I was lucky enough to get to watch Don Bolles (born Jimmy Giorsetti) play drums recently as he prepared for a set later that night in Phoenix with his new (and old) band, Exterminators. The 60-year-old Arizona native was back home in the desert to play the first Exterminators show in 38 years, opening for Meat Puppets and Mike Watt & the Secondmen, the day after Thanksgiving.
It was pretty surreal, even for a slightly jaded old Phoenix punk like myself, to sit in a small practice room and watch Bolles, bassist Cris Kirkwood (Meat Puppets), vocalist Johnny Macho (Dan Clark of The Feederz and Victory Acres) and guitarist Buzzy Murder (Doug Clark of Mighty Sphincter) rip through a set of songs that predate almost all West Coast punk rock music. It was kind of like being in an underground rock time machine. Watching Bolles work, especially, was as compelling as it gets.
Bolles, who came to prominence in Los Angeles as a member of The Germs, is a machine behind the drum kit. Despite the fact that copious amounts of the finest pharmaceutical-grade marijuana was being consumed, the wiry man with the giant, fuzzy black hat led the Exterminators through grinding proto-punk song after song with the same confidence and precision with which he does everything. Whether it is choosing the right uber-cool Euro-pop song during a DJ set to get the crowd going, playing drums or guitar (or he'd probably even play bass if you asked nicely) in a band, or twiddling the knobs and pushing the right buttons in the studio, Bolles — who is also a great-grandfather these days — is relentlessly prolific in his creative output.
Besides his work with Exterminators, Bolles is collaborating with Ariel Pink on a new record, as well as finishing up a project with his girlfriend, Juliette Amoroso, and the band Water Tower. He also has regular DJ gigs and a radio show called Glossolalia on KXLU, and always finds time to work on another one of his bands, Fancy Space People.
Bolles and I had a few conversations over the last few weeks, both in person and via email and Facebook. Here's what he had to say.
What is the dark underbelly of L.A. music these days?
Gosh, I don't really know what you mean by that. There are a million dark underbellies in the naked city, these days, and a fractious excuse for a scene that doesn't actually seem to be much of one at all.
What was it about L.A. that made you decide to move to L.A. and stay there?
First of all, Phoenix sucked in a million different ways, so I really wanted to not be there. L.A. was the closest and coolest big city, and a lot of my cultural heroes lived there. People like Kim Fowley, Michael Lloyd, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Wild Man Fisher, The GTOs, that whole scene. Then there was Rodney Bingenheimer and the glitter-rock deal that I was just barely too young to really catch, but I read all about it and would have gone and been part of that if I could've figured out a way to do at 14.
Later, when I started making the pilgrimage to L.A. to find punk records (you couldn't get anything like that in Phoenix in 1977), I found the already burgeoning punk scene — went to the Masque, met some super young punk rock kids that were really cool, bought some punk singles at the various indie record stores, and caught The Screamers' first show. Then I tried to move to San Francisco, where my girlfriend had moved, but didn't really dig it too much, so I moved back to Phoenix, started some bands, then after trying to start some kind of scene in Phoenix without much luck, I finally got some trust-fund check when I turned 21, or like six months after, and then Rob Graves and I packed up my Chrysler Newport Custom and headed to L.A. to seek our punk rock destinies somewhere that was a little cooler, in more ways than one.
How did becoming “Don Bolles” change your life?
I read about how when you change your name your numerology changes, as well, so if that's true, there are some pretty major changes that happened. It's funny that of all the clever punk rock names I thought up, that's the name that I stuck with. I really was in awe of the actual Don Bolles, a reporter for the Arizona Republic who was killed by the mob in 1976, so as far as the contextual stuff goes it's a great name, but it's definitely not clever or funny like Dinah Cancer, Dave Reckoning or Rex Everything. I also sort of carried it with me like a memento of Arizona, because the name was only well known there, and not so much in other states, so anyone from Arizona would get it immediately, but everyone else just thought it was a regular name. As far as how it specifically changed my life, I dunno — I get called on earlier when things go in alphabetical order than I did before, but otherwise I have no idea.
It's documented story, but what was it about The Germs that made you decide you had to be in the band?
I joined The Germs in 1978. Their drummer was that kind of rotund girl, Donna Rhea, who didn’t know how to play drums at all. Pat [Smear] just showed her some basic beats and taught Lorna some bass parts. It was so inept and charmingly so. I was a fan of The Shaggs, and that definitely came to mind when I heard The Germs. It was like The Shaggs tried to play The Man Who Sold the World album with the same gear. It was really strange. The chords from “Forming” are the chords from “Panic in Detroit” by Bowie as well.
Are you a gear guy? If so, what is your drum set of choice?
