David: So you obviously grew up in a very creative and extraordinary family, can you tell me a bit about growing up, how you discovered weirdo music? Were you bickering brothers or were you close? How does it affect the dynamic of a band playing with family members?
Joe: My dad was in a swing orchestra with his friends throughout the Forties and always had a love of all types of music. He used to talk about how, when he was in high school, he would wander from club to club all night on LA’s Central Avenue with a drink in his hand listening to one band after another My Mom always talked about how she wanted her house to be just like the home in the movie “You Can’t Take It With You”, where every room had a family member engaged in some type of artistic pursuit. She got it, but she noticed that in the movie “everyone cleaned up after themselves.” There was always music playing in the house, art projects in progress, and lots of encouragement from the parents to be creative. My mom bought us the first rock LP, “Meet the Beatles”, and Beatle wigs to go with it. It was my parents who loaned us the money to release “Bikini Tennis Shoes”. They almost fell over when we paid them back.
I was the middle kid, so I spent a lot of time keeping up with my older brother Tom and his friends, who were 2 or 3 years older than me, and trying to keep up with my younger brother and his friends, who were 4 or 5 years younger than me. At different times all three of us brothers hung out with each others friends. Chip Chapman is a good example. He was my younger brother Rick’s friend first, from High School. Then he and I hung out together a bunch, especially Chips first year at Cal Arts, and then Tom saw more of Chip than Rick or I did. This was pretty much typical of most of our friendships up into our twenties.
That shared pool of friends started when we were growing up in the suburbs. I remember long 100 degree plus summer days sitting on shady porches with Tom’s friends listening to the radio and looking through communal boxes of comic books with the covers ripped off long before. I guess that was around 1958. I used to get kidded for reading the comic books, because I really couldn’t read yet. I loved Chuck Berry songs but I thought Barry was his first name and had no clue that he wasn’t white.
Growing up at the end of the baby boom in the Southern California suburbs there was always a crowd of kids. Most households had three kids roughly two to five years apart. Most families got started around the same time. The result was absolute hoards of kids about the same age, with very little to entertain them. I think a large part of the LAFMS mindset came from that early experience with do it yourself entertainment. We built cars, skateboards, dungeons, caves, castles, dummies. The projects were always communal (that idea of community ownership carried through to Le Forte Four, where all of the equipment, toys and instruments became a communal pile.) It was a group project. No one owned it. No one was competing. We filled balloons with hydrogen and exploded them, booby trapped cars with water balloons and covered ourselves with fake blood on the side of the road, running away screaming if a car stopped. We made up our own games. The last one was the most memorable. It was called “Glove”. Every one stood facing each other in a circle. A glove was dropped in the center. Each player had a pole. The idea was to flick the glove up into the face of the opponent and slap them with it. The person slapped was not supposed to register any emotion. My bother Tom invented it. It was intended to be played in formal attire with canes and a white glove, but we never actually got to that point.
Doing things with the same group of family or friends for long periods, you develop your own micro-culture, and I think the fact that my brothers and I spent so much time in intersecting groups of friends contributed to the pervasiveness of our personal mythology, as evidenced in the Le Forte Four recordings.
David: What were some of your first musical projects and performances?
Joe: Somewhere in the USA in the early 60’s, the cool kids were standing in groups singing Do-Wop. In San Gabriel, however, my friends and I were hanging out on corners, singing Barbershop Quartets. I don’t know why, but it just felt right.
After the Barbershop phase, I got into my first “rock band”. I played my dad’s Upright bass. We had a drummer who was called a drummer because he owned a drum kit, not because he could play it (kind of the way I was a bass player.) Our lead vocalist and guitarist had actually taken lessons. We played selections from a Pete Seeger song book and a Beatles songbook. The guitarist strummed every song with the same beat. It was more of a demented reggae than a Mersey beat. Tah-dum tah. Tah dum tah…We only played one school dance, and were blown off the stage by a group with horns that did cover versions of Tijuana Brass songs.
Shortly after the Summer of Love I was in an Acid Rock band that mostly played folk songs and never played a gig because we had no rock equipment. We would sit around at practices and look at amplifier catalogs… as if. We had a clever name that was an unbelievably thinly veiled drug reference. Something like “13 M Street.”
In about 1970 I met Vetza. Two of my Brother Tom’s friends (from the fake acid rock band) knew her from Pasadena City College. They had become members of a folk blues, jug band, bee-bop, underground comic clique, whose members included “Couch Potato” cartoonists Robert Armstrong (who inspired Rick to learn the musical saw), Charles Dodge, Chester Crill (from the band Kaleidoscope) and, only very very remotely, Robert Crumb. I inserted myself into the group as best I could, but being only 17 and having no car or driver’s license put me at a disadvantage. I had been a wannabe underground cartoonist for several years, since I bought my first Zap comic in Sausalito, so these guys were my gods. Eventually I did get a story printed in a Mickey Rat comic and got paid in T-shirts.
After a while we formed a group. “The Pep Boys”, with Vetza, my two acid rock friends, Chester Crill (on a pay-to-play basis) and me. We learned jug band favorites and early swing tunes by Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys, Duke Ellington, Eddie Lange and Joe Venutti etc., all with three-part harmonies and scat singing. We worked our butts off (especially Vetza and my two friends from the acid band) for two years and played most of the local folk clubs with no pay. We dressed in 30’s clothes, watched 30’s movies and listened to 30’s music. We shunned contemporary music, the exception being free jazz. We were into Sun Ra in a big way. After we would rehearse our tight set of swing songs, sometimes we would free improvise until we nearly collapsed.
