An Interview with John Girgus
‘Who’s Aberdeen?’ she asked, scrolling through my music.
Outside the car, Spanish moss hung over the sidewalks, lending an eerie texture to the dense Southern night. The streets were quiet, and we sat inside the car just steps from the front of her house, though neither of us really wanted her to go home… yet.
I have this theory that writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald aren’t actually all that good, they just happen to be the Stephen King or Danielle Steele of their era; remembered less because of their boundary-pushing innovation and more because they happened to be the ones who fit the formula for mass-market success. Meanwhile, one wonders what’s become of the more marginal writers of time past, and how much of the authentically great and creative writing has not survived the years.
The same can apply to music. At its best, music across all genres can be moving in the way that warm sunlight upon closed eyelids can transport you. Though how often is this the way that one feels toward Katy Perry or Imagine Dragons?
Who’s Aberdeen? Imagine that favorite album of yours of that band that no one else has heard of, that record you know inside and out, that was constantly on your record player [in this case, CD player, as neither of the band’s collections ever saw a proper vinyl release] for such a period of time that you rarely listen to it at all anymore, but which would unquestionably be in the crate if you could only take five albums with you to that hypothetical desert island.
Who’s Aberdeen? It’s hard to say, as they never were a very popular band. Not much information beyond a couple old interviews and record label bios has made its way to the internet. They emerged from a city in the Mojave Desert in the mid-1990’s, put out a couple singles on a label whose popularity overshadowed that of most of its bands, broke up, got back together to record and release an album, broke up again, then reunited sporadically for a couple more singles. At this point, they have one full length album [ 2001’s Homesick And Happy To Be Here ] and one later collection of most of the singles [ What Do I Wish For Now ].
While the internet has made old and new music infinitely easier to come across, it can’t add value to that music. What I mean to say is, the internet works for accessibility, so New York punk bands can now sound like Seattle punk bands who can sound similar to Oklahoma City punk bands, and your parents as well as your middle school niece can tell you what screamo is. But in the pre-internet era of tape trading, handwritten letters, and having an ’emo’ haircut would still get you jumped, the bands who didn’t fit into a popular genre didn’t necessarily feel the restrictions of those genres or of the Internet Age’s lowest common denominator of image and formula. However, the consequence was that many deserving bands would never become known beyond their small scene.
Who’s Aberdeen? They are jangly guitars and California sunshine imagery. They evoke the nervous anticipation of teenage crushes and break ups. They are the feeling of windows rolled down and wind in your hair; of memories of storms through nostalgia-warm filters. They were primarily two main songwriters – John Girgus and Beth Arzy. And aside from the hundreds of times I’ve listened to their songs, they are a solitary pleasure in that I’ve yet to meet another person who has ever heard of them.
Now imagine if you had the opportunity to sit down with one of those individuals who wrote those songs that have been part of the soundtrack for your own cross-country roadtrips, played loudly on porches on hungover afternoons, or provided a background for both romances and crimes. I met John Girgus in Los Angeles, where I was interested in learning about the environments and elements that inspired the music (especially those inspirations who he felt skirted the mainstream and were never given the awareness they deserved), as well as illuminating a band who remains elusive from much of today’s collective memory.
We sat in the car, in front of her house, while the album plays in the background. Starry-eyed, new. She was a bright smile, with a laugh that made the corners of her eyes squint. The Southern night suspended beyond the yellow glow of the streetlights, while melodic and tranquil storms emanated from the speakers, and a growing feeling of anticipation stirred inside that idling car. I always like to listen to my new interests’ favorite records. Tonight, she got to listen to mine.
[ interview ]
John Girgus: …I was really into Echo and the Bunnymen. This was ’89, ’90. It was harder to be cool back then, wasn’t it?
It’s funny that the experience of finding and listening to music today is completely different than what feels like just a few years ago. We take the internet for granted, but before that, you really needed some way to get ahold of music outside of what was being played on the radio or MTV. How was it that you were getting music back then?
I just ended up picking up stuff through Beth and her best friend. I was coming off stuff like punk, The Cure, and industrial shit like Skinny Puppy and Ministry, which they were also into. But at the same time, Beth had a car, and she would go to LA and go on record shopping trips. She’d buy records as stupid as Candy Flip, she’d get all the Madchester records like the Happy Mondays, and stuff like the Pale Saints, Chapterhouse and Trash Can Sinatras. KCRW was a big part of it too. They were outta Santa Monica but they had a sister broadcasting station who would pick up the signal and broadcast it in Palm Springs. This woman, Deirdre O’Donoghue had a show called Snap and she would bring all the cool bands on the air. Then around ’91 or ’92 was when Jason Bentley came on the air. He’s the program director now, but then he just had an electronic show, he would play The Orb, Bjork. We were really lucky to have that out there.
