Perfect Sound Forever

Tim Kerr/Big Boys interview

Tim Kerr then and now

by Dave Lang (June 1998)

Let me make a point here: without the likes of Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Necros, Negative Approach, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Die Kreuzen, Minutemen, Void, Effigies and Texas' own Big Boys, you wouldn't have the independent rock scene you have today. You'd quite likely not have much of an independent music scene at all. It was these pioneers that laid down the groundwork - the venues, zines, labels - that then spawned all the Sonic Youths and, yes, Nirvanas of this world towards a more open public in the '90s. It's a long story, and maybe one day it'll be told to more than just a few thousand people...

So anyway, back in the mid '80's as a young teenager when I was first brainwashing myself with all these bands, in the meantime memorizing nearly every note they played, it struck me that the Americans (and I'm writing this as an Australian, mind you) had picked up the mantel long lost by their transatlantic brethren and carried it onto not only a more dedicated, less fashion-oriented cabal (i.e. not so many of those stupid goddamn haircuts the Brits are so fond of), but one whose music was far superior, individualistic and eclectic than any of the class of '77. Every region had its peculiarities and unique sound: the angry skinhead mid-Western bash of the Necros and Negative Approach, the freak olympics of San Fran's Flipper, the insane, righteous thrash of DC's Void and Minor Threat, the LA-gone-mad wail of Black Flag, and the psychedlic, funkish beat of Texas' Butthole Surfers, Dicks and Big Boys.

Well, everyone that's anyone knows about Black Flag and Minor Threat these days, but what of Austin, Texas' Big Boys, who were easily on a par with either aforementioned band? A footnote in rock history? Let me help ratify that situation. Austin, quite simply, had one of the best music scenes of its day in the early '80's: the Dicks, Really Red, Kamikhaze Refrigerators, Offenders... these are bands many more people should know about, and of all of them, the Big Boys were the kings of the scene (though I'm sure they'd deny that very statement). Formed in 1979 by the quasi-drag queen behemoth known as Randy 'Biscuit' Turner, solid-as-a-rock bass dude Chris Gates and that man with the weird hair, Tim Kerr, their music was a holy combination of almost pop/mod harmonies, hardcore abandon and intensely rhythmic bass beats. Their rep as the Minutemen's 'sister band' is well earned: both musically and attitude-wise. Biscuit vs. Boon? Don't even get me started... So like too many great bands before them, the Big Boys released a slew of inspired LPs, seven inches and EP's, toured a lot and pretty much didn't really get anywhere in the wider sense for their efforts. Touch & Go adjusted such a situation a few years ago with their Skinny Elvis/Fat Elvis CD retrospectives on the group - which featured liner notes of praise from everyone from Thurston Moore to Hank Rollins to King Coffey to Ian MacKaye to Byron Coley to Steve Albini - but I'm still waiting for you to buy a copy, because the written word doesn't truly express the insane vibe their music does. Nearly every song is worthy of a desert island: the cover of Kool & the Gang's "Hollywood Swinging", the initial outburst of their debut "Frat Cars" 7" (an anti-preppie song... man, they just don't write 'em like they used to), the blues stomp of "Red/Green", the pop churn of "TV" (an anti-TV song... ugh, them crazy punkers) and too many more. I won't beg, the choice is yours.

So anyway, this interview with guitarist Tim Kerr is a chance to get the lowdown on the Big Boys story. It was nice of him to stick to that segment in his own history, as he's certainly not been a couch potato since their demise, having been involved with the likes of Poison 13, Bad Mutha Goose, Monkey Wrench and more recently playing a key role in the current US garage circuit, his hands dipping into the pies of everyone from the Lord High Fixers to Jack O' Fire to the King Sound Quartet, along with production work for the likes of the Makers and Delta 72. Bassist Chris Gates spent some time in, amongst others, the truly sublime Junkyard (tragic, yet semi-successful post-Guns'n'Roses glam-metal band from LA, who also featured none other than Brian Baker of Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, etc.), Biscuit was in the long-lost Cargo Cult (mid-'80's Touch & Go outfit) and you may recognise the Big Boys' last drummer Rey Washam for his subsequent work with Scratch Acid, Jesus Lizard, Rapeman, Helios Creed, Tad, Ministry and probably a few thousand others. That's my version of events, read on for the first-hand account.

