John Leighton Beezer
Photographing The UnicornIf you saw the movie called Hype! (it's the definitive documentary on Seattle music in the '80's and '90's), John Leighton Beezer was that incredibly smart, funny guy who you'd never heard of before who turned up every 15 or 20 minutes with a different band credited to him: Stomach Pump, The Thrown-Ups, others. In one scene, he uses an electric guitar to point out the subtle difference between "punk" and "grunge" (hint: turn your punk riffs upside-down). Later, he presents an interactive family tree of Seattle music, which he slyly uses to demonstrate that practically every band in Seattle descended from his own high school band, the Blunt Objects.
interview by 5-Track
Like Kevin Bacon, or perhaps Forrest Gump, Mr. Beezer's musical career has consistently careened past greatness. Whether it's local Seattle legends like Green River, The Young Fresh Fellows, The U-Men and The Fastbacks or arena packers like Guns & Roses, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and R.E.M., Beezer is just one degree removed from them all... And yet, all along, he has steadfastly insisted on grinding out the most profoundly uncommercial music there is.
This has been going on for decades. And he's still doing it. Here's the story.
I met John Leighton Beezer at a place called the Columbia City Theater in Seattle. He was playing music there. It used to happen every week, and John Foss (social catalyst and sometime singer for Three-Toed Sloth and The Greenwood Posse) bugged me to go until I said OK and went.
There we found a loose-knit group of improvising musicians, new friends welcome, with a theater, a stage, instruments and amplifiers and a big P.A. There were two rules:
1. If you want to play, you got to put some $$ in the hat at the end of the night. But you can eat and drink all you want.
2. No songs (as in "no prearranged, written songs").
Beezer was the co-enforcer, usually with singer Jason Dennie, a frequent Beezer collaborator. They kept track of who was playing and who wanted to play. They helped to lead the jams that needed leading. They passed the hat and made sure you knew not to play any songs, by which they meant anything that had been written, arranged, or worked out ahead of time in any shape or form.
The resulting music varied a lot. There were changes in personnel from set to set, if not more often. Instruments tended to include one or two guitars, bass, drums, keys, percussion and maybe a few singers. Sometimes it was funky and groovy and soulful, sometimes it was harsh and rocky and jagged. Sometimes it was a big pile of stupid shit. Sometimes it was all of those things at once, and more. The sounds were never less than interesting.
Beezer would make up a chord change on the spot that might easily have been a proper song he'd written ten years ago. "That's the highest compliment," he says when I tell him this. "If I could be in a top 40 band, I would. Just don't make me practice! If you can make it polished and slick and make everybody think that this is something you rehearsed for them, I think that's awesome."
On the bass, I would catch up with his changes just as the drummer kicked in. If the rest of the band didn't pick up on what he was doing, it could turn into a noisy mess very quickly. The results didn't have to be unlistenable though. Sometimes, the music would take an unexpected left turn, revealing twenty minutes worth of energetic soundscape. Beezer would play with absolute authority the whole time, as if he'd known the tune his whole life... which, it could be argued, he has. And then it would be someone else's turn to lead.
This went on til 2 in the morning, every Thursday night.
How does a thing like that come to be? Who's behind it? I started asking questions...
PSF: Has all of the music you've made been improv?
JLB: For a very long time, yeah.
JLB: You ever heard the term rave-up? Like The Yardbirds? It's the part at the end where you go crazy. My first high-school band, we used to enjoy that the best, so we would have these outrageous long... Sometimes, the rave-up was longer than the song! And I realized we were playing this kind of music where nobody knew what was going to happen. We'd know the key from the last note of the song, and it was like a game- you always wanted to be the last person to play, so just as it seemed like a song was about to end somebody would start it again.
It became obvious that you didn't really need to have a song all prepared in order to play this really cool stuff, in fact I liked that part better than the real song. So after a while, I started thinking, well, what if we had a band that only did this? And everyone thought it was kind of ridiculous. But I knew it was possible and I knew it was fun.
I wanted to do that for a long time and I went through a few more bands and I was always advocating for that and people thought I was crazy. I remember in particular one show we played as a "real band," it was a show I was really looking forward to, I was excited about it, 'cos it was in Santa Cruz, it was gonna be a beach party, and the trouble was we were kinda like a "new wave" band and they were kinda like Deadheads. I could see it right when I got there. I was like, "Oh, shit! This is not gonna work." And I tried to talk the band into [going improv], saying, "Look, let's just throw out our set, and if we piss em off they're Deadheads, they deserve it, and if we don't, they might actually like it!" Either way it's better than sort of walking the plank. I know what they're gonna think of our set, and it's gonna be a drag. And they made us stop, it was embarrassing, and after that I said "You know what? This is stupid. I'm not gonna sit in my room writing a song about how I feel and then take it off to some completely different environment and inflict it on people. Why don't I just say 'Where am I now? Who am I playing for? Who am I playing with?'"
