TIME FOR MORE OF ED HUERTA’S
HE‘ART “N” SOUL
Welcome to Ed Huerta’s
He‘Art “N” Soul. This is the 4th installment here on Jackaboutguitars.com. If you are new to this column, then a little introduction is in order. It’s not at all about the interviews with the megastars of music. This column sheds some light on some very talented people that you may not recognize by name. These musicians need their stories told as much as the Clapton’s of the world. So kick back and relax for a few minutes. I truly appreciate you and please enjoy as I delve into the stories of these artists’ music and what they have to say. – Ed Huerta
This profile is about a man that should be a household word amongst musicians; guitarists especially. He is certainly well known in the punk rock and jazz genres. Now wait, don’t go turning off your mind because I said the “P” word. Punk rock doesn’t necessarily mean drugged out kids running around in black leather with Mohawks and razor blades embedded in their skin. That’s the old television show (see Quincy M.E.) image meant to send mom and dad scurrying into your room to throw away your Ramones and Vandals records and to discover your p*t stash that you thought you hid well.
There are several types of punk rock as there are several types of jazz or blues or rock and roll. So now that this is understood, read on and experience the man that several of his musical contemporaries have called the “Carlos Santana of punk rock”. In my opinion, this is much too limiting of a moniker.
I have witnessed guitar duels onstage with Joe Baiza and the late D. Boon of The Minutemen fame. I have seen this man throw out sonic sheets of sound ala John Coltrane. Picture if you will, a stew comprising of Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, throw in a little Andy Gill and top it off with some pepperings of the Modern Jazz Quartet and some dissonant chordal creations all in a Meters style funk! Now that’s cooking! And this, folks, is what Joe Baiza is all about.
The first time I saw Joe perform was about 1982, maybe 1983, with Saccharine Trust at the legendary, now defunct Cathay de Grande in Hollywood. I believe Black Flag was on this bill also, because I remember seeing and talking to Henry Rollins and thought he was shorter in person than I imagined.
At the time, I was in a psychedelia/pop/paisley underground band called Copper 7. We hailed from comfortable Orange County. I had no idea that bands like Saccharine Trust existed or sounded like this. Punk bands were supposed to be loud, in your face, obnoxious, 2 minutes of straight ahead thrashing. Saccharine defied all of this. Yes, they had some straight ahead punk songs but the singer shouted poetry to songs that were curving all over the place and tightly too! I never wanted to play drums again after seeing them.
My band’s music seemed so contrived, so ordinary, stilted even, after witnessing this group. The guitarist looked like a serial killer and I didn’t want to even make eye contact with the guy. The singer was a possessed wild man that stalked and whirled and spouted Doors-ian style beat poems set to shimmering sheets of sonic energy.
I later became friends with both of these guys, even playing in bands with the both of them, and they are the nicest guys in the world. But in 1983, they scared the sh*t outta me! I believe Joe Baiza still scares the sh*t out of a lot of guitar players to this day. I hope this article will open up some eyes and ears to this fellow musician that continues to electrify every time he is seen on a stage performing.
This interview took place in my trusty 2001 Honda Civic on an unusually cold and windy night in Long Beach after Joe performed with his band Mecolodiacs at the Ken Huntington booked Max Steiner’s.
Mecolodiacs are a tight blend of jazz/funk and are a great, great band to catch (see videos and pix). They are one of his many musical projects that also include his main band Saccharine Trust. Joe has also done stints with Universal Congress Of, Minuteflag, October Faction, Unknown Instructors, Putanesca, and contributed to several artists records including The Minutemen, Mike Watt, not to mention his artwork has graced numerous album covers and gig posters. I found Joe to be a great interview with lots of interesting stories and laughed out loud several times during our discussion. I hope the good vibe came through on the written page…
EH: What got you interested in music?
