Exploding White Mice (2) by Steve Gardner
This article is going to be fun to write...not that most of them aren't, but there's a certain batch of bands that really light you up, and for me the Exploding White Mice are one of them...they're one group that I always can count on to deliver music that I can like with no reservations. There's no question about "if you're in the mood for this sort of thing, put them on" or anything like that. I'm ALWAYS in the mood for the Mice, and you can put on any of their records and I'll be just about equally delighted. I've wanted to do a feature on them for quite some time, and persistence has paid off in the form of a LONG letter answering my countless questions from lead guitar player Jeff Stephens, which, along with old articles from B-Side (the great Australian fanzine, not the British poofter-rock rag from the US), Harry Butler's DNA, and Lemon are the main sources for what follows.
The band started in 1983 in Adelaide when Paul Gilchrist (vocals) hooked up with Andy MacQueen (bass), Gerry Barrett (guitar) and Craig Rodda (drums) for a one-off show at a party. Paul had never been in a band before, while Andy had been in bands called the Deviants and the Crunch Pets, and Craig was the drummer for the Screaming Believers. The set consisted of covers of their favorite songs, the intent being only to have a laugh. But they had so much fun that they decided to try to get a hotel gig, and they managed to get signed up for a couple nights at a local establishment. One of these shows was attended by Giles Barrow, who had played guitar for bands called Zippy and The Coneheads and Kaos. He ended up joining as rhythm guitar player. By mid 1984 these five started playing a regular gig at the Cathedral Hotel in the north of Adelaide. Towards the end of the year Gerry left and was replaced by former Spitfire and Tombstone Shadow Jeff Stephens, who was a friend of Giles.
The set at this time was all covers; Jeff sent me a tape of early live stuff including material from October 1984 at the Cathedral; by his reckoning about five people were in the audience (one of them being Liz Dealy, judging from the between song banter). From the sound of the tape, the band were a powerhouse from the start; they played raging versions of songs like "No Fun", "Born To Lose", MC5's "Shakin' Street", Gun Club's "Sex Beat", "Bad Little Woman" (on the mini-lp), and "Burn My Eye". December came and they were playing "Neat Neat Neat", "Pills", "King Of The Surf" and "You're Gonna Miss Me" at the Tivoli Hotel.
It would not take long for news of a racket this good to reach the attention of Greasy Pop's Doug Thomas, who wanted them to do a track for what was to become the first Oasis In A Desert Of Noise compilation. On the way to making their cover of the Stooges they also recorded three other covers and two originals, which Doug liked well enough to decide to finance a mini-lp. But in the meantime, the band had to come up with a permanent drummer as they were still working with Craig on loan from the Screaming Believers. The choice was another former member of Zippy and the Coneheads, David Bunney. The band recorded one more original "Dangerous", with Bunney on the drums, and put out 1985's A Nest Of Vipers. The record packs a powerful instrumental punch, and there are many who argue that it's their best, but I prefer the tougher sounding vocal job that Gilchrist does on subsequent records. Still, there's no denying that it's a great record.
A Nest Of Vipers got solid reviews world wide and gave the band a solid push to the front row of Adelaide bands. The Sydney rock weekly RAM (now out of business) picked it as the top Australian record of 1986 over competition like Died Pretty's Next To Nothing and Free Dirt, the Eastern Dark's Long Live The New Flesh and the Screaming Tribesmen's Date With A Vampyre ep, all classics in my book. In the US, the record was licensed by Bigtime Records, a very unhappy experience for the Mice as has been related in the Greasy Pop feature last issue. Aside from never paying a cent despite sales reputed to be in the realm of several thousand copies, Bigtime altered the title of the record to In A Nest Of Vipers. Says Jeff:
"Bigtime could not organize a fuck in a brothel with their cocks wrapped in $100 notes. To change the title of that record was a petty, pointless exercise in showing us all "who's the boss". We weren't trying to get any sort of meaning across in our title, but why did they change it? They didn't even do it PROPERLY! On the spine of the cover and on the label it was still A Nest Of Vipers. It doesn't take much to work out why Bigtime went bust, and NO we haven't seen a cent from them (and are unlikely to.)"This incident is worth mentioning because although being flim-flammed out of the bucks for a few thousand records may seem small in relationship to what mega-sellers like Guns'n'Roses make, for a small indie band it can set back the next recording by several years, since most bands have to recover their money from one recording session to pay for the next. It pisses me off severely to think that there could be more Exploding White Mice records in my collection if Bigtime had paid as they should.
