The Softies Then and Now: Jen Sbragia on 30 Years Together

Happy 30th anniversary, Rose and Jen! Photo: Alicia J. Rose

Earlier this year, The Softies (two California girls / singer-songwriter-guitarists Rose Melberg + Jen Sbragia) celebrated 30 years as a band and as BFFs. They are not a band that just reformed after not doing anything since the 1990s! They have been playing shows here and there over the years (including chickfactor 20 and 25 shows in New York, London, SF and Portland), even as they lived in different PacNW towns, had kids, jobs, played music with others and so on. Still, as they just announced their brand-new album, The Bed I Made (on Father/Daughter Records and Lost Sound Tapes), upcoming tour and new single, we wanted to check in about how things were then versus how they are now! Read our post from yesterday about the new album, the vinyl reissues of their previous work and more, and then read on to hear from Jen about how things have changed. Interview by Gail

Jen in Portland, 2023. Photo: Gail O’Hara

CF: What are you up to today?
Jen Sbragia: Working on some freelance design stuff, making dinner, hopefully practicing guitar later
What would you have been up to on a day like this in 1994?
Very similar except I didn’t have Adobe Creative Suite!
Tell us about how your songwriting process worked in 1994 vs. 2024.
In the past, I would write and present a whole song of mine to Rose, she would then write a lead guitar part and a vocal harmony. For the new album, I had song ideas but also a few half-baked ideas and riffs, which we worked on together to make whole songs. It was pretty fun to do that, because Rose has studied the art of songwriting so much more than me. She inspires me to do better, all the time.
Both of you have been undergoing major life shifts in recent years; how did grief, loss, change play into the songs? How is that different from your trials and tribulations of 30 years ago?
I always used to write songs about unrequited love back in the day. This is still true for me! At this point in my life I have experienced more loss, so that is tied in too. But crushes not working out is my favorite songwriting topic, apparently.

Cover of The Bed I Made by Fumi Yanagimoto

What was a typical day in the studio like making The Bed I Made? And how does that differ from the 1990s sessions?
Analog is lovely and all, but recording digitally is fantastic. Rose and I used Garage Band to make demos for each other we could email back and forth. When it came time to record in the studio, we felt so lucky to work with Nich (Nicholas Wilbur). He has an amazing ear, is endlessly chill and patient, makes the perfect cappuccino, and belongs to the funniest and best dog, Cathy. I heard my first ever ghostly footsteps in the (haunted) studio! Rose and I slept there at night – it was a little spooky, which I loved.

Softies’ studio still-life, courtesy of Rose

What are some of your most important studio accoutrements? Snacks, tea, special instruments or accessories?
Lots of Juanita’s tortilla chips, peanut butter, strong coffee, maybe a touch of psilocybin. Anacortes Unknown has a vibraphone… it may make an appearance.
How long have you been working on this one?
I took a trip to Vancouver in January of 2023 and we ended up with the beginnings of 8 songs, and just excitedly continued from there, meeting every month or so. Sometimes we would meet in Seattle, sometimes I would make the full trek to Vancouver. I love long drives so it really didn’t seem too difficult.
How has the touring and show playing ecosystem changed from then to now?
Well, it is much better now that we don’t have to have an Atlas and a Thomas Guide! One time on tour we caravanned with walkie talkies.
We prefer that more days off need to be built in. We need ease and calm. The less stress, the better. There is a low key goal of being able to stay somewhere with a hot tub. Can we always have a hot tub? A girl can dream.

Jen in Portland. Photo: Gail O’Hara

What can fans to do help musicians have better lives?
Vote. Buy merch. Come to live shows.
Do you have a sense of how big your audience is now vs 1994? Do you hear from fans?
We used to get fan letters back in the day. I have a box of them. These days, it’s much quicker and easier with social media. But also it can feel overwhelming because everything is so immediate.
What about the vinyl reissues on K: are those all out now or coming soon?
Out now: Holiday in Rhode Island [KLP119]
Out July 26: Winter Pageant [KLP061]
Out Sept. 6: It’s Love [KLP043]

Where all will you be touring?
Glas Goes Pop festival on Friday, July 26.
Two record release shows at the end of August in Vancouver and Portland, followed by two more shows in early September in Anacortes and Seattle

East coast shows in late Sept/early October

California shows in late October

What else are you up to apart from the Softies?
Always trying to balance freelance design work, hoping for more hours but grateful when I have free time for music. I have some new song ideas for All Girl Summer Fun Band but we haven’t had time to work on them yet. I would like to get back into drawing comics and/or making prints of some kind.

What are you eating, cooking, watching, reading lately?
FOOD: I’m on a mission to sample every single non-dairy cream cheese on the market. I could eat the Moderno Bowl at Tacovore every day. Peanut butter filled chocolate covered pretzels from Trader Joe’s are my favorite food group.

COOKING: Lately I have been avoiding cooking as much as possible! I’m giving in to convenience whenever possible, although throwing a sweet potato in the oven is very easy and I love the edible sugar goo that comes out of them.

WATCHING: I’m re-watching Killing Eve because Jodie Comer is a goddess. Also watching the new season of Bridgerton. I will re-watch Broad City for the rest of my life. Listening to Rebel Girl by Kathleen Hanna. Reading Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. Books do tend to stack up and collect dust. I’m trying!

The cassette tape is on Lost Sound Tapes

Records Jen Cannot Live Without:

Tiger Trap – S/T & Sour Grass
Lightheaded – Good Good Great
Henry’s Dress – Bust ‘em Green
Girl Ray – Prestige
Pretenders – S/T
Fastbacks – Very, Very Powerful Motor
Young Guv – I, II, III, IIII (basically anything he does)
Dolly Mixture – Demonstration Tapes
Kids on a Crime Spree – Fall in Love Not in Line
Of Montreal – Cherry Peel
Best of 1994: Boyracer – More Songs About Frustration & Self Hate
Best of 2024: Lightheaded – Combustible Gems

Preorder the Softies’ The Bed I Made, out August 23 on vinyl/etc.

Preorder the Softies’ The Bed I Made, out August 23 on cassette tape.

Order/preorder all the vinyl reissues on K Records here

Check out All Girl Summer Fun Band here

Listen to other Rose Melberg music here

Listen to Knife Pleats here

The Softies. Photo: C. Doughty
Set list from the Softies’ June 2023 show at Polaris Hall.
Vinyl reissue out now on K Records
Vinyl reissue out July 26 on K Records
Vinyl reissue out Sept. 6 on K Records
Grab a ticket ASAP, Glasgow!

 

Interview: Birdie Gets Ready to Reissue Some Dusty 25 Years Later

Paul, Jon, Debsey. Photo: Jimmy Young

Back in Y2K (the year 2000 for you youngsters), I rolled into Fez in NYC after work one evening and tried to interview BIRDIE on the spot. Not always a good plan! Even though I have interviewed each of the primary band members,  Paul Kelly and Debsey Wykes from Birdie (and East Village, Dolly Mixture and Saint Etienne), I had not interviewed them together until summer/fall 2023 when I was enlisted to write liner notes for the reissue of Some Dusty. We are all happy to share the interview with you now and announce the global international pop news of Slumberland Records reissuing this most excellent and under-appreciated album!

ORDER THE RECORD ALREADY! (Out July 26)
(UK folks: Monorail)
Read our 2022 Paul Kelly interview
Read our 2006 Debsey Wykes interview

Get tickets for London July 24
Get tickets for Oxford July 28

Slumberland Records is reissuing Some Dusty.

Gail O’Hara: You met each other when you were both part of Saint Etienne’s live setup in 1992–1993?
Paul Kelly: We met at a Saint Etienne rehearsal in Kentish Town December 1992. Following the demise of my band East Village in 1991, Bob (Stanley) and Pete (Wiggs) had asked Spencer (Smith, East Village drummer) and me to join the Saint Etienne live set-up. For the first few shows we had Siobhan Brookes of Denim singing backing vocals but I don’t think Lawrence was happy with her playing in another band and so she left and Debsey was drafted in, and that’s when we first met, at a rehearsal room in Leighton Place, Kentish Town. Bob and Pete had been big Dolly Mixture fans and had just recorded Debsey singing “Who Do You Think You Are” for a proposed single on their Ice Rink label. I think McGee or Jeff Barrett heard it and felt that it could be a big hit and so it ended up being a Saint Etienne single instead. The record did end up as a duet with Debsey and Sarah of course but she never ended up releasing anything on Ice Rink which is a shame, I thought that was a great little label.
Debsey Wykes: I had joined St. Etienne on backing vocals for their fan club Christmas party in London in 1992. At the rehearsals I met Paul along with the others in the live band. I thought he was very funny. I ended up doing backing vocals on their tours and festival dates over the next couple of years, playing the UK, America, Europe and Iceland. We were also the first band televised live from Glastonbury in 1994. We became best friends and would wander around places all night ending up with a breakfast beer and being called the terrible twins by Sarah.

And then you got together as a couple after forming Birdie?
Paul: We had become very good friends over the two years we had been with Saint Etienne and had been talking about doing a band together. Saint Etienne stopped playing live at the end of 1994 and so we began recording songs on a little Fostex 4-track at Debsey’s flat. I think a lot of people thought our talk of a band was just a cover so that we could hang out together and I think it was a bit of a shock to our friends when we actually started making records together.
Debsey: We had come up with the idea of doing a band together in the summer of 1994 as we started to get a bit frustrated about not doing our own music and so Paul would heave his guitar amp up to London to my flat every so often and we would go over bits and pieces of music that we’d both made up—and then go to the pub. By the beginning of 1995 we had borrowed a Portastudio from Bob and recorded a handful of songs on cassette. We got together as a couple in the March, we just wanted to be together all the time.

Photo: Paul Kelly

What pubs were your regular haunts during this time period?
Paul: When we were first together, we were both signing on the dole and our (fortnightly) payments were on alternate weeks. We would head down to the post office together, cash the relevant cheque and head straight to the Old Red Lion theatre pub at the Angel for a quick lunchtime half. This would inevitably end up with us both falling out of the pub smashed and penniless by closing time. I don’t know how we survived to be honest, we had so little money. When we eventually got our record deal we felt like millionaires and the first thing we did was buy a car. We spent a lot of time in pubs when we first got together, we were still relatively young and having a laugh, it was a good time to be in London then. I have very fond memories of touring the pubs of Islington during our courtship and into the mid ’90s.
Debsey: When we were first together, we went to The Old Red Lion in Islington which is very old with a small theatre upstairs. There was a strange mix in the bar with the pool players, locals and the theatre crowd which is a great thing. We frequented most pubs in the vicinity of the flat and I have a memory of ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles and ‘Venus as a Boy’ by Bjork stalking us on juke boxes wherever we went. We would often head into the west end and see who was in The Ship in Wardour St. as it was the haunt of the Heavenly Records entourage.

What was the idea behind Birdie?
Paul: It was great fun playing with Saint Etienne but we obviously had little creative input. We were really lucky to get the chance to tour the world and play the main stage at Glastonbury and things like that but we still wanted to make our own music, after all, that’s why we started playing in bands in the first place. We used to sit on the tour bus and imagine what our band could be like, so we had a lot of time to think about how it would work and what it would sound like. I think we generally liked the same music and it was obviously going to be based around Debsey’s singing and so it just came about very naturally.
Debsey: I don’t remember there being a particular idea behind Birdie at first. It was just me and Paul being us, I imagined it would be sixties orientated and hoped that it would be quite ‘cool’. The important thing was to write great songs first. We must have thought our combined force would produce something special!

Birdie. Photo: Aude Prieur

The late ’90s seemed like a golden time when things were pretty great in both the US and the UK, internet bubble hadn’t burst yet, end of the century energy. What do you recall about that time when you were writing and recording Some Dusty?
Paul: We started making records with Birdie in the aftermath of Britpop, things in the UK had stagnated and so it certainly didn’t feel like a golden period at the time. I think we were too hung up on the UK NME music scene and I can see looking back that was pointless as we were never going to connect with the UK music press at that point. I wish we had been more aware of what was happening overseas, particularly in Spain,Japan and the US.
Debsey: There was still a lot of energy in London, in 1995 we went out a lot especially to Heavenly related events where I danced a lot to soul music, hip hop, house, big beat, every kind of wonderful tuneful groovy track. We decided to have a child in ’96 and so I started to stay in a bit more. Paul had started a company making films and designing artwork with a friend of ours to make a living and be a responsible father to be—and was out quite a lot, probably in pubs!

Photo courtesy of Birdie

How was Some Dusty received by the fans and press?
Paul: I was so pleased with the LP. It was the first time I had been involved in a record that I could actually enjoy listening to. I thought it was perfect and sounded exactly as we had envisaged it. It’s such a great feeling to make music that you really love. Looking back, I can now listen to other things I had recorded before that point and appreciate them but with Birdie I knew it was good as we were making it.

We had Mick Houghton as our press agent and Scott Piering was our radio plugger. Mick had worked with Echo and the Bunnymen and the KLF and Scott had worked with Pulp and the Smiths. I think Scott genuinely loved the record but I’m not sure that Mick did. We did get played on the radio quite a lot but the UK music press were not interested at all. Despite this, I think the record sold quite well because we had our option to make a second LP picked up straight away, but the only fan mail we got was from the US and Japan. I think the record made a connection there, but in the UK we could barely get a gig or review. We never had an agent or a manager and couldn’t really make any progress with the live side of things. There was talk of a Japanese tour which would have been great. We had been there with St Etienne in the early ’90s and I think we would have been well received, but there was a financial crash in Japan around that time which scuppered the trip.