JB: I went through different periods…when I first got into music, I was about 4 years old. I used to get up early in the morning and watch t.v. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and we had this big t.v., like a big box, like it was a piece of furniture. So I’d get up in the morning – I wasn’t in school yet and my mother was asleep still, and I’d watch like cartoon shows and “Captain Kangaroo” was on back then. Things like “I love Lucy”, then “Password” would come on and that was boring to me. I didn’t understand it (laughs). So one day my mother wasn’t awake yet and I was looking at the t.v. and there was like a drawer of some sort, a panel under the screen and I pulled it open and somehow I figured out it was a record player.
“WOW! What’s this thing?” So there were 45’s in there and I figured out how to work it and I put the 45’s on and listened to them. They had those little yellow plastic inserts and there were only like three inserts and I could play three records. We had about 15 singles. Elvis Presley, I forget which song. Johnny Cash, Prez Prado, stuff like that, from that time and I remember struggling with that little plastic insert, trying to get it in and I remember listening to that Elvis Presley record and I felt weird. It got me all excited, like jumping on the couch and stuff. It made me want to jump all around the living room. Not sure, it might have been Jailhouse Rock.
So I was kind of into music like that. So when I started going to school, my mother would listen to the radio. I guess I liked that old rock and roll so that was my first exposure. When I grew up there was a lot of great music on in the 60’s. I guess the first record I got was the first Beatles record. Everyone had the first Beatles record, Meet The Beatles. I didn’t even know who The Beatles were. I was about 12.
We used to take the bus to junior high school and one Monday morning everyone was all excited. I was sitting on the bus next to Tom Crabbe and asked what was everyone talking about, Beatles or something? He said, “Oh yeah, they were on Ed Sullivan last night.” I said, “So what? A band, I don’t get it?” “ Well, they’re a little bit different. They’re from England, they wear funny suits, and they have funny hair.” And I said, “ What do you mean funny hair??” “Well they sort of have hair like Moe Howard from The Three Stooges!” And I’m thinking WHAAAAT??!!! Guys in suits from England? With funny hair like Moe Howard from the Three Stooges?? Why is that so exciting?
EH: That’s brilliant!!!
JB: But later I sorta found out and got into British invasion stuff on KRLA, KHJ, those stations. I never bought any records, just listened to the radio. Wasn’t until I was about 17 that I bought records.
EH: Wow! that’s pretty interesting…now I was wondering, what was the first instrument you ever picked up? Was it the guitar?
JB: I wanted to play an instrument…it was the accordion. They used to have this dude that would come by everyone’s house and knock on the door like a salesman and would ask if the parents would like to give the kids accordion lessons. My parents weren’t home yet, so he opened the case up on the porch and it looked real beautiful. Then my mom came home and she said, ” Okay, let’s give it a try,” and we signed up for accordion lessons. They delivered the accordion, and it looked great; pearl thing, looked cool. The first class, the instructor said this kid isn’t cut out for this. The teacher gave up on me in the first class! My parents said,” Okay forget it, accordion’s out of the question, that’s it.”
EH: It’s certainly obvious that you have no musical talent!
JB: ( chuckles) So that was the first instrument. And later on my grandmother’s boyfriend was a trumpet player in a Latin jazz band and he’d come by all dressed up in these cool suits, cool style and stuff…thought he was the coolest guy, the way he carried himself. He was a trumpet player but I had never seen him play. One time we went out to go see him play, my parents and grandmother and me and we had to drive all the way out to Lakewood or something. It was far for me at that time.
EH: Where were you living?
JB: Wilmington…maybe it was Cerritos, some funny place way out there…and I fell asleep in the backseat during the drive. My parents went in and then I woke up when they were coming back out to the car I said, “We going in now?” They said, “No we already went in.”…They left me in the car and I missed the whole thing! Bastards! I was pissed!! I was soooo disappointed. Then when my grandmother’s boyfriend found out, I was at my grandmother’s house. He came over and he had his trumpet case and said, “Joe, I’m going to play something for you.” Wow, and he played in the living room and it was beautiful. It just reverberated in the living room. It was amazing! I wanted to be a trumpet player. My parents wouldn’t have it.