“The Pep Boys”, nearly made it and then broke up in about 1972. Vetza and the band leader merged with Lynn Foulkes, a Pop Art painter who played a home made Spike Jones type one man band instrument. Their band was called “The Rubber Band” (not Bootsy’s.) They nearly made it and then broke up.
David: How did Le Forte Four come together?
In a word, Chip Chapman. Chip was the catalyst. Chip brought the confidence. Rick was miserable in school, from at least junior high on, so when Chip ended up in his band class loudly refusing to play “any spit instruments”, the clouds parted for Rick. Rick became part of Chip’s world, which included most of the characters and ambiance of Bikini Tennis Shoes”. Chip wanted to go to Cal Arts and study Electronic Composition with Morton Subotnick. In order to record some pieces to submit as a portfolio, Chip got a grant for an Electronic Music program at the high school, got a mini synthesizer and other equipment purchased for the school, recorded his demo tape and got into Cal Arts. The high school was dragged into it kicking and screaming. That was probably the last time that equipment was ever used.
Just before he graduated, Chip put on a multi-media performance at the school with Rick and others under the name ‘Captain Chapman and the Fifth Battalion”. That was probably the first time Chip and Rick played together “seriously”. After this performance, Chip and Rick joined together with Jay Stein in Dan Weiss’ group, “The Patients”, playing one-chord anthem rock. They only played one (very long) song, but that didn’t damper their enthusiasm.
I was in between musical interests and immersed in beginning college art classes. I came home one day and found Chip, Rick and Susan painting flames on Steve Nash’s old clunker “The Boat” ( later I found out that it was for a film they were making.) I fled into the house when they started to paint the curb in front of our parent’s house orange (who knew my Mom was going to like it.) With Chip there was always a project or a scheme, one of them ended with Chip and I working together at a YMCA youth camp that summer and sharing a cabin. We performed together a couple of times at camp, deriding the food with original lyrics slapped on Zappa songs. After we walked off the job in the middle of the summer, Chip recruited me into “The Patients” to help them try to survive their first paying gig at a summer “teen canteen.” The rock musicians Chip also recruited were no shows, (one got busted, the other two smelled disaster) and at the last minute we realized that we were going to actually have to try and play coherent rock music… too late we were already headed over the cliff.
David: Can you tell me a bit about the recording of Bikini Tennis Shoes? How was it done, what instruments did you use?
Joe: When Chip moved into the dorms at Cal Arts that fall, he had no car. We were anxious to check out the school and especially the Buchla synthesizers. Chip was anxious to get home for the weekend. So, Chip would get a ride to his parents on Friday and then he would book long blocks of time in the synthesizer studio late on Sunday night. Rick and I would drive him back and spend hours and hours in the studio, getting crazier and crazier as the time passed. We recorded every nutty thing we did on big reels of ¼” tape.
The elephant in the studio was Don Buchla’s Series 200 “Electric Music Box.” A jumbo analog synthesizer, after these he started experimenting with digital technology. Chip was tutored a bit by Mort (Subotnick) and managed to learn some of his control voltage tricks. The mixers we used were built into the synthesizer, so who could resist screwing up the sound a little.
Le Forte Four had a whole mythology of instruments which are evident on BTS, from the “Cyanide Drum”, to the “Duck Bamboozler” and the “Johnny One-Note.” They were toys and toy instruments, common objects, mutated, broken and self made instruments that had slowly evolved through long and silly improvisations.
Sometimes Chip would have worked out a synthesizer patch or recorded something during the week that we would work on top of. Rick was the only one of us (until Tom joined) with a job, and he started to buy tape recorders and record multi-track mixes at home, that we used. We would improvise on top of records from the ten-cent bin at Poo-Bahs too. We would show up at Cal Arts on Sunday night about 9 in our parents station wagon full of steel barrels and duffle bags full of baseball bats and drag piles of crap into this slick “2001, a Space Odyssey “ studio.
Some of the recordings on “Bikini Tennis Shoes” use soundtracks from 16mm films that Cal Arts sold bulk, for timing soundtracks. Our obvious favorite was “Clutch Cargo”, which we all grew up watching on local television. We would run the cartoons and play along with them, sometimes running the projector’s audio through the synthesizer. We recorded everything. When we decided that we were going to make an album, we ended up snipping bits and pieces out of piles of tapes and collaging them together. We would have ten-inch reels of tape that only had 30 seconds of inspiration on them.
David: How important was Poo-bah as a lightning rod for fans of underground and leftfield music? Can you give us an idea of what the store was like back then? Can you recall your first meeting with Tom Recchion? What was his reaction to Bikini Tennis Shoes?
Joe: I first went to Poo-Bah before they moved upstairs. Originally it was in the basement of a building with a decidedly Victorian feel, which in Southern California is a rare thing. It was a cross between hippy and creepy. I was still in the Pep Boys. Tom recognized me from having beaten him in a high school car painting contest (he hated my car.) By the time that the store had moved upstairs, it had become a beacon for music outsiders. In the Seventies there was no way to publicize weird records and live performances. The walls of Poo-Bah were vitally important in keeping East-siders informed. You would also find people with the same offbeat musical tastes at Poo-Bah. The Pep Boys found a violinist to replace Chester Crill there. He happened to be Rick Snyder of Ace and Duce’s older brother Bob. Once Tom knew you were into musical extremes he would point out anything new or unusual. He was our vinyl connection. The 10 cent used record bins at Poo-Bah provided many a budding noise musician myself included, with raw material for their first foray into record manipulation.
At Poo-Bah, for a brief period after Bikini Tennis Shoes came out, we went from being customers to being gods. It was like…”what the? How did they?” And once there was a tangible representation of the thing that all us noise freaks had been pursuing on our own, to pass around and discuss, our relationships seemed to congeal.
