WE NEVER LEARN Eric Davidson & the Gunk Punk Undergut (Pt. 2)

If you were on the
garage-rock scene circa 1988 – 2001, these bands might have been your life.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

More of my interview
with Eric Davidson, frontman for New Bomb Turks (pictured above) and author of
We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001. To read Part 1, go here, and also check out our gallery of photos and
gig posters
plus Davidson’s own WeNeverLearnBook.com blog.

 

BLURT: You contend
that most of this had run its course by the time we got to the
Stripes/Strokes/Hives neo-garage phase of the early ‘00s. Do you see any signs
of regeneration? For example, Pat Todd, from the Lazy Cowgirls, has the Rank
Outsiders and Dead Moon’s Fred and Toody Cole have the Pierced Arrows that are
doing well, both groups clearly carrying the torches of the earlier bands. The
Gories and Oblivians reunion tour last year went so well that the Gories just
announced they are going for it again.

 

DAVIDSON: Yeah, I think maybe I alluded to that earlier. In
fact, one of these reasons we decided on doing this book now was that it was
obvious that by mid-2000s, trashy sounds were slithering back into the indie
world via Hives, Black Lips, Clone Defects, Goner Records, Florida’s Dying,
etcetera. So many uber-trashy punk labels are out there now; and everyone wants
to jump on the vinyl bandwagon that all these bands effortlessly rode like a
Big Wheel for years. And I think I did mention in the book that many if not
most of these musicians are still active in music, like the ones you mentioned,
and Cheater Slicks, Dirtbombs, Reigning Sound, Jon Spencer, and on and on. Tim
Warren still runs Crypt Records; Larry Hardy has In the Red.

      Oh, New Bomb
Turks reunion gig at Bell House in Brooklyn on
June 26, by the way – and our drummer is RJD2’s drummer. Take that, smug Pitchfork stereotypers. 

 

You approached Jack
White for an interview but only received a bizarrely obtuse “statement” from
him concerning Edgar Allen Poe. Why do you think he wasn’t interested in cooperating?
Do you think he got wind that you were also talking to some of his detractors?

 

“Got wind”?! I made the fatal mistake of trying to be open
and honest, and sent him ten basic email questions; I said, answer however many
you want, or not. And I addressed right off in the intro note that I had talked
to Billy Childish, Jim Diamond [the Detroit producer who had a lawsuit against
White thrown out of court] and Long Gone John [of Sympathy Records, who
released the White Stripes’ early records but subsequently had a falling out
with White and lost the right to continue repressing them]. He could imagine
what they had to say. So if he’d like to address any of that, I would like to
get both sides. I tried to be fair and open. He decided to compare himself to Edgar
Allen Poe, via a book excerpt I think was swiped offa Wikipedia. Oh well.
Apparently money, fame, and a hot model don’t fix everything.

      Dave Crider,
Estrus Records head honcho, didn’t want to do an interview, but he simply sent
me a nice note saying good luck, but explaining that he wasn’t into rehashing
the past. And that’s cool, and classy.

 

How about telling our
readers a little about the New Bomb Turks and your ups and downs along the way?
You’ve got a classic story in the book about dealing with Jim Guernot, from
Time Bomb Recordings, who you characterize as “the model of the alt-rock era
‘cool A&R guy'” – I’m sure that will strike a chord among other musicians.

 

Ah, Guernot was alright. He was what he was, as they say. He
was pretty straight-forward with saying he wants his bands to tour until they
drop – a sure way to get the band you just gave a big advance to increase their
drug use and break up.

      Anyway, New Bomb
Turks guitarist Jim Weber and I met in a dorm at Ohio State,
friends right away, big music fans, Jim started playing guitar, we had a
college radio show, etcetera. We went to club shows like three, four times a
week; Columbus’ scene was the most active in Ohio in the ‘90s. And
early on, 1987-90, we noticed that our fave local bands – Gibson Bros., Great Plains, Scrawl – were either sort of slowing down
or touring. And new local bands were just “eh.” Some good ones, for what they
did, which was mostly in the Buttholes/Sonic Youth/grunge-y vein.

      But we just
wondered why the only bands in town that would say they liked “punk” were the
baggy-shorts skater straight-edge types who only played with other like-panted
bands. So Jim and I literally would say stuff like, “Why don’t we start a, uh, fun band? Is that so weird an idea?”

      “Ups and downs
along the way” could take another book. And you can read some of them in We Never Learn, of course. But…

      Ups: First few gigs, feeling like we’re
coming together. First gig at CBGB.

