Thursday, February 19, 2015

This music is evil: The Lepers exposed

Several months ago while I writing about the Frantix, I came across an article where Jello Biafra described the band in both looks and sound as grunge long before the genre came into existence. I think his comment touched on a regional element that I will elaborate on further in the next couple of paragraphs.

During the transitional period at the beginning of the 1980’s, American punk was morphing into hardcore. Not only were there stylistic changes in the music in that the tempo of the music became faster, but the young hardcore punk kids started rejecting the establishment, meaning stereotypical punk fashion (mohawks, dyed hair, and clothing accessories). The emerging American vision of hardcore dress was more in line with the Ramones a la jeans and t-shirts. The fashion sensibilities of people going to shows at the time was eclectic, punk rockers had to tendency to express themselves for the sake of making a statement or personal aesthetics.

Before Denver and other punk scenes across the country went in the direction of becoming more uniform, Boulder based band, The Lepers didn’t buy into the hype. For the band, punk was an attitude communicated through music and lyrics. Looking at older photos of the group, one might get the sense they were sporting practical and seasonal apparel at would be appropriate living at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Like the Frantix, The Lepers existed in a scene that had no literal template for punk; they forged their own definition of what it should be by simply following their own interpretations.

Several of my high school friends dismissed, ignored, or didn’t quite understand The Lepers mainly because they weren’t hardcore or punk enough by the emerging classifications of punk. The Denver/Boulder scene was an oddity compared with other in cities like: LA, New York or Boston. Denver’s look and sound was more regional in part due to geographical location. The climate and even the isolation shaped Denver’s unique scene. More so than ever, I think escaping any form of a homogenized sound and aesthetic was an asset.

Because there were so few bands in the Denver /Boulder scene that had a shelf-life of more than a couple of years, The Lepers were a unique entity that added to the diversity of multi-band shows from 1982-84. Their sound, cover art, and DIY approach to the development of their overall aesthetic was punk in its’ purest form.

Roger Morgan was one of the guitarists of the band. He helped form the label, Unclean Records that released all three Lepers recordings. He was gracious enough to chat about his time in the band and living in Boulder.

How did the Lepers come about? Weren’t you a transplant from Tulsa attending school in Boulder?  
Alan and I were from Tulsa; essentially we were gypsies who ended up in Boulder in the fall of ’81. Fortunately, we had a mutual friend from Oklahoma, Kent Cordray, who worked as a projectionist at night and worked a comic book store by day and most importantly had an apartment. He was kind enough to put us on the floor until we could get our own places. Neither of us had any intention of going to school at the time. I met Laz at a tech company we both worked for. We began talking about music, found some common likes and dislikes and decided to start hashing out some songs in a basement I was now living in. Alan and I had already been in bands together since high school so we called him in and we created a spark and started writing original songs as well as having fun with Wire, Gun Club, Flipper covers, etc.. We actually found Brad through a classified ad we put in the local paper. Not sure exactly what we put in the ad, it would be interesting to see that again…

Eating acoustic guitars and drinking Big Mouth Mickey's is an appropriate way to say "fuck you" to Firefall and the Eagles. Photograph courtesy of Roger Morgan.

What was the Boulder scene like when the band first formed?
I don’t think we ever really knew any other bands in Boulder at the beginning. We would meet at bars after work and drink and watch MTV on the big screen. This was back when Prince, Michael Jackson, Van Halen, and Devo were in heavy rotation. We did have the ‘Over the Edge’ radio show with Peter Tonks on Saturday nights, weekend trips to Wax Trax in Denver to purchase new music, and The Blue Note started booking some interesting shows such as U.K. Subs, Anti-Nowhere League, Gun Club, etc.. Laz and I met a local band at the Blue Note who were hawking a 7” single they had pressed themselves and became intrigued by the whole process. We took the idea to the other band members and soon set out a plan to raise enough money to put out our own record. It turns out the pressing plant they referred us to was run by a Christian family on a farm in Wyoming(?) and when they got our first draft of ‘Evil Music’, it was a No Go for them due to their religious beliefs. They were cool about it, though, and simply referred us to A&R in Dallas who gladly pressed that and many more releases for Unclean.  

Playing out?
On our very first gig at The Packing House, we were unsure what kind of audience we would have. Our songs were slower paced and we had rehearsed them to play that way. However, when the first band played fast and we saw the audience reaction to that, we huddled and decided to play our numbers at a faster pace. It was wild the reaction we got and so we decided at that point we would play a faster, louder sound. We later opened a show at the Packing House with Suicidal Tendencies and another show with Husker Du at Kennedy’s Warehouse.