At any rate, things had gotten off to a fairly flying start for the Exploding White Mice, but 1986 and 1987 have to rate as years of consolidation in which they played fairly steadily both in Adelaide and interstate to Melbourne and Sydney. In DNA #73 Harry Butler described one of their shows in Adelaide with Bloodloss in July of 1987:
"Yet another night when the Mice exceeded all expectations - both their own and the audiences'. Although Bloodloss had scored a fairly receptive response it was obvious that this was very much a rodent crowd. The stage front area was crammed with a twenty row assemblage of eager bouncing bodies as the band launched into a tight, punchy set. A big advance on some other shows I'd seen; the main set had only three covers, matched against 14 originals which scored a better response than the non-originals by and large. It was during the encores that people really began exceeding themselves, and the look on Gilchrist's face when the crowd sang along on "Bad Little Woman" was a sight to behold. The best show I'd ever seen the furry ones do, and a crowd to match."Two of the songs from this show, "Blaze Of Glory" and "He's Gonna Step On You Again", wound up on a single released in 1987. I'd rate it their most vital seven incher, given the presence of two great crunching songs not available on lp. The A-side, written by Stephens, is pretty close to my favorite all-time Exploding White Mice song, featuring some great shouts and a punishing riff. It actually showed up on a US compilation called The Bigtime Syndrome, buried with a lot of other bands that couldn't hold a candle to it. But more important was the fact that this single showed that the Mice could write a song as great as the covers they played so often, and for which they were starting to draw some criticism. "Ramones jukebox" was the most common tag.
So 1988's Brute Force And Ignorance lp was a critical point for the band, and on more than one front as it turns out. It contains 11 originals of power and melody that will stand the test of time. Doug Thomas swears it will be recognized in years to come as a classic, and all I can add is that I don't care if it is ever considered a classic...in my book it's a classic right now and there's no way you have a collection of Aussie records if you don't own it. But there was a lot of agony that went into its making and a lot of frayed tempers before it was done. Kim Horne, who had worked with the band on their previous records, started as producer, but by the end the arguments were fierce enough so that Doug entered the picture to help finish it up. According to Doug, a lot of the guitar tracks were overdriven in getting them onto the original master tape, so that mixing was a frustrating job of damage control. Coupled with the band's desire to get the ultimate guitar crunch, the result was a tense session with everyone displeased in the immediate aftermath. In the Lemon article, both Paul and David repeatedly express their disappointment in how it came out.
But time heals many wounds, and now Jeff reflects on all that with a broader mind.
"I think that what were really a couple of off-hand comments by Dave Bunney were blown out of all proportion by a few people. Sure, we all think the production on Brute Force And Ignorance could have been better, but everyone thinks that about their record. The production on A Nest Of Vipers could have been better, too! I think that you don't get a true indication of what a band thinks about its latest record if you ask them soon after it's released - they're sick to death of hearing the bloody thing! Actually, I listened to Brute Force a week ago and it sounded great! Any problems associated with that record eventuated from too many opinions in the control room, and if anything, the lp was a bit over-produced. But we were going for the loudest guitar attack possible, and I think we came pretty close to getting it."
"Subsequent recordings have been (thank god!) much more easy going, and I think the new LP sounds great - sort of a cross between the crunch of Brute Force and the "airier" sound of Vipers."The lp also spawned two singles, both of which are really only crucial to collectors as all the tracks are on the lp. But the first, "Fear"/"Without Warning" is significant since it pairs two of the best tracks from the lp. The A side is one of the slower things the band have done, and despite being based on the simplest of riffs, it still is impressively effective. The flip throws restraint to the wind and bashes away wildly. Great stuff.
