Ben Deily: Varsity Drag and founder of the Lemonheads

PRE-LEMONHEAD, LEMONHEAD, PRO-LEMONHEAD, POST-LEMONHEAD…… Ben Deily

As it turns out, not everyone longs to be a famous rock star. After co-founding the Lemonheads with high school friend Evan Dando, guitarist/drummer/vocalist Ben Deily would go on to leave the band after their third record. He closed the door on that chapter of his life just as the major labels began knocking– and he doesn’t regret it. The following 6100+ words is the unedited transcript of an in-person interview conducted with Ben Deily of Varsity Drag, and his wife and bassist, Lisa. While originally intended to preview a recent Varsity Drag show at Church on Saturday, July 23, the two-hour conversation not only covers the history and current state of Varsity Drag, but also the creation and early days of the Lemonheads, Deily’s relationship with Evan Dando, and Ben’s departure from the band just as they were about to make it big. While everyone knows about Evan Dando, his infamous highs and lows are well-chronicled– many fans don’t know about Ben Deily since his exit from the band in the early years. A longtime Dando collaborator, Deily today almost seems like Dando’s foil. Kind, talkative, elaborate, informative and especially gracious, he is everything Evan hasn’t been in interviews… and all the while unregretful about following fame’s path. When the Lemonheads debut, Hate Your Friends came out in 1987, Dando and Deily were fresh out of high school– the two were both vocalists and alternated lyrical duties between songs and verses. But while Dando took fate’s rocketship to worldwide stardom, Deily pursued a career. When I first interviewed Dando on the heels of his first solo release, Baby I’m Bored, I asked him about Deily’s whereabouts, and he had no idea. Now a decade later, it turns out they just lost touch. They never even had a falling out. And in the following interview, for the first time Deily tells the whole story and even announces that a Taang! Records-era Lemonheads reunion is in the works. Enjoy!!

Immense gratitude goes out to the Deilys… not only for their graciousness and intimate conversation, but also for letting me use these AMAZING photos that chronicle a special time and place that I wasn’t able to be a part of.

 

Nolan Gawron: So when and where did you begin making music? You were the cofounder of the Lemonheads with Evan Dando, right?

Ben Deily: We met in 1982, and it was funny because we both went to this weird, tiny high school in Boston at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth, and our class probably had 22 people in it, so everybody knew everybody else. But I seem to remember when we actually met and actually bonded ,was when one or the other of us recited something by this crazy troupe called the Fireside Theater from the 1960’s and 70’s. Evan and I were both big fans of it and one of us went into this Fireside routine and the other one piped in and finished it. That’s when I knew we were kindred spirits. We were pals all through high school and got into punk rock together, and all started doing goofy things like dying our hair and we started playing. I had an electric guitar and he had one too. He had a couple of amps with this built-in overdrive setting and he lived a couple blocks from our school and we could go there and bang on our guitars together. Eventually we realized the school had a drum kit for the jazz band located under the front stairs in the front building and we would go in there during lunch or whatever and one of us would play drums and one of us would play guitar. So we would play whatever Black Flag, Minor Threat or Sex Pistols songs, and then started recording our own songs. I think the first time we started recording together was 1985. Our school had this thing called “Project Week” and everyone had to do a project. Evan had a 4-track, and this tape is lost, but we recorded a song that I wrote about a recent news story where this kid who went into his math class in some big school out in the suburbs and opened a beer and lit a cigarette and the teacher came over and the kid took out a gun, shot the teacher and then shot himself. We were like ‘This is an awesome punk rock song waiting to happen’”. So we wrote that and the first version of the song “Fucked Up”. So there’s an original version of that song written in ’85 that has been lost. By that time we were getting close to graduating and Congress had not yet passed that law, “The White Stripes Amendment”, that allows you to have a band with only two people in it. We were like “Ok, we need a bass player—who do we know who has a bass?”. So we got this guy Jesse Peretz because he was in jazz band and was a bass player and he was sort of a punk rock fellow traveler. And that was the band. We graduated in ’86 and the weekend following that we found a studio and recorded our first EP, and maybe a couple of other songs that Taang! ended up throwing them on records when they released them later. That’s the early part of the story. And of course we were The Whelps back then, idiotically. And that was actually my fault. We threw around so many names, and man, Evan came up with some of the best band names—Ill Willy and the Rollershoots, the Fucking Clocks and That Pencil Smell, which landed up in the opening line to one of his songs [“Ride With Me”]. Somehow the Whelps was inoffensive enough and we put it on all our cassettes. At some point Ivan Kreilkamp, who we put on the cover of “Creator”, had suggested that we called ourselves the Lemonheads. That was his idea. People thought it was Andy Warhol on the album cover, but it was him.

NG: It seems there was very little time between your first Lemonheads shows and your first record…

BD: Yeah, we put out the first 7-inch ourselves. There was this kid, Patrick Amory. He was a senior when we were freshman and he was the case zero of punk rock in our school. He wore a collar and wrap-around sunglasses; he was the first punk at our school. He went to Harvard and became the music director at WHRB, so we would listen to his “Record Hospital” show. A friend of ours, George, was still very close with Patrick and they were self-described “record collector scum” and they would make us tapes and tell us what music was awesome. So Patrick was in on the “Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners EP”, and I think Jesse found a pressing plant that would do it for cheap. So we had 4 songs. We put it out ourselves. We put it together in June and we had the record by August and I think we had our first real show at the Rat, August 19, 1986. I remember this because I have fliers still. That wasn’t much time between those two things and Curtis who owned Taang! (when it was local) heard the songs because we were getting some airplay and released our first record that spring.

NG: And it was your decision to leave?

