That Was Then/This Is Yesterday

Interview: Joe Pop-O-Pie (2003/2004), Pt. 2

Posted in Interviews, San Francisco by wwyork on August 22, 2014

People have this idea that the reason why a band gets big is because of a certain thing they do, and that’s not necessarily true. The reason why a band gets big is because there’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that people can’t see.

9-2-2005-20  9-2-2005-22

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.)

The Music Business

What is “cookieland”? [Note: This is a reference to a line from the song “Industrial Rap” on Joe’s Second Record.]

“Cookieland morons.” I actually got that from a friend of mine, Mike [King]—he was actually the bass player on the third record. When we were on tour, we’d go through certain towns, and he’d go, “Man, this place is cookieland.” That was just a term he used for towns that were real junior and didn’t have much of a scene. He called it “cookieland,” like “toytown.”

Did you have a lot of bad experiences with the music industry?

[Laughs.] Wow, doesn’t everybody?

Were those bad experiences related to The White EP, or…

No. You see, it’s not necessarily like I’ve got a beef with a specific record company or a specific person. It has to do more with misconceptions that people have about what it’s like to get a record deal and have somebody promote you and tour and all that stuff. It’s a lot different than people think. People have this idea that the reason why a band gets big is because of a certain thing they do, and that’s not necessarily true. The reason why a band gets big is because there’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that people can’t see. And bands will never reveal that to you—it’s like their secret, how they got to where they are. People say, “Oh, it’s because that guy squeaks when he sings that song—see, that was the thing that made them!” And it’s like, no, no, there was a lot of business savvy behind the whole thing.

And another thing, too, is that the live show [may be] great, but really, at least in the 1980s, that’s not what record companies were looking for. Record companies were looking for bands that tracked well on the radio. They didn’t give a shit about the live performance, or even if you had one. They wanted to see how well you tracked on college radio, because that was a test market. So if you did well in one market, they didn’t know why you did well, they just knew that people were calling up like crazy and everybody was talkin’ about it. So they’re saying, “I don’t really know why this sounds good, but the kids buy this music and think it sounds good, so let’s grab these guys and sign ’em.”

So college radio was really designed as a cheap test market for the majors. But it was an experiment that went wildly awry. Because what happened was, by the mid-1980s, the independents and college radio had taken on a life of their own. And there were bands, some of which had one-off deals with major labels, that realized, “Hey, I might not make any money working as an independent, but I’m not gonna make any money working on a major either. So I may as well work as an independent and have artistic control and do my own hustling.” And what I found about independent bands in the ’80s, the ones that did it right, is that you could make more money as a well-organized independent band than you could a major-label signed band. And that goes against the grain of conventional wisdom for a lot of musicians, but that is very much fact. But you had to really know what you were doing.

Oh, the other part—I’m just thinkin’ of the lyrics [to “Industrial Rap”] now. To a certain extent, if people like you because you do a certain thing well, then that is legitimate. But past a certain point, when you’re selling more than hundreds of records, to the point where you’re selling tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of records—at that point, you really had to be plugged in to an advertising machine that, at least 20 years ago, wasn’t as accessible as it is now. This is before the Internet, okay? You had to be plugged into a company that had access to all these glossy, slick music magazines, and had access to all the radio people that you couldn’t get access to if you were just some band. It was really hard to convince other radio programmers in other cities that you didn’t live in—because they didn’t know you—to play your stuff. So you really needed a record label that had connections and had some push.

But now, it’s a different story. So that song, it speaks to the time. And while I think a lot of it is still valid, I think that now you can do a lot on your own with the Internet. And I think that’s really important. That has revolutionized the way people buy music. I mean, people are ripping and downloading stuff, but I don’t think downloading is killing the music business. I don’t see where that’s any different than putting a cassette in your cassette machine and recording off the radio. I think it’s that the major labels made a mistake: they got out of touch with what was going on, and they charged too much money for it.

You have a lot of theories. We could write a book about the music industry.

