Mobilization: The Savage Republic Story
SR 1985, photo by Scott Sing: clockwise from top left: Robert Loveless, Mark Erskine, Greg Grunke, Thom Fuhrmann, Bruce Licher, Ethan Port
Part 2 by StevolendeLicher was to keep the Savage Republic name and reformed the band alongside Erskine with the intention of making soundtrack type music. 'Originally, Ethan and Greg joined first, and we recorded the song "Trudge" for a proposed compilation LP on Play it Again Sam Records in Belgium. After we sent them the track they liked it so much they asked if we would record three more songs for an EP if they sent us some money. It was at that point that Thom joined and we recorded the rest of the Trudge EP. One other tidbit -- before the song "Trudge," when I was first starting to put the band back together and had asked Ethan and Greg to join, I had also asked my friend Fredrik Nilsen (former bassist for L.A.'s great BPEOPLE and currently playing improvisational music with a group of L.A. Free Music Society people called Extended Organ) to be a part of the new SR. We had one or two rehearsals at his place in Pasadena before he decided it wasn't right for him (and things weren't really clicking musically either, as I had thought they would), so he dropped out.'
The other new members would stay with the band until it collapsed after the '88 European tour. The first two of these were Greg Grunke and Ethan Port. These two had been through various noise projects most notably ...uh... as Ethan explains, 'Greg Grunke and I originally worked with David Saunders, then (it was) just Greg and I. Greg and I would loosely structure songs and invite anyone we could find to practice/perform with us. The structure was especially inspired by bands like Flipper, Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, Africa Corp, PiL and the Fall. We performed quite a bit at the original Anti-Club. In 1983, we added David Bromberg on drums. Other people who appeared, included Brad Laner and Mike Fey (then in Debt of Nature).'
Brad Laner reappears in The SR story later, then left to form the more popular band Medicine who seem to share some of Savage Republic's influences, though they are far less tribal sounding.
The other new member was Thom Furhmann who came in on bass once the title track of Trudge had already been recorded. He'd only been playing his instrument for a year previously, initially playing in a band called Spadra Moods. His big influences in the early '80's were Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Wire, not to mention Barry Adamson of Magazine.
Savage Republic now had a stable line up that apart from Erskine would remain with the band up to the last planned LP Jamahiriya. Ethan Port was missing from the two LP's recorded on the last European tour (Customs was a fortunate accident brought about by spare time created by Greek Customs hence the title- more on this later). The band played its first gig with the new line up also appearing as Djemaa-el-Fna (a one-time acoustic percussion performance which included most of the Trudge-era SR line-up) at the Desolation Center performance with Einsturzende Neubauten and Mark Pauline's Survival Research Laboratories.
One thing that impresses me deeply about the LP's with the 2nd era line-up is the way that melody/impact and rhythm all seem to be held on the same level. Or at least until Erskine left and Laner took over when the drums seem to almost take dominance/lead role, remaining in constant change while the white 12 string Hagstrom known, as the Monotone, remains static. This Monotone is the instrument responsible for the more evocative eastern sounding elements of the sound. As noted earlier, Licher had developed the idea for this instrument early in the bands history around the same time that he caught Branca for the first time.
This line up recorded the Trudge E.P, which was my first awareness of the band, although I didn't hear it until much later. This is Bruce's favorite recording of the band and also the template that he based the sound for his later band Scenic on. 'My original idea with Scenic was to go back to the part of SR that hits me the most deeply, which is the Trudge EP material, and then take off from there with a new set of collaborators and see where we can take things.' The sound here is more orderly than the earlier record. It is heavily layered, based around the dynamics of tension build and release. Though it retains a great deal of energy, the punkier aspects of the earlier recordings are only represented by the dissonance in the guitar tuning. It also features a broader range of instrumentation. Horns are beginning to appear in the sound, played by band members more used to playing other instruments but still sounding effective.
