The Wild Stares
left to right: Kyle C. Kyle, Justin Burrill, Steve Gregoropoulos, Fran Miller
by Phil 'Brick' Wahl
[The following was written in 1993 and never published. Additional comments from Steve are from April 1998]
The Wild Stares are on stage. It's downtown LA, in the depths of the local art scene, in a room of almost antediluvian dinginess, from which at least half the patrons have fled--some to adjoining rooms, some to the bar, and a few right out the door. Still, a couple dozen people remain in the small area in front of the stage, fascinated. The music washing over them is a difficult blend of melody and discord, passages of straight forward song writing and strange constructs of odd time signatures and harmonic theories dredged out of advanced musicology text.
Justin Burrill is putting away the strange bodyless thing that is his guitar. "I'd say it was a great audience response considering nobody had ever heard the set before" he says. His bony features, close cropped skull and all neck instrument are about as far from any popular image of an axman as one can imagine. He seems to pull sounds out of his instrument by alternatingly strangling it or pounding out almost punk rock chords. Yet he has that experienced, incremental way of viewing their live performances--his career--that can only come with a long history of plying the underground scene. Outside these dingy walls, there are blocks of lofts inhabited by artists who dream of NEA grants, patrons, and wildly inflated price tags. But in the confines of Al's Bar, success is measured by how many people stuck around.
"We played Seattle once" says Steve Gregoropoulis, the singer/composer/frontman for the group. "We played with a bunch of mosher hard rock bands." Somehow, plaid shirts tied around the waist and the Wild Stares don't seem to go together. "We blew up a huge PA. The soundman got some sort of effect stuck in the system, like a violin sample or something, and it kept coming round every fifteen seconds and was absolutely deafening. Finally we turned off all of our gear"--amps, synthis, drum machines and all--"to prove it wasn't us. By that time most of the crowd was gone. It was pretty pathetic."
Of course disastrous gig stories always make for better print, and the band revels in them. Bassist Fran Miller--the angry one--is a storehouse of all the terrible things that has happened to the band, whether in print, verbally or physically--over their almost fifteen year career. Though they've called L.A. home now for several years, perhaps it is their Boston roots that brings a certain good natured edge to their gripes. And maybe that too accounts for the stubborn streak that has kept them going all these years well shy of any sort of widespread acclaim, even by underground standards. It must be a stubborn streak that makes these guys go on and on doing the music strictly their own way, without any attempt that any fan can detect, to make it more easy to swallow for a larger audience. They have no problem with signing to a major label, should a deal be magically proffered. "We're always trying for it" they say. The problem is that they are the Wild Stares, and to alter their sound for the likes of somebody else would make them not the Wild Stares. It is hard to tell if the very concept has ever been discussed.
One would assume that any band still around half way into their second decade must still be running on the rush of once having been pretty big. So the Stares had a big following in Boston? "We were always kind of despised by the community at large, actually" replies Steve, matter of factly. Fran explains: "It was more than just, 'Oh--we're not really into them'--a lot of people took an actively hating stance. They wanted to destroy us, wanted us gone, wanted us dead."
Steve takes it further. "Whatever you might say about our relationship with people in Los Angeles--which can actually be OK--it is nothing like the sheer unbridled animosity that we felt in Boston. It probably culminated when we played the largest place in town with Flipper under a barrage of insults and spit and on top of that I was misquoted in the Boston Globe--". Fran cuts in "--You actually did say 'this is for all you fucking bowling ball heads". "OK" sputters Steve "I called them bowling ball heads and bourgeois swine." And though they could have done without the gob, being outcasts was a healthy thing for the young Stares. "That's probably why we're still around, actually" says Steve.
Such a nasty response from the locals was ironic considering that the band was at the center of the DIY efforts of the time. Their own label, Propeller, was one of the first in New England, releasing the Stares and many other seminal Boston acts (including Christmas and the great V;). "We started in Boston long before Dinosaur Jr. walked the earth" says Fran. In fact, it started with Justin and Steve under a different name in High School--"we actually played a sock hop once--we were invited and we played one song and it lasted a half hour and had two chords; Justin played the cello and I played piano, this was the late seventies, and that was where we got our first taste of popularity and it was like heroin to us, we couldn't put it down and after that we have been basically doing the same thing for our entire adult lives." A bunch of precociously intellectual kids into John Cale, especially, as well as the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, Mott the Hoople, Patti Smith. "We thought that hey, the Velvets managed to make a living doing this" and they all laugh. Once the Wild Stares were formed, however, "we didn't have any influences".
