Monday, July 18, 2011

A CHAT WITH SAM MCPHEETERS

Whatever happened to the Punk Singer? The larger-than-life personality who screamed out your frustrations as if they were trapped inside your head, desperately trying to get out, but also to be heard, to have their voice acknowledged in this Babel-like modern age.
Rotten, MacKaye, Crash, Biafra, Styrene, Discussion, Danzig, Henry Garfield.
All of these folks not only had unique and unclassifiable voices, they had the burning itch to thrust their own neuroses and obsessions into the public consciousness. Of course, they had varying degrees of success, but no one can say they didn’t try. And outside of all the big names, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of idiosyncratic voices littered throughout the country during the early days of the American hardcore explosion. You could do a blind grab at a stack of early hardcore records and come up almost every time with a clearly-defined persona and vocal approach (negative or otherwise). Try that nowadays and you will find yourself drowning in a vortex of generic and inseparable screaming about nothing, or, if something, buried in clich├ęd vocal moves and indecipherable yammering.

Even if he is finished, as he hints below, with the concept of bands, a case can be made that Sam McPheeters is/was the last of The Great Punk Singers. Beginning with the now-iconic Born Against in the twilight era of late 80s hardcore (the wild world of NYHC to be specific), continuing through the 90s with the sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-frustratingly-inscrutable, always-entertaining (or annoying depending on your frame of reference and state of mind at the time) Men’s Recovery Project, to the mid-Ought return-to-hardcore ferocity and slicing wit of Wrangler Brutes; McPheeters managed to dredge his own canal connecting the roiling seas of old-school hardcore/punk with the often too-calm and not-shark-infested-enough waters of modern underground rock music.

On one hand you have Sam’s bitter, incisive, mocking, often political lyrics, and on the other hand you have the amazing YEEOWWAARWWLLL of his voice, which recalls Darby Crash’s at his gnarliest, but can access his old stomping grounds for a tough, brutal vocal beatdown. If you need proof, you can always subject yourself to Born Against’s classic “Well Fed Fuck.” MRP took Sam’s muse in a twisted direction, channeling vintage DEVO in both sound and visual aesthetic. Sometimes they come off like a hardcore interpretation of The Residents, satirically mocking underground music and taking the wind out of many a windbag’s sails (DVD forthcoming?). Wrangler Brutes brought him back to the punk rock fold, banging out a succession of awesome material and blazing through a few tours.

And let’s not forget Sam’s forays into writing. Starting with his Dear Jesus zine, then Error, and his excellent columns for both Maximumrocknroll and Punk Planet. Recently he has been writing for Vice, The Village Voice, and various LA-area papers, along with spoken word gigs around the country. Punk Renaissance Man? I’m sure he would snort at such a handle, but let’s give it to him anyway.

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[EH] There seems to be a thread in your work, beginning with the “Save the Children” cut on the Fear of Smell compilation, extending through the Sam McPheeters as Patrick Henry split 5” w/ The Catholic Church (in which Sam recites the famous “Give me liberty or Give me Death!” speech), up into your current work as a storyteller/spoken word artist.
How did this develop and how did it evolve?

[SM] The Fear of Smell comp was inspired by the old New Underground series of comps like Live is Ugly So Why Not Kill Yourself and Life is Beautiful So Why Not Eat Health Foods (the third and final was Life is Boring So Why Not Steal This Record -ed). “Save the Children” was done at the absolute last minute. Me and Joe Martin lived together at the time and Joe had done a piece that wasn’t that great and I think he knew it; and I didn’t know what I was gonna do. We were sitting around, each drinking a 2 liter of Coca Cola per day, looking at Ebullition records, and we thought “Why not?” and we wrote it really fast and didn’t think much more of it.
The Patrick Henry thing happened when I was living in Richmond VA and was dealing with a lot of serious mental issues, having panic attacks, and was just generally in a grim place at the time. One of the recurring themes in most of the bands I’ve been in has been gross incompetence, which was disguised a bit by the nature of the bands themselves. In Born Against I was put in this sort of “leadership” position, but I wasn’t competent to do anything. For example, I didn’t own a coffee maker because I didn’t know how to operate one. So, when I lived in Jersey City, I would walk to the hospital across the street and go into the emergency room past screaming children to get my coffee. I didn’t know how else to do it.
In Richmond, I reached a certain point where my memory got so bad, I thought that I would memorize this 5 minute speech. I went to the actual church where the speech was given and they stage re-enactments. As soon as George Washington stood up everyone shut the fuck up he was so commanding. When Patrick Henry gave his speech people were dead silent and some were even getting misty-eyed. And I thought, “I wanna do that!” I had a job where I could spend time memorizing it, so I did.