Photo: Paul Kelly

How did Birdie’s songwriting process work?
Paul: One of us will generally start a song, me on guitar or Debsey on a piano. Maybe just a few chords and a melody and then we would both develop it together. Whoever starts the song will usually write the words but that’s not always the case—but the words always come last and always late.

Debsey: We wrote separately a lot and then would add things to each other’s ‘creations’. Neither of us particularly liked writing words but we persevered, sometimes if you were lucky the words just happened. Sometimes I would give up and hand over a tune and Paul would fit words to it. He wrote a lot of the words to his own tunes, I never knew what they were about and just made up my own meaning.

What music was inspiring you back then?
Paul: I think we were mainly listening to older records, Acid Folk stuff, and Soft Rock or Sunshine Pop. We were going out clubbing but not really listening to so much dance music at home. We loved Stereolab and Broadcast and I guess they had a big influence on the kind of records we listened to even if it’s not apparent. Laura Nyro was a big influence on the LP and we went to see one of her last shows together at the Union Chapel in Islington which was incredible.

Debsey: I loved St. Etienne of course. My inspiration came from the sixties songs that I had always loved and all the sixties music that Paul introduced to me that I’d never heard. I also heard a lot of great music hanging out with Saint Etienne and everyone around Heavenly Records and the Social, not any particular group.

Image courtesy of Birdie

Jason Reynolds put out your first single, yes?
Paul: Jason had released an LP of East Village B-Sides and out-takes on his Summershine label in Australia in about 1990 and I think we had even had a minor radio hit over there. By the mid ’90s he was at working at Sub Pop in the US but still putting out the odd thing on his own label. He was visiting London and staying at the Holiday Inn in Clerkenwell near us when I met up with him and asked if he would put out a couple of songs that we had recorded at Bark Studios with Brian O’Shaughnessy. One side was a demo we had done for Creation and the other side a demo for Heavenly. I don’t think Jeff or Alan McGee were really interested in the band, but they had funded some studio time—probably to get me off their backs. Anyway, we had these two songs and Jason put them out as a single and that’s how we eventually got the deal with Tris Penna at It Records. I think Jason was winding down the label and so there was never any talk of doing an album for Summershine.

How did having children impact your work with Birdie?
Paul: At that time the band was just Debsey and me, we did manage to get our friend (and neighbour) Wildcat Will to play drums on the record but everything else apart from the strings we played ourselves. Will had been the drummer in the Sandals and was by that time playing with Beth Orton. When we began recording Some Dusty, our daughter Sadie was about 18 months old and we had to take her to the studio with us most days as we couldn’t afford a babysitter. We had periods where she would sleep for a couple of hours but when she woke up either Debsey or me would have to wheel her around Walthamstow in her push chair. There was a sweet factory nearby the studio and all I can remember is this really sickly sweet smell outside that was so strong that it would give you a headache. I think the record only took about ten days to make and that was mainly due to the fact that we had to work so quickly. We did all the backing tracks in two days. It was great, no time to overthink what we were doing. I went in a couple of times on my own to do guitar parts and mixing while Debsey stayed at home looking after Sadie but we were generally there together, baby and all. I don’t think she’s ever listened to the finished record though, definitely not her bag. When we actually signed the recording contract at the label offices in Covent Garden, the only people there were Debsey, Me, Bob, Tris (our label manager) and bizarrely, Vicki Wickham (producer of Ready Steady Go) and Nona Hendryx! It was amazing and we celebrated by cracking open a bottle of Champagne from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wine vault, amazing!
Debsey: We only played a handful of gigs before we had our daughter. One was in Covent Garden and we went to it on the bus, it was just Paul on guitar and me singing. The same for our second in Camden, an afternoon affair when I was about six months pregnant. Later on in the year I heard from Paul that Jason Reynolds was interested in putting out a single which was great, I still think of that single (Spiral Staircase) as being very precious and having the purest Birdie sound. When we got to the point where we were talking about a record deal and going for meetings, we always had to find a babysitter and that wasn’t easy.

Paul told chickfactor “I think Sadie our daughter saw the guitar as competition and would inevitably start crying as soon as either of us picked it up. Debs would have to hide away in another room to write on the piano whenever Sadie was asleep. It was really rare for us to be able to sit together and play as we had done when we first started.”
Debsey:
It’s all true. She was obviously very attached to me and was used to me answering her every need which I wanted to do, but it did make it difficult to write and to rehearse ideas. She was part of it though as well and Birdie ultimately wouldn’t have been the same without having had her.

Describe the feeling, the vibe, the scene at Bark Studios in the summer 1998. What do you remember about the sessions?
Paul: It was all done very quickly, ten days, but it was very enjoyable, I loved taking home the rough mixes and listening to what we had done. It was really exciting to have a deal and to actually be making a record. We would sit up late at night and work out the parts we needed to record the next day.
Debsey: I remember feeling very lucky and excited to have the chance to record our songs properly. Our drummer on Some Dusty was Will Blanchard (Wildcat Will as everyone knows him) and he was around for as long as it took to record all the drums, maybe two or three days. He was exceedingly relaxed, lovely to be with and quietly witty. It was when I got closer to Brian as well and I found him very easy to be with, to chat and laugh with, he was very individual but it totally worked between us all.

We must have got a babysitter for some of the recording part of it, although I may be wrong, maybe Sadie was asleep a lot of the time, she was only one and a half, still needing naps. We were almost recording it as demos because the agreement seemed to be that if Tris Penna at It Records (they were paying for this) liked the album’s worth of songs he would put it out. It was a good approach because we didn’t take too long to do anything, saving us deliberating for too long. Paul stayed on extra days to mix it with Brian and would come home with mixes and I loved it.

Image courtesy of Birdie

How did you end up working with Brian O’Shaughnessy? He seems to be the go-to for many of my favorite bands. What is it about him?
Paul: When East Village split up 1991, we had an unfinished LP that we had recorded the previous year with Ian Caple at The Stone Room in Acton, West London. It was all recorded but not mixed. Jeff at Heavenly suggested that we finish the record and release it. He felt it would be good to mix it with Brian O’Shaughnessy at Bark Studios. Jeff knew Brian through working with Andrew Weatherall and Primal Scream who had recently recorded Loaded there. A couple of other Heavenly bands and My Bloody Valentine had also worked at Bark. Anyway, the mixing went really well, I loved the sound Brian was able to get and when we came to do our demos that’s where we wanted to go. Making the LP was the obvious next step as the demos sounded so good. It’s a really small tatty looking studio with an old MCI desk just like the one Abba used. You would never believe how many great records have come out that place if you saw it. The Clientele and Lawrence still make records there and it looks exactly the same as it did when we recorded Some Dusty.

Sean O’Hagan seems like an ideal fit for Birdie. What was it like working with him?
Paul: I didn’t know Sean at all but I really liked Microdisney and the High Llamas and he was also working with Stereolab which swung it. We had finished the bulk of the recording and wanted to add some strings. I sent him all of the songs to listen to and make some suggestions for string arrangements. He picked out three songs he liked and we said, great, whatever you reckon. I went down to the session which took only about an hour or so and that was it, job done! The next time I saw him was when we played in Madrid for an Elefant records event a few months later. I went over to say hello but don’t think he knew who I was to be honest.

Photo: Tom Sheehan

How does the record sound to you now?
Paul: For this release we went back to the original masters. We had the tapes baked and transferred for re-mastering and when I first listened back I nearly cried, I couldn’t believe that we had made this record. How did we do it? It’s far more complex than I had ever realised. I guess we were just brimming with ideas and enthusiasm at the time. We were also fairly young still and very much in love and I can really hear that when I listen to the record.
Debsey: I think the record sounds better now than it did then, in fact I’m surprised by it, pleasantly surprised that we had it in us!

Is there anything else you’d like to share about making the album?
Paul: I think Debsey and I are both good at coming up with melodies and harmonies but neither of us like writing lyrics. That was always the hard bit, staying up all night trying to finish the words because we had to record the vocals the next day.
Debsey: I played a Mellotron for the first time, it was very challenging but satisfying because it sounded so wonderful. It was a huge thing that took three guys to bring it into Brian’s control room. We also had another Stevie Wonder sounding keyboard (Clavinet) that I played on, I loved coming up with those extra bits and pieces on any strange instruments we could get hold of, I even played the harmonica I’d got for my 19th birthday which had been waiting another 19 years for this moment. For me the album was quite inward looking. I don’t know if Paul would say the same, but we spent so much time together and had started a family so for me it’s not so surprising that I feel it was about us.

Image courtesy of Birdie
Image courtesy of Birdie
Birdie’s set list from CF30 at the Lexington in London, 2022.
Image courtesy of Birdie

These Things Happen: The Sarah Records Story Excerpt

Happy publication day to These Things Happen: The Sarah Records Story by Jane Duffus (on Tangent Books). Jane says that “Sarah’s co-founders Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes were both very involved with the production of the book, which also features almost 130 interviews with band members, fans, fanzine writers, journalists etc, and very much takes a feminist and fan’s approach to the label. The book is 450+ pages, 250+ pictures, hardback, and was three years in the making.”

Author Jane Duffus says: “It’s been a long three years creating this book but, once you hold that beautiful new book in your hands, you instantly forget all the blood, sweat and tears that cropped up along the way. This may be my sixth book but the excitement never lessens when you open that initial box of books and pick one up for the first time. I always knew that this would be a big book but it just kept growing and growing. There was so much to say about this inspirational indie record label, and so many stories from the interviewees that I wanted to share, and to finally see them on the page is very rewarding. I just hope, now that the book is out in the world, that other people also enjoy it. It’s a bit nerve wracking, to be honest!” Please scroll down to read part of the chapter on something we care deeply about…

Collection of fanzines. Photo by Jon Craig
This is an excerpt from the book These Things Happen 

Chapter 5: Fanzine Culture
In the olden days, when the internet and email were just twinkles in the sky, the best way for music fans to share their love of the things that rocked their world was via self-published fanzines. The modern equivalent of a fanzine would be a blog but the ephemeral nature of them – and the changed means of production – creates an entirely different dynamic, so it’s not a perfect comparison.

The origin of music fanzines is commonly dated to the punk heyday of the 1970s, although fan magazines go back to the 1930s. The thinking is that fanzine writers typically have an opinion that is in opposition to that expressed in the mainstream media, hence the need to self-publish. Fanzines also enable fans of a particular thing to find and communicate with each other, thereby opening up a dialogue that would never otherwise have been possible.

The famous There and Back Again Lane sign. Photo by Sarah Records.

To buy a music fanzine, you would tape coins to bits of card and post these all around the country. You might hear about fanzines through adverts in things like NME or Melody Maker, or more commonly from the tiny slips of paper that fell like colourful inky snow from inside your most recent mail-order fanzine delivery. It was the habit of fanzine writers and flexi producers to create these tiny ads, squeeze as many as possible onto a sheet of A4, and photocopy this onto coloured paper. Then cut these sheets up and send batches of the ads to other fanzine writers to distribute. This, along with reviews in more established titles, was how we heard of other people’s fanzines. It was a very successful and introverted network of quiet people making silent contact with one another. Most of us would never meet face to face and were quite happy about that.

Heavenly. Photo by Alison Wonderland.

The other tried and tested method for selling fanzines was at gigs, so long as you lived in a town that put on gigs and you had the courage to go up to strangers and demand they hand over 30p in exchange for your photocopied musings. Mark Taylor was the editor of the popular Smiths Indeed fanzine, which he ran from his parents’ home in Bristol and sold all over the country. However, he remembers one of the pitfalls of having a successful fanzine: “I didn’t think about the weight of coins after selling 100 or 200 fanzines. I’d have to try and get through the gig without my jeans falling down!” Although this level of success wasn’t something most fanzine writers needed to worry about.

Jane Duffus and Matt Haynes at the Bristol, UK, book launch last week. Photo by Neil Phillips.

Chris Tighe and Robert McTaggart mostly sold their fanzine Far Out And Fishy at gigs and, according to Chris, would “just walk up to hundreds of total strangers, butting into their conversations, sticking a piece of printed paper under their noses, saying ‘Hey, would you like to buy a fanzine? It’s only 25p!’ and getting told to ‘fuck off’ once in a while.” He adds: “I wasn’t exactly an outgoing person and I’ve got a slight stammer, so it baffles me that I was able to do it.”

Rob Sekula of 14 Iced Bears tells me: “It was great to see fanzines being sold at gigs, they added to the excitement. Similar to how football programmes added to the sense of occasion when I went to Tottenham as a kid. They were a more immediate, less industry way to find out about good new bands and discover things like great records and bands from the past, from people who had similar tastes. Along with John Peel they were pretty useful in the days before the internet.”

Davey Woodward from The Brilliant Corners adds: “I always thought fanzines were a great thing to happen because I felt we were very close to going back to a time where big multinational labels just ruled the roost in terms of what happened. And I think, in those Thatcherite 1980s, there was a definite reaction against that. People thought, ‘No, I am going to do my own thing, I’m going to make it the way I want to make it.’ It was important in the wider scheme of things to create a scene for a group of people.”

