Savage Republic \ Biography
Rising from the Los Angeles underground of the 1980s, Savage Republic forged an enviable reputation by virtue of five mesmerizing studio albums and a string of legendary live performances. Forever shifting, their brand of ritualistically tribal exhibitions blurred the boundaries of postpunk, industrial and soundtrack music, incorporating minimalist bass rumbles, exotic metal percussion, primal chants, middle eastern melodies and even shards of surf guitar. Add to this iconic letterpress graphics by founder member Bruce Licher, and Savage Republic stack up as one of the most exciting and potent experimental groups to emerge at any time or place during the last three decades.
Born in Santa Monica in 1958 and raised in Los Angeles, Bruce Licher came to both music and art with no grand plan mapped out. 'When I was young my mother also got me into stamp collecting. One of the things that fascinated me was the way when a new regime took over a country they would cross out the name of the old regime on its stamps and overprint the new one.' As an undergraduate at UCLA in the late Seventies, Licher dabbled in photography, film, design and fine arts, as well as playing guitar in experimental rock group Neef. 'The thing that inspired me to buy a guitar was the No New York album in 1978, particularly Mars and DNA. That stuff just blew me away. I thought this is so simple, and yet it's so effective and out there. So I went out and bought a cheap Strat copy for 125 bucks and started taking lessons, which lasted all of six weeks. Once I had learned a few basics on the guitar then all I wanted to do was to see how many strange sounds I could make with it.'
At around the same time Licher met Mark Erskine in a sculpture class. 'Mark was one of the most brilliantly intense artists I'd met in my classes at UCLA. As we were both getting into all the punk and post-punk sounds we were hearing at the time we naturally gravitated towards one another. Mark and I did a metal percussion performance piece in a sculpture class. About halfway through I heard noises and looked up. Everybody in the class had joined in, even the professor. Mark eventually wound up coming to Neef sessions and sitting in on film cans and banging on them.'
The debut Neef EP, 23, appeared on Centipede in 1979 in a limited edition of just 163 copies. Thus inspired, Licher afterwards decided to make his own record, and enrolled in a course called Independent Project. 'It was listed in the UCLA catalogue as number 197,' he explains. 'You would find a professor to be your advisor and just do your project. The kind of work I wanted to be doing was in music and making records, and the things I wanted to create required a graphic element to help make it attractive to people who might buy it. I'd already taken silk screen classes at UCLA, and I had gotten more interested in graphic arts after I'd left the design major. So I brought Mark Erskine in to do percussion and Kevin Barrett of The Urinals to do drums. Then I thought what name should I call the record company? It's an Independent Project record. That makes sense. It kind of grew from there.'
Credited to Project 197, the lo-fi single was issued as IP001 in May 1980, and was followed later that same year by the Bridge EP (IP002), recorded in a labyrinthine service tunnel system running beneath the UCLA campus, and intended to soundtrack a student film. Licher and Erskine then joined forces with Jeff Long and Philip Drucker (aka Jackson Del Rey), Licher and Drucker having already collaborated in Them Rhythm Ants. 'The very first time that the four original band members got together to play was at UCLA. I had gained access to the subterranean utility tunnels to make a student film. We thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting to go down into these tunnels to make music?" The four of us went down with our boombox and tape recorded everything that we did. We listened and thought, "Wow, that's pretty unusual, interesting stuff. We should keep doing that."'
Initially adopting the somewhat provocative name Africa Corps, the quartet took their experimental tunnel music overground into LA venues such as Al's Bar, the Anticlub and the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. As Africa Corps the group set about recording a tense, volatile debut album early in 1982, but found their chosen name becoming problematic. 'We spelled both names with a 'c' because we didn't want people to think we were Nazis,' insists Licher. 'But we changed the name of the band to Savage Republic a week before the Tragic Figures album came out in June. We liked "Republic" because we did everything ourselves: making music, recording it, packaging it and selling it - a self-contained unit. Then we sat around trying to find out what kind of a Republic we were. The word "Savage" popped into my head while we were all together brain-storming, but my first thought was it was too obvious. Then Phil came up with the same word without me saying anything, so there it was. Some of our shows were quite intense, with the oil drums, scrap metal percussion and experimental sounds, and we felt that the name just fit the band perfectly.'
