If you could put together a fantasy league band the same way you can a baseball team, who would you choose bring the noise? In a sense, that was the question confronting poet/vocalist/saxophonist Dan McGuire when he floated the idea for Unknown Instructors to his friend, the eternally-touring Mike Watt. McGuire wanted to combine his spoken word with improvisational music. And wasn’t he surprised when Watt brought his fellow Minuteman George Hurley on board to play drums, as well as the guitar genius of Joe Baiza. That’s right — the rhythm section of the Minutemen and the guitar player from the legendary Saccharine Trust. The collaboration has yielded two incredible records: The Way Things Work, released in 2005, and The Master’s Voice in 2007 — two records that push the outer edges of the sonic envelope. The Master’s Voice also features David Thomas of Pere Ubu and a brilliant little foray into word-jazz by the renowned artist Raymond Pettibon.
Granted, we’re living in the age of the reunion tour. Even the world of punk rock has experienced this putrid phenomenon. You know that these guys could have gotten by regurgitating Minutemen or Saccharine Trust songs. But instead they have opted to create some of the most challenging sounds I’ve heard in a long time. Kudos to the essential Smog Veil Records for putting this material out into the world. I had the pleasure of chatting with Dan McGuire and Joe Baiza over two days in early July. This is how they described the Unknown Instructors experience.
Let’s start with your words. I did my homework on you guys and almost all of the reviews I’ve read of your work compare you to the Beat poets. I don’t hear the Beats in your work — why does everyone want to pigeonhole you? Or am I completely wrong, and are you the ghost of Kerouac’s past?
That’s funny, because I was just down the street talking to a friend of mine about this. A guy had written a review about the last record [The Way Things Work] and he ended up getting ahold of me. I asked him, what’s with this Beat poetry bullshit? (laughter) It seems weird that you want to talk about the poetry, because it does get so pigeonholed, and I asked him, why did you say that? And he just said, “Because I’m lazy and it’s shorthand.”
That’s exactly what I was thinking. I think listeners and critics hear poetry and music put together and say “Beats.” It is a shorthand. It’s a simplistic thing that we throw out whenever we’re confronted by something that works this way.
Well let me ask you this, why do you think that’s the case?
Personally, I don’t think it works that way. My background is in African-American history.
Right on, I’m an English teacher.
Yeah, so I hear Langston Hughes and Charles Mingus together, but I don’t immediately think “Beatniks.” (laughter) And I’m from Ohio — I know you’re from Toledo — and when I was growing up I knew a lot of poets…
Like James Wright?
James Wright and…
Philip Levine from Detroit?
Of course, Phil Levine. His work is widely anthologized. And there was a filmmaker, Tony Buba, from [the Pittsburgh area] who makes really interesting documentaries about the working-class. A lot of the stories you tell remind me of his work. And there was a labor publication back in the ‘70s and ‘80s out of Detroit called Labor Notes. They used to publish the work of folks they called “shop-floor scribes.” It was poetry, but it was also just daily observations from blue-collar people.
It’s refreshing just to know you know who James Wright is. At least I won’t have to read any Bukowski references in this piece. (laughter)
Let’s talk about how your experiences in Toledo have influenced your writing. If you eschew those Beat influences, how have your surroundings influenced you?
Well, I think it’s very industrial. I admire people who talk about having a job and having to work for a living. A lot of the people I admire talk about the industrial sights and sounds that I am familiar with. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who plays in the band Fuzzhead from Cleveland and he was telling me how much he likes dilapidated buildings and parking lots, and I do, too.
Maybe this is tangential to what we’ve been talking about, but there is a history of spoken word and rock music in the Midwest. I’m thinking about Wayne Kramer and the MC5, their late period stuff. And yet spoken word and improv also get lumped — fairly or unfairly — into the free jazz camp. What do you lean towards — the rock side or the jazz side of the equation?
Okay, how do I explain this? I had been recording stuff with local musicians. But I was also friends with Mike [Watt] having met him through shows and hanging out, and we had sent poems back and forth. And I had been working with some local guys, and when I would say, “just jam,” they would look at me like I was crazy. They wanted me to kind of script it out. So I got a hold of Mike and asked him if he wanted to collaborate on something, and once he said “yeah,” I asked, what about George [Hurley] and Joe [Baiza]? (laughter) They were ready and willing to do it — but it wasn’t a fleshed-out idea. I actually paid for the first record [The Ways Things Work] myself and didn’t have any worries about — I figured I’d put it out myself. But I sent it to Frank [Mauceri] at Smog Veil and he said, “Yeah, I’ll put it out,” no questions asked.
That record turned out to be a little more jazzy just by default because we got in a room and recorded in one day. This latest album [The Master’s Voice] I really wanted to be harder edged. The first time we recorded, everyone sort of danced around each other. There’s a lot of history between them. They kept tiptoeing around each other and asking me, “What do you want us to do?”