[EH] So it wasn’t politically motivated at all?

[SM] Well, it was in the sense that people were getting whiney about me not doing political stuff so it was like, “You just got 5 minutes of the raw shit. No crust punk band is giving you that.”
But I’m really enjoying the spoken word stuff. It’s way more satisfying than any live band experience I’ve had. I’ve had maybe 6 times where I’ve really enjoyed being on a stage with a band. I can remember specific instances, like a show in Oakland in ‘92 where I was like, “I’m the singer of Born Against, this is awesome!” But that only happened a few times. There’s one or two MRP shows and some Wrangler Brutes shows, because we were a much better live band. But the spoken word shows are fun.
It’s like having a conversation with a bunch of people at once.

[EH] Do you see yourself being in another band anytime soon?

[SM] I’m too old for it. Wrangler Brutes was very hard on me physically. I don’t necessarily look down upon older people in bands, but the kind of stuff that I do, because I don’t play an instrument, takes its toll.
When I was a kid at summer camp, I won two awards. One for Archery, and one for Dramatics. I said, “What the hell is Dramatics?” My bunkmate leaned over and whispered, “It means you act like a fucking baby.” And that’s me being in a band.   


I don’t want to be one of those pathetic 40-year old men who harps on about their old band. I think that sucks and there are a lot of those people out there. There’s a lot of band reunions. I don’t look down on them but I find it sad. If you’re a 45-year old man and you’re talking about your frigging hardcore band, you need some therapy and you need a hobby.



[EH] I always had this theory that Wrangler Brutes was this weird concept that you came up with where you were going to have this awesome hardcore band with all of these dudes who had previously been in great and well-known bands, make some records, do a few tours, and then break-up just to piss people off.

[SM] No, it wasn’t like that at all. Wrangler Brutes were very ambitious. But let’s be honest, there was an element of “Come back in [to the hardcore scene].”
Wrangler Brutes were like John Kerry’s Presidential run. Think about it: He’s a war hero, but he’s against the war.  In 2004 he’s like, “Hey folks, I’ve done these two completely opposing things, how do you like me now?” That was Wrangler Brutes.
All of our ambitions were horizontal. We didn’t have any cynical careerist desires, but we were doing the legwork to set up a tour throughout Europe, including Russia and Turkey. We were also working on going to the Philippines and China. Our Japanese tour was originally much more extensive. Unfortunately, things unraveled very quickly and it was over.





[EH] When Wrangler Brutes were touring the US did you encounter people who expected Born Against songs or anything like that?

[SM] No, not really. There were actually a lot of MRP fans, in addition to the Born Against fans, that came out of the woodwork. The conversations would range from, “When I was 14 this band changed my life,” which was really nice to hear, to, “Here, take this broken dustbuster.” It was pretty easy to tell which fan is which.  
I know there was some question as to Wrangler Brutes’ motives, but it’s not really my job to clarify that. I will say that we were a very female-friendly band. Fifty percent of the audience would be ladies and they would be up front dancing, which was really nice to see.



[EH] As to the issue of Men’s Recovery Project…


[SM] I am not at liberty to discuss Men’s Recovery Project.

[EH] OooooKkkkkk, well, how much of…

[SM] No.

[EH] Hmmm…….

[SM] The only thing I will say about MRP is that I don’t see how I had any choice but to be in Men’s Recovery Project.












[EH] How did the Doc Dart article come about?

