New York City 2008, Leonard St. outside opening of 'no wave' show
Interview by Jason Gross, Part 1Sitting on a back porch in bucolic Western Massachusetts on a gorgeous summer's day, my friendís adorable little daughter coyly asked "wanna see a picture of me?" After I agree, she runs into the house in a flash and runs back out and jumps up on my lap. She's not carrying a photo but a magazine instead- the French edition of Vogue. She furiously flips through it until she comes to a photo spread and gets excited, proudly pointing at the picture. "Dat's Thurston, dat's Kim, dat's Coco and dat's me!! " she exclaims. Not too shabby but then again, this ain't any little kid. She might not have appreciated it at the time but her dad, Byron Coley, was co-horts with a bunch of indie rock icons.
But Coley has much more on his C.V. than that. Starting out in the rock zine world, he went on to co-helm one of the most important and iconic indie music magazine of the 80's, the bitchy and knowledgeable Forced Exposure. Beyond that, he made his mark as a columnist in the early years of Spin, documenting the same indie culture to a wider audience and occasionally sparing with Village Voice editor Robert Christgau in the 80's. Nowadays, Coley's work is regularly found in The Wire among other places, where he regularly champions the best of outre jazz.
And yeah, he does roll with the Sonic Youth crew now and then, especially focusing on numerous projects with Thurston Moore. Together, they've done a long-time review column for Arthur as well as literary publications, joint record releases on their labels (Byron has Father Yod, Thurston had Ecstatic Peace!), compilations (the wonderful Jazzactuel box set) and a recent book together (No Wave).
And Coley has his collector side too. His house has an adjacent barn which is full of records and he maintains an online store. The house itself is stocked with albums too, which one time brought about an unfortunate incident when his cat accidentally peed away thousands of dollars worth of rare Sun Ra records. Luckily, most of his collecting experiences are much happier than that as he frequents record fares with his wares.
As such, I dragged him out of last October's WFMU record fair in New York City to interrogate him about his work. I'd been trying to get him to do this for a while so when he finally agreed, there was no reason to hesistate, especially since he's never done a full-length interview about himself before.
PSF: Where did you grow up?
I was born in Manhattan, then lived in Long Island for a while. My dad was a pilot so we lived by the airport out there. Then I lived in the Poconos for a while. When I was a little kid, we moved around a lot but then by '59 (when I was about 3), we moved to moved to north New Jersey in the rural area, up where all the reservoirs are. I sort of grew up around there. It was off the beaten path but it was a pretty close shot into the city. Everybody who lived out there... all the dads would commute into Manhattan for work.
PSF: What kind of music did you listen to when you were young?
My parents were not musical at all. They would listen to Mancini and stuff like that. Very generic, hi-fi music. I remember the soundtrack to On the Beach was a big favorite. It wouldn't even be the original soundtrack- it would be a crappy knock-off orchestra doing this thing. It was very tangential to their existence. They liked having a grand piano. That was their thing. It completed the living room!
I took piano lessons for a long time. I played mostly European classical stuff, pretty standard- a lot of Bartok, Bach. I did a little bit more experimental stuff later but that was around the time around when I was giving up piano anyway. Erik Satie was about as far as I got in terms of contemporary stuff. I played very little popular music at all.
The first album I bought was "Hey Little Cobra" by the Rip Chords, in early '64. The music that I was first really into was surf and hot rod music- the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the California vocal groups more than the instrumental bands. I had some friends who really into the Ventures and stuff like that. So I was buying records pre-Beatles. I was a couple years ahead already in school by that point- I started early and skipped second grade. So I was in with the kids who were a few years older than I was. They were all into records already when I was in third and fourth grade. I just really didn't under the 45 thing because they didn't have pictures sleeves where I lived. So I'd go and look at records. There were no record stores local to me then. There was an electronics store that sold records and then there was a lunch counter called the Kinnelon Spa that sold records there.