This, by the way, was a band that was just about to break up and it was a pattern I've noticed: just about the time you get a really tight band together, you can't stand each other because somebody, usually me, is being the fascist! "Here's how it's gonna be, no, you can't do that, what are you talking about?" And if you do that well enough that you have a really good tight act together, you've also probably alienated everyone involved. So that band was breaking up, in my mind due to excessive practicing and dealing with shit. At that point, it just became like I didn't want to do anything else [than improvise] so my attitude was if I can find people who want to do this, then that's great. If I can't, forget it, I don't need to play music anymore. So it actually took a few years but I got really lucky 'cos I met a lot of great people who all went on to do amazing things.
The new wave band was called the Pseudos. We went through a bunch of different names and I can't remember any of them, but we were originally called the Pseudos and then we went improv and broke up. That was down in San Jose, and then around 1982 or '83, I came up to Seattle.
I guess the Thrown Ups was the first thing I did in Seattle. There were some other things but they weren't really bands. So the Thrown-Ups, then when the Thrown-Ups broke up, I had a gig that I could play but there were no Thrown-Ups anymore so I created Stomach Pump. Stomach Pump put out a highly collectible record on Penultimate, called Log Clench.
The Thrown Ups, 1988
PSF: What were the Thrown Ups all about, and what was Stomach Pump about as opposed to the Thrown Ups?
JLB: The Thrown Ups were just sort of testing the improv/rave-up idea. I'd developed at that point to where that's all I did so I could pretty easily go to a party where people were jamming and that was pretty common back then which was great. I don't know if it still is but it was then, and there, in the U-District in Seattle. So there were all these jam-parties and it was real easy for me to just step in and play so I ended up meeting a lot of people who could also do that. The Thrown Ups was the first time we said "let's put a band together." It was kind of a joke originally, but just about the time Mark [Arm] was starting Green River... Mark was kind of an agitator, the whole thing in Seattle wouldn't have happened without Mark Arm. He was constantly going around introducing people or provoking people in some way and trying to make something happen and in our case the joke had gone on for a little while and he was like, 'when are the Thrown Ups playing a show?' I took it as a hint that he was willing to go around and provoke someone into giving us a show if we would play along, which is what ended up happening. Mark had been at one of the parties we'd played and had actually played with us but wasn't really part of The Thrown Ups 'cos he was doing Green River, which was great. So it was me and Ed Fotheringham who were both in the band the whole time, and then Mike Faulhaber was on guitar, and Scott Schickler on drums - he plays in Swallow now. That was the original Thrown Ups and that was a pretty good band.
We ended up getting a show opening for Husker Du in February '85. That was at the Gorilla Gardens which was where Sonic Youth played in '84 and all the really great bands that came through in the early '80's played the Gorilla Gardens so it was possibly our biggest show and it was our first show. And it went off, and right up to that point it was like, we didn't really know if it would work, but it went off really well, better than we expected. We ended up getting another show there and that one ended up in sort of a brawl. We were banned from the Gorilla Gardens after that.
One thing led to another, like, would this possibly work? And it was kinda like, "Wow, yeah it would!" So we stumbled into it one step at a time, same thing with recording. Around that time, Green River was recording with Jack Endino and I would say he was just starting to become The Guy You Record With. I think what happened is, we just did it, like, ridiculously inexpensive, a few hundred dollars we scraped together between the four of us. We didn't have any reason to record, we just wanted to, so we did. And Steve Turner played that for Tom Hazelmeyer from Halo Of Flies at Amphetamine Reptile Records and he put it out and, you know, they pressed 500 copies and...
See on the first one, there wasn't even really a Seattle thing happening, it was 1986 or '87, but it did sell a lot in New Jersey in particular. And in fact there's this little trivia, we got fan mail from a guy in Belgium, one from Buenos Aires, couple letters from people who thought it was great. People in Seattle still thought it was some kind of a joke so they used to give us shit for putting out a record, like, "Wow, I guess anyone can put out a record!" Which is not a bad reaction.
What I used to say was, "Oh, we're huge in Belgium," and that line turned up in the movie Singles. Whenever they give that guy shit for being in a stupid band he goes, "Yeah, well we're big in Belgium!" So that was me, I guess.
[Note: John Leighton Beezer is also featured prominently in the movie called Hype. I would go so far as to say he steals the show.]
Over time it fell apart a bit, Mike went to England, we both went to England and I came back. We disagreed, we were gonna do it over there and he decided he didn't want to and I decided I wanted to go home. So we split up. But then I ran into Steve Turner at fucking Brooks Brothers because both of us had gotten sweaters for Xmas and we were returning them for cash. Steve had just left Green River. So there I am standing in line at Brooks Brothers talking to Steve Turner, which is even funnier in retrospect than it was at the time, and I basically conned him into it. I said Mike's not playing anymore, and you know, it'd be great if you'd play. "Well, I'm thinking of playing in some other bands, I'll be rehearsing with this other band." That's great, but with our band you don't have to rehearse at all! And it was kinda like he couldn't say no anymore. "So it's just shows right?" Shows and recording sessions. We'll ask you to show up and hopefully you will. "Okay, I'm in!" It wasn't so much that he was excited to be in the band, it was that the requirements were so minimal that he couldn't say no. Then Scott was a great drummer and a really smart guy but he was also a flake at times and he wouldn't always show up on time or at all so we replaced him with Mark Arm.
Actually, it was more political than that. We replaced him with Mark after Steve left Green River over sort of ethical issues. They started telling him he couldn't cut his hair and stuff so naturally he cut his hair and pissed them all off. He didn't like any of that shit so he left, but also it was getting to be a successful band and I think Mark was like, "Holy crap! I'm in a big band! I never thought that was going to happen!" 'cos Mark was a great guy and he had sort of a cult following and all that, but he was never the kind of guy you expected to have the stadium-filling potential that Green River was exhibiting. So he stuck with it even though it was, you know, not his thing.
And so for them to both be in the Thrown-Ups was a little like a holding cell, so they could still be working together. So Steve went to school and stuff and Mark stayed with Green River for about a year and we were kind of their musical project. That's when we started recording and played a lot of shows and then eventually they wanted to get a little more serious about things so they started Mudhoney, and as Mudhoney got bigger there was less and less time for the Thrown-Ups, and then eventually I officially kicked them all out. But it was funny 'cos it's like everybody leaves your party and then you go, "well, you're not invited anyway!" They thought that was so funny they started picking it up in interviews. The truth of it is, they got tired of it and left me behind. But the official version is I kicked them all out.
So then Stomach Pump was just an attempt to do it again. There was a singer named JC, you kinda had to know him, I can't describe him, he sounded exactly like Kevin (sic) Murphy from Bauhaus. He sounded like he was trying to be that guy, but he just happened to sing exactly like him. He came up with great lyrics. We had a really great rhythm section, Max Godsil on bass and Duffy Drew on drums. They came out of a band called My Eye which was the band you never heard of on the Deep Six compilation. They were both left-handed which was kind of unusual and made it easy to have everyone face each other so you could see the strings and stuff. I thought it was great, I really liked it.
I think the Thrown-Ups benefitted from having Mark and Steve in the band 'cos they were very well connected and we could get shows. Stomach Pump was not particularly well connected and we felt pretty much like a pariah. We did some amazing things and we had a lot of fun but we never really caught on in any kind of way and I don't think we ever played to more than 30 people, perhaps. But we had a lot of fun and one day in particular, I decided I was getting out of music, not like I'd made a decision to get out of music but I was drifting out of music and I thought, "you know what I should do, I should call in every favor and ask every friend I have and have this one evening," and it turned out to be really great 'cos we did a radio interview, we got a video crew to follow us around, we got a giant Cadillac to drive around in, JC was the bouncer at a strip club so we had a whole lot of strippers with us, and we did an interview on KXRX on prime time and we played a show down at the Central [The Central Saloon, Pioneer Square, Seattle] and documented the whole thing. This guy who wrote a newspaper back at the time came along and wrote a full-page article about it all. So that was Stomach Pump's big blaze of glory. And Penultimate released our single "Log Clench" backed with "Cake Hole."
Back then, I think the idea was to inflict distress on our audience, deliberately. And it was an altruistic form of maniacal thinking, 'cos you had to have that attitude to really come up with something amazing. The natural behavior of a musician holding an instrument is to make music that is in some way fun to listen to. If you relieve yourself of the stress of attempting to please everybody, then some interesting things come out, and that was the whole point, just to not be like those bands that were trying to second guess and market their whole audience. So that manifested in this sort of semi-perverse desire to really, really distress people.
Now I'm not like that at all. I use a lot less distortion, in fact I'm starting to realize I probably don't want to use it at all, it just always gives me problems. But back then it was like, Superfuzz Bigmuff, the Mudhoney album? That was Steve's combination, he had a Superfuzz and a Bigmuff, which is more than enough for most people. I had what was called a Rat, I don't know if they're still around but I had 2 of those. I didn't need the variety of two different pedals, I just needed to amplify it, so I would play with that. In fact what I played with in the Thrown-Ups was a short-scale Fender bass into two Rats into an Earth 50-watt amp which was this weird funky tube solid state noise thing, and then I took a second speaker out from that and ran it into a Fender bass head and into a 2x12 cabinet, so two distortion boxes and then the live speaker signal out into a 100-watt clean Fender head, it just went KKKKKGGGGHHHHHHHH!!! You can hear it on the Thrown-Ups stuff. So that was then. Stylistic difference now is I'm playing with a clean Stratocaster a lot. The joke with El Grande Conquistador is they say I sound like Robert Cray. The running joke is, yes I admit it, I'm Cray. I'm just beginning to come out and recognize that in fact I am Cray.
See Part 2 (of 3) of our John Leighton Beezer interview.
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