Left to right: Tim, Tom, Lynn, Scott, Steve, Rob; photo by Karina Jakelski
Interview by Dave Lang
The Los Angeles band of the 1980's/'90's known as Slovenly existed between the years 1980 - 1992, released five LPs and three EPs, toured the US several times, had nearly all of their recordings released on legendary, influential imprints such as Mike Watt/D. Boon's New Alliance and Greg Ginn's SST labels, and yet for many, they remain barely even a footnote in the history of American underground music from that period. If that.
But for some, they remain a group spoken of in hushed, reverential tones, almost like it's a secret club. "Why on earth did they never get anywhere?!" For myself, they remain probably the great "lost" SST band, the one who should have sold a heap of records, listed as an influence by alt-rock superstars (the only one I can think of outside of the SST stable who has spoken their praises over the years remains Wilco's Jeff Tweedy), and had chapters dedicated to them in the voluminous number of post-punk/US Underground tomes penned in the past decade and a half. But of course, this never happened.
The sound of Slovenly remains one hard to capture in print. There are musical similarities to some of their contemporaries such as the Minutemen and Meat Puppets, though for a band hailing from the southern Californian beaches, they had an uncharacteristically Angloid edge to their wares that many others amongst the SST stable wouldn't go near. Their musical debts to various Rough Trade types and the likes of PiL, The Fall, Wire, etc. was obvious, though they mixed up these scratchy post-punk sounds with a mysterious, proggy murkiness and forays into avant-jazz. The only other band from the period whom they truly remind me of, if only because of their ability to throw unexpected hooks into a non-linear musical setting, is New York's The Scene Is Now, but now I've probably just confused you further.
Every one of their releases is worth tracking down, and it remains a travesty that none of their recordings are currently in print, even within the digital sphere. And no matter what the band says here about their swan song, 1992's Highway To Hanno's (one of the last truly great albums released on the SST label, says I), whilst it does sound like a band falling apart at the seams in places, it is most definitely worth hearing and grabbing upon such an opportunity.
I first heard the band properly 30 years ago in my final year of high school when the SST label was a daily obsession and it was still releasing a chunk of excellent, adventurous material (forget about people claiming the label ate shit after 1986: 1987 - '89 presented a release onslaught with many gems in the mix). The album was their just-released We Shoot For The Moon, one which still remains my fave in their catalogue. Others were sought out soon and the set was attained. It remains a body of work still worthy of its weight in gold.
The post-Slovenly musical world is also one well worth investigating: bands such as Dingle, Baculum and Overpass carried on the skewed musical world of Slovenly into a new decade, and you'll read about all of this below. I tracked down members Steve Anderson, Tim Plowman, Tom Watson and Rob Holzman for the full story of Slovenly. Their prestigious legacy is long overdue.
PSF: The band formed in 1980, but tell me about your life prior to the band: where when you were born and raised; your musical background, home life, education.
Tom: I was born in NYC in 1962, dad was an illustrator and my mom was a theater actor. I have one older brother and one younger. I was lucky to be in NY in the 60's and I was exposed to many live performances and art shows as a kid. I went to school in Manhattan through 1st grade then my family moved to Manhattan Beach, California.
Rob: I was born in Flemington, New Jersey in 1962, then my family moved to Armonk, New York. My dad worked for IBM, and was relocated to Los Angeles. My mom, dad, my 2 brothers and I moved out to the beach cities of Los Angeles in 1974, and stayed in Manhattan Beach until my parents soon got divorced.
Tim: Born in St. Paul, raised in SoCal in the beach suburbs. Music kind of kicked in during high school playing with Tom, Rob, Steve and Scott in various forms. Lots of jamming and listening to music. I started playing with Lynn Johnston around sophomore year. Lots of free improvisation. He turned me on to a ton of free jazz, modern music, etc. That definitely informed his playing and approach. Toxic Shock was going strong. Tom and I went way to study electro acoustic music and computer music. The band kind of picked up from there. Education for me college, grad school, Berkeley.
