Exploring Empire Records // Stomach Pump

I’ve always wondered why Empire Records, a film that both impliedly embodied the climate of underground rock music in the 1990s and appeared during one of the lower morale points in modern music, found most of its charm in flighty humor and outright silliness. Though the “Grunge Explosion” of the decade’s first half had already begun to rapidly subside with the death of Kurt Cobain, which happened on the heels of the heroin deaths of 7 Year Bitch guitarist Stefanie Sargent in 1992 and Mother Love Bone lead singer Andy Wood in 1990, the film all but sidesteps every potential genuine allusion to disaffected youth, drug use or depression. Even Robin Tunney’s botched suicide attempt and cry-for-help head shaving stunt are treated with a strange type of levity by the filmmakers, which is surprising considering this is the sort of melodramatic material that mass audiences at the time would have eaten up.

It’d probably be easy to find parallels between the heroin and suicide fatalities of rock stars of this era and the string of deaths in the late 1960s of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and many others as being the sort of world shaking events that soberly remind people that grunge, like psychedelia, was never anything more than entertainment; with that, it makes perfect sense that no fun-seeking music listener would feel like being constantly reminded of the past, but would instead the decade proceed purely on a footing of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. And just as the 1970s quickly brought on an era of artistic posturing so pretentious as to be a barefaced parody of the beloved late 60s, the late 90s gave us a generation of rockers capable of nothing more than over-dramatic negativity and shock-value arena music.

However, Empire Records somehow has always existed in the middle of those two halves of the nineties without really being an artifact of either: the film probably never spoke volumes to kids who heavily absorbed the mass culture appeal of the grunge era (you’d be hard pressed to find any Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains or Soundgarden shwag on the walls of this record store), but also appealed a great deal to kids who didn’t have much use for the the late 90s Limp Bizkit era.

Nonetheless, as is obvious at this point, the set dressing of Empire Records is riddled with obscure references to music of the twenty or so years before it. And one, possibly the most cryptic of them all, appears as a tiny “Stomach Pump” sticker on a first aid kit in the back office. As it turns out, Stomach Pump, a defunct barely-was grunge band from Seattle in the late 1980s, both represents that seemingly ignored link between the film and the grunge era and provides some possible insight into why the filmmakers’ made such a lighthearted picture at such a dark time in popular music.

Stomach Pump, essentially an off-shoot of an earlier band called the Thrown Ups, came together when half of the latter group (Mark Arm and Steve Turner) jumped ship to join Mudhoney. Thrown Ups bassist Seighton Beezer, considering his former band mates to be “sellouts” to the burgeoning scene of ultra-noisy punk soon to be known as Grunge, partnered up with a fan named JCX9 (who now, as a successful radio personality in Austin, TX, goes by the name Jack Blood) and recruited bassist Max God and drummer Duff Drew (formerly of My Eye) to form a sequel band of sorts.

The basic premise behind Stomach Pump was the same as it was with the Thrown-Ups: all music, live and recorded, was totally improvised with only song titles and vague lyrical concepts haphazardly contemplated beforehand. Their resulting modus operendi involved messy, drug and booze-fueled live performances that found the band heckling audience members almost as much as (and often more than) they themselves got heckled, making Stomach Pump something of a unabashed – even proud – black sheep of the Seattle punk scene.

Often times, as was probably the goal all along, things would get completely out of hand. Singer Jack Blood would later relate: “At a gig in front of Seattle royalty on Eastlake, I pissed everyone off by wearing L.A. Poser red vinyl chaps and covering “I Put A Spell On You”, which ended in me kicking a girl in the tits for throwing a beer on me. They weren’t in on the joke, and the audience never was.”

Unfortunately, Stomach Pump’s penchant for obtusely vulgar in-jokes and outrageous onstage antics would eventually catch up with them. After pissing off every other band in town and being allegedly involved in the late night drug use that resulted in Stefanie Sargent’s heroin overdose, they were universally avoided by everyone from Steve Albini (who was supposed to produce their debut LP) to Sub Pop Records (who had originally courted them for a time).

