Logo designed by Gary Panter
This interview originally appeared in the Los Angeles Beat on April 20.
By Bob Lee
The Screamers have not stopped being ahead of their time since their formation in 1976. A band that never courted mainstream acceptance, there may simply not be enough time for society to catch up to them. They were so extreme, they never even put out a record. As drummer K.K. Barrett put it, “All groups need growth, and they need to change. And we just changed right out of who we were” before it could be captured properly.
Barrett's arrival in LA from Oklahoma in January of 1977 allowed the band's first full lineup to come together. He didn't replace the Roland TR-66 rhythm machine that the core team of singer/ genius front man Tomata du Plenty and keyboardists Tommy Gear and David Brown had been using; he joined it as a second drummer. In order to integrate the TR-66 with a drum kit, they had to run it through a bass cabinet, put it behind K.K.'s head, and turn it up, way up. The sound they developed that spring and summer was captured on a set of four-track demos that have been released as an EP on Superior Viaduct – the first sanctioned studio recordings by the Screamers ever pressed on vinyl.
The five songs captured in these sessions still don't sound precisely like anything else you could name. There've been other keyboard-based bands--they don't sound like this. Distorted, interlocking piano lines bounce off the synthetic drum tones, augmented by jittery cymbal accents, creating a feeling of restrained menace as du Plenty intones hard-won wisdom: It's not always pleasant/ to get what you deserve. Elsewhere, on “Anything,” the restraints come off and the band just explodes in your face.
There are lines that could be drawn to other guitarless acts surfacing in that same moment like The Normal and Suicide. Of course, there was Kraftwerk, who were considerably more polite. There's Devo, who Barrett acknowledges as fellow travelers even though they did play guitars, and Throbbing Gristle, who had a guitar but didn't use it like one. The closest thing they have to a real predecessor is 1968's Silver Apples, who made “synth rock” which pre-dates the modern synthesizer, from a homemade contraption of oscillators mixed with propulsive, pattern-based drumming, the effect of which could prove profoundly unsettling.
But the Screamers had one thing none of the others did, and that was Tomata. The footage seen in the Target Video DVD that used to be the only document of the group you could possibly buy, reveals him to be one of the great front men in all of punk... maybe in all of entertainment. A former member of the Cockettes, he had that fearlessness that seems to burn brightly in those people that perform transgressive art.
Importantly enough, they also had K.K. Barrett, whose driving, relentless beats provided the steam that powered them. He worked on the essential early punk label Dangerhouse with his fellow Okie transplant Pat Garrett. K.K. also spent time as drummer in Black Randy's Metrosquad, which he described as an on-and-off proposition. “I would do it for a while, then I would get kicked out – once, I was kicked out for being in the Screamers.” When I mention that the group sounded to this outsider like a prickly cast of characters, he says “Randy's thing was always very funny – and David's was too, but, David's humor was delivered with more of a... rusty knife.”
We met at K.K.'s lovely home to discuss the Superior Viaduct release and talk a little bit about the band with perhaps the most lopsided influence-to-record-sales ratio in the history of modern music. Prior to this release, you would have had to multiply the influence by zero sales.
But one thing that occurs to me after our talk is that, in terms of gauging the success or failure of a project, you really have to stick around a while to see how the story ends. Forty-four years after these multi-track demos were made, interest in the band has never been higher; the first pressing of this EP sold out instantly, while a second edition on black vinyl sold out as well. Meanwhile, the uncompromising approach to their art that caused them to forgo recording studios and experiment with filmmaking, led Barrett directly to a career in production design, working on such acclaimed films as "Being John Malkovich" and "Her," the latter of which won him an Oscar nomination and an Art Director's Guild award.
We listened to a bit of a test pressing, which sounds great--raw, a little middle-y as tapes from the '70s often do, but pure. Vinyl is a good medium for this stuff, though K.K. thinks it sounds better in digital. But finally, you can buy a record with that famous Gary Panter drawing of Tomata on the cover, and there's Screamers music on it, and it's real. FINALLY. That drawing is on a record cover, and it feels like something in the world has been set right.
* These are from summer '77?
* How would you describe the division of responsibility between the two keyboard players? At this point, we're talking about David and Tommy.
At the very earliest point, it's hard to say. Because David and Tommy had maybe played the song before I joined the band, in a rehearsal type of division of duty.
Tommy wrote the song. So his melody on either keyboard is the original piece. And then I don't know what David contributed to it because I wasn't there at that moment. But I'm sure that there's a lot of interplay that only David knew how to play, Tommy was a more rudimentary piano player. More brilliant at single note leads. So I would say anything that's flourishy, or the interplay, the way he interplays with the drum machine and with the drums, that's definitely all David, rather than just following strictly melody. Because he's playing bass as well, playing bass and melody at the same time.
* Tomata comes from a big history of theater, confrontational and flamboyant performance. Was there a conscious effort to make queerness part of the thing?
Not at all. I think they had gone heavy into that phase, as far as that being the audience. And it was never brought up. It was a more universal audience than that. It's easy to talk about that sociologically in hindsight. But at the time it wasn't a statement that was trying to be made.
* After David leaves the band, and you start working with Paul Roessler, what does he bring into the picture?
Well after David left... there was some friction between David and Tommy, and David left. We had a period where we were still writing songs, but we were looking for a keyboard player. And we found a kid from Beverly Hills High, Jeff McGregor. And he played for three or four months, starting around New Year's Eve of that following year (1977-78).