Temple Meads postcards. Photo by Sarah Records.

Simon Barber, bassist with The Chesterfields, agrees: “Fanzines were so important. The difference between fanzines and the music press is you only write about something in a fanzine if you love it. If there’s a good review in the music press, you don’t know if it’s been paid for.” He adds: “I bought every fanzine going. If someone was going round a gig selling a fanzine, I’d buy it, those guys were the best.” Simon still has all his fanzines and kindly loaned me two enormous boxes of them while I was researching this book.

Ric Menck of The Springfields was based in Illinois and says: “The fanzine network meant everything to me back then. I was more interested in fanzines than the British weeklies. The fanzine writers weren’t trying to be cool. They just wrote about what they loved. Before computers came around, fanzines were the way to hear about cool new stuff. The fanzine network was always crucially important to underground music.”

Collection of fanzines. Photo by Jon Craig.

Influential fanzines that came in the years immediately preceding Sarah included the following three, all of which certainly made an impact on readers and bands. Their editors also all went on to make their mark on the world of pop culture in one way or another. Tellingly, these are all by men.

  • Attack on Bzag was run by James Brown from Leeds, who would go on to write for NME and Sounds, edit troublesome lads’ mag Loaded and men’s monthly GQ. He later become editor-in-chief for the Sport Newspaper Group which, despite the name, has nothing to do with football but everything to do with topless women and absurd sex stories.
  • Meanwhile, John Robb from Lancashire was running Rox when he wasn’t in punk band The Membranes. John told online magazine JSNTGM: “The best fanzines were out of control, quite literally out of control! They wrote in their own style about their own music and were not filtered by the music business … I love cut and paste artwork which very much matched the cut and paste nature of the punk and post punk music.” John went on to write for Sounds, Melody Maker and various national newspapers. These days he runs the music website Louder Than War.
  • Jerry Thackray launched a fanzine that was called The Legend! and – bizarrely – he also put out the first single on Creation. After his fanzine finished, Jerry wrote for NME (as The Legend!), before moving to Melody Maker and adopting the pen name of Everett True. “I guess I was quite idealistic,” says Jerry now. “But maybe that’s what separated some of the fanzine writers apart. Some of us really did believe that passionately in what we wrote about.” Talking about the way that he adopted a different approach to many of his contemporaries, Jerry says: “I saw all these post-punk fanzines and they all had interviews in. And I was like, ‘These interviews are fucking crap, they’re just really bad versions of the music press’. I couldn’t speak to people and it just so happened that music was easily the thing I was most passionate about so I wrote about music, and that’s all I’ve ever done my entire life.” He still writes about music and teaches music journalism in London.

To continue reading the section called Fanzine Culture, order the book via Tangents in the UK or Rough Trade in the U.S.

To find out about upcoming events (or perhaps arrange one), visit Jane’s website. 

Blueboy performing at the Bristol, UK, book launch last week. Photo by Neil Phillips.
Even As We Speak meeting radio DJ John Peel. Photo by Even As We Speak.
Secret Shine at the Bristol, UK, book launch last week. Photo by Neil Phillips.

 

Dream team: the musicians who play on Coconut Mirror

The New York singer-songwriter Connie Lovatt talks about all the amazing musicians who play on her new solo album, Coconut Mirror (out on our label Enchanté U.S. Sept. 27 on Bandcamp, CD and select streaming services). Workspace images courtesy of the artists.

Connie Lovatt’s workspace

Connie Lovatt, Coconut Mirror (Enchanté US, out Sept. 2023)
Songs written by Connie Lovatt / Produced by Connie Lovatt

Connie Lovatt: vocals, acoustic guitar, tambourine
James McNew: bass
Jim White: drums
Rebecca Cole: keyboards on Basin, Broke, Sisters, Snow
Che Chen: lead guitar on Sleep, Snow, Lines
Phoebe Gittins: piano on Broke, Gull, Heart, Honest, Kid, Snow, Zodiac
Lucy LaForge: backing vocals, harmonica on Sisters
Max Tepper: synthesizer on Heart, Honest, Snow, Sleep, Zodiac
Bill Callahan: vocals on Kid
James Baluyut: pedal steel on Sisters
Hartley Nandan: screaming on Sleep

Recorded by the artists and Joe Wohlmuth
Engineered and mixed by Joe Wohlmuth 
Mastered by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice at Peerless Mastering, Boston, MA

Jim White’s work area

Jim White: A brilliant friend that gave the album the topography of dreams. I’ve listened repeatedly to him playing on some of my favorite songs over the years and can barely believe he’s playing on mine. What kind of magic is this?

James McNew recording his bass parts; drawing by James

James McNew: If you could walk up to a music library and ask it “can you play bass on my songs?” and then the music library sits up cozy next to you and says “watch this” and solves all your problems.

Rebecca Cole’s recording room

Rebecca Cole: I asked her to play on some songs when she was practically 48 hours from leaving on tour with Pavement. Her suitcase was probably 1/2 packed on her bed. I got a very sweet “I’ll try” kind of answer. What she sent back sounded so good you would have thought I gave her a year’s time.

Where Che Chen makes his magic

Che Chen: I think the most interaction I’ve had with Che is sharing a smile as we walk past each other at a club or a hallway in a rehearsal space. But I knew his guitar playing very well. To me he is psychedelic in that he’s both the mindset and the setting. I felt brave asking him to play. He was kind and overdelivered and I love it all.

Phoebe Gittins’ piano and her assistant

Phoebe Gittins: I was at the end of my tattered thready rope when I started recording and man, I just didn’t know. Asking Phoebe to come by and play on a song to just see if it could be even something another musician could hold on to was one of my better moves. She is so melodic and musical that I’m telling everyone I know you need to lay roses at her feet and ask her to play on your songs. She’s the sweetest.

Where Max thinks of his outer space sounds

Max Tepper: Max is a family friend and our daughters have known each other from months old. He plays guitar and is road-tested and knows all the bands and all the stories. I knew keyboards and synths were a part of things in his world. I don’t know exactly when or why I heard synths on certain songs, but I was so lucky Max understood what I meant when I asked. He sprinkled the heavy sparkles!

Where Lucy LaForge works

Lucy LaForge: For my young daughter she was magical like Mary Poppins, except the umbrella was a guitar and the chimney sweep was a stuffed cow. For me, on this record, she was a rock who tried everything from tap dancing on the studio floor to harmonica, to trying all the harmonies on “Sisters” to autoharp. She has a bag of tricks no matter where she goes. 

James Baluyut’s music room

James Baluyut: A very patient man who helped me send off some final backing vocal ideas as he simultaneously figured out some flawless pedal steel for “Sisters.” He’s a positive force to be around when making music. Nimble and always pushing things forward. I took up his time but I brought him enormous chocolate chip cookies.

Bill Callahan’s workspace

Bill Callahan: He’s one of my favorite songwriters of all time. I got to sing on a couple of his songs a while back. It took a few years for me to write a song good enough for him to sing on. He won’t be losing any sleep about my latest theory, but I do think I’ve shortened his 8 furlong lead by an inch.

Where Joe Wohlmuth and Connie worked on Coconut Mirror

Joe Wohlmuth: All contributors, except in-town Lucy, recorded their own work and everyone did an excellent job. This method, no matter how carefully done, created many sonic scenarios that were out of Joe’s control. Background noises, mic issues, consistency, tempo, etc., etc., had to be addressed and blended together to Coconut Mirror’s starry-eyed standards. Joe has an ear that no note can slide past unaccounted for and he helped guide these songs through every step with an attentive ease.

Learn more about Connie’s previous bands here:
Containe Oral History
The Pacific Ocean Oral History

Listen to Coconut Mirror and other releases here. The album will be out Sept. 27 on select digital platforms and CD (via Bandcamp). 

Heavenly in the U.S.A.

In honor of the forthcoming Heavenly reissues (Skep Wax will rerelease all the Heavenly LPs on vinyl soon: Heavenly vs Satan is available on pre-order now; Le Jardin de Heavenly will follow next April and the other two will come along at six month intervals)—in addition to the John Peel Sessions on Precious Recordings and the announcement of the band’s forthcoming gigs at Bush Hall in London in May 2023—we asked the band to think back to 30 years ago and tell us about their impressions of the U.S. in the olden days! The very first issue of chickfactor was handed out at a Heavenly / Lois gig in Sept. 1992; I reviewed their second album in SPIN around the same time, and we interviewed them in chickfactor zine (Amelia is on the cover of issue 2).

Heavenly: Peter, Amelia, Rob, Mathew, and Cathy. Photo by Alison Wonderland

ROB PURSEY
Going to America was overwhelming, partly because we were going to meet loads of people for the first time—people whose records we’d heard, but from a distance of 3500 miles. Two of the encounters I remember most vividly from that first Heavenly trip are Phoebe Summersquash (Small Factory) and Jeffrey Underhill (Honeybunch).  Phoebe is one of the select band of people known as ‘girl drummers’. She was the most diminutive person in the band, she wore glasses and she smiled all the time, even while she beating the hell out of a drumkit. I loved that combination of effortless glee and thunderous noise. She was the living antidote to those theatrical drummers (and guitarists) who pretend to be working out in the gym, or summoning Satan, as if that was crucial to making a great sound. 

Heavenly. Photo by Alison Wonderland

Jeffrey Underhill, we met, I think, in Rhode Island. I don’t really remember the gig very well, but I was a big fan of Honeybunch. Their song ‘Mine Your Own Business’ was in my head all the time, and it still provides the soundtrack for my memories of our first trip to the US. Anyway, what I remember about Jeffrey was the fact that he showed up in a back alley in a really great old blue/green semi-beater of a car. I am a bit of a nut about old cars, and liked this one a lot. Me and Jeffrey didn’t talk much, I imagine we were both somewhat shy, but I do remember sitting on the bonnet thinking ‘this is the best car, and it belongs to the person who played the best song’.

Image courtesy of Heavenly

The encounters with all these new people came to a head at the Chickfactor Party, where there was a whole community was assembling. I didn’t really know anyone there, of course, but I somehow felt like I could get to know and like all of them. We were a long way from the UK, but we felt at home. Part of the reason for this was that women were running the Chickfactor show, and these were wry, witty women.  There was a lot of intellect behind Chickfactor, and a definite attitude, but there was a lot of humour too. The humour was a sign of confidence—there was nothing apologetic about it. That’s what being in Heavenly felt like. The women in our band were obviously in charge, but they wore it lightly. So New York, or at least this little indie corner of New York, felt more amenable to our band than a lot of places back in the UK. It was a good feeling.

Amelia: Image courtesy of Heavenly

CATHY ROGERS
I’m not sure any of my memories are really separable. The synapses which connect Heavenly to America all sit in a viscous bath of coffee and the new kind of cool of the straight edge punks and the smell of wet trees driving through Oregon and Massachusetts and the swooning delight of being in the same venn diagram overlap as the really rioting riot grrrls and gigs not being gigs any more but shows and the sheer heat of new experiences and new loves. America just felt so great. It was like finding a version of us that was just so sure of itself. So certain. Walk around the town like you own it…everyone, all the time.

Cathy: Image courtesy of Heavenly

Compared with that overpowering sense of it all, specific memories feel a bit humble. The drive down from Olympia to play a show with a band who turned out to be Tiger Trap, Calvin saying, classic understatement, ‘I guess you might kinda like this band.’ Meeting them to play a show together in this kind of basement garage, them all wearing roller skates, us being powerless to resist charms on that level. For some reason, having a conversation with a bunch of people about our favourite foods and everyone out-doing each other for eccentricity, then Molly from Bratmobile saying ‘I just want to eat rice’ and that becoming one of those weird things that I think of literally every time I cook rice. The novelty, playing at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, of being fed really well before a show. Laughing over-hearing an old guy in the audience, saying – after a whole raft of indie bands – about Lois, ‘Finally someone who can actually sing’. Meeting Ted and Jodi for the first time and being so jealous that Pete was somehow already friends with them, then seeing Jodi’s band (with another girl with a rad American name like Brooklyn or Maddison, I’m pretty sure the band was called The Runways) and thinking these were the most sensational people I’d ever met. Being interviewed for this magazine called Chickfactor and hearing of another wait what cool girls are somehow allowed to be mainstream now magazine called Sassy and realising that culture was an actual thing and the world changes and feeling that we lived in some small backwater but we were so lucky because we were here, for now. 

Amelia. Image courtesy of Heavenly

AMELIA FLETCHER
– On our first US tour, Pete and I being dropped off by Small Factory in Hartford, Connecticut, in the middle of the night. We were near the place we were all staying with my parents, and figured we’d call a taxi to get us home. But it turned out that the place we stopped at had been robbed the week before, and we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by police cars. We were freaked out. It felt like an episode of Starsky and Hutch. Then, when asked where we were heading, we realised we couldn’t remember the address. Not at all suspicious! In the end, though, the police believed the daft English people and gave us a lift home in the police car.

– Meeting Claudia Gonson from Magnetic Fields at Chet’s Last Call in Boston. She asked if I had time to come and record a song for her and Stephin Merritt’s side project, the 6ths, the next day. I said why not. I had heard ‘100,000 Fireflies’ on the ‘One Last Kiss’ compilation and liked it a lot. I remember I sang ‘Hall of Mirrors’ in an especially breathy way, and Stephin commented that I came complete with my own reverb!