Drums are just one of the instruments I attempt to play, and although I don't really have a particular brand preference, I do have a pretty specific setup. My current set is a hodgepodge of various and mismatched shells, but I learned how to tune drums to some degree, so they generally sound pretty cool when you hit them, even if they don't match. But if anyone cares, or wants to know what I require in a backline situation, here's the specs:
- 2 22-inch kicks (currently a Gretsch and some other custom thing from MA, both from the ’60s)
- 1 14-inch x 5-inch 1964 Ludwig Acrolyte snare
- 1 ’80s deep-dish 13-inch Rack tom, between the kicks on a separate stand
- 1 16-inch floor tom, also ’80s Pearl, but a different type
- 2 DW chain-drive kick pedals
- 1 24-inch Zildjian ride cymbal
- 2 Zildjian crash cymbals, 19-inch and 20-inch
- Pair of Zildjian New Beat 14-inch hi-hat cymbals
- A weird thing I invented called the Towel of Silence, mounted on the right kick
- Plus a random drum throne and some sticks
Aren't you glad you asked?
As for guitar, I have a 1975 Gibson SG Special with one pickup and a Peavey 5150 amp with a Marshall cabinet.
How did 45 Grave come about?
While I was in The Germs, I met Dinah Cancer (who was Mary Sims at the time). She ended up being my girlfriend, and I moved out of the Canterbury Apartments, where I first lived when I moved to L.A., which was sort of like the Chelsea Hotel West, and moved in with her and her mom and her Aunt Margie in their nice West Hollywood house. Soon, we talked Paul Cutler from The Consumers into moving back to L.A. Mary and I started playing abstract improv music with Paul in his loose-knit group CEDS (Citizens for the Exploration of Deep Space), and we started converting the garage at Mary's folks place into a rehearsal/ recording studio.
Around when Paul moved in with us, we started playing music with Jeff Dahl and our friend the Yeti (aka Del Hopkins), forming a weird Krautrock/metal/noise/glam/punk aggregation that we ended up calling Vox Pop (short for Vincebus Vox Populi, a nod to Blue Cheer's “Vincebus Eruptum”). We started writing songs and making tapes with Vox Pop, CEDS and whoever we could wrangle to come over and jam. Soon we were writing some songs that were kind of poppy, and some that were kind of evil punk metal, mostly with me on drums, Paul on guitar and my best friend and fave bassist, Rob Graves, on bass. We were out there playing and recording stuff pretty much 24/7, until Mary's aunt said we had to have Mary do stuff with us, too, or we didn't get to use the garage. We were fine with that, and since Mary looked amazing but couldn't really play anything, we had her write some lyrics and sing.
After a few weeks, we had come up with enough songs for a live set, especially since we started playing some of the old Consumers songs, since they weren't going to be needing them anymore and Paul wrote most of them, anyway. We didn't really know what to do with all that, until Christmas morning 1980, when I opened a little present Paul had gotten me. It was a 3-inch-diameter button, that said in yellow block letters on a maroon background, “WE DIG 45 GRAVE.” We couldn't stop laughing at the sheer randomness of that phrase, and started to speculate on what it could possibly mean. Paul said it was from a Mexican gravediggers union, touting the progress of its membership. That seemed a bit far-fetched, so I postulated that it was actually the first fan club button of our new band, which was obviously called 45 Grave. This theory won the day, and our new “pop band” (that's what we called it, anyway) had a name.
As you look back now, how do you feel about 45 Grave?
That band was really good at first. We practiced our set like it was one long prog song with one-second breaks. We did the same set every show for a while because no one had seen us. Maybe if the King Crimson guys would have had a horror punk band, it would have sounded something like 45 Grave. I’m not really sure what we were trying to do at the time, but we were really into horror and punk.
Tell me about Fancy Space People.
Well … I had worked with Nora Keyes since the late ’90s when I would do sound for her band The Centimeters, who I had signed to me and my pal Michael Sheppard's record label, Transparency. I also did sound for her solo shows, and we were really good friends during a particularly impoverished time in both of our lives. We started writing weird little songs together, and then we started doing little shows around town, first as a duo called Sarcophagus Lint. Then we were both contacted by some mysterious entities we like to call our Space Brothers, and soon we were channeling these creatures’ words and music, and even started taking their fashion advice. We decided to call our new band Fancy Space People, after the look our Space Bros laid out for us.
We wrote more songs, more people were recruited to play the ever-more-demanding arrangements, and we were given new fancy space togs to wear and a mission to help the Earthlings raise their vibrational frequencies, save their faltering planet, and also become more glamorous and have a bunch of crazy fun in the process.
Billy Corgan and his producer/engineer, Kerry “Studio Dog” Brown, dug our cosmic vibes and offered to record us, so we did a really awesome 12-inch EP on their label, Starry Records. Those two had a falling out, something to do with wrestling and money, so we found ourselves without a label, but now it looks as if we are finally going to be recording our full-length LP for Unisex Records, our own little label.
Who, in your opinion, is the most underrated musician of the L.A. music scene these days and why?
I really haven't a clue.
