Funeral Songs: A Conversation with Monty Buckles of The Lamps
The Lamps are not an easy band. Their first release is a full-length so you get no “Hi ya, how ya doin’,” before the big blast. The songs twist at a lazy pace, not some immediate La-De-Da pop immediacy. The vocals are harsh and take a couple listens to “get” and a few more to enjoy. They occupy this netherworld which could be called “garage art” if the term wasn’t so lame. They are a bit too “arty” or “smart” for the garage punk purists and too “garage” for the ex-white belted, art punk crowd. Other than the Country Teasers, A Frames, Human Eye, and maybe a dozen or so other bands, they have no peer group. And they live in perhaps the most indifferent city in the United States when it comes to live music, Los Angeles. It is a damn good thing that they are a damn good band otherwise they’d really be damn good and fucked.
While the band consists of Josh Erkman (drums), Tim Ford (bass), and Monty Buckles (guitar), only Monty struggled through various email schemes and a cockamamie idea to do an interview in a disabled persons advocacy chat room. I asked the questions. The interview took place on June 19 & 20, 2005, with Monty in Los Angeles and I in Sacramento.
TB: What did you listen to today?
Monty: I listened to Johnnie Taylor, The Brainbombs, Volt, The Louvin Brothers, The Zombies, The Rebel, Roger Miller, The Hospitals and the A-Frames today. I made a playlist on my Ipod while I did all sorts of errands. This afternoon I visited my sister at the airport while she had a multiple hour layover on the way to a funeral. I made her a CD-R with all those folks on it and gave it to her.
TB: That list seems like it is all over the place but it isn’t. I mean none of it is "appropriate" to play at a funeral so there is a connection there. Other than that, what links Roger Miller's “You Cant Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” with the Brainbombs' “Anne Frank”?
Monty: It's a funeral for my Grandfather, and I couldn't attend. After he died, my Mom told me that his favorite song of all time was “It's All in The Game” by Tommy Edwards, a song I really love. It's strange because from what I remember, the man showed no affinity for anything musical. He never listened to the radio and owned no recordings. The only leisure activities he enjoyed were fishing and watching wrestling.
So yeah, none of it had anything to do with the funeral, just things I thought my sister might enjoy, like The Hospitals “Rich People”, which is really amazing. Been listening to the Brainbombs nonstop and I can't get over how they can take one riff and just murder it, drive it into the ground - from descriptions of the band it sounds like it should be something really silly and lowest common denominator type shit - but they transcend all that jive and are really hypnotizing, punishing, and fucked up, a weird combo of minimalism and excess. I didn't really start listening to them until about a year ago, and now I listen to them daily.
Roger Miller straddled the line between mainstream and weirdness really well. Beyond his big hits, which are fine (“Ruby [Don't Take Your Love To Town]” and “Where Have All The Average People Gone” should have aged really poorly but haven't), “My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died” is an off-kilter country fried 60's punker type number, and “Treat Me Like A Human” has some great lyrics. But yeah, I don't think there is one common thread that pulls 'em all together, except that I enjoy all of 'em.
TB: My dad loves music but has no records and owns only a few tapes or CDs. You never hear music at his house. He played piano in bands in high school but I didn’t know that until about six years ago, when his brother told me. I took him to see Mose Allison a few years ago and he flipped. Can you ever see yourself shunning music, treating it like it is something to be hidden? What could get you to that place?
Monty: I dunno, I often work on music videos, so I literally have to listen to the worst possible music you can imagine - the most base, commercial horseshit, corporate baggy pants punk, stuff I literally wouldn't wish on my worst enemy (and I have often wished unspeakable horrors upon people) - for HOURS at a time. So when I get to listen to something I really like, especially after listening to something I can't stand, stuff that grates the fibers of my soul, listening to something I like is like my eardrums getting a blowjob.
I think the vast majority of my musical experiences until I was about 13 were just horrifically unpleasant. My sole exposure was listening to whatever god awful radio station my mom would play in her car, so I was operating under the assumption that ALL MUSIC was lousy. I'll get completely sick of a genre or something for awhile, but never really throw all music down the toilet. The first thing I do when wake up is turn on the stereo.
TB: Man, the only thing I wanna hear when I wake up is nothing! If anything, I will turn the radio on to news so I can start the day in a bad mood. I've gone days hearing only music mixed in with everyday noise. This was especially true when I was playing music. Being bludgeoned with the bullshit you have to when you work is one thing; however does your own band ever make you wanna just rest your ears?
