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