The L.A. pop auteur brings the noise!
BY TIM HINELY
John Girgus is no household name, but in the world of indie pop music this ultra-talented musician made his name as one of the leaders of the Los Angeles-based band Aberdeen, his and Beth Arzy’s brainchild. That band was one of the few American bands signed to the UK label Sarah Records. Just being on that label would give a band legendary status among many of Sarah’s ardent fans. Aberdeen came, went, came again and then left us, but left us with some beautiful, excellent recordings (which you’ll read about below). In addition to that band Girgus has played with…well, a ton of folks. His latest musical project is the melodic-yet-occasionally-haunting Legendary House Cats; they can be fun, too. I’m assuming that Girgus has a job though, for some reason I picture him as this guy who doesn’t work and hangs around a studio all day with music filling his head and then it all comes spilling out in whatever instrument he happens to be picking up. This isn’t to imply that the guy’s lazy or anything, on the contrary, he’s got an obsession and he has to get it out. I also picture him not sleeping much either (again, music filling his head). We flew Girgus in on the private DAGGER jet and stuck a mic in front of his face. He was equal parts guarded and forthright, but mostly the latter. He also brought croissants for the very hungry staff. Take it away, John. (Ed. Note: this interview originally appeared in Dr. Hinely’s most excellent ‘zine, DAGGER.)
Did you grow up in Los Angeles proper? If not, where?
Not at all, I grew up in the Coachella Valley, pretty much every city out there, Palm Springs, Yucca Valley, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indio, also for a short time in Long Island, NY. I’ve lived in LA for about 17 years now. Most of my adult life.
Was music big in your house growing up? What was the first instrument that you picked up?
It was on in the car a lot, but I don’t know about any more or less than anyone else. Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, The Beatles, were popular on the 8-track, Billy Joel, Jethro Tull, Paul Simon, were the cassettes, then of course later they’d let us listen to our tapes, probably a bad idea. There were audio systems in the house, but they weren’t really centerpieces. The car was probably where most of it was played. Nobody played instruments or anything though.
The first instrument I had, was a Casio PT-82. (I just looked that up.) It’s a tiny little 25-micro key keyboard, with a built in speaker, that had what they called a ROM-Pack which were like data cartridges that had MIDI versions of like “Greensleeves” with instruction in the form of LEDs that followed the keys. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it. A few years after I forgot about that, I got a bass guitar. A short scale Cort, an inexpensive beginner. That was to play in a band.
How did you first discover different music? Was it punk first? New wave? Power pop?
I remember being in Vancouver once, as a kid, and hearing the radio and feeling bad for them because they had this grating, third-rate sounding music playing, clearly tell was inferior to the radio back home, (probably mostly slick power ballads at the time). A few years later I heard the same song again, listening to a borrowed cassette copy of “Standing on a Beach” in a whole new way, of course. Punk and all that eventually followed, I bought and sold records trying to reconcile changing tastes, probably same as anyone, but The Cure always had that place. They started it.
Also, I hate power pop.
When you first began writing songs who were you influenced by?
A lot of friends at the time, bandmates, as songwriting largely collaborative. A lot of the time, it was just making up riffs or having parts written on one instrument, kind of half-songs, and you’d form words as part of the music and all that. I’d be bringing my Steven Severin lead bass riff to a guy who was mostly listening to “…And Justice For All” and another guy who maybe into thrash, sometimes you’d just create with only the direction that was directly before it, luckily we were creative enough where that didn’t get in the way too much.
I had maybe one friend who really wrote songs a little later on. By that time, I was working out my own ideas and arrangements much more realized via drum machine and 4-track. I was also listening to the shoegazers, Cocteau Twins, many of the Sarah bands, some of the more obscure Creation bands and songwriters. There were a lot of jazz chords in that, anyway, the one friend of ours, Aron Alcala, a very encouraging, talented songwriter (who actually played briefly in Aberdeen), was very into jazz and noise in addition to melody and alternative music. The introduction to a jazzier chords in addition to the open chords I’d been using, that was pretty instrumental.
I still don’t even know if I write songs. I think what I write are more like themes or something. They can be songs, but I don’t walk around singing songs strumming the guitar at parties either. I sit and listen more than anything.
Was Aberdeen your first band? If not tell us about your first band?