This is a mainly instrumental 4-track e.p with one side of two long downbeat instrumentals and another two shorter, more upbeat ones on the other side. Where vocals are heard they are mainly background shouts so mainly deployed for their instrumental qualities. Even when a voice is clearly heard in the middle of the second track "Trek," it sounds as though the vocalist is speaking Maori. Bruce says this track 'was directly influenced by "Set The Controls For The Heart of The Sun," and I'd say that there were more than a few SR songs that were influenced by post-Syd Barrett, pre-Dark Side of The Moon era Pink Floyd. The More soundtrack is still my favorite of theirs, as well as Saucerful of Secrets, and I do remember playing a few things off the first album (like "Pow R Toch H") to the SR guys at early rehearsals.'
The Trudge E.P. is now coupled on a CD with the next LP Ceremonial. Robert Loveless had returned to the band in the interim and remained until 1986. The original version of the LP was somewhat marred by very flat singing. There was more disagreement about whether the band should be instrumental or vocal. In the current instrumental version this seems to be the closest that Savage Republic come to Licher's current project Scenic even more so than Trudge does. The original cover shows the band hanging around in what looks like a disused quarry, this has been replaced on the CD reissue with a front cover photo of the bandless gorge and a backcover of the band walking towards the camera. Bruce: 'this was in the Orocopia Mountains just east of the little desert town of Mecca, California, near the Salton Sea southeast of Palm Springs. We went there for the name mostly. It was the location that Stuart Swezey, who promoted the Desolation Center desert shows that we were involved with, and I chose for the "Mojave Auszug" show with Einsturzende Neubauten, Mark Pauline and Djemaa-El-Fna. And it looked good.'
In 1986, Robert Loveless left the band again, as previously stated he was to return to playing with Licher several years later in Scenic. With this departure, the band kept the same line-up for the next year, touring including their first tour of mainland Europe, which unfortunately didn't include the UK. After this, Mark Erskine who had been undergoing some level of personal difficulties left the group to be replaced by Brad Laner. His time in the band was further documented by the double live LP Live Trek. I asked about how this was recorded. Bruce: 'As with all SR live albums released to date, they were recorded on cassette boomboxes or other cheap cassette recorders sitting in the back of the club. Mostly just intended as a way for us to document what we were doing, and listen to see how we could improve ourselves. Some of these recordings are pretty hard to listen to, but then some of them are pretty inspired...'
Brad Laner had been one of L.A.'s most promising musicians for a while, at one time he was in 11different bands playing almost as many different instruments. Brad on joining: 'I knew all of them for years previously mainly from being a big fan of the original SR and going to see them a lot and also from Debt of Nature being on a few bills with them.' Bruce thinks that 'Brad was way into Can as well as the Beach Boys when he joined SR, and I think his Can-influenced drumming brought out some really interesting sensibilities in our songwriting.' And certainly, when I played friends my copy of Jamahiriya in the late '80's it took a lot of convincing to stop them thinking it was a krautrock band. As I said earlier, several krautrock bands had been heavily influential in the sound of the band most notably Popul Vuh whose sound layering was taken aboard wholesale and Amon Duul II which might be detectable in the prominence of the rhythm section.
Founding member Jackson Del Rey was to return before the recording of the new LP Jamahiriya, he would last as a member until the European tour supporting the LP was almost over.
Jamahiriya has been a favorite LP of mine for a very long time. I'd had the copy of Tragic Figures for quite a while, liked it enough but only really linked to a couple of the individual tracks but buying Jamahiriya, taking it home plonking it on the record deck something just absolutely clicked. Its use of textures has meant that it was a very good LP to trip to back in my acid days. The use of rhythm should've ensured its place in dancefloor success 'cos it surely do make me want to shake m'booty. This funkier influence is probably part and parcel of the Can influence. The original LP also has a great cover that the reissue seriously does not do justice to. The four members holding up an eight-pointed cross of palm fronds in front of a beach sunrise.
