Destroy All Monsters
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SUE RYNSKI
Destroy All Monsters, with Ben Miller’s psychedelic saxophone work, was a helluva group. While the band was created in 1973, Ben Miller joined in 1977. It was during this time the group would record and release the "Bored / You’re Gonna Die” 7" single.
How did you join Destroy All Monsters?
Cary Loren had asked me to do some recordings late summer '76 — I guess to document his songs, playing lead guitar over his chords. This was when Mike and Jim had left for L.A. Cary and I recorded on my 1/4" Sony tape deck. Nothing came of it, really, though I think there is a song included on the Ecstatic Peace! 3-CD box set (1994). I was seriously disillusioned about music at the time, considering a move to the East Coast to learn piano tuning and possibly earn a living. Working in restaurants had lost its charm. Music in the '70s was filling up with a gigantic commercial warp. At this time, I was recording my notated compositions that used 20th century-like alto sax and electric guitar, or experiments in sound collage. For example: manipulated sound effects records, a track of tennis shoes spinning in a dryer, and voice run through MXR foot pedals.
Tennis shoes in a dryer sounds really far out.
I was also playing with EMPOOL, a psych-noise improv group that my twin bro Laurence was leading. A lot of it was open improvisation over pre-recorded stereo tapes. There were some great moments and a host of odd musicians. It was that band that Cary and Niagara's next version of Destroy All Monsters (or DAM) merged with. In my opinion, the first month or two of that merging was the highlight of DAM’s creative spell. There was an edge to the sound with Cary sharing vocals, other musicians switching from instrument to instrument; Andre Synkin, Pat Powers, and my saxophone ran through MXR pedals; the Blue Box and the envelope filter, with Lar using an Echoplex and Electroharmonix-triggered filter — more adventurous, art-conscious, less heavy “Detroit” sounding.
Where did you guys play?
EMPOOL played in Ann Arbor basements and a couple party concerts. There was no venue to play this kind of music at that time — the original DAM lineup ran into the same problem. At that time, cover bands ruled the bar scene and Boogie-woogie music had taken over the revolutionary aspects of the ‘60s music scene. Sonic’s Rendezvous frequented Second Chance, but they sounded mainstream to me, and due to the deterioration of the ‘60s momentum, did not have the sociopolitical support that the MC5 had a few years earlier.
Did any of your contemporaries influence you during this time?
When I try to think of an answer to this question, I am stumped at the multitude of musicians and artists who have influenced me. There are just so many, all of which are very important. It is a long list that includes the British Invasion, the psych-rock movement, fusion-prog, jazz, 20th-century composers, electronica, and all that. I was saddened to hear Syd Barrett, György Sándor Ligeti, and Gene Pitney all passed away in the same year.
Do you listen to a lot of music these days?
No. I find that I dislike music more and more each passing year. It is extremely annoying that our society feels it necessary to have music everywhere we go: the supermarket, cafés, airplanes, restrooms… fucking everywhere. They are just advertisements killing the creative spirit forcing sheeple to think of art in terms of popularity, consumerism, and profit. Anyway, I have too much in my head, trying to get that down on paper or on tape or hoping to figure out a new way to present a performance. Occasionally, a band will strike me, and I am surprised by it, for example: The Knife, Zach Hill, the recent Scott Walker or Wire’s latest release. Most of the cool new groups I am exposed to actually come from my children! They keep me tuned in.
How did you play onstage?
I saw the original DAM line-up once at a party. It didn't move me much. As for the art-punk version, I felt there were way too many lead guitar solos. Improvisation (as I knew it) was not a part of the band.
And you joined the group with your brothers?
I joined DAM along with Laurence, and Roger played drums for the first two gigs. We three have been playing together in groups since we were preteens. Last year, we did a SPROTON LAYER reunion. It was a joy.
- and Ron Asheton?
Ron was a good guy, and he was open to erratic song structure and unconventional guitar chords that I would sometimes use in songs I wrote for DAM. He would try to get me to open up my sax sound. I think he wanted more of a Steve MacKay approach, but I played alto — not tenor — and was more interested in playing in a linear fashion. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis '70s fusion LPs. I think Ron was right, though, a heavier onslaught of sax frequencies would have been more fitting.