Image courtesy of Heavenly

– Playing at the Fantagraphics Comics Warehouse in Seattle with Beat Happening and another band who I just remember as being very smelly! It was a great space, and I was excited because I was a big fan of ‘Love and Rockets’. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl both came, which seemed pretty thrilling too. We were easily thrilled!

The Heavenly option. Photo by Alison Wonderland

– Arriving in Olympia at the start of a West Coast tour, meeting Bratmobile and Bikini Kill and discovering Riot Grrrl. There was a visceral buzz around the whole place, and we quickly got very excited about it too. We had always been a feminist band, but in a quiet sort of way. We didn’t really feel part of the UK feminist movement at the time. It was fighting for stuff that was no doubt important but didn’t seem relevant to our concerns. So it was thrilling and empowering to find people discussing the issues that really had affected us. And to discover a whole set of new bands who had found a way of being outspoken and angry but also huge fun. It had a big impact on us, musically and personally.

Heavenly. Image courtesy of the band

PETER MOMTCHILOFF
I have opened the drawer in which I left my old memories of Heavenly in the USA. There is a lot there, but I can’t fit it together into any kind of story. My colleagues’ reminiscences do what I seem not to be able to. As a kind of coda, I do remember that we were brought down to earth by our first gig back in England after a West Coast tour, feeling rather pleased with ourselves. It was in a pub in Gillingham, to about five men and a dog. I don’t think they even turned the pub TV off while we played.

The late Mathew Fletcher. Image courtesy of Heavenly

Lotsa Pop Losers 30 years later!

Poster by Peter Hayes

Lotsa Pop Losers was a two-day music festival that took place at the American Legion Hall in Bethesda, Maryland on October 26, 1991, and the late d.c. space on October 27, 1991. Organized by three young independent labels in D.C. (Simple Machines, Slumberland and Teen-Beat), the festival was clearly inspired by the International Pop Underground Convention while also reflecting an East Coast pop/punk/indie/etc. music scene that felt pretty damn awesome at the time. The lineup was:

Saturday: Jonny Cohen, Swirlies, Kickstand, Lois Maffeo, Kicking Giant, Flying Saucer, Tsunami, Velocity Girl, Edsel, High Back Chairs
Sunday: Lorelei, Versus, Tear Jerks, Eggs, Lilys, Linda Smith, Sexual Milkshake, Small Factory, Sleepyhead, Unrest

We checked in with the organizers (Jenny Toomey + Kristin Thomson from Simple Machines and Tsunami; Mark Robinson from Teen-Beat and Unrest) and some performers Erin Smith (who played with Unrest at the event) and Michael Galinsky (Sleepyhead) to see what they could remember about the fall festival three damn decades ago. —Compiled by Gail O’Hara

Photograph of Unrest by Michael Galinsky

Did you attend Lotsa Pop Losers? What made you want to go? 

Mark Robinson (Teen-Beat, Unrest): I did. The bands, the people, the fun.
Erin Smith (Bratmobile, Teenage Gang Debs): Of course! It was a no-brainer that I was going to go. The 3 labels involved were some of my favorites, and the scene then was relatively small and insular—it seemed like all of my friends were playing! Plus, I am from Bethesda—and it was just too cool that one entire day of the fest was going to be held there. I’m very into Bethesda punk history. It might blow people’s minds now, but there were punk shows and venues in Bethesda, and certainly plenty of punks from there. I was very proud to introduce out of town visitors like Kicking Giant to my hometown!
Michael Galinsky (Sleepyhead): Sleepyhead played and a lot of our friends were also playing. I can’t remember where we stayed, but I do remember that Otis Ball came with us. In NY we played with Kicking Giant, Versus, and Flying Saucer a lot so I think we were the NY contingent. We also played with Small Factory and I guess that made us the Northeast contingent. We had also played quite a few shows with the bands like the Swirlies and Eggs. 

Erin Smith by Michael Galinsky

Were there other festivals like this you’d been to before? How was this different?

Erin: I had been to IPU (International Pop Underground Convention), which had just happened in Olympia, WA, 2 months before, in late August, 1991, with I believe only Kicking Giant, Sleepyhead, and Lois playing both fests. This was kind of cool in that it was 20 bands condensed into 2 days—so one long day in Bethesda at the American Legion Hall, and one long day in DC at dc space. It gave us a lot of time to all hang out together in one place!
Mark: I think this was probably my first festival like this. Maybe my first music festival of any kind.
Michael: We had also played at IPU and Lollipops and booze in Cambridge. This was more akin to IPU on a somewhat smaller scale. This was a bit more intimate and it was different for us because by this point we knew a lot more people so it was more like a reunion than being overwhelmed by a ton of new people. Somehow we were given a really prime spot on the bill. This was maybe the only time we played with Unrest, a band that I had a really profound respect for, so that had some meaning. 
Kristin Thomson (Simple Machines Records / Tsunami): Yes! We’d just attended—and Tsunami had played—at the International Pop Underground in Olympia, WA in August 1991. 
Jenny Toomey (Simple Machines Records / Tsunami): I’m sure we were inspired by IPU. We’d been to festivals before, but nothing as organized, three dimensional or as delightfully weird, as IPU. I’d spent 6 weeks in Olympia the previous summer after my first band Geek had toured the US with Superchunk and Seaweed. Aaron Stauffer talked me into coming back west and Candice was traveling so I rented her apartment and was living in the heart of the scene. So I’d experienced the strange time travel of the place up close. There were ways that Olympia was a north star and felt like it was way out ahead of the rest of the world, super feminist, queer positive, everyone was an artist and there were so many folks building and experimenting together—so much possibility. It was absolutely utopic. But there was also this darker, retro backward flavor to the town as well, a bizarro element, like a sci-fi novel where you walk through a time door and everything is cherry pie on the surface and sneaky drugs and violence and grudges underneath. Beat Happening had that mix in spades, like a caramel apple with a razor blade center. I think IPU was so great because it had that depth. It wasn’t just twee “hey, let’s do something fun and pretty”; it had a combination of bands and events and happenings that stretched across all that territory. Things that were public and celebrated and joyful and things that were hidden and dark. It was also so various; it had a “choose your own adventure” element. Some of the things I remember most was the happenstance of the event and have equal weight to the shows. Like, being in line at the grocery store between a Melvin and Jad Fair. Having to pitch a tent in the Capitol Theater because the recycling room in the Martin Apartments where you thought you were going to sleep was already taken by (I think) David Lester, and the Capitol Theater was full of fleas.

Program image courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

Kristin: There were so many parts of IPU that I loved. The Melvins playing an outdoor afternoon show. The Cake Walk. The Planet of the Apes movie day. And, honestly, one of the most emotionally raw Fugazi shows I ever witnessed. I also remember the jolt of joy I got when our event passes came in the mail, cut with pinking shears and hung on fat red crafting yarn. The entire ethos of IPU, and K Records, was very inspiring.
Jenny: We had a lot of experience organizing shows because of our involvement with Positive Force and from being in a band and booking tours. At those shows, in addition to bands, there were typically speakers, tabling, and sometimes there was also a die-in, or a punk percussion protest, or a march. But Lotsa Pop Losers was very different from a Positive Force show. It was way more whimsical and it was a joint effort, and it was a moment the newer labels were finding each other, and imagining the possibilities of what we could do together. When Kristin joined the Simple Machines crew, we just egged each other on into making every little thing extra with the label. So, before a tour, we’d do things like hand silk-screen and individually monogram thrifted golf jackets for every member of our band, and for the bands we were touring with. (Wish I still had that jacket). And Mark Robinson certainly had a bit of that “extra” in how he was running Teen-Beat, with the numbering of everything and hand making record covers and with the way he followed his passions with abandon. Mike of the three of us seemed to know a lot more about what was actually going on in the broader music sphere and out in the world, likely because of everything he saw as Vinyl Ink. So we were really able to bring our fetishes together for Lotsa Pop Losers.

Program image courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

Organizers, what do you remember about putting it together? 

Mark: Jenny and Kristin from Simple Machines came up with the idea and were the ring leaders. They then generously asked me and Mike Schulman if Teen-Beat and Slumberland would be involved, respectively. They made tons of cool merch. Trading cards for all the musicians/bands, Lots of Pop Losers t-shirts, posters etc.
Kristin: It’s funny to look back now and realize that there were only eight weeks between playing IPU in Olympia, and Lotsa Pop Losers in DC. You have to remember, this is pre-internet, so all of the organizing with Mark at Teen-Beat and Mike at Slumberland happened in person or on the phone. To add to this, both Jenny and I had full-time, non-rock jobs. So, to me looking back 30 years, the fact that it happened on an eight-week timeline is astounding, just on a logistical level. How did we confirm 20 bands in time to get Peter Hayes to design and for Jeff Nelson to screen a three-color poster that included all the bands’ names? Lots of post-work Big Gulps and late nights.
Jenny: I tend to forget the things that were difficult, particularly so many years out from the event, but in my memory it seemed to come together with very little effort. We were connected to and incredibly inspired by the Dischord scene, who also had a kind of boundless energy for running at things they were curious about. Knowing them made it easy to get the beautiful posters made by Jeff Nelson and Peter Hayes. We were beginning to feel proud of the other labels in the DC area—Teen-Beat and Slumberland. I know there was a lot of mutual admiration among our labels, so it was easy to call Mark and Mike, and just delegate responsibilities for inviting all of these new bands and pulling everything together.

event flier – image courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

Kristin: Lotsa Pop Losers was an opportunity to add some handmade, community-driven extras. We designed and silkscreened “Teen Slumber Machine” t-shirts. We put together sets of “DC Treasure” baseball cards, highlighting some of the cool people and places in the scene. And the show included an indie rock scorecard, so audience members could run up to the front of the stage to get their card stamped after each band. We’d had some practice with Positive Force shows putting together booklets, and Simple Machines probably had six or eight releases by now, but I’m sure being at IPU, being on tour, reading new zines, buying new 7-inches, and working with Teen-Beat and Slumberland, we were bursting with ideas about all the fun things we could pack into a show. (A sidebar on what was also happening Sept/Oct 1991: I just noticed while looking through some archival folders for this article that we also organized a Positive Force show at the American Legion Hall in Bethesda in the same eight-week period— September 30, 1991—with the Melvins. We got a noise complaint from the police, but instead of stopping, the Melvins continued to play on volume level 1 and stage whispered their lyrics. And, of all things, the famous Nirvana show at JC Dobbs in Philly was the next day— October 1, 1991. I didn’t go up to Philly for this, but Jenny did.) 
Jenny: And it’s hard to remember that back then we were touring without (and largely living without) the internet so on the road there was little to do but read, journal and imagine the next amazing things you’d work on when you landed.

Erin Smith and Pam Berry at Lotsa Pop Losers, American Legion Hall, Bethesda. Photo by Tae Won Yu

Performers, what did it feel like to be there? What were the fans like? 

Erin: Much like with IPU, with so many bands, the venues being small, and the acts themselves being pretty obscure—the fans really were the other musicians. There was not a clear demarcation between the bands and the fans. A lot of mutual admiration society going on, with bands watching each other from the pit. Bratmobile were slated to play, but weren’t able to given that we were all in college and living on 2 different coasts. I did play 2nd guitar with Unrest at the dc space show, which was incredible— they were one of my favorite bands!  I played probably 3 or 4 songs with them—I did this twice live—the Lotsa Pop Losers show, and later in Chapel Hill.  
Mark: I seem to remember that there were almost as many performers in the audience as there were “fans.”
Michael: This felt a lot like a community event than a fan event. The audience was likely 50 percent people in bands who were playing. That made it more intimate. It made it both low pressure and high pressure at the same time. We always wanted to bring everything we had to every show, and since we were largely playing for peers, the stakes were higher in that regard, but there was also a sense that people understood us so we had less to prove.
Kristin:
I remember it being a really joyful, eager, friendly crowd. 
Jenny: …and it felt like a lot of the audience were in the other bands. It was a community event. There wasn’t that divide of performer/artist vs consumer/audience.
Kristin: …which was also cool! It was a time when most of these bands were just starting to tour, so we were all pretty excited to watch each other perform.

Event T-shirt (back); image courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

It seemed like an exciting time for the East Coast pop scene. What did the community feel like then?  

Jenny: It felt alive with possibility. It wasn’t like we didn’t love the Dischord scene—I was obsessed with the Dischord bands and wouldn’t miss a show—but the next generation of labels were also coming into their own and putting out great records and I loved them too. It felt really exciting. We were still living in the Positive Force house at that time, and there were people who didn’t think it was punk enough and who were very suspicious of the Sub Pop commercialism, which was beginning to influence so much of the independent music scene. Some of our housemates would spend hours arbitrarily deciding which of the pop groups were sufficiently punk, adding logic loopholes exempting the groups they liked. It felt like they were fighting the world’s smallest war and the unnecessary heavy atmosphere was one sign that it was getting time for us to move out into the first Simple Machines house.
Erin: In 1991, with Gen X just starting to be able to take a little tiny piece of the control of the media from Baby Boomers, it felt like everyone I knew in the local punk community was starting to get nationally recognized at the same time. Things like Sassy Magazine (for which I was the Washington Bureau Chief) started to take notice of the DC bands and give them some national press. SPIN and the Washington Post started to write about it more and more, too. This is just about the time Nirvana broke and things got really crazy.
Mark: Small. But there was definitely a connection between the DC and NY/New England bands—like we were doing something new and somehow connected to each other. My band had already been around for 8 or 9 years at this point, so it was interesting and great that we were included in this movement, scene, or whatever it was.
Michael: Having a bunch of bands that we regularly played with and saw at other shows created a pretty powerful sense of community. Everyone in bands that we played with was involved in other creative activities and that created pathways for all kinds of creative connections. I feel like that community made it possible for me to find a foundation to be creative.

