The Power of Negative Capability: The Urinals in the 21st Century
When one thinks of legendary punk rock venues where great bands got their start, folks usually think of CBGB in New York, or the Masque in Hollywood, or the 100 Club in London. Dykstra Hall, a dormitory on the UCLA campus? Not so much.
But Dykstra Hall does have one claim to fame — it was the place where one of Southern California's most original and enduring punk rock bands got its start. The Urinals were three Dykstra residents who made their debut at a dorm talent show in 1978 and went on to release a handful of singles that opened ears around the world with their harsh, minimal attack, surreal lyrics, and performances that made a virtue of the group's lack of experience. The Urinals made a major impact on the Minutemen, who covered their song "Ack Ack Ack Ack," and Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and the Butthole Surfers are just three of the bands that have cited them as a favorite and an influence.
Unlike many of their peers who made a point of learning in public, the Urinals are still at it, an ongoing experiment in rock 'n' roll that original members John Talley-Jones (bass and vocals) and Kevin Barrett (drums and vocals) still find compelling more than 35 years after their first tongue-in-cheek performance. The Urinals have a new album in the works (their first since 2003) and are hitting the road for a handful of shows, including an appearance in Tempe.
According to Talley-Jones, the group's witty and articulate frontman, the group started out as a parody of punk, created by fans who were too clumsy to pull off the real thing at first. "We had ideas, not necessarily about how to play, but ideas about what kind of music we could make without necessarily having the chops," Talley-Jones says via phone. "And, of course, that's what we pursued. We decided, 'Well, even though we don't know what we're doing, we can still do something kind of interesting.' And that was just the flashpoint for what followed."
For the Urinals' 1978 debut, the group had a five-piece lineup, with Talley-Jones and Barrett joined by Kjehl Johansen on a toy keyboard, Steve Willard on guitar, and Delia Frankel on vocals. To their surprise, the ad hoc band got a positive reception when they played a dorm-wide talent show in the Dykstra cafeteria.
"The audience was really amused by it," Talley-Jones says. "They thought it was pretty great, pretty funny. It was sort of performance art; we were dressed up, we were wearing funny sunglasses, all that kind of stuff. But there was another band on the bill. They were jazz musicians — they were a four-piece and three of them were just livid! They absolutely hated us. I think they felt they were being made fun of. It was a slap in their face!"
Of course, Talley-Jones wasn't above a little musical face-slapping in those days. Already a man of discerning tastes before punk reached his ears — he was fond of groundbreaking Krautrock bands like Can and Neu and offbeat progressive acts such as Soft Machine — he was no fan of what most of his fellow dorm rats were embracing.
"I was living in the dorm at the time, and everyone listened to [local] FM stations — all Steve Miller Band, Foreigner, Kansas, Journey," Talley-Jones says. "I thought it was so empty. That music was just so meaningless — it sounded really nice and shiny and had lots of different parts, but there didn't seem to be any soul to it. There was a hunger, at least at my level, for something that actually said something, that expressed an emotion other than wanting to get stoned."
Willard and Frankel soon bailed on the Urinals, but after Talley-Jones spent $60 on a used bass, he was committed to the cause. With Johansen on guitar and Barrett on drums, the band started playing more shows on campus, and when they debuted their three-piece lineup, they gained a valuable ally. Vitus Matare of L.A. pop-wise punks the Last was on hand for the show ("Vitus knew someone in the dorm . . . a couple of women, I think"), and he was knocked out by what he saw.
"We were making this horrific racket. We were banging on one chord for minutes at a time or something, and he really appreciated the energy," Talley-Jones says. "So he just said, 'Oh, you know, we should [make] a record.' And we thought, 'What?!? [Laughs] Are you serious?' 'Oh, yeah! You guys sounded really interesting, really good!' 'Uh, okay! Let's do it!'"
The Urinals' debut EP, a four-song seven-inch, was recorded in the poolhouse at Matare's parents' home and was a purposefully crude affair, recorded on a four-track reel-to-reel using what used to be an underwater microphone. "I had peculiar ideas about what it should sound like," Talley-Jones says. "I didn't really want any sort of enhancements to the raw sound. And as a result, it sounds very thin and click-y. We just wanted it recorded straight, and Kjehl and I were both playing through the same amp; there was that element of thinness right there."
A second single, this time recorded in a film-scoring studio on the UCLA campus, found the Urinals growing in terms of technical skill and production savvy, and the band made their way off campus, sharing bills with the likes of Black Flag, Wall of Voodoo, and the Circle Jerks. (The Urinals' singles can be heard, along with live numbers and compilation tracks, on the essential compilation Negative Capability . . . Check It Out!) As the Urinals continued to evolve, the members decided the brusque name no longer suited their music, and in 1982, Talley-Jones, Johansen, and Barrett began performing and recording under the name 100 Flowers, releasing an outstanding self-titled album in 1983. But with growth came different views about the band's approach.
"Kjehl and I were really having a lot of trouble with each other, we were disagreeing on practically everything, and it just wasn't working," Talley-Jones said. "There was too much friction. We were trying to go in two entirely different directions. I felt he was trying to soften the sound of the band, and I wanted to keep it hard. So [in 1983] we broke up and went our separate ways."
But the group was too vital a combination to lie dormant forever. In 1986, Kjehl Johansen and Vitus Matare formed a new band, Trotsky Icepick, and in 1989, they invited Talley-Jones to become their lead singer. After recording a handful of albums for SST Records, Trotsky Icepick still performs, as does Radwaste, a Talley-Jones project featuring four percussionists. In 1996, friends in the band Dime Box asked the Urinals to open a record release show for them, and Talley-Jones and Barrett assembled a new lineup with guitarist Rod Barker. That edition of the band cut a new album in 2003, What Is Real and What Is Not, which found the Urinals still exploring the boundaries of their wiry, nervous sound. Now featuring guitarist Rob Roberge (who is also a published novelist) and with a new album due out this year, the Urinals are a long way from over, and that's just fine with Talley-Jones.
"When we first started out, we weren't really able to express the songs as completely as we learned to do later," Talley-Jones says. "Because at that point, obviously, we were still struggling musically. So we discovered what the songs really were later on — they started to unfold for us, even though you'd think they're so simple and basic, nothing to them, no dimension to them whatsoever. The act of playing them helps you discover them. I still enjoy playing them. I still enjoy that people like to hear them, and I also feel like we're continuing to move forward."
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