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ZINE O'RAMA - UGLY THINGS - INTERVIEW MIKE STAX


Mike Stax has been publishing Ugly Things in San Diego - California for what looks like ever. Last August saw the celebration of 40 years of UT. It seemed to be the right time to discuss with Mike and he was kind enough to agree to answer my questions

The 40th anniversary of Ugly Things is such an achievement, the magazine has overcome all the essential previous ones (Zigzag, Who puts the Bomp, Creem …). How can you explain it knowing that you were never in the mainstream line ? 

It’s still hard for me to realize that’s it’s been 40 years. Never being remotely part of the mainstream is one of the main reasons for our longevity. We have our niche, which is a lot of music that doesn’t get covered in other magazines, so we have built up a loyal readership by giving them something they can’t find anywhere else. We’ve never had to stay up to date with the latest trends or ‘hot’ bands. We’ve lasted by being different, having great taste and doing solid research.

I know that you are from the UK and been living in the US for decades. Don’t you miss the English way of life ? I mean it would be difficult for me without pubs, chip shops and British bands ?  

I do miss the English way of life. I go back to visit there every year or two and that helps. The pubs and chip shops in California aren’t the same. But instead we have great taco shops – San Diego is on the Mexican border – good restaurants, beautiful weather, and the Pacific Ocean. And I have shelves filled with records by British bands.

What were the bands you liked then when in England during your teens ? 

Before I was in my teens I was already a fan of David Bowie, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Pretty soon after that I started getting into ‘60s era bands like the Velvet Underground, the Who, the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, and the Kinks

I was 15 years old in 1977 when punk was at its peak. I saw live shows by the Clash, the Adverts, the Vibrators, the Stranglers, the Saints, and a little later the Specials, the Fall, Joy Division, the Cramps, the Mekons, the Gang of Four. 1976-79 was an exciting time for music.

Like you I used to listen to John Peel, as he was the true go-between. Could you explain what he meant to you?   

John Peel’s radio show was really important for me as a teenager in the late ‘70s. I listened every night, and also used to record some of the sessions. I still have a lot of those cassette tapes of bands like the Subway Sect, the Slits, Alternative TV, the Mekons, the Fall, and many others. I lived in a village in Yorkshire, and often on a Saturday I would catch the bus into Leeds to go record shopping, mostly for old ‘60s records, but usually also a new single or two that I had heard on Peel’s show that week. It was on John Peel’s show one night in late 1979 that I first heard the Crawdaddys. Because of that I ended up moving to San Diego in 1980 to join the band.

There was another radio I was listening to called Radio Geronimo, were you familiar with their programs which lasted only one year not more, but unforgettable ? The first time I listened, Hugh played the full Stooges Funhouse album, followed by Edgar Broughton’s Wasa wasa then it was Terry Riley’s Rainbow in curved air ?

 

I’m not familiar with Radio Geronimo, but it sounds amazing.

 

John Peel introduced me to the Misunderstood which I loved at once. And I consider the series of articles covering the band saga as one of the highlights of UT through the years. Could you elaborate on how you became aware of that band and decided to publish their story ? 

Thank you! I first heard the Misunderstood in 1982 when a friend of mine, Paul Bayley, played me the Cherry Red single of “Children of the Sun.” I fell in love with it right away – it sounded like the Yardbirds but amped up to a higher level of intensity – and that steel guitar blew my mind! Soon after that I picked up the Before the Dream Faded album and was stunned by the music, especially the songs on Side 1 recorded in London in 1966. 


Many years later, a friend of mine in Auckland, John Baker, put me in touch with Glenn Campbell, the band’s steel guitar genius. After talking to Campbell, I became obsessed with documenting their story. So I tracked down the other band members and spent several years interviewing them all and putting together the full, definitive story. In the process of doing that, we discovered a bunch of previously unreleased tracks from 1965-66, which I ended up releasing on vinyl and CD.


It was the most detailed and work intensive story I had written up to that point. It kind of took over my life. But they were so great, so seminal and so overlooked that their story warranted that level of attention. I’m proud of the work I did on that, and also it was a thrill later to have Glenn Campbell play onstage with my band the Loons, and also to play on some of our recordings. A life highlight!


