Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Oi! Uberfall-Denver's controversial punk band.

“We are united” was Uberfall’s rallying call for scene unity. The members of the band seemed to have links to all aspects of the scene from skinheads, to punks, to goths and even befriending artists and experimental musicians. The reach of their friendships and connections were vast and varied.

Once the group formed, it was impossible to get away from noting the band’s kin to a swastika logo spray painted in alleyways and dumpsters around the Capitol Hill neighborhood and beyond. Uberfall was even a household name amongst detectives within the Denver Police Department as I learned firsthand sitting in the back of an unmarked car along with two friends being questioned about the so-called Uberfall gang. To read about the incident click HERE. The band certainly found themselves in many spotlights. 

Musically, the group’s niche was stop on a dime crisp sing-alongs. That didn’t keep the band from experimenting with slow dergy and sometimes noisy tunes. Uberfall recorded a 10-song demo that never saw the light of day due to a lack of funds for a properly release. Plus the continuous line-up changes plagued the band since the group’s inception. One of the running jokes was, “Raise your hand if you’ve never been in Uberfall.”

Uberfall was more than a one-liner. The depths of their sideline controversies and shenanigans were largely disconnected from their music. One of the misconceptions was that they were merely a band, when in fact the group’s in-your-face guerrilla art tactics generated strong reactions from the public and authority figures. Big John and Flye were basically the visionaries of the band. Eventually one strong personality inched out the other and everything downward spiraled from there. All the ingredients were there to create a legacy, but the band couldn’t maintain their charismatic mojo that made them a momentary sensation. Big John, Flye along with Carl shed some insights to the inner working of what it was like to be in Uberfall.

An early line-up of the band. Original photograph from DMT fanzine. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina)
Your origins?
Big John: I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  I was part of Wyoming’s first hardcore punk rock band, Spontaneous Down Syndrome. We played our first gig in Colorado at a nice place. They had a deli tray and beer waiting for us. We were really impressed. They called us and asked us to come down and play, we were like, “Sure.” Then they asked if we wanted anything special. So we said, a 12-pack of good imported beer and deli tray with an assortment of meats and cheeses. When we arrived at the show, they took us into the back and pointed us to our dressing room, “The beer is in the fridge over there!” I looked over at Paul Howard and said, "Oh my God, they were being serious." I think that's the night I met Pete Flye and we started hanging out. Anytime we'd play Denver I'd stay over at Flye's house. Paul had other friends in Denver he stayed with. That's how we got Uberfall going. I didn't want to live in Cheyenne anymore. The town was really boring in comparison with the scene in Denver. We played about 5-6 gigs in Denver before I finally moved.

How did you get into punk being in Wyoming?
Big John: My parents got a separation and my mom and I moved into an apartment. One day I'm in the apartment and hear music coming from the next-door neighbor. It sounded really cool and I liked it. I wasn't shy at all, I put down the book I was reading and walked over to the neighbor’s house and knocked on his door. He opened it and I said, "Wow, what kind of music is that?" He said, "Punk rock." This guy was an English teacher at the high school I was going to. So the guy who would later become my teacher introduced me to punk rock. At that point I had been mostly listening to the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop.

And you Flye?
Flye: I got a scholarship to a private school and that is where I met Carl. I started going there in the 4th grade. Carl and I started hanging before I got kicked out in the 8th grade. I didn’t do well academically plus I wanted to grow out my hair, which they didn’t allow. So we had a special meeting during which I told them art and music shouldn’t be mandatory classes. I eventually went to vocational school and Carl also went there. At the time he had turned me on to Bad Religion, Circle Jerks… I met the skins because of little Sammy who went to the same school. I befriended Sumo at Wax Trax, he was the guy that didn’t have any attitude. He would always give me fliers trying to get me to go to shows. I had wide spectrum of friends.

I went to school with the original bassist, Mike Lee. Since he knew I was taking art classes, I think by default asked me to design a sticker for the band. While I was in Biology class trying to draw the perfect skull with the Uberfall logo on the forehead, my teacher, an Orthodox Jew walked past my desk and kindly asked me not to draw what she thought resembled a swastika. Would you consider the band’s logo as a way to stir the pot, to make people feel uneasy?

Big John: The name came about because our drummer Matt Johnson had a party one night. We were trying to think of a name for our band and Matt grabbed a German dictionary and said, "I'm just going to randomly open a page and the first word I put my finger on will be our band name.” Flye and I thought, "Ok, that sounds cool." He opened it up, spun his finger around and put it down in the word, uberfall. When we saw the definition, “to overthrow” we collectively thought, “That’s cool!” Out of that we were trying to make a logo, and the U and the F together looked kind of like a swastika and thought it was pretty hilarious. We went ahead with that. It was meant to be a red herring, make people think one thing then have it mean something totally different.

