Much like the previous academic year, 1993 through to 1994 was also a time of random shows here and there around UCI in what was the continuing good run of booking done by ASUCI at that time. Jen V.’s influence continued to be strongly felt while my friend Mackro also had his part to play in helping with sound mixing on a number of shows. This included a hilarious — in retrospect — noontime show shortly after fall quarter began, so to tell this one as a bit of a prologue:
They were unknown, one of many unknown bands at that time, and I barely remember their appearance. I hadn’t done any sort of promo piece on them for the student newspaper, probably because I was busy gearing up for my teaching work right at the start of the school year, so the appearance of some pseudoalternative band on a major label wasn’t going to thrill me all that much. Sure, I was dealing in stereotypes given what I was thinking about them but even so, they sure couldn’t seem more pseudo than they were. I had also already seen enough examples of the type to be heartily sick of them. (Does anyone remember, say, Animal Bag? Do the band members themselves remember Animal Bag? Although having written that I see that there’s both a fan site and the fact that one of the band members died earlier this year due to an ulcer so I shouldn’t be so glib…)
I think about all I saw of them was a quick glance in between classes as I went to grab lunch — I might have spoken quickly with Mackro en route but not much more than that — and otherwise I just saw a bunch of ill-dressed people on stage doing groovy bullshit of the kind which I never really had much time for. The lead guy had these dreadlocks that he sort of shook around and there was a lot of whining. Thus informed — that is to say ill-informed — I departed the scene with barely any more thought. Mackro told me later that the band themselves were all right enough people, reasonably low key and just out to play to a totally indifferent crowd of people eating their lunches and ignoring them, so at least they soldiered on. Whoever their manager or road manager was, though, was apparently a piece of work, prone to screaming and wondering why things weren’t as ‘professional’ as they should be. (It might not have been the exact wording — I defer to Mackro on this point, should he read this — but it was something close to it.) So he was a pain but Mackro dealt with it all, the band played their noontime set and went off to whatever promo event or fate would take them.
About three or so weeks later, KROQ suddenly started playing the hell out of a song called “Mr. Jones” and MTV soon followed. And thus Counting Crows went on to their rather misbegotten career. But at least we can say in that brief pre-fame window we encountered them in that they weren’t horrifically awful per se, just sorta there. And that they weren’t like their manager.
Dealing with self-consciously groovy dudes aside, fall 1993 must have had more of its share of pub shows and other local events than I can immediately remember, but without tickets or fliers I can’t say for sure exactly what all occurred back then. Perhaps I’ll do a scrounge of the student newspaper archives one of these days and see if I can find anything more detailed but as it stands there was only one show which really made an impact on me that quarter which falls into that category, one which I still can’t believe I caught to this day. But it happened, Jen V. had a lot if not everything to do with it, and I’ve told enough people about the show over time who wish they were there that I guess it was sorta monumental in its own quiet way. Not that it was quiet at the time.
Unrest were one of the bands involved, and that would be a repeat – I’d already seen them up in the pub the previous year and was looking forward to catching them again given how much I had enjoyed the Perfect Teeth album, which had come out in the interim. But around the time I was learning about Unrest in early 1992 I was also reading a lot of stuff in Melody Maker about a newish band called Stereolab. I knew jack about the band McCarthy which had partially spawned them, and when I was reading about Stereolab for the first time I was doing so learning about their drummer Joe Dilworth who was also spending time with th’ Faith Healers as well as photographing bands for Melody Maker. I should have figured out a little sooner that a lot of coverage in MM was defined by who knew who in London itself. (I met Dilworth and th’ Faith Healers at KUCI earlier in 1993 — friendly folks but the tape turned out terribly so I still regret that.) It all sounded good and I’m pretty sure I heard a song on a compilation at some point in 1992 but it wasn’t until the American release of Switched On that I got a chance to hear more and go “Hmm, I like it.” Then in summer of 1993 a friend of Mackro’s and mine at KUCI, John Lewis, played us a tape with the first two Neu! albums on it and we went “What the hell!” Better to learn sooner rather than later when it came to inspirations, at least.