Only two members of the band were truly accomplished musicians, and SR tended only to rehearse a few times a month. 'Jeff and Phil were quite good musicians. Mark and I were self-taught. It was a really wide range of influences that all came together,' says Licher. 'Just to name a few: early Throbbing Gristle, Glenn Branca, The Ventures, Pink Floyd, Greek bouzouki music, soundtrack music, Ennio Morricone Middle Eastern music, late Sixties psychedelic music, the early postpunk stuff like Gang of Four, Joy Division, The Cure and things like that. And then Jeff Long's fondness for Jaco Pastorius and hardcore punk rock. Jeff joined hardcore LA punk band Wasted Youth and appeared on their Reagan's In LP at the same time as we were recording Tragic Figures.'
'It was definitely a bunch of art students trying to do something different. I was looking for an artful and unique way to create a cover for Tragic Figures album, and wanted to make a record as if it were a limited edition piece of art. I happened upon a weekend class in letterpress printing at the Womens' Graphic Center (WGC) in downtown LA and was immediately intrigued by the clanky, hand-fed machines. After learning the basics of letterpress by designing and printing a postcard advertising our forthcoming album release, I set to work on a run of LP jackets using the WGC's large Vandercook cylinder press. Every printed piece that came off the press was subtly different, each one a hand-made, yet mass-produced creation. Printed one colour at a time, that first 3-colour run of 1,000 album jackets looked like nothing else you could find in the record store bins at that time, which was exactly what I was looking to create.'
Other elements of the Tragic Figures sleeve incorporated serendipitous found images. 'When we recorded the first album I realized that the music wasn't like anything else out there. In a lot of ways it felt like it was from some other culture, some alien culture. At the time there were a lot of Iranian students at UCLA, because of the unrest that was happening in Iran, and there were Arabic-looking fliers posted up around the school. The picture on the front cover was used on one of those posters. Phil created the collage on the back. I wanted to make a record jacket that looked like it came from some other place. I asked a Lebanese co-worker to translate all of our titles into Arabic for us. Technically the album says "persons unlucky", which is the way he translated "tragic figures". In fact early on there was a short period of time where we had a small middle-eastern contingent coming to our shows, because they had seen Tragic Figures and were intrigued.'
Altogether Independent Project produced five letterpress editions of Tragic Figures, each of 1,000 copies, except for the fifth, which was 875. 'Each edition had variations in the cover,' explains Licher. 'One of the reasons was that since all these covers were printed on a hand-fed press that prints one colour at a time, perhaps 150-200 covers per hour, it was a time-consuming process and I wanted to keep myself interested. So I started changing colours on the later editions, and by the fifth edition I ran one of the colours through upside down for the entire run, which made for quite an abstract cover. There were also UK and Greek editions on vinyl, as well as a French edition through Sordide Sentimental.' Interest in the album also saw SR booked to open for Public Image Limited in San Francisco and Los Angeles in November 1982, in doing so playing to their biggest audiences so far.
The cover of the compilation CD you have in your hand is based on the first Savage Republic single, Film Noir, released as a limited etched 7" as IP009 in June 1983. By now the band numbered five, having been joined by arranger and multi-instrumentalist Robert Loveless. 'For the front cover I chose a photo of the Savage Republic flag flying in the wind, which I re-created on press using high-contrast, photo-engraved printing plates and a carved linoleum block surrounded by hand-set metal borders.' When the initial pressing of Film Noir sold out Licher rexpressed the single, and like the Tragic Figures LP he subtly re-designed the covers for the second (and later third and fourth) editions to keep things interesting. 'I quickly embraced this idea of making each pressing unique, and since that single, every new edition or pressing by SR has been re-designed in one way or another, either by changing ink colors or moving elements around, or a combination thereof.'
