With two of hardcore outfit MIA’s seminal albums newly reissued, the band’s guitarist looks back on his his—and the hardcore scene’s—early years.
BY TIM HINELY
I think it must have been the Summer of 1985 when my pal Bill, who had been turning me on to a lot of music at the time, handed me a cassette with the new MIA record on it, Notes From the Underground. I loved it immediately. It was similar to a lot of the hardcore I had been listening to, but ….different. Darker, moodier but still just as melodic and hard hitting. I ended up finding their previous record, Murder in a Foreign Place (from 1984) and loved that one as well. I then was really blown away by what would be the band’s last record, 1987’s After the Fact, a gorgeous melodic masterpiece (Flipside Records). I ended up seeing the band once in the ‘80s at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ where they put on a terrific set and then….that was it. I never heard about the band again and had heard they’d broken up. In 2001 the Alternative Tentacles label released Lost Boys, a compilation of the band’s early material and then I’d heard the sad news that vocalist/guitarist Mike Conley had died in early 2008.
Fast forward to earlier this year when I’d gotten an email from James Agren at Darla Records stating that he was going to be reissuing two of the band’s records, Notes From…. And After the Fact (he’d said he got interested in the band again after I’d posted a song on Facebook earlier in the year). One of us, (probably James) suggested that I interview guitarist Nick Adams who is a working musicians/photographer now living in Utah. I jumped at the chance and Nick was more than happy to answer any questions I threw his way. Gracious all the way through. Thanks so much to James for helping set up the interview (and for the reissues) and especially to Nick. Read on and find out about the early days of Las Vegas and SoCal hardcore….
Where were you and raised in Las Vegas? If so were your parents in the casino business?
I was raised by a single mother (kind of a punk thing to do in the 60s!), and she was a high school teacher. Growing up in Vegas the casinos, even the slot machines in grocery stores, were no big deal to me, just a part of life that was around me but not interesting. On my street I think most of the parents were not involved in the gaming industry, they were Nevada Test Site workers, accountants, car dealers, etc. When I left Vegas in 1980 it had maybe 200,000 residents, now it is ten times that, and the gaming industry is bigger than ever, so a lot of the people I know, people I went to school with, are involved in it. But it’s also like any other city, there are teachers, doctors, lawyers, beggars, thieves, everything.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
Meet the Beatles in early 1967. I was five.
When did you first pick up an instrument? Was it a guitar?
I first got a toy drum kit, but that was not popular around the house. Soon after I got a guitar, a small Decca classical acoustic, I think I was 7 or 8. But I didn’t really get serious until I got into high school.
How did the punk rock bug bite you? Was it early on? Was there much of a scene in Vegas?
We were a bit culturally isolated in Vegas, and it was before the internet so ideas and movements traveled much more slowly. I was always into rock music – Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Zeppelin, Elton John (my first concert in ‘75), stuff that got played on the radio, and I would stretch a little with what I saw in Circus Magazine or Creem. They had photos and stories about Bowie and Iggy Pop, along with the stuff I was more familiar with. I remember seeing a photo of Iggy probably right after Raw Power came out, that freaky one where he has long straight white hair, white pants and no shirt, screaming at the camera. Later I bought it, took me a while to wrap my head around it. I remember when the Sex Pistols were touring the U.S. in ‘78, I was barely 16, and it was on the TV national news, my mom said, “I don’t care WHAT you do, just don’t get mixed up in that punk rock.” Heh, heh. I heard that album and was blown away, instant fan.
How/when did you meet Mike Conley?
Mike was an instigator. He was a few years older than me, really scrappy with a lot of street smarts (which I never had). He was the guy you wanted by your side in a fight. He was always scheming, thinking, and bringing people together. He was industrious. He became a great songwriter and musician through sheer force of will. I was 18, out of high school and in the process of dropping out of my first semester of college. Paul (M.I.A. bassist) and I were in a band together that was loud and loose, somewhere in between rock and punk, and we rented a room over an office building in a real seedy part of town. Other bands rented rooms there too. One evening we were practicing and heard a knock, it was Mike, he wanted to find out who it was that had the coolest sounding amp in town (it was my 77 Marshall JMP 100w half stack, crunchy and louder than shit). He invited me over to hear his band, The Swell. They had gone all out decorating their rehearsal space, painting a floor-to-ceiling Union Jack on one wall, and hanging cool fliers and posters everywhere. That alone made a big first impression. Mike played bass, Chris Moon (who was in the very first Vegas punk band, Bad Habits, with Vegas legend Eric Hill) was on drums, Todd Sampson was on vocals (Todd looked just like Johnny Rotten, and was pretty menacing for a 16-year-old kid), and a guy named Jim on guitar. They were looking to replace him, or at least his amp. So Mike asked if I would sit in one night. It was really fun, I was hooked. I joined when they asked. (Below: Nick in Guerneville, CA / photo by Rhoda Rohnstock)
Tell us about the beginnings of M.I.A. At what point did you leave Vegas for Southern California?
