a new aesthetic; I wasn’t sure what it was. I was far too young to understand it in a historical context and I certainly had never heard of anything like the Cockettes or Les Petite Bon Bons—though I soon would—but I did recognize an outsider when I saw one and the Dolls were like music for outsiders, the “new” outsiders.


Robert: The roots of punk is glitter.

Seal: I knew that I was gay and that’s when I started to feel different, but gay and bi were beginning to be okay by then.

Alice: More widely accepted in some circles maybe.

Seal: My brother and sister were seriously into Bowie and I knew every one of Bowie’s lyrics.

Alice: I was introduced to the idea of bisexuality from reading an interview with David Bowie. It immediately made me stop wondering what I was because I didn’t have to choose between identifying as gay or straight, I could be bi and according to Bowie that was just fine.

Juan: Bowie just blew all the doors wide open. It did make me feel like things were getting better. The band that made me realize I was going to write songs was The Velvet Underground. I thought, if Lou Reed can do this, so can I [laughter]. No, not because he was a hack but because of his genius. He inspired me.

Hector: I went to elementary school in Tecate, Mexico and lived with my grandmother for a few years but I always felt like I was in the wrong place. I’m a kid of the pop culture of the times: rock and roll, TV shows like the Munsters, Batman, Green Hornet, Beatles, Saturday morning cartoons. I did embrace the entertainment world of Mexican pop culture: lucha libre and its protagonists like El Santo, Blue Demon, and a few others, also Los Polivoces (a Mexican comedy team.)

Kid: I grew up hearing rancheras in my house and although I didn’t speak Spanish, I was drawn to the sounds of anger, revenge, or delight in their voices.

Alice: Rancheras are very emotional. I internalized some of that too.

Kid: In the Gun Club, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and I referenced neighborhood sounds of our San Gabriel Valley upbringing regularly: the mixture of oldies, R&B mixed with hard rock and psychedelic rock we heard coming out of garages as our neighborhood bands practiced. My sisters and cousins were very into Thee Midniters and would go to dances to see them. I remember their excitement in getting ready. As a pre-teen I didn’t know what Thee Midniters did, but I knew they made my teenage family members very excited. That excitement influenced me.

Juan: People compared Human Hands to the Talking Heads, but I think it was the rhythms and danceability of Cuban music that had slipped into our music.

Alice: Sometimes we’re not even aware of when or where our influences will surface.

Sean: Mexican culture definitely influenced my point of view as an artist. I grew up listening to Eydie Gorme and the Trio Los Panchos. It was like the soundtrack of my childhood.

Alice: Mine too—well, that and rancheras and Mexican pop, and soul. That Eydie Gorme and Los Panchos record is classic. Did that music influence your art?

Sean: When I did my first paper fashion show at Cal State L.A. in 1982 I was very specific about the music. The clothes were all new and shiny but I wanted the music to reflect something traditional, so instead of a disco beat like other fashion shows at the time, I chose traditional Mexican Mariachi music.

Alice: Sounds great!

Sean: Getting back to Eydie Gorme, I would like to point out that she was not Latina. Nonetheless, she sang beautifully and had tremendous command of the language. I thought it was wonderful. This is a very important point to me—if little Edith Gormezano, a Sephardic Jew from the Bronx could make an album of Mexican standards that sells millions of copies and gets played in Mexican homes all over the Southwest.

The point I’m trying to make is that we should not be limited to race-specific roles as regards our creative output no matter what our race. So the rules should apply to white as well as non-white races. I even hate saying non-white…

Alice: The rules should apply to everyone. I agree with you that artists should be free of race-specific expectations. Having said that, I want to add that I’m glad Eydie decided to collaborate with Los Panchos because there’s a big difference between a respectful cultural exchange of ideas and colonization of someone else’s culture.

You know, I’ve said on a number of occasions that I’m bored when I see yet another all-male, all-white band because I find it much more interesting to watch a band that reflects the diversity of their community, instead of buying into the pre-fab, hair-gelled, cute boy band model. I want to see different ethnicities, different genders, different body types onstage. It affects the way I see the world to see diversity represented. It thrills me when artists challenge society in these unspoken ways. From where I stand, punk is about challenging the status quo, not reinforcing it. I don’t want to knock the contributions of white males, I just want to see parity.

But since we were speaking of race-specific expectations, how did you feel about the nickname the Mexican Ramones?

Javier: I hated it.

Alice: Oh no, I’m sorry. I think I might have parroted that, thinking you were okay with the nickname, though when I really stop to think about it, I don’t know why I would think that.

Javier: First of all, I don’t think we sounded like the Ramones, we didn’t look like the Ramones, and I wasn’t Mexican. Mexican means you were born in Mexico, the people in Mexico called me Chicano. I feel like if we sang the Ramones’ songs in Spanish you could call us that, but we didn’t. Also calling us the Mexican Ramones seems to imply that what we did was not original.

Alice: It was!

Javier: It’s as if we heard the Ramones and then started a band. We were in a band before we heard the Ramones. We were influenced by all the glitter bands and solo artists I mentioned earlier. At our first show in Rosarito we covered “Pipeline” because I heard the Dolls play it when I saw them in San Diego and we also covered “Waiting for the Man” by the Velvet Underground. So I would say that the Dolls and the Velvets were probably our two biggest influences. When we were called The Mexican Ramones, I didn’t like it but I was happy we were getting written about at all and reviewed in the L.A. Times and other places so I took it in stride.


Hector:
The story goes like this: Slash was interviewing The Screamers and Claude Bessy—may he rest in peace—asked Tomato Du Plenty what he thought of the Zeros and his response was… Ya sabes.

Alice: They’re the Mexican Ramones?

Hector: And of course it got printed and circulated and suddenly it’s “Hey, it’s the Mexican Ramones!” I didn’t like it but I had to accept it since it stuck like a barnacle on the Zeros boat.

Alice: How was that Rosarito show?

Hector: It was a quinceañera party for one of Javier’s relatives! Here are four teenage boys in tight pants and pointy shoes/boots looking like we walked out of a time machine circa 1966. The folks at the party stared at us like we had just landed from Mars.

Alice: [laughs] I can picture it.

Hector: Seriously, I felt the vibe. We played six tunes and got out of there fast! We had to borrow the musical equipment from a top 40 band in Tijuana and they were older musicians who were not happy about us using their stuff because we didn’t fit in. Is that punk? I think it is!

Alice: Totally punk! You ran all the way to Hollywood!


Hollywood
: The Birthplace of Southern California Punk

Hector: Being the bass player in The Zeros and residing in San Diego, California, we had to drive to Hollywood in order to play live because back then, San Diego had nothing to offer a band like The Zeros. The first time we played in Hollywood was April 1976.

Javier: There really was not a scene in San Diego. We tried to play a few places but they wanted cover bands mostly. There was nowhere to play, and I mean nowhere. It took San Diego forever to get a scene going.

Alice: Neither San Diego, nor Whittier, nor East L.A was a viable alternative for us yet.

X-8: My first show was The Quick at the Whiskey in 1976. There wasn’t a punk scene at the time, but we used to listen to Rodney on The Roq and hear about what was going on in Hollywood. We used to take the bus from Whittier and go to Hollywood and see flyers of upcoming concerts. That’s where we heard about the Germs and Weirdos. It eventually inspired us to do a fanzine (FlipSide) in the summer of 1977. We printed the first couple of issues at the Whittier Library.

I felt that we (FlipSide) were accepted because we were giving the bands (and local celebrities) some publicity. But I think we would have been accepted anyway because we weren’t typical suburban kids. I lived at a fleabag hotel in Whittier.

Mike: It was early 1977. I had seen the Sex Pistols on TV. The next day I went to a record store in Long Beach and picked up the singles, “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen.” Soon, I was going to shows, starting with a show at the Whisky a Go Go. The show was The Dickies and The Bags. I later found out that you—Alice, the lead singer of the Bags—went to the same junior high school.

Alice: Robert Louis Stevenson Jr. High in the house! [laughs]

Tito: It must have been 76/77 and Janet and I lived at the Geza X house along with Charlotte Caffey, Joe Ramirez, Joe Nanini, and, of course, Geza. I distinctly remember Charlotte and Joe Ramirez coming home one day all excited about a new club opening up in Hollywood.

Alice: The Masque!

Tito: Yes! Within weeks we all had bands.

Alice: That’s around the time that we were playing with Geza. We—The Bags—played our first gig there in the summer of 1977. The Masque had just gone from being a rehearsal studio to hosting live shows. It was an exciting time to be in Hollywood, so I moved there from East L.A. shortly after that gig. Hollywood and San Francisco were the two scenes that were happening at that time and I think many of us migrated from the suburbs to the city because we found acceptance there. It seemed that it was okay to be a weirdo in Hollywood. In fact, it was preferred.

Margaret: Platform shoes were traded in for spike heels for the girls and tennis shoes were traded in for black boots for the guys. If people showed up with long hair, they soon got punk hair. And clothes: second hand or thrift store or vintage was good. I remember seeing a sweet looking girl, kind of surfer-looking, and next time I saw her she had cut off and spiked up her long hair and was wearing a vintage dress, ripped stockings, black leather jacket, and leather work boots.

Alice: Yeah, there was an aesthetic, but it wasn’t a uniform. I remember spray painting clothes to wear to Weirdos concerts and each outfit was an original.

Margaret: Alice, I don’t think I ever saw you wearing the same thing twice. Remember the girl with the cigarette butts safety-pinned all over her pants?

Alice: I don’t remember, but it sounds cool! [Laughs] Better than wearing something too mainstream, as far as we were concerned. So the scene was open, but I think you had to understand the punk aesthetic.

Robert: It was open. We didn’t have the luxury to discriminate. Our numbers were too small, but we invited the world to discriminate against us. We wanted the others to hate us, but if we were hated it wasn’t for our race. That seemed the farthest thing from the point. We wanted others to hate us for the music we listened to, the way we dressed, and the way that we thought.


Alice: Because it wasn’t just about music or clothes. Like Hector said, it was about not blindly accepting society’s norms. We challenged the status quo with everything at our disposal—race, class, gender—but we did it by just being ourselves. We were happily, if inadvertently, messing with the outside world’s preconceived notions of what those things meant and that often pissed people off.

Seal: I never felt racism at all, or sexism or really any kind of bias. I mostly hung out with lots of dykes, but our social circles were a rainbow.

Kid: I fell in with gay musicians, performers, actors, actresses, photographers, and scenesters via The Screamers and their entourage who were performers from NYC Theater of the Ridiculous/La Mamma scene. People like Gorilla Rose, Styles Caldwell, Paul Ambrose, and of course, Tomata Du Plenty. Also Fayette Hauser from The Cockettes in San Francisco. These were the highly creative people of both and third, sexes, whom I was enamored with and they gladly acted as mentors. They really did help art direct the scene. I am positively sure of that. Certainly, I knew other musicians who were gay or figuring it out through punk. Like I said before, labels were taboo, so no one really discussed being gay. We were just tribespeople, perhaps in a sub genre. We were pretty invincible at that age with the force of the punk movement.


Mike:
I had felt disenfranchised from both the place I grew up and the gay community. I did not need acceptance from the local East L.A. community. The people I met in the punk scene became an extended family. In many ways, gay people create surrogate families for their support in the same way the punk scene became my surrogate family. I call it the punk scene because the people I met were from all over the city, not just Hollywood. Hollywood was the only place bands could play, in the early days. The Hollywood scene included bands from across the city.

Alice: Yeah, in the early days kids came into Hollywood from the suburbs, but I think that sometime in late 1979 and early ‘80 the climate of punk in L.A. changed and punk spread out into the suburbs. By then, the idea of punk was popular enough that you didn’t have to leave home to find fellowship in Hollywood; you could play in your own backyard.

Kid: By that time, I was starting my own band The Gun Club, with Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who was also Mexican American and we bonded greatly by the “otherness” of our ethnic background and growing up in our respective San Gabriel Valley suburbs of La Puente and El Monte. We were misfits that felt outside of our own backgrounds, but somehow drawn to it, if only by instinct, by blood—a crazy dichotomy I find many Los Angeles Chicanos feel. We didn’t grow up speaking Spanish but we knew Spanish words, Mexican food, the importance of family, and customs well. I don’t think our band felt racism, but when “hardcore” happened we had little interest in it. It even seemed silly to me. Guess I was already an old coot!

Sean: There was a critical turning point for me and it was when I really knew it was time for me to move on. In the beginning we used to pogo dance. It was fun and it was not violent. As silly as it may seem now, it was enormous fun. If someone fell down, the other dancers would make room for them and help them get back on their feet in order to continue dancing. I distinctly remember Black Randy falling on his ass repeatedly at the Elks Lodge and each and every time we helped him up. His pants were falling down too. It was rather comical, actually.

Later, the mosh pit was born and dancing was no longer fun. The “pogo” was replaced by slam dancing and I felt uncomfortable once more. It was like being back in high school and the bullies were back in charge. Punk had changed.

Hellin: I think the shows were very different in the ‘70s. It all seemed much more like family. Everyone stuck up for each other and gender or race were irrelevant! Maybe people were kinda judgmental about long hair but it was more in fun.

In the ‘80s, things got weird. More new kids were influenced by the news propaganda saying punk was violent and they started trying to act like the skinheads in England who were driven by their own racial tensions. Things were not as safe or fun.


Seal:
In my experience, things did change in the early ‘80s. I think it was socioeconomic though. As punks, we hurt each other all the time—mostly on the dance floor! It was mostly good-natured rough-housing with friends, but occasionally there were real fights, knock-down brawls with outsiders who thought our rough fun was an invitation to beat people up. We cut each other, tattoo’d each other. We were rough and tough. But at some point, the jocks got wind of the scene and came at us thinking it was okay to go into the pit and hurt anyone randomly. I went to a show at the Cuckoo’s Nest in Orange County. The Alleycats were playing with The Go-Go’s. The local guys were beating the shit out of the punks who were regulars to the music. Somebody pushed my head into the stage and I got a huge lump on my forehead. I was in the bathroom checking it out and a girl came and told me who it was. They were jocks! Big, meat-headed dudes in letter jackets. So, a bunch of us dykes fought back! To my recollection, we won. The bouncers threw them out for fighting girls!

You Can’t Step in the Same Punk River Twice

Alice: As punk expanded, it definitely picked up regional flavors—both good and bad. In some scenes it turned into a white male thing that I couldn’t get into. The Vex came along in 1979 and helped take the scene east of Chinatown where it had already taken hold in 1978. On March 12, 2012, the L.A. Weekly ran a piece by Nicholas Pell called “The Vex and Chicano Punk: a Very Brief History” for the L.A. Weekly that attempted to record the scene at the time, but only managed to paint an inaccurate picture that has continued to live on today. Pell at one point wrote in his article for the Weekly, “ …once punk proper hit with all its safety pins and mohawks, L.A. was home to two rival punk scenes: One in Hollyweird, another in East Los.” I don’t remember this rivalry at all.

X-8: There was no rivalry that I know of. I had already left the punk scene by 1979-80 because it became violent and it was no longer that fun. I never even made it to The Vex!

Hector: Keep in mind that a lot of these writers were still in grammar school when we were already doing our thing.

Robert: Did I know Nicholas Pell in 1976? Did you? Was he cute? Was he born yet?!

Alice: I don’t think he was around then. I think his writing is based on investigative journalism [laughing]. I Googled him. He looks well groomed. You might think he’s cute… He wears fedoras. His Twitter account says he tweets about egoism and masculinity among other things.

Robert: Well, I don’t remember a rivalry.

Mike: It never occurred to me to wonder where a band was from. I only cared if I could enjoy what the band was trying to do. They did not have to be good musicians. They just had to try and express themselves.

The Vex was only four blocks away from where I live. The only time I saw any negativity was when I saw Nervous Gender there. I was not in the band at the time and I went to support them. There was some homophobia directed at the band.

Tito: I don’t really remember any divide other than a geographical one. But then, as you know, I was a transplant, not an East L.A. native. I lived in Hollywood and considered myself a Holly Weirdo and as I remember it, the “Hollywood Punks” were well on their way by the time there was even an awareness that there was a viable punk thing happening on the East Side.

Hector: This bit about Hollywood and East L.A. not coming together, well, maybe into the ‘80s as more kids got into punk rock, but in the beginning EVERYTHING WAS HAPPENING IN HOLLYWOOD. There was no rivalry whatsoever.

Sean: This person is probably young and making claims in order to incite the masses.

Tito: It sounds like someone is trying to stir up some shit and make it look like there was more going on than truly was.

Alice: The problem is that this narrative is starting to take hold. The Smithsonian website for American Sabor has made similar claims saying that “Almost all the famous venues would not allow Eastside Chicano punks to play.” I’m from East L.A. No one kept me out of anything.

Robert: It sounds like West Side Story.


