Jonny Bell." /> L.A. Record


June 20th, 2011 | Interviews

ward robinson

Middle Class is Mike Atta, Jeff Atta, Matt Simon and Mike Patton (no, not that Mike Patton). Depending on who you ask, you might be told they are the first ever hardcore band, or you might get kicked in the gut with a pre-scuffed Urban Outfitters combat boot. After a very long spell, the band reunited last year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Frontier Records—the label that put out Middle Class’ 1979 EP, “Out of Vogue.” Now they’re returning to the Echoplex to play a badass L.A. RECORD show with Kid Congo, the Urinals and Grant Hart. This interview by Jonny Bell.

Do you get confused with the other Mike Patton?
Mike Patton (bass): Yeah, when I was living in Santa Monica one time I got a phone call and it was a girl and she asked, ‘Is this Mike Patton?’ I go, ‘Yeah,’ and she just screamed. ‘Aahhhhhh!!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, you must be thinking of that other guy …’
Mike Atta (guitar): Nobody’s ever screamed for me. People have screamed at me …
Do you ever get super fans coming into your vintage shop Out Of Vogue?
MA: I wouldn’t say super fans—they don’t scream or anything—but I get kids in here who will be standing over here by the records or by the guitars and they’ll be nudging each other and whispering, ‘That’s him.’ And I’m just like the slob behind the counter, and finally I’ll ask ’em, ‘Can I help you?’ And they’ll say, ‘Are you the guy?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, that depends. What guy?’ ‘The Middle Class?’ ‘Yeah I’m the guy.’
So tell me about The Sound of Music club in San Francisco …
MA: The club I remember best of all was the Deaf Club.
Matt Simon (drums): I remember very distinctly playing there, like an afternoon show with the Toiling Midgets where we were going to leave right after and come home. And I started coming on to the acid and I remember seeing all these people—rolling drunks and stuff—this is my Sound of Music story—and I see this old black guy who comes walking up and I was like, ‘Hey, you should be careful. You’re all drunk and I just saw these people rob this guy.’ So I sat and talked to him for like five or ten minutes. Then he said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and he opened his jacket and he had a badge and gun and everything, and I thought, Oh, Jesus Christ. I was just coming on to the acid.
MP: The Deaf Club was really cool, it was a club for deaf people and we played a show and the deaf people that were around were behind the amplifiers and a bunch of them were touching the bass amp and putting their heads against the walls to get into the vibrations. We played with the Bags and Patricia [Morrison] lost her bass after the show and I remember going into a room looking for it and asking if anyone had seen a bass. When no one turned around I yelled, ‘Hey! What are you all deaf?’
MA: I remember it being next door to a hotel where punk rockers lived and it was like one of those places where you walk in past the guy in the glass case and he hands you a towel. One of those kinds of places with heroin addicts and everything.
You guys were pretty interested in the San Francisco scene?
MA: I think we were more accepted up there by the scene and the kids and everything than we were in Los Angeles. I think at that time, when were playing with the Wounds and the Toiling Midgets—what would that have been 1980, 81?—I don’t think their scene was like the scene down here. The scene down here had become more hardcore with like the beach scene and everything, and they may have had hardcore elements up there but it wasn’t the same kind of thing. It seemed like they were open to more kinds of music.
Why do you think that the bands in San Francisco didn’t end up being quite so ‘legendary’ as a lot of the Southern California bands?
MA: Well, the Avengers and the Nuns and all those bands—they were all pretty big San Francisco bands and they could do pretty well in L.A., but I don’t think they did well with the crowd that was the crowd that liked TSOL and the Adolescents and all that kind of stuff.
MS: I think the L.A. punk scene was bigger too—there was more music industry stuff down here, more records put out.
MP: What was the Sound of Music’s or whatever’s fanzine? Oh, Search & Destroy. It was too intellectual —it was intellectual and party and L.A. was not.
MA: I would say San Francisco was more like the earlier parts of the L.A. scene, where you had a lot of people that were art school, you know like the Weirdos and X and all those bands that went to CalArts or whatever—poetry readings and all that.
What were some of your favorite bands growing up?
Jeff Atta (vocals): Leading up to the band, like before ’74-’75, me and Mike would go to Licorice Pizza in Santa Ana and they’d have all these weird imports and stuff like that, and we got into Eno and Roxy Music and stuff like that.
