Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Trotsky Icepick Remembered or Our Life Could Be Your Band

Playing right now: Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble - The Prairie Prophet (Delmark)

(Love his this album has gone from consonant, nice melody stuff to wild AACM blowing in the space of the first two tracks.)

About a week ago, I pulled out Trotsky Icepick's El Kabong album and I liked it so much that I listened to it over and over again. That album in particular came out at a very telling time of my life: the summer of 1989, which I think I've gone on about ad nauseum. But just in case any readers have forgotten or don't know, that was when Bone of Contention began record our first album and I moved into what was probably the best apartment of my college life, in terms of roommates and the adventures we had. I also looked up and found Vitus Matare, guitarist and founding member of the band, on Facebook.

Come to think of it, pretty much every Trotsky Icepick album is connected to some big period of my life. So here's my personal discography on an overlooked, very good band.

Back in 1986, a friend had dubbed me 100 Flowers' album and I was listening to it constantly. I could hear the minimal, arty approach that had inspired the Minutemen but it also had a little bit of a poppy jangle to it that was a nice break from SST power chords that was part and parcel of my other musical tastes. When I heard about Trotsky Icepick, which included 100 Flowers guitarist Kjehl Johansen, I had to get it. Around that time it seemed like all of the bands that I really really liked weren't together anymore (Mission of Burma, Patti Smith and just a few months prior the Minutemen), so any new stuff had to be found by previous members of those bands (i.e. Volcano Suns).

Trotsky's Poison Summer album, in retrospect, turned a corner in my musical tastes. The guitars were very clean, with no distortion and a lot of chorus. The songs weren't tense like 100 Flowers, but they were great examples of what makes pop music good. "Ivory Tour" has some great chord changes, and a great melody from Vitus, where the phrasing of a line from the verse stretches out and almost spills into the chorus. It's a great hook. I could've done without the '80s synths, but I could also overlook them.

I wrote a letter to the band's label, which was the same as writing to the band, and Vitus sent me a copy of the Danny and the Doorknobs' Poison Summer album that came out initially. What the band started out doing was planning on changing the band's name with every album and keep the title the same. (It lasted for just two albums, as I'd find out.) This album was even better. A little more stark, it was just Kjehl, Vitus and drummer John Frank turning ideas into songs - little more jangle, a little more edge, some screamed backing vocals, good times.

The story might've ended there but I noticed a phone number etched into the clear vinyl's inner groove and called it. Turns out it was John Frank, who called back to let confirm my suspicion about his answering machine. Now that's something you'd never find these days - a band putting their phone number anywhere on a release. Unless they were looking for gigs, in which case they'd probably never get a call.

I was doing a fanzine at the time and thought Trotsky Icepick would be a great subject. Because I liked them. Never mind the lack of timeliness. I wanted to talk to them. Vitus and Kjehl were a great interview, with great stories about their anti-marketing campaign/name game and their previous bands (Vitus had played in the Last). Thus also began an ongoing correspondence between me and Vitus - I hope I wasn't too much of a pest - where I sent him updates on Bone of Contention, along with our cassette release and he sent me a tape of all those hard to find singles by the Urinals (100 Flowers' previous incarnation, who wrote "Ack Ack Ack," which the Minutemen immortalized). He also sent me a tape of the band's three videos, along with a t-shirt for their upcoming album. I still own the shirt and keep trying to retire it but I can't. It's held up (much better than my Bongwater shirt) and even if I won't wear it out, it's fine for bedtime purposes.

In the fall of '88, SST released their third album Baby (the one with the shirt). Vitus had sent me a cassette dub of it earlier in the year, which I had played incessantly for anyone who didn't run fast enough. I felt they were on the fast track to underground rock success since SST was still a pretty credible label, and maybe it meant my band's mutant pop sound would find success on that level. Ha.

Baby is the only Trotsky album I don't currently own in any form other than the advance tape. I just checked the band's Happy Squid catalog and saw it's still available in vinyl form so I'll have to order it if I can't find it locally. I can still hear it in my head - a really solid hard pop album, with even more grit and some depth in the lyric department.

By the time Baby came out, John Talley-Jones of 100 Flowers had joined the band as singer. That was really cool to me because John was a big influence on me. Even more than I realized: upon playing 100 Flowers for some bandmates they said, "He sounds like you." If Mike Watt was who I aspired to be, John T-J was someone who I could be.

Some entries on Trotsky consider Baby the band's shining hour, but I really think El Kabong is their best. There isn't a dud track on that album. Listening to it again, Talley-Jones kind of chews up the scenery on their cover of Magazine's "The Light Pours Out of Me" but even that is still pretty strong.

In the fall of 1991, I got a call asking if Bone of Contention would open for Trotsky Icepick. It was a dream come true. Five years in the making. Barb our drummer was getting married that weekend but somehow I convinced her that the show would be worth our while. While that was shaping up I was going through a bad break-up and The Ultraviolet Catastrophe came out with something of a thud. It has some great writing on it, but the production really cut of the low end and played up that chorused out guitar. A cover of Television's "Venus de Milo" didn't sound like the guys I knew. "Barbara Steele" is a really beautiful song once you peel away the Gilmour-esque guitar solo and the Chapman stick (whaaaaa?????????).

At the Upstage Lounge, I think I was so overwhelmed at seeing these guys that I took me awhile to really get into the set. They added at least one 100 Flowers to the set and a few oldies, and brought more kick to some Ultraviolet songs. Then they crashed at my place. I still remember making them coffee on our two coffee pots - the one that brewed, and the one that had a good heating element.

That lineup released Carpetbomb the Riff a couple years later, which was probably the edgiest album in the whole catalog. (It occurs to me I haven't pulled that one out yet as part of my renewed Trotsky phase.) Mike Patton - not the Faith No More guy but the guy from Middle Class - was a strong bass player and drummer John "Skippy" Glogovac gave the band an extra kick. They didn't make it back to Pittsburgh on that tour, only getting as close as Cleveland. And I was too bogged down with my final semester at Pitt to make the journey. I had a vested interest too: John T-J wanted to release a 7" by my band the Pundits, which had been recorded at Kramer's Noise New Jersey studio.

Vitus had left the band before that tour, which seemed like a sad turn of events. Then I think the band broke up not too long after that. John mentioned something about he and Kjehl doing that every few years.

SST released Hot Pop Hello about a year later, a set of unreleased songs spanning the life of the band, going all the way back to the Doorknobs days. Some of the songs sound quite a bit like some of the released songs but I'm with Jack Rabid in his review on allmusic.com: This is a really strong album on its own, not a mere hodgepodge of leftovers. Vitus' songwriting skills really come through as there are a lot of his tunes here. Some of those songs have been in my head for the past week.

I posted some youtube videos of the band on Facebook and Barb from BOC and I were talking about them. I commented that for many years I got Christmas cards from John T-J and it was hard to imagine reading a "this is what we did this year" note from the same guy who inspired D. Boon to cover "Ack Ack Ack" (FYI, an additional "Ack" got lost on the way to the Minutemen's cover). You don't imagine your heroes being regular folks like us.

She replied that maybe guys like that were normal folks just like us, too, who happened to play in punk bands too. (A few years earlier my naive sensibilities were shocked to hear Kjehl Johansen was a lawyer!) Their life could be my band.

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