Many of you will not want to believe that “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” by the Californian punk band the Urinals, is the greatest song ever written, but that is simply because there is some kind of vise or blood-occluding mechanism attached to the thinking and feeling part of your limbic region. Or perhaps you have reduplicative paramnesia or Capgras Syndrome, and you believe that your spouse or partner is a replica of your actual spouse or partner. Because, in fact, “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is the greatest song ever written. It proves the very existence of the song as a form, it manifests the song, it derives the idea of the song, ex nihilo, and, in particular, “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” elucidates the nature of the rock and roll song, describing in the process how a rock and roll ensemble does the thing that it uniquely does. “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!,” let us hasten to note, lasts only one minute, and there are not that many great songs that can accomplish the feat of needing-to-be-a-song in 1:00. (The live version on Negative Capability, the Urinals masterful compendium of early work, contains a performance that is :59, thus shaving a miraculous 1% of material away from “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” without imperiling its integrity in any way. While the Minutemen, in their cover of the same, which is magnificent, even as it, alas, exhibits signs of virtuosity, weighs in at a lean and mean :41, which may be why they called their version “Ack! Ack! Ack!” Apparently they shaved off an “Ack!” and resulted in a savings of eighteen or nineteen seconds.)
“Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” begins with drums, a continuous snare roll, or not quite a roll, but sixteenth notes followed by the bass playing 8th notes, after which an electric guitar enters barre chording in time with the snare. Melodically speaking, with respect to bass and guitar, we are in the land of the single chord. There is no melodic development for the first 26 seconds or so of the song, or very nearly half its length. The key is C#, which is a ridiculous key for a beginning guitar player (or bass player) to play in. No one plays in C# unless they’re tuning down. This tuning down, these days, is a bit of a cliché in the metal community, because it enables your instrument to sound like a baritone guitar, a little bit. Furthermore, John Talley-Jones, the bass player and frequent lyricist for the Urinals, has cited minimalism (Terry Riley, La Monte Young, et al.) as an early influence for the band, and perhaps this accounts for the melodic simplicity of “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!”, though we would not want to overlook the musical capabilities of the band (at the time, late 70s, none of them was proficient on the instrument upon which he performed). In a way, calling Talley-Jones the “author” of “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is like calling La Monte Young the author of the Theater of Eternal Music compositions: if there is only the one note does anyone actually compose the music? Is it not just one note?
The first Urinals performance, which occurred at a UCLA dorm talent show in 1978, was alleged to be parodistic, a refraction of the punk genre, through the lens of parody, by three guys, who, like many punk musicians of the early period, were fresh converts to instrumental performance. But a critical feature of the punk idiom, in the early days, was that a parodistic element was already accounted for in the engineering diagram of the form. It was never without a formalistic meta-modernist quality that enabled it to reply to conceptions of music, and to comment thereupon. Steve Jones’s highly imitative guitar playing on the Never Mind the Bollocks album, e.g., the Ramones imitating the Beach Boys while singing about sniffing glue and turning tricks. Etc. It was precisely the instrumental inability of the Urinals, when combined with their sophisticated understanding of the performance idiom, and with art historical dynamics, that made the early songs so effective in combining formalism and participation within a punk idiom, at least the punk idiom as understood in 1978. They could play less well than almost anybody; they were the best worst players ever, right up there with the Slits and the Shaggs.
And “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” while not the very first song by the band, sounds as though it were the first song by the band, the first song by any band, the first song ever written, in some ways, because of how little needs to happen in it, except that it indicates it is song, that song is one thing that can happen with these devices, with guitar, bass, drums, and voice. Anything more than “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is rococo by comparison, the equivalent of Fragonard or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Anything after “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” appears to be faintly distasteful, like excesses of ripe cheese in a French still life.
We have not yet discussed the lyrics, and the lyrics are part of the surprising achievement of “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” I include them in their entirety herewith:
Johnny took his gun and Ack Ack Ack Ack
Johnny shot me down Ack Ack Ack Ack
Like this: Ack Ack Ack Ack
Like this: Ack Ack Ack Ack
All the papers crucify Johnny
All the radios shout his name
All our little children love our Johnny
Because he took his gun and Ack Ack Ack Ack
Johnny, he’s my hero,
Johnny, he’s my joy,
Johnny took his gun and Ack Ack Ack Ack
Johnny shot me down
Ack Ack Ack.