Special thanks to Dixon Colbourn at Idle Time for his photos. Check out his great site for a rundown on the early '80s Texan punk scene with a heap of photos to match. Looking at the pictures, I've gotta admit it, it makes me damn jealous I wasn't there to be part of the crowd (most often on the stage!), dancing along whilst Biscuit - dressed up like a clown or wrestler or baby doll or whatever - shook his booty right in front of me. I still play the Big Boys a lot. I must add that it's awesome driving music - basically because they were so damn fun. It was the philosophy of the band, and for life. That may sound an obvious comment, but it sums them up so well. Thurston Moore once wrote that they were one of the top five bands of their time, and you know what? He's right.

Big Boys live at Club Foot, Austin, '83

PSF: Tell me about yourself; your age; where you grew up; your childhood; school, etc.

I was born March 11 1956 in a small Texas gulf coast town called Freeport. I had a really great kid-hood with a soul/British invasion AM radio soundtrack. My parents both worked for the school system and my Dad especially seemed happy that the youngest of his 3 boys was leaning more towards music/art etc.. High school sucked for me. All of my friends were older, so by the time I was a junior, they were all long gone. I didnít fit in and everyone thought I was either gay (which I wasnít) or on drugs (I didnít) or dealing drugs (nope) or all three! (Fuck Ďem). I spent most of my time surfing (yes, there are waves in Texas!) and playing guitar and hating the hellhole I was in.

PSF: What sort of music did you listen to in high school, and how did the punker conversion come about?

In high school (and today) I was into Nick Drake, John Renbourne, John Martyn, Bruce Cockburn, etc.. Rock and roll was there, but I was more into acoustic guitar and folk blues. This didn't help my weirdo image at all and because there was nothing better to do, I dutifuly went to see the big concerts in Houston... Humble Pie, Led Zep, but was really not that interested. I graduated high school in Ď74 so the punk thing didnít happen till my college years. I was working in a record store and the stuff started coming in. At that point the stuff that got my attention was more Undertones, XTC, Stiff Little Fingers instead of the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols. The actual conversion came about by going to Raulís (infamous Texan haunt for the punk/new wave crowd) and seeing this whole community thing going on. The crowd was just as important as the band and everyone seemed to be having so much fun. The actual music was secondary. I was sold!

PSF: When, how and why did the Big Boys start up? What were your songs about? Why the emphasis on funk and rhythm? How did you meet Chris Gates and Biscuit?

We all skated together. Like I said earlier, surfing was a big part of my life, and when I moved to Austin to go to school, the nearest beach was 3 or 4 hours away. Urethane wheels had just come out (remember cadillac wheels?) and to fill the surfing gap, I started skating. We all met through that. Biscuit started going to Raulís from the start. He was the oldest of our skate circle of friends. I didn't really go to bars much at all at that point and Chris was still in high school and couldnt "legally" go to bars. Biscuitís hair got shorter and shorter and he would tell us about this wild scene, so Chris, Beth (Kerr), me and a friend Rob all went to see the battle of the bands at Raulís. Boy Problems, Huns, etc...

As stated above, I was sold hook, line and sinker. (The singer in Boy Problems was later one of the singers in Bad Mutha Goose and the Bros. Grimm.) Chris and I were out at the Plugerville ditch skating one day and started talking about getting a band together to try and play Raulís once. We would ask Biscuit to sing and since I played acoustic guitar and Chris played electric, we flipped a coin to see who was going to play bass. I got guitar. As for the funk thing, punk at this point was doing whatever you wanted. It didnt really have any rigid rules yet and since the soundtrack for our skating leaned more towards Slave, Shotgun than Ted Nugent, that's where the Big Boys leaned. It wasnít really a conscience thing. Also, I was writing a lot of the music and I was more into rhythms. Subjects were more in the line of being different, us against them, or silly stuff. Later it turned a lot more introspective. Most every song is about something, someone or some incident and how that affected us.

PSF: What was the climate like for punk back at that time? Was it encouraging or openly hostile?

Austin has the largest college in the state. It has also always been a sort of mini-San Francisco. Texans joke about the Austin liberals/freaks, so here around campus it wasnít as dangerous as outside of the campus area. There was lots of yells and cat calls and redneck/jocks wanting to beat your ass because you looked "weird". Even the older so-called 'liberal' hippies felt you were fucking up their vibe they had worked so hard on. It was pretty much Us vs. Them and there were a whole lot more of Them! "Them" would show up at shows to start shit or laugh (which started shit), but if you had grown up in Texas and were different than the average football/homecoming dance participant, you were used to this mentality.

