Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Norton Records' Billy Miller Interview

Billy Miller, Jeff Conolly, Andy Shernoff and Esquerita, 1982

By: Rich Tupica

"I love working with Billy and Miriam, they are great people with a lot of heart. They live rock-n- roll," Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las recently told me, and you know what, she isn’t fucking around. Since Billy Miller and Miriam Linna started Kicks Magazine in 1978 they have been on a mission to bring old school rock, soul and rockabilly out of obscurity and on to our turntables. After some natural progression Kicks morphed into Norton Records in 1986 and they began pressing rare songs from rockers that never quite made it to Little Richard’s height of fame, but maybe should have. Norton Records is the reason I know who Jerry McCain, Esquerita and Hasil Adkins are. Norton saved music. It seems that a lot of folks share a similar idea that Billy is true to what he does. "There may be no single person more committed to music than Billy Miller. He lives it, breathes it and dreams about it when he's asleep," said Lance Wille, drummer for the Reigning Sound who provided the back beat on the new Weiss album. To say the least, Billy has been very busy lately between his A-Bone duties and rushing to the recording studio with a certain Shangri-La and Greg Cartwright, but he found time to answer some questions.

Where did you grow up as child and where did you meet Miriam?
"I was born in Queens and I grew up on Long Island. I guess I saw Miriam play with The Cramps a few times in 1976 and early '77. Once her and Bryan Gregory were sitting behind my friend and me at the movies, but I only remember talking to Bryan. I didn't really meet Miriam until 1977, which was when I was set up selling at a record show. I sold her "You Must Be A Witch" by The Lollipop Shoppe. You can't let a gal with taste like that slip away!"

Billy and Miriam, Lenox Lounge, Harlem 2006

What is the history of how Norton Records got started?
"To go back to the real beginning, that'd be Kicks Magazine that Miriam and I started in 1978. We were both writing for the New York Rocker, but we'd write about Larry Williams and Warren Smith and, as much as I appreciate The Rocker including our articles, they'd be in there next to Adam Ant. I was real hard headed then and it actually bugged me to think that I was discrediting Larry Williams' memory by pooling it with what squares were digging. So we started Kicks. I was 24 years old and Miriam was two years younger. She was working as (former New York Dolls manager) Marty Thau's assistant at Red Star Records. I got a $900 tax return and I knew it was supposed to be ninety bucks. I contacted the IRS and said, "Are you sure about this?" They told me it was correct and so we started Kicks with that money. As soon as the first issue came out, the IRS contacted me and said, "You owe us $810 - NOW!" We'd put out some issues over the next few years and really got a fan base going of like-minded no-counts. After we interviewed Hasil Adkins he kept sending tapes of his music. We had a pretty good following through the magazine and so we put out Hasil's 'Out to Hunch" album in January 1986 with the label being like an offshoot of Kicks. Tim Warren from Crypt Records likes to say that I started him collecting records and he started us putting records out, which is true."

The beginning of Norton Records, Kicks Magazine

Since Kicks Magazine ended...Do you ever write about music?
"We haven't had a new issue of Kicks since 1992, but a week doesn't go by without somebody asking when the next one's coming out. We've probably done more writing with Norton liner notes than we ever did with Kicks, but people keep demanding a full-on page-turner. Miriam writes more than I do. Sometimes I'll write liners for other labels."

What was it like to operate Norton Records in the early days with Miriam Linna as opposed to today?
"Actually, when we first started the label we both still had day jobs and it took a few years to shake loose from that scene. There's a whole lot more to do now, but we don't mind a bit. If going out to see the Mighty Hannibal play is part of my job duties, who am I to complain? You pretty much have to stay on top of everything every waking hour in order to do things right, but Miriam will still always find time to crash Jerry Lee Lewis' birthday party."

Ike Turner & Billy in NYC

How many people do you have working for you & Miriam at Norton?
"It's Miriam, me and internationally known DJ Josh Styles, though we have art guys and other people that work for us but they don't come here on a daily basis. When it's new mail order catalog time, we always hire more people. And for the past few weeks Andy from the great band The Little Killers has been working here, too, if you can call talking about The Coasters all day long working."

Hasil Adkins was your first Norton artist. How did you learn about him?

"I had a copy of 'She Said' on 45 and a friend had 'Chicken Walk' on 45 and it intrigued me that this same guy could make two so uniquely amazing singles and not be better known. Our friend Donn Fileti from Relic Records tracked Hasil down in West Virginia. Hasil ran the full range of emotions. He could be the life of the party or he could sink into incredible blue moods. All that comes out in his music. We had every kind of adventure imaginable together."

Billy and Miriam with Hasil Adkins and Joe Coleman, NYC

What's a fond memory you have of Hasil?
"As far as a fond memory, this may sound real corny because you're probably looking for a crazy tale, but Haze called one time and he was crying on the phone, he was so happy. He'd only been to school one day in his life and he'd been asked to lecture on music at the University of Kentucky. He was so proud and we were really thrilled for him about that. It really is quite an accomplishment when you think about it."

