When glacially-paced New York City band Codeine called it a day in 1994—after putting out just two LPs and an EP of near-perfect, starkly beautiful music—singer and bassist Stephen Immerwahr and guitarist John Engle pretty much disappeared from the musical map. Original drummer, Chris Brokaw, and his later replacement, Doug Scharin, would go on to play in a multitude of excellent bands, but Codeine was over. Rumors circulated about new releases and returns to the stage, but the band maintained radio silence for the next 18 years. Cut to 2012: following Chicago boutique label Numero Group’s decision that the world needed a career-spanning Codeine box set—a labor of love called When I See the Sun—the band ended its self-imposed exile with a small tour of the U.S. Immerwahr’s promise that there will be no more Codeine shows until “next century” means that tonight’s show at Echoplex is humanity’s second- to-last chance to see them play. This interview by David Geraghty.
Was it difficult to have to dive back in? Did you have to search very hard to find some of the rarities and sessions and things?
John Engle (guitar): Yeah. Not the history itself, but the music itself. None of us had really thought about Codeine in a very long time. The music was a faint memory, and to re-immerse yourself in the music, in the history, going through boxes of tapes—I had to climb around in my closet and look. I thought, ‘Wow, I think this is the reel- to-reel of the Frigid Stars LP.’ There were a couple things that we couldn’t locate, a couple things that unfortunately we had to just have—Numero got the masters, they mastered it from a 45. So we scoured everything, old pictures, things like that. And it’s all there in the box set.
You have cats on your T-shirts. Is that anyone’s particular cat—and why do you hate dogs so much?
Stephen Immerwahr (bass/vocals): [Laughs] I think that I do have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with dogs. But that cat is Sweetie, who was John’s cat in the early 90s, and a great cat. There’s actually another cat behind Codeine: Slayer Otis, who’s thanked on the back of Frigid Stars LP—also a cat. I think we’re kind of cat friendly.
It seems like cat music anyway. They like to kind of lounge around. It’s maybe not active enough for a dog.
Stephen: You can’t tell if they like you or not.
I know when I heard about the tour and the box set being announced, I was pretty speechless. I’ve been a big fan for a long time. Did that surprise you? You said that Codeine was a distant memory—was it amazing to you that people actually cared about this?
John: It was surprising for a number of reasons. One: yeah. I will say that the experience that Steve and I had was a lot different from Chris’ experience of continuing to play music. Steve and I, we both live in New York, we’ve remained in touch—we’re close friends actually. We see Chris every now and then, and he would almost invariably say, you know, ‘I just came back from this tour through Europe and hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t say to me, “So what about Codeine?”‘ So I guess we knew through that that there was some interest. I guess sort of we’ve been put in this historical position with the slowcore movement—whether you believe one exists or not— we were kind of instrumental in that. So there was that part of thinking, ‘Well, I guess—hopefully we’ve aged well. Musically.’ [Laughs] And the other part was we occasionally have been asked by Barry Hogan [of All Tomorrow’s Parties] whether we would be one of the many bands reforming and playing. And we always turn them down. I’d say that Steve was pretty adamant that Codeine existed as a band back then and that our music was done back then—and that it would be something else entirely if we were together and playing music in this day and age. Was there really a reason for us to get together? Just to perform our music? But basically, when Numero is putting out a comprehensive history of the band we couldn’t really just sit by in the wings and say, ‘Well, enjoy it everyone.’ So Steve said, I believe his words were: ‘I would be willing to play ten live shows—perhaps eleven.’
How many has it ended up being?
John: At this point it’s sixteen or seventeen. It was very surprising. It’s still a little bit surprising to be up onstage playing. And it took a while for us to get into the slow Codeine groove. We had a few early practices where we were all playing the music, we all started at the same time and stopped at the same time, and it wasn’t happening. I had even said, ‘Gosh, we sound like some Codeine cover band.’ I thought, ‘Old Things. The Codeine cover band.’ But after about the eighth practice we finally fell into place. We were very pleased and very relieved. So yeah, at this point I think this is, I dunno, show fifteen or fourteen and it is kind of funny feeling, regaining that feeling of being a touring band, even though it’s only been really just a couple of weeks’ worth of shows.
On Monday I saw Mr. Peter Buck clutching your box set. I accidentally said hi to him—that thing where you say hi to them like you think you know them. Is he your most famous fan?
John: Yeah, he talked to me after the show and said he was always a Codeine fan and that he had always liked us. He said he was enthusiastic back in the day and had enquired with Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop if he thought we were going to be recording again. Actually, Jonathan informed him correctly that we were pretty much nearing the end of our run but he did say, ‘Oh man it would be great to record you guys.’ Which I was extremely flattered by. It was a complete surprise.