Did Palm Desert actually have a music scene then?
Totally! The bands I remember were Kyuss Band, which became Queens of the Stone Age, but they were originally called Sons of Kyuss. There was a jazz punk band called The Sort Of Quartet, they were popular, kinda like Minutemen-influenced. And then there were metal bands. Queens of the Stone Age came from the same high school as us. Josh Homme [Queens of the Stone Age singer], he and a couple other guys brought the Misfits and the Ramones into junior high, and then got the whole football team listening to Danzig. And there were the desert parties. They would just grab a generator, go out in the desert, set up, and they would have like four, five, six bands playing, and hundreds of people would be there. But it was just not my scene. I didn’t wanna drink beer in the desert, and I think most of the music, it was just crappy to me.
What was it that originally made you want to play music?
A lot of the bands that got me into pursuing music were more Cure-influenced. I was really into Echo and the Bunnymen. But it was the desert, if you started a band and you weren’t in a rock band, like Zeppelin-influenced, grunge… we got made fun of all the time.
Aside from just not playing more conventional rock music, I know on the early Aberdeen recordings, you were using a drum machine…
Yeah, you were kinda limited. You couldn’t make the sounds you wanted, so you had to work with what you had. At the same time, there was a guy named Brandt Larson, he was kind of a central figure at that time. Brandt was the type of guy you’d meet at shows, he was just into buying records, and he had an indie pop collection with everything! He and Beth were pals, and he made a tape of Sarah Records bands for Beth. Once I heard that compilation… I still have it. I don’t know if it will even play, the case is cracked. But it had the Field Mice, Brighter, Heavenly, it had Eternal. I could hear the same type of limitations, the home studios, the same kinda shit I was doing. It wasn’t like those records you listen to and you don’t even begin to understand the process. I mean, it sounded shittier than, say, a New Order record. You could tell, something about it, it was like, holy shit! It was moving. It was amazing for me to hear, me and Beth both. It seemed do-able. So I guess our recordings started out almost more actively influenced by that stuff.
I just got way into it, the Sarah stuff. It was all kinda pretty, dreamy stuff.
So Sarah Records put out a lot of the bands that are the ones that kinda created what now is called indie pop, but that term didn’t even exist when they were around. But they were a pretty influential label in that whole style of music, how did it happen that you went from listening to their bands to them putting out your records?
Beth is one of those people who, when she likes what somebody does, she actively finds them, she’ll talk to them, she seeks them out. She started up a letter-writing correspondence with Matt Haynes, the [Sarah Records] label owner. She’s articulate, you know, so he said, ‘yeah, send over whatever.’ So she sent the Aberdeen demo. It was a shameful demo. Remember that band, Prong? We knew a dude who worked at Rhino Records in Claremeont at the time, and he had a box of Prong tapes, so we took them, and just did the tape over thing, and sent the tape.
Sarah almost has this cultish popularity of its own today, even though they stopped putting out records not long after they released your singles, right?
Yeah, absolutely. To me it’s always strange to meet anyone who knows about Aberdeen who’s not a huge Sarah fan. It’s usually the other way around. It was like Sarah took indie pop and they just focused on that. And they had that whole thing where they put out a hundred releases and then stopped. We were amongst like the last eight records they put out.
It’s strange now thinking about media before the internet. But if you weren’t a mainstream band, then zines and magazines were some of the few outlets for people hearing of you. And I know not much on Aberdeen from then has carried over onto the internet.
Under the Radar did like a two-page interview. And LTM has their bio. You’re right, there’s nothing much. The Wikipedia is like… yeah, it’s there… I’m not gonna correct it.
I want to talk about something that is pretty well-known about you guys, and that was the relationship between you and Beth, and how the volatility seemed to be a constant presence throughout the band.
Yeah, it’s a bummer in retrospect because it’s good music, you know? And that’s the part I like. I used to think it was kinda cool, like it was just part of some band myth we could cultivate, but that shit just stinks. Look at the Jesus and Mary Chain; everyone just got so sick of their bickering after a while. The only thing they wanted from the Jesus and Mary Chain were Jesus and Mary Chain songs, that’s it. At some point it just is not flattering to them at all to be doing all this bickering.
