An entire genre of music might be called "hidden-treasure rock" and it would be made up of those bands that, when you stumble upon their albums in record store racks, you feel like you've won a prize. MX-80 Sound is the epitome of this idea. Their albums are the kind you pull from the stacks and ask your friends if they own anything by them, “because you should.”
Julian Cope once wrote that he “suspected” MX-80 Sound was a main influence on bands like noise-rock luminaries Sonic Youth, and one can hear where he’s coming from by sampling any of their first three albums -- 1977’s Hard Attack, 1980’s Out Of The Tunnel and 1981’s Crowd Control. All three overflow with off-kilter melodies, scorching, angular guitar riffs and trance-inducing rhythms, creating the kind of arty, guitar-heavy noise that would find its way onto radio waves under the “alternative rock” banner years later.
Tracks like “Someday You’ll Be King” spur curiosity at why MX-80 Sound aren't mentioned as often as Husker Du and Mission of Burma. To put it bluntly, they never caught a break. Even being signed to a big label like Island Records (Bob Marley, U2) didn’t really benefit them as it should have, as the label’s president Chris Blackwell disliked their debut LP enough to only release it in the U.K and the Netherlands. MX-80 Sound were an American band -- at the time they were based in Bloomington, IN -- and their first album was import-only.
But that didn’t deter them: the band moved to San Francisco in 1978 and kept playing, despite an initially cold reception from locals. Ups and downs continued, but the band still plays today; as a matter of fact, their new album, So Funny, sees release this month.
We recently caught up with the three original members still with the group -- singer/keyboardist Rich Stim, guitarist Bruce Anderson and bassist Dale Sophiea -- and discussed early influences, their sound's evolution, and why San Francisco "hated" them at first.
What are some bands that motivated you in the beginning, when it was just Bruce and Dale?
Bruce: I was listening Captain Beefheart, the Tony Williams Lifetime and Terje Rypdal.
Dale: Too vast a subject. You could include, on first glance, the usual suspects. Zappa, Beefheart, Hendrix, etc. But that would be the tip of the iceberg. Glenn Gould, Patsy Cline, The Who, Les Paul, Henri Pousseur, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Archie Shepp, Coltrane, Ornette, Kraftwerk, New York Pro Musica Antigua, Robert Shaw, Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, Ba Benzele Pygmies... the list is endless.
Where did the name and logo come from?
Bruce: My brother and I co-designed the logo. He was a professional sign maker and quite skilled. I just thought it sounded kind of dangerous and that it looked good and solid when printed.
Was Bloomington, where you started, conducive for music? It's a college town -- were there a lot of opportunities to play live? Was there a lot of variety to the bands?
Rich: Yes, much more accepting than most other places we've played. We played everywhere once. It was like FM radio used to be -- lots of variety and not many music snobs.
Bruce: There were a lot of musicians in Bloomington because of the enormity of the university’s music school and all-around liberal arts bent. I played with several jazz and classical musicians who were willing to experiment.
Dale: I was at the music school and crazy sh*t was everywhere. New bands weren’t really the main deal, but guerilla performance pieces abounded. The day Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band came out, a dozen or so of us Willkie Quadrangle residents (they put most of the art and music nerds into Willkie) pointed our speakers out our dorm windows (the dorm was V-shaped, so it was like an ideal stereo speaker set up), synced our watches, dropped the needles on our brand new LPs at the same time, and ran out back to lie on the lawn and listen as the turntables gradually fell out of sync with each other, making a glorious mess out of the Beatles' masterpiece.
Another cool performance was Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 for 24 performers and 12 radios. Two at each radio -- one on volume and the other on frequency. Funny thing was, the music school auditorium had no radio reception, so there were essentially 12 radios playing varying versions of static.
As far as us playing live, we played at a few clubs once or twice, but mainly had to rent the Monroe Country Library if we wanted to play our music without being heckled. The punk bands came later.
Why do you guys initially start with two drummers -- Dave Mahoney and Jeff Armour?
Bruce: We don’t really prefer two drummers. Jeff and Dave (together) made one great drummer! They both were stylists who meshed together very well. When Jeff quit, Dave was ready to take over. We then became more rock-based because Jeff was basically a Jazz player.
Dale: A variation that remains fun at times, even now.
The level of playing from your Bloomington days to your San Francisco days is remarkably improved. Did going down to one drummer from two help tighten you up? What were other factors?
Bruce: Dale and Dave had played together longer by the time Ralph Records rolled around, so they were naturally better.
Rich: Once Dave was the only drummer, things seemed much clearer to me.
Dale: Three words: Practice, practice, practice. We practiced six days a week in Bloomington and at least seven hours a week once we got to SF.
It says on your Wikipedia page that when you first moved to San Francisco, "local reception was not enthusiastic." Was it that bad? I think the first record totally sounds like it would do well in the city...
Bruce: We thought the same thing! We were shocked at how fundamentalist the music scene was here. I took a lot of solos and that made me 'old wave.' Artistically, San Francisco is very cliquish and provincial, which in turn creates cults of mediocrity.
Rich: SF totally, absolutely hated us. We didn't mine any of the city's musical nuggets -- we weren't theatrical, self-conscious, or angry. What was happening back then was a very paint-by-numbers punk/new wave thing exemplified by the Dils and some other bands that I'm too lazy to Google. I did, however, like the Dead Kennedys, and Jello Biafra was a fan of ours, too.
Dale: After all these years, the only reindeer games we get to join in on are created by us, and kindred spirits.
Did you need side jobs, or could you guys live off being in the band?
Bruce: We all had jobs. We always had to.
Rich: Is this a trick question?
Did Das Love Boat, your album of instrumental songs, really get a parental advisory sticker? If so, how?
Bruce & Dale: Rich is a funny guy.
Rich: Apparently if you play the third song backwards, you can hear the word "Cornholio" over and over.
Why did you drop "Sound" from your name?
Bruce: It sounded clumsy after a while.
Rich: It was too hard to pronounce.
Dale: Also, marketing has never been our strongest suit.
Why did you bring it back after all these years?
Bruce: We thought it sounded too pretentious. Now that we’re older it doesn’t sound pretentious enough, so we put it back in.
Dale: Instead of focusing on one name, one band, we are fiercely (yet whimsically) esoteric in our musical styles and tastes, with various combinations of us playing in a wide assortment of different-style bands including: Half-Life, O-Type, The Gizzards, The Bisonics, lazyboy, Grale, Bar Stool Walker, Pluto (now the Tenth Planet), French Radio, Time Eater, Rattletrap, The Siamese Stepbrothers, and more.
What have been the big influences on your later albums like We're an American Band? The songs do seem much slower and conceptual.
Bruce: Since we’ve aged I think we’ve become slower and more conceptual. I fell in love with Morton Feldman, so I naturally fell in love with "slow and conceptual."
Rich: We got really old.
Dale: Could be we’re simply returning to our roots.
How is it playing with Dale's son Nico on drums? (Nico played all the drum parts on the new album So Funny.)
Bruce: The ‘Swinging Sophieas’ are wild men! They are like “WOW!”
Rich: Nico's an amazing musician. We're lucky he picked Dale to be his dad.
Dale: It’s about time the little rugrat started earning his keep.
Why aren't you guys more popular? Did you just never catch a break, or was there something that kept you guys from totally going for it? Did you tour a lot?
Dale: We did one pretty successful east coast tour with the original lineup, and a second with Bruce and me and two others we picked up, Owen Maercks and Richard Driskell, a band we now lovingly refer to as “The C-Minus Humans." But we simply didn’t put enough energy into touring to move us on to the next show-biz strata.