The Screamers are lauded as one of the originators of L.A.'s art-damaged punk scene, but the band's biggest freaks actually started experimenting with sonic theatrics right here in Seattle. Screamers frontman Tomata du Plenty and co-founder Tommy Gear (a.k.a. Melba Toast) were running in local underground arts circles in the early '70s before heading south to become cult legends.
Although they've been anthologized in books (We Got the Neutron Bomb) and videos, bootleg collectors covet the few Screamers releases that have slipped into the music-geek ether. Getting your hands on a copy of the Screamers' two-synthesizer/drums/nervous-breakdown-tantrum-style vocal cacophony has generally been reserved for the devoted.
Seattle resident Erik Whitaker is one of the devoted. Together with Brent Carpenter's Extravertigo Recordings, Whitaker's label, Xeroid Records, released a collection of Screamers live material/rare studio demos in 2001 called In a Better World, and more recently released a tribute to the band called The Necessary Effect: Screamers Songs Interpreted. On August 13, a record-release party for Effect will showcase both Screamers material and original material by the same picks of the punk/metal litter that played on the tribute. By inviting a number of excellent Seattle bands (8th Grade, Reckless Bastards, AAIIEE, Intelligence, A-Frames, Doosh!, Teen Cthulhu, Blööd Hag, Point Line Plane, Ursula & the Androids, the Cripples) to help celebrate synth punk's radical inventors, Whitaker is, to some degree, taking the Screamers' legacy full circle. The Stranger chatted with him about devoting so much time to a band that now exists in the general public's punk periphery.
How did you first get interested in the Screamers?
I came across a video of theirs on a Target Video comp that Joe Reiss put out--he used to do all this great documentary video stuff in San Francisco in the late '70s, early '80s--and there's a Screamers video on it that's mind-blowing. Some years later, someone released a little bootleg seven-inch and I was like, "I have to find out more about this band." I started becoming more obsessed, and I got enough [Screamers material] that I was like, "Wow, I just need to make a CDR of this and give it to friends." I approached Brent, who does Extravertigo, and said I'd like to do this as a limited-edition fan release. That came out as In a Better World--140 minutes of Screamers live and demo music.
You were able to meet members of the Screamers after Better World came out, right?
Yeah, I was in L.A. and found out that [drummer] K. K. Barrett lives in Silverlake and [later Screamers member] Paul Roessler lives in Torrance. I was able to meet with Paul at a coffee shop, and [I even met his] kids and his wife, Hellin Killer--who's almost more famous than a lot of the L.A. bands back then, along with Trudie, who's K. K. Barrett's wife. Trudie is like the pin-up punk-rock girl and Hellin is her best friend. I was like, "Oh my god, this is the punk elite world of yesteryear and I somehow entered into it." I was dumbfounded.
You've put so much work into putting out Screamers material. What is it about the band that interests you the most?
I think they would have been the biggest L.A. band had they really recorded stuff in a studio and released it. Their songs are so great. Exene [Cervenka, from X] has said they were the first band she ever saw and no one was ever as good, and Jello Biafra talks about them every chance he gets. The two founding members, Tommy and Tomata, were also part of the early Seattle music scene. They wrote in a little zine called Chatterbox, and were members of Ze Whiz Kidz, a drag/avant-garde experimental performance theater troupe in the early '70s. El Duce from the Mentors and Bill Rieflin--of the Blackouts and later the whole Ministry/Wax Trax label camp--both played drums with them when they mutated into this pre-Screamers thing called the Tupperwares. The first Tupper-wares performance was for the Seattle premiere of John Waters' Pink Flamingos, at the Moore on January 1, 1976.
After the first CD, how did you move on to the tribute?
We just thought it would be great to get interesting bands to do songs and see what happened. We started [receiving] interesting submissions, and we were just blown away--like hearing these intense hardcore versions of songs, or hearing someone do a weird, Moby-eque electronic-love-song version.
Do you see yourself continuing to work on Screamers stuff?
Definitely. [The L.A. punk scene] all connects back to a small amount of people, who were doing such innovative stuff for this bright year-and-a-half period, and they influenced so many. There's a lot of history surrounding this band.
For more information on the Screamers, check out www.synthpunk.org.