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Q&A With Craig Gray

22 Jan

(Note: this is a reup of an interview I did with SF gtrist Craig Gray in the early 2000s, originally published as part of a larger piece on the godlike TOILING MIDGETS in the now-defunct Die Cast Garden webzine. Yes things have moved on, the band has since reformed and they now even play out occasionally . . . and while I’m not sure why this returns to the web today, I do know my love for all things MIDGET still stands tall. Enjoy.)

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M: I think a lot of people have come to see THE TOILING MIDGETS as a kind of SLEEPERS Mk. II. Not only did you have Tim Mooney and Ricky Williams in the fold, but your sound seemed to harken back to THE SLEEPERS late-70s work in tone and complexity. Was this something you guys consciously tried to do, or did THE SLEEPERS tag dog you no matter how hard you tried to shake it, like a piece of wet toilet paper trailing from the bottom of your shoe?

Craig: I first met the Sleepers in 77 when I was in Negative Trend. Will Shatter and I lived in a huge flat at 8th and Howard. People would come over after gigs at the Mabuhay. Michael Belfer and I would play and write together all night. Both bands did songs written by both of us. She’s Fun on the first Sleepers EP was written by me, Michael and Ricky. I actually played a couple of times with the Sleepers as a second guitar. It was just a natural devlopment rather than a conscious effort. I don’t think I was aware of how people perceived us.

M: Similarly, alot of know-nothings liked to lump you guys in with FLIPPER – obviously a product of lazy, provincial thinking. Who did you feel most musically akin to at the time?

Craig: No one. I felt very insular, more connected to the music than the real world. The Flipper thing is just cause of the Negative Trend connection but i never really cared. It was kinda embarrassing.

M: What was a typical MIDGETS gig like? And are legends true about you guys preferring to play with your backs to the audience?

Craig: Typical? I don’t think there was one. Chaos maybe. Yes we played with our backs to the audience, or at least I did. It started at the last ever Negative Trend gig. Rik L Rik pulled a no show so I tried to sing a song. I was so embarrassed I couldn’t look at the audience so I quit singing and turned around. We finished the set instrumentally and I haven’t turned around since.

M: How representative was the Sea of Unrest LP of the MIDGETS?

Craig: Very. As with all of our recordings, they represent us at that particular time.  

M: Who played all those meandering, feedback gtr-atmospherics on that record: you, Paul, or Mick Ronson?

Craig: PAUL RONSON

M: How did Ricky Williams contribute and/or mess things up?

Craig: Ricky was our human voice. Yea he was a mess but his voice and his skewed perception were unique. When he sang he wasn’t capable of holding back, and he was what he sang about, an inspired mess.

M: What about producer Tom Mallon? His production on Sea of Unrest is downright apocalyptic.

Craig: Mallon was our interpreter so to speak. He found the beauty in the chaos and helped us shape and define it.

M: During the post-Sea of Unrest days as documented on the Deadbeats LP, in the great tradition of MOBY GRAPE and LYNYRD SKYNYRD you guys had three guitarists. What was that all about?

Craig: Deadbeats was supposed to be a five song EP for Rough Trade. It would have been Preludes, Caverns, Before Trust, Black Idol and a song written by Annie called Richard Speck. Rough Trade changed their mind. Thermidor said they would put it out but wanted an LP. We were pretty much broken up by then (Nov. – Dec. 83) so Tom and I pieced together an LP but Annie didn’t want Richard Speck on it. Great song tho.

M: Annie Ungar impressed me as a kind of West Coast equivalent to THE CONTORTIONS’ Pat Place. What did she add?

Craig: Songs. More sound. A medium ground between Paul and I. Her style was fluid like Paul’s but more rhythmically based like mine. Her tone was different from both of us as well. More slide oriented which gave us more range. It gave me an opportunity to play less of a basic roll and more of a textural one within the music.

M: Why did the original band wind down in the mid-eighties?

Craig: DRUGS

M: A lot really great, regional music scenes were developed and consequently destroyed by shifting economic climates. I’m thinking of NYC in the late 70’s and any number of US college towns in the the 80’s. Did the economic situation in that city at the time play any part in what you guys were able to accomplish?

Craig: SF was a town full of bands then and as we all know the dotcommunists fucked it up. But as they leave the city changes again.

M: Was there ever a moment when you thought, shit, the MIDGETS might just possibly be poised for world takeover?

Craig: Which world?

M: The MIDGETS come-back Son LP (Matador, 1992) was a bright spot in a decade littered with truly tasteless music. Less feral in approach than Unrest, but equally effective in conjuring up vivid, darkly-flickering images. How satisfied were you with this?

Craig: It was a good record. The problem was by the time Matador got the record out we weren’t working with Eitzel anymore and he didn’t want to tour with us.

M: The addition of AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel on vocals must have surprised some folks. How well did he gel with what you guys wanted to do?

Craig: For me it was his best work.

