A childhood friendship with drummer Tommy Ramone helped Monte A. Melnick get in at the ground floor with punk rock founders the Ramones. Having previously cycled through his own musical act Thirty Days Out (who squeezed out two albums for Warner Reprise), Melnick already possessed a working knowledge of the professional music business when the Ramones invited him to start running sound for them in the midtolate 1970s. This evolved into a two decade stint as the band’s tour manager.
In addition to setting up concert dates with all manner of venues, booking hotel rooms for every tour stop, figuring out a tour budget (including travel expenses and band and crew per diems), arranging for proper transportation, and literally mapping out all travel routes (many of which he drove himself in the Ramones’ famously cramped van), Melnick also had to contend with the unpredictable personalities of his musicians, their roadies, and the expected hiccups that come with being a traveling rock group.
Having authored a fascinating book about his experiences (On The Road With The Ramones) and currently working as the 3D Theater & Audio Visual Supervisor at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, I recently spoke with Monte about the ins and outs of tour managing, some of the larger struggles he faced, and his advice for newcomers to the field.
JAMES GREENE, JR: Musicians often complain about all the down time they have while touring, but that doesn’t sound like something tour managers get to experience. Seems like you’re working from the minute you get up until the minute you’re allowed to go to sleep. Did you ever get to relax or relieve that stress?
MONTE A. MELNICK: The stress was there all the time, yeah, and some times it would get really intense, but then it would pass. It was never too much to handle. And, you know, I feel very lucky that I had what I had with the Ramones. Most tour managers never work with one band that long. They do one or two tours and move on, try to find to another artist to work with. The Ramones liked me, though, so they kept me on all those years. As for down time, in the early days it was very hectic…we’d go from city to city with no real breaks, because that’s how booking agents would set it up. Booking agents are your key to breaking into established venues and markets, so you’re not stuck forever playing crappy place for no money, but back then nobody really knew what to do with the Ramones or where they would go over. So the bookers rushed us all over the place. There wasn’t much down time then, but later on, when the band got bigger, then we could afford to spend a couple days in a city and I’d have time to relax, go check things out.
JG2: Would you always work with the same booking agent, or did you have different people?
MAM: In the beginning it was kind of trial and error, we’d used many different booking agents, but eventually we found Premier Talent, and they were very good with us.
JG2: It’s interesting to hear about stuff like booking agents with the Ramones, because they’re the considered a king punk band, yet they clearly operated outside what is accepted today as punk rock’s d.i.y. aesthetic.
MAM: Yeah, the Ramones started the punk movement, but they were never that kind of band, like the hardcore punk bands that came later. They had a sound and a vision and they wanted it to be on a certain level, that was always the plan. Hence the record companies and the booking agents. The only way they were gonna get big was if they worked with agents and promoters who could get them into the big venues. And once you got in there and if they liked you, they’d want you back…so you’d have some leverage, which is of course where tour riders come in. “We’ll come back if you give us this, this, and this,” y’know? Venues who want bands to come back go out of their way to really treat them and make them feel at home. It was great in the later years when, say, in Norfolk, Virginia they’d want us to come and we could get a club to serve us crab cakes. You could always negotiate your way into some local cuisine. Early on, though, the crappy clubs who didn’t really care about the Ramones, they’d give you Mom’s spaghetti or whatever.
JG2: And the rider is also how you could charge a club for bringing in your own sound equipment and transportation fees, correct?
MAM: Yeah, like I said, when the clubs want you back you can work out all those expenses, because you’re bringing business to their club.
JG2: What were some of the biggest obstacles of the entire Ramones tour managing experience for you?
MAM: Just the changes in the band, you know? Going through eight different Ramones, and all their different personalities. [None of them] liked sleeping on a tour bus, which is what most rock bands do, so in the United States we developed something interesting in terms of tour strategy. We created this system where they’d go off and do little sections of country at a time as opposed to one long tour. They’d fly out to some part of the country, a van would be waiting for them, and they’d drive all over that one part of the country for a bit and fly home. The crew we’d stick on buses because they had to get to the venues ahead of time to load in and set up all the equipment, so it was kind of weird sometimes, pulling into these places with the crew on the big buses and the band pulling up in their little van. And the crew was a whole other group with differing personalities, you had to be aware of that. The next biggest issue probably was getting the equipment stolen, which didn’t happen frequently but happened enough times to really throw things out of whack. You really end up scratching your head when everything disappears. [Going to Guitar Center and] buying everything back, you don’t realize how many cables and picks and stuff you really use. Luckily the record company helped us with the [financial] loss. We never recovered any of that stuff.
JG2: When you started working with the Ramones, did you feel you already had a handle on the job because of your previous musical experiences or was there still a learning curve?
MAM: Well, I mean, nobody knew what the hell the Ramones were supposed to be. And I didn’t really like ’em at first, y’know, I was coming from a band with three part harmonies and all that. But they were still a basic rock band, and they knew what they wanted to accomplish, so in that sense it was easy. It just all kind of evolved.
JG2: Are there any pockets of time you’d want to do over, or do differently? It seems like you ran a pretty tight ship with few major problems.
MAM: [laughs] Are you kidding? There were problems all over the place! They were a crazy band…and there’s plenty of stuff you just can’t prepare for, like what we ran into in Argentina, where unbeknownst to us the Ramones were so popular there were thousands of fans swarming outside the hotel. The Ramones never experienced that before! We had no idea they were that popular down there. We were staying at this hotel with a one way exit that emptied right into the street, and there’s thousands of kids pounding on the van as we’re trying to leave. The band’s yelling at me the whole time, like it’s my fault. It was good, though, because they finally got a taste of the superstar treatment. They deserved that, but it sucked because they couldn’t go anywhere, they couldn’t go out and see stuff in Buenos Aires. Now they’re superstars everywhere. The Ramones the biggest thing now. The first record just went gold a few weeks ago, after thirtyeight years. Go figure. And have you seen that Cadillac commercial? The narrator goes: “Apple, the Wright Brothers, the Ramones…” They’re being lumped in with the Wright Brothers and Apple! It’s crazy!
JG2: Can you explain how you found your way to the NY Hall of Science?
MAM: Well, after the Ramones retired in 1996, I worked for several other [artists], like D Generation and Ronnie Spector. I knew about the Hall of Science because I used to live near by, I was just checking out different stuff I might do, y’know? So I got in touch with them and asked if they were hiring. They said no, but they’re always looking for volunteers. So I started volunteering, doing audio visual stuff, which is always a great way to get your foot in the door, and eventually they hired me. Now I’ve been there 11 years and I really like it. I’m in one place now and I’m not feeling the stress of having to travel all the time. I do still like to travel, though, just not like how the Ramones would tour. Y’know, I’ll fly to California to see my sister, that kind of thing. It’s funny, I racked up all these frequent flyer miles with the Ramones but the last thing I wanna do now is get on another plane! I think that’s how these airlines get away with not having you use you frequent flyer miles if you earned a lot of them.
