DIE KREUZEN: PUTTING WITH POTATOES
by Steve Albini
from Forced Exposure #10, 1986
Yeah, it's 1986 all of a fucking sudden. Just like that, I'm twenty three fucking years old, I have a job, a college degree, an ulcer, bad breath and no sex drive. Without even trying, I'm a fucking geezer. And punk/rock means shit little to anybody in the world anymore, it seems, save for people who just tripped over it recently and don't know what the fuck to do with it. The precious few musical gangs still creating viable, new music are barely hanging on, thanks to an audience so bent on crushing out originality and inspiration you'd think they were some sort of revenge squad sent in as infiltrators by our parents from long ago. Punk rock was the whole fucking world once, back when it meant cutting loose, going all-out and being nobody's tool. What hasn't been bought out has changed, in the hopes that somebody would buy, save that precious few. Yes, there is a Killdozer. Yea, there are Three (count 'em) Johns. Yes, there is a Naked Raygun. Yes there is a Foetus. Yes, yes, yes there are still too many to name (but barely, fucking barely) and one of the unnamed (as yet) is Die Kreuzen. Once the Stellas, now one of the only high-speed American punk-inspired bands that doesn't suck wildly, they are a reason to keep listening. Raw, blasting noise, supremely-defined tight guitar riffs, off-kilter rhythms that swing and throttle as often as they thrash, and memorable, tortured little blasts of hot, screaming spunk. Fucking hell, they make my head swim with the thought of it all: the promise fulfilled. Punk in essence, without sacrifice, without compromise. So why the fuck did Run DMC's label, Profile, offer them a contract? Why the fuck did they say no? What's the deal?
Keith Brammer: bass
Herman Egeness: guitar
Danny Kubinski: vocals
FE: Steve Albini
(Danny enters carrying a big box of coat hangers.)
FE: Oh, good. You brought coat hangers. We'll need those later. What's the deal? New record? Is it holy?
KEITH: It's respectable. More than respectable.
FE: So you two (Herman and Erik) have gotten more muscular, and you two (Keith and Danny) haven't. What's the deal?
HERMAN: Exercise. (lifts beer)
KEITH: Yeah, the Twelve Ounce Carling Press. Weight training.
FE: You guys have pretty diverse material. What's the deal? Most bands have their one trick, and everybody remembers them as the band that did that. They get their one paragraph. You guys were stupid enough to be diverse and now you're not gonna get your paragraph.
ERIK: With the approach we take, we don't ever catch on real quick, like the Butthole Surfers or somebody who can be categorized or has a gimmick. You can get a couple of paragraphs out of that. One paragraph on the name alone. Those bands get written about a lot more than we do because we're not playing around with a gimmick.
KEITH: A lot of these bands, that's exactly it. Not mentioning names...
FE: Mention some names.
FE: You don't have to worry about alienating any finhead fourteen year-olds. Go ahead. Throw some dirt.
ERIK: Okay, one gimmick would be to have a fancy name--Butthole Surfers, Dead Kennedy's, Dead Milkmen.
KEITH: Or goofiness. Wacky bands. Or the sincere young men of rock kind of Seven Seconds thing. The there's then political kind of thing, MDC, the Raisins.
FE: The Raisins?
KEITH: Yeah, Toxic Raisins. Or Murphy's Law, y'know, "we're a skinhead band", or the Psychos.
FE: The near-legendary Billy Psycho's band.
KEITH: Or the near-legendary Donny the Punk. He calls us up, "Hi, I'm Donny the Punk." Great.
ERIK: This guy calls me up, now MAXIMUM ROCK & ROLL is none of our bible, you know, and I had no idea who he was. He was flabbergasted that I'd never heard of him. "But I'm Donny the Punk!" He has little felt letters on his shirt that say "Donny the Punk".
FE: He's about ninety years old, looks like Goebbels and has a little mustache.
ERIK: I met him. He's a nice enough guy. For somebody who calls himself Donny the Punk. Don't print that.
FE: Don't worry.
ERIK: Anyway we're not a skin band, we're not a skate band, we're not a metal band.
FE: And you've got the name that all of teen America gets wrong. It's like James Dean, you get in the car, go cruisin', have a big flameout and there ya go, you die cruisin'.
ERIK: We never heard that version until we got out to LA the first time. These Mexican kids, they thought we were a low-rider band.
FE: There you go. Now there's a gimmick. You'll get your paragraph now; "Die Kreuzen, low riders." Herman, let's face it, flat tops are the best thing that can happen to a head. What happened? What's the deal?
HERMAN: Just got tired of cutting it.
FE: You cut that? The most geometrically sound flat top in history?
HERMAN: Sure. It's cheaper.