LPL card set. Image courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

What performances do you remember? New artists discovered? 

Mark: Pretty sure this was the first time I saw Versus play. Not only was their set amazing, but they would quickly become my favorite band. One interesting thing about this festival that there were a lot of New York and New England bands… My band had played CBGB and other places like that in New York countless times, but in 1991 we had started playing different venues like the Spiral which was a kind of hub for bands in this new scene. 
Michael: Kicking Giant roaring through their set. Unrest being unreal. Lilys.
Jenny: I remember Jonny Cohen had a great set, and it might have been one of the first times we saw Small Factory who were a fan favorite for the VG crew. And, of course, Unrest and Versus, who to this day remain my favorite, favorite bands. 

LPL card set 2. Image courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

What was the vibe in general? 

Jenny: It felt like a new scene. It also felt established … not a beginning, but an actuality. Like “here we all are, of course we are here.” 
Kristin: There was also a really great ratio of women performing. DC had a number of women who were either in bands or played important roles in the punk scene. And even though this wasn’t a deliberate plan, it’s affirming to look back and see just how many of the bands playing at Lotsa Pop Losers had women in them. 
Mark: The vibe was just one of having fun. 
Michael: pleasant low-key calm, with some intense musical moments.

Kicking Giant at Lotsa Pop Losers. Photo courtesy of Tae Won Yu

Was it covered by mainstream media then and if so, did they get it? 

Jenny: My memory isn’t good here. I think a person from SPIN or Option came down, but we thought it was kind of weird to have mainstream interest. I have a memory that Mark (Jenkins) from the City Paper may have written something. 
Kristin: Lotsa Pop Losers might have been even a few months too early for the mainstream music press to be interested in this East Coast indie scene. I feel like the Providence Indie Rock Explosion, which happened about six months later, attracted more music press attention. I believe that was one of Belly’s first shows, and by then you could really feel the momentum building around some indie rock bands.
Michael: I recall seeing some stuff in zines but not really the media.

LPL treasure cards; images courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

Anything else you remember? 

Erin: I was not a fan of the name Lotsa Pop Losers—a play on both Lollapalooza and Sub Pop’s use of “Loser” at the time—because the fest was full of some of the most underground and amazing bands I knew, not to mention the coolest people! No way were any of these people “losers”!
Michael: I remember doing “surrender” with Otis. 
Mark: Each label got to choose approximately one-third of the bands that would perform. I also wanted to screen a film, Hippie Porn by Jon Moritsugu, so we did that on the first day at the VFW hall. There was a TV and VHS player set up in the corner and perhaps 2 or 3 people gathered around and watched it before the first band played. I remember it being kind of cold since it was the end of October, but I was still wearing shorts. It always took me a while to change my wardrobe to match the seasons. I also remember not being completely in love with the name of the festival; that it was kind of named after Lollapalooza—and that we were “losers”—ha ha.
Jenny: Looking back 30 years, I think it was just one of those moments when things came together. They happen from time to time where a lot of complementary energy just shows up in the same space. For us that was exactly when a few different labels and bands became intertwined in such a strong way. Out of it came records, tours, friendships. When I finally joined Facebook about five years after it started, someone advised me to only friend people who I would let sleep on my couch. As a couch surfing and couch sharing musician, that was a pretty long list, but when I look at my friends list today, all the LPL alumni are there. It’s awesome to see so many of them are still creating, collaborating and sharing music with the world, and if any of them are ever up in Catskill (Kristin: or near Philadelphia!) you can let them know we’ve actually got a guest room now.

Read this 2013 oral history in Washington City Paper for more quotes about the event!

LPL treasure cards; images courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

Kickstand and friends; photo courtesy of Tae Won Yu
LPL treasure cards; images courtesy Jenny + Kristin from Simple Machines

IPUC at 30! The International Pop Underground Convention Remembered by Those Who Were There on its 30th Anniversary

We asked a few folks to look back and try to remember what it felt like attending, organizing, and performing at the very influential International Pop Underground Convention, which took place August 20–25, 1991 in Olympia, Washington, was organized by Calvin and Candice from K Records, and featured a crazy good lineup including Beat Happening, Bratmobile, the Pastels, Jad Fair, Kicking Giant, Some Velvet Sidewalk, Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses, Sleepyhead, Scrawl, Nikki McClure, Rose Melberg and loads more. This type of festival became a blueprint and surely influenced our foray into party throwing a few years later. Some folks remember it as a magical utopian moment in time, others were stressed and disillusioned. Whatever those who attended felt, it was a pivotal moment for independent labels, great pop and punk music, and a spirit and community still with us today.

Convention pass courtesy of Rose Melberg

Did you attend the convention? What made you want to go? 
Nikki McClure: Yes. It felt like it would be the center of the world that week. I had a job in the mountains during the week (field ornithology) and threatened to quit when my boss wouldn’t let me take the week off as promised. He let me go and keep my job. I was willing to risk complete poverty for the Convention. My boyfriend at the time went to Europe with Nirvana to the Reading Festival. That moment felt like a cultural divide. Everything shifted in August 1991.
Erin Smith (Bratmobile): YES!  I was a major K kid from ’87 on, so it was a no-brainer I was going. That was the entire center of my universe—virtually EVERY band I loved at the time was playing IPU.  I was OBSESSED with Beat Happening! Bratmobile were asked by Calvin Johnson to play as well—a total dream come true!  Bratmobile were actually the only band to play 2 shows at IPU—both on Girl Night—8/20, and an early morning show with Kicking Giant and Jad Fair on 8/23.
Michael Galinsky: Sleepyhead got invited to play, largely due to Tae’s suggestion. I don’t think we even had a single out yet, maybe we did… it’s murky, but we had just done our first 10-day, 5-show tour that July. So, we were a little more prepared to play. I might have gone even if we weren’t playing, but I was also pretty broke so it would have been a big reach for me. Thankfully the awesome folks in Treehouse offered us a place to stay, which made it more possible. Allison from Bratmobile lent us her car to go pick up Rachael, our drummer, about two hours before we had to play. All went smoothly until we left the airport and realized we needed gas. She had given us the key to the car but not the gas key, which we discovered when we pulled over to get gas. Thankfully we made it into town and had to jump on stage shortly after we got there.

Memories from Lois Maffeo


Tobi Vail: Yes. I honestly don’t remember if I wanted to go or not. I mostly grew up in Olympia and I was a part of the K scene as a teenager but after I was assaulted by a stranger at 18 (in my first apartment in Eugene) what I perceived to be traditional gender roles and cute 1950s aesthetic of K no longer spoke to me (if it ever really did). I was in a band with Calvin (’85–89) as a teen and I looked up to him but that experience ended on a bad note. The year before IPU I was part of a feminist awakening of young women in the NW music scene, which eventually led to us starting riot grrrl. We were angry and pushing back against male domination and patriarchy and at that point I feel like most men in the Olympia music scene were threatened by us—exceptions were the teenagers in Unwound and the guys in Nirvana, who were super supportive. We had a little trouble communicating with K when they were distributing our self-released demo tape and ended up pulling it from their mail order to distribute on our own and I don’t think they understood why we wanted to control everything but that was really important to us at the time. So it was nice that the festival was organized by a woman (Candice) who became a co-owner of K. In retrospect I do appreciate that K sold our tape through their mail order and I appreciate their support but I wish that we had been able to communicate with them a little better about sales.
Ira Robbins: I was there and wrote about it in Rolling Stone, which earned me a death threat from Ian Svenonius.

Bratmobile photographed by Michael Galinsky

Had there been other festivals like this you’d been to before? What felt different about it? 
Nikki M: It really felt like a Convention and not just some shows. A Convention needed banners! So I made some from dyed sheets with sticks found on the old growth forests I was working in. I made them on the floor of the ranger cabin that I lived at during the week, rolled them up and headed to Oly then unfurled them from the windows of The Martin apartments. There was more happening than music. It was a collection of people forming an international underground community and network. It was important work.
Candice Pedersen (IPUC organizer/formerly K Records): I’d never been to a music festival or conference before. The IPU was designed so that the bands and the audience would come to us! But seriously, the IPU convention was a chance to be at a conference that was designed by the kids for the kids. 
Erin Bratmobile: Festivals for “our” brand of indie were not so commonplace at this point.  Of all things, I’d won tickets to the first Lollapalooza, so attended that in DC the SAME week as IPU, turned 19 that day, then flew to Olympia.
Tobi Bikini Kill: No.
Michael Sleepyhead: We went to a couple of others after this. Lotsa Pop Losers (which wasn’t as big but had a similar inclusive vibe) and Lollipops and Booze, which was more of a schedule of shows with a pass over the course of a week than a festival like this. So, no, this was a truly unique and powerful event.

Scrawl photographed by Rose Melberg

Organizers, what do you remember about putting it together? 
Candice Pedersen: Everything and nothing. I remember being adamant that the design should include blackberries as they are Olympia in August in a nutshell. I remember hand making the badges. I remember when it was proposed (not by us!) that there should be a “girl night” and worrying that if it was the first night no one would be there. Which was exactly what didn’t happen. It was the most electric night of the entire festival. I remember the Sub Pop BBQ—it was great to have them as part of the convention even if there wasn’t any food. 
Nikki M: I made banners. I helped Candice make invites. Calvin had issued a call to action which is still vital and raw. She wanted formal invites mailed to people. I made a blackberry vine image, which now seems fitting for those hot, sweet, thorn-scratched days.

Convention pass courtesy of Stephen Pastel

Performers, what did it feel like to be there? What were the fans like? 
Stephen Pastel: From our perspective just being invited was really exciting. It was the first time we’d played in the US and it was the first time we’d played a community type event on that scale. Everything about it seemed thought through, joined up—the groups, the audiences, the spaces, the city. We were so impressed by all the work that Calvin, Candice and their friends had put into it—it was so ahead of its time. I remember the Beat Happening show being incredible, seeing them at their best in a beautiful theatre space with an absolutely packed out audience just going wild for them.  It felt like we were at the epicentre of something new and the world had suddenly changed for the better.   
Rose Melberg: I remember going to my first punk show at 13. all guys of course. it was like Social Distortion and Battalion of Saints and I was standing in the back of the venue in Sacramento. I was tiny. I was up in the top and my first thought was: the safe place is on stage. I was terrified of what was happening in the pit but I wanted to be a part of that and I saw it in my mind. I was having all these ideas of what it would look like and feel like to sing in a punk band, just scream and be above everyone. it was my first punk show and that was the feeling I got. I wanted to be on the stage. partly out of fear and partly out of power but mostly because I wanted to be part of it so bad. I was 19 when got up onstage at IPU. I was terrified. I had a physical reaction to it. my hands shook violently. I wanted to get on that stage so bad but my body wouldn’t even let me. I had to kind of detach because I knew I wanted it so bad—even though my body was telling me “don’t do this”—I couldn’t even hold my guitar pick. I was so desperate to be included. I didn’t want to feel left out. I didn’t want to be in the audience. I wanted to be liked and acknowledged and heard (from chickfactor 18, interview with the Softies).
Nikki M: This was also my first time performing. I sang a few songs at Girl Night, the songs I sang in the woods to ward away bears. It was powerful to hear those songs fill the theater. Those 5 minutes were life altering.The theater was packed. It was the first night and every one was so eager and open to possibility. We were creating our own world.
Michael Sleepyhead: It was wonderful to be there, but no one had even heard of us so it was kind of like going to a film festival with your first film, where you don’t know a lot of folks. Although, this was a little different as we knew a couple of the bands from their visits to NY and we had Tae to make some introductions. It was fun to play for sure, but also kind of hard to do an outdoor show when we had never done anything remotely like that. We were young and excited and it just meant a ton to us to be invited into the community. 

Bikini Kill photographed by Rose Melberg

Tobi Bikini Kill: Bikini Kill got to play the festival but we were added late and had to play an afternoon show on a small stage. I feel like someone from DC got us on the bill at the last minute but I really can’t be sure. I remember feeling kind of bummed that we didn’t get to play with Nation of Ulysses who we had been on tour with and spent the summer with in DC but I was happy that we got to play. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to practice that summer as Kathi, our bass player, had gone to Europe by herself. It was a hard show for us. We weren’t ready and had a lot of equipment trouble but I think some of it was pretty good.
Erin Bratmobile: Girl Night especially was completely intense.  The stuff of legend now!  The launching point for so much.  Heavens 2 Betsy played their first ever show at IPU—Rose Melberg as Tiger Trap, too.  So I got to witness both Corin Tucker and Rose Melberg’s first times on stage.  I remember Corin coming up to me after the show and complimenting me on the Bratmobile set.  It was all so new to me, too—I had no idea how to respond!  