[SM] After Wrangler Brutes broke up, I got a job doing computer work for an industrial painting company. It gives you a lot of clarity on your life when you realize that you’re doing something you don’t want to do. That’s the motivation for 40 year old men reuniting their hardcore bands. They realize they’re not having fun like they used to, sitting behind a desk all day.
So what did I do? I started to scout around for articles I’d like to write. With Doc Dart it seemed like there was a great story there. Alternative Tentacles put me in touch with him. I’d actually talked to him on the phone in 1991.
I was in Wisconsin for about a week. I went out there, got a hotel room, rented a car, and he was very receptive to the whole thing. I had done my homework, so he appreciated that.
The first day we went out to lunch and he said, “Alright, you probably want to talk about the Crucifucks,” and I said, “No, that’s Wednesday; today we’re going to talk about your childhood.” I don’t think he had ever had someone approach him like that. Of course, that’s flattering for anyone; after all, he is a man with strong convictions, but he was extremely forthcoming about his life.




It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was given full access to someone with an incredible story. He completely trusted me to tell his story as respectfully as possible, which is what I attempted to do. In all likelihood, I’ll never get that set of circumstances again.








At the end, we both had the foresight to acknowledge that he was not going to like the article. He’s very particular about his life and odds are, if somebody’s writing an article about you, you’re not going to like it. For instance, somebody wrote a Wikipedia page about Men’s Recovery Project and, surprise surprise, I didn’t like it and I corrected it. Everybody’s like that.


[EH] Do you feel like you’ve entered that rarefied stratosphere of The Old Man Punk, like a Rollins or Biafra or Mackaye?

[SM] No, I don’t think that. I’ve got about 2,000 fans spread across the country. If I play someplace outside of a major city there’s 5 people there who are really stoked, but I don’t have any illusions about my fame or impact. Ultimately, it’s a very minor form of celebrity.


[EH] How do you feel about the “legacy” of Born Against? 

[SM] When I was 11, I co-wrote a book with a friend of mine and it was published. I went to a very unusual alternative school in Albany, NY. My best friend was 18 and he went to this school also. We researched and wrote a book together about Albany folklore. I wrote 5% percent of it, he did most of it. When the book was published we got a lot of press because, “Hey, an 11 year old helped write a book.”
In seventh grade, my history teacher took me aside, I guess he thought I was depressed or something, and he went on this crazy personal speech. I don’t know what he thought; he must have presumed I was some frustrated prodigy, it was really weird. He said, “Some people only do one great thing in their life.” And I thought, “I wanna do other things in my life, dude.” 

The Born Against situation is eerily similar to that.
I’m not so convinced that that’s what will be on my epitaph. I’m not embarrassed in any way by Born Against, but I’m not necessarily celebratory. People come to these shows and they’re almost nervous to meet me. Years ago, in Richmond, I had dinner with Bikini Kill and I was talking to Kathleen Hanna and there were these two 14 year old girls sitting near us, staring at her, and they couldn’t even talk. I’ve never had that. But it’s weird, people have been flustered, tongue-tied, it’s a strange experience. Whoever they think they’re gonna meet is long gone; that person doesn’t exist. It’s very flattering though. There was a time in the past where I would have just mumbled, “That’s cool,” but that is over; if someone says, “Hey, I like Born Against,” I’m like, “That’s awesome, what’s your name?” and have a conversation with them. Be a smooth-talking George Clooney guy that everybody knew I was anyway (laughs).

[EH] Has there ever been a time where you hated Born Against, like it was an albatross around your neck?

[SM] No, I’ve never felt like that.


[EH] Not even in the Men’s Recovery Project era? You had to enjoy fucking with people’s expectations.

[SM] Perhaps. But Born Against was doing that also. It’s all the same thing.
The problem with Born Against is that everyone talked about it too much. I’m not going to add to the chatter. There were a couple of good songs…
There’s all of these books coming out about 90s hardcore, and I don’t agree with the premise: That 90s hardcore is worthy of further documentation, or is in any way equal to 80s hardcore. There was a time in Born Against where we thought we’d be grandfathered in because we started in the 80s. Clearly not, we were a 90s hardcore band. That makes all the difference. We weren’t bad at what we did, but we weren’t of that time, and that’s that.

[EH] You don’t see yourself as a bridge between the two eras. I think a lot of people see Born Against like that.

[SM] No. That’s fine. I just don’t agree with it.
I think Black Flag is great. And we were no Black Flag.
There was some weirdness there with the Radio Silence guys because I declined an interview. It’s a very well done book, don’t get me wrong. But at the end of the day, you should not have a photo of 1981 Henry Rollins next to a picture of Token Entry. That’s nutty talk. That’s not real.




























 [originally published in NEGATIVE GUEST LIST #25]

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