Steve: I was born in Little Company of Mary hospital in Torrance California - a suburb of Los Angeles. We moved so often people would ask if my dad was in the military. He wasn't. He was - and still is - a computer programmer. We moved to Poughkeepsie, New York ,when I was 3 or 4 years old. After that it was off to Westchester, another LA suburb. A year later we moved to Manhattan Beach. I went to Grandview Elementary School grades 1 through 3. Next we moved to Del Mar, near San Diego. Dad didn't like the new job, so we moved back to Manhattan Beach. I returned to Grandview Elementary School finishing 4th grade and 5th. My folks got divorced. I don't look it but I am 1/4 Samoan on my mom's side. Mom, my brother and I moved to American Samoa. We were there for two years. Back to Manhattan Beach for 8th grade. Next we moved to Oahu, Hawaii. One year later, back to Hermosa Beach (borders Manhattan Beach) where I did my last 3 years of high school.
PSF: Tell me about the formation and genesis of the band.
Tom: Slovenly began in 1980 in Hermosa and Manhattan Beach, actually Bruce and I were in Manhattan Beach and Tim, Steve and Rob and Scott were in Hermosa Beach basically right next door. The band connections began much earlier than the final line up of Slovenly (Peter at the time). We're all the same age and grade except for Scott who was one year younger than the rest. We all went to Mira Costa high school in Manhattan Beach, the same school as Milo and Bill from the Descendents, Greg from Black Flag, Raymond Pettibon, Janet and Steve Housten... so, there was some counter-culture going on. We got to know each other just by being similar types and all of our lines crossed at different points before becoming Toxic Shock, and years before Slovenly began. Halfway through high school, '78, I joined Toxic Shock, shortly after that Rob met up with Joe and Jack from Saccharine Trust. Toxic Shock was doing minimal punk songs that were mostly about people at our school. Soon, we started getting more exposed and influenced by post-punk from the UK, anything on Rough Trade, Wire and PiL, The Fall and Swell Maps and on and on.
Backtracking a few years, '75?, I had met Rob Holzman in 7th grade when he relocated from New York to Manhattan/Hermosa Beach, so we had that in common and we became good friends. Rob had a natural feel for the drums, even though he had never played or had a drum kit. We started playing as a two piece called the Essentials. We had some songs, but only played in his bedroom. Soon, Rob and I hooked up with local bass dude, Mark Vidal (Earl Liberty) with an unnamed instrumental freak out power trio ('78?). Soon, we joined up with local surfer Denis Jarvis, who wanted to be the front man/singer and we started the band called the Jetsons, mostly all originals, we played a bunch of beach house parties, mostly new wavey stuff. Soon after that, Rob and Mark joined Saccharine Trust and recorded Pagan Icons on SST. They played a bunch and toured with Black Flag, etc..
Also about this time, I started playing duets with Tim Plowman: he on piano and mono synth and I was using as many pedals as I could. We had similar influences like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Can, Velvet Underground. prog, glam, John Fahey and various electronic music, Cluster, Neu, etc. We played at odd gigs and school shows.
During this time, Steve, Scott and Bruce started a minimal punk band called the Convalescence, along with Crusty on bass. She left the band and I joined on bass and we became Toxic Shock. We started playing house parties, then were offered some shows in San Pedro with bands like Saccharine Trust, the Disposals, the Chiefs, Minutemen, etc.. We were invited by the Urinals (100 Flowers) to add a song, "Sensationalism," to their compilation Keats Rides A Harley with Gun Club, Meat Puppets, 100 Flowers and so on. When we graduated from high school in 1980 the first version of Slovenly began jamming in my bedroom, mostly freeform and Steve reading from an old book laying around my house entitled Slovenly Peter: short sadistic tales to scare children into behaving. Very dark German tales from the 1800's.
The first Slovenly line-up was Scott Ziegler, Steve Anderson, Tim Plowman, Bruce Lossen and I, doing jams at my house in the summer of 1980. In the fall of 1980, Tim and I went to the university of Utrecht in Holland to study electro-acoustic and tape music. When we returned, we picked things up again and dropped the "Peter," doing some semi-improvised and more adventurous experimental rock. We all had different things to add, and the music began to develop its own sound. Finally, when Bruce left the band, Rob Holzman entered, and that was the true start of Slovenly.
