16 Aug IPU : Photos from the International Pop Underground, 1991
My memory is more metaphorical than factual. I had it in my head that my band Sleepyhead went on our first tour in the summer of 1991, our second year as a band, and that the tour ended in August in Chapel Hill (where I grew up). That last show was with Jawbox at the Cat’s Cradle and it’s memorable to me because the next day my sister got married. The rehearsal dinner was across the street from the Cat’s Cradle, so lots of elderly relatives came over to see the show and quickly fled when the music started, hearing aids screaming. I thought all this happened in 1991, but I just heard that yesterday was my sister’s 29th anniversary which means that the wedding was in 1992. We played at the International Pop Underground Convention in 1991 and I had conflated the tour and IPU as happening the same year, but clearly I was wrong.
It turns out that it was in our third year as a band we went on that first tour (when i wrote this linked piece about our first tour 8 years ago i thought it was 1991). By the time the IPU convention rolled around we had been a band for approximately 2 years. It was the first band any of us had been in and none of us was really proficient at our instrument. We practiced almost every week, and after the first couple of months I thought about the band for much of the day. It was so profoundly exciting to be engaging in a collaborative project that had forward momentum. We were not “good” by any means, but in high school I had tried to play music with a lot of people and nothing ever really clicked. This was different. In the year before starting the band, Chris and I spent hours each week listening to music and going to shows. It was like a year of pre-production. Then over the summer on a cross country road trip, I listened to mix tapes over and over, and thought about what it might be like to be in a band. Before school had ended that previous year, we had talked about bringing our instruments to school that fall. Chris’s friend Rachael brought her drums and we were off and running in the first days of school. We dragged our guitars, and in my case a borrowed amp, down to a cinder block basement storage room in the dorm. We made such a racket that my ears would ring for days. It was a constant reminder of the ecstatic noise we were making.
After that first year of practicing and making up songs, we went into a studio and recorded a demo. When we were looking for cheap studios to record in, our friend Mike McGonigal suggested that we call the producer Kramer because he was fast and cheap. Having been obsessed with his band BALL, and bands he produced like Galaxie 500, this suggestion seemed so far-fetched as to be ludicrous. McGonigal was right, though. Kramer was far cheaper than the other studios we called, and lightening fast as well. We did 3 songs in 2 hours. Two of those songs later became our first single. With that demo under our belt, we moved to Providence for the summer in order to focus on the band.
We didn’t practice as much as I wanted that summer because Chris was working as a painter and often too tired to practice. I never got a real job, but did do stills on a movie and a little interning with a photographer in Boston. On the night before I was supposed to go to my photo internship for the first time, we came home from band practice to find our housemate Ben sitting in the dining room. He told me that it wasn’t too late for me to take some acid so I did. About 7 hours later he reminded me that I had five minutes to get to that internship. I was still coming down from that little adventure when I got dropped off at a rotary near Boston and hopped on the back of Bill Burke’s Ducati. Once there, Bill, the photographer, set me to work cutting a hundred rolls of negatives. It was not a bad way to re enter the material world. I was listening to WHRB, the Harvard radio station, when I found myself humming along to one of our songs, “Play”. Then I realized it was on the radio. It was a surreal moment, and I called Bill in to listen. I don’t think he was all that impressed, but after a year of obsessively making music, to hear it on the actual radio was a wild experience. It made our efforts and our desire to be a band seem all the more plausible. Our rent for the summer was like 150 dollars, so I was able to coast a little. I found a mattress on the street and drank cheap beer. While I didn’t work a lot, I did do a lot of creative work. I wrote, planned, drew, and photographed. It felt empowering to be developing some forward momentum on the path towards a creative life.
Being in a band can be difficult because collaboration can be difficult. Still, we survived that summer and returned to NY with a little more direction and a more solid sense of commitment to being in a band. Near the end of that summer, we played one of our first shows in a club opening for Jawbreaker. When they came in to the club, I realized that the bass player had been in my Nietzsche class. We were still a bit of a hot mess, but since our demo had been played a lot that summer in Boston we actually had a few people there to see us. The drummer for the Pixies was there and came up to tell Rachael that she was a great drummer. You remember things like that from your first shows.
That fall, we also started to play a lot of shows in NYC. Most were sparsely attended, but at each one we met a few more people and connected with more bands. Slowly, we became part of a larger group of bands like Kicking Giant, Love Child and Flying Saucer, as well as more established bands like Antietam and Fly Ashtray that helped us to gain a foothold. I had always wanted to make art but never had an outlet. Being in the band began to connect me with artists who helped me to find some footing. Tae Won Yu had a profound impact on me. I was in awe of his creative spirit, and he pushed me towards finding some belief in my own creative impulses. Not only did being in a band connect me with people, it also gave me a way to make art: for fliers, records, etc. It also just made more space for me to feel like I could make art.
