Eric Davidson, front man of the Ohio-based New Bomb Turks, is equally adept at rocking, rolling and writing. During the 1990s, the Turks were rolling, too, through the clubs of the Midwest, South, West, Northwest and even a few cities in Europe and Japan. They released more than 10 albums and EPs in the 1990s and early 2000s on numerous indie labels. Somehow, despite the drunkenness and mayhem, Eric retained enough functioning brain cells to keep a record of unfolding events, resulting in We Never Learn (Backbeat), first published in 2010 and re-published this month in a new “expanded” edition. We spoke with Eric Davidson about it all.
Eric Davidson is a writer with a rock ‘n’ roll heart and the instincts of a collector. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d bet the farm he’s the sort of guy who still has every baseball card, comic book, 45 rpm single, LP, CD, mix tape, poster and fanzine he ever bought, which he still treats like the holy relics they are.
All the more reason to celebrate the fact that the singer/front man and Energizer Bunny of Ohio’s New Bomb Turks—and regular PKM contributor—has just published an “expanded edition” of his indispensable We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001. The book is comprised of firsthand dispatches from the front lines of the rock ‘n’ roll wars that raged mostly in small clubs, converted warehouses and disused banks, throughout the Rust Belt, along the West Coast, in Europe and Japan, on small indie labels like Crypt Records, In the Red, Sympathy for the Record Industry, Sub Pop, Interscope, Epitaph and in D.I.Y. fanzines and cities that are overlooked when the stories of rock ‘n’ roll get told: Akron, Columbus, Chicago, Portland, Cincinnati. The book is augmented with scads of great photographs, artifacts, posters, gig flyers, interview transcripts and ‘best of’ lists, making it both a pleasure to read and useful reference source. And, underlying it all, is the indisputable fact that the author has a deep abiding PASSION for his subject and his music.
Written in the manner of the great rock zines of that time—Razorcake, Flipside, Hit List, Roctober, Horizontal Action—the free-flowing prose echoes the wild, frenzied, sometimes chaotic music scene itself. Because most of the bands covered in the book never achieved wide notice, and probably never had much of a chance to even in the best of possible worlds, the overall sense is that everyone was doing it for the kicks and some were doing it as if their lives depended on it. There were casualties along the way, and Davidson does not flinch from them (such as Matthew Odietus of the Candy Snatchers), and many of the participants who survived are likely in 12-Step programs now. But I doubt any of them regret that period of time in their lives.
In his foreword to We Never Learn, Byron Coley notes that Davidson “is attempting to name, codify, and delineate the history of a scene that existed nameless and in the shadows of various parallel movements within the general drool of underground punk rock during the latter half of the 1980s and the bulk of the 1990s….But what do you call it? It wasn’t grunge, wasn’t scum-rock, wasn’t paisley-revisionism, wasn’t post-core-thud…” Because no one else would do it, Davidson coined the term “gunk punk.”
Maybe the best assessments of the scene that Davidson lovingly covers come from the musicians themselves. The prolific and mercurial Billy Childish (The Pop Rivets, Thee Milkshakes, et al) told Eric, “We were the antidote to New Romanticism and glam” And one of the members of the Dwarves said, of the original punk scene, “All the bands were different. Then punk became a blueprint.” What comes across with blazing clarity in We Never Learn is that each of these bands were unique non-blueprinted entities, which might also explain why it has been so hard to pigeonhole them.
We Never Learn does not contain any wild and wooly stories about Nirvana, Death Cab, Green Day or any of the other bands that rose to prominence above the din of whatever scene spawned them. What it does provide is something more rare: a real sense of what it felt like to be part of that scene and the lives of those who were up on stage. It was a far cry from the rockstar excesses of Led Zep and the Stones but far closer to how most fans of rock ‘n’ roll live their own lives.
Davidson wisely grounds his narrative in his personal experience, offering detailed, often hilarious and sometimes harrowing accounts of the band’s road adventures across the Midwest, in Europe and Japan. But through candid, sometimes even contentious interviews with other participants, he also offers profiles of some of the unsung heroes he met along the way, like Tim Warren, Billy Childish, Long Gone John, Blag Jesus (Dwarves), and even a few of the villains (who shall remain nameless).
There are too many stories about too many bands to do them justice, even in a list but here are some of the bands that get major ink from Eric’s pen: Death of Samantha (Cleveland), Dwarves (Chicago), Cynics (Pittsburgh), Union Carbide (Sweden), Lazy Cowgirls (LA), the Raunch Hands. The Mummies, Mono Men, Makers, Supercharger, Gories, Cheater Slicks, Gaunt, Oblivians, Teengenerate. In short, when you wipe away the rust, dust and grime of former industrial giants like Cleveland, Akron, Dayton and Columbus, and you find an amazing array of great music. And Davidson introduces you to the scenes with love for his subject and a great sense of humor (e.g., “Kent was not Paris in the ‘30s. It was barely Youngstown in the ‘50s”).