Shortly after I started playing with The Swell, we decided to change our name to M.I.A. We rehearsed a lot and played a party or two, not really much. But being in a punk band and dropping out college made things difficult for me at home. When a musician friend invited me to room with him in San Diego, I took the opportunity and moved there and M.I.A. broke up. I had only been there about two weeks when my friend got an offer to play in a band somewhere up in LA, so I ended up being poor and alone in San Diego. A few miserable months later I got a call from Mike – he and Chris had moved to Newport Beach, and he said, “Hey, why don’t you come live with us.” So I did. We started going to the Cuckoo’s Nest whenever we could and up to LA for some big shows, and we started playing again, only Todd was still 16 and couldn’t move out from Vegas. We tried out some singers (Mike was still on bass) when finally Mike said he would sing and we’d look for a bass player. I called Paul, I knew he was a great bass player and musician, and convinced him to move to OC with us, and that was the band that recorded Last Rites. This all happened within about 6 months of my moving from Vegas, and really it turned out great because I don’t think as a band we would’ve ever moved to California together, we had never talked about it, though Chris says he and Mike did. The OC and LA scenes down there were so influential and I feel lucky to have been a part of them, as well as part of the nascent Las Vegas scene.
Anything notable happen during the recording of any of your records? Do you still listen to them these days?
Our first demo was made in 1981 with a $300 donation from friends. We wanted to record something that maybe Rodney Bingenheimer might play on his Rodney on the ROQ show, you know, decent sound quality. We walked into a local studio at the beach, JEL, and said we wanted to record 9 songs and walk out with a finished tape. Bill Trousdale was the engineer, he said, “no way, you might get two.” So using eight tracks we blasted through nine songs, and mixed seven before we ran out of money (if you listen too carefully you can tell that the last two songs on Last Rites were mixed by someone else). We played it for a friend, Bad Otis Link, and he said he could get us a show in Reno. So we got a show in Reno with 7 Seconds and The Wrecks! How lucky is that? From that show our demo tape wound up in the hands of folks at Maximum Rock n Roll, Bomp and Smoke 7, and suddenly we were on records.
Murder In A Foreign Place was made in the same studio with a larger budget (plus a new drummer, Larry Pearson, that Mike recruited), and a solid record deal from Alternative Tentacles, which was cool. It was a distribution deal, which meant that we handled all of the recording, artwork, album cover jacket printing, mastering and album pressing ourselves, and the finished product got drop-shipped to AT for distribution. I did a lot of the footwork myself with our financier, Jon Shines. It was a great learning experience and very true to the DIY ethic of the time. Biafra and AT have always been great to us.
Notes From the Underground took us in a moody direction, I think reflecting some conflict in the band, helped along by the darker post-punk tones of 1985. It has some great songs on it, though, and has us exploring some different sounds with Thom Wilson producing. One of his favorite songs from the session was Write Myself A Letter and he put a little extra time into it, and it turned into a slightly psychedelic jangle. My favorite song from that album is Shadows, one that Mike and I wrote from an idea he had. It was a great live song back in the day and I still love to play it. I’ve been listening to Notes a lot lately because we are working on the reissue, and there is a lot of really great stuff going on there.
Did you do much touring back then? Overseas? I’m guessing you played with every notable So. Cal punk band?
Never made it overseas. We did a lot of small regional tours – you could hit a few cities over a few days, so we’d do Vegas-Phoenix-Tucson-San Diego, or Reno-Sacramento-San Francisco-Santa Cruz-Santa Barbara. That helped us get a decent regional following. Sometimes we would do these regional tours with other bands, like TSOL, Circle Jerks, Angry Samoans or Dead Kennedys. Sometimes we would take our Vegas pals, Subterfuge, or double bill with other great bands like Decry or Mad Parade. I remember watching Ron Emory (TSOL) at soundchecks, I would always try to be there because he would pull out some great Hendrix riffs or blues stuff. His technique was inspiring. Ron has so much depth as a player, he’s one of my heroes. We did another one of these regional tours in Northern California with Dead Kennedys and Butthole Surfers, that was amazing. I was glad we didn’t have to go on after the Butthole Surfers, their show was insane at that time. There were so many great bands back then, and we got to play with many of them. We played a bunch of the big Goldenvoice shows in and around L.A. too.