Beat Happening photographed by Rose Melberg

Fans, what do you remember loving about it? 
Nikki M: Probably many Performers were Fans 90% of the time. I remember dancing and responding to the immediacy of sound and to the intimacy of hanging out with those who just made you dance so crazy afterwards. It was a Convention, We were all attendees, not so much fan or performer.
Michael Sleepyhead: As a fan I was blown away by seeing a lot of bands I had only heard about, like Bikini Kill, Jad with the Pastels was amazing. Seeing Beat Happening play to a packed house that was all in was astounding. Nation of Ulysses was on fire. the Bratmobile Kicking Giant show was inspiring. It was also nice that the whole thing felt very community focused.
Erin Bratmobile: Olympia is magic.  Being able to just WALK and see every band I loved over the course of a week was wild. All of my heroes were playing!  When Stephen Pastel asked to borrow my Sears Silvertone amp—well, he was a hero of mine to say the least.  Just a couple years before I was buying my first Pastels album, and now, not only was I playing the same festival of them, Stephen liked my amp?! There was not a whole lot of divide between the bands and the fans. The bands were fans, too!
Tobi Bikini Kill: I lived across the street. It was overwhelming. People kept coming over to my teeny tiny apartment. It was nice to have friends in town but there was no escape. I don’t remember the fans, it seemed like everyone here was in a band and it was just like people in the audience getting up on stage and vice versa. That was pretty cool.
Rich Siegmeister: I was friends with Sleepyhead but they made their own arrangements and I traveled there by myself. I needed a hotel. K records was offering to help and it sounds crazy now but they randomly placed people together. I ended up in a room with a nice guy. We didn’t hang out much together but when it came time to sleep, he came out in silvery silk pajamas. We were each in our single beds but crazy. Also I was hanging outside talking to some nice people from New Zealand. I was telling them how I loved the Clean and the Chills and this all girl group Look Blue Go Purple. They got a look on their faces and then one of them yelled out “Lizzie you got a fan.” A member of the band was there and couldn’t believed I was listening to them.

Sleepyhead photographed by Michael Galinsky

It was a very exciting new fresh time for music and culture: What did the community feel like then and is some of it still intact for you? 
Candice P: The community felt intimate and yet also disparate. Everyone was together but still had their own thing going, which I appreciate. I wouldn’t say the community from then is still intact for me. But, many of the friendships I had then and made then are still the most important friendships I have today. And many faded as they do.
Erin Bratmobile: It’s hard to understand in retrospect, and it might not even be fully understood unless you were there, but IPU was like the big bang and really everything came from that in a lot of ways. It’s all still totally intact. Friendships formed over that week for so many have been life long. It was life changing, and that’s not hyperbole.
Michael Sleepyhead: That community is still foundational for me. Tae drew the cover for our first single and he designed my photo book two years ago. I went on to make films but my foundational community is still the music one. It is wildly more open and supportive than the film world. 
Nikki M: The community was always present then and possibilities were always blooming. Now that spirit is there, but things aren’t nearly as spontaneous or untamed. It feels like it might just be me, but I think we all are thinking that…maybe? We all have embers we carry from that time and still use in our lives.
Tobi Bikini Kill: For me it was a little bit of a sad time. Nirvana wanted to play and they were not allowed because they had signed to a major label. The ’80s were ending and the ’90s were starting. L7 were great. I was confused that they got to play but Nirvana didn’t. I remember wishing that they didn’t sign but understanding why they did. I didn’t think we needed corporations to buy and sell our music and I think that was kind of the main idea of IPU.

Photograph by Michael Galinsky

What performances do you remember? New artists discovered? 
Candice P: I love all my children equally. 
Erin Bratmobile: I STILL hear IPU stage banter replaying in my head.  Thee Headcoats: “Oh, fuck your mother.” L7: “Keep your elbows off the knockers!!” The Bikini Kill set was absolutely revolutionary. The Mummies were incredible! I remember heading straight to the pit—all of Bikini Kill and all of Bratmobile together—to watch the Nation of Ulysses.  After their blistering performance, I remember James Canty coming back out onstage to humbly announce the release of their first record.  I was SO PROUD!  
Tobi Bikini Kill: Bratmobile played two sets I think and they were very good. Heavens To Betsy at girl night were incredible. Mecca Normal were great, as always. I remember being excited The Pastels were going to play but I would have been more excited to have seen them a few years earlier when they were still one of my favorite groups. Nation of Ulysses was my favorite group at the time but I remember Thee Headcoats as being the best group at IPU by far. They had played Olympia the year before and both shows were nuts. I think the band I discovered at the fest is The Mummies—they were so good and fun and funny. Fugazi was great too.
Nikki M: Fugazi. Heavens to Betsy. Rose. Jad Fair. Beat Happening. I Scream Truck. Nation of Ulysses. The Pastels. Cake walk. A picnic with no food.

Slim Kill Rock Stars, Rose Melberg and Al Some Velvet Sidewalk (photo courtesy of Rose)

What was the vibe in general? 
Candice P: For me the vibe was hectic. The Pastels were staying in my apartment, I had to co-host the event, and I was trying to spend time with friends. The time flew by. I was supposed join the Pastels on their west coast tour after the convention but I was too exhausted/sick to go. Chris Jordan so kindly took my place at the last minute. 
Nikki M: Festive. Spontaneous. After this past year, it seems fantastical that we once so freely mingled and danced and ate cake. It was powerful. All dreams became possible.
Tobi Bikini Kill: A little stressful. Like too much going on at once. It was also very odd to have people not from here acting like it was quaint or cute or utopian or something and not really understanding where they were. By 1991, Olympia was no longer a milltown but the brewery was still here. It was still pretty working class, the center of southwest Washington, which was populated by loggers and timber workers. It was a kind of rough place to live if you were nonconformist. The Evergreen State College is a public school and very progressive but it’s very small. Olympia never really was a liberal college town because the population of students has always been just a few thousand and my impression is that most people who end up going there are kids from the NW who couldn’t afford or get into a more expensive school. Local kids who went to punk shows and hippies from Evergreen got targeted and bullied and physically assaulted by guys in pickup trucks downtown. The IPU people didn’t really seem to notice any of that. Also it rains more than 150 days a year in Olympia and it was very sunny that week. It all seemed like a dream.

Tae Kicking Giant photographed by Michael Galinsky

Why do you think there was this link between D.C. and Olympia? Was it down to individuals or was it just a shared ethos? 
Nikki M: Both! Individuals sharing an ethos but with differences between the East and West. Both explored and created cultural freedom. For the Cake Walk, Cynthia Connolly (DC and Dischord) made a vegan chocolate cake topped with freshly picked blackberries, if I remember correctly. That cake seemed the perfect pairing of the 2 sides of the country.
Candice: It’s a shared ethos. 
Erin Bratmobile: I think it began as certain individuals and grew to be a shared ethos.  Calvin Johnson lived in Bethesda, MD, in the late ’70s/early ’80s, so was involved in the DC punk scene before going back to Olympia and Evergreen. Then the cross-pollination of the scenes continued. DC had great record stores like Yesterday & Today that stocked K titles, and Calvin visited family in the DC area all through the ’80s into the early ’90s, always bringing along records and making more connections. I connected with being a K and indie kid before I then grew to intensely love Dischord and the DC underground. Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi were my gateway drug in that regard, if that makes sense!
Tobi Bikini Kill: Olympia is the capital of Washington so there are a lot of natural connections—one of them being that Calvin went to high school in both places.
Michael Sleepyhead: I think it was both the shared ideals and the musical influences created a strong cross current that made sense—I felt like going on tour was like being in the pony express. Bands carried information and ideas from one town to the next and in some ways DC and Oly were kind of the terminuses at the end of the routes.

Rose Melberg, the very first time she ever got onstage or sang into a microphone. (Photo courtesy Rose)

Was it covered by mainstream media then and if so, did they get it? 
Nikki M: Who cared? We were mostly happy to outnumber the logging trucks.
Tobi Bikini Kill: Yes and no.
Candice: I think there was national media outside of indie fanzines. I remember Ira Robbins wrote something. But, if people “got it” or not didn’t concern me. “It” was something for different for everyone. And, I didn’t care if media got what it was to me.  

The Pastels photographed by Rose Melberg

Is there anything else you remember? 
Candice: I don’t remember meeting Scotty but he remembers meeting me (I asked him how old he was!). But, I’m glad we were both there because one year later we started dating and 29 years later we’re still together. 
Nikki M: Driving with Calvin to the Sup Pop picnic but there was no food left. People signing the back of the Kill Rock Stars albums like they were yearbooks with the silkscreen ink still a bit tacky. Melvins at the park. Blueprint posters taped to my door fading over time. Was this the festival that the theater cat peed on the shirts?
Erin Bratmobile: The first Kill Rock stars comp came out on vinyl the week of IPU, all hand silkscreened covers, with no time even to put the art on the back yet. So all of the copies given to the bands that were on the comp had hand done covers and blank backs. Several of us, myself included, got autographs of the other bands on the blank backs, high school yearbook style. 
Tobi Bikini Kill: The first Kill Rock Stars compilation came out at IPU. The front was silkscreened and the back was blank so everyone used the back like a yearbook and signed each other’s records. That was pretty cool. 
Michael Sleepyhead: I don’t have a good tactile memory. Thankfully I have pictures, though not nearly enough from that event. What I do recall was that the whole summer felt the beginning of something for me. It takes a lot of hope to start a band and then commit to it in the way that we felt we needed to. The summer before we had moved to Providence to live together. It wasn’t an easy transition but we muddled through and became more of a band. We started to play out in NY a lot which connected us with NY bands like flying saucer, ruby falls, antietam, and many others. II spent months booking that first tour which we went on a few weeks before IPU. On that trip we met some incredibly creative people and that just changed my life. Then we went out to Olympia and that sense of being part of a community became some much more profound.

See more photos of IPUC by Michael Galinsky here.

Rachel Kicking Giant (photographed by Rose Melberg)
The Pastels with Jad Fair (photographed by Rose Melberg)
Bratmobile with Michelle Noel (photographed by Rose Melberg)
Some Velvet Sidewalk (photographed by Rose Melberg)

Sleepyhead (photographed by Rose Melberg)
Kicking Giant (Photographed by Michael Galinsky)

The Pacific Ocean: An Oral History

The Pacific Ocean was Edward Baluyut and Connie Lovatt; NYC, 1997. Photo: Gail O’Hara

The Pacific Ocean was a band that formed around 1996 and made music through the early 21st century, releasing one EP and two albums that remain criminally neglected and underrated. The brains, brawn and beauty (and heart and soul) of the band were Edward Baluyut (Versus) and Connie Lovatt (Containe, Alkaline), with Steve Pilgrim as a pretty regular member. As Enchanté and Teen-Beat both premiere their music on Bandcamp this Friday, we rounded up some friends, family and fans of the band to try to remember what was so great about them!

Why did you decide to form the Pacific Ocean? 
Connie Lovatt (The Pacific Ocean): 
Have you seen Ed play guitar or drums? He’s very thought out and precise. But he’s also really responsive and open. He’s also very supportive and patient. And I required patience. I didn’t know anything about playing instruments compared to him. We were friends for a while before we started playing together so I just remember it being really easy.

How did you meet?
Connie Lovatt: All things that involve me playing music start with Richard Baluyut. He introduced me to the songs of a million bands. I met Ed and Fontaine through Richard. I met Richard when I was a baby19. My first interaction with Ed was when he was on the phone with Richard, and I remembered he said something really crass about me and I liked him instantly. Or wanted him to like me. 

What was the biggest inspiration for the songs you wrote? 
Connie Lovatt: 
Love that righted me and love that wronged me.

How did you write and record songs? 
Connie Lovatt:
 Ed wrote ideas on guitar. If I could manage worthwhile vocals and bass, then we had enough to structure things. Ed was the captain. 

Poster by LD Beghtol

What was Ed like as a child? Were you guys all musical? 
James Baluyut (Versus, +/-): Ed was an overachiever as a kid. Super competitive with his older brother. Reading Tolkien in 4th grade. Advanced math. Honors student. He was even a football star in middle school. He had a considerable size advantage in eighth grade. He was the same height in eighth grade as he is now! Unfortunately, everyone else grew the following year and his future football career evaporated. Both Ed and Richard played organ from a young age and then stopped. My parents didn’t really push me into that though I kinda wish they had. We listened to classic rock radio a lot in the car. Detroit’s a good place for that. For some reason, our parents let us kids control the radio. Our older cousin had a guitar and a Marshall. He took us to see Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii. That’s probably where it all started. The Abbey Theater 1-2-3.
Richard Baluyut (Versus): Ed is the classic middle child, innately driven to try to be better than his older brother, and occasionally succeeding; he is a much better drummer and basketball player than I am. And at organ. 

How long have you known the Baluyut Bros?  
Patrick Ramos (Versus, +/-{Plus Minus}: I have very few memories in my life of a time before I knew the Baluyut Bros. They aren’t in all of those memories but the ones in which they are, are all traumatic. Kidding! We lived about a mile apart from each other and our parents were friends, so our families pretty much grew up together. True story: I lent them my drumset and Casio keyboard for some of their earliest musical ventures.