He knew he was gong to be temporary, and that was his design and our design. And he did contribute to some different parts. He contributed to “She Frightens” and “122 Hours Of Fear,” intros, things like that. Already there was a reliance to embrace other people's contributions to a certain extent. But he was a much more rudimentary player. David was a much more accomplished player than Jeff was. He was a Berkley School of Music jazz guy, you know. Fractured, intentionally fractured. And much more fluid.
Jeff was an outside thinker but much more rudimentary on the piano. The band didn't really lift off during that period. We played some shows, but, also we were kind of getting our feet wet. We hardly ever practiced. I was probably more in shape for these recordings (made in July, 1977) than during the whole Jeff McGregor time. Cause I had freshly come to town (in January of 1977), I had been playing with bands in Oklahoma.
So when Paul came into the fold, all of a sudden, it was much more adventurous. Also extremely facile on the piano, and much more adventurous. And we pushed him, and he liked it. Knocked the three-note chords out of him and got him into two-note chords. But encouraged him to accent things and play with noises and sounds. He brought an organ with him and another synthesizer. And then it became a whole different thing, because Tommy would sometime play synthesizer AND organ, and Paul would be playing synthesizer AND piano. So it became a much lusher sound.
* It's been talked abut a lot that there was a reluctance to go in the studio and make records, hoping instead to make films. The question in my mind, if we think about these recordings at the time they're made, was that already a vision? And what would these films have been like? What would be on a storyboard for “Punish or Be Damned?”
We didn't know. It was less about a scripted story than...we knew we were successful as a live show. But we didn't know how that would transfer to... Well, first of all, there was no place to put something like that, a video clip of a band. This was before MTV. Or even the film we worked on, was before MTV. There was really no end point for that stuff. We just knew that it needed to be audio and visual at the same time. That was kind of our statement, rather than just audio alone.
* Was Rene Daalder your guys' first choice as a visual partner to try and get that happening?
No, that just came along. He had a project, and we were contributing to the project. The three of us - Paul wasn't really involved in that – the three of us were involved in that project in different ways, but it really wasn't a Screamers project. It was Rene's project. And he just came along and had the funds to get it off the ground, and so we did it, and we contributed to it. And a lot of people – Penelope from the Avengers contributed to it, and there was an Italian guy, Leo Nero, who wrote songs. And a bunch of different people. So it wasn't really a Screamers project, It was just the first example you could say, of us doing something visual in tandem with music.
* Did you want to have a hit?
No. We never even thought about that. Even these recordings were made so we could play them for people to get shows. A hit? That was so far out of the realm of interest. You know how it is when you start a band, and you want to play for your 10 friends. And then eventually you want to play for 50, and then maybe you get to play the 200 [capacity] place.
No, we never thought about touring, although we did, or hits, or anything... A hit implies competition into the mainstream, and we were never interested in that. That wasn't a goal.
Really, it was kind of week to week, what can we do to entertain ourselves? And judge that by the audience reaction – sometimes good, sometimes not! But we were happy to repel people as well as draw them in.
* To realize this music the way that you wanted to, what would have been needed from a resource standpoint?
What do you mean? Audio, or visual or...
* Well, I think there's a feeling that the great Screamers masterpiece recording never was able to be made, and never materialized.
I think all bands need growth, they need to keep changing. And we kind of changed ourselves right out of who we were.
I think that as we grew from this period in early '77 to the shows that we recorded live at the Mabuhay in San Francisco with Paul, in late '78, I think that that version of the band had met its apex at that point. We were a pretty hot live band, finally. There's a lot of shows where we weren't that great, But at that show, we were really together, and had a suite of songs that we really liked. That could have been an album, I would say. That album could also include some of this stuff, but we let certain things drop by the wayside, or re-oriented them to a new sound. A more drawn-out, open sound, that was also more abrasive. More propulsive but also more abrasive.
So, there were other people putting records at the time out, and they weren't doing that well. Richard Hell's album – great album, (sales were) nothing. Blondie had success because they were very mainstream and melodic, and had a strong visual appeal.
Devo had long success. They're a pretty good parallel, they were also making films early on, and their band had a concept, like we did. Different concept, but a strong concept. And they had success by continuing through the hump of the first birth into the next level. They legged it out until MTV. If we had legged it out until MTV, maybe our visual approach and audio approach would have had a place to go.
But it was never planned as a long run. It was planned as, let's entertain ourselves, here we go.
* I'm aware of some additional studio recordings. Is there any plan to do anything with that stuff?
Not at the moment. We do have some recordings, but this is the only stuff we ever recorded on quarter-inch tape. Everything else is cassette sourced. And there are some missing things that we don't know where they are. I'm always loosely trying to run them down. But not a fervent pursuit. I've got other things going on.
I've got a pretty good archive, but this was the best tape and I thought, the best statement of who we were at a moment in time, to put out as a single statement. That's why it's brief, this is all that we recorded at the time. There were other songs that we had at the time, but this is all that we chose to record. And it was a recording method that we perfected back in Oklahoma, on four-track, and used throughout the early days of Dangerhouse, with Pat Garrett. He engineered both of those situations.
It was funny being in a band where we never argued. We were just always happy to be doing what we were doing, and to move forward. And every time we got a chance to do something different, like tour the east coast, tour the west coast, go back to the east coast again, work on Rene's project--they were all something to take a chance at. I think the bigger notions we got, like when we got to Rene's thing and it involved so many more people, there was less of us. That's why I don't consider it the same statement.
But I ended up getting a career out of it. Everything I knew kind of coalesced into “Oh, working on film! I never thought about that before!” That was a good thing for me.