The Lounge Lizards, an uncategorizable musical assemblage that formed in 1978, blazed a trail parallel to, but separate from, the punk scene taking place in New York at the same time. Steve Piccolo was one of the original five members of the Lounge Lizards (the others: John and Evan Lurie, Anton Fier, Arto Lindsay), who became the darlings of the Downtown ‘no wave’ scene. Eric Davidson talked with Steve Piccolo about his days as a Lizard, his varied career since, and the reissue of his solo album Domestic Exile.
The New York City “punk” scene was, from the start, far more expansive than that genre term would soon designate. Exhibit A: The Lounge Lizards. Formed in 1978, these lizards (the original lineup: John Lurie, Evan Lurie, Arto Lindsay, Steve Piccolo, Anton Fier) lounged around the Lower East Side dive scene, occasionally oozing their way into tonier venues due to their minimal, itchy, sometimes humorous No Wave take on mid-century be-bop and, indeed, lounge jazz. By the dawn of the 1980s, their detached stance and raw recordings firmly set them into the post-punk movement that quickly diverge from the cartoonish public perception of “New Wave.”
Steve Piccolo was the Lounge Lizards’ original bassist. He was, at the same time, a Wall Street systems analyst. By 1982, his energy and ambitions had him working up a crafty solo record of even more minimal, angular, paranoid pop storytelling – somewhere between DEVO’s earliest pieces, the raw synth plunking of Euro contemporaries like 39 Clocks, and the Lounge Lizards’ skronk. Dark, sarcastic, but just playful enough to fit onto a hipster mixtape of the time, Domestic Exile was saddled with a bad mastering job and small pressing, and sunk into collector history.
Thankfully, the Spain-based Guerssen Records has finally rescued this cool document with a great new reissue, featuring excellent mastering and liner notes. We caught up with Piccolo to bring the history of his solo album out of its long exile.
PKM: The album cover – was that your apartment?
Steve Piccolo: No, three different places for the photos. The vacuum cleaner – self-portrait in mirror in girlfriend’s loft. The cubicle was my office when I was a systems analyst, with a box full of manuals and a photo of Picasso on the right. Back cover – halo portrait of me shot by John Lurie in a hotel room in Toronto on tour with Lounge Lizards, and John’s self-portrait in the mirror. The cover design is obviously a DIY parody of the elegant Lounge Lizards cover by the famous graphic designer, Peter Saville. The idea was to somehow let people know there was some relationship to the Lizards without putting on a corny sticker, which would also have been misleading.
PKM: What was your family lineage?
Steve Piccolo: Half very ethnic Italian, half mixed-up Irish-American. On the latter side, long line of schoolteachers and librarians. Everyone knew how to play something, there was always a good upright piano in the house, and my mother gave me music lessons before I started school. My mother could also play trombone! In those days, family group singing was considered an entertaining way to spend the evening, believe it or not, rather like in English pubs. My parents would actually buy sheet music to learn to play their favorite songs. Inside the piano bench there was a pile of antique song sheets, treasures which of course I didn’t really appreciate at the time.
PKM: Where’d you grow up and how’d you end up on the Lower East Side?
Steve Piccolo: We moved a lot, always East Coast, New England. NJ, NYC, Providence, Massachusetts, summers in New Hampshire. Then I went to Bard College, which was like a hippie arts colony at the time, not as prestigious as it is today, but with lots of very interesting teachers. It’s in upstate NY on the Hudson, not that far from NYC. After a couple of years I couldn’t afford Bard, so I moved to NYC, got a menial job on Wall Street, and used the company’s education benefits to study computer science free at NYU, night school. The East Village was cheap and full of amazing people. You could learn a lot just by osmosis.
We also both realized that we had harbored a secret suspicion that maybe the “enemy” was interesting and even appealing. After all, if people you hate are telling you to hate someone else, maybe that someone else isn’t so bad after all!
PKM: Did you live on Bleecker? In your song, “Bleecker Street,” I can’t tell if you’re annoyed at those newbies hanging around on the street, or just observing.