A young Hasil Adkins

What inspired you start Kicks Publications?
"Miriam had tracked down Eddie Rocco, who had taken the classic Esquerita photos and we worked out a deal with him to publish a book of his photos. Eddie had a very fascinating career. He photographed many rock-n-roll and R&B acts for Charlton Publications. Jayne Mansfield was his assistant and he encouraged her to dye her hair and play up her assets. We plan on publishing a novel co-written by Andre Williams and Miriam that is just fantastic. We are also looking into reprinting some paperbacks from Miriam's collection."

Billy Miller & Jack Oblivian photo: Theresa Kereakes

Detroit's favorite garage band The Hentchmen got their start with Norton Records when they were quite young, what is the story of them getting a record deal with you?
"The Hentchmen are the only band in twenty years of biz that we signed off a demo. We've signed more acts out of men's shelters. I still think The Hentchmen are one of the best bands to come out in years. They wanted to do a record with us and I told those guys that I was leaving for Europe the day we spoke and we had the Sam The Sham tribute album 'Turban Renewal' almost wrapped up, but they could do a cut for it. So when I got back, they had their Sam cut plus an album and a half for us. Their album 'Three Times Infinity' is a monster, probably the best thing they ever did, really fantastic group."

The Hentchmen, Billy Miller, Shaggy of Swingin' Neckbreakers

Norton deals with a lot of great, mostly previously unheard music, who finds this music and also how do you go about deciding what you want to re-release on your label?
"I'd like to point out that much of the early rock-n-roll recordings that we release have never been released anywhere so technically they're not really reissues. The Jerry McCain demos that he made for Excello had been out before but by the packaging it looked like any other blues harmonica album. 'My Next Door Neighbor' and 'Cutie Named Judy' are among the rawest sides ever recorded. There's nothing sounding closer to the young Hasil than McCain's 'I Want Somebody To Love.' Those songs needed to be done up right. We licensed those McCain demos and we also worked out a deal with AVI Records to release Jerry's actual Excello singles on an album, but at the last minute AVI sold its entire catalog to Universal."

Billy, Kim Fowley & Miriam

Is it hard to get the rights to this old music?

"Every situation is different. Miriam had the whole deal in place for our new Figures Of Light 45 with the contract, master tapes, photos and liner notes within 48-hours of hearing the record for the first time. On the other hand, Thee Midniters took years to release as ownership of the masters was in litigation forever. It was sure worth the wait, though."

How many releases does Norton have under its belt now? And did you ever think that your label would become what it is today?
"We've done over 150 albums and nearly 250 singles. If it were practical, I'd love to only make 45s. I absolutely love them and that's really the way to hear rock-n-roll. We never really had a Norton master plan. We originally pressed up 500 copies of Hasil Adkins' album and expected to go to the grave with 400 of them. Right after we issued that one, we acquired Esquerita's un-issued 50s demos and then Jack Starr's recordings so we stick to what we dig and that seems to work out fine."

Esquerita reborn as the Norton mascot!

What was it like interviewing Esquerita back in 1983? What's the story behind that? What do you remember about him?
"There was a time for me in high school when the sun pretty much rose and set on Little Richard and Chuck Berry. In fact, this girl I knew then has a picture of me and my high school buddy Joe Satriani playing Chuck Berry records as kids. That was my sound and I got heavily into Larry Williams, Don and Dewey, stuff like that. So when I heard and saw Esquerita on this reissue called 'Wildcat Shakeout' I was totally gone! For about ten years he became more and more of a mythical figure in my mind. Then, in 1982, there was a tiny ad in the paper that 'ESCORITA' was playing a small club. A bunch of us went down there and it was him. He was planning on playing 'On Broadway' and standards like that but when we showed up we got him to do all his insane rockers and he did them great. Those were real cool times. I hung around with him a lot and there was always crazy shit happening...lunch with Reverend Al Sharpton where both those guys got into an argument over who knew James Brown better, a fistfight on 8th Avenue with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a combination of the Lyres and A-Bones backing him at a basement party."

So,chaos pretty much followed Esquerita?
"Every single time you saw Esquerita there was lunacy involved. The first time I sang 'Rockaround' onstage with him, he grabbed me by the collar, pulled my face up close to his and said, 'Boy, this is the greatest moment of your life!' Then he threw me at the microphone. He told great stories and so we told him we wanted to interview him for Kicks. I remember Miriam, Andy Shernoff and I went up to his place for the interview. For some reason, I mentioned Lloyd Price as we walked in and he dialed the phone when I wasn't looking and said, 'Hey man, the phone's for you!' I took the receiver and went, 'Who's this?' and the voice goes 'Lloyd Price!' Esquerita died in 1986. He was the greatest piano player in the world and even Little Richard copped to that. Esquerita was so fuckin' intense. There was nobody in the world like him, nobody. I feel real fortunate to have known him. We sort of made him the Norton mascot to keep his legacy out there."

