My long-term friend, the excellent Chris Estey, sent me a copy of the intriguing Get Smart! six-track mini-album ‘Oh Yeah No’, which I’ve been playing ever since it arrived. I tracked down a wonderfully atmospheric YouTube clip of the trio performing the title-track as early as 1987, in the studio with Iain Burgess at the analogue mixing desk. A raw ‘I want that cancer’ track with writer credits to all three band-members, Frank, Marc and Lisa. I wonder what their reactions are to seeing that clip now? What message would they send back through time to their earlier selves in that video? ‘That’s probably the best question we’ve been asked recently!’ exclaims Frank. ‘I left the band a few months after that video was shot. I’d tell myself it’s better to take a break than to stop playing drums altogether. We were just worn out from all the touring, but there’s no Rock ‘n’ Roll mentorship program to help you navigate the ups and downs!’
‘Looking at that clip now, I’m still impressed by how we were so tight – and so exhausted’ muses Lisa. ‘And yes, we definitely needed a rest!
‘Get a haircut!’ laughs Marcus. ‘I respect the intensity and urgency of our performance. Whether you’re in your twenties or older, you should strive to maintain a genuine energy no matter what you’re doing at the time.’
Frank B Loose plays drums in a way that makes Mo Tucker seem sophisticated. Against hard Punk guitar that takes a skewed spacey solo into “Rhythm Empty”. “Under The Rug” attacks with a nag-nag-nagging riff that drives nails into your head, you feel it drink, scream and stumble, with a crash-collage video that ignites your smart-screen with ‘freshly-caught pain’. “Blonde Goes West” invites you to ‘let’s get drunk, not fade away.’ Lisa Wertman Crowe’s voice rides in and around Marcus Koch’s lead vocal, with spidery sunburst Fender Jazzmaster guitar figures, then on “Painted Floor” it’s her voice and lyric, his harmonies, her Daphne blue Fender Precision bass, ‘it’s hard to hear your heartbeat when you’re screaming.’
But wait, you remember Get Smart! Weren’t they the band who formed in Lawrence, at the University of Kansas, around 1980, and weren’t they responsible for two stand-out albums – ‘Action Reaction’ (1984, Fever/ Enigma Records) and ‘Swimming With Sharks’ (1986, Restless/Enigma)? Is Lawrence a great Rock ‘n’ Roll town? ‘Surprisingly, yes’ concedes Frank. ‘There are plenty of college towns in the U.S. that never developed a ‘scene’, but the combination of a radio station willing to play new music, and a few open-minded clubs inspired a lot of bands to start.’ Alternative bands such as Mortal Micronotz and the Embarrassment. ‘For sure’ Lisa concurs. ‘It was a wonderful musical oasis that really supported us and all the other bands.’
‘It was and still is a community of musicians, bands, clubs, artists and other outlets of creativity’ says Marcus. ‘At the time we started, it seemed as though our generation was starved for an outlet for musical entertainment and we eagerly became part of an effort to invest our energies in an environment that was conducive, vibrant and accepting…’
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There was an EP ‘Words Move’ (1981, Syntax), and a live single “Back Into The Future” c/w “World Without End” (1985, Fever/Enigma), while their five-track contribution to the ‘Fresh Sounds From Middle America Vol.1’ (1981, Fresh Sounds) compilation cassette took them to new audiences and expanded their fan-base. Then there were the two albums, and a nationwide tour… until, following a flurry of line-up changes, the power-trio split by the close of the decade. There were plans for live reunion dates in late-2020, until the pandemic hit. But now, in case you missed them first time around, they’re here again. So I need to ask, why this new twenty-one-minute release now? And why are the original trio playing new American gigs? When I first approach them, the band’s website says ‘typically replies within a few hours’… and I’m sitting here waiting ready to provide a PR British injection…!
‘Hi Andrew! Sorry for the delay’ says Lisa brightly. ‘Thank you for listening to ‘Oh Yeah No’, and we’re glad you’re enjoying it!’ Her good-humoured response dances nimbly around my slightly irreverent approach. ‘By the way, is this a formal interview? Are you planning to publish these answers? Because I don’t want to speak for the whole band, I can share with the other two. If you like!’ Yes, that was the intention. ‘Great!’
