Poison Idea
Kings of Punk

Paperback Jukebox Poison Idea Cover July 1992

Poison Idea: Kings of Punk

Poison Idea Interview

By David J. Myers
:: :: ::

At the end of a recent Poison Idea show, singer Jerry A. wryly exclaimed, "We're Poison Idea--and we're from Portland." Although it's difficult for me to imagine, there may have been younger members in the audience who had no idea who PI is, nor where they come from. That the "Kings of Punk"--probably the last great punk rock outfit in America--needed to announce themselves even in jest in their hometown is, in itself, punk.

I noted the irony of all this; one more enduring image to file away under "Punk Rock - Poison Idea." It will join the others. One being the night a beer swilling Jerry and his even more jumbo-sized pal Oren impressed onlookers at Club Metropolis before the start of a Gun Club and Toiling Midgets show back in 1982. Climbing up onto the far end of the darkened, empty stage and diving off, these two behemoths took turns executing backflips and swandive/bellyflops before crashing down onto the floor with a tremendous thud, then getting back up and repeating the whole monstrous spectacle. "Now that's punk!" I remember thinking.

Then there was the time rubenesque guitarist Tom Pig (now known as Pig Champion) shaved his head with a straight razor in the trashed-out bathroom of the Pine Street Theatre (now RKCNDY), while surrounded by a gaggle of admiring hardcore punk onlookers. And the time I was dubiously honored as the "second best drummer in Portland" by a young female skinhead in front of the 13th Precinct, just after my grungy hardcore band finished a set. "Oh yeah," I retorted, "and who's the number one drummer?" "Dean Johnson" (then drummer for Poison Idea), she replied matter-of-factly. At a PI show a few weeks later I watched Johnson deftly execute a superb pulse, effortlessly moving from one complex meter to another, all at blitzkrieg speed and right on time and knew that I had to agree with the little vixen's assessment.

Over the years, Poison Idea has gotten a lot of press for being "heavy." This ignores one fundamental reality about the band--for all their collective weight, they are surprisingly nimble. In fact, at their most recent show the only member appearing to struggle to keep up was the skinny bassist, Myrtle Tickner. Yes their heft is striking, yet their physical tonnage is matched by their attitudes. With no mind for fads or trends in alternative music, PI has continued to evolve and remain interesting. You would be hard-pressed to find another punk band of their generation which can say the same. It's this independence, bordering on obstinance, which lies at the heart of their creativity has made them dismissive of the "alternative" music scene.

When photographer John Eckenrode and I arrived at Tom Pig Champion's house to conduct this interview on a June afternoon marked by record breaking heat, we discovered another probable reason the guitarist earned his nickname. Inside flies buzzed over large plastic bags filled with household garbage. Tom sat in front of the cable-equipped television on a love seat reserved just for him, swilling beer out of a 40 ounce bottle and occasionally spitting into one of the rubbish heaps. Drummer Steve Hanford, guitarist Mondo, and bassist Myrtle Tickner sat between garbage piles. Singer Jerry A. was nowhere to be seen.

:: :: ::

Paperback Jukebox: At the conclusion of your show at Melody Ballroom last Friday (6/19/92, also featuring Tad and Crackerbash), Jerry exhibited a wry and ironic expression as he announced "We're Poison Idea—and we're from Portland." Is much of your younger audience in Portland aware of the history of Poison Idea, and of how long you've been in existence?

Steve Hanford: Well we really haven't been part of the Sub Pop explosion and we've been banned from all the local clubs, so we couldn't go out and play with those bands. Not that we really needed to, but it was good to play in a Portland club to a Portland crowd for the first time in a couple of years.

Tom Pig Champion: I think Jerry was playing some sort of joke on the fact that we haven't played a (big) show in Portland in two years. As far as what the kids think or know about us--your guess is as good as ours.

Mondo: I think it varies, I was talking to some kids who don't know about our newer stuff, but they have Kings of Punk and Pick Your King. That was surprising.

PJ: How's your relationship with Taang records? (the label that released their current album Blank...Blankout...Vacant)

TPC: Good. They're behind the band for sure.

PJ: Let's focus on your history for a bit. What was the punk/hardcore scene like--in Portland and nationally--when you first emerged in 1980? What's changed? Where do you think it's going?

TPC: I'm not sure what you mean by "punk scene..."

PJ: Well it's nebulous. Early on it seemed like hardcore punk was well-defined...