David: Was there/is there an overall LAFMS aesthetic? Is it possible to describe it?
Joe: Yes, sophomoric vituperation.
My sister-in law, Waynna Kato, once had her artwork called that by a slimy local art critic. After we looked it up, we all thought it was pretty great. There is a big part of the LAFMS aesthetic that is drawing moustaches on Mona Lisas, but used a tool, not as a goal. I think for Le Forte Four, some of that aesthetic came from Chip. If Chip wanted a hot guitar lead he didn’t learn it, you just found someone who could play it and recorded it, or took it off of a record. What idiot wants to learn to play that? This seems pretty obvious in the sample oriented culture we live in now, but in the early Seventies in the Southern California garage band culture it was radical. Also, for Le Forte Four, as I alluded to earlier, there is a communalism. We threw our equipment, toys, costumes, ideas, and sometimes money together in a big pile and we all used it without any thoughts of whose it was originally. The other concept that Le Forte Four embraced was “tape dumb”. When you are a kid and you make your first recordings you seem to go to this stupid, silly almost trance-like place. Almost as it you are acting like a medium channeling some deranged spirit. We liked to explore that phenomenon. Bikini Tennis Shoes is full of examples, including actual child “tape dumb” recordings by Chip’s younger brother Tim.
David: What was your first impression of Doo-Dooettes? Did you recognize common ground immediately, how would you describe that commonality?
Joe: I thought that the Doo-Dooettes were a much more serious group than L-44. We had played together with them a few times in different configurations at 35 South Raymond, and I knew that they were as goofy and out of control as we were, but when they played as a group they seemed “serious,” that, despite the fact that Harold kept nodding off during songs.
Both Le Forte Four and the Doo-Dooettes were garage bands, of a sort. But instead of trying to produce the next experimental equivalent of Stairway to Heaven, we were looking to jump ahead, and produce a garage band version of the next experimental equivalent of Stairway to Heaven. We worshiped our musical heroes in part by mimicking them and in part by mocking them.
David: What was the LA of the early-70s like? How did it contribute to the birth and affect the development of the LAFMS? Did the LAFMS inherit anything from the LA freakscene around Zappa, Wild Man Fischer, Beefheart et al?
Joe: The way I remember it from a musical stand point, most of the stuff I liked in the late Sixties was gone or had mutated into some unrecognizable form in a quest for popular success. There was one venue in West Hollywood called Theater Vanguard that from 1973 to 1978 ran a regular series of electro-acoustic music. But really, during the formative years of the LAFMS, there was nothing happening in LA. The folk scene, and the hippy scene, and the surf scene and the swinger scene were all played out. Jazz clubs were closing. There was no communication between people in various parts of the city. There was no place to read reviews of experimental music or to check out what bands, experimental theater or films were playing around town. I think that void kept us from getting caught up in some meaningful social movement, forcing us instead to create our own diversion. The fact that it was so obvious that there was no way in hell that anything but the most commercial music would garner any kind of local attention probably played into the development.
The Smegmites and Ace and Duce insinuated themselves into the world of Beefheart and Wildman Fischer. Le Forte Four were big fans of both, but we really worshiped at the temple of Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, up through “200 Motels”. In the early Seventies you actually had to search for some of the Zappa records. But all of our faith in Frank came crashing down with “Overnight Sensation.” We waited forever for it, ran out and got it, ran home and put it on and it sucked. And the more we played it the more it sucked. And that was it, the King was dead.
David: How about improvisation – how aware were you of improvising as a form of musical practice, ie coming out of jazz, free jazz etc – or was it much more instinctive than that?
Joe: I listened to hippy Jazz in the late Sixties, like Gary Burden with Larry Coryell, Charles Lloyd with Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane, Theloneous Monk and Miles Davis. Then I was into early Be-Bop, mainly Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. When I was in the Pep Boys, as I said, we started experimenting with playing free Jazz. But when I started improvising with Le Forte Four it was totally different. We really weren’t listening to each other, the way you normally do in Jazz improvisation, we were living out an existence in a parallel universe. It sounds melodramatic, but that is the best way I can describe it. We were in a different world. Somehow traditional improvising seemed phony. I really looked down on straight ahead jazz at that time. I thought it was incredibly lame. I was however, a fan of some fusion groups like Tony Williams Lifetime and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
David: Did you feel a connection to rock music, did you feel you were furthering modes/ideas/styles that came out of the late 60s rock revolution or did you feel more like overthrowing it altogether? Was there any relationship between late 60s head culture and your own experiments in community?
Joe: To paraphrase George Harrison, we were mockers. Sure, we all liked to listen to rock, but Le Forte Four had no urge to seriously perform it. I felt at the time that we were furthering nerd culture. We were knocked out by meeting Tom Oberheim at the Audio Engineering Society Convention, for God sake. We wanted to be the radicals of the electro-acoustic music world, not the rock world.
The most obvious connection between 60’s head culture and the LAFMS was the economic model I used to release I.D. Art and several projects after that. I called it the “drug distribution model”; similar to the way we handled our experiments in horticultural distribution in the Sixties. Rick has a clever way to describe it but basically we divided the maximum time on the LP by the projected cost of the finished edition. Then we charged the contributors a fee based on the length of their pieces. When the LPs were done the contributors received a percentage of the finished edition equal to the percentage of their contribution.
David: Can you tell me about the recording of LAFMS Live at the Brand? Can you recall the circumstances of the pyramid headphone gig?
