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The Wipers' Clean Slate

See no industry: Music biz black sheep Greg Sage (center) and the late-'80s version of the Wipers
David Wilds

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."

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."

Portland was also the Northwest city that put the earliest punk rock into circulation. In 1964, while the Beatles were first barnstorming the U.S., rival Portland bands like the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders were racing against time to record "Louie Louie." Both bands licensed their records to national labels, and while the Kingsmen went Top 5 and the Raiders eventually wound up hosting a national TV show by 1965, none of this did much to put Portland on any music-industry maps.

"Portland was an unheard of city; it wasn't as big as Seattle or San Francisco. It was considered a logging town," Sage shrugs. " I ran a record label, Trap Records, out of Portland from late '79 through '85, and we couldn't get our records distributed even though we had a lot of bands on the label. We'd talk to the distributors or club owners on the East Coast, and when you'd say you were from Portland, they'd laugh and hang up. We actually went to New York for a year and a half and distributed out of there. That's what it took. Then about '83 or so things changed and you could be a band from Athens, Georgia. The trendiness of having to be from L.A., New York or London kinda faded away."

Early on, Sage taught himself electronics and studio construction to keep self-sufficient in order to be able to continue making records without taking any money from record labels. "Virgin Records told me I was the only independent contractor in the business because I would never sign a major-label deal or long-term deal. I would actually produce the recordings and then license them as one-offs. The mid-'80s was a good time because there was demand for what we were doing."

Sage recorded that first Wipers album, Is This Real, on a four-track in 1979. As for the name of the group, Sage recalls, "I worked at a movie theater and the whole lobby was plate-glass windows overlooking the city. It was my job to clean them. It was really dingy, but by the time I'd get done everything became crystal clear. Somebody suggested the name and I didn't like it, but that's kind of what I wanted to do with music." At least he didn't name the group the Squee Gees.

"Nothing with an "e" or an "i" at the end of it," Sage smiles. "Too cutesy."

Given the favored cult status Wipers records enjoy now, it's a bit surprising that none of the records were warmly received when they first came out. "Like our first record that everyone now says is a punk classic," Sage grins. "Is This Real, that was really poorly received because we weren't considered punk enough and we didn't have black leather coats with chains and the Clash painted on the back. We were very uncool at that time, but 20 years later it's considered kind of the pinnacle of that time.

"When our second album, Youth of America, came out, the trend was to do very short songs, with 30 to 40 songs that were all 30 seconds long. I did two songs on the record over 10 minutes long." One of those long songs, "When It's Over," was Top 5 on the biggest radio station in Amsterdam for 18 months. Still, America continued to shun the Wipers' work when it came out. "By the time they would start warming up to the last one, they would hate the new one," adds Sage.

In 1985 came the release of Straight Ahead, an acoustic effort billed as a Greg Sage solo album, when it was still pretty punk in indie country. "A year or so later it became the 'first acoustic album by an underground artist.' Big deal," he shakes his head and laughs. "There's plenty of acoustic albums around.

 

"But that's what kept us alive more than anything, being diverse. I'd even go as far as building new equipment to get different sounds for different records."

When Sage began licensing Wipers records to other companies like Enigma, Virgin, Park Avenue, Tim/Kerr and Restless, he was basically forced into doing a lot of live shows. "Playing live is fine, but it's just for the here and now. It's entertainment, there's things expected. To me, the record is like a statue, it lasts forever, whereas a show is just a show for an hour and a half," says Sage. "The only thing I really didn't do was to make a music video. That's where I kind of drew the line. What I wanted to do as a legacy, that would've just ruined it."

While Sage maintains much of what he does artistically constitutes bad business acumen, he doesn't regret any of it because he wasn't out to make elephant dollars in the first place. Nor does he regret not refusing to sign with a major label.

"Enigma had seven of our albums. Three of them were big records in Europe and they threatened to delete my catalogue if I didn't sign a major-label contract with Capitol Records," he says, with raised eyebrows disappearing into the bandanna. "When I didn't do it, they quit manufacturing the catalogue in the U.S. and brought them in as imports, which they never accounted us for. Basically they tried to starve us into signing a major-label contract."

When Kurt Cobain asked the Wipers to play with Nirvana in L.A., Sage was visited backstage by some of the same people from that no-good label that deleted his catalogue (all right people, that'll be Tim/Kerr Records -- so go in the next room and break all your Smegma CDs). "This one guy goes, 'Yeah I hear you're still the black sheep of the industry. Well, I work for DGC Records now.' And that made it all so perfect," Sage smiles.