JG2: Do you have advice for anyone who’d like to start in tour managing?
MAM: Yeah, find a band or a musical act you like, one that you think might go somewhere, and just try to start working with them however you can. You might not start out where you want to be, but you can work your way up and if they’re talented and you work hard you could really go places.
Photo via Wad Mag.
Mishka is the clothing line where urban flavor meets the flea market, where stylized renderings of horned cyclopses and disembodied eyeballs pop out of neon frameworks without seeming gaudy. Alongside pal Mikhail Bortnik, Greg Rivera started the line in Brooklyn in the early 2000s; today Mishka is consistently pointed to as one of the most interesting and/or unique street wear brands on any continent (an accurate statement in that Mishka, aside from two stores in California and its flagship New York location, has a retail spot in Toyko).
Greg and I have been friends since high school, and occasionally we’ll stop texting each other “Webster” references long enough to speak via phone. What follows is the most recent of those phone conversations in which Greg and I discuss the current state of Mishka and where he and the company might go in the future. There is also some talk about roadside attractions and Greg’s legendary collection of Mr. T memorabilia.
GREG RIVERA: Tell me when the interview has started. Tell me when we’re on the record.
JAMES GREENE, JR: Right now, the interview has started.
GR: My favorite movie of all time is Bad Ronald.
JG2: Of course it is. I ask people this question all the time because I’m obsessed with turning points—is there a specific moment in time when you realized Mishka was successful? Like one event you can point to?
GR: Well, there was definitely a moment in time when [Mikhail and I] realized we had to quit our day jobs to focus full time on Mishka. Mikhail, I think, was actually fired from some of his other jobs for working on [Mishka] stuff. I was still a [tv production assistant], riding around in a truck, trying to do our business on the phone…but as for one moment? You know, things are so crazy, it’s just been a gradual thing…and we haven’t reached a level of success where we’re [financially] comfortable.
JG2: Is there a benchmark for that, that level of “comfortable?”
GR: I hope so! [laughs] We’re trying to attain more sales…there are times when I’ve been out and a random kid will tell me how much the brand has inspired them, and that’s a success. I know there have been times over the years that people have been appreciative of what I’ve been involved in, there’s success that way, but monetarily we’re trying to be more successful—not because we want Ferraris or anything, but you know, it would be nice to buy my own apartment in Brooklyn. Just to have money not to struggle.
JG2: So how do you move forward on that?
GR: We’re trying to work on greater distribution. Our stores aren’t all in great retail areas. Our Brooklyn store is on the south side of Williamsburg, there’s nothing else around it, really, and our [California stores] are in up and coming [areas] but maybe aren’t on the best streets. Mishka has an extreme and dedicated fan base, but we need that to translate to sales…without violating the integrity of the brand.
JG2: And what’s something that might violate integrity of the brand?
GR: The only thing that could effect our brand is…oversaturation? I hear about some stores ordering fifty-thousand units of one hat, and that’s a lot hats, you know? That’s a lot of people wearing it, but if everyone’s wearing it how unique is it?
pictured: Harry Potter actor Rupert Grint in a Mishka eyeball jacket.
JG2: And that’s Mishka’s signature. Standing out from other brands.
GR: Yeah, but to be honest we’re still kinda figuring out who we are.
JG2: You don’t have an answer for that by now? Well, I guess it’s not easy to define exactly.
GR: We ask people, “What is Mishka?” and what we’ve come up with basically is that we’re the weirdos, the kids who never fit in.
JG2: Your Brooklyn store, the first store, has been open for five years. Does it feel like five years?
GR: We’ve been in that space seven years, actually. At first it was just our office and warehouse. But…you know, we’ve been doing brand for eleven years total, and it definitely doesn’t feel like yesterday.
JG2: You’re not shy about expressing your frustrations with running Mishka on Twitter. I guess since you’re a co-founder there isn’t much blowback on that? Or has it affected things inside the company from time to time?
GR: It has. I’ve been told by my partner to cool off, and I’ve heard through the grapevine that employees aren’t cool with it. I’ve really been conscious lately not to vent about the company because I don’t want people to think I’m not appreciative of Mishka’s success or think I’m some constant grump. But also, it’s not uncommon to see that on Twitter, you know? You see artists and singers and stuff doing it all the time. With Twitter, part of being on there is that you’re always looking for a reaction. But yeah, but I’ve definitely deleted tweets, I’ve tried to censor myself.
JG2: Do you worry about how you’re perceived?
GR: Sometimes. I just don’t want people to think I’m not positive and happy. I am.
JG2: To be fair, I’m only presenting half the picture here. You do plenty of Mishka boosting on Twitter as well, obviously. You definitely seem at times like the company’s biggest fan.
GR: Yeah, yeah. Still, I was thinking about making a shirt that says “Ask me about my depressing tweets.”
JG2: I’d buy that. Switching gears a little, you’re renowned for your Mr. T fandom—or rather, your Mr. T collection, the homemade dolls and mass produced trinkets and such. How has your appreciation of T evolved over the years? Is the passion still the same?
GR: I was talking to someone about this last night. The fact that, when I moved [to New York] in 2002 and started with Mishka ’03, when someone would ask me what I did, the last thing I would mention was Mishka. [mumbling] “Oh yeah, I help my friend with these t-shirts.” It was more about the [Mr. T] collection. Right now…Mr. T is not as important a thing in my life anymore. I’m actually doing another gallery show with the collection in Tokyo soon and I’m gonna sell a bunch of stuff there. Not the dolls, but all the other stuff. I don’t need to own the world’s largest Mr. T collection anymore. I had the goal when I was younger to have it, and it was fulfilled. I’m okay being that guy, but I’m also ready to not be that guy.
Greg amongst his his Mr. T dolls, all made by different people from the same do-it-yourself pattern.
JG2: When you say you’re ready to “not be that guy” do you really mean you’re feeling irritated with still being the Mr. T guy, or do you just mean you’re at peace with letting it go?
GR: I’ve just got more dynamic things in my life now. It’s not to say I’m embarrassed at all, it’s just I’ve got Mishka, and that’s more of an accomplishment.
JG2: Wasn’t there going to be a book about your Mr. T collection? You know, with your partner in T collecting, Mike Essl, showing off all your stuff combined?