Bruce: 'Mostly we wanted a cover that had a firey revolutionary feel, and hired a professional photographer to accompany us into the Santa Monica mountains to shoot some suitably heroic photos. The cover shot was at the end of the day when we had wandered down to the beach above Malibu and the sun was setting behind us. And I think those are actually seedpods from pampas grass, which we often used as stage dressing, rather than palm fronds. I then superimposed a photo Ethan's wife had taken of a fire Ethan had set on top of his oil can during an outdoor SR show under the beach shot for the final image.'
'The inside spread was blown up from a minute corner of a slide taken during the same shoot in the mountains. The full picture is of Ethan standing on top of a knoll in a heroic posture, but I liked the background and so this lower corner was blown up from an area the size of a couple grains of rice to the inside gatefold cover, which is why it's so grainy. Kind of nice that way, though.'
It looks like the same front cover photograph was used on the reissue but the early morning vibe of the original is reduced heavily in the three color reproduction. Bruce: 'Would've been nice to have the original artwork elements back, but ALL the artwork and master tapes (!!!) we sent to Fundamental Music back in the day were never returned and probably have since been destroyed somewhere along the line as record labels and distributors go out of business.'
I think the original sleeve connects to the music in a rare quasi-synaesthetic way. The music contained is definitely amongst the bands most cinematic, containing the Arabic/Eastern European themes that the band been developing since their first LP. The conflict between the two camps fighting over whether to make songs punchy short vocals or long instrumentals seems to have reached a point of compromise here too, since most of the tracks seem to combine elements of the two. As Bruce says above, Brad's drumming certainly adds something to the sound that wasn't there as noticeably before. Comparing the versions of tracks that appear on Live Trek, the Mark Erskine era live LP with the Live 88 Brad Laner-era LP, there seems to be a major dynamic shift. Erskine was a good solid drummer whose role seemed to be on equal footing with the rest of the instrumentation: Laner's drumming almost seems to take over as lead instrument.
Brad had a strange drum setup consisting of what he described as 'broken cymbals, rack tom tuned high to sound like a conga, two floor toms' and employing 'lots of Chris cutler inspired "extended" drum ideas i.e., hitting the sides and shells of the drums, funny tunings in general.' At the time, that Brad was in the group he was hands down the best musician. Thom F goes as far as saying that he could outplay most of the other members on their own instruments. Brad went on to form Medicine, fronting them on guitar and had some degree of success with music that I used to think owed a heck of a lot of influence to the band that he passed through. I'm not sure if it wasn't a case of two-way influence. He certainly doesn't see the comparison himself.
Again, the LP roughly splits into a side with lyrics/vocals and an instrumental side or at least into one where the vocals are used more instrumentally than the more lyrical other. This does fall apart a bit when it comes to the first side's Pink Floydesque long hypnotic instrumental "Tabula Rasa," a title that Savage Republic got to 5 years before Einsturzende Neubauten used it for the title of their 7th LP. The phrase means 'blank slate.' Here, the swirling, constantly changing focus on instrumentation seems to evoke that state very well. "Spice Fields," the second track on this side, is highly evocative of a desert patrol group rolling into view. Is it coincidental that this band used to be called Africa Corps? I think this is likely to be the first track that I'd play to anybody asking what the band was about since for me it seems to encapsulate the band in a nutshell. The whole LP is brilliant though and apart from returning the original sleeve I don't think this could be much better.
Apart from Ethan Port, who was tied down with University work, the band finally played the UK on the tour that supported the release of this LP. I got to see them at the Fulham Greyhound in London, where they supported the Young Gods. I wangled my way on to the guest list thanks to the band and their German tour manageress (maybe this needs stressing I think she was about the only female tour manager that I came across in the couple of years I was following bands around). I had hoped that my friends group Playground would be able to stick me on, since I really didn't want to miss SR. I saw them again a few days later at the Dome in Tufnell Park. At this gig, Thom F was forced to play support band Shriekrock's Day-Glo bass since the tuning peg on his own bass was broken. I thought he'd had his stolen so was fighting my conscience over whether I should tell him about a 10 string bass on sale in Denmark street that I also had an eye on, I think he probably didn't know until reading this. He probably wouldn't have wanted it anyway.
