Cleveland’s Scat Records, brainchild of Robert Griffin, set a high bar for indie labels in the Midwest, especially after he introduced Guided By Voices to the world in the 1990s. Even before that, Griffin’s 1980s’ bands, the Dark, Prisonshake and Spike in Vain, had influenced other musicians on the Cleveland scene. Cleveland native Eric Davidson was one of those musicians influenced by Scat Records and Spike in Vain, whose debut album is being reissued by the newly recharged label. He revisits that time and place in this conversation with Robert Griffin for PKM.

Full disclosure: Robert Griffin was the manager of a suburban Cleveland coffee shop where I worked in my teens. I’d been a big fan of his local band, Prisonshake. Though only a few years older than me, he may as well have been Seymour Stein for all his knowledge and experience. And he put all of that into Scat Records, his indie label that gained 1990s notoriety for being the imprint that brought Guided By Voices to the world outside of Ohio. Griffin eventually moved to St. Louis, and Scat Records petered out in the mid-2000s. But after some personal reclamation, the label is back with plans for some GBV reissues and more, starting with long-awaited reissues of Griffin’s intense teenage band, Spike in Vain. Their amazing 1984 debut, Disease is Relative, slow burned into one of the most influential, sought-after ‘80s post-core cult artifacts. And even before that band, Griffin was already making noise in Cleveland dives…

 PKM: While early hardcore history is peppered with very young players, you started in The Dark when you were like 13, right? How did you even hear of punk in an early ‘80s Cleveland milieu that was still fairly closed off radio and live venue-wise to punk?

Robert Griffin: That’s right. The Dark started in 1979 as The Decapitators. Same guys, just younger, and we did a lot more covers. I was 13, Tom 15, Scott and Dave were 11. We played one show in a church basement in the spring of 1980. Then we reformed the next year playing just originals and did our first show November 1, 1981. It was a benefit for the Cleveland Confidential compilation LP… That happened because Tom approached Mike Hudson (the Pagans) about The Dark getting on the compilation and offered a little money to help with the pressing. Mike was blown away by our set and told us he wanted to be our manager afterwards. We couldn’t fucking believe our luck.

There was actually more media coverage of the punk phenomenon early on than a lot of people assume. I first heard about it from a report on the national news, very sensationalistic, a “Can you believe what these crazy English kids are into these days?” kind of approach. And I was a regular Creem reader, so I knew this stuff existed, I just hadn’t heard any yet. Remember too, you could buy Ramones and Patti Smith LPs from the Columbia House record club. I almost did that, but when you’re young with little money you’re very judicious with your record buying.





For a brief time in early 1978, radio station M105 [WWWM-FM] tested the waters a little bit. They’d play a couple punk songs and asked people to call in with their opinion. So the first thing I heard was the Dead Boys version of “Hey Little Girl” on M105. I called in and told them I thought it was great, but they said I’d been the only one who liked it so far that night.

Probably half a year later I found punk 45s at the mall record store I started going to after we moved to Shaker. I was really struck by the records’ artwork and that so many of them were on colored vinyl. So the first punk record I bought was X-Ray Spex’s “Day the World Turned Day-Glo” single, mostly because of the cover and day-glo orange vinyl. The next one was Eater’s live EP, Get Yer Yo Yo’s Out, on white vinyl. I played them to death, got the Sex Pistols album, and started to buy more, but it was always guesswork. Fortunately, it nearly always worked out. I was still a long-haired ‘70s kid who was mostly into Zeppelin and Aerosmith, but I liked this new stuff.

Then I hit the jackpot. My new stepbrothers had to go to summer school, and one day they brought home this kid Andy Ferstman, who was flabbergasted that I liked punk rock at all and immediately started bringing over records to catch me up. This would’ve been the summer of ‘79. I remember him calling me up later that night and playing the Pagans’ “What’s This Shit Called Love?” over the phone, which was a real mind-blower. He had close to 100 of these crazy new 45s and a bunch of LPs, and also turned me on to more basic shit like the Dolls, Ramones, and Runaways. Then Andy introduced me to Tom Dark, and he had even more obscure records… Tom also turned me on to the Stooges and the Residents, and introduced me to all the cool local music – Pere Ubu, Eels, Mirrors, Impalers, etc. Not long afterwards I cut off my hair and traded in my entire LP collection so that I could catch up and get some of these amazing records before they disappeared.


So the first thing I heard was the Dead Boys version of “Hey Little Girl” on M105. I called in and told them I thought it was great, but they said I’d been the only one who liked it so far that night.


PKM: Being so young, were there problems just landing gigs? Did you have an older friend that kind of mentored you in the ways of scamming shows?

Robert Griffin: In the beginning there was just Mike Hudson booking shows for us, but there wasn’t much to be had at that point… It was a weird time when the class of ‘77-’78 had dissipated, but the hardcore scene hadn’t emerged yet locally. But it did start to happen in Akron and Kent, and Mike got us shows at Spin Dizzy Records in Kent and at The Bank in Akron with a bunch of those bands in early ‘82. Meanwhile the other guys in the Dark started getting into the Boston and DC scenes and wanted to play all our songs faster. I was annoyed, and Mike Hudson lost enthusiasm. He and a lot of that generation just didn’t get the thrash.