The flipside on Film Noir was a fortuitous cover of O Andonis by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. 'It's really a beautiful song,' explains Licher, 'and we thought it would be fun to do a version. One of our distributors was from Greece and his brother had a record store in Athens. He started shipping hundreds of copies of the single to his brother, and then he started sending copies of the album. And SR got moreppular in Greece than any other country in Europe. They told us later that during the time that the song was originally written, in the late 1960s, it was apparently banned in Greece because it was seen as revolutionary. We had no idea - we just liked the song.'
On 24 April 1983 Savage Republic took part in the semi-legendary Mojave Exodus gig, in company with with The Minutemen. Advance ticket sales were limited to 150, with the audience meeting in a vacant lot in downtown Los Angeles, there boarding buses for a three hour ride out to the secret site: a dry lakebed in the Mojave desert. However, a two week tour along the American west coast presaged a withdrawal from live work, Licher citing boredom with repetitious sets and the 'real hell' of the 'rock and roll lifestyle.' It hardly helped that SR had splintered by the end of the year. 'Jeff Long left right after we did the Mojave Exodus show,' says Licher. 'Phil Drucker, Robert Loveless and Mark and I recorded six songs for a second album. Then it became really obvious that what Phil wanted to do and what I wanted to do were radically different, so we split up. Phil and I reached an agreement whereby he and Robert would keep the music that they had worked up, and I'd keep the name. And so those six songs became the basis for the 17 Pygmies album Jedda by the Sea.'
For six months after this parting of ways Licher immersed himself in setting up his own letterpress shop in a turn-of-the-century brick building at 544 Mateo Street, a deserted industrial section down by the LA River, and formerly the home of Nate Starkman & Son. The historic Nate Starkman space became home and workplace to Bruce and his wife, artist Karen Nielsen Licher, with Independent Project also releasing a stream of acclaimed singles and albums by artists as diverse as Human Hands, Kommunity FK, Camper Van Beethoven, Half String, For Against, and Abecedarians. As this workload increased, through necessity Savage Republic records were licensed first through Chameleon Music Group, followed by Fundamental.
As the scope of Independent Project epnded Licher continued to favour the distinctive letterpress on chipboard process. 'It's all recycled board. Sometimes they just sweep up whatever's left on the floor and throw it in. Almost every time you buy chipboard it's a different shade, colour and texture.' Licher took to purchasing chipboard a ton at a time, with $400 worth enough to produce about 5,000 album covers. He is equally resourceful about finding old type styles and metal fonts. 'At the time there were several type foundries in the LA area that still make type. If we needed something, they could make it new. A lot of it just isn't being made anymore, so we keep our eyes open. There was this old guy up in Hollywood who had a garage full of old type from printers who'd gone out of business. Sometimes I would drive up there to see if he had anything new or interesting.'
With the Nate Starkman headquarters building now up and running, Savage Republic were revived during 1984 with the addition of Ethan Port, Greg Grunke and Thom Fuhrmann. Still utilizing various items of scrap metal percussion, as well as the ubiquitous 55 gallon oil drum, the new group began to work on new material, mostly instrumental and soundtrack in flavour, and more immediately accessible than the jagged Tragic Figures era. The first fruits were the four tracks on the Trudge EP, released by prolific Belgian indie label Play It Again Sam, after which the band were further bolstered by the return of Robert Loveless at the beginning of 1985. On 4 May that same year SR performed their first east coast date at Danceteria in New York, promoter Steve Montgomery having convinced the legendary venue that they were a 'dance' band. 'Was it well received?' muses Licher. 'By the audience, yes. After going on at 2 AM, being told we could only play an hour-long set, we got 3 encores, which was apparently unheard of. The club owner kept asking Steve when we were going to stop, so that he could get back to having his dance floor free. The crowd was yelling for more and he wanted to bring the curtain down on the stage. Crazy night.'