The lp was not without casualties, however. Giles Barrow, who had been managing the band in addition to playing guitar and writing some of the songs, went on an extended sabbatical. At the time, Dave Bunney said that the band had been pretty much riding on Barrow's back, and that he had been fairly well worn ragged by the work load. Coupled with domestic (i.e. girl-friend) problems, says Jeff, this "caused him to hand in his notice shortly before the release of Brute Force, on the understanding that if the band found a replacement we were happy with, then so be it. If not, he would offer his services after a two or three month break." As it turned out, ex-Primevils guitar played Dave Mason was looking for a new band, and he was quickly fit into the lineup, so Giles was gone for good. Jeff describes him as an "Afro-topped disco devotee", which seems a strange moniker for a fellow who has played on songs like the classic "Saw My Name Written On A Tombstone". The Primevils were a noisier, darker band than the Mice, and Dave's style was correspondingly less influenced by pop bands and more by noise groups.
Says Jeff: "His guitar style brought about a marked change in the band's sound. Definitely more noise oriented, whilst still being fast rock and roll. Dave was a very casual character who displayed a healthy cynicism towards the whole "Rock'n'Roll Band On Tour" syndrome one invariably falls into. This meant his time with the band was definitely relaxed and good fun, but I think in terms of real progress we may have marked time a bit (only one single in over a year)."That single, "Make It"/"Ain't It Sad" fits the pattern of the "Fear" single...a moodier A side and a rampaging flip, both solid tracks, and both obviously impacted by Mason's playing style. Live the impact seems to have been no less, as Harry Butler reports from a May 1988 show:
"The big deal tonight was that it was Dave Mason's debut with the band. A bunch of the unfortunate lad's associates had gathered to heckle, and ex-rodent Giles Barrow had done his bit to "help" by stomping all over Mason's effects pedals, thus dramatically changing their settings. Out they marched and right from the opening bars of the first songs it was apparent that not only does Mr. Mason fit in brilliantly, but he also brings the band a whole new lease on life. This is not meant as an indictment of Giles, merely affirming the fact that the act of bringing new blood to any band can help by revitalizing what's already there. A bum note or two at a crucial point during the intro to "Fear" didn't cause a major upset (although it did inspire a few laughs), although rumors that he might continue to deliberately do it should not be dismissed out of hand. "First Time Is The Best Time" was a real ripper (especially when Mason starting using his effects pedals - see above). "Baby Sitter" struck me as being a bit turgid, but by and large the only major fuck up was in "You're Gonna Miss Me" when Mason lost it completely for a while. Still, he's not known as the Fred Astaire of the music biz for nothing, and never before has such an inspired set of toe-tapping and on-stage bopping been seen."During the summer and fall of 1989 Dave's work commitments were making it increasingly difficult for him to tour interstate, and as he valued his job he parted ways with the band on friendly terms. In October the band picked up Jack Jacomos to play guitar, Jeff says that with him the band has "returned to its roots, soundwise, while progressing in the writing and playing area. Jack's style is fast, loud, and tight, which is (hopefully) the way the band is currently sounding."
A new lp entitled The Exploding White Mice is finished and should be out as you read this (this being the writers way of saying he ain't got it to tell you about it, but don't let that stop you!). Jeff says that the band is really happy with it (that's a relief!) and he says some of the songs will surprise a few people. It's got a studio side with six originals and a live side recorded while on tour in Queensland. A single with "I Just Want To Have My Fun"/"First Time Is The Best Time"/"Do The Crunch" is due to support the lp, and I did get a tape of that...the A side is a light pop song for the radio, while the B-sides are both live. A studio version of "Do The Crunch" is on the lp; it's another brain-basher. The live side includes covers of "Misunderstood" (Saints), "Meet The Creeper" (Destroy All Monsters), "Bangkok" (an Alex Chilton song also covered by the Nomads), and "King Of The Surf" (Trashmen). It's also got 4 other tracks that have been on past studio recordings. The live side was recorded on a four track recorder, but according to Jeff it has come out pretty well "warts and all!".
It's especially good to see a new record on the way since judged only by their record releases, the Exploding White Mice seem a bit sporadic; they fairly well burst onto the scene at the beginning and since then have had a hard time making headway.
"I guess that impression is accurate", says Jeff. "Although it may seem to far-off observers that we haven't really done much, we do play LOTS of gigs. I think we are definitely a LIVE band, and none of the records we've put accurately reflects the energy and power we try to achieve live. The main reason for the low output of records is that as songwriters we're not prolific (although this is changing lately - Jack is writing at a furious rate)."