Miriam with Long John Hunter, NYC.

How often did you see Esquerita during that period?

"I saw Esquerita whenever he played and I sang with him about five or six times. Once he called me and I thought he was going hit me up for money, so I let the machine get it. He kept going, "Billy, you there? I got a surprise!" Turned out he was with Little Richard and wanted me to come hang out with them. Another time he called to hang out and I went to this swank apartment that belonged to Atlantic Records founder Herb Abramson. He was there in a black bathrobe rolling big fat joints and playing piano. I have no idea what he was doing there!"

Joe Satriani was your childhood friend? Thee Joe Satriani?! Do you still talk to him ever?
"Yeah, Joe's brother John was one of my best friends in school. I was always at their house. We used to go see Joe's first gigs, playing Rolling Stones covers in gymnasiums when he was about 15 years-old, but I haven't talked to him in thirty-years."

Miriam with Larry Parypa of The Sonics at Kearney Barton's
studio in Seattle WA.

A big project you have coming up is a new studio album by Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las, how did this deal get started? And how involved were you with the process?
"Last year, Rhino Records put out this Girl Group box set and there was a release party here in New York. Miriam called and said she had some tickets but I told her to go on her own and that I really wasn't interested. Miriam kept calling me about this party and I kept saying no. Finally she called and said that a friend called from the party and that Mary Weiss had just shown up. That's all I needed to hear. I got down there like a rocket, met Mary and a few weeks later we started talking about doing a record. I couldn't believe it. The Shangri-Las have always been one of my favorite groups. It's been a thrill, a pleasure and an honor to work with Mary. She's the greatest! I worked with her every step of the way. We worked with our piano player Dave Amels a lot going through material and then everything fell right into place once the Reigning Sound came up here. Recording the album was a total blast for all of us."

Billy, Mary Weiss & Greg Carwright photo:Theresa Kereakes

Greg Cartwright of the Reigning Sound wrote some songs for the Mary Weiss album, how was the connection between Mary and Greg? Also who else helped with songwriting?
"Greg wrote most of the songs, maybe fifteen and we are using about ten of them. Mary really took to his writing, she does her homework, believe me. In fact, when I first brought up Greg as the main songwriter and Reigning Sound as her band, I suggested she check out 'Time Bomb High School.' A few days later, Mary called and she'd checked out not only all the Reigning Sound albums, but the Compulsive Gamblers and Oblivians records as well, she loved them all. She picked out 'I Don't Care' from the first Reigning Sound album to re-do and it was a great choice on her part. John Felice from the Real Kids gave us a killer song, so did Andy Robertson from Tough And Lovely. Andy from the Little Killers wrote a cool one with Dave The Spazz and I co-wrote one with Andy Shernoff from The Dictators. Mostly Greg and a bunch of guys named Andy did the writing!"

The Alarm Clocks, you decided to put out their first new record in decades. How did this long lost band suddenly reunite?
"The funny thing is that we never asked them...they told us! Norton issued the 'Yeah!' album a few years ago, which included their sixties recordings like 'No Reason To Complain'. We worked that out with the band, but nobody could find Mike Pierce who wrote and sang everything. Then, less than a year ago, we get a call from Mike out of the blue saying he'd be in New York in a couple of days, and he showed up with plans to reunite the band, record, tour, the whole nine yards. Forty years gone and he pops up rarin' to go! Their first show out was at the Beachland Ballroom in their hometown of Cleveland with The Choir. They absolutely stole the show! Nobody could believe what they were hearing."

Miriam with Dion, NYC

How did The Alarm Clocks album get started and finished?
"After the show, Mike tells us that they have a bunch of songs ready to record for their new Norton album and that he had started writing for the second album. He never really asked, and who were we to deny the mighty Alarm Clocks? They cut it in two days at Freddy Fortune's studio in Michigan and it's fuckin' incredible! They even apologized because one song took four takes. The album's called 'The Time Has Come', which is what their band card read in the sixties, and it's deadly. Those guys really outdid themselves."

You also play in your own rock-n-roll band, The A-Bones, is it hard managing both your label and your band?
"When I think about 15-years ago when we were doing lots of touring, I'm still not sure how we did it. Of course the label had less releases to handle back then. The A-Bones broke up in 1994 and got back together a few years ago. Still, we don't travel as often as we used to."

What are some newer bands out right now that you are digging, bands that you go out of your way to see them play a gig?
"Black Lips, Reigning Sound, Bloodshot Bill, King Khan and BBQ. The Little Killers...the third track on their new CD is amazing, I have it in my car and misplaced the case so I don't know any of the titles, but trust me, track three is a monster!"