GR: Yeah, it still might happen, I’ve actually got to e-mail Mike and see where he’s at…he became a tenured professor at Cooper, and he has a wife and kid, and he got really caught up in all the, y’know, the tuition debates about keeping Cooper a free school…so it just never lined up. And Mike never wanted to do a regular collecting book, like you see with people taking their own pictures that turn out shitty, just to pump out a book on collecting. Mike’s friends with Chip Kidd, who did that Batman Collected book…that book changed the way [collecting books] could be made, like very artistic and [with] fanciful design. So Mike wanted to take the time to make sure our Mr. T collection book was awesome like that.
JG2: So you don’t self-actualize through your collection anymore. On a personal level, is meeting Mr. T still important to you?
GR: Um…yes and no. I think it would be shame if I never did get to meet him…[but] as I’ve gotten older it would be more to just shake his hand and maybe get an autograph. I would not even go there about my collection. I have no desire to meet him to brag about my collection…and it’s important to note that I’m not some obsessed freak focused solely on Mr. T. I was obsessed with the idea of collecting something, and that something happened to be related to Mr. T, who I always enjoyed.
JG2: Do you see yourself being involved with Mishka for the rest of your life? Do you think it’s something you could ever walk away from or sell or take a back seat on?
GR: Well, Mishka’s afforded me a lot of things I never thought I’d have, it’s allowed me to meet people I never thought I’d meet…it’s put me in world where I can do things I can’t do otherwise. If I can make money and be comfortable, I would stay [in this role] forever. If the opportunity to sell the company for enough money to quote-unquote not have to work again came along, I might take it. But, you know, by now I hope it’s clear [Mikhail] and I are in Mishka for long haul. We were there at the beginning and we’ll be there at end. There have been times I’ve wanted to quit, where I thought, “I can’t do this anymore,” but I think I’m past that. I’ve figured out a way to have my own time, doing my own art and painting.
JG2: There aren’t any interests or endeavors you think about where you could only do them if you were completely divorced from Mishka?
GR: No. I can do Mishka and other things.
JG2: What was the last Bad Ronald-type movie you saw? The last thing that really tripped you out.
GR: The last thing I saw that tripped me out was Tourist Trap. Have you seen that?
JG2: No. What’s deal with it?
GR: It’s a ’70s campy thrasher film, the concept being…tourist traps [laughs], which I think even at this film’s release in 1979 were a dying trend. The tourist trap was already becoming thing of past by then. You know, the ads give you all these promises about great stuff and you get there and it’s people just peddling junk. The twist in the movie is this guy turns people into human mannequins.
JG2: What’s the most disappointed you’ve been with a real roadside attraction? I feel like you’ve been to hundreds.
GR: I don’t know, I don’t feel I’ve been to enough. I haven’t done a whole lot of traveling within the States like that. In fact, the first time I went to South of The Border was that time we went [in 2005]…I think.
JG2: Really? That surprises me. I’d been there before as a kid, and we went it was like…well, like a lot of other things you think are so big and magical when you’re a kid.
GR: I went to one of those “risque cafes” once, where they serve you topless. That wasn’t great.
JG2: What wasn’t great? Like, were the girls too—
GR: The coffee was bad. The coffee could have been better. [laughs]
JG2: What about Mystery Fun House? I know you went there a bunch of times before it closed. Ah, but I guess that wasn’t really “roadside,” couched in all that I-Drive shit.
GR: Yeah, not really…but the first time I went to Mystery Fun House was in 1985 with my family. I was six. This is when we still lived in Connecticut and we took a trip to Florida for Disney. I remember I saw one of those huge pamphlet stands—you know, the big wooden displays where all the area attractions have their pamphlets. Those are still around, sort of, but before the Internet they were major, that was the only way you knew about that kind of stuff. So I saw the Mystery Fun House pamphlet during that Disney trip and I begged my brother to take me. We went, and I cried the whole time. I was scared.
JG2: Of the wizard. Right?
GR: No, the wizard was the one thing that calmed me. I don’t know if you remember, but Mystery Fun House was pretty scary. It had, like, goblins and demons…and it was really dark, there was one room with some kind of Last Supper with all these monsters…it was scary, but at the end they showed a video with the wizard where he said he was there to protect you, he wouldn’t let anything harm you.
JG2: Oh, so he was a good wizard. I honestly didn’t remember.
GR: Yeah, I trusted that wizard.
Plenty of stone cold classics here. If you get bored then you just ain’t readin’ this stuff right.
An Open Letter To Kathy The Hungry Business Lady
Casting The Live Action “Futurama” Movie That Will Inevitably Be Made
Episode I Story Conference
New Haven, CT: Birthplace Of The Hamburger?
The Curse Of The 9:30 “TGIF” Time Slot
What The Fuck Is So Random About Kelsey Grammer?
Sabbath Gaudy Sabbath
A Glossary Of Terms My Friends & I Used In Middle School
Six Deaths That Altered The Course Of “Simpsons” History
A Conversation With The Upper Crust’s Lord Bendover
Jacko’s Wacko Grape-Throwing On Captain EO Set
More On The Richard Nixon / Robocop Summit
Fifteen Years On, Woodstock ’94 Still Something That Definitely Happened
Ten Embarrassing Incidents Involving Baseball Mascots
Rambo 5 Just Got Way Better
Unsolicited Th’ Inbred Review
Q: Did Black Flag Reunite With A Robot Playing Bass?
Recent Trends Indicate Juggalos Stronger, More Resilient Than Economy
Seven Ridiculous-Ass Sequels Hollywood Almost Foisted Upon Us
Stuff White People Like To Complain About
Would You Pay $130 For Career Advice From Andy Richter?
Haikus About Ex-Girlfriends
Examining Kid Rock’s Common Sense Ideas
Is Gonzo A Hipster?
In Memoriam 2009
The Best Bad Movies Of The Decade
If you click but one link below, make sure it’s the Andrew Koenig story. Gets my vote for best thing ever to appear on this ramshackle e-circus.
Headlines For The Soundgarden Reunion
Carry On, You Bass-Smashing Drum God
Tobey Maguire: “I Did Steroids.”
JG2’s Bucket List
Boy Wonder To Bow Out, Spelling End To Dynamic Duo
Unsolicited Spring Break Review
Rock Critic Mark Prindle: The JG2Land Interview
On The Subject On John Hinckley, Jr.
Spring Break On The Planet Of The Apes
Darth Vader Searches For Luke Skywalker On Chatroulette
An Open Letter To Ed Helms And Jason Sudeikis
A Sad Gumby Would Be Almost Unbearable To Look At
Arrested In Time: The Life & Death Of Andrew Koenig
The Curse Of Turbo Man
Requiem For Bif
We’re All Gonna Get Laid: A Look Back At Caddyshack
I Don’t Know Who Aunt Barbara Is…
Ten Real-Life Batman Villains
Unsolicited Baseball: The Tenth Inning Review
Or “The Year Of Blogging Leisurely.” What can I say? The collection agency refused to accept think-pieces on Femme Fatale or The King of Limbs. They wanted money! So I had to go earn it the old fashioned way (trying to flip “Welcome Back, Kotter” merchandise at swap meets across the country). At least the E.T. landfill thing is nice and long.
