Eric Stewart (Ju Suk Reet Meate) was born in 1952, to a non-musical family in Covina Calif and played trumpet in fourth grade through high school marching band, then stopped playing music. However shortly after moving to Pasadena in 1972, and with no further musical training “The Artist ” Ju Suk Reet Meate was born, and with the help of many friends, started the band Smegma (the band without musicians) in 1973 which continues to this day. He moved to Portland, in 1975 and started Pigface Records, putting out Tiny Quantities of 45’s , EP’s, LP’s and cassettes, some with hand drawn covers that are now very collectible. He has played live gigs(mostly in Portland),several times a year, ever since. Recently, he has performed collaboratively as The Tenses with Rock and Roll Jackie (also of Smegma) and solo at the High Zero Festival 2010 in Baltimore.
At this time Ju Suk Reet Meate is mostly playing lap steel guitar, pocket trumpet, cassette loops, Sydrassi Organus (Synth), toys, petals and percussion, and has been the musical director of the music group Smegma for 40 years
by Noah Mickens on December 16, 2009
It takes me forever to find Smegma’s house, which is odd, because the entire thing is painted shocking pink. The pink of cotton candy and little girls’ barettes, so pink you couldn’t miss it. So pink that, when I find another pinkish house and knock on the door, they guy can tell me right where it is, four blocks away. “This house is purple!” says the guy, like I just tried to kiss him on the mouth.
I am greeted at the door by Rock and Roll Jackie herself, who takes on the nomme d’etage ”Oblivia ”, in keeping with one of the few traditions the band takes seriously. Though we’re far from strangers – I suppose I’ve been interacting with Jackie for close to ten years now – an air of formality pervades the exchange, like I’m entering the hall of a master monk or a great scholar. She shows me where to put my coat, offers me a drink, then points me upstairs to meet the man in question: Ju Suk Reet Meate, the central figure in the 35 year history of the band called Smegma.
I think how fortunate it is that I’m not a vintage record collector, because if I were this interview would be long-delayed as I rifled through his Smithsonianesque accumulation of gorgeous old LPs, 45s, and whatever you call those weird thick old records that come in the boxes. 78s? I never could keep all of that straight. A lot of it looks like Novelty records, the crazy traveling variety musicians whose unique and prodigious talents were eventually encapsulated in the old Spike Jones shows before shuffling off to Dr. Demento land in the face of the unstoppable Television wave. Tap dancing xylophonists, six-man harmonica ensembles, that sort of thing.
I ask about this – about what influences informed the unprecedented style of free improv he first hammered out before I was born. Ju Suk Reet Meat speaks in magazine articles, brilliant mini-essays pouring out of his mouth in inconsistent tense and mode.
“That was a period (early 1970s Los Angeles) when the great hippie movement was sort of broken apart, and in LA we definitely felt we were part of a larger ‘Freak Movement’. But we didn’t really fit in – We didn’t identify ourselves as Hippies because we weren’t into the hippie music, per se. And that somehow seems to be the key, the inspiration. None of us went to art school, none of us had any training. But a section of the larger Tribe broke off and formed a band, and exactly why that happened is hard to say. I know I personally had played trumpet in high school, and ended up later as just a way to blow off steam, or something to do at home that would scare your parents or your neighbors. But we were so earnest and so sincere and so serious about playing without musicians being involved, that was one of the concepts from the beginning. But from the beginning also we knew we did not want to leave music out, so there was always this conflict of how. We would allow one or two musicians who swore they would not play any contemporary sounds, like just wouldn’t do a guitar solo of the day or whatever, just make them play a couple straight little things so we could do these homages to the 50s. Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache, or Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me, we would do these songs straight as part of an avant-garde music, and other silly things, right from the beginning that was our passion. To combine the future and the past, without the present. Because music and performance is all about fantasy and casting a spell, so right from the beginning we had this thing of the future – creating the avant-garde, or homages to the past where you’re trying to do something that’s kind of… respectful.