Throughout 1985 the group continued to work on their second full album, Ceremonial. Tolling guitar figures floated through the ether to produce deliberate, almost meditative tones, with SR's sonic palette epnded to include bongos, dulcimer and mandolin. 'I feel that instrumental music can be much more universal and timeless than music with lyrics and vocals,' revealed Licher. 'While a good vocalist can bring a human element into the music, I find that when listening to a song with a singer/lyrics, that what is being said often takes precedence over the music. For me, I get very moved by music, and a good instrumental can reach me much deeper than anything with lyrics in it.' Ironically, when Ceremonial was issued as IP018 in February 1986, half the album featured lyrics and vocals. 'Some of them ended up a bit on the painful side, but most of the band wanted them on there at the time, so even though I had envisioned the album as all-instrumental I let go because I wanted to keep the group together and not impose my will onto it. In retrospect. Well, the later CD version is all-instrumental and I think it works better.'
With two acclaimed albums to their name, and an enviable reputation for startling live performance, Savage Republic regularly gigged beyond California, negotiating the two American tours documented in the live double album Live Trek 1985-1986. Their set on 14 September 1986 in Cleveland, Ohio (a performance for The Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament) was also filmed, and later released on video cassette by Atavistic as Disarmament. These editions were followed by their first European tour, lasting for three weeks between 6 and 26 September 1987, visiting Germany, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. The date at Amsterdam Melkweg on 25 September was also issued on cassette by Staalplaat.
Phil Drucker had rejoined SR shortly before the European tour, as Licher recalls. 'At the time Phil and I had managed to set aside our differences and begun collaborating on a new label called Nate Starkman & Son. But at the end of our 1987 European tour it was obvious to all that Mark Erskine was having trouble physically and emotionally, and after we returned to the US it was mutually agreed that he would leave the band.'
'Shortly after completing the first European tour the band needed to find another drummer,' confirms Port. 'Brad Laner was a natural fit. He had been playing in a plethora of cutting edge, experimental projects since the early 1980s, and had played with myself, Bruce and Greg Grunke at UCLA fallout shelter gatherings in 1982-3. I loved playing with Mark Erskine and knew he would be hard to replace. He contributed so much to SR, both musically and also in a more abstract artistic way. But I was really happy that Brad decided to play with us, and I knew he would challenge us to grow in new directions.'
Despite these changes third album Jamahiriya continued in the vein of mesmerizing flow rather than sharp jolts, with stand out tracks including Spice Fields and Tabula Rasa. 'I chose the title for Jamahiriya from my stamp collection,' admits Licher. 'Yes, postpunk art rock guy actually collects stamps. In fact it's quite an excellent way to learn about the world and the political changes that go on within it. There were several African countries that had taken to calling themselves 'Jamahiriyas' in the late 1960s, which I understood to mean 'revolutionary republic'. So Jamahiriya Democratique et Populaire de Sauvage means 'the People's Democratic Republic of Savage', and I figured that since most 'People's Democratic Republics' were anything but that, and that we as a band were actually more of a "democratic republic" than most of these countries were, so why not call ourselves that.'
Jamahiriya also included a muscular cover of underground punk anthem Viva La Rock n' Roll, originally recorded by Alternative TV in 1978. 'The song somehow reminded me of Hawkwind and I thought it could be fun to play,' says Licher. 'And then also the idea of SR playing a song called Viva La Rock n' Roll was pretty silly. More tongue in cheek humour, poking a little fun at ourselves to make sure we didn't take things too seriously.'
In fact creative tensions again threatened the stability of the always fluid group. 'Savage Republic was like a bad California marriage,' offers Ethan Port, only half joking. 'Because the band kept breaking up, and everyone's old partners kept coming back into the relationship. For some reason, we never thought that this was a stupid thing to do. On the other hand, we are all very passionate about SR, and there is a very specific approach to the music that comes out of our shared experiences in the early 1980s Los Angeles punk scene, that is harder to reproduce in other projects.'
