The Wipers' Clean Slate

Greg Sage's legendary postpunk outfit has been comfortable nonexisting in Phoenix for the past 10 years and has a new CD to prove it

If you polled a Family Feud studio audience for "reasons people become musicians," answers like "sex," "drugs," "fame," "money" and even (yawn) "the music" would all be greeted with dinging bells and a deep tongue kiss from Richard Dawson. Just as surely, Greg Sage's reason, "the appearance of the grooves on the record," would result in a red X and a tacky "incorrect" buzzer. But Sage, founder of Portland's legendary post-punk band the Wipers, has never been one to put too much stock in the greatest common denominator.

"I never got involved with music because I was inspired by other music or wanted to be on stage," he explains. "When I was in the fifth grade I had a professional record-cutting machine. My dad was in broadcasting, and back then all the radio stations used disc cutters to record all their spots and commercials. When they went over to cartridge tapes, there was a big glut of these machines. We got one for basically nothing. I could still find supplies of blank lacquer discs at Goodwill for a nickel apiece.

"So I cut records for kids at school off the AM radio. And after you'd cut the disc, you'd check the grooves on the microscope to make sure it cut clean and there was no overmodulation. The appearance of the grooves inside of records was so awe-inspiring to me. I wanted to create my own motion inside the grooves of records. I was actually looking at music from a totally different level than being an entertainer -- the science of it."

See no industry: Music biz black sheep Greg Sage (center) and the late-'80s version of the Wipers
David Wilds
See no industry: Music biz black sheep Greg Sage (center) and the late-'80s version of the Wipers
The Kurt Cobain-organized Wipers tribute from 1991.
The Kurt Cobain-organized Wipers tribute from 1991.

As for the science behind the Wipers, Sage insists he never intended it to be a band in the first place and it isn't one now, although drummer Steve Plouf has survived every lineup change since 1985.

"My goal was to make 15 records in 10 years, never tour, never play live, never do interviews," he continues. "After a period of time and so many records, there'd be a mystique about it because the recordings would be the only information out there. But that never happened. After we released a few singles, we were under a lot of pressure to perform live. People would actually make me feel guilty because people wanted to see us."

The Wipers wound up touring Europe eight times and crisscrossing America four, while managing to bang out 10 albums over 21 years, not counting a live album, a "best of" and a Sage solo album. The latest Wipers CD, The Power in One, was released last November without even a single show to commemorate it. "I don't tour the United States anymore. I tour Europe once every two years or so," says Sage. "It's more responsive there, people are less trend-orientated -- they're definitely coming for what they want to hear."

As for mystique, Sage's predisposition for playing what's not expected has made him a cult legend to some and an anomaly to the rest. When punk meant loud fast rules, he bucked the trend by inserting long, Hendrixian guitar solos and mid-tempos. When punk meant major-chord minimalism, he inserted strange ringing minor chords he'd never seen anyone else play and repeated them over and over again in the course of 10-minute mini-epics. Sage's instinctive irreverence toward punk traditions spawned imitators. You can hear his immediate influence on '80s bands like Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr., while Kurt Cobain acknowledged his spiritual debt by organizing a Greg Sage and the Wipers tribute album, the same year his band broke with Nevermind. Nirvana gave salute with their version of the first song off the Wipers debut, "Return of the Rat," while Hole paid hosannas with a cover of "Over the Edge."

In person today, Sage, who now calls the Valley home, doesn't look too dissimilar to the bandanna'd guitar hero pictured on that tribute album. In fact, it looks as if he's greeted me wearing the same head wrap, with a few silver hairs protruding wildly out from underneath. We settle into his 24-track studio, Zeno Recording Sound, where the last four Wipers albums were birthed. He's never advertised the studio and has kept busy mostly through word of mouth among musicians. For the last decade, Sage and Plouf have quietly lived in adjacent houses in the heart of central Phoenix. Except for the bit about recording and the occasional tour, this pair could challenge the low profile of witness protection program inductees

"Phoenix was one of the few places we hadn't played. We were supposed to do shows here about five or six times but the places would shut down before we ever got here. It was back in the mid-'80s, when clubs would last for two months," says Sage. "Arizona kind of reminded me of the vortex Portland used to have when I grew up there. I always thought something would happen here, something would explode. That was before the whole grunge thing, too. Now a lot of people from the Northwest are moving here over the last three years.

"In '87 or '88, Portland just changed," he continues. "Something that was always there was gone. Everyone I knew totally changed. I was like the only person in the Portland music scene that wasn't a heroin addict. It wasn't creative anymore. The funny thing was until 1990 Portland was always a music mecca. There was always tons of places to play. I mean, there was nowhere to play in Seattle. We used to host all the Seattle bands. That changed and Seattle became the focus of attention. The whole 1994 Seattle thing was kind of an industry push. They pushed it so much it got ridiculous. A lot of people lost interest because it became such a big hype."

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