You want living experimental/noise history? Smegma, in existence continuously for 30 years, is returning for its first L.A. shows since three original members moved from Pasadena to Portland, Oregon, in 1975. The tiny ’70s/’80s Pasadena scene, loosely focused on the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS), has gained an international rep as a seed garden for the worldwide flowering of sound re-conceptualization that followed, and Smegma was right there. Meanwhile, the ensemble has made quite a few recordings and developed the kind of personalized, often mightily coherent chemistry that can result only from long interrelation. It currently features original members Dr. Id (theremin, sampler) and Amazon Bambi (drums, bass, clarinet), plus Oblivia (record player), Stan Wood (vibraband — surgical tubing plucked against the mouth), Burnd Mind (drums, electronics), Borneo Jimmy (literary upsetter Richard Meltzer, ranting poetry), Zasu Kazoo (melodica, percussion) and Jean Ra (percussion, grinders). The last two aliases are “terrible,” but that’s according to a co-founder who calls himself Ju Suk Reet Meate (accent on the first syllable; “guitar, horns, various toys and stuff”). I talked to him by phone.
L.A. WEEKLY: What was L.A. like when you left?
JU SUK REET MEATE: A strange cultural vacuum. Today, with alternative clubs everywhere, it’s hard for people to imagine that back then there was nothing like that. The atmosphere then was what got us out of there.
What was your first gig?
A satellite thing for the Jerry Lewis telethon. I sang a cover of “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache” totally straight, 1958-style. In 1973, that was every bit as weird as trying to play, like, Sun Ra. It went off pretty well with the fire department next door. We got baloney sandwiches!
What’s kept you in Portland?
We’ve kind of incubated here. There’s something about Portland where around the edges there’ve always been interesting people. I wouldn’t have stayed if it hadn’t been for running into this one incredible musician named Lee Rockey. He was on the first Herbie Mann record. He was a bebop jazz drummer, and then he became a self-made free electronic crazy violin player. I jammed with him off and on for, like, 26 years. He died last year.
Does Smegma practice a lot?
We get together at least three times a month on the average. Even if we don’t have gigs, even if we go through periods where we’re not even sure if we’re really operating, we’ll still get together and play.
Does the herb play a role in your art?
In that sense, that’s the one time I’ll say we’re absolutely musicians!
But you’re not trained.
Nobody went to art school to learn music, and with one exception nobody was ever really in a normal band. Nobody’s ever done it the easy way.
What can you do that trained musicians can’t?
We don’t have to be proper! Every note that we play, if we’re doing it right, is ripped out of time and space and developed right then. It can be a lot of effort.
Let’s hear about some of your methodology.
Oblivia plays record player. We strictly use Rheem Califones or Newcombe — all those school turntables. We like ’em ’cause they’re four-speed, and they’re designed to be beaten up by kids. I play a radio — it’s like a fake synthesizer, I take a Casio SK-1 keyboard and use the radio to pick up the oscillator in the Casio. I’m just trying to get more out of a simple instrument and your playing technique — just try to do it with your hands and your brain. On guitar, I’ve got a volume pedal and one delay, and I’ve been using the same setup for, like, 20 years.
By now that would be considered “vintage” equipment.
Hey, the human mind and body is the most vintage equipment there is!
Smegma plays the Fold in the Derby, 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., on Sunday, July 27, co-billed with Solid Eye (old LAFMS associates) and the Radon ensemble of Steven Mackay (saxist on the Stooges’ 1970 Fun House); doors open 7 p.m.; (323) 666-2407. Smegma, joined by Mackay, also plays quieter minisets at Line Space Line in the Salvation Theater, 1519 Griffith Park Blvd., on Monday, July 28, at 8 p.m.; (323) 682-4060.