BD: Yeah, it was a process. Ev and I were living together for a couple of years. My then girlfriend/fiancé/eventual-wife[eventual ex-wife] had moved in with us and she didn’t much care for Evan and didn’t much care for the rock n roll either. It was this constant pressure and constant background noise of “what are you doing wasting your time with this”. I pushed back against that a little, but I was getting serious about school. Then there were these big threshold moments like when we went on a tour with Bullet Lavolta who were labelmates that we loved… they had this school bus that they would tour in and we got in the bus with them and we did an East Coast tour. I think it was the last show of the tour at State College, Pennsylvania—and I know someone has a video of it somewhere. But I was studying for finals and I remember being in the school bus trying to study and an unnamed member of the band, it wasn’t Evan, was giving me a hard time telling me I was a square and a nerd. As far as I was concerned, when you think about the chronology of the band, it was a ridiculously charmed life. It wasn’t something we slaved away at and it certainly wasn’t anything that I ever intended to be serious about. The voice in my head really enjoyed it. Working with Evan we really discovered how remarkable it was to make music. But in the back of my mind, I was always thinking ‘Once this becomes inconvenient, you’re going to drop it and get on with real life’. I remember the final thing was (and Corey Loog Brennan reminded me of this in an interview that he did a couple of years ago)—it was the Yeats symposium in Sligo, Ireland. I had gone to great lengths to get a teacher to write me some recommendations to get me into this Yeats program and all of these rock stars of the literary world were going to be there. But it conflicted with our first European tour. So at that point I said, “OK, I’m not going”. That was around the Lick era, so Evan was playing drums, Corey was playing guitar and they were going to find a new drummer. So, as Robert Frost would say: Sudden and swift and light as that/The ties gave. And I suddenly found myself not doing that anymore. I found myself living with my fiancé and going to school without any distractions. It was weird, on the one hand I absolutely knew that I was doing what I wanted to do, and knew I didn’t want to do rock n roll for the rest of my life, but I had underestimated the degree to which the most primary relationship in my life, the one with Evan, was gone. We never saw each other, and that was really painful and sad. I didn’t get a lot of much needed sympathy from my family, who was so happy to see Evan out of my life—he’s not what you call a good influence. What’s weird is that person to whom I was attached and married to, it continued. He would call, and, as I found out later, she would erase his messages. So there was a huge amount of sadness about that. Evan and I had been friends for so long. It was really a drag. I don’t think it was any part a “quitter’s remorse”. Their success was somewhat slow and I still got to sneak away to see Evan. When they recorded Lovey, I was in the studio and it was the first time I heard “Stove”, which is probably one of my favorite Lemonheads songs. It was this elegy of where and how Evan and I lived together. Every word was a true story. It was the true story of this guy from Dennis Foley Plumbing and took out our stove. And I just remember, it was so poignant and I was really moved. It was probably the starting point of realizing that Evan was going to be doing things and capable of achieving things in the band without me. It was my idea to not give myself to the enterprise and to not be committed to it—but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sad.

NG: And the last record you were on was…

BD: Lick, the last Taang! record. And actually I think Atlantic Records was already on the horizon, but that was way too serious.

NG: How did you view the change in the Lemonheads’ sound as it went from punk to pop? And did their huge success leave you questioning whether or not you should have left?

BD: Well, the change to pop was a supreme irony because when I was in the band, I was probably the guy most sympathetic to pop. For instance on Creator, the second album, I did our first ever acoustic song called “Postcard”. And again, an unknown member of the band that wasn’t Evan, said “Are you kidding me? You’re gonna play a pop song? We play all-ages shows. What are the skinheads going to think?” I said, “This is the song I’m playing. This is how I’m going to play it. If Paul Westerberg was going to play this with the Replacements, this is how he’d play it.” Then Evan did the Manson cover. But I fought so hard to do the first acoustic song.

NG: Well, even with your song “Ever” on the first record… that seemed like the first Lemonhead song with some extra heart in it…

BD: I was the earnest guy. I had more hardcore sympathies than the other guys as well. The irony of the band becoming more pop was strange because I couldn’t help but remember conversations about “Postcard” and how that was an unacceptable thing for the Lemonheads. But in terms of experience and their success, the thing that was most difficult was you couldn’t get away from it. Everywhere you went and everyone you talked to, the first thing they wanted to say was, “Hey I saw you’re old band on this. I saw them on the cover of this.” Yes, I did too. Can we talk about something else? I became so prickly about it because it was the only thing people would talk about. And on the one hand, I knew exactly where they were coming from, but I also knew conversely that persuading people of my point of view was no more possible then than it is now. The idea is that every red-blooded American wants to grow up to be a rock star and the idea that I didn’t want it then, I don’t want it now, and I never wanted that—people don’t believe it. And they don’t believe it any more than saying you don’t want to be rich or I don’t want to be an NBA all-star. I just wanted to have leather patches on my cardigan sweater. I had two fantasies. I either wanted to teach English or go into advertising. When I reached the level of making a vocational decision, I realized that if you work in advertising for a certain amount of years, you can retire into teaching. But you can’t do the reverse. Yeah, it was difficult. No one believes you if you say you don’t want to be a rock star. But no, I didn’t. In the narrative of life, there are stories about how things are supposed to be and what people are supposed to want. And now I’m trying to define my narrative of this thing. There were times where I was definitely out in some bizarre left-field world that nobody could understand– especially because everybody wanted to manufacture some sort of epic blowup or falling out. No, none of that is true.

 

NG: So you hit the books hardcore and focused on school for all those years…

BD: Yeah and believe it or not, the job I wanted was the job I got after all those years. I answered an ad in the newspaper, back when they had such things. Especially when I think about the economic climate now, I was lucky. I graduated in June, and by September I had the job I wanted. My first advertising job was here and then we moved to San Francisco a few months later and I got my first job at an actual agency.

NG: I remember interviewing Evan when Baby, I’m Bored [his first solo record] came out and I asked him where you were and if he kept in contact with you.  He said he had no idea and thought you might be in New Orleans and that he should look you up….

BD: I moved out to the west coast in ’95 and there was a brief stint where I moved around after the dotcom crash. But I ended up in Los Angeles. We [Me and Linda] met there. And that’s where me and Evan first linked up again, at the “Baby, I’m Bored” tour in LA [probably in 2003].

Lisa Deily [Ben’s wife and Varsity Drag bassist]: Yeah, that was right after I met you, maybe 2 weeks or a month after.

BD: My friend Josh, our drummer, was like “Evan’s coming to Spaceland, we have to go see him” and I was like “ok”. I’d been looking for him all these years, but kind of gave up because we were not in the same circles. We went there to see him and it was great. I talked to him after the show. Evan was staying at this guesthouse and we literally stayed up all night playing our old songs together. It was awesome.