Thankfully the music continued to impress. 'I think it works better when we keep it simple, best when we realize our limitations,' posited Greg Grunke. 'We can't play solos like Eddie Van Halen. That each of us has the ability to play very simple stuff has lead to an ensemble way of playing. We work together a combination of simple patterns, rhythm and melody kinda intertwined so you can't say which element is more or less important.' In the same Wire interview Thom Fuhrmann epnded on SR's often esoteric working methods. 'We work a lot of minor scales, minor modes. Depending on the rhythmic emphasis it could sound Arabic, Irish folksy or Greek. There are certain elements common to all. We just like to compound drones, repetitions and interlocking patterns into a greater whole.'
September and October 1988 saw Savage Republic negotiate a second lengthy European tour, this time taking in Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy and the Netherlands, as well as their first British dates, including Scotland. Indeed while in Greece the band even found time to write and record an entire fourth album in just two and a half days, using borrowed instruments after Greek customs officials at Thessaloniki impounded their equipment and followed this move with a strike. The ironically-titled Customs is perhaps the least appreciated SR disc, showcasing both their most volatile and most beautifully accomplished pieces, yet differing dramatically in spots from any previous works. Sucker Punch re-connects with the beast within, as does the fiery Rapeman's First EP, a live improvisation recorded in Germany towards the end of the tour, while the hypnotic dronings of The Birds of Pork might have elevated any number of movie scores. The tour also produced another in-concert set, Live in Europe 1988, issued through Fundamental.
However, Licher was tiring of life as a citizen in Savage Republic. 'It was the middle of the last tour that I realized it was time to do something else. It was obvious that I didn't want to do the same things as the other guys wanted to do. Because they'd been big fans of the first album, Tragic Figures, rather than being in the band, they wanted to do more of that primal stuff, the tribal stomp. I felt it was time to stop at that point.' The group performed live for the last time at an outdoor performance in Claremont, California on 25 February 1989, this show being filmed but yet to be released. 'The others wanted to keep using the name,' says Licher. 'I thought about it and wrote them a letter which wasn't accepted too well. I just asked them not to do this, and to come up with something that's their own. They thought it was condescending - and maybe it was - I don't know. Back then, it was a bit too close for me to feel good about.'
Coincidental with the band's breakup, many of their distributors also folded as major record companies divided and conquered the indie scene. There followed a long interregnum, during which the SR catalogue fell out of print, although the group experienced a brush with the mainstream when Real Men, a sarcastic tirade from Tragic Figures, featured on the soundtrack to the Jonathan Demme film The Silence of the Lambs, released in 1991. The track appears in a scene in Buffalo Bill's cellar dungeon, along with music by The Fall and Colin Newman of Wire. Meanwhile Licher formed guitar soundscapers Scenic, as well as earning two Grammy nominations for his letterpress album artwork. Phil Drucker continued recording with 17 Pygmies, Brad Laner formed Medicine, while Port, Fuhrmann and Grunke also released a 7" single as Wonder.
Port moved away from Los Angeles in 1994 and began working with sound/noise artist Scot Jenerik in San Francisco in 1997. That same year, thepir founded Mobilization Recordings as well as their experimental noise-rock project F-SPACE. Thom Fuhrmann also moved to Colorado around the same time, after playing with Greg Grunke in Autumnfair. Fortunately, at the beginning of 2002 the entire SR catalogue was reissued by Mobilization, released under licence from Independent Project and handsomely packaged by Licher. Each expanded CD album used elements from the original releases, but updated, with the special wrap-around Discfolio format created by Licher also lending itself to a new layout and design. To promote these editions a short live reunion was also mooted after a gap of twelve years. Says Thom Fuhrmann: 'Ethan and I were the catalysts for the reunion because we both strongly believed that the band broke up right when we were about to go somewhere. I guess there's a strong feeling of unfinished business.'
'For me the reunion came about for two reasons,' adds Port. 'First, while attending the Beyond the Pale festival in August 2001, I heard Customs being played as Neurosis set up. After the show I found out they play that CD before every show to count down the start of their set. This started an ongoing friendship and dialogue with Steve Von Til, including an offer to have Savage Republic co-headline the next Beyond the Pale. A month later I narrowly escaped from WTC3 on 9/11. That jolt made us realize that life is short, and it would be good to put our differences aside and see if there was a chance to move the project forward again.'