Yeah. I sincerely believe, my Machiavellian perspective, is that when the major label gang does something that doesn’t work, they’re never gonna let you know that. See, college radio stations used to only go no further than the campus. And it wasn’t until about 1980 that the FCC allowed certain college radio stations to get more broadcast power. Now, my take on this whole thing is that it wasn’t because people just wanted to hear better music and were screaming for it. People in this country want a lot of things that they’re screaming for that they don’t get. So you can’t say that. I believe it was because the majors wanted to get a low-cost, cost-effective R&D mill. ‘Cause they don’t wanna go out to the clubs, they don’t wanna find out what’s hot—the labels are run by a bunch of people who are businessmen, and they don’t really care [about music]. But the younger folks who are listening to it are gonna be up on it, and they’re gonna know what they like. And the majors said, “Great, why don’t we just create this forum for them in these little hot areas, and these certain college radio markets will serve as test markets for the sound of tomorrow.”

And there were all these weird experiments that happened in the ’80s. I think a band like the Romantics, I think they had their heyday in 1979 or ’80, but it was really like three years later, when new wave poppy bands became this Top-40 hit in 1983 or ’84 [that they made it onto the radio]. And it was just so weird. So there were a few experiments that were snatched up like that, and then given this whole major label image. Not that they’re a great example, but I guess they figured there wasn’t anything too threatening about the Romantics.

Another thing you should understand, too, is that during the 1980s, bands who had a message that was anything other than love songs—like the Dead Kennedys—or any independent band that had a message that said something about the economic problems in the U.S.A., they were never going to get any play in major-label-land because the U.S.A. didn’t want to admit in the 1980s that they had economic problems. Whereas England, in the late 1970s, did. So, what you would do was, if you were an independent band that wanted to do well in the ’80s, you really would’ve done well to spend a lot time in Europe barking up that tree. Because you wouldn’t meet nearly the type of censorship in Europe as you would in the U.S.A.

It seems like the independent/punk rock scene really hit a brick wall by the late ’80s, whereas in the early ’80s, there were all sorts of great bands on Subterranean, SST, etc. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, there weren’t nearly as many independent labels in the early 1980s as there are now. The ones that lasted more than a couple of years and were kind of successful started to run into problems in the late 1980s. They found themselves in a world that was not accommodative. And I really believe they were pressured in a lot of ways. For instance, touring was really curtailed in the late 1980s with this whole pay-to-play thing. I had this big tour set up in late ’86 and ’87, and the whole thing fell through, because all of a sudden these clubs on the East Coast closed down with no rhyme or reason. And I talked to people, and they said, “Well, it’s because they were all laundry outfits for cocaine money.”

But yeah, we could write a book. I really believe, that by the late 1980’s—there was a recession in the late ’80s, and they [the major labels] didn’t wanna lose any of the entertainment dollar. So what I noticed happening is that there was a lot of pressure put on independent labels in subtle ways. Like, all of the sudden, they were all being audited by the IRS. And all of a sudden, all the clubs that the larger independent bands used to play at and make good money, the alcoholic beverage commissions were citing or the noise abatement committees were citing and fining them, so that they could either shut down and not pay these fines, or keep going and pay these fines that they couldn’t afford to pay.

But there was a lot of pressure, which is not unlike the pressure the RIAA is putting on people who are downloading music now. And I think that that [pressure] contributed to [the decline in the music scene]. I also think that a lot of the original bands that had built up a name for themselves in the early 1980s were going through a fair amount of creative burnout. It was like, “Okay, well, it’s not gonna get too much bigger than this.” We kind of hit a wall. And the commercial radio stations, they weren’t playing anything that was independent. That kind of thing didn’t happen until Nirvana came along. And really, that was the beginning of something new.

Flipper

For those of us who got into punk rock in the late 1970s—by 1981, it was just something totally different. We were already beginning to challenge that original aesthetic by 1981. And I thought they did that really well. I thought that they were probably the first band that I saw that I can honestly say was unpretentious and honest about what they were doing—as opposed to a band that rehearses stage moves, a band that rehearses the jokes, a band that rehearses the attitude. Like, “We’re supposed to be angst-ridden.” It was just more honest, which is what punk was originally. But then everybody said, “This is what we have to do,” so they mimicked that original honesty, but it wasn’t honesty. So what I saw happening in San Francisco in the early 1980’s was a kind of new wave of bands being honest. And it wasn’t anything like the Sex Pistols or the Ramones.