Joe: When I was in Tokyo for a month exhibiting my first series of Autopsy Art, I received a long letter from Rick, detailing a show with the Doo-Dooettes that was set up at the Brand Library. Chip, Rick and Tom had come up with the idea to play a tape back through 44 pyramid shaped stereo headphones, with lights on the top. They were going to be made of cardboard painted black. By the time I got back home they were in full production on the headphones, and were already rough cutting the tape. I worked on it, but I sure can’t take any credit for the idea. The Doo-Dooettes were rehearsing their set in he Raymond Building and all of the sudden it hit me; “they had a set. Wow, they’re so professional.”
Like most of our concerts The Brand was a blur. We had a technical nightmare with all of those wires and channels cutting out, but it came off OK, and the Doo-Dooettes performance knocked everyone out. In a perfect world, they should have immediately left on a world tour.
David: Rick has spoken of the 1975 gig in the ballroom above Poo-Bah as the birthday of the LAFMS, can you recall the specifics of the show, which came, what was the reaction on the night, did it feel instantly significant?
Joe: Le Forte Four was a studio group. Playing live always presented a challenge. At that time in electronic music circles tape concerts were an accepted mode of performance. But this performance seemed to demand live participation. We had edited together a reel of pieces, and played along with them at the studio, but when we got to the venue we all got a case of “what did we get ourselves into.” Tom Recchion was there when we arrived, and gave us an enthusiastic tour. The performance space looked to me at the time like a Tudor style Shakespearean theater, but the whole building had a Great Expectations air about it. Now I think it might have been an Elks hall. It was abandoned and dusty. Tom took us into the back rooms which were piled with debris. We found a bunch of painted stage props and dragged them out to the low stage. We constructed a barrier to hide behind on the left side of the stage out of painted stacks of dynamite kegs, trees, giant ventilation pipes and whatever else looked stupid or eerie. Le Forte Four played our tape back and hid behind the barricade, occasionally sticking out a snorting saxophone or raising a zither to hit it with a riding crop. We meant it to be silly, but I am afraid a percentage of the audience (almost all friends or friends of friends) found it seriously disturbed.
Ace and Duce intimidated us with their musical proficiency, their fedoras and their cute young girlfriends. They were Beefheart 4.0 (a new generation.) Ace introduced us to the musette at that concert. We all bought them but Rick was the only one who could play it. He can play anything from a funnel to his naked armpit.
The Doo-Dooettes were all elegance. Tom played in striped pajamas. Harold owned a mini-synth. The audience loved them. It was the first time that we really saw the L.A.F.M.S. laid out before us. “We smelled the future”, as Chip would say.
David: What was your first encounter with Ace and Deuce? How about Smegma?
Joe: I really didn’t know Ace and Duce until later on. We had listened to them practice once at the Raymond Building before the first LAFMS (Spaghetti Works) concert. I liked what they were doing, but I didn’t feel compelled to emulate it. They had their own private mythology just like Le Forte Four. Had I realized at the time how young they were, I would have been even more intimidated than I was.
I really didn’t know Smegma either. I heard lots of stories about them, and after they bought up a huge chunk of the time on I.D Art I became a dedicated fan of their music. Working on the record burned those tracks into my head to where I still get ear worms today. I played with them live a few times recently and they have remained consistently good and consistently true to the Smegma sound for forty years. When is someone going to release the Smegma stuff on I.D. Art as a separate record?
David: So who all lived in the Raymond Building? What was the atmosphere like there?
Joe: 35 South Raymond was one of those once beautiful, now derelict “Blade Runner” buildings. The manager ran a pawn shop on the street and the building was owned by a gangster who had a chain of porno theaters. The first floor had a garment sweat shop. The basement was full of illegal alien squatters. The upper floors were all abandoned Sam Spade type offices. In lots of the offices the windows had been left open and the floors were thick with pigeon crap. When we moved in the upper floors were mostly empty. We could run through the halls making a racket, recording the Doppler Effect, and nobody would say a word. Although I later heard that the artists in the building across the street weren’t too happy with us as neighbors.
Chip was one of the few people who lived there. The offices had a sink. There was a bathroom on each floor. There were no bathing facilities. Chip moved out as soon as he could and I took over one side of the office as an art studio. Le Forte Four used the other side, but I don’t know who paid the rent.
Tom Recchion had a large corner office on the same floor as Le Forte Four. If we happened to be at the studio at the same time we would play together. There were a few amazing sessions. Ace and Duce had a studio the floor below. By the time we left and Tom got thrown out (after being taken for a ride by the gangster landlord) quite a few of our friends and acquaintances had studios there, at fifty bucks a month, why not?
David: Do you see the groups as having very separate identities or as blurring the lines as members came and went? For example, were some groups more about tape composition, some more about electronics and post-production, some more about the live jam? What was what and who was who?
Joe: The L.A.F.M.S. groups have always been quite different, even the more recent ones like Solid Eye, Dinosaurs with Horns, The Rodney Forest and Joe and Joe. Each group has a distinctive take on improvised music. In the Seventies, Le Forte Four was a studio group, Doo-Dooettes was a live improvisation group, Ace and Duce was a rehearsed live improvisation group, Smegma was a less rehearsed live improvisation group.
David: Can you tell me a little bit about the Airway ‘aesthetic’? Did it start out with you and Vetza, with you working round her voice? What was Vetza like, what appealed about her approach? Can you recall the circumstances of the recording of Airway’s Live at Lace? That’s an amazing album, one that still has few peers…. How did you develop into this full-on high energy noise/rock outfit? Was there a particular inspiration?