As a result, Stomach Pump’s only official release was a Penultimate Records seven-inch (containing the tracks “Cake Hole” and “Log Clench”), which today is extremely difficult to find. Nevertheless, the band did manage to hold true to their shit-to-the-wind writing style for a slew of demos and home recordings (many with the aid of Jack Endino, producer of Nirvana’s Bleach and Soundgarden’s Screaming Life) such as the anti-rape trip “My Pussy’s Got Teeth”, the North Seattle catcall “North End Slut” and the locally-true pederast story “Bad Plaid Daddy”.

In spite of their short and woe-ridden lifespan, it’s undeniable that Stomach Pump refused to take themselves or their career aspirations seriously. More than anything they sarcastically reveled in their negative image, touting Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell’s extreme distaste for their music and purporting Kurt Cobain to have once described Stomach Pump as “the punk version off Spinal Tap”. Because ultimately the members of Stomach Pump, like most artists who haunted the city of Seattle in the late 80s and early 90s, were less concerned with dollars and cents than they were with recklessly enjoying the most unique and incestuous era in the history of American music.

Seighton Beezer can be seen in the 1996 documentary Hype! humorously demonstrating the subtle differences between punk and grunge – differences so trivial that the term “grunge” was seen as laughable to almost everyone who played in and around Seattle at the time. The documentary perfectly dispels the myth of “Hate Myself and Want To Die” mainstream grunge, instead portraying the scene as something more akin to a tight-knit network of friends who – in between emulating glam idols like Kiss and drinking to excess around countless bonfires – enjoyed playing music that was outrageously gritty and earsplitting simply because there was a certain degree of hilarity in doing so.

Hype! also brought to light a snarky, irreverent sense of humor native to the region and typified by Stomach Pump that was inevitably lost on the rest of the nation when the genre reached mainstream critical mass. Though – whether by design, subconscious digestion or complete accident – that subversive, lighthearted, brilliantly lowbrow sense of humor wasn’t lost in Empire Records.

Exploring “Empire Records” // XTC

For a split second in Empire Records, a philosophical Lucas can be seen contemplating his perverse victories of the day: he’s lost $9,000 of the store’s money, he’s ensured that he and his boss will get fired, and his actions will force the other employees to hatch a plan to prevent the store’s inevitable future as a soulless corporate Musictown. Hanging to his right on the balcony overlooking the sales floor is a massive promotional poster for XTC‘s 1992 album Nonsuch.

Though incongruent with the rest of the film’s posters – comprised of generally under-regarded bands or complete outsider musicians – XTC is arguably the most unique of them all. Not ear-catchingly strange at first (or even tenth) listen, this Swindon, England band’s oddities exist within complex lyricism that belies its instrumental bounciness, a bizarre propensity for perseverance, and unlikely career longevity.

Active as early as 1976, the band’s central duo of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding seemingly experimented with every style of music and genre imaginable (including the rapidly-declining Glam Rock of the late seventies) before settling on an infectiously springy style of pop that incorporated trace amounts of punk, reggae, and art rock – better known at the time as a moderately synth-less form of New Wave. However, where the genre would later morph into something altogether unrecognizable from this late seventies breed (art punk-leaning new wave bands like the Talking Heads would branch off into disparate styles like funk and world music while the core of “New Wave” would begin to heavily utilize synthesizers, leading bands like Duran Duran, the Cure, and Dead or Alive to typify the genre), Partridge and Moulding chose to unflinchingly grapple the sound they first established on their debut White Noise (namely with single “Statue of Liberty”) and exhaustively explore its relatively restrictive boundaries throughout the eighties and nineties.

By the time Empire Records was being filmed, the age of XTC had basically already come to a graceful close. The 1980s had been good to the group (they retained a constant presence European charts), but they were rarely if ever able to crack the charts in the United States with any emphasis. 1987’s Skylarking was a valiant attempt to connect with an American audience by employing the collaborative production assistance of the inimitable Todd Rundgren. Nevertheless, Rolling Stone – one of the only influential yank publications at the time – derided the songwriting of Partridge and Moulding as lazy and repetitive.

