Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Potatomen - Live at Dalloway's
The Potatomen: Friends of the Bend
An Interview with Larry Livermore by Ted Liebler
It all started a couple of weeks before when I passed out flyers for WVFI’s upcoming Potatomen/cub band-a-rama at the Riverdales, Gaunt, Fastbacks show at the Lounge Ax in Chicago. Out of the blue and a few weeks later, Ben Weasel (of the Riverdales, Screeching Weasel) called WVFI requesting if they could play the show with their friends the Potatomen. I recall I had to go an early evening seminar at the Snite Museum on New Mexican pottery. Usually the Southwestern subject would have truly engaged me, but this night was hard to sit through as I was thinking about the possibilities of the 2nd Riverdales show ever! The day of the show finally arrived and I stopped by WVFI and Jim Jadwisiak and Ron Garcia were at the station. Jim said, “I have some good news and bad news for you Ted. The bad news is that Ben Weasel called and had to cancel because of problems with their van. The good news is that the station got the new Mr. T Experience EP today.” To a non-Buddhist trained mind, it was letdown city as I thought to myself there was simply no comparison and Ford Econoline Rent-A-Vans were surely easy to come by in Chicago. On a regular day, the arrival of a new MTX EP would have been exciting, but this would have been a major coup for WVFI to bring Ben Weasel to ND-or technically SMC. In those days before widespread internet use, word about the Riverdales’ cancellation traveled slower than the I-31 highway under construction.
That small and endearing coffee house known as Dalloway’s was packed by the time the Potatomen, all the way from Berkeley, went on that April 5th night. The Potatomen were so well received and reflected my current perspective that music can be complex thing that has the power to make the world simple again. Making their triumphant return to ND/SMC/South Bend/Michiana, the headliners cub played a joyful set that had almost the whole room dancing. The night hit its zenith when the Vancouver, BC band ripped out their Cars’ cover of "My Best Friend's Girl." At one point, I looked back beyond a room of smiles to the shadowy back corners and spotted a bunch of upset hardcore punks. The arrival of these hardcore punks (perhaps from the Chicago suburbs or maybe even Granger) to encounter two indie rock bands, the Potatomen and cub and no Ben Weasel made for quite the sideshow element. (However, if they were truly upset what were they doing hanging around for the entire show?) The night had it all: Harmony, Contrast, Balance, Unity, and Disorder as the Dalloway’s cash box was ripped off that night...
This edition of Friends of the Bend brings us the thoughts and reflections of Larry Livermore. Larry was the leader/lead singer of the Potatomen and co-founder of Lookout Records–the label which brought the world the sounds of Green Day, Screeching Weasel, the Mr. T Experience, the Queers and our own Ted Leo. The UC-Berkeley graduate is now living in Brooklyn, following his beloved Fulham Football club and writing his first novel.
TL: After the show, you made the very Hank Williams-esque statement that crisscrossing the country as a band was easy street or biscuits 'n' gravy or some such thing. At the time, I didn’t know if you were being facetious or serious or both.
LL: Ha! I don’t remember ever using either of those expressions in my life, but I very well might have said something like that, hopefully in a similar vernacular. I was probably being facetiously serious, in that up to that point, we hadn’t had any real problems on the tour, and it had indeed been as easy as dipping biscuits in gravy, or however the saying might go. But that’s easily explainable by the fact that the Notre Dame show was only the second one of the tour; it had been booked in an unfortunate format that required us to drive some 2,400 miles before playing our first show in Ann Arbor, Michigan. So although the three days it took us to make that drive were filled with some chagrin that we hadn’t had the foresight or aptitude to set up shows for ourselves along the way in, for example, Winnemucca or North Platte or even lovely Dubuque, we otherwise had a good old time listening to music, arguing among ourselves as to what was the best Smiths or Hank Williams song, and having a feet-up-on-the-dashboard look at this great country of ours. The trip back west was not quite so smooth, involving such things as blizzards, break-ins and fitful bursts of rancor and tears, but I’ll suppose you’ll ask more about that later on.
TL: Would you like to add any words here about life on the road as a band? I recall, from a Lookout ‘zine, you wrote about the trials of listening to a bandmate's New Order tape over and over again on one of the Potatomen's tours.
LL: And it looks as though I was right! I don’t, however, remember any specific incidents with a New Order tape, though that’s entirely possible. Ironically, New Order are now ranked high in the regular rotation on my iPod, being especially appropriate for gym workouts and running, but at the time, I would have found it a trial, and it’s quite possible that the bandmate in question might not have been with us for the long run. As noted above, the Smiths and Hank Williams maintained a stranglehold on the Potatomen van (known as Blimpo, by the way) stereo, along with occasional discursions into Morrissey solo records.
But yes, other trials: well, there was the time we had a raging argument that lasted from Berkeley to Portland, Oregon over the merits or lack thereof of facial hair, with the band being evenly divided on the subject. By the time we’d hit the far north of California, I (one of the antis) was being accused of wanting to put all bearded men into concentration camps, when in fact, all I’d said was that if you put a fence down the middle of the planet and put all the beardos on one side and all the clean-shavens on the other, a survey would demonstrate a better intellectual and moral climate on the clean-shaven side.
After we left Notre Dame on that particular trip, things went smoothly enough for a while, the roughest part being when we were required to attend a backyard barbecue in Minneapolis, where locals stood around in t-shirts and shorts despite the temperature hovering around 40 degrees (apparently this is what passes for summer in Minnesota). Two days later, we were stranded in a sudden blizzard near Bismarck, North Dakota (it was the first or second week of April, so I think we were entitled to a little indignation).
