THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS’ RONNIE LEATHERMAN: WE WOULD’VE BEEN GUNSLINGERS
illustration by luke thomas
At the very end of the 13th Floor Elevators’ long discography is a ghostly version of “May The Circle Be Unbroken,” recorded at a distance by Roky Erickson as his band faded away. If we were writing a month ago, that would be where everything had ended. But last month, something unexpected happened: the announcement of a reunion of the surviving line-up from the Elevators’ epochal Psychedelic Sounds LP, who will triumphantly headline Austin Psych Fests’ Levitation this weekend. With much-appreciated help, L.A. RECORD was able to secure three Elevators interviews. Today, Chris Ziegler takes a first-person tour through Elevators history with bassist Ronnie Leatherman, who watched the band form, played on Psychedelic Sounds and then returned for Bull Of The Woods and the final moments of the band. Tomorrow, we’ll post the most in-depth Tommy Hall interview since ever as the philosophical engine of the Elevators talks with musician and producer Ty Segall. And Saturday, we’ll post an unpublished interview with Frank Davis, engineer on the revolutionary Easter Everywhere album, who offers insight and enthusiasm with rare clarity. More than forty years after their debut, the Elevators’ influence reverberates through music today—that “surfy” sound people talk about now all comes from departed guitarist Stacy Sutherland—and L.A. RECORD is honored for this chance to peek inside the pyramid.
You were witness to the Elevators since before the beginning—since high school in Kerrville, when Stacy and John Ike were in the Lingsmen. What was the first time you realized this group of people was going to do something special?
The Lingsmen—that was a good band. I played with them right at the first til I had to go back to school. I knew Stacy had talent, and John Ike did, but then when they met up with Roky and Tommy—the first time I heard Roky I said whoa! Yeah! What a great voice! I saw him in Austin—I believe at the Jade Room. That’s where I started playing with them. Stacy and I had been in touch, I knew he was in the band, and I was in another band and they used to come out and see us and we used to come out and see them. Stacy said, ‘Hey, do you want to come play?’ And I said, ‘Well sure!’ Roky and Tommy were looking for a band, and Tommy was looking for an idea, and he ran into Stacy and Stacy seemed to click with him right away. And of course, John Ike jumped on soon as he heard Roky sing and heard some of his stuff and was like ‘well yeah, that’s going to work.’ Then the music started going and the ideas started coming. I started mainly just hanging out with Stacy over at his house, cuz he and John Ike came back and forth from Kerrville, and so I started working with him and then finally got to know Roky very well. Tommy was kind of at a distance a lot of time. He was definitely himself! And he still is! He called me the other day, it was really cool. He sounded excited!
How did that first conversation go—‘if you’re going to be in this band, you gotta take acid.’
Well, yeah. I hadn’t before but when I got with them, nearly every show we did was on acid. Always.
Every show? I can’t believe it.
I can’t believe it either. I was a little leery of it—not as in ‘Timothy Leary.’ I kinda started slow. I never wanted to overdo it.
I read you took half a tab when everyone else took a tab.
Most of the time. And then I’d see if it was working and then I might take a little more. I didn’t ever take it much, except when we played, and then except … occasionally when we just were running around San Francisco, it was kind of hard not to at times. I was 18 and just got out of high school. Just graduated and here we were, hanging out at all the cool places. All the great bands just used to blow me away. None of them had a record out yet so I didn’t really know who they were, but the first time you see Moby Grape, you just get floored! And then Buffalo Springfield, of course—and finally, when Janis got with Big Brother, that was really cool. We knew her. She and Roky actually used to do folk songs together! At Threadgill’s—they were both kind of folksingers in the very beginning and then both ended up being screaming rock ‘n’ roll singers. When she came out to California, she wasn’t with a band. So I think Roky and Tommy introduced her to Big Brother and they hit it off real good. We used to hang out and drink a little wine together. We were a lot different than most of the other bands out there. I thought it was really cool! I liked them probably more than they liked us. It was just such a cool scene and the people were really good to us. I wasn’t expecting that kind of reception when we got there, but it was amazing.
What was the difference between you and the bands in San Francisco?
Sometimes I wondered that myself! I guess we weren’t trying to be as polished as some as them—we were a little more free-form. Sometimes the songs didn’t always go the same way. They’d space out a little bit in the middle. Most of the other ones seemed a little more organized, I guess is how you’d explain it.
The author Paul Drummond said that the Dead couldn’t believe you guys took acid at every show.
Well, most people didn’t! They said, ‘How do you do that and play?’ ‘We got lucky! We must’ve got lucky that night!’
Is that Live at the Avalon set a good representation of the Elevators as they truly were?
I guess! I didn’t even know they recorded it! I didn’t even know it happened until it came out years later. I did have a little moment in ‘Splash One’ where I didn’t know where the hell I was! I hadn’t been with them for but about a month, and I thought we were in another song, and I don’t think I ever caught on. If you listen close you can tell.
International Artists sort of forced you into making that first album when and where they wanted, right? ‘Come back from San Francisco and record or we’re releasing the rehearsal tapes.’
They just made everything worse and worse as things went on. That’s how they got Stacy—when John Ike and I finally left—they told Stacy and them, ‘Oh we’ll buy you all this new equipment.’ And they went out and bought him all this new equipment, anything he wanted. But then they took it all away 6 to 8 months later. They may have just been renting it, knowing the record company.
What went right on that first album? Did it come out how you intended?
Pretty much—other than the mix! And then where they had them mastered. We had it mixed pretty well, and then the lawyers got involved, and they didn’t like this, wanted to hear less of that, more of this, and then they went to some other producer, and they got remixed. Back then, for a lot of recordings, it was hard to do because there was only a few 8-track studios. You still had to go in and do the rhythm guitar, bass, and drums. Once you did those, they put all three of on to one track. Once they bounced those to that one track, you couldn’t bring up the guitar or the bass or the drums. So it made the mixing harder—if you brought up one, everything came up. The mix that John Sullivan—the engineer—did, I think that was the best out of all of them. Everything seemed clearer. It didn’t have reverb—it was dry. If you put reverb on his mix it would have probably been perfect. But they didn’t want to listen to him or us.
I feel like the story of the 13th Floor Elevators is a horror story for bands. Everything that could go wrong did.
There was a lot of downside. A lot of going wrong. It just fell in place like that between us and the record company. They were all lawyers and didn’t have a clue what was going on. Lelan Rogers—I liked him. I got along with him pretty well. He tried, but it got to where he had to choose between the management and us on whose side to take, and of course he was staying on the one that still putting money in his pocket. A lot of ‘em say he was the bad guy at times but I thought he was really pulling for us. I could talk to him. He even called me years and years later just to say hi, which was pretty nice in the long run—even after he burned us.