THE SAGE OF SIN CITY SOUTHA NORTHWEST LEGEND COMES IN OUT OF THE RAIN
It's an autumn afternoon in downtown Tempe. The sun is clear and strong and there's a breeze kicking around the aromatic remnants of the previous night's rain. Business is brisk at the Coffee Plantation. The Tempe hot spot is cluttered with the usual crowd--students, artists, the fashionably underemployed and the chronically overwhelmed.
Greg Sage is somewhere among these borderline bohemians. He won't be easy to find, though; Sage likes to guard his privacy. He may be one of the pioneers of America's independent rock scene, but he doesn't like to advertise it. You've got to find a guy like Greg Sage. He's not going to come looking for you.
Sage is unobtrusively sipping coffee at an outside table. He's the lanky guy with the two-day beard, blue bandanna and dirty blond hair. He stands up, shakes hands, sits back down and drops his sunglasses over his eyes. He then tries to explain why someone who virtually kick-started the alternative music movement in Portland, Oregon, and in pre-Sub Pop Seattle, Washington, is living in, of all places, Tempe, Arizona.
"I've been here for three and a half years," he says, lighting the first of many cigarettes. Sage says his move to the Valley was a simple case of serendipity: "I was looking for a new place to live. I'd never been to Phoenix and didn't know anyone here, but I was driving through on I-10 and saw the Broadway exit and, I don't know, I just felt that this was the place to be."
Sage's relocation is a bit of a shock to those who remember the singer-guitarist and his former band, the Wipers, as being synonymous with the Pacific Northwest. After all, the Wipers essentially sparked Portland and Seattle's explosive punk/alternative/indie scene in the late Seventies, and Sage was considered a hero at the time--a no-frills underground celebrity known as much for his attitude as his music.
Sage was notorious for his commitment to the punk ideal of doing things his way. Indeed, he was kind of a benevolent dictator with the Wipers; in a sense, he was the band. He recorded and produced the power trio's records himself. He even designed and built the recording equipment--his fascination with electronics dates back to childhood, when he figured out how to record songs off the radio, transfer the sound to vinyl and stamp out ten-inch copies for his friends.
Sage smiles as he recalls himself as a preteen "making these records for everyone until I realized that I was probably doing something illegal. But that's how I got into music--by looking into a microscope and learning how certain grooves made certain sounds. I figure it gave me a different perspective."
That perspective developed into an insistence that the Wipers avoid outside influences. Sage was especially wary of record companies, particularly major labels. He made a point of staying clear of what he considered the all-encompassing control the majors had over creating music. Even when the Wipers eventually secured an agreement with Restless Records, a heavyweight independent, Sage made sure it was an album-by-album deal with no strings attached to future product.
Sage wanted no part of promotion, either. He didn't want to have his photograph taken, he didn't like doing interviews and he tried to keep the Wipers on a limited and tightly controlled tour schedule. Sage says his intent was for the Wipers to succeed by word of mouth only. He wanted to keep the business side of things on as small and personal a level as possible.
"The Wipers started off as nothing more than a recording project," Sage says. "The goal was to make 15 albums in ten years. There were no plans to promote an image. But it got to be impossible--a lot of people wanted to see us, so we'd end up binging every year and a half or so with a lot of playing out. I think we wound up doing five U.S. tours and two tours over in Europe."
Sage is quick to add that the Wipers didn't exactly roll over for attention. "We never made a video," he says. "I definitely drew the line at that."
Despite Sage's efforts to hold down the hype, the Wipers attracted a lot of attention. The band's jarring garage attack made for an exciting new noise that helped to instigate the transition from first-wave punk to the U.S. guitar sounds later deified by R.E.M. Even now, the Wipers are considered the best rock band--underground or otherwise--to come out of Portland. And Sage was recently lionized by no less an authority than Spin magazine as "one of the guitar gods of the last 35 years."
But this particular god was never happy with all the hosannas. "It's hard to live in a place where you're popular," says Sage. "I learned quickly that there's very little substance in people patting you on the back all the time."