What's your favorite record label right now?
"Let me say Crypt and Telstar because Tim and Todd are my best friends. We all started around the same time, spinning records at barbecues and talking about having record companies. Now we all have record companies and we talk about spinning records and having barbecues."

Billy, Link Wray & Crypt Records' Tim Warren
NYC, 1985

Who puts together the compilations that Norton releases? How do you compile these together?

"Most of the stuff Miriam and I do together but there's some albums like the Sonics or Long John Hunter where she did everything and there's some like Gino Washington or 'Wolf Call' where I put them together. If you mean like the 'Big Itch' comps, we love doing those. Usually enough 45s pile up here and once that about a half dozen make sense together, we start to plan out a full length. You really need to play the original records over and over to see how well they hold up and also if they even work together. Sequencing is real important. Even on a 'Big Itch' LP, I'll mess with the order like it's 'Pet Sounds' or something."

What has been your proudest moment since starting your label?
"I was pretty knocked out when we did that big Norton Soul Spectacular show with Nathaniel Mayer, Andre Williams, Lonnie Youngblood, Dolemite, King Coleman, the Mighty Hannibal, Bettye LaVette and everybody. There are lots that we're proud of, but more importantly, I'm not ashamed of anything."

Big Pimpin! Billy with soul legend Andre Williams

Do Andre Williams and Nathaniel Mayer have a lot of cool stories that they tell you? Is there any stand-out ones that you remember off hand?

"Those guys have some cool tales, but actually, the Mighty Hannibal is the best story teller on the label. You really need to tape everything he says. My favorite is the one Hannibal tells about him, Larry Williams and Johnny "Guitar" Watson being out on Johnny's boat. Larry had a bag of barbecue tied to a rope and they were trying to throw it over the wall of the women's penitentiary to his girl while guards in the tower were shooting at them!"

Billy and The Mighty Hannibal. Wowsville
Christmas Party, NYC.

Is there any album or music that you haven’t released, that you would really like to someday?

"It'd be great to put out the catalog of Fortune Records from Detroit. There's so much incredible R&B, hillbilly and rock and roll in their catalog. The doo-wop stuff is so otherworldly, that it defies description...lesser-known groups like The Earthquakes as well as the bigger names like Nolan Strong and the Diablos and Andre Williams. They've been out on bootlegs but it'd be something to have it all done properly. I love anything to do with Fortune. I even have the address numbers off their old front door. It'd be wild to do it up right but the company simply refuses to license their music to anyone."

Why do you suppose that Fortune Records is refusing to license their music?
"Fortune has always been like that, even in their heyday. They licensed 'Bacon Fat' by Andre to Epic Records, and Nathaniel had a few that they let United Artists put out, and Motown was hot to sign Nolan Strong, who was Smokey Robinson's idol, but Fortune wanted to keep the artists for themselves. Although, if Andre went to Epic, we'd never have heard a 'Jail Bait' or 'Jail House Blues'."

So who owns Fortune Records today?
"The Brown family still owns the company. Devora Brown is probably the single most underrated record producer the music world has ever known. Berry Gordy tried to copy Nolan's 'Mind Over Matter' with the Pirates, who were really the Temptations, but he couldn't get near the sound that Fortune got. Everything was crudely recorded in the back room of the Browns' Fortune Records shop. Andre said 'If you touched them knobs once Ms. Brown had them set, you took your life in your hands!'"

Real Kids! John Felice, Billy & the late Allen "Alpo" Paulino,
NYC, New Years Eve, 1998

Where do you see Norton in 10 years?
"Either on the lips of everyone in the world or else tied up in string and set out by the curb."

What's next for Norton Records?

"There’s always plenty of projects in the works. We'll have The Dictators' demos which go back to 1973, two live 1964 radio broadcasts from The Sonics, a third volume of early Bobby Fuller home recordings, a whole set on this guy Cash Holiday that is just blistering. We also started transferring some reels of un-issued Charlie Feathers material. We have loads of singles lined up. There's more in our Rolling Stones covers 45 series coming up, Black Lips, Demon's Claws, The Alarm Clocks, Bloodshot Bill and The Royal Pendletons. I love putting out those Stones covers and the bands are really into doing them. Everybody's got a good Stones cover in them."

What is the craziest shit you have seen touring around the world for either your band or your label?
"The A-Bones were playing one night in Belgium and luckily, I stepped outside to the sidewalk with the club owner. The band had rented our van in France and it had a Paris address on the side. These Belgian anarchists were so anti-French that they had stuffed newspapers under the van and started lighting it to blow our van up. We got them at the last minute, like in a Steven Segal movie. I remember chasing them down the street thinking, 'what the fuck am I doing?!' It's all in a day's work, I guess."

Check out Norton Records webpage for more info!

