Interviewing the U-Men’s Tom Price

Posted: September 18, 2011 in Interviewing the Elliott Bay Panelists

Third in a series of how I came to interview panelists who will appear at the musician/producer Q&A at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company (Wednesday, October 19, 7 pm.)  These blog entries appear here as follows:

Jack Endino: Friday, September 16

Rob Morgan: Saturday, September 17

Tom Price: Today

John Leighton Beezer: Monday, September 19

Steve Fisk: Tuesday, September 20

For many outside the Northwest, the U-Men exist in the murky recesses of pre-grunge Seattle.  For those who choose to dig deeper, the U-Men become relevant only because they “laid the basis for grunge.”  hype!, the 1996 documentary of the Seattle grunge scene, kind of reinforces that premise.  Bullshit.

My U-Men education began when Jack Endino handed me their retrospective CD, Solid Action, in 2007.  You can’t help but react when you hear their music for the first time.  Usually, it’s with your mouth open.

As I spoke with about 120 people within the Seattle music scene it became clear: the U-Men influenced their peers more than any other band…and that includes Nirvana, Soundgarden, and even the Blackouts, Seattle’s seminal underground band of the late ’70s/early ’80s.  The U-Men could outplay anybody.  They were startlingly creative.  And they had the audacity to make a record way back in 1984.   They were even among the first punk bands to venture beyond the West Coast.  Virtually every future grunge band member went to U-Men shows, but the U-Men weren’t grunge.  In fact, they weren’t pre-grunge, either.  They combined postpunk, avant-jazz, Sonics-inspired garage rock, and punk craziness to create their own thing.  “I’d be happy to not be credited with inventing grunge,” U-Men guitarist Tom Price exclaims.

So, obviously I had to sink my teeth into this band.  Unfortunately, I was two years into the book and I had not yet spoken with anyone in the U-Men, save for manager Larry Reid.  Finding the players became a project.  I wanted to start with Tom Price, who was in many ways the U-Men’s artistic center.  Interviewing Tom began with his close friend James Burdyshaw.

I first met James at Geezerfest in August of 2007, (see https://thestrangesttribebook.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/geezerfest-august-2007/) and interviewed him by phone three months later.  James formed the early grunge band 64 Spiders, and then joined Cat Butt (which briefly also included Tom.)  In any event, James, who goes by “Brother James,” knew how badly I wanted to chat with Tom, and he began to feel him out.  In July of 2008, I met James for a beer, and he told me he could probably set up an in-person interview with Tom while I was in town.

It was Sunday, July 13, 2008, and my phone rang as I walked down “the Ave,” the main drag in Seattle’s University District.  It was James.  He said Tom would be willing to meet me at Hattie’s Hat, a bar in Ballard, the next night for an interview.  Yes!

I had one problem, however.  That night, I went to see Green River at the Sub Pop 20 Festival in Redmond, and had my glasses broken at the event. (see https://thestrangesttribebook.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/green-river-reunion-show-july-2008-2/).  I used first-aid tape to put them back together, but I couldn’t meet Tom looking like Spaz from Meatballs.  I picked up some Krazy Glue so I wouldn’t look like a nerd cliché.

I met Tom and James at Hattie’s Hat the next night, and we found a relatively quiet table in the back.  One thing about doing an in-person interview…it can make people feel uncomfortable.  It’s just a bit hard to have a “natural” conversation when you have a running tape recorder in the middle of a table.  Phone interviews can often feel more comfortable since the recorder is less intrusive.

So, we all had a couple beers to help loosen things up a bit.  Then we began the interview.  I talked with Tom about his early days, beginning with his first band—Psychopop—his influences, and of course about the U-Men.  James politely asked me if he could ask questions as well, and I said yes.  James turned out to be an enormous assist with this interview.  He didn’t try to take over, but knowing Tom and the U-Men better than I, he helped guide the conversation by asking some questions I hadn’t thought of.  My book instantly became better because of him.

As far as Tom’s influences go, the Sonics became apparent very quickly.  A Tacoma band that began life in the early ’60s, the Sonics laid the basis for garage, punk, and even grunge.  They were tough, dangerous, and played these weird, jagged, fuzzy chord progressions.  Tom’s U-Men would feature Sonics covers at almost every show.

I had to ask Tom about the notorious 1985 Bumbershoot show, where the U-Men nearly set the stage on fire.  (And yeah, I’m saving that one for the book.  Again, I know I suck.)

We also chatted about Gas Huffer, Tom’s successor to the U-Men.  Gas Huffer is another one of those Seattle bands that flies under the radar.  They got going in the late ’80s, just as the grunge scene began to heat up—but they weren’t grunge.  They played a speeded up, country-punk inspired brand of Northwest garage rock.  Like the U-Men, Gas Huffer broke the rules, and created something beautiful as a result.

At one point, James accidentally knocked over an empty Corona bottle.  The container bounced several times on the floor, but for some reason didn’t break.  We all were a bit lit at this point, which of course made it funnier.  “That’s good Mexican ingenuity,” James stated.  Fortunately, the exchange made it on tape, and you can hear it at https://thestrangesttribebook.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/the-corona-bottle-incident/.

After the interview, James sent me contact information for Jim Tillman, the U-Men’s bass player.  I spoke with Jim by phone in early 2009, and he helped complete my picture of the Northwest’s most dynamic band.  I wrote more about the U-Men than anybody else, and you can see the result in Chapter 3 of The Strangest Tribe: “We Must Be Musicians.”  U-Men tour stories that didn’t make the book show up on the blog at https://thestrangesttribebook.wordpress.com/category/from-the-cutting-room-floor/narrative/u-men/.  I want to thank James for his massive assist in getting these interviews.  I could not have done the Northwest’s greatest band justice without him.

(Note: Tom’s current band, the Tom Price Desert Classic, will be playing my book launch party at West Seattle’s Feedback Lounge on Tuesday, October 18.  Further details will appear in the Seattle Book Launch Event section of this blog when they are finalized.)

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