Joe: I was an Art student. I had become a fan of Conceptual Art, at the same time as I had become a fan of Minimal Music. I started to write scores that could be used for anything (think Lawrence Weiner.) My work was in a reductive spiral. At some point I decided that the artistic stimulus was not the important part of the equation, but rather the response to it was. I began trying to make work that elicited strong response. I spent long hours browsing the college library and stumbled into the Forensic Pathology section. I Checked out a book with autopsy photographs and had it sitting in the living room of my parent’s house. My brother Tom was sleeping in a chair and when he woke up he saw the book (he is a book freak), opened it to a color plate and very nearly blacked out. That was my inspiration. Later he was able to look at the book. I wondered why. So I started making art using autopsy photographs to explore how we learn to accept disturbing information.
A while after I had been working with autopsies, I attended an art lecture by John Baldessari. He talked about a series of photographs which he had done in which he had airbrushed subliminal words. He had been inspired by a pop psychology book called “Subliminal Seduction”, by Wilson Bryan Key. I read the book and realized that it might be possible to use the autopsy photos to bury subliminal information as part of the brains compensation mechanism. I tried to think of what would be important information to bury. I decided CPR would be important, and maybe a trauma situation would trigger a recall. When I studied CPR I learned that when someone is unconscious the most important thing is to tilt their head back to establish an airway, so that they don’t asphyxiate. I decided to try to imbed that information within the autopsy artworks. Then I thought it would be good to have some way to refresh the information periodically. I decided to put the same information in a record and a poster, hoping that the viewer would take the record home and play it and leave the poster up on their wall.
I produced it as my graduate thesis project and then showed it a Gallery Lunami in Tokyo. The record was AIRWAY, a 45 with loops of instrumentals from “Ask the Angels” by Patti Smith. I asked Vetza to improvise the vocals using the subliminal words. I think this is the first time that we worked together after the Pep Boys broke up. I cut her vocals and layered them in with the loops. I was trying to create a wall of sound under which to hide the subliminals. I thought that a rock beat would help draw in listeners. I took the finished tape into Gold Star Records to be mastered and when I went back to pick it up, Dave Gold asked me to look at something. He showed me my tape displayed on an oscilloscope and it looked like a fright wig. Every inch of the display was covered with moving lines. He told me that the needle would fly off of the record unless I mixed it into mono. So it became mono. The model on the poster is Simone Gad, an artist who modeled at my art school. You can see her riding the bus in the movie “Speed”.
I decided to drop the visual component of AIRWAY, and concentrate on sound. I tried to think of ways to create walls of sound with live musicians. I thought of “electronic fascism.” I let the musicians play whatever they wanted, but I had them plug their instruments into my processors instead of into their own amps. After I ran them all through the same daisy chain of delays flangers and fuzz boxes, and added the subliminals, I plugged them into their amps. Chip was a big help with this building a mixer and other boxes and manning the controls with me during performances.
The signal was so hot that it modulated the amps and created another level of processing. Usually there came a point in the performance, especially at LACE which had wooden floors, when the room was modulating the sound through its vibrations. In some performances the sound developed even more of a physical presence, bouncing down hallways and shaking doors. Attending an AIRWAY show was listening with your mind and body more than your ears. As Takuya Sakaguchi has described it, I treated the musicians like modules in a synthesizer, and the audience like modules in a synthesizer.
In later performances I looked for ways to tell whether the subliminals were having the desired results. One performance I used subliminal commands to try to bring the audience up close. At that show the audience members kept trying to grab the instruments out of our hands and were tossing Vetza up in the air. The band members were not too happy with me.
When I was in the Pep Boys and experimenting with free jazz, Vetza was drawing inspiration from a 60’s jazz singer named Patty Waters. But Vetza has been studying voice and singing every thing from swing, to Latin jazz, to show tunes. But she doesn’t sing blues. She is also an actor and a playwright. When she sings she draws on all of these influences. Usually when we work together, she just starts improvising and I process it live and edit it excerpts later. Recording her is a challenge because of her ability to shift octaves and dynamics at breakneck speeds. In AIRWAY I always treated her voice as an instrument and dumped it into the mix with everyone else. I got so many complaints about not being able to hear her that in later performances I ran two signals out, one with the mix and one unprocessed.
David: Who named LAFMS and what was the concept of ‘free music’?
Joe: Chip labeled the tape that Le Forte Four sent to an Electronic Music Festival in Norway “The East Los Angeles Free Music Society”. We felt like upstarts and he thought it would lend legitimacy, which it did. The trouble was, we sent our master tape to Norway, and we needed it back for Bikini Tennis Shoes. We wrote him and asked him to send it back so that we could dub it, which caused him to finally listen to it. We got it back very quickly.
At Cal Arts, we were surrounded with “legitimate musicians” like Mort and James Taney and Mel Powell. Somehow the “society” label didn’t seem so preposterous, which I guess made it funnier. We used it on Bikini Tennis Shoes, and from that point on it became kind of real.
We didn’t call what we did Free Music until after we came up with the L.A.F.M.S. name. In fact, I thought at the time, that maybe Free Music was not the right term. I loved Ornette Coleman, but I didn’t want to be him. We certainly didn’t want to be categorized as jazz musicians. For a while I was promoting the term “flak”. Flak was a word that I made up that stood for “free license audio kunst”.. I guess that must have been during one of my more severely art damaged periods.
I think that Free Music has an aspect of it that is the musical equivalent of Outsider Art, in that it exists outside the boundaries of official culture. Free Music often utilizes the materials at hand to realize an expression, rather than seeking out the materials required to realize a preconceived notion. For Le Forte Four, Free Music was really glossolalia.
David: Why the need for a ‘Society’? What was the role of the LAFMS? Was it strength in numbers thing, a co-operative publishing house, a hot-house for brainstorming ideas, a roll-call of weirdo musicians that you could all draw on?
