On Labor Day weekend 1994, I had the privilege of being part of the Pine Tar .406 baseball extravaganza/rock show in Chicago. The poster for the Sunday night show boasted a lineup including Chicago's own Shellac and Tar, Providence's Six Finger Satellite, and San Francisco via Bloomington musical gymnasts MX80. And in small print under MX80 on the poster, it states "yes, the original MX80 in their only Chicago appearance ever". Ooof!
When my tour guide picked me up at the scenic Midway airport (ugh), l thought it'd be a weekend of a couple of cool shows, some beer and maybe some record shopping thrown In for good measure. Upon arrival at my host's house, he explained that he had to go back to work, but that I could go over to Steve (Albini, Shellac member and Pine Tar conspirator)'s house and hang out with the gentlemen from MX80 who had also just arrived in town. "Maybe you could ask them what it's like to be in a band for 20 years" he suggested. Not a bad idea! And so, without forethought, an impromptu interview was set.
As l entered Steve's house/place of business/hotel, the fixin's for the impending Pine Tar show were adding up quicker than you could say "Major League strike". Baseball uniforms and unbagged peanuts on the floor, Steve, Todd and Bob practicing for the first time in a couple of months in the basement, and the four MX80s sitting around on one of the many color uncoordinated barcoloungers sofas and recliners in Steve's living room. r introduced myself, pulled a Home Boy soda out of my bag, pushed the red "record" button on my tape machine, and the rest, as they say, is rock and roll history.
For the people who are younger than me, who have never heard of MX80, please give a brief description of what life has been like the last 20 years in a rock and roll band.
Dale Sophiea: How young are these people?
Younger than 25.
Rich Stim: Older than Nico......
Bruce Anderson: It's a habit by now. I don't ever think about it.
RS: Because we haven't had to tour and all kinds of record company stuff, there hasn't been much of anything. There hasn't been any kind of heavy duty thing. It's totally not, because we don't have to tour.
DS: We're just into regular practices and we keep playing music and whenever a gig comes along. We have our own CD and record label that keeps things going.
BA: I think we've been propelled by a series of failures in the business that's kept us going.
Marc Weinstein: Uhhh.....
Where do you start?
BA: No, we're just very good friends who've kept playing music and don't even think about it. We've played with alot of other bands, but we try and keep busy. It's just been that we enjoy MX80 for the art of it and whenever an opportunity comes up. I mean, in our own area we're really not that popular, never have been. Alot of people are surprised when I meet German tourists and they see us in a little dive on a Wednesday night. they go (in a lousy Kraut accent) "What are you playing here for?! In Berlin, you'd be gods!" We get that shit. I've talked to alot of people over the last six months where they're surprised. I talked with David Hill from the Boston group the Gorls, and he just had a totally different image of what MX80 has been doing in the Bay area for the last 16 or 17 years. We have a certain amount of respect and I think if we don't play too often then several people will show up to our gigs. Our best gigs are with bands from out of town. Codeine requested us as their warm up. That was a great show, but we're not a sought after commodity in the Bay area. When we come out East, it's a totally different thing how we're treated and the respect that we get. We're still basically a mid-Western band as far as the aesthetic sensibility of it. It seems to go over better on the East coast as it does on the West.
So the band started in what?
RS: We started in '74.....
DS: as MX80
RS: ....as MX80, and...
RS: In Bloomington, Indiana and we didn't come out to San Francisco until '78.
So '78, that was in the heat of things.
RS: Oh yeah, the heat of art school punk. We went out there and it was like oil and water. They didn't know what to do with us. We didn't know what to do with them.
MW: People couldn't stand strange timings and too much guitar in those days so there's an extent to which people were cynical of our sound at the time.
RS: Definitely, yeah.
DS: Alot of it was if you knew how to play your instrument, you were suspect. You were some sort of traitor to the cause.
