VP: So What attracted you to be a musician?
SM: My Mom, Elle Vance, was a professional piano-bar-style entertainer. She knew how to play 2000 songs and could fake it if necessary. Mad Angus mackay, on my Dad's side; Queen Victoria's Bagpiper and much more we won't talk about now. Was it the plastic Emenee sax when I was 6? The Stan Getz and "Birth of Cool" records my Mom had? Was it late '50's pop radio with a tenor sax solo on every song? Was it my teacher, Warren Faulkner, or Ed Ryder who helped me learn to improvise? What about Choas, Inc, our High School Band?
I loved to play all kinds of music and it was inevitable. Going to Ann Arbor sealed the deal.
VP: So basically it was in your blood. Who where you playing with in Ann Arbor?
SM: When I first got there to go to College of Architecture and Design at U of Michigan in the fall of 1967, my father and step mother requested that I wait at least a semester before I got in a band, but it was about 5 days before I ended up in one!
Went to the local Head Shop and was informed Billy C. and the Sunshine was looking for another horn player. Ended up playing 5 nights a week playing blues at Clint's Club on the one-block strip that functioned as A Squared's nexus of the Black Community. When we played, it was cool for white folk to go there. It's where I met Commander Cody, who was doing the frat gigs with a weird circus of performers. Get back to the Dorm at 2 am and ready to deal with 6-8 as studio classes; somehow I managed. I was only 18. Billy C. and Company were a regular part of many shows at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. Billy C. quit the band New Years Eve 1967 and led the formation of The Charging Rhinoceros of Soul. Otis Redding Songs and the like, even read charts!
Had a job (Iggy Pop's old job) at Discount Records by the campus, quit Charging Rhino, and hooked up with High School bud Marc Lampert to form Carnal Kitchen. Originally played Drums and Sax, but it was sort of like the Pied Piper; folks that wanted to improvise to a jazz/rock beat kept showing up. Nobody else seemed to be doing that, and we ended up playing in the Parks with the MC5, Parliment/Funkedelic, etc. on Acid -Drenched Sunday afternoon summers of '69.
Saw the early version of the Stooges and became friends with Jim, AKA Iggy. He was in the front row at CK's first high profile show. I was impressed! A few months later he asked me to come over to Stooge Manor. He already had the song "Funhouse" waiting for me. Did a few local gigs with them and was then informed by the crew that I was going to LA with them to record!
The rest is History, but by October, everything had gone to Smack Hell and I was gratefully fired.
Got my job back at the record store, but pals Carnal Kitchen said I had to learn a bunch of Charted Jazz Standards. Took a while, but I did! We broke up after local successes and then I fell in with the Mojo Boogie Band. Jim Tate and Bill Lyn. We had a regular gig Tuesday nights at Flick's Bar, where we jammed with Bob Seger (he wanted to sign us but we wouldn't fire our drummer). This all led to 5 years with them and eating a lot of flour chapatis with peanut butter until we finally became a regional force to be reckoned with.
Finally the break up of my relationship and disagreements about the direction the band should take led me to the Bay Area, where I knew the guys from Commander were. A wise choice as it turns out, as I ended up in Bill Kirchen's Moonlighters, playing Country and Western Swing. A unique gig for a sax man!. Soon there after we were back with Cody and more Carnal Kitchen in the Bay Area.
VP: So by this time in the early '70's, you've built up quite a resume; longer then most. Commander Cody took you to New Jersey where the band had a good size following. What albums did you do with Cody and how did this lead you to play with the Violent Femmes?
SM: Cody and I co-produced "Lose it Tonight" (1980?) on Line Records. It was released in Germany and Yellow Vinyl USA product of the same name on Peter Pan Records (a kid's label out of New Jersey).In 2000, Q Records(USA) put out "Commander Cody Live at Gilley's" on CD, where I sing 2 of my songs, "Going to Hell" and "Goin' to New Jersey" (from 1982?). CD of the first record also exists. I have a copy somewhere.....