Robot Monkeys & Mr. Toad, We Hardly Knew Ye
The Encyclopedia Britannica Kid’s New Agenda
We Didn’t Start The Fire: 1990-1999
A Conversation Between Two College Graduates
Giant Photo Of Dorks At White Castle Raises Questions
The Bounty On Gumby’s Head Is $1,000
The E.T. Landfill Story: Fact, Fiction, Argle Bargle, Or Fooferaw?
Unsolicited Lou Read / Metallica Lulu Review
Dr Pepper: We Are Not Affiliated With “South Park”
Unsolicited Justin Bieber Under The Mistletoe Review
America Meets White Coke Can, Summarily Rejects It
Jaws The Ride: 1990-2012
Top Ten Album Covers Of 2011
Definitive Proof Of The Giorgio Tsoukalos Hair Combing
Selections From My Parents’ Collection Of Depressing Art
Speaking Of Depressing Art…
Combining bone-snapping speed with Borscht Belt wisecracks, Adrenalin O.D. smeared their name across the 1980s hardcore punk landscape with a handful of albums unmatched in livid throttle and unexpected guffaws. The perfect encapsulation of this comes two-thirds into the band’s 1986 platter HumungousFungousAmongus when no frills blast “Survive” crash lands into a rather faithful / nimble cover of the Jean-Joseph Mouret classic “Rondeau” (couch potatoes know this 17th Century cut better as the theme from “Masterpiece Theater”). Identity crisis? Maybe, but also oodles of fun.
Adrenalin O.D. recently reunited for a white hot show at the Stanhope House in their native Garden State; a week later, guitarist Bruce Wingate was kind enough to spare me some time to chew the fat about the reunion, his life, and Adrenalin O.D.’s ultimate legacy.
JAMES GREENE, JR: What prompted this most recent reunion?
BRUCE WINGATE: Well, we usually average one every five years. There was no specific reason why [this time]. It’s funny, we ended up playing Stanhope, New Jersey, which is way out in the sticks. You think we would have played New York. I’ll admit I didn’t have high hopes going into this but I was completely wrong. The place was packed and it was awesome.
JG2: How did you end up at the Stanhope? Did they just offer you the slot?
BW: We know their booker, ’cause my other band, Diztrict Allstarz, played a show there with Mental Decay, [Adrenalin O.D. bassist] Jack [Steeple’s] other band, and yeah, it just kinda all came together. Stanhope is close to where Jack lives, actually. We decided to give the old man the shortest drive this time. [laughs]
JG: Your drummer Dave Scott lives in Florida now. Is he the only one out of range for these reunions? Is he the guy who you have to plan everything around?
BW: It’s dependent on everyone’s schedule. We’re all adults now—well, more or less.
JG2: Is it difficult getting back into playing those songs, or are they totally ingrained in you by now?
BW: The actual playing, there’s a good portion that’s muscle memory. There were some shows in nineties we played that we didn’t practice for, we just went in and did them and they were fine. Now I don’t think we could do that. Admittedly I did make one or two flubs at the Stanhope, but no one noticed. It is hard to do, to play this fast now.
JG2: I imagine these reunions maybe yield some personal evalution. Do you feel like you’re in a good place in your life?
BW: Yeah, you know…lately it’s been a period of self-reflection for me. I just saw my family…I only see my parents maybe once, twice a year, and I Just turned fifty…it’s a little overwhelming. We also just lost a good friend of mine, Bill Bartell from White Flag. There are a lot of friends who are no longer with us. But all in all I think I’m in a good space. [Even though] I’m fifty and unemployed. I got laid off in July and now I’m on blood pressure pills. It’s funny, I sailed into forty feelin’ on top of the world, I had a couple twenty year old girls chasing me…now I’m going into fifty unemployed and medicated. [laughs]
JG2: What was your job that you got laid off from?
BW: I worked for a fabric company that sells high end stuff. I managed the library and dealt with distributors and stuff. Despite my official title I was sort of a jack of all trades.
JG2: Are there songs you guys in Adrenalin O.D. disagree about playing now? Like songs some of you don’t wanna play that others do?
BW: We err toward the earlier stuff, like [songs from] The Wacky Hijinks of Adrenalin O.D. We’ve never performed any HumungousFungousAmongus deep cuts, we’ve never played anything off Cruising With Elvis In Bigfoot’s UFO…and that last record [Ishtar] is just not discussed. [laughs] Playing that stuff would be like learning a new song.
JG2: AOD has a bit of a jokey reputation. Are you ever aggravated that people don’t take the band more seriously? Because you guys did play way faster than most bands and achieved a pretty unique blur of noise.
BW: Yeah, it’s that weird New Jersey Cancer Alley “Swamps of the Meadowlands” thing that gave us heft. I take good amount of pride in the fact that people from all sorts of different genres namecheck us. On the pop punk side, there’s Screeching Weasel, NOFX, Lifetime, and then there are the thrash bands, like Nuclear Assault…and a couple years ago that Norwegian band Darkthrone was citing us. It’s really, really cool. Not that I’m bragging, but I am fucking bragging.
JG2: What stretch of time in the band was your favorite?
BW: Rolling into HumungousFungous was really good…the tour we did in ’85 that preceded Fungus, we were playing so blisteringly fast, there was a sense of complete mayhem when we played. It’s an amazing feeling to be hitting a chord on guitar and making people go apeshit, it’s just awesome.
JG2: Can you name the worst show AOD ever played?
BW: That’s hard for me to say. [pauses] I’m kinda stumped. Near the end [in the late eighties] when we were limping along we played at the Cat Club [in New York City]—right there, ding ding ding! Alarms shoulda been going off. We were playing with Wild Kingdom, Handsome Dick Manitoba’s band, and they wanted to go on before us. Y’know, using the “We’re old men” excuse. So we let ’em and then we ended up playing to no one, and my amp kept cutting out. Hmm, maybe that’s just the worst show I played.
JG2: Well, it sounds to me like it was crummy for the whole band.
BW: I’ll tell you another one, maybe this is more what you’re looking for…we played in San Jose with the Exploited and Dag Nasty. Just let that roll around in your head for a second. The venue was just some empty place where a kid said, “Let’s put on show!” There were no permits, no liquor license, no nothin’. There were lots of nazis in the crowd who had their backs turned to the bands and they were all sieg heiling. The Exploited and Dag Nasty got paid but we didn’t. The promoter was nowhere to be found, he just vanished. And, of course, the cops showed up. We ended up driving around later that night to all the pizza places in the area, because we heard the promoter worked at a pizza place and we needed to get paid.
