Home     About     Contact     

An Interview with Bruce Licher – Prolegomenon

Introduction and Three Part Conversation with
TQ’s Aram Yardumian and Graphic Artist-Musician Bruce Licher —

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, A Graphics Composition

We are still tabulating the effects of the post-punk era on popular culture. Still drawing lines all over the genealogical surface, still overestimating Talking Heads, and still letting many of the real geniuses remain countersunken in the clutter. Mark E. who? Birthday what? If it’s less about aggressively capturing specific textures and more about tearing open the net wide enough for yet another generation of customers to swim in, the real innovators were too obsessed with the art to care. Among the many creative thunderclaps that burst over southern California in the early 1980s was Independent Project Records & Press, a home to an indigenous post-punk and pre-‘industrial’ scene curated by its founder Bruce Licher. Licher’s highly personalized aesthetic of rough elegance and refined aggression is still well known to fans of both his sound and letterpress arts. How did this unique dual-approach to art forms evolve, and what was its history as a movement?

SR at Al's Bar by Ed Colver_500

Africa Corps (playing ‘Attempted Coup: Madagascar’), at Al’s Bar, 1982. Photo by Ed Colver

Above: L-R, Arshile Injeyan (aka Deviation Social), Jeff Long, Philip Drucker (aka Jackson Del Rey), Bruce Licher, Mark Erskine

Born in Santa Monica in 1958, Bruce Licher attended UCLA in the late 1970’s, taking classes in film, photography, silk screen printing, and sculpture; everything but— ironically—graphic design. Attuned to the local punk and post-punk scenes, as well as what was going on in New York City, in early 1979 Licher met Mark Erskine in a drawing class and the two began collaborating by working out primitive rhythms on scrap metal in the sculpture yard. Licher soon met Brent Wilcox and Tim Quinn in Chris Burden’s ‘New Forms and Concepts’ class in the Fine Art Department at UCLA. When Licher learned that Wilcox and Quinn had formed an improvisational music group called Neef with Ed Toomey and Josh Adelson, he asked if he might join them for future music creation sessions. Neef’s sound was free and abstract in nature, not surprising given its association with the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAMFS). During April of that year Neef recorded material in the 7th floor art studios at UCLA’s Dickson Art Center (with Erskine joining in by playing percussion on empty film cans while sitting on the floor of the studio). Some of this material was then released on a cassette (about 20 copies made), which they sold in Glen Rubsamen’s Modern Art Vending Machine at LAICA. Neef performed two pieces live on a UCLA TV program produced by John Talley-Jones and released one 7” the same year.[1]

NEEF-23-original-front_500

Neef 23 EP, 1979

Inspired by his experiences with Neef, Licher decided to make his own record. He wanted it to be a piece of fine art, its packaging resonating with the same energy as its contents. He signed up for an independent study (listed as ‘Independent Project 197’ in the UCLA course catalog) under the advisement of Chris Burden. Having enlisted Mark Erskine, as well as Kevin Barrett of The Urinals, he decided to name his record label Independent Project and his band Project 197, which retraced some of Neef’s experiments in tonal values and abstract structure, abnormally tuned guitars and percussion, while leaving behind the LAFMS random-input values. The Project 197 7” (IP001), released in May 1980, was the first audio-visual art object produced by Licher. By the time he released the second (IP002), he had abandoned Project 197 and formed Bridge with Dan Voznick (a.k.a. Chez Voz). Later, once they had been offered a support gig with Overman, they brought in Mark Erskine on percussion (scrap metal pounded with a 2×4) and Michael Gross on vocals (through a megaphone). The advertising for the Bridge 7” reads ‘Seven inches of concentrated destruction’ and ‘Music for the aftermath’, which to my ears overstates both the intention and impact of the music. With both Project 197 and Bridge, the influence, or at least outlook, of the NY No-Wave scene (Mars, DNA, Branca) is clearer in the mix. Licher remembers being ‘mesmerized’ by what he heard at Branca’s first West Coast performance in 1981 at Cal Arts, and he was also a great fan of the No New York compilation as well as some of the local post-punk bands (BPeople, Human Hands, Kommunity FK, Monitor). And yet the sonic qualities of these two 7” records are, and remain, more than Neef, the real root of Licher’s signature sound.

