THE URINALS: ABSOLUTELY A CONCEPT
The great thing about first-wave punk rock is you didn’t have to be a serious punk or even serious at all. The Urinals began as a UCLA campus in-joke, later evolved into serious players on the nascent L.A. scene, retooled as proto-Paisley Underground acidheads 100 Flowers and attained a certain punkish immortality before crashing and burning early in the 80s. Their tight and eccentric songwriting has been covered by the Minutemen, Yo Lo Tengo and Mika Miko, among others. Both band incarnations are back on stage and on disc, the pretext being Superior Viaduct’s reissues of the Urinals’ first three eps and Flowers’ sole, eponymous LP. And we’ve got tickets to their show Friday!Here, John Talley-Jones, the act’s bassist and singer, holds forcefully forth about taking a joke way too far. This interview by Ron Garmon.
You guys formed in 1978 at UCLA in as a dorm room parody of a punk rock band.
John Talley-Jones (bass/vocals): That’s correct. In everyone else’s dormitory they were listening to Steve Miller Band or Kansas or Neil Young. Not that there’s anything wrong with Neil Young.
Well, there are always exceptions.
I am willing to make that exception. Everything else being played, Steely Dan and all that stuff, I hate it. There was no energy to it. What were those songs about?
Um … ‘No static at all’?
Right. Exactly. Which is metaphorical, like, ‘Don’t bother me, man, I’m smoking a joint.’ We were interested in pursuing something with a bit more energy. It came out of anger, but also a sense of humor. Hence the parody. My reaction against the popular music of the late 1970s was because what I was hearing was background music, all about ‘enhancing a lifestyle’—unlike punk rock, it wasn’t reflective of what was going on in the culture, although I guess it was the culture, just not one I approved of.
You were likely the first university band to come out of that type of anger.
That’s probably true. There was a meme already out there. We were the only people we knew at UCLA, although we met up later on with the Leaving Trains, who were also at UCLA, and Bruce Licher and Savage Republic came out of the same scene. At that moment in time though, we felt pretty isolated.
So there was no punk scene at UCLA as such.
There was a series of micro-scenes and after a while people began to gravitate toward them. The locus was at the art and film schools in the north part of campus. UCLA is sort of bifurcated, with the liberal arts at the north end and engineering and the sciences at the south end.
The Urinals at this point sound like more of a concept than a band.
It was absolutely a concept, yeah. We didn’t know how to play instruments. That was secondary to our intentions. We wanted to make a statement, so it did come out of an artistic impulse that had very little to do with music per se but a lot to do with noise and confrontation and energy.
What were you guys listening to back then?
At that point in time, Buzzcocks, Ramones, Wire, the Lurkers, a lot of the stuff coming out of the U.K.—the Stranglers and that kinda stuff. Not so much American stuff because it seemed like the British bands were getting pretty good distribution. The environment at UCLA was sort of insular. We knew that that sort of stuff was happening in Hollywood but we couldn’t get there until we found some people with cars. After that, we sort of fell in with those people.
And you guys gigged in Austin before taking on the L.A. scene.
I went to school at the University of Texas in their film program for two years before transferring to UCLA, so I had some connections in Austin, but none in Hollywood or anywhere off campus. A friend of mine out there was in a band called the Huns, Phil Tolstead. He and I had been at UT and somehow he helped arrange to have us out there. We wanted to play off campus, so seemed the next logical step, even though it was a 2,400-mile-round trip. We jumped at the opportunity since we didn’t have anything like it locally until we were invited by the Last to play Gazzarri’s.
Once you came back from Texas, you began to pop up all over the local punk rock map, playing with Black Flag and the Go-Go’s.
We would play with Black Flag very frequently because they were very supportive of us. And then when Keith Morris started the Circle Jerks, we played with them a lot.
‘Black Hole’ is kind of psychedelic sounding, like a stripped-down Nugget. This reworking of 60s garage rock sounds quite conscious to me.
We’d been listening to the 13th Floor Elevators. We covered ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ as well, so we were certainly aware of that kind of psychedelic pop music. It was definitely in the DNA of the band. We were learning to be a little bit more articulate with our instruments at that point and we were capable of a little more subtlety than the first EP. The stuff we were writing was deliberately simple and as we grew more confident, of course, we started to explore other areas musically.
Where was ‘Sex’ recorded?
In a weight-training room at UCLA. It was very small and kind of a concrete bunker sort of thing and I think that’s why the record sounds so massive; there wasn’t any place for the sound to disperse. At that point, we were practicing at a parking structure at UCLA on weekends when it was empty so we had this huge space in which to turn up the amps, crank it and not bother anybody. So I think we were trying to replicate that on a smaller scale. We didn’t have access to a studio and our second EP was recorded at the soundstage at the UCLA film school. The first singles, we just had to use whatever space was available to us.