Flye: The logo definitely served its purpose. You want a symbol that draws attention and demands an explanation. Something easy to draw on a school desk, spray paint on a wall or paint on a jacket. Most of all, with punk rock, you need controversy. Look at bands like Dead it's almost a household name. It’s very offensive. Same thing with their many kids had that logo on their jackets and couldn't name one DK album? The UF logo may have been somewhat of a joke, but I considered it more of a promotional gimmick.

Uberfall art. Unknown. Courtesy of Pete Flye
Did you get a lot of shit for that?
Big John: We got tons of shit for that! Anytime we had our jackets with our logo painted on them people would get so mad. It was great for us-we loved for people to get mad; it was attention. I know it got the local police a little worried. I thought that was just awesome.

Did they think you were some sort of gang?
Big John: Yeah, they thought we were some type of underground neo-Nazi punk gang. Then the whole Christian’s thing happened. Christian and Omar took over a space on Larimer Street, which they appropriately called Christian's. It was basically a commune with a bunch of artists, punk rockers, and weirdoes living there. The brothers had been separated from their parents when they were young and put into a home for boys where they were mistreated by the staff. The staff would tell them stuff like, "You know you need some new sheets for you bed since they are really dirty and maybe you'd like another blanket, but we don't feel good giving that to you unless you tell us something really private about your lives." The brothers would tell them things and then they would use those things to keep them in the home instead of finding them a place to live outside of the system.

There was an former military guy living at Christian’s and knew how to make bombs and stuff like that. He left brochures and pipe bomb making materials outside everyone's door one day. Christian and Omar got into making them. Omar sent one to the head of the program that he and his brother had basically been trapped in when they were kids. It was suppose to detonate when she opened the package, but it didn't. They found out the Federal Postal Inspector and the FBI was looking for them so they disappeared. Nobody knew the pair’s whereabouts. They were good about not telling anybody. Since they couldn't find them, they decided to investigate all of us. That's when the government came up with the gay neo-Nazi conspiracy theory and linked Uberfall to it.

Gay neo-Nazi conspiracy theory?
Big John: They knew Christian was gay so they just threw the rest in there. They thought that Uberfall was some sort of organized neo-Nazi recruiting arm of something larger. I don't know what they thought, but they figured we were a part of it. Their one-way window vans were parked out in front of Christian’s and in the parking lot behind it. I remember when I had to go in and talk with the FBI and the Federal Postal Inspector. There was this camera image of Mike Lee on the back bumper of one of the vans shaking it. They were, "You know this illegal, and this is considered interfering with an investigation." I said, "Mike just thought it was a random person's van, he didn't know it was the FBI. “You're in such secret vans, how could we know you guys were the Feds?" One of them tells me, "You're a real smartass."

Some of this came out in Westword, the article was titled: Pipe Dreams.
Big John: A lot of it did come out. You know, the Feds even had our phones tapped. We'd make-up fake conversations pretending to know were Christian was, stuff like, "He's in Hawaii now" The FBI would later interview somebody else and say, "We know that Christian is in Hawaii, which island is he living on?" We were passing around bogus information; it was pretty funny.

What happened to Omar and Christian?
Big John: Well, they both got caught and went to prison for a long time. I don't recall the outcome after that.

They were born to be institutionalized-from a home for boys to prison?
Big John: It's sad. They were both really nice guys. I just think the system fucked them up.

Flye on the cover Rocky Mountain News Sunday Magazine. Collection of the author. 
Do you also think the attention you got from the police was partially due to all the band's logos painted everywhere?
Big John: It was. We'd make little propaganda fliers and randomly put them up in different places around town that would say stuff like: The time for the revolution is now. We did stuff just to fuck with people and authority. We knew they were watching, so we wanted to give them something to do.

They should be out there fighting crime instead of chasing a bunch of punk rockers wasting taxpayer’s money.
Big John: I was into graphic art before I knew it was called that. It was like a little hobby making propaganda fliers. I would only make 10 or 15 and take spray adhesive and put them up in different parts of town in places like Cherry Creek.

Did the attention help popularize and propel the band?
Big John: Definitely. It was band propaganda for sure. The more shit we could stir the more people were interested.

At what point did you finally stop playing in Uberfall?
Big John: I thought about why I left Uberfall…then went, “Oh, yeah” and remembered the band having different people in it all the time. It was a revolving door of members. It wasn't even the same band anymore. Towards the end when I left it was like 5 months of different people. It was just Flye and I.

I left shortly after I joined Idiots Revenge. I was also doing my project Control Corporation, which was techno/electric stuff. We had those lovely samplers and stuff like that. That was mainly my project and sometimes Scott Hosterman would join along. We really didn't play out as a band more than once. I also did this industrial project with Flye and a couple of other people. It was basically this percussion thing with found objects from around the Packing House. We thought making sound with the objects would be interesting and it was.

