Monday, November 19, 2007

Coffin Break fanatic

While doing some research on Coffin Break, I noticed that a few different web sites note that they held close to their punk rock roots while everyone else in Seatown was growing out their hair, dressing in flannel, and playing grunge. It’s interesting to read this assessment now, because back in the day, Coffin Break sounded like a prototypical grunge band. In fact, they still sound that way to me now, at least with regard to their early singles.

I don’t say this in derision. As you know, “grunge” isn’t a bad word in the Lamestain offices. In fact, we’d love to someday compose a thoughtful history of the term and how quickly it became co-opted by the mainstream media to refer to all sorts of polished, radio-friendly, clean-sounding music (played by guys with long hair in flannel shirts, of course). We all knew what grunge really was, and it wasn’t Candlebox.

But the stuff about punk rock roots--that is certainly true when it comes to Coffin Break. If Skin Yard, for example, arrived at grunge via art rock, and if Mudhoney came to it via the Stooges and the MC5, then Coffin Break came to it from punk rock--specifically, the early to mid-80s punk rock like the Circle Jerks and Gang Green. (That is, the stuff that has some melody and a pretty good sense of humor.) But when you pop on “Noise Patch,” yes, dear reader, what you hear is grunge. Good grunge!

The band revolved around Pete Litwin on guitar and Rob Skinner on bass, who split vocal duties, and David Brooks on drums; second guitarist Jeff Lorien joined the band a bit later. Litwin’s vocals have a 70s arena rock quality to them, whereas Skinner’s vocals share more in common with the aforementioned melodic punk bands from the early 80s (Skinner sang on “Kill the President,” the Coffin Break song you’re most likely to know). Come to think of it, even their hair reflects this difference (Litwin’s = long, Skinner’s = shaved off).

Coffin Break recorded their debut 7” (“Noise Patch” w/ “Boxes and Boxes” and “Obsession”; 1988; C/Z Records) at the OK Hotel in 1988. The reason you don’t hear any crowd noise is because a change in the zoning status for the OK Hotel meant that the venue had to cancel the show, and the audience shivered outside before heading home in the rain (and in flannel). The venue still permitted the band to record. Of the three songs, “Noise Patch” is my favorite; it reminds me a bit of Bundle of Hiss.

“Just Say No (To Religion)” is closer to straightforward punk. This was on the 1988 C/Z Records compilation, Secretions.

“Pop Fanatic” (1990; C/Z Records) ranked among my favorite singles during my teenage years. I bought it at Cellophane Square after having admired the cover for weeks and weeks; it served as my introduction to the band. It was refreshing to hear it again when we unearthed it after more than a decade, as it’s lively and fun. Skinner’s bass and Brooks’s drums own the song. In a way, it sounds as if it came out of a really lucky jam session. Sadly, they didn’t perform this song the one time I saw them live. Rumor has it that the lyrics take a dig at Sub Pop, although that doesn’t seem likely, as they released a single (“Pray”/“Lies”) on Sub Pop in 1990. I can verify, however, that the cover of “Free Bird” on the b-side isn’t funny or interesting in the slightest; we recommend that you pretend that both sides of the vinyl contained “Pop Fanatic” by listening to that song twice.

Coffin Break released three full-lengths (Rupture, on C/Z Records, and Crawl and Thirteen, both on Epitaph) before parting ways in 1994. Not long thereafter, Litwin formed Softy, who appear to have played more straightforward grunge, although I confess I only know what I’ve heard on that website. Skinner formed a poppier band called Popsickle, who I recall seeing once or twice. Brooks pounded the traps for a number of bands, including the RC5. Coffin Break, of course, reunited for Geezerfest not long ago.

Noise Patch
Boxes and Boxes

Just Say No (To Religion)

Pop Fanatic
Free Bird

And the songs are, as usual, also available via zip file.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Drills - A Conflict of Interest Post!

When Lamestain was wearing diapers, we wrote a very moving piece about the early hardcore band, Deranged Diction. In the post, we mentioned how Seattle had a pretty healthy early 80s punk scene, but sadly, few of the bands ever got around to releasing any records. The Fartz, Solger, the Silly Killers, Fastbacks, and the Rejecters, of course, all released great records, but there were countless other bands that never made it wax. However, some bands at least appeared on a various compilations, so they weren't completely lost to time. It was actually through a reissue of tape compilation that we were introduced to this week's star band, the Drills.

A few years ago, San Francisco label Enterruption moved up to Seattle and opened up a fantastic record store in Wallingford called Electric Heavyland. Named after one of the best Acid Mothers Temple records, the store carried everything from the latest Wolf Eyes' spin-off cassette tape to some UK crust band. They also continued their label and, along with Borderless Countries Tapes and Schizophrenic records, reissued the BTC compilation tapes I'm Buck Naked and Eat Me as the Hardcore Amerika compact disc. Most of the bands played standard hardcore, but there was one band that stood out from everybody else: Seattle's The Drills.

Since the best hardcore, in my humble opinion, is the noisiest, craziest, and most obnoxious, the Drills were like a godsend to me. Immediately after hearing their tracks, I had to learn more about the band. Not only that, but after playing the songs to my girlfriend, we decided that we should finally start our much-talked about record label, Dirty Knobby, and reissue the Drills for the masses. Unfortunately for us, though, the CD listed no information about the band except that they were from Seattle, so we had to put on our Columbo outfits and start investigating.

The first thing we did was email the labels and ask them if they had any Drills contact information; sadly, they didn't. Then we used our Lamestain press credentials and asked various Seattle rock gods, but nobody seemed to remember much about the band. Next we emailed Clark Humphrey--whose book Loser is pretty much the Funk & Wagnalls of northwest music--but once again, nothing. At this point, it seemed like we were going nowhere and we might as well give up on our dream.