NG: So you and your wife met in LA?

BD: Yeah. It was San Fran to bouncing around the east coast to being in LA. Basically, once my ex-wife left my life, Evan reentered it. It was an either/or thing.

 NG: During school and while you were moving around and doing advertising gigs, were you still doing music? Were you playing and writing in any degree?

BD: Yeah, the chronology was that very shortly after tendering my resignation to the Lemonheads, I formed a band with my kid brother, who had actually drummed with the Lemonheads when he was 14 or 15 at the time. He had always wanted to play music with me, and unlike me, he always wanted to be a musician. So he wanted to play and I had continued writing songs whether I wanted to or not, so I said, “let’s do a thing together”. So we had this thing called Pods in the early ‘90s in Boston. And that’s how I met Josh [Pickering], my LA roommate and drummer for Varsity Drag. We were sort of like the houseband at the Middle East for a little while. We were constantly being booked at the Middle East. This was ’91, John was on the keyboard, I was on the guitar, and again, it was before the “White Stripes Act” was passed and we were completely uncool to the point of being taunted. We had a giant cardboard cutout of Beethoven the Dog, and that rounded out the trio. Josh came to that show and I said “No, we had a drummer in mind”. So he taught himself bass to join the band. So anyway, Pods did an EP with Anthony DeLuca who worked at Taang! and had his own short-lived record label thing. That got serviced by Rock Pool and went all over the world. So we read reviews of the record from all over the world. We did one full-length cd, which was super long. It was maybe 17 songs. I knew we would never do another one, so we crammed it all in there. That cd is interesting because if I was the Lemonhead most sympathetic to pop, my brother is a million times more sympathetic to pop. His cannon of bands is Styx and Billy Joel. The Pods record, which I’m still proud of, is mixed with Johnno’s love of pop and my continued love for punk. We did the Rumble and got a lot and lot of play on WFNX.

Then after living in San Francisco, the first stirrings of Varsity Drag came into existence in the late 1990’s. These guys who were Lemonheads fans that were in a band called Unbalanced, Will and Greg, found me on AOL– which is where people found each other back then. So there were chatroom windows popping up asking “is this THE Ben Deily? Why don’t you come see our show”. And we started hanging out and playing together. That became Varsity Drag 1.0, which is represented here [points to their debut record that he pulled from his bag]. At that time, home-recording was beginning to become a legitimate and viable thing, and it wasn’t as ridiculous of an idea to record a record and not know what to do with it. We don’t want to set the world on fire, we just wanted to commit our songs to a way you could listen to it. But the first version evaporated around the same time the dotcom and Nasdaq went POOF. And nothing came of that music came of anything for a long time. When I started living in Los Angeles I started getting asked by Aston Stephens from Boss Tunage in England who said he had a record label, knew we had a record and wanted to put it out. I told him I’d get back to him. Six months later he wrote me back and I said “Yeah, yeah, yeah… top of my list”. It took a little while longer, but I got him the recordings and I put the artwork together. That’s when the rubber actually hit the road in terms of existing in the public eye.

 

NG: And you two [Ben and Lisa] met when in relation to this?

BD: We met before this record had ever come out. There were no Varsity Drag records that had ever come out.

LD: You gave me a burned cd when I met you with a bunch of Pod songs and that.

BD: Was I trying to impress you?

LD: Well it worked. And within a few weeks of being together he moved in. He helped me move and I was like “Why don’t you stay?”. Then we moved to Portland, Maine of all places and I think he finally started sending stuff. Then this big box of records arrived. I had lived in LA for almost 10 years and I knew a bunch of musicians. But if someone was emailing and calling someone to put out their record, they would have overnighted it in a second. But for him it took two years to do this.

BD: Again, I am kind of ashamed I wasn’t quicker to do that. I think now more than any time in my life, I value rock n roll. It’s taken a long time to not hold it cheaply. I always listened to it and had admiration for all these bands, but when it came to making any contribution to it, it wasn’t my thing. We all have these stories of who we are, and mine was never that thing. My story was I am the guy who is an English major, writer, poetry enthusiast, lover of literature. I don’t know why I always wanted to work in advertising. I think my grandparents gave me this idea of them remembering the “Mad Men” era. I was intrigued by the fact that I could do drawing, writing, music and all of that shit and get paid for it. I think by the time I was 12 or 13, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. But I am not proud of the fact that I have given short shrift to music, because I love music and music is one of the reasons life is worth living. I feel like I am ashamed of myself that I haven’t given enough effort to it. I wouldn’t want to throw myself into it again and try to make a living out of it, but now I look at my younger self and realize I realize “Shit I didn’t realize that this was something that was important”.

[Ben shows me a cd of a band he knows who covered “Ever”]

NG: I had a friend that saw Evan play at some point in time and he kept yelling out for him to play “Ever”, and Evan responded that he doesn’t play covers. That’s an interesting response because beyond it being a Lemonheads song, he loves to play covers.

BD: Actually, when they got back from Europe that first time, when I had been at the Yeats thing instead, Evan said everyone was calling out for my songs. And this gets back to the narrative in 2005 or 2006 when I got everything together to send Aston the record. He puts out the first Varsity Drag record and at this point we were living in Portland, Maine because I was homesick for the east coast after twelve-plus years… holy shit, more than that! I decided I would persuade some employer to relocate me here. And I got this ad agency that said it would be in Boston, but then they said “Oh we’d rather have you in Portland”. I thought, ‘Hey Portland is way closer to Boston than San Francisco is”. Then boxes started arriving with the cd, and maybe 4 or 5 months later this lunatic in Germany wanted to set up a tour of Europe. I thought ‘What the hell’, and called up the Varsity Drag guys in San Francisco and see if anybody was up to it. One guy didn’t think he could do it and the other one was living in Austria by then. So Lisa, who used to play the flute, and who, by the way, was a club DJ in the 80’s in Chicago… she said she always wanted to play the bass and I got her a bass for her birthday, so we were going to play this European tour no matter what. I thought it was karma. I waited 17 years to go to Europe and play “Ever” and I was going to do it. There was no way I’m going to say no. Then the bass player says he could do it

LD: I knew one song at that point. I was taking lessons, but this guy wanted me to play jazz style and pluck and it wasn’t working.

