INTERVIEW from "BRUTARIAN" MAGAZINE
DONE IN SEPTEMBER, 2001
UBANGIS - IT'S ONLY JUNK IF YOU PLAY IT RIGHT
Once upon a time, not too terribly long ago, almost every town in America had one, or two or three: band(s) playing self-consciously primitive garage rock with a slightly ghoulish twist. Just like The Cramps. But because there really is only one Cramps most of these bands packed it in. The Ubangis didn't. They went on hiatus but they never called it quits. Instead, they honed their songwriting skills and stage moves and worked on getting The Cramps out.
But let's make no bones about it, The Ubangis play junk, absolute trash, i.e., they seek to entertain on the basest, most compromised of levels. Generating laughter, tears, shivers and swoons is what they strive for. It's the absurd courting the vulgar and not caring whether it succeeds. Which is what rock and roll is all about, isn't?
Brutarian: So let's get to why the band almost threw in the towel . . .
Manos (lead guitar player and co-writer): Really? We almost broke-up? That's news to me!
Horrorwitz (lead singer, drummer and co-writer): Well, it wasn't so much a matter of breaking up as having to take a break. In this area, at least, it's really hard to find people who want to play this kind of music. That and realizing that you have to practice and practice and then go out on the road all the time. And for almost no money. After 11 years too!
Brutarian: So what's fun about being a loser, then?
Manos: Well, you can't quit your day job, that's for sure.
Horrorwitz: Take the band I had before this, Date Bait. We had about two hundred people play in that band because each time someone joined they thought "Cool! I get to be in a band with Kim Kane!" who, as you know, played guitar in The Slickee Boys. But we went through all these people because they just didn't realize how much work was involved in being in a band and how little reward, monetarily speaking, there was. But Randy [Manos] and I kept at it because we loved playing this kind of music . . .
Manos: We were always writing but it wasn't until we got a bass player (Eric "U.M.F." Tavela) that we began to branch out and write surf instros and more complex bits. Eric, our bass player at the time, was an excellent guitarist who had switched to bass for us and it was thru his imaginative playing that he gave us a greater palette to draw on.
Horrowitz: After Eric split, we stopped playing live as much and were able to develop still further. We began working on film soundtracks, the Jess Franco films being among the most notable, and we became even more versatile.
Manos: A long way from when we first started and were doing simple blues progressions.
Horrorwitz: And then one day Steve (percussion and theremin) and his wife Nancy (bass player) came up and said they were interested with Nancy saying, "Hey, I'll play bass." We didn't even know she played bass or that Steve had a theremin. Before this Nancy had modeled a great cheesecake pose for our CD cover and Steve, a tremendous comic artist and illustrator, had been drawing for us.
Brutarian: And how did a sweet young thing such as yourself get corrupted by rock-n-roll?
Nasty Nancy (bass player): As a kid music was an escape from real life for me. My mom's musical taste had influenced me a lot when I was really young living in Baltimore. We were crazy about the Beatles and liked Roy Orbison a lot. Mom gave me a bunch of her twin sister's Beatles records to play when I was around three. She trusted me with them which was a big mistake and I played them constantly for years. I wound up destroying them all. I still have them even though they're unplayable now...
Brutarian: And The Ubangis?...
Nasty Nancy: The Ubangis sound always amazed me. They were really fun visually and Brian's creative genius pulled it all together. So I was thrilled to get a chance to play with them; I'd always wanted to and just jumped at the chance although I have to admit that I miss seeing the band as an audience member.
Brutarian: Brian, a genius? We were unaware that he had completed high school.
Horrorwitz: Not true. Not true. It just took me until I was 29 to get a diploma. Nasty
Nancy: Randy was a great pull for me too. I was always crazy about 60's go-go girl stuff growing up. I liked the wild colorful clothes, the big hair, tons of make-up and the huge eyelashes. And the music that went along with that image: that surf guitar sound which Randy captures so well.
Brutarian: This kind of music being . . .
Horrorwitz: Rock and roll, baby!
Brutarian: I think that's a little broad . . . "trashy" or "garbage" should be employed, I think.
Horrorwitz: Who you calling a little broad!!?
Manos: I was thinking about that just now as well as an article someone wrote about us; and like so many journalists, the writer was trying to neatly categorize us. "Psychopunkatrashabilly," was what he finally came up with.
Brutarian: A terrible neologism but you can see what he was trying to work toward . . .
Horrorwitz: Actually, I came up with that word for the writer . . .
Manos: Oh, that's right, but he decided to use it. But here's my point, finally, from the 80's on, I don't think that "rock and roll" has ever been "rock and roll." The record companies just call whatever it is they release, "rock and roll" so they can sell it. What we do is closer to the original "rock and roll" in sound and spirit . . .
Horrorwitz: . . . which was the intent from the get go . . .
Manos: . . . and it's funny that in this day and age, to sell what we do, you almost have to call it performance art. But it's not it's rock and roll. It may seem primitive, even shocking to a lot of people but what can we do? At least people are giving us a look!
Horrorwitz: Originally we were called, by a few local writers, a psychobilly band, which I never really thought we were. But we've changed a bit and you can't even call the material we do now rockabilly. We never sounded like a psychobilly band and we were way to trashy and weird even in the beginning to be labeled a simple rockabilly band although we might do a rockabilly song occasionally. Today . . .
Brutarian: But there's a definite trash aesthetic at work here, however.
Horrorwitz: Well, some of the inspiration when I started was Little Richard, Screaming Jay Hawkins, the early Andre Williams' stuff before he was "re-discovered". For Randy it was Link Wray, Davie Allan, Dick Dale. So throw that all together and if that's trash, well ok. But even so you take all that and we'll still do our version of a Devo song or whatever we feel like at the moment.
Brutarian: But Mr. Horrorwitz, we want to show what a genius you are. We need you to talk about the trash aesthetic. What it is and how it underlies what you do.
Horrorwitz: It's the approach someone takes to their art form. Take movies for example. We talk about exploitation movies but technically all movies are exploitation movies because most of them exist to make money. But in the aesthetic sense, what "exploitation" filmmakers would do would be to shoot films that the bigger, more successful studios wouldn't make in order to compete financially. So they would make sex films, violent films, gory films, what have you. It was a more honest approach because they weren't trying to be intellectual or artistic, they were just going for the lowest common denominator. No pretensions, no bullshit. This is what you want, this what you get. Just give us your money. That's the trash aesthetic. Pure exploitation.
Brutarian: . . .and applied to rock and roll?
Horrorwitz: For rock and roll which I thought was always about emotion and sex and energy . . .
Manos: . . . and craziness
Brutarian: . . . and alcohol and drugs . . .
Horrorwitz: . . . well, not for us . . . but looking at rock and roll . . .really, it's not about pretense . . . in it's purer forms it just is another kind of exploitation. So, really, there's no trash aesthetic to apply. Trash is part and parcel of what rock and roll is.
Brutarian: Along with not caring what other people think or taking responsibility for who you offend . . .
Horrorwitz: Not Necessarily. Although, I have to admit, when I first started the band... Let's call this period, the "pre-Ubangis" period... there's no question that we specifically got together with the idea of pissing-off certain people in the D.C. - Baltimore band scene. Which didn't mean that we didn't dig what we were doing or didn't enjoy playing or weren't sincere or any good but that was the time when we'd play thirty minutes of chicken songs and then I'd come out for the grand finale wearing a chicken g-string and nothing else. Eating dog food on the stage . . . Not that I'm above doing any of that now, mind you. But at the time there were a lot of rockabilly bands around, some really good, some not-so-good, and a good part of that scene was just so filled with ego . . . Snob-abilly! Bands were trying to sound like Johnny Burnette who was awesome, of course, but you just ain't gonna sound like Johnny Burnette no matter how hard you try so why bother? And around this time there were a lot of compilation records showing up with these really obscure 50's rock and r&b tracks; they were as raw and rockin' as any punk records ever. So I went to a bunch of guys several of whom were in bands already and said, "I'll bet you we could form a group, book a gig and have only one rehearsal and just do nothing but covers of these obscure songs and we would be instantly a million times better than these other groups." So that was the impetus for the band: pure, raw, and fun rock and roll. So it started as a joke, a bet really, but then we started getting calls for gigs, so much that the other guys couldn't invest any more time so they all bailed. So things momentarily stopped...
Manos: Until about 1991 when I met Brian. I had seen him with Date Bait and was intrigued by him and his band. They had opened for The Cramps in ‘89 and had gravestones and a coffin on the stage with a guy in a gorilla suit jumping around . . . Incredible! Anyway, one day I'm in the record store where Brian works with my hands full of Ventures' CDs and I see the Date Bait LP and I thought, "Cool, I'll pick this up too." So we get to talking and he mentions he needs a guitarist for this offshoot band of his called The Ubangis.
Horrorwitz: . . . and the rest is history although I think he was the only guy to ever buy The Date Bait record.
Brutarian: So ten years on and suddenly we have a theremin in the group?
Horrorwitz: Well, Steve just came up to us and asked if he could play theremin on a few cuts. And he did and it meshed perfectly but we wanted him to play on more of our set so one day he showed up with his conga drums and it was amazing. We've always had kind of a jungle sound on many of our tunes and his work just fleshed it out.