Monty: I'll listen to NPR sometimes, but it's been too horrific for the past few years. LA has a Jonesy's Jukebox (Steve Jones' show), which is incomparable radio, but the only time I don't want to hear music is if I am watching a movie. It doesn't always have to be ACTIVE listening, but silence makes me antsy. There's always something soothing you can put on.
Lamp's practices are really loud, not because of any artistic or aesthetic reasons, just because we are in a small, concrete basement where all the sounds reverberate really harshly. So after hearing a snare pop like a rifle for hours, my ears ring and I vaguely feel like killing someone. But I still want to hear music. I do often get in my car after practice and I turn on my CD player and I listen to a band, thinking GODDAMN, THESE GUYS ARE AMAZING AND WE COULD NEVER EVEN TOUCH HOW INCREDIBLE THEY ARE, I SHOULD JUST STOP, I'M A BIG GODDAMN FRAUD, but that thought doesn't make the music I am listening to any less enjoyable.
TB: I never really thought that way. Maybe it is because I have an ego the size of a trophy house. Or maybe it was because of playing with so many shitty pop punk or punk jump or emo bands. There seems to be deeper genre ghettos now so maybe that doesn’t happen, I mean, you guys opening for Weeping Tears from Little Men or some crap like that. And besides, what competition do you have in El Lay? The place seems like a music desert nowadays.
Monty: I don't know. Los Angeles is a really horrible city to judge the quality of something, the quality of the reception of the audience. LA is a great place to SEE shows, because a great band will come through and nobody will come and you have room and can stand right up front and can leisurely make your way to the bar instead of elbowing your way through dozens of people, but it is unrewarding to play for what is often a small, apathetic audience. We've been booked on shows where the audience wanders off and we're playing to an empty room. And then the headliner struts on and they are so horrible that you would go insane if you heard them and room fills up. The sheer crushing levels of undistilled mediocrity alone makes them unfit for society, yet the audience goes ape shit.
I think once you have convinced yourself that what you are doing has some merit, the fact that the majority of show-going people in the vast sprawling metropolis you call home either dislike you or don't care, doesn't matter. Fuck them, they have lousy taste.
TB: Well, you gotta accept the fact that for most people going to a show means something to do or fishing for cock and/or pussy. If you don’t accept that indifference, than you stand a chance of turning into Hitler. But since we aren’t Hitler, there ain’t a prayer that you or I will be able to gain control of the state and make the world pay. Not that I'd want to make anyone pay, that is if I had total power. As I told you a while ago, if I had complete control, I'd make my subjects do absurd, pointless, and moronic things and there would be a hell of a lot of public art & statuary with me as the subject. If you were dictator, what path would you take: Would you do shit just because you could do it, force people to adore you, or spread fear and destruction at your whim? Perhaps a combination of all three?
Monty: On the sad day I become dictator, after a long, bloody struggle, I would initially try my best to be a fair, diplomatic ruler and bring peace across the land. Then I would inevitably get impatient over how long and difficult it is for a utopian society come into being, and my efforts at being just and fair would slide into the shedding the blood and flailing the flesh of people who bother me even a little bit. I would also occupy my time indulging in sexual deviancy. So it would be a combination. And, though at first I would make a real effort to be the best ruler I could, I would fuck it all up and get strangled and stabbed by some of my trusted advisors.
TB: You're too even-keeled. “Fair & diplomatic?” Sounds like you were raised in Northern California! I guess this is related to the last question: Where do you see yourself on the food chain? The other day I saw this guy walking down the street and I thought to myself, "Man, if pterodactyls were alive today, that dude would be lunch." Do you think you would last very long if we (humans) weren’t our only predator, we had something larger, faster, and meaner to contend with? Further, where do you think the Lamps live on the food chain?
Monty: I think - and this is not to say I consider myself smart or even especially cunning - that so many of the people I meet are so irredeemably stupid that it boggles my mind that they can get through the day without dying. So, I don't think I would be pterodactyl feed until after the big buffet of stupid assholes is over. I'd probably be consumed in the second wave. I think the Lamps would slip through the cracks while the prehistoric birds of prey munch on more visible targets, but that could just be wishful thinking.
TB: Okay, so you could take prehistoric birds. What about the A Frames? Do you think you could take them? I think Erin is really the only A Frame you have to worry about. I’ve seen Lars “fight” and Min, well, I don’t think he has it in him. Could you take on the Country Teasers? How about the Black Lips? I know, you might be a bit taken aback because these are your friends and bands you admire. However imagine this: There is one pork chop and you haven’t eaten for a couple days. You are going to get that chop or they are. And there is no sharing.
