Tony Coulter here, with a third post from Portland, OR -- my new home as of a little more than four months. When I was getting ready to move from Brooklyn, the thing I said to myself whenever fears of being deprived of "kultcha" beset me was, "At least Portland's got Smegma!" So it only seems appropriate that I should post something here on this great, long-lived band, who are most definitely a Portland institution -- whether Portland realizes it or not. What follows is an interview with key Smegma member Ju Suk Reet Meate, at the conclusion of which I've added seven rare Smegma tracks -- the last two unreleased and provided by Mr. Reet Meate himself.
The interview begins right afterr the fold:
TC: Say something about the beginnings of Smegma, when you were still in Los Angeles. How/when/where did the group come together, and who were the original members?
JSRM: L.A. seemed a very grim and wacky place in 1972, with the Manson Family still fresh in memory, and headlines on the front page of the L.A. Times like, "L.A. Police Train for Food Riots." We were from "normal middle class suburbs," fresh out of or getting kicked out of high school. Most of us had just missed being sent to Vietnam. We were culturally isolated on the east side. No one had gone to art school or seemed to have any great artistic gifts. The hippie thing was petering out, but in L.A. there was a big freak scene and we were all trying to find our tribe. We moved to the "ghetto" in Pasadena. Unlike most of L.A., it was a real city, with the richest and poorest people and a history of culture, beautifully in decline. With alternative bookstores, thrift shops, porn shops, flophouses, strange restaurants, and in the basement next door to a scary porn theater, Poo-Bah Records. Poo-Bah was our Music Temple, with (L.A.F.M.S. co-founder) Tom Recchion and owner Jay casting the spell. Many future Smegma and L.A.F.M.S. members met there.
Somehow, playing weird music all day (instead of looking for a job) became the obsession of a small group of us. After a short experiment with a real band with "normal" songs, called Ricky Reet's Hubba-Hubba Band, a new concept emerged: a band without musicians, not playing anything contemporary, only past and future music. At first this involved mostly Ju Suk Reet Meate, Cheez-It-Ritz, Chuck-O-Fats, Cheezbro, Dennis Duck, and Amazon Bambi. Smegma officially began on November 19th, 1973, at 361 Adena, when, after a wild jam, we were determined to come up with a name for our "band without musicians." Magma was playing in the background, and Gerry Bishop (later president of L.A.F.M.S.), learned man that he was, suggested “Smegma” as our name -- and the rest is history. Over the next two and a half years we obsessively jammed and plotted world domination. From the beginning, Mike Lastra would occasionally record us more professionally, eventually to the point of constructing a studio in the 100-degree attic at 777 Los Robles (Bub Manor) in 1975.
Smegma's first show
TC: When and why did you move to Portland?
JSRM: By mid-1975 the core of the band was obsessed about moving to Oregon, for mostly idealistic reasons -- it was certainly not a career move. Crazed go-back-to-the-land fantasies, better pot laws, moss, trees -- all the good stuff. Prog and glam were melting into disco and crazy original music seemed to have no future in L.A. (Of course we were wrong: within two years many of our friends were involved in L.A.F.M.S. and great original rock/pop/noise bands such as Human Hands, the B People, Child Molesters, and others.) Oregon had always had a mythical allure, and at the end of the summer five of us drove up in Mike's big old blue school bus.
We moved to the tiny town of Corvallis and managed to move into a cockroach-infested flophouse by the river. We soon realized we needed a bigger city and wound up in Portland. Back in the blown-out inner city.
TC: How did you become involved with the Los Angeles Free Music Society (L.A.F.M.S.)?
JSRM: We had been ignorant of L.A.F.M.S. while we lived in California. Shortly after arriving in Portland we got a flier for the proposed LP I.D. Art #2 (asking artists to pay by the minute for time on the record, then to split up copies accordingly) and enthusiastically responded. About the same time, we got Bikini Tennis Shoes by Le Forte Four and wondered, "How could we not have known about this stuff?!" Although originally L.A.F.M.S. was based out of Cal Arts Valencia, we were on parallel paths and over the next few years participated in many projects together.
TC: Do you feel part of a Portland scene these days? Did you ever?
JSRM: Right now, not so much. Smegma has played SO MANY humiliating shows in Portland over the last 20 years or so, although a few, mostly at the old Satyricon and at X-Ray Cafe, were fairly swell. Today there is a small but dedicated group of sound artists here who have kept this town from completely sucking musically.
When we arrived in Portland, it had a tiny but great indigenous free-jazz scene that we discovered just as it seemed to be petering out. We didn’t really connect with anyone in it, except for Lee Rockey (although John Jensen of More Than Human and Stan Wood of The Boptet were both in Smegma later ).
Unlikely as it may seem, Portland had a small but very intense "punk scene" in 1978-9, which reintroduced a crude/intense R’n’R element back to the center of the band. Following this, Gerry A (later of [punk band] Poison Idea) was recruited into Smegma as a bass player. We were really in the heart of that lovely scene.
In 1988, under suspicious circumstances, Smegma won the “Best Band in Portland” contest and was sent to Toronto for a three-day festival paid for by Molson breweries. Just an example of how Portland used to coddle us.
TC: Tell us something about Lee Rockey.
