L.A. PUNK ALMOST-LEGENDS Trotsky Icepick

A pair of long-overdue reissues from the
SST band prompts the most unlikely reunion of all.

 

BY MIKE
SHANLEY

 

Among
all the bands on the SST roster during the 1980s, Trotsky Icepick might have
seemed like the biggest anomaly. Baby,
the band’s 1988 debut for the label and third all-around album, sounded closer
to the power pop that was coming out on New York’s Homestead Records than the
West Coast label’s golden boys Hüsker Dü or the Minutemen, let alone St. Vitus.

 

Yet the
band had roots from the first wave of the Los
Angeles punk scene. Guitarist/vocalist Kjehl Johansen
played in the Urinals, who wrote “Ack Ack Ack Ack,” a Wire-y punk rock blast
later covered by the Minutemen (minus one “Ack”), who cited them as an early
influence. (The band later changed their name to 100 Flowers.) Johansen’s
six-string counterpoint Vitus Mataré played organ with the Last, which he
describes as “punk rock Kinks,” in addition to recording many early sessions by
seminal bands like the Gun Club and the Leaving Trains, as well as the Urinals
and later Slovenly.

 

While
the lineup shifted with each release, Trotsky Icepick stayed consistent by
writing ear-grabbing guitar riffs that contrasted beautifully with the often
dark tone to their lyrics. This was especially true after former Urinal/100
Flower John Talley-Jones joined as lead vocalist. But nationally response
didn’t come as quickly. “There was never a rabid Trotsky fan anywhere,” recalls
Mataré (apparently forgetting who is interviewing him). “But there were people
who enjoyed it. That made it fun for us, because it really isn’t a
band-and-audience kind of thing. Someone else would come along and say, ‘That’s
a really cool song idea, too bad you guys can’t sing it any better or play it
any better. But it’s actually really funny. And that approach is sort of what we
like. We’re not here to sell records or be rock stars.”

 

Right
as the band was reissuing its two pre-SST albums on iTunes and CDBaby, the
subject of a reunion came up. Johansen, for years an attorney in Los Angeles (who also
leads a self-titled band), had been in contact with his colleague Dennis
Pelowski, manager of the Meat Puppets. Mataré, now an architect who hasn’t
played music since leaving the band, was self-deprecating but willing. “My joke
was, ‘You’re kidding. We can’t possibly do it, we’re totally inept at this
point,'” he says. “And the response was Curt [Kirkwood, Meat Puppets guitarist] doesn’t
care, he’d like you to open.’ Rest assured it’ll make his band look great.”

 

On June
15 and 16, Trotsky Icepick opened for the Meat Puppets at the Detroit Bar (Costa Mesa) and the Echo (Los Angeles) respectively. A few days prior
they played a Rhino Records Pop-Up Store benefit for MusiCares. Along with
Mataré, Johansen and Talley-Jones, the revamped lineup included drummer John
Frank (who played on the first two albums), bassist Tom Hofer (formerly of the
Leaving Trains) and guitarist/keyboardist Adam Marsland (who appeared on
sessions for 1991’s The Ultraviolet
Catastrophe
.) “We’ve done everything we can to try and pull it together and
play a decent set. Remarkably it’s sounding really good. But it’s not the same
Trotsky Icepick as before. It’s a totally different band,” Mataré says.

 

Considering
that original band tried to avoid cultivating a fan base, that’s partially
true, even with the core members of the band intact.

 

Johansen
and Mataré began playing together around 1983, shortly after 100 Flowers
disbanded and Mataré had parted ways with the Last. With John Frank (another
Last castaway), they began tossing ideas around, with Mataré trading his organ
for a guitar and Johansen doubling on eight-string bass and guitar. The new
band planned to change their name with every live performance, popularity be
damned. “People that knew 100 Flowers or the Last were going to show up no
matter what, because we were going to be on a bill with someone that was
related: the Leaving Trains or Dream Syndicate,” Mataré says. “So people would
go, ‘Oh, there’s Kjehl from the Urinals. What is the band called?’ It didn’t
matter because the point was we wanted to do whatever we wanted and not worry
about if it got signed or anything like that.”

 

Instead,
the band self-released two albums called Poison
Summer
, with different band names. The first was credited to Danny and the
Doorknobs, with stark but extremely tuneful works by the basic trio, combining
100 Flowers’ moodiness and the Last’s crisp, jangle. “Little Things You Don’t
Know” in particular could have been a garage-pop hit. (The new digital version
reverts the band name to Trotsky Icepick and the title to In Exile, the Johansen-penned single.)

 

For the
second release, they took a name based on a quip Mataré made on a bad night at
Club Lingerie. “The soundman hated us and put every microphone up to full blast
and pulled it back. And I just fried upfront trying to sing. So we stopped
playing and I said, ‘Thanks for the Trotsky icepick, dude.'” (Leon Trotsky was
killed with the type of icepick used to scale a mountain.)

 

From
this came the moniker for the second Poison
Summer
which had a little more polish, thanks to both a fuller production
and the addition of keyboardist Jamie Lennon. The name eventually stuck when
the quartet realized that they were moving to a more serious level. “All of a
sudden it felt like a band that actually had a set,” Mataré says. “Everything
up until that point had been a joke. We were laughing about it. We finished
that record and we thought, wow we can play this live, and it will sound at
least as good as the record.”