Rob: I met Tom Watson in the 7th grade and we became friends. Throughout those years, mainly in high school, he got me interested in progressive rock, like Yes, Genesis and ELP and encouraged me to start drumming. I started off by tapping on lamp shades, tin coffee cans, and pots and pans using chop sticks. In my junior/senior years, he turned me onto Devo, Brian Eno, and the Sex Pistols and I started hanging around Toxic Shock before I joined Saccharine Trust, which I was encouraged to join them through Bruce Losson and Steve Anderson. They're the ones that told me that Saccharine was looking for a drummer, so I met Joe Baiza and Jack Brewer at a punk gig and soon after joined Saccharine I'd say around early 1980-81. After leaving Saccharine Trust, mostly because I didn't feel people at gigs were interested in Saccharine, especially opening/touring with Black Flag, I went back to hanging out with the Toxic shock dudes when they became Slovenly Peter and ended up buying Bruce Losson's drum set. He was the original Slovenly drummer and I replaced him soon thereafter. As far as meeting Tim and Scott, that happened in my school years. I met Scott through Tom and he lived in Hermosa Beach, where I eventually moved to from Manhattan Beach with my mom after she divorced my dad. Scott was more the "punk rock" type guy with the leather and dyed hair. Tim was the opposite. Scott was younger. Tim was my age and I met him in high school. He also lived in Hermosa Beach and I remember hanging out at his house a lot, during the day when his parents were working, and watching early Slovenly Peter play and record in Tim's living room.
Tim: Rob can speak for himself but he was obviously a high school friend and just a really good drummer who was a much better fit than our previous drummer. I think we just begged him to join Slovenly. He could easily slot into the kind of unusual stuff we were trying to do. We could just find the pocket in the choppy, syncopated things we were trying to do. I think the band had a creative burst for about 5 or 6 years that Rob's drumming pushed in really interesting and unusual ways. I think with Bruce Lossen (Toxic Shock) we kind of hit a wall in terms of what he wanted to do and what the rest of the band wanted to do.
Steve: Before there was Slovenly there was Slovenly Peter and before that there was Toxic Shock. Sort of. I had known Bruce Lawson on and off since elementary school. We reconnected in high school and jumped head first into the spectacle called punk rock. History sophomore year I sat next to Michelle who was totally into it. We lived near each other and sometimes on the way home from school I would go to her house and listen to all kinds of stuff. Sex Pistols, The Fall, Buzzcocks, Kraftwerk, Swell Maps, Gang of Four, 999, The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, Magazine, Wire, Devo, Black Flag, Talking Heads, Television Personalities, The Germs, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Television, Sham 69, The Slits, Dead Boys, Middle Class, Black Randy and the Metro Squad, Throbbing Gristle, etc..
Anyway, Bruce and I would go to Zed's and other record stores and buy all kinds of stuff. We'd hang out and listen to music. We quickly learned that many of these bands started without having much actual musical ability. "Hmm," we thought. "Why not?" Bruce had been playing drums for about 6 months. I had no musical abilities. I'd learn how to play guitar - that was the theory, anyway Then Bruce met Scott who had been playing guitar for 5 or 6 months. He, too, was getting into some of the aforementioned music. We became friends. We'd get together, eat bad fast food and listen to stuff. It didn't take long for Bruce and Scott to start playing together. I'd hang out, drink, watch, listen. It was pretty bad at first, but we didn't flinch. Call it naive hubris, whatever, we kept going. Scott had one of those old portable cassette players, and we started recording the jams. During one of these sessions, I got close to the tape recorder and I did a bad impersonation of Johnny Rotten. Not intentionally. But when we listened back, it didn't sound half bad. And so on we went. We practiced a lot and started writing songs and mostly played parties. We never found a permanent bass player and somewhere along with way I forgot that I was supposed to learn how to play an instrument.
Bruce knew Tom, and even though he played guitar, he agreed to play bass. He became our de facto bassist. Our first real show was at a bar in San Pedro called Capone's, opening up for Saccharine Trust and the Minutemen. It was nuts, crazy, wonderful. We recorded 2 songs one of which, "Sensationalism," ended up on the Keats Rides a Harley compilation. The CD version came out somewhere in the 21st century, which includes the other song, "Fat." By this time, we'd become weary of the constraints of punk rock. Tom knew Tim and Rob. Saccharine Trust needed a drummer and I encouraged him to try out (I'm not certain Rob will remember it the same way). It might sound odd that I wanted Rob to join ST, but Bruce was still our drummer. So Tim, Tom, Bruce, Scott continued on. It was an interesting group of players and we began writing more interesting, experimental stuff. I don't think we planned it but we took our time, didn't rush to immediately put our music out. We knew we needed time to get a handle on what we were. Call it gestation.