Mountains, Jesus, UFOs all to the soundtrack of punk rock. Flier courtesy of Roger Morgan 

What I always liked about the Lepers was they were a little different than other bands in the Boulder/Denver area. The members looked unassuming and you had your own brand of punk within a majority HC scene. Did you ever feel the band was underrated or out of place?

I personally never felt any of that about the band. I think I can speak for all of the members of The Lepers in that we took from punk’s original message, that you could make any music you wanted no matter how different, and you could dress however you damn well pleased. The hardcore scene definitely became more militaristic about sound and look and attitude but we drifted into those waters as bravely as we could and maybe took a little shit for it from a certain group of dumbasses. But, after most of the Denver scene figured out we weren’t frat boys from Boulder. They accepted us-as at least freaks. Haha. We were a little older than most of the kids in the scene so I never felt too intimidated when 15 year-olds would scowl at me about my unordinary dress. We had common interests: a love for punk music and we hated Reagan with a passion. We were in our early twenties and Laz was a mind-blowing 38! He was literally the grandfather of the scene. When we wrote about hating The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, we meant that shit! We lived through it!

Live at Kennedy's Warehouse. Original photograph Valerie Harris. Brush and Ink drawing  Bob Rob (Medina).

When I was interviewing Tom Headbanger, he mentioned that the Denver scene should have had a regional look; kids should have worn hiking boots instead of Doc Martins and Creepers and plaid shirts. I’ve seen you guys play a bunch of times, I think the band sort of fit that Colorado punk look profile Headbanger envisioned. Do you think you had a Colorado look? When did you and Alan decide that having a mustache in a punk band was the way to go?

I don’t think we ever really set out to have a certain look. Though, it does seem like the grunge scene took cues from us and probably owe their entire existence to The Lepers. Ha! Seriously though, the flannel, the long underwear, the boots, the army jackets, facial hair was all a result of the cold environment. Some of those winters in the early 80’s, Denver/Boulder were brutal compared to what I was used to. We migrated from Tulsa where the summers were hot and when I left Denver in May ’84 there was still snow on the ground! It’s hilarious to see myself with a goatee in pictures when I was younger. I’ve never been able to stand facial hair since. It was a youthful indiscretion among many others. Being a punk to me meant being different. A mustache was not something the younger kids in the scene could produce easily so it set me apart I guess.

Why the title Evil Music for your first ep? Did you want to make sure mom’s that were dropping their kids off at the University didn’t accidently buy punk rock for their kid’s dorm room hi-fi system? Or was the Leper’s music really evil?
‘Evil Music’ was Alan’s creation. I think it tapped into a vibe he had always tuned into about people’s warped perceptions of rock music in religious Oklahoma. We were always butting heads with wackos in Tulsa about such things. Once when I was very young and being made to attend Sunday school, I announced that I loved collecting rock records and the teacher scolded me and told me I was falling into the grips of Satan or some such shit. Needless to say, I stopped going to Sunday school shortly after.

The cover says it all. The Lepers debut 7"

On that first record the band gives credit to John Hinkley Jr. for writing the lyrics to:  “So we can talk”. Was he your number one fan? Actually, the band JFA (Jody Foster’s Army) were investigated by the secret service so I’m told because of their band name. Did associating with John Hinkley Jr. get the band any unwanted attention from the government?         

I truly wish I could say John Hinkley Jr. was our number one fan, but I doubt he ever heard the song. Laz found the poem Hinkley had written in an article and we put music to it. I loved that track, it fell together easily. This was when the band was right on the cusp of changing into a faster, louder HC band. We actually sounded more like Pere Ubu at this time and were covering more ‘new wave’ songs like early Modern English, Gun Club and Wire. I’m not aware of any government surveillance about the Hinckley connection, but who knows? I think the government was probably more interested in our connections to radical anti-nuke people in Boulder. We lived and worked with a bunch of those guys and some of them were pretty damn radical.

Unclean Records? 
We started the label ‘Unclean Records’ to produce the Lepers singles, with no real ambition to extend to other bands. Laz came up with the name and we all sort of pitched in different tasks to get it up and running. Our first post office box was up on The Hill in Boulder. Everything was done DIY, everything was done with crappy Xerox machines and when you look at it now, it was some pretty crude work. But, in early 80s DIY was quite acceptable and we enjoyed the independence. If we had been equipped with computers and software and such that we have today we could have ruled the world! Once I decided to leave the band in May ’84 and move back to Tulsa, I had decided to raise my own money and release the N.O.T.A. “Moscow” EP, the Rhythm Pigs “An American Activity” EP and The Massacre Guys “The Rider” EP. I picked up work in Tulsa and began saving the money to do just that. My family in Tulsa thought I was insane and I can’t say they were wrong. Hah! I just carried on the label name for the sake of continuity more than anything else. I did play around with name changes but we had already received some recognition in national magazines so I decided to stick with Unclean.