Alice: Yes, it does and it wasn’t like that at all. The Masque and the Vex scenes weren’t even concurrent and we somehow had a rivalry? I think it’s more complicated than that. Some of the punk bands that came along a little later felt that they were being discriminated against on the basis of race and somehow that got blamed on the Hollywood scene. Most of the people I know who were playing at the Vex didn’t have those racist experiences, but some people did and I don’t want to negate or make light of their experiences. The truth is that by late ‘79 things were already really different than they had been in the early years. The Hollywood scene was all but over by the time the Vex came along. So, I’d say that the rivalry is a myth, but allegations of racism in punk at large are possible. I mean, there were skinheads in those days. They weren’t hanging in our circles, but they were out there calling themselves punks.

Tito: All that skinhead nazi racist image came much later after the media and film inflated that aspect of the imagery, which was really more for shock value.

Alice: Nicholas goes on to say, “The Vex provided a platform for bands like The Plugz, The Brat and The Zeros, who were known as the “Mexican Ramones” and featured a young El Vez.”

Robert: I don’t remember ever playing the Vex. I quit the Zeros in 1978.

Alice: The Zeros and the Plugz were both already established by 1979, having honed their chops as part of the Hollywood scene. We claim you, not out of rivalry but out of accuracy.

Robert: By 1979 they (the Zeros without Robert) had moved to San Francisco.

Hector: I never heard of The Vex.

Javier: We never played there.

Alice: More myths…


X-8:
FlipSide didn’t care where you came from. For example, we liked The Zeros and admired the fact they drove almost two hours from the San Diego area. If they could come up to Hollywood, why not bands from East L.A. and Orange County?

Alice: In 1976-77, it was wide open. Tito, you were part of the Hollywood scene first but you later played a key role in the East L.A. scene as well.

Tito: I arrived in Hollywood in 1975 and was not aware of what I call “The East L.A. Syndrome.”

Alice: When was this?

Tito: A little later. The East L.A. scene came later.

Alice: What did you experience in East L.A.?

Tito: In my naïveté after getting to know some of the few East L.A. punk bands, I noticed they didn’t play in Hollywood much or at all. Inspired by these bands, I created a record company to exclusively produce, record, and release East L.A. bands. I didn’t equate this with racism but more to a geographical problem. Knowing what I know now, I believe that many of the bands in East L.A. thought they were being ignored because of their race. I don’t think that was true, but then, I wasn’t from East L.A.

Alice: You can’t step into the same punk river twice, our experiences were different because they happened at different times. There were a lot of punk bands by 1980, so it might have been more difficult for people to get noticed or even get gigs. Or, maybe there were some racist bookers out there and we were just fortunate to never have met them. Was your company Fatima Records?

Tito: Yeah, Fatima was late in ‘79. The first record was Gun Club’s Fire of Love. We ran out of money and made a deal with Slash for that record then got Yolanda Comparan and Richard Duardo involved to do the Brat Attitudes EP (1980), then a few singles and other stuff.

Alice: Sounds like cooperation and support rather than rivalry. These situations are successful not because one group extends goodwill but because all parties are open to a creative exchange.

Brendan Mullen’s Ears Knew No Color

Alice: Many of the bands that played at The Vex played there by choice, not out of duress or for lack of other venues. On the topic of the Vex, several years ago, the Claremont Museum of Art presented an exhibit called “Vexing: Female Voices,” which focused on the contributions of punk women from East L.A. I was invited to participate despite the fact that I told the curators that I was not part of the East L.A. punk scene but of the Hollywood scene. They encouraged me to participate because I was born and raised in E.L.A.

During the wave of promotion that preceded the opening of the show I was asked to interview with a writer named Augustin Gurza for the L.A. Times. The interviewer had been given a brief history of The Vex and was looking for quotes for his story. Because I have a very good friend who had told me of her own experiences with racism in the punk scene, I was trying to be sensitive and respectful of her experiences and I inadvertently played into a drama that I had no idea was about to unfold.

I told Mr. Gurza that the punk scene I had experienced had been open to all, but he asked if some people had felt it was closed as that narrative had been already been presented to him. I thought of my friend and I explained to him that in later years, yes, some people felt the L.A. punk scene was closed off to them. I was not talking about the early Hollywood scene or the Masque because I knew that scene had happened much earlier. I went on to express support for the fact that E.L.A. punks had created their own venue and that it had thrived despite the fact that some of those punks had initially felt excluded. The interview was lengthy, but the quotes extracted failed to capture my intent and the article would come back to bite me in the butt. (LA Times, May 10, 2008. “Museum Showcases Female Punk Scene.”)

Soon after the interview came out I received an angry email from my good friend Brendan Mullen, the founder of the Masque, who accused me of selling out the Hollywood scene in order to be in line with the E.L.A. scene. I explained to him that I had done no such thing and after a flurry of emails back and forth we declared an uneasy truce. I felt bad that someone I considered a friend would accuse me of “playing the race card” for personal gain and I don’t know if I handled the situation as well as I might have, had I not felt attacked. I knew that Brendan felt wounded by the implication that the punk scene had been anything but egalitarian and, despite the fact that his name had never come up and that I had told the reporter that my own experiences had been of an open and inclusive scene, those items were minimized in the article.

Shortly after that, Brendan passed away and I was left feeling as though the wound I unintentionally inflicted on him hadn’t fully healed. I would love to be able to clear his reputation, so in case there’s any doubt, I never experienced any prejudice from Brendan.

Trudie: Brendan could be a royal ass at times, but never prejudiced regarding race!

Juan: Brendan was such a warm and open person, he would never put up with racist bullshit!

X-8: Brendan was great. The one thing he confided in me was at goth club Bar Sinister many years later and told me he was a closet goth. We never talked about race.

Margot: I definitely don’t think Brendan’s booking was discriminatory in any way. We were rehearsing at the Masque back then. One night at the Whisky parking lot Darby Crash came up to me and said, “You guys are playing at the Masque tonight.” I guess it was very spur of the moment.

Hector: Brendan Mullen was one of the top three or five people who kept the Hollywood punk scene alive. He did it by creating the Masque punk club and I stress the word punk. The Whisky and The Starwood were supportive of the punk scene in its inception, but they also had other bands like Van Halen, The Runaways, The Vapors, etc.—more commercial and non-threatening bands with a somewhat rockstar vibe. But, the Masque was primarily punk with a few exceptions like The Nerves and The Go-Go’s and a few others.

Alice: Brendan booked punk, plain and simple and if he liked you, he didn’t even have to hear your band. He might give you a gig just based on how he felt about you. Geza and Nickey Beat talked Brendan into giving us our first gig without ever playing him a single song. It was more about being on the same wavelength.

Mike: Brendan was always friendly to me from the first time I found my way to the Masque. When Nervous Gender was formed he was very supportive. He would come to our shows. When we saw each other at shows thirty years later, he would make sure to stop and check to see how I was doing.

Javier: I think the first time I met Brendan was when we played the Masque with The Nerves and F-Word. The Nerves had white suits on and I really liked F-Word. They were cool. We played the Masque a handful of times. I think we got about twenty bucks each time for gas back to San Diego.

Hector: The Zeros went to the Masque after a gig at The Whisky, if I’m not mistaken. We met Brendan and right away we liked him. He was a gentleman and very nice. Right away he offered us a gig after we told him we were a band. He was a super cool, down-to-earth, no-nonsense guy. He also supported the punk scene by making the Masque a rehearsal space. The Controllers used to rehearse there with Carla Maddog on drums. Brendan was about the music.


Sean: Brendan Mullen, Kateri Butler, Bibbe Hansen, and I often ate sushi together at Oomasa in downtown Los Angeles—sometimes by coincidence, sometimes by appointment. During these lively dinners we often spent a good deal of time discussing some of our favorite subjects—music and politics.

One evening I remember discussing something that bothered Brendan greatly. He said that he had heard several members of East L.A. punk bands claim that the Hollywood scene was tainted by racist overtones and that playing in Hollywood was virtually impossible due to this inherent bigotry. He knew that I was born and raised in East L.A. and had been on the scene at that time. He was curious to know if I felt the same way.
I assured him that I did not share this opinion, but I was also curious why he was so affected by this. Once again—in typical Brendan fashion—he worked himself up, not in a combative way but he did become indignant. He was very proud of the fact that the Masque, the club he founded and the birthplace of L.A. punk, was so integrated.

The pride was not boastful but natural for a person who looked at the world not through race-tinted glasses but usually through a pair of ears. As long as I knew Brendan, he was always focused on the music. It was the sound of things that fascinated him, from the sound of language and dialects to the rhythms created by people from all cultures. I don’t know if there was a genre of music he didn’t like—though he had strong opinions—and he seemed able to find something to appreciate in almost every culture’s music, especially if it was authentic.

After listening to Brendan rail against these accusations, I finally understood what upset him so greatly. It wasn’t being labeled a racist, although that was pretty bad considering nothing could be further from the truth. It was that it would not reflect his musical taste and the sincerity of his commitment to music.

Punk, at least in Los Angeles anyway, was born of a group of misfits, outsiders, weirdos, and those that don’t fit easily in society’s compartments. Who better to champion the creative output of this band of outsiders than an outsider himself? A Scotsman in a land of make believe—Hollywood—would surely find the real and true spirit of music in a city known for creating false realities, and he did. He was a man whose ears knew no color. He may not have liked your band or your music, but it had nothing to do with the color of your skin. Of that, I am completely sure.

Alice: Absolutely right, Sean. I could not have said it better. Brendan led by example and helped turn the Masque into our safe place to be creative and though it was home base for many punks in the early days, it was by no means the only place we had to play. Many clubs, not only in Hollywood but all over Southern California, were eager to cater to the rapidly growing taste for punk. The Whisky a Go-Go even had a punk drink menu for a short time. Aside from Hollywood, in what other cities—or neighborhoods in the Greater L.A. area— were you invited to play and or watch punk bands?

Margot: San Francisco, San Diego, South Bay, and Orange County.

Kid: I saw bands in many places like Huntington Beach, Redondo Beach, the San Fernando Valley…

Alice: It seems to me that those of us who were involved in the Hollywood scene were happy to play in any city that had a scene and was willing to host shows. The Bags played up and down the West Coast, Seattle, Portland…

Trudie: …San Francisco, San Diego, Downtown L.A., Redondo Beach, Huntington Beach, San Bernardino, Burbank, North Hollywood, Camarillo, Orange County/Anaheim, Torrance. I’m sure there is more.

Alice: Trudie and Hellin, you saw the Sex Pistols in Texas! Punk knew no boundaries. Except for maybe the national border…

Margot: When I was touring with my second band, Brian Brain, I experienced the most blatant racism in my punk career: I was racially profiled by Border Patrol and detained for no reason. While we were driving out of El Paso, Texas late at night, two very piggish border agents pulled our van over and assumed that a British punk rock band had just smuggled a Mexican woman across the border. They would not accept my California driver’s license, the only I.D. I had, as proof that I was in the country legally. I am a U.S. citizen. They said, “Anyone can get one of those.” I argued that I was within the U.S. and that I was not required to carry my passport but they would not listen and they detained me in a bungalow for hours, interrogating me on U. S. history and civics while the band (one member’s visa had expired, but since he was white, they did not even check his passport) and crew waited nervously outside, fearing their bass player would be deported. That’s Texas!

Alice: Racism, sexism, homophobia—all those things are still out there but for a few brief moments, for a small group of Hollywood punks, they ceased to exist.

Pretty Fair and Open

The myth that the Hollywood scene was racially discriminatory is sometimes used to explain the genesis of the East L.A. scene which blossomed around the Vex in late 1979, early 1980. I think we can call that myth “busted.”

As the decade of the seventies came to a close, punk spread throughout the country, from the big urban cities where it had first taken hold out into the suburbs. Once there, it picked up the flavor of those particular communities. The Hollywood punk scene, which had once been a small, inclusive group of misfits ceased to exist in that state. There was never any feeling of rivalry between the original Hollywood scene and the East L.A. scene. As the L.A. scene expanded, it included a much broader collection of humanity and a wider range of ideals. The expansion brought positives as well as negatives and those differences may have stirred tensions in the early ‘80s.

I remember our scene—the original Hollywood scene—as egalitarian. It wasn’t perfect or utopian, but it was pretty fair and open. We were not goody-goodies, not by a long shot. We were not always politically correct, but by and large we treated each other with respect. By 1980, I began pulling myself away from the Hollywood scene. Too many of my friends were involved with drugs—especially heroin—and I started to lose them. I felt the lure of temptation. It would have been all too easy to slip into drug abuse and I wanted to avoid that particular pothole. At the same time, the audiences at our shows were changing, becoming more uniform, male-dominated, and less colorful. They didn’t connect with our music in the same way the Masque audiences had, so I moved on.
I hope that you will consider the accounts of those of us who were there when you hear or read misinformed writers or people with revisionist agendas tell our story. Go to the source. Just because something is in print doesn’t make it true, even if the print appears in the Smithsonian catalog or the L.A. Times.

Question authority. Always.


The Past Remains Largely Unwritten

Michelle Habell-Pallan, Guest Curator, American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, reveals the behind-the-scenes of the traveling exhibit.

Thanks for this opportunity to give context. First, as one of the three curators of Experience Music Project’s American Sabor, we send a big thank you to all the musicians, fans, and people behind the scenes whose creative energy conjured a vital, musical spirit. They’ve been the inspiration for our project that seeks to remember and share their creations via educational formats. Younger generations don’t often have the opportunity to learn about the influence of Chicana/o and Latina/o communities in the making of what is considered “American” pop music as it has occurred across time and geography. We live in a moment in which the humanity and sheer diversity our communities are represented and remembered in are astonishingly narrow by mainstream corporate media and academia. Apparently, we have just arrived and have nothing to do with music scenes that occurred prior to this moment.

The music tells us this is not true. That’s one of the reasons we desired to tell a different story based on evidence in the music itself. Across time and geography our music has often served as a response to those narrow definitions. Alice is right to be disturbed by the website’s inaccuracies and so are we. We worked so hard to listen deeply and get the story right from the start because it is not often that we get the chance to share these stories in a traveling exhibit format. We never had the chance to review or consent to the inaccurate changes in our text as it was rewritten by editors at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service for the website version.

We were initially very excited about the website’s potential and appreciated the design of the website. We were shocked and appalled when we realized that our original text had been altered when the exhibit was condensed into a more compact traveling exhibit that included the website as a companion. As soon as we saw the inaccuracies, we insisted they be changed and that the tour of the physical exhibit be halted until corrected. We went back and forth until corrected panels were made to replace the inaccurate ones for the traveling exhibit, now currently at CSU Los Angeles. The website changes are currently underway! Unfortunately, the punk section wasn’t the only section altered; so was the salsa section and others. It remains a mystery to us why the changes were made in the first place.

The altered text’s implication that the Hollywood punk scene was hostile to Latinos/as is confounding because the exhibit highlights how Chicanas like Alice were part of and helped make the Hollywood punk scene. The exhibit also asks why punk as a genre is rarely included in overarching scholarly histories of Latina music that document the music shared in Latino/a communities. Viewers can also listen to oral histories on the website that give a different perspective from the text and listen to sound modules that let the music tell the story. Notably, Alice’s own book, Violence Girl: East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage: a Chicana Punk Memoir, provides a much needed account of the openness of the scene.

We hoped the exhibit would start a conversation about the musicians and scenes featured there and move others to create new exhibits, write new histories, and generally share their stories. It’s important to keep the dialogue going as this exhibit can serve as an entry into new discussions. It’s very exciting to read Alice’s never-before-published, amazing and much-needed interviews with the OG’s here in Razorcake. Her article invites further investigation that will likely inspire new books, testimonios, music, and fans.

We also wanted to keep the story an open and evolving one. To that end, the American Sabor website blog invites music makers and lovers to upload their own stories for posting and preservation. When the exhibit concludes, the Library of Congress will archive posts for posterity. This is a rare opportunity to preserve our collective stories in this manner. This is one way to keep American Sabor an open story, with new voices that discuss their own experiences. We invite folks to post here so that their stories shape histories now and those written in the future. Can’t wait to read them now and for our great, great grandchildren to read them!

Michelle Habell-Pallan is the Associate Professor Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality and Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Music and Department of Communication at the University of Washington and author of Loca Motion: The Travels of Chicana and Latina Popular Culture (NYU Press)

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Interview with Liz Suburbia: Punk Rock Ethos on Paper By Natalye Childress

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It’s been a whirlwind year for Liz Suburbia, who saw the release of her first book, Sacred Heart, published by Fantagraphics Books. The artist and author opened up in an email interview about how punk rock and comics helped mold her approach to art, how she’s teaching herself to improve her craft, and her thoughts on the internet’s role in creating a platform for marginalized voices to be heard.

Suburbia is punk rock—and not just in the sense of dyed hair and piercings, though she has those too. But her version of punk rock goes beyond aesthetics to encompass an unfiltered version of the world. Sometimes that means creating something for the sole purpose of self-expression, regardless of how unpolished it might be. Other times that means drawing characters with glaring personal flaws and visible physical imperfections. And of course that also means fighting against oppressive systems with her words, her actions, and even her money. So when Suburbia puts pen to paper, you can guarantee her punk rock ethos comes spilling out.

