Archive for the ‘Red Dress’ Category

Red Dress, Final Installment

Posted: August 13, 2011 in Red Dress

While Red Dress functions as a unit, vocalist/front man Gary Minkler is its presence, its performer, its center.  Gary’s gigantic voice and theatrics belie his small stature.  His sheer power envelopes Red Dress, and–by extension–the audience.  Red Dress’ players have come to realize that, especially in recent years.  “[We] make sure that Gary’s stuff is getting through,” says guitarist Pete Pendras.  “’Cause it’s important.  If he’s singing it, it’s important.  He’s telling the story, so let’s not get out in front of him with some guitar figure or something.  They’ll be time for that.”

Gary’s quiet off-stage demeanor provides no indication of what he does in front of an audience.  He doesn’t just tell stories during performances.  He physically creates characters and lives those stories.  “He’ll take on these characters,” says Pendras.  “[We’ve] got one song called ‘Bumland Anthem’ where [Gary] actually [wears] a smashed, wrinkled old overcoat [with] a really terrible, grungy, awful hat.  And he becomes this guy–this bum in this song.  He talks about rolling around on the ground and sleeping under the freeway.  And he’ll physically do that.  That’s it.  He’s in there.  He’s become that person.

“One of the biggest things about playing with Red Dress,” Pendras continues, “is the transformation between [Gary] the person and [Gary] the performer.  I don’t think there’s a bigger transition that I’ve encountered in working with other people.”

Back in 1994, Popllama’s Conrad Uno put out a Red Dress retrospective called The Collection.  It contains two disks–the first is a studio recording, while the second captures a live performance.  Uno, who did live sound for shows around Seattle in the ’70s, became enamored with Red Dress after his then girlfriend recommended the band to him.  “I just loved the–Gary, his whole trip is just very engaging for me,” says Uno.  “I love his lyrics and his persona and his body–his person.  He’s just amazing.  And, really, the freakin’ guitar playing just drives me crazy.”

Last October, I emailed Uno specifically to talk about Red Dress.  He is of course a Seattle legend, having produced and/or put out records by the Young Fresh Fellows, the Fastbacks, Mudhoney, Love Battery, the Squirrels, the Presidents of The United States of America, and many others.  Of them all, Uno is inspired most by Red Dress.

“Feel free to call me about Red Dress,” Uno stated in his email response.  “They are why I’m doing this.”

Red Dress Links

The Collection double CD:

Seattle Channel TV special:

Red Dress reflected the eclecticism that was Seattle’s early punk scene.  They were certainly not punk rock, or rock at all for that matter, but they played on the same bills with those bands.  Early Red Dress performances were almost vaudevillian, featuring unusual opening acts such as a magician, belly dancers accompanied by a man and his python, and a hula dancer. “That was crazy,” guitarist John Olufs remembers, referring to the hula dancer.  “She did these dances and didn’t even sing.  It was all to a playback.  And hula dancing (laughs)–it’s not like there’s a lot of variety in that.  She did like a 20-minute set of hula dancing (laughs).”

These exhibitions eventually came to an end, when the band realized it could not get regular club gigs with that format.  Unlike some of their punk friends who had day jobs, Red Dress represented a living, and they found out clubs would book them if they became more of a straight-ahead dance band.

Ultimately, though, it was about the songs, and those songs always entertained the crowd…with titles like “Pterodactyl Teenagers,” “Symphony of Sex,” “I Like to Eat My Mousies Raw,” and “The Story of Tucson Shorty.”  Minkler-penned tunes, such as “Bob Is a Robot,” sometimes threw audiences for a bit of a loop with their abrupt tempo and mood changes.  “Bob,” a story about…(ah, I’m not going to attempt to articulate it, Gary can explain it better) exemplifies the band’s rhythmic dynamic.  “Bob” grooves along, with that wonderful Olufs/Pete Pendras guitar interplay, for about a minute and a half.  Suddenly it slows to a crawl, when–in the song–Minkler catches his girlfriend Jane in bed with Bob.  Minkler bemoans the situation, and then screams, “And I said, ‘Jane…'” The band pauses.  Minkler then screams “‘Bob is a robot!’” and the tune hurtles back into its earlier groove.  This oddball stop/start dynamic could perhaps destroy a song, but with Red Dress it works.  “Inserts,” says Minkler.  “I’m big on inserts. (laughs)

“It’s kinda cool,” Minkler continues, “because it stops the groove thing and adds a focus.  So it gives a different [aspect] to the song and it can be seen as a hook.”

