Live at the Roxy Theater in Hollywood, Left to Right: Ethan Port, Thom Fuhrmann, Bruce Licher; Photo Credit: Annabelle Port
Interviews by David Manning
PSF: Which artists were inspirations to SR in the beginning?
Glenn Branca, The Ventures, Faust, Pink Floyd, Can, Throbbing Gristle, Factory Records, Gang of Four, Mikis Theodorakis, Joy Division, Ennio Morricone, The Urinals, Monitor, BPeople, Human Hands, I'm sure there's more, but that's who come to mind off the top of my head...
PSF: How would you describe the local music scene when SR started?
It was exciting. There were a number of great post-punk bands playing around, expanding the possibilities of sound, like Human Hands, BPeople, Kommunity FK, Monitor, all bringing some interesting, unique elements to music, infused with punk energy. There were also a number of obscure underground clubs starting up which catered to these more arty groups, particularly The Brave Dog on the edge of Little Tokyo in downtown L.A., where SR had it's first show as Africa Corps in 1981, and then later the Anticlub in Hollywood.
PSF: Did SR feel that it was a part of this scene or perhaps outside of it?
At first, we felt completely outside of any scene in L.A. because we felt that what we were doing was unlike anything else out there -- our first show I promoted myself, renting out the Brave Dog for $100 on an off night. The owners liked what they heard and asked us back for a proper show and eventually, we started to feel a part of a little scene with the other bands we often played with, such as Afterimage, Kommunity FK, Aphotic Culture, and then of course later with groups that followed us like Shiva Burlesque (Grant lee Phillips' first recorded band), Red Temple Spirits, Drowning Pool, Abecedarians, and others.
PSF: How did SR see itself as being unique from the other bands in the area at the time?
In the first few years especially, we were always trying something new. We wanted each show to be unique, so would either write a new song for every show, or change the arrangement of a song. I think also we were always trying to stretch the boundaries of what we had done before, so one song might have two guitars, keyboard and no bass, and another might have two basses (one going thru a fuzzbox), percussion and no guitars. We wanted to keep it interesting, and after I saw Glenn Branca's first West Coast performance in 1981 at Cal Arts in Valencia, I was mesmerized by the possibilities of alternate guitar tunings, particularly the unison tunings which we later called the "Monotone" guitar, and which I still use a variation of to this day in my current group Scenic (who have a new album coming out thru Parasol in November). I think we were really the only ones in L.A. who were experimenting with sound in quite the same way at the time, and it showed in our recordings. The first time I heard a song from Tragic Figures on the radio, it was sandwiched between two other punk songs and I was startled to realize that it sounded so different in that context -- the sonic qualities made it seem like it was from some other planet almost (or at least from a different culture than the one we were living in and experiencing on a day-to-day level). That was an interesting realization, and in some ways I think it still holds true.
PSF: Is it true that your artwork for the first Camper Van Beethoven album got you a Grammy nomination?
No, it was the letterpress edition of the first For Against album (with the sprig of wheat in the package) that got me nominated in 1987, and then it was the Camper Van Beethoven's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart album for Virgin Records that got me nominated in 1988. Didn't win either time, though, as I guess I just hadn't paid my major label dues yet...
PSF: Which R.E.M. record used your artwork?
I've never done anything for R.E.M. that was commercially released. However, I've been designing and printing their Holiday Fan Club package since around 1989, which always includes a 7" or CD single of songs they record that are not available anywhere else. The last few years though, the designs have been handled more by their in-house designer, Chris Bilheimer, though I usually still do some layout or design for their Christmas Greeting Card and the shipping carton for the holiday pack. This has led to other work doing similar things for the band Live several years back, though I haven't done anything for them for several years. Current outside projects on the press have been a CD package for L.A. artist Glen Meadmore and we're about to start work on the package for a CD re-issue on Touch & Go Records of Nina Nastasia's Dogs CD, for which we did the original limited edition package for NYC's Socialist Records run by her boyfriend Kennan Gudjohnsson a year and a half ago.
PSF: What were each of you doing between the time that SR ended (late '80's) and now?
