‘90s slowcore pioneers
have their complete oeuvre revisited in an impressive Numero Group box. Members
Stephen Immerwahr and John Engle explain.
BY RON HART
Since forming in 1989, New York’s Codeine have been barnacled as
one of the founders of the head-scratching subgenre known as
“slowcore”. But the impact frontman/bassist Stephen Immerwahr,
guitarist John Engle and drummer Chris Brokaw (later of Come and replaced by
Doug Scharin in 1993) levied on the
world of underground rock during their four short years together transcends any
snarky music crit slugline.
Armed with a sound that melded the abrasiveness of such
post-hardcore icons of the 80s as Squirrel Bait (whose chief component,
guitarist David Grubbs, was a contributing member of Codeine), Moss Icon and
Bastro with the reverberating melodies of early Creation Records into a
hypnotic glide that moved like a deadly cottonmouth against the current of a
lazy river. Such seminal acts of the modern age as Mogwai, Pelican, Explosions
in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Rós all harbor a healthy dose
of Codeine in their bloodstreams, indelibly evidenced in the construct of
Numero Group’s masterfully crafted box set chronicling the group’s complete
Beautifully designed by Chunklet publisher Henry Owings and supplemented with extensive liner notes that include
testimonials from such pals as Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd of The Flaming
Lips, Dean Wareham, Matador Records chief Gerard Cosloy, Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan
and the aforementioned Mr. Poneman among others, When I See The Sun is the definitive word on Codeine. This 6LP/3CD
monolith gathers together the entirety of the group’s recorded output for Sub
Pop, 1991’s Frigid Stars, 1992’s Barely Real EP and their 1994 swan song The White Birch, all gorgeously
remastered from the original tapes and teeming with a treasure trove of
b-sides, alternate takes, covers, demos, Peel Sessions tracks, compilation
obscurities and live cuts that expands each title by at least double its
Only a thousand copies of this limited edition set were
pressed, but When I See The Sun is
well worth the hunt and the small fortune for the trio’s most ardent fanbase.
BLURT: Does the
“slowcore” or, even worse, “sadcore” handle burn you up as it
does your old label boss Jonathan Poneman in the liner notes to the box set?
STEPHEN IMMERWAHR: I didn’t like it but it’s amusing, and it
was good to have ‘zines/magazines/people talking about us as something both
“new” and coherent. And there’s some truth in them too. Codeine
really wanted to use slow tempos as a _means_ for the feeling and impact of our
songs. (And we were never so big that we were constrained by our own or anyone
else’s expectations from those silly labels.)
How did you initially
come up with the sound of Codeine back when you first got together? What were
your touch points? Who were you trying to emulate or were you actively seeking
to break new ground?
Things I had in mind included the minimalism of The Jesus and Mary Chain
(especially their b-side, ‘Just Out of Reach’, and not the re-recorded version
on Barbed Wire Kisses) and the soul of Dusty Springfield (who I love now just
as much as I loved then). And specifically not the histrionic singing and
thumpety-thump of grunge. (That made Sub Pop picking us especially cool).
What inspired you to revisit your
The Numero Group forced us to confront ourselves circa 1989-1994! It turns out
that Ken Shipley of Numero is a huge Codeine fan — in fact, he lied to his mom
to go see what was the last Codeine show of the 20th Century (Santa Rosa, CA in
July 1994). Numero has done a lot of esoteric and rocking 60s-70s soul
reissues, and now they’re also thinking about 1990s, starting with Codeine.
Don’t blame us.
What propelled you to go with Numero
Group for this reissue campaign instead of your old label, Sub Pop?
Numero’s mission is reissues that they care about, Sub Pop’s mission is music
now (which was us then). Numero came to us and worked it out with Sub Pop: it’s
What do you believe to be the most
significant change in independent or underground rock, beyond the dawn of the
Internet of course, since Codeine was active on a full-time basis?
Rock Camps for Girls and vegetarian food being much easier to find?
Of all the bands who cite Codeine as
inspiring the root of their own sound, who do you feel cuts closest to the
cloth, or rather, who are you most proud of from the litter of sonic children
you guys have conceived?
I’m flattered that bands find inspiration in Codeine’s music, especially when
it’s deeper than just swiping a few stylistic moves. But it’s really difficult
for me to hear resemblances, and we can only take credit and blame for what
we’ve done. Most of what I listen to these days is raw black metal and Akiko
Wada (Japanese soul singer extraordinaire).
Where did you play your first gig and is
there a good story behind it?
The band happened because Sooyoung Park of Bitch Magnet (and later of Seam)
invited us to open for them in Boston at the Middle East in July of 1989. First I had to talk John
into playing and then we asked Chris Brokaw to play drums because he lived in Boston and had a drum
kit. John and I had even played with Chris before that, I just knew him a bit
JOHN ENGLE: Our first show had maybe four songs that made it onto record. Our
set included a hardcore song and a Neil Young type song, in which I had a
guitar solo. These later got replaced by proper “Codeine” songs, but
they are included in the box set.
What was it about the drug codeine
itself that prompted you to name
yourselves as such?
IMMERWAHR: I had a lot of headaches as a teen, and liked the resulting detached
state too. Hard to explain but it’s a feeling that seemed to work with the
songs. And it’s a good band name.
What was your favorite club to play
around NYC back in the “good old days” and why?
CBGB’s! It was the club with the best PA system: nice, loud, clear. And a house
engineer who treated bands with respect. Headlining there, which we did twice,
made me really proud.
Where does Codeine plan to go from the
release of When I See The Sun? Has
revisiting this material inspired the band to head back into the studio?
It wasn’t the joy of playing or of recording that made Codeine have to happen,
it was to serve the songs. So new recording isn’t going to happen and that’s a
good thing. We’ve been working together on the reissues and rehearsals in great
new ways but it’s doubtful I’d be doing this well if it was about new songs and
In going through the unreleased and rare
bits to add to the expanded versions of your three albums, was there any
material that struck a particular chord in you all that maybe didn’t initially?
ENGLE: It’s nice to hear some of the Steve songs in the singer/songwriter vein,
pre-Codeine. He actually played the guitar back then, which he almost never did
IMMERWAHR: I was telling John last night that I learned three new things from
listening to the tapes: that Chris recorded a guitar track on every song we
recorded with him in addition to playing drums, that I was having serious
cognitive difficulties in 1992, and Doug’s drumming is even more powerful and
amazing than I remember.
What band would you
yourselves like to see reunite and why?
IMMERWAHR: The Jam.
I’m both happy and sad that they’ll never get back together. Just last month I
dreamt that John and I had to learn This
is the Modern World in its entirety because Chris needed to take a break
during the Codeine sets.
ENGLE: Whenever Steve tries to remain in the shadows during this reissue
process, I remind him that nobody would buy a Jam reissue that only featured
Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. That always gets him involved.
An edited version of
this story appears in issue #12 of BLURT.