So you guys would play bills with Flipper? What was that like?

Yeah [laughs]. Wow. The very first one we did with Flipper was in 1982, I think, and it was really a small-scale riot. I came on stage while they were playing and sang an impromptu duet with Will—I sang “Truckin'” over “Love Canal.” They didn’t know me personally them, but after that, they had a lot of respect for me. And I really wasn’t trying to get their respect or anything; I was just a little drunk and fairly bold at that point. But earlier, we opened up and played before them, and we just played “Truckin'” over and over again. And we were really insulting the audience, just taking no prisoners, saying things like, “You kids think you’re so individual. Well, you’re all wearing the same leather jackets and have the same haircuts—it looks like a goddamn military school out there.” And they were just attacking us. I mean, they were throwing glass. It was the real deal. They were aiming me to hit us. I had to hide behind amps, and there were just bottles cracked everywhere. And it was exciting. Eventually, they just cut the power off. After I picked up one of the bottles and tried to throw it, one of the stagehands grabbed my hand and grabbed it out of it.

What was the Flipper set like that night?

Relative to our set, their set was tame. It was very mellow. Because by then, Flipper had this reputation as being a band that would come on and do what the Pop-O-Pies did, but at that point, in 1982, they were starting to be respectable, and their sets were really well thought-out and well executed. There wasn’t a lot of that riotous stuff going on anymore.

Was there anything else you remembered from that show?

I thought they were very honest. I thought they were very unpretentious. I thought their attitude was the most genuine attitude that I’d seen of any band. They weren’t trying to put on any front at all. They were just being very natural. And I thought it was the most honest representation of a band that I think I’d ever seen in my life.

And I think there was a boredom that kicked in a couple of years later. Have you ever heard “The Flipper Blues”? I’ll sing you the lyrics: “250 dollars a month / I can’t afford no speed or no junk / There’s some stupid show on the 17th / In a great big hall filled with geeks / I’ll get drunk along with someone / Then stand on stage and twiddle my thumbs / I got a case of the Flipper Blues / And I have a right to refuse / What to choose.” [The version on Public Flipper Limited goes like this: “250 dollars a month / I can’t afford no speed or no junk / It costs two dollars and 25 cents a pack of cigarettes / And I gotta take my cat to the vet / I got a case of the Flipper Blues / And I can go with any ideal I choose.”—WY] And there’s some line in there like, “Two dollars a pack for some cigarettes”—which by today’s standards would be a great deal. But he was singing about the expenses that he had. “I can’t even support my drug habit off this shit.”

“$250 a month”: I asked somebody where that line came from, and they said they averaged it out what their income would be per person over a year, and it worked out to be to $250. ‘Cause they were netting about $12,000 a year with Flipper.

When Will died, were people pretty shocked?

Well, I mean, I think a lot of us expected it.

A lot of people in the music scene were dying back then, weren’t they?

Yeah, in the mid ’80s there were a lot of people who checked out from drug overdoses. I mean, it wasn’t terribly shocking because everybody knew he was an I.V. drug user. But when I would see him at shows, he seemed pretty healthy. So it was a shock in that sense. But it was not a shock in that it was so far-fetched that you couldn’t believe it.

But it’s a funny thing. I’m going off on a tangent, but you know, I’ve noticed that sometimes people have issues with other people when they’re alive, and then, as soon as they die, they’re like, “Oh, what a nice guy he was.” And no one says a rude word about them. I noticed a lot of that going on when Will died. But I noticed that Bruce [Lose] was very careful not to fall into that trap. He’d say, “Yeah, that fucker still owes me 20 bucks.” [Laughs.] He was just very realistic about Will’s past. And I think Will would have wanted it that way. And I think Will wouldn’t have wanted people to get all weepy and sappy and not discuss his good and bad points. Because Will was a down-to-earth guy, and the thing about the whole Flipper attitude was that it was not romantic. For people to become all sappy about Will, he wouldn’t have liked that.

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  1. […] See Part Two for the rest of this interview. […]


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