Steve (theremin player and percussionist): I use to play in bands years ago. I was in a band called The Skeptics and Killers From Space and I was the drummer in both those bands. I wasn't looking to join a band but Nancy (his wife) joined and I said to myself, "That looks like fun." And the band was encouraging me . . .
Brutarian: How do you master an instrument like the theremin? It's next to impossible isn't it?
Steve: To me it seems rather easy. Something anyone can master with a little effort.
Nasty Nancy: Not true at all. Not when every body movement can change the note.
Manos: I have to disagree too. At every soundcheck you'll have the sound guy just shaking his head saying, "You're not really going to try to play that thing are you?" Because they've all had experiences with guys who just think it's a matter of goofing around with it and it's a disaster.
Horrorwitz: But Steve can actually play that thing!
Nasty Nancy: Real notes. Actual songs.
Steve: Placement is important too. If you place it too close to other instruments you deaden the sound.
Horrorwitz: That's why everyone left that night!
Brutarian: Tell us about your soundtrack work that you mentioned earlier. How did you get involved with Jess Franco [cult director of over 175 films including "Vampyros Lesbos" and "Venus In Furs"] ?
Horrorwitz: Well, Steve and Nancy knew the guy that produces Franco's films now. Since Steve's cartoon cover for the Cramps' LP ("Bad Music For Bad People") he has done other covers and, more recently, promotional art for the films "Tender Flesh" and "Mari Cookie and the Killer Tarantula". So I gave Franco's producer The Ubangis CD simply because Nancy was on the cover and he was friends with them. Then we got a call a couple of weeks later asking to use tracks in "Lust For Frankenstein" we he had just finished. This is how fast Jess Franco works. It's what he's known for. Moving quick. Michelle Bauer, Amber Newman and Lina Romay were in that one. And then a few months later, I get a call from him asking if I could write a few original songs for his new film "Vampire Blues".
Manos: He wanted songs with minor chords.
Horrorwitz: He picked two songs off our CD and said, "Make them kind of like this." And so we did. Then we were called in for a third movie, "Blind Target".
Manos: But they could never make up their mind what they wanted.
Horrorwitz: And the big mistake was allowing a third party connected with the production try to write lyrics. It ruined the formula.
Brutarian: Which was the film that had all the silly whippings on a remote island?
Steve: That was "Tender Flesh", the first project I worked on for Franco.
Brutarian: Your artwork was the only good thing about that travesty. Steve: Actually, the peeing in the frying pan scene was pretty funny.
Horrorwitz: Hey, I think that's actually a really good film! Franco says that of all of his recent films "Vampire Blues" is his favorite. He claims it's his most personal film.
Brutarian: You mean the one that keeps repeating the same lesbian scenes over and over again?
Nasty Nancy: I think it was different actresses assuming the same positions.
Manos: But we've got other film projects we're working on
Horrorwitz: That's right, we've got two songs in the first ever Mexican-wrestling-porn film that Johnny Legend has finished. He's calling it "Sex-Mex"! Also H.G. Lewis has spoken to us about the possibility of doing the theme for "Blood Feast 2". He's not actually sure if he's going to be making it . . .
Brutarian: H.G. Lewis? Of course he's not sure if he's going to be making it. He's one hundred and twenty-seven years old!
Horrorwitz: He's a really nice guy. For years people have been approaching him about making "Blood Feast 2" and what he's said was that somebody actually sent him a decent script and it looks like he's going to come up with the money this time. We're involved with him by the way almost by accident. We did the theme to "Monster A-Go-Go", hey, on the record you put out, The Brutarian Sampler, and I gave Lewis a copy of that and The Ubangis' CD and he saw Nancy's picture on it and he suggested later that perhaps we should do the theme song.
Brutarian: And then?
Horrorwitz: And then we had phone sex . . . No, really this was fairly recently so even though we''e not sure the movie is happening, H.G. Lewis is definitely interested in us writing some music for the project. He's been doing lectures and raising money. Interesting talks, he's not embarrassed to talk about his work but neither does he glamorize it. He knows it was shit.
Brutarian: But the money is there.
Steve: I'm not even sure, H.G. knows but he says he's closer now to making it than he's ever been before. Actually he said he'd believe it when he sees it but its closer to heading in that direction.
Brutarian: So what's in store for you guys in the future then?
Steve: Well, were back in the studio now recording a new single, the theme from the 60's flick "The Green Slime"! It'll be limited edition on green vinyl and probably will be out this fall on Brian and Kim (Kane's) DeCeased Records label. Also, we're working on our new CD called "Exploit Yourself". After that, more gigs, more soundtracks and who knows what!