Though a song from Nonsuch had, a year before the release of Empire Records, gained some notoriety on this side of the Atlantic, it was in the form of a cover by Crash Test Dummies of “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” on the soundtrack for the film Dumb and Dumber (not so coincidentally produced by Rundgren).  It stood then, that the presence of an advertisement poster for Nonsuch – in what was essentially a Jesus-on-the-cross centerpiece placement on the balcony above the store’s entrance – perfectly fit the aesthetic and overall point of Empire Records as touting the kinds of bands that are undeniably great but haven’t received their comeuppance (at least not in the States).

If there was any frustration over XTC’s lack of success in the U.S., it was reasonably warranted: their late seventies and early eighties work is some of the best barely-heard pop music of all time. As is the case with most bands who have had such an esteemed pleasure (i.e., U2, the Dave Matthews Band, Phish, the Psychedelic Furs), XTC’s best work arguably happened at the production hand of UK recording genius Steve Lillywhite. 1979’s Drums and Wires features possibly their most compelling offering in “Making Plans For Nigel” while 1980’s Black Sea contains the fan-beloved “Generals and Majors” and “Towers of London” (the latter of which was the subject of an enlightening BBC special documenting a recording session at the posh home of Virgin Group founder Richard Branson).

Though having branched from Lillywhite after Black Sea, XTC tapped his protégé, gated drum inventor Hugh Padgham to work on their most solid effort, 1982’s English Settlement. Featuring the career-defining tracks “Senses Working Overtime” and “Ball and Chain”, this record saw the band pushing both their creative and physical limits to the absolute extreme. The end result was a milestone album and the Valium withdrawal-induced nervous breakdown of Andy Partridge, who had battled an addiction to the drug for years while suffering from extreme stage fright. After only nine performances in support of English Settlement, XTC was no longer a touring band, confining themselves strictly to studio work and the occasional acoustic radio station promotional show.

If that tale sounds familiar, it’s because it practically mirrors the history of Barryfest-endorsed darkly sarcastic American duo Steely Dan, whose lead singer Donald Fagen battled the same sort of debilitating anxiety a decade earlier. However, whereas Fagen was able to accommodate himself by surrounding he and partner Walter Becker with literally dozens of the greatest studio and touring musicians alive, Andy Partridge wasn’t as lucky – or maybe as resourceful. After all, Steely Dan’s creative trajectory was based upon a philosophy of pushing pop music to its breaking point by interpolating as many disparate styles of music as possible, from island reggae and light funk to bona fide R&B and abstract free jazz. XTC, on the other hand, remained – from the beginning until the end – adamant about the straightforward nature of their music, never touting a lineup of more than four members (with the sole exception being their swansong, 1999’s Apple Venus dilogy) .

Nevertheless, just as Steely Dan’s uncompromising desire to challenge the attention spans of their listeners alienated some and completely enchanted others during their seventies heyday, XTC’s stubborn adherence to the sound of their late seventies incarnation has probably been both the reason they were never a smash success in America and the reason they have become such a beloved team of songwriters and somewhat of a cult band. Though their fourteen studio albums are from a different era of music than what existed at the time of Empire Records, their uniformity effectively prevents XTC from ever sounding dated.

Exploring “Empire Records” // Band of Susans

One of the most interesting, if not funniest, elements of Empire Records is the array of esoteric – even absurd – in-jokes and references that its makers – the producers, director, screenwriter and designers – seem hellbent on calling to the audience’s attention without any real explanation. When we’re not digesting the posters, T-shirts, stickers, and verbal music references that are the subject of this feature, we’re witnessing A.J.’s sticky quarters trick or Lucas’ zen-like armchair pseudo-extentialism, antics that, though we as the audience see, never quite let us into their world.

