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Anniversary

Hang On! Pussy Galore Revisit Dial M for Motherfucker
Nick Hutchings , March 28th, 2014 07:35

Nick Hutchings talks to Jon Spencer, Julia Cafritz, Bob Bert, Neil Hagerty and Kurt Wolf about the twenty fifth anniversary of Dial M For Motherfucker

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Jon Spencer typed the original press release for Pussy Galore's 1989 album Dial M For Motherfucker calling it "the record that broke up the band". Included in the liner notes for a reissue in 1998, Spencer posed the following rhetorical question: "What's up with this new 'high-tech, can-do', accessible Pussy Galore? Accessible my ass! This is one of the hardest records ever made! People have listened to it and gone blind!" With a keen sense of mythology he compared Pussy Galore to "monsters, hairy 6ft tall creatures with tattoos (and) no life offstage", and the record to "a party".

It's certainly a rowdy party. Former Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert told me how he was sold on the Pussy Galore manifesto from the get-go: "Jon's concept for Pussy Galore was Back From The Grave and Pebbles garage comps, early Stones meets Swans, Neubauten etc. Two of my favourite genres, I was sold. Love us or hate us, no one else sounded like or kicked as much ass." And they had got pretty adept with the ass kicking by the time Dial M rock & rolled around. It had evolved from the angry garage punk of its predecessor Right Now! into new found sonic experimentation and a cut n' paste feel inspired by the hip hop sounds of its New York surrounds. It was also the last album when Pussy Galore was at full number, the last one to feature Jon's sparring partner and co-founder of the band Julia Cafritz.

One of my favourite albums of all time, I decided for this 25th anniversary piece to track down the band to ask them all their stories behind this watershed record. It wasn't so much like reassembling the Dirty Dozen as reuniting the Furious Five - apt given the mixtape leanings of Dial M. By hook and crook I managed to separately interview Jon Spencer, Julia Cafritz, Bob and guitarists Neil Hagerty and Kurt Wolf, and much like the disparate recording of the album I have pieced together their words, to make a candid collage of recollections of a cult masterpiece – an album that Jon told me is "very much about the end of that band and the dead-end of negativity. But also full of ideas, more raggedy, lotsa sonic experimentation. And it rocks". He's not wrong. Julia Cafritz picks up the story at the gestation of the album.

JULIA CAFRITZ: Like all Pussy Galore records, Dial M started off with a shitload of practice. The process was always the same: Jon would bring in songs, we would work out all the parts during endless practices, once the songs were set, that would be followed by a ton more practice and then we would start to work on how to incorporate them into sets and practice that. We were a very regimented band-practicing three even four times a week. Once we had sufficiently practiced, we'd tour on the songs. The idea being that on tour we would tighten that shit up so that by the time we went into the studio, we were a well-oiled machine, usually able to spit out the live takes (which formed the bulk of all PG songs) like nobody's business. Dial M was no different...at first. Except for of course we now had both Neil and Kurt on lead guitar. This meant that we were now a full on four guitar assault.

JON SPENCER: At some point after Right Now! Neil quit. Kurt Wolf replaced Neil as lead guitar and I think we did a bunch of touring – our first tours in Europe were with Kurt Wolf I believe.

KURT WOLF: Marnie from Live Skull introduced me to them. I was enrolled in SVA (New York School of Visual Arts) that fall. So much for art school. I remember Marnie described them as very clever people. I still think that fits.

JS: Then we made the Sugarshit Sharp EP and after Neil came back. And for the life of me I can't remember how – but it was kind of interesting to have both Neil and Kurt in the band.

NEIL HAGERTY: Coming back seemed like a ridiculous thing to do and that was how I lived. I liked to do things in the 'wrongest' way possible. Coming back to the band was like being a ghost or Doctor Who. The band seemed super tight, just firing on all cylinders, more grown-up. I definitely felt like I could step out a little bit, throw in little sparkly things here and there without damaging the political intentions of the enterprise. (Jon and Julia) seemed to really have grown into what they wanted to be and so I felt at ease, like I could just contribute things in the mix. There was always going to be a class-based disconnect between the pair of them and myself but whereas prior to this I was either a little mascot or an annoyance now I could just do my thing and not get in the way.