In 1980 Licher gained access to the subterranean utility tunnels under UCLA to make a student film, but it soon occurred to him to bring down guitars and amps (and later, use it as a location for performance art).[2] His work in the tunnels helped define an audio and theatrical aesthetic, since he would rehearse and record music in the very same tunnels, as well as in parking garages, warehouses, and other acoustically improbable locations.[3] Later in 1980, Bridge took part in a series of shows at the Los Angeles Museum of ArtNov 8th & Dec 10th 1980 (this, Licher remembers, was not a museum per se, but rather a small, private storefront art space with a grandiose name, located on Beverly Boulevard near Vermont Avenue), and which held occasional art and music events, organized by Jonathan Gold (current food critic for the LA Times, who in his UCLA days was an accomplished cellist, and was an early supporter of the first few IPR releases), at which rhythms were pounded out on sheet metal and metal grinders were used, as well as oil barrels, pipes, and railroad ties. Although this kind of practice would soon come to define ‘industrial’ bands such as SPK, Test Dept. and Einstürzende Neubauten, this was a homegrown and personal imperative, much like Eric Lunde and Boy Dirt Car in Wisconsin around the same time. Licher simply ‘thought that it was most important to make music that sounded like nothing else out there’. At another of these LAMA shows the band experimented with the concept of breaking down the idea of the relationship between performer and audience, by not performing in the small stage area where the bands normally performed, but by having each of the four band members set up in a different corner of the room, with the audience in the center.

Two more short-lived bands followed Bridge: The Tunneltones (with Dan Voznick, Mark Erskine, Michael Gross, and Debbie Spinelli), who released a total of three tracks on various regional compilations; and Them Rhythm Ants (with Caroline Collins, Hilda Daniel, and Philip Drucker), who played four or five times and recorded a 7” EP (IP 003) before breaking up. After Them Rhythm Ants folded, Bruce, Philip Drucker (a.k.a Jackson Del Rey), and Mark Erskine continued on. Philip brought his friend Jeff Long to a rehearsal in the UCLA tunnels in February 1981.[4] Erskine had by this time found the wooden drum kit which would strengthen the band’s sound, and the creative product of the four of them became Africa Corps. They recorded their first LP, Tragic Figures, between July 1981 and March 1982, initially in the tunnels and parking garages on Licher’s Teac 4-track, and finishing it at Radio Tokyo. A few weeks prior to the album’s release date, Africa Corps changed their name to Savage Republic to avoid fascist associations. They felt the new name represented both their intense sound and their artistic self-containment.

Savage-Republic-TFigs-CD

Tragic Figures (IP 004) is a classic album of frenetic sound sheets, full-body percussion, surf guitar, and African & Near Eastern rhythms and motifs. In it one can hear the ‘instruments’ of industrial music operated in the motions of the post-punk era. Like Gauguin’s capture of Polynesian vistas (and Van Gogh’s interest in Lascaux), the contrast of primitive, sometimes militaristic rhythmic patterns, and more complex Arabic and Greek modes and interlocking patterns is striking. Perhaps because Licher and Erskine were self-taught, and Drucker and Long more professional in their musicianship, the dynamic was also partly aptitude. Unlike so many other albums, Tragic Figures never succumbs to faux-exotica. Like its sequels, it has aged very well. And with it, Licher’s vision for the record album as objet d’art reached a new level of sophistication. He had learned the basics of letterpress printing during a weekend class at the Women’s Graphic Center in downtown Los Angeles, where he had become enamored of this nearly lost art. Licher printed the Tragic Figures jackets, as well as inserts and an advertising postcard, on uncoated chipboard packing stock using the WGC’s mid -century Vandercook cylinder press. Each jacket that came out of the press was subtly different in its hue and registration, as well as the texture of the stock.[5] There were five separate editions of Tragic Figures between 1982 and 1985 (between 875 and 1200 copies each), each with a different color scheme.

The iconography of Tragic Figures, with its use of found Arabic text and collage of monochromatic images that could be construed as revolutionary (and indeed has touches of PLO propaganda posters from the 70s), is as an impressionistic suggestion of what the album sounds like.[6] He had even enlisted a Lebanese co-worker to help him translate the titles into Arabic. Further, the Savage Republic logo, a palm tree encircled by a locking nut would indicate an approach both natural and mechanical, primitive and progressive. Even though it was Phil Drucker who assembled the collage used on the back side of the LP jacket, Licher claimed they had no overt political statements to make and just wanted to create something that ‘looked like it came from some other place’.