Back in January, Seattle Channel aired a wonderful Red Dress reunion show/documentary that you can stream online at  The band leads off their show with “Bob,” so you can experience Minkler’s inserts right away.

Pete Pendras plays guitar opposite John Olufs.  Pendras had been a regular player in bar bands before joining Red Dress, and that experience became repetitive and boring.  Playing with Olufs presented an entirely different experience.  “When we play, we are constantly interacting,” Pendras explains.  “He’ll be doing something and I’ll do something else.  It’s not something that’s gonna be exactly freeze-dried.  In fact, we have some songs where we make a point of not playing them the way we played them the last time.  Just, you know, [sometimes I’ll] leave [the song’s direction] up to John.  Like, ‘Okay, John, you’ve got the intro.  Whatever you’re feeling like doing today, go ahead and do it.’  And then he’ll launch the song and we won’t know what we’re gonna get until he launches the song.  And then we have to come in and kinda–on the fly–commit to that approach.”

A band’s rhythm section always determines how tight, loose, and powerful it sounds.  For a band as interpretative, dynamic, and integrated as Red Dress, the bass player and drummer become even more critical.  Without a strong backbone, Gary, John, and Peter’s improvisation could have sounded sloppy and muddled.  Fortunately, Red Dress had Bill Bagley on bass (and keyboards) and Bill Shaw on drums.  Shaw loved the challenge of playing in off-time signatures and possessed the ability to master it.  Bagley, meanwhile, also brought a powerful songwriting approach.  “Bill Bagley,” says Minkler, “was…[an] extremely important component to the music that bridged me…from being non-musical into musical.

“He had the ability to arrange tunes really well,” Minkler continues.  “When I wrote a song, the arrangement was really up to the band to find and to play with and—they were constantly changing [it].  But when Bagley wrote a tune, his arrangements were so good [they] couldn’t be improved on.”

Red Dress, Part 3

Posted: August 5, 2011 in Red Dress

Producer Conrad Uno refers to Red Dress as “Captain Beefheart meets James Brown.”  Singer Gary Minkler brought in the Beefheart avant-garde aesthetic, while guitarist John Olufs’ love of Brown provided much of the band’s soul.  It wasn’t just James Brown that rocked Olufs’ boat, however.

Back in 1974, three years before Red Dress became a going concern, Olufs went to see the Band. Although he had been playing acoustic guitar since age 12, the Band inspired him to up the ante. “I saw the Band in 1974,” Olufs remembers. “And that’s why I bought an electric guitar. I mean, I think, the next week I did.  And an amplifier.” (laughs)

The Band added yet another layer to Red Dress’ approach. Instead of one or two players dominating, all of the band members would contribute on a more or less equal basis, with each player allowing the music to ebb and flow within the moment. “I had enough knowledge to kind of recognize some things about what the Band was doing,” says Olufs, “and how all this stuff [was] going on at once. And [with] everybody playing like crazy. And not like off in little roles like a rhythm guy…like you could look anywhere and just listen to that–at any time. It was really incredible. And I think we did try to create a dense thing like that. I don’t think we were consciously trying to be like the Band…not [trying] to steal lines from the band, but [trying] to imitate how the guitar lines stick out here and there.

“I really appreciated the subtle things that Robbie Robertson did,” Olufs continues, “…how he [had a] really a super-funky playing [style]. It’s like syncopated and like really–he’s rarely like hitting big chords. He’s always hitting just a couple of notes and stuff. I play a lot that way–still.”

Red Dress, Part 2

Posted: August 3, 2011 in Red Dress

Childhood friends Gary Minkler and Rich Riggins essentially created Red Dress.  They grew up in Seattle’s North End, where the city’s punk rock scene originated in the mid ’70s.  They both graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1968, the same institution that later produced Jim Basnight (Meyce/Moberlys), Lee Lumsden (Meyce), Tom Price (U-Men), and Duff McKagan (10 Minute Warning/Guns N Roses).  After high school, the pair migrated down to the U-District, taking in the glam and later punk scene.  Like a lot of young kids interested in music, they listened to records together.

Desiring to move beyond classic rock stalwarts such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, the pair began listening to Frank Zappa, as well as jazz and classical artists such as Ornette Coleman and Igor Stravinsky.  Minkler then heard Captain Beefheart’s seminal Trout Mask Replica and everything changed.  Beefheart’s strange combination of offbeat lyrics, odd musical constructions, and varied time signatures blew up Minkler’s world.

In a sense, Beefheart became the palette that would allow Red Dress’ singer to create his own musical oddities.  Minkler’s mind housed his own oddball fantasies, and Beefheart inspired him to set those storylines to music.

At the same time, Riggins began to gravitate more to punk rock.  In 1976, Riggins formed Chinas Comidas with poet/singer Cynthia Genser and split off from Red Dress.  Minkler continued to investigate his own band’s evolving creative process, soon adding guitarists Pete Pendras and John Olufs in Riggins’ place.

While Minkler provides the artistic spark that makes Red Dress breathe, Pendras and Olufs offer an interactive approach rare among guitar players.  Red Dress doesn’t have the typical lead and rhythm guitar model.  Instead, the two players have created a partnership that allows space for each musician to shine, as long as each player’s contribution fits within the storyline and structure Minkler sets forth.

The guitarists feed off each other, constantly listening, responding, and improvising.  This arrangement does not occur consciously, however.  During live performances, Olufs and Pendras stand on opposite sides of the stage, communicating in ways only artists can.  Their chemistry allows one or the other to take more of a lead, depending on the song, Minkler’s vision, and how they are interpreting the music at the moment.  One thing, however: ego does not determine who gets the lead.  “And I think we both kinda have that same sense of kind of yielding [to the other player],” says Olufs, “and then realizing, [it’s] not just yielding and deferring to the other guy all the time.  It’s also [saying], ‘No, what I’m doing is taking over.’… It’s also nothing we’d ever talked about.”

Red Dress, Part 1

Posted: August 1, 2011 in Red Dress

“[Red Dress] would throw you a curve ball.  It’d punch you in the face.  They always did that.  And it always worked.  I mean, you got [singer] Gary [Minkler] up there like a marionette.  He’s being jerked around by the strings that come out of his brain.  And [the musicians are] just the accompaniment.”

–producer/label owner Conrad Uno describing Red Dress

Name the quintessential “Seattle band.”  Nirvana?  Pearl Jam?  Soundgarden?  That’s what comes to mind for most Americans.

While each of them were innovative in their own ways, none of those bands was truly original.  Instead, they fused together disparate sounds of metal, ’70s riff rock, and punk and created something different.  So, they were unique in a mixing and matching kind of way.  Unlike the famous northwest grunge artists, however, Red Dress represents something completely new, and totally northwest.  (And don’t get me wrong, I obviously love the grunge stuff.)

Red Dress consists of an artistic genius (Minkler) surrounded by musical prodigies (guitarists John Olufs and Pete Pendras, bassist Bill Bagley, and drummer Bill Shaw.)  Minkler’s odd cranial constructions essentially fueled this band.  Early Red Dress shows often followed a fantasy story line drawn from Minkler’s head.

Olufs describes an early gig.  “And [Minkler] had a concept about what this show was about,” Olufs remembers.  “About this guy who’s in love, and the moon is like drawing him up.  He’s being drawn up by the moon beams through space, and then he hits a pane of glass, and it cracks.  And then the crack is like a spider web.  And then the giant spider’s coming to get him.” (laughs)

“The name Red Dress comes from that story, too,” Olufs continues. “’Cause…‘Red Dress’ refers to the stomach of the black widow.  It’s kinda that hourglass shape red thing on their stomach.”

Red Dress’ other musicians somehow channel Minkler’s currents into a coherent statement, without necessarily understanding what that statement might be.  “Lots of times I wouldn’t know what the back story of the song was,” says Pendras.  “You know, we’d just play it, and learn it, and develop it.  Only later would I find out [the back story].”