“We’ve got the bells and we’ve got the flutes and we’d try to go sort of… back to the ancient times, and we would jam.”
I ask him to further define the “Freak Scene”, though I think I understand who he’s talking about.
“That’s an amorphous sort of thing, We were really into Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, who were essentially locals at that point. In a weird way i think we all took that for granted. They were a little older than us, but that was sort of our contemporary mentor scene. But then everybody found out about people from a generation earlier, like John Cage or Harry Partch, and just being amused by the old Dada movement and hearing about all of this absurd art that had gone on before, and just being really inspired by parts of those concepts, and sort of taking them away. There’s a lot of other aspects of that classy art scene that aren’t so pretty, but certainly some of the actual things that were done and some of the ways that it effected people were very inspirational. That effected us a lot. we knew about this broader different concept, and we were trying in a very folk way to apply those concepts to our version of music.
“”We were the generation that was really formed by the temple of the record store. There was this incredible record store in Pasadena, Poo-Bah Records, in a basement in the scary Old Town section, and we’d all go there. That’s where a lot of the LAFMS people and especially the Smegma people would hang out. ”
He’s talking about The Los Angeles Free Music Society, a seminal association of experimental musicians whose Work is legend amongst a tiny segment of the World’s population, and wholly unknown to everyone else. Those in the know tend to describe LAFMS, Smegma, and The Residents as the originators of a distinct style of playful counter-traditional West Coast Riexperimentalism that has directly inspired subsequent movements like Punk, Noise, et al. There aren’t all that many people who are both aware of this and inclined to write about it, which I suppose is what brings me here today. I had always thought of Smegma as a sub-set of LAFMS, but apparently I have always been mistaken.
“We are (part of LAFMS) now, and we were then. It’s just that we had parallel worlds. Like Tom Recchion, for instance, is someone who is absolutely part of the core of LAFMS. But at the time, LAFMS really just meant.. well, when things are emerging and forming, the clarity of what exactly they are wasnt so apparent at the time. I don’t remember Tom ever mentioning LAFMS when we were there (in Pasadena), but after we moved ID Art came out, we got the flyer, and we participated in that, and participated in everything on all kinds of levels with LAFMS for as long as it lasted in an active state.”
So which came first?
“There’s probably varying opinions on that, but I’d say they started identically around the same time without knowing about each other at all. The primary thing with a big chunk of the LAFMS thing was people going to art school, and I know at least ID Art started with an art project at Cal Arts. That aspect was always completely absent in Smegma.”
Listen to Pigs For Lepers
What was Smegma about?
“From the start we were trying to do something that was like the polar opposite of prog, where it got to the point where everything had to have classical solos… Keep moving along, never do the same thing twice. Hopefully that creates a tension that helps the listener, or at least creates the artform for the listener. Because nothing is outlined as the part that’s important, anything might be the part that sounds the best, and if you listen for it you’ll hear it, and it’s going away already. By the time you hear it, it’s probably already halfway there and gone. Hopefully, if everything’s working right, that’s part of the unique position this kind of music puts the listener in, because it’s not laid out which sounds are part of the foreground and which are part of the background.”
And who was in the original line-up?
“There was Ricky Reet’s Hubba Hubba Band, which was my band with real musicians. After a couple months I decided that was totally the wrong idea. So then we were jamming with all these people who were totally not musicians – this is like in December of 1973 or October of 73. So that would be like Brad Hostetler (aka Big Dirty), Cheez-lt Ritz, Amy (DeWolfe) or Amazon Bambi has been with the band from the first few months of it. Dennis Duck, we always recorded in his room while he was at work. So i think that’s the basic core. There were a few other people that were in it from early on – Mike Lastra (aka Dr. Id) was in the Navy at the time and he was doing recording, so he started recording us. But there was a larger… like 15 people, basically everyone we knew who wasn’t into hard drugs or too crazy in any other way was in the band.”