M: A few of us heard tapes of a great, post-MIDGETS project called Wet Ash. What happened with this? What are you and the others doing artisically these days?

Craig: Wet Ash was recorded in late ’89 to early ’90, after I had just returned from living in England for 6 years. It was written by my brother Jason and I. We had a band called LAZY GIANTS and it was on our demo. Mallon recorded and mixed the orchestral version. I have always been writing, playing and recording. I have a G4 based studio at home and just finished soundtracking a short film. Paul and I have been recording online so it continues in a new way.

M: What’s going on with the new album of unreleased MIDGET and/or Ricky W. tapes? Us MIDGETheads can’t wait.

Craig: There’s about three records there maybe four, a Ricky one, and a couple of instrumental records. Tom and I have just started sorting thru the tapes.

M: What is sadcore, and can it be blamed on the MIDGETS?

Craig: HAA HAA

M: And finally – just what the hell is the Microage?

Craig: Where Ricky is.

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SF slow-punk

25 Jul

Never let it be said that, from it’s very inception, punk wasn’t up to providing the world with a unique update on the slow and the heavy. Sure THE STOOGES could riproar through “I Got A Right”, but I still get way more excited hearing them crawl through the broken glass of “Open Up and Bleed”. And while PERE UBU did once squeal around the “Non-Alignment Pact” raceway, they reached their early pinnacle in the FREE-esque trudge of “Final Solution”. Yeah it was punk’s slower numbers that always cut the deepest, dug the furthest, and hit the hardest.

Hands down, San Francisco was the seismic epicenter of slow-punk in late 70’s/early 80’s America. Other towns had their fair share of killer slow-punk moments too, but few places had this many great bands who could slow it down, so fucking well. If I ever gotta choose (and I sure hope I don’t) between the fascistic 1-2-3-4 countoff of the RAMONES or the ominous, narcoleptic surge of THE SLEEPERS, well, it’s California here I come. Consider the evidence:

THE MUTANTS – Tribute to Russ Meyer

These guys/gals have been consigned to the lost new wave bin for far too long, probably due to the B-52-ish, pop-oriented ambitions displayed on their Fun Terminal LP from 1982. But early on, they were as real, dark, and rockin’ as anything else on the SF scene – check out their first EP from 1978, compiled on their definitive White Noise Records CD. This is another of those early, heavy grinding moments. A great & tortured singer Fritz Fox was.

UXA – Death From Above

Everyone I’ve talked to agrees that the early UXA, before relocating to LA, was by far their strongest line up. Michael Kowalski is in the band here, right? I had their later Posh Boy record at some point a couple decades ago, and I don’t remember it leaving much of an impression on me. But this one burrrrrns, and stays slow past the 3-minute mark. Singer De De Troit comes off like Alice Bag at her meanest & fiercest – fellas, do give her wide berth. I used to buy the occasional beat-up used CD off De De at our store in Hollywood in the mid-90’s – no she wasn’t looking very healthy by then, but she was always nice and had intense presence. She never failed to make my day.

NEGATIVE TREND – Black & Red

Not sure what the heck’s going on in this video, but the song’s self-hatred is forever burned on my emotional palette. “I have always liked/ the color red/ because it looks so good on my arm . . .” Thank eternal fanboy Henry Rollins for recently reissuing this one. Just the heaviest punk churn imaginable.

SLEEPERS – Sister Little

The only band who could rival THE GERMS in my personal cosmology of West Coast Kings of Thee Punk Rock Beyond. Their The Less An Object comp. on Tim Kerr Records is a crucial part of any record collection (hot tip: the vinyl version has two alternate versions not found on the CD, so serious fans need both!) Singer Ricky Williams was such an incredibly talented, beautiful singer capable of penning lyrics so wrong he was somehow accidentally right every goddamn time. Unlike other early SLEEPERS classics (such as the gorgeous “Linda”) this one ain’t exactly slow, but it’s what I could find, and I don’t find myself swooning any less.

TOILING MIDGETS – Again

There is nothing about the TOILING MIDGETS I don’t love – the multi-dimensional (i.e. space AND time) gtr attack, the panoramic musical structures, the deep rhythmic throb, the long-gone lyrics, the desperate narcotic croon. I once published a much longer, more tangled appreciation + chopped up interviews with various MIDGETS on the web – should really repost that here sometime. Who knows: if these guys could’ve mustered the courage to turn around on stage, maybe more people’d remember the faces of such formidable musical grandeur today.

FLIPPER – Sacrifice

Pretty much defined the intoxicated end of SF punk in the 80’s – without them, there would be no FANG, no MELVINS, no NIRVANA, and even no MOBY fr christs sake. And although Craig Gray of THE TOILING MIDGETS once told me they kinda embarrassed him, I reckon FLIPPER would take his embarrassment as a badge of honour. I love that Bruce Loose cropped his hair short in this video like he was a suburban HC skater or something – ha! It was akin to that SoCal hippy Chuck Dukowski getting a mohawk, only ironic.