JG2: Did you ever find him?
BW: Hell no!
Top photo credit, according to Bruce: “Some girlfriend, 1986”; lower photo by Ron Akiyama circa the same year (L-R: Jack Steeples, Dave Scott, Bruce, Paul Richards).
The original Undead lineup outside of Manhattan club A7, September 1982. L-R: Chris Natz, Patrick Blanck, Bobby Steele. Photo by Ronnie Ramone.
Beginning with their kinetic 1981 debut 9 Toes Later, the Undead have spent three plus decades churning out a sneering brand of traditional punk laced with as many cobwebs as succinct melodies that stick in the brain like hot tar. Rotating memberships and an ever-evolving punk landscape have proven challenging for this Jersey-bred trio; yet the Undead remain in a class where their only real competition is founder Bobby Steele’s former band the Misfits (Steele served as Misfits guitarist from 1978 to 1980).
Although we didn’t get a chance to speak before This Music Leaves Stains was published, Bobby Steele and I connected recently and the man was kind enough to have a conversation with me about launching the Undead, his memories of that band’s various career arcs, and the looming shadow of the Misfits.
JAMES GREENE, JR: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you had the Undead going before you parted ways with the Misfits in October of 1980, right?
BOBBY STEELE: Well, I had another band before the Misfits called the Skabs, and on Sundays when the Misfits weren’t doing anything I’d get together with [Chris Natz] the bass player and [Rich Matalian] the drummer from the Skabs to mess around. After I got kicked outta the Misfits, for five about five minutes I was like, “What am I gonna do?” But then I just got the Skabs back together, and I had always wanted to be in a band called the Undead, so we switched the name.
JG2: Were there specific things you did to set yourselves apart from the Misfits, or did you not think about it? Did you let the Undead’s image and music happen organically?
BS: I said, “I’m just gonna go out do my thing.” There was no reason to separate ourselves from the Misfits because at the time, the word on the street was they were kaput, they were breaking up.
JG2: So from the get-go, the Misfits weren’t necessarily this albatross around your neck?
BS: No, we thought they were done. After that Halloween gig they seemed over. Then in the Summer of ’81 they were starting to come back.
JG2: Obviously the Undead and the Misfits had their problems with each other later on, but was there tension between the two in the beginning?
BS: No, there were no real signs of tensions. [Misfits singer] Glenn [Danzig] came to our early gigs and he really liked us. He liked [Undead drummer Patrick Blanck’s] drumming, how it was simple and straightforward. Glenn came up after our first show and he was raving to Patrick, “Oh man, you’re really good, your drumming is great, that’s always what I’ve been looking for!”
JG2: Yeah, the chronology of Misfits drummers suggests Glenn was always trying to go down a level, to get to that no-nonsense Tommy Ramone thing.
BS: Yeah, right. You look at [second Misfits drummer] Mr. Jim and he was very jazzy, his bass drum is adding a rhythm. You can hear that on “Bullet.” Then when the Misfits got Joey [Image], he was less jazzy, but when it came to fills the guy was like Keith Moon. I remember we had Joey redub some stuff on “Horror Business” and when we watched him from the booth it was unreal. His speed and power he put in…we were in awe sitting back watching. Then after Joey the Misfits got [Arthur] Googy, and his drumming was even less intricate.
JG2: The Undead had some success off the bat, getting signed to Stiff Records and with all the positive press that came in for 9 Toes Later. Was that expected? Was that the plateau you expected to reach or did you think you could build from that point to bigger successes?
BS: I figured things would go on for the Undead. My goal was to be signed within a year of forming, and we did it. Once we got the Stiff deal, though, things kinda went to everyone’s heads. I tried to [stay the course] but the other guys, they wanted to relax, and they also wanted to make things democratic in the band. “We think we should have consensus,” they’d say, and my reply would be, “Well, while we’re debating all this shit the gig we wanted went to someone else.” Like, somebody’s gotta make decisions. Unfortunately, I started having my health problems around then, with my foot, y’know, and I lost control. [Steele had surgery to remove an infected toe in September of 1981]
JG2: So almost immediately, there’s a sense that it could all be ending?
BS: Well, I’ll tell ya—when I was in the hospital I got word [Chris and Patrick] were auditioning other guitar players. They were trying to get another guitar player for my band! Y’know, Stiff didn’t like those guys. They told me, “Dump those guys and we’ll get you some other musicians and we’ll back you all the way.” I said no. My biggest downfall is my loyalty to friends, and a lot of the time they stabbed me in back anyway.
JG2: But you got back on your feet, no pun intended, and the Undead endured. Were there other points were you thought you could achieve what you had with Chris and Patrick?
BS: Yeah, the Act Your Rage lineup with [bassist] Tim [Taylor] and [drummer] Eddie [Enzyme]. At the start they were really into the band. As time went on, they said I had no talent, my songwriting sucks, uh, y’know, my arrangements are boring…so that didn’t last, but at first we got good gigs and decent money. Act Your Rage also came out at a time when punk was considered dead, metal and all this other stuff was happening, but I guess people wanted to hear it again because that record sold surprisingly well. Another lineup that was looking great was when I had [bassist] Bryce [Bernius] and [drummer] Jaw. That was great for year or two, we were really productive, but at some point Jaw said he liked the earlier, more raw stuff, what we were doing wasn’t what he liked, so he left.
JG2: How did that stuff affect you, that band turmoil? Could you brush it off when the relationships there fell apart?
BS: Some people assume I have a big ego, but that’s not true. For a while in the wake of that stuff I might start to believe I suck, but then I’d hear from a fan from some far out place about what my music means to them, and that makes me feel better.
JG2: How about the record label rejection? You’ve made note in the past, sometimes in song, how despite the Undead’s popularity labels would often blow you off or give you the runaround.
BS: That fired me up, man. They’re giving me so much power by rejecting me. I have nothing to lose.
JG2: The video for “My Kinda Town,” the second song on 9 Toes Later, popped up online a few years ago. Was that an attempt to get on MTV or did you just do it for the hell of it?
BS: We did try to get it on MTV, but by then MTV had been taken over by the majors. Indie labels had no chance. Like, the industry standard at the time for video was three inch tape. To get on MTV, you had to shoot on one inch tape. They did little things like that. “Oh, this looks great…unfortunately it’s not one inch.” But we did the video and thought, “Maybe this will open their eyes,” ’cause it was so weird, y’know? I’m jumping over the fence at Bellevue, I’m throwing quaaludes up in the air at the World Trade Center, breaking the antennae off a taxi…nothing was scripted or planned out. We just went out and shot it.
JG2: I’m sorry, did you say you were throwing quaaludes around?