The tour of Europe lasted two months. In retrospect, it is easy to see that this was just too long, tempers were flaring amongst the band and it was to have a drastic effect. Two good things did come out of the tour in the shape of the two LP's recorded on the road, Live 88 and the Customs LP. Live 88 was compiled from tapes recorded by the band throughout the tour including Lubek, Germany where they were supported by Kolossal Jugend who also had to lend Thom F a bass for which they're thanked in the onstage spiel.
The Live 88 LP was compiled by Brad Laner from tapes made throughout the tour. Brad: 'I put my faves from the shows that got taped on Live 88 and Customs, the live track on which is from the same show as "Grinch" and "Sucker Punch." Nuremberg I believe. I had a sprained ankle and was playing the bass drum with the wrong foot. The show must go on!' (These tracks are only on the CD)
Bruce Licher: 'The original idea for the live LP was because a fellow who ran a record shop in Germany had asked us if we would record the shows on the tour, then he'd be interested in pressing an "official" bootleg album for us, as he had been doing that with a lot of bands that came thru on tour. Ultimately he decided not to and Fundamental wanted to release it, to try to make some more money off us, I guess, as we never saw any from it...'
Thanks to bureaucratic red tape the whole Greek part of the tour had been undermined by the fact that the band had tried to enter the country with incorrect paperwork. Bruce: 'Actually, the paperwork was correct as far as we had been told before we left the USA - until we got to Greece and they had changed the rules...' This had lead to the border customs officers confiscating all their equipment, which meant them having to play shows with borrowed equipment. After this had already gone down the band also wound up with spare time on their hands in Thessalonika, which lead to the recording of Customs. When SR went to reclaim their equipment before leaving the country they discovered that there were more signatures needed than they'd expected and that there was a customs strike about to happen. The promoter of the Greek tour had pre-booked studio time just in case the band could manage to stay the weekend. This allowed them to go into the studio for 3 days, November 11-13, at Recording Projects Studio in Thessalonika. They wrote the material in the studio and most of it sounds like they would have been heading in interesting directions if the tour hadn't ripped the heart out of the band. Though this was recorded on borrowed gear, it still sounds incredible.
The band had been very popular in Greece following their recording of "O Adonis," Mikis Theodarakis' banned song from the 1960's that graced the B-side of their 1983 single "Film Noir." This led some Greeks to believe that SR were more aware of underground local history than they in fact were. The band had just thought they'd cover a gorgeous tune.
Over the week between Greece and the dates in the UK, things came to a head including an incident in Amsterdam involving a frying pan. The head belonged to Jackson. I don't think their show at the Barrel Organ, Birmingham UK was very well attended, which is a shame since if things had been going as planned, the band should've been incredible. I remember hitching down to this show to see them the day after seeing the Gun Club at Manchester Polytechnic. By this time, Brad Laner had already jumped ship so they had to use the support act Laughing Academy's drummer. Jackson Del Rey seemed to be seriously depressed, apparently had food sickness and was being heavily comforted by the tour manager. This seems to be the result of some serious infighting that had happened in Amsterdam a few days earlier. I ballsed up, getting a lift to Edinburgh with the band. I kind of doubt that that van would've been the most restful place to be during that trip anyway. They played Edinburgh with the local whiz kid drummer who had been brought in by the promoter, only doing the tracks that he could get a groove going on, something I'd seen with the guy from Laughing Academy the night before too. It seems Laner must've used pretty weird drum signatures.
I was put on the guest list in Birmingham as one of the only couple of names on there. I thought the entire list was supposed to be me and the guy putting me up that night. I've since heard that Thom F had invited Will Sergeant of the Bunnymen to come down. Thom F: 'the Birmingham show was a nightmare... I had invited Will Seargent of Echo to that show, but he never asked to be on the list. I found out many months later that he showed up but left after two songs... C'est la vie.'
