That Was Then/This Is Yesterday

Interview: Joe Pop-O-Pie (2003/2004), Pt. 1

Posted in Interviews, San Francisco by wwyork on August 11, 2014

   

The Pop-O-Pies are one of the classic early ’80s San Francisco bands. In the beginning, they were (in)famous for only playing one song, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’.” They even recorded a song, “Pop-O-Rap,” about the fact that they only played one song (“They don’t pay you enough to really play any more,” Joe explains). But there is a lot more to the story, and you are about to read about it.

The bulk of this interview took place in October 2003 at a café near 9th and Folsom in San Francisco (I forget the name). I had met Joe very briefly at a Neil Hamburger concert several months before, and he gave me his business card (title: “General Nuisance”). The subsequent release of the Pop-O-Anthology CD, which collects the second and third EPs as well as a later seven-inch for Amarillo Records, gave me an excuse to pitch an article on Joe for the SF Bay Guardian. That, in turn, gave me an excuse to interview Joe, as well as Faith No More bassist Bill Gould, who was a member of the Pop-O-Pies during 1983-1984 and appeared on the second EP. (Conversely, Joe was FNM’s vocalist for their first live show, which took place in 1983.) I interviewed Joe again in 2004 as part of my research for an article on Bruce Lo(o)se of Flipper, and some of that material is mixed in here as well, although most of it appears in Part Two.


 

Punk Rock, The White EP, and “Truckin'”

I think one of the reasons why I got into punk rock was because I had really had it with the closed minded attitudes of the music department. They weren’t very open-minded. I don’t know, a series of things kind of lead to it. I was really sick, and this friend of mine, he was dressed real punk rock—this was like ’78—and I said, “What’s that all about, the way you’re dressed and everything?” And he said, “Oh, it’s punk rock.” And I said, “Well, that sounds like the kind of music I wouldn’t like.” He goes, “Well, have you ever heard any of it?” And I was like, “No, no. But I’m into all this really intellectual classical music.”

Webern and stuff?

Yeah, Webern, exactly. Webern’s symphonies. So you’re familiar with it?

Some of it, yeah. I have a CD of his string quartet stuff, but I never was able to really get into serial music.

Serial music’s real intellectual. Basically, you take a row, which is a bunch of tones—12 tones. And it’s atonal because the tones never repeat, so there’s never any sense of tonal center. And you take the inversion of that [row], which is, if [the original melody goes] up a third, down a fourth, then [the inversion goes] down a third, up a fourth. That’s its inversion. And then you take the retrogrades of those two things. And then you transpose them at all 12 steps of the chromatic scale, and then you build a piece of music from it. So it’s real intellectual stuff, but the whole trick is to try and make something that sounds good out of something like that.

So you were into that, and then this guy showed you punk rock…

Yeah, he showed me punk rock. I was really stressed out during that time. I had a lot of ulcers, and I had a bad back and everything. And I swear, I heard this music, and it was like this whole world opened up to me, and it totally changed where I was at. I thought it was magical because it healed all these stress-related diseases I had. I thought, “There’s something to this, so I gotta get into it.”

So at that point I just became a punk-rock-o-phile. And the whole idea for the “Truckin'” thing was that, when I was in my senior year of college, I found a punk-rock element, which in 1979 was about a half a dozen people at this college in New Jersey. So we all used to hang out together. And one of the things I said to this friend of mine was, “Wouldn’t it be something if somebody did a punk version of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Truckin”?” ‘Cause we were talking about Deadheads and how they were so annoying [makes “bowing down” gesture].

So, the big bands back then who were still considered kind of underground were Devo and Talking Heads and the Ramones—those were the ones that we had heard of. And so I said, “What if you got those three elements together and they were to write the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'” instead of the Grateful Dead: What would it sound like?” So that’s when I came up with “Squeaky Truckin’,” as I called it. And then, when I got to San Francisco, I got this record deal with 415/Columbia.

The Columbia?