Through their association with Zappa and his extended scene, Smegma met up with Larry “Wild Man” Fischer and Ace Farren Ford, who joined them for a series of recordings just before the band decided to relocate to Portland.
“Late ‘75 we decided we felt so disconnected from L.A. and any shows we had ever gone to there. We found later that Sun-Ra had put a curse on LA at that point. He played this really terrible show in Watts, and it got shut down, so he put a curse on the place and didn’t play there for years. But we didn’t know that at the time. ”
“There was a thing in the air back then if you lived in L.A., there was this magic place Oregon where it was green and everything was wonderful. We moved to Corvallis first, and it was like five of us (Ju Suk Reet Meate, Ace Farren Ford, Dr. Id, Amazon Bambi, and Cheez-It Ritz)”
“When we came up here we were kind of lost and drifting for a while. You realize that the visceral energy of growing up in the entertainment center of the world was something tangible. And when we left and we came up here, it was half empty, very redneck. There were pockets of San-Francisco-like culture everywhere. but the face of the city was pretty dreary. We had Mayor Goldschmidt, who was the talk of the town, the youngest mayor of all time. But it was a pretty grim working class town in a way that you can’t imagine today. So we kind of drifted into being almost an avant-garde jazz band, even though we couldn’t play. We started playing horns more and being more acoustic oriented.”
“Then we met Lee Rockey, and that kind of changed everything in a way. Him and a few other people like John Jensen and Stan Wood were already doing incredible indigenous musics here, that we just found out about right when it kind of petered out.”
“It was funny. Since we moved up here, L.A. had a renaissance period like no one would have ever dreamed. It was for the first time in… nobody would have ever thought that it would happen again, really. You had The Screamers, Human Hands, Black Randy and the Metro Squad, The Germs. All of a sudden, everyone we knew was in some band.”
He’s talking about the very beginning of the California punk scene, which most scholars would place at roughly 1976-77.
“We had our own beautiful scene in Portland, too. Once Portland made it to that era, what we considered the beautiful punk rock era of ‘76-’81 or something. In Portland we had a home-grown scene of 40-80 people who actually rented out spaces, buildings, and had concerts and performances. It didn’t last that long but we were actually that idealistic. Smegma was definitely a part of that, but that was already our second or third incarnation. That really revitalized us and got us back on track in my opinion. That’s what got Smegma re-charged-up as what it should be, with one foot in being a rock band, a full-on energy. A “rock band”, I’m saying that is something to me that it wouldn’t mean to anyone else. But I mean a primal rock and roll energy, a 1950s style. Link Wray is my god that I worship to, like a template for what rock and roll might stand for.”
“That was a beautiful thing to be against something, and that first punk rock thing was a beautiful thing because it was really a rock and roll revival movement, in the sense that true spirit. There is a true American spirit of underground rebels. It is something unique about America, it doesn’t really exist anywhere else. That punk rock thing really was one of the nice little flowers of that, at least the part I saw. People with a lot of problems populated it, but given that it was a really sweet, beautiful scene.”
“Just as we were like, ‘Where can we play?’, and we were kind of through trying to be a punk band per se, but we had gotten the energy back and decided that a lot of our stuff was going to be like full energy. It is true that that’s one of the true indigenous things about rock music is that it can be always loud. That’s an acceptable part of it. And that’s part of what you really want to use to get what I would call the Smegma Experience. It can be delicate sometimes, but it has to be messy and too much sometimes too.”
It was around this time that Oblivia joined the constantly-revolving membership, having moved from the Bay to Salem and started playing the punk scene with her bands Spy Vs. Spy and Babylon 2000. Though Smegma was moving beyond their own punk period, the punks were just discovering them.
“Surprisingly, a couple of ex-Smegma members end up being in Poison Idea [almost all of them, in fact, had played with Smegma – vocalist Jerry A., bassist Myrtle Tickner and even Pig Champion], so we ended up opening for them a few times, at Satyricon. A true full-on 1986 punk rock audience, and there’s Smegma opening up. Luckily the band was there standing by us to make sure nobody gave us too much shit. Those are some of the most exciting shows we’ve ever done, when we felt a little fear from the audience, but everything worked out.”
