Photo courtesy of Vitus Mataré of The Last
On a muggy day in Oakland, in a tiny, unventilated record store, forgotten 80s punk band The Urinals (a.k.a 100 Flowers/Chairs of Perception) gazed into the mismatched crowd of tired, aging punks tagged with their saggy punk tattoos, politely standing in the middle of Stranded Record Store’s “One Year Anniversary” show. A pack of teen punks raised on Blink-182 pushed their way to the front of the crowd, anxiously waiting for the show to start; ready to shove the surrounding crowd into vinyl displays and teetering amp stands. Although Stranded is the perfect mourning ground for the years of punk antiquity, they’re also still one of the last few revivalist scenes dropping their own vinyl and pushing cramped in-house shows.
The Urinals had come all the way up from Los Angeles to put in an appearance, and although we shared an alma mater, I’d only heard of them second-hand from their extensively covered catalogue by The Minutemen, Yo La Tengo, Butthole Surfers, and No Age, which was doubly impressive, considering The Urinals only put out three EPs before dropping the name. A perfect case study of the degenerating influence of authentic punk rock, I spoke to the original Urinals iteration of John Talley-Jones, Kevin Barrett, and Kjehl Johansen before they took the cramped, eye-level stage.
Noisey: So you guys started as a kind of joke/parody punk band at UCLA. How’d that evolve?
John: Well I think after the first show, we kind of realized that there was something going on that we hadn’t anticipated, that lead us down the primrose path to, uh, musicianship.
Were you a part of the social punk scene before?
John: We were not part of the scene at first. UCLA was a pop-cultural backwater.
Still definitely is. What was the breaking out point?
John: [Laughs] We knew stuff was going on in Hollywood but it was difficult for us to get there and see what was happening, the only way we broke out of the UCLA bubble was because Vitus Mataré from The Last saw us play at our first performance as a three piece, which was a Halloween party at Dykstra, and he said “I want to record you guys”, and we thought, “You’re crazy, but okay let’s do it.” and he introduced us to the rest of the groups.
Kevin: All the satellite groups like Black Flag and The Circle Jerks were all fans of The Last so once we became “Oh, The Last thinks you’re cool? Okay you guys are cool, then.” I remember Keith Morris (The Circle Jerks) saw me on Sunset going to a show and was like, “What are you guys doing on Friday? You wanna do a show on Friday?” And he already had flyers with our name on it, and he’s like “I knew you guys wouldn’t be doing anything.” [Laughs]
What was the trajectory after that you guys started getting shows and you put out your first EPs?
Kevin: The scene definitely started solidifying around a certain kind of sound, and attitude. We would play shows, but the kids would hate us. We played a show at The Fleetwood where they were yelling “You guys suck! You suck!”, and we had to walk out.
John: You were wearing a tennis outfit.
Kevin: I was wearing a tennis outfit. So, we were a little provocative, but we didn’t fit in with them. But everyone thought, “Oh, but you have to play on these bills because you’re The Urinals”, so we changed our name.
So what were you going after?
John: It was punk informed by a lot of different things; psychedelia, kraut rock, everything that we had been listening to started filtering into the music.
Kjehl: We realized we could do a lot more with this than what we had originally set out to do. A big influence was Wire, their early albums. Not trying to ape them, but it kind of gave us a blueprint to explore, and it was definitely away from, like, the hardcore beach scene and things like that. We were wondering why people weren’t going in the same direction as us.
John: Because it wasn’t popular [laughing], they were making money.
I think the more acceptable these bands became in the mainstream, the more credibility they lost in the underground.
John: Credibility is something below the surface, not on top of it. Once something bubbles up it loses credibility. Although, I’m thinking of In Utero, and it was a very different direction for Nirvana than before. I think Kurt Cobain was able to transcend the “perceived” limitations of the template that Nevermind created. He was going beyond that. Some people don’t do that, they reach a certain level and think “Well this works, I’m gonna do this for a while.” that’s how you lose credibility, when you stop moving forward as an artist.
Kjehl: The tent was a lot bigger, and it just got smaller and smaller, and this particular slice of it was the one that seemed to finally get a commercial toe hold.
John: I think people agree the turning point was when Nevermind came out. It made it commercial. It resonated with a lot of people, and then you had Blink 182, and Green Day and a lot of bands that sounded like that.
Kjehl: The underground is like a feeding ground for people who say “I can turn this into a money making, commercial, major label, MTV sellable thing.”
A lot of bands are coming back right now to do these reunion style shows, and the audience is so mixed, are you seeing a youth renewal of these old bands when you do shows now?
Kevin: It’s like when we played The Smell, an LA club, like six or seven years ago, with these fifteen and sixteen year old kids, it was reminiscent of a time when everything was about the music, and all they’re talking about is like, “What are you gonna do, what clubs are you gonna go to, who are you gonna see, who’s your favorite band, what’s the record?” And these kids knew all the bands and all the history, they were telling us “The Minutemen did that song but it was your song!” And we’re like, “Yeah that’s right, nobody else knows that!” That scene really felt like people who just loved music and were into it and that was the only thing that mattered, that everybody was in a band or two bands or whatever.
John: Yeah, we played with No Age, Audacity, and all these other younger bands.
Kjehl: And there’s still that connection between what you guys are doing and what those guys are doing.
Definitely, The Smell scene’s been producing a ton of organic punk; No Age, Mika Miko, Abe Vigoda, and up and comers like Moses Campbell and Traps PS. Even Heller Keller started out as a parody punk band too.
Kevin: The first time we heard it, we’re like, “this is what a band is supposed to sound like.” Four of them would get up, they’d play like five songs, you couldn’t really figure out what they were doing, then the next band would be totally different, maybe two drummers, guitar play, no bass.
John: For a while there were a lot of bands that didn’t have bassists, and I was personally very offended by that. What makes you think you don’t need a bass? No Age, they don’t have bass.
So how do you compare to the current variant of making punk music?
Kjehl: It was more dangerous back then.
Kevin: We played dives, places where no one in their right mind would go unless you were playing, places that are not really clubs but if you showed up at ten and were out by midnight, you could do a set.
Kjehl: We had a lot of support when we started out, but that support came from other bands, it was a loose knit series of scenes. What’s different is that there are places to play now that there didn’t used to be.
Do you guys have day jobs?
John: Medical Book Buyer
Kevin: Database Manager for Public Health Study
Kjehl: Appellate Attorney for the City of Los Angeles.
And you’re keeping your day jobs?
All: [Laughing], absolutely.
Congratulations to Stranded in Oakland on their One Year Anniversary, check out The Urinals rereleases and look out for a new album coming out this year.
Follow Jules on Twitter - @jules_su