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An Interview with Bruce Licher – Part 3

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

Prolegomenon, Part One, Part Two, A Graphics Composition



Aram Yardumian: It’s hard for me to talk about the films without having seen them—I realize there is a  Sordide Sentimental video version of your work, it’s difficult to find, but I’m interested in how you think the films fit into your overall aesthetic trajectory.

Bruce Licher: Early on in my college days I was really fascinated with the industrial aesthetic. I was interested in Throbbing Gristle and the others, but more than that it was the old factories and there was just an aesthetic about that. I think a lot of that probably came from seeing Eraserhead. Actually, after Savage Republic started I wanted to make another film that we would do the soundtrack for, and my conceptualization of it was a combination of Eraserhead and Lawrence of Arabia (laughs). So, the industrial and the desert, you know. It never happened, but that was the idea. When I stared going to UCLA I wanted to be a film major, but you couldn’t even apply until you were a junior. And it was extremely competitive and I decided, you know, I’m probably not going to get in. Then I learned that the animation workshop was the one film class open to non-majors. You could take it for up to something like 32 credits. I took it for 4 credits per quarter and so I was in there making experimental films for the last two years I was there. So that’s how all that film work came about.

AY: Have you done anything since?

BL: I haven’t really done anything since, although my wife, Karen, keeps saying, Bruce, we’ve got to get back to making films.

AY: Is she a filmmaker?

BL: No, she’s a visual artist. The main thing she is doing right now is she collects different colors of earth from around the Southwest and mixes them in with her paints. She’s got a lot of abstract pieces but the latest works have been abstracted landscapes painted with earth.

AY: Speaking of the landscape, and we’ve already touched on the urban and industrial landscapes, but maybe there is something more to say about the desert landscape in the shape of your work.

BL: When I was growing up my parents were heavily involved in gliding and sailplanes. So at least once a month we’d go out to the desert and they would fly their glider. So I spent a lot of time in the desert as a kid, and I was always fascinated by the desolation out there, there was a beauty in the simplicity.

AY: Maybe one that has influenced the look of your letterpress work.

BL: Yeah, so after Savage Republic finally ended in the late 80s and I wanted to do another musical project, I had already started going out with a camera and making photographs of the East Mojave Desert, so that’s what helped focus what the first Scenic album was about–creating a soundtrack for the East Mojave Desert. And at the time I was really listening to a lot of soundtrack music like Ennio Morricone and spaghetti western stuff. There is also a really interesting Greek album that the Chicago distributor who sent copies of the Film Noir 7” to his brother in Athens sent me, in the mid-80s. He started sending me boxes of Greek records, and about this one he said, Bruce, you’ve got to listen to this record, you’re really gonna like it. It’s by Gregoris Tzistoudis. It’s a pretty scarce record. Actually, Gregoris was the bouzouki player and the composer is Ioannis Zouganelis. Anyway, this is the best Greek music I’ve ever heard, and on a couple of tracks there is this clanging sound in the background. It’s really reverberated and I wanted to do something like that. There are a couple of pieces on Incident at Cima with this kind of clanging percussion. So that Greek album was a really big influence on things. We used to play a tape of that Greek album before Savage Republic would go on stage sometimes. And in the early 90s I looked into the possibility of reissuing it, and the rights are owned by a Swedish company.


AY: That’s odd.

BL: Yeah. I was in touch with the guy who ran the Swedish company for a period of time and he said, oh I love that record, it would be great if you could reissue it. So anyway, we got off on a tangent there.

AY: But a really fascinating one! So we mentioned Josh Adelson already, but there are some other names from the past–people involved with your various early projects, such as Caroline Collins and Hilda Daniel. Who were they are what and your recollections of them?

BL: They were fellow art students that Phil and I knew from UCLA. Basically, I had done Project 197 and the Bridge EPs, and then I met Phil Drucker. We were in a class together, and when we met he was really excited that I had put out these two records. So he suggested we collaborate on something and we thought, let’s find a couple of friends we can do music with, so we asked Caroline and Hilda, neither of whom had ever played an instrument before. So the Them Rhythm Ants stuff was pretty minimal. It was fun for what it was but ultimately a project that petered out after a few months.

AY: So they only appeared on the one EP.

