ANTI-NORMAL

Adam Green and Lach focus on the flashpoint
of the antifolk movement.

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

“I just got out of
the Cash Cab, man,” says Adam Green
as he makes a late entrance to the party line where BLURT and Lach, founder of
the antifolk scene that spawned Green and his band The Moldy Peaches, await.
“Me and my mom just won $850. We got every question right.” Lach, unfamiliar
with the game show that has become a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, is
dumbfounded. “How did you win $850? What was one of the questions?”

 

As Green repeats a
question about Galileo’s theory about the Earth revolving around the
Sun—heliocentrism, Lach is amazed. “Wow, very cool,” he raves before
good-naturedly ribbing Green (“You didn’t have to Google it on an Apple iPhone?”)
and then getting on with the task at hand. On the occasion of their new
albums—Green’s Sixes & Sevens (Rough Trade) and Lach’s The Calm Before (Fortified),
the two have come together to discuss the origin and essence of antifolk—the
shambling but powerful junction of singer-songwriter and punk rock from which
Beck, Hamell on Trial, Ani DiFranco and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all sprung.

 

Adam Green: From
my understanding, antifolk has its genesis in 1980s, but what exact year did it
start and what’s the story behind it?

 

Lach: I don’t
believe in linear time to begin with, and I’m not so good at remembering dates
and stuff… Roughly, I would say around 1983. I first came in to the West
Village folk scene in like the early 80s, thinking that it was gonna be great,
and then I ran up against the walls of the so-called folk scene there and then
I rebelled against that. I moved to the Lower East Side, and I found a loft
space. That would’ve been around 1983. I emptied out the loft and I put in a
stage, and I slept in, on it during the day and at night, I ran it as a club
and it was called The Fort [Note: The Fort is now The Sidewalk Café, and Lach
still runs it]. And, uh, the antifolk scene started from there. It was very
different times back then on the Lower East Side than it is now. It was like
the Wild West, pretty scary, with gunfire and, you know…

 

GREEN: I’ve
always told people that antifolk wasn’t a style of music, that it was more of a
community of songwriters that all had their own idea of what kind of music that
they wanted to make individually. But at the same time, I understand that antifolk
has ties to the punk rock movement. Do you think there were more stylistic
similarities between the performers back in the 80s then there are in all of
the performers that play the open mic now?

 

LACH: Well,
there’s a bunch of different things you’re talking about. The open mic is not
necessarily the antifolk scene. The open mic, which we call the Anti-Hoot,
became part of the antifolk scene. But when antifolk first started, there
wasn’t really an open mic.

 

GREEN: Okay,
okay. So, so it didn’t start with the Anti-Hoot.

 

LACH: No, no, it
didn’t start with the Anti-Hoot. I don’t think—oh, man. You know, eventually I
gotta write a book ‘cause this is sort of ancient history to me. Um, but , but,
what you’re saying, it’s an interesting idea. Yeah, I think there was probably
more of a cohesion of style in the early 80s and as the years went by, and it
branched off, there was more cohesion to it. And antifolk in the early 80s, one
thing that I think differed is that there was a lot more stuff that wasn’t
singer-songwriter. You know, there was more spoken word, there was more
performance art, there was more just off-the-wall, craziness. I mean, more a
sense of what we were doing being not only less of the radio dial, but illegal.

 

GREEN: Yeah.

 

LACH: When I had
my own club on Livington Street,
the club was illegal, we didn’t have a license, it was after hours. We opened
up around eleven at night and stayed open ‘til four the next afternoon with the
windows blacked out so people didn’t know that time had passed, and it was
really anything goes. And as we moved into the [legal] clubs, you didn’t have
as much extremeness going on, you know. And as far as branching out, I think
there are almost different styles of antifolk
now. For instance you’d have Joie/Dead Blonde Girlfriend, Hamell on Trial and
Joe Bendik; they all call themselves antifolk. And then you would have stuff
that would be like Ching Chong Song and maybe like The Moldy Peaches kinda
stuff that would call themselves antifolk. But honestly, they’re quite
different.   

 

GREEN: Yeah. It’s
gotten to the point where I feel that I haven’t really been able to identify it
as a style at all. You can’t even really compare what Paleface does to what
Diane Cluck does. They’re just completely different, you know? What I always
thought was interesting about it was that—maybe sort of unlike a popularity
contest, I thought that songwriting was the currency. I found it to be a
community where people couldn’t rise up unless they could deliver the songs.