Norton Offical Website
Norton on Myspace
Norton Records 20th Radio Show!
Billy Miller Fortune Records Tribute on WFMU
A-Bones on Myspace
Esquerita on Myspace
Punk Turns 30! - Theresa Kereakes
New Interview with Mary Weiss
Norton Records on Wikipedia
Dave the Spazz Radio Show - Listen!
Hasil Adkins on Myspace
Billy & Miriam Interview about Hasil (very cool)
Punk Turns 30! - Theresa Kereakes

Thanks! to Billy Miller for digging out some great pictures.

NEW YORK, NY 10276-0646 USA
tel (718) 789-4438
fax (718) 398-9215


Friday, November 10, 2006

Grunge God Father Jack Endino Interview

Jack Endino back in the grunge days .

By: Rich Tupica

Sub Pop Records may not exist today if Jack Endino wasn't behind the board at Reciprocal Recording in Seattle back in the late 1980’s. That recording studio is where Nirvana, Mudhoney, TAD, Sound Garden, Endino's own band Skin Yard and many other great bands of the time recorded under his ear. Those albums would soon be stamped by the media as Seattle-Grunge!

It's true, the days of flannel shirts and long johns are long gone, however Jack Endino hasn’t even stopped to take a breather. Endino still lives in Seattle and records bands from all over the world non-stop. He has been involved with five platinum records and four gold, one of which is the notorious Nirvana “Bleach” album that he famously got paid a whopping $600 for.
Recently, in-between recording a handful of young bands, Endino recorded his third solo album called “Permanent Fatal Error,” and it’s been getting a thumbs up from Seattle music lovers. Endino’s success as a grunge producer has been well documented, so I decided to get an update of what he has been up to today (post-flannel), not surprisingly, he’s still busy as hell.

When did you first start to record bands?

"Bands other than myself? 1985, in my basement. Then I started working at Reciprocal Recording in summer 1986."

You are responsible for recording a lot of great vinyl ... are you collector?
"No, not anymore. I was a total record collector growing up in the 70s and 80s, but I evolved into a music collector, meaning that I didn't care if I had a reissue instead of the original record, I just wanted the music. Finally I just let it go, it was a bottomless pit."

What was it that made you stop buying tons CDs & vinyl?
"I realized I had enough records and CDs to literally last me for the rest of my life expectancy, so what's the point? And now, I get way more of a buzz from making records than I ever got from passively listening to them... so I don't even buy alot of CDs anymore."

Endino at Reciprocal Studios in Seattle, late 80s

"Permanent Fatal Error"...the new Jack Endino record, why did you decide to go it alone on this record? Did this one mean more to you than some albums in the past?
"Definitely! I felt like I really needed to prove some things to myself, like whether I still had it in me to make a killer hard rock record entirely out of my own head. Years of making records for some pretty kick-ass bands had raised my standards pretty high, so that was pretty challenging as far as my own music was concerned. Intimidating, actually! How am I supposed to top, say, Zeke? Or Zen Guerrilla? And you know, I didn't exactly go it alone except on three tracks... I had some pretty good rhythm section help. I did pretty much write every note though."

How were playing the gigs in support of the new material?
"Kind of strange, even with Dirty Power as my volunteer and very excellent backing band. Just like with my old band, Skin Yard, it became obvious that some songs on the record would work live, some not.

So how did it feel to be the main man on stage?
"Even though I can sing pretty well and I never get stage-fright at all, I am just not by nature a 'front-man' personality type. It really felt odd to be the focus of attention. I've been in plenty of other bands but never as the front-man. At least now I know I can do it; it was another thing to prove to myself and we had a killer Seattle gig."

Will there be another Endino solo album or more shows?
"Yes, but not soon. I'm just getting together ideas for a new batch of songs, but I tend to work pretty slowly. I'm also playing drums in a band called Lateral Drift, and 'helping out' for a while on guitar with some friends in a band called Kandi Coded."

So how is it playing in someone else's band?
"You might not think so, but those activities bear directly on my own music, as they keep me inspired and in the game and keep my playing chops up. For the time I am preparing a remastered, limited re-release of my first solo album, 'Angle Of Attack' from 1989, with some bonus cuts and new cover art by the same artist, Jim Blanchard. It sounds way better than the original release."

What do you feel is the best album you have ever recorded by another band?
"That would have to be an album most people reading this will never hear... 'A Melhor Banda De Todos Os Tempos Da Ultima Semana' by Titas, in Brazil. There's a whole story on my website about the record. I've done five albums for Titas, a huge Brazilian band that's been around for almost 20 years. It's a long story how I got involved with them. That album title, incidentally, translates to 'Last Week's Best Band Of All Time' and the title song is very funny...in Portuguese."

So what about American albums?
"In the English-speaking world, I'm pretty partial to Nirvana's 'Bleach', any of the records I did for Mudhoney, Mark Lanegan's 'The Winding Sheet', Bruce Dickinson's 'Skunkworks', The Makers 'Everybody Rise' and the Dirty Power record. Out of 275 or so, I can't really pick one."