Steve tries to explain: "Justin and I are from the East Coast and there's this predominant philosophy there that if anything is good then nobody'll like it. We always thought that if anything was really unpopular then it must be good. It's probably down in our subconscious somewhere."
Justin agrees. "I'm sure it is."
Steve continues. "I used to resent it when I was a kid if people liked things that I liked. I used to really resent the Syd Barrett cult--like all those people don't understand Syd Barrett the way I do. I still do--you gotta sort of feel that way about the things you really like."
A philosophy like this guarantees a band a lonely path. Asked by the Boston Herald way back in 1986 why the Stares didn't really compete with Boston's other bands for crowds and popularity, Steve explained "It's not that the world is a problem-- it's that what we do is a special thing. That's why we do things on such a guerilla level." There were self-released singles and compilation tracks, even a flexi stuck in the pages of New York Rocker. Their 1985 12" Tricking the Future is a great slab of completely unconventional rock, with at least one track, "The Perfect Bash", with it's surging beat, razor edged guitar and wailing vocals, being a classic. But still, the hometown crowds were thin. "Boston was very funny as our popularity would go in cycles" Justin explained, "it would achieve critical mass and then the animosity would start to build again."
"One of our best shows was when we went to Europe" adds Fran "and gave this big going away party and we had champagne and people loved us that night."
Steve shakes his head. "Yeah--everytime we did something like leave town then people pretended to like us."
Fran agrees. "We were like Indian pudding--that's this Holiday concoction from New England that my grandmother would make every year and my grandfather hated it--one year my grandmother decided not to make it and my grandfather, at the table, asked "where's the Indian Pudding?" My grandmother said--"you don't like it." "Yeah" my grandfather replied, "but I like seeing it around."
Fortunately for the Stares, Europe was only a flight away.
Once in the old country, Greg, Justin and Fran rented a Ford Fiesta to stow their gear and their friendly drum machine, contacted a few bookers (one was so crooked that the Exploited sat on his steps for weeks waiting to kill him, Steve remembers) and began the first of several free form excursions across the continent. The gigs were often small, the accommodations primitive, but the response was enthusiastic. They tour carried them from London (where Justin met his wife, Suzell) through France and and as far east as Budapest, but it was Germany where they played the most gigs, made the most fans, made the biggest impression.
For in Deutschland the band had struck a nerve. Their press kit is full of reviews that even by the normal Teutonic standards of hyperbole seem to evoke a disturbed sense of awe: "The Wild Stares, whose complicated drum machine rhythm patterns, synthi and guitar together make a strange, undanceable noise-music"...."The guitar hisses and howls from left to right and around in circles, while underlying all is a trembling, nervous machine beat like a swarm of bees settling in your stomach"...."Life in the Big City as a nightmare, confused, a maze. Only for those with strong nerves--this is America's other future of rock'n'roll"...."Anarchic noise as heavy psychotic Neuroses-Chaos, powerful and sometimes almost unbearable"...."It is an unrelenting ferocity that has been pressed onto this vinyl--splintered, heavy, undanceable; sounding so nervous and miserable. The rage and dissatisfaction in every song have wrung out almost every remedy, so that what's left is convincing paranoia." All this about a band who have insisted, over and over, that "we are not intentionally weird. All our songs sound like pop songs to us."
For a self-proclaimed pop group, the band collectively has a lot of musical schooling. Steve majored in composition, Justin in music. Drummer Kyle--who joined after the band settled down in Los Angeles--did a few years as a percussion major. Only Fran decided against a music major. Modern music comes up, and inevitably, Schoenberg. Steve loves him, while Kyle says scornfully that he was the man "who brought mathematics to music." Since Steve does most of the composing, does he try to apply Schoenberg theory to the music of the Stares? "No...well, that's not true--I'd be lying if I said I didn't" confesses Steve. "It's gets in there all the time" cuts in Kyle. Steve takes a breath. "It's kinda complicated and will make a very boring part of the interview but for the last three years I have been motivated a lot by pandiatonicism, which is like a lot of early and pre-Schoenberg as a way of listening to music--the idea of spinning sort of resonance-based overtone-based harmonies for things that are complicated and can really be dissonant but are still based to some degree on resonance and I know it sounds idiotic when I'm saying it but it's pretty much behind all the music I've written the past three years and it pretty much still is."
How about an example?
