Interview with Joe Carducci SST Records

By John Wisniewski  

Photo by Naomi Petersen, lifted from a contact sheet from May 1983.

1. When did you begin working at SST?
 I can date it from a gig i just missed seeing at the L.A. Press Club with Monitor, Meat Puppets, Non, and 45 Grave on Sunday, Sept 20, 1981; Monitor and Non released two of the more interesting American 45s we bought for distribution  and Laurie of Monitor had brought the Meat Puppets into Systematic that summer.  If I recall Black Flag had just played in San Francisco and Mugger drove the van back up to Berkeley and I had records, books and some furniture and clothes and left the apartment with my sister Lisa.  We stored my stuff at the Phelan Ave address in Redondo Beach where some SST Electronics parts were stored and then we drove back up to SST which was in upstairs back offices of the Unicorn label/studio on Santa Monica Blvd a couple doors down from the Tropicana Motel.  I had offered to run their office when I talked with Greg at their Chicago gig on July 15 1981.  I later learned that they were bringing their new singer, Henry, with them though Dez was singing these last couple gigs on the tour.  By the time I got to SST two months later Henry had sung for Black Flag four or five gigs and they were finishing up “Rise Above” and “TV Party” tracking for the “Damaged” album and doing a lot of mixing and remixing.
2. In the early days of the label, who were some of the bands signed to it?
Before I got there SST had two Black Flag 45s out (“Nervous Breakdown”, “Six Pack”), plus the “Jealous Again” 12″ e.p. and the Minutemen “Paranoid Time” 7″ e.p.; these were the releases we were distributing up at Systematic Record Distribution in Berkeley.  There were other releases we distributed like the Poshboy label Black Flag “Louie Louie” 45 and the “Future Looks Bright” split release cassette so I knew Saccharine Trust, and The Stains from that compilation plus the New Alliance comps, “Cracks in the Sidewalk” and “Chunks”.  I had also seen these bands live in San Francisco except for Overkill who also had recorded a 7″ e.p. that was still unreleased.  In early 1981 Hermosa Beach condemned the Church and the Wurmhole buildings, Black Flag left on tour after a last party at the Church where according to Dez they invited all the HBers figuring they’d begin the demolition, plus Media Art’s lease ran out and the rent more than quadrupled so the studio folded.  SST then moved to Torrance and lasted there about half a year before they were kicked out.  The Poshboy releases were to keep something coming out while the band was on tour figuring out what they would do when they returned, including who would sing and whether to re-record the entire “Damaged” album since Henry would be singer and Dez would be a second guitarist and the sound would be different.  The first things I worked on were getting Minutemen “The Punch Line” and Saccharine Trust “PaganIcons” released, the first Meat Puppets album recorded and released, the Black Flag “Thirsty and Miserable”/”Life of Pain” Licorice Pizza giveaway 45 ready for Unicorn, and getting The Blasting Concept compilation and Black Flag “Everything Went Black” together.  Spot did all the tape editing and I mostly organized the graphics and parts so things were ready to print and press.