BD: She maybe took two lessons and it wasn’t working, so I wrote out all the notes to the songs and she learned all the Varsity Drag songs and some old Lemonheads songs. Then, just before we were about to leave, the original Varsity Drag bassist said, “Hey, I can do it after all”. So she almost murdered him, but didn’t.

LD: It’s probably a good thing though. It was almost 6 weeks and I was shooting pictures and film and selling merchandise and nervously carrying around the different monies and keeping track of them. If I had to play in addition to that I would have had a nervous breakdown. And while I may have wanted to murder him, it was probably for the best.

NG: And that’s when you started playing?

LD: Yep

BD: And there were a couple of dates on tour where she played an encore. But once we got back to the States, the touring band we had put together dispersed. It wasn’t long after we got back from tour that this lady we knew in Portland, Maine known as Naughty Sarah who booked a lot of the punk shows up there said, “Hey, I have an opening. I want you guys to play. Don’t you have a band?”. And I was like, “Not really”, but we found this drummer. And we actually rehearsed in my agency because we had a drumkit there. That’s when we played the first show in this configuration. Since then it’s been us and a configuration of the willing drummers.

NG: Even after 20+ years, you can still hear a voice in your music that is unmistakably the one in the Lemonheads. You can hear the similar phrasing and similar guitar-playing styles. Do you see that too? How has your songwriting changed from a somewhat carefree teenager in the Lemonheads to someone who 20 years older and assumedly more mature?

BD: It’s weird how little has changed. If anything, I feel I give myself a little more latitude and a little more permission to do what I want at this point. But back then it was the same process where anything on your mind is grist for the mill and that becomes the song. I mean thank god we never made any political songs. Those don’t weather as well as affairs of the heart. But still I think if anything, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that I have always written what was on my mind. They are almost invariably truthful narratives. Sometimes the creative process feels more like dictation than making something up. I think I’ve become a little bit more sophisticated when it comes to song structure. I was talking to Evan last year and he was talking about some songs on Baby I’m Bored and he said “When you realize you have something good, you don’t need more than that. If you have three great chords and a melody, just repeat them”. I’m not willing to let myself do that, but it opened my eyes to that a little bit.

NG: Was the first time you played together again at SXSW in 2010?

BD: Playing together in public, yeah.

NG: And didn’t you do a Big Star tribute thing [Alex Chilton was scheduled to play the festival and died on his way there]?

BD: Well, it’s funny. We were in the hotel room trying to figure out what we were going to play. And I brought up how we used to play “Nightime” by Big Star. We always loved that song. We didn’t end up playing in our set, but the next night Evan went to the tribute show and played that song. I hope I managed to contribute by suggesting that.

NG: So do you two [Ben and Lisa] write songs together?

BD: Well, Lisa has helped me with the things that are harder to do like the arrangements and editing. I’ve been doing this so long that certain aspects feel like second nature.

LD: I think I’m giving you a bass player that won’t quit. So I’m contributing a HUGE part. Otherwise you would have had as many bass players as you’ve had drummers.

NG: [To Lisa] Do you have a careerist’s job as well?

LD: Not really.

BD: She is a member of the Screen Actors’ Guild. When we were first together, she was the one making the money and paying the bills. I was the housemaker of sorts. I think it’s important to change that every now and then.

LD: Now we’re actually living in the house Ben grew up in. We bought it from his parents. So we’re living in the house the Lemonheads used to rehearse in.

BD: If you’ve ever seen the back cover of Hate Your Friends with the picture on the stairs… that’s those stairs, our basement stairs.

LD: it’s pretty big for a couple and a dog so I’ve been wrangling out-of-work cellists and cleaning up after them. And Harvard students and professors. At least we have rental income coming in, but at some point I want to grow up and have a job.

NG: How serious are you about being a band with your full-time job that you like?

BD: If Lisa and I were to tour in the future, we would have to tour alone. I don’t think I’m violating any confidence here, but when I talked to Evan he mentioned how playing music for money is difficult and weird. It changes your relationship to what you’re doing. And he is so professional, so awesome… he’s a genius so he can do it effortlessly. But he said it feels it different. It’s not like it was ever in my mind. You could be a young kid, up-and-coming and their dream might be to have their song in an iPad commercial. Well, ok. The punk ethos was quite different. Back then the idea was, on one hand there was music, and on the other hand, was commerce. There was no separation between the two. That idea doesn’t really exist, but some of us old fogies still think about that. It’s not that there’s any precious purity that’s divorced from that, but you have to admit that you’re answering to the market place. It’s not that there’s any precious purity that’s divorced from that, but you have to admit that if your answering to the market place and you’re going to be thinking about if this going to be popular or not. On the other hand, everybody is making music and you want people to hear it. You want everyone to love it. You want something that dovetails with the times and that everyone will like. Part of me thinks its fun to not have to worry about whether people listen to it or buy it. It’s just me doing it for me and a small circle of friends who I want to impress. Definitely I want Evan or John… I desperately want them to approve of the songs I’m doing, but as far as the money aspect… who cares! I love my job beyond reason. What I do for a living is crazy. We had a meeting today where a bunch of college-educated adults were having an impassioned argument about the Aflac duck. Part of me thinks, this job is amazing. We are arguing about ducks– imaginary, talking ducks. For the first time in my life, because I’m getting older, I think maybe I used to be more uptight, but I would consider doing music for a year if we could be a self-sufficient band.

NG: Let’s talk about the song Billy Ruane. Now that he is gone it’s obviously more poignant.