Savage Republic subsequently released two 7” records, Film Noir (recorded January 1983, released in June) and Tragic Figure (recorded earlier, March to August 1981, but released in 1984). At the same time Licher and Independent Project Press were producing many LP and 45 covers, flyers, postcards, shop rags, and postage stamps, made with high-contrast, photo-engraved printing plates or carved linoleum blocks, often surrounded by hand-set metal borders, each with a signature typographic and iconographic style. The b-side of Film Noir was a cover version of a song called ‘O Andonis’, the title piece from Costa-Gavras’ Z, which was banned in Greece upon its release.[7] The piece itself was written by Mikis Theodorakis, who was well-known and loved in Greece as a composer for film and popular music. One of Independent Project’s Chicago distributors, an ethnic Greek, sent hundreds of copies of the 7” to his brother’s record shop in Athens and as a result the band gained traction in Greece, later selling out shows in Athens and Thessaloniki during a 1987 European tour.

savage_republic_2

Following a grueling and repetitious 1983 West Coast tour, Licher became weary of the rock n’ roll lifestyle, and making each event a unique experience became harder to own. Furthermore, it became clear that he and Drucker were moving in different artistic directions. Following the final departure of Jeff Long, the material that the remaining four members next recorded would end up on 17 Pygmies’ Jedda by the Sea LP. It was during those sessions in the latter half of 1983 that the original incarnation of Savage Republic began to disintegrate. So with only one album and two 7” EPs, they split, with Bruce and Mark retaining the name, and Phil and Robert taking the studio recordings with them into their next project, 17 Pygmies, a band which had begun the year before. In early 1984, after this parting of ways, Licher immersed himself in setting up his own letterpress shop in a turn-of-the-century brick building at 544 Mateo Street, a deserted industrial section down by the LA River, and formerly the home of Nate Starkman & Son, a paint distributor. (Several years later, Licher partnered with Philip Drucker to create a second record label, also named Nate Starkman & Son, on which they would release records by Human Hands, Red Temple Spirits, and others).

By mid-1984, Licher asked Ethan Port and Greg Grunke (and later Thom Fuhrmann) to join Savage Republic, and began work on a 12” EP, Trudge (recorded December 1984 and early 1985 for the Belgian label Play It Again Sam). Both Trudge and the follow-up LP Ceremonial (released in 1986 on IPR through a new manufacturing & distribution deal Licher had negotiated with the Suite Beat [later Chameleon] Music Group) are evidence of the shift away from the more abrasive Licher-Drucker sound into something more deliberate and even accessible. Ceremonial’s strength is its instrumentation and tonality which are expanded to include bongos, dulcimer and mandolin, and a reduction of percussive intensity for a more gliding and elastic film soundtrack feel.

Savage Republic embarked on two separate US tours which are documented in the live double album Live Trek 1985-1986. The following year Phil Drucker rejoined them for a three-week European tour in September, visiting Germany, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. By the end of it, Mark Erskine was having trouble physically and emotionally, so upon return to the US, it was mutually agreed he would be replaced by Brad Laner for the third album, Jamahiriya Democratique et Populaire de Sauvage, released this time on the Fundamental Music label rather than Independent Project. Jamahiriya continues the more ponderous and expansive feel of the previous two studio albums, its title an apparent riff on Qadhaffi’s Third International Theory of governance (as outlined in his Green Book). Meanwhile, Licher’s letterpress work was beginning to command international attention. Designs for the US and Canada editions of Scritti Politti’s ‘Perfect Way’ 12” (1985) gave way to a Grammy nomination in the Best Album Package category for the letterpress edition of For Against’s Echelons (1987), and one of his better known successes with Camper Van Beethoven’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart LP (1988), also nominated for a Grammy in the same category. Licher also received the prestigious Art Directors Club of LA award in 1986.

The final Savage Republic album with Licher’s involvement was Customs (1989) on Nate Starkman & Son Greece, and later on Fundamental Music. It is a richly textured record of minor key extragression, reaching its long-sights into Krautrock and psychedelic territory, as well as a biting track called ‘Rapeman’s First EP’.[8] Customs, both the music and its title, emerged from an experience touring Europe in 1988, during which Greek customs officials impounded the band’s equipment and then went on strike. As a result, the entire LP was written and recorded over the weekend while waiting for the strike to end. Fortunately, the band’s Greek promoter had reserved a recording studio for them in case the band were able to stay a few extra days after their Greek dates, and thus it was put to good use.

Savage Republic continued to play live throughout 1988 but Licher, even before the release of Customs, was realizing the other members of the band, who had been devoted followers of the Tragic Figures sound, wanted to return to that primal tribal direction. The band elected to play a final show at Pomona College (Claremont) on February 25th 1989, and move onto other projects.

Less than a month after this particular dissolution of Savage Republic, the Hallway Gallery in Los Angeles hosted a ten-year retrospective of Licher’s creative output in music, letterpress, and film. Produced to coincide with this show was perhaps the most lavish Independent Project product to date, a box-set including two 10” records of mostly unreleased (or hardly released) recordings by Licher, spanning Neef to Savage Republic, along with a letterpress book, flyers, and other selected historical ephemera reprints. In many ways this set and retrospective marked a division between past and future in Licher’s career. With much of his more aggressive work behind him, and a signature letterpress style firmly established, he took a three-year hiatus from music to focus on business. During this time he released scores of records on his label and designed scores more for bands such as REM, Los Lobos, and Hank Williams, Jr..