KW: When Neil came back I was maybe a little relieved. I can't do what Neil does. I was always a little in awe of Neil. I think of the early stuff he did with them as near perfect recordings. To fully appreciate the genius of Neil Hagerty you must first be able to put yourself in his shoes. What would you do if you saw Rockets Redglare coming down the street? Me personally I would make a move in the opposite direction. Playing the part of Neil Haggerty's stunt double is in many ways an exhausting and thankless task.

BOB BERT: We had four raging guitars and the chemistry between Jon, Neil, Julia & Kurt took it to another dimension. Sort of.

JS: They both have different and great guitar styles, but I think sometimes it's a little too much to have Neil and Kurt and still two other guitars – you know four guitar players in a band – that's a lot.

KW: It had to be difficult incorporating 4 guitars. It had to be a struggle always. Easy was never a word I would use when talking about PG. I remember the first gig it was at little squat or something in Alphabet City. I resolved to play totally straight edge. All I heard up there was a dull roar. My guitar strings all broke. I froze like a statue. Lesson one: never play straight edge again. Lesson two: play louder with a big fucking amp, all treble to cut through the howling, shit storm, dirt-nado onstage. Just tune into that high pitched whine and annihilate your thoughts… We played our second Mean Fiddler show in London with the four guitar line up and the Brits were not too impressed shall we say…

JC: In addition to the sheer power of that, we now also had four very fucked up people playing guitar and one rock steady and all-around good guy, Bob Bert, on drums. I say this with nothing but affection, between Jon's demanding perfectionist nature, Neil's abstract weirdo nature, Kurt's nervous nature (made a bit more nervous by Neil's return) and my bitchy brat nature, there was A LOT of personality in the room so to speak.

BB: I'm ten years older than everyone in Pussy Galore and was the neutral one in all the band drama. They were around 20 when I met them. We toured Europe as a five piece playing most of the Dial M material with the plans to start the recording at the end. Jon & Julia weren't getting along at the time and also Cristina Martinez, Jon's wife showed up on the tour and Jon announced to the band that after the tour and the recording they were forming a new band called Boss Hog which didn't go over well with everyone at the time.

JC: Once we were on tour in Europe, it seemed as if things would go well even with all the usual hitches- which included me not being very nice about Cristina joining us along the way and the tour not being particularly fun. PG was never about fun which is not to say that we didn't have fun but we spent more time not having fun. The plan was that we would record the record once we got to England, after touring the Continent. But that plan changed, when in Germany, right after a great show, Jon announced that this record would be our last.

JS: When I was making Dial M in my mind that was sort of the end of the band.

JC: To say this threw me, and the others for a loop, is a grand understatement. Although I was totally miserable too, his pulling the plug at that moment incensed me. I didn't get it. If this was his plan all along, why the fuck were we even doing this record. Looking back on it, I absolutely knew this day was coming, and soon, but I was very angry that he and I had not made the decision together. I couldn't fathom why he thought we could all now merrily continue on to the recording studio. I not only bitterly complained about his plans but I also attacked him for his timing. But for some reason, I guess because the studio was booked and perhaps I thought I could bully him out of his decision, I did not split or insist that we all go home. So I took that all that anger, pain, and anguish in with me to the studio.

JS: Julia – you know she wasn't thinking about leaving but– we weren't getting along so well. It just seemed a bit raw and tense and Julia did leave, so she's only on maybe half or two thirds of Dial M. That bit of it was recorded at Blackwing studio in London - a studio that Mute used a lot, with the assistance of Gert-Jam "Joe" Avesaath somewhere at the end of the tour, within a tour. So we tracked for a few days in London and Julia left.

JC: [The recording at Blackwing] was miserable, totally demoralizing. I wasn't speaking to Jon except to yell at him- just a total bitch. So the fun that you hear on the record, certainly wasn't to be found in the recording studio.

NH: Jon and Julia were the band so that really did permeate the atmosphere - but it gives the music a tension that is profound and not sustainable.