BS: Yeah! The part at the World Trade Center, I’m throwing two hundred quaaludes in the air as I’m singing. As soon as the shoot was done, these kids ran up and started collecting them. I had to fight them off. [laughs]
JG2: Did you consider doing other videos?
BS: We would have loved to make other videos, we had other ideas and concepts, but we didn’t have the contacts that other people had. We were dirt poor. Maybe if we were part of that elite Max’s Kansas City scene we would have had access to more people with video equipment. “My Kinda Town” only happened because we were approached by these guys from Jersey City State University who had to do a project for their video class. And this is interesting—I tried to locate the guy who made the video a few years ago, and it turns out he won an Emmy for his news coverage of 9/11!
JG2: Throughout all the time you’ve done the Undead, have you ever felt the desire to fold the band and go in another direction musically?
BS: No, never…I mean, punk, it’s the shit! The speed, the energy, and the drive. There were times I was discouraged over the direction of scene, when it was all about metal or dance stuff, but I stuck to my guns.
JG2: What do you feel is the apex of the Undead’s recorded material?
BS: I’m really proud of how Til Death came out. “I’m So Happy,” “Thorn In My Side”…you know, I did “Thorn In My Side” in my bedroom. You know Phil Spector and the “wall of sound?” I read up on that “wall of sound” stuff and I just recreated it in my bedroom. Fans tell me there’s feeling in what we recorded—that’s because I put the time into it. I remember when we recorded the “Verbal Abuse” single I only had four track [recorder] and so many microphones, so I had the drummer record his kick and his snare on one track and his fills on another track…it took a couple weeks, but the results were awesome. Y’know, you gotta make do with what you got.
JG2: Now, I imagine people ask you about the Misfits at least once every day, maybe even once every hour.
BS: [laughs] Yeah.
JG2: Does that ever bother you? Do you ever wish you could step away from that?
BS: No, not really…I remember when I was young reading this article in Rolling Stone about Linda Ronstadt blowin’ off her fans, like blowin’ people off on the street, and that pissed me off…like, the fans are the reason I’m here, the least I can do is give them fifteen minutes…if fifteen minutes is gonna make them happy or make their day, why not?
JG2: What’s been harder to deal with personally, everything that’s come with having been in the Misfits after the fact, or laboring away in the Undead and dealing with those ups and downs?
BS: That’s a good question. I think it’s kinda half one way, half the other. Sure, the other Misfits spreading all their lies and doing all that backbiting negated the good times we had together, but they also spread my name [around]. A lot of my fans came from hearing that live version of “Teenagers From Mars” [from 1981] where they’re singin’ “Bobby Steele’s a fuckin asshole, he’s got an asshole for a cunt.” They heard that and thought, “Who is this guy?”
JG2: So this underdog status that many people ascribe to you in both situations, this isn’t something that’s ever bothered you?
BS: No, because the underdog almost always wins, and he also usually laughs last. And you know what they say…he who laughs last laughs best!
Photo of Bobby with guitar by Heidi Calvert.
This is how it all went down: I got one or two of my facts twist turned upside down in the obituary I wrote for Lookout! Records (exclamation point optional), so Lookout founder Lawrence “Larry Livermore” Hayes swooped in to correct me. Thankful and not one to look a gift punk in the mouth, I asked Larry if I could shoot him few questions RE: Lookout’s problems, its legacy, where his feelings are today regarding the whole deal, blah blah. He said yes, and below you’ll find our delicious exchange.
JG2: Prior to the episode in 1996 or ’97 where Screeching Weasel decided they weren’t happy with their contract and demanded a new one, what was the most challenging or aggravating thing you had to deal with at Lookout? Had it been pretty smooth sailing up to that point in terms of artist / label relations?
LARRY LIVERMORE: For the most part, things had gone smoothly up to that point. By the way, before I go further, I’d like to clear up one thing—while it’s often referred to as a “Screeching Weasel” dispute, that’s really not accurate. It was, from start to finish, a Ben Weasel dispute. I never had a problem with other members of the band. In fact, some of them privately expressed frustration and even disgust with the way that Ben compulsively turned a good relationship into a poisonous one. That being said, the contract dispute I had with Ben, while unpleasant and destructive, was only the most extreme example of a problem that began to emerge in the year or two following Green Day’s breakthrough to major label success. A byproduct of that success was that Lookout got a great deal of attention from the mainstream media, and both our sales—of all our releases, not just Green Day’s—and income increased massively. “More money, more problems” may be a cliché, but clichés usually contain a kernel of truth. While the problems were mostly manageable, the most difficult aspect was that certain bands, or individuals, in Ben Weasel’s case, began feeling that we should be spending more of that money promoting them, on the theory that if we did, they’d be achieving the kind of success Green Day was.
JG2: So how do you navigate that kind of thing? What do you say, or what did you say to those complaining?
LL: When I pointed out that Green Day and Operation Ivy and, ironically, Screeching Weasel, who were our third best-selling band, accomplished what they did with little to no promotion, [the other artists] would just get mad. I’d say things like, “You can’t buy popularity. If you want to be as rich and famous as Green Day, try working and touring as hard as Green Day, and writing songs as good as Green Day.” Needless to say, that didn’t always go over so well, especially with Ben Weasel. The funny thing is that Ben was always very happy with Lookout and the amount of money he was making there, and for years told everybody just that. Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t. To be fair, there were other bands who asked for more money and more promo, and who wanted Lookout to change the way we did things and act more like a major label. It’s just that with most of them it wasn’t such a big deal, just more of a point of discussion, where with Ben it became a very big deal indeed.
JG2: When Lookout started having more serious problems after your departure in 1997, how did that affect you? Were you already too removed to care?
LL: I was not anxious to jump back into the record business, but I had made it clear [to the new owners] that I was available as a resource, to answer questions, negotiate with bands, or even step in on a short term basis and manage some projects, but I wasn’t ever asked for help. Quite the contrary, in fact; most often I would find out about Lookout’s problems from other sources—usually the bands who weren’t getting paid. I think there was a feeling on the new owners’ part that they wanted to do it their own way, or maybe they were afraid I’d be all “I told you so” if they admitted they were having problems. I’d like to believe I wouldn’t have been like that, and also that if I’d been approached early enough, I might have been able to help them sort things out, but I have no way of knowing whether that’s true. Certainly my own management practices, even in Lookout’s heyday, weren’t perfect, but when everything is going your way and all the records are selling well, mistakes and poor planning can be glossed over more easily than when things are starting to go downhill.
JG2: But you had no moment where you were utterly compelled to try and take command back, to right the ship?