Joe and I worked really hard on the first album, and he and I got to know each other quite a bit better. I actually went to England with Saccharine Trust. They had a gig and they called and said they needed a roadie, or a merch dude, do you want to go with us? And I said sure. Joe and I developed a friendship, and I was able to press him really hard — I told him, “Look, I put together this rhythm section for you to go fuckin’ berserk over, and I want you to do so!” (laughter) It took a lot of convincing to get him to really let loose, but that’s what I wanted, this overbearing rock [sound].
You really can hear the evolution from the first record to the second. The thing that strikes me about that story is that, coming back to this super-group thing, these guys were SST legends but were still drawn to the jazzy stuff. You can hear it in the Minutemen and certainly fIREHOSE, and also the later Saccharine Trust stuff. But hearing that you had to really prod them to unleash is pretty striking.
Well, it was funny too when David Thomas [of Pere Ubu] came in. Frank [of Smog Veil Records] flew him in from Britain just to do this album and he was all “geeked up” about working with Mike. Watching him work, he just dove into it headlong. He was completely prepared — full-bore into doing his own idiosyncratic thing, and his enthusiasm…well, I think it had a lot to do with goosing them up and getting them to cut loose. That was completely impressive to me because I really had to do some coaxing to get them into it.
I brought in [record producer] Joe Carducci. We’d been talking, and he said, “I like your Jamnation record [Dan’s solo project] better than the first Unknown Instructors [record].” And I said, fair enough, so do I. And the reason was it rocked harder. So I told Joe, you need to come in here and finesse these dudes into rockin’ harder for me. You know them all well, and you’re into the harder rock stuff.
Basically, the first time I was in charge of making sure nobody was in charge. (laughter) No one wanted to tell anybody what to do. And that led to kind of a “loose” thing. I wanted it more tightly wound. The sessions were intense the second time. There were some conflicts — not with the guys in the band, but with the engineer and guys being late. Anyway, there were some bad vibes, some real tension in the air. So the second day of recording I drank about a pint of whiskey before we went in, and I was like, “Look, I like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, and I’m not going to apologize, and I want something similar to that.”
How did Ray Pettibon get involved?
He’s Mike’s best friend. And Mike said, “Hey, Ray should come down and do something.” And I was like, sweet! (laughter)
That song is just crazy [“Twing-Twang,” track five on The Master’s Voice, featuring Pettibon’s vocals].
He’s a very interesting dude. When he first comes over he’s very introverted and sideways. We took a walk to the liquor store and we got to talk, and he just totally snapped into talking normal stuff. I got the feeling that there are so many people who always want something from him that he puts up a wall. But he was a nice and really pleasant guy.
Are those his [lyrics] or yours?
Those are his words. He had this huge folder full of stuff and he started going through it. We actually ended up recording enough for a third album, and Ray did some really amusing stuff that wasn’t on The Master’s Voice. When we all heard [“Twing-Twang”], we were all just like, wow, that’s just wonderful; that’s dead on the money. Everybody in the studio just knew. That’s a classic.
So, ultimately, what is your inspiration for these two records? What drove you to say, “I want to make this experimental, improv record?” You could have done another Jamnation record, but instead you’ve done something that is really out there. And you had these punk pioneers who could’ve done some sort of reissue. But instead it’s so new.
We just had the opportunity. And these guys were so interesting and engaged. You listen to Saccharine Trust — I wanted to use an album like World Broken as a template for that first album. But be that as it may, I think the fact that it’s so non-commercial annoys the hell out of some people. It’s not the Minutemen, and that bums some people out. To them it’s sort of a missed opportunity. But we had this great chance to make something we really wanted to make. I’m really proud of it and I’m excited that there’s more coming.
Let’s start with the affinities that the Unknown Instructors records have with many of your projects — especially late period Saccharine Trust. Dan and I talked about how World Broken was a sort of template for him. You’ve come back periodically to these more free-form musical stylings. What is it that attracts you to this kind of music?
When I first started to play guitar it was an interest I had, and I guess I have this fascination with abstraction as a way of organizing sound at the moment. Mixing that with other kinds of music I like — it’s hard to say. It’s just in me I guess. (laughter) I just inherently lean that way, I guess.
One of the things I’m curious about is that you express yourself in this very specific way, and on the one hand you’re doing it as a form of self-expression, but on the other hand people are going to be listening to it. Are you trying to communicate something specific to the listener?
It’s like a train of thought, really. I’ve noticed in some of the things I do that if you start listening in the middle, it’s hard to get a grasp on it. But if you start at the beginning, it’s telling a story in an abstract way. It’s mixing different emotions and stimulating the listeners’ ear. Guiding you down a path while trying to keep it interesting.
