Interviews

Even by Late-70s San Francisco Standards, MX-80 Sound Were a Wonderfully Weird Musical Oddity

Stream the reissues of MX-80 Sound's first two albums 'Out of the Tunnel' and 'Crowd Control' and read an interview with vocalist and guitarist Rich Stim.

by Tim Scott
15 August 2016, 5:56am

Image: Ship to Shore

Springing from Bloomington, Indiana, MX-80 Sound were one of the weirder bands to emerge from the American Midwest in the mid 70s. Lead by guitarist Bruce Anderson, their eclectic art-rock defied simple classification with spacey riffs, two drummers and vocalist Rich Stim's out there lyrics and songs about visiting Puerto Rican zoos.

Though they owed part of their sound to Captain Beefheart and some aspects of free jazz, they’d sometimes play shows at a local public library., but even by Bloomington’s relative liberal standards for a Midwestern college town, MX-80 Sound were considered out there.

In 1978, the band relocated to San Francisco and released two albums, Out of the Tunnel (1980)
and Crowd Control (1981) on The Residents’ Ralph Records label. Long out of print, the two albums are being reissued on vinyl (and streamed below) for the first time through Brooklyn based label Ship to Shore PhonoCo.

Ahead of their time, the band’s dissonant, discordant heavy-rock is said to have been an influence on the likes of Sonic Youth, the Swans and others.

Ahead of the reissues we had a chat to vocalist, rhythm guitarist and saxophonist Rich Stim.

Noisey: You and drummer Dave Mahoney joined the band in 1976 from another Bloomington band Chinaboise . How would you differentiate Chinaboise with MX-80 Sound?
Rick Stim: Chinaboise was a studio creation. It was a “cassette band” that had no presence in town and primarily existed in our minds. MX-80 was an actual performing band with roots in the music scene and with rock/jazz/avant agenda. Bruce was a local star guitarist “God” with a loyal following.

What were those early gigs at the Monroe County public library like?
The library shows were very civilized and had a “public access” feel to them because they were all-ages and there was no drinking. It was a wonderful venue with a great stage and comfortable seating. I think they were memorable for the audience because of the “oddity” factor — we were very polite, very inscrutable, and even though we looked like a rock band, the music had no connection with anything associated with popular entertainment.

Bruce Anderson. Image: Ship to Shore

Do you have a favourite track from those two albums?
From Out of the Tunnel I like “Someday You’ll Be King” because I was okay with my vocal and because it proved that not only could Bruce do the avant thing but he could rival any rock or metal guitarist around at that time (or anytime). The reissue includes “White Night” which I like because Dale sings so well.

On Crowd Control I like “Crowd Control” because there’s no vocal (I’m not always a big fan of my voice) and because I got to use this whizzing whistle. AndI like “Face of the Earth” because it is such an awesome composition, and of course, I like “Promise of Love.”

Who were Gary and Priscilla in “Gary and Priscilla”?
Gary was a bigger-than-life character Luther Blue who owned a punk rock clothing store in North Beach in SF. He had all the cool stuff — Seditionaries, NY punk clothes — and was famous for refusing to sell stuff in his store. You’d walk up with an item and he’d say, “Oh, that’s not for sale.” Later he managed bands — he wanted to manage MX, too — and then he opened up a water bar that sold bottled waters. He was way ahead of his time. Priscilla was a sidekick of Luther named Tommy, a Tommy would create and inhabit various characters and one of them was a “Priscilla-ish” character with a limited, but repetitive, vocabulary, who referred to Luther as “Gary Garlic-Breath” (later shortened to just “Gary”). Andrea, my wife (aka Angel Corpus Christi) was a keen observer of their interactions and documented it with her lyrics.

What was the relocation to SF like? Was it a mutual decision?
We had been told in regards to a British record deal, that we needed to be in a major US city, preferably LA or NY. I was willing to move to NY but cooler heads prevailed. It was the middle of winter and frozen snow had been on the ground for months and Andrea had just returned from San Francisco and it sounded so much nicer there with flowers and moderate temperatures. Andrea went first, scouted the terrain, than I showed up. We got a house in the Sunset District and then the rest of the band drove out and stayed with us until they all found places of their own. It was a mutual decision but it was harder on some, than others. I liked Bloomington but I didn’t really miss it. Others missed it more than me. Looking back, it was clearly a smart move.

Obviously Zappa and Beefheart were an influence but what about punk?
I liked punk but don’t think it was much of an influence on MX. It was more like something that just seemed to be happening at the same time. The punk sensibility created a musical license that extended to (or at least tolerated) weird non-punk outfits like Pere Ubu and MX. Zappa was also not a real influence on MX but we were grouped with him because of a mutual free-wheeling attitude, lyrical freedom and stop-and-start compositions. Beefheart was a very major influence. Bruce and Dale performed in an earlier band that opened for Beefheart at Ludlow’s Garage in Cincinnati and that was an amazing, unforgettable show. The Magic Band were even better in person than on records (if that was possible). I wonder if MX would even be the same band if not for Beefheart’s inspiring influence.

Rich Stim.Image: Ship to Shore

Did you play with Crime or Chrome in SF?
I don’t remember playing with Crime. We might have played with Chrome at the Boarding House Ralph Records show but I can’t remember.

How did the band’s relationship with Ralph Records end?
It definitely ended with a whimper, not a bang. I think it was part financial, part artistic. They were over extended with all their signings and they needed to circle the wagons and focus on The Residents. They were great, though, and we were lucky to be part of their solar system. They had a swell office/studio at 444 Grove Street that was across the street from a downmarket hooker-infested motel.

Why did you drop the “sound” from your name after you left Ralph?
Bruce (and maybe Dale) felt it was too cumbersome and wanted to tighten things up. Maybe it was to signal a re-birth. Anyhow, now the “sound” is back, causing continuing confusion at iTunes and everywhere else fine music is sold and streamed.

'Out of Tunnel' and 'Crowd Control' will be available Aug 31 though Ship to Shore. Pre order is available now.