I like that your label didn’t even mention, ‘Oh, by the way, Peter Buck was calling and asking about you.’
John: Yeah that crossed my mind as well. You might pass that along.
Cuz you never know—that might be the kind of thing that might make you think … ‘Well, hey, we might find a few songs.’ Or ‘I’ve got a solo project.’
John: Yeah. I mean honestly, 94 came, it was time for us to call it a day. At the time Greg Sage of the Wipers was a huge fan and he had communicated with Steve and had said, ‘Oh, if you guys are going to do another record I would love to record you.’ Which we were also tremendously flattered by. But when 94 came we were pretty much done—for a number of reasons but basically we felt that the band had run its natural course.
Was that because you thought the band had said everything it could say? Was it sort of a fatigue? Was there a particular reason or did it just feel right?
Stephen: It certainly wasn’t intentional. It’s hard to know what brings the muse. The songwriting muse, it came and it went. So I feel like the muse had kind of left Codeine—getting new songs was going to be like writing new songs, not having new songs for Codeine. That’s a kind of weird distinction, but yeah, I wasn’t sure that I couldn’t go any further.
I always think that Codeine records lyrically sound very personal. I don’t know if that’s true—if that’s the case, has it been weird to come back and sing those lyrics eighteen years later, or are they just words to you now?
Stephen: They’re just as tough to sing now as they were then, or just as good to sing now as they were then. I was kind of afraid of them for a long time and it’s kind of nice to be … They’re a little less scary. It’s no less intense for me. But it’s certainly easier. One more thing about that: I paid attention to my singing then, but I feel like in the last twenty years—as an active listener of music, vocal music, coming back to this, doing songs and really enjoying the singing part of it—I don’t know if I’m singing it any differently or if anyone else can tell, but it’s nice. I’m enjoying singing.
Chris once played with GG Allin. Was that the pinnacle of his career or the inevitable low point?
Stephen: That happened for like about two weeks. Maybe like two months.
That’s gotta stick with you though.
Stephen: It does. But that’s probably because the roots of indie rock are punk rock. The people that went on to play indie rock, a lot of them did come from a deep love of punk rock. Actually I was talking with Chris earlier and he was mentioning touring with Evan Dando—Evan Dando has like green GI Germs tattoos, he’s got a big Flipper fish tattoo. He probably started out that way. It’s not too surprising. Chris was in Oberlin’s big hardcore bands—Pay the Man—and then went on to do other stuff. That’s how I came to that stuff too. So it doesn’t seem so surprising that there’s some punk rock roots to Codeine.
I read that you are or were really into black metal. Is that correct?
Stephen: Chris Brokaw, Chris and I in the throes of it also put out an Italian black metal group. I put out an LP by them. The group is called Ovskum. I actually put out their 2006 demo on vinyl. I love that record. I’m just so happy to have it out.
I saw Chris was wearing a Burzum T-shirt on Monday. How did the Ovskum LP come out? If it was their demo, did they contact you? Or had you heard it through the channels?
Stephen: Someone had put out their cassette, actually put out two cassettes of theirs, and I was just listening to them and listening to them and then one morning I realized that someone had to put them out on vinyl. And crap—it had to be me. So I tried really hard to get hold of the band. I didn’t want to email them—I wanted to write them a letter. It’s kind of tough to get some land addresses, but I finally was able to get a hold of them. I’m really happy with it—particularly the illustrations done by a friend of theirs which are really great, creepy black metal.
What’s the name of the label you put it out on?
Stephen: Obscure Origins.
There’s a quote I remember from Alan [Sparhawk] from Low—years ago he said that playing slowly felt like a challenge to both the band and to the audience. Did you ever have the same kind of feeling—wanting to try something different or try and go against the prevailing mood of music in the late 80s and early 90s?
Stephen: Whatever kind of oppositional nature that Codeine had, I think it was more just the kind of over-the-top histrionic singing, the screaming of grunge bands and riffing and so on. Part of our reaction was a different mood, a different mood to our music and playing … It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re going to slow things down, that’s gonna mess people up.’ But certainly slowing things down and experiencing that, it was challenging for people and challenging for audiences. And I actually kind of like that.
CODEINE WITH MARK EITZEL AND ELECTRIC FLOWER GROUP ON FRIDAY, JULY 13, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $13-15 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. REISSUES OF CODEINE’S FRIGID STARS, BARELY REAL AND THE WHITE BIRCH OUT NOW ON NUMERO GROUP. VISIT NUMEROGROUP.COM.