I never asked for something for so long. I asked for about a week but no they wouldn’t have it. The first time I handled a guitar, it was my father’s guitar. My father didn’t really play guitar. It was an old acoustic with f-holes. Had a great sound. I think he won it in a bet. One day I was in the backyard, I was about 11 years old or something. Just started messing around with it. I figured out how to play “Honky Tonk” by ear…figured out the blues scale…like these notes go with this.
EH: How old were you?
JB: About 11. It was like the guitar just gave itself up to me. It had this tone and this feel and it was inspiring, like the guitar was saying come on just play me. So I put the guitar away after that, but a couple weeks later, about the 4th of July, we had fireworks. Somehow I had a couple of cherry bombs. This is the stupidest thing, and I wondered if the cherry bomb would blow the guitar up. I lit the cherry bomb and put it inside the guitar and blew it up! Why did I do that? My father was all mad at me…looking back I thought it was so sad because the guitar gave itself up to me and I blew it up…It’s kinda like that’s the way my life is, I guess…that was the end of me trying to play instruments until Saccharine Trust.
EH: Was Saccharine Trust your first band?
JB: Yeah it was…before that I had some neighborhood friends about 1969, 1970. They had all the rock albums, Cream…that’s how I got introduced to it.
EH: Yeah, you had to have had something before you stepped into Saccharine Trust and to be this guy playing like you play.
JB: Yeah with these guys, I learned barre chords, then we started playing T-Rex songs and stuff, and then the drummer quit. He became a Christian. So I wasn’t very inspired to continue, so I quit too. A few years went by, then I met Jack Brewer.
EH: I remember I saw you guys at Cathay de Grande like 1981 or ’82. I was in a band called Copper 7. We were like a power pop psychedelic band and the guitarist in the band, John Hawkinson (also, The Eleventh Hour) knew Mark Hodson (bass player for S.T. at the time) and said “Come check Saccharine Trust out. You ‘ll dig it.” So we went to see you guys and it was Holy Cr*p! It was a whole other universe. My whole world collapsed.
Like, these guys are my age and they’re so advanced! I felt nauseous after the gig. It was like why am I even bothering playing music? I was seriously stunned after that show. It was one of those experiences that you see a band that was that good. So that was the first time I saw you guys and if someone told me that later I’d be in a band playing with Brewer, it would be, yeah right…
JB: Yeah when Saccharine started we could just barely play…I can still barely play. I never got over that.
EH: WHAAATT?? You really think that? You serious??
JB: Yeah man, it’s like I walk a tightrope. I’m just barely hanging in there.
EH: WOW?? You are totally amazing. Like tonight, I was thinking you are the Thelonious Monk of guitar players.
JB: Oh cool!
EH: You have the dissonance or whatever he used. You can tell when Baiza is playing guitar like you can tell when Thelonious is playing piano!
JB: Well that’s what I go for. I’m not really technical. I got a style. When Paul Lines played drums with me in Universal Congress Of said, “If people aren’t very good at technique, then they become stylists.” Oh okay, then I got style. (laughs) I’m a stylist.
EH: You’ve always had great drummers in your bands.
JB: To me the guitar is like a little drum. That’s how I like to play it.
EH: Everyone knows Baiza. Like in the late 80’s, I was in a band and the singer said to the guitarist, “Play this guitar part like Baiza.”
JB: Getting back to Saccharine Trust days, after The Obstacles, like with Rob Holzman, Earl Liberty, we started doing those Black Flag tours. Those tours built up the power of the group. We had to play hard because we were with Black Flag. We created our own hardcore sound. People knew something was going on.
EH: Well Jack (Brewer) did the poetry/lyrics and you drove the rhythmic thing. Did Jack come up with the lyrics and you did the music?
