Founding member Eric Davidson talks about his book We Never Learn, the Cleveland scene and his 20+ years playing in New Bomb Turks
This has been quite a busy year for Eric Davidson and his band, New Bomb Turks. Formed in Ohio in 1990, the band did several European shows this past summer as well as performing at Studio A Rama 2017, the 50th Anniversary celebration for Case Western University radio station WRUW.
I was keen to catch up with Eric, especially after having just read his 2010 book, We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 (Backbeat Books). Part tongue-in-cheek music history, part fond look back, We Never Learn delves into the sleazy fun side of the DIY scene while contextualizing it within the (de)-evolution of punk. It also features candid interviews with such trash luminaries as Billy Childish, Blag Dahlia (nèe Jesus), Crypt Records’ Tim Warren, and many others. A proud Cleveland native, Eric also highlights Ohio’s pivotal contributions to punk throughout his book and even joined fellow native sons Cheetah Chrome (A Dead Boy’s Tale: From The Front Lines Of Punk Rock), the late Mike Hudson of The Pagans (Diary of a Punk), and Bob Pfeifer of Human Switchboard (The University of Strangers) for 2011’s Cleveland Confidential Book Tour.
PKM: What inspired you to write We Never Learn?
Eric: Well, at the time, circa 2007, I’d been a freelance or demi-hired writer for about 18 years, I’d been in New Bomb Turks about the same time, and was working as Assoc. Editor at CMJ (“don’t go looking for it,” as Marty DiBergi would say, as the site was recently scrubbed, ugh). So while I honestly never figured I’d actually write a book, the thought sat in the back of my mind, as I suppose it does for any writer. Then I’m friends with Mike Edison, who was an editor, writer, and author hunter for Hal Leonard Books at the time. We got talking/slobbering at a bar one night, and he said I should write a book, and suggested sending him a few ideas. I did, and We Never Learn won out over a few other ideas, including a fictional (???) tale about how Johnnie Ray floated through a time-space continuum to haunt a teen Morrissey and convince him to change his mind about the Ramones and make a New York Dolls fanzine.
Edison seemed to think that if anyone was going to write about 1990s underground garage punk bands (and as you’d expect, that line was forming outside of Penguin’s offices), it may as well be me, since I was in one of those kind of bands and had been writing about music for awhile for some fairly reputable rags. Plus I could always use that huge advance to pay off the next month’s lunch bills.
PKM: Tim Warren and Crypt Records are very central to the history of the music in this book as either an influence musically with the Back From The Grave series or as launching point so many of the bands who are featured in this book. Can you tell me a little about Tim Warren and Crypt Records?
Eric: Oh Jesus, yeah, I could, for hours. Suffice to say, I was a Crypt fan long before Tim Warren called Matt Reber (NBT bassist) out of nowhere in early spring of 1992 to ask if we wanted to do an album. Tim/Crypt always blew me away with how it wasn’t about “vintage” or “reissue” or “golden era of Rock’n’Roll!” A wild, screaming blues howler from 1954 just naturally sat in the catalog right next to Saints reissues, new punk singles, sleazy ’70 funk, and film noir VHS want lists. It all was just a timeless array of outre insanity that completely ignored the square world assumptions, plus it was just fun shit. To think this guy was interested blew me away, and definitely kept New Bomb Turks from possibly just drifting into the mist as another local band that came and went.
By the time NBT formed, all of us had either played or mostly hung out with loads of indie musicians, went to tons of shows, read piles of mags and fanzines, were college radio and record store constants, and generally had a clue about the shenanigans of the “music biz,” small and large. What was amazing about Tim, once we met him and hung out with him a bit, was how he felt like a band guy, not some “label head.” Needless to say, most of the credit card-waving A&Rs of that era were icky; but even the nicest, most honest indie record label rep can come across as a little fanboy-ish, or ambitious past just the music, or you know, what have you (NOT all of them!). But Tim felt like a band guy, like one of us record-collecting, show-stumbling, broke fanatics. He’d get loaded at shows, bark at lame bands, pass out before even the Crypt band he was there to ostensibly “see” even went on. Then when we finally toured in Europe and ended up at Crypt Manor in Hamburg, there were miles of records, cool old pulp paperbacks, B-movie movie posters on the wall, cheap hooch, and his excellent then-wife Micha just kind of shaking her head and laughing at it all.
I mean being on Crypt wasn’t really about “moving units,” if you know what I mean. Which brought with it the usual fumblings and bumblings with distribution, etc. But whatever, we were immensely proud and happy to be on such a great label. As you mentioned, I go off on it enough in my book, so you can catch up there. But I will say that, if you’ve ever tried to actually interview Tim Warren about anything, it’s best to think about making a film documentary about him. He’s tough to pin down. Oh, and go get ALL the Back from the Grave comps! ‘Nuff said.
New Bomb Turks – Sucker Punch Destroy-Oh-Boy! Crypt Records 1993
PKM: Is there a case to be made for Cleveland/Columbus as an important influence on many of the bands in this book, as well as Memphis, Detroit, SF, and NYC?
Eric: Yeah, for sure. Eeeek, I’ve been pushing this homer-ism for so long, I’m running out of new ways to push it. But basically, if you believe the proto-punk maxim that the Electric Eels recorded “the first punk single” (even if it wasn’t released until 1978); and that Rocket from the Tombs were concurrent with the Ramones; the Dead Boys were the wildest of the original CBGB scene; Lux & Ivy came from northeast Ohio; the Pagans are essentially the template for latter ’90s trash punk; the whole DEVO/Akron scene; the Velvet Underground played Cleveland more than any other town other than NYC and Boston; Cleveland was the first town Elvis played north of the Mason-Dixon line; Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball; this shit goes way back.
I’d say Columbus was a bubbling influence later on, as in the lo-fi/home taping scene we were a part of in the very early ’90s; Guided By Voices kind of being influenced to play more by their frequent packed appearances in Columbus; compared to Cleveland, more national acts came through town as the ’90s wore on; and because of us, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apts., and Gaunt, we all brought in most of the trash rock “biggies” of the time. Shit, we even got the Devil Dogs to come to mid-Ohio!!
PKM: Has writing this book changed your perspective on the history of the garage punk scene during this time period? Or in general?
Eric: Well, I hope that I laid out early on in the tome that this whole “thing” I was going over was from my admittedly Midwest wise-ass-centric perspective. And basically use my considerable time in the trenches to sort of frame the situations of similarly trashy, guitar-based, garage bands that, in a lot of people’s minds, were kind of exploding around, mainly, 1991-96 I do not claim that this is some definitive history. And in fact, even the iffy subtitle genre name of “gunk punk” was whipped up editorially to help coalesce the book’s theme under, well, something. Edison thought if we just said “punk” the layman might assume it’s another Pistols and liberty spikes run-through. I just like alliteration. So even though I interviewed over 125 people for the book, and mentioned many more bands, of course once it came out, a few folks emailed with “You missed this one single man, it’s INSANE!” And they’re usually right. So there’s always more out there somewhere, as the Back from the Graves and Nortons of the world constantly prove. I just hoped to get some fun stories and realities down for posterity. And, to utilize a rare pat on the back, I will put my 1990s garage punk collection up against anyone’s. Though at this point, I’m hiring movers. My stage-cracked ankles ain’t moving all that shit anymore.
Also, I realized this while writing the book, but has become more evident since, I guess:
First, I honestly believe that era was the last blast of guitar bands being the main pop culture sound, plus pre-internet, basically (I know, I’m not the first to utter this notion). So I think it was important to get down some of the info and stories of this fringe end of that rock & roll era.
Secondly though, if these fringe bands all constitute a “genre” or “scene,” there was never one huge act that broke out with big hits and became a kind of household name, which for a capitalist society — and even concerning so-called “underground” or “indie” music — seems to need that kind of monetary / star validation to get noted in future history books.
New Bomb Turks Scared Straight – Professional Againster Scared Straight, Epitaph 1996
PKM: As someone who was a 90s teen and didn’t relate to much of the 90s punk from bands like NOFX and The Offspring, would it be fair to say that Brett Gurewitz’s interest in garage did more harm than good for you guys (New Bomb Turks, The Humpers, Red Aunts, Zeke) since the punks on Epitaph may have repelled listeners who might’ve otherwise been into these bands? Or was your time with Epitaph just the right move at the time?
Eric: Well, as someone who was a ’90s 20-something, the Epitaph thing was a beaten-horse topic. But basically, on a personal level, Gurewitz was a little older, did genuinely enjoy old garage rock, if leaning towards some of the dress-up garage rock of the mid-80s. But in early meetings with him, he really did seem to want to try to bring the bubbling-under garage punk scene into some mainstream light, even if maybe that was not his first love. But his choices were good, and helped convince us to sign on, as yeah, New Bomb Turks liked about one band on Epitaph before that — Clawhammer. Oh, and that awesome L7 EP. But once they’d signed The Humpers, Red Aunts, Zeke, Gas Huffer, and especially the fucking CRAMPS, I mean, yeah, I’ll be glad to go on that label. And you’re going to pay me upfront?! Ok. The “Roadkill” campaign they tried to do — gathering up all those acts for a comp, and some touring together, co-op ads, etc. — was a nice try, but yes, all those bands had a few albums out already, and it might’ve looked to some like Epitaph was filching other labels acts. They should have tried to find a brand new garage band to sign (and we suggested a bunch, to no avail), but whatever.
That’s where they were at, as far as the size of the label at the time, which mind you still wasn’t like Sony or Warner Bros. or something. So to us they were the right size — a little bigger than an indie, better distribution, and afforded us freedom to record and package our albums as we wanted, and tour as much or little as we wanted. And from what I’ve heard from the other garage bands they signed, they all said about the same thing. Epitaph basically did what they said they’d do. And it was funny because this burgeoning garage punk thing or whatever wasn’t really happening in southern California at the time — which Gurewitz understood and said he wanted to try to introduce it to So-Cal.
“That was our one and only Aussie tour — 12 shows in 18 days, I believe — and it was amazing! Australia — it’s like Florida with nice people!”
Again, we were somewhat seasoned at that point, and knew all these underbelly “controversies” would pass in six months, forget 20 years. In hindsight, all the bands got paid what they were told, got better distribution, and in general Epitaph did what they said they’d do. If there were some who might’ve liked The Humpers or us, and decided not to listen anymore because of the label logo on the back of the record, that seems a little silly in retrospect, no? I mean, music listeners under the age of 30 today don’t even know what “record labels” are anymore. But yeah, I get what the mood was, what people might’ve “thought” back then. But it made sense to us, and was a very fair contract. Plus, being on Epitaph got me backstage at a Cramps show where I hung with Lux and Ivy for a spell; and at a Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros show, and I got to watch my brother — who introduced me to cool sounds — talk politics with Joe Strummer. That alone was kind of worth it. Though admittedly, I probably could’ve finagled some backstage action on my own…
PKM: While we’re on the subject of Epitaph, can you tell me a little about making At Rope’s End? It feels like a more experimental album and I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned as much as Destroy-Oh-Boy! and Scared Straight.
New Bomb Turks – Defiled At Rope’s End, Epitaph 1998
Eric: We usually say that’s probably our third favorite NBT album. We were at that point of wanting to try to slip in some more instrumentation, back-up singing, try to record at a few different places. I mean, the Saints had horns by their second album, so we needed to get a move on!! We’d become friends with The Hellacopters, and they’d introduced us to the studio they recorded in, in Stockholm. We made plans to tour there for the first time, so made recording plans too. I had an amazing 30th birthday while there, The Hellacopters drummer threw a party for me at a local bar, with his side band playing. Met a lovely Swedish hand model that night, but I will leave that story right there to imply way more salaciousness than might’ve occurred.
Relationships within the band concerning our original drummer were getting weird, hence the album name I guess; and then we ended up mixing and remixing in two different places, and it became a bit burdensome. While this begins to sound like some Rolling Stones, fuck around, months in the making mess, it really wasn’t. It just took a little longer than usual for us. But that was the idea, and in the end, I think we were all pretty happy with how it came out, without going into the aforementioned inter-band mixed emotions and the ‘we coulda shoulda’ with this song or that…. It actually really felt good to be at this place where we just tried whatever we wanted and felt like the fans we had would give it a shot too. We’re big Rolling Stones fans, but not everyone can spend six months at a studio in a castle outside of Paris just jamming. So At Rope’s End was out lowbrow, canned beer attempt at such.
New Bomb Turks – Bolan’s Crash At Rope’s End, Epitaph 1998
PKM: Okay, so my good pal Benny (Roadkill Radio, 50thirdand3rd) told me that when he saw New Bomb Turks in Melbourne at ‘The Tote’ back in ’98, that you grabbed his beanie off his head and shoved it down your pants and handed it back to which he politely declined. Is any of this tale ringing any bells for you? If so, is that beanie still around?
Eric: There are at least 57 people with that same story, different town. They were all politely offered their hats back; I’m gonna say 90% took me up on the offer. I am eternally grateful that my sixth sense for who would put up with such shenanigans served me well; and am equally grateful to those 57 people for not punching me in the fucking face. And anyway, what the fuck are you wearing a beanie for?!
That was our one and only Aussie tour — 12 shows in 18 days, I believe — and it was amazing! Australia — it’s like Florida with nice people!
PKM: Can you tell me a little about your European tour this past summer? Who did you play with?
Eric: Kind of interesting. Each year anywhere between like 1 to 3 shows might pop up that we do, like Euro fests, some party, a Columbus show, or whatever. But this was 7 shows in 8 days — the closest thing we’ve done to a “tour” since our last official “breaking up” tour at the end of 2002. So it was a little runaround, but really fun. Played a boat on the Seine in Paris (with a very cool like fast Devo-ish opening band who I am forgetting their name…), and the next day a boat on the Rhone in Lyon. Played with the Fleshtones, Nashville Pussy, and the Hellacopters at the always great Sjock Festival in Belgium. We got there kinda early in the afternoon to check out some bands, and the Fleshtones impressed us still with their partying ability, of course. They were sipping and joking at like 2 in the afternoon, played a great show at 4 (and I see them frequently in NYC, but this show was an extra notch!), and they were still hanging around in the back stage-ish area at like 1 am when the bands were all done. Great guys! Really nice to see our ol’ Hellacopters and Nashville Pussy pals again, who played great sets. Plus, Hellacopters had Sammy Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks on bass, which was pretty exciting, as we’re all Hanoi fans. Super nice guy, told some fun old stories about Hanoi and the New York Dolls and whatnot while we all hung out all night after the fest. And that was the first show of the tour!
Played a hilarious Oi fest in the dark heart of East Germany somewhere, where we finally got to see and hang a little with the great Die Lokalmatadore! Played with The Gories and a bunch of other good trash rock bands at this fest in Haarlem, Netherlands called Kilko fest. I twisted my ankle kinda bad whilst jumping in the crowd. Luckily it was the second last show, and the next day’s show this INSANE festival in Holland called Zwarte Cross that featured huge mechanical walking machines or something, and a ton of silly stages with a different theme for each, like a “gospel” theme for one that was designed like a church and was vaguely racist but charming in that Europeans have no clue about religion kind of way. And the second part of that statement I mean in a good way. The people who ran the fest were all amazingly nice, and really put on a huge, bizarre party. There is no way to describe how weird that fest was; and the only drawback is that we just didn’t have a lot of time to send there. My ankle held it together enough, and I thought we played great, considering we were the last band on the loooooong day of that weekend festival — so many drunk and tired people wobbling around this big structure that was supposed to look like a barn. But we got them going, and it wrapped up the tour in a appropriately strange and fun way. Got to see a lot of old friends, and had some time to have a roadside picnic in the middle of the French Alps somewhere. So yeah, good fucking time. But it took me about a week to totally recover, so was definitely a kind of “I’m getting a little older here” feeling. Ha.
PKM: Can you tell me a little about New Bomb Turks’ at Studio A Rama 2017 Celebration for WRUW, a couple months ago?
Eric: Back in the early Spring one day, I was pondering what I might wanna do for my upcoming 50th birthday party. And right then I got this email asking if the NBTs would like to play the WRUW yearly fest, Studio-a-Rama, that fall. It was the 50th anniversary of the fest! So I took that as a sign we definitely should play it. Also, the one time we did, in like 1994, we played with the Upper Crust, an it was fucking great; and I went to a few of those fests growing up in Cleveland and always had a good time. Jim and Matt also grew up around Cleveland, so it just seemed like a fun thing to do. Also hadn’t played Cleveland — where a lot of friends and family still live — in a few years. Some good bands on the bill (This Moment in Black History reunion, Sweet Spirit). Saw good friends. All the people at WRUW were super nice and accommodating. We have always been big college radio fans, Cleveland is a great college radio hub. So it was nice to throw some love back at ’em. Well I mean, they paid us, so love all around! My sister, after all these years, completely surprised me to an almost pass-out point when she snuck up onstage, grabbed a tambourine, and danced along to a song!