REM-poster

In 1991, during Licher’s apparently permanent hiatus from Savage Republic, the band experienced a brief brush with commercial success due to the inclusion of a portion of ‘Real Men’ (a track from Tragic Figures) in the Buffalo Bill dungeon scene in Silence of the Lambs, along with what sounds like a portion of a track by The Fall. By this time Phil Drucker had continued full time with 17 Pygmies, and Brad Laner founded Medicine. The following year, Licher moved with his wife, Karen, and Independent Project Press (i.e., a Vandercook Power 219 proofing press, two Chandler & Price platen presses, a late nineteenth century Rosback perforator) from Los Angeles to Sedona. From there he formed and managed his new guitar soundscape band, Scenic, with James Brenner and Brock Wirtz with whom he recorded and released three albums and several singles between 1995-2001. In 2009 he moved again to Bishop CA, where he currently resides and continues his music and fine art letterpress work, now for a variety of clients such as Chateau Marmont (several thousand sheets of stationery every few months), the artist Shepard Fairey, and numerous other bands, labels, individuals and businesses.

Licher is an artist whose concerns, I think I can say, have never been fame or influence. And yet, or perhaps because of this stance, his influence on the American ‘industrial’ and post-punk movements, and on independent and handmade record production—which in turn fostered a thousand radio-friendly bands we hate or love, and a generation of low-budget elegance in homemade audio packaging design—has been considerable. On the other hand, measurement of ‘influence’ between artists at the atomic level is as pointless as it is impossible, and relies more on what people say about their influences rather than the networks of authorship. Even if few people acknowledge, or even realize, how Bruce Licher’s work has affected their own, his specter rises everywhere. We will be tabulating the effects for a long time to come.

I interviewed Bruce by telephone in July of 2015.

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreeA Graphics Composition

—————-

[1] Also in 1979 Licher recorded the simple but prescient ‘Composition for Computer’ at the Hughes Helicopter computer room, where he was working nights. Simple because the only instrument is a dot matrix printer; prescient because it represents an early use of non-studio electronics in music.

[2] The piece (not unlike John Duncan’s Maze, 1995), titled Underground III and performed on June 14th 1980, involved groups of people led down into the tunnels into the stifling air and narrow apertures of the utility tunnels. A clanging and screeching noise was audible in the distance (courtesy of Licher’s detuned guitar) and the further the groups walked into the unknown the louder the clanging and screeching became. After 5 or 6 turns the groups arrived at a locked wire gate, at which time the lights went out and the noise stopped.

[3] Licher’s bands also played in overground venues such as Al’s Bar, the Anticlub and the Whisky. Later they took part in the legendary Mojave Exodus on April 24th 1983, for which a limited number of ticket buyers, approximately 150, were bused to a secret location in the Mojave Desert for the gig. As with his letterpress products, Licher’s modus operandi for live performance has always been to make each event unique.

[4] Jeff Long later also joined Wasted Youth, and for a period of time was a member of both bands. He left Savage Republic briefly just prior to the Tragic Figures LP release to focus on Wasted Youth full-time. At that point SR started to work with Robert Loveless on new material, incorporating his keyboards and other instrumentation into the sound. Once the album was released, however, Jeff returned and Savage Republic became a five-piece for the remainder of 1982 and into 1983. Jeff then left for good after the Mojave Exodus performance with the Minutemen in the Mojave Desert.

[5] Chipboard is made from recycled materials and is purchased in bulk; thus, every lot you buy may be a different shade, color or texture from the previous lot. Letterpress ink, while more consistent as a product, yields its own variations in response to the technician’s own subtle inconsistencies in use of the hand-fed and hand-inked press. Typographic variations in the movable type itself also occur, especially given Licher used multiple sets made at various local foundries. The record’s labels were also letterpress printed, though those were done on plain white label stock.

[6] The advertisements and flyers Licher printed and posted around UCLA for the band were intriguing to Arab and Iranian students who, perhaps seeing something more politically or culturally specific than was there, began to attend the Savage Republic shows.

[7] Theodorakis’ artistic contribution to a banned film is remembered as a revolutionary act, given the cultural constraints of the Greek military junta. This apparently had no bearing whatsoever on Savage Republic’s interest in recording ‘O Andonis’. See my article ‘Pete and Royce Resurface’ for more on Greek popular culture during this era.

[8] This track was not actually a straight cover of Budd, but a live improvisation that ended up being a bit of a satire on the concept of covering it (Savage Republic and Rapeman had crossed paths during the 1988 European tour). This track was added to the Fundamental release of Customs as the label thought the original LP, as released in Greece, was too short.

 

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.