So…into the songs, what exactly is the nature of the “Paradise” we are talking about here? (nice tacked-on false ending too!).‘Those lyrics were written by our guitarist/vocalist Marcus Koch’ she explains. ‘His lyrics are not often what they seem, but he prefers listeners to find their own meaning.’ I’ve heard that one before. Sometimes that ‘I let the listener decide what the lyric means’ can be used a cop-out escape clause. But then again, the lyric is part of the song-structure, otherwise you might as well write it as poetry. This song depends on mood and instrumental power too, which also colours in the meaning. Lyrics, as well as poetry, can deploy ambiguity effectively.
Marcus himself takes it further. ‘So many times, when people read and attempt to interpret song lyrics, they make conclusions that the author is speaking in the first person, that what is being communicated is literal and/or there is some profound meaning infused. If that were true about lyrics, or artistic expression in general, then I’d not feel compelled to create at all. Additionally, when I hear an explanation of the meaning of lyrics by the author that were intended to be open for interpretation, I feel somewhat disappointed or even cheated of the opportunity to make a conclusion for myself. Interestingly, I purposely crafted the words for “Paradise” in – what I would define as, reverse logic and chose what would appear as, literal commentary from the first-person perspective. If I explain what the lyrics ‘mean’, wouldn’t that spoil the intrigue? And the musical tag at the end of the song also has ‘meaning’. What do you think?’
Lisa wrote and sings “Painted Floor” – is there a story behind how she came to create that one? ‘Well, you know these songs were written about thirty-five years ago, so I’d have to look back at my brain back then’ she avers. ‘No artist wants to really explain their lyrics. And sometimes we are not conscious of where they come from. My songs often deal with relationships between people. That’s where pain and pleasure intersect! And the bass line is reflective of my love of funk and syncopation.’
Some of the best bands in Rock had the power-trio line-up, lead-bass-drums, but it requires a great deal of interdependence and mutual reliance on each other. It seems that Get Smart! have a good internal dynamic? ‘Aww, thanks! Yes, we do. We usually have three different – but complementary, answers to interview questions. Also, just for your information, the exclamation point is an important part of our band name, so please kindly include it whenever you type ‘Get Smart!’ in print.’
Wasn’t ‘Get Smart’ a late-sixties TV spy-spoof Mel Brooks comedy series? Is that where the band’s name comes from? Frank opens with ‘although we grew up in the sixties and were familiar with the show, the name had more to do with our DIY beginnings and frustration with the stagnant state of music at the time. ‘Get Smart!’ was our way of saying think for yourself!’ Lisa adds ‘of course, the internet had not been invented when we came up with the name, so for any browser search now it’s best using ‘Get Smart! band’ or that pesky TV show will pop up!’
Until Marcus emphatically concludes ‘No! But we had a distinct interest in Pop culture and classic TV shows from that era. We thought it would be memorable but it was really a message urging listeners to get smart, get involved, contribute and be a part of something.’
There are some eye-ripping Punk-collage posters and fliers from the band’s breakthrough ‘Swimming With Sharks’ tour – from Milwaukee, Chicago, opening for Soul Asylum in Ann Arbor, and the Beat Farmers in Cincinnati, Nashville and New Orleans. Including a poster made with masking tape, craft knife, and spray paint on paper. Plus the sequences captured on the “Under The Rug” video. Seems like it must have been a great tour? ‘The ‘Swimming With Sharks’ tour was definitely the best because we were finally getting more known and had a real-life booking agent arranging the tour’ enthuses Frank. ‘Still, you didn’t go on the road and come back with much cash in hand, which made it difficult to sustain. It was only later, after reading books like ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’ (Michael Azerrad’s ‘Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991’) that I realized every band out there was having the same issues. The best part was how tight we got playing the music. It was exhilarating to get on stage at that time and play to whatever crowd we had.’
‘All of our touring and playing at venues across the U.S. were adventurous!’ says Marcus. ‘One of my favourite aspects of touring was going to new clubs and playing to new audiences, putting effort into enticing new fans and navigating uncharted territory. What is remarkable is that hand-made posters were THE form of communication before the Internet. Back then, it required do-it-yourself posters – including the folding, mailing and posting them to inform and lure an audience. So much of that process has disappeared and with it the unique art that was utilized.’