New Bomb Turks – Studio A Rama 2017 Featuring Eric’s sister, Lisa Davidson, on tambourine (WRUW-FM, YouTube Published on Oct 18, 2017)
PKM: How was the Sally•Can’t•Dance Halloween Tribute to The Cramps at Bowery Electric? I caught a clip of you on Facebook perfoming “Psychotic Reaction” with Bob Bert, Mick Collins, Peter Zaremba, and Palmyra Delran.
Eric: Another long great night of a bunch of mostly drunk, Cramps-imbued yalpers getting up there and doing a bunch of Cramps classics. I did “Psychotic Reaction,” which the Cramps didn’t write, but you know, the Cramps did a lot of covers. Plus, little record geek fact — the Count Five’s bassist was from my hometown of Parma, Ohio, and Lux & Ivy were from Cleveland — so, the circle remains unbroken and drunken. Maybe missed Kid Congo being up there playing too, but he had a rocking commitment in Detroit that eve. So much thanks and respect for Bob Bert, Mick Collins, and Palmyra Delran for pulling it off again! And getting to screech along with those folks while Peter Zaremba came up and blew harmonica during “Psychotic Reaction” was extra boss!!
PKM: It’s been a bittersweet time for this music with the recent passing of Mike Hudson and now Fred Cole, is there anything you’d like to mention about them?
Eric: Shit, I mean so many good and worthy tributes to them all over, I don’t know what I can add. I did write a bit about Fred on my TUMBLR blog, We Never Learn. I first saw Mike at a Pagans reunion in Cleveland way back, like maybe the first summer I started seeing shows. I got to get to know him a little a few years ago, via the usual digital handshakes; and was really happy to be on a “Cleveland punk writers” panel/reading at Powerhouse Arena in DUMBO back in 2011. Kinda fell out of touch with him, though his life took him on, well, excursions. You should definitely check out his book, Diary of a Punk! Sure, it’s full of myths and 1/4-truths and truths, but that’s why we have guys like him, and he remains one of my absolute favorite punk voices. Fred Cole hovers even farther up in some timeless pantheon of hard-scrabble ether. Creating so much music for so long, most of it awesome and unbelievably idiosyncratic and identifiable from the first line. Only met and chatted with him a few times over the years, but always a really super nice and inspiring guy. He and his wife Toody were like one, ripped-leather bound creature just roaming lands most would have to squint to see. Anyway, pick up any Dead Moon or Pagans record, they’re all cool!
PKM: In light of your recent shows with newer bands like Shannon and The Clams, current indie labels like Slovenly, Dirty Water Records, and Girlsville, where do you see the current direction of trash-punk/garage-punk heading?
Eric: Well, it has headed in recent years, if you know what I mean. I feel like there are a few labels that have sort of beaten the echo-guitar / girl group melodies / caveman drum thing into the ground a little. But as always, some dust will settle, and some band will come around who just effortlessly do all that much better than you could’ve expected. I won’t say I am totally on top of every new trash band that slithers out, but The Monsieurs (Brookline, MA), Kuken (Germany), Vanity (Brooklyn), The Cowboys (Indiana), COZY (Minneapolis), and Archie & the Bunkers (Cleveland) are just some of the fun newer trashy riff acts I dig.
PKM: I read in an interview you gave last year to Adam Holtzapfel (From Dusk Till Con) that you and a friend were planning a small series of music documentaries. Are you moving forward with the music documentary series? That sounds like it would really cool, btw!
Eric: The bofo Mike Hunchback — Brooklyn-based punk and B-movie afficiando extrordinare — has been doing intermittent flick showings around town for a few years. We showed the Teengenerate doc, Get Action, at Anthology Film Archives a couple years ago, and hoped to try to do a series, but it didn’t really pan out. It might still, so keep your peepers peeled! Mike is always busy with that stuff.
PKM: Do you have anything coming up you’d like us to know about?
Eric: New Bomb Turks are playing Fuzz Fest in Spain in April, 2018; I have been writing more posts at my We Never Learn blog, so try to check it out; and I have some notions of making some new kinda racket soon, but we’ll see. Also, trying to spearhead some reissues, but I’m too broke to fund that shit, so the idea emails are a-flyin’…! Thanks, and stay salacious!!