“That’s the bridge – Poison Idea drove us out to do some ridiculous shows like that, and at that time we didn’t even know about the Butthole Surfersbeing this unbelievable band that was touring non-stop around the United States at that time. One of our good friends at the time, Rancid Vat, were playing at this club The 13th Precinct in what is now the Pearl District. They were opening for the Butthole Surfers.”
“The next time they came through, they asked specifically that we open for them. And then the next few times they came they always insisted that we open for them, and that obviously gave us exposure to the kind of shows that we would have never in a million years been exposed to.”
“Finally in ‘86 we decided we would play San Francisco, because how hard could it be to play San Francisco? We didn’t have fabulous success there, but we did have some good shows. Caroliner was just getting started then, and there was one show that was Smegma and Caroliner, played The Vermillion Club, it was pandemonium, it was totally great. ”
I ask if this led to a more active period of touring and broader recognition.
“It’s not like we ever really felt like we were a regular band and we could go on tour. We’ve always just been this fragile thing that could barely even get together two or three times a month and practice and go through these rituals and stuff, and occasionally go on these little road trips that were never that rewarding. People today looking back on it now assume that there were always these kind of opportunities, you would always have some monetary things or recognition, but even that possibility has only really opened up in the last 6 or 7 years… The only way we ever got paid was when like Reed College would kick in 500 dollars to play for some drunk students who don’t care.”
“It’s something I think about: What’s the difference between something that’s totally amateur and something that’s professional? Over the years you have to say we recorded, we put out records, and we did concerts. If you’re doing all of those things consistently, regardless of whether it’s amateur or professional or whatever you call it, that’s historically a band.”
“I can freely speak for almost everyone who’s ever been in Smegma and played a live show, and there’s only been a hand full of times where we’ve really felt overwhelmed with actual support. I don’t think that’s ever happened in this country. It’s happened in other places on this planet, but not in Portland. There’s this hometown thing that can develop where, no matter how great you are, or how great you think you are, there’s a circle the drain quality – how do you get people fired up about you when you’re just there and you’re not playing by the rules?”
“In 1989 or so there was an implosion finally, one of the main members was forced out, and the band fundamentally ground to a halt for the first time.”
This was not fated to be the end of Smegma, however. In the 1990s, their recordings and reputation had bled out to a global audience of experimental music and Noise enthusiasts; and that self-same demographic were part of a third wave of truly independent record labels with fanatic devotion to the DIY ethic. Over the course of the 90s, new recordings were being released on Soleilmoon, Tim/Kerr, Sympathy For The Record Industry, Japan Overseas, even Polygram. This period saw the semi-stabilization of the line-up that “everyone thinks of when you say Smegma”, according to Ju Suk: himself, Dr. Id, Amazon Bambi, Oblivia, Burned Mind, Vibraband; and in time, legendary music journalist Richard Meltzer, aka Borneo Jimmy.
“Richard has to get props for being the one great writer who’s associated with being a rock writer… Jackie knew about him from way way back. He got sick of New York and moved out to la in ‘75, just when we moved out to Portland. He of course had a radio show, and a lot of the LAFMS bands were on that radio show a lot. He’d already lived in Portland a few years before we met him, focusing on his writing. He always said that in L.A., when people found out he was a writer, they would say ‘What show?’ I saw him play at the old X-Ray Cafe, with this band, reading his poetry; and we realized this really was the real Richard Meltzer and invited him to play some music.”
As the century turned, a funny thing happened. By whatever subtle currents direct the aesthetic and philosophical ocean of world opinion, the kinds of music Smegma helped to create started to catch on. First punk, then noise entered into the mass culture when young innovators found ways of relating these anti-musical genres to the ongoing thread of pop music. Without delay, millions of listeners went looking for the sources of these new sounds. Smegma’s earlier recorded collaborations with Merzbow and Non, and their inclusion in the canonical manuscript known as The Nurse With Wound List, brought them to the vinyl-starved hands of the burgeoning indie noise scene. They did a CD with Wolf Eyes, ran up and down the West Coast with Steve MacKay and the Radon Ensemble, and accepted their first invitations to perform in Europe.