We caught up with Eric Davidson to pose a few questions about the book.
PKM: What is the significance of the book’s title, We Never Learn? Am I showing my ignorance by not knowing where it comes from?
Eric Davidson: What, you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire Candy Snatchers catalogue?! For shame!
Ha. It’s the name of an early Candy Snatchers song. They’re one of the ABSOLUTE wildest acts of this scene; and the sentiment seemed to fit the existential struggle of all the yearning souls in the book — at some level we all know making extremely trashy, fast rock’n’roll ain’t going to get us very far in life. But “far” is a relative term, so why not go at it again and again, since it’s been pretty damn fun thus far. Like if the Saints or the Pagans still ain’t a household name, we’re not going to be — but who cares?!
PKM: The term you coined, ‘gunk punk,’ works for me in describing the often overlooked music scene from this era (1988-2001). Why do you think that this “undergut” of bands covered in We Never Learn have been overlooked in previous accounts of rock history? Is it partly because their amazing variety and sheer numbers were just too hard to pigeonhole? Or did the mainstream rock ‘n’ roll acts suck all the oxygen out of the room?
Eric Davidson: The latter “oxygen suck” is quite appropriate for what the grunge era did for high energy punk. Despite the surviving mythology that grunge “erased silly ’80s hair metal” and “brought punk to the mainstream”, or whatever, Winger and Poison were still in the top 40 when Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, et al, hit big — and there is a very thin line (sonically) between both kinds of bands. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take Nirvana. But I’d much rather take the Didjits, Muffs, or Devil Dogs, who at the time were making far more invigorating and fun music. Long-haired dudes wailing on solos and recycling Beatles or Black Sabbath riffs are of course going to sell more than a band playing Eddie Cochran or Sonics riffs five times faster than the original. Familiarity is comfortable.
Once rock’n’roll became ROCK, ragged playing and a sense of humor seemed to be regarded as “unimportant,” at least in America.
Fast, sloppy, lo-fi punk never broke huge when it was in its original, media hyped beginnings, so why would it sell years later — unless you could get some grunge band to name drop the Dead Boys or Black Flag every so often, and then have their records produced like Boston. I could go on and on here about what I assume makes for a hit, or how most popular music is produced for car radios or Rite Aid aisles.
Suffice to say, the timing, zeitgeist, whatever was there in the ’90s for some bearable scrunchier mainstream rock, set up by greater bands like Husker Du, R.E.M., Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, etc. from the latter ’80s. And by the time it got around to being smelted down into Matchbox 20 or Candlebox, it made commercial sense how/why that all went down. Some remnant of the inspiration and anger of punk was going to slither in there somewhere. Punk essentially really did do away with a lot of stadium rock pomposity.
None of these bands lost much sleep over lack of airplay or press. Those things were not expected at all. Which may be a part of why they never got it much, but that’s another question/answer… However, free beer backstage was very much expected, and we got mightily pissed if that part of “success” was not afforded.
The ‘hard to pigeonhole’ is true. If you look at any genre that eventually got a genre term permanently attached to it, there were at least a couple of really big acts or super hits. Of course, this scene was preternaturally unable to do that. It’s like asking that perfect 5th pint to not give you a hangover. I mean maybe it won’t, but don’t hold your breath.
Most of those bands knew that the most they might get out of this (besides 1,000 really fun nights out with friends) was getting to put a few records out, and a couple of tours of Europe, if lucky, and lots of them got that because of better money and government-sponsored youth centers and such for young bands over there. But again, that’s for another question/answer for another day…
PKM: Is it fair to say that the brand of rock ‘n’ roll you and your band, the New Bomb Turks, favored was fun, fast, smart and sarcastic? The opposite of/antidote to grunge?
Eric Davidson: Yes. See between lines of previous answer. I mean, all four of us in New Bomb Turks liked some grunge bands, if before they were universally called grunge bands all the fucking time. The first Mudhoney EP is our idea of grunge; and I liked Nirvana when I saw them in a bar in Columbus early on. But like a month or two later, Smashing Pumpkins came through the same club, swinging their long hair around, ignoring the plebeians in the crowd, moaning about like space and time, man, or whatever — from then on I knew, I am not falling for this marketing pitch. I thought punk got rid of all that pomposity and poor-me narcissism.
