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Ain't Ever Died Before : Armand Schaubroeck Interviewed
The Quietus , November 29th, 2017 14:38

Matt Stevenson talks to House Of Guitars founder Armand Schaubroeck about Andy Warhol, his time in jail and making adverts with The Ramones

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Portraits courtesy of Vivian Weidmann & Danny Fields

About two years ago I was working at a record store in Queens when I noticed an old album with a picture of a scrappy Dylanesque looking kid on the cover. He had fake blood dripping down his face and in the middle of his forehead was bullet wound drawn in with black ballpoint pen. The record was called A lot of people would like to see Armand Schaubroeck… Dead! (It was recorded in 1968 and released in 1975.) It was a completely psychotic three disc concept album about a teenager’s downward spiral that ended in maximum security prison. It was complete with monologues, skits, and original songs somewhat reminiscent of old delta blues and 60s British Invasion groups but about ten times weirder. I was totally blown away by everything about it from the original paintings in the gatefold sleeve to the fact that this guy was singing with a thick upstate New York accent. I later came to learn that this album was largely autobiographical and that Andy Warhol had once wanted to turn it into an off-Broadway play.

Armand Schaubroeck was born in Irondequoit, NY, a small suburb of Rochester, in 1944. His father, a Belgian immigrant, suffered from severe PTSD after serving in World War II and was confined to a veteran’s hospital for most of Armand’s childhood. In 1962 at the age of 17 Armand was sentenced to three years in Elmira - a maximum security prison - for committing a string of 32 burglaries. He only served a year and a half of the three year sentence but needless to say this brutal punishment for a non-violent crime left him traumatised and there are references to it on nearly every album he’s ever made.

His release from prison coincided with the beginning of Beatlemania in the US which gave him and his brothers the idea to start selling electric guitars out of their mother’s basement. The Schaubroeck boys soon formed a band of their own and cut a charmingly twisted 45 under the name “The Church Mice”. It was also during this time in the 60s that they opened a short-lived beatnik cafe called the Black Candle on nearby Lake Ontario which hosted an array of performers including Jerry Porter and legendary blues giant, Son House.

By 1972 Armand had launched a campaign for New York State senate and the House of Guitars had relocated to a former three story mason’s hall nicknamed “The largest guitar store in the world” and sometimes “The store that ate my brain” on 645 Titus Ave in Irondequoit where it still stands today. This music emporium has become legendary over the years for their impressive selection of vintage equipment and bizarre homemade commercials which have been airing late at night locally for over forty years.

Armand released four LPs during the 1970s under the name Armand Schaubroeck Steals on his own label Mirror Records before switching his focus in 1978 to focusing more on The House of Guitars and raising a family. Yet still, this information barely scratches the surface of his unique life - the guy has worked his ass off and at 73 he doesn’t really show any signs of slowing down. TQ drove up to Irondequoit in early August to meet him.

You were born in Rochester NY in 1944. What were your first ten years of life like?

Armand Schaubroeck: It was kind of tough, you know. My father was at a veteran’s hospital. He was born in Belgium but then moved to the United States where he joined the Marine Corps [during World War II] and hit Guadalcanal which really screwed him up and was always in and out of the veteran’s hospital so it was mostly my mother raising us and we were a little on the wild side. Plus, we were living in Irondequot which was a little on the snooty side. This was before all the real rich moved out.

What were the first records you remember buying?

AS: Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Everly Brothers….those little 7” discs that had four or five songs on them.

Less than a year after graduating High School in 1961 you were sent to prison for burglary. How’d you get caught?

AS: One of the guys in our clique who we had done some safe-jobs with stole a timing light from a gas station and his friend stole bunch of tires. The timing light turned out to belong to a kid that we knew who worked there. Our guy wanted to give it back to the kid and we didn’t steal from kids - only places that were insured. So I said: “Just throw it on his lawn and don’t say nothin’.” But he wanted to tell him about it, so he turned up at the gas station with it. He was on the hot list so the police picked him up and he told them about everything we’d done. He was kind of a new jack to the clique.

What happened to him? Did you guys stop hanging out after that?

AS: [laughs] No, it wasn’t that bad. He got less time but then he screwed up and stole the warden’s car, stole another car, then got beat up by the police in Irondequot, then beat up by the city police, then beat up at Elmira. So he ended up doing a lot more time.

When did the House of Guitars open?

AS: 1964 in my mother’s basement.

So around the same time that The Church Mice formed?

AS: Yeah, well Kack-Klick was first, but around that time.

Can you give us a little insight about the first Armand Schaubroeck Steals LP, A Lot Of People Would Like To See Armand Schaubroeck… Dead!

AS: Andy Warhol wanted to make an off-Broadway play of it but it got all messed up. We were trying to get him to do a movie but he was right because first you do a play, then you sell soundtrack rights, then you sell movie rights. Me and my brothers who were in my band were busy with the House Of Guitars and we didn't want to sign up for performing for seven nights a week for however many years. The play was supposed to start where Hair started but then that crazy girl [Valerie Solanas] shot Andy. He was just trying to help her but she flipped out and shot him up close in the chest and I think she also shot an art critic [Mario Amaya] in the arm. That kind of messed up my thing with him so I put the record out as a three album set while he was in the hospital. He still helped me out afterwards and gave me names to contact to help promote the record. I went on the Joe Franklin show and also on New York City public radio. They warned the listeners that record was full of four letter words but it was about prison so if you didn’t want to hear it you should turn your radios off for the next three hours.