BD: Yeah, that song was written when I was in San Francisco and Billy Ruane was still very much alive. I was feeling a lot of homesickness for Boston and the Boston music scene because nothing is the same as Boston. The line “The place just ain’t the same without Billy Ruane” was about San Francisco. He was, in my mind, something emblematic about everything that was awesome and crazy and over-the-top and wonderful about the Boston scene. As the song took shape, it became more of a time capsule longing for a moment that was gone in regards to the Channel and The Rat. Billy was an emblem that tied it all together. I have so much personal affection for him. I met him in the early days of the Lemonheads and he invited us to his 30th birthday party, which was the beginning of music at the Middle East. He was always a presence. You would see him at shows. For my wedding he gave me a giant box set of Johnny Mathis and another box set of B.B. King. I have no idea why. But I wrote it in San Francisco, and as time when on I realized it sounded like an epitaph. When the record came out it would get some airplay and people would call up and ask if Billy was dead. Then I felt bad about the song. It’s elegiac for a moment in time, not for a person that was gone. Then he died and the song was transmuted into something else. The last time we saw Billy, a week or so before he died, he came over and gave us both a hug. He told us that he really wanted to book us another show soon, but to be sure we didn’t play that song. And gave me a big sloppy stubbly kiss. Now we can use it to celebrate him. Music was his motivated passion. And now he’s not here to tell us not to play it. And we’re going to play that song. It’s so great to be back and see that there are so many venues around and there are so many people in town. Our first show back somebody called me to do a show at Church and then Mickey Bliss called us and found our name in the phone book and left a message on our landline. We immediately felt welcome.

NG: When did you officially come back to Boston?

BD: It was August of 2007.

NG: Do you have new stuff in the works?

BD: Well the only show we have on the horizon is the show at Church with Kenny Chambers, which is exciting because his old band, Moving Targets, were labelmates with us on Taang!, and it was a band we absolutely revered. His new record is an excellent, excellent record. We have some new songs. And we’re going to play some new old songs. Also, Evan has asked me to set up a show with a full band and play all of the Lemonhead’s Taang!-era stuff and play someplace in Boston. I was going to have a few digital songs ready to celebrate the upcoming show, but as it turns out my neighbor is trying to annex part of my yard so I had to hire a lawyer and had to use the money toward that. Also we’re doing a score for a production of Hamlet. It’s at the BCA and it’s going to be a modern-dressed, female Hamlet and they have commissioned us to do all of the music. It’s something totally out of our wheelhouse. Some of it is rock and some is acoustic. That’s going to happen in the fall.

NG: Where did the name Varsity Drag come from?

BD: It’s a1920’s dance-craze thing. It was from a musical when drags and rags were all the rage. I was looking through a stockbook of Getty Images and there was a picture of a couple doing this crazy dance move. And the caption read Varsity Drag. I thought if this isn’t a band name, it totally should be. Then I talked to my grandma and she was like “oh I love the Varsity Drag, do you play it?” We looked up the song, and there’s a Muppet version even. The Varsity Drag is a song that was a hit before your mother was born. We have never been young enough or have fanatically been devoted to have an endless energy for rock so we’re always like, “Oh we got a show. Grab the amps out of the basement and haul them out to the car. Rock n roll is such a hassle”. We were at a Denny’s in San Rafael, California, where they filmed American Graffiti and we had a list of the top six contenders for the name and we had our waitress pick one. “Varsity” is because we are an elite, dedicated-to-being-good squad, but “Drag” because the whole thing is a pain in the ass.

Shortly after this story went to print, Deily sent an email about the increasing probability of a Lemonheads reunion that would revive their Taang! Records material from the late 1980’s:

BD: Getting closer to the me and Ev show–he’s been texting me about it almost every day this last week. From my talk with booking people it seems most likely to happen in Boston as soon as he gets back from tour at the end of the year–and maybe 2 night’s worth, which would be kinda wicked fun…

 

Check out: www.bendeily.com to obtain Varsity Drag recordings at especially cheap prices, and to view an archive of rare words, photos and videos compiled from throughout Deily’s career. And, for a very special and recent post, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6qhnyGRRLg&feature=youtu.be to see a clip from Ben’s last show as a Lemonhead. 

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Henry Rollins: Interviewing a man about interviewing a band… And oh so much more…

Just putting in the request to interview Henry Rollins gave me anxiety. Sure it was a great idea. I would interview Henry about why he’s interviewing Dinosaur Jr. onstage at their upcoming show. No one will have that story except me. And I was right.  But how does one layman beckon the busiest, most motivated man on the planet to talk about the absurd and perhaps most insignificant undertaking in recent years. His agent thought it would be impossible to get a hold of him. He was in Africa, India and far expanses of the globe filming for the upcoming National Geographic show Animal Underworld. But I got the call. Just one day before the proposed interview time, I had a lot of work to do compiling questions. Where does one start?

I wanted to know about Black Flag and things buried so far in the past he might immediately get bored. So I strategized—and part of that strategy was for me myself to stay away from the bars and the booze the night before the interview. Henry was always on-point and I wanted to be the same, as much as I could at least. I woke up and got an early start on the day, hoping to come up with some last minute questions. I called Henry at noon, 9am his time, mind you. We talked for an hour, which I would have never thought possible given his schedule. I asked him about how he stays so motivated, if he misses music. I asked how the Dinosaur Jr. onstage interview shows came to be. I asked him his thoughts on reunion tours and if Black Flag ever gets asked to reform. We talked about what scares him and what he does for relaxation. We talked about his travels to all ends of the earth– mostly godforsaken places no one would want to see. He talked about his upcoming travel photo book and his new show on National Geographic. As always, he was on. And being a talker by trade, the interview did not disappoint. It was inspiring. It was informative. It was entertaining. Below is the unedited interview posted for the first time. The Metro Newspaper printed an excruciatingly curtailed version for print. Here is that and all the rest, as well as exclusive photos taken at the Paradise Rock Club where Mr. Rollins interviewed Dinosaur Jr. onstage.

Often called a Renaissance Man, Henry Rollins prefers to classify himself more modestly as a “jackass-of-all-trades”. First gaining notoriety as the fourth and most famous singer in the hardcore band, Black Flag, Rollins is now a performer of spoken word, an author with his own publishing company, an actor, commentator, and a relentless mouthpiece for hardnosed opinions. He writes a music column for the LA Weekly and deejays a weekly radio show at KCRW in Santa Monica. This fall Rollins will release a documentary-styled travel photo book, Occupants, and host National Geographic’s new series, Animal Underworld. Despite all of that, Rollins takes on of his strangest roles tonight—interviewing Dinosaur Jr. onstage before their set. The following is a criminally short excerpt of an extremely inspired interview with the always-motivated Henry Rollins.