Ultimately, that sounds like that’s what led to the band splitting?
I would love nothing more than to be involved in a consistent project. This is something I’ve wanted for my entire time in music.
I’ve done a bunch of weird shit you would have no idea about. I’ve had projects I do just for fun, if I need something for TV licensing. And I’ve been recording or producing for other bands. But I’ve just wanted to be part of something that has a good amount of consistency.
I feel like in spite of the tumultuousness of the band, you ended up putting out some amazing music, but for whatever reason, it seems like it didn’t get the recognition that it deserves. I wanted to ask you about the bands that have influenced you, though who you feel never found the attention they deserve. Were there bands that you felt really fell under-appreciated in the way they were remembered?
I mean, yes and no. Because most of the things I love that are not popular… I understand why they’re not popular. Kitchens Of Distinction were a great example. Oh, they’re so good. They kinda came out around the shoegaze era, it was a three-piece. One guitarist just made all the noise, it was prettiness with like 80 pedals, and really articulate lyrics, really poetic. Way beyond the slick gimmickry of shoegaze… which is why they’re not popular. There were bands who were popular but whose popularity didn’t hold up for some reason. Like the Primitive Radio Gods, nobody really references them now.
On the flip side, the whole Sarah Records thing, that’s been going on for like twenty years now. I mean, with the internet, Facebook has been crazy in spreading this. The big thing back in LA when Aberdeen was playing was the Jabberjaw scene. This is pre-Nirvana, there were bands like Slug and Unsane, Unwound. People still like those bands, but I feel like the indie pop thing is just bigger, it’s really kept people longer, and it’s spawned more imitations, in a good way. Belle and Sebastian came out in like 95. Camera Obscura, Best Coast, they’re all indie pop-influenced. I know The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart are big Sarah fans. It’s pretty significant, it shows that it’s like a musical movement. But something I liked about the music is, to me, when I first heard it, it sounded timeless, it ages well.
It’s interesting that you mention timelessness, because that’s definitely something I notice – often when it’s missing from the pop music you hear today. It’s also interesting because I feel like Aberdeen’s music definitely has a lot of timeless qualities to it, was this something that any of you noticed or felt back when you were writing it?
I mean, we weren’t popular at all. It’s weird because it could almost appear that we were. We were on a TV show.
Getting to be on an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer seems like it would be the climax of being in a band to begin with, how did that come about?
I almost don’t want to tell you the real story because it’s not that awesome. It won’t make us look like TV stars. Do you know who Fonda is? They’re an indie pop band from here in LA. The Buffy music supervisor is friends with Dave Klotz from Fonda and asked them to be on the show. Beth is a huge, huge Buffy fan. Dave was like, ‘we can’t do it. Maybe ask Aberdeen, they might be able to do it.’ So I called Beth, and I was like, ‘look, if you fly back over here, you’re gonna be on Buffy.’ It worked.
I almost feel like of the few Aberdeen fans there are, there’s two different sorts. There’s the Sarah Records fans, and there’s the fans that found us on Buffy. Buffy had just rabid fans who would find any piece of music that was in the show, and document it on websites, catalog it and have to have all of it.
I know by this point, the band was in LA rather than Palm Desert. What caused you to pick this city over any other?
Beth, really. It was because she was immediately accessible here. Like I literally moved into her place in North Hollywood. We got a couple of places and then broke up because of it. I’d actually moved to Pomona first. I lasted like two months there, and was like, ‘what am I doing here?…’ LA was just where things were happening.
How did it feel, musically, to come to LA after putting these records out and existing in a smaller town and scene? Was there any feeling that it was oversaturated in a place like LA?
There wasn’t really anybody doing what we were doing. There were three or four bands. But the bad thing for us was that there was no place to play. There was Hell’s Gate, we never did play Club Lingerie. Those were mostly heavy metal venues. And we’d usually be paired up with a heavy metal band, or something like it. So if you’re the heavy band playing a show with, let’s say a polka bill, then that’s gotta be fun, feeling like, ‘oh my god! [laughs] What is this?’ But if you’re the sissy band on a punk bill… they don’t like you. [laughs] That’s how we always were. We were always afraid to tour for that reason.
So you moved to LA to continue playing music, what were your goals with playing music around that time? Did you have any image in mind of what you were hoping to acocmplish?
