This week our Cary Clarke dedicated his column to the upcoming Dharma Bums reunion show, but since this paper didn't want to take away space from our precious escort ads, we didn't have room to post the entire transcript of his fascinating interview with Bums guitarists/vocalists Eric Lovre and Jeremy Wilson. Thankfully we have plenty of space on End Hits. Here is the interview in its entirety.—Ed.
MERCURY: With the exception of one apparently impromptu reunion show some time back, the Dharma Bums have not played a show in 18 years. Why decide to end that dormancy now with this specific show, with these specific bands?
ERIC LOVRE: Because Terry Currier from Music Millennium, who we all like and respect and have known for 30 years, asked us to play. We're all still really good friends, and we enjoy each other's company, so there's no reason for us not to play some gigs, you know? As far as the bands go, the Young Fresh Fellows were our mentors when we were young. We did two U.S. tours and one European tour with the Fellows. They are easily our best friends in music ever, and one of the greatest Northwest rock and roll bands of all time. One of the things we always did during our heyday was invite up and coming bands to open for us, so we put Derby on the bill.
Many of us, myself included, who are now very invested in the Portland music community weren't here in the Dharma Bums' day. Help us understand what the creative climate felt like in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What seemed important or unique about Portland music and the way it was made at the time? Looking back, what seems important or unique about the time from your current vantage point.
JEREMY WILSON: I love your questions, Cary. Wow, the creative climate in the '80s and early '90s in Oregon? That's a loaded question for me to answer because I think a lot was going on during that time in the nation socially, post '70s, and the environment in the '80s, both politically and economically, was very intense and I know for myself these things influenced my "creative climate." The Dharma Bums hailed from rural Oregon, a place where Pat Robertson's self-proclaimed Moral Majority movement and intense conservative values of the Reagan era reigned, and that was coupled with a very real recession. All-in-all Portland and Oregon in general was a rather hostile enviornment to be young in at that time. So, many of us children of Baby Boomer progressive parents—who brought feminisim, civil rights, an anti-war mentality and gay rights to the forefront of the American conversation—were trying to take a new vision to the streets, but we had no template to work from. We had the conciousness our parents helped us see, but no establishment in which to work within or institutions that respected these values. So we started throwing our own rock shows. I know this all probably sounds "heady," but to put it simply, a very diverse group of artists ended up consintrated in Portland in those days, because I think "kooks" and "weirdos" escape to cities to try and find oneanother. Thats what I think we did. We weren't the first and I doubt we are the last.
I think what was really unique about the Portland music scene, for instance, was how diverse the show line-ups were. My favorite shows that the Dharma Bums were part of included crazy cool line-ups. Industrial band, Hell Cows, the genius garage rockers Dead Moon, and Reed College hippie-jam band Slack, all would build a bill together with our different styles and energy. The different crowds would then merge and everyone just loved it. It was a smaller scene fueled 100% by passion and goodwill towards oneanother.
It's generally held that the Dharma Bums were in some way responsible for laying the groundwork and infrastructure for the Portland bands that bloomed in the mid-'90s like Hazel, Heatmiser and Crackerbash. Do you feel that to be true? And to what extent did you feel like the Dharma Bums were shaped by and benefitted from the Portland music wave that preceded you in the late '70s and early '80s, with bands like the Wipers, Smegma, Poison Idea and such?
EL: Well, we were one of the first independent national touring acts out of Portland, and all three of those bands that you mentioned used to open for us all the time, so we exposed them and a lot of other bands to a larger audience. So we were just early out of the gate, basically. We developed a following a couple of years before any of those bands did. There was certainly no infrastructure for independent music when we were playing. We had to make it up as we went along. As far as what influenced us, there's no question about the influence of Greg Sage. He was a good friend of ours, and a big fan of the band, and we played a lot of shows together, but his success was more in Europe, and the Dharma Bums were primarily an American touring act. We were also influenced by ancient Northwest acts like the Sonics, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Kingsmen.
Excepting the new archival collection, which we'll get to presently, the Dharma Bums put out three albums, the first (Haywire) in 1989, and the last (
JW: The band had been touring full time for five years straight and averaging 200 to 250 shows per year. After our last record, Welcome, had come out, we did a US tour, a European tour and then another US tour all back-to-back and, of course, just in a van. We had a lousy booking agent and no real infrastructure on a business level to help us negotiate the waters that we were starting to swim in as "alternative music" was becoming mainstream music and as our "sound" was breaking. We were still very young; no lawyers, no rich Daddies, exhausted and broke, despite the fact that we were achieving international attention and were signed to a cool indie label in Frontier.
Also, we never really identified with the neilism of the "metal" influenced grunge thing, and believe it or not, we were a pretty humble bunch of guys who made a pretty rash and not very thought-out decission to break up when John [Moen] and Jim [Talstra] decided they needed to stop. In a weird way it was perhaps for the best, but who knows? John told me the other day that he thought that maybe the climate was better now for our vibe. Which I thought was really cool of him to say. Boy, I used to drive folks crazy. I always believed that saying "I love you" was the most punk rock thing you could ever say to someone. That definately did not go over well in the mid '90s—which I think kind of proves my point. I think we were also just exhausted, confused and just too young to figure it out. We probably could have used a good therapist...
If the DBs are the band most widely remembered as great from your era in Portland music, what is the greatest forgotten band of that place and time?
EL: One of Sean Croghan's earliest bands—Dirty Dogs. We played a bunch of gigs at Satyricon with those guys.
You and your bandmates, it seems, have all managed to stay involved in Portland music, serving variously as musicians and engineers. What have you been up to since the break-up of the DBs, and how do you feel that your relationship to Portland and the music being made here has changed?