"'Like A Sparrow', from our 1990 demo, was the first one written with that in mind, where it's like all notes of overtoned-based 'tonality' that have equal value and then can modulate by any movement of a half-step into another bunch of notes that can stack up as far as you wanna stack 'em."
But all this is done in the construct of a rock song?
"It's not so constructed as all that" says Steve, "it's not so intellectual as it is when you describe it. It's just notes when you play 'em. It's a lot easier when you play 'em."
"It's not like Steve comes in with the score with all the parts written down for us" adds Fran. The band is visibly uncomfortable talking about music this way. Finally Steve complains: "This is making us seem really stupid--'The Wild Stares Discuss Pandiatonicism'."
This "Like A Sparrow" was a staple of the Stare's set for a couple years--it's a slow piece, a ballad, really--set to an oddly mechanical lurching syncopation, a melody that seems somehow infuriatingly off, graced with Gregorian chant-like harmonies. Steve alternatingly sings and screams the lyrics "You're sinking faster than a stone" etc., till it trailed off into a suddenly emptier club. It's a brilliant piece, really: weird, almost beautiful and pandiatonic as all hell; the kind of song that'll drive out the rockers and lightweights and casual drinkers, leaving a detritus of arty types, "serious" musicians, curious college kids and friends of the band. And the Stares are unrelenting. "Seven Uncharted Seas" rolled off a great little Charlie Watts opening on the drums into some vast, apparently happy rollicking pop number with Steve chomping out big rhythm chords as Justin spun out strange notes as if off on his own, till he suddenly rips into a great rock'n'roll lead, the entire thing backed up by Fran's gusty harmonies. "Motordrive", driven along by the handclap/drum machine beat, is a surging industrial piece punctuated by Justin's odd choice of chords. Somehow all these songs avoid easy classification into any specific genre, but rather seem crafted with the "desperate eclecticism" (as Kyle calls it) of several very musically sophisticated people who happen to find themselves in a rock band, playing to a rock audience.
But then the band doesn't think they sound, ah, weird? "To me we don't sound weird at all" says Justin, "but people have told me we sound weird." Steve explains--"I don't think that people think we sound weird. We're just kind of demanding." Steve had said long ago over burgers at a Silverlake barbeque that he feels that the Stares play a rather challenging style of music that most people, frankly, will not like--but then their job as a band was to go out and find the audience that will like the music and play for them. As for the rest of the people, he says "We're having fun up there, but we don't so much show everyone else a good time."
"It's definitely not a party band" says Kyle, "and that's the main problem with the club scene as far as we are concerned." Or as Fran puts it--"We're not the kind of band that develops a big club following, because we don't go out and play parties--we don't twist."
Well, almost. "They ballroom danced to us in San Francisco" Kyle points out. "We are not really a dance band-- but we are not anti-dance. Frisco proved that you can dance to the Wild Stares."
Ballroom dancing, pandiatonicism, playing cello at a sock-hop--something is terribly out of synch with the typical "underground" musical trends. Even Steve's vociferous opinions on lyrics--"We hate bands with terrible lyrics. They have no shame about them"--are just part of an overall philosophy guaranteeing abstruseness. As he explained in further detail to the German magazine Spex, "A good lyric must be full of holes, so that it can be appropriate in any situation. That's what I like about Dylan, the Fall. You can always think about what they write and know what they mean. You can analyze it and get nothing. Neverless they are precise. That is actually what is good about rock music."
Kyle links it all with another perennial Wild Stares problem. "It's just the nature of the music that people are not gonna enjoy it much for a night out unless they are familiar with it beforehand--and I think that the solution is to have it on record so that people can listen to it whether they like it or not. They don't have to come if they don't like it." Of course--the Wild Stares are notorious for their refusal to do any material which they have already recorded (and that's just recorded--let alone released). By the time a potential club goer has picked up a Wild Stares release and listened to it and maybe even liked it, they will not be able to hear it live. Ever.