Natalye: For the uninitiated reader, can you briefly tell us about yourself?

Liz: I currently live in Nevada and try to squeeze making comics in around having a day job and having a life. I like walking around outside and exploring my city and going to shows, even though I don’t go to as many since leaving the D.C. area a couple of years ago.

Natalye: What made you decide to make that move and what differences have you found between the two places?

Liz: The D.C. area was just getting really unlivable. It’s really expensive and hard to get around because the traffic’s so bad. In Reno, I pay half as much for an apartment twice as big, and I can get anywhere worth going inside of fifteen minutes. For the first time, I can actually afford to save up a little money for whatever it is I want to do next, life-wise. I miss D.C. a lot, though; the punk scene there is really something special.

Natalye: When did you first become interested in art as something you partook in and not simply consumed?

Liz: I’ve been drawing comics for as long as I can remember; my references have just changed over the years. I started out copying FoxTrot and those kinds of newspaper strips as a little kid. In high school, I met my best friend, Kevin Czapiewski, who introduced me to zines and punk music, which really influenced the direction my approach to art took, even if it took a few years to really incubate. Later, I worked at a comic shop in Virginia for almost four years, which was really educational as far as seeing how much stuff is out there and collecting influences and developing my own style.

Natalye: What specifically about zines and punk influenced your direction?

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Liz: I think most of all it’s been the big DIY principle of making and sharing your own shit with your friends, instead of just consuming what the culture at large is manufacturing with a bottom line in mind. It’s the idea that wanting to do something is enough—you don’t have to be at a certain skill level, you don’t have to have a certain number of people paying attention, and it doesn’t matter if it’s forgotten a year from now or if it ever gets any kind of notice or makes any money. When you’re just making a zine or writing a song or whatever for your own edification, or to share with your friends because you love them and you want to do something fun for them, it keeps you in the moment. It’s what helps us feel alive. And the freedom that comes from that can open up a space for amazing things, like art and ideas that really push boundaries and platforms for people whose voices don’t get heard otherwise. My surface aesthetic tastes are fickle, but that core world view is going to enliven and sustain me until the day I die.

Natalye: When you were developing your own style, were there phases where you didn’t really know what you were doing? Are you proud of all your work, or are there any time periods when you produced stuff that you’re not so into now?

Liz: Oh yeah, definitely. I don’t even know if I’d say I know what I’m doing now! There’s precious little I’ve ever drawn that I can look at without cringing. I’m at this point right now where I’m really just trying to destroy my stupid ego—like getting a grip on my natural tendency to be a perfectionist—because it makes it hard to get anything done. I waste so much energy fretting that what I’m working on won’t be good enough to show other people, which I realize totally flies in the face of what I was saying earlier about a punk ethos. It wasn’t really an issue when it felt like no one was looking and I was just doing this to amuse myself; I’m not so hardcore that I’m immune to self-consciousness. That’s the price you pay for gaining a wider audience.

Natalye: In a past interview, you’d said “I think [punk] should be more of a tool to learn more about yourself and others and a lens through which to see and question to world around you, than a full-on identity.” Can you share an example of this to illustrate what you mean?

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Liz: Not to talk shit or anything, but over the years I’ve seen a lot of punks really fall into the trap of letting the identity do all the work of being a human being in the world for them, you know? I’ve known people who sneer at their square neighbors when the only difference between them is one of them has weird hair and drinks their coffee from a Misfits mug. I mean, I know how it feels to want to belong to something cool that makes you feel okay about yourself; it’s a mean world and I fully endorse the use of aesthetic rituals to drum up the strength to face it. But the day I walk out the door thinking I’m better than anybody else because I listen to Bikini Kill instead of Rihanna is the day I’ve lost touch.

Natalye: When people talk about your work, often they mention how intense, messy, and gritty the artwork and the topics are. What’s your response? How deliberate are you about this?

Liz: I’ve actually been kind of surprised to hear it described in those terms. To me, it feels like I’m being too neat and clean and uptight, artistically and thematically. I’m just trying to be as truthful as I can. Maybe people are just surprised to see a cartoonist actually acknowledge that things like cellulite and body hair exist.

Natalye: You’re known for your zine, Cyanide Milkshake. But last summer, Fantagraphics released your first graphic novel, Sacred Heart, an epic three-hundred-page story. How did you make the transition from the fun short scrapbook style to a longer form?

Liz: I actually started doing Cyanide Milkshake as a break from early Sacred Heart production. My natural tendency is toward really long, drawn-out ideas. So I decided I would try to crank out something short and silly as fast and unselfconsciously as possible, which was Cyanide Milkshake #2 (the story of #1 is kind of dumb and weird; I’ll explain it in the eventual collection).

The Sacred Heart pages on my website were a pretty rough draft, even though I was kind of sweating blood over them at the time. Once the publishing deal came up, I started redrawing the whole thing from scratch, and it took me about a year and a half of really hard work to get it done. I was also working my current day job—which has mandatory overtime half the year—and dealing with some personal family stuff, so it was a rough time. I didn’t go out or exercise or take care of my body, so I pretty much felt like I was dying 24/7. It really took over my life and I don’t think I could do it that way again.

Natalye: In working with these “long, drawn-out ideas,” you also have so many characters and plotlines colliding with one another. Where does the inspiration for each person come from?

Liz: I definitely spend a lot of time trying to figure people out, maybe because it doesn’t come very naturally to me. I frequently feel like an alien life form who’s trying really earnestly to pass for human. I read a lot of advice columns.

Natalye: Do you have a process for creating characters and their backstories?

Liz: My characters tend to start as general ideas of what kind of people I want them to be and what their place is in the story, and then I have to do the more conscious work of rounding them out, which usually involves asking a lot of questions: What do they do when they’re depressed? How do they act when they have a crush? What’s a formative moment in their past? Where are they going to end up when they’re old, if they make it that far?  Once you have a good sense of them as a person, you just kind of plug them into the plot, and if you’ve gotten to know them well enough, their actions and reactions will be mostly self-evident.

Natalye: How do you keep everything straight?

Liz: I write everything down in a big notebook, but I really need to start transcribing it onto a computer and backing it up on the cloud or something, because if that notebook catches on fire or whatever, I’ll really be up a creek.

Natalye: Even though there’s only one book, your plan is to write more. How will you be approaching the next installments?

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Liz: Going forward with Sacred Heart, I’m planning to serialize it at a slower pace, and I’m trying to figure out ways to draw that are easier and more economical, even if it means I don’t get to nitpick each individual drawing and try to make it look perfect or whatever. The story is going to follow the main character into her old age, so I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Natalye: What specifically do you mean by “easier and more economical” ways of drawing?

Liz: Faster, looser, less self-conscious. Making more space for spontaneity and happy accidents, almost like doing improv instead of sticking to a script. I’d really love to learn to enjoy the process of capturing a truthful feeling, instead of being so fucking precious about formulating a rigid picture in my head and trying to translate it as closely as possible to the page.

Natalye: You also recently announced a new project, Egg Cream. What can you tell me about that?

Liz: Egg Cream is basically just going to be a somewhat more polished version of Cyanide Milkshake. It’s a regular release of a certain length, in which I plan to serialize new installments of Sacred Heart and also have room for any other kind of silly one-offs or other stories I want to do. It’s being published by Czap Books, which is my best friend’s imprint, and I’m as stoked as I could possibly be to be working with them on this.

Natalye: In addition to changing your approach to drawing, you’ve also said in another interview that you’re trying to develop as a writer. Has that been challenging for you?

Liz: It’s been a little challenging, yeah. I’m not very sharp or academically minded, so my method is to basically read a lot of comics and watch a lot of TV and try to pick apart what works and what doesn’t. I like to watch sprawling dramas like The Sopranos or Big Love and just kind of learn about things like characterization and story arcs by osmosis. I’m lucky to have some really good friends with really varied approaches to writing and making comics, and keeping up with their latest work always challenges me to not just get complacent with what I’m doing and how I’m thinking.

Natalye: How have you seen your writing develop?

Liz: I don’t know if I’ve seen my writing develop much, but it’s nice to have a kind of awareness of how to hammer a raw idea out into something that’s outwardly comprehensible. Comics, for me, are about communicating and connecting with others, which most anxious people will tell you can be kind of fraught, so it’s nice to have something resembling a system for doing so.

Natalye: In what ways do you experience that communication and connection? Is it all just knowing you’re putting stuff out there, or is it more concrete, like meeting people, receiving fan mail, et cetera?

Liz: For me, it’s most deeply felt in the exchange: I give you my comic, you give me yours, and over time we influence and challenge each other. Stuff like fan mail and meeting people is actually kind of the hard part for me, because I get overwhelmed by it really easily. I love people, but I have a shitty brain! I get anxious about answering my email, and it piles up in my inbox more and more until it’s just completely paralyzing to even think about.

Meeting one person at a time takes a lot of emotional resources—like, I want to put my best self forward and be present in the moment and absorb what they’re telling me about themselves, so meeting a ton of people in one day at a show or a convention can drain me pretty quickly. I start running on autopilot, and when that happens, I miss out on really engaging with the person in front of me. SPX 2016 is coming up at the time I’m writing this, and I’m stressing out about not remembering names and faces that I’ve met before. I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life, which can really physiologically do a number on your memory. I don’t want to accidentally be an asshole to anyone who’s nice enough to want to reach out to me.

Natalye: Speaking of SPX, I’m paraphrasing here, but you spoke on a panel there once about not wanting to work for a mainstream publisher in “queering up/feministing” their characters, given their shitty track record with these topics and “punk/queer” culture not being a thing for them to appropriate. Could you elaborate on that? Would mainstream publishers putting out more comics that are relatable to queers and punks make the world better? Or would that be more like fetishizing something actually important that it’s hard to trust them to get right?

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Liz: It’s kind of a complicated issue. How much principle are you willing to sacrifice for that kind of visibility, and is that visibility worth it to you? Like I said in that panel, my friend Cathy G. Johnson put it really well and really simply: “It’s up to the people in power to meet marginalized groups where we are, instead of exploiting us for sales and street cred.” That’s a paraphrase, but you get the idea. You can’t trust those kinds of places not to use you just to make their shit look better and not to take marginalized people’s money without really giving anything back.

Honestly, I don’t think we need the acknowledgement of DC or Marvel or whoever, you know (that’s who we were discussing on the panel you mentioned)? In the internet age, it is so easy to find work by POC and trans kids and queers and everyone else you can imagine: work that they have control over, and that doesn’t serve corporate interests at their expense. And you can support that work directly. I mean, I’m not going to judge anyone for the work they take to keep food on the table, because we’re stuck with a broken system for the time being, and I think it’s more important for a marginalized person to stay alive first and foremost. I’ve got my eyes on my own paper. I have the means to turn down that kind of work, so I try to stay aware of the reasons why I choose to do so.

Natalye: You’ve mentioned it in passing a couple of times, but you have a job that keeps you pretty busy. What is it?

Liz: It’s about as boring to hear described as it is to do every day. I just do art stuff on the computer for a printing company. The health insurance is really good and the pay is enough that my comics don’t have to carry the burden of paying my bills.

Natalye: Do you have aspirations of getting to do comics full time, or would that ruin it for you?

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Liz: I’d like to have a different day job eventually. I’m saving up my Sacred Heart money so I can go back to school and actually get qualified for something, but I don’t think I’ll ever do comics full time, barring some kind of surprise windfall. It would be easier if the only lifestyle I was trying to sustain was one that lets me keep making comics, but I have other stuff I want to do in life too. It’s important to me—speaking only for myself—to contribute equally financially to my household, and comics just don’t pay a living wage. My book did really well and I live pretty modestly, but what I made last year wouldn’t have been enough to live off of. And my work really suffers under any kind of pressure, so I think if I tried to do comics full time they’d really fall off in quality. Maybe this point of view isn’t very punk rock of me, but whatever, life’s a hustle and my dogs need to eat.

Natalye: You’ve been putting out and distributing your art with Silver Sprocket for some time now—including contributing to three of the four issues of As You Were zine—and you recently announced a new comic you’re releasing with Silver Sprocket. What are the details on that?

Liz: Glad you asked! It’s called SuperNova MegaCrush, and it’s about a blob alien hive mind crushing on the human race from afar and working up the courage to ask us if we want to casually hook up. If you read Cyanide Milkshake, it takes place in the same universe as Girl Boy Adventures, the silly zombie comic where a character from Sacred Heart fell through a portal into an alternate universe. It’s kind of a porno in that the whole story is driven by sexual encounters between characters, but it’s pretty softcore: lots of nudity and heavy breathing, but not really any close-ups of body parts going into other body parts or anything like that.

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Natalye: What does the rest of 2016 look like for you? Will you be publishing or releasing anything?

Liz: I’ll be releasing the sexy comic with Silver Sprocket, hopefully in something resembling a timely fashion—I’ve had a lot of overtime lately so it’s going kind of slowly. I’m going to try to have Cyanide Milkshake #8 and maybe a mini comic about the imaginary friend I had when I was thirteen done in time for SPX. Beyond that, who knows? The time goes by really fast! I’m just trying to figure out how to loosen up my drawing so that it’s faster and less stressful to make comics, instead of throwing my free time away agonizing over every damn line and making stuff that just ends up looking really uptight and anxious.

Natalye: Is there any new direction you want to experiment with?

Liz: I’m still feeling really burned out from finishing the book and I’m just trying to remember how to enjoy drawing again. Maybe I’ll try making comics using a digital drawing tablet, but I already stare at a computer screen for forty-plus hours a week for my job, so maybe not, at least not yet.

Natalye: If you had to choose one artistic piece of output of yours that would be representative of who you are to show someone who is not familiar with your work, what would it be?

Liz: I guess Sacred Heart is my biggest thing to date, in terms of the scale and ambition behind the story and the themes and everything, so that might be a good one. I don’t know. I’m always learning and changing so I always feel like my best stuff is still ahead of me. Whatever I have coming out next, that’s what you should read.

AUTHOR BIO: Natalye Childress is an author, writer, and editor based in Berlin, Germany. She makes a killer mixtape. http://www.natalye.com

http://lizsuburbia.com

Talkin’ About These Days with Vic Bondi, Interview by David Ensminger

Punks for decades have deeply admired the ferocious,  yet well-crafted musicality and heavy-duty politics of Articles Of Faith, led by the sandpapery voice of Vic Bondi. They bloomed upon the hardcore scene of the early 1980s in the wake of the potent polemics of the Dead Kennedys and the brazen physicality of Bad Brains, yet they were not mere pretenders. They avoided copycat style as well as commonplace left wing sloganeering too.

The band’s range – from savage speed and fury (“Up Against the Wall,” “Buy This War”) and soaring, anthemic pleas (“What We Want is Free”) to jarring percussive onslaughts (“Street Fight”) and even nods to Husker Du style sentiments (“Remain in Memory” sounds akin to moments of Zen Arcade) highlight the band’s overall nerve, ethos, chops, and commitment to making hardcore agile and aggressive — more than a cookie cutter hard’n’fast genre.

Bondi’s career—teaching  college history in Boston to working in the behemoth known as Microsoft industries—might cause some to pause, but his prolific output in well-received bands like Jones Very, Alloy, Report Suspicious Activity, featuring members of Jawbox and Kerosene 454, and Dead Ending, with members of Alkaline Trio and Rise Against, still resonates with integrity, as his newest foray proves.

Instead of retreating into his autumn years, Bondi channeled his frustration into an album that combines the thick, rhythmic pounding of Jones Very with the fiercely articulated dissent of Articles Of Faith. In doing so, Bondi remains gripping, timely, and barbed as ever. Plus, his voice is still the cornerstone Midwest punk growl, while his acute intelligence flies the flag of freedom, not free dumbness.

AOF_posed_80s_and_2010

David: Between discovering the 1960s revisionist historians like William Appleman Williams at Northern Illinois University and practicing your first punk power chords with Direct Drive in small town, farm field-surrounded Dekalb and Sycamore in the late 1970s, does your newest album embody those same passions and sense of possibilities?

Vic: The passions, probably. I’m not sure about the sense of possibilities. They were a lot broader thirty years ago. I think I had a sure sense of the possible twice in my life. The first was at the end of the ’70s. I had a belief that if we took the best of the ’60s and dropped the rest—purged and renewed that basic utopian, progressive outlook, the way punk was purging and renewing rock—we’d have a broad, bright future. Reagan crushed a fair amount of that optimism, but I think many of us thought if we stuck to our guns, we’d work our way out of Reaganism, which was why hardcore flourished under him.