To make matters more complicated, the band's name is not very Google friendly. But then Lady Luck smiled in our direction. After going through countless useless links, we found this 1993 Goldmine Pearl Jam article and finally had our first clue:

"The following year, Mr. Epp's "Out Of Control" featured on the Seattle Syndrome Volume Two compilation (Engram 012); Epp also joined the Limp Richerds (again without Arm) on the What Syndrome cassette compilation (Deux Machina CSD 4), a response of sorts to the better known Seattle Syndrome series. The Epp tracks were "Strong Arms Of The Law" and "Keep On Smiling Til The End."

A who's-who of current Seattle talent, "What Syndrome also features Silly Killers, 10 Minute Warning and Hobo Skank, all of which feature future Guns N' Roses guitarist Duff McKagan on drums; Big Machine, the Rejectors, Firing Squad, the Accused, Solger and the Drills."

I have never seen or even heard of the 1983 What Syndrome tape, but now we learned that the Drills were, in fact, from Seattle, and we had their record label name. Searching for "What Syndrome" and "Deux Ex Machina" uncovered this amazing webpage and a scan of the tape's insert.

Tracking down Deux Es Machina turned out to be pretty easy. Once we found contact information, we figured what the hell; we'll email him and ask if he remembers the Drills. It turns out that not only did Deux Es Machina head James Banner remember the band, but he played bass on some of their sessions and still had the recording tapes. He told me that the band was the brainchild of one Patrick McCabe, who lived with him and other punks in Renton at the Death House. The Death House was also home to future members of Skin Yard, Vexed, and, if I remember correctly, the U-Men.

I told James that we would love to release the Drills on vinyl, and he graciously transferred his old tapes to cd-r and mailed them to me. He also contacted Patrick McCabe, ran the idea with him, and gave me his contact information. Patrick, it turns out, did not have anything from the Drills days, but luckily, he was interested in the project and gave us some background information.

I met up with Patrick at the Blue Moon around April, and he gave me the rundown. The band was formed by him and Patrick Thomes when they were both 30-year-old ex-hippies living in the Death House in the early 80s. As he put it, they were tired of "being accused of being boring and worthless old men," so they got some distortion pedals (they always hooked up 2 in a row for maximum distortion--3 would just be a bit too noisy) and a drum machine dubbed "Dr. Rhythm" and recruited some friends, and now they had a band. McCabe became "Detox Jones," and Thomes became "Retox Jones," and Milton Garrison (later of Vexed), Tom Price (U-Men and later Gas Huffer), James Banner (Enstruction), and Bill Warner all appear on the recordings. Milton co-wrote and performed around four songs, and guitar great Tom Price makes a rare appearance playing drums on "No More Beer."

Part of the reason why the band was so mysterious was because they never played any shows. Their Skull Death cassette was copied by themselves and was mainly passed around to friends, though some copies did make it down to San Francisco. McCabe believes that Maximum Rock & Roll reviewed the tape, and a copy might exist in their library, but I don't think anybody kept the issue. A copy also made it down to Jello Biafra, and amazingly, he still had the tape as well as the accompanying letter. The fine folks at Alternative Tentacles were also kind enough to scan and email me copies.

Outside of that, nobody has any Drills photos and, while McCabe use to put together band graphics, nobody was able to locate anything from the old days. Nor do we know the exact recording dates for the band. Since they first appeared on tape in 1983, we can guess that the recordings were made around 1981/1982. To make matters more confusing, the Drills also liked to make up fake biographies and would come up with insane stories about fictional band members.

Perhaps the reason why the band didn't sound like your typical punk band was because the two main members were older than your typical punk rocker and they were, in fact, hippies. Even though bands like Crass were made up of old hippies, there has always been that war between punks and hippies, which everybody probably knows about.

Patrick McCabe's first favorite band was the Kinks, and he used to frequent Seattle's legendary Eagle's Auditorium, which went from hosting the San Francisco psych bands in the late 60s/early 70s to the punk bands in the late 70s/early 80s. Patrick mentioned that the next rock band that gave him a true rush was the Sex Pistols, which makes sense, because there are two unreleased songs on Banner's tape that swipe riffs from the Kinks and Sex Pistols. Patrick Thomes was originally from Michigan and would go see all the Detroit bands at the Grandee Ballroom.

For the record, we went through the recordings and picked out our favorite songs. They recorded their signature song, "I'm Normal," at least a dozen times, and we bookended the record with the version that also appears on the What Syndrome tape and a more hardcore version sung by Milton. "Great Thrash Great Trash" and "Blind Dog" are both 20-second monsters on which McCabe sounds like a possessed animal, and slightly different versions of these songs appear on the I'm Buck Naked tape. "No More Beer" and "Skate Tough" were also on the original Skull Death tape. The cover drawing was done by McCabe, and we think it fits the music perfectly. McCabe also wrote the band bio on the back sleeve, though the typos are our fault. Sorry about that. We have since learned to never approve artworks after a night of drinking beer at the Sloop. Lesson learned. McCabe also provided us a personnel list, which became the insert.

McCabe also had a noise project called VCN, but he mostly concentrates on writing and performing poetry. During our investigation, we also found this 1997 UW Daily article about Patrick.

If you read our Vexed post, you may have also noticed that Patrick's appeared at the Central Tavern's Valentine Show with Soundgarden, Vexed, and the late writer, Steven Jesse Bernstein. Patrick Thomes is back in Washington state, but I am unsure of his musical activities.

"I'm Normal" - alt version
I dunno the title for this song

Go here to stream more songs and here to buy the damn record.

-- MC Tom