LONG DISTANCE INFORMATION
By Steve Albini
Reading time 24 Minutes
Musician/producer/enfant terrible STEVE ALBINI declares his love for underground legends MX-80 SOUND! And our own PETER CONHEIM testifies as well! With rare unseen footage of the band!
LONG DISTANCE INFORMATION by STEVE ALBINI
It was 1994, back when there were still telephones, in a year when baseball nearly died. Attendance was down, there was a strike underway, the post-season had been canceled, and the two teams at the top of the NL and AL standings, the Expos and the Twins, were under threat of dissolution to contract the league because they couldn't draw crowds. My band, Shellac of North America, decided to put on a baseball-themed show, the Pine Tar .406, with some of our favorite bands. As a long shot I called the Area Code 415 operator and asked for information. There were still operators then. Do you have a listing for a Rich Stim? Okay, do you have the street address?
And just like that, I had the phone number and street address of Rich Stim, singer of MX-80 Sound, one of my favorite bands, with whom I shared no friends in common and had otherwise had no contact. It's incredible, really, how that whole deal used to work. If you knew somebody lived someplace, you could call the operator there and have them look up their number and address. No court order, no probable cause, just >bink< done. I think you'd go to prison for that now. I had done it a few times by then and each time, later found a personal hero on the line. Quentin Crisp, Martin Rev, and now Rich Stim.
I asked him if he was the Rich Stim from the band MX-80, and when he replied that he was, I was a little dumbstruck and it took me a while to ask him if MX-80 would be interested in playing a show in Chicago. He said he'd have to ask the other guys but sure.
And just like that, I was able to secure a show with MX-80, a band I'd been listening to since I was 16 or so but had never seen. Hell I had never met anybody who had seen them. They had been a band for 20 years at that point but had played only once in Chicago, long before my time, and never in front of an audience that knew who they were. They had formed in Indiana, but migrated to San Francisco, which is where I found them by mail order in 1979, and then again by long distance information in 1994.
Their record label Ralph Records, run by the eccentric collective The Residents, advertised Subterranean Modern, a sampler album of their artists, all Bay-Area weirdos, in Rolling Stone and other music magazines for the absurd price of a dollar. The Residents, Chrome, Tuxedomoon and MX-80 Sound, all bands I knew nothing about, for a dollar. On a whim (everybody loves a bargain!) I ordered one, and when it arrived weeks later it cracked my head clean open. All these bands were invigoratingly odd and utterly unique, and every one became a talisman for me, but even in that setting MX-80 stood apart by being simultaneously brainy and ass-kicking. Stim's deadpan, dry humor contrasted with the ferocious, nimble guitar of Bruce Anderson and Dale Sophiea's sculptural bass.
I felt like I'd found the perfect music for a dork like me. It rocked, but not in the embarrassing hairspray-and-codpiece way all those "rock" bands did, it rocked the way kids who goofed off in the library rocked, with in-jokes, sarcasm, dissonance, unpredictable rhythms and a quiet certainty that everybody else was a complete idiot. Over the next couple of years I bought their albums automatically, reflexively, the first time I saw them in a shop, and they excited me in a way few other bands did.
Anyhow, more than a decade later I got Rich Stim's phone number and he indulged me when I called him. We booked the hall, we ordered team uniforms for everybody and had all the bands sign souvenir baseballs to sell at the concession stand. Apart from the power cutting out a few times, it was a very good time. That was our meeting, but since then we've played many shows together, hung out, eaten many meals, become fast friends of the sort whose friendship can be revived on a moments notice and resumed as though no time had passed.
I tell you all this to demonstrate that I love this band because they are special and better than most bands, that they are up for anything, and they kept on fucking doing it no matter what. They were doing it in the mid-1970s before anybody cared, in Indiana, where nobody cared. They moved to San Francisco and found like-minded weirdos to conspire with, but guess what, still not that many people cared. But they didn't quit. They kept plugging away, doing the things they did uniquely better than other bands, content to be great at something regardless of the reaction. If there is a better expression of the practice of art I don't know what it could be.
Listening to MX-80 hinted at a life free from the oppression of expectation, a life satisfied with the process, not obsessed with the results or their reception. They have been an inspiration to me, helped me form my identity and provided an object lesson in the way to pursue art and music without them becoming albatrosses. If I had to explain how to be a band to a Martian, what was good about it and how you could do it for your whole life, I'd have them listen to MX-80, watch their little films, listen to their jokes and hang out with them. If they didn't get it after that, if that didn't bridge the long distance between our cultures, I guess we'd have interplanetary war. I'd like to think we could avoid that.