Tim and Tom went to Holland to study electronic music at Institute of Sonology. I'm not sure when Tim met Lynn Johnson, but it was around this time where he became closer to a member of the group than a guy we occasionally jammed with. Even though people were coming and going, (I went to Hawaii to visit family, Tim and Tom to Holland), there was always some fashion of the group getting together playing, writing music. I'm guessing this phase lasted 2-3 years.
After everyone was back for good, we started jammed, hung out and really started focusing on the music. Tom's parents were exceedingly kind and generous. They let us play in their house with nothing but positive feedback and encouragement. It was during one of these occasions that we found our name. I usually brought lyrics of my own or favourite books to use when jamming. But not this time. I could ad lib only so much. As the guys were getting into it, I walked into the living room and found a book that looked intriguing. I grabbed it and went back into the noisy room, opened the book and started singing the words. The book was called Slovenly Peter, a children's book of illustrated stories that described the bad things that happened when children misbehaved. Wikipedia: "Each story has a clear moral that demonstrates the disastrous consequences of misbehaviour in an exaggerated way." The "Peter" got dropped pretty early on. I think it just kinda happened, but maybe we got tired of the foolish insinuations. I don't remember if Rob left ST first or we begged him to quit, but it doesn't matter. We got him. Bruce was a great guy and a good drummer, but he wasn't as capable dealing with the more complex music we were after.
PSF: Was there a sound you were after, influences? Steve Anderson's way of singing was quite unique, like it was almost spoken in a Lou Reed manner. How did this approach come about?
Tom: We were a product of the bands we listened to, it's just that once we mashed it all up it didn't really sound like any one of them. I would have to say, at first, our most similar sounds related to other bands were by The Fall, Joy Division, Pere Ubu, Television, Wire, maybe some Meat Puppets and Minutemen. We were also heavily into Captain Beefheart, but that mostly affected our structures and time changes, and guitar interplay. Steve brought a literary aspect to the songs, not the usual song structures, and this went well with the type of music we wanted to make. He was way influenced by Celine, Raymond Carver, Bukowski, John Fante, and lots more. So the vocal parts were more like prose than song lyrics and I think that's how Steve developed his singing. He also was influenced by David Thomas, David Byrne, Mark E. Smith, Ian Curtis, and probably some Lou Reed.
Rob: As far as a sound we were after, I don't think we were going after a sound, to be honest. We all pretty much had the same influences. Personally, the Fall, Talking Heads, Magazine, Pere Ubu and a lot of what the other bandmates were listening to/turned me onto.
Tim: I think for me when we started, one of the big things was not trying to sound like anyone else – which is sort of a ridiculous aspiration. I think in the early days collectively everyone was listening a lot to a bunch of different stuff with some overlap. For me it was early Pere Ubu. Red Crayola, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Joy Division, PiL, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, Neil Young, Television, the Soft Boys, Throbbing Gristle, David Bowie, the Blue Orchids, other SST bands, etc. and especially The Fall. Those first 4 or 5 Fall records were just so unlike anything else. I think we all went and saw them at Al's Bar on an early tour. They were great. As we grew up I think all our influences got much broader. I grew up listening to a lot of John Fahey. And Sandy Bull. Steve can speak for himself but I remember going over to his house, and he had a bunch of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground records. I think we really liked the Blue Mask when it came out. I think Steve used to get compared to Ian Curtis a lot which I am not sure is really a useful comparison. Steve really worked on his singing, at one point I remember he was taking vocal technique lessons. Steve also had to sing over a pretty loud band. We had crappy PA systems and big guitar amps. I would imagine part of his vocal style developed in response to that. I think Mike Watt once characterized Steve's singing as sounding like he was on a roller coaster. I think that was compliment. I love Steve's singing.
Steve: That's a tough question. As mentioned, I started out with no musical/ instrumental experience. From Toxic Shock on I was completely immersed, reveling, not thinking, being. I listened to everything I could get my hands on in the early phase. Bands like Sex Pistols, the first Black Flag EP, Middle Class, X, The Minutemen, Buzzcocks, The Bags, The Clash, The Damned, The Urinals, The Dickies, the Weirdos, etc. Later, it was bands like Talking Heads, The Fall, the first two Devo records, the first Killing Joke record, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, The Raincoats, Fred Frith, Pere Ubu, Public image Limited, John Cale, Joy Division, the Brain Eno rock LPs, Can, the Kinks, Red Crayola, Robert Wyatt, Television Personalities, Fred Lane, The Residents, Gang of Four, Roxy Music, etc. Other less likely things such as: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Cab Calloway (late 1920 - early 1930s), Skip James, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Albert Ayler, Glen Campbell (not all, of course, but I've always wanted to cover "Wichita Lineman"), Charles Mingus, Charlie Feathers , Kinky Friedman (inconsistent, but a handful of really good songs), Leonard Cohen, Sonny Boy Williamson (Alec Miller/Rice Miller), etc. Impossible to tell what actually influenced me.