3. What was it like on a day to day basis at SST?
It changed over the years I was there.  We weren’t kicked out of town again but often had to move to expand our warehouse and office space.  We moved back to South Bay instead of following Unicorn to Santa Monica in May 1982.  SST-Phelan Ave was small but had a shower so it was the office and where most of us lived.  Black Flag was still touring on “Damaged” and that was Black Flag, Spot, and Mugger until the end of 1982 when Spot quit the tour, Mugger became soundman and Davo Claassen the roadie.  Pettibon rented a studio a couple blocks away on Artesia Blvd and Black Flag found the space next to him that became Global Booking and the practice room for Black Flag and other bands.  So the phone at SST was used mostly for record manufacturing and distribution calls, then in early 1983 Mugger left the touring and was doing mail order and accounts on that phone too.  The Global phone was used mostly by Chuck Dukowski for booking or Jordan Schwartz tour publicity calls by 1983.  People were sleeping at both addresses, though Dez stayed with his family in Torrance, Henry stayed at Phelan, then with Rosetta in Lawndale, before settling in at the Ginn’s house in Hermosa Beach.  The Phelan Ave year-and-a-half seemed to bring a crisis every week to do with Unicorn, Black Flag’s vehicles, jail, Medea’s return… but we also made alot of progress.  When we lost the Phelan space ($150/mo.) we rented a small garage studio w/ shower ($250/mo.) in Redondo Beach from Greg’s sister Linda Flynn and her husband John.  We stored record stock in their garage too.  I lived at the Ginn’s and I think Mugger improvised at girlfriends’ places or Global.  He started going to night school for business classes so SST became his lab project.  In late 1984 Mugger moved SST into a strip mall office in Lawndale and I moved into that garage studio.  Mugger stayed at the Lawndale office and took showers at the Ginns’ or at girlfriends’.  At the Lawndale office Mugger and I were in the back, and up front Jeannine Garfias took over the mail order, and Mike Watt was Spaceman, our retail promo guy.  We probably had four or five phone lines at this point because Spaceman was talking to every record shop in the country non-stop!  When we had promo mailings to pack up we often had D.Boon and Tom Troccoli, a Global tour-hand as of 1984, come by.  Also Naomi Petersen shot some good Minutemen promo photos at that address (D.Boon on the handtruck being wheeled around by the other two) and John Talley-Jones shot the Minutemen video for their version of his Urinals song “Ack Ack Ack” after SST moved out to Hawthorne in early 1985.  At SST-Hawthorne we finally had a real drive-in warehouse connected to a large office space where people worked in the open with cubicle-like dividers between desks.  Ray Farrell did press and radio promotions, Mike Whittaker became Spaceman for retail promo, and Linda Trudnich became the receptionist.  When we had large mailings to do Mugger would go to some day-laborer corner and pick up Mexicans, eventually there were some regular guys we used and as they spoke no English Jeannine often did the translating.  Jeannine did mail order until she was injured in the van crash that killed D. Boon.  At Global in late 1985 they took over Pettibon’s office and Naomi Petersen and Jordan did tour promotions.  I left SST in March 1986 after training Rich Ford to manage the manufacturing and Kara Nicks took over distribution.
4. Any stories about spot? how did you meet him?
I didn’t see Black Flag until Feb. 20 1981 at Barrington Hall in Berkeley.  I had been ordering records for Systematic via mail and phone.  I met up with them the next day to show them Systematic on a day off.  Mostly I talked with Greg and Chuck but I think Spot and Mugger were with the band.  As they toured they went into shops and when they asked where they’d gotten their SST records the answer was always Systematic at that point so they knew we had something going on that helped them make touring pay.  I was impressed that Black Flag came with their own studio engineer-producer and live soundman.  We dealt with records and alot of the sound on records didn’t really work well with punk rock as by the 80s the scene tastemakers had it that rock and roll was dead and post-punk was something softer and studio-determined rather than played live and recorded that way.  I called SST in spring 1981 and got Spot on the phone but he was watching the Torrance cops ransacking the office looking for drugs so he wouldn’t answer my questions about ordering records; he’d just laugh nervously and say, “Uhhh… I don’t know!”  I don’t think I really met and talked with Spot until I came down to SST at Unicorn in West Hollywood.  I watched the finishing of the “Damaged” album and then I was more involved with Spot on the Meat Puppets first album.  Without Spot each gig and each record’s production would’ve been a crapshoot because in those years the technical people in the recording industry and live music venues were actively hostile to punk rock.  When we had legal problems with Unicorn and they dragged on and cost us time and money I worried Spot was bumming hard and was going to leave, which he did sometime in 1985.  He was tired of listening to Greg and Chuck by that point but he liked what Mugger and I were doing to make the label work.  I wish we’d had the capital to release and work every record he recorded.  Black Flag tours were how a new scene was organizing itself and many bands wanted to steal fire from them by using Spot in the studio.  It wasn’t until 1984 that our bands began to think about getting on the radio and Spot had no interest in that aspect of commercial record production.  I think Spot as a musician came into his own after he stopped recording bands other than his own.  I’d see him solo in Wyoming and his playful, jazzed, time-signature bending fusion of garage, beatnik, and Celtic folk was unlike anyone else’s.  I described his live guitar playing then as splitting atoms on the neck.