Shellac of North America
FACTS/FACTS BY PETER CONHEIM
By Peter Conheim
San Francisco by way of Bloomington, Indiana’s MX-80 Sound really can’t care too much at this point what you think. Okay, that’s a little extreme, but this is a group that knew from the very beginning of their existence that they were speaking a difficult foreign language, even to each other sometimes. They took this self-realization to an extreme from their very first release in 1976: a 7” mini-EP which came packaged with a completely incongruous comic book-cum-songbook-cum-instruction manual (Big Hits, BRBQ Records).
Guitar player Bruce Anderson and bass player Dale Sophiea found each other in college in 1967 and began melting their minds together. It turned out they were into the rock thing, oh sure, but also happy to go way out on the fringes beyond most of their mates, sharing sides by Morton Feldman, Ornette Coleman, Captain Beefheart and whatnot, not to mention being devoted cinema buffs who saw the latest art house offerings of directors like Robert Bresson (Lancelot of the Lake, A Man Escaped, etc.) and Ingmar Bergman… but also devoured John Waters, Richard Lester and Ken Russell like the same candy.
Somewhere in there, a massive group tumbled together with Bruce and Dale called the Screaming Gypsy Bandits, which terrorized Bloomington while mostly playing the material of their member, Mark Bingham, who would go on to engineer MX-80’s seminal recordings. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Rich Stim wound up in Bloomington from New York City. How does that happen? Isn’t it supposed to go the other… anyway, Bruce would eventually be doing guitar overdubs for a band Rich and Dave Mahoney were in called Chinaboise, and Bruce asked those guys if they’d like to play with him and Dale, and two other drummers at the same time (Jeff Armour and Kevin Teare). MX-80 Sound.
Kevin didn’t stay, but everyone else did, and this double-drummer monster became an unclassifiable quintet that started to rehearse six nights a week. Six nights a week.
Sometimes seven. “At least six times. Every night. There were near-divorces and axe murders over that. ‘Couldn’t we just take one night…’ ‘No, no, no. Never,’” Sophiea says. “We used to practice down in my basement, so it was like, “come on over, we’ll do it.’ We got through lots of other stuff, too. But we had to go through rehearsal hour.”
The music that was oozing up from the floorboards was, and remains to this day, genre-free. If Bruce Anderson was the only true technical musician in the band, then one has to ask what it is that defines technicality. The MX machine’s parts were each strange and brilliant and essential: Rich’s often deadpan, cutting vocals and colorful fills, Dale’s utterly unique and fluid no-pick bass style and baritone voice, and the unbelievable complexity barreling forth from drummers Dave and Jeff, keeping the train to Loveland from flying right off the tracks and into the nearest nuclear reactor (this was, after all, not long before the Three Mile Island disaster).
As Bruce puts it, they played each club in Bloomington – once. But a regular gig and enthusiastic audience wound up being at, of all places, the auditorium at the Monroe County Public Library on weekend afternoons. The preposterously prolific nature of the band meant that audiences tended to see a fresh set of new material at almost every show, as the band, by its own estimation, wrote somewhere on the order of 300 compositions during the Bloomington years. Indeed, Gulcher Records released a Live at the Library double CD by the band some years back, filled almost entirely with unreleased songs. Likewise, when their first LP, Hard Attack, was reissued on CD by the Superior Viaduct label, an entire additional CD was appended of unreleased music from the same period.
And, what of that first record in 1977? Incredibly, the band was signed to Island Records in the UK, then home to Bob Marley and the Wailers, Cat Stevens and Steve Winwood. A sympathetic A&R man, Howard Thompson (who would go on to sign Suicide and Motorhead to other labels in a legendary career) gave them a contract when label head honcho Chris Blackwell was on vacation. Blackwell hated them. The record never came out in their home country of the United States.
Undeterred, the band decided in mid-1978 to pack up and move west, signing with The Residents’ Ralph Records label in San Francisco. Moving to the Bay Area just as the punk movement was beginning to flower was a fascinating and logical choice. Pere Ubu was just beginning to get a national following, DEVO was about to hit, and of course, the Sex Pistols LP had been out for a year on a major label. Since all the barriers were falling, and all the rules were being broken, why wouldn’t these weird-ass renegades be accepted at the Mabuhay Gardens alongside all the other bands sprouting up at the time?