JB: Well Jack would come up with this weird Ramones type thing on acoustic guitar and he would sorta sing along with it. So I said let’s have the bass do that then I would layer something over that, like a mood overrider. I was approaching the guitar in that way. I was taking the guitar like in a non-musician perspective, like an art experiment or something. I didn’t want to rely on any kind of foundation of music or any special guitarist or style. I wanted it to come from nowhere.
EH: Right, you’re very successful at that. Now that goes hand in hand with your painting or art. Do you have a website for your art?
JB: No. I should…Someone once said in an interview that my guitar playing is like my drawing. Yeah it has that same expressiveness. The notes I play are sorta staccato and a little jaggedy, not really clear and when I draw, I draw the same way with ink. I draw with lines, sort of impressionistic: the same as the guitar notes.
EH: Your art is great!
JB: Yeah, I’d like to do more of that. Don’t have the time, but when I was in Mexico a couple months ago, I did some drawings over there. So yeah, been asked to do shows, but I haven’t gotten around to have an aesthetic focus, so been thinking about that now.
EH: I think you would draw a lot of people to one of your art shows. Oh, by the way, I read a Kurt Cobain biography and Saccharine Trust was one of his favorite bands. Did you guys ever talk about guitar playing?
JB: No, I never met Kurt Cobain. Never knew he liked us, but when we were on those tours with Black Flag, and we went to Seattle, the guys in Black Flag said a lot of people liked us there in Seattle. Yeah, we had some fans out there. I just never realized he liked us.
EH: Yeah, he called you guys out…now when you guys go to Europe, you attract people there right?
JB: We played festivals twice in England. All Tomorrow’s Parties. We went to Germany last time around. The funny thing about Saccharine Trust is they know we are around, they like the idea we are around, but they won’t go watch Saccharine! (laughs) For example, one time we had a gig in San Francisco. Can’t remember the name of the place, but there’s this little room, then the bar, and there was this dude I was talking to in the bar that was all excited that Saccharine Trust was playing. “Like I can’t believe Saccharine Trust is here. I love you guys”. So I said,”We’re about to start and he goes, “Naw, naw. I’m gonna stay here and have a few beers.” So that’s our crowd…just the way it is… (laughter all around)
EH: So let’s get into guitars…do you have a guitar collection?
JB: I play a Fender re-issue – a 1983 Stratocaster, a reissue of some 60’s model or something.
EH: So you aren’t a guitar geek?
JB: No I’m not. I only buy guitars to do the job I need to do. I got some hollow body guitars, a thin hollow body. I got a Jazzmaster that I bought on tour with Mike Watt. I think if I were to buy another guitar it would be a Telecaster. I like twangy sounds. I like the percussive thing of having the note ring, like a bell. I’m into the attack.
EH: I remember seeing you and D. Boon in a guitar gunslinger face-off at Anti-Club. Now how was your relationship with D.?
JB: Well, I was good friends with him before The Minutemen. I lived downstairs from him. Me and Jack used to rehearse, just the two of us, and we had these little amps, and one day we heard a knock on the door and I’m thinking sh*t, it’s the landlady, and I open the door and it’s D. Boon standing there going (in funny white guy voice), “Hey, hi,” and I’m thinking who the f*ck is this? He looked like a new wave guy, and he says, (in funny voice again), “I’m a musician too.” I said, “Oh yeah, I heard you playing that Who song the other day” and at the time I couldn’t understand why anyone would play The Who.
I was anti rock and roll. It was just a phase I was going through then. Then I found out he was in The Reactionaries so I thought he was cool then. We did a lot of gigs in Pedro and hung out. Then The Minutemen got more popular and we wouldn’t see much of each other. Then we both moved to L.A. and we saw each other more. It was kinda like in waves, like we’d do gigs with The Minutemen…he was busy touring…sorta like that..then he died…that was the end of that…
EH: Yeah, that was a sad day alright…Okay, well, who are some of your biggest influences or favorite musicians in music?