 5. Could you tell us about writing your book “Rock and the Pop Narcotic” that caused some controversy.
I started  to work on R&TPN as soon as I left SST in March 1986.  I first reviewed all of the rock press I’d collected in the nine years i’d been at Systematic and SST.  I moved up to L.A. for a few months and then to Chicago by September.  I bought a building in east Wicker Park and after ten months work on the building resumed working on the book.  I worked a bit at DePaul University library, North Central College library, and at Nichols Library in Naperville.  I also spent alot of time and money in the used record shops in Chicago.  People were dumping their vinyl for CDs and so you were able to buy eight or nine albums for twenty bucks.  I bought alot of beater copies of records by bands I’d never heard and then checked deeper into any that were any good.  I also got reminded of important bands to check into by friends like Byron Coley and Ray Farrell.  I had never written a book before so the first Redoubt Press edition that went to the printer in 1990 needed the revision I did for the 1995 2.13.61 Publications edition.  I’d say that any writer needs an editor but especially for a book on a specialized topic.  Hard to believe but rock music was a very specialized topic then, thanks to the malpractice demanded by the publishing industry, if not to any instrinsic incompetence of the writers themselves.  Now there are alot of collector and historical guides to different eras and genres. But I wrote the book trying to cover what was good whether it sold alot or not, and certainly contemporary rock and roll in the punk era 1975-1985 was prevented from selling by the lazy overhang of the hippie era.  Then there simply were no editors conversant with the topic.  Back then most all of garage bands, hard rock, surf rock, rockabilly, even arena rock had dropped out of rock histories and record reviewing.  For me it was like shooting fish in a barrell in that there was no way to avoid writing a must-read book.  And sure enough I sold the two thousand I printed up despite only sending off five promo copies.  Those were the days!
6. Tell us about your latest book, Joe.  Are you a fan of the western genre?
Since Western Stories was published I’ve got a new collection out, Chicago Stories.  I like genres, especially for films.  It seems to me the movies began showing people the wide world from the beginning in 1900.  The first films were short collections of what have since been called actualities.  People wanted to see Rome, Egypt, etc., before anyone knew they wanted to be told stories visually.  But all those sights meant that literature was going to be changed in that one didn’t need to describe things so much in a novel or especially in a screenplay.  Photography changed painting, and movies changed novels or should have.  I write screenplays for the reader but don’t get into any technical things except for what might be called the money shots, where a close-up or a tracking shot would have a particularly impact.  Otherwise the reader’s imagination is going to do a better job (with an unlimited budget to boot).  I do like western films; I can’t say I’ve read many western novels.  If I do I’ll start with Luke Short novels based on the quality of the film adaptations.  Early Elmore Leonard novels were mostly westerns and I’m sure they are great too.  Chicago Stories are police stories:  a retired cop, on-duty detectives, and one involving a rivertown detective and a reservation sheriff tracking a killer during hunting season.
7. Any favorite punk bands? What do you think of punk these days?
I don’t really search out much new music, sad to say.  Sometimes I’ll idly search through youtube clips from the fifties or sixties – things i remember or just stuff that looks like it might be good and if it is I’ll post it on facebook.  I also like reggae 45s with the dub side included – those are from the 70s up to 83 when they started using drum machines in Jamaica.
8. What was it like working with The Minutemen, Saint Vitus and Black Flag, to see them in their early days?
It of course helps to know the songs when seeing a band for the first time.  The Minutemen were unusual in that even that didn’t always prepare you to comprehend what they were putting out live.  I first saw them in a hall gig in San Francisco on a Black Flag bill (prob 10th St. Hall Apr 25 1981).  I liked “Paranoid Time” e.p. and maybe the “Joy” 45 and some compilation tracks were out by then.  At Systematic we destributed all the records and I knew all the released tunes of most of the bands I’d see live.  But I don’t think you could really appreciate the Minutemen unless you saw them at a small club like the Anti-Club.  When they were just a few inches above the audience and maybe only the vocals and snare were thru the PA.  Then the directness of the playing thru the amps and in the room could be heard as if in 3D sensurround like you were on stage with them.  Then all the tumult clarified and you could hear the music and how it was put together in front of you.