LL: Well, because of the way we’d arranged my departure—I handed over full ownership of the company—there was no way I could [do that] unless I was asked to. That made it pretty frustrating when Lookout began getting a reputation for not paying its bands, because even though there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, many people blamed me for it. Which is understandable; you can’t expect the general public to keep up with who owns or controls which record label, and for the first 10 years of Lookout’s existence, it had been me more than any other person who was identified with Lookout in the public’s mind.
JG2: Did the carryover from that hurt your own personal state of mind?
LL: Yeah, it was hard on me to watch what was happening. It was like seeing a loved one suffer and die from a long, lingering illness, knowing all the while there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
JG2: Is there one record you can point to in Lookout’s catalog and say, “Yes, this is the prime example of what we were trying to do or put forth?”
LL: Oh man, there are so many. Operation Ivy, of course, and both Green Day records, but in terms of our less well-known releases, I’d have to point to Nuisance and Brent’s TV, both of whom were kind of niche bands who came from Northern California, from the more rural part of the state where I was living when Lookout started. Each band captured, in their own way, something extremely specific to the local culture they emerged from. Neither band was, strictly speaking, punk in the normal sense of the word, but they expressed to me everything that was best and most important about the DIY punk scene. And it’s entirely possible that one or both of those bands never would have gotten the kind of exposure they did, or have left the recorded legacy they did, if there hadn’t been a label like Lookout. That’s the sort of thing I’m proudest of.
JG2: Is there any band Lookout never got hold of that you wish you had?
LL: If you mean in terms of making lots more money, it would have been nice if we’d managed to put out albums by Rancid, the Offspring, AFI, and Jawbreaker, all of whom I halfheartedly tried to get on Lookout. Maybe [we] could have if I’d tried a little harder. But the first three of those bands all did great for themselves, maybe better than they could have done on Lookout, so it’s probably just as well they ended up where they did. Jawbreaker, I think, might have done better on Lookout, so even though I’m not the world’s hugest Jawbreaker fan—I like them, but I’m not a crazed obsessive like, um, certain people I know—I would have liked to put out their albums for them. Another place I missed the boat was when I told Crimpshrine that they weren’t ready to release a full-length album, so they put out what is now the incredibly rare Lame Gig Contest on a couple small labels. Boy, was I wrong about that.
JG2: Hey man, it happens.
LL: But what most people don’t fully get about me is that I was never mainly concerned about bands that would sell records. If I was, I could have signed up a lot of those baggy shorts bands before Fat Wreck even got going. It wasn’t worth it to me to have to deal with bands that I didn’t enjoy listening to and hanging out with just for the sake of making money. If I’d wanted to do that, I could have just gotten a job at a record company instead of starting my own label. Labels that are successful, not just in terms of sales, but that leave a lasting legacy, generally tend to reflect the values and aesthetics of the person or people who ran them. That’s as true for labels like Fat or Epitaph or Kill Rock Stars or K as it was for Lookout. Conversely, I think it’s where Lookout went astray after I left: they no longer had a sound that was distinctly a Lookout sound. It was more like they were just throwing all sorts of things up against the wall to see if anything would stick.
JG2: It’s been over a year since Lookout ceased operation. How do you look back on it all? Is it still some huge part of your life, do you feel, or have you let go and let it be in the past?
LL: It was a huge part of my life, and to many people, it’s the only part of my life that they know or care about. Obviously I have other interests and goals, but that’s the one that most folks know, and it’s usually one of the first things they ask me about. In fact, lately I seem to be getting almost as many requests for interviews as I was back in the glory days. Don’t ask me why. I guess maybe this is what it’s like being part of history. I can’t complain. It was an amazing adventure, and though it didn’t end as well as it began, we had a pretty good run, and I think we did our part to change—and hopefully improve—the kind and quality of music that reaches the ears of the public. More importantly, I hope we set an example for how other bands and other labels can make their way in the world without having to make compromises or crappy deals with the traditional music industry. There’s a whole network of touring bands and clubs and performance spaces and distribution channels that didn’t exist when we started out, and I’d like to think we played at least some part in helping that to develop.
JG2: So it turns out you’re kind of a woodsy guy. You ever see any of those brown recluse spiders while you’ve been livin’ up there on Spy Rock?
LL: Brown recluse spiders don’t live in that part of California. We had plenty of black widows, but they never gave me any problems. Scorpions turned up pretty often, too, often in the woodpile, but once I found one—don’t ask me how it got there—waggling its stinger tail at me in the kitchen sink. Our bass player from [the band] the Lookouts, Kain Kong, his mom stepped on [a scorpion] in her kitchen and it stung her in the foot…she got a little sick, there was no real harm done. Our scorpions weren’t as poisonous as the ones farther south. We also had quite a few rattlesnakes, but the cats usually killed and ate them if they got too close to the house. However, one bit my dog, and she nearly died from that. And of course there’s bobcats and mountain lions. I never even saw a mountain lion myself, but a girl I knew came face to face with one when she was climbing up a cliff. She just let go and dropped back down the cliff in a hurry.
JG2: What’s the most dangerous animal you’ve personally encountered out in that wilderness?
LL: My biggest adventure was with a bear. I mean, there were lots of bears up there, but for the first ten years or so I never saw one near my house. But then one decided he liked the looks of my place, and ended up smashing my kitchen to pieces. We had a scary showdown, which you can read about in my book Spy Rock Memories, coming out on Don Giovanni this June. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but I can reveal that I ended up not getting eaten.
JG2: Oh Larry, you old huckleberry.
Between 1994 and 1997 basic cable was haunted by an irritable, potty-mouthed water fowl who really only got away with neglecting / abusing his family, friends, and co-workers because he was animated. Yet “Duckman” wasn’t just another zany post-“Ren & Stimpy” squiggle fest—razor sharp wit and touching pathos were expertly sewn into this outlandish world for nearly every one of the show’s half hour installments (and it was all brought to life by the amazing voice talents of Jason Alexander, Nancy Travis, and Gregg Berger, et al). Today “Duckman” is firmly enshrined in tv’s cult canon, a forbearer to the “Family Guys” and “American Dads” of the world, albeit far smarter and more roundly satisfying.
Duckman and his brood were all the creation of artist Everett Peck, a Californian if not by birth than at least by heart (he called me from a beach-side bar for this interview). Here now for JG2Land Peck looks back at his CableACE Award-winning series, the struggles within, and what if any shadow Howard the Duck cast on his beloved Erick Duckman.
JG2: Was there concern on your end with transforming Duckman from a comic book to a television series? Were you afraid of your vision becoming corrupted?
EVERETT PECK: Well, the funny thing is the comic and the show were developed simultaneously. The comic wasn’t published yet, and I was doing some unrelated freelance work for [the production company] Klasky Csupo. Gábor Csupo asked me, “Hey, do you have any ideas for shows?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been working on this comic…” They saw Duckman and liked it, so we entered into agreement to develop it. But yeah, there’s always a concern like that, though I kinda set the tone with the comic—all the basic relationships were already there, and all the characters, like Cornfeld and King Chicken, Bernice, et cetera. And I felt confident in Gábor. So we started pitching it to networks.