Steve Piccolo: No, not on Bleecker. First flat was on East 6th, edge of Alphabet City. But Bleecker is NYU. And later, when I wrote the song, I was in a weird wedge-shaped loft on Kenmare, quite close. Bleecker was already morphing from a hip hangout, folk and jazz clubs, into a yuppie tourist attraction. But the city still had fascinating life that changed from street to street, block to block. Endless nighttime walks. At the time I didn’t really think about being a “flâneur,” though that was what I was doing – totally absorbing. More observant than critical.
PKM: Maybe it’s your droll voice, but there often seems to be a heavy dose of satire going on throughout Domestic Exile.
Steve Piccolo: I think I was acting out different roles and making fun of all the posturing of the art world, or in the so-called “counter cultures.” The satirical aspects are there, but it’s more about detachment, seeing things also with empathy or sympathy, but from the outside. I could do that because I was living such an extreme double life, between Wall Street / technology and the downtown scene. In the end, we are shaped by the people we spend time with, and I was being shaped by several very different milieux, all at the same time.
PKM: The opening track of the album, “The Bell,” great first line – “There’s a fallout shelter in my mind.” I would guess that line could describe the back-of-brain state of many artists around you at that moment. Either you had memories of “duck & cover,” or Reagan was creating new such fears. So, are the lyrics of that song an actual memory of yours from grade school, or a kind of warning at the time?
Steve Piccolo: It’s definitely a real memory, we did that stuff in elementary school. The thing about the shattering windows was something they actually told us. I think the first versions of that text came during Carter, before Reagan actually. That song has had a long subsequent history.
In 2011, with my life partner of the last 15 years or so, Oxana Maleeva – who, you guessed it, is Russian – and I curated a collateral event at the Venice Biennale about the Cold War as seen by artists. The title was “I Miss My Enemies (and maybe they miss me).” When she heard the song we discovered that we had almost the same childhood experiences, the patriotic fitness programs, the fallout shelters, and all that, even though she is two decades younger than I am. We also both realized that we had harbored a secret suspicion that maybe the “enemy” was interesting and even appealing. After all, if people you hate are telling you to hate someone else, maybe that someone else isn’t so bad after all!
PKM: So back a bit… how did you end up in the Lounge Lizards?
Steve Piccolo: Another long story. The Lurie brothers were among my best friends in high school, in a god-forsaken place called Worcester, Massachusetts. We were involved in political activism – Vietnam! – and we had various blues bands, including one called CRUD, which also involved lots of graffiti, like a shared tag. I had quit my classical studies, orchestra, all that stuff. I played rhythm guitar or bass, John played blues harp – he got amazingly good at it – and Evan played keys. Fast-forward five or six years to 1978, I was already in NYC, playing upright bass in jazz lofts, working on performance art, electronic music and computer programming to make a living. Non-electronic music had become sort of a hobby for me, it wasn’t my main obsession. I’m leaving out a lot of episodes here, the story was more complex.
Legend has it that John made a bet with a guy who booked bands in a club, saying he could do better than the acts currently on the menu. The guy called his bluff and gave him a gig. Luckily for me, John asked me to play bass. I didn’t have an electric bass, so I borrowed one. Somehow the thing fell together very quickly, and we were suddenly much in demand. The idea of contaminating loud rock-ish music with free jazz had legs. And at first it was quite satirical, in a way.
Legend has it that John made a bet with a guy who booked bands in a club, saying he could do better than the acts currently on the menu. The guy called his bluff and gave him a gig. Luckily for me, John asked me to play bass.
PKM: What were the venues the Lounge Lizards played at in the beginning?
Steve Piccolo: There was a whole circuit of very active clubs. Music every night of the week. You could find gigs on a pretty steady basis, we worked a lot. Bands were often paid with part of the cover charges, so you had to put someone at the door to count the number of people who entered, to keep the club honest. I think the place I liked best was Tier 3, a very small, tightly packed room where people really came to hear the band, and the management was not out to exploit the music. Squat Theater on 23rd St. also had a great atmosphere.
PKM: Was there a feeling the Lounge Lizards were “of a scene,” or did you enjoy a kind of outsider status?
Steve Piccolo: We were definitely part of a scene, but in an anomalous way because our music didn’t really have much in common with all the rest of it. But that was an advantage, I think. Of course the sense of community and personal ties seems much stronger in retrospect. Luckily, only the good memories really survive. I guess at the time, everybody hated everybody!