Having been part of many bands, what is the most important thing in keeping a band together?
Since almost all of my bands have broken up at least once, I might not be the best person to ask about that.
How did you make the transition into becoming a music producer?
I have listened to a lot of records in my life, so I have a pretty good idea of how things should sound. I guess one of the first things I actually got a production credit for was the NOFX demo tape, which was made in an actual garage in 1980. I was just driving by and heard a band playing, stopped to see what was up, and next thing you know, voila — I'm a producer.
How do you write music? Do you keep instruments handy at home? Prefer to write with a partner or partners? How does the magic happen?
I wish I was the sort of songwriting dynamo like Serge Gainsbourg or Ariel Pink, but I'm not that prolific or driven. I do come up with some cool stuff every now and then, but I don't always manage to record it right away, so I always have a huge backlog of proto-song things waiting for the right time to emerge from my brain and become real.
Sometimes while we're recording a new song, Ariel says, “Come up with something for this part,” and then I'm on the spot, standing there in front of the mic with no clue what to do, but then the track plays and stuff comes outta my mouth, and sometimes it's good and we use it! Like on “Dazed Inn Daydreams,” where I just improvised the whole “I'm Broadway Kurt Cobain” bit for no apparent reason, but then everybody dug it, so now it's the bridge.
If you had to choose one record you've played on, what is the best representation of who you are? Why?
I dunno — I seem to be a lot of things, many of them quite contradictory, so maybe the “Fancy Space People Theme,” on our self-titled Starry Records 12-inch EP. That has a lot of disparate elements to it that somehow manage to work together to make something really cinematic, melodic, psychedelic, glamorous and cool. There's even a mysterious space ambiance bit in the middle, in case all the other elements weren't enough. And it sounds pretty cool, too, recording-wise. Epic, heroic, melodic and fun. I'm super stoked on how that one came out. The new Kitten Sparkles CD on 777 Was 666 Records is awesome, as well. I mean, I like almost all the things I've done, so it's not really easy to pick just a couple.
What are your thoughts on how this Exterminators record is being received?
People seem to dig it, so one of my thoughts is definitely, “Yay.”
How did you get involved with Ariel Pink? How is the new record coming along?
We've been pals since I met him when he was 18 and just doing weird little tapes in his bedroom that nobody except a few of his friends even knew about. He was dating Rebecca Lynn from The Centimeters at the time, and she introduced him to all of us. He was a fan of a lot of the musical things I had done, so we would jam out every now and then when we were around some instruments. I would book him at shows I was putting on, because he became a really huge draw here in L.A., and there was always at least one of my other musician friends in his bands.
Pom Pom was the first album I did with Ariel, and it should have been album of the year on even more lists than it ended up on, but 4AD didn't really push it at all, which is just criminal, in my honest opinion. An amazing album that I was proud to be a part of, nonetheless. As is the new one. We've been working on it for a few months, and I really dig every song on it; so far there are 20 [songs]. Ariel is one of the best and most prolific songwriters I have ever known, along with Greg Gomberg of The Centimeters and Jack Name, and the scope of this new record is as wide and varied as Pom Pom, and so far as I can tell it's gonna be a killer follow-up to what is really an impossible album to follow.
What else are you working on right now?
All sorts of crazy shite. My girlfriend [Juliette Amoroso] and I have a little production team, sometimes with Ariel, too, called Unisex Productions, and we just finished a psychedelic bluegrass concept album that's kind of a countrified take on something out of Lou Reed's Berlin — a true tale of a couple of junkies in a relationship, with a sort of ambivalent ending, where they're redeemed but then in the end they're gonna go be bad again, maybe. It's really good, although bluegrass isn't normally something in which I indulge. We took the genre about as far as it can go while maintaining a lot of militantly traditional elements, as well. I think people are gonna go apeshit for this one, if the reactions of everyone we've ever played it for are any indication. Should be out soon. The group is called Water Tower, and the album is called Fly Around.
We're also working on taking my psych-noise thing, Kitten Sparkles, out on the road. Plus I have an ambient sound collage thing with Professor Cantaloupe [Mitchell Brown from Dublab and KXLU] called “The Plasmodian World of Cantaloupe and Bolles” that grew out of our weekly KXLU radio show, Glossolalia [6 to 8 p.m. every Monday]. We use records, tapes, CDs and whatever else to weave a surreal soundscape that's at once trippy, inexplicable and sonically compelling.
I also play guitar and sing in a junk-shop glam band called The Snowsnakes. We do covers of things like “Wired Up” by Hector and Iron Virgin's “Rebels Rule.”
Nora Keyes and I do a weekly club every Wednesday night at the Hyperion Tavern. We were calling it Club Ding-a-Ling, but then we had to stop having loud music according to the neighbors and the police, so we started calling it Ye Olde Hushe Clubbe, although we can have louder stuff again, so might just change it back to Ding-a-Ling.