But Sage admits the financial vagaries of the record industry hold true for majors as well as independents. "Nirvana was like a $10 billion industry. Around the time Kurt died, they got a check for a million dollars, which they split three ways. Out of 10 billion? People don't like to hear about it. When I last saw him [Kurt], he wasn't happy at all and they were at their pinnacle of success," Sage recounts. "It wasn't anything he ever planned for or hoped would happen. He didn't know where they were going next. The band wasn't told anything. He had a whole army of people surrounding him. He was a really easygoing guy and they made sure he stayed as less focused as possible." Cobain had made tentative plans to record a bunch of Leadbelly covers at Sage's studio, which, sadly never happened.

Still, before his death, Cobain was able to bring Sage's work to the masses through the 1991 tribute Fourteen Songs For Greg Sage and the Wipers. "Kurt paid for the recording himself, did it himself, and he brought it to the person putting that package together and said, 'Listen: I want to do this for Greg, all I ask is one thing, that you guarantee you pay him the mechanical royalties on it' -- because we'd been screwed so badly over the years. And the guy says 'sure.' Kurt died and we never got one cent from it. Total breach of contract. We licensed the stuff to [Tim/Kerr] but if you take it to court they play the waiting game for six years. If I won, all they would have to do is bankrupt their company and call it something else. That's what's happened with some of our early records. The company goes bankrupt and funnels the money into another label."

How did Sage feel, going from black sheep of the music industry to the revered object of a tribute record? "At first it kind of bugged me... It was flattering, but I didn't want that kind of attention. All of the sudden it was like a big fad for all these bands to do Wipers covers. Not just that tribute record, but a lot of well-known people were covering songs I wrote. The record I was working on at the time was definitely a Wipers-sounding record and I thought, 'Damn, I'll just be jumping on my own bandwagon,' so I trashed it and did Silver Sail, something that was a lot cleaner sounding, more melodic. It was actually one of my favorite records. Again, it was the total opposite of what people were expecting. I always felt like if anything I was doing became mainstream, it would be ruined."

 

As with his own peculiar career track, Sage has found it a more successful formula to jump off the bandwagon completely. "Touring and dealing with agents and promoters is just as corrupt as the music industry. Promoters in Europe keep jacking up the price of the show. Soundgarden was playing for like $50! They broke up on that tour because it was obvious there was nowhere to go. Pearl Jam took on Ticketmaster and look what happened to them. The only way to protest that is not being involved with it."

What Sage is involved with currently is the upgrade of Zeno Studios into a CD-mastering facility. In addition, he plans to make Zeno Records a more visible label by rereleasing as many titles from the Wipers' back catalogue as possible, as well as recording the next Wipers album and working with some undiscovered bands. Sage, who has recorded the likes of Soundgarden and the Melvins at his studio, generally shies away from working with bigger-name bands because "they were real successful, and in my mind they didn't really need me. I have a way of working with people that's not intimidating. It's a real creative environment. I wanted to work with unheard of bands."

For Sage, someone whose life was dictated from an early age by a passion for music, it's hard to fathom why there aren't that many young kids interested in playing music anymore.

Drummer Steve Plouf recalls hooking up with Sage while still a teenager. "I was playing with another band in Portland called Dimension 7 after one of Greg's songs off of Is It Real," he says. "Dimension 7 weren't playing very long, they weren't that good. I was still in high school. It was probably in 1985 right after that acoustic album."

Says Sage, "I don't see quite the same rebellious attitude for that age group. Even people that age tell me the same thing. Kids that used to be interested in playing music have channeled that into having a cell phone."

"It's like there's no rebellion all the sudden. Music was always the vent for that, you'd come of age and your eyes were opened. The world sucked but there was something that brought every generation together, each generation had their own voice and now all the sudden it's gone quiet. Maybe rap and hip-hop have taken that over but... I get e-mails from kids 15, 16, 17 all around the world saying, 'I'm the only one in my school that listens to something different and I'm a total outcast.' It's almost uncool to be unique and different now. It's almost the decade of compliance and it's an unnatural change. It seems like there's no pioneers out there and there are, but it's an endless search for them. The numbers are definitely dwindling."

Although some might look at Sage's track record and see a guy who keeps changing his lottery numbers, in truth he's always stuck to his guns and maintained a belief in the power in one -- himself -- to enact change, to do things differently and to act "uncool" if need be. But being a perpetual iconoclast can be taxing.

"Now I'm running out of ideas," he says, laughing. "There's too many ways to be uncool now."


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