No, but sort of. Aberdeen was part of an evolution of bands. My first real band was with the guys that I just mentioned. We didn’t even think to do covers, we just started playing our own ideas. Sort of jamming, but more just collaborative writing. That band was called The Void, which was my terrible 14 year-old idea of a name that came from Siouxsie & The Banshees “Love In a Void”. I have a tape archived. I’ve thought about cleaning it up and posting it… maybe I will now! It’s mostly instrumentals recorded live into a boom box. It’s very rudimentary, but also kind of diverse and weirdly ambitious.
How did Aberdeen come together as a band? How did you first meet Beth?
That band did really get up to much besides the Chris the drummer, and Ryan the guitarist’s garage. Maybe like one backyard party. I think Chris got into more important things and Ryan and I just kinda kept playing, trying to write, hanging out. I started learning guitar more. I was getting more into punk, him metal, but I don’ think either one of us owned or operated a distortion (or any) pedal. Everything we wrote was pretty twee. About then I was hanging out with another friend who had started playing drums, Frank. I met Beth probably shortly after that, about the same time I was giving up on trying to sing.
Beth just walked up to me in high school one day with her best friend. There was a total of about a dozen goth kids at the high school, so we all knew of each other at the least. She was one of the more extroverted of the bunch. At some point she told me she wrote poems and wanted to sing in a band. I remember actually trying to write music to a few poems. It was pretty awkward, but when we did the music first, it was much better. I guess we all talked eventually and agreed to give a band a try. It was pretty random,s in terms of music tastes, but pretty much nothing else to do, so I think we just committed to the idea, made it work. And again, the first thing we did was start writing. That would have been Ryan, Frank, Beth and I in Frank’s folks’ living room (later garage), which is now a beautified desert sidewalk.
That band, Beth called Black Star Carnival, which she took from the Primal Scream song, but if you weren’t familiar with early Primal Scream, it sounded like some sort of goth circus act. We actually played out a lot. We’d recorded in a few local studios and some Aberdeen songs were actually written at that time. Another nice kid named Ryan joined on guitar, we got into a bigger sounding thing, a pedal or two, as shoegaze was happening. He actually gave me my cassette copy of “Loveless”, because he didn’t like it. I got a lot of records that way. I remember Chris actually re-joining the band briefly when Frank left, but eventually everybody lost interest and it was pretty much me and Beth. I had a guitar, a 4-track, and a newly acquired Boss DR-550 Dr. Rhythm drum machine. Beth picked up the bass and renamed the band Aberdeen, which had actually been one of our songs. We didn’t so much come together as a band, but kind of fall apart into one.
How did the folks at Sarah Records contact you about wanting to release your records? Were you guys over the moon?
I think Beth and Matt were already writing. She’d sent them a demo (maybe one of our infamous “Prong tapes” even). They may have even been written via fax at that time, so… probably fax! Beth had moved to Los Angeles by then, I was living in Indio, where I did most of the writing and recording for those songs. Beth called me on the phone, at a job I hated, both to tell me she’d sent the tape, and that they liked it and wanted to do a single. I was pretty over the moon, yeah. It gave me a lot of hope.
With Sarah Records, was it hard being an American band on a U.K. label? Those bands doing tours over in England, I’m sure you wanted to be part of it.
In all honesty, I barely felt a part of it at all. Beth was much more social, she’d write to everyone. I’d seen a few nice ‘zine reviews, but she kind of gave me the impression we weren’t one of the beloved bands. Like Sarah’s step-kids, one of ‘the later bands’. Maybe that’s true, maybe time has been kind, it still surprises me when I hear someone say we were amongst their favorites. I think she also spent a lot of time in the chat rooms and message boards later, too. I was never into that, really. I still don’t feel like a part of it. The only connection I really have to it is the music itself.
There were a few instances, like getting a fan postcard from Keith Girdler of Blueboy. It would have been great to be a part of those tours, but I barely knew they were happening. When any of the bands would play here, we’d get a call and usually the opening spot which was nice. We played with Heavenly and Boyracer, probably the only bands brave enough to make it to the US. Learning about the rifts was fun. We assumed they were all friends, and had been doing a Brighter cover “Half-Hearted”, when we opened for Heavenly at the Crocodile Lounge in Santa Monica. After the set pretty they all walked up to us, super nice, told us they loved the set… except they “could’ve done without the Brighter cover” and we’re like “you don’t like Brighter?” and they just pointed thumbs down and pulled faces!