"The band seems to play more often interstate than we do in Adelaide lately. Since 1985 we've played in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne many times and in Perth once. Sydney and Brisbane have always been great for us, with really good crowds and good reaction. Melbourne was a bit quiet, but our last couple of tours there have been WILD! I think that we're a bit taken for granted in Adelaide (that certainly doesn't apply only to us, either), and we sort of go through phases of being very popular followed by the complete opposite. I gave up trying to work it out years ago. We've always played for our own enjoyment first, and if people come to see us play, that's like a bonus."By Jeff's reckoning things in Oz are in a bit of a lull at the moment.
"About two or three years ago it was at a REAL peak with bands like the Hard-Ons, Massappeal, Hellmenn, etc REALLY popular. There are a lot of good bands around, though - I really like the Proton Energy Pills, Hard-Ons, the Meanies (from Melbourne), Horny Toads, New Christs, Rifles, etc."There's a huge number of bands in a similar vein coming out of Sydney and Melbourne, bands like the Horny Toads or Splatterheads who are competent in their own right, yet still have a way to go to match the power and tunefulness of the Mice, but the size of their city seems to help them to reach much higher far more quickly than they otherwise might. I wondered whether the Exploding White Mice had ever considered leaving Adelaide. But Jeff seems unconcerned by the pace of others:
"It certainly doesn't bother us that the bands you mentioned (and others) are getting the publicity they deserve, but yeah, being in Adelaide does mean that you have to yell and scream three times as loud to get noticed! All of the major (mainstream) rock magazines are based in Sydney or Melbourne and their complete refusal to even acknowledge any music from any other city is truly pig-headed and frustrating. In a way it's made bands like us stronger and more determined, so that by the time Adelaide bands (or Perth, Brisbane, or Hobart bands) get to play in Sydney or Melbourne, they're usually REALLY fired up and consequently create a good impression. I think a reasonable analogy is when the Celibate Rifles first played in London, people didn't know what hit 'em!"
"We've talked about basing ourselves elsewhere, but nothing has eventuated, 'cos we LIKE living in Adelaide, and Sydney and Melbourne are only a day's drive away. I think one of the reasons we do so well in those cities is 'cos we're only there once every three of four months."I wondered if overseas support meant much to a band like the Exploding White Mice, or if they even noticed it at all. Jeff was pretty emphatic in response:
"Overseas interest DEFINITELY helps Oz bands - I'm POSITIVE that if bands like the New Christs, Hard-Ons or Rifles couldn't tour overseas they would have split up long ago. Even though Oz is a huge place, its population is tiny and a band can play only so often to the same crowd of people. The prospect of new audiences is a LIFELINE to Australian bands."Next up it's the Mice's turn to realize that prospect and show Europe what an Aussie band can do, as they're slated for a tour starting April 13th, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, West AND East Germany, France, Britain, Spain and on and on. The tour, which will have concluded by the time you read this, has been slated for 8 weeks; VERY intensive, according to Jeff. The Mouse back-catalog has been licensed in Europe through Normal in time for the tour.
There's also some talk of touring Japan "but it's only talk at the moment", says Jeff. If that happens, a US tour will be next. I'm pumped. Then by the end of the year, they hope to do yet another lp (becoming positively prolific, as Mice will!). "And hopefully", says Jeff, "no lineup changes! Really what we want to do is keep doing what we have been doing, except to get BETTER at it and to INFLICT it on MORE people!".
I certainly hope they get that chance. Aside from their powerhouse music, the Mice have a refreshingly honest and realistic viewpoint of being in a band that I'm convinced can be heard in their playing as well. Jeff says even now that one of the best side benefits of being in a band has been that he's been able to meet some of his own heroes; he rattles off names like Glen Matlock, Rob Younger, the Flamin' Groovies, Johnny Thunders and the Cramps, and then immediately apologizes for name dropping! But the delight he shows in retelling the story of how they gave Joey Ramone an Exploding White Mice shirt when they supported them in Adelaide, and then finding that their friends had photos with Joey wearing it at the Ramones Sydney show a week later shows that he's still a fan at heart, and you get the distinct impression that placed in a similar position a few years from now, he'd return the favor to some other oncoming band fighting to find a deserved place in the sun.