Yeah, Columbia Records, yeah. They had bought this independent called 415, so we had the benefit of their distribution and a lot of their advertising and stuff. So that was kinda good. But we’d gotten this reputation for playing “Truckin'” all the time, so he said, “What other versions of ‘Truckin” do you wanna do on this record?” I said, “Well, rap music is starting to get kind of popular, and there’s no punk rockers that have ever done rap music and punk on the same record.” So I said, “Why don’t we do that?” This was 1982. So of course, now, everybody’s done it. But I think I was the first guy to put punk rock and rap on the same record.

So the first EP isn’t on the anthology, right?

The first thing is totally separate. The anthology is everything else that was published except that.

What happened with the first EP?

Right now, that’s kind of in limbo. The tapes to that got lost, so we’re trying to find them and get that out. And a lot of people have to agree to it, because I don’t own all the publishing; I only own 75%.

Who owns the rest?

Howie Klein.

From Columbia?

And he actually went on to work with Warner Brothers.

So they actually wanted to put out your record because of “Truckin'”?

Yeah. See, what happened was, I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing when I got here. And I just wanted to hear my music on the radio, like a couple of times—I thought it would be fun. So I brought it down to KUSF and I said, “I’m putting together this band, and here’s this song I do, ‘Truckin’.'” And I just gave it to him and said, “Could you cart it up?” Because it was just on a demo tape. So he did that, and it got to be the most requested song on KUSF for three months running or something, toward the end of 1981.

And I didn’t know it, but Howie Klein was trying to get in touch with me. And I was moving around a lot, you know; I was really broke. So he finally caught up with me in early 1982, and he said, “Hey, do you wanna do a deal?” So we talked about it, and by September, I was in the studio making The White EP. And that was the first thing. And then after that, I hooked up with Subterranean Records, which is the record label that Flipper was on. And I established a good relationship with those guys, and I did a couple of projects with them.

The next two?

The next two records. And they are on the anthology.

So you just did one EP that was with Columbia and then you moved to Subterranean?

It was a one-off deal.

How did it do?

It did really well. It did as well internationally as it did in San Francisco.

Did it sell, like, thousands?

Oh yeah. Oh, way more than that—like tens of thousands.

Oh wow, I didn’t know that. I had no idea.

That was back before people ripped stuff, so you could move that many units, you know? Now you put at a CD and it’s like, “I hope we break even,” because everybody’s ripping it.

See, I didn’t realize it sold that much. Was that at the time when Bill Gould was in the band?

Actually, that was just before I hooked up with the Faith No More guys.

So they were not on the first EP?

No.

Just on the second one?

That’s right; they’re on this one [points to a picture of Joe’s Second Record]. They’re not on the third one. The Third Record guys—well, the guitarist from Hello Kitty on Ice, Kirk Heydt, was really the guy that shined on that one. Hello Kitty on Ice was actually one of Gregg [Turkington]’s bands. Gregg was the singer in Hello Kitty on Ice.

Oh really?

Yeah. They were a great band, too. Gregg used to do this comedic shtick. He used to come out with a Darth Vader helmet on, with a mannequin’s hand taped to the back of the helmet with, like, KFRC stickers. And he’d talk in other accents, like English accents—just really campy stuff. And Kirk would be there playing like the dickens. But they were breaking up, and this was right when the Faith No More guys were taking off in their own direction, so they kind of split [from the Pop-O-Pies]. So I asked Kirk if he wanted to be in the band, and he knew this drummer that he wanted to play with. And there was a good friend of mine who played bass. So he ended up being the bass player. And we put together the third record. But Hello Kitty on Ice, that was an old Gregg Turkington band.

I’ve never even heard that stuff.

Well, they never put out any records. They didn’t have a real sense of managing themselves. They just—they did great shows. I think I saw every show they did; it was just so entertaining. Kirk was a great player, and Gregg is a real good showman, so it was a real good time. But they never put out any records. I think there are some recordings of them. I keep telling Gregg, “You should put that stuff out.” It was real funny.