Got burnt out from touring. Quit touring and got a job pumping sludge at SF Sewer Plant, but hooked up with Snake Finger's "History of the Blues" as well as his "Men in Blue" and "Disc Jocks" as well as playing with Mitch Woods and the Rocket 88's(40's-50's jump boogie), and the wonderful Ibbilly Bibbily Experimental Pinhead Band.
Was actually making a living playing music in SF! It was during this time, Spring of '83, that I got a call from Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes. He had gotten my number from a friend in Wisconsin. Went right to the sound check at the legendary I-Beam and it was love at first note!
Come November of '83, went to Europe with Snake Finger for a tour (recorded live shows for "History of the Blues" on Rough Trade, Deutschland), then stayed in Amsterdam for a few months, playing all over the Netherlands with the Rex Reason Blues Band, an old friend from U of Michigan days with a Dutch back up band. Also had them back me up as Steve Mackay's Carnal Kitchen for a few shows. Was in contact with the Violent Femmes. They wanted me to come to NYC to record on "Hollowed Ground", but that didn't work out. They got John Zorn instead, but when they came to Europe I did a few shows with them in Holland and Belgium. They got word that a backup musician had to cancel their up coming US tour, so they invited me along. A lucky break as I had worn out my welcome with my Dutch hosts!
Toured the States and Europe with them as a full-time member until December '84 when I burned out again and went back to SF. Ended up in a relationship with someone who didn't want me touring, and became an electrician for 15 years, but still would sit in with the Femmes when they came to town, and a few West Coast Tours with them as well. Also a few years playing NorCal with another version of Carnal Kitchen. In 1998 got in a much better and supportive relationship that continues to this day! Femmes kept using me on the West Coast and even took me to South Africa! What a trip.... Sorry the had to break up, but I understand.
VP: During that 15 year hiatus, you met Marlon and Grady from Liquorball and subsequently got hooked up with Temple of Bon Matin and the Radon Collective. This has led to collaborations with experimental musicians Zu from Italy to recording with Grails and Koonda Holaa; as well as bands in Turkey and across the US and Europe. How have these collabs effected you as an artist? Do you still see a common link between the underground of today and from the experimental days of the '60's and '70's?
SM: Absolutely! A lot like the stuff we where doing with the first Carnal Kitchen ("Death City" on Radon from '69). Noise with a beat and references to Jazz and Rock that those hippies (like us!) loved to trance and dance to in the park on Sundays and at those rallies to Free John Sinclair NOW! I feel we were an influence and delighted to see where it's going as well as so happy to be involved with all of this new generation. Must say that Iggy is a big fan of my album "Michigan and Arcturus", which includes many of the folks you mentioned in your question.
VP: It must feel ironic that the smallest part of your career was the few songs you played on"Funhouse", yet that's what your most noted for. Suddenly you guys have a huge audience. How does it feel to be working with them again after so long?
SM: For years I would mention "Funhouse" etc. in my homemade press releases, but it hardly mattered. It wasn't till the late '90's that younger folks started introducing themselves as fans. This also manifested itself with Ron and Scott (Ashton) as Jay Mascis went on tour with a Stooges tribute. I sat in with them, and (Mike) Watt in SF in 2001 (?). Pop got wind of all this and figured it was time to "Put the Band Back Together", something he had resisted for years. "Skull Ring" also gave it a further push.
He called me in 2003 about "Coachella", first time I had talked to him in 30 years, and at that time it was a one-off that led to all of this now. We are certainly older and hopefully wiser, but a lot of the good part and quirks of personality haven't changed. I feel closer then ever to them and also am delighted to have Watt as a close friend.
I treasure every show and flight and hotel because it won't last forever and it's great to have already gotten 5 years into and out of, this amazing trip. I feel pretty fucking fortunate to be in this position. There are a lot of folks with more talent than me who never get this far....
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Since this interview took place in 2008, Ron Ashton has past away. RIP.