Thom's stated opinion was that he would've loved to get one of the Savage Republic LP's produced by Sergeant. This reminds me that I'd heard a similarity between the playing style of the guitarist from the Dublin band Whipping Boy and the guitar sound on a lot of Savage Republic's stuff especially on the live LP from this tour. When I asked that guitarist Paul Page about whether he'd heard Savage Republic, he said no it was from Sergeant. Seemed weird that some of the republicans were also Bunny fans.
A couple of weeks after this, Bruce Licher sent me a postcard accompanying a copy of the Sordide Sentimentale booklet from the French Tragic Figures release. In this he told me that I hadn't really missed much and that after the Edinburgh gig the band got straight into the tour bus and drove straight to Heathrow Airport to make a morning flight. Must've been 400 miles at top speed.
So the group in fractious mood staggered home to the States and in December Bruce decided to leave the band, three years later moving to Sedona, Arizona. They played two final shows with a line up consisting of Thom Furhmann, Greg Grunke, Ethan Port, the departing Bruce Licher and a drummer called Aaron Scherer. Scherer was a member of Perry Farrell's pre-Jane's Addiction band Psi Com. For these last dates, the band could only organize a couple of days rehearsal and still sounded incredible. According to the band, the final show at the Wash in Claremont California was one of the band's best performances. A recording of the concert is due for October 2002 release through Mobilization under the title Execution of the State by Fire and Ritual.
Ethan Port, Greg Grunke and Thom F stayed together once Bruce Licher had left, initially under the name Motormouth. This grouping has had several alternative names and line-ups since.
2002 SR MEMBER UPDATE:
Ethan Port is now running a record label called Mobilization through which the recent reissues have been made available. There is an October release due on the recording of the last ever gig by Savage Republic. There is also a growing Savage Republic related archive and his account of his surviving Sept 11.
Bruce Licher is now the leader of the band Scenic. He is also running his own letterpress with which he has designed the covers for various artists work in his own recognisable style (he seems to like rough beige card). Until recently he was also running IPR as a mail-order firm, a lot of this work has now been picked up by Mobilization.
Thom Fuhrmann has continued to work in music and last year released a work called Tundra, which is an aural description of the Arctic wasteland. He has also worked in the bands Motormouth and Autumnfair, the latter of which has an overview compilation cd available through Mobilization.
Robert Loveless has had a varied career working with several different bands notably 17 Pygmies and Scenic. In his own words, 'living in Los Angeles (Silverlake) and working at an art gallery (that also sells my paintings and inks) and mixing sound one night a week at a great club in Hollywood called Largo... Producing CD's for Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys- we just finished her third CD of obscure, naughty and lovely music from the 1910's, '20's and '30's; I also help her with photos and some art/web design... I'm usually painting and drawing when I'm not working on Scenic and my own CD (via my computer) of music. Of course lately I've been rehearsing for the upcoming Savage Republic reunion shows in November, playing mostly guitar.'
Phil Drucker moved onto 17 Pygmies with whom he made several records. He then returned to Savage Republic for their last 2 studio LP's and the Live 88 record. He is now a lawyer and not involved in music anymore (I think).
Mark Erskine contributed bass and vocals to a wacky 7" by the Zimbo Chimps and added some guest vocals on the same band's later lineup Skinnerbox's debut LP from 1986. He then disappeared from the music scene but appears to be starting to play locally in the mid-West.
Jeff Long was playing bass with the U.S. hardcore band Wasted Youth throughout most of his time with Savage Republic. He quit them to return to playing fulltime with Savage Republic until April '83, he then retired from music and now teaches psychology.
There is a Yahoo.groups chat-list dedicated to SR called Procession. Most of the members of the band appear there quite frequently. It has been a great help in my research for this article.
The dates for the Savage Republic tour are found here, along with good historical information about the band: http://www.mobilization.com/artists/savage.html
Those of you in the States get the chance to go and see what will hopefully be the reunion of a still potent group in November. I wish I could be with you, damn the width of this ocean.
Also see interviews with SR members Bruce Licher and Ethan Port
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