“Fire in the Church”-The Dark:





PKM: Any scenarios where you weren’t allowed to come into the club because you were underage?

Robert Griffin: You’d think so, right? Mike was good at that. He’d time our entry and then make us stay in the dressing room so none of the staff would see how young we were. Then we’d play and get out before there was trouble. And then later on most shows were all ages so it wasn’t an issue… As far as just going to shows, not many hardcore shows happened at bars yet, and not many bands toured much. I did have a decent fake ID, though, but the only time I remember really needing it was to see X at Pirate’s Cove in 1981, and it worked like a charm.

PKM: I remember the mix tapes you made for me of the now mythical Cleveland ‘70s scene (Rocket from the Tombs, Electric Eels, Pagans, etc.).

Robert Griffin: Tom schooled me in all that. The very first song the Dark ever played was the Electric Eels’ “Agitated.” In those early stages we also played some other Eels songs, some Cramps, most of the Dead Boys first album, some Pagans tunes. We would’ve tried Ubu, but that was way beyond us. We knew about Rocket from the Tombs, but actually getting a hold of any of their music was pretty tough – you had to know someone, and there weren’t many someones.

“Agitated”-Electric Eels:





PKM: You must have some good Mike Hudson stories.

Robert Griffin: I’ve got a few, but the best one is when Mike and Randy Primos were driving the Dark to a show in Kent. It was some little beat-up car with no back seat. We sat on milk crates instead and could see the pavement through holes in the floor. So that freaked us out for starters, we’re thinking we’re going to die in this car. Then they get out a piece of mirror tile and start doing lines of crank while flying down the freeway. Scott and Dave were just 13 and totally freaking out. Of course we got lost somewhere in Stow, Ohio, and got pulled over by the cops. So we’re like, ‘OK, this is it, end of the night.’ Mike’s license had been revoked, and he’s not holding back any attitude with the cop. “Where are you taking these kids?” the cop asks. Mike, half-drunk and feeling the speed says, “They’re a punk rock band, OK? I’m their manager, and they’ve got a gig to play. We’re fucking late. Can we move this along?” Maybe not the exact words but it was that kind of tone. The kids are freaking out, whispering, ‘we’re all going to jail!’ To our complete amazement, the cop lets us go, and just chides Mike that he needs to fix his driver’s side headlamp. So yeah, the little bit of rolling we did with the old school crew was quite the eye-opener. It definitely accelerated my “maturation.”

PKM: Did you feel that Cleveland was becoming more amenable to local, original bands by then? A lot of the first-gen punk guys, Cheetah Chrome, Mike Hudson, etc., would complain how Cle bars were all cover bands or DJs back in the day.

Robert Griffin: It may have been marginally better than what they experienced, in that there was usually a place or two that booked punk shows regularly. By 1983, there started to be fairly regular places to play, but there were just two – the Lakefront and the Pop Shop. More mainstream bands like Exotic Birds (featuring Trent Reznor) and the Adults had the Phantasy locked down. So yeah, there were more places to play if you were a more accessible new wave kind of act. We had our own little ghetto and didn’t really try to play places normal people went, we were happy with what we had. The bigger clubs were still mostly cover bands and tribute bands. About the only group with some original music that had a following in the early ‘80s that I recall was the reggae band I-tal.

Exotic Birds featured on a Cleveland TV feature about the local music scene: 





PKM: I saw the Clash in Cleveland on their last tour in 1983, with that last lineup, and when the opener had to cancel, they asked for a local reggae band, and put I-tal on the bill. I thought that was pretty cool. So anyway, the general tale of how Spike in Vain started.

Robert Griffin: Andrew and Chris Marec, Bruce Allen, and original drummer Adam Araca had a loose, jammy version of the band called The ___?___’s (pronounced The Blanks) for about a year before I joined. Andrew and I had a couple classes together at Shaker High. I told him about a show the Dark was doing at the Pop Shop, and he and their whole circle came down to check it out. They weren’t exactly impressed by the Dark, but they figured if a band as shitty as us could get a show, maybe they could too, and they started to get a bit more serious about their music. By the time fall rolled around, Adam left the group, Bruce moved to the drums, and I joined. At first just on bass, but very quickly our “Everybody can play anything” ethos developed. We played our first show in the fall of ‘82 as God on Drugs on a big bill headlined by Negative Approach; then Chris changed the name to Spike in Vain shortly afterwards.

“God on Drugs”-Spike in Vain, live:





PKM: So with some chiming, sort of pre-Goth guitar harmonics and weird beats, Spike in Vain were already gravitating towards a knowing post-core progression, when most punk fans were only just getting familiar with hardcore. What facilitated your fairly quick move away from fast hardcore, given that speed/scream would quickly become a dogmatic template in that scene?

Robert Griffin: Maybe that I’d already been listening to punk and other outsider music for longer than some of our contemporaries? And in a band with guys who weren’t that into hardcore. I was kind of pushed into playing hardcore by the other guys in the Dark. I liked those bands, too, but didn’t want to play that style in particular, I felt like we already had our own thing going. [With The Dark] I conceived of the music being more of a darker post-punk thing. That, and all original material. Early on, we’d tune down to C# or D, and I did my best to avoid barre chords and employed more single notes and harmonics. But by late 1982, early ’83, nearly all the Dark’s songs had gradually become blazingly fast. That overlapped with joining Spike in Vain, so I could tolerate playing more basic thrash in the Dark if I could get my freak on with Spike in Vain.

Spike in Vain at Popshop

Looking back now, though, I see that The Dark was a weirder band than I thought at the time. Definitely more trad HC than Spike in Vain, but also plenty of unorthodoxy compared to other bands of the time. Like, what HC band covers Kraftwerk in 1983? And there were some other things we did then that today strike me as proto-black metal. Creepy long album intro? Check. Metallic song full of tritones about burning churches? Check. We were onto something there. The other guys in Spike in Vain liked some HC bands, but they didn’t aspire to play the genre specifically and didn’t consider themselves punks at all. All of us had a contrarian nature and always wanted to avoid what other bands around us were doing.

PKM: Going to Cleveland shows in my teens, I later felt, once I got to tour around the country more, that the Rust Belt in general had very diverse and weirdly splintering off sounds right from the get-go, and that a “scene” per se was hard to define, musically. Band line-ups, even at those classic ‘80s “Sunday afternoon all-ages punk shows,” were pretty diverse.

Robert Griffin: Agreed. I’d say that was true in the Northwest too, especially pre-grunge. Truth be told, that early northeast Ohio HC scene was pretty monochromatic. Yeah, there were a couple non-standard bands allowed in like us, Outerwear, and PPG, but we were all still pretty extreme. It’s not like there were psych or garage bands on any of those bills.

PKM: Well, I started seeing clubs shows around mid-84…

Robert Griffin: Yeah, beginning around ’85, the bands really started branching out and there were newer ones with no ties to the HC scene at all… On the other hand, simultaneously the second wave Cleveland HC scene did strike me as super insular. Confront, Integrity, all those bands seemed to be a lot more about having their own scene and living up to whatever ideals of punk rock they had in their heads. It’s funny, when the HC scene was starting, a lot of people looked at the Cle class of ‘77 and dismissed them as washed-up druggies with nothing left to offer. Then when our first-wave HC scene started to diversify, that second wave of HC bands said the same things about all of us. Some truth to some of it of course, but that cyclical time thing cracks me up. Was there a third wave of HC bands after that, that said the same things about the second wave?

“Strangeland County”-Spike in Vain:




PKM: Ha, that might lead to straight edge or emo, and who wants to talk about that? I always recall when I interviewed you for my book [We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001] you said a general sense among most Cle underground bands as far as hyping themselves, or sort of focusing on a “career” or whatever, was that we’re from Cleveland, so chances are no one is going to give a fuck, so why even try. Can you elaborate on that observation, including any examples of older musicians you might have known who were an example of failed attempts to “make it?”

Robert Griffin: [As far as locals who tried to “make it,”] I guess the only real example would be the Dead Boys because they left town to pursue the music biz. But they actually got a record deal, made a killer album… so most thought, yeah, of course they moved to New York. They wouldn’t get anything done here. Why the fuck not? They didn’t betray themselves in the process, though they certainly amped everything up in a way that betrayed their more glam past. If there was any resentment for moves like that, it was more jealousy. Why can’t I get the fuck out of here, too? The Dead Boys may have failed commercially, but to all of us they seemed like a raging success, the best any of us could hope for. But none of us were lining up to move to New York, either.

I think a lot of the older crews, the previous two waves of bands, their fatalism and bitterness derived from a near complete lack of interest from the local media… There was a feeling that the DJs and local writers just kind of wished it would all go away. So if you have nowhere to start from, no industry base, and you and all your friends are broke, exactly how the fuck are you going to sell all those records you pressed up? It hasn’t worked for anyone before, except Pere Ubu, ‘cause they’re Pere Ubu, gods among mortals. You ain’t no Pere Ubu.

“Heart of Darkness”-Pere Ubu, live:




I can’t think of anyone we thought was silly for really trying to make it, because so few did try. But we did have plenty of venom for local bands who obviously had careers in mind… I guess anyone who tried too hard for an audience was viewed with contempt, or at least suspicion, but we’re talking nowhere bands for the most part. We were right that they sucked, even the internet doesn’t remember most of them now. If Trent Reznor hadn’t been in the Exotic Birds, absolutely nobody would know them today. I die a little inside to think that someone is listening to their music right at this moment and enjoying it.





So yeah, there was an assumption that if you did anything too crowd-pleasing, you couldn’t possibly be real about your music. If you took too much care with your appearance, the same… Generally speaking, I still get a little suspicious when a band is clearly trying to entertain. So like, fuck the Flaming Lips, ok?

PKM: Though you did don some wild stage get-ups in Spike in Vain.

Robert Griffin: That was so fun. I was so thoughtlessly brave. It was really freeing to be as ridiculous as I wanted. The other guys gave me side-eye at first, but then were unfazed. I wish I had more pictures of the crazier ones, especially the cheesecloth gown. Our manager during our last year and change, Hazel Reid, was a seamstress, and thought my stagewear was awesome and really encouraged it. So she made me this ridiculous gown made of 2-5 layers of cheesecloth, basically see-through, with sleeves that hung to the floor, and sort of I Dream of Jeannie pants with the front of the gown being short to reveal them, and with a long train in back. There was a little codpiece thingy to keep it legal, but it wasn’t much of a pouch so I had to be careful with my junk! I wore that at least a half dozen times before it stank so bad I had to toss it. It couldn’t be washed.

Otherwise, it was just kind of glammy girl clothes, crazy hair, makeup sometimes, but almost always at least a skirt, and often barefoot, as was Chris nearly every time we played… That was the beginning of me feeling like there wasn’t enough sex in punk rock, and I was going to put it in peoples’ faces. It confused the hell out of nearly everyone, and way more girls started coming to our shows. Andrew got in on it a bit too. He began to wear a hat and suit as a matter of course. Of course, there were also times I didn’t feel like making an effort and just wore whatever I had on that day.

Spike in Vain at JBs

PKM: I read a funny story on ClePunk.com that Spike in Vain members sold charity candy bars at a JB’s show.

Robert Griffin: Yup. I had to sell candy for a school-sponsored exchange program with our sister school in Goslar, Germany. I spent a month there in the summer of ’82 and got into some of the NDW stuff going on at the time. Anyway, I asked the teacher about how the finances worked with the candy company, it seemed like a good deal, and my stepdad lent me the money to buy the minimum quantity. It was like $200 worth of candy bars. So we sold them at shows, sold them at school, roped a couple other kids into doing it too. Between that and a little gig money, we were able to pay half the production costs for the first album, and Scott Lasch covered the rest.

PKM: Tell me about The Island, where Spike in Vain recorded that first album, Disease Is Relative.

Robert Griffin: Engineer Scott Godwin’s house was in a heavily wooded, sparsely populated area (the suburb of North Royalton) a few miles off the interstate. He was a really D&D kind of dude, had ceremonial daggers and witchy mementos all over the basement. The studio was in there, and we’d go in through the back stairwell. I never saw the upstairs. He was very quiet, but also a good engineer. He said little unless asked, but when we did ask, we usually took his observations to heart. Scott Lasch kept us on task during mixdown and insisted on remixes of a few songs and generally overrode our tendency to be fine with whatever. I do think Godwin sensed this was a more serious effort, and he rose to the occasion. He delivered a very honest, accurate recording… Of course, it was super cheap, $15 an hour, and he had tons of odd stuff. Tubular bells, organ, piano, endless percussion, a nice drum kit… The whole process was pretty chill and efficient. We were still awfully green to recording, so it was a little awkward, but we didn’t feel too pressured either. We only needed an extra take or two on a few songs, kept a lot of the live vocals, and just had a few overdubs. We were definitely having an “on” day when we recorded the basic tracks.


That was the beginning of me feeling like there wasn’t enough sex in punk rock, and I was going to put it in peoples’ faces. It confused the hell out of nearly everyone, and way more girls started coming to our shows.


PKM: Any idea how many copies of Disease were originally pressed? You remained deep into the record collecting world, so you must’ve noticed how that album became fairly sought after.

Robert Griffin: 1000. I remember Scott Lasch [who released the record] bumming out when one or two hundred got warped en route to a distributor, so there are eight or nine hundred originals out there. When I learned Scott still had some copies in the early aughts, I sold the last hundred or two through the label site. I’ve noticed the resale prices climbing over time, sure. I’m just glad people eventually got it and seem to really connect with it.

PKM: Can I assume each member had similar Reagan-era nuclear war fears?

Robert Griffin: Not fears, hopes. Not that we wanted to die like that, but we figured most of humanity deserved it. We assumed mankind would either exterminate itself or Mother Nature would help it along. And we were OK with that, totally on board with a dystopian apocalypse. Entropy and collapse were inevitable, laws of physics. Of course, we still hated Reagan’s guts, but we were pretty fatalistic about it.

PKM: There’s that umbrella assumption of Cle bands from mid-70s to ‘80s, that it was all informed by the crumbling end of the industrial era, featuring a mythologized influence of sputtering factories and the burning river on the bands’ sounds. Prop up or clean up that myth as you want.

Robert Griffin: It’s definitely overapplied, but true enough in our case. It’s something we actually talked about, usually in the context of Ubu. We admired how they just sounded like the city, especially that synth break on “Street Waves.” We talked about how it could be possible to pull a similar trick, but without trying to hijack their sound. How do you communicate emptiness and terminally gray skies? The wind howling through an empty downtown? We went on many an excursion through abandoned industrial sites and found much beauty, entertainment, and inspiration doing so. Hanging out at different cemeteries was another favorite pastime.

PKM: Got a good story about opening for a famed touring band?

Robert Griffin: We did open for the Dead Kennedys there in the summer of ‘84. We had a really bad attitude about it, but we did the show in the end because Jello asked us to play, rather than whoever the promoter was. We had decided to focus entirely on material that the audience wouldn’t like – all our slowest songs, some covers, and rootsy/bluesy things. I wore a tie-dye gray skirt and nothing else. As the acid really started kicking in, I kept teasing the audience, threatening to play something really fast, then we’d lurch into a song that was even slower than the previous one. So that was pretty damn fun. DKs shows were always stupid, though. They attracted people who’d never dared go to a punk show before, and who then spent a lot of effort trying to emulate how they thought they were supposed to look and act.


The Dead Boys may have failed commercially, but to all of us they seemed like a raging success, the best any of us could hope for. But none of us were lining up to move to New York, either.


PKM: Did you ever play NYC?

Robert Griffin: We did not. The closest was some all-ages punk venue just over the state line in Connecticut. I don’t remember the name of the place, but it was around for a while and pretty well-known at the time. We played with The Offenders there. We played in New Haven on that trip also.

PKM: So tell me about going into the second album, Death Drives a Cadillac. Where was the band at that point?

Robert Griffin: A lot had happened. Bruce played his last show with us in April of ‘84 at Oberlin College, then Scott Pickering joined a few months later. We’d played a bit around the state, but hadn’t yet ventured beyond the borders. I had tried to organize a tour for right after the album release and actually booked several shows – then it turned out we couldn’t secure a van or even a large car. And Bruce was the only one who had a license, and he didn’t want to do it, which was probably wise. I was 17 and starry eyed, I figured we could work it out somehow, but we couldn’t.

Spike in Vain- Oberlin

We had already started recording a second album with Bruce… most of which got released on the Jesus Was Born in a Mobile Home cassette. After Bruce left, we decided it made more sense to just start over. And then Scott Lasch came into a bit more money and was hot for us to record at a bigger studio. That time around, we just recorded our newest material, so [Death Drives] is pretty much a snapshot of what we had come up with over the two- or three-month period previous to the sessions.

PKM: How did the recording differ from Disease? The songwriting adds more recognizable hits of rootsier genres.

Robert Griffin: It was way more involved than the first album, and we spent a lot more time on it. Lasch had a lot of production ideas. One of the best was copping a vocal mic strategy that Tony Visconti used for Bowie’s Low album, but we applied it to guitars instead. The amp was in a really long hallway, with three mics at varying distances from the speaker – each one was further and further away. But the distant mics were set to a noise gate, so you only got signal from all three when the guitar was loudest. The end result was a really big guitar sound whose reverb was completely organic. But there were other things we spent hours on that few people will ever notice, like trying to make open piano strings vibrate by placing a guitar amp underneath and hitting record after the guitar was silenced. They were a few other things like that. We thought the rootsy stuff was pretty radical because punks didn’t like it, but we tired of that too. It wasn’t a phase so much as one of many side roads we went down.

PKM: Were any national labels calling you?

Robert Griffin: Nope. There really weren’t very many yet, and most were very local or regional. After the album was finished… there was no money left to actually press anyone’s records. Pickering’s girlfriend, Hazel, had become our manager, and she shopped the album to Enigma, Homestead, Rabid Cat, and others. Most had some degree of interest, but either had too many commitments already or were broke. I got in touch with Chris Burgess, who had the local Herb Jackson label. That didn’t work out either, but led to me booking some studio time with him for the band to record a single… But the band split before that session, so Scott and I went in and recorded what became the first Prisonshake demo instead. When we got a little more serious about the new band a year later, Chris wound up being our bassist.

PKM: Any story of how Spike in Vain broke up?

Robert Griffin: By the end of 1985, a definite malaise had set in. We’d all been pretty excited about the new album and were initially buoyed by more out of town trips, bigger crowds at home, and generally better gigs. But as fall arrived, it began to really set in that the album was not going to be released anytime soon, and there were no real prospects. It probably hit Andrew the hardest, and he became more and more fatalistic and negative. Meanwhile, I kept having ideas, so my coping strategy was, ok, on to the next thing. Let’s make something, anything. Aim lower. We’re actually getting enough money from gigs to do something more modest. But Andrew was just like, why, what’s the point?

Robert Griffin in Spike in Vain

The last straw for me was Andrew bagging out at the last minute on a show at JBs that he’d agreed to. I was furious and felt like there wasn’t anything I could do to get things moving again. So I quit, and Pickering followed suit. Plus, my rather unhinged girlfriend of the time had somehow managed to get a bit too familiar with the band and wanted in on management, which just made everything uncomfortable and weird for everyone. So I quit her too, though this situation was the least of our problems, and to be fair, I was a handful myself. I moved out of our apartment while she was at work because I was afraid she’d trash all my stuff when I dropped the news… And then I lost my job. And my cat. All in the space of a few days, just before Christmas.

The next year or two was filled with alternating hard work and sloth. I’d take a random job, get in as many hours as I could, save most of the money, then quit and luxuriate in the slack for as long as possible, doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I wrote songs like a demon, and kept a bizarre sleep schedule, sometimes entirely nocturnal. I finished up the Prisonshake demos, and we did one show in early ‘87 as a three-piece with Cat on bass. I decided afterwards we wouldn’t play until we had a record to sell, which happened on Memorial Day a few months later.

“Almost Christmas”-Prisonshake:





PKM: I don’t want to dig too personal, unless you want to, but between the lyrical lines of fear and looming ecological disaster, Spike in Vain’s lyrics and overall deep dark demeanor lead me to believe the Marec brothers had some pretty rough early trauma.

Robert Griffin: I hesitate to say too much about the Marecs part in that, because I don’t know for certain. They didn’t talk about those things much at all, and never related any experiences to me to that were explicitly traumatic. But it was clear to me their dad had issues with the boys, and they with him. They had two sisters who were totally normal and well-adjusted and didn’t seem afraid of their dad at all, but both boys were socially awkward and withdrawn to some extent. They did mention that physical punishment was a thing that used to happen in their house, but that it had stopped once Chris grew tall and snapped on his dad one day.

I also know their family struggled a good bit financially in their earlier years. When they were young they lived in a housing project near Brooklyn (Cleveland suburb), and moved to Shaker during grade school after their dad landed a good job with the teachers’ union. I’m sure the two very awkward, poorly-dressed, Polish boys from the near west side weren’t welcomed with open arms at their new school. Chris told me that when he was younger he felt so different that he started to believe he really was from another planet. No wonder the first music he really engaged with was Bowie. He was extremely introverted, extremely imaginative, and did exhibit some schizophrenic behaviors in high school, though he was also getting into psychedelics then. Chicken/egg scenario. He had some more serious episodes after the band split, but also had some good years in there, and had a very loving and understanding girlfriend for a long time. He eventually wound up back at his parents in his later life… The exact nature of the trauma between them all is unknown, but where there’s smoke…

Prisonshake

For my part, the answer would definitely be yes, there was trauma. The worst was probably when I was seven and my mom and new stepdad had horrible physical fights, seemingly once a week for the first year of the marriage. And the rest of the time they were like teenagers they were so into each other. But the fights were full-on. The phone’s been ripped off the wall, broken pots and glass all over the floors, occasionally one of them had to go to the hospital. I nearly always stepped in to try to break things up, or called the police, sometimes a few times in a night. There’s nothing quite like seeing your Mom with a broken nose and a couple broken ribs, which was finally the last straw for her, four years later.


Chris told me that when he was younger he felt so different that he started to believe he really was from another planet. No wonder the first music he really engaged with was Bowie.


My mom and I (and younger brother, when present – that’s another story) led a pretty nomadic lifestyle… I went to eight different elementary schools in three different states. After the first few schools, I just stopped trying to make friends. Too much trouble, and we’d probably be moving soon anyway.

So yeah, I definitely put a lot of that existential pain into the band’s music, though I didn’t really understand what I was doing at time. It was a catharsis, a cleansing, and I feel like there’s still a reservoir there I can tap into if need be – but it’s neither urgent nor necessary at this point. I had plenty of other crazy experiences growing up, but not trauma-level, just troubling. Or sometimes hilarious, like when my mom got mad at stepdad #2 and shot the TV with her pistol because she was sick of it being on all the time.

PKM: Like most great North Coast bands, Spike in Vain had a dark sense of humor undergirding the dread, and a mistrust of genre fashion. Would you agree that Cle bands tend to start off with a sarcastic, suspicious attitude?

Robert Griffin: I’d say Cleveland people in general were sarcastic and suspicious. We definitely had a lot of laughs, usually over absurd ideas or with a heavy dose of Schadenfreude. I imagine things are different now, but when I was coming up people were awfully judgmental and snarky as a rule. The half-year or so period when shows at The Dale in Akron were the only thing going was the only time when I felt part of a community or had a sense that we were all in it together. Before and after, it was a lot of side-eye and awkwardness with a few exceptions. And I’m not innocent either.

PKM: Can you give me a funny memory of dealing with the Marec brothers, or just a funny show story off the top of your head?

Robert Griffin: They drank instant coffee, black, in quart-sized mugs shaped and painted like a pirate’s head. Pretty much all the time, unless there was beer. Chris would sit in the back yard staring at ants for hours at a time. The basement was a sea of empty beer cans and cigarette butts. When it got really bad, you could wade through them like you do with leaves in the fall.


Once Bee Thousand was in its final form I would’ve told you then that it would still matter years later, it was so clearly a pivotal, historical album.