The second time was in the ’90s, when I joined the software revolution. I thought, as Marc Andreessen (web entrepreneur who helped co-create Netscape and sits on the corporate boards of Facebook and eBay) said, software would eat the world, and predatory capitalism would be replaced by progressive meritocracy. Microsoft was a progressive meritocracy when I joined. So was Yahoo and Google. But Robert Rubin and the hedge fund managers on Wall Street killed that. The minute software companies started responding to Wall Street more than their customers, they were forced to implement the same destructive management policies Wall Street forced on the rest of American business. When Microsoft hired a COO from Wal-Mart, it was all over. Ultimately, software didn’t eat the world. Financial capitalism did. So, I’m not sure I feel a great sense of the possible. What I feel is a lot of dread, and a sense my life is just a sophisticated version of medieval peasantry, and we are all tithed and tethered to rich capitalists who have absolutely none of our values.

David: Who or what propelled you, musically, as you wrote this album? I know at the time of some Dead Ending recordings, you had been listening to historical black music…

Vic: Well, no. Not historical. I’ve been listening to black music since I was twelve and got a C in my English class and my Dad grounded me. I would listen to this little transistor radio that got a great soul station in Baltimore—WEBB I think, but maybe I remember wrong—and the music was great: Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Four Tops, Spinners, Sly Stone, James Brown. It was the first pop music I ever heard, and I’ve been listening to soul and black music ever since.

But I can’t play like that or sing like that, and I’ve never tried. I can’t rap either. When I was recording with Morello, he and all his friends would throw down in the van—I mean freestyle like unbelievable motherfuckers—and I could not keep up and wouldn’t even try. I can’t say I really listen to a lot of contemporary rap or soul music, though. Every so often I’ll stumble onto something terrific and I’ll roll with it. Thundercat, most recently. But that’s actually true of all styles of music—I don’t consume it like I used to.

So, anyway, whatever the influence of those styles of music, they don’t show up in my stuff—well, I do loop a lot of classic funk in the Sandoz Zardoz tracks. But for the new album I mostly wanted to make a record that was about guitars and kind of assert myself as a guitarist—maybe I felt I don’t get enough credit as a guitarist. So if there was one thing I was trying to do with the record musically, it’s that. And I wanted it to crush.

David: You have mentioned your own homophobia, which was normalized in both of our eras, even in punk subculture, and how Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü helped you overcome. In an earlier interview you told me, “I don’t even remember when Bob told me he was gay. But it was pretty important to me in terms of helping me get past my own anxieties about sexuality.” What do you think has driven the current youth—despite the last reactionary vestiges of homophobic policies—towards a different understanding of LBGTQ issues?

Vic: Well, fucking it’s pretty great, whether you’re gay or straight or somewhere in between or beyond. It’s pretty hard to get people to stop fucking. So the anti-gay agenda always was working against the strong current of desire. I’m not even sure the homophobia of my grandparents/parents generation was about stopping gay sex. There was plenty of gay sex then. It was more about distorting desire and putting it in the service of work discipline and war. You probably have even heard people of that generation say that they had no issue with homosexuality; they had an issue with “out” homosexuality. Roy Cohen or J. Edgar Hoover were fine by them.

If I were looking for a cause for a shifting in attitudes, I’d probably argue it is consumer culture generally that has opened receptivity to multiple approaches to sexuality. Sex is a commodity—and has been since the 1950s—in more and more explicit forms and in wider varieties. It sells. So it makes sense younger people are fine with most variants of sexual practice. What’s less clear to me is that the new generation has a progressive sense of intimacy, and that society at large is any more embracing of intimacy than they were in the 1950s. If anything, the technology revolution of the last twenty-five years has cut against this, and you have an almost pyrrhic victory for sexuality: lonely, alienated people comfortable with all sorts of sexual expression, but completely unacquainted with love and intimacy. How loving will the future be when you can casually dump your partner and swipe to find another in Tinder?

David: After re-uniting AOF, you told me, “We wanted to kill bad music and crap culture, and that clearly has not happened.” Does that speak to the limits of punk and hardcore communities? And how would you define crap music and culture today— perhaps just endless “Batman-style adolescent, messianic fantasies” that keep the lower/working classes deluded and distracted?

Vic: The promise and problem with the internet is that it reduces all culture to a singular, undifferentiated level. The promise of the internet was to make all information available at all times to everyone, which it has done, more or less, and that’s a great thing. But it has made everything available as the same type of super-flat, context-free information. So culture as an expression of class ceases to exist. All that twentieth century conflict over legitimate working class culture and its role in resisting the culture of the ruling class becomes irrelevant. In the internet there’s no distinction between rock and opera, and low and high. It’s the same thing. Or, more alarmingly, there is no distinction between a fact and a fiction or a truth and a lie. People can’t make sense of the world anymore because the “facts” of a conspiracy theory are the same as the facts of a political theory or the facts of a history. You could even borrow a page from Marshall McLuhan (twentieth century media theory philosopher) and insist the Internet collapses epistemology. We all know the same way now from the internet.

The problem is that the internet doesn’t collapse ontology, and the world is still structured hierarchically, more or less the way it was in the twentieth century. The rich are still—increasingly—calling the shots. They are still amassing wealth and resources even as information is freely distributed. They’re not bothering to control information anymore because their control of resources is actually facilitated and enabled by the democratized, undifferentiated web. They’re giving up on the culture war because they don’t need it. They are flourishing in chaos. As long as slacktivism and Facebook are viable expressions of activism, as long as Kanye is rock’n’roll, culture is not a meaningful place for political enlightenment and resistance. It’s another pyrrhic victory.

David: “Gaza, Missouri” seems to trace the legacy of colonial catastrophe from the rape of slaves, to the rape of the West, and to Black Lives Matter issues in our contemporary era, like two recent deaths in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. Can a million viral videos cause change? Does this generation have tools others longed for?

Vic: Gaza came from listening to the rhetoric around Ferguson. It was so reminiscent of the rhetoric of the Army in the Sioux Wars—“Put the Indians down.” There was the same demonization of the Other as you rob them of their livelihood, and it was also reminiscent of what you hear out of the Middle East. So, yes, this concept goes back a ways.

As far as tools go, in my generation and before, knowledge was power. The more you knew, the less you could be used and abused. But if we were being completely honest, knowledge alone could be a refuge for the powerless. Especially in the ’70s and ’80s, as the revolutionary fires of the ’60s burned out, knowledge became a refuge for revolutionaries and radicals. We had lost. So colleges were filled with radicals who focused their attention on deconstructing texts and arguing identity, to no real avail. It was no substitute for what had actually been the driving force in the ’60s (and ’30s): organization.

Whenever we talk about the civil rights movement, we always seem to underestimate the way in which Southern churches drove that movement. It provided the logistical support for it. But it also provided the social context, the feeling of inclusion and belonging, that was crucial to it. The same is true of unions. We always laud their role in driving up wages, but we forget just how important they were as places where families would play bingo on Saturday night or assemble for weddings. They were foci for communities. And out of those communities you could organize.

In theory, social technology tools should provide an organizational framework for activism. It should advance it. And with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement, you saw something like that. But you also saw its limits. In both cases. Those tools were no match for the actual organization of power. A phone is not a gun.

David: As a father, witnessing Hillary Clinton’s nomination by the Democrats as their candidate for the presidency, and one who claims she will choose women for fifty percent of cabinet positions, do you think a gender revolution has occurred, even though the candidate may be flawed?

Vic: I think if Hillary becomes president, you’ll have right-wing domestic terrorism on an unprecedented scale. Misogyny is already rising, the same way racism did when Obama became president. For that army of impotent white men who listen to Fox, the only thing worse than a black president is a female one.

David: You’ve also told me, “If I were seventeen now, I would probably do a lot more musically with computers,” yet this album is another thrasher that seems to combine the heavy sonic density of Jones Very with the speed and politics of AOF at times. Why haven’t you done more with digital programming, perhaps like Atari Teenage Riot or Consolidated? Is it out of your comfort zone?


Vic: It’s not out of my comfort zone. I do experimental stuff with machines. I did some Bandcamp recordings as a project called Sandoz Zardoz with a Seattle poet, Jeff Chavez. They aren’t electronica, but they are loops and edits and some tricky instrumentation. But I don’t know how interesting they are to people who knew me from my other bands.

I’m perfectly comfortable with the fact that my main musical muse is heavy, intense, and political. It’s what I do best. I’ve been pissed off since Ferguson. I marched with BLM. I donated time and tech to a school in a disadvantaged community. And I made another record. That’s generally what I do when I’m angry. We worked hard on it. I played all the guitars and tried some stuff on it. It feels pretty natural to me.

David: “Ocean on Fire” directly aims at the industrial war on the planet—from fracking to drilling anywhere, anytime, including vulnerable seas. Yet you acknowledged to me previously, “broad swaths of Americans today would welcome environmental collapse.” How do we overcome both a culture of cynicism and a culture of denial?

Vic: I’m not sure. I find myself in denial sometimes, because it is so terrifying. Last summer as I was flying back from Europe over Greenland, you could see melt pools the entire length of the continental glacier. It’s real.

That, I think, is my strategy: It’s real. To insist on that. The election and global warming are both events over which it feels that reality is contested. The world doesn’t revolve around Chinese conspiracies and Hillary’s “crimes.” Those guys who took over the wildlife refuge in Oregon are delusional. Are so are people who insist that there is no global warming or that Hillary murdered Vince Foster. I’m going to cast my vote and raise my voice for the real. The right wing is almost living on another planet, one of perception and ideology instead of reality. Thirty years of propaganda is distorting to the point of delusion.

Probably, more than anything else, that’s why I did the record. That’s reality. Because heavy music isn’t just about how tough you are.

David: Both of us readily use Spotify (I pay the monthly fee), a streaming service under fire from some artists. You’ve spent an entire life working with various underground/indie labels and have witnessed the transformation of music technology firsthand. Is streaming the way forward—with some artist-friendly changes perhaps—or do you foresee other platforms taking shape?

Vic: No—most of what tech will do to the music business it already has, and what it has done, fundamentally, is make it impossible to be a professional musician. The economics are deadly. The lifespan of a professional musician today is incredibly short and incredibly poor. So what you will have moving forward is more crowdfunding, and more semi-pro, part-time musicians. Because you can’t stop playing music. It’s life. And what is happening will continue to happen: audiences will fragment and circulate around smaller and smaller subcultures. You’re seeing technology facilitate the triumph of folk music, in that no one will be able to make a living with music in the future, so musicianship will consist of small communities of musicians who make music for each other in their spare time.

David: No doubt, hardcore punk thrived in the era of Ronald Reagan—from songs like DOA’s “Fucked Up Ronnie” to flyers strewn with Reagan caricatures. You end “Stockholm Syndrome” with “ … fuck your Ronald Reagan.” Over the years, smirking listeners laughed about the “dated” Reagan punk name-dropping in punk, but punk has always explored the issues of the day. On the album, was balancing the specific and the metaphoric difficult?

Vic: I thought a lot about that line. AOF never had a song like that where we explicitly cussed out the political leadership. I don’t really like songs like that. I don’t like protest songs. I like protests that are the song. So AOF deliberately left the overt proselytizing to others, and focused on the more gut reactions to living in Reagan’s America.

So it took me thirty-five years to write a song with Reagan in it. I don’t think I would have done it if he were current. And I did it because at this point I would have expected us to have learned from history and have seen Reagan as the top of the slippery slope with Trump at the bottom, in the mud and sewage. Which is what the song is about. But the GOP has this huge propaganda engine designed to prop up Reagan as some sort of saint, instead of what he was: an actor hired by reactionaries to defend their tax brackets. So yeah—Fuck your Ronald Reagan.

There. I finally said it.

David: As someone who has taught history, and woven history into your lyrics, how do we as Americans bridge the race gap, which many think is evident in punk as well…?

Vic: Punk has gotten a lot better about this, actually. But the answer is simple: Stop treating black history as separate from American history. Black history is American history.

David: Earlier you mentioned the dread and cynicism you feel, but as someone linked to the tech revolution, do you see some light ahead—the sharing economy, ubiquitous computing (microchips in “smart” roadways and clothing), more collective intelligence like Wikipedia, real-time personal broadcasting via Periscope? Or are these the “technical distortion / full of sound and motion” you mention in “Shallow”?

Vic: I don’t know. I’m kind of pessimistic about it. I’ve been in some huge server farms. They are massive, windowless complexes with all sorts of sophisticated engineering around weight and load, temperature control, energy management, fire suppression, redundancy and, above all, security. Aisles of cold, sterile machines with the deafening whirl of fans and circuits. And they log everything. Your ISP, your browser, your machine profile. They can hold incredibly huge amounts of data—much more than is generated today. Technically, there is no privacy. The only way you keep from getting tracked now is to go off-grid. So it’s pretty scary. The only thing separating us from a full-bore surveillance state is the culture of the past. That, and the fact that most of what happens online isn’t that interesting. The boring character of your daily life is the only thing separating you from an NSA listening agent.

David: On “Stockholm Syndrome,” you seem to peg the generation gap between you—an “antique”—and the young—teenagers stoned on and drugs—yet you march with the young in Black Lives Matter and sincerely seek permanent changes regarding social justice. Has punk rock lost itself, though—is it no longer the soundtrack?

Vic: Every generation has to do this for themselves. I doubt punk rock has lost itself. I don’t hear a lot that excites me anymore. But, seriously, I’m old, so I don’t know how dialed into it I am. There is always someone with a pissed-off attitude and rhythm. But I am looking for something besides two guitars, bass, and drums—even though that’s exactly what I put out. Because that’s what I do. But that’s not all that can be done.

It would be great if young people saw the type of music I’ve been doing for thirty-five years as part of a continuum of resistance and cultural protest. Many won’t. Because they are young and so fucking what. When I was twenty, Wayne Kramer of MC5 opened a show we played and I totally disrespected him because I was ultrapunk and the new breed and who gave a damn about old hippies like Wayne Kramer? And I couldn’t have been so wrong. And I really regret it. So I hit him up on Facebook and apologized. And so, there you go: technology is good for something.

Bollweevils Interview By Kayla Greet

Had someone asked me to name a Bollweevils song last year, I’d have been at a complete loss. The name sounded familiar, but due to geography, accessibility, or poor timing, I had missed out on the legacy of this Chicago band. But recently, The Bollweevils were touring Southern California with fellow Razorcaker and buddy Tommy Vandervort. I was itching to get out of Seattle and had some vacation saved up. So I dove into weeks of research in order to not embarrass myself or insult a band who formed when I was four years old.

If I had the chance, I would tell the “me” of last year that I was in for a treat. What I found through this interview was a band raised on Naked Raygun, heavily steeped in DIY, with dyed-in-the-wool ethics. They’re equal parts surly and sweet, abrasive and melodic, punk and Midwestern. Even after a seven year gap when Daryl went to medical school, they are thick as thieves, possibly closer because of it. Several times throughout the interview they were finishing each other’s sentences. It didn’t take long for all of us to forget there were cameras on us. Their show at the Viper Room later that night was a loud, in-your-face, energetic set that everyone in the crowd was pumped for.

The entire interview was filmed by a documentary crew. As we were being mic’d up, the band started by interviewing me instead. My fear and anxiety, all my stresses turned into jokes and laughs as soon as we started talking, and I instantly felt at ease. I guess you could say that I stuck my neck out on this one and totally won.

Interview and introduction by Kayla Greet
Photos by Patrick Houdek and Paul Silver

Daryl Wilson – Vocals
Ken Fitzner – Guitar
Pete Mittler – Bass
Pete Mumford – Drums
Tommy Vandervort – Roadie / Ding Dong

Ken: How’d you get into punk?

Kayla: I don’t know, it sort of just found me. I always gravitated to music and weirdos.

Ken: Do you like any bands outside of punk?

Kayla: Yeah, The Jesus And Mary Chain are one of my favorites.

Mittler: Oh nice. I like them. I bet you guys are surprised to hear that.

Ken: Excuse me, but we’re interviewing her, Mittler. You wait your turn.

Mittler: This is bullshit.

Ken: Have you ever been in love? [laughter]

Mittler: Wow Ken, you should do this for a living.

Ken: I’m thinking about it.

Kayla: I’m going to grab a beer then.

Ken: You notice when the love question comes up she runs away?

Kayla: I have to leave.

Ken: Welcome back. Whatcha got there? Is that your favorite beer? When did you start drinking?

Kayla: When I met you.

Ken: We’re turning the tables here. Can we just interview you?

Kayla: Look, could you just shush for a second? [All laugh.]

Ken: I’m turning red now….

Mittler: This is the best. This is the most awkward Ken I’ve ever seen!

Ken: I’m really uncomfortable now. I really am. I’m starting to sweat.

Mittler: It’s rare that someone can shut him up.

Daryl: He’ll talk through anything.

Ken: I don’t even want to talk about it ‘cause it’s hurting my feelings. I can’t even look at her. I’m serious. [Filming starts.]

Kayla: So you guys started in 1989?

Daryl: Well, they started in ‘89. I wasn’t in the band yet.

Kayla: Okay, go over the start of The Bollweevils. Let’s get some roots.

Daryl: We lay down roots all over the place.