Tell us about the ideas that went into making the records: 
Birds Don’t Think They’re Flying (Enchanté, 1997)
Edward Baluyut (The Pacific Ocean): We recorded the album spontaneously in basically 3 days. Nicholas Vernhes (Rare Book Room) was just starting to build his new studio and he recorded it and produced it for basically nothing as he was testing out his new equipment. Since he was doing us a favor, we did our takes very quickly without worrying about correcting small mistakes. Also, I had to come up with drum parts on the spot since we didn’t have a drummer yet. The result was a relatively raw-sounding record, but we were definitely proud of our first EP, and for me, it felt good to be a primary songwriter for the first time since, with Versus—as much as I enjoyed finding my “voice” as a drummer—I was playing more of a supporting role.
Connie Lovatt: This was our first time recording. It went quickly. Nicolas was trying out his new space and stuff. I was so happy to be getting the songs down and playing with Ed. I remember it being loose and easy. And the way Ed took my sense of melody seriously was a game changer for me. He was vocal about it in a way that still gives me a spine. We were with Nicolas. So it was comfortable. 

Less Than the Needle, More Than the Shotgun (Enchanté, 1999)
Edward Baluyut: We spent more time on this album, which had a more polished feel. We had Alex Trajano, a real musician who went to music school, on drums, and we had James Baluyut come in to produce it. We sat on the recording for a while and then wrote three new ones a few months later with Steve Pilgrim on drums. These ended up being my favorite songs on the record: “Nothing Is Too Kind,” “Fantastic Trip” and “All the Better Luck.”
Connie Lovatt: We had more time and knowhow with this one. Things felt more cohesive yet spread out song wise in that we covered more ground. Ed is kind of a quiet workhorse. He just gets things done in a studio. The songs felt bigger this time. Jimmy was there! A lot of Thai food. And Steve Pilgrim was now in the band and he brings a barbed sweetness to things. He’s fun to record with. Again, we were with Nicolas and we all knew each other well enough by then so it was easy. 

What were you like back then? 
Connie Lovatt: 
According to Ed and Steve I was “a ball of emotion”. But adorable, obviously. 

Did you play with the Pacific Ocean? When? 
Patrick Ramos: The degree of my memory loss hadn’t really occurred to me until now but it came back to me that I played on TPO’s first album. I’m the drummer on “If I Could Fall” and “You’re Always Somewhere Else,” which is simultaneously thrilling to remember and depressing to have forgotten. 
Alan Licht: I don’t remember how it happened that they asked me to play on [So Beautiful and Cheap and Warm] but I really liked the songs, and it was nice to be in the studio with Bill Callahan, who I already had known for a while. We played a few shows around New York which were sort of low key but fun. Then we did a tour with Smog (can’t remember if it was still Smog or Bill was going under his real name yet) in the South, New Orleans, Texas. I remember being sort of stuck in New Orleans because Bill’s tour manager had misplaced a bunch of merch, or gear, and that was being sorted out. I also remember going to a hardcore show that was happening across the street when we were playing in Houston, because it was the same promoter for both shows, and that was intense—the audience was standing a mile away from the stage at our show, and they were swarming the band at the hardcore show. We wound up staying at someone’s house there, and I offhandedly said I’d like to see Rothko Chapel while I was town and they said, “It’s across the street from us”—it was true, the next morning I woke, crossed the street, and it was right there. It was a different drummer on that tour than Steve Pilgrim, who played on the record—Chris Deaner, who was amazing and I think went on to play with Kelly Clarkson.
Steve Pilgrim (The Pacific Ocean): It would have been 1997. I was looking for a band to play with, and actually Joey Sweeney said Ed had left Versus and they needed a drummer. So I looked Richard up in the literal phone book and cold called him. If I hadn’t known Joey, he probably would have hung up, but I ended up practicing a couple times with them to feel it out. They ended up going with Patrick as we know, but Richard said Ed had a good band and I should play with them. I met Connie and Ed at an Unsane show at Coney Island High, we got along, and the rest is world famous history. Actually the first TPO song I heard was when they played me the cassette of the Birds EP in Ed’s van. About 60 seconds into “Duet”, I was in. I’m a sucker for the trademark Baluyut majestic rock sound.
Richard Baluyut: I’ve played with TPO a few times, once playing the aforementioned organ, and then a few years ago filling in on bass so Connie could fully wield her star power.

Ed and Connie lying on the ground in Washington Square Park! NYC, 1997. Photo: Gail O’Hara

Do you remember the recording process of Less Than the Needle
Steve Pilgrim: I wish I could! It was mostly recorded by the time I joined. But we came up with some good new songs in practice, so we went in with Nicolas Vernhes to add “Nothing Is Too Kind”, “Fantastic Trip”, and “All the Better Luck,” which only took a day or two I think. 

Were you involved in the songwriting process at all? 
Steve Pilgrim: Only to the extent that songs were written in practice. Generally Ed and Connie would bring ideas, parts, fragments of songs, and we would play around with them until they turned into something. Sometimes they’d have a song almost fully written, but generally we felt our way there by playing. Coming up with drum parts to their ideas could be difficult, and there was a lot of soul searching in the practice room. Sometimes practice felt more like therapy, and I may have quit once or twice, but things always seemed to come together sooner or later.

You coproduced Less Than the Needle, More Than the Shotgun with Nicolas. What was that process like? 
James Baluyut: Connie and Ed always liked to joke about my “no big deal” production. I’m about as far as you can get from an iron-fisted tyrant in the studio. I was there mainly to provide another perspective. The band knew what they wanted for the most part, and it was up to Nicolas and me to help them get it all on tape. I helped mainly with guitars and guitar sounds, and I tossed in a few production ideas. I played a little guitar, but I was treading lightly as I didn’t want to get in the way of what was already special.

What do you remember about making Less Than the Needle?
James Baluyut:
 Not much to be honest! I do remember sitting in the control room at Rare Book Room a lot. I sat with Nicolas while the band knocked the takes out in the live room. I remember it mostly being easy… and easy-going. It was a joy to hear the songs as they were being recorded. Also, I loved watching Alex Trajano and Steve Pilgrim drum.   

What was it like working with the Pacific Ocean?
Bill Callahan (producer, So Beautiful and Cheap and Warm): I was blown away by the distinct musicality of the group. The way Ed and Connie’s voices worked together to make an organic third voice. The way they played their instruments—the parts they came up with were unique to them. I asked them to do things and they usually knew what I meant and did them very well. I was never really sure how much the entire band wanted me there because they were accustomed to me not being there. 

What did the Pacific Ocean sound like? 
Heather Larimer (Corvair, Eux Autres):
 Connie’s voice has an intimacy and purity that reminds me of the ethereal singers of the ’70s but also a frankness that makes you feel like she’s telling you and only you something very directly. TPO feels like sitting in a San Francisco Inner Sunset apartment on a day that’s a duel between fog and sun and you’re making coffee and slightly high and wondering why you feel feelings so intensely and what that means for your ability to shape any sort of coherent future for yourself.
John Lindaman (True Love Always): Apart from basic genre descriptions and the level of quality of the work, both Containe and TPO had a similar uniqueness to them, which came from a successful combining of two distinct strong musical personalities. It’s pretty unusual for bands to be able to do that instead of “one of X’s songs, one of Y’s songs” or “Neil writes the lyrics but Geddy sings.” And maybe that’s how it actually was and it just didn’t come across that way—either way it worked!
Richard Baluyut: People were surprised at Ed’s guitar playing, but I wasn’t. Way before Versus, he always brought a unique tonality to the table in Flower. And Connie at that time was kinda just finding her voice, still had “beginner’s mind,” a state we all strive to get back to, and really expressive. So the two together just sounded different, and great. They had a song that was called something else originally, but became “Five”; that was my favorite. Also the one that gets loud, “I’m Part of Everything Again.”
James Baluyut: A moody collision of intellect, poetry and emotion with pop sensibility.“Fantastic Trip” is my favorite. Just so perfect and weird and catchy. I can’t imagine any other band coming up with that song.  
Patrick Ramos: I have a distinct memory of listening to an early copy of The Pacific Ocean’s Birds Don’t Think They’re Flying for the first time in the tour-van after an in-store show at Stinkweeds in Phoenix. Hearing “Duet,” then “Letter/Doctor,” then “Two Twenty,” and “Last Minute was like a series of gorgeous punches to the heart.

The Pacific Ocean at Now Records in Arlington, VA, 2001. Photo by Gail O’Hara

Do you remember any live shows?
John Lindaman:
 I remember the TLA/TPO/Versus show we played in 1998 at The Point in Atlanta—TLA at that point were mostly vegetarian, and the Versus crew was naturally going to all the finest BBQ places, which meant we tagged along but denied ourselves the good food in front of us. We said, “Well, we’ll just eat at the club,” and when we got there the club was like “and the vegetarian’s delight—two bowls of freshly popped popcorn.” But the shows were great of course!
Bob Bannister (Fire in the Kitchen): I am sure I saw both bands live multiple times. I did appear as a guest guitarist at a show in the early 2000s, pretty sure it was at The Fez.
Gail O’Hara (Enchanté Records, chickfactor): I have fond memories of the Pacific Ocean at Tonic, just because I shot video and it blows me away to watch it now. Also the reunion they did at Union Pool in 2017, when they felt way too huge for the stage and room, and Connie had evolved into this superhero frontperson I always knew she was, backed by the foxy Baluyut Brothers™. They’re the only men on earth who can rock a man-bun. 
Steve Pilgrim: I remember the driving more than the shows, probably. We did a couple road trips, including a few shows on the west coast with the Magnetic Fields that we joked probably had the longest miles-traveled-to-shows ratio in history. Coming from New York, we played a show in Chicago, and then the next one was LA, and we went up the coast from there. But the trip, especially traversing the southwest, became its own whole experience. The three of us had a definite dysfunctional family dynamic, with Ed, the rhetorical master of the gentle cut, possibly holding the thing together in his wry and steady way. We laughed a lot, yelled a bit (mostly me), but I don’t know if any of it amounted to very tellable stories. I can say Connie would almost certainly never have heard Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” without me on that trip, but I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad memory.

What are some of your fondest memories of shows you played? 
Connie Lovatt:
 The shows you really remember are the ones when something goes wrong. I won’t tell tales. Even on myself. The good memories become part of that thing that makes you want to be on stage with those people anytime.  
Edward Baluyut: My favorite shows were always the Chickfactor shows at the Fez. They always had a cool cabaret feel to them, and you could always count on sharing the stage with other great musicians. Gail O’Hara really knew how to curate a show!

What was it about “Last Minute” that made you want to cover it? 
James McNew:
 I loved that song from the first time I heard it. It’s effortlessly perfect and cryptic. I felt like I had to sing it, too.

What made you want to release the Pacific Ocean’s music? 
Mark Robinson (Teen-Beat Records): Mostly because the album they had recorded was (and still is) pretty incredible.
Gail O’Hara: It just evolved out of Containe, made sense. We are family. And they’re great.

Artwork for the Pacific Ocean’s So Beautiful and Safe and Warm (Teen-Beat Records) by Mark Robinson

The Pacific Ocean was often described (dismissed?) as a Versus side project. Did it seem like their records got enough attention at the time? 
Bill Callahan: I was surprised the record I helped with didn’t blow up. 
Alan Licht: It was always an underrated band—they had great songs. I wish it had lasted a bit longer. I don’t really think of other bands in relation to them. I think Steve Pilgrim called it “baroque folk pop” or something like that, which is sort of funny. Connie was close to David Berman so maybe there’s a little bit of a parallel in terms of an interest in poetry and how to apply that to writing songs; and I think at least one song on the Teen-Beat record is co-written with David.

Edward and Connie in NYC, 1997. Photo: Gail O’Hara

What was it like being in the Pacific Ocean as opposed to your other bands? 
Connie Lovatt: Well, there’s that famous Baluyut humor. Which involves psychological pointing and taunting. And Steve notices everything and is in no shortage of looks or comments. And I was a ball of emotion apparently. And both Ed and Steve are ceaselessly generous and kind. So it was great. 

How do those records sound to you now?
Bill Callahan:
I still have a lot of the songs in my head! 
Steve Pilgrim: They sound great—definitely of that late ’90s, early ’00s time and sound, but I believe they’ve weathered the years really well as a good example of that particular sound. Of course it’s nostalgic, listening to them, but Ed and Connie’s writing is just so good that those songs will always hold up. And I still don’t know what half the lyrics are, so that gives me a reason to go back and keep listening.

Tell us any other stories you remember about Connie and the Pacific Ocean. 
James Baluyut: I initially heard the first TPO EP while on tour with Versus. I remember we were all like, “Damn, that’s good.”
Bill Callahan: We had an afterparty on the last day of recording. Connie had two sips of vodka. I’d never seen her drink before and was worried after the second sip, which she drank as if it had a baby snake in it. We ended up having to pull over so she could hurl in the street. CF

Poster for CF25 by Tae Won Yu, 2017

Containe: An Oral History

Containe at the Old Town Bar, 1994. Photo: Gail O’Hara

All the way back in September 1993, chickfactor had its first ever live show at Under Acme. Something like 11 bands played (with a few others jumping on the mike), all sharing the backline. The show was $5. Versus were originally meant to play but couldn’t so I asked Fontaine Toups to play solo; she asked Connie Lovatt to join her and they played a few songs: Containe was born. I was so chuffed that I asked if I could put out their debut 7-inch. They were people I saw all the time, we all became friends, the rest is history. In honor of the band putting their records on Bandcamp this week, we asked a few friends, fans and collaborators to try to remember the details… —Gail O’Hara, Enchanté Records & chickfactor

When did you first meet each other?
Connie Lovatt (Containe, The Pacific Ocean):
In the early ’90s? We met through Richard. Her approach to awkward social situations and her humor are often wonderfully otherworldly so of course I liked her. 

