The 1980s in San Francisco, and Heyday Records – An Interview with Pat Thomas by Alexander Laurence
This week is another Noise Pop in San Francisco. This is a yearly event where for five days many of the main venues in the city have nightly shows featuring some worthy bands. They are celebrating their twenty-year anniversary in 2012. Noise Pop was once a beacon of local Bay Area talent and new interesting indie bands. Over the years though it has become more mainstream, expensive, and dumb, and less specific, less focused on new exciting voices in music. Before Noise Pop, San Francisco had an interesting punk scene, and in the 1980s, there was an important post-punk folk revival. Many of the “Paisley Underground” bands from LA and relocated to SF in the mid-eighties.
The SF scene in the late 1980s/early 1990s was ripe for a new label to come in and give it a focus. I wanted to remember those times. The 1980s in San Francisco was the last time when rents were cheap, bohemianism ruled, and you could live in SF on nothing, and be an artist or a musician. This resulted in some real uncompromising music, some noise, and some real visionaries. To help me remember this time I spoke to Pat Thomas, of Heyday Records, who was definitely the man on the scene back then.
Pat Thomas is a writer, musician and record label boss. When I met him, he had just moved to San Francisco and started Heyday Records. From 1988 to 1992, Thomas released the debut albums from Barbara Manning, Chris Cacavas (Green on Red), Jack Waterson (Green on Red), Steven Roback/Viva Saturn (Rain Parade), Sonya Hunter, and the Bedlam Rovers. He filled a vacuum in San Francisco with his label and achieved worldwide success. Over the years he has been involved with Water Records, 4 Men With Beards, Light in The Attic records.
Over the years Pat Thomas has also performed with several bands. The most constant one is Mushroom, who continues to be active in 2012. His book “Listen Whitey – The Sights and Sounds of Black Power” is due out in March 2012 from Fantagraphics Books.
Alexander Laurence: You have this website “Room One Two Four.” What does that mean?
Pat Thomas: It doesn’t have any significance. It’s always hard to come up with a name for a website. People have a lot of questions about music and academia. I can send them there and find out more.
AL: You are a journalist. You have been in the music business for thirty years. You play in the band Mushroom. You wrote this book Listen Whitey. You do it all. You are the renaissance guy.
Pat: Yeah. I joke about that. But I decided that I am a renaissance guy. There are people who are a lot more successful than I am, but they are people who are focused on doing just one thing. They may or may not do that well. One of the disappointing things about some of my favorite musicians from the Eighties is that they have never deviated off that path. I am not saying that they should become novelists. I just think that some of the bands keep making the same record. My band Mushroom doesn’t sound like anything I did with Heyday. Mushroom is this Miles Davis / Soft Machine jazzy prog rock thing. Heyday was Dylan /Lou Reed influenced stuff. I don’t want to get into a situation where I am doing the same thing. That is the reason I went back to school. I did this book about the Black Panthers. Life is too interesting yet too short to say to yourself that “I am going to do this one thing.”
AL: People do the narrow thing because it makes money. The Cure are in town this week playing their first three albums. Robert Smith has never strayed from path of The Cure, and done some weird record.
Pat: I was referring more to indie rock. I don’t expect Robert Smith to break the mold. But if you are a band who are not making any money at all, why not go off and do something else?
AL: And there is Greg Shaw and Bomp Records. I think that Greg Shaw focused on garage rock and you knew what you were getting when you bought a record on Bomp.
Pat: Yeah. I think that what I was doing was a wider scope.
AL: How did you end up in San Francisco?
Pat: It’s a long story. I was born in 1964. I grew in Rochester and Buffalo, NY. I went to college for a few years. Then in 1986, I moved to Copenhagen for a year, just to be a bum. I was reading Kerouac and Burroughs. At that time, most of their books were out of print in the USA, but in print in the UK. On my way to Denmark, I stopped in London and bought all the oddball books by Kerouac and Burroughs. I spent a year in Copenhagen and read them all.
AL: When did you get to SF?
Pat: I met some Americans in Copenhagen. They asked me if I had ever been to the west coast. I said “No, but I have always dreamed of going.” In the summer of 1987, I came out to San Francisco for a one week vacation. I fell in love with the place and just stayed. Most of us growing up on the east coast have a mythological view of California. We think of everything from the Johnny Carson Show to the Jefferson Airplane. We also think that LA and San Francisco are three hours away from each other. It’s a fantasy of one big wonderland.