PKM: What was the state of the Lounge Lizards, and your role in them, when you started making Domestic Exile?
Steve Piccolo: The group had its ups and downs. There were gaps, in time and physiognomy, like when John got in a fight at the Mudd Club and lost his front teeth. He couldn’t play sax for months, so we all did other things. Everyone had various projects, other groups, films, magazines. When I was working on [Domestic Exile] I was still in the Lizards, but the LP got issued right after I left the group, as did Arto [Lindsay] and Tony [Fier] at the same time.
PKM: In “Superior Genes,” you sing, “I need a territory that is mine, to prove to the world that I’m for real.” That sounds like someone angling to get out on their own.
Steve Piccolo: I was already on my own. I left my family home during high school. But at the start of the 1980s, I was looking at the rise of hedonism, conspicuous consumption, and in this case I was very much inside it. If I’m being sarcastic, I’m also talking about my own real-life persona in a way. My girlfriend at the time – the exceptional performance artist Jill Kroesen – was also a dancer, and she injured her back, couldn’t do stairs. We needed a building with an elevator. Since I still had my day job in an important brokerage house, I could get past the rigid vetting imposed by landlords, so I found an apartment on the 13th floor of a very elegant building on lower 5th Ave. at 9th St. – the former Fifth Avenue Hotel. The place had golden revolving doors and doormen in full uniform. The move away from dilapidated lofts and tenements to a place with a view of Washington Square was pretty thrilling. So I was making fun of myself and of what happens to your ego when you upgrade your surroundings. Lots of people didn’t get it though. They thought I really was a fascist.
Of course the sense of community and personal ties seems much stronger in retrospect. Luckily, only the good memories really survive. I guess at the time, everybody hated everybody!
The key to “Superior Genes” might be putting it into contrast with another song on the album, “Stray Man.” The two songs are also placed side by side on the record. The superiority seeker is definitely a settler, an agricultural personality; while the stray man is a nomad, a hunter-gatherer. New York City was, in a way, a place where nomads could cope with the constraints of settlement. And many of the city’s inhabitants seemed to carry all their worldly possessions around with them. You could also migrate very rapidly through different contexts, traveling in Williamsburg from a Puerto Rican barrio to a Hasidic suburb almost just by crossing the street.
PKM: Was there a notion of making this side project an ongoing concern?
Steve Piccolo: I wasn’t really making plans at the time, was too busy doing all kinds of things. In the long run, though, in my life Domestic Exile has far surpassed the importance of the Lounge Lizards, in projects that are still continuing to grow.
PKM: Listening to Domestic Exile – and knowing you played nearly everything on it – you were obviously a trained, skilled musician, but living and playing among a new music zeitgeist that fought against 1970s “rock professionalism.” Did minimalism allow for a kind of stretching out of instrumental goals, while still seeming raw?
Steve Piccolo: The entire downtown or New Wave aesthetic was about rapid idea capture, immediacy, content over polish, a certain sometimes forced authenticity, like rough black and white photocopies instead of glossy airbrushed images. The key to the “minimalism” of Domestic Exile was the lack of drums. That immediately puts the project outside the music scene at the time. I really was trying to break out of the “band” idea, and in the long run, I’ve done a lot more work over the decades in that direction. Technology has helped to make that approach more feasible.
PKM: Yeah, I’m going to guess you didn’t exactly feel a part of the “punk scene.”
Steve Piccolo: Good guess! Anyway I think for most creative people in New York, the term and the attitude “punk” didn’t really fit. Punk was British, but also California. “New Wave” was rather pompous, but it was a better fit. We did not go in for spitting, pogo-ing, that sort of thing. The New York scene was very art-schooled, not always in a bad way. The Lizards played at atrociously loud, punk-like volume though, so even in Scotland, with people throwing bottles at us like in The Blues Brothers, we could sort of get over. But a guy with a guitar crooning self-conscious lyrics without drums, with electronic sounds as back-up? That’s obviously an act conceived for art spaces, for a more insular, protective environment.
But bands in 1979 that really got to me were Gang of Four, Wire, and over the years I’ve grown to fully appreciate Television. Unwittingly, Gang of Four and I shared an idea – “at home he feels like a tourist!”