The "Curse" doesn't make things any easier. It seems that all the plans to release Wild Stares material come to delay and/or grief. Fran, who will regale you with the details of each doomed effort with all the energetic fulminations of the most outraged New Yorker, attributes it all to some curse placed on the band long ago by some unknown agent, and so used to delay and record company failure has the band become that they seem to figure the workings of the curse into their plans. It's not for lack of recordings--ask to hear some of their recent output and you will get a stack of demo tapes that reel of their recent history--the 1990 demo, the 1991 demo, etc. Land of Beauty, the brilliant CD just released earlier this year on Ace of Hearts Records had to be subtitled "Los Angeles, 1989" as it had taken the Boston-based label that long to put it out. The label naturally had qualms about the addition but the Stares had to insist as they no longer perform any of the material on the disc. It's more than a little unfortunate as the title track, for one, is a real stunner, but then the Wild Stares are as stubborn as they are prolific and playing material they've already played who knows how many times would only leave out newer songs. And they don't so much play songs as they do a set--and about every year or so they learn an entirely new set. Which of course means that their audience must get used to a whole new batch of songs. Even, perhaps, a whole new style of songs. As Steve told Flipside, "We have continually changed our style--it's never the same. I'd like to think that we don't sound the same as we did a year ago. That's what makes it possible for a band to exist for a decade, really.... The band has a life of it's own--it's an entity, an infant, continually learning it's first few things."
Whether or not an "art" band can make a go of it does seem to weigh heavily on their minds at least part of time. It must after having been at it for so long, for the kind of band that on any given night, in Kyle's words, "twenty people like us a lot, and two hundred people can't stand us." What about Pere Ubu? Haven't they made a career out of it?
Steve shakes his head. "'Pere Ubu' and 'made a career'don't really go in the same sentence. They made a career in hindsight."
How about Sonic Youth? Steve is effusive. "They are fucking heroes. They managed to be an alternative weird band and managed to have a huge career and play stadiums."
"They are the luckiest people in the East Village is all I have to say" says Fran.
Steve continues. "You can't take it away from them--there may be other noise bands, and there may be a whole cliche about that kind of music, but they managed to make it into arena rock, and no one else did." The others look at him--this is an old argument. "And they are a great band and make great noise records and play stadiums. They managed to persevere where everyone else failed."
Justin shrugs. "I have a certain respect for them because they stuck with it-- I saw them way back in 1980 and they were just a really incompetent art band--not incompetent musicians playing art music, but a really incompetent art band. They were one of those millions of bands who wanted to be exactly PIL, but were light years away from being able to do it."
Fran looks up. "Kim Gordon stole my look."
A trip to a Wild Stares rehearsal had them in the middle of birth pangs, working on the new set. Their space is in a classic old office building that could have housed any number of film noir detectives. The window gave a beautiful view of the Hollywood skyline and the big, glowing BMG sign. Steve arrived first and turned on all the buttons and switches of his MIDI unit and it beeped back and played one of his newer compositions. Hearing a Stares song in its most skeletal form is a bit disconcerting, as it sounds absolutely nothing like the multi-layered blasts one is used to. He hits a few more buttons and in comes the drum machine and washes of synthesizer and various samplings. As the rest of the band files in he switches the buttons off again and picks up his battered electric guitar and strums out, slowly, the chords to--of all things--Neil Young's "Powderfinger". The others slip behind their instruments and join in, and so begin a long medley of Neil Young tunes to warm up. No funny, arty renditions, either; this is just a rock band jamming a little to loosen up.
A break for business. Fran pulls out a fax from their German label. The CD is already past due. In stilted, formal English the fax pleads its case--profits this year are way down and the cash is simply not available to put out the album now or at anytime in the foreseeable future. "Whatever you can do on your end will be most helpful." The band looks at each other. "What can we possibly do on this end?" asks Fran, "They are the label!" Fran had called and found out that the label owner was temporarily residing in the Oberberg Clinic. "The mountain air does a lot to clear your head" he'd said. Steve makes a Magic Mountain joke. "This is our second record label guy to have a nervous breakdown" points out Justin. "I don't know what it is" Fran adds, "we make Germans nervous. People that choose to work with us for some reason are immensely imbalanced." Coming as it did so soon after an English record deal had blown up one would have to surmise that the Curse was still in full effect. But then that was business and they were here to make music. Picking up their instruments, they begin working on the new set. It opens with "Limelight"--good, energetic, almost pop and laced with some of Steve's patented lyrical oddities ("Now I'm not saying that the disappearance of art festivals is entirely a good thing" and a chorus of "Now I've got diamonds/I've got nails/I will not drive 'em into your arms anymore.") Next number comes a slow ballad, a bit reminiscent of "Sparrow", that in classic Wild Stares form starts out a little hesitatingly, then builds to a powerful chorus, and fluctuates like that on and on. Neat, high almost sweet harmonies from Fran. Kyle's drumming gives a whole new feel to this type of material--a living, percussive presence atop the sequences. Indeed, on his own contribution, "Sleep is Bliss", with its Brel feel, the drums and drum machine weave together into an almost hypnotically shuffling rhythm.