Slower heavier bands can be appreciated in larger, echo-y halls; I especially liked Flipper and their sound made more sense as they graduated to the larger venues.  Saint Vitus were like that too in the sense of their slow-to-slower tempo allowed the music to work in large venues and they probably played enormous venues later in their career as they got big in Europe – they were always a club band in America.  Saint Vitus early on were really like a garage band.  Each time in the studio they were able to play a bit more adapted to the studio for overdubs, etc.  But the first album was live in one large room.  The Walking Dead was released on a UK e.p. and its the slowest recording from the largest room they ever recorded in.  Listen to it and when the band drops out of the arrangement leaving the drum beat naked you can hear the room size and aura clearly.  SPOT was kind of using the polar opposite approach working with these two bands – Minutemen and Saint Vitus.  He had also done the Descendents Milo Goes to College album in that same big room at Total Access but with close-mic’ing of the amps and drums – if he set up room mics for Bill Stevenson’s drums he probably used very little in the mix.  While at Systematic I bought a small Aiwa tape recorder to tape Flipper gigs.  While it worked well with them and Saint Vitus it didn’t work so well with the Minutemen or especially Black Flag.  Black Flag played fast and the overdrive of performance and distortion settings made them hard to record.  Once you knew their songs well it would be the less streamlined B-sides with their rhythmic twists and stops that made those radical early audiences respond like they could hear old Pavlov ringing a bell:  Fix Me, I’ve Had It, My Rules, I’ve Heard It Before, Wound Up…
9. Why was Black Flag so popular?
There were different levels of popularity possible back then before clubs would book bands with original music or you could tour on a self-released record.  Someone had to just start doing it and Black Flag were the band that was up for any amount of risk or discomfort in order to play in new places and put another town on their own map for next time around.  They had faith that if they just could play in front of a few people in a new town, the next time they played there those who’d been there would tell all their friends that they had to go see Black Flag next time.  Doing your own gig promotion was thankless enough, putting yourself/your band in between the hall owner, the security, the other bands, the PA guy… especially when the most common conceit for a successful artist is that they don’t know what happened success just occurred as if on merit.  To actually grab hold of the machinery and do it yourself is asking for your art to withstand a radical demystification of show business.  It is safer to sit and gripe about things; that’s more in line with rock and roll attitude.
Black Flag were influenced by the Radio Free Hollywood shows that the Motels, Max Lazar, the Dogs, and some other bands had put together in mid-70s Los Angeles.  Chuck also said he learned promotion by setting up film screenings while at school in Santa Barbara and noticing how they flyered for bullfights in Spain.  Chuck and Ed Danky formed Wurm in 1976 but earlier in 73/74 they went around the U.S., Canada, and Mexico playing as a duo at places where they camped and then in clubs occasionally.  And before meeting Chuck Greg had learned by marketing his electronics products, the solid state tuners of SST Electronics in the early and mid-70s.  You can imagine that they felt in sync on things before you even got to music.  There weren’t alot of people you could count on when there was no real money involved.  More often people joined a band then found out they didn’t like it.  They might enjoy local shows but they soon found that traveling to the next town was not enjoyable, never mind a real attempt to tour.  Often bands would break up on recording their first album.  What someone wants to do at 17 isn’t always what they want to do at 21.  So in Black Flag you had Greg and Chuck fully committed.  Robo didn’t want to leave the band but his legal status meant he couldn’t be sure he’d be allowed back into the country.  Henry would never have quit the band so he had that level of committment too.  Bill Stevenson of The Descendents probably kept Black Flag together during the Unicorn injunction period which luckily occurred while Milo was at college and their band was on hiatus, so Bill had that level of committment because of the standing Black Flag had earned in L.A. with a generation of bands.  Anyone older, even in L.A., from the seventies era of punk bands had a hard time understanding or respecting Black Flag at first.  A band that worked at it like they did seemed suspect to artists who preferred to think they could just act cool and party their way to success.
I think in retrospect that Black Flag and developments in Southern California were out of sync with the rest of the country.  Tower Records opened in Chicago in 1987 if I recall.  Tower knew how to sell independent punk records.  They weren’t national at the time of the Damaged album release (Dec. 1981) so of the 50,000 copies sold within the first couple months probably 40,000 were sold in the L.A. area, another 8,000 on the west coast where Tower was, and a couple thousand in the rest of the country.  Had Tower been national in 1982 that record might have gone gold in a year.  Same with the X debut album, Los Angeles.  We were told that Damaged was in the unpublished lower “bubbling under” reaches of the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart which they tabulate down to 250.  The early Sire punk album releases of the late seventies/early eighties had a hard time cracking the top 100 and I bet none of those sold 45,000 copies in any one city.