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An Interview with Bruce Licher – Part 2

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

Prolegomenon, Part One, Part Three, A Graphics Composition


Project 197

Aram Yardumian: After Neef, Project 197 and Bridge really took a very different direction, musically. What do you remember about this ‘transition’?

Neef, “The Mean Free Path”, Neef cassette, 1979

Bruce Licher: Neef was very collaborative and improvisational. Project 197 was my attempt at doing my own, well, project. I asked a couple of guys to come in, but most of the music on that was mine. Mark and Kevin added the drums and percussion. Brent Wilcox handled all the recording. Bridge just came out of getting access to the tunnels under UCLA for the student film. I thought it would be really cool to bring guitars and amps down there, so I asked my friend Dan Voznick if he wanted to join me. We brought a couple of guitars and amps, and a bass down into the big tunnel area, and Dan had a boombox, so we just taped what we did, and that’s what ended up on the Bridge 7”. Or the best of it, let’s say, of the half hour or 40 minutes of improvisation. Again, all of that was improvised. Project 197 was, I guess, a little more thought out, structured. I’ve actually been approached by a label in the UK who wants to put together a Neef boxset, so I’m in the beginning states of conceptualizing that.

AY: Something you would design?

BL: Yeah, they’re interested in having me create something similar to that Independent Project 10” boxset from years ago.

AY: Have you considered re-releasing some of the early IPR stuff yourself as limited letterpress art objects?

BL: You know, I’ve always wanted to reissue that stuff, maybe compile it all as a 10” record. It’s always just time and money, ultimately. I never did take a corporate job. And I probably could afford to do a lot more creative stuff if I had, but I’d no desire to. I’ve been approached several times about doing a vinyl reissue of Tragic Figures. But none of the labels were interested in making it the art object I would like to see it as. So I’m considering the possibility of doing a Kickstarter for it. It would be an expanded version with unreleased recordings, rehearsals, demo tapes, things like that.

AY: What do you recollect about the Savage Republic ‘split’ in 1983? What were the differing aesthetic opinions about the band’s direction?

BL: I think if you listen to what was released as 17 Pygmies’ Jedda by the Sea and compare that with the Trudge EP, you’ll get an idea of what the artistic differences were. The material we worked on after Jeff Long left was the material than ended up on Jedda by the Sea. Most of it was very soft and very melodic, and I really liked it. I thought it was great. I didn’t think it was Savage Republic. I wanted to start layering more guitars, making it more abrasive, but also keeping the melodic elements. And what Phil wanted to do was start bringing in other musicians, violinists— sweetening it up, basically. That was the artistic difference. Again, this is a project I wished I had the time or the money to do. I had a verbal agreement that, after a year or so, I could take those master tapes and re-mix them, and rework them as if it was a Savage Republic EP. It would be just the six songs that Mark and I played on, and it would make a really great EP. But I haven’t gotten around to it. Yet.


AY: Where are the tapes?

BL: They ended up with Robert Loveless, and I believe he ended up passing them along to me years later, in the Scenic days, so they are probably with all my boxes of master tapes, which fortunately did not burn up in the fire. That was another thing. We did actually have a couple of hours to pack the car. But we only had one car at the house that day, and you go through this whole house and think, what can I live with, what can I not live without. And how many of these master tapes can I actually cram in the car along with all this other stuff we have to take? It was really sobering. I have a pretty decent sized record collection and I had to leave it all.

AY: Nothing was damaged?

BL: Nothing was damaged, which was extremely fortunate since homes on either side of us burned to the ground. Good friends of ours, with whom we were working on music, lost everything. It’s tragic, you know, this place, Swall Meadows, was a jewel of the eastern Sierras, and it’s going to be decades before it was anything like it was.

AY: In spite of the iconography of Tragic Figures, I always have felt your work did not have a political stance, and was more about an evolving pure aesthetic. But then again there are some very overt leftist statements made on later albums, including the Live double-album.

BL: The original Savage Republic was three art students and a teenage punk rock bass guitar prodigy whose hero was Jaco Pastorius. He was into jazz as well as hardcore. That was Jeff Long, of course. The reason for the art packaging was this. The very first rehearsal we–the four of us–did was down in the tunnels under UCLA because I still had the key (laughs).

AY: Oh, they never asked for they key back?

BL: Well, I did have to eventually return it, but I had it in my possession for probably six months. When I got permission to shoot my film in the tunnels, the administration connected me with this guy who sort of managed the tunnels. He worked down there. And he basically said, here’s a key, return it when you’re done.

AY: That would never happen now.