JS: It was not a very pleasant time, it was a bit raw.

KW: It wasn't a lot of fun to make for me. I remember setting up my amp in a little iso booth with corrugated metal on one wall. At one point after waaaay too many takes I just hurled my Telecaster into that metal wall.

JC: But you're correct in identifying an evolution. Jon's song writing had evolved. The songs were more complicated less crude. We were all better at our instruments. And this unit was tight, and the sound was BIGGER both on stage and in the studio. We laid the basics down in an expensive studio surrounded by a lot of extra stuff that Jon wanted to use, a Hammond organ for one. My favourite part of that whole recording experience was that Neil kept sitting down at the organ and playing the 'Charge' song that you heard in sports arenas....

I LOVED it. Thought it was BRILLIANT. We did at some point record him playing it. And it was my sincerest hope and desire that it would be played as an interlude between each and every song on the record. Alas, I was not there in the end to insure it.

NH: Well, it's actually the "basketball charge music" - but yeah we had access to a lot of good instruments in the studios we worked in, I was pleased to use the Hammond and a bunch of other things.

[During the Blackwing sessions 'Kicked Out' was recorded and this went on to enjoyed a surprising revival due to a TV show...]

BB: 'Kicked Out' was a song we did together with an intro that was later added based around the crazy sounds coming out of a pedal Kurt bought when we went to Japan, and the Hammond Organ that Neil played in the studio.

NH: All I can think about is the TV show House cuz they used this song; we must have invented the character of Gregory House.

BB: It was a punk rock episode about a drugged out singer.

JS: The song is used to jolt a patient out of a coma. I think the episode also features an obnoxious "punk" rock star and 'Kicked Out' is an example of that person's terrible music.

BB: They kept playing the intro to the song saying it had no redeeming quality what so ever.

[The London recordings also spawned the phallic Pussy Galore classic 'Dick Johnson'…]

BB: Pussy Galore did a tour of the west coast with Tad from Seattle opening on what was their very first tour. They had a friend come along whose job was to find pot in every town and his name was Dick Johnson. I think Jon got a kick out of the fact that his first and last name were both names for a penis. That song is musically based around Neil's killer guitar riff.

JC: Because of the dark cloud that hung over us as we tried to record the record in England, we did not get the record done. I think we barely got through the basic tracks, which was very unusual for us as we usually worked very fast in the studio. When we returned, we weren't speaking.

[London was the beginning of the end of the classic incarnation of the band…]

JS: We played Brixton Academy after the Blackwing session, supporting the Jesus & Mary Chain [at their invitation, as they were fans]. That Brixton show was terrible. One of the worst ever. I think we played poorly and were plagued with technical problems.

JC: Once at home, I realized that I couldn't possibly continue to work on the record. At the same time, Jon realized he couldn't possibly finish it with me. So after about a month passed he came over and we had a quick and very awkward, painful conversation to that effect, in the hallway.

KW: In a group situation the whistle-blower is second only to the leader in terms of not losing the plot and seriously fucking up. There has to be an umpire type who stands up and cries foul every time a cheesy lick is played: I'm talking about Julia, and this is not to decry the musical importance of what she does either. For me Dial M is gravely lacking the Jon/Julia dynamic of its predecessors.

[Back in New York the following songs were recorded: 'Understand Me', 'Waxhead', 'Wait A Minute' and 'Hang On'.]

BB: So Julia left upon return to the States and the rest of Dial M was recorded without her.

JC: I realized soon after that I wasn't sure where we had left it. I thought we were in agreement but then I realized that Jon didn't say he wasn't going to finish the album. To be honest, I don't really know what he said. So when they went back into the studio, Bob kept me apprised, I was both surprised and not surprised. I'm not sure we had even completely finished the basics.

JS: Some time after, me and Neil and Bob went to a studio in Manhattan and worked with Steve Albini and recorded a few more songs at a studio that was owned by the Campo Culture centre owned by the Japanese consulate and I dunno how we got in there but it was a kind of decent studio – it had a big banquet hall and gymnasium and we set up in this very large room.