AL: When I met you in 1987 or 1988, you had already started Heyday Records. How did that start?
Pat: When I am bored and lonely: that is when I start to feel creative. When I moved to San Francisco, I only knew a couple people. I was sitting around my apartment on a Saturday afternoon, and I couldn’t find a friend or a party. I said to myself: fuck it, I am going to start a record company. I am going to put out my own record. I was really obsessed with Barbara Manning. I was a fan of her first band 28th Day. I knew that she had a solo record halfway recorded. I didn’t even have a phone in my apartment. I called Barbara Manning on a pay phone. I told her “I am going to start a record label and I want your record to the first release.” And she said “Whatever dude.” That is how the label started. And I was obsessed with the Paisley Underground. That was one of the reasons I moved to California. I loved Green on Red and Dream Syndicate. I put out records by Chris Cacavas, Jack Waterson, and Steven Roback. The Paisley Underground was fizzling out, but I was determined to put out all the solo records.
AL: When did all these LA bands move to San Francisco?
Pat: Most of the bands were LA based. But the drummer of Green on Red had moved to San Francisco. Chuck Prophet was already a SF native. Steve Wynn was visiting San Francisco all the time in the 1980s. He loved going to parties on the weekend. The Dream Syndicate spent six months in SF when they were doing The Medicine Show. There has always been an LA-SF connection. True West was from Davis, California. I was a fan and friend to all these guys. Some of the bands had broken up. So I helped them get solo acoustic gigs at the Albion and the Paradise Lounge.
AL: There has always been a lack of labels and a local support system in San Francisco. Many of the Punk bands from the 1970s, like The Avengers, The Nuns, Dead Kennedys, Crime, Tuxedomoon, all fizzled out after a few years. Did you come in contact with any of that previous generation of bands?
Pat: Not really. I wasn’t a fan of a lot of that stuff. I hadn’t heard much of it. When I was younger I was looking for the song. I had distanced myself from a lot of aggro and goth music. Tuxedomoon was just a name to me. I did befriend Klaus Floride of the Dead Kennedys because he had immersed himself in the singer songwriter scene. He was playing bass with a few bands. Klaus is really a warm and fuzzy guy. It was cool. It is fun to know someone who is famous but you don’t care about their music.
AL: I mentioned the punk bands because it seemed like most of them didn’t survive because a label like Heyday Records wasn’t there to give them some focus. Penelope Houston did break out of there with a solo career. She still plays with The Avengers too.
Pat: Penelope did make that transition from punk to folk music. Penelope and I became fast friends. I was barely aware who The Avengers were. I ended up signing her to Heyday. She did a record in 1987 called Birdboys that was all folky.
AL: In the early 1980s there was a label … 415 Records.
Pat: That was the punk era. When I got to San Francisco there wasn’t a local label. I picked out the bands that I liked. I hope that Heyday Records carved a niche into the SF music scene.
AL: When you released a record in 1988, did you have record distribution?
Pat: I had real good distribution. I convinced Rough Trade, who was a very hip and good sized indie at that time, to manufacture and distribute my stuff. Rough Trade was my lifeline for three years. They had an office in San Francisco and they hooked me up with international distribution and I put out some of my records through Rough Trade Germany and Rough Trade London. It was a golden age of Rough Trade and Heyday. That was great.
AL: Rough Trade fell apart a few years later?
Pat: Yes. They spread themselves a little too thin. They moved their headquarters to New York City and that cost a lot of money. They hired fifty new employees. They had some illusions of grandeur and it came to bite them on the ass. If they stayed in San Francisco, they might be going today.
AL: When you put out a record, did you buy ads and did you use their publicity person?
Pat: The way it worked: I was responsible for the recording of the record and the publicity. They did the actual manufacturing and distribution. I would hand them a master tape and the basic artwork, and Rough Trade would manufacture the CDs and get them into stores. Advertising: some of that was me and some of that was them. I was the promo guy.
AL: Now there’s all this online stuff. Back then there were albums, cassettes, and CDs.
Pat: For one record we had to produce the artwork for vinyl, cassette and CD. All of our profits were lost on the actual production of the artwork. I didn’t think that anyone would want a Heyday cassette, but Rough Trade pushed us to do that. I ended up with a hundred cassettes. The worst time was when there was three different formats.