So the six tracks on the mini-album were presumably intended to be a part of a follow-up to ‘Swimming With Sharks’ that was never completed? ‘Yup’ from Frank. ‘The idea was to shop it to some labels, indie, major, or otherwise. We were frustrated with the disorganization at Restless/Enigma.’
‘Yes. Those songs were ready to be recorded’ confirms Marcus. ‘We’d been playing them live and they were polished. We wanted to capture their energy in the studio and get at least part of an album completed. Having established a great working and personal relationship with Iain Burgess, it was a natural choice to have him engineer the project.’
So how did Steve Albini get involved in the project? The one-time member of Big Black, producer for Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey and the Breeders? Did he work his magic on the raw tracks? ‘Steve first learned how to work in a studio with Iain’ explains Frank. ‘So we thought he would be a natural go-to person to do a final mix. We knew each other from the Chicago scene, and it turned out to be a good collaboration. Steve intuitively figured out a lot about what Iain had done just by listening to the original two-inch tape.’
Marcus takes over the story. ‘We called him and asked if he would engineer the mixes and he said ‘yes’. We thought he could deliver the bold sound we were seeking while maintaining the Iain Burgess spirit. Not only was he familiar with us, but he’d worked with Iain years before and immediately recognized many of the techniques that he’d incorporated into the recording process.’
Was it the prospect of the release of this mini-album that prompted the trio to reform for live dates? Frank demurs. ‘More that Marcus asked us if we’d be interested in playing a Fortieth Anniversary show together, then that lead to a bunch of other plans, including releasing the 1987 tape.’
Marcus agrees. ‘No. For many years, I maintained that those songs were worthy of release, but there’d not been any serious discussion of a band reunion until a couple of years ago. When we came together to play a reunion show or shows, the release of those recordings became a component of that decision.’
How is it different playing live now to the way it was in 1986? You’re not tempted by autotune? ‘What is this thing you mention, ‘autotune?’ LOL!’ laughs Frank. ‘Nope, we’re gonna be raw and naked on stage, just like always! I think the biggest difference is tempo, followed by stamina – for a drummer!’
‘What?!’ Marcus contrives outrage. ‘We play music today the same way we played it then – plug in and play with people who want to perform and generate an unbridled energy people will respond to. Essentially, I’ve not embraced technology, and still believe in honest, uninhibited performance in its basic forms’.
‘It will be such an incredibly special experience to play live with my bandmates after so many years’ Lisa enthuses. ‘I might need a little caffeine, but other than that, it’ll be great.’
The three individual component members have all worked on diverse music projects across the intervening years, from break-up to reunion. Marc in country band Cryin’ Out Loud, Lisa (with later Get Smart! second guitarist Bob Lara) first as The Lisa & Bob Show, then as a founding member of Dolly Varden… as well as the Gang Of Four tribute band Damaged Gods. How has that experience broadened the potential musical scope of Get Smart!? ‘Because we played live so much 1980–1987, that influenced what we wrote’ offers Frank. ‘We had to be able to play the songs live and not lose the audience. When I think of future projects, the biggest difference is that we will be unencumbered by that.’
Lisa agrees. ‘Yes, I think we will certainly see some interesting variations to come.’
‘You can take a Hank Williams song and a Ramones song and play them each in the other’s style’ suggests Marcus. ‘All music has the potential to be reinterpreted. When we were first creating music, we wanted to be a Punk band. We have the potential to incorporate other genres that have been of interest to us throughout our lives.’
So there will be new Get Smart! recordings to follow ‘Oh Yeah No’? ‘We’ll start talking about that after we get these anniversary shows completed’ says Frank. ‘There are a few projects we could pursue, but we need to talk more and then figure out how to do it!’
‘Yes, living in three different States creates some big challenges, but we’re hoping to develop some new material together’ confirms Lisa. ‘There are obstacles to overcome’ concludes Marcus, wrapping things up neatly, ‘but what I see in front of us now is to play a couple of anniversary shows and when we get to the next intersection, decide then if we are going to go left, right or straight. Where any of those directions will lead remains to be seen…’
In the meantime, it’s great to get the chance to say Hi!
‘Yes, it sure is!’ says Lisa brightly.
Welcome to even fresher sounds from Middle America!
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
Email: [email protected]