MP: When I was growing up, I didn’t listen to music. And when I met Jeff in high school he introduced me to Mott the Hoople and New York Dolls, and I kind of got introduced to rock ‘n’ roll when Jeff and I were hanging around. I remember Jeff had the English music magazines, and Creem magazine we used to read. Creem had this little article about this new thing in England called ‘punk rock,’ and they listed the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Buzzcocks—those three bands. And in high school people would ask you what bands you liked and I would say the Damned, and I didn’t even know what they sounded like.
MA: I think for me, at that time—I was about 14 when you guys were discovering all that other stuff—I was listening to stuff like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, anything that would go along with my pot-smoking at the time. And then I remember when I was 15 and a half, almost 16, I started playing guitar and everybody else that was playing guitar was trying to learn Aerosmith and stuff like that, and you guys had gotten like the Dictators and the Ramones in like ’76, and you said, ‘You should try playing this.’
MS: You guys covered a lot of Ramones songs when you first started right?
MA: Yeah, when we first started and it was me and Mike and a couple other people. We were doing Stones songs, Ramones songs …
MP: ‘Cause it was easy.
You started off playing a lot of cover songs?
MA: Yeah, just in our studio. We had a storage unit that was converted into a place for us to rehearse and that’s where we started playing that, and then writing some of our own stuff. But we were into writing songs like Wire and the Ramones. We just didn’t know how fast it was going to end up.
I know it’s a simple question, but why did you start playing so fast?
MA: It wasn’t premeditated—that’s for sure.
JA: I think we thought, ‘OK, punk is loud and it’s fast,’ so we just played as loud and fast as we could. We weren’t intentionally trying to play any faster than anyone else …
MP: And it wasn’t something we really noticed until people started saying, ‘Wow, you guys are really fast!’
MA: We didn’t know anything about the ‘rules’ of music. You know, all those bands like X and everybody, they were all based in blues—they all still had that ‘thing.’ We didn’t know anything about that. We didn’t know about relative minors. I’ve had people say, ‘You know that song “Introductory Rights”? Did you know that song is only one chord?’ [Laughs] Rob Ritter from 45 Grave, Gun Club and all that—he always recorded bands early on. He had a cassette recorder with him all the time, and he goes, ‘I was trying to figure out how to play your songs. What kind of alternative tuning do you use?’ And I go, ‘Alternative? I just tune to Mike.’ … On the speed thing, we recorded on the record that Frontier put out there a version of a song ‘You Belong’ that’s a half a minute longer than the 45 version—and it was just a six-month period till we got to the speed of the ‘Out of Vogue’ single. And like I said, it wasn’t intentional. I don’t know how we got there; it was just a lot of Dr. Pepper and Suzy Q’s. … I remember consciously drinking Dr. Pepper and being kind of like straight-edge after reading in Trouser Press magazine where they were first talking about ‘the punks’ and that they’re against all rock ‘n’ roll conventions, all what’s supposed to be rock ‘n’ roll—the drugs and all that. So we took that to mean that we weren’t supposed to get high, we were just supposed to play this music. It didn’t take long to find out that wasn’t true.
MP: Well, that was one of the reasons I think the L.A. people liked us—we were cute. We were from Orange County, we were straight, we were VERY straight.
MA: I smoked pot before Middle Class, and I quit once we started because I thought you weren’t supposed to do dope or anything like that. It wasn’t until later that I really started smoking a lot of pot. [Laughs]
JA: At that time we were living in Santa Ana, and later in Fullerton. That’s why we got so big up in L.A., because as far as we knew we were the only people in Orange County playing punk rock. Later we found out there were people in Fullerton, Huntington Beach, recording around the same time, but were totally isolated.
MA: At that time there really wasn’t a lot of bands coming out of Orange County at all. When we got interviewed for the Masque when Brendan Mullen was writing his book, he asked, ‘Was it hard? People always said that people in the L.A. scene wouldn’t allow bands from the South Bay and Orange County to come up and play?’ Well for us, it’s because that didn’t exist yet. Everybody that was in those early bands—those first waver bands—they were all from someplace else anyways. How many people were really from Hollywood? They were all glitter kids from the Valley or the Dils and the Zeros were from Carlsbad or San Diego. … Our first show, I just met the guys from the Zeros and asked if we could play; told ’em we had a band and they said, ‘Yeah, you can play next week.’ It was that simple. It was with the Bags, the Controllers and Skulls or something like that. Kind of a different time—that’s for sure.