 

Frisco and Faith No More

So what else was going on here in the early ’80s? Flipper and the Dead Kennedys were the big bands around here?

Yeah. Actually, I think by the early ’80s the Dead Kennedys had already started to hit the road. They were biggest in the late ’70s—[in] ’79, ’80, they were really big. And then in ’81, I think Flipper was starting to get big—’81, ’82. And then we had our thing right after that: ’82 was the first year that the Pop-O-Pies got really big. And then we just kind of rode it out. And then this [points to picture of Joe’s Second Record again] thing came out in ’84. And then the red record [Joe’s Third Record] came out in ’86. And we just kind of played off all that material until the end of the ’80s. And then I took some time off and really got serious about working a straight gig. I took about four years off, and then I hooked up with the Bungle guys, and we did the Bungle sessions in 1993. And that was really fun. We actually recorded five songs, and two of them were released on a single on Gregg’s label, Amarillo. And that was the “In Frisco”/”Squarehead” [seven-inch]. And a couple other songs from that session are on the anthology.

So did you play live in that era, with those guys?

Yeah, yeah. Really good shows. I mean, you can imagine, the Mr. Bungle guys are really good entertainers. The first couple of shows were a little rusty, but by the third show it was really coming into place. I mean, I felt like the first show was a little stiff, but I ran into somebody that said they saw it and they were like, “Oh, that was such a great show!” So I guess maybe it looked good out front.

When was the last show that you did, 1994?

The last show that we did was with the Bungle crowd. It was about 10 years ago, exactly, this month. So we haven’t played in 10 years.

So it was Trey and Danny and then Atom from Dieselhed in that last band?

Yeah.

So you were the first singer in Faith No More?

Yeah. See, me and Courtney Love and Bill and Roddy from Faith No More were all living together over on Shotwell Street. This was like September of 1983. What a house.

Shotwell and what?

It was like Shotwell and 16th—109 Shotwell.

How long were you with Faith No More?

Well, you know, just kind of like when they first got going. Like in ’83. And then they didn’t play too much in ’84. We toured and did Joe’s Second Record. And then Courtney sang for them, and then Chuck Mosely, and they did “We Care A Lot” and the first two albums. And then Mike Patton came.

How did they sound on those early albums compared to when you were with them?

They sounded real—uh, they were more of a jam band than a band that played songs. We were pretty improvisational. I’d say it was a cross between Killing Joke and the Fall. [Laughs.] That’s what it sounded like.

I thought I heard Killing Joke in some of that stuff. Even the stuff from their later albums. But Trey was telling me about the early Faith No More, and he said what you hear on the records isn’t what they sounded like when they started. He said he was really into it in the early days, but he also said, “By the time I was in it, we weren’t any good.”

Yeah. Well, you know, the thing is that the Faith No More guys—I mean, all these people that I’ve worked with, they’re all really good musicians. And I knew kind of what I wanted to hear, so I said, “Well, can we play it so it has this kind of feel to it?” and they could do that. There’s hardcore stuff on there—we do one song that sounds like a hardcore band. Then we do another song that sounds like a slow dirge-y band. Then we do just some straight ahead, moderate tempo songs. They were really versatile; they were really good musicians, so they could play anything. But they liked to play that kind of—they leaned more towards that Killing Joke kind of feel, and it was, not dirge-y, but it was repetitive.

What did you think about this stuff they did afterwards, after you left the band?

I thought it was great. I mean, I hadn’t talked to Bill in a year or something, and we hooked up again in like ’86, and I said, “Yeah, I heard that, that ‘We Care a Lot’—that’s really a happening song.”

I guess the Faith No More that most people know is completely different from the one you were in.

There’s probably a few different Faith No Mores—kind of like there’s a few different Pop-O-Pies! There are different incarnations. I mean, I like that; I think it keeps it fresh. You never get into a rut. It’s kind of like, you hear one Cult record, you’ve heard ’em all. [Laughs.] But when you listen to the different Faith No More records, you can definitely tell which record it is. Like the Rolling Stones—they kind of reinvented themselves every few years.