PKM: It was interesting to me how little of the core punk godfathers seemed to directly influence the bands of gunk punk. Outside of a few mentions of the Ramones, few other members of that scene are mentioned in We Never Learn. Why do you think that is?
Eric Davidson: Hmmm… Well, I’m pretty sure the New York Dolls, Dead Boys, Saints, Cramps, and some more of the OGs get some mentions in there. But maybe subconsciously I was avoiding name-dropping all the usual suspects, as there are certainly enough books about them.
I can guarantee you 150% that every band in this book adores the Ramones. But I guess I was trying to have the bands talk more about their own time and place. Conversely, a major component of whatever “sound” I think this “scene” created involved re-digging up the wildest mid-century R’n’R (the hillbilliest rockabilly, raw ’60s garage rock, early girl groups), and sort of playing them through a previous pre-teen butt-kick of hardcore’s speed and anger, but then kind of skipping hardcore altogether. By the end of the ’80s, that genre had become so over-serious and macho. That getting tired of hardcore window coincided with the first few “Killed By Death” and “Bloodstains Across…” bootleg compilations that came out circa 1988-90, that re-dug up THE most raw, bizarre, funny, and forgotten regional punk singles of the original era — which became a central influence on this garage punk scene. Like we all had Ramones CDs or Clash albums; it was getting more exciting finding a Lewd or Users 7″.
That said, I remember early on, when we’d play with hardcore bands or newer indie rock bands, saying you liked the Ramones was looked at as almost “cute” or “old school.” And that attitude would piss me off because we wouldn’t have any of this DIY or underground noise without them and all those original punks.
Plus, I soon found out most straightedge bands didn’t even know who the Heartbreakers were or had heard the “Piss Factory” single. Whereas the newer trashy garage bands we’d run into were like 75% record collectors. We’d rather talk about Wanda Jackson or Otis Redding or Radio Birdman than, like, skateboard trucks or whatever, because, y’know, we liked music.
PKM: You mentioned Peter Bagge’s Hate comics a few times in your book, and I kept picturing the tales you describe as taking place inside one of his comic books. Many of the great flyer/poster/album cover graphics included in the book look more like riffs on Bagge than on the cut-and-paste/ransom-note graphics of early punk. This visual aspect of the scene was as vital and important to it as the music, don’t you think?
Eric Davidson: Oh, definitely. I am extremely happy you got that thought in your head. HATE was an important influence too.
One of the very few disappointments I have about making the book is that we had to cut the idea of a whole chapter on poster artists. I think the ’90s were a golden age of rock art; and for every band, whatever the sub-genre, one of the best parts of touring was rolling into the club and seeing if some amazing local Picasso made a wild screen-printed poster for the show. (And believe me, there was still an incredible amount of cool-ass Kinkos B&W cut-n-paste punk flyer art out there too!) I really wanted to be able to have some more quotes from those artists.
I did actually interview Frank Kozik quickly for the book when he was in NYC for a gallery show he did in like 2008. But the book was just getting too super long, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to have color photos, and there had been a few books covering that topic by that point. I did get a little mention of that aspect in my book. And for this new edition (plug plug), I was afforded some pages for lots of cool color images, so I got in some GREAT screen-printed beauties to pierce your eyeballs this time!
PKM: Ohio was a real hotbed of gunk punk and, of course, since it’s where you lived during this period, it’s widely covered in We Never Learn. Was there a rivalry among city scenes, between, say, Cleveland and Akron? Columbus and Youngstown? Friendly or sometimes unfriendly?
Eric Davidson: Yeah, I try to make a point very early on in the book that I’m a Rust Belt homer, and that’s where a lot of my taste and sarcasm come from. Bear that it in mind whilst reading We Never Learn!
As far as rivalries between cities in Ohio around then, I don’t think that happened much. In-town, there’re always band side eyes, and bitching about this band or that getting a headlining Friday night slot or whatever. Of course, once we (New Bomb Turks) got some attention outside I-71, there were the expected snickers here or there. We got a review in Spin and a video shown on MTV before we were even asked to play the local yearly summer fest…
I remember an old girlfriend of mine told me back then that a local band was complaining — “Oh, those guys like put up fliers and do sound checks and shit, like they’re such hot shit.” I said to her, “well that’s what bands do.” I was reminded of that Simpsons “Homerpalooza” episode, when people are getting tired of Homer’s cannonball-catching shtick, and an “alternative” type in the crowd says, “That smacks of effort.” It was the Slacker Era, after all.
