Archive for the ‘Interviewing the Elliott Bay Panelists’ Category

Fifth and final installment 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: (Update: unfortunately, Steve had to cancel his panel appearance.)

Jack Endino: Friday, September 16

Rob Morgan: Saturday, September 17

Tom Price: Sunday, September 18

John Leighton Beezer: Monday September 19

Steve Fisk: Today

Each person on the Elliott Bay panel provides a different perspective, which is obviously what I was going for.  Jack Endino is the “grunge producer,” having recorded Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, etc.  He was also an integral actor in the music scene with his band Skin Yard.  Rob Morgan brings the old school Seattle punk ethic to the table, along with a view from outside that grunge circle.  Tom Price played in the U-Men, a hugely influential band, and was a participant in the pre-grunge all-ages punk scene.  John Leighton Beezer’s Thrown Ups symbolized the grunge aesthetic.

And then there’s Steve Fisk.  Like Jack, Steve enjoys prominence as a producer.  And, like Jack, he recorded Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Screaming Trees.  Steve, however, observed the music community from without…he was not a “scenester.”  He was a self-admitted “worker bee.”  Steve also brings a perspective none of the other panelists have: Olympia’s Evergreen State College.  Before he made his name in Seattle, Steve collaborated with such Evergreen notables as Bruce Pavitt, Calvin Johnson, and John Foster as part of Op magazine, a publication that connected Olympia to underground music scenes throughout the country.

I interviewed him twice, in November of 2006, and then again about a year later.  Our dialogue did not follow the typical interview format, that is, I completely ditched the script.  Basically, Steve ran the interview.  I found myself ruffling through my list of questions trying to figure out if I’d asked them or not.

In addition to production credits, Steve has played with Pell Mell, Pigeonhed, and as a solo act.  He also co-wrote the soundtrack for 2007’s About A Son, a Kurt Cobain documentary.  He has resided in Los Angeles, Olympia, Ellensburg (WA), and Seattle.

Before our first interview, I had read an article in Backlash, a grunge era fanzine, which traced Steve’s roots to Louisiana.  “Somebody was transcribing an interview,” he says, “…and I said I was from LA—and that turned into Louisiana.  I’m actually a corndog from Lakewood [California], which is sort of in the armpit of Long Beach.  It would be much cooler to be from Louisiana.”

After that, we bounced around various subjects, talking about his influences, his time in Olympia, producing Screaming Trees and Nirvana.  My favorite Steve quote relates to the latter band: “When Nirvana played Ellensburg, I walked out on them.  I thought they sucked….Different people would walk away from the same show going, ‘I thought they were great.  They destroyed everything!’ [or] ‘Yeah, it really sucked.  They destroyed everything!’”

I called Steve up about a year later, to get more detail about the Olympia scene, as part of my second chapter, “KAOS in Olympia.”  Steve walked me through his experience working with Bruce Pavitt, who had started a little fanzine called Sub/Pop.  Three of the fanzines were accompanied by music compilations, and Steve dubbed them onto cassette.  Bruce would later turn his fanzine into a full-time record label that would provide platforms for Nirvana and Soundgarden’s success.

So, there you have it…a little background on the Fab Five panelists.  I hope you can make it to the reading.  If you can’t, we’re going to film the event and hopefully I’ll get some clips up on the blog.

Fourth 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: Sunday, September 18

John Leighton Beezer: Today

Steve Fisk: Tomorrow

Some people refer to him as John. I call him Leighton.  Let’s just get that out of the way.

Leighton’s Thrown Ups never became as prominent as some of his friends’ bands like Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.  But that was by design.  Regardless, the Thrown Ups were arguably the quintessential grunge ensemble.  They embodied the aesthetic of grunge more than anybody else in Seattle.  And I mean real grunge—the organic version that existed in Seattle in the late ’80s, not the mass-market phenomenon of the ’90s.

The Thrown Ups didn’t practice.  They didn’t even have songs.  Anything was possible when Leighton’s band took the stage.  The Thrown Ups began life in 1985 opening for Hüsker Du.  Concerned they might get booed off the stage, Leighton & Co. brought raw oysters ready to heave at the audience if necessary.  You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened next (is this pattern getting annoying yet?).

Leighton has a specific musical philosophy he’s stuck to all these years: enjoy yourself, and don’t practice.  He could never understand why people would miss a party because of a band rehearsal. “Get out.  Have fun,” he stated.  “Make contacts with people.  And so, the scene was much healthier. The bands weren’t all isolated and focused on their careers.  They were practicing maybe once a week, and they weren’t too uptight if they didn’t have it right.  And in fact everybody knew full well that a show that turned into a train wreck was probably better than one that didn’t.”

