Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Johnny Meggitt and Sumo talk: Child Abuse, Brother Rat, Dogbite...

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Somehow it’s appropriate to combine my interviews with Johnny Meggitt and Steve “Sumo” Shiramizu into one post. The duo had been inseparable from the mid-80’s to the early 90’s playing together in numerous manifestations: Brother Rat, Dogbite, Rope, and El Espectro. I was fortunate enough to talk Dogbite into letting me use one of their cuts, Verge of Nothing for my final Donut Crew compilation: Colorado Krew III-This Is My Donut. The record captured a good cross-section of the old guard and the new bands of Denver’s underground scene at the time.

I had completely missed Johnny’s first band, Child Abuse who disbanded in mid-83. The group was well documented through the band’s ad hoc photographer and den mother, Nancy Kennedy. Child Abuse practiced in the basement of Nancy’s house on Fillmore St., the cradle of Denver’s blossoming hardcore scene and local punk hang out. Nancy’s stake in the matter was creating a space for her son, Tom, the guitarist of the band to encourage his musical enterprises. Between Tom’s high leaps and Johnny’s close to the ground stage antics, the band haphazardly thrashed through their sets opening for national touring acts such as the Misfits. The four-some laid the foundation for what I would describe as the East High/Fillmore cartel that would go on to shape Denver’s underground music scene for the reminder of the 80’s and beyond. It should be noted that Tom’s contributions with Johnny and Steve continued with both Brother Rat and Dogbite.

I did catch Meggitt during his short-lived stint as the front man in Acid Ranch at Kennedy’s in 84. Acid Ranch was a radical departure from want most Denver bands were playing at the time infusing a hybrid of a cow-punk-jazzy sound. Tom joined up with Steve (ex-Signal 30) drummer and formed the slower and heavier, Legion of Doom. This was typical of members from the first wave of hardcore bands to switch members and venture off in new musical direction as most had run their course playing loud and stop-on-dime songs. This sort of experimentation and rendition of musical chairs typified the heyday of Kennedy’s Warehouse.

While my band, Idiots Revenge was grooving on the punk thing and trying to figure out our instruments. Promoter, Mike Brew threw us on the opening slot for Brother Rat at the Grove in 85. We definitely felt the heat trying to make it from one song to the next. The five-piece Brothers took the stage with their brand of rock and had the crowd shaking their stuff. As consolation, Steve and Johnny were both encouraging and didn’t belittle our efforts. That’s the kind of guys they were. 

I knew Johnny and Steve more from their jobs as clerks behind the counter at Wax Trax. Both had varied tastes in music and were always willing to recommend what was playing on their turntables at the time. Despite Johnny’s flip of the switch theatrical stage persona and charisma he was typically reserved and laid back when he was away from the spotlight. On the other hand, Steve was always adventurous and up for whatever flew in his direction. Steve even sold me a bass rig when when he was hocking drums at Rupps.   

I caught Steve early on with questions before splitting Facebook’s black hole. Duane Davis co-owner of Wax Trax wished me good luck on finding Johnny. My gratitude goes to Bob McDonald for putting me in touch with him. Below, their shared experiences in the Denver scene. 

Part I: In Sumo’s words.
You grew up in Denver at the time when there wasn’t much diversity. I was called all sorts of names like Chico gone-fatso, Rodriguez, and so on because of my Mexican-American background. You went by the name Sumo at one time, did you think it had any racist leanings?

I'm not sure who branded me with that nickname. People still call me that today. Its funny because a friend of mine was telling me a story about his kid and how his kid thought that it was racist. I'm not sure if I agree. I don't think the connection to a Sumo wrestler is racist. I'm Japanese and I'm large.  Sumo wrestlers are Japanese and large. When I had long hair I used to get mistaken for being Native American. Sometimes people would call me "Chief" That I found to be racist.

Signal 30 at the Packing House. Photograph unknown. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob Medina. 
Letter collection of Tom Headbanger. 
Prior to playing in Legion Of Doom, did you have another band? Were you the youngest member?
The first band I was in was called Signal 30. We disbanded suddenly and I ended up in Legion of Doom. There was another L.O.D., Legion of Death that came along after. They were a speed metal band. I was the youngest in pretty much every band I was in until I was in my 30's.
I read in an interview where Legion of Doom wanted to open for AC/DC, was that the direction you saw punk heading in?