FE: There was a time there when you guys were sort of broken up, or not broken up or whatever...
HERMAN: Broken up.
FE: So that's a safe term? Broken up, and there were numerous rearrangements of Tense Experts, you guys, the Crusties, An Attempt, Soy Dirt Car. What's the deal? No deal?
KEITH: Tense Experts were a band way back when, and they were my favorite band for years and years. I always wanted to play with them. It was alright, but there was very little sense of responsibility in that band. A lot of talent, but the band was thirteenth on everybody's list of things to do. Soy Dirt Car had been around for a while. They got it together and played a few times. Then they played at this art opening at the university where I was really wasted on complimentary wine, and they said, "Here's a guitar." So I played with them a lot. Then it was more of a band, now it's more of a collective of everybody in town. It's basically Darren Drown and Eric Lunde, though. That music is total improvisation, and ours is totally structured.
FE: You write the music first?
KEITH: Actually we start with a set list of titles only, and work from there.
FE: Just like Ted Nugent.
ERIK: Yes. And there's a limit of three riffs per song. Two of which have to be variations.
FE: Why did you guys break up that time (1983)?
ERIK: We came off a tour, we had no-money, nobody had jobs. We were all real depressed. We had just been stuck in San Francisco for a whole month with no money or food.
FE: Was that on the tour-for-life tour?
ERIK: Yes, we were gone for good. About two weeks into the tour-for-life we ran out of gigs. Then we ran out of money. Things got hairy.
KEITH: First we thought we'd be able to live in LA--wow, great. It took about forty seconds to decide, oh fuck, we don't want to live here. Then we went to San Francisco. Oh fuck again.
ERIK: That took about two days to decide. It was better.
FE: Too many street mimes.
KEITH: Yeah, street mimes, and little punk rock kids asking you for money all the time.
ERIK: Then we found Mike [who did the LOUD 3D book] and Huey, who were nice enough to us up for a month.
FE: So there are a lot of 3-D photos of Die Kreuzen hanging around at home.
KEITH: Yeah. We knew we could get up every day at noon and watch "The Monkees", so we did. In that whole month we played about four gigs. My most vivid recollection of the whole trip is getting up, eating potatoes and watching the Monkees.
ERIK: Potatoes baked, fried, twice baked, chopped and fried...
DANNY: Potato pancakes. Potatoes with every spice in the kitchen.
ERIK: Oh, and bean and potato burrito. We learned to love Mexican food, like the El Torro Burrito from this place in San Francisco.
FE: You've got the eating-for-no-money thing down.
KEITH: We live on nothing on tour. Here's fifty pounds of potatoes. Let's live it up. Baloney and bread is a standard.
ERIK: When you haven't eaten in a day and a half, boy, that tastes mighty good. MMM! Got any more of that baloney? No? Fuck, I'll just eat this bread then. Great!
KEITH: Nowadays, we make enough to fix the truck even. We pay ourselves three bucks a day.
ERIK: We're rich.
KEITH: And I read in ROLLING STONE how Black Flag's members "somehow manage to exist on fifteen dollars a day."
ERIK: Man, with fifteen dollars a day, we'd be socking money away. We'd eat steak.
KEITH: We'd be buying pot with it if we had that kind of money. No shit. Oh man, my mom's gonna read this. We wouldn't buy pot, really.
FE: Right now, you're living off the band, right? You don't have any white people kind of jobs or anything.
DANNY: I don't think I could ever work again, really.
ERIK: We're only two weeks behind on the rent. We got a five day notice last month.
KEITH: We're only paying the rent off the band for about five months now. This is all an accumulation of four years work. The gigs are the real income. Records provide an occasional check which quickly gets sucked into the vortex. We go out on tour pretty regularly. We pay the rent, put off the other bills and borrow money for the truck. We owe everybody in the city money.
FE: You should invent money the way Merrill Lynch does. I've done it. You write a check, borrow money from somebody else to cover it, write him a check for his own money back, and keep writing these checks back and forth covering each other until the money exists. They made millions.
ERIK: It's illegal as hell though.
FE: Yeah, but if it doesn't bother you that you're leading to the collapse of the monetary system, then it's an honest buck, really. You're not stealing anybody's money. Anyway, so here's a nice, respectable skate band, making a living playing low-rider heavy metal thrash. You got your hair, your flashpots, your bread truck. Then in walks the disco label. What gives?
ERIK: Yeah, that one really came out of left field.
FE: There's a big what-the-fuck light flashing.
KEITH: They said, sure, we'll take a hefty percentage of everything you make for the rest of your career. How about it? Thanks a lot.
HERMAN: Yeah, "We'll give you the same deal Run DMC got."