AL: You mentioned the Albion bar, in the Mission. Back in the 1980s in San Francisco some of the places bands played were the Paradise Lounge, the I-Beam, The Fillmore had re-opened, Great American Music Hall, and more. Are there more places now?
Pat: On Haight Street, there was the I-Beam, the Nightbreak, which was heavier rock music, the Sacred Grounds. The Kennel Club on Disvisadero.
AL: It’s called the Independent now.
Pat: The Albion, Hotel Utah. Club Commotion. All those places would book any band I was involved with. On any night you would have Bedlam Rovers at one club, Barbara Manning at another, A Subtle Plague at a third club. I remember going to three or four a week, and they were all my bands. For three or four years we had created a little scene.
AL: Was Barbara Manning or A Subtle Plague making any money at this point?
Pat: Not really. On a good night those bands brought in 150 people. A good night meant getting paid 250 dollars to them.
AL: When do you think some of these bands felt a little success?
Pat: When Barbara Manning signed to Matador. That put her on the map. A Subtle Plague went to Germany and they were signed to Rough Trade Germany. To be successful all these bands had to get out of San Francisco and off my label.
AL: What is the problem with San Francisco?
Pat: I think that a lot of people will back me up on this one: a lot of people will go to shows in San Francisco but there are not a lot of record sales. A Subtle Plague could sell out the I-Beam but I knew that I didn’t sell 300-500 records in SF to all those people at the shows. There were a lot of people were like that. American Music Club was like that. They would play these great shows at Great American Music Hall, but in Europe they sold a ton of CDs.
AL: It’s a big difference from SF bands of today like Girls and Tamaryn who tour internationally and sell all over, and probably hardly play local shows in SF.
Pat: Bands like Bedlam Rovers just liked to play. They wanted to play every week. So sometimes the audience would be 250 and sometimes 20 people. They wouldn’t show up to every show. You can play yourself into the ground. It has taken me twenty years to realize that the less you play live the more people want to see you. Mushroom only plays twice a year. We get more people when we play twice a year than when we played twice a month.
AL: In 1990, the music scene in San Francisco is pretty diverse: you had Mark Eitzel and American Music Club, Primus, Metallica, Faith No More, Chris Issak, Four Non Blondes, and others. Was it possible for you to sign any of those bands?
Pat: Mark Eitzel was a friend. He played with Barbara Manning all the time. I didn’t have the money to sign a band as big as American Music Club. They were on Alias Records briefly. Alias Records was a San Francisco label that was owned by a millionaire.
AL: Were there any bands that you had a chance to sign in those days? What kept you from signing those bands?
Pat: I wanted to sign this band from Chicago called Eleventh Dream Day. They were on a small label, and they ended up signing to Atlantic. They really never got famous. They are still going and I think they are on Thrill Jockey. You could make fun of me for bands who were offerred to me and I didn’t sign. I got one of the first demo tapes from Uncle Tupelo, I didn’t listen to it.
AL: What turned you off?
Pat: Nothing turned me off. I was just jaded. I didn’t bother even to listen to the tape. Uncle Tupelo sent me a tape and they were getting a buzz. I remember getting a phone call from Rough Trade. They were asking about the Uncle Tupelo tape and maybe I should listen to it. I still didn’t listen to it. Of course Uncle Tupelo became Wilco and the rest is history. A friend of mine sent me a tape by Grant Lee Buffalo. They were already signed to Warner Bros, but they wanted to do a 7-inch single. I listened to that and it didn’t move me. When I heard the album, I loved it, and I was a fan for years. I felt like an idiot for ignoring those bands.
AL: So what happened to Heyday Records?
Pat: Well, the punchline of this whole story is that in the early 1990s I moved to Germany and took many of the Heyday bands with me. Many of the bands that had sold less than a thousand CDs in the USA, sold ten times as much in Germany.
AL: Heyday was always a little ahead of its time. Some of the singer songwriter folk bands that came out in the past ten years, like maybe Devendra Banhart, could have been on Heyday Records.