Monty: Hmm, good question. I am horrified of Erin. He's like ten feet tall and built like a brick shithouse. I know he could easily punch me so hard my head would fly completely off, leaving a bloody stump squirting blood. He's a vegetarian though, so the last pork chop would offer little motivation. He would just shrug while I feasted. Lars manages to whack on the drums pretty hard, so it might translate to debilitating blows. Min is Asian, and I am only half, so therefore I am not as privy to as many dark secrets of the Orient as him, so he could likely take me down through greater knowledge of karate.
I am usually intimidated by English People because of their superior educations, so when I meet one, who upon first impression seems really stupid, I just assume he is fucking with me. However all of the Teasers I have met, to a man, seem both smart and have really bulgy arm veins. They also have engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat since a young age, through football, so I would hesitate to fuck with any of them. They are smart and strong, so I think I would be dead meat.
I think getting between the Black Lips and a free pork chop would probably be suicide. I am fairly confident that I could take any one of them in one-on-one combat. But they are all, to their credit, really scrappy little bastards so I wouldn't be surprised if after pummeling one of them for hours on end leaving a sack of misshapen flesh in a pool of blood, the second I took a bite out of the pork chop they would rise up and sink their teeth into my jugular or tear out an eyeball with their thumbs. Save for Joe, I think I could take him. I would say “Look, Cole has the band fund and he's wandering off”, and when he turned to run after him, I would kick the side of his knee as hard as I could and when he fell to the ground I would jump up and down on the back of his neck for three hours. Then I would watch him while I ate, in case he came to.
TB: With Erin, I think you just need to do the old “push him over the guy on all fours bridged behind him” trick and then jump on his chest (not that I’ve thought this out or anything). Speaking of pork chops, what is the longest you’ve gone without sleep?
Monty: I think the longest I've gone without sleep was just a paltry 48 hours or so, never more then one night. I have never gone through a really big amphetamine phase (thankfully), so staying up for a week is totally foreign to me. I have, however, worked 26 hour shifts at work and had to slap myself to stay awake driving in the early morning rush hour.
TB: You've ever written a song on no sleep?
Monty: I don't know. Songs just kind of arrive unbidden. I know for some people, a lack of sleep frees up their unconscious in a way similar to psychedelic drugs, but it just puts me in an even worse mood than usual.
TB: So what the fuck is up with that record cover? It's a fucking mutant chimp giving a baby bottle to what looks like a Frenchman. There is no info on the back. Is there some kind of statement I am missing here or are you guys just trying to fuck with people?
Monty: I like it when you pick up a record and everything still seems mysterious. It just seemed to fit.
TB: "Seemed to fit"????? On what fucking planet? Albania? Christ, that thing gave me nightmares. I play the record and hide the cover. I mean, both the monkey and the man have sex eyes.
Monty: I dunno. I liked it.
TB: Well, hell, I like it too but I need a better explanation than that. Did one of you guys do it? Did you owe someone some money? Did your Mom just take up art class and you didn’t want to hurt her feelings? I'm not letting go of this, Monty.
Monty: I stole it from an art book. It was movie poster art from these guys in Ghana, who would paint their own interpretations of movie posters. I have no idea what movie it originated from. The book had absolutely no copyright or text information and all the shit in there was really incredible. I liked the painting of the monkey a lot. Incidentally, my Mom really enjoyed it, but she has exhibited very questionable judgment on multiple occasions.
TB: That explains the Frenchman. And I will leave your mom's questionable judgment alone. While the sleeve doesn’t prep you for what is inside, it certainly is a good reflection of the music. I know every band has little things they wish they did with their last record - forget that for a second – are you pleased with the way it turned out?
Monty: I'm fine with it. There are some little mixing things that I would change slightly, but there is nothing really blatant that irks me whenever I listen to it. Mike McHugh did a superlative job. I would have liked to have included the song "Now That I'm Dead", but it sounded kind of lifeless so we abandoned it. We re-recorded it in our practice space with a friend of ours for the “Zine: White” compilation and it sounded great, so I'm glad that it is out there. The only thing that bothers me about the Lamps in general is I don't like the sound of my own voice, but there is nothing that I can do about that, now is there?
TB: Well, there is castration. But that would just make you sound like a frustrated squirrel (get it? A squirrel without his nuts! Ba-dum-dum!). There are bands I know that sit down and write a whole album (some in the exact song order). Did you guys go into it saying “okay we want to make an album” or did you just shat out enough songs and say “Hey! Why not a full length?”