NG: What do you accredit to going from being an underground punk rock musician to someone whose opinion is accepted by the common public? There was a stretch where every documentary I saw had commentary from you. It was either you, Bono, or both.

HR: Well, I say yes to things. People ask if I want to be in a documentary that I find interesting and I say “Yeah.” I do get listened to when people ask questions, especially in documentaries. Without being self-agrandising, I can come from some degree of authority and have become some sort of go-to person. Ultimately with documentaries, they need to get it done and they need to fill up minutes and if you can finish a sentence and be somewhat articulate on a topic, well then you might be on someone’s Rolodex. Over the years, me doing a lot of speaking in public, I try and formulate points of view by knowing about the places. For example, if I talk about a country, I usually only mention it because I went there. That doesn’t make me an expert, but it’s not just me regurgitating something I heard on the news or something I read in a book. If I talk about Iran, I will talk about the time I was in Iran. It doesn’t make me an expert on Iran, but I can come from a certain degree of honesty and talk about what it was like when I was there. I travel very far and very wide to be able to bring those kinds of view. And it’s a lot of work for me to get to these kinds of destinations. A lot of times they don’t want you to go and they make it prohibited. A lot of times I take that respect and give it back by trying to have a handle on what I am talking about it. You could get a guy that tries to have an ego about these sorts of things, but that’s not where I’m coming from at all.

NG: How do you maintain your energy? No one ever sees a sluggish Henry Rollins onstage or on camera.

HR: Well, I am motivated. I’m on the move. I have plans. I have an itinerary. Everything I do goes toward realizing those goals. Everything from nutrition, to fitness to sleep patterns goes to prioritizing those goals. I’m not getting high. I’m not smoking. I’m in the gym five days a week. I’m trying to get restorative sleep. I’m trying to be well prepared. I’m handing things in before deadline, just so I can get the damn things off my desk. It’s my life and when you do some things you give up others. So what I don’t have is an amazing social life. My phone does not ring on the weekends. I’m not hanging out, I’m not going to the bar, and there aren’t a bunch of scantily clad women running around my house. I live alone. And at this point, at age 50, my priority is just to work and nothing else really.

NG: With that being said, people always say music is a release. Now that you aren’t doing music, what is your release? How does Henry Rollins relax?

HR: Well, for me it was the gym. It’s nothing new. I’ve been training since I was young. But without that opportunity to have that massive caloric expenditure that you have on tour with a band, I have to get all of those ya-ya’s out at the gym on the treadmill. I miss music, but I know that I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it that would be any good. I don’t want to do old material and I don’t think anything I write that would be new would be worth it. I don’t think lyrically anymore. I’ve been around music quite a bit and I’ve heard a few records in my time, and I think I have a pretty good radar of when a band isn’t really “dialing it in”, but don’t exactly remember what the thing is about and can still emulate the form. You hear people make records. They just put them out there. There are songs, but there’s nothing in there. There are no calories in the song. A lot of bands do that these days. Bands have been around for a long time and they have nothing really going on. And I loathe picking on bands. I mean, who am I? But you can pick on a band that doesn’t care—like the Rolling Stones. When was the last really meaningful Stones album? For me it was Tattoo You. But they still go out and do it. In my LA Weekly article coming out this week, I talk about Dinosaur Jr. and how they are still making really good music and really good songs. But then I look at Mick Jagger and him singing “Satisfaction”… great band, amazing singer, great song, but when he’s singing out there in front of 50,000 people singing that he, “ can’t get no… satisfaction”, I have to come to the conclusion that he’s either lying, or not that bright. How can you be in the Rolling Stones for 40-plus years and not get no satisfaction? Then if they play something from their new record everyone gets up to buy a beer. So I just don’t want to be in that situation where you’re going to do an entire tour where you’re putting paint in between the little circles on the page. It’s easy for a band to do that. You can stop being in the moment with songs and still play them. If you watch the band X, Billy Zoom will be the first person to tell you he’s not interested in playing the songs that he goes out every summer to play for the money. I’ve actually watched him literally talk to his guitar tech while on stage playing the songs. He’s that good. If you listen it sounds amazing. But if you watch him, he actually has his side to the audience. It’s so rude to me. I saw that and I’m a really big fan of the band. But I don’t want to be that guy. When I’m doing spoken word, I’m up there talking. And if I’m not talking there is no show. You can’t dial that stuff in, even if I wanted to—which I don’t. So I think being onstage talking is the best format for me. With the music, if I was to be in a band, it would be like being in the fifth year at the university—shouldn’t you be moving on? That’s why I stopped music years ago.

NG: So where did this idea to interview Dinosaur Jr. onstage before the show come from? How far do you and J. Mascis go back? Did you ever share a bill?

HR: Well, you’d have to ask the band. It wasn’t my idea. They contacted me and asked “hey, do you want to do this”? And me being such a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan, the upside for me is that I get to see the band play 8 times in 8 nights… and I’m going to watch all 8 shows. The downside is… well I can’t find the downside. So I said I would do it. I don’t know who started this. I have no idea. All I know is their manager Brian wrote me. The thing about Dinosaur Jr. is I’m just a fan. I really don’t know them. I don’t really go out of my way to meet bands. I buy the record and go to the show. I don’t need the guest list– I don’t need to go back stage. I really don’t.

NG: So you never played with them back in the day?

HR: No, but I used to go see them. I was aware of them right after their first record back in 1985 or so, when they were on Homestead Records. Then they were on SST and I started seeing them in 86 and became a fan. I mean, what is there not to like.

NG: It seems especially strange because J. is so socially awkward that you two seem like complete opposites. I’d be afraid if I were him.

HR: He’s a man of few words. He lets the music do the talking. He’s not an unfriendly person. He lets his music do the talking to a very great degree. He’s a nice guy and he’s funny too. He has good taste is music and is very low-key.

NG: How serious are you going to be when it comes to asking him questions?

