Music News


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."