Do you ever get tired of the Nirvana Questions?! Or have you learned to deal with them?!
"Oh, whatever, nevermind... I have a FAQ for them. But I try to be nice to people. All the kids doing term papers are getting kind of old though."

How is the music scene in Seattle and Portland these days? Any great bands the rest of the world should know about?
"I think it's great here, but all I know about is the bands I've worked with myself! I'll give a big shout out right now to Upwell and The Lonely Forest, both astounding bands."

Will there ever be a "Jack Endino Collection" released on Sub Pop?
"Not likely, the label has little interest in its own past. Largely because its present, believe it or not, is much more successful than that past was, business-wise. I think Sub Pop is actually very relieved that there was life after grunge and has been running from it ever since. I could be wrong though."

The studio you recorded all the grunge bands in back in the day, what kind of equipment did you use to get that sound?
"The gear all changed every year or so... but the most important piece of equipment in the studio is the guy operating it!"

For years now, you have recorded bands round the clock, what are some projects you recently completed, or are still working on right now?
"Keynote Speaker 'The Musical', The Insurgence, Dragstrip Riot, The Moog, The Grannies, WAD, R-Esistenza, The DTs, Hell On Heels... and probably a bunch of other bands you've never heard of. I try to have the most recent bands I've worked with right on the front of my Myspace page."

If you could go back in time, would you change anything you have ever done in your career or just your life in general?
"Well... it's almost a running joke now because I could have tried to get points on the 'Bleach' record, but more money wouldn't have changed my life all that much. I'm still doing exactly what I always wanted to be doing. To be honest, I don't have too many regrets... instead, there are multiple instances where I can think back and say to myself, 'Whew... Thank God I did THIS back then, and not THAT!'"

J.E. at http://wondertaker.com


Jack Endino on Myspace

Offical Jack Endino webpage
Buy Jack Endino's new album!
Flotation Records - A great Seattle label
Jack Endino interview on YOUTUBE
Definition of Grunge
A different Endino interview

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Soledad Brother BEN SWANK is TEN STEPS Ahead! The Interview

Ben Swank!

By: Rich Tupica

Soledad Brother Ben Swank has always pounded the shit out of his drum kit. His unique style is what made the Soledad Brothers seem like a true democracy to me, they were all equals, no Brother more important to the music than the other. Every time I saw a Soledad Brothers gig at the Magic Stick or wherever, my eyes would be glued on Mr. Swank hunched behind his drums, mainly because I was impressed at how he could be so loud and frenzied, throwing in fills and crashing his cymbals, yet still never seemed like he was over playing. On stage, Swank wouldn’t leave a period at the end of the sentence he would leave an entire row of exclamation points. However, after eight years of records and tours, Ben, Johnny and Oliver recently decided to call it quits with the Soledad Brothers. During the Soledad split Mr.Swank moved from the United States to London with his new wife and started a new two-piece band called Ten Steps, which is still kind of a secret, though I did get a few hints of what to expect from his new duo, compliments of Mr.Swank himself, read on.

The Soledad Brothers took their name from the trio of convicted felons at Soledad Prison who were later killed by police…did you guys feel a connection with these guys, or did you just think that the name sounded pretty bad ass?
"A bit of both I guess. It's a pretty bad ass name and was probably inspired for Johnny by the fact that there was an equally bad ass band in Toledo at the time called The Young Lords who were named after Puerto Rican activists. But there's something there about adopting the name of distinctly black icons and playing something most people regard as distinctly black music. I think both of those pre-conceptions are unfair and short sighted. If you think of episodes like the Soledad Brothers as 'black history' as opposed to 'American history' I think you’re stuck in a similar sort of thought process that black revolutionaries were working to eradicate."

Same goes for the stereotype that blues is strictly "black music" rather than American music, I'm sure the Soledad Brothers heard this bullshit on occasions...
"It's the same with blues music, it's a distinctly American form of music that was started by black people, that's not to say that white people are immune to it's charms or that it's impossible or sacrilege for white people to play it. So long as they don't do it in the fanny-pack butthole-mouth blues stylings that's so popular with a lot of middle class white blues fans, that is. So, there was a thing with us about pointing that out to people. We heard so much shit about 'appropriation' and this and that and some people really took issue with it, but if you tried to engage them in a serious discussion about it, they would just back off and resort to name calling or whatever. A big validation for me was when John Sinclair came to my place in Toledo and was visibly freaked out by my neighborhood, I think he was shocked I wasn't living in the burbs or something and I think he understood us a lot more after that."

Ben Swank & the world famous foot trick!