I interviewed Leighton for the first time in April of 2007.  He is–quite frankly–a quote machine.  Sometimes it’s tough to transcribe a conversation into a usable quote.  Not so with Leighton.   I pretty much could just use our dialogue as a narrative of Seattle’s punk rock history.

We’ve met twice, and our second meeting stands out in my mind…I think it was 2008.  He had a gig at a bar in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood.  You have to understand something about Leighton’s bands.  Similar to how he approaches his craft, Leighton’s musical collectives literally come together at the last minute.

We chatted over a beer for half an hour.  Then he went up to the hostess and asked, “Do you know who’s playing here tonight?”  She didn’t respond, save for a look of bewilderment.  “Because,” Leighton continued, “it might be me.”

A couple of musicians trickled in, but with just a few minutes before show time, Leighton wasn’t sure if he would have enough players.  Specifically, he was waiting on a bassist named “Five.”  A couple of minutes later, Five sauntered in, and the show was on.

Leighton’s band played for forty-five minutes—literally—without stopping.  No vocals, just an improvised piece of music.  The volume was tremendous, and the notes bounced off the walls.  It was–in a word–outstanding.

A year later, I hit a wall with my book project.  I had just finished a section on Seattle’s vibrant 1983/84 all-ages scene.  Then that string seemed to die out, and I had nowhere to go.  At the other end of that string, I had written about a club called the Gorilla Gardens, which opened in 1985.  I just couldn’t join the two strands.  So, I called up Leighton.

I told him about my dilemma, and he laughed, saying he had been thinking about that time as well.  In fact, he had been reconnecting with people from that era on Facebook.  Yeah, it was one of those cosmic vibe moments.

So, Leighton walked me through that “lost” era, a time I call “Interlude Underground” in the book.  That period was critical to the development of Seattle’s music scene, including of course grunge.  Since the all-ages community had died out, people had nothing left to do.  Nobody believed they could make money with their band, so they just created music for fun.  It was during Interlude Underground that Green River, Soundgarden, the Young Fresh Fellows, the Green Pajamas, and the Walkabouts emerged.

Needless to say, Leighton has been an invaluable asset to my book.

Another couple of years passed, and the publisher and I were kicking around potential book titles.  They finally decided on The Strangest Tribe, and at the time I had mixed feelings about it.  (Like I said before, it has grown on me quite a bit since.)  So, I called up a few people to get their thoughts including Leighton, Jack Endino, Rob Morgan, and Kurt Danielson.  Leighton laughed when I told him the title, suggesting we call it The Dumbest Club instead.  Did I mention he is a quote machine?

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.)

Rob Morgan.  He is the Seattle music scene in a lot of ways.  He just doesn’t get the exposure some of his more well-known peers enjoy.  And, why not?  He was there at the beginning, at the inception of the city’s University District punk rock scene some 36 years ago.  The Ramones, Blondie, and the Tubes partied at his house.  He worked the door at the Bird, Seattle’s first punk rock club.  He had a minor hit with his first “serious” band, the Pudz.  He saw the U-Men form in his basement.  And, to top it all off, he formed and ran the Squirrels, arguably Seattle’s most unique and talented band, for a quarter century.

Yet, if you examine books about Seattle music history, you’ll be hard-pressed to find his name.  You’ll spot Californian Eddie Vedder faster than you’ll find Rob.  So, for me, uncovering Rob became like discovering a diamond in the rough.

I first interviewed him back in October of 2008.  We chatted mostly about the early Seattle scene…growing up in Edmonds, Washington, and his decision to relocate to the U-District to hang out with other punk pioneers like Jim Basnight, Lee Lumsden, and Neil Hubbard.  We also talked a bit about the Squirrels.  But, quite frankly, I had no idea what I was dealing with.

I met Rob for the first time in July of 2009, at a Fags reunion gig (see “Interviewing Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard” in the “Other Key Interviews” section for more about that show.)  He was standing outside the bar wearing a Ramones shirt I believe, pressing an icepack to his shoulder (Rob, how did that happen again?).  We chatted briefly, and I started to think it was time to learn more about the Squirrels.