But as far as rivalries between the bigger cities of Ohio, not really. I always felt fortunate that I moved to Columbus when I did. Because to this day, I think Cleveland is definitely the most interesting city in Ohio. But at the time, Columbus had a cool small indie scene that was growing, and Cleveland’s, in my opinion, was active and had some great clubs and insanely good college radio, but just not a lot of bands I really dug (after the petering out of the AMAZING Cleveland scene of the mid-late ’80s that I grew up in).
I feel like we saw Columbus turn into the buzzy, New York Times Sunday mag cover story type town it is today before our eyes (for better and worse).
PKM: Tim Warren has a large presence in the book. The founder of Crypt Records, he released some albums by your band. What struck me about Warren and some of the other record label and record store owners (often playing both roles) is that they weren’t some hidden away CEOs in corporate back offices and beach houses at Malibu. They were actually part of the scenes. Is that a gross overgeneralization?
Eric Davidson: I’d say that’s mostly right. I mean, the vast majority of the bands in my book were on indies or smaller, so yeah, they were imprints run by just a few people, usually still in their 20s or early 30s — so they better fuckin’ come out to shows!
Tim Warren particularly was like a kind of band in and of himself, like a band guy who made the in-jokes, got loaded, talked about what cool new bands he’d heard or what insane lost ’60s single he just found, what heretofore forgotten film noir he had in a pile of VHS tapes, etc. He is a mountain of trash culture knowledge and excitement. He wasn’t one to talk about marketing or co-op ads or demographics, etc. Of course, most indie labels worth their salt, sounds-wise, are often run by obsessive music heads who wouldn’t know a spreadsheet if it smacked them on the ass. Thank god. And so contracts, royalties, etc. weren’t always, say, exact with most labels. (Of course, why would they have to be when you’re talking like a 437-copy pressing of a 7″ single?) Unlike all the extremely fair, punctual, perfectly annotated paperwork of the major labels (he says with Rust Belt sarcasm).
Most of the labels here worked in simple handshake type deals. I remember the great Henry Owings (look him up!) once said something like, “All this kind of garage punk music is always described as ‘stupid, wacky, crazy.’ But all the people I know in those bands are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met.” For the most part, we knew the score. No one was thinking we’d get rich and famous off this. But by my anti-spreadsheet ass count, there are maybe 5 (of the, I believe, 125+) bands mentioned in this book who might later have benefitted greatly from more professional accounting.
There is a kind of forward narrative movement as my book goes along, when we get to a kind of crest where some of these bands were courted or even signed by bigger labels — and anyone who knows what happened to the music industry by the end of the 1990s knows how that all went.
That said, as the book ends, we see that there were in fact a number of bands that quelled up from this scene and did get some hits during that the early 2000s “neo-garage” moment, like the Hives, White Stripes, the Donnas, and more.
El Vez interviews Tim Warren:
PKM: Who were some of the other unsung heroes of indie rock at that time? You opened my eyes to people like Long Gone John and Blag Jesus. Any others you would put in that category? Or are there too many to mention?
Eric Davidson: Too many to mention, but a quick count off the top of my head:
– Pat Todd, Lazy Cowgirls singer/leader, who churned up a kind of roots punk thing with his band early in the ’80s, that turned into a big inspiration. He plays to this day. One of those guys you just have to see live.
— Dead Moon — It is hard to explain the strange inspiration this band is, featuring a hard-to-define sound and heartfelt energy. They are cult gods in Europe, under-the-radar here. Started circa 1987 by a cat who’d been in garage/psych/punk bands since the late ’60s. Dead Moon ended up releasing like 15+ albums, many singles, toured like crazy all over. Sadly, only one original member survives.
— Larry Hardy — One might’ve figured back in the ’90s when his great In The Red Records label put out so many of the coolest records of this stuff, that it was bound to fizzle, but he puts out excellent, relevant records to this day.
— Kim Shattuck — Muffs singer/guitarist/leader. The Muffs were kind of a different deal from the start, because Kim had been in a semi-successful garage band (Pandoras), and hence the Muffs got signed to Warners very quickly. But they played in and around this scene, and were a great, catchy version of the sound. Her sense of humor and ricochet riffs fit right into the flung bottle, flail around world of garage punk, but she was an absolute top-notch pop songwriter. Which meant that, over a long period of time — thanks to the usual mainstream ignorance of all this stuff — her influence eventually spread by sheer force to a number of indie scenes. Not to mention she had arguably the best scream of anyone screaming in these bands. She too very sadly passed away almost three years ago, and is sorely missed, as the Muffs were playing and recording right near to the end, still bringin’ it.
— Mick Collins — Leader of three bands that would sit atop this heap. Also produced lots of cool records. Brought a deeper sense of ’60s soul music to this undergut that would increase in influence through the scene as it survived into the 2000s.
