Host Lance Davis reads the final few paragraphs of his as yet unpublished book, Don’t Call It Nothing: The Lost History of ‘90s Roots, Rap & Rock ‘n’ Roll, a tribute to the pre-cellphone, mostly pre-internet world of college radio, independent record stores, small clubs, zines, flyers on telephone poles, and simple word of mouth.Support the show
Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]
Hey hey, welcome to Don’t Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of 90s roots, rap & rock and roll. I'm your host, Lance Davis and I am loving the love on Facebook. This is awesome guys. I got Carrie and Laura, part of my Seattle crew, in the mix. I see you. My buddy Tom signed up through Buy Me a Coffee at the $20 a month level. Tom, thank you so much. You are the man. And because Tom did that, signed up at the $20 a month level, one of the perqs is he gets to request that I discuss a favorite album of his. He chose Clouds Taste Metallic, guys. I have to discuss peak Lips when Ronald Jones ruled the world from a kaleidoscopic starship. Okay, fine, I guess I'll do that.
So again, I have three membership levels, there's $5, $20, and $50 a month. $5 is the Good Beeble Level. That's like solid Attaboy. $20 is the Smell The Magic Level. Again, that's what Tom did. Thank you, Tom. And if you sign at the Big Daddy, Slanted & Enchanted $50 Level, we can make a podcast that's a little more collaborative. So check it out. And keep in mind, I just wrote like 1000 Adios Lounge posts in the last 2 1/2 years, so if you're worried about me running out of content and you won't get your money's worth … oh money, don't worry your pretty little money. Everything will be just money.
Okay, so I got the Lips coming up in the next couple of weeks and that will actually be part of my first series of podcasts. I figured out what I'm gonna do. Very simple, very introductory. It's just gonna be me going year by year, first 1990, then ‘91, ‘92, etc. And I'm just gonna pick one album from each year that's kind of a proxy for that year or representative for that year for some reason. There’s gonna be different reasons, I just have to go through each year and pick the album. I think it's going to be fun. I don't think there's going to be a grand narrative. I mean, I'm going into it thinking there's gonna be no grand narrative, maybe subconsciously, one pops up. Also, heads up, I'm not sure how much music I'm gonna be able to use in these podcasts because copyright law is a thing. So what I'm gonna do is use the podcast in tandem with the website so anything that I talk about on the podcast, I'll try to include on the website links to a YouTube video of a song I discuss, that sort of thing. The two platforms are gonna be working together to tell different parts of the same story, like the book and the podcast.
In the meantime, I wanna finish today with the flipside of the first podcast. Last time I read the first paragraph of the book. This time I wanna read the end of the book. And (begins laughing) I actually wanted to do this last time, but my voice wanted no part of it. One thing I didn't factor in in starting a podcast — and this is gonna be helpful if you're thinking about starting a podcast — if you're not used to talking to people… If you thought I was antisocial before the quarantine, now I'm walking around like Howard Hughes with Kleenex boxes on my feet. Let's just say my voice was worn out after like 25-30 minutes. I felt like I gave a TED talk last time, so if I yell, “Medic” halfway through this you'll know what happened. But anyway, hopefully I can get through this. These are the final paragraphs of Don’t Call It Nothing: The Lost History of ‘90s Roots, Rap & Rock ‘n’ Roll, the as yet unpublished and future Pulitzer Prize winning reference tome. So hey, I got that to look forward to. I wanna give you the bird's eye view of this podcast and book before we dive down into the specific. Here we go.
It's been a privilege writing about some of the most meaningful music in my lifetime, especially knowing that other writers weren’t interested in writing about Silkworm, Prescott Curlywolf, The Neckbones, The Damnations, The Fastbacks (oh The Fastbacks), or Bicycle Thief. I'm interested in the best, not the most popular. I'm interested in heart and soul and passion. I want people to stop focusing so much on lyrics and listen to the music. And don't just hum the melody. Get inside the rhythm section. What are the drums doing and how do they sound? How is the bass player working with or against the drums? Is the bassist carrying the melody or is he playing strictly rhythm? Is the guitar in front of or behind the beat? Does the band sound like they were recorded in an airplane hangar or are the drums and guitars hot and right in your face? There's no right answer. Each band has its own internal logic and the fun part is listening to how the various parts do (or don't) work together and how it moves you emotionally. I'm intensely proud of these musicians for pouring themselves into their art regardless of commercial outcome.
The 1990s were so rich in diversity, yet you'd never know that given how the decade is remembered with such a narrow focus. It's almost as if the white male boomers running the rock industrial complex looked at all this music as nothing more than fast food. Grunge, Britpop, rap rock, emo, even the ska and swing dance revivals were all different flavors cooked in the same grease. It's all Food Court Rock. The sad part is how many of my peers fell prey to the mainstream grift. Or worse, became echo boomers, existing in that purgatory where everything revolves around the pop culture of the '60s and '70s. I've seen the best minds of my generation gutted by nostalgia, left starving by the Great White Empty, that mythical heroic past to which caucasians are forever running, hysterical and flip-flopped through the honky streets at dawn.