So I did that kind of stuff and I started having bands in 4th or 5th grade. Just friends who lived in the neighborhood. One kid's older brother had a band who actually did a single that's on Back from the Grave 7 or 8. They were really cool so we just thought it was...) One kid had a drum kit, one kid had a guitar and I would play organ. But all you could hear was the drums because we really didn't understand the technical aspect of it. We would just play covers like Blues Magoos' "We Ain't Got Nothing Yet." This kid, Dickie Jospeh, has a big basement and his brother's band rehearsed there. And there was this little furnace room and we would do our stuff in there. We also would occasionally put records on and lip synch to them. What on earth we were thinking I don't know. We would have girls come over and lip synch to stuff.
PSF: Did you guys ever do any shows?
We never played out. There was nowhere really to play in those days. His brother's band was originally called the Orbitrons and they changed their name to It's Us. And they had a Volkswagen van called 'the Us Bus.' They played but their regular gig was at a strip club in Butler called the Baggy Knees. We weren't really... strip-club-ready.
PSF: What was the name of your band?
UFO or the UFO's. But we were always just trios. We would just horse around. This kid named Jeff had a reel-to-reel tape recorder so sometimes we would record stuff but that was about the extent of it. Between that and recording burping contests, it was like... We really did novelty songs like the Detergents stuff. We just did that kind of junk.
PSF: What happened with the band?
Well, I would change schools and those guys wouldn't be around as much. Then I think... the guy whose house it was that we rehearsed at... his family moved when his dad got a job somewhere else in '67 or so. I was about 10, 11.
After that, we did different weird stuff. We had a group called the Atomic Squawk in the early '70's. It was a jam band. We were into Beefheart and stuff like that. It was just kind of... make a bunch of noise and we would do really long, fake blues things. Nobody played very well. We were supposed to play with a band at a county fair but it fell through for some reason. Somebody would record stuff but we would just play at this guy's house in the basement. I think we played at a party once but it was really not a very together type thing.
I had a similar band out in San Francisco called the Kahunas in the later 70's. That was punk era but we didn't do punk stuff. We were with this woman named Irene Dogmatic who had been in the band SST, which Ted Falconi's band before Flipper. This guy Mike Shannon would later play a lot of experimental stuff up in the Pacific Northwest and is still active. We were playing just... weird noise. We'd also do parody songs like a reggae version of "Heroin" called "Heroin and Beer." Just stupid ass stuff.
And then when I came back to New York, Georgia Hubley (later of Yo La Tengo) and I had a duo called the Kahunas, that was the Kahunas East, in '80. We were actually supposed to have a gig playing with (no wave band) Information. I think I just chickened out. It was just bass and drums, no wave stuff with stupid, funny lyrics... which had been a constant throughout what passed for my musical career. (laughs)
PSF: Going back a bit, when the British Invasion music came around, did that make any impression on you?
Yeah but I hated the Beatles.
PSF: Why was that?
Well... in those days, we would have record parties all the time. People would stack up singles on a turntable. When the Beatles came along, if one of their songs came on, girls would RUN to the record player and scream. It was just such a drag. We would have these No-Beatles policies. And people wouldn't really notice it but it made a huge difference. So I turned against the Beatles at that point.
PSF: Did you have anything against them on a purely musical basis?
Not 'til later. What I didn't like about the Beatles eventually was that they weren't really so much innovators as they were popularizers but people would mistake them as innovators. And I can listen to the stuff now. My daughter listens to their stuff. And it's fine. There's certain periods that are especially OK. But at the time, I just found that it was a drag.
But it really all came from these girls who were too into it. The Beatles were just so ubiquitous in grade school at that time. There would be like five Beatles songs on the charts at a time. ABC-AM became "W-A-Beatles-C."
PSF: What about other British Invasion music? What did you think of that?
This friend of mine's brother's band, what they played more was like Animals, Stones songs, Them songs, stuff like that. And I liked it more but I didn't really... collect much in the way of British records at that point. I don't really know why. I stayed with mostly American stuff until later. I was really into the Byrds and some of the L.A. stuff. And then when the San Francisco stuff came along, I really loved that stuff. Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane.
PSF: The Dead too?
Off and on. There was some stuff that I liked. I really like Anthem on the Sun but by the time the Dead got really popular with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, I really hated that period. But a lot of that was because I was living in a dorm when that stuff came out and again, it was ubiquitous. You just couldn't get away from it. I always just hated having stuff forced on me in a way. So, I would just listen to other stuff because you just hear that anywhere. And I was always interested in things that were a little bit more... off the beaten path, I guess.
