Spot is best known as the guy who engineered some of the grittiest and most influential punk and hardcore in America from 1979 to 1985 at Hermosa Beach's Media Art Studio. As the house producer for SST Records, he had his hands on the board for albums by Black Flag, The Descendents, Minutemen, The Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, Saint Vitus, Minor Threat, and The Misfits among many others.
When he wasn't shaping the punk that shaped the best of our sonic landscape, he was out roller-skating around Hermosa with a camera and a keen eye for the city's transformation from sleepy beach town to edgy hardcore mecca. Through Sinecure Books, he's just released Sounds of Two Eyes Opening, the best of his photography from the late 1960s through 1982. We got a chance to talk to him about it.
L.A. Weekly: You haven’t really put out a book before, why not?
Spot: No. I haven’t. There really wasn't any interest until my friend Ryan Richardson put a fire under my ass to start working [on] something like that and hooked me up with Johan [Kugelberg, founder of Sinecure Books]. I had made some really half-assed attempts in the past, but really for the most part, after I took those photos, my life went in a really different direction.
What’s up with all this '80s punk nostalgia now — especially among the kids that weren't even close to being alive then?
Well, the grass is always greener where you weren't. [Laughs] When I was a teenager, I used to look at pictures and read things about the '20s and '30s and I used to wish that I lived in the roaring '20s. I don’t think it’s anything new or all that hard to understand, y’know?
Well, now everyone can take selfies or a picture of their left shoe at every second of the day and be all like, “Look: my left shoe.” So maybe later kids won't have that same nostalgia?
I don’t know if any of that is really photography. That’s just a new form of snapshot. Even with digital photography: There’s ways to do it right and there’s a million ways to do it wrong. I think digital photography is great, but I just wish I could still do analog. But it’s just way too expensive.
Well, your analogs are fantastic. They've really captured that period.
I just took pictures of whatever was there. When I first started, back in ’69, there weren't a lot of girls in bikinis, but there were a lot of hippies and love-ins and stuff like that, so I just went and took pictures of that. I started seeing some bands, so I took pictures of that.
And the roller skating and the skateboarding crowds — they blended in with that music crowd?
Well, that was all part of the same neighborhood. There were a lot of musicians in the South Bay — in Redondo and Hermosa. There were a handful of clubs where people could play, but they were all Top 40 and the kind of metal and hard rock clubs where bands would play to try to get signed. Then Blondie came around and we were like, “Oh, let’s get into this.” But we still got beat up because the guys that liked Ted Nugent and Led Zeppelin didn't tolerate anything that they didn't like.
It seems like rollerskating was always associated with disco and skateboarding was with punk.
Well, yeah, that’s what the mass media has foisted on people. Disco skating, that was all happening up in Venice, that wasn't happening in Hermosa. Hermosa had a completely different thing going on — rollerskating here was all about street skating and downhill and slalom. We hung out with a lot of skateboarders and naturally started skating in pools and stuff. We were not disco skaters in any way shape or form.
There’s a lot of skating history that’s part of Hermosa, but I guess that everyone just always assumes that it was all about Venice. Venice was easier for people in Hollywood to get to. Hermosa didn't have any main highway leading to it. You had to make a trip of it just to get there.
It’s still a pain in the ass to get to from Hollywood.
So did all of the fun end in ’82 — is that why the book ends when it does?
I just lost my free darkroom and that was it for me. I was in demand as an engineer and I had to give up photography; I didn't want to make that decision, but I had to.
But there were all of those punks overdosing, like Darby Crash, and just a general big change in the scene?
Nah, none of that stuff really happened in the South Bay scene. The South Bay basically just ran us all out. So…what the heck.
How did that play out?
I don’t even know where to begin. I guess it just goes back to everyone just wants to beat up the new guy. We were just made to feel unwelcome. We were going forward but it was just obvious that we couldn't do it there anymore. And then the studio [Media Art] closed down and we couldn't really do it anywhere else. It just had its life here and it just sort of moved on.
Do you keep in touch with any of those people anymore?
Not really. I’m sure they’ll be around for the book, and some of them are easier than others to talk to. I really hope some of the skating people come out of the woodwork with this book and all of these signings. Recently I ran into Duke Rennie and he was one of the first guys to do all that vertical skating back then and he’s still doing it!
Putting this book together, one of the things that I really tried to make sure that the editors paid attention to, was that in the 1970s tons of tough women [were] out doing the skating thing. There were quite a few hardcore gals that were not afraid to hurt themselves.
Yeah you've got some great ones in there, like the one of Laurie getting hassled by a cop.
Oh, they got her for skating in the street. They had to give a few tickets here and there to keep things under control. We were all out on the street and the cops were all out on the street and we all got to know each other. They weren’t such a problem. They were pretty fucking cool with us. In fact, that cop writing up Laurie, he saved my ass one night. I was pulled over for driving a drunk friend’s car home that I didn't know was unregistered. So they were convinced I’d stolen it and they had their guns pulled out on me. And that motorcycle cop said something like, “Hey, that’s Spot!” and they let me go.
It sounds like you all got along for the most part?
Well, that was the rollerskating thing; the punk rock thing was a whole different story. When punk came around, they were not kind to us. They just started seeing more and more kids with funny haircuts and outrageous clothes and girls with garish make-up and they probably thought they looked a little unwholesome. Some of them were pretty unwholesome! Hermosa had been this kind of quiet hippie town and that status quo was being challenged. And when Huntington Beach started this whole violence trend, the cops really started to focus on the whole scene.
So have you paid any attention to what’s happening now with what’s left of punk and hardcore in L.A.?
What is happening now in L.A.? [Laughs] I think there is still stuff happening in L.A. I think in L.A. there’s a big geezer-rocker element that’s refusing to die. There are people from bands back then that still have bands and they’re still playing. Some of them are pretty good and some of them are pretty burnt out. I went to this what they called “The Punk Rock Barbecue.” I was playing it, so…
Look, before anything else I’m a musician. That’s what I've been doing for the last 20 years and just driving around and playing. Nobody cares, but I just do it anyways.
So, where are you doing that out of?
I needed a big change in my life, I've never lived in a cold climate before, so I figured it was time.
Yeah, it made more sense than any other place.
Is there a scene in Sheboygan?
Oh hell no! And it keeps me out of bars and I don’t want to be in them anymore. It forces me to get things done. People just tend to leave you alone and if you’re motivated, you’ll get things done.
Well, that’s something you mention in the intro to the book, that photography was your escape from all the chaos of the studio.
Yeah, I didn't need anybody else to rely on. Getting in the darkroom, I was all by myself. I wasn't arguing with anyone. With music, you’re just always going to have to be arguing with someone about something.
Especially in that scene with all of those…unique personalities.
[Laughs] That’s a polite way of putting it.