Crypt calling us and wanting to sign us! And just meeting
and hanging with the whole Crypt brood; especially hanging in Hamburg with Tim and Micha Warren… Recording
the albums.

      Meeting fans all
over, and remaining close with our two boon Frenchie pals, Jean-luc and Gilles!
The first Euro tour, and the second with the Devil Dogs. Touring with many of
our favorite bands – Teengenerate, Supersuckers, Gaunt… Shit, all the Euro tours; and Japan and Australia! I was never even on a
commercial jet until our first tour of Europe
in 1993. The 1996 three-week Euro tour with Red Aunts – our A&R guy at
Epitaph Europe was excited, as there were finally bands on the label he liked,
so they promoted it well; and hanging with the Red Aunts is too funny to go
into. Like rolling singer Terri down a hostel hallway at 4am in a shopping cart
funny.

      On tour,
flirting at after-parties with girls I’d probably never see again, and reveling
in the beautiful pathos of that…

      Any show in
Green Bay, Austin, Cleveland, and even NYC, because the crowds aren’t as disinterested
as people say; and even if so, we could bum around NYC for a day and blow money
at all the great record stores and slice joints – many of which are gone, of
course.

      Mainly making
great records and sharing good times with my four best friends. Hanging onto
girlfriends along the way, well…

      Downs: Honestly, not too many. I mean when
you decide you want to pursue an artist’s life in America, you know you’re in for an
economically bumpy ride. So maybe I could’ve stashed away a bit of our “huge”
Epitaph advance, and today I could buy a used Ford Escort. With some sweet
flame stripes on the side!

      Having to boot
original drummer Bill Randt after our 1999 Australian tour really sucked. I
won’t go into details, but we were justified in doing so. It just sucked for
all the usual reasons. But then getting Sam Brown to join was an uber-UP, as
he’s such an amazing guy, amazing drummer, nice, hilarious, and a fine holder
of secrets. The last Epitaph album, and first with Sam – Nightmare Scenario (2000) – is probably my favorite Turks record.
Then, I thought that even up to our last official breaking up tour in late
2002, I honestly felt that we were as good live as we’d ever been, so it felt
good to go out on a high gear!

 

The Turks do occasional
reunions shows. What are the chances of a new record or full tour?

 

We officially broke up at the 2002-2003 New Year’s Eve show
in Cleveland
with the Dirtbombs and Bassholes. Since then, we’ve decided that as long as we
feel able to, we’ll get together a couple times a year to play some kinda
special show, like an invite to a Euro fest or a friend’s wedding or something.
We’re all still friends and somewhat musically active, so it’s not hard to whip
up a couple practices and get out there and yalp. But it’s kinda doubtful we’d
have the time or inclination to come up with and record some new tunes. Maybe a
covers single or something, who knows…

 

Name three events
that you feel stand out as clear milestones of the era you document in the
book.

 

This is WAY too tough, and three ain’t enough, but… (1) The
Bad Musick Seminar in NYC, 1988 – Tim Warren’s piss-take on the ol’ New Music
Seminar festival. But with Thee Mighty Caesars, Raunch Hands, A-Bones, Rat
Bastards, and an uber-drunk Tim bouncing around an abandoned midtown warehouse,
it kind of kick-started whatever I think I’m covering in this book.

      (2) Me seeing a
Replacements poster on Jim Weber’s dorm room wall, and striking up a chat.
How’s that for self-importance! But if that’s too groan-inducing, how about the
Gories first trip to play NYC in 1989. Or Billy Childish
inspiring/digging/writing back the Mummies and recording the Devil Dogs all
around the same time, circa 1989. Or the Dwarves’ “HeWhoCannotBeNamed is dead”
controversy that either showed the simmering trash-punk world had some growing
steam to piss off a big label; or that self-styled cynical trash-punk fans
could have the wool pulled over their eyes too; or simply that the Dwarves put
out one of the best albums of this thing (Blood,
Guts & Pussy
, 1990, Sub Pop), and made it even better with piss-taking
Sub Pop’s fame, making grunge – at least in one strata of the alt-music world –
not the only game in town.