Do you think there’ll ever be a scene as vibrant as the scene back then?
MA: I talk to a lot of the kids coming in here today. I talk to Audacity, and I ask them how they keep up and everybody’s in a band now—it’s easy for everyone to get their content out there. Before it was like you had no choice—if you wanted to be part of punk rock you had to be part of a little scene. I mean there are little scenes still. Burger Records has their little thing—
MS: —but it’s not underground. You can’t keep anything underground anymore; it’s very difficult in the computer age.
MA: It gets co-opted or whatever, and I don’t know, it’s just like fashion today—it’s just all taking parts of other things. … We never dressed like punk rockers; we dressed pretty much like what you see now, but in high school everybody had long hair and it was still an outcast kind of thing. … Now, you can go to any high school in the United States and you can’t tell what people are into because everybody looks hip or indie or whatever. Before, you could identify a person and be like, ‘That guy’s a loadie, that guys a surfer, that guy’s a punk rocker.’ Now it’s like the guys that are in bands like Mumford & Sons or whatever, look the same as the guys in Audacity! They’re all wearing flannel cowboy shirts, and these guys are playing songs about squirrels?
MS: When I got into punk, I just cut my hair and started wearing ties, and older people would say, ‘You’re a very nice young man. You’re thinking of joining the military?’ And people my age were like, ‘You’re just an idiot.’
MA: I just saw this posting from a friend of my wife’s son’s band and it’s called ‘post-hardcore,’ but they all have haircuts like Disney channel kids. But I guess that it’s ‘post-hardcore metal’, not ‘post-hardcore punk’ or something. I don’t know! … You know it’s interesting because in the original punk rock scene from L.A.—and I think S.F was the same—when you look at bands that were involved like Weirdos, Screamers, Middle Class … when you listen to these bands individually, they kind of sound like they shouldn’t be playing together. You got the Middle Class playing with the Screamers and when you listen to the Screamers now you hear them doing like bloop-beep—all that kind of stuff. I think they all fit together because it was all outcast things. Later on, when you had your hardcore punk scene, you could put four hardcore bands together and it was kind of a blur of music.
MP: And the problem with the hardcore scene was that it became very regimented, and there was a certain way you were supposed to look and a certain way you were supposed to be and it was completely the opposite of what punk started as.
MS: It was not a friendly scene! If you weren’t connected or dressed right you were in danger of getting hurt bad.
MA: I just remember when you played shows up to 1980 or so, you could look out into the crowd and there would be a bunch of girls in the audience. By 1981 you looked down there and everyone had a shaved head and no shirt on! I saw this amazing picture on this Mabuhay thing: Black Flag playing at Mabuhay Gardens and it was Henry Rollins and he was just like all tense and flexed and tight and everything, and there’s like four guys in the front and they all looked exactly the same.
It became like a church …
MA: Yeah exactly. I read this thing about our band and our relationship with hardcore and they wrote that if we would have just done our first single and kept with that music, that we would’ve been as popular as Black Flag. But we changed the formula.
MP: I remember when we played the Fleetwood, some guy came in with long hair while we were playing and got pummeled by the crowd because he wasn’t supposed to be there, and there was a real visceral reaction. I remember Jeff refused to play the first singles. We wouldn’t play them and we broke from that.
MA: I just remember you would start playing and everybody’s back was turned and they’d be all ready to start throwing down and stuff.
MS: I think the ratio of being hit to throwing punches must’ve been 50 to 1. We’ve been beaten up a lot more than we’ve beaten. [Laughs] It’s not a TSOL kind of thing where there are these four big guys who were like ass-kickers.
MP: The original punks were not jocks, you know—they were all losers. But then the jocks got into it and saw about an inch deep of what punk rock was. Didn’t get the whole concept of it. Put on the uniform, and there were jocks and assholes coming in, and now that was hardcore.
MA: We’re going to get beat up again, aren’t we?
Do you think ‘Out of Vogue’ was the first hardcore single?
MA: Some people that were in the original scene, Alice Bag or something, they’ll say it was proto-punk or the beginning of thrash punk or whatever, and I’ll take it, because it’s what gets us known and stuff. And people say this led to that, or Black Flag was a heavy metal band till they heard the ‘Out of Vogue’ single. People will argue that thing with the Bad Brains: ‘Look at the two records—Middle Class was ’78, Bad Brains was ’79.’ You know, I think that the arguments are pretty funny. A blog I was just reading yesterday was saying Black Flag was the first hardcore band. ‘Their single came out in ’76.’ I’m like, ‘What? Where did you get that from?’
