This past November the infamous Smegma and blossoming noise sweethearts Wolf Eyes joined forces to create a collaborative CD on De Stijl records, fulfilling a long time dream of Wolf Eyes electronics, tape, and horns expert John Olsen. This is over the 60th release from Smegma, just preceding the video enhanced Ramblings album now out on Hanson Records, and the 7th release from Wolf Eyes. The bands also completed a tour together up the W, returning to some old haunts est Coast in Novemberand bewildering audiences with nearinconceivable sound swells. It seemed only natural to get them together again for a more intimate look at their lives.
From three very different parts of the country, we convened on a winter's night on a conference call. I phoned John (Wolf Eyes) who was waiting outside a gig in Detroit first, and caught members of Smegma “in the brain” of the Smegma studios, in Portland, OR, gearing-up for a practice.
Though already close friends, it turned out John was as interested in the history of Smegma as any fan, and whether, intentionally or not, became lead interviewer and pursued aline of questioning which asked ALL the members of the band's current incarnation about their start with Smegma or to recall their favorite performance. He plunges into questioning Dr. Id about their first show in 1974 at the army base on Coronado Island, California (outside of San Diego). There they did a garage-band set because they knew the world wasn't ready for a full fledged improvised Smegma.
Dr. ID: We had come down in our bus with all the equipment. people didn't know what to think about Smegma; they were sort of stunned. people of Coronado hadn't seen a band like that. We were doing it for a good cause - for muscular dystrophy - and people were out there for a good cause.
Living and playing in the Pasadena area didn't last too long. Shortly after turning down their only chance at a club gig set-up by Rodney Bingenheimer with Wildman Fisher, half the members, including Dr Id., Amazon Bambi, and Ju Suk Reet Meate, decided on a move.
J.O.: What prompted the move up to portland?
Dr. ID: At the time [in the mid-late 70s], along Colorado which is one of the chi-chi areas of LA now, it was just adult bookstores, thrift stores, and bums – it was just a wonderful place. It's kind of like what helped Smegma form -- that kind of environment. We moved up to portland just as the Los Angeles Free Music Society came out of the closet, and the whole punk scene and the whole rebirth of things. But when we left, it was the deadest, worst time to be there unless you were into glam. There was more happening in portland than you would think. It was very strange.
J.O.: I know you dug deep historically into portland and helped to get some people out, like Lee Rocky. What historical aspects did you like about LA.?
JU SUK REET MEATE: Captain Beefheart was in LA, a part of the environment, and he helped empower us on some levels. LA always seemed like a strange and hospitable place when we lived there.
J.O.: And what happened when you decided to move to portland?
Dr ID: Moving up to portland was a mass exodus in a way, we decided we did not want to live in LA. Essentially we all wanted a touch of some open space, some trees, an open environment.
JU SUK: It was a little spooky in a way, the first couple of years we got here, trying to figure out what is our direction, kind of drifting into more of a jazz band that doesn't play any gigs or doesn't have any songs. But right away we met people like Lee Rocky, a jazz musician from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.J.O.: It's really hard from a listeners' perspective to try and get a chronology in terms of the recordings. In terms of coherent progression, it's really hard to kinda...
JU SUK [interjects]: Definitely any normal concept of things thing even, [a few words muffled] cess we're involved in that keeps re-inventing itself. We're never in a situation where we're trying to do what we did previously. We're always in the middle of the creation period, only halfway there, wherever that is. Unlike a band that gets it together and you're stuck with, “Am I gonna copy that or are we going to break free?”, I think we're somewhat unique, and we never actually have that sort of a challenge.
J.O.: Well, on this last tour, you guys had this particular set style that you would kind of adhere to.
JU SUK: That's sort of our rock club set, as opposed to our art gallery or at somebody's house set.J.O.: You can really hear the difference of the live styles on the cassette you did, the live 91-93 versus
JU SUK: Everything totally does change, largely because you have new members come in and affect things in different ways. I think there's some bit of a conscious effort at this point to kind of refine things and drift our influences from farther back. Smegma was formed as a reaction to how horrible things were in the 70's for the most part.
J.O.: Thus the Disco Diarrhea 7”.
JU-SUK: Just the band, SMEGMA, the whole thing, the fusion. It seemed like other music had reached an unbelievably lousy point. What I'm getting at is, if you cut music off at 1958, there would still be so much incredible great music. And that's all we need. We're not hung-up with the psychedelic stuff, it's way over-rated.
Ju Suk hands the phone over to Amazon Bambi, filling-out apassport application to get ready for their festival show in Belgium at the end of February. She wishes was going there also, but they played it last year.
J.O.: Bambi, what's your favorite Smegma gig, EVER?
AB: Damish, the Oregon State Hospital.
Jackie: There were two shows there, which one? The year before that, they had played after they had got their meds.
J.O.: It was at a straight-up mental institution?
AB: They were throwing their chairs at us.
Jackie: Some woman threw her Tupperware cup at Bambi and said, play some music!
AB: I hid behind a curtain and cried.J.O.: When was that?
Jackie and AB: Like ʻ86, ʻ85.
J.O.: So Jackie, when did you join the band?
AB: Right before we went to Damish, (laughing)
Jackie: My first gig was a Dead Kennedys show.
J.O.: Did you play turn-tables?
Jackie: The first show with Smegma, I played percussionand saxophone, plus a little vocals.
J.O.: How did you finally develop your turntable technique?
Jackie: I'm a bad guitar player. A very bad guitar player.I'm a very good record player.
J.O.: You are -- you're the best ever!
As nearly a half hour passed, Ju Suk jumps in and wants to know if John wants to talk to some other members. Conroy and Burned Mind are near and ready for the receiver.
Meanwhile, Jackie is also doing an amazing job making sure everyone gets a turn, and jumping in the conversation to fill-in fact gaps.
Conroy: I miss seeing you walk around with your cell phone.
J.O.: That's exactly what I'm doing right now, at a piece of shit gig, but talking to the best band in the entire universe! So for the interview's sake, explain the fact, that you've been playing a dental dam for nearly the last 40 years. The most psychedelic thing ever!
Conroy: It's fun. More like 30 some years.
J.O.: How did you get into it? You used to play alto sax.
Conroy: I went to art school, we used to [muffled word] with rubber bands, the big thick ones. You could make a sound on them similar to what I'm doing now, and that started it. I eventually ended-up with dental dams. The material seemed just right for doing the stuff that I'm doing.
J.O.: But you started out on alto sax, right?
Conroy: Right, there are some recordings from 1975 when I played with a group called Upepo.
J.O.: And you were already in portland; did you know Jackie before the Smegma crew came up?
Conroy: No, I didn't, but I had seen the group play a few times as far back as the mid 70s. I never caught-up or really did anything with them until into the 90s. About ten years ago.
J.O.: Do you remember the first time you saw Smegma?
Conroy: Actually, I did a gig with them. We shared a bill with them, at Clinton Street.
J.O.: What was your first impression?
Conroy: Well, I was totally knocked out, ʻcause it was completely, a noise and sound realm thing that I hadn't heard before [a few muffled words].
J.O.: So, you didn't play mental institutional gigs with the band?
Conroy: No, shortly after.
J.O.: Jackie, how did you get those gigs?
Jackie: I used to set them up with the people that worked there. You know, in the punk scene, everybody was trying to play the weirdest places ʻcause the club scene was kind of creepy.
J.O.: Can't get much weirder than a mental ward.
J.O.: So both Jackie and Conroy – what were your favorite Smegma gigs?
Jackie: Mine was the whole tour with you guys (Wolf Eyes).
J.O.: I was telling Ju Suk how weird it was to play LA with you guys. Every weirdo coming out of the woodwork, but then in your hometwown it's like cold shoulder.
Jackie: Well, you know it's kind of been that way; we kind of laugh. Bands get really popular in this town and everyone goes and sees them. But we realize, “so great, they're big here, we're not, but so what, we can go to LA and sell out a show with Wolf Eyes, so who cares?”
J.O.: It's better that way. You know if you're stars in your hometown, there's somethin' a matter.
Jackie: It's the short term. And I definitely like looking at the big picture.
J.O.: What about locally? Is there a show that sticks out in your mind?
Jackie: Yah, Halloween 1987, with the Butthole Surfers. It was a two night show at a club called the pine Street. The first night was Hell Cows, Smegma, and the Butthole Surfers. And the second show was the Dinosaurs which was all these bands from the psychedelic disaster in San Francisco. It was funny to see bands that I liked when I was about ten. There was a lightshow and the Butthole Surfers were wonderful.
J.O.: So, what's up with your obsession with Brian Wilson?
Jackie: I love Brian! He's been through a lot of weird stuff and I can understand why you could want to go to bed and not get out, and he writes great music.
J.O.: And you've met him?
Jackie: No, I'm afraid to meet him.
J.O.: He should be afraid to meet you.
Jackie: I'm just waiting for the right time to go on tour with Brian. He's got a big plane so I think that would be fun.
J.O.: He's probably a big fan.
Jackie: That's alright with me.
Jackie and John bid a temporary goodbye and Burned Mind gets a turn on the phone:
J.O.: So how did you meet Smegma?
Burned Mind: I guess like in ʻ88 I was playing drums in a band called Hair Bed piece; I was trying to learn drums. We came down all the time to play at a club here in Portland, the Satyricon. Apparently they liked the fact that I actually bled a lot when I played and made gloves out of duct-tape to avoid bleeding. I learned about how to set-up my drums a little better after that.
J.O.: That's gotta feel kind of horrible to put duct tape over a bad wound.
BM: Well, I learned to do it before the bad wound actually arrived, and I also learned from another band to tilt the snare drum a tiny bit and you won't have a huge bruise on your leg or broken knuckles by the time the show is over.
Apparently Ju Suk and Jackie also got a kick out of Burned Mind having to spit on his guitar-player to gain his attention and in ʻ89 called him to ask to play for aButthole Surfers show. They sent out a roadie and he got to play in front of 1100 people. No rehearsal. “Honestly, that wasn't our forte,” Burned Mind says.
WE: What I love about Smegma is that you're like an organic history lesson.
Ju Suk and Dr. ID: When we started, we were definitely influenced by and inspired by the generations before us – a lot of jazz and Beefheart, Space is the place from Sun Ra, Science Fiction from Ornette Coleman, Racehorse pygmies, Roger Honegger, John Cage…Jackie: Link Wray. (Laughs)
J.O.: I think all you guys are incredible players, and you are very good at what you know, and you have the language of your instruments.
Ju Suk: We're still not exactly musicians.
Dr. ID: We're very good listeners.
As nearly an hour passes, Ju Suk pokes fun at John about getting to know more about Wolf Eyes, which John giggles off and replies that they're “old hat.” No, this interview didn't lend much insight on Wolf Eyes, but John certainly did an incredible job flushing-out some of the guts and bones from Smegma.
Bidding goodbye to all, John reminds the band how much fun they will have at the festival in Belgium. And they all assure each other about future visits and collaborations.
From a young John's postcard written with much adoration, but with little expectations, came a response that united two noise sensations and created what sounds like a lifelong friendship.
When I question John in closing about being a huge Smegma fan, he replies emphatically“I love it all, I listen to it constantly. My heart beats S-M-E-G-M-A every third beat.”
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