The worst episode of the tour, however (provided we’re not talking about the quality of some of our performances) came in Missoula, Montana, where someone broke out the front window of our van and ran off with all our clothes, my acoustic guitar, Patrick’s violin, and my brand new leather jacket, while we were on stage playing. Apparently it happens quite a bit in that deceptively small and innocent-looking town, but we were completely unprepared for it, and even more unprepared for having to make the rest of the trip with a sheet of plastic covering the window and the wind howling like a banshee at a volume that made arguments about the Smiths and Hank Williams not only impossible, but also more pointless than usual, because we could no longer hear the stereo either.
TL: I was under the impression that the band arrived in the late afternoon on an overcast day and really didn’t have time to wander the verdant campus. Still, any impressions of South Bend? It’s OK if you compare it to Eureka, CA or Westland, MI... Any comments on the Notre Dame music scene at the time? (Again, I realize you only encountered 6-7 hours worth of certain aspects of it.)
LL: We did get there fairly late in the afternoon, and it was gray, and we didn’t really have time to see much more than we saw from the van as we found our way to where we’d been instructed to show up. I honestly don’t remember who set up the show for us, but now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure it would have been cub’s booking agent, Margie, as she arranged the entire tour. Anyway, I don’t remember seeing much of South Bend apart from the campus, and not too much of that, which was kind of a disappointment for a Catholic boy who’d been filled with stories of Notre Dame for 12 years of elementary school and high school. Some of our teachers actually used to make us say a prayer for Notre Dame on Fridays during football season. It was as though they saw Notre Dame winning as a victory for all Catholics in much the same way JFK’s election was.
For what I saw of it, I was very impressed by the Notre Dame music scene. It was the kind of scene I occasionally encountered in smallish towns – Arcata, California was another one – that were located far enough from major population or cultural centers that people got together and made up their own entertainment rather than just wait for it to come to them, and the result tended to be more creative, quirky and eccentric than you’d typically encounter in one of the more conventional scenes. I’m thinking of both Krautmiser and Sweep The Leg Johnny in particular. Also, such scenes tend to be much more cooperative and supportive as opposed to the competitive and copycat tendencies one tends to encounter in the “big” towns.
TL: I remember that you told a group of us a story that a nun once told you, “One day, you’ll make it to Notre Dame” and how grateful you were to play at the University with the Potatomen.
LL: I highly doubt that any nun ever predicted that I would make it to Notre Dame; if anything it would have been the opposite: more along the lines of, “If you carry on the way you are, you’re not only never going to get to Notre Dame, you’ll be lucky to get anywhere apart from reform school.”
That being said, I was indeed very proud and grateful to finally make it to Notre Dame, even if it was under circumstances that I never would have imagined back in high school. If anything, I wished the nuns could have seen me, though I doubt they’d have been too impressed. One of them had also rejected me from the high school glee club because I “just didn’t have a voice made for singing.”
TL: You were generous enough to distribute your last major issue (#40) of Lookout that night. I remember friends and myself discussing your writing and perspectives for months. I know your life situation shifted in major ways at that time in your life, but did you foresee (#40) being that last major issue of Lookout?
LL: No, I had no idea at the time that #40 would be the last issue. On the contrary, I was quite pleased in that I felt I had broken new ground with that issue (first full color cover, much greater diversity of material, expanded size) and that I had passed the 10-year mark in publishing it. I was already writing articles for the next issue, including a tour journal that I was keeping, and to this day I have a computer file somewhere full of outlines and partially completed stories for what would have been Lookout #41. It’s just that things were getting a little crazy back in California with the rapid expansion of Lookout Records and the attendant complications brought on by that, and the work just kept getting put off and put off until one day I realized that it probably wasn’t ever going to happen. And once I left the record company, I lost the distribution network that had enabled me to get the magazine all over the country. It was a bit discouraging.
TL: I remember that people wanted the Potatomen and cub to stay longer in South Bend, but the band had to get to (West) Lafayette to record at Mass Giorgini’s Sonic Iguana to record that same night (the split EP with cub). Was West Lafayette the ending point of this tour?
LL: No, on the contrary, Ann Arbor and South Bend were the first two shows of the tour. We had one day off in Lafayette (West Lafayette, the home of Purdue, was just a few minutes walk away, but the studio itself, as well as Mass’s home, was located in Lafayette. From there we went on to Minneapolis. cub had a show in Chicago which we were not asked to play, so that night, the two bands played separate shows, and then we met up again in Fargo ND/Moorhead MN the following night for the rest of the tour out to the West Coast.
TL: Did the successful ND/SMC experience/show influence those Sonic Iguana recording sessions which resulted in the first Mint Records/Lookout label split 7”/CD? (The Beautiful & Damned by the Potatomen and The Day I Said Goodbye by cub.)
LL: I think we were all buzzing from the excitement and enjoyment, and that that did in fact help us to breeze through the Sonic Iguana session (only one; we had to do it in a hurry). Normally, Potatomen recording sessions were drawn-out ordeals, owing in large part to my perfectionism and nervousness that caused me to make an inordinate number of mistakes. But those three songs (our two songs plus a Buddy Holly cover for the CD version) were done in two or three takes at the most. In fact, we chose the Buddy Holly cover and learned to play it on the spot when we realized we should probably record a bonus track for the CD. While I do think that recording on the heels of a great show helped the mood considerably, we also had the advantage of working with the very talented – both on his instrument and behind the board – Mass Giorgini. Just having him in the band and as our recording engineer made us feel about ten times more professional than we ever had before.
The Potatomen - "The Beautiful & Damned"
(from the Potatomen/cub split EP, The Beautiful & Damned/The Day I Said Goodbye)
The Potatomen @ larrylivermore.com
The Potatomen on MySpace
The Potatomen on last.fm