Record release party flier equals fun with photocopier. Flier courtesy of Roger Morgan 

At one time there was a vision for an Unclean LP comp. Was that supposed to be an all Denver/Boulder comp. Why wasn’t it ever released?

Unfortunately, my vision was larger than my pocketbook and I was never able to raise the dough to release this. I received some of the greatest demos from bands all over the area and wish I had been able to follow through on that project. It actually took a more decided national turn when I started receiving these amazing demos from bands around the country who were actively seeking to get their music heard in different regions. I had demos from bands like Articles of Faith, The Clitboys, Mortal Micronotz, N.O.T.A, Massacre Guys, Bum Kon, Rhythm Pigs and many more. It was sequenced for LP. The album artwork was done by the guy who designed The Freeze LPs at the time. It was a brilliant collage with Ronald Reagan chained to a toilet and someone hovering over him with a hammer! The title was “I thought I Told You to Shut Up!” My inability to get it released was a huge fail on my part. 

The record that never was. Ad from 'Something Better Change' fanzine. 

My friend and I were watching FM TV or Teletunes one late night and low and behold, a Lepers video appears. We were impressed that a band from Colorado had the technology to make a video. I don’t know why, somehow being young and na├»ve, you assume that music videos could only be made in New York or Los Angeles. Was the video someone’s class project?

I was approached by someone I worked with at Otrona Computers. He also worked part-time with the local TV station. He was fascinated by the whole punk scene and offered to tape the video one evening when we had time. We agreed to do it and, unfortunately, Alan could not make the first taping in the studio. You see that only the other three members were in the first part and we shared singing Alan’s parts. Also, you see me playing guitar on ‘Evil Music’ in the video but on the recording I played a second bass guitar on that song. We taped other segments with Alan in them and added them in. We were as shocked as anyone when the TV station began putting that into major rotation over the Christmas holiday between Michael Jackson and Van Halen! In fact, I got really sick of turning on my TV and seeing it.

How did you find a Jew and an Arab to fight for the video? But more importantly, how did you make that sultry redhead’s snow chains to sound like sleigh bells?
That was all Bill’s idea. He was the creative genius that worked at the TV station. He was using the lyrics in the song to cue up ideas for the video. The dry ice nearly swallowed us alive, it’s hilarious. We had the bells and would use them at our live shows. Bill was determined to get a hot girl in chains in our video. He instructed her to shake them to the sound of the bells.

Black Flag never had sleigh bells. Photograph: Valerie Harris 

Was there a conscious attempt for the cover art on the Lepers records to have a Darwin theme?

Again, this was Laz’s idea I believe. He had a field day with his art ideas and since he was older he had a little more evolved view on things. I was a younger punk so if left to my own devices I probably would have come up with a cover of a punk rocker passed out in his own puke. Hah!

Other punk bands at the time seemed to have a political agenda, the Lepers seemed to be more of a commentary. What did you want to get across with the lyrics?
Laz and Alan were writing all of our lyrics. Laz had played in all kinds of bands throughout his years and had a wealth of experience with all types of scenes. He blended all of this with his newfound love of punk music and it’s independence from everything corporate and it’s platform for protest. He liked to mess with our heads when we young ‘uns got off on our political rant. He was like a father figure who would give you just enough rope to hang yourself.

The band's last 7" ep. 

At one time you mentioned to me that the bassist, Laz passed away, therefore making a Lepers reunion impossible. Have you, ever wanted to play the songs again?

It’s very unfortunate that we lost Laz many years ago and I think it would be impossible to reunite in a manner that would represent the fun and craziness that band was when he was involved. Alan and I played together in different bands before high school and still stay in touch, but we have not pursued anything beyond those few years in Colorado. I am always willing to make music with him, but I doubt we would make much of a Lepers reunion. We are holding out on that million-dollar offer to bring the reunion to Tokyo!

Why did the Lepers stop playing?
The Lepers actually continued playing and recording for a short time after I left in May 1984. I have to say they were damn good as a three piece and there are recordings floating around of that band and some of their live shows they did with Anti-Scrunti Faction and other Boulder punks. I ran off to Austin and became a label tycoon and never really played music much after that. I became absorbed in the business/management side of things and managed The Sound Exchange record store and re-ignited the Unclean label in 1991, releasing over 40 singles, cds and albums.  

The Lepers discography:
Evil Music b/w So We Can Talk 7“ Unclean Records 1983
God’s Inhumane 7” EP Unclean Records 1983
I Wanna Be God 7” EP Unclean Records 1984

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