Taken in this context, Empire Records serves in a way to preserve – as a time capsule or visual archive – the existence of its own obscure references. Ironically, the impenetrable nature of the film’s set dressing strangely parallels the little-known histories of many of the very bands it features, most of which have, in real life, been badly preserved over the years. For some bands, this film is literally the only record of their existence, and it’s therefore nearly impossible to write about them.

Fortunately for Band of Susans, whose promotional poster for Love Agenda can be seen many times throughout the movie, that isn’t completely the case. On the contrary, there’s plenty to hear and read about the New York band, which rose to relative notoriety from the infamous No Wave scene of the late 1980s. Nevertheless, this methodical, precision-oriented, mid-tempo noise rock band’s unmistakable presence on the walls and in the echoes of Empire Records – a presence that is strange since I can’t imagine that the filmmakers, based on the other work they’ve done, were ever involved in the No Wave scene – is almost as abstruse as the band’s career itself.

The short story is that Band of Susans is based around the work of composer Rhys Chatham, a man best described as the noise music version of an orchestral conductor, to whom the band has dedicated songs ( “In The Eye of the Beholder”) and with whom they’ve even collaborated (“Guitar Trio”). Oddly enough though, the close connection of core BOS members Robert Poss, Susan Stenger, and Ron Spitzer to Chatham wasn’t the result of being party to the same “scene”.  Although you can find Chatham’s work in the annals of Tellus, a legendary cassette/mail art ‘zine from the 1980s that dealt heavily in the New York No Wave scene while in its earliest incarnation, he and Poss come together under an apprenticeship system of musical collaboration not unlike those found in classical music circles, in which people set out with a specific artistic vision and spend the rest of their lives perfecting that vision. Chatham then, unsurprisingly, served as noise guitar mentor to his student Poss and, by association, the rest of the band.

As abstract as that sounds, it may be the only way to characterize the work of Band of Susans, a band whose discography is, at times, nothing more than entire albums of dense feedback and fuzz with rhythms so mellow they border on slowcore.  Each offering seemed more impenetrable than the one before it, with the band making little effort to display even a modicum of creative growth between recording sessions. Although that usually lends itself to the more common problem of laziness, I’m inclined to say that Band of Susans operated under the auspices of the much rarer avant-garde grand design.

Regardless, it can ultimately be a challenging listen to even the most open-minded arts consumer because, twenty years after the fact and without the benefit of live experiences, exposés in Rolling Stone Magazine, or even simple word of mouth, we’re nothing more than distant historical onlookers when we listen to the incredibly obtuse music of Band of Susans. It’s only on songs like “Throne of Blood” (from 1988’s Hope Against Hope), “Not In This Life” (from 1993’s Veil) or “Pardon My French” (from 1995’s Here Comes Success) that the band’s talent for sprawling, euphoric, multichannel walls of guitar noise meets its rhythm section for a simple, concise, easily-digestible listening experience.

I was reading an article about New York avant-garde icon Andy Warhol recently that discussed the criticisms Warhol faced in the 1980s – specifically that he was running solely on business tactics and surface aesthetics, without any attention to meaning or feeling. By this point, the Factory had long been closed off to the public, and the only thing people – including critics – knew of him was what he chose to show them. In many ways, this isolation was the root of the public’s distaste for his work in the 1980s. In the past, a person could walk into the Factory, check out what Warhol was doing and even get a sincere, albeit vague, explanation about the work from the man himself. But at the end, there was no transparency or explanation; there was only what we saw: art and money.

From what I can gather, the art world of 1980s New York City bought heavily into notions of isolation and the ability to clearly mark the line between artist and listener. Band of Susans is no different. Their discography, while vast, contains no demos, no side projects, no collaborations (outside of Rhys Chatham), and no live recordings (with the exception of a single Peel Session EP). I’d challenge anyone to find even a single cam-quality live video of the band. This is unfortunate because all we have to rely on is folklore that purports Band of Susans to have been one of the loudest band of all time.

Instead, all we can work with is what they chose to show us: impeccably finished noise music: purposely unrecognizable lyrics, triple-stacked amps spilling mammoth walls of fuzzy distortion and drums that intentionally plod with a precise intensity for the six-to-eight-minute duration of each song.