HR: Damn serious. The conclusion I came to the other day is that I’m 50 and I don’t think the Dinosaur Jr. people are that far behind me. So when those records came out, when “Bug” came out in 1988, the audience that will be at these shows probably wouldn’t have been 20-something when it came out. They may have been 5. So the questions I want to ask will be so the audience can get some sort of context of where the band was when they were recording “Bug”. Who was on tour? What records were you buying? This was a time with a major change in college radio. Did the way you recorded “Bug” have a different feel than when you were recording your first two records– because playing-wise, it’s a much different record. Not to put the other two records down, but it was a much better record. It’s more evolved in a really good way… really good choruses. The rhythm section goes from a bass and drummer to a rhythm section. You can see the evolution. And J. is a real songwriter, which is hard to find these days. But he could do it and he still does. His new solo record is evidence. I want to get into what bands they were touring with. What bands were they aware of? Did you see any kind of shift? When that record came out, music was just starting to change and indie really came to the fore. Dinosaur Jr. was at the ground floor when these changes started to happen. It wasn’t always this way. Everything blew open a few years later with albums like Nevermind, but Dinosaur Jr. was there before that. And if you were to ask Nirvana about Dinosaur Jr., they would say “oh of course… Alumni” The Melvins would say “oh sure”. They were all part of that and that’s what I want to get out of them, and by me, I mean I want to give the audience context so 20 minutes later, when the audience hears the album live they might consider the songs slightly differently. And that’s why I think doing this would be relevant and really make it interesting. I don’t think the interview should be like “Boxers or briefs?” I don’t care about any of that. This isn’t a normal set by Dinosaur. They’re doing a historic record and I think the questions should stick to the spirit of what they’re doing onstage that night.

NG: Dinosaur Jr., as with many other bands around the same time as Black Flag, reunited. And everyone seems to have gotten the reunion bug. What are your thoughts on restarting extinct bands and do people often approach you about rehashing Black Flag?

HR: There are a lot of ironies in life and there are a lot of ironies in rock music. One of the many ironies is when you get older you are actually able to play the songs you wrote 20 years ago, but play them better. You actually have the chops to articulate the idea that you had 20 years ago. And so, it might sound as good or better than when you did it when you were 22. And sometimes it takes the world a while to catch up. Yeah that guy who is now 48 is really cool, but where were you when he was starving miserably when that record came out. Well maybe they were 5. Ok, fair enough. Or, I was his age, but I don’t know. Sometimes culture needs to catch up. When the Sex Pistols released their first album they were hated by the press. Now that record is a multi-platinum, tried and true rock classic. And by the standards of punk rock, today it was nothing that would even raise your eyebrows. You know what I mean? Now the Sex Pistols go out and play in front of thousands of people. Before they would get hit in the head with bottles. So, some bands reform because the world has caught up. They’ll get a call from some promoter guy who gives them an offer. “I know you guys hate each other, but how about this. How about 6 weeks in America and each person will walk home with this much money”. These people have mortgages, they have kids and they say, “ok, I’m in”. Sometimes people just want to get together and do those songs because they miss it. They don’t feel old. They want to get out and do it. One of the ironies is, while you might be able to pull the songs off well, you might look really ridiculous doing it. Rock music, unfortunately, has a ‘use by:’ date compared to other musics. When you see the grey-haired jazz guy you think, “well he must know what he’s doing”. But when you see the grey-haired guitar person you think, “oh man”. Just because you have grey hair doesn’t mean you don’t play your guitar very, very well, but there is a perception of that. And so I thin bands reform for all kinds of reasons. The first is financial. They didn’t get what they probably should have gotten the first time around. With a band like Black Flag, like so many other bands, we were severely underpaid. It was a small scene. You didn’t do it for the money; there was no money. It was quite obvious. You could have come out on tour with us for a week at any time and it would be obvious—there is no money in this. All you get out of this is you get to play and you get the glory. You get to meet the chicks and you are in the band. You know you are good; you know you’re really good. But it’s never going to be a big deal. But it doesn’t mean you can’t rock those 300 people a night. All you got out of it was knowing you are one good live band. If Black Flag was to reform now, in any formation, you could probably get that thing to several audiences around the world one time. It would sound awful, but people would show up because they wouldn’t know what a crappy bill it would truly be. We could walk away with a substantial amount of cash—I mean maybe, who knows—but there have been more than one promoter type that has contacted me thinking that it’s my band. It was never my band, pal. I was just the fourth singer. You want to talk to Greg Ginn. It’s his machine. I was in his band for five years. But that offer has come to me a few times, so no doubt it has come to Greg Ginn and all the other Black Flag members countless times over the years. There would be a buck in it, but I can’t think of any configuration of the many people who were in that band, that could put it together and have it sound good. I think you’d come out of there feeling insulted and ripped off, like you have been cheated. And that’s not worth any dollar amount to me.

NG: Moving on, tell me about this National Geographic show that you host. Was that your idea?

HR: No, they came to me and asked if I’d like to be on Nat Geo and I said yes. I grew up near the building in Washington DC, and I’m a documentary nut. It took a few years for the woman who championed me to convince her bosses upstairs that me at their place would be a good idea. For many years Nat Geo was a guy with a magnifying glass looking at a butterfly. Times have changed and you need a little bit more of an edge in some of these presenters and last year they saw it her way and said, ‘we like Henry and we think he might be a good way to give the station some variety”. So I got a shot. We’ve shot some documentaries—we just finished shooting docs 3, 4 and 5. They will come out at the end of the year. We just came back from Vietnam and India, shooting a bunch of crazy footage over there.

NG: What was one of the crazier things you saw?

HR: Well, it’s more the crazy things I did. Basically what I saw was myself doing a bunch of stuff in front of a camera. Let’s see: eating rats, cooked rats in southern India—that was a couple of days ago. Jumping on the back of an alligator in Florida and wrestling it. That was intense. Eating a beating snake heart in Vietnam the other day. Drink snake blood. Drinking cow urine in India. Yeah, they’re putting me through my paces.

NG: So if you’re not afraid of those things, what is Henry Rollins afraid of?