Why is this lyric so good? I assume that unless you suffer from Cotard’s Delusion, you already know why this is a very good lyric. But I will offer a brief meditation on the excellence of this lyric in the following remarks. First, “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is a contribution to the genre that I will hereby refer to as afterlife songs, namely songs narrated by dead people (and obviously I am making a distinction—we are not talking about songs in which lovers die—“Teen Angel,” et al.—which are too easy to come by, and relatively simplistic). Nothing is better, in truth, than afterlife songs. Some potent examples: “D.O.A.” by Bloodrock; “Green Grass of Home,” by George Jones; “Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down),” by Dave Von Ronk and many others; “Long Black Veil,” by Lefty Frizzell, etc.; that amazing Irish folk song “She Moved Through the Fair”; “Ride the Lightning,” by Metallica, in which the narrator speaks of his own electric chair experience. I can also recommend the extremely creepy “I Died Today,” by Rodd Keith to any who are not familiar with it.
The afterlife song is one of rock and roll’s most potent narrative tropes. The music powers the narrator beyond the ontological issues that would prevent him or her from narrating in the first place, viz., non-being. The music in some way enables the transit from the one state to the next. The afterlife never manifests itself as completely in all of scripture as it does in these lonely, longing first-person accounts of the afterlife in song.
This is first reason “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is the greatest song ever written, it is an exemplary afterlife song, and then second reason is the use of the ubiquitous and archetypal “Johnny” for its protagonist. Many and varied are the Johnnys of the popular song. Only Jimmy runs close is names of rock and roll protagonists living and dead. You could come up with any number of putative Johnnys to whom Talley-Jones is alluding here in the lyric of “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” But let’s say, for a moment, that it’s Johnny B. Goode, from the song by Chuck Berry, who is summoned forth here. There are a couple of reasons to assume as much. For example, Berry, because he had Johnnie Johnson’s piano in his ensemble, and adapted some of Johnson’s instrumentals into song, also worked in completely abstruse keys (there are Chuck Berry songs in Eb, which no guitar player would ever willingly seek out). In fact, “Johnny B. Goode,” a rags-to-riches musical epic, is held by some to be a tribute to Johnnie Johnson himself.
The recasting of the Johnny B. Goode narrative into a stylized and exceedingly dramatic handgun showdown in verse one of “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is another reason the song is so good. Is this allegory? It sure feels like allegory. In parodying the history of rock and roll, and summoning up the afterlife narrative, the Urinals have dealt a death blow to all the pretensions of post-countercultural rock and roll. This is art about the unbearable sanctimony of certain kinds of art, especially certain kinds of art produced in the state of California. This song is birthed in California, after all, the home to the soft-rock singer-songwriter, the birthplace of the California sound that spawned “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Don’t Worry, Baby,” two other morbid classics of mid-sixties. (Though it is more accurate to see “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” as send-off to such California rock artifacts as the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, America, et al.)
The word “Ack” feels incredibly important in this regard. The utterly hideous Buju Banton song “Boom Bye Bye,” that homophobic and murderous ditty, uses “boom” to describe gunfire. Will.i.am likes “Bang Bang” and so does Jessie J and Nicki Minaj, etc. Charli XCX likes “Boom Clap,” describing a sound that is both like gunfire and the heartbeat. “Ack” feels entirely different. It’s a much more potent phoneme for the horror of gunfire, which is why it’s used in the UK to be the colloquial sound of anti-aircraft fire, but it’s also short for “acknowledgement” (as if hinting at the songs indebtedness to songs prior), and a short, potent, onomatopoetic adjective for the feeling of nausea. All this in one perfect syllable. To me, the rapid fire “acks” in the song by the Urinals summon up automatic weapons fire in the way that Hendrix tries to do on guitar in one of his very greatest last performance, “Machine Gun.” Here’s a good video that mixes in some seriously heavy-handed anti-war stuff:
Talley-Jones and his “ack” do what the Hendrix song does—give you the actual scope and horror of the instrument of death, rather than glorifying it, as seems to happen in the popular song more commonly (you can find a link “ten best gun songs” online these days with relative ease, and “country” music is especially content with this subject matter).