What band or bands were you into back in your teenage years?
"I got into stuff like the Stones and The Who pretty early on, which was pretty inspiring considering what was happening in pop music in the late 80's. But when I got into a lot of the proto-punk stuff like Link Wray, Back From the Grave, and The Stooges that was really inspiring, you know, because I realized the un-importance of technical ability. And it gave my friends and me a lot of confidence to go on stage and be more confrontational with ignorant Toledo audiences. It's great when you can really piss somebody off by playing something just a little left of the dial from what they're used to hearing on the oldies station...you know?"

How did you & Johnny Walker meet?
"I met Johnny at a party in Toledo, kind of...I had seen his band Sopor like a week before that and they were really great and noisy, the guitar player was doing whippets on stage and shit. It just didn't seem like they gave a fuck and then after the show I was outside and the bass player, this weird skinny corkscrewed haired effeminate kid was loading all the equipment onto the back of what was probably his dad's pickup truck berating his band mates in this crazy nasal voice if they thought the show was any good or not. He thought it was, did they...what did they think? This was to become a daily ritual of my life for the next 10 years or so...anyway, so I saw him at this house party one of my bands was playing at a couple weeks later and I went up to him and said "hey, I saw your band...I fucking loved it" or something like that and he just gave me a dirty look, sniffed at me and walked away. I thought he was a total dick and I was really embarrassed by the whole thing. Eventually he started showing up at Henry and June gigs."

Johnny Walker hydrating Ben

Before Soledad there was the blues-punk band Henry & June, what is the history on that outfit? "That was me, Jimmy Danger and CJ (Dooley Wilson)...we were doing sort of this punk rock Fred McDowell meets the Stones kind of thing and, you know, it was great. We gigged all over Toledo and even went as far as Warren Ohio once where we were nearly beaten and arrested by local cops carrying bed knobs for nightsticks. Eventually we decided to get a bass player. We auditioned Johnny, I don't think we ever told him that he had the job he just kept showing up. We turned into a tighter, heavier band and started gigging up in Detroit, we did a bunch of shows with the Laughing Hyenas which was a huge deal for us, we worshiped those guys. Eventually Jim and CJ got tired of it and called it a day. We did a 7" on Human Fly Records, they only released like four 45's or something (Fireworks, the first Detroit Cobras, Henry and June, Rocket 455). So, for me, it's a little piece of mid-west rock history."

So how did this transformation turn into the Soledad Brothers?
"Johnny started playing blues style guitar stuff with this guy Doug Walker. They had a two-piece called Johnny Walker, Walker isn't Johnny's real name if you haven't picked up on that yet. When Doug quit after a couple hilarious episodes of fist-fights on stage, I was going to fill in for a few shows and I just kept doing it for like 8 years or something."

How did you guys decide to start traveling from Ohio to Detroit to play shows?
"Uh, well, you just got a better reception in Detroit. And there was a lot of great shit happening up there at that point with Italy records and all these great bands playing up there. I was spending most of my weekends up there and I mentioned to Jack (White) I was thinking of moving up there, and he offered his place to stay kind of temporarily and I went and just kind of stayed. He couldn't get rid of me. I was like a poltergeist."

The Soledad Brothers: Ben, Johnny & Oliver

What was it like having Jack White as a roommate back in the day? How did you guys become such great friends?
"He'd make me fold his clothes and empty the rattraps. I had to make him dinner every night and if the silver wasn't polished he'd give me demerit points. 10 demerit points meant cleaning the filthy birdcages of which there were 13, all rare, not to mention volatile and aggressive birds. At night he would be forgiving and gentle, dressing my bird wounds and quietly singing Charly Patton songs until I drifted into sleep."

Italy Records put out the 'Sugar and Spice' 7” single, how and when did this deal go down?
"I think Dave Buick just mentioned it in passing one time and we just badgered him with recordings and artwork until he relented and put it out, rather than deal with us pestering him for the rest of his life."

After the Italy single, a handful of singles and the first LP came about... Estrus being one of the labels, how did they find you guys and start releasing your albums?
"Estrus was doing catalog distribution for Italy, so he heard the single and just sent me a postcard asking if we wanted to do some wax with him. Dave's (Crider) a cool laid back guy and was great to work with. He made it all really easy. We had a bunch of recordings that we had already done up in Detroit at Jack's place so we added a few more and sent it off and that was the first record."

Your style of drumming is unique, how old were you when you started to pound the skins and how did you develop your signature style?
"I started pretty late. I had these really cool orange and blue Vistalite Ludwigs that my uncle had loaned me, but it took me forever until I finally sat down and started bashing it out. I was really intimidated by it. I finally realized that if I just hit really hard with confidence it sounded better. A lot of my style comes from not really playing with a bass player. I've always tried to play to the whole sound of the band instead of one individual instrument. I always wanted to occupy a zone between Moe Tucker and Keith Moon...simplistic, repetitive, but explosive."