Monty: My initial idea was that the Lamps would come up with enough songs to record an LP. I figured that I would pay for it and release it myself and start my own one off label and it would receive limited distribution but I could rest easy knowing that it is out there to pollute the minds of future generations. After In the Red offered to do it, I was as happy as a pig in shit. Now I cannot wait to do another one. I always wanted to be on an album, something tangible, so even playing live seemed secondary. I didn't want to be in a band just to play at a bunch of parties, I wanted to be recorded.
TB: Why recorded as opposed to live? Have anything to do with being more comfortable, as a kid, listening to records in your rooms as opposed to interacting with your peers? While I like live music, listening to it away from all but a few select people has always been the best. That said, I always enjoyed playing live, if not for any other reason than you can get away with kicking over a table full of drinks.
Monty: Honestly, I don't really know if I enjoy playing live or not. Sometimes it's great/exhilarating/encouraging/amazing/etc., and getting to play with other bands you love may be the best thing about being in a band in the first place. But other times, after a show goes poorly, I feel I just want to give up completely and go live in a cardboard box behind some bushes and never talk to anyone again. I think the main thing about recordings is just knowing that something you contributed to will, to an extent, survive. Memories of show goers are going to fade away, but nothing would make me happier than to see a Lamps track on some compilation when I am an old man or, years from now, some curious kid buying a record with a weird cover from some band called the Lamps and liking it, and then wondering what kind of people made music like that.
TB: Other than the fact that there isn’t a crowd of people watching you when you listen to a record, how is seeing a band live different to you than listen to a record? While I've been blown away by bands live, the biggest impact music has made on me has been the result of dropping the needle in the groove and Wow! Just off the top of my head, hearing the jack booted intro to Never Mind the Bollocks (this back in 1979)... sent a chill and totally fucked my mind forever. These things happen to you?
Monty: Yeah, I've been blown away a bunch. I don't know if either live or recorded has had a greater impact, just different. There is something personal the way something affects you when you are listening it to in private. The first time I heard “Pleadin'' by Mercy Baby, on a blues comp, a few years ago, before it had even ended I knew it was going to be one of my favorite songs. When he screams it is just this harrowing shriek and it overloads the mic and it predates punk by decades. Rather then fading out there is just echo added to the vocals making for this ethereal drift off into space.
I got to hear the A Frames's “Black Forest III” a few months before the album came out, and that was a song where I just kept listening to it. I did a video for the song and I must have listened to it, not exaggerating, more then three hundred times. I filmed part of it on the Fourth of July and I was really depressed, my Mom was really sick, my girlfriend had just shit-canned me, and I hadn't been working. I was videotaping all these lousy fuckers and horrible families in Newport Beach and was listening to the song on headphones on repeat. I kept hearing it over and over for about five or six hours and I never got sick of it. Then again, I saw the Country Teasers in Seattle a few years ago. I was already a rabid fan and had seen them a few times, and had drank the perfect amount. They walked out and their opener was the very first time I had heard “Boycott the Studio”. It started with that really simple drum beat and that perfect ramshackle riff began, and the way the other guitars came gradually layering in, it was one of those things where I literally couldn't believe how great the song was. The only thing I could compare it to was when I was a kid and my parents took me to Disneyland and I was in my seat SHAKING in excitement. I was so thankful to be hearing the song. Then the bass kicked in, and it was one of those fortuitous things where the sound was just right and I happened to be sitting in the right spot, and the bass was incredibly loud, just those two notes, and I could feel the sound physically pushing me and reverberating though my chest. I was just FLOORED. So, uh, yeah. Can go either way.
TB: Okay. Now I am very much aware that this question applies to myself as I put out records and it is something that I think about a lot: Given that there are now tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of bands out there playing an infinite variety of music, hundreds of genres and subgenres of rock and roll AND tons of it is released every day, why add to the glut? Believe me, I mull that over a lot, because there certainly isn’t any money in this, the gratitude is almost nonexistent, I mean, there are very few payoffs. Meanwhile, EVERYBODY is in a band. Granted, most of them suck. I guess what I am asking is what gives the Lamps the right to exist and, furthermore, put out records?