Joe: Le Forte Four never thought of L.A.F.M.S. as an exclusive title. We were fine with anyone using it, which lead to some confusion and annoyance later on. We thought of it as only a ridiculous name. Tom Recchion picked up on the L.A.F.M.S. title and began using it as a banner pertaining to the people connected with Smegma, Ace and Duce, Doo-Dooettes and Le Forte Four. This was insightful on Tom’s part, because we needed some way to categorize what we were doing, and I suppose that we wanted to celebrate the fact that we had found a bunch of people with the same fetishes. The L.A.F.M.S. name did serve to unite a bunch of basically independent limited edition projects under a single name, and probably gave them much more visibility at the time that they were produced, and possibly a much more lasting impact.
David: There seems to be a ‘scientific American’/hobbyist ethos with the LAFMS, making your own instruments etc… do you see any connections between what you do and the musician-inventors like Harry Partch, Harry Bertoia et al? It also seems to tie-in with garage band traditions but also classic 50s/60s garage hobbies, building your own monster kits, your own hot rods…
I think that comes from the suburban late Baby Boomer aesthetic that we picked up growing up with packs of kids the same age, in a time before Sesame Street and video games.
I guess we were empowered by acting in groups, that gang mentality. We had that “can do” enthusiasm. The summer Chip and I worked at summer camp we decided that we needed guitar amplifiers. We didn’t have any money, our pay at camp was a joke. Chip got a schematic drawing of a JBL cabinet. We blew it up and built two four foot tall cabinets out of plywood, used burlap sacks for the grill cloth and mounted fifteen dollar Radio Shack guitar speakers in them. We used our stereo receivers to power them and ten dollar Radio Shack turntable preamps to boost and distort the signal. On the one hand, we were fantasizing that the system would sound great, on the other hand the fact that it was so cheesy and basically sounded like crap was hysterical and great.
You can draw a direct line from those speakers to the plywood cars that my brother and I built with our neighbors one summer when we were in elementary school. My team’s fell into pieces when we tried to push it to the street, Tom’s team fared much better.
David: Ju Suk Reete Meate maintained that Smegma were more of a rock band whereas the rest of the LAFMS were more arthouse – how accurate do you think that is?
Joe: Tom Recchion, Rick and I all went to the same art school, Otis College of Art and Design. I went there first, for Graduate School. Tom started the semester after I graduated, and Rick started a year after Tom left
I have always been schizophrenic about art and music. I have always wanted to merge the two interests but have mostly struck out when I tried. Lately I am thinking that what I am doing as music is really art and the problem has always been that I haven’t been able to integrate it into the art marketplace.
I think the same is true of Tom and Rick.
David: How important was the concept of ‘unmusicianship’ of music made by non-musicians – how was this liberating and how central is it to the sound of the LAFMS? Were there particular inspirations for this approach, these were lean years before punk huh? Or is that a myth?
Joe: I sometimes feel that the serious pursuit of excellence in a musical instrument, or a group, requires “drinking the Kool-aid”. The same can be said of any art form I suppose. For Le Forte Four, it was Chip who championed the “if you can dream it, you can do it ethic.” And when the results mutated away from your intended goal, Chip always embraced the monster that resulted. Eventually, building monsters became an important technique for Le Forte Four. We sought them out.
In the case of the track ‘They Are Asleep”, I was the monster. When Chip brought out that tape and wanted to send it to Norway Rick and I felt like kids who had wet their bed and their mother hung the sheets out the window so the neighbors could see. And that is the track that seems to keep returning from the grave. One time in thirty-five years I raise my voice to my brother and it ends up on a record.
David: How do you feel now that the LAFMS ethos had percolated so far and so deep into the contemporary underground, did you ever think you would see that?
Joe: It is shocking to realize that I am fifteen years older than Morton Subotnick was when we were at Cal Arts. He seemed ancient, like Albus Dumbledor. He was someone that we were both in awe of, and loved to ridicule. Chip’s alter ego, Slimy Adenoid, came about from lampooning Subotnick’s seminal electronic work “Silver Apples of the Moon”, which we turned into “Slimy Adenoids on my Spoon.” We stole his trademark control voltage technique from the landmark work “Touch”, and used it to shred guitars. It would be great if somewhere in the world there are people taking bits of ideas from what we have done and mutating them into something totally removed from what we were doing.
Acceptance is a fantasy that never occurred to me at the time. We were confident in what we were doing, but also sure that it would never be taken seriously. On the few occasions in the Seventies when it was taken seriously by organizations or individuals, we didn’t take the reviewers or the reviews seriously. The reviews of Bikini Tennis Shoes that mean the most to me are the ones from friends who said things like, “I always play it when I am vacuuming my house”, or “I put it on at the end of a party when I want the guests to leave”.
David: What brought the whole downtown Pasadena scene to an end?
Joe: The artists moved to downtown LA to take advantage of large lofts with cheap rent as Old Town Pasadena urban renewal began.
LACE, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, on played an integral part in the creation of the downtown LA art scene. LACE was a community exhibition space created under the CETA program (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). CETA was a “New Deal” style government jobs program created in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. Somehow, CETA money was funneled to the arts. Lots of recent art school graduates got arts jobs through CETA. I knew the majority of the people who worked at LACE from graduate school. AIRWAY played at LACE frequently during its first few years. Monitor, Doo-Dooettes, Le Forte Four, John Duncan, and CV Massage also played there. Mike Kelley (a CETA worker) gave some of his first performances at LACE.