I'd worked with Albini a few times, we had a good relationship with him and I was a great fan of his work and Steve is a wonderful engineer. I think then I was interested in doing more experimental kind of stuff and sometimes Steve was not so enthusiastic but you know he would still do what I wanted or would try and help me in the best way he could.

Steve made a great contribution by donating a cock ring to the snare drum.

BB: The snare was 2 metal plates and Steve Albini's cock ring on top of a snare drum shell, floor tom, high hat, cymbals. I had a metal rod in my left hand and a drum stick in the other.

JS: You know I think Steve's least favourite stuff on that record was anything that was sort of coming out of hip hop, but that was a big influence on Pussy Galore at this time.

I was really into rap music and hip hop. I think that is evident in the record. On the previous record – the Sugarshit Sharp EP – on that record there are nods to Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad – on Dial M there's 2 Live Crew – I think we even sampled 2 Live Crew. I was obsessed with hip hop and it was a big influence. It even goes back to Right Now! – the way in which songs were written and cut and pasted together – that's coming from listening to hip hop. We're talking of course about old skool and these are records made by people sampling prints of old soul records. And that was an influence on the way we'd write the songs. There's probably no breaks in the album it's all just wall to wall once it starts. There's definitely some experimentation. It's sort of a warty, hairy, furry record – there's the one song which is basically just taking a tape and flipping it and then recording something on top of the backwards parts. We were kind of messing about a little bit.

[In the final sequencing of Dial M the album roars into life with song 'Understand Me'.]

BB: 'Understand Me' was a song that we toured with and the intro was added on in the studio. I remember Albini loving the fact that he was pushing a fake censor beep but it was missing all the swear words intentionally.

JS: Yeah I can't remember if Steve did that or I did that (or) if it was intentional or by accident but we just sort of went with it. That was like a proper big album introduction, and another big thing from hip hop.

JC: I was not there for the overdubs, the mixing, the titling or the artwork. Jon had some copies sent to me before it came out. I saw the picture of my hand with the X on it and the listing "Pussy Galore were:" and that struck me as right and touching. When I listened to it, it sounded good and I was proud of it but it was painful. I heard quite a bit of pain and anger on that record. But PG were always about pain, sometimes exuberant meditations on it, sometimes angry or anguished reflections but always quite a bit of pain and anger- an intoxicating mix for young adults. That PG was over. Looking back, all I can think is what an asshole I was. I loved those people. I loved that band.

NH: My memory is that it was fun, to be honest - I probably had a nice distance from any problems in the band because of my own life outside of the band at the time. [Neil was simultaneously playing in his own band Royal Trux]

KW: I don't think I really got to know the band back then. I know now that we do have things in common. Dial M for me was an open rejection of the times. I appreciate in retrospect a lot of music from that era. I did not back then. I think it's safe to say they did not either.

JS: My impression of Dial M is based on that it was around / made during a time when Julia left the band and Julia was the person I started the band with. The band would not have been possible without her. Maybe it's also cos lyrically – I mean Right Now! – there's some heavy songs on there, there's a lot of angry songs but Dial M is more blue if you will. For me, the guy who was writing and singing the words, it was not as easy a record.

[Allegedly the album's original title, "Make Them Eat Shit Slowly" could not be used for fear that chain stores would refuse to carry the record.]

JS: That original title was just a joke at the expense of another artist on our US label.

BB: All I remember is Jon coming in and saying the title is Dial M For Motherfucker.

NH: That was Jon's deal, titles, graphics etc. I didn't really dig the whole image too much but that wasn't my concern.

JS: A year later or so and Neil and I made the History Of Rock album [officially titled Historia De La Musica Rock] and that was an attempt to maybe get things started again and that didn't work out. You know there are some good bits of that record…

I've not listened to these records for a long time. We're slowly reissuing them. For Record Store Day we're doing Pussy Gold 5000, so I'm a few years behind. For me, I guess my favourite is Right Now! that was a great line up of the band. I really liked the sort of contrast between the Albini stuff and the Kramer [from Bongwater] stuff – things were sort of working within the band. It was a good time. I liked that Right Now! album a lot, it's a really good album, really creative. Dial M is good as well – it seems to be a lot more sprawling – there's a lot in there.