When I got home, I re-listened to our 2008 interview, and began cracking up when Rob talked about his band.  The Squirrels are known for combining songs that don’t seem to fit together, at least in an obvious way.  Everyone was fair game for Squirrel mash-up parody…from Black Sabbath to Patsy Cline to Shaun Cassidy to Dave Brubeck to Judas Priest.  Rob sent me the Squirrels’ sampler CD Scrapin’ for Hits as well as a parody of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon called The Not-So-Bright Side of the Moon.

I listened to the Pink Floyd record first and found myself laughing out loud.  If you’ve ever heard the original, you know Dark Side opens with the sound of a heartbeat, a ticking clock, and random industrial sounds.  In contrast, the Squirrels’ version features a hiccup in place of the heartbeat, mooing cows, and an eeeaaahhhh sound a fax machine makes when it connects.  My chocolate milk came shooting out of my nose when I heard that.  So, yeah, I had to write about this band.

Unfortunately, the Squirrels’ long history didn’t seem to fit well with the general narrative of my book.  So, I decided I’d write a chapter addendum about the band.

I called Rob up in the winter of 2010 to talk specifically about the Squirrels, and two more times after that.  I also chatted with guitarist Joey Kline, the Squirrels’ “co-pilot,” bassist Craig Ferguson, the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey (an early Squirrels member) and long-time fan Ned Raggett.  I even asked Jack Endino about the Squirrels.  He provided one of the more memorable quotes, which I’m saving for the book (I know, I suck.)  Since I’d never seen the Squirrels live, Rob sent me dvds of their performances.

I wrote 15 pages about the band, which I unfortunately had to chop in half.  I think my favorite deleted quote relates to Rob talking about his days at Woodway High School in Edmonds: “There sure wasn’t anything going on in Edmonds.  You ever see that movie Dazed and Confused?  Ah, that was Edmonds.  That was pretty much my high school experience—give or take the jocks chasing you around.”

The more I chatted with Rob, the more I realized just how multi-faceted his is.  He’s a musician, a cartoonist, a painter.  Recently he revitalized a comic strip he began as a kid called “Two Katz & A Toaster.”  “It’s just one cat named Ivan and one cat named George and they lived with a talking toaster,” he says.  “There was no explanation of it beyond that.”

Rob is a self-described “weirdo.”  He’s a bit out there.  To quote Matthew Broderick’s character in Biloxi Blues, “Never underestimate the stimulation of eccentricity.”  And, yeah, clearly that element not only endears Rob to me, but in fact the Seattle music community in general.  I suppose that’s because I’m a weirdo, too.

In August of 2010, I traveled to Seattle with my wife and daughter.  I had completed my book research, so this trip was just for fun.  We spent a few days in the city, then drove to Portland to visit my wife’s aunt.  While we were in Seattle, I scheduled a lunch with Rob.  We met at a diner-y place in Ballard.  My wife and daughter sat at another table so he and I could talk.  After lunch, we all gathered in front of the restaurant.

To paraphrase George Costanza, worlds were about to collide.  “Family Man Steve” was about to combine with “Stephen, the Seattle Music Weirdo.”

My daughter, who is about as cool a kid as you’ll find, mentioned to Rob that I have a black lab named Coco.  Rob said he is afraid of dogs, but he really likes tarantulas.  Both my wife and daughter looked at him like he had three heads.  I laughed to myself and thought, ‘Yep, that’s Rob.’

(This is the first piece where I discuss my interview experiences with the five panelists who will appear at the October 19, 2011 Elliott Bay Book Company reading and Q&A event in Seattle.   The panelists are: Jack Endino, Rob Morgan, Tom Price, John Leighton Beezer, and Steve Fisk.  We begin with Endino.)

In the fall of 2004, I had the opportunity to teach a class on rock n roll history.  That summer, I met my sister and nephew in Seattle for vacation.  Prior to the trip, I had contacted producer Jack Endino to discuss Seattle’s place in music history.  Endino’s deal was pretty simple: feed him and he’ll give you an hour of his time.  Cool.

We met at a Greek restaurant in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood that July.  I got there first.  Endino walked in, and I have to admit I was a little intimidated.  Here I was an obscure adjunct history professor from Philly meeting the “Godfather of Grunge.”  He discovered Nirvana for crying out loud.  Endino, sensing my awkwardness, asked: “Are you nervous?” “A little,” I responded.  “Don’t be,” he said.  “I’m just a studio rat.”

Two years later, he became my first interview.  Endino seemed like a logical choice, especially if you’ve ever seen hype!  He is essentially the face of the Seattle music scene.