 

LACH: I would totally
agree with that.

 

GREEN: A lot of
people raised their own personal bar, creatively.

 

LACH: It’s a
community that is critical and competitive, but at the same time there’s a
warmth and a love. And that’s a great, fertile ground for art. One of the
reasons I started the whole antifolk scene was I needed something better than
me. I needed to be able to go to clubs and hear songwriters who were better
than me, who inspired me to be better myself. And I wasn’t finding that on the
folk scene in the Village. [laughs] I just wasn’t finding anyone near the level
of what I was doing or pushing the envelope in the way that I wanted to go. Or
even understanding when I drew out of the lines.

 

GREEN: I guess
around 1983 was probably like— Chronologically, the beginning of antifolk seems
to be the beginning of most people having home recording technology available
to them. Was home recording always intrinsically part of antifolk or did it
merge later down the line?

 

LACH: Later down
the line. In ’83, home technology and lo-fi recording wasn’t really here yet.
People were still going into studios to record. Antifolk—I didn’t mean for it
to be this way when I first started it, but it eventually evolved into, for
lack of a better model, a sort of school. You’d get your fresh new class that
would come in, hang around, make their first recording—now they’re a sophomore—and
learn how to promote themselves. Eventually they’d go out into the bigger world
and become alumni. And the first class back in the early 80s, that we recorded,
would have been Roger Manning. And Roger recorded for SST. That was really huge
to us.

 

GREEN: How did
the West Coast SST label discover New
York’s Roger Manning?

 

LACH: That was
Greg Ginn and Black Flag. I don’t know how that connection first got made.
You’d have to ask Roger. They put out Roger’s album, and then they put out Kirk
Kelly’s record, [which] made us realize that we weren’t completely crazy. To
talk about it now, that we were playing punk rock on acoustic guitars, that we
were doing spoken word, that kind of stuff, now, seems sort of regular. I mean,
[since] Nirvana did Unplugged and
stuff. But back then… When I say we were kicked out of the clubs, I mean physically thrown out of clubs, where
you felt your ass hit the pavement. And it wasn’t because we were just drunk
and yelling; it was because of what we were doing musically, artistically. Which
was unfathomable to me, because I thought these were supposed to be open-minded
people.

 

But there are a couple of things that happened that let us
know we were on the right track. Shortly after The Fort started, the Violent
Femmes came out with their first album. And we’re like, “Oh my God. This is
what we’re doing—and these guys have a record deal.” And then Springsteen put
out Nebraska, which he recorded on the
four-track. And again, this is what we’re talkin’ about. Then Roger got
signed—this isn’t necessarily in strict chronological order, here—but Roger got
signed to SST, Kirk got signed by SST— ‘Wow, this is really happening.’

 

Then over the
years, stuff like this would happen all the time. I mean, every two years,
someone who had come through the scene would bubble up to the top. Whether it
was Michelle Shocked or a few years later it was Paleface or Beck. More
recently, you guys or Regina [Spektor].

 

GREEN: Yeah, I’ve
often mentioned to people that a lot of people you wouldn’t clearly associate
with having passed through the open mic, have. Including the guys from Interpol
and Karen from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Remember when she was playing as Unitard?

 

LACH: Yeah,
Unitard.

 

GREEN: And like,
the Spin Doctors or Ani DiFranco or something. Why do you think that so many
people who’ve passed through don’t mention antifolk at a certain point?

 

LACH: I don’t
know. I think it might be different for different people; you’d have to ask
them. I think what’s funny is, when that first started happening, when someone
would sign to a major out of the antifolk scene? I think they were actually told to dissociate themselves
from us.

 

GREEN: You think
that really happened?

 

LACH: Yeah. I do.
I think that they were told, “You gotta go into this other world. Stop
associating yourself with antifolk. It’s nowhere, whatever. They’re a bunch of
punks. Punk, get out of here!” But now it’s
changed. Now record labels actually send people down— We had this case a few
years ago where, I think it was Atlantic—it was a major label—sent an act down
to play The Sidewalk one time. And
they videotaped it, right? This chick. And then about six months later, her
album comes out with an accompanying 20-minute video, a documentary of how she
came out of the streets of the East Village and played the antifolk scene. They
actually went out of their way to associate her with us, and she had never played on the antifolk scene other
than that one night. It’s incredible. And now antifolk’s this worldwide
phenomenon. But we’re not the first. I think that antifolk, in a way, is a
continuum of a vibe that’s been going through art and culture and has had a
curious relationship with the East
Village for a long time.

