Ohio. Home to the most U.S. Presidents and the most serial killers. But did you know it is also the birthplace of punk rock? Well, without diving too deep into that argumentative quagmire, let’s just point out that Cleveland, Ohio, specifically, at the very start of the 1970s, birthed a small but incrementally influential batch of curious combos that were well-versed in the now canonized alt-rock deities: the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5, and Captain Beefheart. Then, finding themselves roaming the broke and sooty streets of crumbling post-industrial America, ditching hippie cover bands at the local bars, and ending their hopped-up evenings crashing in empty warehouses near the shores of oily Lake Erie, these Cle-bands channeled all that post-60s dream-dying into something altogether noisy (like the clanging factories outside their broken windows), dark, cheap, but still inspired by the classic rockers that predominated Cleveland radio. At that time, the town was one of the top 10 radio markets in the country, and new oddballs like the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, the Stooges, and David Bowie made Cleveland a constant touring destination.
If not brazen enough to declare they did it first, Cleveland bands Rocket From The Tombs, which soon morphed into Pere Ubu and Frankenstein (later the Dead Boys), Devo (from nearby Akron), the Mirrors, and the Electric Eels made recordings before the Ramones had a record out. Soon enough, the Pagans, Kneecappers, the Styrenes and more were wailing in an extreme-trash punk fashion rarely reached since.
Many in the obsessive roots-digging rock underbelly now consider the Electric Eels the blueprint for what would become the nastiest noise edges of what would soon be called punk rock, making a lo-fi, clattering racket spiked with incendiary verbiage about fighting, wastelands, Nazis and general insanity. Formed in Cleveland but actually living in Columbus for awhile, they only had two posthumous 7-inch singles. But those and some bootlegged demos slowly oozed around the cassette trade world, eventually being comped-up on various labels through the ’90s (Scat, Overground, and others). Jon Spencer and Sonic Youth named-dropped them. And by the ’90s, the most inventive and insane of the punk fringe—labels like Goner, In The Red, Crypt, and others, and bands like Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Clone Defects, Hunches, and Reatards to name just a few—would cite the Eels as a main influence.
Over the last eight years, Todd Novak and his HoZac record label have released numerous new bands that have an Eels edge, and now he has finally reached his dream of reissuing some of the Electric Eels recordings, to be rolled out over the next year or so.
First off, you are duly excited to be able to reissue some Electric Eels music. For the uninitiated, why?
My god, YES! We take for granted that these recordings were, aside from the first two singles, only made available for a short period in the late 1990s-early 2000s and have been largely unavailable since, so it’s exciting to be part of their resurgence and to help them reach the outer edges of the tar pits they were excavated from. The Electric Eels are far too important to stay so far underground.
When was the first time you heard the Eels?
I’ve got to say, when we interviewed Jack and Lili from the Splash Four, for Horizontal Action Magazine back in 1997, their “Top 3 US Punk Bands Of The 70s” were all answered “Electric Eels,” so it was imperative to get to the bottom of that. A few months later at the now-defunct Raw Records in Evanston, IL, a bootleg LP showed up and I jumped on it. Listening to it for the first time was insane, it’s still so hard to believe it was from 1975, let alone how they balanced perfectly both the atonal and harmonic noise, truly a “caveman discovering fire” type of feeling. This totally changed the parameters of all the ’70s punk music we were immersed in, and that’s when looking past the usual 1976-77 era into the seedy earlier uncategorizable stuff started to take hold, and there was so much more to discover.
The Eels really sounded like they landed in a spaceship. They completely re-wired how songs were supposed to be written, yet still maintained a pop structure which doesn’t let anything get stale, and were 10 to 20 years ahead of their time. Sure they don’t sound polished, but the rough edges sound great and the sprinkling touch of unhinged lyrical insanity doesn’t hurt either. It’s truly aggressive, unpredictable, and unprecedented, and completely free of clichés. And that’s probably very intimidating to some people.
So, tell me how you came to acquire the Electric Eels catalog to reissue.
We’re just starting out with a few 7″ projects and hopefully more after that. It should all start coming out early next year. We’re trying to cull some of their classic tracks for the A-sides and deep cuts from the un-comped stuff on Those Were Different Times (Scat Records, 1997) set for the B-sides. We met Brian McMahon (guitarist) through our friend Joe in the great new Chicago band, the Sueves, who just happened to have Brian for a landlord, less than three blocks from where I live as well! So we hit it off great with Brian, and it turned out that he’d been picking up Hozac records at the local stores and was already familiar with our label. He said the Eels were looking for more of a “home” label for the band, working with people they felt on the right level with. After talking with Paul Marotta shortly after that, they drew up a contract and we filled in the blanks and now the Jaguar Ride b/w Splittery Splat 7″ is in the works!
Was the notoriously, uh, interesting singer/guitarist John Morton involved?
I wish I would have got to talk with John, but Brian and Paul seem to do most of the contractual stuff, or at least that was how we experienced it.
I know Tinnitus Records released the acknowledged first full Electric Eels LP compilation, Having A Philosophical Investigation With The Electric Eels, in 1989. Then Homestead soon enough added a few tracks to do the CD version, God Says Fuck You, in ’91. Overground sort of repackaged that in 1998 with In Their Organic Majesty’s Request. Then there’re those amazing tracks on that great Cleveland comp, Those Were Different Times from ’97 and The Eyeball Of Hell in 2001, both from Scat Records. And I even have some boot LP version of God Says Fuck You from the late ‘90s, etc. So did you have to deal with any of those previous labels when gathering the stuff you want to reissue?
We only dealt with Brian and Paul, as I guess the label’s licenses have run out on those previous releases, leaving most of their material out of print. As of the moment, we’ve only got this 7-inch in production, but we’ve talked about more singles, along with possibly an overview-type LP, and I even had an idea for an expanded boxed set that might try to link a bunch of the 70s Ohio underground scenes. It would be a huge undertaking, but it would be great to include everything from the pre-Devo 1973 Jitters material to Dave E. McManus’s brother’s band, The Sonars, and even material like Lucky Pierre (Brian McMahon’s brother’s band with a teenage Trent Reznor) and raw Cleveland pop from The Gooses, as well as the usual suspects and their endless side-projects. Ohio is basically the Fertile Crescent, the Mesopotamia of American punk, and we’d love to make something like that a reality.
Did you dig up anything that hasn’t been released yet?
Not really. There are a couple weird songs I’ve got that are mislabeled, but there’s some really interesting peripheral stuff from side projects. You never know though.
What’s next for HoZac? What’s coming up in the next few months?
We’ve got a batch of Archival releases coming out in a few weeks, the Epicycle comp LP, the Chicago teen-punk band “almost” managed by Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt while he was still in Chicago, with tracks from their singles & demos circa 1978-81. Also three new archival 7″s from Dwight Twilley Band (1975), The Brats featuring ex-New York Doll Rick Rivets (1974), and Columbus Ohio’s True Believers (Tommy Jay, Mike Rep & the General) Accept It! 7-inch EP (1980). As well as the debut LP from Toronto’s First Base. Lots of other good stuff in the works too!