BL: Yes, although the version of ‘Mobilization’ that Savage Republic recorded was originally a Them Rhythm Ants song, so they ended up with some songwriting credits for that. Hilda lives in New York now and she’s a video artist. Caroline is still in California, as far as I know.

AY: The untitled piano solo (track D1 on the box set) is one of my favorite pieces of music of all time—I really mean that. It’s difficult to express how much it means to me, actually. I understand it was a kind of recreation of an improvisation you did on a piano in Arcosanti. What is the full story behind this piece, and what do you think was going on that brought it out?

BL: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people going off and creating a new society. When I was a teenager, and even before that, my father was heavily into in the Libertarian scene in Southern California, and he was in contact with a number of people who were trying to do things like buy islands to create a Libertarian utopia. 100% free market, no government, that type of thing. There was actually a period of time when I was 15 or 16 when these people were seriously looking at an island in the Pacific called Palmyra. I think it was used as a US Air Force base in World War Two.

AY: Oh yeah, Palmyra Atoll.

BL: They wanted to buy the island! And there were some other people trying to buy a small island in the Caribbean. Nothing ever came of any of it. But there was always this fascination in my mind about this. And so when I found out about Arcosanti, it felt similar. Here’s this architect trying to create this new type of city in the desert, and I thought, I want to go experience that. So I think it was September of ’84. It was after I’d moved into the Nate Starkman building, and I decided I was just going to take one of their month-long workshops, you know, shut the business down for a month and go do that. It was really one of the more amazing times in my life. A simple way of life. Living in an eight foot concrete cube, and this desert environment with the stream going through it, and helping to work on a project—whatever it was they were working on at the time. So down where they had all of us for the workshop there a sort of big yurt where they had a library, and there was a funky old piano in there. The second or third night I was there I just went in and sat down at the piano and just started playing and these songs came out, and I just thought, wow, I didn’t know I could do this.


AY: Yeah! But you didn’t record them then?

BL: I didn’t record them then. But I tried to play them a lot while I was there to remember them. And after I returned to the Nate Starkman building, where I was living. Some people moved in upstairs and they had a piano down the hall, and they said anytime you want to go use it, go ahead. So that was when I just decided to sit down and tape some of those songs that I came up with in Arcosanti. Actually, the untitled one—you know, I don’t think that was even an Arcosanti song, but just something that came out while improvising on that piano.

AY: Where are the other piano solo tracks?

BL: I never released the others because I didn’t feel the recordings were good enough.

Untitled, Solo Piano, Bruce Licher, 1989

AY: On the occasion I’ve had people over for listening sessions at my place I’ve played that track and they are always just silent afterward.

BL: I guess I’ll have to go back and listen to it, then.

AY: Are there any musical or artistic trends you really loathe?

BL: Are you going to publish this? (laughs). Well, the answer is yes. You can probably guess what they are.

AY: I probably can. We can leave it at that if you want.

BL: Let me just say, back in the early 90s, when I was living in LA, before we moved out to Sedona, I ended up connecting with this guy—I can’t even remember his name—but he was really excited about what I was releasing on Independent Project Records, and he wanted to work as my marketing guy. Didn’t want to be paid for it, just wanted to do it because he loved the music and everything. And, while he said he loved all the music, I could tell he didn’t really understand it, didn’t understand what I was doing on a basic level, didn’t understand the aesthetic. But he loved For Against, and a couple of the other bands, thought they were great. And at one point he said… Bruce, you should release a rap record. So I thought about it for a moment and said, you know, maybe if it was an instrumental rap record (laughs). After all that, I realized there was a rap track on the Human Hands record. Juan Gomez was working as an elementary school teacher and these kids in his class came up with this rap and he taped it and added some African music, and that’s on the record. So there’s the answer to your question.

AY: Do you think your music, film, and letterpress work stem from a single aesthetic vision, or do they have separate trajectories, different ways of functioning for you personally? Separate lives or a single vision?

BL: I think separate, but I try to find ways to combine them because I find it interesting to combine things. But it’s all sort of an organic process. You know, here we are recording our first Africa Corps album, and I want an artistic album jacket. I don’t want to silkscreen because silkscreen is slow and messy. I attempted to take a course in offset lithography but the class was cancelled because not enough people signed up. Then this letterpress course popped up, so I thought I’d try that. Once I got in there and saw what was possible with the process and realized they had a printing press that was the perfect size for making a record album jacket, I said to them, if I repeat this course can you teach me how to run the Vandercook. Nobody else was using it, so I took the course again and printed up 1000 album jackets. So again, it’s an organic process: what do I need now? What’s next? Obviously letterpress and music I have combined over the years and I still like that combination, but they are also different things and go on their own trajectory as well.