Exploring “Empire Records” // The Shaggs

It’s still early in the day when Eddie stops by the store to bring some pizza to a downtrodden Lucas, who has just gotten chewed out, yet again, by Anthony LaPaglia for losing his small stockpile of investment money. Meanwhile, Ethan Embry has gone insane with the store’s PA playlist. Amused, Eddie says:

What’s up, dude? I heard your music playing. That’s pretty scary stuff… I’m glad to say I made you a tape last night, for educational purposes. Here’s the deal. You start off with a little classical music: a little Pookie, a little Puffy (sic). Then you got some Shaggs on there, and Residents…and a little Floyd and Zeppelin.

Though this aloofly-delivered paragraph presents a veritable wealth of obscure music discussion and trivia (I have absolutely no idea who Pookie and Puffy are; if you have any idea, please let me know), it sheds light on one of the strangest bands in the history of rock n’ roll: the Shaggs.

This is the kind of story you simply cannot make up. Sometime before 1960, Austin Wiggin, Jr., a resident of New Hampshire, received a palm reading from his own mother. During this palm reading, Mrs. Wiggin predicted three things: one, that Austin would marry a strawberry blonde woman; two, that he would have two sons after she had died; and three, that his daughters would form a popular music group.

Apparently, the first two came true. Upon realizing this, Austin pulled his four daughters out of grade school, handed them instruments, and said, “Play”. The daughters – Dot, Helen, Betty, and Rachel – tried to fulfill their father’s wishes, even going as far as to record an album – The Philosophy of the World – in 1969. However, the success of the Shaggs, as Austin named them, never came to be; this was due in large part to the fact that they were a gratingly awful band.

Many people have said it’s a stretch to even call their music music. I’d go further; I’d say that it’s a stretch to even call them a band. Though they follow the same “overbearing father” paradigm as sibling-bands like the Jackson 5 and the Beach Boys, the Wiggin sisters, unlike the aforementioned, were seemingly devoid of any musical talent, lacking both the physical dexterity to play their instruments and the simple ability to sing. By their own account, they didn’t really understand what they were doing, why they were playing music, or even for whom they were playing.

The decade that was to follow – a decade of smooth edges, musical professionalism, and traditional song structures – wasn’t welcoming to outsider bands like the Shaggs, who were expected to fit into a niche of politically-radical minimalism. Unfortunately, as rudimentary and reflective as The Philosophy of the World was, this group of young girls came off more wide-eyed than jaded: on songs like the title track, the Shaggs were a closer approximation to a group of amazed children saying “Look at that!” than to a clique of drug-addled, disenfranchised white panthers shouting, “This isn’t how it should be!”

The time since the 1970s has been better to outsider musicians; and, as it often happens, the Shaggs are now revered for the things that once brought them such derision. Where they were seen as inept and awkward in their own time, the compositional style of “Who Are Parents?” is now considered intuitive and its lyrics honest (“Some kids do as they please/They don’t know what life really means/They don’t listen to what the ones who really care have to say/They just go and do things their own way”).

I wholeheartedly support the far-too-late-but-obviously-overdue recognition that the Shaggs have received in the modern day. When I listen to The Philosophy of the World, I hear the type of minimalist, pop-deconstructionist art brut that I, as a never-was musician, always tell myself I’d make if I started a band; and if you daydream about the reductive aspects of Modernism as often as I do, then you know why the Shaggs were great.

Nevertheless, this wave of avant-garde respect for Philosophy of the World has had the ironic consequence of placing the band’s compilational second release, The Shaggs’ Own Thing, in a much less favorable light. Made up of demos from a 1975 recording session, its songs have generally been disregarded as more generic in their approach to music; and by this, I think people really mean it’s listenable.