When Murder in A Foreign Place came out in the spring of 1984 we had friends at Goldenvoice and they were starting to book national tours, so we did a three month summer tour of the US and Canada, booked by Jim Guerinot and Mike Vraney, both legendary guys. Only trouble was, the punk scene was still very young in many areas of the country – sometimes we would pull up to the venue and find it boarded up, or sometimes a whole string of shows would be canceled. We’d have to buy paper city maps and look for phone booths to make calls and hope to catch someone, there was no voicemail. It was a very rough tour, but we had loads of fun and when we came home we were battle-hardened and road tight, we were a kick-ass live band by the end of that tour.
We did another US tour just before recording Notes From the Underground. A tour had been booked for Social Distortion and they had to back out, so it was given to us. It was a winter tour, so it had different challenges, but we hit a lot of cities we hadn’t been to on our first tour. I loved being on tour. M.I.A. did one last national tour supporting After the Fact in 1987. (below photo by Rhoda Rohnstock)
How did M.I.A. end?
It ended with infighting and disagreement, like bands usually end. Shortly after recording Notes From the Underground things came to a head and I walked away. Mike was angry at me, I was angry at him. But one thing about Mike, any kind of adversity like that just made him try harder. He brought M.I.A. back with a vengeance and made M.I.A.’s 4th album, After the Fact with Chris Moon (the drummer on Last Rites), Mark Arnold and Frank Daly (both would later form the great OC band Big Drill Car). He came to me and asked me to record a guitar part, he said he wanted something noisy and atonal with whammy bar dives like I did in Used to Know Me from the Murder album. I was actually a little annoyed but he insisted. I’m so glad he did – that is what opens the album, and it serves as a kind of meaningful transition from the old band to the new, and to what Mike would go on to do later. A lot of the lyrics on that album are very personal to me because I feel like Mike is singing about us, our conflict, the bitterness, the feelings of betrayal. There is a lot of me on that album even though I didn’t participate in making it, save for that intro. It took me a while to come to terms with it, and now I love it – it is a great album, and Frank and Mark were really good on it, as was Chris. Mike really grew as a songwriter, but he also held a lot of control in the band. After this version of M.I.A. toured, Frank and Mark wanted to be more involved in songwriting, so they left to form Big Drill Car. After M.I.A. Mike made a couple of great bands, Naked Soul and Jigsaw, there are videos online if you search for them.
Tell us about a few of the bands you were in post-M.I.A. (Arab and the Suburban Turbans?)
Arab and the Suburban Turbans was kind of a way for some of us to explore different musical influences. It had varying membership over the years, but the core was Arab (Love Canal), Jeff Newlin, Bob Gnarly (Plain Wrap), Dallas Don Burnet (Plain Wrap, later Lutefisk), Raggs Adams and me. We played some traditional blues and soul covers, plus we turned some punk into blues and we also had a few stellar originals. We recorded Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown, which was selected for a Flipside Vinyl Fanzine compilation, but the person who owned the publishing had a beef with the record label (not Flipside) and would not allow it. But we played some great shows with the likes of Jane’s Addiction and Thelonius Monster, and we actually got accepted into the Long Beach Blues Festival, quite a mean feat. They were bummed because we ended up being more punk than they imagined and kind of crashed the mellow vibe. We had a great crowd response though!
I was in another band in 1989-90 called Flatbed with Bob Thomson (Big Drill Car) on bass and Miles Gillette (El Groupo Sexo, Fluf) on drums. Kinda grungy, I guess. Those two were the best musicians I have ever played with. I played in several other projects with notable players (Don Burnet, Sean Greaves, Mark Stern, Bad Otis, Chuck Biscuits) but nothing that stuck.
Tell us about the M.I.A. reunion? I’m guessing Mike’s death is still a shock to you all.
Mike’s death was so unexpected, it was a huge shock. He had worked so hard to build a really cool bar in Costa Mesa, the Avalon. He had so many friends, so many people that loved him. He just had that great kind of personality — gregarious, friendly, thoughtful. He helped people, and they were and still are, after nearly ten years, very loyal to him. So his death was a huge loss for many people. I was astonished at the number of people who came to his memorial on the beach, it was amazing. I was standing there dumbfounded when this guy walked up in a suit wearing reflective aviators walked up and said, “Are you Nick Adams?” It was Jello Biafra. Hadn’t seen him in over 20 years, I couldn’t believe he made the effort to be there.