Another has a funky sequenced opening that suddenly turns into a brilliantly strange tune with Steve singing in a falsetto as Justin does little oddly near eastern leads and the sequence track lays down what the band insists is a "techno" beat. Actually, only after some intense listening can one detect anything techno--but then what the Stares hear and what the rest of us hear is totally different. Furthermore, in the Wild Stares scheme of things, just what we hear is quite irrelevant, anyway. Oft times the Stares seem to be using a lot of ordinary rock or pop conventions, but using them, ah, differently. They will readily abandon the usual time signatures and chord progressions but the songs are not really weirdness for its own sake but rather honestly different ways of writing material. Whatever way the logic of the particular composition demands is the way the arrangement will follow, without much adherence to the time honored and comfortable. They play it as they hear it.
Past the band and through the window, lights flick out one by one in the big BMG tower. The band hurls itself into "Lucretia Borgia", a soaring piece with an instrumental break that roars like a subway tunnel.
A German reviewer described a Wild Stares show for Spex magazine back in 1988. Its sheer volume surprised him--on record, he explained, one does not get the full impact of all "these manufactured distortions echoing off the walls. The singer, "Steve Gregoropoulos, the Terrible Greek, Bad Boy of Poptown Boston" was like some forsaken tiger roaring through a jet turbine; and his bored stare was unnerving. There was something wonderful about how his strange lyrics "so weak and fragile, kept hurling themselves against the Moloch, and yet time again emerged victorious." Most of the audience got nothing out of this and had fled to the lobby. Set over, our reviewer tries to figure it all out. The band reminded him a little of Big Black--the drum machine, the electronics--but Albini's outfit was so angry, so insulting, so over the top; and the similarities seemed to fizzle out. There was something different about the Wild Stares--behind the "noise facade" was simply creativity, the love of making music. But such music? He thought back over their set, their songs, and then it came to him in a little burst of poetry: "Ihre Hirne haben Melodie, zu horen unter dem Larm der Knochen."
Or as we might put it, in their heads is the melody of the noise of the streets.
[Post script: The Curse struck again. As this article was coming together back in 1993 the writer was himself afflicted and wound up in the hospital, and by the time he was back on his feet the unthinkable had happened--Fran had quit the band. Thus ended the Wild Stares' fifteen year career.
Steve, Justin and Kyle continued working together, however, as the Wild Stares Acoustic Chamber Orchestra--since anagrammed S-lessly as WACO. Steve talked about it in an interview for this article: "Al's Bar booked an all acoustic night; and our songs don't have normal chords and we can't just strum acoustic guitars so we worked out little arrangements on cello and mandolin and stuff and just did the important parts of each song and we don't have to carry all the equipment and everything and we really liked it so we are doing it again. We'll have a clarinetist and Kyle uses brushes." There followed a complicated discussion about the arrangements and how they will have to be written especially for each instrument, and how Steve has to write out all the arrangements for each instrument because his software cannot automatically do so. That was in 1992. Since then WACO has expanded somewhat in size, developed a devoted, if compact, following and become one of the club scene's odder institutions. And the fact that they are a Silver Lake "band" hasn't done them a damn bit of good--they still seem as gloriously iconoclastic and out-of-synch with "alternative" trends as the Wild Stares ever were.]
SOME FINAL COMMENTS FROM STEVE: About W.A.C.O. - you can say what you like. We're three Wild Stares, me Justin and Kyle, plus Elizabeth Herndon on flute and trombone, Jennifer Tefft on flute and piccolo, Ted Attebury on bass, Adam Brisben on bass, Rebecca Lynn on violin, Heather Lockie on viola and Dave Travis on 'cello. There've been a lot of other members too. Original members include fourth Wild Stare Fran Miller and Possum Dixon bassist Rob Zabrecky as well as Beth Bergman on viola and Tassia Sonnabend on violin. That's about half of who's been in the orchestra by now.
Most important to me is to note that Fran and not me actually formed W.A.C.O. before retiring from the music biz (hopefully temporarily). I just sorta took her lead. Second most important is to note that you can get the W.A.C.O. CD, which is called "Darling Clementine" from Angel Dust Records or at local stores. Soon it will be in other stores nationwide, but Angel Dust started with just the local stores until there was some national press, so as the nationals are now coming in, that means the immediate future. I hope.
Third most important is that W.A.C.O. is a homemade product with all real sounds - no computers or samples, all true instruments playing from my sheet music and recorded by Justin and Adam in our various homes.
See the W.A.C.O web site for more info
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