What those people don’t realize is that Shaggs’ Own Thing is an absolutely killer record. Recorded a good six years after Philosophy of the World, it represents a group of girls half a decade more cultivated. Though in the 1960s they were simply banging on their instruments, picking up on the occasionally brilliant abstract melody, 1975’s “You’re Something Special to Me” remembers that knack for haunting originality while at the same time reeling it all in with a reasonably cohesive rhythm. “Yesterday Once More” finds them looking back at their innocence (“When I was young I’d listen to the radio/Waitin’ for my favorite songs/When they’d play I’d sing along/It made me smile”), and though they reveal almost nothing about the present, the Shaggs are obviously not gauche – their strange melodies, thin harmonies, and minimalist rhythms are not accidental or the product of immaturity – and possibly never were.

Ultimately, it’s easy to understand why so many musical philosophers have come to revere The Philosophy of the World. It’s virtually unlistenable, but in many ways that’s the point. People are incredibly fascinated that none of their predicted heroes made the subversive musical deconstruction of Americana that they always hoped for. Nevertheless, this is one of those albums – just as the Shaggs are one of those bands – that we’re glad exists because without it there would be no symmetry. Eddie from Empire Records sums it up best: “You got to understand something here. This music is the glue of the world. It holds it all together.”

Exploring “Empire Records” // The Chainsaw Kittens

I was watching “Empire Records” one day recently when, for the first time, I started taking notice of the innumerable stickers, posters, CD’s, and cardboard stand-ups that riddle the entire movie set. It suddenly occurred to me that the movie is little more than a boundless, abandoned warehouse of obscure pop culture references.

Though I’ve seen it dozens of times and probably should have picked up on this earlier, I suppose that when I was young I just thought these background adornments displayed the names of fake bands, or that songs like “Sugar High” only existed within the confines of some sort of movie vacuum. And let’s be honest: to a ten year-old, “obscure” and “imaginary” have all but synonymous meanings.

I started looking in the background at posters to see if I recognized anything. I immediately caught one pretty obvious reference staring me right in the face: Ethan Embry wearing a jersey with “Chainsaw Kittens” on it. It sounded vaguely familiar, so I Wikipedia’d it:

The Chainsaw Kittens were a part of the American alternative rock scene…For various reasons, primary among them a pronounced lack of major label support, the Kittens saw little commercial success. However, they have since gained recognition in such sources as Allmusic and the Trouser Press as one of the best groups of their era.

Fair enough. I read a little further and found out that the band spent the majority of its career on Mammoth Records – a defunct nineties indie label known for putting out records by Fu Manchu, Juliana Hatfield, the Melvins, and New Orleans legends Dash Rip Rock and Dirty Dozen Brass Band – before moving on to Scratchie Records, founded by James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky and one guy from Fountains of Wayne.

I was able to track down a couple of their albums. What I found in their early work, namely 1992’s Flipped Out in Singapore, was straightforward, almost prototypical, alternative rock: sleekly-recorded drums, jangly guitar solos, and a relatively unique falsetto singer combining to form a sound so barefaced and direct that it was utterly devoid of any gimmickry or studio bells and whistles. “High in High School” combines the best (or worst, depending on where you’re coming from) cock rock elements of Guns N’ Roses, Sense Field, and Everclear, a perfect song for joyriding in your parents’ car without their permission. Hearing it makes me genuinely wish that non-teens could still get that kind of thrill without drugs.

However, 1994’s Pop Heiress (see “Loneliest China Place”) and 1996’s Chainsaw Kittens (“King Monkey Smoke”) found the band working towards a more dynamic indie rock sound. Though it’s unclear what spurred central member Tyson Meade’s shifting tastes, the Kittens’ later material contains some of their best music, as they delve heavily into the burgeoning college rock movement, utilizing Pavement-esque drums, noisy guitars, and an array of strings and synths.

In 2000, the Chainsaw Kittens essentially called it quits (with the exception of the occasional one-off performance in their home state of Nebraska), and its members have since been unable to make any waves in the national music world. Nevertheless, in the end somehow it all works, not just as an artifact 90s independent rock, but more importantly as an interesting career for a kick ass rock band that, though born of an ego and greed-driven glamrock world of million-selling records and international tours, seemingly never aspired to such.