JW: I formed a band called Pilot that spent six years signed to major labels. I toured extensively and made several records with Pilot. The last 10 years I have been recording and producing bands from my recording studio MastanMusic. I play out acoustically and with a couple different band line-ups. Eric owns an awesome analog studio in Salem where he produces the best records and has also fronted some great bands. He's also an electronics wiz and specializes in all things analog and tubes. He's so talented, and I admire him very much. Jim Talstra is everyone's favorite bass player and has played on many cool albums. He plays quite often with Scott McCaughey as a member of the Minus 5. John Moen has played drums in the Jicks fronted by Steve Malkmus and has been a member of the Decemberists for some five years now. He has an awesome band too, called Perhapst. Eric recorded and produced the last Perhapst record with John. We are all full-time guys who have never stopped making music. It's so exciting to bring all of this time and experience to our reunion show. We've been having a blast.
Have you and the rest of the DBs been in touch much since the band broke up in 1992? Are relations friendly, or merely professional?
EL: We touch each other all the time! Yes, we were all friends before the Dharma Bums, and we've been good friends since the band broke-up. It has nothing to do with professional anything. We're playing together because we still really love each other as people. It's an incredible group of really intelligent people—it's kind of refreshing for a rock and roll situation.
I'm sure it's no accident that you are sharing your reunion stage with the Young Fresh Fellows, a band the DBs toured with and which is the brainchild of Scott McCaughey, who recorded the first DBs album. What has McCaughey's role in the story of the DBs been? Do you feel that you've continued to travel parallel paths?
EL: Scott not only produced our first album, but he then played it for Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records, who immediately signed the band, and turned us into an international act. All of a sudden our records were all over the world. So our entire career happened largely because of Scott McCaughey. Everybody is still a musician, so we've traveled completely parallel paths.
When and where was the final Dharma Bums show in your original run in the 90s? Was it a satisfying conclusion? And when you take the stage at the Crystal Ballroom for the reunion, do you expect it to feel continuity with that last show, or do you imagine it will feel like a different band?
JW: Our last show was, I believe, in November of 1992 at the Off Ramp in Seattle. We played our last Portland show in Ocober a few weeks earlier at the Pine Street Theatre. Those were very sad nights for me personally. I didn't want the band to break up then. But what I remember of those shows was that we gave it our all like we always did. I remember how bummed out our friends and fans were. I left and tried to never look back.
But now! Geez. We may be a little older but I gotta tell you. The Dharma Bums are gonna rock the house. The energy is there and our musical chops are at their best. The songs sound like we wrote them yesterday and collectively I know that everyone in the band is having a blast playing. We've all been very pleasantly surprised that getting together again has been like putting on an old comfortable suit. The cool thing though is that the suit came back looking better and sounding better than ever. And the passion I speak of? It never went away.
Is this reunion show a one-off, or is there a possibility that the Dharma Bums could be coming back in a more permanent way. I'm sure that seeing other semi-legendary bands like Mission of Burma and Polvo reunite to find a new audience, the thought of a revival must have crossed your minds before now. I've even heard rumblings that you may even be bringing some new songs to the stage...
JW: You know Cary, I think that the positive experience we are having together as a group is the key to anything in the future. Lets just pack the Crystal Ballroom on February 20th and pump up the good vibes and go from there. We're lifelong friends and everyone in the group has expressed at one point or another how fresh and good connecting like this is. We'll see. As for brand new material at this gig? I gotta be honest. Culling through countless older songs of ours from the popular to the utterly obscure has been an amazing accomplishment unto itself and has taken up the time we have had to try and put together a really great show. We are going to play a wide variety of our old repetoire.
Many bands would be mortified if their early homemade, teenage demos leaked onto the internet, but you have gone the other way by officially releasing the DBs' proto recordings, covers and originals alike, under the name DUMB in conjunction with your reunion show. What was impetus behind putting those out there? Any nervousness about these raw documents "tarnishing your legacy" or do you feel that these recordings fit in well in the DB canon? (JW note to Eric - I listened to the new CD at a friends house and they freaked the fuck out. I think DUMB is my favorite record we've made!!! You did such a great job!)
EL: I think they fit absolutely perfectly well along with our other records. They capture the energy of the band better than the real studio recordings, in a certain way. Dharma Bums were always about how much energy was coming off the record, rather than how good the sound quality was. These recordings have a ton of energy—the energy and sizzle of the band comes across, and that's what's important. We wrote too many songs to fit on our original three albums. We have enough recordings in our archive of unheard songs to release another couple albums, at least. A lot of our fans remembered these songs from the old days and have requested recordings of them, and we thought the best way to start archiving this band was to begin by releasing the very first recordings we ever made.
With the benefit of hindsight, what is your take on the DBs' three studio albums? Which are you most proud of? Any particular song stand out as favorite, or representative of the band's creative peak?
JW: I like our three records, though with the benefit of hindsight I could write a novel as to what we could have done differently or this or that. I love the concept of our second album, Bliss, and I am proud that we went and recorded it in an old grange hall in the Willamette Valley here in Oregon. Its a deep and personal album that I think Eric and I really connected on during the making of it. I think John Moen's song "Stayed Up Late" is a total standout on that album. I also think we wrote some very powerful and real songs accross the board. Several on each album including "Haywire," "Over/Under," "Hope of the Hour," from Haywire; "Pumpkinhead," "Pigweeds," "Stayed Up Late," and a "Place To Be" from Bliss; "The Light In You," "Wreck Around Town," "A Push Me Pull You," "Words," and "Aces" from Welcome. The 45s we put out and a bunch of the garage covers and stuff that made it out there were all really fun and are what they are. John and I were only 24 when the band broke-up and Eric and Jimmy were just 26. We were in the process of just learning how to make records at that point and I think for a bunch of kids we did okay.