Verses two and three of “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” deal with the cultural ramifications of Johnny’s decision to “shoot down” the narrator. Johnny comes in for a great deal of adverse publicity, owing to his shooting down of the narrator, and whereas in other afterlife songs the narrator usually seems to feel some nearly operatic regret about being dead, or at least for being separated from some love object, the narrator of “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” delights in Johnny and his legacy of abject violence. The punk tropes of radical acceptance of culture and its abjection are most lyrically present in “Johnny, he’s my hero/Johnny, he’s my joy/Johnny took his gun and ack ack ack ack/Johnny shot me down ack ack ack.” And the sound with which this radical acceptance is rendered is both aggressive and oddly serene. Is it an allegory? I think it’s an allegory. (And: somewhere in here the music shifts down a half-step to C for its bridges, before going back to C#. That’s chromaticism, which was, at that moment in the popular song, heavily frowned upon.)
All this in one minute! The Ramones don’t have any one-minute songs. Their shortest song, “Judy Is a Punk,” is 1:30. That’s 30% longer. The only problem with “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is this: what the hell do you do after “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” In the same way that “Sheets of Easter,” by Oneida, another one-chord classic, creates a dead-end from which it is hard to emerge. “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is so good, so perfect, so Paleolithic in its perfection that there is nothing to say afterward. The thing about the Urinals is that they followed their early, primitive work with the most difficult career move of all: musical improvement. As Talley-Jones himself has put it “inevitably competence set in.” This competence created enormous thematic problems for the band, which were initially resolved by retiring the name, the Urinals, which, after all, was a band name that mocked the punk scene (and alluded to Marcel Duchamp), and would have been easy to outgrow. Soon they were 100 Flowers, and then Chairs of Perception, and later splintering into Trotsky Icepick, and various other side projects. Perhaps this was a recognition of the impossibility of recreating the expression-first approach of the Urinals back in the day, or perhaps it was a recognition that “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is the greatest song ever written. And while the later Urinals incarnations were more competent, which was potentially devastating to them, these incarnations do retain some of what made the Urinals interesting in the first place. They are recognizably similar.
Why bother to go back to the Urinals then? Periodically there is an interest on the part of Talley-Jones and founding drummer, Kevin Barrett, to return to the point of origin, because it refreshes, and because at a certain point, as when this music nears, for example, its fortieth anniversary, there is a sense of it outlasting its period, and becoming a phenomenon like unto legendary survival. This is another way of saying “success” with respect to the initial aims of punk rock. So much music in the last forty years has dated horribly. That’s why Kraftwerk keeps having to release their albums with new rhythm tracks. Try listening to the first Depeche Mode album again. Or how about some of that mid-eighties stuff, with that horrible drum sound. But “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” is on the list of things that never dates. “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!” lives on, as breathtaking, malicious, playful, solemn, and perfect, as ever it was.
Well, it happens that last month the Urinals released a new album, entitled Next Year At Marienbad. It is a very good album, with a perfectly calibrated post-punk single called “Shut Yr Trap,” which displays them in their modern form to great effect. The modern form is exactly what the Urinals should sound, like considering that they have been refining their thing for almost forty years now. It is to the Urinals as Hákarl, the Icelandic delicacy which involves burying fish underground for long period of time before eating them, is to the original fish, which is to say it features extra taste sensations. These days, the Urinals have a new guitar player, who is a writer of literary note, Rob Roberge. Roberge brings something entirely different to the Urinals, a certain sloppy anthemic roots feel to the guitar parts that they never had before. He is the Bob Stinson of the Urinals. Roberge is in the group, one presumes, because he has the right intellectual credentials to be in the group, not because of his ability to play a great rockabilly-inflected solo, though apparently he can do this too. I interviewed him once before to talk about his last novel (and his solo album), but here I thought we would have a interview with multiple layers of the Urinals, all in a rather sloppy and casual mode, as befits the spirited and unpolished modality of Next Year at Marienbad, in which I interviewed Roberge, and when he got stuck, he could interview John Talley-Jones. So this interview has an interview-within-an-interview within it, and it took place over a few weeks at the end of last year.
Finally, because Talley-Jones’s lyrics are sometimes referred to as punk haiku, I wrote this, on the occasion of my interview with the band:
Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!
It should have five syllables
Because it’s haiku.
The Rumpus: Can you tell the story of how you came to be in the Urinals again? And what condition were the Urinals in at the time you were drafted in?