Tell us about writing songs and recording. 
Fontaine Toups (Containe, Versus):
 It’s difficult to remember the details but what I can say is that writing music with Connie was inspiring and a lot of fun. She is one of the best lyricists I know. Our recording and writing process was done quickly. We never spent much time on either, at least this is what I remember. The less-is-more attitude was definitely at play. We will all have different versions of the same story and I’d love to hear Ed and Connie’s. If I could go back in time, I’d do the same thing all over again. 
Connie Lovatt: We both wrote songs in guitar and/or bass and shared them. The other would write bass or another guitar part and some vocals. Fontaine had a much stronger sense of what she wanted arrangement wise. 

Do you remember the first Containe show? What was it like?  
Fontaine Toups: Yes, terrifying and amusing. Where was it? You must have that answer because I certainly can’t remember. (September 10, 1993 at Under Acme)
Connie Lovatt: Gail put together our first show. Fontaine was going to play solo to fill in for Versus? Something like that. She asked me to join her. I remember it sounding really really good. It was memorable in that I was aware of every note and our voices and I loved it. 

Containe in NYC, 1995. Photo by Gail O’Hara

What was the biggest inspiration for the songs you wrote? 
Connie Lovatt: Playing a guitar for the first time. It was a whole new thing. 

What do you remember about making the records?
Connie Lovatt:
We made I Want It All with Adam Lasus (Studio Red) and he was always up and always energetic. He added so much levity to the process. If anything went wrong his first instinct is to laugh which was a big help. It was just Fontaine, me and Dave Frank on drums. We were a low-key crew. Fontaine had more experience, so I followed her lead. But I remember being so happy to be doing a full record of just our songs. 
We made Cowards with Nicolas Vernhes (Rare Book Room) and a whole host of characters. We had a lot of supportive input around us. There was much more jumping around between instruments and sounds but Nicolas kept all the trains running. He was great. It had momentum. I remember Fontaine had a bunch of good songs ready to go so the sense of direction was strong. I love all her guitar playing on that record. Spike Priggen deserves a note here. He took time out to help record some songs I was working on and Cowards came out sounding good enough to put on the record. 

When did you first meet/see/hear Containe? The Pacific Ocean? 
Gail O’Hara (Enchanté Records, chickfactor): 
chickfactor used to have parties where we would give out our new issue. Versus was scheduled to play at our first ever party with live music, but Richard had to bail for some reason. I suggested to Fontaine that she just play anyway: She asked Connie and Containe was born. I loved them so much I suggested putting out a 7-inch single and then Enchanté was born. 
Patrick Ramos (Versus, +/-): I heard both bands for the first time in ’96 when I joined Versus on drums. I liked both bands immediately. 
Mark Robinson (Teen-Beat Records):
 I actually can’t remember. This was so long ago! I first met Fontaine and Ed at a Versus show when my band played with them in 1991. Chickfactor was one of the most important (THE most?) zines of that era, and Containe and TPO were covered pretty regularly, if not in the interviews/record reviews, then in the ads for their records, so I think pretty much every Chickfactor reader was pretty well informed about them.
John Lindaman (True Love Always): 
I can’t remember exactly when we met, but it was around when we joined the Teen-Beat cavalcade of stars in 1997. I never got to see Containe live, but we did a few Pacific Ocean/ TLA/Versus shows in 1998.
James McNew (Yo La Tengo/Dump):
 I honestly can’t remember. I just feel like I saw them whenever I could.
Bob Bannister (Fire in the Kitchen): Having been a fan of Versus since their early days (wearing out the demo cassette that preceded the first couple of 7″ singles), I can’t remember exactly when, but I surely heard of Containe almost as soon as they came into existence. Same for TPO.
Alan Licht:
 I don’t remember seeing Containe or the Pacific Ocean playing live (before I played with them). I knew Fontaine from Versus, and then Connie just socially from knowing those guys. I remember bumping into Connie and Fontaine in the elevator at the Music Building when I was on my way to Run On practice and they were going to Containe practice…if Containe played Chickfactor nights then I would have seen them then, but I don’t have a clear memory of it.
Heather Larimer (Corvair, Eux Autres):
 I saw Fontaine play for the first time with Versus at The Crocodile and I was so mesmerized and thought she was the coolest girl in the world. I was obsessed enough that I very much wanted to name my firstborn Fontaine but he was a boy so I had to name him Lewis instead. The first chickfactor I ever read had a bunch of quotes from Containe and I just thought they were impossibly cool. In all the photos they looked like they were having the best time and just didn’t give a shit about what anyone else was doing.

Containe in NYC, 1995. Photo by Gail O’Hara

Are you a fan? 
Patrick Ramos:
I am. And not only because I like all the members as people, though that does help. And no, they aren’t paying me to say this.
James McNew:
Oh yes.
John Lindaman: OMG YES.
Bob Bannister: Yes!

What made you want to cover “Shy Song”? 
John Lindaman: I love “Shy Song” so much. Sometimes when you hear a song you think, “I could really add something unique to this with the singular power of my artistry” and sometimes you think, “man that would be fun to play, and I can probably just coast on what a great song the original is.” This was definitely the latter! Also I thought it would be good as a man singing it to change the lyric from “I want to fuck you like you’ve never been before” to “I want to thank you like you’ve never been before” because that seems like a more realistic attitude for a guy in a pop band.

Describe any memories you have of Containe, especially any live show experiences. 
Stephin Merritt: 
Yes! Containe is the worst band name in history, and The Pacific Ocean is the best band name in history!
James McNew:
 I saw Containe at Brownie’s (?) early on and was blown away. It was amazing to see Fontaine, a goddamn powerhouse, in such a vulnerable light. Connie seemed freaked out to be onstage in front of people, but once the music would start she had this instantly soothing, wise presence. The onstage banter between them was pretty priceless, too.
Gail O’Hara: I loved the East Coast tour we did in summer 1995; they had a great show at the Middle East. Also Stevie Jackson from Belle and Sebastian was a Containe fan, and B&S invited them to open on some shows in 1998. Georgia Hubley came along on drums. Seeing Containe, who were by this point my BFFs, open for Belle & Sebastian at Town Hall was a dream. Then hearing Belle & Sebastian play “chickfactor” live for the first time that night, well, I was in heaven. 
Richard Baluyut (Versus): All three bands did a set together at CF21. I was thrilled to finally get to join the club!
Patrick Ramos: I have a vague memory of playing drums for Containe and looking up from behind the drum set at Connie and Fontaine stage right and left, but maybe that was just a wishful dream.
James Baluyut: The only times I saw Containe live, I was in the band. Does that count? I think it only happened a couple times. At any rate, the first time, in particular, I was thrilled, not only because Containe was excellent, but also because we were opening for Belle & Sebastian on one of their super early tours. It was super fun. I wish I’d taken some photos.

How would you describe Containe? 
James Baluyut: Effervescent, hooky and brilliant—what you want to hear on a spring day.
Richard Baluyut: To me, Containe is all about the confluence/collision of Fontaine and Connie’s beautiful voices and quirks (they’re both kinda weird). 
Bob Bannister: Some bands mostly write the songs together in their rehearsals while Containe sounds more like Fontaine and Connie wrote them at home with just guitars and voices and then fleshed out the other parts in rehearsals or recordings. (Of course, I don’t really know their working methods.) Connie started adding keyboard parts on the second Containe record, which was a great addition. Containe songs remind me of Marine Girls, early Tracey Thorn solo, and late ’80s New Zealand bands like Look Blue Go Purple and The Bats (and I’d be surprised if they weren’t fans of those bands). One thing that strikes me relistening to Containe is the number of different vocal approaches Connie and Fontaine used. Sometimes they’d do straight harmonies (different notes, same syllable, same beat), sometimes they’d have one holding sustained oohs and ahhs, while other sang the main melody, sometimes (and I think this is underrated in general), they sang in unison, which gives a really rich timbre. Finally, there is whatever they are doing on “Say Please,” which sounds like two people singing four parts without doing it via overdubs. Although Ed Baluyut contributed to the Containe records, I’m thinking his role as a leader in the Pacific Ocean brought a more art-rock sound: more dropped beats, angular guitar parts, etc.
James McNew: Kinda like Fleetwood Mac with Peter Prescott on drums, or like 100 Flowers led by two Denise Roughans.
Gail O’Hara: The sound of a dozen exes being exorcised. Perfectly balanced: Fontaine is pop. Connie is art. Loud, quiet. Containe was tailor made for fans of Helium, Cat Power, the Spinanes, Barbara Manning, Scrawl, etc. 
John Lindaman: Apart from basic genre descriptions and the level of quality of the work, both Containe and TPO had a similar uniqueness to them, which came from a successful combining of two distinct strong musical personalities. It’s pretty unusual for bands to be able to do that instead of “one of X’s songs, one of Y’s songs” or “Neil writes the lyrics but Geddy sings.” And maybe that’s how it actually was and it just didn’t come across that way—either way it worked!

Containe in NYC, 1994. Photo by Gail O’Hara

Containe and the Pacific Ocean were often described (dismissed?) as a Versus side project. Do you think they should have been bigger? 
James McNew: Everybody in that band is so talented, how could that be a bad thing. I wish they would/ could have released more music and played out more. 
John Lindaman: Both Containe and TPO were bands that should have been as big as whatever the biggest bands were at the time—the music was just light years ahead of what other people were doing. And the music is so different from Versus that I don’t see it as a valid point of comparison.

How are they different from Versus?
James McNew:
Similar in some ways, but it gave me an even finer appreciation for Fontaine’s perspective, as well as her power and creativity. Also, they cuss more in their songs, and cut down the guitar solos.
Gail O’Hara: More lyrically raw. They were playful and fun but also heartbreaking, devastating. Connie and Fontaine seemed to revel in the freedom to be in charge of their own thing. 

Is there a particular Containe/The Pacific Ocean song/album/era that resonated with you? 
John Lindaman: Only Cowards Walk Like Cowards is really one of the most perfect records of that decade, and really achieved what a lot of people were going for but failed to come close to! But those four records together represent a real body of work, and I’m glad to see them being brought back out together.
James McNew: The feelings that are bluntly revealed on those first EPs make them pretty magical. You sort of hear the sound of them deciding to be a band, or if they even want to bother with that route.
Gail O’Hara: For me it’s the second records from both: Containe really kills it on “Say Please” and “Summer”—I feel like it’s the most fully realized version of them. My favorite TPO songs are on Less Than the Needle: “Five” and “All the Better Luck.” All of these songs should have been on the Clueless soundtrack or in some teen film. 
Richard Baluyut: I’m terrible at song titles, so I’ll have to default to the hit, “Shy Song.” Surprising and joyous.
Mark Robinson: My favorite Containe song is probably “Shy Song”. It’s a hit and it has a bad word in it, which was oddly not super common at the time.
Bob Bannister: It has been a couple of years since I listened to the records, but returning to Only Cowards… over the weekend, I was reminded just how much I listened to it at the time. There was probably no mixtape I made in that era that did not include “Say Please,” “Why Why Why” or your “Your Brother’s a Star.” The same was true a few years later with “All the Better Luck” on the second Pacific Ocean record.

How do you see these records and the bands’ legacies at this point? 
Patrick Ramos: Both bands are grossly underappreciated. The songs are complex, catchy, honest and still refreshing to listen to 20+ years on. FYI:  I’ve added them both to my Spring 2021 Playlist. I want to believe that one day they’ll both get their due credit in the lineage of rock history but who decides these things? Cleveland?
John Lindaman: I don’t know how much of a legacy anyone has at this point, but if you heard them then you tried to rip them off, and if you hear them now for the first time you’ll understand where some other bands you liked were getting their ideas from!

What other bands/musicians spring to mind when you listen to Containe? And the Pacific Ocean? 
James McNew:
I think fans of music from New Zealand in the ’80s and or NYC/Chicago/ Louisville etc. in the ’90s would be moved by it. I don’t really see them fitting squarely into anything or any time, which I think is a plus. They were able to be themselves, together.

Tell us any other stories you remember about Containe and the Pacific Ocean. 
James McNew:
I remember they were really nice people who made special music together. I consider myself lucky to have seen them play.
Patrick Ramos: Versus, Containe and the Pacific Ocean when not playing the same shows were always at each other’s shows so we had a lot of fun together. The problem again—and I’m really not trying to make this about me—is that all of the details and nuance of those times that make for a good story and should have been put to paper are now lost to me. But answering these questions made me dig out the CDs and I’m blasting them now. If I remember anything, it’s that it feels just as compelling and exciting as it did when I first heard them, like the gift someone gives you that you didn’t realize you really needed.

What was it like being on Enchanté?
Connie Lovatt:
Being on Enchanté is exactly what you think being on it would be like. Gail is a fierce defender of artists. And once we became great friends, it also felt like famIly. And a place I could cook. And a place I could sleep. CF