I was with them, playing with MacKay at The Derby in Hollywood, Smegma’s triumphant return to Los Angeles after more than 20 years of absence. Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, Don Bowles, David J – all these crazy hip cats from different cities were there for whatever reason, I don’t know if Moore flew in for it or what. Solid Eye, another of the major LAFMS projects, played on the bill; along with Afrirampo, the ultimate cute Japanese noise girl band. It was wonderful to see them there, embraced by the abandoned hometown I share with them. This was also the Richard Meltzer line-up – he’s sitting up there in a chair: “Bury my ashes in the gashes, baby.”
When Smegma graced the cover of WIRE Magazine, a photo of Oblivia holding up a record, it was official. History had recorded them as music pioneers. And with their unaccustomed travels, another long-delayed milestone was reached: Smegma was introduced to the global underground.
“In the weirdest way, the international… I don’t know what scene it is, but it’s the scene we see when we travel around. There’s a beautiful gentleness and a kind of trying to spread the magic thing that is out there right now. There is hope.”
“It’s not the noise scene. Occasionally it is, but a lot of it’s almost like new age, or like the tag New Age. There’s like a new calm, people are intrigued by a sense of calm all of a sudden, any music that does some droning calm things. It’s very exotic and exciting. There’s no end to how you can keep digging into those sort of wells.”
“Something has happened. It’s not actually commercial. Just Jackie and i playing to an audience in Cork, Ireland who had never seen avant-garde music before. And the sense that, when I play it I consider it challenging and intense because it’s challenging and intense to play it, but it’s great that from the general audience reaction and from people i talked to, they did not sense that part of it at all. There’s a friendly organic unfolding aspect that they were locking into. They didn’t see what I would think of as the modern 20th century aspects of it, or what i would consider the “noise” aspects of it. They didn’t see those as barriers. ”
“It’s the paradox of what we’re actually doing. In a way what we do really is a slap in the face to people that take music seriously. When we started, that was more fun. It’s funny how it’s come all the way around. When we started we were really in the Age of Musicians. When we started there were sooo many musicians who could play so good, and it was kind of a reaction against that. It was like, enough great musicians already! Whereas today they are so scarce actually. There are a lot of people who can play well, but… when i think of a great musician or an artist, I think of someone who has a personal style that’s real individualistic, who can do something that no one else can do, and that seems more rare than ever these days.”
Ju Suk reminds me more than once that, as pleased as he has been with the response to his music, none of this has produced a lifestyle-altering commercial success.
“That’s really the core of the place i’m kind of comfortable being at now. At some point a band… It’s kind of unique to have a band that’s over 35 years in existence, that’s never had enough success in any way to have ever built up expectation, in that perverse unnatural way that normally having a ‘career’ means. Like if you have a big hit song or something, I mean, that’s a beautiful thing. But if that never happens, then that means that the band is not about a certain hit or a certain thing at a certain time. They’re about a process, about an unfolding process. And at some point you evaluate what that is, and you say that’s Smegma. The unfolding process. It’s not the local band here in Portland exactly, because how much of what Smegma stands for in the world would have to do with what you did right now in Portland anyway? It’s already out there working, it’s people thinking. about what it means to them. To me, that’s a scary responsibility, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not huge, but I know there’s people in every city pondering that.”
So there I was, at Rotture, where at that time I worked as the in-house booker. Ju Suk’s side project The Tenses are playing later. He and Oblivia show up together, it’s handshakes all round, and then she breaks the news: For reasons that remain their own, Ju Suk Reet Meat and Dr. Id (who owns and operates the confusingly-named Smegma Studios) parted ways. They were the last remaining pre-Portland members of the band, and nobody was sure what would come next.