 

More punk rock and “Truckin'”

You said once that most bands have a lot of songs and the same band members, but you had one song and a lot different band members. But did you actually have shows where you’d play the song and finish it, and then play it again?

Oh yeah. For the first two years, that’s what it was.

How many times would you play it in a set?

Like 40 minutes’ worth—a set’s worth.

Was it the same version of it?

No. The original version is like a three-minute, five-second version of “Truckin’,” which sounds like the slow version on this [points to the Pop-O-Anthology CD], except really tight, like the Buzzcocks were playing it. It was real squeaky. So we started off playing that version of it, and then we began to do an improvisational thing where we’d kinda take it out there, so by the end it would sound like John Cage was sitting in with the Pop-O-Pies—like the Residents doing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It was really good. But the thing was, you’d think that might be boring, to hear a band play the same song over and over. But it wasn’t, because it was different every time, because we decided to take it in different directions every time. So it became like this cult thing that you just had to come see in San Francisco, like the Coit Tower.

You do that political, fake hardcore song on there [“A Political Song”]. Was that kind of thing getting to be really big at that time in the city?

Yeah. Right around that time, like ’83, I’d just gotten back from doing a lot of traveling in the Northeast, and I noticed that there were a lot of hardcore bands that were just kind of repetitively saying the same rhetoric that other hardcore bands were saying about “anti-Reagan and stuff, man, yeah.” And it just got idiotic; it was just nauseating. There was no substance to it. So that’s why I did that song. Because it was like, “Insert hardcore song and then say ‘anti-Reagan and stuff, man, yeah,'” and that’s their whole album. So that’s what that was a goof on. Because hardcore was just starting—this was like ’83 or ’84.

It got so regimented.

Well, it got to be a formula. And it got to be a formula really fast—that was the thing I was really critical of. There wasn’t a lot of creativity to it. It was like a military school.

It seems like the early punk bands, like the bands on SST, were really distinct. But it must be kind of nauseating to see what “punk” has become now. What do you think about that?

Well, I mean, it’s kind of interesting what happened. You gotta understand something: 20 years ago, when I was doing a lot of this stuff, punk rock was still—you know, you didn’t tell anybody you were into punk rock. If you went home for Thanksgiving and talked to relatives, you said you were into “new wave,” and that was OK. Punk rock was really a fringe-y thing and people were really scared of it in the early ’80s. There wasn’t the “scene” of people. There was no Live-105; there was no “modern rock.” There was just college radio and then there was, like, classic rock. That’s it.

Journey…

Yeah, Journey and just really lame pop-metal stuff. So there was nothing in between. And I don’t think the modern rock stations started until like late ’86. So [the punk scene] really was a lot smaller, and it was a lot more underground. And … I forget what the question was.

Yeah, what was the question?

Oh, what do I think about what happened to punk rock? It’s kind of interesting to me to think, like, I’ll read these things in AMPAmerican Music Press—and there’s somebody talking about, “You know, we’re into ’90s punk—the real punk.”And they’re talking about Rancid and stuff like that. And I say, “Hold it, hold it, you guys! These guys are a retread of something that happened 10 years before them!” And no one even mentions that, because they saw Rancid on Saturday Night Live and thought, “Oh yeah, these guys are doing it for the first time.”

See, I kind of think that what happened is, in the underground during in the ’80s, we came up with all these ideas—there was all this creativity all over the place. And what happened in the ’90s was, I think major labels decided to say, “Ok, well, we’re gonna take whatever it is that lasted from these little creative offshoots, and formulize it and sanitize it so that we can market it to a mass-market.” So a lot of people in the middle of nowhere would turn on Saturday Night Live and saw Rancid and say, “Oh wow! This is new!” But to me, seeing that stuff in the ’90s was like nostalgia. But, I mean, do I think it’s bad? No, I don’t think anything’s bad. I think it’s good that finally it’s come into the consciousness. And now it’s like passé. But I think it’s just kind of interesting that people think that kind of look in that kind of sound just started in the ’90s.