Did Aberdeen break up in between the Sarah Recordings and 2002’s Homesick and Happy to be Here or did the band exist the whole time?
The first one is correct. That was a real break up. A relationship break up. The relationship was not good and by then it was pretty unbearable. I wanted to do the band still, but we weren’t writing, we weren’t finishing anything, Sarah had just announced their end, we were just playing shows around LA which kinda sucked back then, a revolving door of bandmates, like surrogates filling an imaginary space. There was no way the band was going to survive that kind of break up. She recorded “Marine Parade” mostly on her own, for a commitment to March Records’ “Pop, American Style”, but that was pretty much it for a bit.
I moved around a few times after that and pretty much quit music altogether. When I moved back to LA in ’98 I was playing in a few different projects, revisiting those Aberdeen tapes, and started reaching out. That was about the time what would become “Homesick” began to develop.
Why did you decide to release It Was the Rain: Lost Recordings 1993-1995?
I felt like I had to. Those tapes are some of our most important recorded material. Somewhere there are faxes from Matt (Sarah Records) giving us production notes about the studio recordings of “Byron”, basically telling us to find what we lost from those “demos”. Sarah did nobody any favors. They’ve passed on demos by Pale Saints, Manic Street Preachers, favorites amongst my favorite bands. What he loved about our music was contained in those recordings. Our friends loved them. I didn’t just set up a couple mics and track an existing band. That’s how I made and probably still make music. The song is written on the chromium oxide! Those recordings kind of are Aberdeen.
There were some cool unreleased songs too, that I thought deserved to see the light of day, like Jenni and Adam’s songs. Those don’t really exist anywhere else, but I just thought they were great. Adam’s “Self Evidence” is the only one I added instruments to. We did that in a night on Moog and guitar, so it seemed like a nice close to add a little bass and a synth and kind of be like. . . this is sort of where we were heading at the time.
The masters though, they were full of noise, degrading in storage, the multi-tracks in danger of physical damage. The ideas themselves fragile in their only existing state. Trying to keep them safe was becoming a burden. I found a Marantz 4-track recorded in a pawn shop for $100, it had 4 outputs and did multi-speed, at about the time I had a pretty nice but very old Pro Tools rig which has nice sounding inputs. I just digitized everything from my drawer of tapes. I was also starting to get into the newer more up to date recording rig I have now, which has some pretty slick noise, mastering, and mixing tools. I tried a couple of the songs that were finished and previously mixed, just cleaning up noise and mastering mostly. It started to work really well and sound really nice. I just got caught up in it, as I do when a project starts to work, and finished it in a couple weeks. I had everything we did, some songs that were missing for years, all pretty reasonably listenable. I booked a day to master with Uly Noriega’s studio The Laundry Room, but that turned into 2-3 days of mixing and mastering. At that point there wasn’t much choice, really. Everything else had been on Bandcamp anyway.
The entire program ran pretty well over an hour, so I thought a cassette would be a nice souvenir. The songs were recorded onto cassette, they were originally distributed on cassette, and then remastered on cassette. I did a shorter version on CD later, because so many people complained about the cassette, though!
I guess, I just don’t want the very existence of my music, being so vulnerable to fate or chance. With Aberdeen, at least, I’ve always thought that if I didn’t take the effort to keep the music out there, nobody would.
Tell us about your current band, the Legendary House Cats. When and how did it come about?
It’s a solo project. I just didn’t want to name it John Girgus. It will probably end up there eventually, but I like having the name to apply when needed. My most recent effort, a cover of The Softies “Hello Rain” for “Constant and True: The Songs of Rose Melberg” is credited to John Girgus & The Legendary House Cats. A remix might be credited as “Legendary House Cats Remix”, where a collaborative credit, I can just use my name. Starting up a new project is difficult, I’m just trying to connect myself to my efforts over the years, and have some fun with it.