I wasn’t sure if he would talk to me, quite frankly.  I also knew my book project would have trouble getting off the ground if he declined my request.  Fortunately Endino said yes, and we scheduled a phone interview in June of 2006.

I’ll be honest.  Endino intimidates the shit out of me.  It’s not that he’s abrasive…in fact, he’s just the opposite.  He’s a soft-spoken, gentle person.  But he has this presence.  I can’t explain it.  It just unnerves me sometimes.

So, I cranked up my courage and gave him a call.  We talked for almost two hours about the grunge scene, Nirvana, etc.  We also spent quite a bit of time on his band, Skin Yard.

Three months later, I interviewed him again.  This time, I wanted to get inside his head as a producer, and also to chat about other projects he’s been involved with including solo efforts, Terry Lee Hale and the Ones (as a bass player), and Crypt Kicker 5 (as a drummer.)

In May of 2007, I headed out to Seattle, mostly to look through issues of the Rocket at the University of Washington and to meet up with people, including Endino.  I distinctly remember his response when I mentioned the book: “Get in line.”  At the time, Greg Prato was working on his oral history of grunge, which would come out two years later.

Despite his skepticism, Endino shared with me some important documents on that trip: recordings by himself, Skin Yard, and the U-Men, as well as Backfire fanzines put out by Dawn Anderson.  Later, he would send me the entire set of her grunge-era zine Backlash, which was critical for my research.

As the book project progressed, I noticed Endino’s initial skepticism began to soften.  He knew it wasn’t just product to me.  He knew I wanted to get it right.

In the summer of 2008, I returned to Seattle for research and to attend the Sub Pop 20 Festival.  Green River reunited to headline the second day.  For those unaware, Green River—along with Soundgarden—defined the early Seattle grunge scene.  In 1987, the band split due to artistic differences.  Half of Green River wanted to become a mainstream rock band, and they eventually became Pearl Jam.  The other half desired to remain fiercely underground, and they became Mudhoney.

I watched Green River from about twenty feet away, and noticed the VIPs standing to the left of the stage including Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron, Mudhoney’s Dan Peters, and Endino.  Endino later told me he texted me during the event, but my phone at the time did not have text capability.  Fuck.

Spring of 2010.  I’m in the stretch run, but I had yet to ask Endino about the first Nirvana record he produced for $600.  He’s been asked a zillion times about Bleach, so I was a bit nervous about broaching the subject.  Nonetheless, I gave him one more call in April to chat not only about Nirvana, but also the first TAD record—the affably named God’s Balls.  (Okay, how can anyone not like TAD?)

(My favorite Endino Bleach quote: “Compare ‘Negative Creep’ [from Bleach] with [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Communication Breakdown,’ for instance.  You know, how can you tell me ‘Negative Creep’ is a punk rock song?”)

By 2011, I had secured a publishing deal with Seattle’s Sasquatch Books, and we were heavily into the final editing stages.  In the summer, I sent Endino a near-final manuscript for his review.

He went through line by line, word by word, and he gave me a detailed review only an engineer can provide.  (Note that Endino was an electrical engineer prior to his musical life.  Since I grew up with an engineer—my dad—I have an intimate familiarity with how they operate.  They understand how all things work mechanically, and they view everything as a ‘process.’)

Endino emailed me his comments and corrections.  His comments were–to say the least–invaluable.  In particular, he strongly suggested I shorten my introduction, which I did.  I omitted a lot of detail that was repeated throughout the book, and the intro now flows much better.  Endino’s reward for his time: a free lunch and a box of Tastykakes*.

I visited Seattle most recently this past July, mostly to see the Fastbacks reunion.  Endino and I again met for lunch.  During the meal, I made an observation to him about the Seattle music scene.

Today, I stated, it seems that people become famous by creating offense, even to the point of manifesting repulsive behavior just to get attention…whether it’s reality television or movies like Jackass.  In contrast, folks within the Seattle music community may have done things some people find offensive (like TAD’s decision to title their first record God’s Balls, for example), but it’s not by design.  Rather, the Seattle music folks are just being themselves.  If it offends you, too bad.  If you want to ignore them, that’s cool.  If you want to be a part of the culture, that’s fine as well.  In any case, they don’t give a fuck.

Endino didn’t say a word.  He just broke out into a wide smile, as if to say to me, “Stephen, you get Seattle.”

* – Tastykakes are a Philadelphia tradition.  They make wonderful varieties of cupcakes, pies, and other delights.  Butterscotch Krimpets are my fave.