JG2: Whom besides USA did you pitch?
EP: We went to FOX—well, first we went to Paramount, and they really got on board with it. So with Paramount we went to USA, who were looking for an animated adult series, and we went to FOX, and at that time “The Simpsons”…was in like its second season. Everything was kinda up in the air in terms of prime time animation on television. No one was sure it would work. So we pitched to FOX and USA simultaneously. FOX offered us a two script deal; USA offered thirteen episodes on air, basically a full season. So we went for the sure thing. And I have to say, USA were very open to what we were doing or trying to do. We always intended “Duckman” to be an adult show. Y’know, “The Simpsons” has something for adults and it had something for kids, but we strictly wanted to be for adults. I’m not sure FOX would have let us do that.
JG2: Did you have any issues with Jason Alexander, the voice of Duckman, being on “Seinfeld” at the same time, or did the scheduling just always work out?
EP: Well, at that time even “Seinfeld” had only been going for a couple seasons. It wasn’t the mega hit it would become. So Jason Alexander was still basically an unknown guy. As “Seinfeld” became so popular, yeah, it got a little weird [laughs], but the thing about Jason is he has such great comic timing, he can land all your jokes, he can talk a mile a minute if that’s what you need—he worked out perfectly even when things were weird.
JG2: Were there any other “names” in the running for Duckman? I know you auditioned seventy-ish people.
EP: We did, but I intentionally sort of went for obscure people, like Matt [Groening] did for “The Simpsons.” I don’t think there were any other standouts.
JG2: Earlier you said USA didn’t really note your show very much, but I have to wonder, were they behind that bit in the third season where you had the cast of “Weird Science,” the show “Duckman” immediately followed or preceded, appear as King Chicken’s hostages?
EP: [Laughs] Yeah, that was a USA thing. That was one of the instances were they did meddle. We really—we being myself, Jeff Reno, and Ron Osborne, the two main “Duckman” writers—we were really resistant to that, although I should say we weren’t opposed to doing topical things. I didn’t want to make the show too topical. [That can] really date the show. I wanted to deal with more universal issues, like love, sex, competition.
JG2: What would you say was the hardest aspect of the entire “Duckman” production?
EP: I think one thing was, there was just a constant struggle keep the scripts short enough. We tried to do forty pages or under. Doing that made the animation production much easier. Sometimes we’d have finished animation we had to cut—the show had to be 22 minutes, and to accommodate that we’d have to cut out ten minutes sometimes. Most of the scenes cut dealt with visuals—dialogue always had priority above visuals. That said, I wanted “Duckman” to maintain a quality in terms of the look of the thing. And the animators, they did an awesome job, some of the visuals were fantastic.
JG2: Can you remember any specific tussles about cutting a visual?
EP: I remember a shot in one episode where Ajax is picking a flower on a hill, and it’s a complete 360 rotation where he screams, “NO!!” at the end; that was gonna be cut, but we fought and fought and they kept it in. That was early on in the show, though. By the last season everything went smoother, we really got the feel of it.
JG2: That’s interesting, because it seems like the later “Duckman” seasons would have been harder to handle, what with [Duckman’s long lost sister-in-law] Beverly showing up and other secondary characters like Ben Stein being fleshed out a little more. Doing those kinds of things didn’t upset the balance?
EP: No, I mean, what we always wanted to do was have kind of a world, a neighborhood where there were several characters that were reoccurring. The harder thing was a lot of times we’d have Duckman and his family go on locations, to Vietnam or whatever, so the animators would have to draw all new background scenes. I was in favor of the location stuff because it made for interesting shows, but the animators were angry, like, “We have to design 108 more backgrounds?” [laughs]
JG2: Weren’t there also some budgetary issues with USA?
EP: Sure, and that’s ultimately that’s why we were canceled. “Duckman” never got really high ratings. We got maybe a two share—that’s two million people. That was a good audience, but we were always sort of an underground show, and we were on an odd network. FOX, a lot of their programming supported “The Simpsons.” We didn’t really have that, and there wasn’t a culture at USA at the executive level that supported “Duckman” beyond three of four seasons.
JG2: Also, if I recall, “Duckman” was on at a weird time, like late Saturday nights.
EP: Yeah, and our lead in was, uh, wrestling or something, a sporting event, and sometimes the show didn’t start at the exact time. You know, all that stuff. USA did hire a publicity firm at one time who made some pretty cool posters and ads for us, but “Duckman” was just never was a show that had huge ratings, and our budgets reflected that. Our budgets were around $600,000 an episode. At that same time, “The Simpsons” were doing $1 million an episode. So we were already stretching to make “Duckman” look good. That was what I cared about—I wanted to make the show look as good as possible. And this was back when we were still doing animation on cells! That technology goes back to the 1920s!
JG2: So say “Duckman” doesn’t get canceled after season four. How much further could you have gone?
EP: I don’t know. I think when we were cancelled we were hitting our stride. Would we have had legs like “The Simpsons?” I don’t know that anyone else could go like that. I think we could have done another hundred episodes and kept it fresh. At its heart, “Duckman” was about a private detective, and you can go anywhere with that. And there was also his family, the family portion is pretty rich as well.
JG2: Well, you have to be proud as it stands—the show remains one of the best thing to come out of the 1990s.
EP: Oh yes, I am. I thought we did an amazing job with the thing. I still think it was the only story-oriented adult animated show ever. I mean, you see kinda weird things on Adult Swim, but we were really character driven.
JG2: That’s true. “Duckman” never relied on the fact it was a cartoon to find an out. The characters all dealt with their problems like real people, in between the zany jokes and sight gags.
EP: Yeah, I think we had a realistic emotional base for the characters. They had ups and downs, we would play them against themselves sometimes. I’m very proud of all that.
JG2: So how do you feel about Duckman’s forefather Howard the Duck? He’s really the only competition or measuring stuck that’s ever been in your field.
EP: You know, I don’t know that much about him. I never really followed him closely. I know the movie, and, uh, the technology at the time, there was more than what they could get across. [laughs] If they could have done it digitally…I don’t know. I thnk he’s an interesting character.
JG2: So Howard was never an albatross around Duckman’s neck?
EP: No. Duckman, you know, he’s a duck, but he’s really just a guy, a guy with a bill. Sure, he doesn’t wear clothes, but that’s just the cartoon convention. Daffy Duck never wore clothes.
JG2: I always thought Duckman didn’t wear clothes because he represented the show’s raw nerve, the “naked” emotion.
EP: Yes, exactly. [laughs]