The Wipers are playing a show in town this week. That's big news, even though head Wiper Greg Sage, a longtime icon of American indie rock, has lived in the Valley for almost seven years now. Sage takes the Wipers on frequent tours of Europe and the rest of the U.S., but he rarely plays out here at home, and when he does, it's with surprisingly little fanfare.
Sage moved here to escape Portland, Oregon, and the crowded music scene he helped create in the Northwest. Wipers albums and live shows in the early '80s influenced just about every Northwest musician ever to put guitar pick to string. Kurt Cobain, for one, was especially vocal in his admiration for the band. After relocating to the Valley, Sage tried to put the Wipers to rest with a new outfit, the Greg Sage Band. But the Wipers always were Sage's band, so the more recognizably named power trio never really went away. Sage recently released yet another Wipers album, The Herd, on Portland-based Tim Kerr Records.
An impressive figure in concert, Sage is a lanky, gangly slasher of chords, cranking out long, linear leads while singing and driving the band (new guy Ryan O'Sullivan on bass and longtime drummer Steve Plouf) to a relentless combustion. Offstage, the legend likes his privacy--so much so that Sage recently set up a special phone line to handle interviews so his home number wouldn't get passed around. He's not the most talkative guy, but put Greg Sage onto the vagaries of the music business and he's good to go.
New Times: So the Wipers are still alive?
Greg Sage: For three years I've been trying to get away from doing Wipers albums. But I don't know, people keep wanting 'em. This is probably going to be one of the last shows under that name. We're doing a tour of Europe this fall, and that's going to be our last tour over there as the Wipers.
NT: Why don't you play more local shows?
GS: We try not to play too much where we live. Like, in Portland, we played once every year and a half or two years. It's just easier to live in a place where you're not totally playing out.
NT: What keeps you in Phoenix?
GS: It's just the place to be. It's different from anywhere else. It's not trendy here, there isn't a big music scene. There's always the possibility for expansion. It's not like the Northwest where there's been a very large clique of seen-it-all, done-it-all for a number of years.
Once you get established as a band, you don't necessarily have to be right in the eye of the tornado to accomplish something. It's sometimes easier if you're removed from all the distractions or all the social aspects of it. You can be more realistic in your approach.
NT: Are you saying it's good the music scene here isn't bigger?
GS: No, not at all. It's just once it gets to a point where everybody has that jaded attitude, then nothing ever seems to grow past that. It all becomes mundane.
NT: What's up with your recording studio?
GS: We're just trying to produce a lot of stuff. I did an album for a band out of Kansas called Zoom, and some Northwest stuff. We don't do anything, like, big and famous. Unfortunately, a lot of what we've done is from out of town, but in the future, we plan on working with a lot more local bands.
NT: What's been keeping you from doing the local stuff?
GS: Time. I basically went on sabbatical for a year to record The Herd. I just totally removed myself from everything and focused on it. So we shut this place down for that. And we shut it down when we tour. There's just too many distractions.
NT: You're known for being adamant about the do-it-yourself ethic. Do you still have a distrust of major labels?
GS: I wouldn't call it distrust. It depends on what you're really trying to do. If you write commercial music, and you can keep doing that year after year, then working with a major label is the thing to do. We've been approached over the years by every major label there was, but they want hit songs. It's different if you have to focus what you're doing to design songs to be hits. Major labels are interested in selling platinum records. That's their business. I've never looked at writing songs to be hits on MTV or whatever. If I do, it changes the whole approach that I started off with years ago. I've kinda stuck to my guns.
NT: So you never see yourself doing the major-label thing?
GS: I have no problem being with a major label. Maybe someday I'll be on one. But I would have to realize that you have to look at the songs you write in a more businesslike way than as an artist. Personally, I'm just an independent contractor. I record an album, and if I find parties here and in Europe interested in putting it out, then I make the arrangements.
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NT: You get back up to the Northwest much?
GS: Oh, yeah. The whole Northwest is now, in a sense, people from New York, people from L.A.--and a lot of people from here, actually, people from everywhere else. So it's kinda lost its identity. When I left, it was just starting to get that way. Since then it's become a migration, basically.
NT: So it's not such a good place to be a musician now?
GS: Well, I don't know. If you look at it like a business--that you want to be a big band on a big label--then you can be lucky and have something kind of unique and be a flavor-of-the-month. But if that trend doesn't keep going, then you're dropped, and once you're dropped or put on the back burner, your career is basically over. I've been making records for 14 years or so. I've watched so many people come and go, and I'm still writing songs and putting out records. I've stayed on an even keel, so in a sense I kind of feel somewhat predictable. But at least I know where I'm at. I don't have to worry about outdoing myself.
NT: Why do a show at Hollywood Alley when you could play a bigger venue?
GS: Well, it's kind of an underdog place. But the room sounds good. The people who work there are cool, and they're fair. It's smaller, but it's definitely more intimate. It's one of my favorite places to see shows.
The Wipers are scheduled to perform on Friday, August 30, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa. Call for showtime.