JB: James Blood Ulmer…like the first time I heard him it was like what the f*ck is that?? Early James Blood Ulmer, the real outside stuff. Even though I don’t play like him, it inspired me to go that free guitar style, ya know…umm, certain blues guys, like Albert Collins. I like the bite he had out of the guitar that SNAP…guys like that inspired my tone…also like horn players…not too much rock. I’m not too much of a rock and roller. I try to be, but don’t have it in me.
EH: Yeah, I don’t see you listening to the Stones or something …maybe you do. I picture you listening to Ornette Coleman, Modern Jazz Quartet or Sun Ra…
JB: I like Wayne Shorter a lot. I got into Brazilian music, then I said I got to get into rock music. So I got into hard rock, like the evolution of rock music…started to immerse myself in that so I could become more of a rocker (laughs).
EH: Yeah, well you are lumped into that punk rock category, the cut and dried three chords and stuff like that and you are far from that.
JB: Like during the Black Flag tours they were getting into metal and I just didn’t like that so they were going Dio! Yeah! and I really didn’t like that…like I gotta go outside right now.
EH: Yeah that’s punk!
JB: They were just being contrary. I don’t know, maybe they really liked Dio.
EH: Well, when I saw you guys years ago at Music Machine with Black Flag and Meat Puppets, I thought you guys were more kin with Meat Puppets, as far as experimental, trying to be different. You guys always had The Doors references thrown at you, but I never saw too much of that. You guys were always on the edge of punk rock. I never thought you guys were punk rock.
JB: Well I was always trying to push the boundaries of that, try to do something different…maybe it was too much..they go, what is this?…kinda hard to take…like the 2nd Saccharine Trust record, “Surviving You Always”. It’s a real bitter pill, that album. I can only listen to like one side then I have to take it off. It’s like a real ugly mood, like dark.
EH: It goes with that album cover (album cover photo is a black and white shot depicting a woman on the hood of a car after jumping from several stories up).
JB: Exactly, dark, twisted…It was such a time bomb in those times trying to expand that it just finally imploded. Everyone had their own interests in what they wanted to do. Saccharine today is much more compatible. We can play something old then something new. It all has a connecting thread now. I can enjoy that. I love Saccharine today. There isn’t a lot of friction between us. We just go up there, relax and play.
EH: One more question, is there any musician you would like to play with? Living or dead, it doesn’t matter…
JB: (long pause) I just feel like I don’t fit in with anyone…like walking that tightrope..like I’ll f*ck up at any moment. I don’t want to have myself playing with anyone good. It would be nice to meet some people, James Blood Ulmer, Ornette Coleman…people like that.
EH: Joe, you don’t really know how much of an influence you have on people. I have a couple friends, like dudes that are CEO’s of major companies, that play around on guitars, that think you are a guitar god! You touch many, many people. Like when you were playing with Jack Brewer Band, I was like a kid in a candy store. Like even now, musicians I play with, like Philo (Phil Van Duyne, guitarist with SWA, Fishcamp, The Extras, Jack Brewer Band, The Last), would dig on playing stuff like Baiza and for me personally to play in a band with you it was like, wow, look Ma, I’m playing in a band with Baiza!
JB: (laughs) It was fun with you guys. I like playing the rhythm with you guys. Well, when I saw you guys with Steve Reed (Carnage Asada, Legal Weapon, The Amadans, George Murillo’s Axis of Evil) on bass and the bass and drums were just soooo locked in, it was such a good groove that I thought I had to get in on that.
EH: Yeah, well that was a great time of the Jack Brewer Band playing with Steve, a total professional and he puts his heart and soul into his music. Unfortunately, I think outside things just got in the way. I just sit back there and have a blast. I’m just a fan that lucked into playing drums. Well Joe, that was a great gig tonight and thank you for your time.
JB: I’ll keep trying…Hang in there with me folks. One day I’ll get it right…Hang in there with me! (laughter)