Ken: Myself and my buddy Bob started the band. Bob, our original drummer, was singing. We met Daryl at Naked Raygun shows. We all used to be in the front and we could hear him singing. I wanted his friend Paul to be in the band originally, but Bob’s like, “No, Daryl’s the guy.” So we brought him a terrible demo tape and asked him to sing for us.

Daryl and Ken: [in unison] And the rest is history.

Mittler: [to Ken] Do you need a drink, dude? You don’t look too good.

Daryl: He needs like, three more drinks. Well, in ’89, though, we were just going to shows at the same time. We hung out and became friends because of music.

Kayla: You were teenage at the time?

Ken: Like nineteen, twenty.

Daryl: Right out of high school. We survived in the front together, through all the same shows; saw the same bands and figured we wanted to be those guys up on stage. We could do that, too. Then he gave me that demo tape, which was actually pretty good, but low quality.

Mumford: Do you still have it?

Daryl: I don’t. I probably gave it away for free.

Tommy: Why did Daryl come in? What happened to the other two dudes?

Ken: Bob wasn’t a very good singer so we decided we needed a singer. The original drummer actually played our first show with Daryl and decided that he wanted to do a pop band. He just kind of disappeared and we don’t know where he is.

Daryl: We’d go see Naked Raygun all the time and see these guys on stage, and then all of a sudden Ken goes, “We’re opening up for Naked Raygun. This is your first show.” I’m like, “Yeah, you’re full of crap. You’re lyin’.” And we did, at The Metro.

Ken: We went over really well, which was amazing.

Daryl: But we went from this touch of greatness playing with Naked Raygun to playing basement shows, VFWs, and things like that. Gradually built up a fan base.

Ken: It was pretty much play wherever you can. There was no all-ages spot but McGregor’s….

Daryl: Church of McGregor’s.

Ken: ….that was the only place and we were kind of…

Daryl: Ostracized. Because we were a city band and that’s where suburb bands played. We weren’t a suburban band.

Kayla: They just put that schism up?

Daryl: Pretty much.

Ken: So we decided that we’d make our own scene.

Mittler: Chicago was always like that.

Ken: We just started playing anywhere we could.

Kayla: That’s the thing about punk. It gives you these building blocks for figuring out how to accomplish your goals by any means necessary.

Mittler: Do it on your own. DIY.

Mumford: Absolutely.

Kayla: Doing it together is better. So I have a fun question about another person who was in the front at Naked Raygun shows. Do you guys remember a band called Buzzmuscle?

Daryl: Yes we do!

Kayla: I’m friends with Greg Dunlap who played in that band. He saw that I was coming out to this and said something like, “Oh man, those guys ripped off my 7” art a long time ago.” [All laugh.]

Ken: I wouldn’t say we ripped it off.

Daryl: Well, we would see them play and we knew the guys in the band, so we were just kind of making a joke.

Ken: They opened up for every band coming through and we were like, “What about these young bands who are coming up? Why can’t we play with these bands?” Again, we were kinda out of that loop in a lot of ways.

Daryl: They had the Assembler EP.

Ken: Everyone made a big deal about it and it was probably the best looking 7” I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Kayla: Did you know that it was as a National Treasure? (Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Museum in New York City. The record became a part of their permanent collection, joining other National Treasures such as the Apollo 11 spacecraft, the original copy of the Constitution.They’re tax exempt for life because of that.)

Daryl: They played a lot with the Defoliants and we’d yell out Defoliants’ songs. Then, one day they snapped back at us, saying some stuff. So they threw down the gauntlet and we had the Disassembler EP with our fake artwork.

Kayla: It said: “Thanks to Buzzmuscle for reminding us that great packaging doesn’t always make a great record.” [All laugh.] I read that Greg walked into a record shop and the guy at the counter was kind of eyeing him suspiciously. Then he gets over to the 7”s, picks it up, and just busts out laughing.

Daryl: At least he had a sense of humor.

Tommy: So you were a surly band from day one.

Ken and Daryl: Oh, yeah. Very surly.

Kayla: I read an interview with Rob from Buzzmuscle who said: “What would cause one puny unheard-of band to waste an entire cover art opportunity on insulting another puny unheard-of band’s work?”

Ken: Because it’s fun. Actually I told them it was fun and we thought they were a bunch of idiots.

Kayla: You just like bustin’ balls?

Daryl: Yeah, we like bustin’ balls.

Ken: I used to until about five minutes ago. I used to love bustin’ balls, but not anymore.

Kayla: What happened?

Daryl: Some girl just shot him down.

Ken: That never happens.

Daryl: Never. It’s like a sign of the apocalypse.

Ken: I’m getting some anxiety right now. [All laugh.]

Kayla: We can talk about it later if you want.

Ken: No, I can’t.

Mittler: He’s sad.

Kayla: So the first run of Bollweevils was ‘89 to the mid-‘90s and then Daryl, you were in med school towards the end of that?

Daryl: I started in ‘92 and we played all throughout my medical school. I always had some time to play. I’d be in a rotation and have ten days off, so we’d go on tour. Walking out of the doors, I’d get in the van and go. And I’d come right back and start again. It was a constant thing of either being in med school or playing in the band. That’s all I did.

Kayla: It probably helped set you up for the ER work in a way.

Daryl: It was a point of a lot of sleepless nights and eating really poorly. We’d be really busy and crazy, but those were some of the best times of my life. I lived in this little shoebox apartment. We’d have ten guys over there at any given time and any free moment was spent going to a show with these guys or studying. Or something else if I ever had a girlfriend, but I rarely did.

Kayla: Well, when you hang out with Ken, it’s got to be pretty hard to meet girls. [All laugh.]

Mittler: I love her. I fuckin’ love her.

Ken: Hey Pete, what do you know about me?

Mumford: This guy is the best kisser in the whole wide world. Just one kiss from him, and it’s over.

Mittler: How do you know that?

Mumford: Experience.

Kayla: You saw him practicing in the mirror once.

Daryl: With his hand.

Ken: I mean, I can’t catch a break here.

Mittler: It’s awesome.

Daryl: Our heyday was pretty fun. Between med school and touring, we built up a following. This is like, going on in twenty years of playing out here (in Southern California). We did that in the time I was in medical school.

The hard part was that we had all these opportunities, and my life was the limiting factor. We had opportunities to go to Japan, Europe, Hawaii. We couldn’t go. I know at the time it wasn’t really understood as to why I couldn’t do it. We did, unfortunately, have this big falling out because of it, but we realized it was kind of stupid. This was something we shared so closely. I mean, Ken came around later on. I’ve had a longer relationship with you guys than any other person, besides my family. It was hard man, it was really hard.

Ken: Well, I love you man.

Daryl: I love you too. I tell you that every day. [“Awwws” from the group.]

Kayla: Okay, so then you signed to Dr. Strange.

Daryl: That was because Underdog Records didn’t want us to put out a record.

Ken: It’s an interesting story.

Daryl: Everyone who crossed us is now gone! That sounds all wrong.

Ken: We were part of the Underdog Collective, which was an underground, DIY, non-profit, help-the-scene kind of thing. We’d go over there and stuff 7”s….

Daryl: Screen print shirts….

Ken: …and just work really hard. There was a band that they thought would make way more money than us. So we were in line to put out a record and they wanted this other band to do it. At the same time, I had been writing and calling Dr. Strange because he was a cool guy and I collected records. I sent him our stuff and he was like, “Man I really want to do a record with you.” He had Face To Face on the label, Guttermouth, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Rhythm Collision—who were good friends of ours—so it was just a natural fit.

Daryl: Underdog wasn’t working out so we said, “Cool, we’ll go out to California and do this.” That’s when things really sort of took off. We were considered, of course, turncoats to Chicago, but we never really were California. It was like us and 88 Fingers Louie had a whole new thing where we were “Epitaph” (too associated with a certain brand of Southern California punk popular at the time, though not on the label) and we weren’t Chicago.

Kayla: There’s just no reason to draw lines in the sand about who does what with who.

Ken: I don’t know, that’s kind of Chicago in a nutshell.

Kayla: Do you guys do that to other bands? Other people?

Ken: No. We were actually the exact opposite. Our goal was to get bands to come in whether they were local or like The Freeze from Boston, or Doc Hopper. Basically we’d set up the show and it’d be a nice big show and we’d sit down afterwards and split the money four ways. Didn’t matter if you were the opening band or the headliner. That was really important to us. Not a lot of bands in Chicago did that at all.

Mumford: That’s how I met you guys.

Ken: That’s right!

Mumford: I’m sure you’re itchin’ to hear about how I got into the picture here, so lemme tell ya. [All laugh.] So I was in that Chicago band (The Four Squares) and I met these guys in the mid-‘90s. And they were asked to play a reunion show in 2003 for a local radio station, a benefit show. Luckily for me, they asked me to fill in on the drums and thirteen years later here we are in California.

Ken: You’re the longest tenured drummer of the band.

Daryl: You’re the best.

Ken: And the best drummer.

Kayla: It’s rough for drummers. Bands are always looking for them. I mean, guitar players are a dime a dozen. Everyone wants to be a frontman.

Mumford: I think that used to be the case more back then. Yeah, there were like three of us in Chicago.

Kayla: And you probably played in three different bands.

Mumford: Right, exactly. But now, man, there’s so much talent. The kids comin’ up right now kick my ass, to be honest. There’s so many talented people and yeah, there’s a lot more drummers.

Daryl: But we only want you as a drummer.

Mumford: Well, thank you.

Kayla: With Naked Raygun being such an inspiration to you guys, do you feel like you’re on the other side of that coin now—where you’re helping other bands come up or they’re looking at you guys for inspiration?

Daryl: Nah. I mean maybe there’s some.

Ken: First of all, we don’t really care about that stuff, to be honest. And the second piece is that there was a bit of a tighter knit community so bands really helped each other. Now it’s competitive. It’s easy to record music, it’s easy to put your songs online, people are booking tours and they have the time and means to go on tour for three hundred days a year. So they don’t need help. We need help from them most of the time.

Daryl: As technology grows and people can do things on their own, you don’t have to go to a big studio to record anything.

Ken: We used to do a newsletter. We literally had a mailing list. I would handwrite this newsletter and talk about all the cool bands we played with. We would send it out to maybe one hundred and fifty, two hundred people, and I’d be licking stamps. The cool thing is someone said they still had all the old newsletters. There wasn’t Facebook, so you kind of had to build it up on your own.

Daryl: Back then you had limited choices so you went to see those bands. You learned about bands because of the liner notes in the records, the bands we played with, the bands that we thanked. Or cover a song by a band and someone says, “Oh I never heard that song before until you guys did it,” and that revitalizes something. That doesn’t happen anymore. You can hear three bands that sound the same and have to pick between them. It’s competition. It’s tough.

Kayla: I also wanted to ask you with all your medical training, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of accidents at shows like busted heads or broken fingers.

Daryl: Most of the time it’s me, actually.

Mittler: No one gets hurt more than him.

Daryl: It’s me filing the injury report for myself most of the time. It’s a contusion here, it’s an injured finger there, it’s a cut here, or my back gets thrown out. Other people get injured and it’s like, I’m not working right then so I can’t help them.

Ken: That’s not true, I’ve seen you help people. Usually it’s over drinking.

Daryl: People over-imbibe and it is something. We have to be concerned about their well being. People fall down, they get injured, or they start vomiting, and you have to get them somewhere safe so they’re not going to be harmed.

Ken: Usually we grab their insurance card first. That’s our side business. [laughs]

Daryl: Right. “Humana? Nah, I don’t take Humana. Can you call your network person right now?” But it is one of those things where you have to be cognizant of being injured or hurt. We do—well, I do—a lot of stupid things on stage.

Kayla: High jumps?

Daryl: Well, the high jumps aren’t the problem, it’s the jumping off of the stage which is the issue. Running into a crowd of hostile people is kind of the issue.

Ken: Punching the ceiling.

Daryl: Punching ceilings. My hands are what I use for my livelihood. But you get caught up in the moment of these things and suddenly afterwards I’m going, “What the hell? Why does my hand hurt so much? Oooh, I know why—it’s bloody because I’ve been punching this glass ceiling that won’t break.”

Kayla: Hey, I’ve been punching that same glass ceiling.

Ken: Or you jump into the crowd and everyone moves out of your way.

Daryl: One of those moves where you calculate like, “This looks like a good spot to jump into,” and then nobody’s there.

Mumford: The parting of the sea, and then there’s Daryl.

Daryl: “I thought I got up really quick but I was down for a minute and a half. Totally fine, my concussion’s alright!”

Tommy: Now there’s a couple bands that don’t want people stage diving. Being a doctor—but since you do abuse yourself for punk rock—where do you fall on that stance?

Daryl: On stage diving?

Tommy: Yeah. Some bands get real upset. If someone gets on stage, that’s a fuckin’ shut down. Coming from the old punk rock days, are you going to say no?

Daryl: Well, that’s how we got banned from the Metro for a while because we had people up on stage, stage diving. They told us we couldn’t do that. Then they had a whole protocol in place when Pennywise came there to say, “Don’t do a Bollweevils thing.” But we had people stage diving and they told us if that happens, they’re shutting it down. I said, “Well, don’t kick people out.” What happened? Stage dove, there was a fight, and people got kicked out. Then we got angry, surly. We started saying things, there was a little altercation, war of words, microphones were thrown, and then we were banned.

Tommy: Instead of it being, “Dive at your own risk.”

Daryl: Here’s the thing, though—now that I’m a man of means in this whole world—I understand the liability risks associated with that.

Tommy: Sure.

Daryl: So I understand that. Now, would I want my daughters to stage dive at a show?

Ken: Yes.

Daryl: No. I don’t even want them standing on a freakin’ table at our house. I yell at them for that. But they see daddy doing that so how do I police that? Freedom! Too much freedom!

Mittler: Bastards.

Kayla: You guys recorded Stick Your Neck Out at Sonic Iguana with Mass Giorgini. And he was doing a lot of the Lookout! stuff at that time, right?

Ken: He wasn’t doing a lot of it yet. In fact, I think he was just fixing up his studio. He did a Screeching Weasel record, and I don’t really know how we even connected with him. He was in Lafayette, Ind. and his band Rattail Grenadier would play Chicago sometimes. So we called him up and booked studio time, and it was awesome. We had so much fun recording with him.

Daryl: Mass is a great guy. Of course, you go there and the guy wants to talk about what you play in the band.

Ken: Oh yeah, it was fun. After that, mostly because of him recording the Screeching Weasel stuff, there was a flood of bands who came in. We also played with a ton of bands in Chicago that we’d send to him.

Kayla: Spread it by word of mouth. He’s done a lot of really seminal records that will be classics forever.

Mumford: Kind of like The 4-Squares and Toucan Slam split. [All laugh.] Pretty sure that was exactly the album she was thinking of.

Kayla: Do you guys feel like you’ve changed your writing style over the years?

Mittler: We’ve gotten better.

Ken: Probably more skilled.

Mumford: Less prolific.

Daryl: I mean, we’re not as angsty.

Mumford: We’re still pretty surly.

Daryl: I’m surly, but not angsty. The things that I write now are unrequited love songs. We write about this redemptive kind of “you get beat down but you can always make it out” kind of situation. Always think of yourself first instead of the things that are going on. Ken’s a thousand times better guitar player. All the songs he writes—you can tell a hit when he writes a hit. We’ve got one of the greatest drummers around. We’ve got one of the best….

Ken: We’ve got a good bass player.

Mittler: Everything’s better with Mittler.

Daryl: He was our roadie on our first tour, by the way.

Ken: Him and Joe…

Daryl: From Rise Against…

Ken: 88 Fingers Louie. They were our first roadies.

Daryl: So you can be a roadie and become a big star.

Ken: We went all the way out to California. We were going to do it anyways, but we wanted to play for Dr. Strange. He just wanted to see us live.

Daryl: This other thing that’s happened as we’ve gotten older is that we’re not as sensitive of criticisms anymore. Before, it was like there was no way you could tell anyone that their part was crap or the lyrics you wrote are bad. Now we’re willing to take input from everybody to say, “You should probably play it this way,” or “This sounds better.” And because we’ve been in a band together for such a long time, we already know the little nuances of what you’re gonna hear when you play. So Ken could start playing some notes and I know exactly what he’s going to play next, or how he might want me to sing it.

Kayla: You guys have done a Vulcan mind meld, huh?

Ken: Little bit.

Daryl: We’re very close. Seriously, I love that guy. It’s twenty-seven years of friendship. Can’t beat that.

Kayla: After you guys split up, what was the spark that got it back together? What rekindled your love?

Daryl: He came around and wanted to do another band. My wife had been talking about it, too. Like, “How is it that you guys have been friends for twenty-some odd years and you don’t talk to each other? That’s so juvenile and stupid. You guys are adults. You can talk to each other.”

Ken: Yeah, but life was getting in the way at that point.

Daryl: It was. But then you had stuff happen and you realized what it was. How I had pressures to do these things and it made more sense.

Ken: I became a teacher and then a principal. I get it now—that there’s other things besides playing in punk band.