HR: Intimacy. I’m making a joke. I’m not a tough guy and I’m not that brave, but there are certain things that get to me. Oooh, guts! That kind of thing doesn’t really make me lose my mind. I’m sure there are lots of things that I find fairly unendurable– maybe a long flight next to a screaming child. Things don’t get to me, so in situations like that where people say, “pick up that snake”, I’m like “yeah that’s a cobra”. I’m not afraid. Not that I’m not afraid, but I know what I’m dealing with.

NG: And then there’s this travel photo book coming out…

HR: Yeah, it’s my first photo book. It comes out in October. It’s called “Occupants” and it’s photos from 2004 to 2010. It’s from everywhere from Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, North Korea, Sudan, Uganda, wherever else. It’s just photos I’ve been taking. I drag a lot of photo gear with me and sometimes I just do months at a time by myself in the world taking photos. Literally 100 days, 15 countries, just going around the world and doing it.

NG: Did being in a touring band bring on that sense of the wide-eyed wonder of traveling?

HR: Definitely to a certain degree, My mom took me traveling when I was young. By the time I was in 5th grade I had already been to Europe, Turkey, Jamaica. It was back when they issued a green passport before the blue one. I had one of those and I was always interested in travel because I was raised doing it. When you’re in music you travel and you always spend a lot of time living in a moving vehicle, or a hotel if you’re lucky, or sleeping in a folding chair backstage. You get used to living out of a backpack. When I got older, I was afforded an opportunity to travel, and not for tour. Back in the late 90’s, I still had never been to Africa and I realized I better do that. Then I started going to Africa once a year since 1998. And I go 1-3 times a year—different countries, different parts.

NG: Where haven’t you been that remains on your dwindling list of destinations that you want to visit?

HR: I want to get to Congo and Western Sudan like Darfur. I want to get to Palestine and the area around the Caspian Sea. I want to get to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. I’ve been to Azerbaijan, but not for very long. I want to go back to Syria, northern Syria. I’ve spent some time in North Korea last year. I’d like to get back there and see some more. They don’t let you see very much.

NG: Do you have a favorite or least favorite place?

HR: I don’t have a least favorite, but there are places I wouldn’t go back to because there’s nothing more I can get out of it. But Brunei, which is just a very gentle, very relaxed, easy-going place. After two days you’re bored to death. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not happening. It’s just sitting there. So I will never go back to Brunei. If I could, if I could get through and convince myself that I wouldn’t get abducted or killed I would go back to Afghanistan and I wish I could spend more time there. That country fascinates me. I’ve been there twice, but only with the USO, so I was surrounded by military and choppered around it and not walking around. But at this point I’m not quite sure if it wouldn’t potentially go south on me. I know westerners stay in Kabul. I’ve had people that give me good advice and phone numbers, and it can be okay if you use a sanctioned Afghan fixer—a guy who has been sanctioned by the local mafia types. If you walk around town with him, everyone knows you’ve paid him and he’s paid people. You are okay because you rented this guys face essentially. This guy I met last year in Mali said, “yeah, you can go, and you can go alone. Just don’t sit anywhere for longer than 20 minutes”. And that is just really dicey. I’m not looking for that kind of adventure. That seems a little too strong. Also, for someone who wants to take photos… if you raise your camera to the wrong person I think you will lose that camera pretty quick, and in a very convincing manner. Maybe with an AK in my face, losing a $7,000 camera and they probably will shoot me. It looks cool on paper—I don’t know if I can pull it off, but I would like to do more of that.

NG So you don’t go anywhere to relax?

HR: No, I go somewhere to burn lean tissue. If it comes down to “I’m not going to do anything today”, that would be December for a few days when everything shuts down for Christmas vacation. I did that here at my house in Los Angeles. My assistant basically dared me to sit still. I wondered where I should go because I usually travel somewhere obscure for Christmas. And she said, “why don’t you just stay, play some music and do some reading’. I did it and it was amazing. I played so much music on my record player. I’d pick out a stack of records and read entire books. It was great and much needed. The battery-recharge factor was really great. But past that, whenever I want to go somewhere it’s that other thing. I wake up early in the morning with my backpack, water and camera gear and go out until I sweat through my clothes. Then I’d come back to the hotel at night, workout and eat. That’s my routine.

NG: With all of your projects, are there any ideas that have been rejected that you think are amazing?

HR: Well, I’ve pitched TV show ideas to Discovery and History Channels and they said no. Which is too bad because I think they are really good ideas. Beyond that me being a microcottage industry there’s really no one that can say no to me. If I want to do a book about this, I can. I own a publishing company so who is going to reject it? Certainly not me. So I get to do whatever I want. You can do whatever you want, as long as you keep it small. That way, if it doesn’t sell, and sometimes it doesn’t, you don’t end up eating so hard if it fails.

NG: It seems like you are prime for writing a motivational book based on your life and energy and accomplishments. What is your secret to life?

HR: Well, it’s simple to me. I am angry and I have my eye on the clock. Once you get a few laps around the track then your knees don’t work anymore. I’m 50. In ten years I’ll be 60. Have you ever seen what a 60 year old looks like? I mean, they can get it done, but you gotta watch your diet. You’re not going to kick some 16-year-old’s ass at the 7-11 so you better get your respect on and use it while you got it. I come from the working class world. I have no illusions. I’m really lucky. I’m probably the luckiest person you’ve ever talked to. That’s why I show up every day early with a smile. I know where I should be. I should be flipping burgers. I was lucky. I won the lottery. I got to be in Black Flag and to my own credit I took that to different places. Here I am now, 30 years after joining that band and doing pretty well. But only by being extremely tenacious and very hardworking. It’s not like I have some overwhelming degree of talent. And perhaps in that lies some inspiration. I am one of those stories where if this guy can do it…. I mean, I can’t make software work, I get lost in hotels… I’m that guy and I’m getting through so I think countless other people could do marvelously better than me. That’s my motivation, the fact that I probably shouldn’t be in half of the situations I am in. I just feel like someone will come along and say, “get this guy. You are an imposter. Put your apron on and get back to the grill.” And I’m not putting down that kind of work. That’s where I come from and it’s a discipline I know. I take that and use it to do what I do. I get up early, work real long and realize it’s going to be a long day.