BL: No, it wouldn’t. I was kind of shocked it happened then, but it was really cool. I was able to do a lot of creative stuff down there. We ended up going into an area where there were two tunnels that came together as a little room. It was a tiny room, and it was hot and sweaty down there, but that’s where we set up our amps and guitars. And we taped everything we did on a boom box. I still have that tape, and some of that material will end up on the expanded version of Tragic Figures. It’s really interesting to go back and hear how some of these songs actually started, because it was all just improvisation. There were a couple of things about which we thought, that was cool, let’s try it again. We did several rehearsals before I had to give the key back, and at that point we switched to the parking garages—the big concrete parking garages around UCLA, because we discovered there were electrical outlets in them. We would just drive in, plug our stuff in, and play. I’ve posted on YouTube the Bridge videos of Dan, Mark, and me playing in the parking garages. So it was during first rehearsals down in the tunnels—this is the band which became Africa Corps—we had played down there for a couple hours and came up for air. We sat in this area where there were food vending machines. At the time there were a lot of Iranian students on campus, and these were the years following the Iranian Revolution, so there were all these revolutionary posters plastered around the campus. And above the vending machines was this black-and-white-and-red poster with that picture I used on the Tragic Figures cover, and some Farsi above it. Somewhere I still have a Polaroid of it. But I looked at it and said, there’s our album cover. My goal with that was really just to create a cover such that if you were flipping through record bins and came across it, you’d say, what is this and where did it come from?

AY: And the songs themselves?

BL: The ones Phil Drucker wrote the lyrics for were more arty—those are basically the ones on the first side of the record, and then Jeff Long came up with the lyrics for the ones he sang on the second side. And I think his lyrics were much more… politically inclined, shall I say? And I really do think that what he came up with, especially the song ‘Procession’ is an incredible piece of work because it’s still relevant 30 years later. Nothing’s changed. If anything it’s worse. And then, the song ‘Kill the Fascists’—that was inspired by other flyers we saw on campus that inspired the cover. There was a flyer that said ‘Kill the Fascists’. We looked at that and thought it sounded like a recruiting poster, so we went back down in the tunnels and started jamming with percussion and Jeff just riffed off the top of his head, ‘Kill The Fascists, see the world.’ After the album came out we started getting letters from kids in Europe, particularly Greece and Germany, saying, do you think we should kill some Fascists? No, no, no, you didn’t quite get it! They didn’t get that it was tongue and cheek.



AY: I love the look of the original IPR cover for Tragic Figures, before Fundamental I guess insisted on writing the Savage Republic in Latin script. But, you know, the Arabic on the cover doesn’t seem quite right, grammatically. Did you just stylize it for aesthetics?

BL: I had a part-time job doing technical illustration in the evenings. And there was a guy from Lebanon there. When we were working on the album and I had the idea to translate the band name, album title, and song titles all into Arabic. So he says yeah, I’ll do that. So we sat down at his apartment and he did the best he could, but with the phrase ‘Tragic Figures’, you know, he said, what words can I use for that to make sense? So—he said—he translated ‘persons unlucky’ but since then I’ve had people who read Farsi and Arabic say, well, that’s not quite right either. I also took a little artistic license to make it look interesting. Also, there are several different carvings of it on the editions of Tragic Figures. When I was printing the first edition of Tragic Figures—it was a Linoleum block carving, and I had too much pressure on the press, and after a couple hundred impressions it started to disintegrate. So I had to stop the printing and carve another block, which ended up being a little different. Then for the original second edition I decided, because the block wasn’t in very good shape, and I was going to print another thousand, I thought I’d have a printing plate made, and so I redrew it, and pressed 1000 covers on white stock instead of brown stock, because I thought, well, I’ll save some time here. I sold maybe 100-200 copies of the record and thought, you know, this just isn’t the art piece it needs to be. And I stopped selling them, and reprinted the covers again and destroyed the rest of them. So the original second edition with the white covers and the alternate carving, there are fewer than 200 of those. Even so, that isn’t even the rarest official Savage Republic release. It’s the fourth edition of the Film Noir single, of which we pressed maybe 750 copies, and it was a radically redesigned version. I had started selling it and realized there was a major pressing defect. So I went through the entire pressing and pulled out everything that had the defect and ended up with fewer than 50 copies. The rest got destroyed. In the end I just didn’t have it in me to reprint four-color labels and do it all over again. I just thought, let it go.

Ivory Coast, Savage Republic, Tragic Figures, 1982


ProlegomenonPart OnePart ThreeA Graphics Composition

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