Daryl: But you can have all that, too.

Ken: Not a lot of other things.

Daryl: Not a lot. But I mean, he got back with me; we started playing music again. It was fun because I missed my friend. That was the thing, beyond just playing in a band. This whole tour thing is awesome because I’m out with my friends having a great time. We could get in any situation and it’s still fun. We bust balls on each other and laugh about stuff, but these are experiences that will last forever. The experiences from our first tour last to this day, and we still laugh about it.

Mittler: I was with them on their first tour as their driver, but I wasn’t really a roadie ‘cause I was like, “I ain’t movin’ your stuff. I’ll drive you, but I’m not movin’ it.”

Daryl: And that allowed him to become the union worker he is today.

Mittler: That’s right. I’m union man, I’ve got one job and that’s what I tell ‘em. I don’t do these other jobs. That’s why you hire another guy! But we were driving through the hills the other day like, “Hey, remember we were driving this same road coming from San Francisco to L.A.?” The van broke down and we got ripped off by this crazy German fuckin’ mechanic guy who, right in front of us, says, “You need a new radiator.” He turns around, picks up the phone, and calls the shop for the parts and says “Ja, what is the most expensive one you have?”

Kayla: No he didn’t!

Mittler: I’m like, “Dude, I’m right fuckin’ here! I can hear you!” [all laugh]What a fuckin’…. I’m still—now I’m mad! [laughs] Now I’m mad.

Kayla: Ken, you’re a principal? Do your students ever see you playing shows?

Ken: They YouTube it all the time.

Kayla: Do they give you shit about it?

Ken: No, they usually like it. In fact, one of my good friends is a music teacher and that’s one of the things he teaches in class. They learn one of our songs.

Mittler: Really??

Ken: They do “999 Stoney.”

Mittler: Can he teach it to me? [all laugh]

Ken: I get really embarrassed about it. I remember one guy came in from the district and I was meeting with him about teacher mentoring. He just stopped and was staring at me. It was really uncomfortable and he’s like, “I know you.” So I go, “Oh you do? Did we go to Professional Development together? I used to work in the office of Academic Enhancement. Is that where?” And he’s like, “No, I used to go see your band The Bollweevils when I was a kid. In fact I lost a tooth at your show at the Fireside.” Things like that happen all the time.

Daryl: I get that in the hospital occasionally, which is really uncomfortable. Before we left for tour, a guy came to me sick with bronchitis. I walk into the room and first thing he says is, “You’re Daryl from The Bollweevils!”

Kayla: That’s Doctor Daryl to you!

Daryl: Doesn’t start the whole conversation well, because now I’m thinking, “What’s he gonna ask for? How’s the conversation going to go?” I just want to take care of your health at that point. I don’t want to talk about rock’n’roll and jumping around on stage.

Ken: Yeah you do.

Daryl: Okay, truth be told. Then the nurses go, “Oh wow! He recognized you?”

Ken: In fact, sometimes patients come in and he’s just like, “You may recognize me. I’m Daryl from The Bollweevils.”

Daryl: “Yes, your doctor is Daryl from The Bollweevils today. We have a few selections from Stick Your Neck Out…”

Kayla: “Before you stick your neck out!”

Mittler: “If you buy this CD, you’ll get premium health care.”

Daryl: “Wait, United Health Care again? No, go to the back of the line.” But we do get recognized sometimes. I had a kid when I was in med school—I was in the ER and his dad was having a heart attack. The kid was just staring at me as I’m saying, “Dad’s had a heart attack and we’re gonna get him down to the cath lab,” and he goes, “But you’re Daryl.” Like, “Well, this is not relevant to the situation. Your dad doesn’t give a rat’s ass about me and he’s gotta go to the cath lab.” “But dude, you took care of him. You saved my dad’s life! Awesome.”

Ken: I know particularly for me and Daryl, our career choices are based out of punk rock. I wanted to give back to the community, I wanted to do something that made a difference. So did Daryl. To us, that’s really important.

Daryl: Emergency medicine is one of those professions where you take care of people regardless of their ability to pay, their sexual orientation, creed… we don’t care about that stuff. It doesn’t matter. You take care of everybody, it’s hardcore, bad stuff happens—you just get it done. And that’s kind of punk rock—you get it done. It’s hardcore, it’s bloody, it’s raw. Emergency medical is raw. It’s the most punk rock of all professions.

Ken: Really?

Daryl: Of medicine. The most punk rock of all professions is punk rock.[all laugh]

Mittler: Have we side railed you enough yet?

Kayla: Oh, no, this is perfect. I don’t have much else. Did you guys have anything else you wanted to bring up, or share? It’s a safe space here.

Ken: It is not a safe space here. It certainly is not. [laughs]

Real True Blood: An Interview with Red Hare: D.C. History and a Nod to the Future That Is Past By David Ensminger

Red Hare

 

Jason Farrell, lauded guitarist/singer of Bluetip and Retisonic, is a mythic figure who imprinted his legacy on Dischord Records by designing plentiful albums, including the postmodern packaging of Fugazi. As a teen bravado guitarist, he made sizzling records with Swiz, whose fiery prowess injected some bile back into the music of Washington D.C. Shaped by tough-as-nails vocalist Shawn Brown’s vehemence and intelligent wordplay, the tunes of Swiz were brash and emotive. After decades apart (since Swiz’s initial run in the late-‘80s and the short-lived Sweetbelly Freakdown in the mid-‘90s), nimble guitarist Jason Farrell and barbed vocalist Shawn Brown have returned full-force in Red Hare, whose ferocity is nuanced and shaped by elastic, rhythmic complexity. The music is an amalgam: shards of Farrell’s sonic past weave into a tough fabric, plus he still dispatches songs with panache, merging hardcore’s neurons with nimble pop hooks, elastic rock’n’roll, and winking nods to metal. Joined by the dizzying wrist gymnastics of drummer Joe Gorelick (Garden Variety, Bluetip, Retisonic) and Swiz bassist Dave Eight, they simply shred. Dischord has not offered something as acerbic as Red Hare’s “Fuck Your Career!” and bitterly anthemic as their “Be Half” and “Dialed In” in years, which renew and invigorate even jaded hardcore audiences.

INTERVIEW WITH:
Dave Eight: Bassist
Shawn Brown: Vocalist
Jason Farrell: Guitarist

NOT PRESENT:
Joe Gorelick: Drummer

David: Jason, in some ways, your high school was a punk rock training ground—gestating future members of Dag Nasty, Government Issue, Rites Of Spring, Fire Party, and others.

Jason: Growing up, I thought of music as this thing that you consumed. It was played by experts and marketed by geniuses in Hollywood and New York. I could get excited about AC/DC, KISS, Journey, et cetera. Wear their shirts, have an opinion as to how much Toto or Starship sucked… but actually creating and releasing music was way beyond my comprehension. A short stint of acoustic guitar lessons playing “The Streets of Laredo” did little to demystify things. It wasn’t until we all got into hardcore that things became more clear and possible. That scene lowered the bar and raised the encouragement level, giving people a chance to figure things out, even if they sucked in the process. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School—and Bethesda in general—had quite a few notable punks actively making music. Seeing them skulk through the school halls after having seen them play over the weekend further lowered the stage.

During this time, it seemed everyone was sharing what little information they had. My friend John Garrish learned how to play a bar chord, then turned around and showed me how to do it. That small gesture was the key to deconstructing most of the songs I grew up to, and helped me in creating my own. Lawrence McDonald was—and is—a great guitarist and skater who had played in Capital Punishment with Colin Sears (Dag Nasty) and Mike Fellows (Rites Of Spring) during the first wave of D.C. hardcore. He was instrumental in teaching music theory to me and many other skaters in our crew by bringing us into his band The Bells Of.

David: Plus you’ve stressed that women, often left out of narratives, were great scene ambassadors.

Jason: There were a ton of girls from the scene at our school: Maureen Gorman, Kate Samworth, Natalie Avery, Katie Chase, Jenny Mercurio. They were so sweet and supportive of our little group of skate rats just getting our punk feet wet. Being very active in the scene, they would point us to up-and-coming bands like Rites Of Spring, Dag Nasty; fill us in on the bands we missed like Faith, Minor Threat; and try to expand our taste a bit with bands outside the thin scope of D.C. hardcore like The Alarm, The Birthday Party, Bauhaus.

If you only go by the albums, then the D.C. scene seemed lopsidedly male. But those vinyl fossils don’t tell the full story. Nor do histories about D.C. bands, if the focus is on bands and not audience. The heart of the D.C. scene—like many others—was social. The music was important for sure, but without the people, there wouldn’t be a show. Most of my memories and I’d guess the memories of others going to these shows was of meeting people, seeing friends, hanging out on the stairs out front. It was a social hub of boys and girls talking, flirting, fighting, joking, smoking, trading anecdotes, et cetera… so females were there. And not just in a passive social capacity: they played in bands—Toni C., Sharon Cheslow, Fire Party, Nike Chix, Monica Madhouse, Jenny Toomey; booked shows—Cynthia Connelly, Pam, and Shawna; or were just infamous characters—Crass Mary, Lefty. Just look at Banned in DC, the first and perhaps best chronicle of the D.C. scene—compiled by three of its prominent women.


David: 
Jason, Dave, and Shawn, like others in the D.C. area scene—Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Bert Queiroz, Kenny Inouye, Chris Stover, Eric Lagdameo, and more—you were skaters. As Jason has noted on doublecrossxx.com, “Skating and Hardcore were inextricably linked… it made the prospect of playing music seem more possible, logical, obvious…” How extensive was the crossover between the two D.C. area cultures/communities by the mid-‘80s, and why do you think it’s somewhat overlooked in D.C. histories?

Jason: To me and my friends, like all the people you name-checked, the skating came first. We then found the music that suited our activity. In the ‘80s, my Venn diagram of skating and hardcore was a solid black circle. And at the time, it seemed everyone had crossover to some degree. Not everyone was good or equally committed to either or both, but the two were common-law flirts. There was almost no need to mention one when speaking of the other, as they were two parts of one thing.

If the history of the crossover was overlooked, it was done so by those who left their skateboards in the closet along with their leather jackets. I’m not judging or begrudging punks who picked up a board for a few years only to drop it when Revolution Summer rolled along. As fun as skating is, not everyone can or should commit to it for life. And many skaters drifted in the opposite direction: going to shows to slam dance or get girls for a year or two only to fade on the whole thing. During my time in Swiz, my friend Chip, someone I had skated with and gone to shows with from the start, once said, “We all went through that hardcore phase, Jason… you just never grew out if it.” He was saying it dismissively but I took it a different way: skating and music are phases that many fall into and out of. I like to stay in phase with both as much as my life will allow.

David: On a blog, Jason describes the “blob” of his friends: skatecore youth exiting a station wagon, discovering the slam pit, smoking clove cigarettes, invading the nearby 7-Eleven during your first punk gig, Black Flag. In many ways, was forming a band an extension of that kind of wolf pack and brotherhood?

Dave Eight: Yes. Starting and learning to play music while becoming a punk was a completely natural progression. It kinda went hand in hand with skating. The magnetic attraction to both of these entities was unavoidable. We couldn’t help ourselves.

Jason: Yes, the wolf pack vibe continued… but it wasn’t the same group of people. By the time Swiz got going (1987), most of the core skaters I rode with since I was a kid had moved past punk. The formation of Swiz was random: Shawn and I knew each other from shows and skating ditches, Alex and Nathan had been playing off and on for a bit, but when Ramsey Metcalf pulled us all together for our first practice, we had never all met. Despite not knowing each other, we didn’t hesitate in giving a shot to a brotherhood of sorts. Ramsey didn’t gel as well with the rest of us, so we asked him to leave. That moment solidified the unit, and we’ve remained tight friends—despite the breakup and distance—ever since.

David: I know you all started seeing punk gigs in D.C., but what about in Bethesda? Was Psychedelly still around, which—though not very open to hardcore punk—booked bands like The Razz and Slickee Boys?

Dave Eight: I saw Hüsker Dü touring for Zen Arcade at the Psychedelly in whatever year that was, 1984 or ‘85? I’d never been there before and was totally surprised to find it about a block away from our skate shop hangout The Sunshine House. The show was amazing, maybe twenty people there. I remember Bob Mould asking somebody from the twenty of us to come up and help sing the song, “Somewhere” cause he couldn’t do it and play guitar very well at the same time. Grant Hart was wearing a purple silk shirt. Greg Norton had that wacky mustache and played the bass with three fingers. They were different and rad and super-intense without being pretentious. Great show.

Jason: The second show I ever saw was TSOL and No Trend at the Psychedelly on a Saturday afternoon in the spring of ‘84. Chip and I were the only members of B.S.R. (Bethesda Skate Rats) around that day. We were still quite new to the punk thing and didn’t really have the wardrobe. In preparation, Chip had cut the sleeves off the pink long sleeve shirt he was wearing, but kept the sleeve ends as bracelets. He drew cufflinks on them with a sharpie—affecting a Snagglepuss look. I may have messed up my hair. We were the only pre-pubes at a show that consisted of at most ten people: the bands, Chip, me, and Ian Mackaye. The singer of No Trend spent a very long time hanging a sheet from the ceiling to obstruct the audience’s view, then spent the set with his back turned. I don’t remember TSOL’s set. It was just an awkward daytime show in sleepy downtown Bethesda at a tiny bar/sandwich shop—a stark contrast to the sweaty, packed, dangerous, and exciting Black Flag show we had just seen somewhere deep in D.C.

A year or so later there were shows being held at the Bethesda Community Center and the nearby Chevy Chase Community Center. I remember seeing some great shows with Rites Of Spring, Lunchmeat, Embrace, Bells Of, Mission Impossible, and others spread out over the summer—the “revolution” one. I recall a few more happening in the years that followed—Rain, Swiz, At Wits End, maybe even Ignition?

David: Dance of Days paints a picture of leftist Bethesda youth, many later Dischord-affiliated, listening to Crass, Poison Girls, and Zounds, who founded short-lived bands like Fungus Of Terror, Bozo Brigade, and Gang Of Intellectuals. Were you aware of these locals, bands, and their tastes?
Dave Eight: Nope.

Jason: Not really. I recall hearing those names. Of the small Bethesda bands, I remember Bloody Mannequin Orchestra—Colin and Roger who later played in Dag Nasty—but mostly because Colin lived in my neighborhood a couple streets away. And Bells Of…

David:
Jason and Shawn, if being in Bells Of… and Dag Nasty shaped your musical growth—from nothing to something!—did it also pave your way into D.C., or did you still feel an outsider’s perspective that perhaps later shaped your music and art?

Shawn:
I guess being in Dag Nasty and later in Swiz did pave our way into the D.C. scene, and that scene definitely influenced us. How could it not? All we did was hang out downtown back then. That being said, coming from outside of the city (nearby Hyattsville, Md.) we had a little bit different perspective, so maybe we were more like outsider-insiders.

Jason: Playing second guitar and then bass in Bells Of… was my first band experience. I was fifteen and would sit in on Bells Of practices occasionally, waiting for Lawrence (guitarist and band leader) to finish so I could get a ride to the ramp. Alec MacKaye (Faith) was still their singer then—he soon quit, just before their second show (opening for Rites Of Spring and Embrace). Lawrence decided to take over singing along with guitar, and told me I was now in the band as second guitar. This was something I wasn’t expecting and probably wasn’t ready for, but I was happy to get the chance to play with two of my favorite bands.

Learning about music through Lawrence definitely started me on my own way into music, but it wasn’t a yellow brick road into the inner scene of D.C. Somehow Bells Of never got much acceptance in the scene, nor did my following band Swiz. That’s not to say that Swiz didn’t have any people at our shows, or any help. Amanda MacKaye was out biggest supporter—personally and through her label Sammich—and Dischord helped her fund Swiz releases, but we did feel palpable disinterest from the D.C. scene. I don’t know why this came as a surprise to us—our music was more in line with a sound the current scene was doing everything to abandon—but we took the rejection personally. It fueled us to dive deeper into the aggressive sound we started out with, rather than swing to the more experimental sounds like Soul Side and Shudder To Think or softer sounds of the era. After Swiz broke up, I was more actively designing record covers (Severin, Circus Lupus, Fugazi, Lungfish, Trusty, Fireparty) and that gave me the opportunity to shape my art/aesthetic, which has led to a career. I owe a big debt to Dischord for that and feel honored each time they ask me to work on a new cover.

David: Though Swiz missed being part of Revolution Summer, do you feel the band carried forward that ethos?

Dave Eight: I hope this doesn’t start a fight, but I still feel like Revolution Summer is bigger in legend than it was as a movement at the time. We went to see Rites Of Spring down at Food For Thought. Great show. I think somebody told me about Revolution Summer there, although I’m not sure I really understood what they were talking about. Carless and broke, I think we walked two hours back to Bethesda from Food For Thought that night.