Sage adds that his relatively high profile in Portland also made for an uneasy view of the city's music boom going bust. He says it wasn't a pretty sight.
"A lot of attitudes started changing," Sage says of the mid-Eighties period. "The music scene wasn't constructive anymore. Everyone started hating everyone else for being successful. My friends were all giving up, their creative energy was dying. The whole thing was regressing and getting negative."
Sage remembers one particular holiday season that iced the atmosphere. "I was on this street and I looked around and realized that there were more people out selling heroin than Christmas shopping."
By 1987, Sage had had enough. He wanted to move but he didn't know where. A few years earlier he'd spent some time in the Mojave Desert, where he wrote the material for his first solo album, Straight Ahead. Sage now found himself thinking about the Southwest again. But he wanted his new start to be in a new place--a place he'd never been before. He tried Albuquerque first, but something didn't click, and a few months later he was back on the road heading west for his first look at Phoenix.
"The Wipers were scheduled to play Phoenix a few times," Sage says. "But whenever we'd get close to town we'd hear that the club we were supposed to play was either shut down or out of business."
Following his epiphany at the Broadway exit, Sage took an apartment in Tempe and started writing songs. He then put his background in electrical engineering to work and recorded the new material right there in his apartment on his own custom-designed studio equipment. "I put together a special system with pre-amps that let me record exactly what I wanted directly to tape without making any noise," he says, a touch of satisfaction creeping into his voice.
The result of this neighbor-friendly one-man band was released earlier this year as Sacrifice (For Love), Sage's second solo album for Restless. It's a curiously clean-sounding disc, considering the distorted aggression of the Wipers' catalogue. The new songs are gently slashed with clear-cutting guitars and at times Sage's hollowed vocals sound like a more macho Marshall Crenshaw singing old Dream Syndicate songs. It's a different sound for Sage, but that's the kind of comment the former Wiper likes to hear.
"I remember back during the Wipers' second album there were all these bands out doing nothing but two-minute songs. And so I went ahead and wrote one that was ten minutes long. I didn't do it to be snide--I just didn't want to follow along with the others. Because then everyone's on the same road and you're all going nowhere."
Sage says he can see the signs of a nowhere mentality here in his adopted hometown. He says local bands are more interested in getting signed than concentrating on their music. Sage also faults the local media for not showing enough interest in the homegrown underground. He says bands need attention and inspiration to keep going.
But in the next breath Sage wonders if there really is any underground activity in Phoenix.
"Musically, it seems pretty bleak," he says. "But no place is perfect. Portland was considered a hick town when I first started making records there. Seattle, too. Now everyone thinks they've got to move to Seattle to get noticed. They don't realize that there's 10,000 bands up there right now and only a few places to play.
"If Tempe were to get the right clubs at the right time, it could be another Seattle someday. It's growing and there's a lot of boredom building up. Something good will eventually happen."
And Sage says he plans on sticking around to see it. The original Wipers drummer, Steve Plouf, now lives in Tempe, and Plouf, along with local bassist Todd Phelps, gives the new Greg Sage Band a secure lineup and a solid home base. Sage is even thinking about playing around town more often.
"I like it here," he says, surveying what passes for a street scene on Mill Avenue. "It's very close-minded in some ways but then it's open-minded in others, and what it lacks in culture it makes up for in other things. There's a real strength and power here that I felt when I was first driving through. And it's kept me here."
Greg Sage Band will perform at the Sun Club on Friday, December 6. Showtime is 9 p.m.
He may be one of the pioneers of America's independent rock scene, but Sage doesn't like to advertise it.
"That's how I got into music--by looking into a microscope and learning how certain grooves made certain sounds."
Sage says his intent was for the Wipers to succeed by word of mouth only.
"The goal was to make 15 albums in ten years. There were no plans to promote an image."
"We never made a video. I definitely drew the line at that."
"If Tempe were to get the right clubs at the right time, it could be another Seattle someday."
"I just didn't want to follow along with the others. Because then everyone's on the same road and you're all going nowhere.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.