TPC: In 1980 there wasn't speed metal, crust core, death metal, death core, death rock... all that shit is just sub-genres of sub-genres. It was pretty cut and defined in 1980. You played heavy metal, or you played cover hard rock like Styx and shit like that, or you played punk rock. That's all there really was. Now it's fuckin' factionalized, You can decide to put out a record, imitate your favorite band, and do it. Back then there were a lot less bands to imitate. In record stores back then there was one bin for punk rock, one for experimental stuff like Lydia Lunch and the like. Now you can fill a whole record store with that shit.

PJ: Poison Idea began as a four piece band, featuring--in addition to Jerry and Tom--Chris Tense on bass and Dean Johnson on drums. Would you describe how and why some of the lineup changes happened over the years, and how this has resulted in the present lineup of five musicians?

TPC: Natural decay. When Chris and Dean were in the band, that was Poison Idea then, not now. It's probably gonna stay the way it is now--this is the most prolific lineup, the best lineup, and the only one that matters right now. People came and went. Some people were thrown out; some people quit.

PJ: Who was thrown out?

TPC: Aldine Strychnine, Vegetable, Greg quit once, Tense was thrown out and Dean was thrown out.

SH: Tense was thrown out twice.

TPC: Then there were members that have been in the band that never played a show and they were thrown out. Most people get thrown out. The smart ones quit... and go on to do nothin'. Stupid ones get thrown out and keep playing garbage.

PJ: Who does the bulk of the songwriting in the band--both instrumental and lyrical?

SH: Jerry writes all the lyrics.

TPC: With this lineup, everybody writes music. That's the way it's always been, we don't ever have anyone in the band who can't write music. Nobody joins the band unless they're creative. If you can't write songs we don't want you in the band.

PJ: Aside from Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley and Ian MacKaye, who are some of your main influences?

Myrtle: Dr. Kevorkian, the man who invented the suicide machine. "He travels the land with the greatest of ease, the daring young Doctor with the suicide machine..."

(laughter all around)

TPC: That and Paul Lynde (who died of alcohol abuse—ed.) and everybody who has ever been buried face down.

SH: Rip Taylor.

Mondo: Wavy Gravy.

PJ: I've always been struck by the surprising agility and somewhat introspective sensibility of your music. Would you elaborate on this?

SH We like music and listen to lots of different kinds of it. If all we listened to was records that came out in '81 or '82, that's all we'd sound like and we'd suck and probably be broken up by now. But we are intelligent men and seek out intelligent music, life in new forms, civilization... to boldly blow no men that have been blown before.

PJ: On the back of Blank...Blankout...Vacant album cover, you have a definition of the word nihilism. But the fact that you've put out records on your own label, American Leather, your contempt for "talentless idiots," and your music in general exudes a decided non-nihilistic integrity. You seem to say that artists, especially punk artists, should follow their own course... Can you elaborate on this?

TPC: Well nihilism is a philosophy not a musical style. If you took nihilism as a musical style, you wouldn't play anything. To quote John Cage, 'I have nothing to say and I'm saying it.' That's nihilism as music.

SH: The reader can read it and decide for himself what it means. It is one of the few "true freedoms" that not many people know about.

PJ: Poison Idea has a reputation of being a big name band in a lot of specific localities, both in the United States and overseas. Where are some of the places that you have receptive audiences? Where do you sell a lot of albums?

SH: Germany. We've been there once--played some big shows. We sell a lot of records there. But it's broadening across Europe now.

TPC: Europe and Northeast United States.

PJ: That's interesting, when Curtis from Taang Records called me up last month he actually asked me, "Are you aware of Poison Idea?" At first I thought he was joking, then I thought about it and began wondering if Taang Records thinks of Poison Idea as a band that's not well recognized at home but who does much better elsewhere...

SH: That could be true since we haven't played a big show here in two years.

TPC: Of course everyone in Boston (home of Taang Records) thinks Portland as the boondocks. They don't even know where it is, just somewhere south of Seattle. It's like asking someone in Oregon about some medium-sized town in West Virginia; they won't know shit about it.

PJ: So you think that despite a bit of media attention, like the little blurb written in Rolling Stone a couple of months back describing Portland as the new "hot" music scene...

SH: There's not really a lot of talent here in my opinion.

Mondo: I agree with that.

SH: The bands that are good are great and deserve the attention that any band in Seattle could get, but they'll never get it because they live in Portland, Oregon. Right now there isn't a Sub Pop here, there isn't a Rocket magazine and there isn't as many people. Which is good; I don't wanna live in Seattle.

TPC: Portland becoming Seattle--I don't see it happening. There won't be a Soundgarden, a Nirvana, a Pearl Jam coming out of Portland. I see another Quarterflash or Nu Shooz.

PJ: That's a pretty pessimistic outlook! It seems to me that that era is over.

