Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Urinals : Interview

It's a real thrill to offer up an interview with John from The Urinals, read on to find out what's coming up for the seminal west coast outfit!! 

You have a live album coming up, is it a compilation of different recordings or was it made during one performance?

I’m plundering the vaults for usable stuff from 1978-1983 so it’ll probably be a hybrid Urinals/100 Flowers release.  I’m trying to find interesting performances or songs that no one has heard us cover before – there should be some real surprises here, including performances of songs that sound much different from the released versions, and at least one cover that I’d forgotten about.  These are from cassettes, where the sound quality is variable from one show to the next, so some cleaning up will be required.

What’s your most memorable show?

Several are memorable – our first Sunset Strip performance at Gazzari’s (with The Last, Go Go’s, and an early Jeffrey Lee Pierce band, the Cyclones), our first show outside California (Raul’s in Austin), opening for Sonic Youth at the Wadsworth in LA, touring the West Coast with Yo La Tengo, being pelted at a Battle of the Bands in San Diego.   For sheer glorious surrealism, our first set at the Chaoyang Park International Pop Festival in Beijing in May of 2005.  Not that it was our best, but it was the most unexpected and unlikely.  To have found ourselves as the sole U.S. band is still mind-boggling to me.  You’re welcome, America.

What can we expect from the new album?

Aggressive, angular hard pop with more texture than you might expect.  Shortest song is :45 with only one longer than 3:14 so we’re still into brevity and minimalism, but with more nuance. Guitarist Rob Roberge brings a different element to the band – his influences are Stones/Dolls and Americana, but you’ll still know it’s us - it’s the next logical step after WHAT IS REAL AND WHAT IS NOT.

Will the new album be self-released on happy squid too?

Yes – it’s in the layout stage now, so it shouldn’t be too long, but I’ve been wrong on these things before, so don’t quote me.  Or even allow me to quote myself.

How do you approach recording? Do you come to a session with ideas already mapped out, or is it a more instinctive thing?

When we go into the studio, the songs have been written, arranged, and played live (a lot!)  The specific solos and overdubs are not set, so there IS room for some improvisation, but the structures are known.  One song on the new album, however, was re-arranged in the mixing stage, so I’m not against a little digital trickery to make a song the fullest expression of itself.

From some digging on the internet it looks like you still live/work/write music in Southern California? Does the area inform the music you write?

I suppose so, but it’s not something I think about.  A song like CALIFORNIA’S FALLING INTO THE OCEAN was about a specific local event, and SURFIN’ WITH THE SHAH employs a surf beat, which is very SoCal, but our approach doesn’t consciously reference our culture, though I suppose it is OF its culture.

Having said that, when we were starting out and going into Hollywood to see the Dangerhouse bands, I felt like the L.A. punk scene was the best one in the U.S.  At that time though, our biggest early influences were Wire, Gang of Four, Buzzcocks, and the Ramones – none of which are from SoCal. Once you find your own voice however, the influences recede. They act initially to get you to strap on a guitar or yowl into a microphone.

Do you prefer playing or recording? With the experience you have now is there a piece of advice you’d give yourself when you first playing in a band? If so what would it be?

Playing is way more fun, unless it’s a horrible night in a dim club with 2 paying customers, crappy sound, and a belligerent sound guy.  But when it’s not that, and one is free to concentrate on the songs and the performance, AND get feedback from the audience – it’s the best. Recording is kind of dull, actually, because it takes so long.  I do love the finished product though – it just takes a lot of doing to get to it.

Advice to my younger self? Go on tour, network with people. Near the end of 100 Flowers, we had become a tight and dynamic unit, but not too many people outside of LA had been given the opportunity to see us. I think we could’ve taken the band to the next level had we been more careerist, which of course was a dirty word back then, so pretend I didn’t say that.

It’s well written about how Urinals forged their sound from not knowing how to play when you got started.  I was wondering if over time you’ve honed your skills through experience, and if it’s still important to write songs sounding like they’ve come from an untaught place?

I would say it’s important to write songs that sound different.  There’s no way we could get away with pretending we don’t know what we’re doing (though technically, being self-taught and unable to read music, Kevin and I still don’t.) That would be dishonest and would suggest that we aren’t interested in evolving into the next iteration of the Urinals.  It’s more important to retain one’s own unique perspective and try not to get absorbed into someone else’s version of pop music.

I’ve also read a lot about how Urinals was kicking against what everyone was listening to when you got started with the concept of a ‘joke punk’ band.  What do you make of the current wave of music?  Can a band still make a radical statement when there’s so much out there that has said so much now?

A radical statement can now be thought of as commercial. Look at Kanye West’s last record, some of which sounds like late 1970s/early 1980s industrial music. Or No Age, who are appealing to a mass audience way beyond what would’ve been conceivable in the early days of punk.  What they’re saying may be familiar, but the way they’re saying it is new to commercial radio. I tend to think however, that most everything has been expressed – what’s left?

How does it feel to have bands like No Age, Yo La Tengo and Mike Watt cover your songs?  Are there any new bands that you currently like to listen to?

It’s a pleasure to have the material covered.  It’s gratifying that people find it resonant enough to lend their own interpretation to.

I am exposed to new music more often in a live situation, when we’re playing on a bill with someone we’ve never been exposed to before.  Recently memorable bands I’ve seen have been AUNTIE PANTY, SHARK TOYS, PLAYBACKDOLLS, and AUDACITY.

In an interview you said sex was recorded in a gym, the interview read as though you had limited options when it came to studio space, do you think this added another dimension to how your songs sound?  Have you continued to record in unusual venues?

SEX sounds the way it does because of the space in which it was recorded – also ORANGE ANAL SIN, which was recorded in a parking structure, is similarly massive.  There’s some footage on YouTube of us playing SHAH with Bruce Licher in a downtown gallery a couple of years ago that also has that quality.  We really like that kind of sound, but we’ve moved away from recording in spaces like that. Instead, we use the studio to try to present the material in its most dynamic way – sometimes that dynamism is lost when the space overwhelms it.

If you were sliced in half what would be inside?

A solid sphere of dark chocolate (72% cacao) with a thin layer of pistachio Grenache.