Thank goodness it didn’t last. Indeed, the latest Smegma recording, soon to be released, features more first-generation members than anything they’ve released in a decade. This line-up – Ju Suk Reet Meat, Oblivia, Dennis Duck, Ace Farren Ford, Big Dirty, and Amazon Bambi – is the one Ju Suk hopes to bring with them to future live engagements, whatever those may be. They even have a new freeform singer, an element that’s been missing for awhile, an Egyptian woman named Nour Mobarak .
“My attitude is that we’re waiting to see if things rise to a point where there’s a serious offer. Like a serious funded offer, and then get the touring band together and go. We’re prepared to do that, right now. If we had the offer tomorrow, I’d pack my bags and go.”
In the meantime, Smegma is continuing to release new recordings in excrutiatingly-small runs. Ju Suk shows me their two most recent works. One is an untitled split with Kommissar Hjuler and Mama Baer, with a lovely chalk sketch of someone pissing all over somebody else, produced in an edition of 177 and available for purchase from www.volcanictongue.com. The other looks completely home-made, like the old Ju Suk Reet Meat solo records you can sometimes find at Discourage Records. John Wiese was on it I think it might be this one. It seems like a lot of people have been making it work like this lately – if you know you’re only going to sell a couple hundred units, just make a couple hundred. They’ll sell out right away, become immediately collectible, and fund the next project. It’s very much the sort of thing Smegma and their friends might have envisioned when they first started self-releasing: tiny independent labels staying in the black while the huge corporate music machines plummet.
“I put out Pigface Chant in 1979, on Pigface Records, and pretended we were a record label, and that was just recordings we did in Pasadena. What the hell are you going to do with a record like this? I mean, the punk rock thing had finally hit, but records like this didn’t really sell in punk rock stores. The punk rock thing now seems incredibly exotic, but at the time there was a little blurb when you could sell them, and then every record store in town had boxes of them, they were just giving them away, everybody was all pissed off about it. And then, three years later, you know, hundred-dollar Dangerhouse records.”
“I’m not really celebrating the death of record companies. I’m sad that record companies lost what they were supposed to be doing, where they were so adrift that they were just ripe for the picking. If a record company stands for a symbol of quality and developing artists, standing by people once they’ve decided they’re going to… back when there were actually producers who may have been tyrants, but they were allowed to have personal vision regardless of what it cost, and that led to great art being created. So i have a profound respect for that. I’m kind of saddened by the fact that it’s supposed to be up to everybody at home with their computer. There’s something wrong with that. I mean, it’s fine, as far as it goes, but a big huge team effort is what was required to do some of these fantastic things in the past.”
“ I think music has gotten so precarious, in the present tense. Thanks to the Internet and everything, today isn’t necessary. You can listen to whatever you want, you can listen to something recorded 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago. It’s all just the same now. It’s almost like there’s nothing to compare music to anymore – what’s the standard of music today? What constitutes good music today? Different people have different opinions. I don’t think people even try to articulate that anymore. I think that whole idea is an old fashioned concept.”
“What’s become the positive side is that, now what Smegma represents is not threatening against this great institution of Music anymore, because it doesn’t really exist anymore. All of a sudden it’s just another type of music, another approach to something. It’s lost that “We’re trying to destroy music”, because… I guess music is already destroyed. But we didn’t do it! It’s not our fault!”
My absurdly broken old mini-cassette recorder has started to go so slow that the tape, when I play it back, sounds like Alvin being interviewed by Theodore. And I can tell Mr. Meate is getting sick of my stupid questions. I shake his hand and leave him there, in his bright punk house, surrounded by so much music I don’t know about that he could never explain it all to me without missing what’s going on now. I wonder what will happen to me and all of my crazy friends in 20 years. I wonder what will happen to Smegma, and what that new recording will sound like, and when I will see them play again, and what it all means. I go across town and cut a deal for thousands of dollars, and never get that sleep I needed. What’s next?
Watch Pigface 001