We did tour after the record but we toured without Julia, we toured as a four piece, men only – me, Bob, Neil and Kurt. We did a tour across the US and it was in August and we were in a van with no air conditioning, a very small van as well. It was not an easy tour and at the end we played our last show ever as it turned out at CBGBs. We recorded that concert and that came out as the In The Red live record.

How are things now? There's no bad blood between me and Julia we see each other every now and then. She no longer lives in New York City but we do see each other every now and then. Pussy Galore played a show two years ago – at the invitation of Yo La Tengo for an annual charity event in Hoboken. They asked Pussy Galore to play one of the nights and Julia and I – our first thought was, 'Hell no.' I think we'd been very clear that that's it, it's done we're weren't gonna revisit Pussy Galore but it was at the time we were gonna start reissuing the catalogue and it's a cool event and it's our friends and it's a charity thing – so if we were ever gonna play this was a good way to do it, to sort of mark the occasion of reissuing Right Now! and it would be an unannounced show. So, we got together me and Julia and Bob and Kurt. We invited Neil and he doesn't live in the North East any more, and he politely declined but encouraged us to go for it.

We got together and rehearsed a few times at Bob's place and did the show. And you know, it was fine. It went fine, it was ok. It felt strange to do that, but the show was ok and we made a good shine but the best thing about it was – Julia kind of sums it up, and I might not have remembered this properly – she was saying this was a nice way to reframe the ending of Pussy Galore.

JC: The reunion gig was great. Not only did the set go off well, but for me it was really a meaningful rewriting/revisiting of history. The end had been so abrupt, never again playing with most of those people, never playing those songs again. I felt permanently bad about how it all ended. It felt incomplete. But it never occurred to me, in a million years that we would ever play together again. And by doing so, I get to finish PG on a happy note, which just changes the whole end for me.

JS: Pussy Galore, while we were working on familiar tropes and recognisable forms and genres was very much sort of anti-music or reacting to, kicking against something.

I think that confrontation was a big part of Pussy Galore.

It was an honest to goodness rock & roll band as well. I don't think you'd be doing this interview if there weren't some cool rock songs in there, if there wasn't some meat. If it was just a conceptual affair and it was just confrontation full stop then we wouldn't have mattered as much to people.

ad hominem
Mar 28, 2014 12:05pm

one of the best things i've read on tQ

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Nick
Mar 28, 2014 12:24pm

In reply to ad hominem:

Thankyou! Enjoyed putting this together.

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ISxxlaxx
Mar 28, 2014 1:18pm

Well done. Been waiting a long time for "Dial M" to get some love.

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Mar 28, 2014 3:43pm

amazing. thanksssss

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burningambulance
Mar 28, 2014 4:10pm

Great article. I saw that Julia-less tour in Los Angeles - they went on at 1 AM on a Monday night, following two TERRIBLE glam-rock bands. $5 at the door and the club was serving free chili. I bought a T-shirt from Bob Bert which is long gone now.

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G
Mar 28, 2014 4:56pm

loved the 'please kill me' approach to it. great interview

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tim h
Mar 28, 2014 9:07pm

Great article. Nice one Nick. Re: mid to late 80s/early 90s NYC sludge rock/whatever.. there's a book there I'm sure. PG, Unsane, Live Skull, B.A.L.L, Bongwater etc etc - I'd read it!

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Olofz
Mar 28, 2014 9:32pm

Goddamn I have such a crush on Julie Cafritz. Great, great article.

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Daveid P
Mar 31, 2014 2:54pm

I booked and promoted that Mean Fiddler show with four guitarists and I was more than impressed.
I found the flyer I made for it just the other day..

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MarsHottentot
Jun 25, 2014 1:26am

That "other band" that Jon refers to mocking via "Make Them Eat Shit Slowly"? White Zombie.

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britney_land
Oct 31, 2015 10:23pm

This was an extremely in-depth and insightful piece that I'm surprised I hadn't come across before. Though you did fail to mention one pertinent fact in that it is the greatest f#%king rock recording of all time. And I thank you. ~

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