JA: All that stuff is just a record collector thing. You have to pick something, somebody always had to be the first one. It’s just like the argument about who was the first ‘punk’ band, and somebody will say, ‘Oh, Iggy was.’
MA: No—Sonics!
MS: It was Charlie Parker!
MA: Next thing you know people are saying it was the Carter Family or something. I think [‘Out of Vogue’] was influential to a lot of people, and I’ll take that.
What do you think about all the old punk bands re-uniting?
MA: I find the whole thing kind of interesting that bands like ours, or bands like TSOL or whatever the bands are can actually play these shows, and they’ll be a mixture of young people and old people. I just remember being 19-20 years old and having absolutely no desire to see bands that had existed 30 years prior, you know what I mean?
MS: Yeah—like going to see the Coasters!
MA: I remember one time when we were about 23-24, and we went to go see Eric Burdon. We were fed up with punk rock so we were looking back at some of the old stuff like the Animals, doing something different. So we went to Eric Burdon at the Roxy and he looked all Vegas! Had his shirt open and all these gold chains on. And he did a medley of the Animals’ hits and we were all like, ‘Uhhhh …’
MS: I remember that and we were—I hate to say this—a little bit famous at the time and the guy was like, ‘Here, we’ve got seats for you right up front.’ After like the third song we were like, ‘Let’s get outta here!’ It was terrible. It was unbearable!
MA: I think it’s interesting that kids and people find inspiration in going to see these old bands and everything. I mean, I’m completely thrilled by it. I’m flattered that a 15-year-old kid would come in here and actually value my opinion on music and stuff, cuz I could tell you that when I was their age I could give a fuck about what somebody that was 30 or 40 years old thought about music. People will bring CDs in for me and ask, ‘Can you listen to this?’ and I’ll say, ‘You know, there’s nothing I can really do for you.’ [Laughs] It’s kind of cool that they care. With the Audacity kids I was like, ‘You guys wanna play behind my store?’ Haha!
MP: The fact that anybody cares is fucking awesome.
Watching you guys play was great, as opposed to maybe the Germs or something. You heard about what they’re doing now?
MA: Yeah, of course. We were going to try and get a guy from ER to take Jeff’s place if he wasn’t going to do the show. .. An actor! But anyways … they tried to get us to do the Germs return show a couple years ago. They said, ‘We got the Minutemen, we got the Germs.’ And I was like, ‘D. Boon’s dead, Darby’s dead. How are you guys doing that?’ Didn’t make any sense to me. … Maybe the actor is good, but to me it’s like going to see Wild Child as the Doors or Atomic Punks doing Van Halen. But, believe me, more people go to see that than the Middle Class!
MS: You know, like I watched the Adolescents and TSOL and they’ve obviously practiced all the way through and they’re tight and perfect, but to me that’s not really the most important thing. They’ve been playing the same set over and over again like for 20 years, but for us it’s a lot different, you know, cuz we’ve just started playing this stuff again this year.
MA: It’s kind of like Middle Class was before … The way we play and the way it is, all it takes is just one little thing to go wrong to throw it into a complete mess. You never know when the wheels are going to fly off and that’s what makes it kind of exciting. And you know with some of these other bands you can tell that it can be done in their sleep.
What’d you guys do in the thirty or so years since the band broke up?
MA: I was in a band with Alice from the Bags called Cambridge Apostles; I did that for a little bit. For a very short time I had a band with Ward Dotson from Gun Club, and for a while I didn’t do anything except for play with Matt’s band—he was in a band called the Pontiac Brothers. They discovered the Doll Hut here in Anaheim and started that thing.
MP: I played in Trotsky Icepick with Jack Grisham [of TSOL], then I was going to college and was in a couple bands—Breathe and Young Caucasians.
MA: Wait, you were in Breathe?
MP: Yeah, when I was going to Fullerton college. A different Breathe.
MA: Oh, there was a band Breath—
MS: —Bad Breath! They were the first hardcore uhhh …
MA: —Gingivitis band! Then you took over the Eddie empire—Eddie and the Subtitles.
MP: Yeah, when Eddie bailed, I presided over the crumbling empire—produced China White, Adolescents, Christian Death …
MA: Oh, I thought that was the other Mike Patton!