Rob Roberge: I came to be in the Urinals in, I guess, a pretty strange way. Kevin Barrett, the drummer (both he and bassist/vocalist John Talley-Jones are original members; there have been a series of guitar players over the years), took a writing class I was teaching at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. We hit it off and soon became friends. I really didn’t know the Urinals at the time. I’d been on the East Coast when everything was happening out here in LA—the 1978-82/3 years. I think the only LA area band I knew was the Minutemen. And X, of course. Anyway, we became friends and soon my band at the time was opening for the Urinals at various LA gigs. I became familiar with their material as a fan. And, we got more familiar/became closer friends. Then, a couple years later, their guitarist Rod Barker left the band and the guys asked if I’d like to try playing with them. My initial response was that I was flattered, but that I wasn’t really a punk guitar player. And their response was, “Well, we’re really not a punk band.” So, around new year’s 2006, we tried playing together. And it worked out—it took the normal adjustments of three people learning to play together—and here we are, 9 or so years later.
What condition were they in? Well, pretty good condition, minus needing a new guitar player (Rod had quit around the time the band got back from playing the Beijing Pop Festival in 2005). They were playing some high profile gigs. They’d opened for some bigger bands (Mudhoney, Yo La Tengo, and a few others). They’d released their first album in twenty years only a couple years before. They were in good shape, I’d say. Other than needing someone on guitar.
Rumpus: I have heard you say that you sort of had to teach yourself how to be a punk guitar player in order to play the old Urinals songs. Can you be a little more specific about that? What did that entail? What have you learned? And how did that apply to making songs for the new album?
Roberge: It was a weird transition. I’m mostly a mid-tempo guy who rips off Neil Young when I play guitar, more or less. But that didn’t really fit the tempo of a lot of the material. So, I had to learn how to do down strokes fast on the guitar, which was new to me. When we were recording the new record, Mike Martt (Tex & The Horseheads, Thelonious Monster), who recorded it, said, “You play almost all open chords. Play some power chords.” So, there’s that. To a certain degree, a lot of the older material, like “Ack Ack Ack Ack,” was pretty hard for me. Which is silly, as it’s just two chords. But it was hard. For that song to work, everyone has to be driving it forward together with nothing cluttering up the spaces. So, learning to play faster. Not strumming so much. Stuff like that.
Also, I think John is a great songwriter, but learning the old material is often a challenge, because he doesn’t know the names of the chords/notes and all that. Which I love—that he has managed to avoid learning all that in over thirty years on his instrument is actually an achievement in some perverse way. But he often doesn’t play the root note of the chord. So, just hearing his bass part is no indicator of what the guitar should be doing. Unless it’s a riff. Something like “Black Hole” where everyone is playing the same notes. So, a lot of the old material took a while to iron out.
The new album was a little easier than learning a lot of the old stuff (even if the old stuff was simpler), since we all worked it out together. Plus, I had written some of the new material, and it’s always easiest to play the stuff you write—most of the time, anyway. I still have a lot of trouble singing at the tempo we play. I’ve finally gotten the guitar parts down, but we play at a tempo that doesn’t really go with my voice. I don’t know how John does it, honestly.
Rumpus: How often do you guys rehearse? Do you rehearse? Or do you just go on tour? And how often does that happen? Isn’t John in like four different bands? Was the decision to hire you to play some kind of de facto admission that the time of “Ack Ack Ack Ack” is sort of passed now?
Roberge: How often we practice really depends on if we have any gigs or recording coming up. A couple times a week for a while before we record. Once a week for the month before a tour, and usually two practices the week of a show. We used to just practice three out of every four weeks to stay sharp. We’ll probably start doing that soon, since the record’s coming in February, and we’ll start playing more shows.
Yes, since John retired from his full-time job of 30 or so years, he’s in a bunch of bands. The re-formed Trotsky Icepick (who have recorded their first record in about 20 years). God and the State. And Radwaste (both with Kevin).
I don’t think John thinks (nor do I) the time of “Ack Ack Ack Ack” has passed, really. Our fan base is probably made up much more of 20-year-olds who are hearing the stuff for the first time. When we played a festival in Calgary, there were some twenty-somethings who had traveled twenty hours in a van with Negative Capability playing over and over. I think you kind of owe it to fans to play the material they’re familiar with. And, for me, at least, there’s no ego attachment to the Negative Capability material. I can sort of play it as a fan. I had nothing to do with its creation. So, I just enjoy playing it. It’s new to me, in a way. And it’s cool to have every phase of the band (the original line up of both the Urinals and 100 Flowers), the 2003 lineup that recorded What Is Real and What Is Not. It’s fun to have every era/incarnation of the band represented. And I kind of see my job as being true to that material. Not fucking it up, as it were.
