Monday, 7 February 2011

From Tim Sommer - The early years:

(As I mentioned in my first post, I was delighted to hear from Tim, who has very graciously allowed me to reproduce his fantastic history of the band).

I started fiddling with the idea of a band where the bass would be both the primary rhythmic and melodic instrument around early 1983; shortly thereafter, I started showing some of these rudimentary ideas (which I would work out by playing one bass part into a tape recorder, then playing it back and playing over it) to friends, including Kenny Temkin (who was the singer in a terrible punk band I was in at the time called Even Worse), and three performance artist friends, Lucy Sexton, Annie Iobst, and Mimi Goese. Lucy, Annie, Mimi and I started very loosely talking about doing some kind of performance/music thing based around the ideas we were playing with.

I suppose my primary initial influence was just how cool it sounded when you played melodies on the G-string of the bass while the D-string droned. I was also influenced by some fairly obvious musical models, including Young Marble Giants, New Order, Beach Boys,Ut, and Stiff Little Fingers (whose energy I always wanted to interject into a 'quiet,' intense band).

Mimi had never ever sung before -- not even in a school choir -- but I hung around with her a lot, and noticed she had an absolutely uncanny ability to mimic noises. I sensed that anyone who could do that had an extraordinary natural singing voice, and I was intrigued by the idea of applying her kind of absolutely wild creativity to a (kind of) rock band. I think the original intention was that Annie and Lucy would dance around and do performance arty things while I played bass and Mimi made vocal noises.

In the fall of '83 I went on the road with the Glenn Branca Ensemble, and became close friends with another member of the group, Greg Letson. I shared my ideas for a two-bass band with him. When the tour ended, we started playing through these ideas together (it was nice not to work with a tape recorder!), and we decided to move forward and formally form a band. Anne and Lucy had decided to form their own performance group, Dance Noise, so we moved forward with Mimi as our vocalist.

From there, it came together pretty quickly. We took a name from a phrase Mimi, Lucy and their friends used to use to refer to oversize thrift-store sweaters, and I knew the next step was getting a gig, because the pressure/reality of an impending gig would force us to rehearse aggressively and actually pull the thing together.

I called my friend Steve Fallon at Maxwells and asked if there was a gig available. He mentioned an early April date opening for the punk/noise band Hose, which worked well for me since Hose were very good friends of mine, and we had a lot of friends in common who could be counted on to come to Hoboken and see the show (history remembers Hose as the band led by Rick Rubin before he became a record mogul; Rick was a great friend of mine from the NYU dorm we both lived in).

We (Tim, Greg, and Mimi) debuted on April 6, 1984. We played four songs, and we went down a storm. Even in that fairly primitive form (only one of those four songs lasted -- we did "Second Skin" at that very first gig), I got the sense that we were on to something that people would respond to.

Throughout the rest of 1984, we played a few gigs -- maybe six or seven? - at places ranging from CBGBs to tiny performance art cellars in the far East Village. These all went very well. I mean really well considering how new we were, and how strange the sound was. I am quite sure Adam Peacock came to all or most of these, as he was Mimi's boyfriend, but I had no idea he would end up in the band. Likewise, I suspect Hahn Rowe came to a lot of these shows, too (I had met Hahn via the Glenn Branca Ensemble, too) -- he may have even done sound for a few of them -- though, again, the idea that he might be in the band one day did not occur to us.

In January of 1985, Greg called me, and totally out of the blue announced he was quitting the band. I didn't see this coming, and I am still not quite sure of the reason. It was a very short, curt, awkward phone call. BIzarrely, I never spoke to him again. We had a gig just a few days later -- at Danceateria, opening for Billy Bragg -- so this left Mimi and I in a bit in a lurch.
Almost effortlessly, I mean almost as if it had been planned, Adam replaced Greg. I hardly remember there being any discussion about it. He was a good musician, and having seen all of our shows (and I think he had been at some of the rehearsals, too), he stepped in with virtually no hesitation or effort.

I'll end Part 1 here, even though we haven't even gotten to Hahn joining!

Okay. We left off in January of 1985. Greg Letson has just suddenly left the band (who had been a three piece of Mimi on vocals, with Greg and Tim on basses) and Mimi’s boyfriend, Adam, had quickly and seamlessly stepped in to replace Greg in time to play a show opening for Billy Bragg at Danceateria.