It was kind of this or nothing. I’ve started, driven and played in a good few bands. It always gets to a point where it becomes almost physically impossible to continue making music. When the idea is built around collaboration, it’s very existence is so delicate. I was working with a few bands a couple years ago, and I just saw a lot of bad decisions, a lot of energy selling the song, not so much writing it. I realized at one point I couldn’t do anything about it. I could put so much work into it, but the outcome was pretty much a pattern and a pattern I recognized a little too well! I just was like “if you keep doing this you’re the idiot”. My goal has always been to make good music, relatively consistently and that was just never happening. I hate the idea of working solo, it’s scary and difficult. It’s not the ideal situation to me, but I’d rather do that then not make music, or have some weekender, jam day and beers thing or conducting someone’s stalled ego train. Music has never been about ‘hangin’ with muh buds’ or any of that. It’s just what I do.
The focus lately has been more on composing for TV, ads… work. The artist thing is really secondary to that. There are projects I still want to do, there are songs I want to finish, but like, the idea of being this age, and thinking you’re going to make a record and it’s going to be big, doing all this set up, spending money on PR, social media content, the whole a band identity, it just feels a little vain. Nobody really cares. It’s the music that’s important. I’m happy posting songs on the internet for now, if I get any cool offers, I have a vehicle. I can take shows, I can contribute to comps, do remixes, collab. The Legendary House Cats isn’t trying to be a poster on a teenage wall, it’s a way for me to work with a degree of stability.
Tell us about any bands I might be missing in between Aberdeen and the Legendary House Cats.
“Well, let’s see. First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. . .”
From ‘96-2000ish there wasn’t too much. I played in Timonium for a minute. Later in about ’99 I played bass in an alt-rock band called Gingersol some people know. I didn’t make it to any recordings, though.
In 2003, I was actually in Trembling Blue Stars as Aberdeen served as Bob’s band for several shows. Later in 2007 I played guitar on “The Last Holy Writer”. 4 people saw those shows, but there are some clips on Youtube.
After the Aberdeen single “Florida” was released in 2004, it didn’t make much sense to pursue. I had actually started working on songs on my own, but there was just no support for those songs and I lost confidence pretty fast. I had met Ale Cohen then, Marcos of Languis, an Argentine electronic duo with a recent addition Stephen Swesey, who was in Tristeza. They needed a “fourth mind” and I signed up. We managed to get one EP, well regarded by a few people at least, “Other Desert Cities”. Shelflife re-released it on 10″ a couple years back, that’s worth checking out, I’m sure there are a few left. There were a lot of creative moments. We even scored an room at The Los Angeles Natural History Museum (which they let us record in the building, after hours). Ale has most of it released his label Simballrec’s Bancamp page.
Towards the end of my time with them, I had started writing and recording with a youngish singer, a co-worker form a job I had briefly at the American Apparel Factory in Downtown LA. It started as this this sort of charming, hipster, weirdo pop, eventually called Spider Problem. We made a pretty good racket playing live LA for several years, eventually opening a short tour for a reunited Germs (Shane West was a friend of the singer). We’d evolved into this four piece rock thing, eventually playing what would become these notoriously physical, even violent stage shows. It was novel, it brought us attention, but the music suffered though, and the recorded output leaves a lot to be desired, unfortunately. I was actually kicked out of the band while working on an album that we never finished. Almost like two different bands, they fizzled out in a very forgettable scene here. That band upset a few of my friends, but it was strange because the people who knew me from there… they’d never heard or cared about of any of my other projects. The earlier recordings are still on iTunes, but here’s little relevance for them now. It was a pretty good chunk of time, but you could probably skip it.
Somewhere in that same time I had a job playing bass for a guy named William Tell, who was a member of the band Something Corporate. They wore flip flops. I ended up on a lot of fangirl Myspace pages, a music video, some Youtube live clips and I think some of my production made it to at least one released recording; a song called “Break” written but ultimately rejected for the Will Smith movie “Seven Pounds”, I think.
After that, Chris McRitchie and Dave McKay and I started the band Non Ultra Joy. Chris’ band Big Stone City had hit a wall, and Dave’s band Driveblind (who were actually from Aberdeen, Scotland) they were on Geffen, but also had some big personnel problems. I’d been writing with Chris for years, and Dave had played in William’s band with towards the end. We had a shared work ethic, various frustrations, and a hankering to rock. They let me bring a keyboard. We made 2 EPs, but I think it was a really bad time to be playing rock in LA though. Everything was going “indie”, which at the time meant putting a bunch of drum kits at the front of the stage and chanting in unison over sample triggers. I’m very proud of both of those EPs. They are both on Bandcamp.