As it turned out, Mike’s girlfriend and kids were left in a bad way financially from his death, so we were approached to do a fundraising reunion. Joe Sib (SideOneDummy Records) helped set it up, and worked with Jim Guerinot (Time Bomb Records) to get Social Distortion on the bill. They played an amazing acoustic set. Also on the bill were Cadillac Tramps, and tributes to two of Mike’s later bands, Jigsaw and Naked Soul. It was a stellar night for sure. As for M.I.A., we had our original Vegas singer Todd Sampson do vocals, supplemented with Kevin Seconds on a few songs and Jello Biafra on a few more. We also got to play a few Dead Kennedys songs, which was unreal! Biafra was so cool, he let us pick the Dead Kennedys songs we wanted to do.
We continued to play a few shows with Todd on vocals, but then he died of heat stroke after a show in Vegas in 2011. That sucked. Now we play as a three piece with me handling most of the vocals, Paul doing a few. It’s actually a good band, and though we can never replace Mike’s energy, voice and creativity, I think that it is the best compromise that stays true to the band. In other words, we’re not trying to replace Mike, we are just trying to stay true to the music and let people hear it. We got a great reception at Punk Rock Bowling in 2016.
..and tying in to the above question, how about the upcoming reissues on Darla? How did that come about? Did you know James?
I’m very excited to get the last two M.I.A. records re-released. They need to be heard! I met James Agren (Darla Records) in the summer of ‘83 or ‘84 I think. We were roommates for a bit at the beach with a mutual friend. A while back he contacted me on social media about the possibility of re-releasing Notes From the Underground and After the Fact. Since I knew him from way back and I could tell he was really professional (plus he was persistent!), I agreed. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to work with James, he has great attention to detail and is treating these two albums with the utmost respect. It’s a very personal relationship, even though we are hundreds of miles away. I can’t say enough good things about James. The remastered tracks (by Mark Alan Miller at Sonelab) sound amazing, exceeding the original releases in my opinion – a lot more depth and nuance, you can hear each instrument with more clarity. And there are some bonus tracks too.
Who are some of your favorite current bands or musicians?
I’m all over the map, and not super current. Back in ‘82 I fell in love with the Birthday Party and Tom Waits (Waits inspired the song Murder In A Foreign Place) and have been a fan ever since. Saw Nick Cave perform last month, it was great. I saw the Damned on their most recent tour – twice! – and that was amazing. Iron and Wine, Black Keys, Jack White, Off!, Paul Westerberg. Things have changed so much in terms of how we get exposed to new music and how it is delivered that it is pretty overwhelming sometimes. Add to that the sheer volume of music that has been long out of print coming back. It’s a great time to be a music listener! But also, with the ubiquity of technology and how quickly information spreads, I wonder if anything like the punk scene we experienced could ever emerge again.
Please tell us about your career as a photographer.
After M.I.A. I went back to school and earned a degree in Anthropology from U.C. Berkeley, graduated in ‘93. I was planning to go to grad school when I got into photography by accident. I had a job at a cabinet shop that I was not cut out for, so I applied at the local newspaper for a menial desk job in the photo department. I was in the right place, right time; within a year I was a full time staff photographer. It was great, I got to shoot every day, learning photography while getting paid for it! Being a photojournalist was interesting and fun, but also very hard and sometimes difficult work. I photographed presidents and senators, but also tragedies, homeless people, city council meetings and kids at the fair. Around 2004 I started my own business, and I’m still doing it – mostly portraits and magazine work nowadays.
Care to tell us your top 10 desert island discs?
In no particular order (and if you asked me next week it would likely be different):
The Damned – Strawberries
Bowie – Hunky Dory
The Germs – (GI)
Stooges – Funhouse
Rolling Stones – Beggar’s Banquet
Tom Waits – Bad As Me
The Birthday Party – Prayers On Fire
Gun Club – Fire of Love
Velvet Underground – Velvet Underground
Roy Orbison – Greatest Hits
Radiohead – Amnesiac
BONUS QUESTION- Do you have a favorite of the M.I.A. records?
Though I love the raw, stripped down sound of Last Rites, and the fan favorite seems to be Murder In A Foreign Place (which I love), right now I would have to go with Notes From the Underground. It’s not as even as Murder, but it has some stellar moments and it moves me.
BONUS QUESTION TWO- Did you ever meet Genocide’s Bobby Ebz? He’s sort of a NJ legend (I’m originally from NJ).
No, we never met any of the Genocide guys. I’d like to!