I took a break from doing music for several years to focus on my business and decide what I wanted to do next. Didn't think it would be 3 years until I did more music, but when I decided to move away from Los Angeles I knew I needed to maintain a connection with several musicians I wanted to work with in L.A., so I formally started the group Scenic with James Brenner and Brock Wirtz in September 1992. In the 10 years since, we have recorded 3 full-length releases and several singles/EP's. Former SR member Robert Loveless has also joined Scenic as a full time member, and our current 5th member is guitarist Mark Mastopietro.
PSF: What songs would people expect to hear at the New York show? I'm guessing that some of the material on the box set will be played?
We will be playing songs from the first 3 CD's in the box set, nothing from the Customs album is planned. No new material, but there is at least one song "Last Grave At Dimbaza" that will be performed that was originally a SR song and ended up on a 17 Pygmies (SR spinoff group)'s album in 1984. There's a live SR version of the song on our Live Trek album, but we do it better now. In fact, all the material we are choosing to do sounds stronger and more full now, which is exciting for us. No new material planned. As we are all spread out amongst the Western states, we have limited time to get together, so we all do our "homework" on our own and then we'll put the pieces together in November. We have had two group rehearsals so far, though, and it all comes back pretty easily once we're in the same room.
The Jamahiriya Democratique... CD seems to be the most representative of the sound that we are presently working with. And it seems from our recent rehearsals that the songs from that album are turning out the strongest and will comprise a good portion of the set list for the gigs. Definitely, all of the CD's contribute to the sound of the band as a whole.
PSF: What (if any) future plans does the band have?
At this point, we have no future plans. This is intended as a one-time event. But I think that if it goes well and we get offers for future performances we'd certainly take them under consideration.
PSF: What was the biggest exposure that SR ever received?
In 1982, the original line-up got the support slot for Public Image Ltd.'s first shows in L.A. and San Francisco, which meant that we got to play for thousands of people. It was an eye-opener and not the most pleasant experience, but it quickly established us as a band that could sell out some of the smaller, artier clubs in L.A. and S.F.. We also had a song from Tragic Figures licensed for use in the movie Silence Of The Lambs, for which some of us still receive royalty checks (small ones these days, but still...) and people still try to track us down to find out how they can get the song (I had a phone call this week from a fellow in the Midwest who had found my name on the credits and got my phone # off the Internet, wondering how he could purchase a CD with the song).
In addition, in 1983 we decided to cover a song from the late '60's political thriller Z, a piece written by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. We thought it was a cool song, and hey, who covers Greek soundtrack music anyway? (we were always trying to find ways to be "different") Turns out one of our distributors in Chicago was Greek so he started sending hundreds of copies of our single to his brother's record shop in Athens and lo and behold, we became "stars" in Greece, selling out shows in Thessaloniki and Athens when we finally toured there in 1987.
Other than that, I really believe that the reason that SR was important was because we were always trying to do something new, to take the music somewhere that it had never been before, even if we started with an idea that was influenced by someone else (Glenn Branca, Faust, Can, Pink Floyd, The Ventures all come immediately to mind as direct influences for me personally). And we thought that it was most important to make music that sounded like nothing else out there. I think we succeeded at that, and it's a testament to our efforts that our records still sound unique, 15-20 years later.
PSF: Talk about some of SR's original influences.
I know everyone in the band will have completely different views. But for me, I was originally highly influenced by the first art-punk wave in the late '70's (WIRE, Pere Ubu, Buzzcocks, Throbbing Gristle, early Einstruzede Neubauten, Joy Division, SPK, the Fall, Nervous Gender, Vox Pop) and continue to love the bands that followed. 'Highly influenced' doesn't really capture it though. That combined with the more intelligent punk rock bands like Black Flag, the Clash, etc. completely changed my worldview and my life. The L.A. scene was very coherent that way, in that there was an entire generation of disenfranchised youth that had a similar shared experience just at the time they were coming of age anyway. There was amazing radio like 12:00 Rock and KXLU that really bound us together across the vast geography of Southern California. This resulted in a lot of DYI shows and events, which led to a lot of cross-pollination of ideas and concepts. There was a very tactile feeling for me at those earlier shows.
