Looking Back on Suburban Lawns, The Great Forgotten LA New Wave Band

To celebrate the reissue of the band's cult 1981 self-titled album we chat with original members Frankie Ennui and Chuck Roast.
October 22, 2015, 7:00am

Image: Charles Wharton

The post-1970s Los Angeles new wave scene was undoubtedly one of the most interesting and rich musical breeding grounds of the modern era. Epitomised by people like Geza X and the television program New Wave Theatre, the scene was fertile soil out of which grew hundreds of new wave and punk bands.

One of the most cruelly overlooked bands of this period were Suburban Lawns. Consisting of five art students from Long Beach, all performing under pseudonym, the band performed a jerky, manic style of new wave that echoed the best elements of punk and surf rock. The radiant jewel in the crown of Suburban Lawns was frontwoman Su Tissue, who's vocal style could slip from monotonic drawl to squeal in an instant, and who's aloof stage presence was aggressively anti-punk.

The band released their first single "Gidget Goes To Hell" in 1979, and quickly followed that up with a self-titled album in 1980. The LP has since become stuff of legend; a wholly unique slice of experimental rock 'n' roll that epitomised everything that was exciting about new wave.

The band went on to release one more EP before parting ways. Members formed other bands, Su Tissue went on to record an experimental solo piano album and have a minor role in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, and Suburban Lawns slipped further into obscurity.

To celebrate Futurismo reissuing their classic LP, we had the pleasure of talking with guitarist Frankie Ennui (real name Richard Whitney) and drummer Chuck Roast (real name Charles Rodriguez) about their time in Suburban Lawns.

Noisey: How did you guys originally meet, and how was the band started?
Frankie Ennui: Billy (Vex), our bass player, and John, our lead guitar player, had been long-time friends and had played in several other bands before I started playing with them. I think Chuck had been playing with them as well.

Chuck Roast: [Yeah] I've known Billy and John since high school. We started jamming in whatever living room or garage would have us, making noise really.

FE: Billy had lived down the street from my folks in Lakewood (a suburb adjacent to Long Beach) and was a friend of my younger sister. After graduating from college I rented a house directly across the street from where Billy was living at the time.

My sister kept raving to me about what a great bass player Billy was and, one way or another, Billy and I started jamming. Billy brought John and Chuck into the jams and pretty soon we were all working together on a song called "Steven Weed's Revenge" (about Patty Hearst's boyfriend) with another friend of Billy's Hester Laddey.

Eventually, Billy went to art school at CalArts and while there met Su McLane (a.k.a. Su Tissue). We wrote a bunch of pretty funny songs and started playing around LA as Art Attack and then the Fabulons. At some point, Hester left the band, we changed the name to Suburban Lawns, recorded "Gidget Goes To Hell" and achieved some modest acclaim and notoriety.

You were all living in Long Beach at the time; how do you think this informed the music?
CR: We rented an old corner store in a real seedy part of town. That became Billy and Su's residence, band rehearsal and recording space. We also did live shows on the weekend. It was hard to get gigs in the beginning so we just put on our own. Getting that space allowed us to dedicate all of our time and energy into writing new songs getting our sound super tight. It was a crazy place; there was a neighbour upstairs that would drill holes through the floor and pour water into our space.

FE: "Gidget" and a lot of our earliest stuff was heavily influenced by both the surf scene and by the more urban (and punkish) thing that was happening in Long Beach and LA. Long Beach was kind of a middle ground between LA and Orange County and had a hip and thriving art scene of its own.

Image: Anne Summa

Do you recall the recording sessions for 'Suburban Lawns'?
FE: Our producer EJ was working at Paramount Studios and was able to get us in late at night for a discounted rate. EJ really put us through our paces and, ultimately, helped us achieve our vision by insisting on excellence. It was exhausting, but a lot of fun.

Is there any live shows that stand out to you as being particularly memorable?
FE: The worst was probably a gig at the Keystone Berkeley up in the Bay Area. The audience was a little hostile and impatient to begin with and I think we broke two guitar strings and a bass string on the first song (which led to a long delay because we had little nothing in the way of extra instruments and/or roadies). We basically got booed off the stage.

The record has certainly built up a cult fandom in the years following it's release, how it was received at the time?
CR: It was well received, "Janitor" was getting heavy rotation play at KROQ in LA and it was also getting a great response on college radio.

FE: The record sold well enough for I.R.S. to want us to make another, but it didn't exactly take the world by storm either. The cult fandom thing is certainly gratifying and we appreciate the enthusiasm. It's nice to be remembered.

I've read that the Baby EP was originally supposed to be a full length second album – what happened in the middle of it's creation to stop that from happening?

FE: We had a bunch of songs that we thought would embody a pretty good second album, and I.R.S. wanted another record, but we were having a lot of internal problems (which led to John McBurney, perhaps the best musician in the band, leaving).

CR: The departure of John was a stunner at first, but we carried on. I think at that point I.R.S. decided to scale it back.

Su Tissue's vocals have always struck me as one of the most engaging parts of Suburban Lawns' sound, certainly the most unusual. Can you recall how she came to develop much a unique style?

CR: What you saw and heard from Su was unvarnished and uncalculated. It was an extension of who she was; very organic. She had a wicked sense of humour; a reluctant star. She once proclaimed in an interview with the LA Times that "interviews were obsolete", which I found refreshing due to the fact that is what all bands wanted to do.

FE: When Billy brought her back from CalArts with him, she already had that amazing style and an incredible stage presence.

After Suburban Lawns split, you all continued on in various musical projects, can you tell me a little bit about these bands?

FE: Chuck, John and I persisted, for a while, as The Lawns. That band morphed into another band Electric Sheep when The Lawns split up. The Electric Sheep put out a single, ("T.V. Preacher" backed with "Rot" - a song written by Chuck and me) but eventually broke up.

A reissue of Suburban Lawns self titled LP (including tracks from the Baby EP) is now available from Futurismo on Vinyl & CD.

Sam Eckhardt is a Melbourne based writer who publishes Weirdo With a Dictaphone. Follow him @sjeckhardt