Pat: Yeah. I was ten years ahead of the times. I would have definitely signed Devendra Banhart and Vetiver and those types of bands. I have always had a soft spot for 1960s inspired folk rock. In fact, Barbara Manning used to argue about that. I thought she sounded like that. She would say: “I don’t want to sound like those bands. I want to sound like Mission of Burma and Sonic Youth.” Well, in my opinion, she doesn’t. Now she loves those bands I was trying to compare her too. Barbara was into Faust and Krautrock. In the 1980s, I didn’t know who those bands were.
AL: What about some of those “this band can only exist in San Francisco” type bands?
Pat: The quintessential SF band is Caroliner Rainbow. I would run into those guys at parties. They probably saw me as some pushy east coast guy. There was never any bad blood between us, but there wasn’t any good blood either. I misunderstood them muscially, and they misunderstood me commercially. When I rolled into town I was determined to make something happen. I wanted to be Bill Graham and Brian Epstein all rolled into one.
AL: In San Francisco, your friends would want to go see, Super Diamond, a Neil Diamond cover band. People got excited about that. There was a lot of spectacles like Enrique, Idiot Flesh, Caroliner Rainbow, and whatnot. I remember seeing the Billy Nayer Show. There were a lot of kitschy bands.
Pat: Barbara Manning once told me to go see Tragic Mullatto. They were a band who I would never listen to but they put on such a great live show. The lead singer had beer cans duck taped to her breasts. They had two topless dancers. One weighed 90 pounds and the other weighed 300 pounds. I saw them once when they did a show with Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster. The singer of Tragic Mullatto had put the microphone in her vagina so many times, that Bob Forrest asked the sound guy to get him a new microphone. Those are the “out there” aspects of shows in San Francisco.
AL: San Francisco has always had this theater and performance art tradition. People would do bizarre things onstage, rather than worry about serious songs or muscianship.
Pat: Caroliner Rainbow were the ultimate performance art band. One show they had seven female drummers on a trampoline. The drums were on the ceiling. At the time I was thinking: this is cool. I don’t understand it, but it’s fucking cool.
AL: Did you have any experiences with Anton Newcombe and Brian Jonestown Massacre? Or was that after you had gone to Germany?
Pat: They were around. That was one where I had my head in the sand. To show you how late in the game I was on Brian Jonestown Massacre: I didn’t realize the genius of Anton Newcombe until they had a movie out about them. I saw the movie and thought: I fucked up. I could have seen this band a million times, and I could have put out one of their records. I got so myopic and closed in with working with my ten bands, that I was fucked up and wasn’t paying attention to everything that was going on.
AL: Also I think Brian Jonestown Massacre wasn’t looking to work with any labels at that point, and you might have moved on to Germany?
Pat: Yeah. I don’t think that Anton and I could ever see eye to eye. I couldn’t keep up with him. I remember when they played house parties. I had a chance of going to their shows. They had a group of people who followed them around. They were very underground. I don’t know how they survived in those years because San Francisco bands never made any money. I think if a band wants to be taken seriously, they do have to move to LA or NYC, which is kind of sad.
AL: You mentioned The Albion. This was a bar in the Mission that had a back room. Some interesting bands would play their. It was mostly acoustic shows. I remember seeing The Orphelias in 1989 there. That seemed like a band that maybe you would sign?
Pat: It’s funny. The Orphelias were like a band that I wanted to sign. They were already signed to Rough Trade when I moved to town. I met them when I first got to town. At some point they just stopped doing gigs. They were doing this 1960s folk rock and they were inspired by Love and The Doors. They peaked before I got to SF. They vanished.
AL: San Francisco was really a small incestuous thing. So you would meet all these bands and people and beat poets. You would be at a party and Paul Kantner or Peter Coyote would show up. I was in SF off and on most of the 1980s and that seemed like the most diverse period. When I finally moved there in 1989, many people were tired of SF, and moving to Seattle. So I wanted to ask you what did you think of the Seattle bands and Sub Pop that was happening around the same time?
Pat: I was closed minded about the music. I could see that the Sub Pop bands was eclipsing all the small indie bands from SF. This is even before Nirvana broke out. At the time people didn’t want to hear folk rock music. They wanted to hear more MC5/Stooges type bands like Mudhoney. That is why Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom are big now and not then, twenty years ago, because everything goes in cycles. That is why Ann Powers tells me I was ahead of my time. Because I was doing folk rock in 1987 and I was moderately successful. If I was doing that now….
This interview originally appeared in Portable-Infinite