MW: We always maintained a real primitive feel anyway with the two drummers who were not really slick by any means. That really added a crunchy sound to it. I think some people listened to it, and thought it was fusion which to a certain extent it was, but not really at all.
RS: I've always heard it called "punk fusion".
Well then, how would you not define yourselves?
DS: It's a very eclectic blend of influences, but it's still rock and roll.
RS: It's definitely one of those things where you have four weird personalities and each one has a different take on it all. It's a real pain in the ass to compare when you're in the band.
BA: I think probably the most unique thing about MX80 is our rock ass harmonics, and also, we have our own vocabulary. Everybody's a real stylist In this group as far as a player, but that's the thing I've always found the most unique. Marc doesn't play metal mashing drums. We have a pretty flexible rhythm section. It's not really jazz. We play in some other groups, the closest thing to this is sort of this fake jazz, but there is sort of a jazz-like influence because we all listen to the stuff except maybe for Rick. I think MX80 breaks alot of rules as far as what alot of rock groups do in terms of rhythms and harmonic content. I play very, very few normal chords in MX80. They're all sort of strange and indented.
Well, that's an understatement...
BA: And they don't come from a jazz thing....
MW: I think another big influence that should be mentioned is soundtrack music and narrative that's related to soundtrack music. Rick and Dale are really into film, but it isn't even the film aesthetics, but specifically, the soundtrack aesthetic.
RS: Let's not forget the Broadway show tunes, too...
MW: Like Mancini or Marconi....
BA: And one of Rich's big influences is Fred Astaire. Remember in the Broadway shows you have songs that would tell stories. They weren't always "I love you" because you had to go from scene to scene so they'd have all the story plots. So that's definitely one thing we're into. It doesn't have to be about trying to get a date or that kinda stuff.
Who are some of your musical contemporaries?
RS: Pere Ubu most definitely. I don't think anybody would want to be our contemporary, but Pere Ubu is close.
Steve Albini: Were you guys around when the Dancing Cigarettes were playing?
DS: We played a gig with them in Bloomington when we went through there.
SA: Really? When was that?
DS: About ten year sago....
SA: Really? Because I was under the impression MX80 had never played Chicago in its proper line up.
DS: Well, that line up [of MX80] was called the Minus Humans.
RS: I was in law school for a few years. I graduated and became a very......
DS: High powered attorney....
RS: (laughs) Still am, actually! The only alternative group that has an attorney in it. So I don't know if that good, bad or whatever....
Are there any other contemporary bands that you'd consider on your level? I know you mentioned Codeine.
BA: Codeine really likes us. They actually did one of our tunes off Crowd Control called "Promise of Love" I and they did a pretty reverent version too. And that song is real slow, so Codeine can do that well.
Are you pretty pleased with how things are going band-wise?
BA: It's not going, it just is. It has no direction or real purpose anymore, it just is. So we would definitely like to get more out and all the other things that other bands do, but I guess we've sensed how do you pronounce it? Ennui?
I proceeded to spend the next couple of hours chatting with the MX80s, and then after showering after the long day, went out to a .406 funded dinner with many of the participants and performers involved with the Pine Tar event. The one thing that stuck with me from dinner was when Bruce Anderson told the entire group at dinner that John Cougar Mellencamp Jingleheimerschmitt was a big MX80 fan in the mid-70's. Apparently this didn't go without notice. When Cougar was trying to set up time to record at a studio in Bloomington at the time, one leery producer agreed to work with him only after finding that he was an MX80 aficionado. Small world, huh?
Anyway, the MX80s are still planted firmly in San Francisco and play out once in a while. On a good note, the fine folks at Atavistic in Chicago have had the smarts to re-issue the Big Hits EP and Hard Attack LP on one CD. The entirely instrumental, and long out of print, Das Love Boat CD has also been put back into publication by this fine mid-Western label. I shouldn't have to tell you that, unless you've already got all this stuff, you should get with it immediately.