I ended up finishing school a semester early and moved into an apartment on St.Marks Place. My memory was that I spent that spring trying to book a tour, but that tour didn’t happen until a year later. In reality, I spent the spring getting a bunch of shitty jobs: messenger, typist, busboy, sperm donor – and staying out late getting up to no good. I also began to spend more time consciously focused on exercising my creative muscle; drawing, writing, and beginning to think more seriouslly about my photography. We got a practice space out in Hoboken and tried to practice more. We had also started to play once or twice a month in NYC with an occasional trip to Boston or Providence mixed in. That year we did some recording with James Kavoussi from Fly Ashtray and Uncle Wiggly at his Toxic Shock studio. Mike McGonigal helped make that happen, and it came out as part of the Chinny Chin Chin 4 band compilation record. We learned a lot and continued to figure out how to play together. I don’t recall much about that summer, but I know we spent a lot of time making music and seeing shows. Chris found a place on E. 2nd street and our upstairs neighbor from Providence, Nicholas Butterworth, moved in with him. Rachael was in grad school and continued to be an RA, but ended up moving next door to Chris.
I think Tae had moved to Olympia early in the summer of 1991. He had started his band Kicking Giant around the same time that we started Sleepyhead. We were kind of a mutual support society, so when he got out to Olympia, he suggested that we get invited to IPU. There was a strong Olympia and DC connection but we might have been the only NY band that made the trek (I think our friends from Providence, Small Factory, made it too). However, we had a lot of NY friends that came out, including my former roommate Rich Seigmeister, who traveled with me and Chris. 30 years later I’ve been to a lot of film festivals and a handful of music fests. This was my first time experiencing that awkward discomfort of not knowing many people and not really knowing what was going on, or what to expect.
A local band, Treehouse, offered to put us up, which was very kind. However, they lived a couple miles out of town so it meant we needed rides to get down to where the shows were. Honestly, it’s all just a blur. I know that several shows were sold out, so I missed some that I would have loved to have seen. I did get to see Bikini Kill (and other bands on their bill), Bratmobile, The Mummies, Beat Happening, Shadowy Men, The Melvins, Jad Fair and the Pastels, and Kicking Giant. I also shot some video but I don’t have a way to see it. All I ever digitized was some of our performances which I’ll post at the end.
I didn’t even take photos of all the bands that I saw. I did take almost a whole roll of The Nation of Ulysses and a few good ones of some other bands. I also shot some of the cake walk and a single image of a pig during the pet parade. I’ll share a bunch of those below.
Chris and I came out before Rachael, who arrived just before we played on the Capitol lawn on Saturday afternoon. Allison from Bratmobile lent us her Dart to pick up Rachael but forgot to give us her gas key so we almost ran out of gas. Luckily we pulled in just in time to jump on stage and play on unfamiliar gear.
On our first day hanging out at the festival we met a few people, but not a lot. I remember feeling a bit out of place but we began to meet other folks as the festival progressed.
I think we might have seen Bikini Kill that first day. I didn’t take any pictures because it was too packed and I was too far away. It was a kind of mind blowing event to come together with so many people that we didn’t know who were very passionate about music and community. The second day the Nation of Ulysses showed up. I think that we had played a show with them up in Amherst so it was nice to see someone we recognized.
They were the only band that I shot a ton of photos of. Their show was loud and kinetic. Some of the images are super shaky because I was standing in the pit getting jostled around, there wasn’t much light, and they were moving. These ended up feeling like they were connected to theories of futurism, which was kind of perfect. I’m going to post a bunch here because I finally scanned them.
See, there are a lot of them. This often happened when I saw them because they were just so alive. I think Ian introduced me to this guy from the Mummies. We got to see them at the Surf Club and it was a garage riot. They dressed like mummies and hid their identity. Their ride was pretty amazing- and old ambulance.
I had been taking pictures for years, but I was still a bit unsure of what I was trying to capture. I walked around town and made a few other images.
Bratmobile put on a quite a show. Tae had introduced us so I remember feeling like I wanted to get them some photos.
I was also able to get some photos of Beat Happening and Jad Fair with the Pastels
There was a pet parade and cake walk that took place in the center of town. I got a few pictures there as well. I was trying to document the event but I was struggling with how to document something that I was participating in. It was difficult to split my attention between observing and just being.
As I said, Rachael made it just in time. The next day we went and visited mount Rainier and then had to head back home.