You have this incredible history with Saccharine Trust and SST Records. And now you’re coming together with Mike and George and people like David Thomas and Ray Pettibon. Most people know your roots in punk rock, but do you see yourself as a part of that, or do you lean more to the jazz side of this music? You’ve certainly experimented with it more than most other people who came out of your particular scene.
Punk rock is my beginning. Punk rock allowed me to say, “Okay, I’m going to play an instrument, and take the chance of being in a group.” It allowed me to put myself out there that way. About the same time that I was discovering punk rock I was also discovering bebop music. Somehow I like to mix the two ideas — and not just bebop, but free jazz, too. So to answer your question, I guess musically I’m sort of a mixture of both the punk and the jazz. I may not be a formal jazz player; I never went to the conservatory to learn how to play jazz. In that sense, I’ve taken a punk rock approach to learning jazz myself.
Exactly. Do it yourself.
I’m not looking for you to put specific labels on yourself or on the music. It’s one of the pitfalls of writing about music that you’re always looking for a way to describe what you’re hearing.
Yeah, I understand that.
How did you get involved with this project?
It was Dan’s idea, and he contacted me. Dan had known Mike for awhile, and then he got George Hurley involved. I was like, yeah, sure, I’d love to play with those guys. It was always so much fun jamming with those guys in the early times with the Minutemen. This was another opportunity to play with them, so I said yes. And it went on from there — we did the next record, which is actually two records worth of material we recorded.
You mean during The Master’s Voice sessions?
Yeah, right. There’s another album coming out after this one.
That’s fantastic. How did the experiences between recording the first and second records differ from one another? They sound different to me. I love the guitar on the second record.
The first record was far more improvisational. The second one was a little more crafted. At least for me, that’s the way I was thinking. The first time we did the improvisations and then recorded the vocals over it. But with the new one I think we had a much better conception of the whole.
Tell me about the process you went through. It wasn’t just about plugging in your instruments…
Yeah, we all had different approaches. We would just play — Mike would start and I would jump in and George would jump in. Or someone would direct us. We’d all make suggestions, and David was directing us while we played. He kind of orchestrated it — he’d give us hand cues, and then he’d tell us to try it like this or that. We’d feel our way through it.
I know that in some of your post-Saccharine Trust projects you’ve explored the ideas of people like Ornette Coleman. Were you able to do that on this record — explore some of your own ideas about the music? Or is this largely a group effort?
I definitely was able to explore my ideas. I’m really influenced by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane — I do a lot of listening and absorb it that way. I don’t copy or duplicate much, but I try to absorb the sentiment and direction of the music, and then apply [it to] my own playing. I hear so much of it that it becomes a part of me.
So the third Unknown Instructors record is already in the can?
Yes, it is.
Are there plans to go from there?
Not at the moment.
What are the odds that we might see an Unknown Instructors tour?
I’m not sure that’s possible. Mike’s really busy; he’s always touring. And George, I’m not sure how available he is. Dan and I are always willing to do something, but who knows, maybe sometime in the future we can all get together and organize some out-of-town shows.
I saw that you guys played that Arthur [magazine] gig in Los Angeles.
Oh yeah, that was a couple years ago. That as the only time we’ve tried to do that live. It was unusual… We could fine-tune it, but you don’t want to take that too far when you’re improvising — maybe use the original idea for the song and elaborate on it in different ways.
One of the themes that Dan and I touched on briefly was the problem of commerce. There’s not much of a market for free-form music, so record companies are forced to market CDs like this by the history of the musicians — so it’s about the fact that you were in Sac Trust, or the Minutemen. Then people put the record on and get pissed when it doesn’t sound like that. How does that make you feel?
Well, it’s certainly frustrating — and disappointing. I expect people to have a little more insight in that regard. You would hope people would have more imagination than to expect something they might have heard back in the ‘80s! But then I’ve sort of come to expect that reaction, which is disappointing, too.
The irony is that the Minutemen were being spit on back in the ‘80s for not sounding like the hardcore kids wanted them to sound, and so was Saccharine Trust.
That is true! (laughter) It just goes on and on.
And here we are today, and you guys are getting criticized for the same things.
Maybe people just want to feel safe. They aren’t so worried about being creative or letting us be creative. People want something they’re used to. Or, maybe it’ll just take some time for them to get it. I’m willing to wait. You know, that’s what I took from the whole punk rock thing. I know that’s what Mike Watt took from it — punk rock didn’t mean that you play this specific type of music. It meant that things were open for exploration. It meant taking chances. You had to be able to develop ideas — that’s the approach I’ve always taken. That’s how I got involved with jazz, and not just jazz, but any other kind of music. It’s from that punk rock idea of taking chances. I know a lot of people will listen to Unknown Instructors and say, “I don’t hear any punk rock here,” but they’re missing the point. It’s about the sentiment and the spirit of the thing. If they go into one of the Unknown Instructors records with that sort of mindset then they might have the punk experience that they want so badly.