Did you see the Sex Pistols in ’78? [Note: The Pop-o-cover of “I Am the Walrus,” which is on Joe’s Third Record, includes the line, “Man you shoulda seen the Pistols in ’78.”]

No, I didn’t, actually. But one of the people I played with on my first record did. So it was okay.

Were they one of the first bands that you heard when your friend told you about punk rock?

Yeah, yeah, exactly. They were the band that kind of changed my musical composition direction.

 

Music school, mistakes, and virtuosity

So you were in music school at that time?

Yeah.

Did you play it [the Sex Pistols, etc.] for anybody else at your school?

Yeah, I did. And they all thought I was nuts. They said, “Why are you into that stuff? That’s the kind of stuff that people listen to if you want to play bad.” I said, “No, no, you don’t understand.” It’s funny, because when I did my senior recital, it started out with the real square stuff, classical stuff; then it went into modern, atonal stuff; then the very last song was a punk rock song. So it really took you through, like, 250 years of music. And it became this legendary thing, but you know, I just thought it was an assignment for school. But because I’d built up such a reputation, the place was packed, and it had spilled out to the point where people outside the college were actually interested in it.

Because I was also a pretty controversial composer, too. A lot of my stuff in college was poking fun at the administration in the music building and how square it was, and how they were trying to get rid of certain programs that I thought were good, like the electronic music program. I didn’t really mention anybody’s name, but there were these metaphors all throughout the thing. And everybody at the college was aware of the politics and the situation, but other people just thought, “This is just good entertainment,” even though they didn’t understand it. So because of that, it became a real scandal. The chairman of the music department tried to erase my tape—he tried to ban my tape and keep anybody from getting a copy of it. This is why it spilled out into the public. They’d say, “Wow! This is an act of censorship!”

So the press jumped on it from that angle, and it got a lot of press, like in the Sunday paper of The Philadelphia Inquirer in March of 1980. The whole top half of the Metro section of the Sunday paper was me posing with this devil mask that I wore in a theater piece where, metaphorically, I was this department chairman. And I was wearing a devil mask and had a fake machine gun, being this killjoy. It was pretty cool. So anyway, because of that, it got a lot of attention.

And I was actually offered a commission to write something for a chamber ensemble in the Midwest, but I said, “Nah, I don’t really wanna go in that direction. I wanna write punk rock, I wanna write music for people of my generation who are into stuff that’s got guts.” And it was so much more fulfilling. Like I said, I think there’s real power, real healing power in punk rock.

Did you stop the other music completely at that point?

I pretty much stopped writing what we called “legit music” and just concentrated on writing music that I feel achieved a certain “aesthetic.”

Did you mainly just do vocals with the Pop-O-Pies?

Yeah, I did the vocals, I wrote the music, and in the studio I would play stuff. Anything that has a keyboard in it, that’s me. Harmonica, that’s me. And I even did some guitar overdub stuff, and some drum programming.

One thing about the Pop-O-Pies that was different from most other punk bands is that you actually had guitar solos. Was that a reaction to the trends of the day?

Well, the key word here is “terminal” guitar solos. If the guitar solo was good, if it doesn’t go on forever and it actually sounds good and it doesn’t take all day to get through, then that’s legitimate. But what songs? Oh, you mean like on the third record where there’s those guitar solos?

Yeah. I mean, I like it, but it seems like at the time people were cutting that out because…

By that point, we were reacting to the reaction, because everybody had cut [guitar solos] out. So we were like, “Okay, well, we’re gonna react to that and we’re gonna put some [solos] in, but what we do put in is gonna sound really good. We’re not gonna bore people.” And if you listen to Journey and those bands, it’s just bad. It just goes on and on forever, all this wanking. And people can’t relate to that. The thing that I saw in punk rock that made it really important to me, and made me really wanna embrace it, was that it spoke to people and it wasn’t like, “I’m a virtuoso. I’m up here, and I can do this and you can’t.” Punk rock was like, “Anybody can do this if you really wanna do it.” And that’s what I think was the real strength of punk rock.

