There are tons of bands that achieve notoriety way too early and then fade into obscurity before their Wikipedia page is fully annotated. At any time, there are dozens of these disposable bands popping into the cultural spotlight and then disappearing, and they're all equally forgettable.
On the other end of the spectrum are bands who spend years in near-complete obscurity, building a small but devoted audience that grows with the band. Saccharine Trust is a prime example of the latter. They came up in San Pedro during the early 1980s alongside bands like Minutemen and Black Flag, recording on Greg Ginn's seminal SST punk label, and ended up producing some of the most innovative and biting records of their time.
While most LA punk bands were jumping around and whining about Reagan, Saccharine Trust were digging deeper, both musically and lyrically. Their debut record, Paganicons, captured what it meant to be a dejected self-conscious guy stumbling through the modern world. Songs like "A Human Certainty" and "We Don't Need Freedom" still hit like a sack of bricks because they tap into tragedy and desperation that's deeply human without being confined to the Reagan era or a specific political ideology.
Saccharine Trust is still going strong to this day, so I called up their guitarist, Joe Baiza. He still lives in Hermosa Beach, California, where SST's hardcore scene started. We chatted about his approach to art, the SST days, and living below D. Boon from the Minutemen.
VICE: You guys were one of the first SST bands, right?
Joe Baiza: Minutemen and Saccharine Trust were the first two bands that SST signed and recorded besides Black Flag. So we were there pretty early on, around 1980. We played our first show with the Minutemen in '79. Minutemen had been around for about six months before that.
Then, Black Flag invited Saccharine Trust to open up some show they arranged at an old cinema in San Pedro called Star Theater. Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski came by after and surprised us by asking to record on SST. That's how it started.
That's how Paganicons came about?
Yeah, that's Paganicons. But our very first time in the studio was for Mike Watt's compilation project, Cracks in the Sidewalk. It was an EP with groups from San Pedro, and Mike asked Saccharine to be a part of that. We went into the studio with Spot over in Hermosa, the same studio that Black Flag used, and recorded a few songs there.
What was your creative approach to making Paganicons? It's endured really well.
It's unusual to me how people go back and like that record. When I hear it now, it sounds like a beginner's effort and like we're struggling along. The objective was to try to experiment with a different kind of rock music, influenced by the Minutemen but trying it our way. We were also into some of the same groups they were, British groups like the Fall and Gang of Four. I was introduced to that music through Mike Watt and Dennis Boon. Previous to that I was more interested in being a visual artist, which is actually how it started.
I approached music as a conceptual art project for myself. I said, "OK, I'm gonna be in a band," rather than taking the approach of a real musician. I was never in a band before that. I had very limited experience playing the guitar. I approached it without any foundation—there were no groups I could say I was individually influenced by. It started with just making sounds with the guitar. Jack would occasionally try to play basic punk chord progressions and I wouldn't want to do that, so we'd have the bass play the chord progression and then I would do something around that.
It evolved that way, and that first album we were still trying to figure out where it was gonna go. Earl Liberty and Rob Holzman were on the first album. Then we did our first US tour opening for Black Flag, and Rob left and Tony Cicero came in. Every time the lineup would change, the group's sound would also change. The second album came along, Surviving You Always, and it changed again. I was really into jazz music at that time, so that reflected somewhat on the record, which in retrospect is sort of embarrassing.
Yeah, you didn't exactly fit in with the rest of that scene.
We were an oddball group. I guess you could call it punk rock.
In attitude, definitely.
The Saccharine that exists today is the best version, with Brian Christopherson on drums and Chris Stein on bass. That group has been together longer than the original one. There's still a common thread, though.
Is there ever gonna be a reissue of Paganicons?
We were gonna try to do a reissue with another label, but Greg Ginn at SST still won't allow anything to be done with it. It's kind of being held prisoner right now.
Where did you guys align politically with those first few records? It's hard to tell.
We didn't have any politics, we were apolitical. Though I was very close to D. Boon for a period so I would hear what he had to say and went to some rallies with him in the 80s. But I didn't really follow it that much, and our music didn't reflect any politics. It's more about personal dilemmas and goes to a different existential realm, where politics aren't even part of it. It's just about being inside a place in your brain where you're thinking a certain way.
Yeah, it's more relatable and certainly has a longer shelf life than if you were yelling about Reagan and Guatemala.
We were trying to reflect this idea that when you're struggling so much inside yourself it's hard to be able to deal with what's going on outside yourself. There's too much trouble going on inside to look outside. We didn't have much of a political ideology. D. Boon and Mike were way more overt about their politics, which was cool but wasn't our style.
You guys spent a lot of time together?
Yeah, well I lived downstairs from D. Boon in this apartment building and I heard them working on their Minutemen songs before they had the band. I heard them practicing and discussing and arguing. Mike had a lot of energy when I first met him, and a lot to say. It was a good coincidence that we were both starting bands at the same time. Jack and I would rehearse alone, because it was hard to get anyone that wanted to play with us at that time. Everyone would quit. One day, Dennis came down and introduced himself after he heard us working on stuff. I had seen the Reactionaries play before that in Long Beach, at Suburban Lawn Studio.
That was their very first thing, right?
Yeah. I remember thinking they were pretty good. They played a really short set, like four songs, and it was cramped and hot. I walked up after and said hey to Dennis and said, "What happened, that was a pretty short set?" He said, "Oh, our bass player passed out!" Mike got too hot and passed out.
They taught me how to approach being in a band. Whenever we'd play a show together Mike would say, "We're gonna kick your ass tonight!" He made me realize that you've gotta really put out. It took a while for me to understand that. You have to make peoples' hair stand up a little, you know?
I learned a lot from those guys. They came right before us and were really good and inspiring. That was the cool thing about San Pedro—everyone wanted to do their own thing instead of sound like some other thing. I still haven't embraced the idea of being a musician or a guitar player. I feel like a non-musician. I'm just using a guitar and it's either gonna sound good or it's not—I have no control over it.