KEITH: They sent us a contract, twenty seven pages being the exact opposite of what we were told on the phone by Gary Pini. Call Profile, he'll answer the phone.
HERMAN: Ask for the guy who drives the Mercedes.
ERIK: What I want to say is that we weren't able to negotiate a strong enough deal for it to be worth signing a five LP contract.
KEITH: They suggested that our lawyer draw up a counter proposal. Sure, we have tons of money to pay a whole staff of lawyers to be crooked on our behalf.
ERIK: The lawyer we did show the contract to said, "Here, this is what it all means." Then he said, "I can't believe they sent this to you if they knew a lawyer was going to see it."
FE: How did they approach you?
ERIK: They had the tact to contact Corey Rusk at our existing label, Touch and Go. Corey was very cool about it, and actually gave us the information. It wouldn't have put him in a bad light if he wouldn't have done it, and it seemed like a big deal. They had a couple of albums in the Top 100, a couple of gold records. They had money to kick around. They drive Mercedes.
KEITH: Yeah, but you don't see Run DMC driving Mercedes. On the phone, we were told, sure, one record deal. Sure, complete artistic control. Then we get the contract, and it's actually five years, five albums.
ERIK: It was a series of five one-year contracts, one album minimum, two album maximum per year. Their options.
DANNY: They would have been able to remix, reedit anything. They got all the merchandizing.
KEITH: Basically, we would have no control over anything after we had recorded the tapes. I think they were just thinking this was an easy way to branch out from all negro acts...
ERIK: Don't say that.
KEITH: I'm not being derogatory.
FE: You mean Boo Music? I don't mean Boo Music in a derogatory way.
ERIK: He said he had heard the albun and liked it, and they were branching out. All of a sudden they had money to burn.
FE: This music is sold through entirely different channels from Boo music though. How could they cope with a totally different distribution network, and totally different stores to market through?
ERIK: He had an idea about the distribution and such. That was a major point during the short time that we were even considering it, that the record would reach people who otherwise might not ever have seen it, in Musicland and K-Mart. We would always be able to sell a certain number of copies to independent distributors, since you know, Rough Trade knows who we are, and no matter where the record comes from, they'll get it.
FE: How long did all this haggling take?
KEITH: Four months, from the day he called us with this Utopian vision of record heaven to actually seeing the contract.
FE: What were some of the specifications of the contract?
ERIK: They would retain rights to all merchandising, and we would get fifty percent of the royalties. That was negotiated up from twenty five percent. There was an interesting clause in there that said that they could cancel our contract and keep us on hold by paying us a certain union scale. They could pay us a small salary and keep us from recording or doing anything (the same sorta deal by which Unicorn dicked Black Flag). Nowhere in the contract was there an explanation of what this scale was.
KEITH: There were separate royalties for America and overseas, and if our records were released overseas, we would get, like, a quarter of our US royalty. And the percentage in America wasn't that great to begin with.
ERIK: One quietly worded clause said that they had the right to re-edit, re-mix, re-master and re-release anything we did.
KEITH: Yeah, bring in Arthur Baker and Jellybean.
ERIK: We were talking to Corey this whole time, and I guess he wasn't too happy with us for a while. His only
pitch was that he was being totally honest, and we knew what we'd be getting into with him. We've been working without a contract with him and never had any problems.
FE: Were you able to figure out how much you'd actually be getting paid per record?
ERIK: I had it all worked out, it was all right, actually. In the neighborhood of a buck an album.
FE: So they weren't going to give you any money out of their pockets.
ERIK: No, only money recoupable from our royalties.
FE: And less than ten percent of the retail.
FE: And they had the rights to everything.
ERIK: Anything we did.
FE: And they would only ever pay you half of legally required royalties.
ERIK: Unless the law changed, and they were protected from that.
FE: Sounds pretty sweet.
ERIK: That's what the lawyer said, "sounds funky to me". What about videos? Well, any videos would be made at our expense, and any profit from them would be split, fifty/fifty. So we would have paid for it and given them money for the priveledge. Oh, and everything was cross-collateralized so that lost money would have been taken out of record royalties.
FE: So they could have make videos, remixed your records, made T-shirts, hired promo guys, and everything else, all at your expense, and then kept over ninety percent of the dough from day one?
ERIK: Yup. We're just a bunch of country boys. We don't understand all this music biz shit. We'd never dealt with any major labels up until then. There's something to be said for driving up to Detroit and having the head of the label put you up in his house and having his wife cook for you. That, and knowing that when he says, "I'll split the profit with you," he means it. It's pretty much an ideal situation.
FE: As ideal as you and me sitting in a bark canoe, paddling our way up Tesco's colon?
ERIK: Well...maybe not that ideal...
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