Having himself relocated to Sedona, Arizona, Licher was more than happy take part in the week-long reunion tour in November 2002, which duly commenced with a warm-up show at Claremont on the 11th. Comprising Licher, Port, Fuhrmann, Grunke and Loveless with new drummer Joel Connell, SR then visited Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. The following year Port and Fuhrmann elected to re-form the band on a permanent basis. Licher felt that he had done all he needed to do as part of SR, but now gave the others his blessing in a bloodless coup. Says Port: 'I think the reason Savage Republic is still relevant today is that today mainstream music is concerned mostly with form. It has to be able to fit into 30 second soundbites on MTV or on Pontiac commercials. Eventually listeners experience fatigue and want something with a real impact. Although Savage Republic was a very experimental project, at the same time grounded in melody, including catchy pop melodies, psychedelic and punk rock, and related "independent" music. There is also a haunting, creepy voice underneath the rock side of the music. Part of this is that I think we were unashamed of our influences such as Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, Glenn Branca, early Wire, Pink Floyd and Can. There is a post-punk world view that everyone shared in the band, which developed by our participation in the very intense Los Angeles punk and post-punk/art-punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s.'
Greg Grunke takes up the story. 'After the 2002 reunion tour, Thom, Ethan and I decided to carry on. Initially Bruce was interested in collaborating but given the constraints of work and family opted to concentrate on Scenic and his solo projects. By 2005 Thom had moved back to the LA area so writing became easier. We reconnected with drummer Stirling Fox, who played on the Wonder 7", and provided plenty of power. We were louder than fuck! At our 2006 SXSW show the soundman didn't even bother putting us into thep. Let's just say it took a while for us to dial-in the dynamic subtleties. This period also saw us play possibly our strangest show, sharing the bill with gangsta rappers Three Six Mafia at a festival held in a huge basketball arena in Columbia, Missouri. After returning from a Greek mini-tour in support of Buzzcocks, we began recording what became the Siam EP and parts of the album 1938 in July 2006 at Kerry Dowling's studio (322) in downtown Pomona. Alan Waddington joined on drums, and UK punk pioneer Val Haller, also late of Autumnfair, also came on board adding his dubbish bass sensibility and melodica stylings. Recording proceeded at a hot and heavy pace - literally, given the lack of air-conditioning and triple-digit Inland Empire temperatures.'
1938 was completed in 2007 at Wormhole Studio, after which SR returned to Europe for further tours in 2007 and 2008, the latter trek comprising 14 dates in 14 days and over 10,000 kilometres of driving. This led to a limited edition 7" single coupling Sword Fighter with Taranto!!!, packaged in a handsome die-cut sleeve by Italian imprint A Silent Place in 2009. Savage Republic played what at the time was thought to be their last live show at Castellon in Spain on 30 January 2010, a short but powerful set preserved on the bonus CD included with Procession: An Aural History. Fortunately, soon after the group members elected to soldier on. Vive la République!
In February 2012 the group returned to Greece for a short tour, and over the course of three hectic days recorded an entire album, Varvakios. Intended as a sequel of sorts to their 1989 album Customs, Varvakios drew on local sights, sounds and synergies, with the band joined on several tracks by Blaine L. Reininger of Tuxedomoon, himself a resident of Athens. All this took place against a background of economic meltdown and widespread civil unrest. Explained frontman Thom Fuhrmann: 'To walk into such a volatile situation and create this music in such a short time was by far the most satisfying experience that I've ever had as an artist.'
Another new Savage Republic album, Aegean, will follow in 2013.
James Nice (updated 2013)
With thanks to Biba Kopf, Chris Bohn, Patrick Hughes, Jud Cost, Mitchell Foy, Mac, Peter Gilstrap, Spencer Drate, Judith Salavetz, Thom Fuhrmann, Greg Grunke, Bruce Licher and Ethan Port.