What was your first big tour with the Soledads? How was this experience?
"Our first tour was with The Fireballs of Freedom, who taught me how to tour, if you're not having fun on tour then you shouldn't be doing it and those guys did it 24 hours a day, they never stopped, I can't say enough good stuff about those guys. The first big tour was with Hope Sandoval, funnily enough. We didn't really know how her audience would react so we tried to mellow it out at first, but the more we got to know her and the band we realized they didn't want that, they just wanted us to do our thing. The people at the shows were pretty perplexed; man, but we had a great time. Her band was really cool with us, Colm O'Ciosoig from My Bloody Valentine was her drummer and it was really great to get to know him cause I was always a big fan. One night in Boston all these people were heckling her to play Mazzy Star songs and she eventually got upset and walked offstage. We were out in the lobby and all these Boston whitey turds were bitchin’ about her and we just confronted them all. They were demanding their money back, but we managed to scare them all off. Ha..."

What’s an odd or crazy story that you have witnessed on the road touring?
"There's loads, we were in Austin once and we met Augusto Pinochet's grandson. He spent like a hundred bucks at the merch-table and tried to get us to come home with him for 'girls and cocaine'. He also offered us $5,000 to cancel the rest of the tour and play his birthday party."

After the release of the fourth album ‘The Hardest Walk’, the band announced that the upcoming Soledad shows were cancelled and that the band decided to break-up. What brought on this decision?
"We were just tired. Tired of each other, tired of touring in a van...all that shit. It's hard to relate everything unless you know us or had been with us for a while, so I can't really do it justice in just a few sentences here. But there’s no hard feelings between us, I don't think so anyway. We just decided to move on. So many bands just keep playing forever until everybody is just sick of the sight of them. We loved our last album so we decided to quit while we were ahead."

Ben Swank

Out of all the shows and albums, what was your proudest moment as a Soledad Brother?
"There's a lot. I was just happy to be able to do all we did. I got to jam on stage with Greg Cartwright (of The Reigning Sound) once and even though I was loaded beyond belief and played like shit, it was one of the greatest moments of my life."

Do you miss being a Soledad Brother? Is there a chance for a reunion someday?
"Yeah, I miss those guys but I don't think any reunion or anything like that is going to happen. I'm not ruling out working with either of them or Dechman on something, but I'm not really interested in resurrecting something that I've finally dealt with ending."

What have you been up to since the Soledad Brothers called it quits? I hear you got married! & Do you plan to still play music?
"Yeah, I'm married and living in London. I have a couple bands going. I play with David Viner full time now, which is cool for me to do something a bit quieter and mellow. He's a great songwriter. I have another band that's just getting started called Ten Steps that I'm really excited about but don't want to reveal too much. It's kind of like an appalachian river baptism gone horribly wrong."

What are some newer bands you are digging right now? Where you live is it easy to catch some good shows?
"There's a show on every night of the week in London. It can be too much actually. There's a great band called The Horrors, it's not the In the Red band, I work with them at Loog Records. Ben Prosser is amazing, he does a two-piece with Victoria Yuelet singing and has a full band called the Tap Collective, they're both great, check that shit out."

How is it living in London compared to the U.S.? Are people as pissed at America in different countries as I think they are?
"It's difficult to compare. There's things I love and hate about them both to tell you the truth. People are absolutely pissed off with America outside of the States. It's really easy to see why. Culpability is very important outside of the U.S., the government in the States hasn't been asked to answer for the crimes they commit in other countries. There hasn't been one subpoena issued from Congress to investigate presidential misconduct since Bush took office compared to over 1,000 in the Clinton years. Which is insane considering Iraq, torture, Hurricane Katrina, Valerie Plame, wiretaps."

So Europeans are quite open about this?
"Europeans will talk endlessly and are very passionate about what is happening with their government and they don't understand why the American people don't hold their government responsible for their actions. You should see Jeremy Paxman go after politicians on the news over here, it's inspiring. He won't allow them to dodge the questions. I think the American media could learn from that and I think if American people are dissatisfied they need to speak up."

How long before the Swank-Army will hear some Ten Steps on record? Will it be sometime in the very near future?
"Pretty soon. We'll probably do some recording before we start playing out, there's just two of us, we're kind of interested in seeing how out there we can get with the recordings and then translating it live. Cash is always a problem, need some dough to buy all those weird instruments we gotta have so bad. I'm accepting donations, email me."

'Suave Swank' petting the panther!

Thanks to Ben Swank for the pics!


Soledad Brothers - A cool Metro Times Article from '03
David Viner on Myspace
The Tap Collective on Myspace
Soledad Brothers on Myspace
Greg Cartwright & The Reigning Sound
Augusto Pinochet? Who is he?

Soledad Brothers Icons FREE!
Jeremy Paxman at the BBC
Soledad Brothers by John Sinclair
Soledad Brothers - Article & Interview
The Original Soledad Brother George Jackson! (read this!)
Soledad Brothers on You Tube!

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