That would all be up to around 2011, where I also briefly joined an electric ukele driven elevator jazz inspired ensemble that did mostly covers called Sartre’s Lobster with Dave Lewty who was in called The Cheaters, Steve Harvey of Medium Medium and a singer named Amy Archibald, who went by The Soothsayer for one-off cover of The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” for an episode of True Blood (I am credited to Dick Isreal). Gary Calamar, the music supervisor got us on the soundtrack for that season, but a collaboration between Nick Cave and Nico Case beat us for the episode. Kind of a flattering defeat. . .
There’s other projects I’ve got on record out there… various collaborations with a producer named Colin C. Allrich, who puts all his music his label called Confusion Inc. (also has a Bandcamp), his aliases include Slighter, Horrorfall, usually very electronic/industrial. We’ve had a fair amount used in TV too.
In 2012-13 I’d produced for a few bands that are probably better known in the current LA scene, Paper Pilots, Tennis System, some album demos with Western Lows. I did a single with The City & Horses, called “Youth”, I’ve been a fan of Marc’s since we were Myspace friends. I did an official remix of The Who’s “Eminence Front” with Gary Calamar and Willie Aron, C.A.G.E., we called it. The Calamar / Aron / Girgus / Experience! Although I’ve kinda given up on the idea of producing, I’ll still produce solo material for Chris McRitchie, which you can hear on his Soundcloud, and I’ve been working recently with a singer named Christopher Mowodd of the LA band The Mo-Odds on something, still in very early stages. We just recorded recently at David Newton’s. Dave and I have also worked on a few TV cues recently. I’ve got a couple remixes out for Tracy Shedd and Jimmy’s Band & The Beat, one more coming for the band Skytone via the ever supportive Wally of The Beautiful Music label.
Sometimes I work on multiple projects a day. I usually prefer to just define it later, but that can lead to a lot of scattered projects. I’ve tried to maintain pages for that, but even I have a hard time keeping track. With producing or collaborating, people don’t always credit you as they should, releases get neglected, bands just die, and even Allmusic, and Discogs doesn’t work. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few projects.
What are your top 10 desert island discs?
“Strange Free World” Kitchens of Distinction
“Seventeen Stars” The Montgolfier Brothers
“I Could Live in Hope” Low
“Endtroducing” DJ Shadow
“The Sound of” The Hit Parade
“Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the” Sex Pistols
“The Top” The Cure
“Thursday Afternoon” Brian Eno
“Poor Fricky” East River Pipe
“Master of Puppets” Metallica
Who are some of your current musical favorites?
I don’t listen to too much new music. I recently bought a few newer releases for a DJ gig I didn’t get to play, maybe they’ll work here. “Open Your Eyes” by School of Seven Bells, Cigarettes After Sex, on recommendation of the guys at Third Outing (who I’ve written for), The Radio Dept. is really nice.
I’ve been doing mastering work for a band called Lemonade Kid from the UK. I have to listen to their songs for days at a time, I don’t mind it a bit either, you could check them out.
Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Thanks for taking the time to put the questions together. There’s a few words out there about the band out there, They aren’t always accurate. Although it’s difficult and this is probably the last interview I ever want to do, it’s nice to get the chance to talk about.
Also, I hate power pop.
BONUS QUESTION: Being in L.A., who is the biggest celebrity that has shown up at one of your gigs?
I played in this one guy’s band (much more actually), and I know Emma Stone came to at least one show because she was going out with the dude’s friend, teen pop star Teddy Geiger, who I think was actually playing drums that night. So I actually kinda knew her, and kinda got into it with her friend Martha MacIsaac (I looked that up), the “blowy j” girl from Superbad, who she brought to see us at the Silverlake Lounge. The were both under 21, and wanted to hang out inside the bar like any normal Hollywood star would probably be allowed to do, only the Lounge at least at the time, was run by dudes who probably didn’t care so much, so they’d just do their usual ID rounds before doors. I was like, “look, just stay in the back until doors so we don’t all get kicked out and can’t play” and she’s like “ugh, who is this annoying idiot”. Then again, I played on Carson Daly once, too. . .
BONUS QUESTION 2- What’s your all-time favorite fanzine?
I know, more doctors prefer DAGGER than any other brand of ‘zine. I trust science.