I really didn’t have any. I mean, I thought that I wanted to do it, like, for real. I think I was just really afraid for a long time to admit that or verbalize that as a goal of the music. I feel like back then, I didn’t know what was possible. I didn’t know anything about anything! But then, it was a totally different world too. I mean, you had indie, and we were lucky, we found a place in that. But as we were getting started, it didn’t even exist too much. There weren’t a ton of labels where you could press your own seven inch.
I knew when I first started playing guitar that I wasn’t proficient, that I wasn’t going to be playing in Nashville like my Grandma wanted. She’d say, ‘if you get good enough, you’ll make it to Nashville,’ and I was like, ‘that’s not happening, Grandma.’
If it wasn’t for track recording, I would not be able to make music. If I was a dude back at the birth of rock and roll, I’d just have a day job, that’s all there is to it. There’s some good home-recordings, I just don’t know if I would’ve had the imagination to keep pushing it by myself.
So you and Beth broke up, and that pretty much put an end to the band. At this point, you had put a few singles out. But the album came out a few years later. And there being that constant volatility between Beth and you, how did the Homesick album come about?
It came out five years later. I remember running into Beth at a Saint Etienne show in LA with a friend of ours, only her and this friend weren’t friends anymore but I was friends with this friend of hers. I was rarely drunk back then, but that night I was like blind drunk, so we got into an argument at Saint Etienne, and I got the spins really bad and left. I ended up passing out in the bushes behind the Roxy. Somehow we apologized after the incident. It was some sort of recognition of the incident and embarrassment and apologizing. I think we were done fighting for a bit. And, I don’t know, as much as I say she doesn’t want to do it, she keeps coming back. She’s the constant reluctant musician.
So she hadn’t moved to England at this point?
She lived here, but she was seeing an English guy. So we started making the record. When we were about to finish the record, we’d finished all of her parts, she tells us she’s moving to England. About the same time, Matt Haynes from Sarah told her that Annemari had just left Trembling Blue Stars and said, ‘you should go and sing with Trembling Blue Stars.’
So amidst all this, the album comes out and musically, it sounds like a much more fully-developed style than the singles. Seeing the process now, is there anything specific that you would change if you could go through that time again?
I could do everything differently. I would make sure everything worked. I would use everything I know now to counter everything I did at the time. It’s tough, it was a weird time. The early days… I was just a stupid kid making dumb decisions. Even Beth, we’d fight on stage, stuff that was totally reprehensible, stuff that if I ever saw any band I was hanging out with do, I would just be like, ‘you guys are losers, you need to get it together,’ you know?
Is there any part of you that thinks that you were only able to write the music that you did because of that tension between the two of you?
Maybe you could argue that that’s why it’s good. But the only thing I really got from that sort of tension was getting pissed off. Maybe, the type of people that we are, if she wasn’t as crazy as she is, and I wasn’t as crazy as I am, we would never have come up with that. If we weren’t the same people, we wouldn’t have fought, but then maybe we wouldn’t have thought anything good up.
And at this point, you’ve been a part of a lot of different aspects of the music scene – recording and producing other bands, creating music for film and TV, and playing in a few other bands over that course of time as well – when you look at those early days, writing those songs, and the fact that Aberdeen has been a recurring part of your life, how do you feel about them?
You gotta start somewhere, so I guess in that regard, it was good. I feel super lucky. But that said, I kinda quit music for four years after the first breakup. I know a lot of musicians who go through a weird period of withdrawing from music for a while. I guess I’m lucky it happened when I was really young, I got it out of the way.
It’s funny, I never really write lyrics. In a really abstract way, the song, Florida, was supposed to be about quitting the band.
But you’re still playing music – how have the goals changed? How are the challenges different now?
I just try to keep playing. Part of the goal is just to keep working. Getting to produce records with people is a dream. But this town is a really tight-knit scene, and I’ve been a part of it for a really long time. Lately I’ve been trying to stay away from it, to try stuff that people actually hear, not just the same 30 people or so. And I’d like to be able to get back into making music for myself, for the sake of enjoyment, that didn’t necessarily have any real relevance, but you have to be able to afford that, either with a job or with some success. I just keep making ridiculous sacrifices for music. If it wasn’t for that, I’d probably be ahead. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but I do know that I haven’t been able to help it.
A selection of John Girgus’ solo material, often attributed to The Legendary House Cats, can be found here.
Browse Aberdeen’s physical catalog on Discogs.
or head to KWNKradio.org to listen to Nocturnal Transmissions and other freeform programming for the Reno area.
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