Playin' in a Rock and Roll Band

Read about my off and on history of playing bass in rock bands (which included opening for Nirvana and recording with Steve Albini).

I first started learning the electric bass in middle school in Stage Band. I didn’t take to reading music that well and struggled for the couple years that I did it. I didn’t continue while I was in high school, instead wasting my time on piano lessons. Same problem: I struggled to keep up with reading the notes on the page and therefore never really grasped the feel of the instrument. I gave up for a while, but when a friend at Hampshire College offered to sell me his terrible, piece-of-crap bass (spray-painted silver!), I figured I would give it another shot. There were a few jams and a brief, probably embarrassing talent show appearance, but still the bass skills would not jell.

Finally Finding My Groove

After dropping out of Hampshire and moving to Portland, I started to meet some folks in the blossoming indie/punk scene (something that was absolutely new to me). I managed to get a band called Grind together with some friends. Lo and behold, once I could make my own sounds and do it with people who provided a good framework to play against, this bass thing started to make sense.

Grind played for a year or two (managing to open for an unknown band called Nirvana along the way), but the drummer and guitar player and I started wondering if the singer was holding us back. He was my first best friend in Portland and I felt really terrible about wanting to ditch him, but we had to admit that Pete, the guitar player, was a better singer.

We did the totally immature thing and told the singer, Josh, that we were breaking up. Then we surreptitiously got another practice space, wrote all new material and started playing shows under another name: Thrillhammer. Like Josh wouldn’t figure it out soon enough. On the other hand, at least we didn’t just kick him out and keep using the songs we’d all written together. Bands have done worse.

Thrillhammer did pretty well for itself. We played some great shows with some awesome bands of the time (including Nirvana…again) and managed to work our way up to headlining at Satyricon, the cool local club that I would later wind up booking. We played outside Portland a few times (Seattle, Olympia, Eugene) and also managed to do one self-booked (i.e. I booked it myself) tour down the West Coast, which alas, brought about our breakup. We also recorded an album with the legendary Steve Albini at the controls! More on that in a bit.

The drummer, David Triebwasser, went on to be in Pond, and the guitar player, Pete Krebs went on to be in Hazel, Golden Delicious, Stolen Sweets, and others, as well as having a strong solo career. As of this writing, he’s still cranking away, playing multiple shows a week. Pond and Hazel both signed to Sub Pop and got plenty of attention.

More Rock Travails and a Long Break

After Thrillhammer broke up, I started the band Rotor – with Ken Adams, who had been kicked out of Pond to make way for David, and Dale Moerer, formerly of the Oily Bloodmen. We played for a couple years, did some recordings (now mostly lost forever) and broke up when Ken moved to Atlanta. Probably about ten people on the planet remember this band. (I did manage to track down a copy of our first cassette demo a few years back. I ripped it to digital and tried to clean it up as best as I could. You can check it out here There is also a live recording of us at the legendary X-Ray Cafe that I’ve been meaning to get the multitrack tapes for and mix/master).

After Rotor broke up, I’d about had it with all the struggles of getting somewhere with a rock band. Plus, I was now booking the Satyricon as well as working as music editor for the local arts paper, PDXS. I’d had my fill of playing. Sold all my gear and switched sides.

I couldn’t stay away forever though. In late 2012, at the memorial for Sean Roberts (bass/vox in Portland’s awesome 30.06), former 30.06-guitar-player Dave Blunk and I started talking about how we missed rocking out. That conversation led to the forming of Down Gown, which played its first show on my 49th birthday in 2014. We had a fun few years, playing some fun shows and putting out an album on Cavity Search Records, plus a split seven inch. But that also fell apart in 2018. Not sure when, if ever, I’ll get back to playing bass in a band. Anyway, you can check out Down Gown’s music on Bandcamp.

Recording with Steve Albini

I suppose a few people still remember Thrillhammer, or so I’ve been told, but the band is still a minor footnote in Portland rock history. We were officially dead before we even recorded with Albini in April of 1992. The ensuing five or six years brought the Portland music scene international recognition; besides Pond and Hazel, Portland during this era produced Heatmiser, Elliot Smith, Everclear, The Dandy Warhols, and others.

You may wonder how (or why) we managed to record an album when we weren’t even a band any more. We had actually broken up on our ill-fated West Coast tour in May of 1991. But when we got home, we heard from Mike Morasky, our friend in Steel Pole Bathtub (who worked for Boner Records), that he had vouched for us with the newly formed German branch of Rough Trade records.

To make a long story short, we strung Mike and Rough Trade along for almost a year to get this record made. Make no mistake, this was a very shitty thing to do. I have apologized to Mike; and Rough Trade guys, if you’re out there, I am very sorry that we lied to you. I plead youthful stupidity and greed, but really there’s no excuse.

I suppose we did it because we wanted a document of what we had done. I seem to remember that I pushed the hardest for it. Maybe I knew deep down that I, as opposed to my band mates, would never achieve this level of musical notoriety again.

Anyway, various people over the years have expressed surprise that a little known band from Portland managed to record with Albini. Don’t be. He’s a whore. (Sorry Steve, I just can’t ever stop with the Big Black references.) Er, I mean, it’s what he did/does for a living. He didn’t select who he would record; he would accept pretty much any job as long as he was paid.

And back then, he was pretty damn cheap. At least for an indie band, he only wanted $150/day plus travel. I never heard the details of exactly how badly he screwed major labels. Ironically, that was actually screwing the band, since the recording fees came out of the advance. This is actually the band’s money since it is generally fully recoupable out of royalties. But I suppose he didn’t have much sympathy for a band that signed with a major anyway.

The album was recorded in a few days at Dogfish Studios in Newberg, OR (which tragically burned down a few years later). We slept in the studio and got on each other’s nerves. (Well, I remember for sure that I got on Albini’s nerves.) I think we probably needed a bit more direction. Albini has always insisted that he’s not a producer, but is just an engineer…a sonic documentarian, as it were. (Note that the title of this site, “Commence the Rocking” is also an Albini quote. That’s what he said to us through the talkback mic every time the tape was rolling and he was ready for us to start playing.)

So, the result – called Giftless – has some warts. But to this day, when I listen to it, it gets in my head. I suppose this is true of any artist; you can’t ever divorce yourself from your creation. It’s a part of you. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, or anything like that. But it has its moments, and, well, it’s part of my life.

In the spring of 2012, Portland’s Cavity Search Records re-released Giftless digitally for its 25th Anniversary. So you can now find it on your favorite music site like iTunes or Google Play. But here are the first couple songs on the album for your listening pleasure:

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