      Maybe Jon
Spencer Blues Explosion’s sheer, undeniably amazing live show ultimately
getting them opening slots for Beastie Boys and playing Lollapalooza and such,
as that helped spread the word on the Crypt/In the Red/Sympathy world to rote
“modern primitives,” trendy Euros, and mall alt-rockers. People sometimes
forget how great they became live while sticking with labels like In the Red
for some of their releases and bringing bands like Cheater Slicks and such onto
their own gigs. Not too many bands in my book got into the pages of GQ, and on Spanish TV shows, and stuff
like that. Not that things like that are always THE goal, of course. But bigger
mags and opening slots for huge bands were solid ways (in the pre-internet
world) to get younger kids to hear these kind of violent sounds. 

      In a weird way,
the Andre Williams record, Silky (1998, In the Red) is important because, as backed up by the two-thirds of the
Gories, it was a kind of trash super group (not necessarily good or bad, but a
sign that there is a kind of scene capable of creating such a monster); and it
really, totally kicked in the now standard preference for greasy roots R&B
in the previously often honky-heavy garage-punk world.

       (3) Either the release of the first Killed By Death compilation in 1989, or…
The Hives and White Stripes success/fame and subsequent contractual flaps: bad
for the principals involved on a personal level; but proof that the garage-punk
rumblings that had been going on in the ‘90s had found a way to bubble up via
actually good bands; then proof that getting to “the top” can mean lots of
bullshit like contractual flaps; and then instigated a kind of sonic backlash
via the Memphis-Detroit-Chicago axis that is still producing nasty garage-punk
today. Both the Hives and White Stripes surviving it all to make more good
records, which was not always the case with hit “trend” bands of the past.

 

Who, to you, were the
three most important Gunk Punk bands?

 

Eegads! Well, if I must,
but I’m making it longer, in relative chronological order…

      Various Billy Childish groups
consistent, unrelentingly trashy recording and honesty.

      Lazy Cowgirls – Whipping up all raw
American roots music fast-like before most did, before hardcore even.

      Pussy Galore – Template-setting garbage
noise leap forward for garage punk.

      Dwarves – They made the perfect rock ‘n’
roll record, Blood, Guts & Pussy, and had probably the best overall live evocation of the We Never Learn icky ethos.

      Gories – Mick Collins says it best in
the book – essentially, when he heard all those lame post-Nuggets comps’ ads say “Wild, primitive garage rock!” then he
bought them and they were jangly folk, he said they decided to make records as
wild and primitive as those comps claimed. And did!

      Supersuckers – No one really sounded like the Ramones, the Saints, and Motorhead in 1990. Burped out a great sense of humor while
living and playing within the often self-serious grunge central, Seattle.

      Mummies – Along with the Gories, truly
reiterating the “anyone can do it” stance. The disgusting stained mummy outfits
as a retort to the dress-up surf revival going on around them was a nice touch.

      Devil Dogs – Being one of the best rock ‘n’
roll bands ever, playing every show with sweaty urgency, and having Andy G
hilariously spout off at all the jerks in the audience, yet winning them over,
all make up the general savoir faire of gunk punk.

      New Bomb Turks, natch  – Mike Lavella said to me, “I don’t know how
you’re going to write this book without saying what a big deal your band and
that first album was on the scene.” So there, I said it here. Ha!

      Oblivians – Their informed roots and
extremely well-written songs – blasted sloppy through a revived sense of trash
after early side-projects – made them a kind of garage punk 7″ tidal wave era
cresting point, that washes down on bands to this day, where their reunion gigs
are selling out in a few days.

      Teengenerate – Ditto, only WAY trashier
even; maybe the most explosive live act of this whole thing.

      HivesVeni, Vidi, Vicious was a truly great, catchy-approachable album
that yanked a lot of this book’s aesthetic chutzpah into the charts, which has
never been easy. The Ramones couldn’t even do it!

      Clone Defects – The Defects – whom I
used to help sneak into Detroit area shows and watch piss people off around
town before they formed – knew their garage-punk shit, and then ate it again,
shitting it out as a cosmic mind-bending meal for another generation, I
suppose.

      Black Lips – Similar job as the Clone
Defects, only more Replacements drunk-winkers than Crime acid-eaters.

 

One final question
then – bonus question! With my advance copy of We Never Learn came a 20-song promotional CD of bands featured in
the book, whereas regular consumers will have to be satisfied with a download
code for the tracks. Potential eBay gold for collector scum like me?

 

I’d assume the vinyl bootleg that will hopefully be spawned
soon will go for 10 bucks; the CD the same in 5 years when we’re all clamoring
for “vintage” CD players… Har.

      I do want to say
that there are unreleased tracks on that comp – and the previously released
tracks are pretty damn rare too.

 

 

 

 

 

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