Rumpus: I want to clarify that I didn’t mean the historical relevance of “Ack Ack Ack Ack” was in any way diminished. I personally love that song, and all of the Negative Capability material, a lot. I meant to imply, rather, that the time in which one could compose “Ack Ack Ack Ack” has passed away. It would be like trying to paint as a Cubist now. As you say, even John can’t exactly write in that way in the historical present. And if one could, somehow, reformulate the weird mixture of innocence and satire that is the first Urinals songs, it would not sound today the way it sounded then. It would sound like a simulation of that other time. (These issues orbit around, for example, Off! And the new/old Black Flag. I happen to think Off! sounds better, and more like Black Flag than the present incarnation of Black Flag does. But in neither case does this music sound like what it sounded like in the eighties. There’s something honorable and lasting about it. Like people who like to drive the Olds Cutlass Supreme.) Given that this is the case, that the Negative Capability compositional regime cannot be duplicated, how did you generate material for Next Year At Marienbad? How did the band go about it, and how did you figure in the compositional stage?
Roberge: Yeah, you know, in a way, I wish the sound, if not the compositional regime, could be duplicated in the new material. I love the sounds of the Negative Capability stuff. How raw and incredibly lo-fi it is. I mean, Kevin started out playing a toy drum kit with Mylar heads. They recorded at least one song with the guitar and the bass going through the same amp at once. “Sex” was recorded in, I believe, a weight room at UCLA, and has this wonderful cement wall reverb about it. But, to try to get those tones and sounds today—at this stage of the band—would be silly, I suppose, as much as I love those sounds. And the material—while still holding true to a lot of its roots—has grown more sophisticated with time. Which, I suppose, only makes sense. Still, if it were up to only me, I would like us to record live to four-track tape and have it be as raw as possible. But that’s not where the band is at right now.
The way we generated material for Next Year At Marienbad was very collaborative. In general, for the bulk of the new material, either John or I came in with a demo. Sometimes the demo was pretty fully formed (for instance, I brought in “Girl Before” and John had “Too Much or Not Enough” and “This Song is a Virus” and they were all pretty much fully developed) and we just found a way to play it together. Other times, like on “This Love is Impossible,” I had the music and John wrote the lyrics. “Shut Yer Trap” had been written by the previous version of the band, and Kevin wrote a lot of the lyrics to that. “Unblackmailable” had been written by the previous version of the band, but the guys couldn’t remember the old middle 8, so we finished it together. And a lot of the material was just us playing it a great deal and figuring out how the parts all fit together. A song like “The President and King Shake Hands” sounded totally different on my home demo once we started practicing and Kevin’s drums changed the whole thing. We all collaborate on all the material. But, in general, John or I would bring a demo to the band and we would see if we could work it into a song. Kevin’s essential to the process. His drumming really gives the band a lot of its flavor and texture. Like, to correct something above, “Girl Before” was fully formed as a demo when I brought it in, as far as chords and lyrics went, but Kevin’s drum part changed its feel entirely and made it much more interesting. So, it’s a long way of saying we all collaborate and bring something to the table. I think there was only one song that was written for the album that we couldn’t ever make work. I think John ended up using it in one of his other bands. But John and I are totally different writers. He’s very organized and driven. For some of the new material on the album, he went out to the desert and wrote, I think it was, five songs in five or six days. I kind of wait around for inspiration to strike. I don’t really work at writing songs. They come or they don’t. And, in general, if a song has a bridge or a middle eight, John probably brought it in, as I kind of only write verses and choruses.
That’s the long version, I suppose. The short version is we’re pretty heavily collaborative. People bring ideas, and we figure out how to play them together.
Rumpus: How do John and Kevin function as a rhythm section? Do they have unique telepathic abilities from having played together for so long? Do they make you feel like the new guy a lot?
Roberge: John and Kev are a really interesting rhythm section. I think it’s partially because they learned to play together—both starting their instruments at the same time in the same band together. They seem to play without thinking. They communicate on a very intuitive level. John’s not a traditional bassist at all. He often doesn’t play the root note, frequently playing what’s almost a lead bass, so the band can end up kind of inverted, like The Who—where you had the bass playing the lead and the guitar holding down more of the rhythm. Learning to fit into their style was really interesting. In other bands, I’ve often keyed off the bass and locked into what the bass is doing. But in the Urinals, it’s made more sense to key in on what Kev is doing on the drums. It was a sort of backwards way of learning to play songs. But I find then when I’m locked in on Kevin’s snare, I’m usually in the right place.