TPC: I hope so, I guess I just don't think the new bands in Portland are all that great.

PJ: What are some of the bands you guys think have some potential?

TPC: The Wipers, Greg Sage, Rancid Vat, Smegma—you know, bands that have been around for ten years...

PJ: But the Wipers are not in Portland anymore. Greg Sage has been living in Arizona for the last three and a half years.

TPC: True. Rancid Vat is like a smaller version of us. They can't get shows and they are a great band. They're just not part of that cliquey little scene that rolls over every six months. You pick up the local music 'zines a few years ago and who was gonna be the next big thing? Riflebirds, The Odd... This crap about all these local bands that were gonna get signed out of Portland that never happened. (The current hype is that) Sprinkler might go somewhere, a lot of people think Pond might do something...

PJ: In general what do you think of the local music press?

Mondo: It's gotten better with PDX(S) and...(phone machine interrupts conversation).

SH: It's gotten a little more cohesive and at least there is one. We don't have to put up with Willamette Week's musical babblings or look at A&E. That didn't cover any of what any kids wanted to see. At least the (Paperback) Jukebox concentrates on music. You guys come out once a month? It'd be great if you came out once a week--it'd help kids find more things to do. There's nothing for kids to do but go to the X-Ray and to overpriced shows. Overpriced like ours.

TPC: The situation right now is better than it was. There's more clubs now than there ever were before.

SH: But the kids can't get into those clubs. You've got the Roseland, shows like Peter Murphy, whatever, but it still costs a lot of money to get into those clubs. It's gonna anyway with national acts like that. They're not very "user-friendly" clubs, but they're for guys to go see the Foghat Reunion Tour. It may be a cool club, but it's a bunch of pricks who run it. And a place like Belmont's trying to be alternative is the biggest joke I've ever fucking seen in this town. I saw Reverend Horton Heat there, and they packed the people in like cattle, treated 'em like cattle, and the drinks were overpriced...And that Bone place--I don't know...

PJ: Some say that the rise in popularity of "alternative" music is a fad.

SH: It's definitely a fad 'cause there's money in it.

TPC: And nothing but a fad. It's all based on fads. It probably accounts for 90% of the local bands, because one minute you got a group of guys doing a Chili Peppers thing, and that doesn't work, so the next it's a Sub Pop thing or a grunge thing.

PJ: Would you care to name any bands in particular?

TPC: No need to name any names.

SH: We don't need any more enemies in this city than we already have.

TPC: The bands I think are really interesting here nobody knows about.

SH: The Flapjacks, the Oblivion Seekers.

TPC: But those are all bands made up of old farts like myself, so I'm kind of biased in that way. I think a lot of these bands, they make a demo tape, and the local press talks about them getting signed, and when they don't get signed they break up, and they disappear and they're gone. Frankly, I'm happy when they go.

Mondo: Then they go onto form some cool shit group they think will get signed and become rock stars.

SH: Whatever happened to writing songs and playing what you like?

TPC: You're not going to get some kind of positive statement out of Poison Idea about the local music scene. We've been doing it for 12 years, and basically kept the same concept. We've stuck to our guns. It's hard for us to even relate to that kind of thinking. It's like comparing apples and oranges. But they're just young kids and if they're having a good time, well great. It used to be you got in a band to get drunk and get laid, now you get in a band to "get signed." Become a millionaire. Be an asshole.

SH: There's a whole new breed of junkies you see at Satyricon every year. It's like 'where do these guys come from?' They're running in and out of the bathroom every five minutes because they heard that this or that guy did it three years ago and it was cool to do it, and fuck, it's just contrived bullshit.

TPC: The Wipers and a lot of the good bands have moved out of Portland.

PJ: What are some of the other good bands that have moved out?

TPC: Some of the members of Final Warning and Napalm Beach are up in Seattle...

SH: The Miracle Workers moved. They were good when they were a psych band, but now they sound like the Stooges.

PJ: Yeah, I saw them in Hollywood a few years ago and was amazed at the changes.

TPC: Now they've probably changed again. I think they even went through a Guns 'N' Roses phase, but I have more respect for those guys.

PJ: Than who? (long pause)

TPC: In five or ten years if some of these bands that are around now are doing something interesting, I'll say 'great, they stuck to their guns,' but they'll probably all be buying and selling condominiums, or...

SH: Having children.

TPC: Selling used cars or working for Weyerhauser, or making records for Greenpeace or some fucking crap.

PJ: But wouldn't you say that's to be expected from a lot of people? Getting disillusioned because of missed opportunities, not getting signed, no longer willing to continue on with what they once believed in?