In the same building as LACE, one floor up was High Performance magazine. High Performance was dedicated to Performance Art and was about the only place in LA that one could read in detail about local performances by artists such as Paul McCarthy, Barbara Smith, Nancy Buchanan, Suzanne Lacy and Kim Jones. High Performance was involved in a dispute with John Duncan over its refusal to cover a particularly controversial Duncan performance. The fallout from that performance continues to follow Duncan around.
There had been a nest of LA performance artists in Pasadena, but after High Performance began publishing in 1978, the focus of Performance Art in Southern California shifted to downtown LA.
David: What happened to the LAFMS in the end, did it fizzle out, deliberately terminate, what? I realize that it survived as a designation through the 80s/90s and beyond but it seemed more diffuse, even more under the radar? Did you make new alliances during that time or was there not as much of a need for an umbrella grouping as underground and experimental music went out into the wild and built up an actual following and a support system?
Joe: Paul is Dead. I can remember going to a garage in suburban San Gabriel on a Sunday afternoon in 1978 to pick up Rick. As I walked up the driveway I heard the sound of rock and roll. I looked inside the garage and there were Dennis Duck, Fredrik Nilsen, Juan Gomez, Tom Recchion and Rick (I can’t remember if Edward Stapleton was there) playing a rock song, and a good one. I think it was “Jasper Johns”. I was able to get a cassette copy of the tape they were recording that day and I played it until it about wore out. I was a fan.
Paul is Dead underwent mitosis and soon I was going to the Hong Kong Café in Chinatown to watch B-People, with Fredrik Nilsen and Tom Recchion, and Human Hands, with Dennis Duck, Juan Gomez and Rick Potts serenade a pogoing crowd of spike heads.
B-People and Human Hands were great bands, and both were totally different, but I always wished that Paul is Dead would have continued.
I guess it was about the Paul is Dead period when I started working on the Flak Opera. The Flak Opera was called Teen Highchair, which was a Le Forte Four song. I had this nutty idea to string together all of the “songs” that Le Forte Four had into a narrative that described (as I understood it) the mechanisms in Duchamp’s “Large Glass”. I wrote a few songs, the one that springs to mind is “…now “we’re filling malic molds”. Teen Highchair was one of Chip’s songs, but I was using it to refer to the “Glider” on the Bachelor mechanism. I guess it was a very obscure take on “sex and drugs and rock and roll.”, I was thinking of building life sized puppets to act it out, like Japanese Bunraku.
I eventually lost enthusiasm, maybe because the subject was someone else’s art. I wasn’t a good enough project manager to keep the rest of Le Forte Four involved in it. I think I was just figuring things out as I went along. Eventually it got boring, and we had a low tolerance level for boring, unless it was intentional.
We played the most of “Teen Highchair” songs at the Century City Playhouse show. About that same time, I had the idea to switch from concentrating on sound, to concentrating on painting. I thought that it would work better to manipulate an art crowd with paintings than with sound. AIRWAY seemed to be playing mostly in art galleries. Our forays into music venues were pretty disastrous. We had the power turned off on us at the Anti Club, The owner of the Century City Playhouse was calling around warning venues not to let us play, were not even allowed to load in our equipment at the Pilot Theater, and when I tried to play with John Duncan in the lounge at Cathay de Grande, the bouncer threatened us and threw us out five minutes into the set.
David: Can you tell me a little about the birth and arrival of Smegma? How did they fit into the LAFMS?
Joe: I only knew Smegma from their recordings. Chip and Rick were much more tuned into the other L.A.F.M.S. personalities. I have always been a bit out of the loop. When Chip played me Glamour Girl I thought it was great, but I was confused about it being released on L.A.F.M.S. Eventually I figured out where they fit in,. I was already a fan by then.
David: Can you recall the details of the 1977 LAFMS telethon? How did it work, who did it attract, were there particular stand-out callers?
Joe: I was a graduate student at Otis College of Art and Design. As a graduate student I was entitled to a shoe in the student gallery that lasted one week. Le Forte Four had recorded a long session at 35 South Raymond called Telethon Returns that we cut up into segments for Live at the Brand. I liked the idea of a Telethon, and I thought it would be perverse to make the Telethon about time instead of about money, since basically the viewer is spending time as he sits there watching what in most telethons amounts to one long commercial. At that time who could have foreseen infomercials? The other twist is making the viewer choose between the “real” version on the T.V., and the version with real people in the gallery. I checked out the schools video equipment and ran a cable from the gallery to the student lounge. I set up a mock Living Room in the student lounge.
Le Forte Four loaded everything that we could from our studio and brought it to the gallery. We broadcast non-stop for a week during the hours that the school was open. We would constantly remind the viewers of the passing time. It was the ultimate tape dumb session. People would come in and do things sometimes but not nearly enough. Lots of the time it was just Rick and I with the bulk of the “entertainment” burden falling on Rick. Luckily we got a crown of performers on the last day because Rick and I were played out.
David: Can you recount any particular key performances?
Joe: The Show of Power. Chip’s biggest disaster was my big inspiration. Cal Arts has a Spring festival every year, which is basically an open house. For one weekend Cal Arts throws open its doors to the public and books a full slate of events in each department. This one Spring Chip got the composition department to give him some money to rent some equipment for a piece that he designed for the Main Gallery at Cal Arts. The night before the performance Le Forte Four moved a Buchla synthesizer, power amps, tape recorders, and some rented tape delays. We installed them in the second floor balcony of the Main Gallery. We worked through the night setting it up. There were two musicians, Steve Bronstein, playing a contact mic’d bassoon and Steve Jackson playing a Fender Jazz Bass. Chip routed their signals through a maze of delays and his own variation on a Subotnick synthesizer patch. He fired that sucker up and it was freaking unbelievable. Loud as hell and sound traveling with a mind of its own. He ran it as long as he dared at that late hour and then shut it down. Then we sat down to guard the equipment until the afternoon show.