Carl: I honestly don’t remember leaving the band. The place where we were practicing got sold or the renters got evicted and it took me like 2 months to get my drums back. As I recall that time was kind of a hiatus for UberFall. I was going to this Shamanic church at the time, and I got Mike Lee involved and he disappeared for like two weeks on some crazy camping spirit quest. Those are the last things I remember about my time with the band.

Flier collection of Pete Flye. 
Denver was a hotbed for experimental music, My theory is I think underground music in Denver had an art element to it because early punk shows happened in spaces like the Pirate Art Gallery, and later the Art Department, Flash Flood Art Space, The Core…beside people in Colorado were somewhat isolated from the coasts and didn’t have any sort of templates to follow. Do you think there was a strong relationship or a correlation between the two?
Big John: I really think there was. I met Bert Bodnen, Hugh Caney and Paul Dickerson at Christian’s and really got along with those guys and they started introducing me to industrial music. I was over at Kelly Cowan’s house and I picked up one of his records and asked him about it? He said I wouldn't like it. I said, "It looks really interesting, would you play it for me?"  It was SPK. I liked it. He was shocked and asked if I wanted to listen to other stuff. And I was, "Yeah." It was through meeting them how I became involved with industrial/experimental music.

What was the relationship between punk/hardcore/industrial music in Denver at that time?
Big John: Those guys were interested in the punk scene because it was underground. I think though that they met other people. They had access to people putting on shows, like Headbanger.

I remember asking Mike Lee what he was doing one evening, and he said we're having a band meeting with our manager? That sort of caught me off guard. At the time, I didn't think local punk bands had managers. Managers seemed anti-punk in a way. He described it to me that all the members sat around and talked about stuff. I guess in today's terminology, it sounded like you guys had group therapy with a life coach (LAUGHTER)...I don't know, maybe because the band was a revolving door of band members. Perhaps Big John and Pete Flye were just difficult people to be in a band with and you needed that mediator to make sure the band got along.
Big John: Was Carl Frank one of our drummers?

He was the drummer on the band's demo!
Big John: Oh, now I remember Carl. We had gone through so many drummers. It was like that mockumentary Spinal Tap. We had a manager. We met these two guys from Nederland, CO: Dan Lockridge and Robert Hall. They were fun to hang out with and both had a lot of money. When we met Dan he was talking about wanting to manage and record bands. When he said "record" Flye and I both looked at each other and asked Dan if he wanted to be our manager. He casually said, “Yeah, ok." That's how we got into the studio. It was great because we didn't have to look for shows anymore, he just found them for us.

Flye: Dan also opened Flash Flood Art Space. We helped him clean-up the place and made it so bands could play gigs in there. As for Uberfall playing shows, a lot of times we would throw our guitars into a car and show up to gigs and ask if we could play. Maybe borrow another band’s drum set and amps. Sometimes Dan would slightly manipulate other bands into letting us borrow their equipment. That’s what happened at the Flash Flood show that Nate mentioned in his interview. We weren’t on the bill and while everyone waited for Bum Kon to play, we got on stage and did a couple of songs. We probably played a 10-minute version of Sex and Violence.  

Carl: I got to record with UF on this session and it was a really good time. We were recording at Barking Spider in Boulder and staying with the band’s manager in Nederland. We talked about releasing it, but I think I had moved on before that came to fruition. I don’t think anyone had money at the time for duplication and artwork.

Flier collection of the author.
Uberfall's first show was my band's first show too, at the Packing House. We opened, but you guys already had a fan base, so you went on 4th or 5th. I think you blazed through your set and people wanted more. So you played Oi! Uberfall twice.
Big John: We thought the 10 songs would be enough. When you're playing everything speeds up. The three-minute songs turn into a minute and twenty second song. As for people coming to see us that night, it was Pete Flye’s doing. He was a kid that people liked. He was super social and got out there told people about coming to see his band.

Flye: One of my main objectives was scene unity.  Not only did I really like the Oi! sound, but I really loved the early L.A. stuff and the whole D.C. movement. We tried to incorporate these influences to draw a wide fan base. We also tried to book shows with bands with different followings and sounds, not only did this draw a diverse crowd but it allowed people to hear us and other bands that normally wouldn't. I loved playing shows with Mau Mau 55, Human Head Transplant, A.S.F. etc. 