The stuff that I really got into then heavily was the Mothers. I bought a used copy from a guy I car pooled with of Freak Out within a year of when it came out. And then the Velvets... The first album, I was just crazy for. So that kind of stuff... But I was really into Moby Grape and all the San Francisco bands that I heard. There was only the major label stuff (available) but I really liked that particular period. (Quicksilver's) Happy Trails and the first Velvets and first Stooges in terms of play. And Notorious Byrd Brothers.
PSF: Later on, how were you effected by punk when it came along?
Punk had a profound effect on me and most of my good friends. The earliest NY bands -- Patti Smith Group & Television -- seemed more like some sort of hybridized garage rock/art rock thing in a lot of ways, and that was pretty damn appealing. but bands like the Dictators (whose first album was pretty near perfect) and the Ramones (again, perfection), were just revelatory explosions appealing on so many levels you could just shit. When the first U.S. coverage started appearing about the Sex Pistols in early '76, that just seemed too good to be true. i mean, these were guys exactly my age who seemed hell-bent on destroying the status quo. in those lean cultural days, what could be ore appealing? Unlike some of my friends, I didn't get rid of all my old "hippie shit" records when punk came along, but it was clearly the arrival of a music I could enjoy from the inside, rather than as a younger observer from the outside (as I'd always been before).
PSF: Going back, what early shows did you go to?
First concert that I saw was It's Us opening for the Left Banke at a local high school. It was good. It's Us were much better than the Left Banke. They were really weren't much of a live band- I think they were more of a studio type band. After that, I saw a few concerts... The part of Jersey that I lived in there were these odd kind of day parks where they had a lake. People from the city would come out and they'd have like a little cabana for the day. And then they'd change their clothes and swim. At the end of the day, they'd go back to the city. These kind of weird day vacation things. And there were a couple of those in my area, sometimes in the summer where they would put on bigger concerts. So I'd occasionally see stuff like that. When they were started doing concerts at the Singer Bowl, we'd go into New York to see the Shaffer Festival, which started in Central Park. I would see anything and a lot of those would be mixed bills with 2 or 3 bands. Some of the bigger bands I'd see were the Doors or the Who. At that point, if we could get a ride and we had the money, we'd go... A ticket to the Shaffer was like $1.50 or something like that. So we go in and see almost anything. It wasn't like we could do it very often so we'd have to organize rides with somebody's older brother and get them a ticket- it was a complicated thing.
PSF: Was there a dissonance you felt listening to the Velvets and then seeing these bigger bands play?
Well... (pause) In a way, I really didn't discriminate. It seemed like in a certain time that all of those bands, even the ones that were very established, had a kind of anti-authoritarian quality to them, at least as we perceived it, that made them all kind of underground. Even bands that were big... there was a difference between listening to the Doors or listening to the Beatles. There was that kind of dichotomy also. Later, it would be... You would be listening to something instead of listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Joni Mitchell. So even though these were major label records, they still had a different kind of quality. And I was always really into certain labels- Elektra was always an interesting label and I was into Reprise because they put out those samplers. You'd hear these little bits of things and be like 'Oh, that was be really cool' with whatever you'd hear. When I discovered ESP-Disk, that was a real revelation, which was through the Fugs. I was read a lot of music magazines and stuff would sound interesting, you would try to hear it. I had a pretty limited record collection though. By this time, there were record stores but there were none that were really close but they'd be in malls that had opened up. You'd go to these big mall stores and look at record covers endlessly before you'd buy them. 'I wonder what this one is like?' I can remember when Funhouse came out, I hadn't heard the first Stooges album. But the cover to Funhouse was just like... 'This looks really nuts.' I must have looked at it for like six months before I bought it.
PSF: What music magazines did you read then?
There were some that were free. There was Go magazine which was a weekly thing underwritten by radio stations. That was the first one I read and then I had a friend's older brother who got Crawdaddy. That was a really interesting one. When Rolling Stone started, that was sort of around. So I'd read that and Crawdaddy kept on changing formats. When Fusion was around, I really liked that.