 

So I think that the— You had the Beats, Kerouac and Ginsberg
and Burroughs, and then you’ve had this sort of romantic, poetic, rebellious
outside vibe. And this torch was picked up by the antifolkers.

 

GREEN: I can’t
believe that people aren’t familiar with Ish Marquez’s music, Dufus’s music;
Turner Cody; Jeffrey Lewis; you know, it goes on and on and on.

 

LACH: Well, yeah!
I agree with you.

 

GREEN: I do think
that people who spent time at the Anti-Hoot [think of them] as being standards
in their record collection.

 

LACH: Artists
have to ask themselves what they’re doing their art for. Why we’re doing what
we do. And the answer is not because ‘I want to be famous’ or because ‘I want
some material thing outside of myself that I think is now gonna bring me
happiness.’ That holds absolutely no interest to me. I think part of the antifolk
ethos is that we’re doing this because this is what we do. Like I say in the
song “Jester,” I’d go crazy if I didn’t.

 

GREEN: Yeah.

 

LACH: This is
what we do and so, what do you want out of life? Do you want to be an artist?
Do you want to be creative? Do you want to have a creative community? Do you
want input into what we do in this community? When you walk into The Sidewalk,
you turn around and you know this person, this person—“How you doin’?” We’ve
had babies born, we’ve had friends die. All in this little thing. It’s life.
And it’s something that’s very special and what more do you want, you know?

 

GREEN: Yeah.

 

LACH: I don’t
know if I answered your question.

 

GREEN: Well, I
don’t remember what my question was [laughs].

 

LACH: I heard
your album, Sixes & Sevens. I
listened to it in the car and I love it.

 

GREEN: Thank you.

 

LACH: It’s just
this charming, musical—I’d call it a gem, but you already put out Gemstones. It’s just lovely. The
musicality on there is just wonderful.

 

GREEN: It’s funny
‘cause in a way, I don’t even identify with being a folksinger so much, but I
don’t think that was the premise of antifolk anyway. I think everyone was a
creative musician and saw themselves as doing something artistic with folk or
pop music. And it’s often been a misconception that people that were involved
in antifolk were averse to folk music in the first place. It’s crazy, because I
don’t know anybody that participated in the Anti-Hoot that wasn’t a huge fan of
traditional American music.

 

LACH: I think
that we were fans of traditional music. I wouldn’t say that we were fans of
folk music, you know? What happened was, you have your traditional music—that’s
folk music. You may not know who the author is, it’s gone down through hundreds
of years. Japanese folk music, Irish folk music, Jewish folk music, you know what
it’s gonna sound like. But when you get to America, the country’s only 200
years old; we don’t necessarily have folk music. And they go, “Well, it was
Woody Guthrie.” But Woody Guthrie was writing his own songs. And he’s your
epitome of a folk musician? And then you have Woody’s grandchildren, the
Greenwich Village coffeehouse crew. And when Dylan left those people in the
dust, they circled their wagons and said, “Look. We’ve got this little goldmine
called folk music. We’ve got a place in the record bins; we’re never gonna
compete with the Beatles and Stones. So let’s hold on to this. And we’re gonna
call this folk. And by the time I entered the scene, what they were callin’
folk was just a couple of chords strummed by white, college-educated—pabulum. It sucked. It was useless.

 

GREEN: It’s
ironic that you say that. Because remember—you encouraged me not to go to
college.

 

LACH: [laughs] How’d that work out for ya?

 

GREEN: Lach told
me not to go to college. It was splendid.

 

LACH: You know,
my record entered the college music charts this week. A radio guy told me that.
And I asked him if they had Dropout Charts. I wanna be on the Dropout Charts,
man.

 

GREEN: So
considering that you started hosting The Fort 25 years ago—and I know you took
a short hiatus and moved to San
Francisco… Do you see yourself hosting the Anti-Hoot
in 25 more years? You are one of the most compelling emcees that does these
sort of functions and I was wondering if you planned on continuing it into your
old age?

 

LACH: [sighs] Ah, boy. I don’t really think
past today. I see myself more as a songwriter than an emcee, Adam.

 

GREEN: But you’re
a great emcee.

 

LACH: What do you
think of my songs?

 

GREEN: You’re the best songwriter that I’ve ever
met.

 

LACH: Well, thank
you. Let’s put that in bold print. [laughs]

 

[Pictured, L-R: Adam
Green, Lach
]

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