Interviewing Popllama’s Conrad Uno

Posted: December 20, 2011 in Other Key Interviews

So many great Seattle bands came from Popllama: the Young Fresh Fellows, the Squirrels, the Presidents of the United States of America, Red Dress, the Posies, the Fastbacks, and on and on.  Conrad Uno’s label never got Sub Pop’s notoriety, but in retrospect, he probably put out the better product.

Uno (that’s what everyone seems to call him, even close friends…so I’ll pretend I’m a close friend) is kind of an ex-hippie, with a more cynical northwest twist.  He is a unique character within the Seattle music scene.  That’s funny, because this music scene consists almost entirely of unique characters.  Uno essentially represents the ultimate in Seattle characters in a lot of ways, and of course I had to talk to him.

Easier said than done of course.  Uno is a reluctant interview, because he believes they are a “waste of time.”  It’s not that he’s a curmudgeon, that’s just his honest assessment.  So, I would have to work for this one.

I emailed him several times, with only lukewarm responses.  Finally, I suggested we get together for an off-the-record lunch during my planned August 2007 trip.  He agreed.  We met at a great sandwich place called Nana’s, near his house.  We ate and chatted for about two hours–two of the funniest hours I have ever experienced.  One of my favorites was a story about his first band, Uncle Cookie, that played a gig at a “friendly” venue called “Whitey’s Good Time Tavern.”  You can see an account of that in the “Offbeat Seattle Music Stories” section. (“Certainly one of my favorite stories that I make up,” he says.)

Since we had such a nice time, Uno agreed to a formal interview at a later date—possibly by phone.

Our phone interview never panned out, so I suggested we do an in-person at Nana’s during my next trip to Seattle, in July 2008.  He agreed.  (See why it took me five years to write this thing?)

We again chatted for almost two hours, but I got to record this one.  We started out with the usual background stuff, and I asked him his age: “57,” he says, “though for the whole last year, I thought I was 58.”

After Uno’s Uncle Cookie days, he began to do sound for shows around town, including Red Dress, a band that combined elements of R&B with Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, with an approach like the Band—overlaid with bizarre storylines.  “I ended up doing sound for this great band named Red Dress, still my favorite band of all time,” says Uno.

The record label came later, in conjunction with some of the early Young Fresh Fellows recordings.  “The name came up at Scott McCaughey’s birthday party,” Uno recalls.  “Somebody said it in the basement…we were upstairs throwing popcorn or something.  And somebody came up and said, ‘Hey, [the Fellows’ Chuck] Carroll said this word—Popllama.’”

For his thirty-fifth birthday, Uno’s wife Emily decided to surprise him with a live llama—in their house.  “The friggin’ thing just came in and walked right up to me,” he says, “…and kneeled down in front of me—closer than you and I [and it] just was chewin’ in my face.

 “And then all the sudden all my friends started coming out of the back bedroom.”

Uno would house Popllama in his homegrown Egg Studios.  “The name egg just came out of all the egg cartons on the walls,” he says.  “My friend Ernie worked at Red Robin, got me stacks of empty egg squares—just for diffusion of sound.  It didn’t stop anything from going out, but it kept it a little bit more manageable inside.”

The studio began to consume more of Uno’s time.  He even recorded some of the Sub Pop bands like Mudhoney and Love Battery.  Soon, he would have to quit his day job and focus entirely on music.  “It [got to] a certain point,” he recalls, “where too many people wanted to record and I didn’t have time to mow any more lawns for little old ladies.”

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