PSF: Were there any particular writers you liked?
The person I really liked always was (Richard) Meltzer. His writing, especially the stuff he was doing for Creem, was just... When Creem started getting distributed nationally, around '71, that was really revelatory. I mean, all the Creem writers. I really thought all those people just made up their names, like Lester Bangs. Who could have a name like that? (laughs)
PSF: What was it about that writing that made an impression on you?
It was just very funny. Meltzer, Tosches at that time... Bangs. I really liked Metal Mike Saunders stuff. Robot A. Hull. All those guys just really cracked me up. I really enjoyed reading them even though a lot of times, they weren't very good for musical information. With Meltzer, you could never tell- it had nothing to do with the record at all, most of the time. And then other people would get super-enthusiastic about stuff that I just really didn't like, but I enjoyed READING them regardless.
PSF: Did that have an impact on you to make you want to write yourself?
As early as 4th or 5th grade, I would type these little one-sheet things. My parents bought me a typewriter for Christmas one year and I would retype stuff. I would read music magazines then but this was pretty early, so they were more like fan magazines, like Tigerbeat and 16 and stuff like that. So I wouldn't actually get those but I had friends whose sisters would have them. So I'd look at them and I would glean information from those and type up a sheet. I'd take it to school and pass it around and people would read it. It was about what bands were playing at some club in New York. I never really knew much about anything but I would just regurgitate the information. And I did that off and on for a while. I didn't really think about doing it any more seriously (than that).
It was a little while later (around '73) when I started sending reviews after Creem came around. I tried to do ones that hadn't been done, like imports. JEM had started by that point so I tried to get some of that stuff. But my stuff was so light... It was totally like, Meltzer-damaged. That was all. Nobody would ever print anything. I would just get rejection letters. But in retrospect, I'm not surprised that nobody was going for it.
PSF: When did you first get your work published?
Well, I got kicked out of Hampshire College in '76... And I'd been sending stuff to Punk and New York Rocker, which John Holmstrom and Alan Betrock published. So I fucked around and I wound up going back to U Mass and I took a writing course, which I never had before. I had a young T.A. grad student and she said "You should just write like you talk." It was really revelatory. I had never really thought about that. So I started doing that and I wrote a bunch but it was mostly class stuff, autobiographical fiction stuff. I started writing for the school paper, doing record reviews. They would run them but they would put them generally next to somebody else's record review, like it was the same length. And the guy said "This is so you could see what a record review should be and what a record review should not be!" And mine was always the example of what a review should not be. (laughs) Because again, I wasn't really content-orientated, as formal...
PSF: So they called you out as a bad example in print?
No, but that's what he would say at our meetings. "This is to only show you what..." So I would do that kind of stuff for a while and then I... What happened was that Andy Schwartz bought New York Rocker from Betrock in '78. I was sort of drifting around a lot then. I was going back and forth between coasts. I didn't really live anywhere for a few years. And I was in New York, I would hang out and I actually stayed with Andy for a while. And one day, he said "We wanna do a Beefheart thing and you know more about him than anyone else around here so maybe you could do the interview." So I spent the night with my friend Robbie hashing out the information we wanted to get and went and did the interview. It went OK. So he (Andy) went "Oh, that's OK... so we were going to do a Devo tour diary for their first major label tour..." So, I was going to go on the tour. So I did that- it was around '78. Those were my first paid things and they were in the same issue. So from that point on, I was writing for the Rocker pretty regularly.
PSF: What was it like interviewing Beefheart?
It was good. I had actually interviewed him once before. He's a very funny guy! And he did all these thing though that I never really figured out what they were until later. Like he would always asking 'Do you know what I mean?' And so you'd be going 'Uh... yeah!' But he would have these great aphorisms. So I interviewed him backstage once just for a few minutes for a school paper. But to sit down with him, he would say stuff like (in a deep voice) 'You know, an architect is just someone who wants to crawl up your penis, pull down the shades and type all night... You know what I mean?' And you'd be like... 'Wo...' (laughs) You didn't wanna appear so unhip as to say 'No, I don't know what you mean!' So it was pretty fun. I even interviewed him later too.
See Part II of our Byron Coley interview
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