PKM: Latterday name drops of Spike in Vain fix you as an influence on that kind of ‘90s angular, heavy, Amphetamine Reptile, Steve Albini kind of sound. Did that make sense to you?

Robert Griffin: I guess I can see where that’s coming from. People have also mentioned the later ‘90s screamo scene to me, or mid/later ‘80s DC bands, and Drive Like Jehu comes up. I guess in the end all that says more about the listeners’ background than Spike in Vain. But I do think it’s true enough that we anticipated some things that didn’t become common until after we broke up.

PKM: I believe Scat Records started out as primarily a DIY avenue for your next band, Prisonshake, but soon ventured out with other acts, most notably Guided By Voices. Were you at all surprised when GBV started getting their buzz, and subsequent decades-long survival?

Robert Griffin:  Not at all surprised they got a buzz. I had never worked harder or spent more money promoting a band, and I had been doing Scat for four solid years at that point. Once Bee Thousand was in its final form I would’ve told you then that it would still matter years later, it was so clearly a pivotal, historical album. But I never could have predicted the longevity of the band and their continuing popularity. I can’t think of anything comparable. I know everyone has their limit of how much GBV they can digest, but if you check some of the highlights of the last decade you can hear why they still attract new fans. That amazes me.

PKM: How did you first approach Bob Pollard about doing recs with them?

Robert Griffin: Ron House (Great Plains, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments) told Bob to send me a copy of Propeller to see if I would sell some copies for him. By the second spin, I was in love with the record. I ordered some copies to sell through our distribution arm, along with the earlier albums. After playing Propeller every day for a while, I was so into it I asked Bob for a single. He said they’d broken up, but there was the master tape cassette in my hand a week later. The Grand Hour was released in short order, it did well, and it wasn’t long before we had to repress. By then I was a full-on fan and signed the band to a three-record deal. Alien Lanes was supposed to be a Scat release, but they were hot to move to Matador.

PKM: A funny early GBV story?

Robert Griffin: I don’t have many really, we didn’t spend much time together in person besides on the “Insects of Rock” tour… (Ed.: 1994; GBV, Prisonshake; with Cobra Verde, Nothing Painted Blue, and Bullet for Fidel on some shows.) It probably wouldn’t be funny to them, but we all thought it was pretty hilarious since they were older than us but still learning about being a rock band. When we did that tour in June/July of ’94, it became immediately clear that they had no concept of touring. For instance, after the first show of the tour Bob came up to me and wanted their gig money, all of it. So I had to explain, ‘sorry I can’t do that because I have no way of knowing what your share is. Everybody’s getting a per diem, we’re paying for gas and rental on two vehicles, hotel rooms at every show, etc. You’ll get paid at the end of the tour when we add everything up’. But he was suspicious and didn’t really know if I was making this stuff up. So we had some laughs about that, we’d be driving and Doug (Enkler, Prisonshake singer) would go, “Hey Robert, whaddaya say we pull over at this casino and spend all that sweet GBV money you’re stealing? Double or nothin’.” Many variations on that. Of course, GBV did get paid in the end, more than any of the other bands, which was deserved. But I think Bob was really convinced I was out to cheat him.

“Elijah”-Prisonshake:




“Carnival Game”-Prisonshake:





PKM: I guess I forgot how many out-of-town shows Prisonshake did!

Robert Griffin: Yeah, between ‘91 and ’94, we did four national tours, probably 110-120 shows all told. Plus plenty of random weekend trips before and during that period. Those aren’t lifer stats of course, but it was plenty for me. After 1994, I didn’t have much stomach left for touring or self-promotion. Having witnessed GBV’s success and rise up close, I realized that was something I truly did not want in my own life. The ass-kissing and hangers-on would’ve driven me nuts. So much sycophancy, and industry slime trying to get their claws into the next happening band. I need to trust the people around me and I don’t like too much attention, so their trajectory would not have suited me.

I felt like I had escaped a close call, because we were starting to do really well. Sales of The Roaring Third (1993) were quadruple our previous best showings, not including editions released in Canada and Japan, and we were getting press in all the national mags. If we’d done another similar album after that, with similar promotion, that upward trend would have continued, at least for a while. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to record in a smaller studio and bring more of the experimentation back.

After Doug and I moved to St Louis at the very end of that year, we went underground and didn’t play again until the fall of ‘96, then maybe another eight or nine shows between then and 2009. It’s one thing to not chase success too doggedly, and another to studiously avoid backing into it by accident. I very consciously chose the latter path after the “Insects of Rock” tour.


Having witnessed GBV’s success and rise up close, I realized that was something I truly did not want in my own life. The ass-kissing and hangers-on would’ve driven me nuts.


PKM: Can you explain how Scat kind of petered out?

Robert Griffin: When I started, there were people who predicted the label’s imminent demise and doom. Years later the same people were passing me their demo tapes whenever I walked into a bar. I started to really avoid going to shows once it got silly. There was no shortage of shitty little non-music bars where there was zero possibility of that happening, so I went that route more and more often over time. It’s one part of why I left Cleveland. There were few people left whom I could trust, and I longed to be anonymous.