TPC: If you really love music you just keep playing, you don't just start bands up to get signed.

Mondo: The guys that start bands to make money and be rock stars are fucked from the start. If you like music, you wanna do it. If that's what your life is, then do it. Being a rock star or a millionaire doesn't matter to me. It'd be nice, but it's not the most important thing. I'll flip pizza and play punk rock for the rest of my life, if that's what it takes. It's what I like.

SH: What I hate is kids walking up to me at the X-Ray or Satyricon and asking 'What's it gonna take for us to get where you're at?' or 'Give us this or give us that.' I can't hand 'em a goddamn contract on a silver platter just because I think they're OK. A lot of kids think just because a band is big... well, maybe I did the same thing once.

TPC: Before I ever took drugs, I studied and read up on them. Before I ever played in a band I roadied for bands, read every fanzine, every rock magazine that was around. There were only a few around then. Now the kiddies just turn on MTV...

SH: And they think that makes 'em educated enough...

TPC: Their mothers, who were probably groupies in the '60s, think 'Oh, my son's gonna be a guitar player,' give him a guitar and they start wankin' away at whatever they do. I can't relate to that. Fuck, I'm 33 years old; I don't know what's going through that kid's head. He's a fuckin' little shithead to me. I don't really care what he thinks or what his band does. It doesn't relate to us in any way. We're more interested in just music, not what the scene's about. I hate most bands. Ninety-nine percent of everything is shit--TV, movies and music. You're not going to get any great glowing positive thing from me.
I happen to think that in the early '80s there were a few more better bands around. But that's because the trendy thing then was loud, super-hard punk rock. But now that's not the trendy thing, so naturally I'm not going to like most of the bands that are around now. Then the bands were all imitating Black Flag and Discharge; now they're imitating Sub Pop bands that are doing...

SH: ...weak imitations of our band.

TPC: Soundgarden, to me, sounds like Led Zeppelin without the fuckin' solos. Nirvana is probably the only band, of any of these bands that broke through, that is worth a shit. At least their punk rock songs all sound like punk rock.

SH: And they can write a song. At least there's a tune there; it's not just mindless fucking grunge...crap.

TPC: Like Pearl Jam; they really suck.

SH: Girly music. It really gets my goat. That asshole singer of theirs--who they just scooped off some fuckin' beach in Venice, California--now he's being heralded as the new fucking Jim Morrison. I mean give me a break. Somebody ought to drop a couple sheets of acid in that guy's drink. Just because he's got a nice chiseled chin, heh heh, and nice hard pecs, doesn't mean he's fucking shit. That guy's a fucking pussy. That's half of it right there. If you want to get on MTV you have to have a nice chiseled chin, hard pecs, and the girls love you.

Mondo: A bulge in your leather pants.

SH: We're certainly not gaining any popularity among the girls of America, even though we we were voted the "cutest band" in Sassy last month.

PJ: Is that the truth?

SH: Yeah, it was funny as hell.

PJ: When I saw your show on New Year's Eve, Sam Henry (Napalm Beach) was playing keyboards. Is this collaboration a temporary thing?

SH: He's already on the next LP. It should be out by next November.

TPC: He's just going to play a little keyboards here and there. He's not a member of the band.

SH: He hasn't written anything; we just brought him in because he's a friend. He plays keyboards really good.

PJ: I understand that Gus Van Zant might be directing an upcoming video. How did this come about?

TPC: He said he's interested in doing it, and we definitely want to do it, but it's too late to do it for the (most recent) album. We gotta wait until the next studio album. Hopefully we'll have a song to make a video with him.

PJ: A lot of bands in this town have failed to get the recognition they deserve, Napalm Beach being a prime example.

(General agreement that Napalm Beach is a great band.)

SH: Napalm Beach definitely deserves it. They've been doing it as long as Poison Idea has, in one form or another.

TPC: Chris Newman was once a member of Poison Idea.

Mondo: For about two weeks. He practiced with us twice, and then we couldn't find him. Couldn't get hold of him.

PJ: What's the future for Poison Idea?

TPC: More records.

SH: Sex change operations.

Mondo: There's talk of some tour in October with the Melvins.

TPC: We've got the material written for at least two more albums, so we're not out of ideas yet. Look for an accordion on the next studio LP.

PJ: Seriously?

Mondo: Yeah! Any kind of instruments we can interpret into our songs and make them sound bigger and better, we'll use.

PJ: Well, thanks. We're gonna want some pictures, but it looks like Jerry isn't here. Does anyone know where we can find him?

(Very long pause.)

:: :: ::