As fall of 1993 approached Unrest had released their Perfect Teeth album earlier in the year along with more singles, while Stereolab had started sending out promo copies of what was already their fourth album and/or long EP, Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements (or rather Elektra had sent them out, having become their American label). Exactly how busy the band would be in studio wouldn’t be fully clear until much later down the road but I was still pretty astonished about the discography that seemed to appear from nowhere. Somehow this all led to me asking for an interview with someone in Stereolab once I learned that Unrest and Stereolab were going to be on tour together and actually be playing on campus — and not a noontime show, but an honest to god evening show which, unlike the Green Day show that wasn’t, was probably going to actually go off.
So this meant I got to talk on the phone with Laetitia Sadier for a while there on some October afternoon asking about things like her supposed million dollar deal with Elektra (to quote her in response: “No fucking way!” with a laugh in her voice) and how things were going coming over to America and all. The interview’s around somewhere, no tape of it to hand, but I wrote it up for a story and looked forward to the forthcoming show, the more so because it would have as an opening act Idaho, who I’d had on my radio show earlier in the year and who I thought were all right folks – LA’s own entry into the putative slowcore genre-as-such that was half being dreamed up around then (Red House Painters, Codeine and others were named – and one other band soon after, but more on them in a later entry).
The night of the show itself is a mix of clarity and unsure moments. The show was held in the UCI Student Center on the lower level, a bit of a strange if well lit warren of halls and conference rooms. The exact order of events I’m not sure about but I was manning the ticket table at one point and Mark E. Robinson appeared and started asking questions. I recall he was polite but also brisk, which I kinda admire – you got a sense he had done this enough that he didn’t want to waste too much time, and he was interested in where to put his equipment, set up merch and so forth. I hadn’t met him at all the previous year and I can’t say it was much of a meeting per se now but I hope I got everything clear for him then.
Around that time Stereolab or part of them appeared and through a series of events I really can’t remember the details of I ended up being a bit of a guide for Laetitia and at least one other member – it might well have been Mary Hansen, rest her soul, but I’m not sure – plus another UCI person over from campus to get some pizza. So that was kinda fun, I have to admit, and I told a few tales about how curious a place Irvine was in general as we ate. Hopefully I didn’t talk their ears off but who knows – Laetitia herself was polite as well but quietly friendly, and if anything probably seemed curious about the place in general as well as the country as a whole, and who could blame her if it was her first time through?
When it comes to the show itself my memory is a bit dimmer. The room the show was in wasn’t a performance venue as such, merely a converted conference room with a low portable stage, but it did have a mixing booth tucked in the back so I guess the room was always designed for the possibility. It wasn’t a packed house by any means but there was a good turnout and Idaho kicked things off pleasantly enough – for all that I had a lot of their albums their music really doesn’t stick with me much now, but it was still an okay if moody listen in the sort-of dark, as I sat on the floor about halfway back, untroubled by moshers or crummy floors.
Stereolab’s set, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a barnburner. I remember some friends being a bit indifferent afterwards – one of them (it might have been Eric R.) saying it all sounded like one Velvet Underground jam after another. I admit it did seem monochromatic at points – every other time I saw them afterwards it was much more varied – but as a statement of purpose it was a hell of a show, rapturously received. I just remember both Laetitia and Mary standing side by side at the center of the stage while everything swirled and blasted around them – Tim Gane’s soon to be instantly recognizable head-nod back and forth was in full effect, as well as Andy Ramsay’s gregarious way around motorik drumming. If there would be even more memorable shows in the future, it was still a hell of a way to start in terms of their American presence, and at the time not knowing if I’d ever see them again it was just pretty darn cool.
Which left Unrest, and as it turned out the last time I did see them, as well as a lot of people. What was played wasn’t clear to me but like the previous year’s show they had their fans and damn if they weren’t vocal, even more so than that time. “Make Out Club” somehow sticks in the brain from this show for that reason, certainly partially due to the eventual website with its name, but also because I can just see Mark really getting into the singing, not in a flailing way but in an immediate, present way that’s hard to easily describe. The whole band was like that, Bridget, Phil, and it was pretty fun. It was like in the middle of a time of fuzzed out grunge overload there was this clean crispness that wasn’t giving up.
After the show I remember hearing but not seeing Mark do a quick acoustic number in the hallway that was sort of a dressing room for them, given all the fans who had besieged him and wanted to hear more. It’s now 2010 and there were Unrest reunion shows this year and Laetitia Sadier’s released her first solo album and Mary’s now long since gone due to the horrible accident that claimed her life. Time does change things, but at that time I was just having a blast with friends and strangers, hunkered down in a student center, wondering what might come next.