— And, of course, Tim Warren, who is a kind of Timothy Leary of this whole damn thing — and I only say that because Tim would fuckin’ hate that analogy and probably throw a beer at me for saying it. Hence, I said it Ha!! But with his “Back from the Grave” lost ’60s garage comps (begun in 1983) he created, and then with the new bands he started to sign, he basically lit the torch of CRAZED AND WILD raw roots re-igniting that guided this sound as it spread through the 1990s, inspiring all the labels and the majority of bands in my book.
PKM: What did all these bands have in common, what made them kindred spirits to you personally?
Eric Davidson: Well, of course a deep love of all the previous raw Rock & Rolls I mentioned earlier. A concept that there are not “old” or “new” bands, there are just fucking great bands and records. Using music as a way to get out and have fun and not waste your youth on something as trivial as “paying bills.” A belief that playing a crap bar or someone’s basement to 11 people, fueled by even crappier beer, can lead to numerous moments of true transcendence that many around you may never experience, and hence will not understand why you’d still do it for the 876th time. Thrift store t-shirts. Usually (but not always) a lack of experience playing in bands before. Being inexperienced instrument-wise but ready for whatever, and using the band to learn you instrument and how to make a band. That annoying question at holiday gatherings where some square cousin asks, “What kind of music do you play?” and then wonders why you don’t have a mohawk or if you ever heard of “American Idiot.” Being broke, and being okay with it. An understanding that being a crazed live act completes the picture. Intuitively knowing that what sounds like noisy distorted ear-screech to the guitar shop guys is a large part of what you’re aiming for when you record.
Teengenerate-ambassadors of gunk punk from Japan, live in Atlanta, 1995
PKM: Being part of this “undergut,” as you were by fronting the New Bomb Turks, seems to have worked to your advantage because you knew, saw and played on bills with most of the bands you write about. When the first edition was published in 2010, what sorts of things did you hear back from the other bands and how did that shape the new edition?
Eric Davidson: The response was pretty good overall. I think anyone who’d stumble on We Never Learn got the basic elevator pitch of it — that here’s a basic wrap-up of a pretty underground scene from a guy who was in one of these bands, and was a freelance writer too, so what the heck, why not give it a shot. Some have noted my often elongated sentences and knotted-up metaphors, but I was just trying to mimic the kind of flailing around feeling and sound of the bands of this ilk. Not to mention, being unpretentious and goofing off a bit is at the heart of this stuff.
Of course, you’re always going to get someone saying, “You missed this or that band,” or “Who does this guy think he is?!” As if I started the book declaring that this is a definitive history and all must bow to it. hey, if you don’t like this book on this scene, go read one of the other ones. Oh wait, there aren’t any.
But yeah, it takes a certain level of ego to say you’re going to try to write about any wide-ranging topic. But after awhile, it dawned on me maybe this scene could get lost in history’s dustbin, so why not get some thoughts and stories down cuz there was a lot of fun and creation had.
And hey man, if I can get just one smart-ass teenager out there to decide to waste her graduation money on some Cynics, Drags, or Gaunt records, and then she gets drunk at some bar and bemoans it all, and then goes home and in a head-spinning revelry decides to go buy more records tomorrow cuz fuck it, forgetting that she’s supposed to be up for work in two hours, it’ll all be worth it.
PKM: Where do/did the New Bomb Turks fit in to all this? And, finally, do the New Bomb Turks still exist?
Eric Davidson: Well, I tried to sort of frame certain topics and interview questions with our band’s experience, and go from there as jumping off points. Mike Lavella, who ran Gearhead Records and put out a number of the bands in the book, and was an active scenester and writer about this stuff, he told me early on in making it, “I don’t know how you’re going to write this book and not say how fucking important your band was to all this.” So there, now I said it. I mean we formed right at the start of this thing I think I’m talking about — super raw bands who came after hardcore, a little inspired by it, but tired of it and digging on old garage rock and early weird punk. It’s pretty obvious New Bomb Turks would be a big part of the book, but it’s a very egalitarian scene, so I hope I kept blurry focus on how many bands came and went, and their stories of glory and/or woe in the face of that creeping thing way out in the distance called boredom.
New Bomb Turks are still doing it when we can. I’m living n Queens, and the other guys are in Columbus with families and good jobs. So we just get together when we can, or when a great offer from some European fest comes along. But we’re not a “working band” anymore. Except if we do get on the stage, then we work the hell out of that shit. Like I’ve said many times before, as long as I think we can put on a good show, we’ll do it once in awhile because of that whole transcendence thing.