As far as making me feel like the new guy? No, they—very kindly—never did that. Every once in a while there are jokes about how the various guitarists have been different in style or temperament, but that’s really good-natured ribbing. I can’t imagine a band with less tension than we have. And they were welcoming from the start and never made me feel like less than a full partner in what we’re doing. Oddly enough, I’m now the longest tenured guitar player in the band’s history, though I suppose I’ll always BE the “new guy.” I’m like obscurity’s Ron Wood.
Rumpus: What’s with the weird remix thing at the end of the album? It’s so un-punk as to be fascinating.
Roberge: That was John’s idea (and his executions). He has a real interest in electronica (and has had projects where he’s done things like that). I think it’s a sort of amalgam of several tracks on the album, obviously tinkered with significantly. And then some new things were added (the beeps and some of the piano parts, for sure). But some of the drums and guitar (seriously altered) were taken from tracks on the record.
I could ask John more about this one, if you like? He would have a more “conceptual” answer, and maybe more in-depth. Let me know.
Here are John’s answers—the first one I passed to him was on the writing of the songs over the years—he has a really interesting take on that, I think—and the second answer is about the last weird track…
John Talley-Jones: We gave up early on trying to replicate the sound(s) of Negative Capability. Our thesis was that we were going to write and perform music without any kind of musical experience, and then allow the inevitable accumulation of knowledge to dictate our evolution. You can hear the growth most dramatically between the first and second EPs.
It would have been disingenuous to pretend not to show growth. I value those early sides, because they show us, not of having no influences, but of being incapable to articulate them! The first EP is a negation of most popular music history—there’s no soul, no conventional “pop” (aside from the verse/chorus/verse structure of “Dead Flowers,”) and the “rock” song, “Last Days of Man on Earth” barely qualifies. There’s the drone of “Surfin’ with the Shah,” but that comes out of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, not pop music. Unlike “proper” musicians, we were never burdened by trying to replicate “Stairway to Heaven,” so that bad habit was off the table. We had to rely on our own imperfect attempts to translate our ideas into songs.
But, where does one go once the horse is out of the barn? In our case, we had to honor our original intentions by figuring out exactly what those were, and then write material consistent with that impetus. There are certain stylistic elements that the band has maintained over the decades: brevity, simplicity, energy. Kevin and I are the consistent throughput of the band, and as such we know what the band is and how much strain it can take. We’ve been fortunate to have had Kjehl, Rod, and now Rob as co-conspirators—each one of these guys is far more accomplished, musically, than Kevin or myself, but we’ve found a way to generate material with each of them that honors their contribution and also stays true to the nature of the band. The first drafts of the songs on NYAM were written individually, then presented to the band for arrangement and fine-tuning (except for the lyrics, not subject to change by the band.) Sometimes the end product was very close to the demo, sometimes it took off in another direction, but in every case, it reflects the combined sensibilities of the three of us.
Regarding the bonus track question: We wanted to demonstrate that the band’s sensibilities went beyond just rock, and that track seemed like the right way to show it.
Rumpus: Rob, can you settle the question of why the title is Next Year At Marienbad? As a guy who once had a run-in with Robbe-Grillet at a conference in Bologna, I have such a complex of feelings relating to the title (and the film, and the writer), and I’m interested in how this came about. What does it mean to you all?
Roberge: Would love to have been a fly on the way for that particular dust-up.
As far as the title, I don’t know how it started… We are always cracking jokes, and I’m find of titles with nods and references (like with “Anarchy at the Circle K”), but, originally, unless my memory’s wrong, I just said the NYAM phrase a quip. I’m not a fan of Robbe-Grillet’s writing, except the nonfiction book For a New Novel, which was hugely influential to me about metaphor and his theory of “the myths of depth.” Blew my mind, as the saying goes. But his fiction seems to be simultaneously a joke on the audience and a sort of flipping off of them, too. I don’t know. Miles Davis can turn his back. Joe Orton can “assault an audience trapped by social convention in a room,” but I’ve always thought that (really interesting) approach doesn’t work in prose. The reader is your friend, and Robbe-Grillet seems to have too much contempt for his audience.
That said, both John and Kev started out as film students at UCLA, and I know that John loved Last Year At Marienbad. So what started as a joke/quip by me had more artistic resonance for John. It also probably keeps us solidly in character, solidly in the art-geek section of punk. It is one of John’s favorite films, and one you’d have to pay me to watch again.