Then a seemingly endless series of unfortunate events in the financial and technical realms. My wife was in real estate during the financial crisis, enough said there. And I had multiple hard drive failures that resulted in the complete loss of all artwork, templates, and a good chunk of accounting. The worst part was getting a bunch of that fixed and then losing yet another drive. The end result was filing a few years of taxes late, and we ended up with a massive bill that I’m only just now about to have paid off…All that also led to falling behind on royalties with some artists, so I didn’t feel good about doing new releases. The original website got hacked at one point, and I had neither the original files, html software, nor the time to start all over again. And a few years ago, some domain squatter jerk hijacked our registration, so now the website has relocated to realscatrecords.com (https://realscatrecords.com/ )… I still managed to get the reissue of Bill Fox’s Shelter from the Smoke out in 2010, and a vinyl reissue of Bee Thousand and King Shit in 2015. But most of my label work during those years was accounting, catching up on royalties and keeping some titles in print, all of which is invisible to fans.

“Let in the Sun”-Bill Fox:




PKM: What’ve you been doing for a living for the last 15 years?

Robert Griffin: After the housing/financial crisis fucked us, I took a job bartending in early 2009. The money was good enough that I could regularly siphon off tips to help pay back royalties I owed and cover the $500 a month we paid to the IRS. I actually enjoyed the job quite a bit, but it also took a lot out of me physically. Very high-volume place, and I rarely went to sleep before 4 a.m. And I was in charge of the bar program and inventory, so that was an additional time commitment. After a few years of the physical toll, poor sleep, and the drinking, it became clear I was good for pretty much nothing on my days off.  Any time I had to do more than bare minimum label work I had to take a week or two off the job – a few days to recover and reset, and a few days to work.

After (the last Prisonshake album) Dirty Moons came out in 2008, I played with Finn’s Motel for a few more months afterwards, but that just bummed me out. But I was also so pleased and satisfied with Dirty Moons that I felt I didn’t have much more to say when it came to Prisonshake. I made the record I’d been imagining for years and was mostly happy with it… I stopped playing guitar entirely and didn’t pick one up again until a month or two ago, mostly because playing music is beneficial for neurological health and I’m getting older.

PKM: So why the Scat Records re-boot now?

Robert Griffin: Covid-19 was a godsend. I was ready to start things back up two years ago when I’d caught up on royalties with nearly all of the artists, but I could never get any real time off work. Then I lost the job when the pandemic hit and was kind of shellshocked for a couple weeks. But in that time my body recovered from the decade of late nights and physical work, and I realized I finally had the time to put everything back to rights with the label and move forward with releases I’d planned years earlier. It was a ton of work, everything had to be done from scratch, but I had nothing but time. Plus, the unemployment checks meant no money worries for at least a while. Now, a year later, I’ve got four new titles, four more in production, and the label is in the best shape it’s ever been. I don’t owe anybody any money, cash flow is excellent, and the future beckons. And I back up my computer every month.

PKM: Great news! So what made you want to jump back to Spike in Vain?

Robert Griffin: I got the master reels for all the Spike in Vain recordings from Scott Lasch about 15 years ago when I realized there was beginning to be interest for a reissue. I hadn’t figured out how I wanted to do that yet, but it was definitely on the agenda. But everything fell apart before I could get to it. When Chris died in 2013 that lit a fire under me, so I had the tapes restored and digitized. But I still had a ways to go on the money end and had to wait.

Meanwhile at work, we had a few punk kids on staff and others who’d come in later at night, and they’d ask me about Spike in Vain and the old Cle HC scene all the time. Seriously, not a week would go by without some random customer going, “Hey, are you the guy that was in Spike in Vain?” Man, that was weird, but also very cool. So my motivation to do the reissues only increased with time and was a big part of the motivation to get the label back in shape.

PKM: How did it feel setting up these reissues, going through tapes, etc.?

Robert Griffin: Tremendously satisfying because I’d had to wait so long. I spent a lot of time thinking about Chris and Andrew, feeling guilty that they both had to die before I got it done. And going through various what-if scenarios around the band, forks in the road, etc… The Spike in Vain releases will be followed by an expanded reissue of the debut My Dad Is Dead album, with an early cassette release as a bonus LP. If that does ok, we’ll continue with other albums. That should be out in May or June.

“Anti-Socialist”-My Dad Is Dead




GBV’s first album, Devil Between My Toes, is also in production and should be out in late summer, and we’ll also tackle the other three early albums over the next two years. Tom Dark and I are finalizing track selection and sequence for a Dark album, and I need to start working on Spike’s Jesus… 2-LP release. I’d also like to do a vinyl edition of the early Prisonshake best-of Doug and I put together last fall, Always Almost There… Scat will have a pretty steady stream of releases for the foreseeable future.

“Sanctuary”-Prisonshake:





Scat Records store

http://www.pleasekillme.com

 
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