When he fired the equipment up before the show, he couldn’t get it to work. He was sweating bullets. He postponed the performance and finally cancelled. A bunch of Chip’s friends and loved ones had made the long drive out to Cal Arts for the show. Burned out and pissed off he returned the equipment.
There were only a few of us that heard Chip’s “Show of Power”. And It wasn’t until several years after I started doing AIRWAY shows that it dawned on me that this must have been the inspiration. Thanks Chip.
David: What in your mind are the quintessential LAFMS documents?
Joe: The Bikini Tennis Shoes liner notes are where you need to look. We had cut together the master tape at the dining room table at my parent’s house, and somehow it was decided that we needed notes. We had index cards for each song with the timing that we had used in sequencing the record. We sat around the table and composed the notes. As I recall I was trying to write everything down, and keeping up with Chip’s absurdist oratories was not easy. Tom and Rick translated the Pope’s speech. I typed it out on grey paper with an IBM Selectric and there must have been more white correction tape than black ink. We passed it around and everyone edited it and punched up the prose. When we were done we had the Ten Commandments of the L.A.F.M.S., from a Le Forte Four perspective. The notes are still one of my favorite parts of Bikini Tennis Shoes. It really takes me back to that period when we were smart-assed punks in a mythological world of our own creation.
Speaking of a mythological world, while we were recording weekly at Cal Arts, my brother to produced a video tape for a project in one of his classes at California State University, Los Angeles. I think that it was an interpretation of Ulysses (the Greek one.) He called it “A Band in Hope”. It was shot in and around the synthesizer studio. Parts of the audio were used in our tape for the Brand Library concert. The one that leaps out to me is “Up the River in a Backwards Canoe”.
David: How do you feel about the upcoming retrospective festival? Do you see it as a reformation or more like a continuation of what you were doing? Some non-LAFMS groups are also playing; do you feel they have much in common with your aesthetic, for instance the Japanese noise groups Hijokaidan and Incapacitants?
Joe: It is no coincidence that for all these millenniums the arts have been tied to religion. There are definite similarities. The one aspect that I have been conscious of lately is “faith”. In religion it is accepted that faith is what is required. I occasionally check out televangelists, and I find it amusing when they try to prove the truth of some Biblical passage by twisting around bits of scientific study. What is the point? Religion is “Believe It or Not”
The arts are the same way. You either believe that they have power that is beyond the sum of their parts or you don’t. When you are in the rapture, it all seems so clear, laid out in one straight line. If you are not a believer, then nothing anyone can do or say can make you see it. I guess it is like a “Magic Eye” stereogram.
Over the past decades there have been many times when I have lost faith in the arts. I have always tried to stay a little in touch, plodding through the paces, uninspired. Often, I think about that Robert Crumb comic in which Flakey Foont torments Mr. Natural through panel after panel with the question, “what does it all mean?” In the final panel Mr. Natural answers, “don’t mean shit.”
I think only recently have I come to accept that even if that is true, the arts are still a pretty great ride.
As for Hijokaidan and Incapacitants, when I was painting, I had their music on in my studio in repeat mode all the time. Takuya Sakaguchi has been sending me copies of the recordings since day one. I am completely thrilled to be playing with them. The idea that something we did influenced them may or may not be true, but there is a “fair trade agreement.” As far as I am concerned the influence has always been a two way street.
David: What is Tom up to? Any reason that he is not involved in LAFMS activities these days?
Joe: Decades ago, Tom along with Chip and Susan “retired” from the L.A.F.M.S… Tom lived in a log cabin in Western Montana, the Bitterroot Valley. He is working on a book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
When Chip started working in the Physics Department at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the mythological characters shifted. Morton Subotnick became Richard Feynman, and then Ricardo Gomez. The synthesizers became the super computers. Conventions replaced concerts. Susan and Tom made the transition, Rick and I never made it “through the looking glass”. Chip is retiring from Caltech this year and Susan already retired from the transportation department. They are moving to a hilltop in southern Utah, with views of a couple of National Parks. We are waiting to see what Chip’s new realm will be like.
David: Been thinking about something else – listening again to Bikini Tennis Shoes parts of it remind me of the first Faust album, the way you usurp commercial and pop music and nursery rhyme tunes.. exploding The Ballad Of John & Yoko like they did with Satisfaction… was there an element of cultural critique here? I know Faust saw it as destroying everything that went before in the form of some kind of attempted year zero but with LFF it seems less like a critique and more celebratory – how do you feel about that? This ties in with a question about how you felt about being championed/resdiscovered/embraced by alla these cold interrogating European Industrial groups – could you relate to that at all? Sorry to keep bombarding you..
Joe: Le Forte Four was never out to change the world (now with Joe Potts that is a different story.) Le Forte Four is a frame of mind, a fantasy location, kind of like “Toontown”, in the “Roger Rabbit” film. Le Forte Four is a world that you enter into, with its own cast of characters and repeated themes. I agree with you that we were celebrating characters and situations from our alternate reality. The Beatles were characters in the Le Forte Four world.
When I recorded “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” I was channeling Le Forte Four world. After I had done the recording and through some cosmic coincidence the two pieces of music linked up, I stepped out of that “other world” and started thinking about how it related to minimal art and “Land Art” in particular, mostly due to a book of articles that I had been rereading of articles by the art critic Jack Burnham. Burnham used the Beatles lyric as a heading after the title of one of the articles and it kept rattling around in my brain. At some point the tape and the title collided in my head.