JSRM: We first encountered Lee Rockey about six months or so after we moved to Portland. We had heard about an event of his happening at the Portland Art Museum, and went to see what it was all about. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw: wild drums, electric violin, and cello played through an echoplex. A four-channel tape deck playing prerecorded electronic skronks, together with the sound of wooden flutes and off-speed voices. Dancers holding video cameras that were run through a Paik video synth, making live projections. This was the second and last of Lee's full-blown multimedia performances. The music was crazed, scary, funny, and beautiful.
Lee was a hard-swinging jazz drummer (in the Gene Krupa style) who had mastered the modern style by 1946. A hipster back when it meant something, he wore a zoot suit with a reet pleat and spoke "jive." While in town he would back up traveling "jump" acts such as The Treniers, or play modern jazz with his pals, in a group originally called the Vancouver Wiz Kids. He moved to NYC in 1953, and joined up with Neil Hefti (yes, Batman, but Hefti at the time was a very underrated new band leader who had just written great arrangements for Count Basie that sent his career back to the top). Lee then was on Herbie Mann's first 10" LP (a great cool jazz classic with Al "Jazzbo" Collins, the original theme music for The Purple Grotto). Lived the life for a few years, then came back to Portland to stay. He continued playing with the best musicians and was part of the legendary Way Out Club house band in 1963.
Then everything changed; like many of his generation (Miles, etc.), he was a relentless searcher that never looked back. Possibly inspired by Ornette Coleman, he took up the electric violin. Homemade electronics, free drumming, bells, flutes, piano, all melted together as he channeled Debussy and Bartok and new sounds emerged. Lee and his friend Dick Knudsen played with Smegma off and on for years.
TC: Mention a few of Smegma's other past collaborators and members.
TC: Tell us something about the Pigface label -- about what led you to start it, and some of the experiences you had putting out records yourself. Is Pigface officially extinct?
JSRM: When I finally got a Real Job, the first thing I did was put out a 45 RPM single with some old crappily recorded, mostly vocal cassette tapes I had made in Pasadena (Pig 001 Pigface Chant, 1978). Since we had participated on L.A.F.M.S. projects, they hooked me up with their sources. I discovered these incredible "Mom and Pop" type places like Virco, run by a nice lady named Virginia who did the books, and a man whose name I can’t remember, who ran and built the cutting lathe and board. I was in the room as they cut the "mother," and the first time, after five seconds, he stopped the tape and lathe and said, “something’s wrong with the tape!” We had to tell him, “No, it was the way we wanted it.” O.K. then. They just sent us a bill on our word (we did always pay). But my biggest thrill, especially looking back on it, was having Glamour Girl 1941 mastered at Gold Star Studios. I remember seeing all the gold records by Brian Wilson, etc. Later I realized it was the last great independent hand-built "wall of sound" artifact from Hollywood’s golden age. It burned up in the ’80s.
Lots of people helped with the hard work of putting out Pigface releases, though occasionally things didn't go as planned. About 200 of the Pigs for Lepers LP covers had thick gooey ink that took months to dry. It looks great today, though. Pigface Records has been sleeping, but future releases can't be ruled out.
TC: In terms of Smegma releases, how much does editing contribute to the finished product? Say something about the editing process, and about who has been most involved with it.
JSRM: For most Smegma releases "editing" is extremely important -- meaning everything from sequencing tracks from unedited live sessions, to picking part of a great jam session, to careful overdubbing. The idea being a "record album" -- LP, 45, CD or whatever -- is meant to be LISTENED TO INTENTLY, and be timeless art, or why bother. There have been many learning curves over the years in studio tech, but I think the goal is always “old school”: something that sounds like it was played in a room by humans, no matter how many studio tricks were used.
I have been the one in the group that has always spent hours and days at a time at home, obsessively listening to rough mixes and sessions, and making reams of notes to bring to the studio sessions. Mike Lastra had the studio and was the engineer. Mike and other band members also contributed many great ideas.
TC: Do you have any theories on what has enabled Smegma to survive, in some form, for so many years?
JSRM: We managed to not have any real "success" for so long that the PROCESS of being Smegma has had a chance to spontaneously rise up now and then.
TC: Who currently can be considered "active" members of Smegma?
JSRM: Oblivia, Ju Suk Reet Meate, Dennis Duck, Ace Farren Ford, Victor Sparks, Nour Mobarak, and others.
TC: What are some of the current Smegma side projects?
JSRM: Oblivia and Ju Suk are The Tenses.
TC: What is some of the music you tend to listen to most these days (when you're not listening to friends' records or stuff that people send you)?
JSRM: Here’s a sample: Porter Wagoner’s Rubber Room LP, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (Verve LP mix), Miss Betty Davis’s I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy LP, Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds (Fontana LP), Ahmed Abdul-Malik's Music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik LP, Philip Cohran’s The Minstrel LP, Sun Ra’s Omniverse LP, Ernie Andrews's This Is Ernie Andrews LP, Bela Bartok’s Orchestral Works CD, Bonzo Dog Band’s Tadpoles LP, Mott the Hoople’s The Moon Upstairs LP, Roy Orbison’s Sun Story, Vol. 4 LP, Omar Souleyman’s Highway to Hassake CD, Menace Ruine’s Cult of Ruins LP, Metronome All Stars’ Strut 78, Sybil Sanderson Fagan’s whistling 78, The Nightingale and the Frogs. Also, old-time radio shows from the ’30s to ’50s, like Jack Benny and Bob and Ray, streamed from the internet. Gems from the vault of twentieth-century roots music, meaning blues, jazz, r&b, jump, old timey, etc. Also, THRIFT STORE RECORDS: organ music, Christian saw playing, The High Hopes….