To me, I don’t really think the ethos of Revolution Summer ever felt different than what was already instilled in 1983 from my first listen to Out of Step (Minor Threat), Still Screaming (Scream), Subject to Change (Faith), Joy Ride (Government Issue), No Policy (SOA) and Minor Disturbance (Teen Idles) EPs, My War (Black Flag), Lullabies Help the Brain Grow (Big Boys), Golden Shower of Hits (Circle Jerks), Paranoid Time (Minutemen), and Metal Circus (Hüsker Dü). Yeah, maybe I’m a bit off topic here. It wasn’t conscious, but I do feel like we carried an ethos of what was learned on that first group of punk records we all gathered.

Shawn: Swiz wasn’t an extension of that thought process. I mean, we had songs that were a bit more personal and inner-driven like bands of that time, but there was also a lot of political stuff they were doing, topics we might have touched on, but it wasn’t really our main drive. Swiz was maybe quasi-political at most.

Jason: As much as I loved the bands, music, and shows I saw from that era, Swiz wasn’t carrying on the Revolution Summer baton a year or two later. Influences were definitely there. Mike Hampton of Embrace is a phenomenal guitar player who certainly influenced me quite a bit. If anything, we were hoping to carry on the broader ethos of D.C. music, tapping in back to the Faith, Void, Minor Threat. Our position, compared to Rites Of Spring and Embrace, was more like an alternate parallel than episodic and linear—fancy talk—but I wouldn’t be putting Swiz up with any of those bands in terms of impact or importance. Hopefully we weren’t too much like a Neanderthal cousin that managed to survive.

David: D.C. punk always seemed so diverse and inclusive to many of us growing up in Middle America, yet Fred “Freak” Smith (Beefeater) mentioned D.C. should have been even more diverse, given its demographics. As a touring band that scoured the country, did you feel D.C. was special, different? Like an anomaly?

Shawn: Yes. I’ll just say that. Yes.

Dave Eight: Okay, first of all, when did the “freak” name sneak in there? Jason and I have said before how glad we were to grow up in D.C. and we felt honored to be close to the music scene there. I think for a long time I really didn’t think about bands outside of D.C., except for a couple in California and the Big Boys in Texas, or the Damned and Discharge. And then I discovered the Minutemen and a couple other things and slowly became aware that there were many other scenes around the country. It kinda made me realize I was a bit narrow minded toward D.C. stuff. It’s tough ‘cause there was so much great music in D.C. I kinda didn’t think to look elsewhere. I mean, after you witness Void at the Wilson center, you don’t really need to search out much else. It takes some time to come down off that sound.

Jason: The D.C. suburban area was very diverse. The diplomats and international status of the city brought exposure to many different cultures. D.C. as a city was predominantly black—seventy-eighty percent?—with the minority of whites huddled in the Northwest quadrant. This is where the hardcore scene emanated. Perhaps as a result, the D.C. scene was very white, like most punk scenes. I agree with Fred that it could have or should have been more diverse, but I do feel the scene was accepting of anyone who showed up: black or Asian or Hispanic punks were just punks first and foremost.

David: When opening for Public Enemy, did you feel that such a crossover audience was sustainable, perhaps somewhat like Scream and Minor Threat doing the Trouble Funk gigs?

Dave Eight: I wish I’d gotten to play this show. Damn you Nathan (Larson, who replaced Dave on bass)!

Jason: I was just happy to be opening for Public Enemy.

Shawn: I definitely remember a lot of punks being there, and hip-hop people who were straight up into PE, plus a bunch of suburban kids. Yeah, it was a crossover. I don’t know if anyone else thought of it, but it definitely made me think of the Minor Threat / Trouble Funk show.

Jason: I don’t know if it meant anything to the hip-hop crowd, but for the punks into PE and Swiz they were just like, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Shawn: Oh yeah, that shit was legendary. Definitely one of the highlights of our career.

David:
Unlike many D.C. bands, Swiz was touring constantly. Was this something inspired by locals like Government Issue and Scream, your own burning desire to hit the road, or maybe your quest for new places to skate as well?
Dave Eight: During our first show we saw,  Black Flag touring for My War, I remember Rollins saying—possibly bragging—that they we’re gonna tour Europe soon after the show we were at. That was maybe the coolest thing I’d ever heard. At that moment I knew, without a doubt, that’s what I wanted to do. My goal/dream/purpose in life would be to play loud fast music, put out records, and tour. Simple.

Jason: We played out of town because we wanted to play a lot. You could only play maybe once a month in D.C., and for a while it didn’t seem like D.C. even wanted that much out of us. So, we’d take weekend trips out to Boston, N.Y.C., Norwalk, Rochester, Harrisburg, Richmond, Norfolk, Providence, anywhere that would have us. The shows were better received, so we kept coming back.

We did two full U.S. tours: on the first one in 1988 we tagged along with Soul Side and American Standard on their already-existing tour to California. We didn’t have anything planned for the way back, and our van broke down on our way to the last show anyway—we were too young to know about standard maintenance things like transmission fluid—trapping us in San Francisco for two weeks. By the second tour in summer of 1989 with Shudder To Think, we had gotten the whole maintenance thing under control, but the whole tour was poorly planned and left us demoralized.

David:
Apart from the blistering speed of the first single, the two albums really explore slower, methodical tempos, like in the song “Cakewalk.” Swiz slowed down roughly at the same time as Verbal Assault. Did you make a conscious decision to shed old song habits and seek something new? Was it a reaction to Fugazi, Fire Party, and late-period Scream?

Jason: I always argued for aggressive songs with faster tempos. It’s a fun way to play. Thankfully, my limited vision was tempered by Nathan and Alex’s willingness to be more experimental. The song “Sunstroke” was the first time I lost my speed battle against those two. I’m glad they won. From that point on, we wrote whatever came out and at whatever speed it issued forth. “Cakewalk” was one of the last songs we wrote. Bad Brains’ Quicknesshad just come out. The opening track “Soul Craft” is so powerful and methodical, I had to rip it off.

Shawn:
I think we were just writing songs, you know? We wanted to have a couple of songs that would give us a break in playing, give all the songs and us a chance to breathe. It wasn’t a reaction to Fugazi or Verbal Assault at all.

David: How would you describe the difference between Sammich, run by Amanda MacKaye, and Dischord, run by her brother Ian and Jeff Nelson?

Shawn:
Well, Sammich was just beginning and Dischord had been around for a bit. [laughs]

Jason:
Dischord was “big” and is still around, Sammich was “small” and is now gone. Sammich was lazily viewed as the little sister label to Dischord—shorthand answer mirroring the real-life relationship of Ian and Amanda—but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Amanda, along with Eli Janney in Sammich’s early form, should be given more credit for having debuted some of DC’s most noteworthy artists like Soul Side, Shudder To Think, and Dave Grohl’s humble beginnings in Mission Impossible.

Dave Eight: Dischord and Sammich are two different things but not far apart at all. It felt like Amanda was actually in Swiz, which was great. She came to the shows with us, helped us get paid. She was kind of a mentor/manager. Let alone she could give and take just as much shit as the rest of us, which of course is a natural part of touring. Being on Dischord with Bluetip was a dream come true. With Bluetip, it felt like we were a touch more separate from the label, but that was actually good because we were actually ready, for better for worse, to be more on our own and to figure out more how we liked to do things. In retrospect, maybe Bluetip shoulda taken Amanda on the road also. We could have used a solid ref [laughter].

David: Both Jason and Shawn have talked about the ugly side of D.C. punk—the skinhead scene that simmered—and Dance of Days suggests Swiz tunes like “Tylenol” were a form of defiance. Why did such a scene happen amid a city full of Punk Percussion Protests and Positive Force benefits?

Jason: Because everywhere has assholes.

Shawn: “Tylenol” wasn’t about that. Why did that skinhead scene happen within the D.C. scene? Because people have different interests. Because people are attracted to different stuff. Skinhead was always a thing in D.C. It wasn’t necessarily always a negative thing. Yes, we had some negative people that were inthe skinhead scene, but I knew skinheads who were just into being working-class people, y’know? I think every punk scene had that. I mean, you have to remember we’re talking about punk rock: no rules, no one is telling you what to do, so people are going to do all kinds of stuff. Yes, there was a knucklehead side to it that really came out in the late ‘80s, I understand that, but as far as being begrudging to skinheads in general, I’m not, because a lot of my friends were skinheads. I wish somebody would explore that whole thing more, because there’s a lot of shit I don’t know about, a lot of shit I’m interested in. Like, what were those guys trying to do? Or were they trying to do anything? What was their philosophy? What’s the attraction, and what did they get out of it?

David: In some ways, does the Red Hare song “Message to the Brick” also involve complicated (or not-so-complicated) issues of race in lines like, “money preying on a misplaced sense of pride and need for identity”? Though ethnicity is not specifically mentioned, the innuendo seems to suggest power-hungry politicians seek black votes; or is it simply about all voters being merely a numbers game?

Jason: You could read it that way—white Democratic politicians paying lip service to black and Latino voters—but I was talking about the Republican side. White politicians seeking white votes, stirring up racism, patriotism, or whatever sticks to get poor people to support platforms that are directly counter to their own self interest. It’s a fantasy piece where the scam is revealed and the dupe wakes up. Based on current polls, it would seem a bunch of people are still asleep.
David: Red Hare and Swiz engage anger; in Swiz, the anger is palpable, boiling both on the surface and pushing the themes, emotions, and musical force. Red Hare songs like “Horace” (“holding on to pent up shit from twenty years ago”) and “Be Half” (“stop being angry / it’s what you want”), the band seems to interrogate anger. Is that a kind of wisdom that comes from aging, or a way to recognize that anger is not always the right energy?

Shawn: I think it’s both. It’s wisdom, and trying to understand where that shit comes from.

Jason: Calling out bullshit and hypocrisy in yourself and in others is a classic lyrical theme in punk and hardcore. Anger—or sarcasm—is the reaction to that topic, it’s not the topic itself. Both Swiz and Red Hare approach the topic the same way: from a personal perspective. The perspectives of a nineteen year old and a forty five year old are very different. As a result, the songs of Swiz and Red Hare are different despite sometimes sharing similar topics.

David: Jason had a “twin love of Metallica and Faith” plus liked the crunch of Discharge, and Swiz reflects that—searing guitar, propulsive drums, and antagonistic but intelligent vocals. Yet, a secret ingredient in Swiz and Red Hare is sublimated new wave: Shawn’s early taste for B-52’s, Jason for Gary Numan. To me, this seems to create a slanted, rhythmically twisted version of guitar rock.

Dave Eight: Don’t forget the goth! I believe the era of music from the late 1970s to the mid-‘80s—there was so much great stuff. The Damned crossed so many genres: punk, new wave, and goth. I kinda think they made it easy to open our ears to bands like Devo and Bauhaus.

Jason: You are spot on. Yeah, I love the guitar chubb-chubb stuff. It’s really fun to play and can be exhilarating to hear. But I like a lot of stuff—new wave, goth, rock—and have shamelessly lifted from Love And Rockets, The Cult, Gary Numan, AC/DC, Kiss, T. Rex…. We’ve all played different kinds of music over the years. Red Hare has the chassis of a hardcore/rock band, but I’d happily pepper in anything in that we think sounds good.

Shawn: I don’t really think about it that deeply. I just listen to the songs you (Jason) present me. Seriously. I mean, maybe you heard reggae when you were seven, or the Cars when you were fourteen, and that’s all creeping in now with the songs you write, but I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. It happens organically. You play what you think sounds good, or what you think fits the song—after it’s done you can point at different bits and say, “That’s new wave,” or, “That’s AC/DC residue.”

David: Jason, your obsessive and sometimes costly detail/packaging is intense: the early comics of Swiz, the sheer, sleek modernism of Bluetip and Retisonic, “a synthesis of Reid Miles blue-note sophistication/simplicity with a Jetsons-like mid-sixties futurism” you admitted, or the new Red Hare hybrid style of natural imagery, careful craft, and horror design—those red eyes in the liner notes look like a color-saturated 1970s horror film! Did this happen as an evolution or stem from Dischord design or sources elsewhere?

Jason: I’ve done hundreds of record covers over the years for many different bands, drifting in and out of styles and approaches. In that time, I’ve been heavily involved in the design side of all the releases I’ve played on, too. Swiz, Bluetip, and Retisonic releases have the aesthetic through-line you described. But when Dave’s friend Adam Jones offered to do the artwork for Red Hare’s first album, I saw it as a chance to step back from putting my stink on yet another album. Like Adam’s work with Tool (10,000 Days), the rabbits he drew for the Red Hare cover were amazing: beautifully creepy, quite a departure from my Jetson’s/Bluenote send-ups. I put Adam’s art into a package, pairing it with somewhat creepy close-up eye photos, but naturally colored to counter the scary/gory vibe of the cover. Adam kept pushing me to go all the way, embracing the horror with a red wash across the faces. Glad I took his advice.

Interview with VHS: Out of the Garish Lights of Reno and under the Creative Umbrella in Seattle By Ryan Nichols

VHS

 

Talent and energy aren’t always part of the package with all bands, but when it is, liking them is easy. VHS is dialed into both those qualities. They’ve put in more than their fair share of the work between their musical abilities, record label, touring, and songwriting. I’ve seen these boys play in a handful of other great bands over the years and put in one hundred percent every time. I was immediately hooked when I first heard the song “Behind the Wall” and have yet to be disappointed. VHS has an addictive quality to their music that’s part post-punk, with traces of psychedelia, angst, and a nervous groove. We recently popped a few beers and chatted about everything from how the band came to be to Lake Tahoe’s mysteries and the steamier sections of video stores, just before their show in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Band members:
Jawsh:
Guitar, vocals
Chris: Bass
Morgan: Guitar
Gavin: Drums

Ryan: So, Chris, have you ever been to David Coverdale’s (Whitesnake) house?

Chris: Oh, yeah, man. David Coverdale has a house up in Lake Tahoe. My dad’s a general contractor and did some work for him. I think he remodeled a room. So David Coverdale had us over one night and we were able to play in his pool. I almost drowned. I got stuck under this inflatable raft and I didn’t know how to swim really well, so his daughter had to pull me out from underneath it. It was freaky. And then he cooked us hot dogs.

Gavin: Wait, is David Coverdale the singer of Deep Purple?

Chris: Whitesnake. But, yeah, he did sing for Deep Purple on an album. I don’t know which one.

Ryan: Jawsh, I heard you worked at a VHS video store in Reno called Bradley Video.

Jawsh: Yeah, Bradley Video was a great video store. I think it went out of business in 2001, and I only worked there for about a year. It had really big horror movie, foreign movie, and cult movie sections—a lot of crazy stuff as far as selection in Reno goes. It also had the biggest pornography section, which pretty much kept that place in business. The porno customers were really odd and loyal.

Morgan: Who was the one guy you told me about? …your steamy section, like soft core porn area?

Jawsh: Ah, the steamy section. It was funny because the steamy section wasn’t hardcore porn. It wasn’t in the porno room—it was right outside the room. There was this dude I went to high school with who was too afraid to go in the porn section, so he would rent steamy movies. He was a funny kid. I think he was slow or whatever, but he had a car and worked at Wal-Mart. There was this one particular weekend where he finally worked up the courage to go into the adult room and rent a real porn. He was like, “Yeah, I’m just gonna get a real one today because, like, you know, I can [everyone laughs].”

Ryan: Did you get a bunch of VHS tapes from there?

Jawsh: I got a lot of videos from there.

Morgan: Is that where all the Lander House VHSs were from?

Jawsh: I ended up with hundreds of their movies.

Ryan: Do you collect them?

Jawsh: I collected them at the time, kind of. But now that VHS has been gone long enough, it’s become a retro thing. Even before that I was never up to date on technology and I just had a VHS player. I didn’t get a DVD player when everyone else did. Then they got cheaper and cheaper, so I’d grab them all the time from thrift stores.

Ryan: I feel like VHS is one of those formats that you can still find rad gems on. Like they’re not gonna release some kooky ‘80s movie on DVD for the five people who wanna own it. Vinyl was that way for a long time too, before everyone started reissuing everything.

Morgan: Like Funky Monks, the Red Hot Chili Peppers documentary. It’s only on VHS.

Jawsh: That’s how I started buying movies on VHS. I just wanted a copy of The Lost Dragon when I was a teenager. That’s what got me started on this idea. I was like, I’m just gonna recreate my movie watching experience from childhood.

Ryan: Do you have a favorite?

Jawsh: Probably The Lost Dragon, but I really like Every Which Way but Loose and AnyWhich Way You Can.Those were movies that my dad and I watched when I was little, so those were a couple of my favorite ones.

Ryan: What is a PyramidLake water baby?

Chris: An urban legend.

Jawsh: I always heard that Jacques Cousteau said, “Pyramid is not fit for man.”

Chris: And he also said that the world isn’t ready to know what’s at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. People think there are giant fish down there—these garden graveyards and people with cement shoes from the mafia—and that the corpses are super preserved because of how cold it is down there.

Ryan: Down in PyramidLake?

Chris: Down in Lake Tahoe.