Bruce: “Amongst many things, the fact that we played guitar solos was actually our death in San Francisco. We played one gig in particular at the Temple Beautiful, where some drunk punkette, right in the middle of one of my solos, threw a coat over my guitar. We were pretty well reviled.
“Have you ever seen the illustrated history of the San Francisco underground (music scene)? Excapees? We’re not in it. Everybody is in it, even the unpopular bands.”1
Meanwhile, slimming down to just having Dave Mahoney on the kit
Meanwhile, slimming down to just having Dave Mahoney on the kit, the two LPs MX-80 Sound recorded for Ralph Records, Out of the Tunnel and Crowd Control are two of the great, timeless albums to come out of that or any era. They are spasms of alternately ferocious, hilarious and tightly-wound rock/free-jazz/thrash that flew over the heads of the typical audiences at the places like the Mab (literally, as recounted by Rich – he reports tossing copies of their first Island LP to the audience at the Mabuhay and having them come back).
Still, they persisted. Six nights a week. Every week. There were even brief U.S. tours.
It was only when Rich would disappear into law school and temporarily exit the band for a period of five years in 1982 – along with drummer Dave Mahoney – that MX-80 would begin a metamorphosis. First was a sort of faux version of the band, now internally referred to as C-Minus Humans – who even made a five song EP, which is good, and lies unreleased to this day – doing one U.S. tour before self-immolation. Then came a string of curious cassette releases on the band’s Quadruped label under a variety of pseudonyms (O-Type, Half Life, etc.), during which time a working quartet began to play and perform comprised of Dale and Bruce and Jim Hrabetin on guitar and bass, and Marc Weinstein on drums. Both Jim and Marc had been in the late period version of The Mutants and other weird-ass local combos, and the four soon solidified as O-Type – picking up where a live MX-80 had sort of left off, only with a dual guitar (and sometimes dual bass) assault.
O-Type’s debut, Darling (1987, Quadruped, later reissued on Milvia Son) is an absolutely paint-peeling work of twisted genius. Going full-bore cinematic (and even quoting from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which was not even a year old) it shows Hrabetin and Anderson to be a formidable axe-wielding duo behind the discomforting vocals of Bruce. It was followed up in 1994 with the equally majestic Mommy (Electro Motive Records). Not content with staying in the confines of this black-clad doom-improv-rock room clearer of a band, they simultaneously recorded and performed as alter egos The Gizzards, just four good-time roots rock boys with different names (Lyle, Arlis, Hoss and Frances). They’ve made two records. One only came out on cassette, and the other never came out at all.
Still, they persisted.
MX-80 (with “Sound” now having mysteriously dropped from its moniker) popped back into existence first via cassette – an album called Existential Lover, with electronic “drummer”, Norm Beat – and then in a series of live gigs beginning around 1988, with Marc Weinstein now behind the skins. Studio material began to bubble out in 7” singles, as would, amusingly, the first all-instrumental album, ever, to carry a “Parental Advisory” label on its front cover (Das Love Boat, 1990, A&R Ent.)
An association with Chicago’s Atavistic label would follow in the mid-1990s, leading to a studio album (I’ve Seen Enough, 1995), a live compilation (Always Leave ‘em Wanting Less, 1997) and a reissue of their first three LPs, all with variously botched remastering jobs.
All of this was carrying on with all three bands rehearsing simultaneously. It never stopped. And then, amazingly, in 1996, Dave Mahoney is back in touch and back in MX-80. And O-Type. And there he would stay, almost up until his untimely death in 2006. We’re An American Band (2005, Family Vineyard) would be his last appearance, and what an incredibly weird record to go out on: Jim Hrabetin had become a full-time MX member by then, and the record manages to squeeze together everything that had been happening by way of their various basement experimentation/ambient/noise projects of O-Type (Medication, Strict, Lugubrious and others on the Family Vineyard label) and toss it up into an MX word salad that must be heard to be described.
By this point in telling the MX-80 Sound story, it’s worth mentioning that my own association with the group runs pretty deep. I actually met Dale Sophiea in 1978, right after they arrived in the Bay Area. I was all of 10 years old. Dale used to manage what was then known as the United Artists 4 Cinema in downtown Berkeley, California; I recognized his sonorous tones in the lobby as the same person on the theater’s answering machine message, and struck up a conversation, being the precocious solo moviegoer and film buff that I was practically out of the womb. Dale would eventually let one of his ushers sneak me into the then-basically-X-rated Dawn of the Dead, a screening that would change my life forever. We’ve been friends ever since.
Years later, I would more or less declare myself the group’s tape archivist, and have assisted engineering live shows and recordings here and there and shot video for decades. I’ve shepherded the recent reissues (and, in some cases, remixing) of their first three records on the Superior Viaduct and Ship to Shore labels. When it came time for them to set about recording a new studio album as MX-80 for the first time in about 7 years, it had gotten to the point where Hrabetin’s home studio in Berkeley, Holiday Bison, was clearly their comfort zone and there was no point in doing it elsewhere, but Rich had a tendency to want to work at home in Sausalito, across the Bay. They asked me to help engineer and produce it.
Thus, a transbay record was born, which became So Funny (2015, Feeding Tube Records). On one hand, the LP plays as a “return to form” in terms of classic MX song structure, bouncing from ripping Anderson-Hrabetin guitar duel attacks to incongruous film theme cover songs. On the other hand, the record portends dark clouds on the horizon with utter seriousness from the very first lyric: “I’m feeling kind of queasy/can someone take the wheel?”
Virtually the entire record is a simulacrum. Whereas every previous MX-80 record (aside from American Band) was essentially recorded live in the studio in terms of its basic tracks, So Funny was actually made backwards. Perhaps with a band whose trajectory has been as fucked up and off-kilter as MX-80 Sound, it’s entirely sensible that you’d record an incredibly complicated and layered record and then record the drums last. Well, that’s what we did, among other demented things. Nico Sophiea (son of Dale) was now being behind the skins with Marc Weinstein having moved on… but living 800 miles away in Seattle posed a problem. It was solved by having Rich compose drum machine parts, lay down all his initial vocals and basic tracks around those parts, and then the rest of the band would overdub instrumental sections atop those. But we had Nico record his live drums in Berkeley, ironically with nearly the whole band present, only at the very end, having to carefully play along with the drum machine. Absurd.
This gave us an idea, though: we had Nico lay down overdubbed drums, on top of his own, but changing it up. Voila: MX-80 Sound had returned to having two drummers.
Which brings us to today.
“I’m feeling kind of queasy/can someone take the wheel?”
In August of 2018, I asked MX-80 Sound to perform at my 50th birthday party (along with The Mutants and Three Day Stubble). It wound up being their first live performance with Rich in 22 years – who performed from Sausalito, 5 miles away, on a FaceTime video link. I even sat in on electronics, and John Moremen (Half Japanese) played drums.
A couple months later, Bruce Anderson went to work. His co-workers said he was saying some kind of odd things. He went home early. And his concerned wife, Meredith, took him to the ER.
Bruce had had a seizure. And later, as he began to recover and become more lucid, it was discovered that he had suffered a serious bout of epilepsy, and his “mid”-term memory had simply disappeared. He had no memory of having performed the show. He did not know that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States two years earlier. He did not know that his mother had died. He did not know that the cancer he had beat some years earlier was no longer in remission and likely to show itself. But he’d lost none of his guitar playing.
Thus, the newest and perhaps strangest chapter of MX-80 Sound is being written as I write this. The group is hard at work on their new album, the music for which has already been recorded, and now Rich Stim is busily recording a very unique set of vocals: the transcribed fever dreams Bruce Anderson has been having, a 40-minute narration and instrumental suite, centered around a bizarre white trash crime family called The Houghers. It is to be called Hougher House.
Still, they persisted.
Peter Conheim is the lead Restorationist and Archivist at byNWR.com, and the founder of Cinema Preservation Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of endangered films of all stripes, in partnership with archives, private collectors and laboratories. As a performer from the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the co-founder of Wet Gate: The All-Projectionist Ensemble and Mono Pause, and a long-time member of culture jammers Negativland. He also performs with Malcolm Mooney (from CAN) and the Mutants. His music remastering and restoration projects have included works by DEVO, MX-80 Sound, Tuxedomoon, Noh Mercy, Factrix, Yoshi Wada, John Bender, the Screamers and many others.
 Interview, Forced Exposure #17, 1991