Who else did you come into contact with at that time?
We played with Peru Ubu a lot in Cleveland, at first. That was a fun time with the band, our first few months — lots of positive energy, very exciting. Later, we did a number of shows with The Ramones — loved that band! Opening up for Devo in Akron, Ohio was a highlight. We also played at Max's Kansas City for two nights in '78. Stiv Bators knew Lar and I were into Eno and told us to go meet him at the front door where he was doing autographs, but once we got downstairs we sort of just thought, ‘Well, this is silly.’ It was said Fripp was in the audience listening in on our set. Later, Stiv begged the band to stay a third night to do a benefit for the Dead Boys drummer who recently went into the hospital for knife wounds. Unfortunately, some of us in the band had straight jobs and had to return right away.
How was recording “Bored” after all that?
Rather boring, actually. The Die/Bored session took hours and hours. Each track was done a gazillion times.
You preferred performing live to being in the studio?
Playing live, in the studio, for an agent, just for your friends, or as a music video… it’s all a bit different — the sense of awareness. When I play live, the vibe is all about immediacy. In the studio it is all about capturing that immediacy, making it happen. It’s tricky because one needs to pretend they are not in a studio to find that connection, the spontaneity, whether it is spontaneous improvisation or just making sure the energy is in top form for the delivery of a song. I like all forms of performance, which of course includes recording.
How was playing City Club and Bookie’s Club, the CBGB of Detroit?
Yes, you could say Bookie’s was the CBGB of Detroit. As a rather shy guy who was honestly more interested in free music, found sound, and post-psychedelic use of electronics, the whole punk scene stance was a bit daunting. The best aspect of the movement was that suddenly musicians of all kinds could play original music publicly! That was the primary revolution, along with a good “fuck you” to arena rock and the dreaded never ending guitar solos and useless “jamming.” That said, Ron was notorious for his lead guitar solos. Anyway, some of the bands and the general punk scene I really liked, and some I did not care for — especially the negative downer side of rock clubs. As exciting as it all seemed, there were many nights that simply were not fun.
Do you still talk to Niagara?
I haven’t talked to Niagara in years. Looking back on her singing, I like the way she originally did it. You know, the way Kim Gordon copied when Sonic Youth first started out — like "I Love You But You’re Dead" or "TH Queen." The early DAM songs carried over to the early art-punk version. As for her art, I enjoy her hand-drawn black ink works best, like the original front cover of the "Die/Bored" 45rpm.
How about Mike Kelley?
I actually never spent time with Mike. I'm not sure what I think about his artwork. Our most frequent communications were through MySpace a few years back.
What is it like playing at a venue like Trinosophes now? What kind of music will you be playing there?
It was good to play there — great place, very supportive. I performed solo using my multiphonic guitar. That's what I’ve been focusing on since the ‘90s. The sound is more about texture and shape, and feels more like painting to me than making music: a combined cerebral, visceral, dissonant ambience. No chords. No melodies.
Is there anything on the current scene that strikes you as good?
There is no such thing as a current scene anymore. It's beyond fractured. When I was a kid, it was rare if you owned an electric guitar, let alone knew how to play one. Now we have the Internet. You see everyone sitting down on the bus, or the subway, or in a café, and the first thing they do is pull out their iPhone or MP3 player or laptop or all three and plug in. There are both good and bad points to this, of course, but that is The Scene now. And, you don't have to go anywhere to be a part of The Scene. So in a sense, The Scene is nowhere. To an extent, live performance is becoming a thing of the past. Why go anywhere when it is so easy to experience live performance on YouTube in the privacy of your own personal universe? However, to answer your question on current music, bands, subgenre mutations, etc., yes, there is a lot of amazing stuff out there. Lots of it. For the artist, it's finding out how to get peoples’ attention in an attention-deficit-over-saturated hypermedia reality — that is the real issue.
What was your relationship with Thurston Moore, and the story behind him releasing the DAM compilation?
I don't know Thurston, personally. When it was released I was quite surprised. I had no idea I was on some of the material until later.
Did it bring up any good memories from that period?
Falling madly in love, even if it was for no more than a month. And no, it was not Niagara.