Ryan: Reno is between PyramidLake and Lake Tahoe, right?

Chris: Yeah, they’re connected by the TruckeeRiver.

Morgan: There have been bodies thrown into Tahoe that have shown up in Pyramid. It’s weird. There’s some other way to get to Pyramid from Tahoe, just by the size of the objects that have been found.

Chris: There’s fish in PyramidLake that are only found there and in Africa.

Morgan: There’s also a naturally formed pyramid in the lake.

Chris: Which you can’t go to because it’s on sacred Indian land.

Ryan: Aside from all the creepy surroundings, is there anything you guys miss about Reno?

Jawsh: There are so many things I miss about Reno: cheap rent, easy living. It’s the type of place where you can have a really nice house, only work thirty hours a week, and have a basement to yourself for band practice. It’s just a really easy place to live.

Chris: I miss everything about it. I miss the climate, especially. I miss the community.

Morgan: We were talking about that earlier. Reno has a really unique social scene. It’s big enough so where there are cool people doing all these creative things like art and music, but small enough so where everyone knows everyone. You can go to any bar and see sixty people you know. I don’t know any other place like that.

Ryan: So it has that high school reunion all year-round vibe?

Jawsh: Yeah, but it’s easy to hit a wall in Reno, too, because there’s only so much you can do. For whatever reason, it seems really hard to get out of, even though it is close to the Bay Area—and even Portland or Los Angeles as far as music stuff goes. I love it. It’s home and I didn’t feel like I wanted to leave; I felt like I had to leave.

Morgan: I didn’t even move there until I was sixteen, but anytime someone asks me where I’m from I say Reno.

Chris: You’ll never go to a city where there are more people who have a tattoo of that city and people that aren’t even from there have them, too.

Ryan: But you guys did make your way out. All of you ended up in Seattle. How did that happen?

Chris: Well, I moved up first about five years ago to start playing in Big Eyes when they moved from New York to Seattle. I’ve just been there ever since. Then Jawsh followed a little bit after that.

Jawsh: Almost two years ago. I just moved out to start playing in Criminal Code more.

Ryan: So you guys didn’t have plans to form a band.

Jawsh: Yeah, Big Eyes was winding down at the same time Criminal Code had just come back from a U.S. tour. Then we did a pretty big European tour. Criminal Code was taking a rest for a little bit and we weren’t writing songs as much, so Chris and I started playing some songs and recording together. Eventually Morgan moved up and we had our friend Parker playing bass for a little bit. At our first three shows we had three different people playing guitar.

Chris: After Big Eyes I was thinking about moving down to Portland, but then I talked to Morgan. He was on his way out of there, so it just made sense to stay. Plus, there are a lot of opportunities in Seattle. I had a good job that I still have now.

Ryan: Is there a scene in Seattle right now?

Jawsh: Yeah, there’s a good one… there’s probably lots of them.

Chris: Our buddy CJ, who was the original drummer for Big Eyes, lives up there and does Daswasup Gig. He books nonstop. He probably booked a hundred shows this last year. There’s the Black Lodge, Office Space. There are a couple of cool DIY spots.

Ryan: I know from my own experiences of going out to Reno and playing shows that there’s a scene there. Is Seattle like that or is it different in some ways?

Jawsh: Well, there’s a lot more going on in Seattle It might be harder to get to know a rad band, but there are a lot of great bands there. There are also a lot of bands that we haven’t even heard. It’s a big city and everyone plays music there. There’s nothing unique about playing in a band up there.

Chris: There’s so much going on at all times. There’s KEXP, tons of record labels, and so many venues. There’s no shortage of live music.

Gavin: Seattle’s kind of different. Growing up in Bremerton—and I’m sure it’s the same in other places—kids can be starved for all-ages spaces. On the flipside, I feel like Seattle is oversaturated sometimes, but that’s just because it’s this really big community. I feel like it can be hard to get people to come out to every show because there’s so many constantly.

Jawsh: I still feel like I haven’t been to a show that wasn’t pretty packed out. Even on a weeknight it’s still good. They’re never poorly attended. Even at a bad show there would be at least fifty people there.

Morgan: That is something I’ve noticed just from doing sound up there. The crappiest show at a weird bar on a Wednesday night won’t feel awkward at all with the amount of people that are there.

Ryan: Is there a good mix of bands to play with?

Chris: There are a lot of good ones in Seattle right now that are getting some decent notoriety and putting out cool records. It’s an exciting place to be right now, I think.

Morgan: I really like Dream Decay. It’s our buddy Justin’s band and he’s the guy who did the art for our LP that’s coming out.

Chris: Private Room is another good band. It’s pretty much the new Walls.

Gavin: I like Pearl Jam [everyone laughs].

Ryan: How did the label Casino Trash get started? Are you guys all participating in it?

Chris: Well, Jawsh and I started it, but Morgan is definitely involved, too, with all the recording, mastering, and audio work. We started it just to put out VHS tapes. That was the whole plan: we’ll just put out a bunch of tapes. We were already working on material and asked ourselves, “Do we find a label or do we just release it ourselves?” As soon as we did that and we were in production for the first tape, we were watching this band Freak Vibe from Seattle that we really dug a lot. We asked them if we could do a tape for them. That was our second tape and it just snowballed really quickly. Within the first year we did eight different tapes and the first VHS 7”. Next we have a single coming out for The Shivas and that will be our twelfth release in under two years.

Ryan: Do you make the tapes yourself?

Chris: No, I get them sent out because I like them to look nice once they’re printed. I take a lot of pride in it and care about how they look and sound.

Jawsh: Casino Trash is quality.

Chris: Tapes are just so easy. The overhead is low, the turnaround time is low, and you can print any number of them and have them in a month. Most of the bands on Casino Trash have already broken up, so if we had to wait six months to get a release, that would be terrible. I wouldn’t ever recommend having us put out a band’s tape, because that will just break up your band.

Morgan: The cool thing about that, though, is documenting something that wouldn’t be documented otherwise. Like Health Problems and The Tracers, which was one of my favorite Seattle bands ever seen.

Jawsh: They only played for like six months or something.

Morgan: Yeah, and then they broke up. I feel like no one would have heard that recording otherwise. Same thing with Spitting Image and Teal.

Ryan: Is the name a nod to Reno?

Chris: That’s all Jawsh.

Jawsh: I did not put a lot of thought into that. I have like, a million fake band names.

Chris: Well, it’s a song, right?

Jawsh: Yeah, actually I wrote a song called “VHS” while Over Vert was on tour. I did a batch of songs by myself on my 8-track and one of them was called “VHS.” I just have a bunch of old pretend bands I did while I was recording stuff.

Ryan: So the name of the band and the label came from these songs, not from your video collection.

Jawsh: I think I marked some of my tapes VHS, or put Violent Human System or Vultures And Hungry Spirits. I don’t know. There wasn’t a lot of thought that went into it. Actually, I have a hard time with that. I feel like that vibe of doing something by yourself for yourself has a different context than putting it out there and sharing it. VHS seemed like this cool thing to do by myself, but now there’s this weird VHS revival with all these people collecting tapes. There’s also a million bands called VHS. But, yeah, it’s not a clever name [Everyone laughs].

Ryan: So you guys put out all these tapes and 7”s yourselves, and now your LP is coming out on Suicide Squeeze. How did that all come about?

Jawsh: We have a friend that works at the label.

Chris: Well, I met David—who runs it—a few years back through our friend Jen. Jen works there, also tours with us, and helps out the band a lot. We did some demos just because we’re always recording stuff in our practice space. I gave them out to a few friends, Jen being one of them. She asked if it would be okay if she showed them to David, which I was fine with. He came to a show a little after that and talked to us. He was interested in doing an LP.

Ryan: Would you have just put it out yourselves if that didn’t come up?

Chris: That was the plan, but it just came up so we went with it.

Ryan: I don’t totally know the label beyond a few releases, but they’re from Seattle, right?

Jawsh: He’s been doing it for about twenty years. I think his first release was the Modest Mouse/764-HERO split.

Morgan: It’s a really eclectic mix of bands. A lot of them from Seattle, a lot of them not. Gavin and I are stoked because he put out an Elliott Smith single.

Jawsh: He put out my favorite Elliott Smith song.

Chris: This is the first time any of us have ever been in this position, getting to work with a record label.

Ryan: What’s the worst press you guys have received?

Jawsh: I think generally the whole post-punk tag is pretty lazy.

Ryan: So no one’s said that you guys sound like Bush or anything?

Chris: Not yet, but I look forward to it.

Gavin: It’s that same thing where someone tells you, “Oh, hey, you look a lot like this person.” Everyone used to always be like, “You look a lot like Frankie Muniz” (Malcolm in the Middle) and I’d be like, “Uhhhh” [everyone laughs].

Ryan: When you have a long drive ahead of you, what record do you listen to?

Jawsh: I think one of my favorite driving records is Raging Full On by Firehose. I love that record.

Chris: Every Tom Petty record. I’d probably start with Damn the Torpedoes.

Gavin: Jawsh and these guys, recently turned me on to that Marquee Moon album by Television. I’ve been in love with that one.

Morgan: We listened to Figure 8 today, the Elliott Smith record, and I had a spiritual experience in the backseat.

Chris: We try and keep it regional, too. Rolling into L.A. and listen to L.A. bands, or roll into San Francisco and listen to San Francisco bands.

Ryan: Before the show to get hyped?

Jawsh: Oh dude, we never get hyped.

Morgan: I definitely play guitar before every show. I was watching this video of Dimebag Darrell before a Pantera show and he was like, “Never play one of your riffs, man. You gotta give that the feel.”

Gavin: I usually pace around and then change into shorts.

Chris: I just always have to pee.

Ryan: What about comedy albums or something aside from music to break it up?

Morgan: We listened Maria Bamford and Hannibal Buress on the last tour. We listen to podcasts every now and then like, 99% Invisible, which is an architecture and design thing. And what was the movie one?

Chris: Oh, I Was There Too. Actually, we haven’t done it on a tour yet, but we probably will listen to the Game of Thrones audio book. Morgan and I were listening to it on a road trip recently and that was fun. The fist book is around forty-eight hours long. We’d need a long U.S. tour to finish it.

David Thomas of Rocket From The Tombs and Pere Ubu Interview By Erin Schultz

Pere Ubu

I had the good fortune to talk with the inimitable David Thomas. He is the founder of phenomenally iconoclastic, angular, subconscious-speaking Cleveland bands Rocket From The Tombs and Pere Ubu, on the occasion of his release of the second in a series of box sets, Architecture of Language 1979-1982, which gathers together  New Picnic Time, with its companion releases The Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man.  It’s truly a gorgeous recording. I’ve listened to Pere Ubu for decades, and discover new, ingenious, and horribly disturbing things every time I play this new collection. We also discussed RFTT’s new release, Black Record. David talks about his creative process and his unique musical vision.

Erin: You have famously said that you hate punk rock. Is that why you once refused to tour with the Buzzcocks?

David: I don’t hate it. I have never said that. I don’t respect it or consider it anything more than a corporate control mechanism. I dismiss it like one dismisses manufactured boy or girl bands. It’s not worth the emotion of hate. I don’t know anything about touring with the Buzzcocks.

Erin: I heard David Byrne quote you to Lou Reed as saying Reed’s music is “folk music,” and Reed agreed with that characterization. Is it accurate that you said that, and if so, can you say more about that?

David: Allen (Ravenstine, Pere Ubu keyboardist) would explain that Pere Ubu is a folk band. The whole scene, even counting all the part-time musicians, sometime soundmen, wives, girlfriends, hangers-on, and friends of friends amounted to not much more than one hundred people. It was a small, isolated society living in a geography as isolated as any pioneer outpost on the Nebraska plains. And they identified with their geography. Passionately. Except the geography was not rural. They found themselves in a lost world, where the sun would set, the inhabitants flee, and the stones of the bridges, buildings, and monuments whisper in the timeless dark, speaking in a dead language of the hopes and dreams and fears of long-lost ancestors. The vision was too powerful. They were too young.

Erin: The box set’s notes seem to suggest themes of chaos and ephemerality. Pere Ubu expresses a grotesqueness, according to Allen Ravenstine, by layering textures together. You capture lived, psychic experience in a way that I think no other band has done. Can you tell me a little bit about how your songwriting process has changed over the years and lineup changes?

David: The songwriting process hasn’t changed. People come into my sphere, they stay for awhile – sometimes decades – and they leave my sphere. While in my sphere I work with them no different than I work with, or have worked with, anyone else. I don’t change, the world changes. I stay the same. I draw creative, strong people in. I study what they bring with them. I give them freedom to alter, magnify, ignore, or deprecate what I do and what I want to do. Only if absolutely necessary”to preserve a conceptual integrity”do I interfere with their intentions. In the book Chinese Whispers, I describe the method at some length. I’m not plugging the book. The book, a limited edition, is out of print. And I’m not going to summarize it because I already wrote it all down. “Say something once, why say it again?”

I can be hard to work with. I can make excessive demands. I am not talkative. I don’t often give positive feedback. You have to be the sort of person who can work in a relative vacuum and yet be attuned to what I probably want. I can be grumpy. I am capable of willfully throwing away a performance on a petulant whim. That’s all on the downside.

On the upside I can do things with an audience that the best of the rest wouldn’t even dare to dream of. My stage personality is the opposite of my downside qualities; it’s the person I want to be. I always seek to go further and take greater risks. If I dodge one bullet I immediately set up a scenario that requires that I dodge two bullets. I walk a tightrope over a chasm of bitter despair and mostly I don’t fall. That’s kind of exciting for my co-workers. You don’t get that everyday. Plus maybe they like my singing, too.

People like to work with me because I delegate responsibility. Musicians are granted wide latitude. This is hard for some outsiders to grasp because I have the reputation of being a “control freak.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that I keep a tight rein on the conceptual integrity of a piece of work, as a conductor would, but within that framework I encourage musicians to find their own solutions. For example, if a section of a song isn’t working, I’ll pick out the right musician and say, “Fix this. Don’t bother me with details. Don’t talk to me about it. Talk to the other guys and come up with a solution.” The next time we play the song and it still doesn’t work I’ll ask that person, or others, to rethink the solution. At a certain point I might step in and suggest something concrete. I try not to.

Erin: I think your work is tremendously humorous, with its range all the way from your “wheeps” and “whoos” that Ravenstine found silly, through dark reflections on life’s absurdities, and expressions of the oddities of consciousness. It really cracked me up that early reviewers somberly talked about Ubu’s sound as reflecting “industrial wastelands.” Can you tell me about the role of humor in your worldview and in your songwriting?

David: Human beings are funny. You are funny often at the point you feel least funny. It’s about self-awareness – being able to step back and observe yourself dispassionately. If you can make a habit of that you will soon observe the humor of the human condition. I’m sure you’ve experienced it, seeing yourself proceeding down a path of behavior knowing what the result will be. “Oh please! Don’t do that again!” Human beings… ya gotta love ’em.

Erin: Do you still find that Pere Ubu went through an early “dark period” that had a definitive ending?

David: No. I don’t think we ever had a dark period. Or do you want gushing lyrics/sounds? The only period where I personally set out to do “dark music” was some of my solo albums. The problem there was that I was using a narrative vehicle that depended on creating a hysteria of surface “happiness” that only thinly disguised the reality of the narrative.

People didn’t seem to “get it.” Here’s a simple tool. If an Ubu / Dave Thomas song seems to be happy then it is actually probably tragic. If it seems to be tragic, then it’s actually, at the core, probably not. In any case, “happiness” or the lack of it is not a subject that means anything or holds much interest for me. Who cares? 37,182 people have died while I am doing this interview. What the hell do my feelings amount to? I’ll tell you – a hill of beans.

Erin: I love the new RFTT Black Record, which has eight new tracks and includes collaboration with Cleveland’s This Moment In Black History. It’s a fun, pleasurable listen and it reminds me of the great influence you had on bands like the Pixies. I remember you saying something to the effect that you always wanted music to be challenging and not to be purely for entertainment value. A lot of popular music was pretty dumb when you started RFTT as a parody concept. Do you feel like RFTT still has some of that parody element?

David: No. No parody element. Are you suggesting that a lot of popular music now is not dumb?! I think I can count on the fingers of one hand, for example, the number of songs about girls I’ve written that are actually about girls. If there’s a girl who seems to be the subject of a song or is mentioned in one, I can almost guarantee you that it’s got nothing to do with anyone of the female sex, or any sex. I don’t waste my time with that subject matter, and in any case, there are too many other people who have done it better than I can, so why should I work in an overcrowded field?

Everything I have to say I’ve said already over the last forty years, and now that I’m facing what time I have left on the planet, I have limited endurance for revisiting myself. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was: “Take yourself out of it.” Life-changing advice I recommend to everyone. Who cares about you? What you think, especially what you feel? Tell a story that doesn’t have you in it. 43,112 people have now died.

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Erin Schultz is an Austin, Texas writer, single mother, and recovering punk rocker. She can be reached at notyouracademy1@gmail.com