“I’ve seen the best minds of my generation gutted by nostalgia, left starving by the Great White Empty, that mythical heroic past to which caucasians are forever running, hysterical and flip-flopped through the honky streets at dawn.”
— Lance Davis
Aside from your occasional Nirvana or Beastie Boys, the best you could hope for as an indie rock musician was a middle class existence a la Sonic Youth, Guided By Voices, or Built To Spill. Not stadium popular, but you could make a living. Cities like New York, LA, Seattle, and Chicago, all hugely important to the American underground, especially as touring hubs. By and large, though, the heart and soul of '90s rock 'n' roll came from small-ish American towns like Belleville, Illinois (where Uncle Tupelo’s from), Stockton, California (Pavement), Tacoma, Washington (Girl Trouble and Neko Case), Olympia, Washington (Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Elliot Smith, K Records, Kill Rock Stars), Denton, Texas (Slobberbone, Centro-Matic), Dayton, Ohio (GBV, Breeders), Louisville, Kentucky (Slint, Freakwater, My Morning Jacket, Mia Zapata), Chapel Hill/Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina (Superchunk, Merge Records, Archers Of Loaf, Polvo), and Norman, Oklahoma (Flaming Lips). Hell, great rock 'n' roll also came from Australia (You Am I), The Netherlands (Bettie Serveert), and Japan (126.96.36.199's).
I know some of you are gonna hate the hip hop, but I like hip hop, and you can't tell the story of '90s American music without it. But, it's also valuable to contrast hip hop culture, which was in its ascendancy in the decade, with rock culture, which plateaued in the mid-'90s and ended on the wane. Now, why is that? Could it be that hip hop stayed healthy because IT'S gatekeepers promoted its best artists, while rock’s gatekeepers gave you an assembly line of pretty white faces making safe, polished product? With the benefit of hindsight, that seems to be what happened. The presence of hip hop in this book is also about representation and diversity. That's true even within hip hop. You get the expected Tupac and Biggie, but you also get Freestyle Fellowship and Organized Konfusion. You get gangsta and Native Tongues. Boom bap and laid back.
Similarly, roots music means the experimental, dream-like Mexican-American rock 'n' roll of Los Lobos, the country rock of early Wilco, the bluegrass of The Meat Purveyors, and the country/folk of Iris DeMent. Those last two artists speak to my favorite element of Don’t Call It Nothing. The 1990s saw an explosion of female talent in roots and rock 'n' roll, but instead of segregating them in their own book, I put men and women on a level playing field. It’s not that dude bands weren’t making great music, but they weren’t inherently better than The Muffs, Bikini Kill, Bedlam Rovers, Sleater-Kinney, Superchunk, Bettie Serveert, Thee Headcoatees, The Breeders, Fastbacks, Bongwater, The Gits, PJ Harvey, Freakwater, Babes In Toyland, 7 Year Bitch, Maria McKee, Geraldine Fibbers, The Spinanes, Apples In Stereo, L7, Helium, Sixteen Deluxe, Dead Moon, Tarnation, Lord High Fixers, The 188.8.131.52's, Maow, Gillian Welch, Chan Marshall/Cat Power, Cub, Quasi, The Damnations, Blue Mountain, Verbena, Neko Case, Belle & Sebastian, The Minders, Three Finger Cowboy, Mr. Airplane Man, The Prissteens, Sparklehorse, Le Tigre, of Montreal, Royal Trux. Each of those bands either featured all women or some women, but they were all integral components of the creative process.
The '90s rock 'n' roll underground that I was a part of as fan, college radio music director, feature writer, and DJ, first at Chico State (KCSC) and then at the University of Alabama (WVUA), should be celebrated as an American success story. In a pre-cellphone, mostly pre-internet world, college radio, independent record stores, small clubs, zines, flyers on telephone poles, and simple word of mouth were the support network for artists who largely existed outside of the mainstream purview. It was easy to be a Nirvana fan, or Oasis fan, or Radiohead fan. You simply had to exist. It took effort to dig deeper, to get into the weeds where you could discover idiosyncratic, recombinant forces of nature like Fugazi, The Muffs, Blue Mountain, Geraldine Fibbers, and The Gourds.
I said about a thousand pages ago that one of my principal motivations for writing this book was to treat the best music of the decade with the respect it deserves. I said about a thousand pages ago that one of my principal motivations for writing this book was to treat the best music of the decade with the respect it deserves. First and foremost, I respect the effort of these musicians to find their own songwriting voice and carve out their own niche, usually knowing they weren't gonna sell many records. I respect the clubs, dive bars, and record stores who nurtured these musicians. And finally, I respect the fans who were there along the way, street teaming for their favorite bands and spreading the word. This book is for you.
If you think this podcast is for you. Please subscribe on your podcatcher of choice. Go visit the Don’t Call It Nothing Facebook Page and website. dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com. Like, comment, become a member, tell yo mama, tell a friend. Talk to you next time.