Bands like The U-Men don’t come along often. A Seattle band at a time when the phrase “Seattle band” carried zero cultural cachet, The U-Men kitchen-sinked Gun Club rootsiness, classic garage rock ‘verb-and-twang, punk sneer, gothic darkness, and Ubu/Beefheart artiness into a single coherent sound that galvanized a hinterlands underground scene and directly influenced the grunge explosion. In the words of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm:
They were the only band that could unify the disparate sub-subcultures and get all 200 of those people to fill a room. Anglophilic, dress-dark Goths; neo-psych MDA acolytes; skate punks who shit in bathtubs at parties; Mod vigilantes who tormented the homeless with pellet guns; college kids who thought college kids were lame; Industrial Artistes; some random guy with a moustache; and eccentrics who insisted that they couldn’t be pigeonholed: all coalesced around the U-Men.
The band’s individual members, unsurprisingly, never got to reap the dividends of being influential. The bands they formed after their 1989 breakup—Gas Huffer, Love Battery, The Crows—all left variously sized marks on the ‘90s underground, but even in that indulgent period, only Love Battery ever got to grab the brass ring, and only after the lone U-Man in their lineup, bassist Jim Tillman, had already bailed. So while the bands they inspired went on to lasting repute, The U-Men remained a connoisseur’s buy. Their profile wasn’t helped by the fact that they only released one album, 1988’s Step on a Bug, somewhat after they’d receded from the height of their powers. For most of their existence, their output was limited to EPs and 7”s.
That’s being rectified somewhat by Sub Pop Records (who else, right?) who’re soon releasing U-Men, a comprehensive U-Men anthology sweetened with some previously unreleased goodies (a 1999 collection, Solid Action, contains only about half of what the new one boasts). Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt actually released the band’s first E.P on his pre-Sub Pop label Bombshelter before the band moved on to greater exposure on Homestead Records, and they even released a late-‘80s single on the then-nascent Amphetamine Reptile—that label’s notorious honcho Tom Hazelmeyer was in fact a U-Man for a whole four gigs.
U-Men guitarist Tom Price, who went on in the ‘90s to shred eardrums in Gas Huffer, took some time to talk to Dangerous Minds about the U-Men to mark the release of the new anthology.
Dangerous Minds: Something I’ve always found striking about The U-Men is how because you collided a lot of disparate ideas into one identifiable sound, descriptions of the band usually involve pretty long lists of other bands that aren’t very much alike, and everyone rattles off a different list. I’d love to know what your list is. Who were you guys into and what were you attempting to do with your music?
Tom Price: We were young, and we felt that punk rock was played out and that it was our duty as young musicians to try and do something different. I don’t know how different it really was, but we were inspired by Public Image Limited, Captain Beefheart, and later on I think a Birthday Party influence was pretty obvious. But at the same time, we were listening to all kinds of older music too, we were listening to a lot of rockabilly and surf. That was a funny thing that really struck me when I heard that stuff again—I hadn’t really listened to our music for years. And then I listened to the new test pressings, so our entire recorded output all in one sitting, and I really heard the influence of surf music, even though we didn’t do the glissandos and all that. Because in surf music the songs are at most three chords, and they stuff a lot of different melodies and voicing into that narrow context, and listening to our stuff again after all these years, I really heard that. Some of the songs would just basically be one chord, but there are lots of different strands stuffed into it. It was weird hearing it all together. There’s like three songs, I think, that were early unreleased demos. This might be a little hard to explain but it’s really strange to hear something 30 years later, and to hear your own thought process from long ago, the way you used to think about things, the way you thought songs should be written and recorded. That was entertaining for me to hear that, because we put so much effort into everything, just being young and wanting it done the way we wanted it done.
DM: So you were from Seattle way before “Seattle Scene” was a phrase on anyone’s lips. What were things there like then?
TP: There wasn’t much of a scene. Like any town about its size, there was the standard remnant of the ‘70s punk and glam scenes, a little hardcore scene, but there wasn’t really much going on. There were a few good bands, but we definitely felt a sense of isolation there for a long time. You’d read an interview with a band like say The Buzzcocks or Misfits or something like that, and they’d say “Yeah, we just did a West Coast tour,” and where did they play? L.A. and San Francisco, and that was the “West Coast tour.” Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver were all kind of off the radar, people didn’t think of it as someplace you’d go and do a show, so there was a feeling you had to move somewhere else to gain any notice, and there weren’t any regular small all-ages clubs—there was a place called the Showbox that eventually started getting bigger touring bands—but we pretty much had to do everything ourselves, renting out halls and getting a P.A., sometimes we’d steal a bunch of milk crates and get cheap plywood to build a stage. It was really DIY for a long time, everything we did, there was no infrastructure in place for any of it. Melvins were active then, Green River was playing, Soundgarden were starting around when we were winding down, and there were the Blackouts, so there were a few other weird bands, but not very many.
DM: You were around for about eight years in the ‘80s, what brought about the end?
TP: There was no real end, we just kind of petered out. A couple of the guys took jobs on a fishing trawler, I’d started a new band, and it just sort of fell apart.
DM: Seems a shame that it fell apart RIGHT before the time when the scene you helped kick off was gaining attention, though.
TP: It doesn’t bother us. By that point we had fully run our course. We could have continued but Jim Tillman, our bass player, was long gone by then. So there’s no sense of “If we’d only just stuck it out a couple more years,” really. By the time we broke up, there was no question that we had done what we were going to do.
It’s DM’s pleasure today to debut the unreleased U-Men song “Trouble Under Water.” The anthology is due to be released on November 3rd.