 

 How would you rate the Nuggets double album, did you know at that time the featured bands ?



Naturally, I love the Nuggets album. It was such an important release because it introduced many of us for the first time to some of the greatest overlooked tracks from the USA in the ‘60s. Most of those tracks I heard for the first time on Nuggets – “Pushin’ Too Hard,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Dirty Water,” “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” – because they were virtually unknown in the UK where I grew up. After that I started searching for more. I’m still searching.

Maybe Greg Shaw, your friendly mentor, would not had the same impact without Nuggets ?

You’re probably right. Greg Shaw and Lenny Kaye knew each other at the time, and Greg knew all about Lenny’s plans for Nuggets. It was all part of a growing appreciation for that music, which at the time was only five or six years in the past! Nuggets brought it to the surface in a major way, and it grew from there, in large part because of the efforts of Greg with Who Put the Bomp magazine, the Pebbles compilations and so on.

UT has evolved through the years getting more and more professional and I have noticed that there is now a genuine UT style of writing shared by your contributors which to me is one of the keys of the magazine success. Your fanzine has become the best underground rock mag. 

Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate the compliment. I think over the years we’ve developed a voice and a point of view that is distinctive and appreciated by our readers. I have a talented team of writers. We all have somewhat different tastes, but a similar point of view when it comes to championing underappreciated music from the past. We try and keep the standard of writing as high as possible.

This 40th anniversary has been widely celebrated, are there still artists and bands you are dreaming of interviewing ? 

Definitely! There are hundreds of stories still waiting to be told. The important thing now is to document them while the musicians are still alive and can still remember. I am excited to interview Karl Ratzer, the lead guitarist for the Slaves from Austria, and other great bands – plans are in the works. I’m also planning a story on another Austrian group, Novaks Kapelle, and also the Robbs, an underrated US pop/garage band. There are also some famous musicians that I would love to interview one day, people like Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Grace Slick and Neil Young.  These are probably impossible dreams, but you never know.

Being a Boston rock fan I liked very much the paper written by Laurent Bigot about Kenne Highland. Do you plan to investigate other people and bands from that area ? I mean Willie Loco is 80 years old, I think he is a genius and has probably many stories to tell. And I am also thinking of DMZ, Lyres and the Classic Ruins ? And I forget Jon Richman and the Modern Lovers which are among my favourites. 


Laurent did a terrific job with Kenne Highland’s story. We’ve also had stories on the Real Kids, Willie Alexander and others. No doubt there will be more in the future. I’m in contact with Jonathan Richman, who is a great guy and a lot of fun to talk to. He wrote an amazing story for Issue #56, complete with hand-drawn illustrations, about Lou Reed’s guitar and amps in the Velvet Underground. We’ll definitely be featuring him in our pages again.

 

 

What about the late Mike Wilhelm and Loose Gravel – Chris Wilson might be a good candidate to talk about them.

That’s another good suggestion. I actually started talking to Chris a few years ago about his bands before the Flamin’ Groovies, but haven’t got around to completing that story yet.

Today, are you still discovering new bands which have the “garage” feeling, not cover bands ?

Yes, it’s good to see new, young garage bands coming up like the Wyld Gooms and the Killing Floors here in Southern California, and others around the world. The garage scene seems to go in cycles and renews itself every few years.

What is the article/review you are the most proud of and why ? 

That’s a difficult question. I’m extremely proud of the Misunderstood story. Also, many of the stories and interviews I’ve done with the Pretty Things – the Phil May interview from Issue #37 was special because he opened up about subjects he’d never discussed before, including some of the trauma from his childhood. 

And of course the article I wrote about the musician and songwriter Craig Smith, a really strange and tragic story that I ended up turning into a book, which took me 15 years to research and write: Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith & the Mystery of Maitreya Kali.


That was an emotional experience that had a major impact on my life and the way I see the world. But I’m always most excited by the stories I am currently working on; that’s what motivates me to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work!

Thanks a lot Mike !

 

 

   Jacques_B

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