Things seemed to pick up once Adam joined. Adam and I wrote very well together – usually sitting in his apartment on east 11ith Street (between 1st and A, I think), each of us holding a bass, tossing riffs off of each other; one of us would play some kind of ‘principle’ riff, and the other would play some complimentary of counter-melodic riff. We would then, despite the untraditional instrumentation, shape these into rather traditional songs – intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge and so forth. Working with Greg had been a little different – Greg was less actively interested in writing with me, or rather, the writing with him took a different form; perhaps he took more of a role of working based on my instruction or playing a part based on some primary riff or instruction I gave him. So I think the songwriting kind of really blossomed once Adam and I started working together. There weren’t a lot of songs that ‘lasted’ from the Greg-era of the band, though Second Skin was from the first era of the band, and there was another one called “Lie and Forget” which was quite good and probably should have lasted longer (I don’t think we played it live past mid 1986).

I think Adam and I worked in a surprisingly traditional way, and I think we worked exceptionally well with each other. We would polish each song until it was a complete and arranged piece – this could take a night or it could take weeks – and work very diligently on the complimentary instrumental parts. We would then throw the song onto a cassette, and hand the cassette to Mimi. Mimi would then take anywhere from one hour to two years to come up with a vocal melody and lyrics. I do not remember Mimi once asking us to change or rearrange an instrumental piece, and likewise, I don’t think we even asked her to shift a melody or a lyric. At some other point in this/these essay(s), I will speak a little more about the writing process. But to cut a long story short, Adam and I handed her complete instrumental pieces, and she came back to us with a complete vocal melody and lyrics.
There were a lot of gigs in 1985 and it felt like there was a good deal of positive energy with the band. Also, during 1985 Hahn Rowe started very regularly doing our live sound, and at some point he began playing some violin from the sound board, though he wouldn’t join us on stage until well into 1986 – maybe not even until 1987; despite the minimal line-up, it wasn’t that easy to do live sound for us – most standard club soundmen were actively confused by a band with two bass guitars and very little else – and I think we were afraid to give up Hahn’s prowess as a sound man.

So we played a lot through 1985, again, a mixture of rock clubs (like Peppermint Lounge and Irving Plaza) and performance art spaces.

Sometime towards the beginning of ’86 – I think it was still winter – we decided to cut a proper demo (during the Greg Letson days, we had done something fairly primitive at Wharton Tiers studio – I wonder what happened to that?). Maybe it was even towards the end of 1985? Hahn was working at a fairly decent recording studio then, and he was able to get us an exceptionally good rate on time. We went in a couple of late nights/overnights and cut a handful of songs, including (more or less) the same versions of Country, Fancy, and Second Skin that ended up on the DRUM record.

We started handing out this demo pretty liberally, and I remember it got very good response. But one particular person’s response ended up being especially important.
I had been good friends with Michael Stipe since 1982. I do not remember precisely when, or at what gig, I handed him the Hugo Largo tape. I am fairly sure it was in the spring of 1986. I do know that I didn’t make a very big deal of it – because of my relatively close relationship with Michael, I knew he would listen to it. Michael later told me he had no idea I was making my own music, or had formed a ‘real’ band (Michael did know I was a musician, since he had seen me play a couple of times in 1983 and 1984 with the Glenn Branca ensemble).
Oh! I completely forgot to mention that by this point – the beginning of 1986 – Hahn, Adam, and I were ALL playing with the Glenn Branca Ensemble. I had joined the Branca Ensemble in November of 1983; I was good friends with (then Branca Ensemble members) Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, and when they left the Branca group in mid ’83, one or both of them recommended me to Glenn. From the autumn of 1983 on, I was regularly playing and touring with Branca. I think Hahn joined sometime in mid 1984, and sometime in 1985, when an opening emerged in the ensemble, we both got Adam into the group.
The work with Branca really solidified the personal and working relationship between Adam, Hahn, and I, and allowed us to plot and plan Hugo Largo stuff.

So in the spring of 1986, I slipped a Hugo Largo cassette to Michael Stipe…

1 comment:

  1. This story really needs to be continued!

    Big fan here. I produced radio programmes in Canada for 15 years from about 1983 and played Hugo Largo whenever I could.

    This music will live forever.