Monty: You're right, there are thousands of bands out there, but right off the bat you can bet your back teeth that 99% of them are totally worthless. Shit, I go through the show listings in the LA Weekly every week and hundreds of shows are happening every week. I'll go to a show maybe once every two months - and I've got pretty broad tastes. But back to your question, I think if you're doing something and you know you're never going to get money, and you are facing mass indifference, and very little reward, then whatever compulsion you have to make music is probably going to make it more interesting than that of the average schnook grasping for stardom.
TB: So what you are saying is that The Lamps are youse’s attempt – conscious or not - to counter balance the crap?
Monty: I'm just trying to be in the type of band I would like to listen to. I don't really pay much attention to the more popular bands anyway, which I am sure is a position most of the readers of Terminal Boredom can sympathize with. I can't get in a music conversation with the majority of my peers, to save my life. This afternoon I got my haircut and the barber gal was talking about all the contemporary bands she liked and I didn't know what the fuck she was talking about. Arcade Fire? Razorlight? Who the hell are they? I'm not saying this out of pride, but I am ridiculously far out of the loop as far as my own local scene goes. I’d just rather just sit at home than go check out some new band I've never heard about. So I don't know if a conscious, deliberate attempt to counter balance things would be accurate.
TB: Between you and I, the only counter balance to the “average schnook” is mustard gas. Perhaps that is just me being old and cranky and feeling it because tomorrow I gotta get a goddamn cholesterol test. It’s just something that is done regularly when you get older. The way I figure it, if I die, I die. The only thing that bugs me is the possibility of being mentally half out of it or walking around in a brain injury fog or getting one of those exotic viruses that saps your energy but never goes away. You?
Monty: I was reflecting some more on the "If I Were Dictator Question" and I think that I would very much like to pour acid on some people's faces. I could sit in my throne and bang on the jewel encrusted arms and say “Bring me my Jr. High School Principal!” and I would pour acid on his face and, as it melted off, I would laugh. But yes, I fear a long, slow death from cancer, and am deathly afraid of paralysis or the loss of my precious, treasured genitalia. But the thing that terrifies me the most is a brain injury. I have grown to accept my own personality, as grossly imperfect as it is, and to have the whole thing drastically changed and having the thought process become more difficult sends me into a state of near panic just thinking about it. I supposed my first answer should have been of something bad happening to my friends/loved ones, but my first instinct was myself. I think that's natural. I hope so, anyway.
TB: I guess this is an appropriate way to wrap things up: Choose your own death.
Monty: Hmm, tough question. The Wild Bunch might be my favorite movie of all time, and I saw it at an impressionable age, so death by hail of gunfire seemed like a great way to go. It would be really painful, having dozens of bullets rip me apart, but despite the horrible (though, relatively temporary) pain, I'd rather go down swinging then lie in a hospital bed for a few years before finally expiring. However, the opportunities for me to get in extended Western gunfights with my friends by my side is pretty limited and it's impractical in the first place because there aren't hundreds of people I'd like to gun down - severely hurt and/or cripple, maybe- but not murder. What would I have to do to get them all armed and in one place anyway? Too complicated.
I would say dying peacefully and painlessly in my sleep in my old age surrounded by a family I have sired. But, that is pretty boring and I would make a horrible old man as I am often cranky and curmudgeonly already, so when I am in say my eighties, I will probably be totally intolerable. Anyway, I can't even picture myself - someone who enjoys being alone not having to socialize with people - being the head of a household, so that whole death scenario is pretty ridiculous.
I think dying in a painless, but nevertheless, grisly and disturbing way in front of a large group of people, who will remained haunted until the end of their days, holds much appeal, as does dying in a fashion where it remains an unfathomable mystery. I will go with just disappearing, and nobody knowing what happened to me. That'd be nice.
Postscript: A few days after this interview, I got an email from Monty. He wrote:
My mom grabbed the CD I made for my sister and had a puzzled relative play it on a boombox for the people waiting for the service. She thought it was the one she made, containing late gramps' fave stuff (Tommy Edwards, Elvis, etc.). Instead it contained:
Brainbombs “Urge to Kill”
Volt “I Don't Feel so Good”
The Rebel “Hitlers and Churchills”
Swell Maps “New York”
Marvin Rainwater “My Old Hometown”
Country Teasers “Hairy Wine 2”
Hospitals “Rich People”
Hubble Bubble “New Promotion”
Rolling Stones “She said Yeah”
Chrome “Electric Chair”
Slade “Gudbuy t’Jane”
Intelligence “Tropical Struggle”
Amongst others, which are marginally more appropriate.
Lamps at In the Red here.
Interview by Scott Soriano
B&W pics by some fella named Lars
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