Did you play a live set on the Joe Franklin show?

AS: No I was just a guest but I remember he said “I don’t know if we should show your cover Armand, we follow Romper Room.” But then he said, “Oh, what the heck!” and they zoomed in on the bullet wound.

Did you ever take the Armand Schaubroeck Steals band anywhere?

AS: In 1967 we did a show at the Starlight room at the Sheraton Hotel here, which was kind of a big thing. We had an artist come in and do a light show. Warhol was impressed that we had 2,000 people show up but we were also playing with the most popular band in Rochester. They were good. Sang in perfect harmony. We were laying around drinkin’ beers with girls backstage and had to rush once the lights went on for us. There were old projections of a boxing match behind us when we played. Jack Dempsey and someone else. It was on Halloween night, which was cool, and we were all dressed in Elmira Prison clothes. We sent one of the guys in the band out to get beer because the ones in the hotel were too expensive. The police brought him back cause they thought he was an escaped convict. We had to convince them he was in the band.

When did your label, Mirror Records, start?

AS: We signed a blues guy called Jerry Porter around 1966 and he put out an album called Don’t Bother Me and he’d play our coffee house which we had up near the lake. It was kind of like a beatnik joint. I painted the windows black so you couldn’t see in from outside but the light would still come in. We put in these big green doors and had artists come in and hang their paintings on the walls. The floor was real slanted so we built all these little tables and had to bolt them down so they didn’t slide. We didn’t have a lot of money back then so we went to the junkyard and grabbed all the chairs we could and painted them green. We served cappuccino, hot cherry cider with cinnamon sticks. We’d do ok if we had entertainment but we wouldn’t get real busy till the bars closed. Three or four in the morning, we were the place to go to.

You still record under the name Armand Schaubroeck Steals but you haven’t released an LP since 1978. Did you lose interest in the format?

AS: I’ve got a studio underneath the amp building here at HOG I still record in. But I don’t know… I just close it off sometimes and then I go back to it. We put out a 10” for Record Store Day 2014 with a CD in it (God Made The Blues to Kill Me.)

When did you guys start making commercials for the House of Guitars?

AS: Very early years of House Of Guitars. We were doing them before car dealers were. Then after a while they didn’t want us on there cause they thought we were too amateur and we’d play rock music. They also thought we were giving weathermen messages and thought we were giving out hidden subliminal messages for the viewers to attack buildings and burn their draft cards. None of that stuff was there - we just weren’t very good at making commercials. It was very loose. But by the 70s we were able to buy commercial time between Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and Midnight Special so that helped us a lot.

Do you still make commercials?

AS: Yes, but there’s nothing that will give me that kind of audience again. There’s so many channels now.

That 70s HOG commercial with The Ramones is great. Did they come up here just that once?

AS: No, they came up here a bunch of times. We made good friends with Joey and Dee Dee. I knew Danny Fields (Ramones’ manager) from the early days with Warhol. He shot a bunch of photos of Armand Schaubroeck Steals on top of the Holiday Inn on 51st Street. He just sent us the photos, too, like last year.

I heard there’s a film being made about you. Is that true?

AS: There’s been a couple documentaries but I don't think anything’s complete.

We were listening to your weekly radio show Armand Schaubroeck Spins on the way up here. It’s great.

AS: Oh yeah, I think we just did our 55th show. That’s me and my son, Aric Schaubroeck.

What’s a record you never get sick of?

AS : 'John W. Anderson presents Kasandra'. That’s a hot record I like a lot. It’s from the 60s.

The inner sleeve of your first record features some of your paintings. They’re a pretty intense look at prison life. Are you still making art?

AS: I did a bunch of paintings just for the triple album but I showed them around. First we had them up at the Rochester library but everyday a new one would get censored and taken down. The art guy there really liked them, though, and he’d say, “I’m rootin’ for ya Armand!” But everyday there’d be another one taken down. Then I exhibited them at the Unitarian Church. I was up there in my Elmira clothes. We hung them in the hallway and when church got out all the people walked by and some lady started crying when she saw the one of the guy who hung himself. She started bawlin’ again when she saw the one that was of a Dear John letter.

You did an art show in Brooklyn in 2014.

AS: Yeah, the people who were there were given headphones to listen to the three album set A Lot Of People Would Like To See Armand Schaubroeck… Dead! We made enough selling records and T-shirts to pay for the whole trip so we were happy. We loved the scene. We didn’t know that kind of scene existed - where yuppies are dating and going from gallery to gallery. We weren’t selling the paintings, though. One guy called trying to buy one. That guy Vincent Gallo [laughs].

You wouldn’t sell to Vincent Gallo?!

AS: No, these paintings are part of a collection all about prison.

One last question, the US prison population is the biggest in the world. How do you feel about that?

AS: [shaking his head] Screwed up, man. It’s a mess.

The Armand Schaubroeck Spins show airs every Saturday on Rochester Free Radio WRFZ-LP 106.3 FM in Rochester, NY from 3pm-5pm EST. Episodes are archived at Mixcloud. For more information on Armand visit HouseOfGuitars.com

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