PSF: How did you think your band and its fellow brother/sister groups were different from the watered-down New Wave that received all the attention/money?

All of us, our friends, were doing it for the love of it instead of cashing in on some "new trend". You know when we first started it was all the same thing... punk, new wave. It was an open field and you could do just about anything. There wasnít a rigid set of rules to adhere to, which in my opinion was the exact same field that the original beats, hippies, etc. had until they were labeled and given a mascot. That was one major point in Texasí favor. We didnít really ever have a set set of rules or dress code. Bands like the Dicks sounded nothing like Really Red who sounded nothing like the Butthole Surfers who sounded nothing like... and in reality, none of these bands sounded "formula hardcore". When Texas bands went out of state on tours, for better or worse they stuck out like sore thumbs and people didnít know what to think. Jello Biafra told Gary Floyd of the Dicks at their first show in San Francisco that he should think twice about going out in a dress because when the Big Boys were here he didn't think the hardcore scene liked Biscuit singing in a pink tutu.

PSF: What was a typical Big Boys gig like? Any particularly memorable moments?

There was no barrier between the band and the audience (physically and mentally), so a lot of the time, especially during the later years, you couldn't really see the band because so many people were on stage singing with us. There were too many memorable shows...the principal at a local high school pulling the plug on us, Houston police riot squad stopping a show, bouncers causing a riot at a huge outdoor show, us causing a riot, and on and on... Just a bunch of kids having fun! Biscuit covered in sawdust and motor oil with just a sprinkle of pancake syrup was pretty crazy!

PSF: What were some of your fave bands at the time? Did you see some sort of lineage of weird-ass Texan music stretching back from the Red Crayola/13th Floor Elevators days to you guys?

Everyone was friends and for as spread out as Texas is, we were all pretty close. Really Red, the Dicks, Marching Plague, Party Owls, thereís really way too many to name. Even state to state was pretty well connected and were all friends, too. Minor Threat, Minutemen, Tar Babies, Black Flag... As far as the lineage connection, I never thought about it till much later (around Bad Mutha Goose), then I realized all the connections.

PSF: A Texan I once met said that when Black Flag played there in 1980/1981 it was like a true meeting of the minds and that everyone in attendance was later involved in the whole US hardcore/post-punk scene in some sort of capacity; was there a feeling of something going down in those days?

I remember seeing my first really big show in L.A. at the Santa Monica Civic Center. It was Black Flag, DOA, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Nig-Heist... There were so many kids there! In Texas at that point (Ď79) just about all of the crowd was college age. No one had really ever thought about all-ages shows or anything like that. It was at that show that we realized it was clear that we needed to get more kids involved at home because they were the ones that were going to start bands, fanzines, etc... As soon as we got back to Texas, we started putting up posters at the high schools and doing all-ages shows. To me, it seemed like everyone involved was setting up "our own" world enviroment. A kinda "we dont want to participate in yours so you do your thing and we are going to do our thing over here (and kinda fuck with your thing at the same time)". I don't think anyone thought about changing "their" world, just showing that there were some other choices.

PSF: How do you feel about the current revival in lame 'pop-punk' and its massive popularity? Do you see a basic difference between that, and, say, the kind of music you and your contemporaries were making?

A big difference! Completely different. It's like the difference between the original beats vs beatnik. Most important was the money issue. Money was never a motivating factor in what us and most all of our friends were doing. Just having a show come off without being shut down was a big success. It was all coming from the heart because it was something that each one of us needed to express. A set style was not an issue. It really is two completely different worlds in thought and action. I'm just sad that most of the bands didnít bring the values along with them to really cause some sort of change.

PSF: What's your thoughts on a band like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who in fact in their very early days played a few shows with you and adopted their own punk-funk style in a very cheezy, commercial manner?

Actually, the first time the Chili Peppers opened for us they were completely into the James Brown groove. It was incredible. Each time I saw them afterwards they were more rock. To each his own.

PSF: Was the band ever offered a deal with the credible indie labels of the day: Touch & Go, SST, Alternative Tentacles, etc.?

At that time, nobody really thought about signing bands. It was all friends and if you werenít already putting something out on your own (which most everyone was doing) and maybe your friend was, they might ask you if you need help or if they could put something out. It was friends helping friends. The last Big Boys album was on Enigma (Chili Peppers, TSOL), but that was more the local label we were on. We broke up right when the major labels started getting more interrested. People would do comps like BYO or Mystic and Ask for a Song, but it was really more doing things for yourself or friends.