 

Soon
the band was regularly playing shows with fIREHOSE and the Dream Syndicate.
With Baby recorded at their Wednesday
night rehearsals, the move to SST made sense. Label visionary Greg Ginn had
supported them since the days of their previous groups. “Greg Ginn, if he liked
music, offered to put out stuff for bands if they didn’t have another venue,”
Mataré says. “He wasn’t trying to steal bands or derail bands. He had a really,
really cool way about it. ‘Look, if you guys get a better offer, take it, but if you don’t get anything
good, don’t take something bad because I’ll give you the best that I can do for
you, and you can step out of it whenever you want.'”

 

By this
time, Lennon and Frank had moved on. John Rosewall, another ex-Last member who
played bass on the title track of the first Poison
Summer
, was now full-time. Drums were handled by ex-Leaving Train Jason
Kahn. With a strong live band intact, the group set about recording a
follow-up, when Mataré decided the band needed a strong lead singer, which it
didn’t quite have in either him or Johansen.

He
enlisted Johansen’s former bandmate John Talley-Jones. Concurrently he was
playing in Radwaste, a band with four drummers playing various pieces of a drum
kit, making the group sound like a more polyrhythmic version of Gang of Four.
The new singer gave an extra lyrical bite to El Kabong (1989) and The
Ultraviolet Catastrophe
(1991), even when the latter album lapsed into
moments that sounded a little slick and produced. “The albums with John were
really great. It was the songwriting. Plus we had a singer with a certain stage
presence and a certain swagger about him,” Mataré says. “But at the same time,
it’s cartoonish and self-deprecating.”

 

Talley-Jones
fit the role perfectly, although it wasn’t his baby, so to speak. “It was me
lending myself to someone else’s vision of what the band was, and trying to
exert my own peculiar interest into the lyrics for instance,” he says.

 

Mataré
and Johansen “already had a particular idea of what they wanted to do and where
they wanted to take it,” Talley-Jones recalls. “And ultimately, one of the
reasons the band had a traumatic final year was that suddenly there were five
songwriters in the band and everybody was trying to get their ideas composed.”

 

True,
when the band toured the East Coast in the fall of 1991, another lineup had come
together. Rosewall had been replaced by Mike Patton (of Orange County’s
Middle Class) and Kahn’s successor Hunter Crowley (also a former Leaving Train)
was in turn succeeded by John “Skippy” Glogovac. This new rhythm section gave
the band a mighty kick, but the old songs didn’t sound right so the group began
writing new material – on the fly. “Writing
new songs on the road literally meant sitting in the car and driving and
rehearsing saying, ‘I’ve got this idea, we’re going to turn into a song and
play it at the show tonight,'” Mataré recalls. “That was scary for everybody
except Mike and Skippy, who could just blaze into stuff.”

 

The
inspiration for the final album came from that tour. “I think Kjehl said, ‘I
can’t believe we’re going to open this set with a song I don’t even know what
the first chord is. I’ve only played this thing once,'” Mataré remembers. “And
Mike’s response was, ‘You know the riff, just carpetbomb the riff.”

 

That
Mike Watt-esque philosophy became the title of their final album. After the
drawn-out sessions for their last album, the group wanted to capture their
immediacy so they recorded 14 songs live in one day, with minimal overdubs
added later. Aggressive, sometimes prog-like riffs collide with the Trotsky
template, making it the most furious album in the career.

 

The
band has mixed thoughts on it today. Talley-Jones calls it “a fairly
schizophrenic record. It represents a lot of different visions. I think some of
the stuff on there is our strongest material. But I’m in the minority, which is
fine.”

 

The
band name doesn’t appear on the cover. The credits – all written in point size
too small to read easily – attribute production to “Vitus Mataré vs. Trotsky
Icepick,” which suits the guitarist’s opinion of the album. “It’s not even a
record, it’s a demo tape,” he says. “It is a set of backing tracks.” The
guitarist left the band before they embarked on their final tour, and the
remaining quartet called it quits upon returning. (Glogovac passed away in 2009
after a battle with cancer.) As a parting gift to SST, the group delivered Hot Pop Hello, a collection of
unreleased songs that spans the group’s lifetime but sound less like a
hodgepodge than a consistent album.

 

Last
month’s reunion marks the fourth time Talley-Jones has teamed up with Johansen,
following 100 Flowers, the first run of Trotsky Icepick and the Urinals, who
reunited in 1996. Each one, Talley-Jones cracks, had a traumatic break-up. (The
Urinals live on, though Johansen flew the coop in 1998.)  But time heals all wounds. “This is the
advantage of getting older and allegedly wiser,” Talley-Jones says.

 

Mataré
claims the band wasn’t ready for the Rhino performance, but videos on YouTube
betray his modesty, and Talley-Jones thinks
otherwise. “We’d been rehearsing for several weeks,” Talley-Jones says,
“initially at low-volume and then, starting the week prior, at a more
appropriate level. We wanted this to be good, so we took the practice part very
seriously.”

 

 

 

 

 

The band
doesn’t intend to reunite full-time, but it seems like this was more than a
quick reunion. “The experiences were very positive, so I think it’s pretty
likely that we’ll do something [more], schedules permitting,” Talley-Jones
says. “Speaking for myself, I can foresee a show or two a year. I’d love to get
the band out of town, but that might not be realistic. We’ll see.”

Mataré’s feelings are probably best summed up by a comment at the Detroit Bar:
“I wish I could remember the name of the sound man who came over to me in the
middle of the soundcheck: ‘Hey I remember you guys. I did sound for you here in
’91. I see you haven’t lost your sense of humor.’ I think he was sincere. He
didn’t even point at me when he spoke those words.”

 

Photo of T.I. reunion, left to right:

John Talley-Jones, Tom Hofer, Vitus Mataré,
Kjehl Johansen, John Frank.

 

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