PKM: Your lyrics sometimes read like scenes or monologues from plays or short stories. Was writing your first art interest?
Steve Piccolo: Yes, in a way, but in practice I didn’t really start doing it with any discipline until I was much older. And I still don’t do it enough. The writing has always been important, but only in relation to other media. It’s hard for me to think about a story that is just a story. I’ve always tried to bring different media into the process.
As you can see, I’m trying to make something that moves seamlessly from one medium to another, words, sounds, images. In a way, I think that is how we perceive things and discuss them nowadays.
PKM: This project only performed live a few times. What was the most memorable show? And what was the Public Access Synthesizer Studio at CBGB?
Steve Piccolo: I did some solo performances, others just with Evan, and a few with the trio. Public Access Synthesizer Studio was a wonderful place where you could learn to use very advanced, at the time, analog synths, mostly Buchla. It was co-founded by Gerry Lindahl. We played a benefit concert for the studio at CBGB.
PKM: It’s said that you created Domestic Exile more as a possible soundtrack for a performance piece. And you did go on to work in theater, right?
Steve Piccolo: Besides some early collaborations with Squat Theater and Peter Halasz’s Love Theater, most of my subsequent career has involved performances in an art world context.
PKM: What have you been doing with your life the last few years?
Steve Piccolo: For the last 20 years or so, I have also been involved in teaching in art academies, which gets me out of the studio at least once a week. Or at least it did, before this virus outbreak. The teaching is now online, and I’m stuck in the studio, where I can still go to get out of the house, but without any other people in here.
As you can tell, I tend to work in various situations of long-term collaboration. Isola Art Center, E IL TOPO, A Constructed World, many projects with the great artist Nathalie Du Pasquier, constant projects with Gak Sato, the Japanese composer and thereminist living in Milan. We do lots of sound installations in museums and public spaces, as well as performances.
For several years I’ve been co-curating, with Sergio Armaroli, a sound art space in Milan called ERRATUM. We’ve produced videos, records and books, including some very special projects with Elliott Sharp – an exceptional musician with whom I’ve worked since before the Lounge Lizard days – and with Brunhild Ferrari. Here are a couple of the best editions/events.
PKM: So how did the Domestic Exile reissue come about; and I assume you were quite involved with any remixing or remastering?
Steve Piccolo: No remixing, lots of remastering to compensate for the original bad pressing that didn’t want to become digital without snap, crackle, and pop. Gak Sato worked wonders with mostly iZotope software. We had already done this work, so we could burn CDs for the many people who contacted me over the years looking for a CD version of the record. All the credit for the reissue goes to Alex Carretero of Guerssen Records. The Covid-19 lockdown has made it hard to ship orders. I don’t even have a copy yet! Hopefully we can start doing some live events to promote the release soon. The creepy thing is that the title now has a new resonance – but I wasn’t thinking about that kind of “domestic exile.”
PKM: In “Stray Man,” you sing about how getting out there on the streets and performing “Fulfills the promise of my ancestry.” So, did Domestic Exile help fulfill that promise?
Steve Piccolo: There’s a big Rimbaud influence here, especially his poem “Bad Blood” from A Season in Hell”.
The creepy thing is that the title now has a new resonance – but I wasn’t thinking about that kind of “domestic exile.”
“I am well aware that I have always been of an inferior race. I cannot understand revolt. My race has never risen, except to plunder: to devour like wolves a beast they did not kill.”
We’re still on the street here, gazing in wonder at all the homeless people in NYC. The late ‘70s / early ‘80s was a time when homelessness was rampant. Forgive me please if I resort to quoting from my own liner notes from [this new reissue], but I think this passage sort of nails it:
“As in the song to follow, I’m singing inside the personality of a fictional character. Or not? Remember the ‘self-fulfilling lies’ in “Modern Man”? I was always fascinated by society’s total dropouts, and by the idea of surviving completely outside the system, without an identity, papers, money, job, family. But not without friends… that would be unthinkable, unnecessary cruelty. This nomadic hermit doesn’t have to join a cult… he is a one-man cult of his own. […] the principled existence of the ‘stray man’ came back to haunt me, years later.”