PSF: Do you still keep in touch with people from the old Ď80s punker days? What are the other Big Boys doing?

All the Big Boys live in Austin again. Biscuit never left and is working on his art and has a regular job at a shop. Chris moved back from Hollywood (Junkyard) and has a regular job. He is doing Choreboy. Rey is in different bands. I'm not sure if he is still drumming for Ministry. None of us see each other that much and if they are still going to shows, it's not the ones Iím going to. I still see people all the time from those days. Mike Carroll (roadie for the Big Boys and Poison 13 singer) is singing in the Lord High Fixers. Thereís lots of friends I still see.

PSF: The Tim Kerr label from Portland actually has nothing to do with you, does it? Do you know the story behind that label and its name? Were/are you peeved by the possible complication?

T/K Records is run by a guy named Thor(!!) and a woman named Katie or Kelly (hence T/K). When they started being distributed by a major they were worried they might get sued by KC and the Sunshine Bandís label, so T/K became Tim/Kerr. To add to the confusion, the name change happened at the same time I was in Seattle doing Monkeywrench. They donít seem to want to do anything to clear it up and it would cost me a lot of money to do something about it. Plus, I would have to take on a self-important character attitude that I really detest. I feel bad that people write them thinking itís me and they dont try to let the person know or anything. To me you either say 'shit, we need to get in touch with this guy and get this straight' or you say 'hey, some people think we are someone else and we might be getting some extra business because of this...Cool!' They took the second choice.

PSF: Why did the Big Boys split up? Were you ever offered any 'major deals'? Give us a round-down on your post-Big Boys musical activities.

The last tour we did was over a month long. It's like going on vacation with your family and everyone starts getting tired of being around each other. We never officialy broke up, we just took a break and never got back together. This was around the time the major thing had just started to happen. X had just been signed.

On that last tour, me and Mike had been talking about doing something that he had wanted to do and play once as Poison 13 (remember Big Boys had not broken up), and after a few practices Chris wanted to play bass. At first we thought it might be weird to have me and Chris together because people might think we had quit the Big Boys and this was the "new" version, but then we decided to let people think what they wanted. We ended up playing more than one show! Next was Bad Mutha Goose and the Bros. Grimm, which did have to deal with a bunch of major label offers, then Monkeywrench, then Jack 'O Fire, and now the Lord High Fixers (back with Mike!). Thereís also King Sound Quartet. Over the years I have been helping friends in the studio, too.

PSF: Are you happy with the way the T & G CDs were put together and received?

I am very happy with the Touch & Go CD's. The booklets and writings are humbling and completely unexpected. I am proud of them. Cory and Touch & Go are really great!

PSF: How do you think such similar sounds came about between a band like yourself, and fellow Texans the Dicks (and Iím not insinuating that you simply sounded alike)? Or perhaps yourself and a band like the Minutemen? Was there a 'Texan sound,' and if there was, how do you think it came about?

I think the word is attitude! As said above, Texas didnít and really still doesnít have any set guidelines, etc.. You are free to try what you want. To this day bands from Texas stand out a little different from most because of the attitude.(think about how Sugar Shack was in Australia). As for the Minutemen, Spot (BF producer/soundman) and Black Flag kept telling us that our sister band was the Minutemen. At first hearing the records, I didnít really understand the connection, but when I saw them I realized it was the attitude of not being confined that made them like us.

PSF: Do the likes of the Big Boys and the Dicks have any kind of recognition as important and influential bands in your hometown, say, perhaps even in the mainstream media there?

In the big picture, not really. There are radio shows here dedicated to "TEXAS MUSIC", but you never hear any of this stuff. You donít hear Ornette Coleman either. Some of the newspapers here know and refer to this period at times but it's not that big of a deal.

PSF: Could you give us some details on your current music endeavours?

The Lord High Fixers. There is a lot of recorded stuff out on In The Red, Estrus, Sympathy, Scootch Pooch... I'm proud of the things Iíve been involved in, but this is probably the most fun I have ever had in a band. King Sound wants to record again, but with balancing my regular jobs and helping bands in the studio and Lord High Fixers needing to record, it's hectic. It's crazy, but I'm sure years from now, I will have more than enough time to rest. I go to record Delta 72 next.

PSF: Here's a question I often ask myself: why have you dedicated so much of your life to music? Why do you do what you do?

I do what I do because it's me. I don't think of myself as a musician/producer/artist/whatever- it's just me.

See some of Tim's favorite music

Also see the Big Boys web site