AY: Aside from your printing business, what are your artistic plans for the future, with Scenic or other possibilities?

BL: There are actually two different music projects I’m working on right now. The first one came up maybe a year and a half ago. I hadn’t been doing much music since I moved out here to Bishop, although I did start working on what I’m calling plein air recordings. My wife wanted to go out and do plein air paintings, but preferred me to go along so she’s not out there by herself. So I thought, what can I do while I’m out there. I can take photographs, or if I had some way to run my recording equipment I could bring a guitar and record some music. So I did some research and ended up getting a portable solar unit—a couple of small panels in a suitcase, really. I have a 12-track hard disc recorder that I was using for demos, so I went out there and did some layering of guitars and effects and created some pieces of music, recorded on the spot wherever it was we decided to go. So I have several of those pieces I could release, and I keep thinking I should record a few more so I have a full album.

Sage, Sage 7″, Scenic, 1996

AY: Does it have a name at this point?

BL: I’m calling that project Owens Valley Driving Music, and that would be a solo project. And then, actually, a number of years ago I demoed a solo album—a whole album’s worth of material that I need to go back and record properly. There’s a local coffee house with an open mic night, and I thought I should go down there and do something a little different than the usual. So I brought my guitar and effects box and an amp down and made some ambient guitar sounds. Karen thought I needed a second person so she said, why don’t you teach me to play the rhythm parts of some of your songs, so I did that. The first thing we started playing was the Savage Republic song ‘Exodus’—we do a great version of ‘Exodus’ now (laughs). I taught her some of my other songs, and then she came up with her own chord changes and I came up with some melodies, so now we have a lot of material we are working on.

AY: For release?

BL: We did one performance last year here in Bishop for a summer solstice event. We had two drummers. One played hand drums, the other a drum kit. That project we’re calling SR2. Karen & I like the name because the core of it is the two of us and SR could mean any number of things. So that started about two years ago and we are going to record those songs soon. Then, about a year and a half ago Dan Voznick, who was in Bridge, came up with his wife for a visit, and he brought some of his guitars, so we had some jam sessions in our living room with his wife playing bass, Karen and I playing our uniquely-tuned guitars, Dan playing his normally-tuned guitar, and we started coming up with some really good music there. We haven’t come up with a name for that, although we’ve been calling it the High Twelve just to have a name for it. And there’s an album’s worth of material there. We tried doing some recordings in the living room last time they were up, but with mixed results. And now they’ve since had a baby so that project is currently on hold, but we’ll get back to it.


AY: Finally, you mentioned Stuart Swezey is working on a documentary about the Mojave Exodus performance with the Minutemen. Can you tell us why that particular performance is worth making a documentary about, and when Stewart thinks it might be screened?

BL: The documentary is actually about all of the Desolation Center events that Stuart promoted in the early-to-mid-80’s. But the Mojave Exodus performance was really special, because it was the first of the desert shows that he put on, and it was a really unique event. Just the idea of having these two bands performing on a dry lake bed in the middle of the desert, and of bussing 150 people out who had no idea of where they were going to be taken, was pretty different for the time. This was pre-internet, people ordered tickets through the mail in advance to go see Savage Republic and The Minutemen at ‘an undisclosed desert location.’ I think that people were intrigued with this mysterious adventure that included these two bands performing in an unusual location, and there was this sense of ‘anything could happen.’ Once Stuart approached me about the idea of performing in the desert I suggested Soggy Dry Lake east of Lucerne Valley (I had originally found the location with Phil Drucker when we were scouting for places to do a film for Savage Republic the year before) and after we drove out there together he agreed that it was a perfect place to do the event. When it turned out so well, we scouted another location the following year in the canyons east of the town of Mecca near the Salton Sea for the Mojave Auszug performance. There’s a Facebook page that has been set up for the Desolation Center film, and a lot of people have been posting photos and memorabilia there as Stuart continues to work towards creating his film.


ProlegomenonPart OnePart TwoA Graphics Composition

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