In the beginning, Uberfall was more punk than Oi!  Your look and Oi! sound didn’t develop until later. It seemed that the band was hitting its stride both in image and music. Describe that time.
Flye: We all pretty much had or hands in the mix when we made songs. Sometimes I would show up with some lyrics and John or Mike would come up with a melody. There were times John would show up to practice with a whole song. "Oi! Uberfall" started out as a bass riff Mike came up with and I wrote the lyrics. Carl would always have good input on tempo and structure of songs. As the band slowly disintegrated I was leaning towards the Oi! sound and was looking for members to fill that genre...that was my big mistake, looking for members to fit the mold instead of letting members mold the band like we did in the early days.

It was difficult to find a practice space especially since we had problems keeping members. We shared a practice space with H.H.T. on 11th and Broadway above a beauty salon. Later in the band’s career I told a guy he could be our manager because his mom or aunt let us practice in their basement.

The name, logo, the charisma of the band members seemed to be the initial success of the band. Uberfall seemed like that band that had potential to go far, but it never did.
Big John: What happened to us is we...certain people in the band started taking it too seriously and started to show a lot of ego. Every time we had good band members, an argument would happen and they would quit. And we had to go back looking for replacements. With every new batch of people they progressively were less talented. I think what we had when we first started was great with a lot of potential. Even after the 2nd or 3rd generation still had the potential but it just got worse.

The more Oi! version of Uberfall. Original photograph unknown. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina)
I hear you on that. I know by 1986, Flye even recruited me to play in the band and we went over to some death rock guy's house. He was decked out in his black clothes and white make-up. After trying him out, Flye and I get back into the car and earnestly asked me what I thought. It was hard to imagine that guy playing those songs. To me there were always two different Uberfall bands. At the beginning there was the casual, come as you are, let’s have some fun and spray paint our logo around town, type of band. Then there was the later period Oi!/street punk looking guys Pete had recruited that were good as well, but the band couldn’t maintain the momentum. The band eventually took a dip and seemed to be trying out anyone who had a car and equipment. I understand wanting to keep a band on life support, but in retrospect I think Flye should have taken his talent and done something different.
Big John: It just got way to serious. I think in our punk scene, the more fun you had, the more successful you were. Sure, you did your practices and tried to become better, but the main thing was just to have fun.

Like the Lisa Geyer song, Bad Girl?
Big John: That was just fucking with Lisa.

Flye: She wanted that song dedicated to her and always asked us to play it for her. That’s why we put that song on the demo. Come to think of it, the music from that song was from of Big John’s old bands. I think he might have done that with several of our songs.

Yeah, when John joined my band, Idiots Revenge he would say such and such part was from one of his old bands. We even took an old Uberfall song, played it backwards at a slow tempo. John was a master at recycling melodies.
Flye: (Laughter). Yup.

John, one of the interesting aspects about your personality is that you are a cross between a conceptual and performance artist in that you come up with these ideas and you try to see how far you can get away with things. Even when you played in Idiots Revenge we had that song ‘Not My Fault’ and you would target Anarchy Annie, and the A.S.F. girls, who in turn thought we were a sexist band. We totally weren't!

Big John: You’re right we weren't, that's what was funny. I remember being at a party and Annie came up to me and said, "Why are you guys such dicks, why do you have to be such a dick? And I said, "Why are you even saying this to me?" And she goes, "Your music, you're just nasty sexist dicks" Finally, I go, "You take our music seriously? Can't you tell when somebody is poking fun at you, we don't really want to make anyone angry, we're just teasing." I'm not going to be singing, “Stop your bitchin' and get back in the kitchen” and be serious about it. I'm not a caveman. So she finally understands it's a joke. After that conversation they all liked us. I like to push the envelope and do little pokes at people and see the reaction. I never mean any harm. It's more along the lines of, “Lets see what they do if I do this.”

Burn any bridges with this approach?
Big John: I think it's about a 50/50 deal. I burnt some and made others stronger.

After making the demo did you want to make a record and go out on the road?
Big John: We were hoping to put out a record and there was some interest. I don't know what happened to that. Dan was actually a good manager and he grilled the label with questions and told us that we wouldn't have been happy with the deal and we would get screwed in the end. In retrospect being screwed wouldn't have been that bad if it got our record out. (Laughter) I don't know, we had our principles back then. We did play out of town like Boulder, Ft. Collins, and Greely...a poorly attended show.

In the interview I did with Ted of Dead Silence, I asked him what went down between his band and Uberfall. What was your version of that?
Flye: I think the interview you did with Ted was the first time I heard about Kevin referring to me as a Polish Nazi. Dead Silence was putting on a benefit one time and we reached out and offered to play. They didn’t want bands playing they thought would bring out the skins. In the true Oi! fashion, like on the Oi! compilation albums John wrote a poem about that incident then we wrote a song called Dead Silence. At shows, John would read the poem before going on into the song. One of the lines in the song goes, “Waited for a call but all we got was dead silence." We had fun like that.  

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