The Urinals have influenced many generations of punk, post-punkers, and art school rockers since their inception in the late 1970s. John took a few moments with us to explain the band’s unique history and beginnings...The classic lineup began in 1978, how did you meet and what was the intention when you first started as a band? Was it meant to be a band?
Well, it was meant to be a performance – it was for a dormwide talent show at UCLA. The first version of the band was as a five-piece. We all lived on the same floor, and thought it would be funny to put together a band that couldn’t play. After the show, three of us decided we wanted to keep going. And the rest is infamy.
After formulating your first songs, was the minimalism deliberate and what do you think of the term “punk haiku”?
Falling James assigned that term to our material and when I first read it, I thought, “yeah, he really nailed it.” The minimalism was DEFINITELY deliberate. My influences up to that time included not only The Ramones (whose first LP was revolutionarily spare and direct,) but also more highbrow stuff like Terry Riley (“Surfin’ with the Shah” is our “IN C,” though it’s in D,) Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and the motorik velocity of Neu! and Kraftwerk. So, if you mix those influences, throw in a complete lack of musicianship, some anger, the usual youthful disaffection, and a smart-ass sense of humor, well then, you get the Urinals.
The Urinals shared the bill with some legendary groups such as The Go-Go’s and Black Flag. How did those audiences respond to your art-damage/smash in the face delivery style?
Early on, pre-hardcore, there was a lot of cross-pollination. There was a feeling of the excitement that all of these bands were essentially creating their own culture, which was called “punk” but wasn’t really defined. Anything went, so you had bands like Black Flag, The Last, the Go-Gos, Wall of Voodoo, Human Hands, Circle Jerks, Monitor, Leaving Trains, The Bags, each bringing vitality and idiosyncracy to a multi-colored scene. These audiences were open to variety, so they were very accepting. Only later did the definition of “punk” collapse into hardcore and audiences become intolerant of anything that deviated from a dull roar.
With three legendary 7”s from 1979-1980, which one best represented the band and what was the basis of Happy Squid Records?
You know, each of those singles is quite different, and each reflects a different element of the band. The first one showcases our discomfort with our instruments (only half-joking here,) but also throws down the “minimal” challenge of the songwriting; ANOTHER EP shows that we were capable of a kind of pop music, and the SEX single shows that we could turn up the volume and shake the walls. HSR was created because we knew NO ONE would be interested in releasing our stuff, and we wanted it in the marketplace.
A benefit of the name-change(100 Flowers) was also that we were more likely to get booked! Although the Urinals had played Gazzarri’s on the Sunset Strip, we were effectively banned from the Starwood until the name change made us more palatable to the Hollywood bookers.
Was there more success with 100 Flowers because of a more linear approach to songwriting?
The songs became more colorful as we got more competent, so they were probably more-audience-and-listener-friendly than the starker early material. I can hear psychedelia and pop in the 100F material that had been less overt earlier. Plus, we were getting more confident as performers. The first year of playing out was pretty nerve-wracking because we all knew that everything could just fall apart at any moment, which happened two out of every three shows. That’s the downside of starting out as a non-musician trying to play high-energy music.
Where can you hear the Urinals influence over the past 30 years in music and what themes still hold true?
It’s hard to say who we’ve influenced, and what we merely anticipated (by accident or design,) but we were certainly lo-fi before there was lo-fi. NO AGE, MIKA MIKO, and many of the Smell bands have cited us, but they were and are first and foremost their own bands. That’s the great thing about an “influence”—it’s a starting point that allows you to find your own voice. Before too long, no one can hear the influence, they just hear what you’ve become! You might not know, for instance, that one of the earliest role-models for my singing was Howard Wall of THE LURKERS. Emulating him was step one in allowing me to find my own singing style.
In the past and present, what are the cultural and political influences of the band that play a major role in lyrical content and the unique composition style of The Urinals?
No one ever asks about the content of our songs, so this is a welcome question! I come from a film-school background, so underground and world cinema was influential, as was Warholian art, politics (we’re on the left end of the spectrum,) sexuality and desire, self-loathing and self-discovery, addiction, denial, transformation. Anything and everything that one goes through as a human being. One thing that set us apart early on was the willingness to express sexual desire and romantic vulnerability in the context of punk-rock, which was generally thought of as being exclusively about anger.
The band is still playing out as The Urinals and 100 Flowers, what motivates you to keep the band alive and what are some memorable recent shows you’ve had?
To quote Cabaret Voltaire, “Sex, Money, Freaks.” OK, that doesn’t apply to us. My primary motivation is to create a body of work that is resonant. We also love when a set really takes off, when we’re firing on all cylinders and the audience gives us energy back – it’s a fantastic feeling, almost like sex. I’m left exhausted and happy. Memorable shows would include the Urinals playing at the Mike Atta benefit at the Echo (one of our best-ever sets,) our shows in Calgary last year, touring with Yo La Tengo, playing in Beijing in 2005, opening for Sonic Youth, touring with Mudhoney, playing SXSW with Nashville Pussy (it’s always fun to get out of town!)
If you could go back and change anything in your musical/creative career, what would it be and why?
Regrets, eh? I wish we had toured (more) early on. We rarely got out of town initially, while our compatriots like Black Flag and the Minutemen were out there raising national profiles.
I appreciate the level of interest that we’ve seen over the years. I’m grateful that what we did then, and what we’re doing now, resonates with people. Thanks for the support, all y’all.
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