PSF: The band was from LA and relocated for a while to San Francisco? Or was it formed in SF? And it was originally called Slovenly Peter then abbreviated its name? Please clarify.
Tim: Nah. We formed in the 'burbs in SoCal and the moved to San Francisco partly because Steve was dating Lyn Perko from the Dicks but also because we all wanted to get out of LA. In retrospect, probably not the smarted career move but what are you gonna do. The name Slovenly Peter was stolen from an old book of cautionary tales for children by a German writer I think in the late 19th century. Hilarious and weirdly cruel. Lynn Johnston took another rhyme for the book -"Cruel Frederick," and named his band. Steve was using the book one day for lyrics when we were playing at Tom's house because he did not have anything else and the name stuck. Can't remember why we just shortened it to Slovenly. Tom's parents BTW were incredibly tolerant and supportive of our music making and general bullshit. We jammed/practiced at their house hundreds of times. Loudly. Tom's dad helped us with flyer design and our album artwork. They were all in.
PSF: Did the band play live much, or tour much? Who were you playing with and who were your faves to play with?
Tom: Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, we were happy to play with anyone.
Rob: We played live quite often in SF, Berkeley and Oakland, I'd say 2-3 times a month. We did two tours with fIREHOSE. The Haircut Tour, named by Chuck Dukowski and later the James Worthy Tour, named by Mike Watt.
Tim: We played around as much as we could both in LA and SF. We were not giant headliners so we took pretty much any gig we could get. We played a bunch with various SST bands. We toured a few times with fIREHOSE. That was fun and really tightened up our playing. Everyone got better. I think for me fun bands to play with were the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust, Universal Congress Of, Spot 1019…
Steve: We toured twice with fIREHOSE and played with tons of bands both in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Fishbone, The Dicks, Jesus and Mary Chain, Faith No More, Soundgarden, Celebrity Skin, A Subtle Plague, Gone, Sonic Youth , Hunters and Collectors, Pearl Jam, Sister Double Happiness, Rollins Band, Vomit Launch, Angst, Pig Latin, Melvins, American Music Club, Chuck Prophet... Favourites: Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Sun City Girls, The Whitefronts, Caroliner Rainbow, fIREHOSE, Celebrity Skin.
PSF: The band first recorded with Mike Watt's New Alliance, then moved to SST. Were you happy with these labels? Did you sense a camaraderie with the SST stable of bands, and did you sense that the label was doing something important at the time?
Tom: We were incredibly fortunate to be part of New Alliance and SST. We couldn't have asked for anything more than that. Black Flag even let us practice at their space for free! I'd guess that most of the bands on SST likely thought we were the new wave art band on the label, kind of true, but that was only at the beginning. Anyhow, of course we knew the value of being part of those labels, it was really an important time in music.
Rob: At the time, we were happy with these labels, as most of the bands on there we liked, like Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth and were also fortunate enough to gig with them. Yes, I'd say there was a sense of camaraderie with bands that we'd meet though gigs that SST would book for us. By putting out such a wide variety of music, I felt SST was doing something important and giving bands across the county a chance to record with fairly "strong" label at the time.
Tim: Watt was great and so was New Alliance, but to be honest, I think we just wanted to put out records and play as much as possible. Any label would have been fine. I think we left to go to SST because Joe Carducci liked us and we thought SST was a step up. Lots of bands we liked were on SST. Their releases were getting a lot of attention and we thought it would be a better place for us in terms opportunity and exposure, I guess. I think we thought SST had a lot of really good bands and we wanted to be part of that group.
Steve: It was fantastic to be on New Alliance and subsequently SST. But it's not like we had a bunch of labels knocking down our door. We were happy someone would put out our music. Rob was the social butterfly in the group and might have had a lot to do with getting us signed to both labels. He was in Saccharine Trust in the early days and they toured with Black Flag at least twice. And ST played with the Minutemen a bunch. So he got to know Greg and Chuck as well as Watt and D. and George.
See Part II of the Slovenly interview