100 Flowers, the album, holds up well today. The haiku-like lyrics are often remarked upon. How did this independent album do commercially?
We issued it ourselves. There wasn’t money to print more than a few thousand copies. It did fine commercially from our perspective, but if it had come out on a larger label or if we had better distribution or if we not broken up a couple of months before it came out, it would’ve done a lot better. It’s well thought of; it’s a strong record and there’s a lot of affection for it but our timing was terrible.
In some ways it was ahead of its time. You guys deserve notice for the way your sound prefigured most of the Paisley Underground.
It’s funny because for a while there we were lumped in with the Paisley Underground. About the time Warf Rat Tales came out and we were compiled on it along with Rain Parade, the Leaving Trains and others. First we’re minimalist punks, then we’re hardcore, then we’re psychedelic poppy, then we’re punky-funky, then we’re Paisley Underground. No one could pigeonhole us. We were trying to pursue our own path and we weren’t consciously following any particular style and ended up in these little ghettos. We were absorbing it all and it came out in kind of an eccentric way. We interpreted it as far as our limited musicianship would let us.
What made you change the name of the band to 100 Flowers?
We felt restricted by the name. We adopted the name [the Urinals] as a joke or insult or slap in the face at anyone who’d come see it. It was supposed to be offensively juvenile. As we discovered our songwriting abilities, the stuff we were writing was more sophisticated than the name would imply, so it was a weird fit. This happened to correspond to the hardcore scene coming up and the Urinals sounded more hardcore than what we were doing. We felt like there was a need to signal who were and what we were doing. It actually got us into places we hadn’t been allowed to play. Later on, when we reformed, we went back to the original name and more or less stuck with it ever since, though with the re-release of 100 Flowers, we’ll be doing some shows under that name with the original lineup.
You broke up in ’83. Why?
[Laughs] We were having a lot of problems with each other. It was purely personal—we just weren’t getting along. We had different ideas about what the band should do. We weren’t communicating with each other. There was a lot of resentment and unhappiness. We turned around and saw our friends in the Middle Class were breaking up and that kinda gave us permission to break up. If this band that we looked up to was breaking up, then why can’t we?
What were the Chairs of Perception?
It was the name of a band when Rob [Roberge] joined. We didn’t know what it was going to sound like and didn’t want people to think of the old Urinals because we weren’t sure. Rob comes from a different aesthetic place—American roots music and blues and things like that—and we weren’t sure what that was gonna sound like. So we were kind of hedging our bets. The other guys in the band hated that name! I was amused by it, but after eighteen months changed it back because at that point it really was the Urinals. We were revisiting the older songs and doing a lot of new material in that tradition. It seemed right.
At what point did the 100 Flowers revival start?
We did two shows at Club Lingerie in 1987, but that was just a short-term thing to shoot a video. We hadn’t played together until this year and hadn’t played with Kjehl since 1998. If you saw the Urinals set we did at Permanent Records on Record Store Day, you saw the first time that configuration played together since ’98.
You’ve seen the 100 Flowers album grow a formidable cult. Listening today, what do you think of it?
I like the material. I think I could do it better now. I like the performances, but the production is a little dated and sounds too 80s to me.
Production-wise, it sounds very much like an indie punk album of its era.
Yes, it does. One thing we’re doing to sort of change that is, after the official vinyl releases are out, Superior Viaduct is issuing them in sequence. The Drawing Fire EP, the ‘Presence of Mind’ single, and then everything’s gonna be compiled on CD and that’s gonna be remastered. It’s gonna have a little more warmth to it, some more bass in it and sound a little more contemporary. We didn’t remix anything, but it has been remastered. Negative Capability, the compilation CD, is coming out on vinyl on In the Red … It’s a two album set. And the Urinals have just finished recording their latest record and it’ll hopefully be out late this year or early next.
BLUNDERTOWN PRESENTS THE URINALS RECORD RELEASE FOR NEGATIVE CAPABILITY WITH 100 FLOWERS AND SHARK TOYS AND HOSTED BY TANIA ESTRADA ON FRI., JUNE 22, AT THE BLUE STAR, 2200 E. 15TH ST, DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $10 / 21+. MORE INFO HERE. THE URINALS FIRST THREE 7”S AND THE 100 FLOWERS LP ARE AVAILABLE NOW FROM SUPERIOR VIADUCT. THE URINALS NEGATIVE CAPABILITY WILL BE AVAILABLE FROM IN THE RED RECORDS THIS SUMMER. SUPERIOR VIADUCT WILL ALSO RELEASE MORE 100 FLOWERS ARCHIVAL MATERIAL IN THE FALL. SUPERIORVIADUCT.COM AND INTHEREDRECORDS.COM. VISIT THE URINALS AT HAPPYSQUID.COM.