I don’t think that’s as much of a strength anymore.

It’s come full circle. Now people can really play like the dickens. I mean, I’m not down on people playing if that’s what they really wanna do, but with my stuff it was always like, I never wanted to alienate anybody by being too concerned with virtuosity or getting too complicated.

Do you still write music?

I still write stuff, but as far as playing out goes, I haven’t played out as the Pop-O-Pies in 10 years. But I’m thinking about doing a tour in the spring.

With whom?

That’ll be a secret. I mean, I could tell you, but I don’t wanna let the cat out of the bag. It’s gonna be a new thing, and it’s gonna be something that’s gonna be pretty wild, that you would never think of. But we’ll still be playing the same songs and stuff.

What was it like working with the Mr. Bungle people [guitarist Trey Spruance and drummer Danny Heifetz, who played on the “In Frisco”/”Squarehead” single]?

We were really on the same level. Working with those guys was so great because we were all music majors, so we all understood the kinds of things that drove each other out of that whole music-major scene. So nothing need be said, really—we were all on the same wavelength. So we gelled as a unit really fast. But Mr. Bungle is a great band, great musicians.

Mike Patton is kind of like an acrobatic vocalist, and no offense, but … I mean, you’re obviously talented, but your voice doesn’t seem to have that kind of range. Or maybe you just didn’t try to sing with that kind of range?

Well, Mike is a different kind of singer from me. I just sing whatever makes sense for the song. There’s some stuff that I did that really shows off more of a vocal style, but I don’t think that works with the kind of sound that I was going for.

Yeah, it’s perfect. There are some people who can sing in a way where it’s technically off-key, but it works. Like Johnny…

Like Johnny Rotten. If he sang with Frank Sinatra’s voice, it just wouldn’t work.

Frank Zappa had a song called “Tinseltown Rebellion,” which was a pretty snide commentary on punk that was done in a vaguely “punk” style. But when his band tried to dumb-down their playing, it was really stiff.

It’s kind of like this: if you really can play, and you really can write stuff that’s technically competent, you’re more relaxed, and you can do stuff that sounds like shit and you’re not worried about it. You’re not insecure, ’cause you know you can do it. But I think where Frank Zappa was coming from, he wanted to be a music major, but he never was. So his whole thing was that he wanted to show people that he really could play, so he would never play it sloppy.

I mean, when I was a music major, you would spend more than five hours a day in a practice room, and it’s like—I think there’s more to life than that. Once you pay your dues and you get your chops and you’ve done all that, I think that just because you could play something that sounds like Chick Corea, it doesn’t mean that you have to play that. I think it’s better to be able to play really well and write really well, but not sweat the small stuff. In other words, being able to play really well, but not be like, “Oh, we spent 40 hours a week practicing so we could get every little note in place.” I think, one, that alienates people, and two, it eats up a lot of your life. I mean, I like mistakes. That shows that people are human. That’s the spice of it, when the note is a little flat, or the guitar entrance is a little slow, or you don’t all start and end at the same time.

You probably recorded a lot of that stuff live in the studio—is that right?

Some of that was, like “I Am the Walrus”—that was with scratch vocals, first take, live. And I thought, “Well, I can go in and do vocal overdubs, but … it’s great. Let’s just leave it.”

That was a good idea.

Yeah, I’m really into capturing the moment. If you do too many overdubs, it sounds like somebody came in two weeks later and did it and nobody was around. Who the hell wants to hear that?

See Part Two for the rest of this interview.

Advertisements

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] In Part Two of this interview, Joe talks about his thoughts on the music business, his experiences watching and playing alongside the almighty Flipper, and the changes he saw in the independent music scene over the course of the 1980s. (Part One can be found here.) […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: