live in San Pedro 2002, photo by Dave Childs
Joe Baiza interview by Dave LangWhilst Saccharine Trust never quite garnered the heavy rep, sales and critics' kudos that other SST bands of the day – Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Husker Du – received in droves, it certainly doesn't mean they are or were a band to ignore. A screaming hybrid of punk energy, be-bop swing and beat poetics, for many, the 'Trust were SST's "difficult" outfit. Without the brutal anger of Black Flag, the populism of the Minutemen, the hillbilly stomp of the 'Puppets or the pop smarts of Husker Du, the band was often left playing support to the stars and being content with their "cult band" status. So be it.
After a long absence from the music scene, Saccharine Trust are back: with a new-ish album, a UK tour under their belt and a burning desire to continue the unique musical vision sparked 25-odd years ago. Founding members Jack Brewer and Joe Baiza are back on board, their winning combination of stuttering, enunciated vocals (a la Mark E. Smith) and Hendrix/Ginn/Cosey/Quine psych/jazz fret work channeling the band into a new direction at every turn. If you're feeling really clueless, go out today and purchase their Pagan Icons or We Became Snakes discs and believe.
The following interview was recently conducted with Sacc' Trust guitar god, Joe Baiza.
PSF: Tell me about the beginnings of the group. What year? What brought it on? Any prior groups?
The first Saccharine Trust performance was at a backyard barbecue with the Minutemen in the summer of 1980. It had taken us nearly a year to form a band and keep it together long enough to do a gig. One day I got a phone call from Mike Watt and he invited us to play at a party with the Minutemen. When I told him we weren't ready to play yet he kind of called us chickens and said that we would never be ready. With that I agreed to play, so I guess you could kind of say that he gave us a little push.
I met Jack Brewer in Wilmington, CA the year before while looking for a summer job. He was the lead man at a mailing service company where my friend Paul Uriaz worked. Jack already had a band together and he wanted Paul to play bass but Paul, who was a guitar player, was only interested in borrowing his Marshall amp.
The first thing I noticed about Jack when I met him was that he had a curiously weak unfocused handshake as if he were not concerned with any social formalities. He still lived with his parents when we came by to visit and their house was in chaos. His mother screamed and yelled a lot at the kids and there were all these beautiful young women hanging around. It turned out that Jack had a lot of sisters with friends.
Jack and I made friends while working together and we would talk about music all the time. I assisted him while he operated a labeling machine that glued addresses to bulk mail. At that time I remember his favorites as being Elton John and David Bowie. It seemed that Jack followed lyrics in music very closely. I would talk to him about punk rock because I had been checking out the scene in Hollywood and LA for some time by then. Jack invited me to one of his band rehearsals to help with the sound. I thought his drummer kind of sucked. He wouldn't keep a beat and just played around a lot kind of like a Keith Moon who didn't know where he was.
The next day Jack asked me what I thought of the band but I didn't want to say anything about the drummer so I just said that maybe he should get a bass player which they didn't have at the time. Then right at that very moment, Jack asked me to play bass in his group. I wasn't a musician so this kind of surprised me. I wanted to become a visual artist but I thought that playing music might be an interesting experiment. Like some kind of conceptual art experiment. I didn't even have to buy any equipment at first because Jack had everything already. So I started to play in his band. The guys in his group were a little pissed off because they thought that I would try and turn it into a punk band. They had kind of an odd and quirky pop sound at that time.
I took Jack to his first punk rock show at the Hong Kong Café in Chinatown. He still looked like a hippie with long hair and a full beard but he wore a leather jacket with some jeans and his father's cop shoes so he fit in ok. The next day there was a knock at my door and when I answered there was a strange looking man who kind of resembled Illya Kuryakin from the TV show the Man from U.N.C.L.E. standing there. It turned out to be Jack Brewer with a haircut and a shave. I knew then that Jack was committed to the punk rock idea.
Little by little, all the guys in Jack's band quit till there was no one left but the two of us. I then decided that I wanted to play guitar but I couldn't because Jack was the guitar player. I convinced him that he should be the lead singer and I should be the guitar player and he went for that. We started to write songs together.
At one point, I remember thinking that Jack must definitely have some kind of weird talent. I was driving my car one afternoon while Jack sat in the passenger seat, playing one of his new songs for me. We came to a stoplight and Jack continued to strum along wildly on his acoustic guitar, singing out with a kind of manic energy. I looked over at him and noticed that there was a car stopped next to us. Everyone in the other car was staring over at him with a shocked and horrified expression. We even had or windows rolled up. I thought then that I would keep working with Jack. We had a tough time trying to start a band. No one really wanted to play with us at that time. Some guys would hang in there for a while but they would eventually quit. Mike Watt jammed with us a couple of times and Dez Cadena played with us for a while. Finally a couple of guys from San Pedro joined us and we started playing our first gigs.
We were part of the early Pedro punk scene along with the Minutemen and a few other Pedro crazies. I always thought that the Pedro scene was different from the other punk scenes in L.A.. In Pedro, everyone sort of challenged each other to be different instead of trying to sound like the most popular groups of the time. For Jack and I, starting a band was like opening a door to another world beyond. We were leaving Wilmington and never coming back.
PSF: What music were you listening to as a teenager?
As a teenager, I almost didn't listen to music at all. I do remember in my mid-teens listening to the radio on my front porch. I didn't do this very often but one afternoon I decided to sit on the steps, listen to the radio and watch people walk down the street. These two girls walked by and heard the radio. They walked over to me and asked if I had a match to light their cigarettes. One girl said that she really liked my sunglasses. It wasn't till then that I realized that females were attracted to music. I started to listen to music more often. I made friends with some neighborhood musicians and they introduced me to the cool underground music of the time. I grew up in the sixties so we were listening to Cream, Jimi Hendrix, early Jeff Beck and early Led Zeppelin. A bit later we discovered the Stooges, the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. You weren't going to get any girls listening to Trout Mask Replica.
Later, I became a kind of part time roadie for a local Chicano hippie rock band. They did Santana and Chicago covers and played a lot of weddings. Around then I became obsessed with Rock magazines and started following the music more closely. I especially liked the letters section of Creem magazine. I liked the Glitter Rock period when that happened. I would listen to David Bowie and Alice Cooper among other groups. When I bought the first New York Dolls album, some of my friends looked at me in disgust. For some reason I also became a fan of Todd Rundgren's music at that time (Something Anything, A Wizard, A True Star, Todd). I felt a kind of odd ball connection with what he was doing. Later in my musical search, I started to listen to progressive Rock but I became bored with that. I remember the first time I heard the Ramones, I thought all their songs sounded the same. Of course later, I learned to really enjoy what they were doing. I almost bought the first Sex Pistols single when it came out but I decided to buy a hamburger instead. That was a mistake. While reading Jack Keroac I became curious and wanted to find out what this Bird and bebop thing that he mentioned was all about. When I first heard Charlie Parker I felt myself freed from everything current and popular. Here finally, I thought, was timeless energy and excitement that didn't need to be acknowledged by your peers.
PSF: Was the punk scene in L.A. a big inspiration? I say this as you were, in a sense, very much a part of it, but also very apart from it stylistically.
The L.A. punk scene was an inspiration for me but not necessarily a musical one. The inspiration existed in the spirit of adventure, which to me seemed to be the general mood of the scene in the beginning. Sometimes the music even became secondary to all the interaction and activity that could occur at an early punk show. You could have a lot of fun running around the city causing trouble.
If it wasn't for punk rock in L.A. though, I may have never considered taking up playing music. So I have to say that it was a big influence on me. As for stylistic differences, we just felt that we should try to invent something new. Good or bad, we almost couldn't help trying, with some failure and some success.
PSF: Did you tour much in the '80's? Who did you feel were kindred spirits?
We toured a lot in the '80's. Mostly opening for Black Flag. We got support from the SST gang but I always felt like we were kind of the black sheep of the family. Saccharine was around for some of the early SST action. Our first U.S. tour with Black Flag was also Henry Rollins' first U.S. tour with Black Flag. It was a great experience for a band just starting out. Dez rode along in our van with some of Black Flag's equipment. We got paid 10 or maybe it was 5 dollars a day plus gas money, so you can imagine what kind of road existence this was. Of course, there were a lot of crazy activities to make up for the bad things. It was interesting to see all the different punk scenes across the U.S.. On many occasions, Saccharine was playing in between Black Flag and the opening band which was usually one of the best bands in the town we were playing in. We had to learn to kick ass or suffer the consequences. These tours made the band a lot stronger.
PSF: Was there a conscious sound you were going for or did it evolve naturally?
It was a bit of both. In the beginning when Jack and I first started to write songs he might strum a chord progression on his guitar. It would usually be a strange combination of chords. I would hear that but would not want to play the chords. In fact, I didn't like playing proper chords at all. Instead, we would assign that part of the song to the bass player who would play the root or fifth or maybe little bit more than that. I would then create my own chords or notes to go over that framework. Most of my chords were dissonant sounds that I just liked to hear or they could be some arbitrary visual pattern that I would see on the fingerboard. So for me, there were no restrictions and whatever pleased my ear would become my part of the song. Most times, the drummer would come up with whatever he wanted and Jack would find a way to squeeze all his words in there. Jack had a lot to say and a lot of words. All this might sound boring and I'm only saying this now looking back. At that time, we weren't so analytical. All these things did happen naturally. Every time there was personnel change in the group the group's sound and direction would change. That's why the first four Saccharine albums sound different. Eventually this would destroy the group.
PSF: How do you feel about all the punk nostalgia going on now?
Do you mean with fashion because I haven't noticed any punk nostalgia. I don't see punk as a stodgy pose. In a way it seems to me that punk is kind of like blues music in that it gets handed down generation to generation; so far anyway. That spirit of adventure and taking a chance and getting out there and doing what you want doesn't seem to die. There are so many young people now creating original sounds.
PSF: Did you feel the band was political in any way in the '80's, like you were, in a sense, fighting a cultural war?
Yes, sure, but in a more personal way. We never had any direct commentary on political point of view but I think that it was suggested somehow with the sentiment of the music. I was interested in mystery and multiple interpretation, an expressed idea that held some kind of irony that reflected the time. As if we could never be too adamant in a place not completely understood. Besides, it seemed more interesting to suggest than to hang a sign. To some, this might sound unfocused but I thought it opened up the options.
I remember a U.S. tour in 1984 with Black Flag. Bill Stevenson was driving the van and doing the graveyard shift, that is driving from midnight and into the morning. Most of us were sleeping in back of the van. I remember feeling the van bump around kind of hard and I woke up a little bit startled. Bill seemed to be veering off the highway as he was mumbling something. It was dawn and the sun was just coming up. At first, I couldn't figure out what was going on. I thought maybe Bill had fallen asleep and he was trying to get control of the van, but no, he seemed too calm for that. As I sat up, I could see that we were being directed off the highway and onto some kind of rough makeshift road. There were a lot of guys in police uniforms standing next to their squad cars pointing and yelling. Eventually, we were directed onto a prepared flat area that kind of resembled a big dirt parking lot which was more than a little bit off the highway. The doors of the van were pulled opened and there were a lot of official looking people in uniforms running around and some of them were telling us to get out of the van. I was half-asleep with one shoe on standing there and looking around. There were a few other vehicles on that lot being swarmed on and a couple of helicopters were landing and taking of and flying and landing again. All this seemed to be some well-financed chaos. Some man with a white shirt, tie and a badge ask me some questions as he jotted something on a clipboard. Another man videotaped me as I spoke. A woman was video taping the van. A couple of other people had a dog that was sniffing around and barking. A moment later, another man in a white shirt, tie and a badge asked me some questions as he jotted something on clipboard. They were the same questions the other guy asked me. Another dog was jumping around inside the van and barking and then ran off with it's owner. I seen video cameras pointed the other direction. There was a lot of noise and police radio sounds and more people yelling and I felt like I was still asleep.
The next thing I knew, we were told to get back in the van and leave. We drove off and not very many of us said anything about the incident. Most people tried to go back to sleep. Later, I remember hearing that it was Ronald Reagan's first day in office after his re-election. Apparently we got swept up in some kind of interstate-drug-war-show-biz-facade. In the '80's, I didn't feel as if I were a part of the American culture. I just did what I wanted to do and stayed down below in the cracks of the culture.
PSF: Why the original split in '86?
By the time we split up, it seemed as if every member of the band had his own musical direction for the group. This created a problem because together, I felt, we were not truly supporting the music we were making at that time. We each had our own agenda. We all wanted our own individual ideas to take shape and steer the music. The band finally just kind of self-destructed. As for myself, I was interested in doing something else.
PSF: What have you done in the meantime?
After Saccharine Trust broke up, Jack Brewer started a new group and Tony Cicero started a new group with Bob Fitzer. I started the Universal Congress of. It was a logical step for me. I was very interested in free jazz and I wanted to try and do something like that from a punk rock perspective. I got together with Jason Kahn, Ralph Gorodetsky and Steve Moss. I started half-jokingly calling the music Mecolocics. I thought of this as a twisted little punk off shoot of Ornette Coleman's Harmolodics. So we wrote tunes and did covers of Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Henry Threadgill and a few other musicians that we admired. We toured around the U.S. in our crummy old van playing this punk-jazz blend and having a good time tripping people out. This was in the late '80's and I don't think that very many people were playing this kind of music in the clubs we were playing. Eventually, the German music magazine called Spex did an article on us and this created some interest for the band in Germany and elsewhere Europe. We toured in Europe through the early '90's.
Touring in Europe with Universal Congress of was exciting at first but after a few years it became routine. At some point it just seemed relentless. It was becoming increasingly more difficult for me to go through with a performance. One night after a show in a club that we may have played at on three or maybe four occasions, the club promoter came up to me. He happily said that our shows were becoming a tradition. For some reason, this made me feel like I had to stop. I broke the group up and decided to try something else. Silly me, it was never quite the same after that but that's the way it goes.
Since then I've formed and or recorded with a number of other groups like the Mecolodiacs with Ralph Gorodetsky and Wayne Griffin, Putanessca with Weba Garretson and a couple of experimental improvising/noise groups. I also did a few tours with Mike Watt during his punk rock opera Contemplating the Engine Room days. Right now, besides playing with Saccharine, I've got the Joe Baiza Congress of in the laboratory with Wayne Griffin on drums again. That group is another punk jazz trio with a variety of musicians sitting in with us.
PSF: What jobs have you had over the years?
I've been fortunate enough to have a job that has allowed me to come and go for the last 18 years or so. It is an art handling company called Cooke's Crating, which is owned and operated by the eccentric Bryan Cooke. This place is a story in itself but let's just say that I work with artists, musicians, writers and other similar type characters and we store, pack, crate, ship, install and transport fine art in the city of Los Angeles. Now there's a plug for my employer. Maybe he'll give me that raise.
PSF: What spurred on the reformation? How is the "new" Sacc. Trust different from the old one?
The new Saccharine Trust is definitely a more cohesive group. We play what I call Poetry music. The common goal of all the members is to work together, creating a mood and an atmosphere for the words and the story that is being told. I like to think of the songs as a variety of mini-operas. Vignettes put to words and music. In this group, there are no outstanding individuals yet we are of course applying our own individual expressions. Everything just seems to be easier with this new Saccharine Trust line up, which by the way has been in existence since 1996 so it's not really that new. As a matter of fact, this group has been together longer than the previous one.
At this point, though I really have to say that it's been great working together with Chris Stein and Brian Christopherson who absolutely clicked with us when Jack and I reformed the band. A couple of years ago, Richie Hass joined us playing the vibraphone and that's been a great addition to the group. These are guys who can contribute, lead and support all at the same time. So as you can see I have nothing but complete optimism for the development of the group. Now, we just have to apply more time to working out the music. It's slow going with us but things are taking shape.
PSF: How did the new album come about?
Gordon Friedrich asked us to record for his record label in Germany called Hazelwood. I had done a live Universal Congress of album with him so he knew me from that.
PSF: Have you toured much since getting back again?
We have not toured much. We did a short West Coast tour around 1998 that our friend Mario Lalli organized for Saccharine Trust and his group at that time called Sort of Quartet. Now, Mario has a heavy rocking desert band called Fatso Jetson, although they don't live in the desert anymore. Anyway, that tour was a lot of fun and there were more than just a few people who came up to us and said that they couldn't believe that Saccharine Trust was back together again. This still happens today and it seems as if it's always been that way. Maybe when our name is listed in the newspaper, people's eyes just can't seem to read the letters.
PSF: Do you still keep in touch with all the old SST gang?
Jack keeps in touch a little with Greg Ginn, in a near-futile attempt to get him to do a couple of things for us. From time to time, we do gigs with the Chuck Dukowski Sextet so we see Chuck pretty often. A few years ago, Joe Carducci wanted us to do something on his label but we ended up not doing anything. I haven't seen Mugger in years but I think he was the guy who sent a pretty funny email to the Saccharine Trust web site a while back. I ran into Spot in Austin, Texas during one of the Mike Watt tours I did. Sometimes, on a very rare occasion, I run into a band member whose group was once on SST. Besides that though, the world of SST is something from the distant past for me.
PSF: How do you feel about the upcoming UK dates? Have you always kept in touch w/ Sonic Youth over the years? Are you aware of the other bands on the bill?
At this point now, the UK dates have already occurred. I really have to thank Sonic Youth for inviting us to play the ATP-UK 2004 festival. Barry Hogan, Helen Cottage and everyone else with the festival were incredibly nice and we had a pretty good time hanging out and meeting people who were there to check out the music. After the Saccharine performance, Jack Brewer wandered around and mingled with the crowd and was generally looked upon as an odd kind of poet spectacle. He was giving personal advice, people were buying him drinks and other poets were coming up to introduce themselves. We all had a pretty good time. Some of our friends were there to play like Nels (Cline) and Carla (Bozulich) and the guys from Deerhoof.
PSF: Future plans?
After our UK trip we all got the bug to tour and travel so we're going to try and set some things up. Maybe a trip to Italy or possibly something in Germany again. It would be great to go back to the UK. If anyone reading this has any interesting ideas, get in touch with us. Writing new music and recording is the next step.
See some of Joe Baiza's favorite music
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