In the 1990's, I found it harder to find shows that had that strong sense of "identity." I think a lot of early art punk was pretty naive, and the scene was much less segregated and categorized. Even as Savage Republic evolved through the late '80's, I realized that the bands we played with were moving further and further away from a "common community," even though many of the bands started to sound more and more alike. I think this was just a reflection of the monetary incentives the record labels were creating as they began their "co-opting" of the underground scene.
There were a few real gems in the 1990's for me though. As far as the California art punk scene goes, I especially love Carla Bozulich's work, Possum Dixon, Crash Worship and such. Then nationally I always liked Shellac, Jesus Lizard and Tch'Kung from Seattle. In the last three years, there seem to be some really amazing bands just coming out of nowhere, like the Phantom Limbs in San Francisco, and bands like Gogol Bordello in NYC.
I still get a great amount of inspiration from the early art-punk era, but am open to new evolution. My new project F-Space is also inspired from that early industrial/art-punk era but is definitely different. In particular, the more refined "noise" movement has influenced how I approach sound in general. Brad Laner, our former drummer who later started Medicine, also works on an experimental sound/noize project called The Electric Company. So he has definitely continued to explore that style of music as well. So there is a continuity over the last 13 years since our final performance.
At the same time, rap and computerized music production have definitely changed the palettes available to sound artists, as well as just the way mainstream media perceives what used to be considered "underground" and "beyond the pale." The scene in general seems to be driven now to harder, more encompassing sounds. I think people are more sophisticated listeners now, but are also too jaded to really be open to experiencing minimal yet dramatic art-punk anthems. Music needs to fit into sound bites. But I do get the feeling that right around now, especially post 9/11, there is a back-swinging of the pendulum though, and especially younger people are really excited to discover intelligent art music based on concepts with some grist, and are surprised to unearth this glossed over chapter of underground music history. There are a lot of bands now who are influenced by bands who were themselves influenced by bands like Savage Republic. So the connections are pretty dusty. For example, Jane's Addiction borrowed a few Savage Republic licks back in the early 1990's. But having been completely broken up and without distribution for over 10 years, the band itself has been largely forgotten by most people under 30. That's the reason we decided to re-issue the CD's and do the reunion tour--to blow the dust off the shelves with a ballpeen hammer!
PSF: What was the biggest exposure that SR ever received?
Besides the track on the Silence of the Lambs soundtrack, there was a Jamahiriya video that aired a few times on MTV's "120 Minutes." The band also enjoyed pretty extensive coverage in Greece and Eastern Europe during those tours. The band really started to "launch" in late 1988 during the last two months of the European tour, just before the break up.
PSF: Before this reunion tour, what was the last SR show?
Last NYC show was during CMJ on July 19, 1988 at the Pyramid Club. This show is featured on the I Married Thurston Live CD I put out through Scheming Intelligentsia in the 1990's.
I was actually in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and that held up our plans for our reissue. The re-issue of the complete studio recordings on my Mobilization label is the reason we are doing the reunion tour. The information on this release is also at SavageRepublic.com. We'll be putting out a CD of the final performance next year, as well as an F-Space CD. Bruce Licher is releasing a new Scenic CD before the tour also.
PSF: What were each of you doing between the time that SR ended (late 80's, right?) and now?
Greg and Thom and I formed Motor Mouth, which evolved into Wonder from 1989-1993. I played in Death Ride '69 from 1989-1990. We did one U.S. tour in 1990. Wonder recorded 8 songs, but only two songs were released as the "Obsession For Men" 7". The tracks are available for free download at SavageRepublic.com
I continuted Wonder in a low profile manner in Missouri from 1994-1996. In 1996, I moved to San Francisco, and in 1997 formed F-Space with Scot Jenerik, which I've worked on to the present. F-Space "toured" Burningman in 1997 and 1998 and a video documentary included footage of the 1997 shows called "Burningman 2020." The performance clip is also available for free download from the SR site.
PSF: What (if any) future plans does the band have?
No plans have been discussed at this time. Presently the reunion is being considered a "one time only" event.
We're really trying to get the message out that not only is this our first show in 13 years, but at present this is the ONLY show planned by Savage Republic for the East coast ever again. There is a very real possibility that we may not be able to get the band back together after this one-week reunion. Some of the members have informally discussed putting together a new project, but SR as it existed will probably slink back into oblivion, at least for the "near term".
Also see Stevolende's Savage Republic story
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