No. We probably wanted to open up for AC/DC because they were/are awesome. I don't even remember doing any interviews in that band.  

It seemed like a lot of bands that formed in 81-82 were changing musical directions, maybe learning their instruments, slowing down the pace. Bands like Black Flag, SSD, Necros seemed to be embracing their hard rock roots. Do you think L.O.D. was trying to do that?

I don't know that we would have really known about any musical trends.  We were just into playing music and having fun. 

Legion of Doom at Kennedy's Warehouse. Photograph by Jana Butera. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina).
Did you ever notice a shift in the scene? If so, when do you think that was and what do you think caused it?
The biggest shift I noticed was the crossover between Metal and Hardcore. That brought in a lot of new faces at shows and everyone started to grow their hair -myself included.

Violence at shows in Denver: generational, racism, drugs, what factors did you think contributed to it?
I think that the potential for violence can occur when you have a bunch of people who see each other repeatedly over time. Some of them may learn that they don't like each other much or they get on each other's nerves. Shit is bound to occur at some point especially when you dealing with teenage kids. 
Of all the old clubs, which one(s) are you sentimental about if any?
Oh man, so many places.  The Turnverein, Packing House, the Taste of Denver and Kennedy's have so many memories of seeing great bands. 

My first band, Idiots Revenge opened for Brother Rat at the Grove in 85, I was stoked because we were playing with the older people in the scene. Do you feel that there was a generation gap at the time? What was direction Brother Rat was going for, I remember the band being a lot different than L.O.D.

I was the drummer so I wasn't really that involved in the musical direction. Brother Rat had so many musical elements. It was really a great marriage of so many styles. Larry Denning was one of the best guitar players around and he had such a great musical style. He could play pretty much anything. Tom Kennedy was so energetic on stage and he wrote so many great riffs. He was so much fun to be in a band with. Michael Anderson was the elder statesman in the band as he was in Dogmeat. He probably had a lot to do with the musical direction/organization of everyone. Then of course there was Johnny Meggitt. He is a great friend and was an awesome front man. He had a magnetic personality and brought so many people to come and see us. His stage presence drew people in and he put everything into his performance.  

Flier courtesy of Trash Is Truth
Was there a time when playing shows wasn’t fun anymore? Did you ever feel burned out my music?
In my opinion, playing out started to go downhill when we went into bars and started playing to over 21 crowds. It probably also had something to do with growing up as well. I haven't been nearly as passionate about music since the late 80's or very early 90s. I tend to cling to the music I loved when I was 14-20. I was so stoked to see the Stooges and Flag at Riot Fest last year. Seeing the Descendents this year was also rad also. I can't keep up with all these new bands. I think I was old before my time. 

Part II: Meggitt’s speaks.

I was talking with Larry from Trash Is Truth about the early origins of Denver thrash/hardcore and he had this theory that perhaps several kids went to the showing of the movie, Decline of the Western Civilization and walked out wanting to start a band. Did you and your friend catch that film?

Decline was a turning point for sure, I was already getting into punk but that was the first experience I had with hardcore. Child Abuse was just a natural step for us. Unlike the mainstream at the time, punk rock really felt like something we could participate in on many levels. Being in a band was just a further expression of our frustration with American culture at the time. Ronald Reagan and the whole return to the 50’s thing. Oh and yuppies, remember them?

Child Abuse at Slovenian Hall. Photograph by Joe Hughes. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina). 
Mike Serviolo described Child Abuse’s sound akin to the Germs, what do you think he meant by that? What was your take?

Early Germs? I can see that. I really didn’t sing, mostly just rolled around and growled. I think the band was Tom Kennedy’s idea, he was a very creative thinker. I just went along because it felt natural and I had some teen angst to exercise.

I was at Nancy Kennedy’s house scanning some of her old photographs. Looking at the Child Abuse band practice shots, you always appeared to be a 100% committed in delivery. I would go as far as to say that you took your vocal duties to a theatrical level. Was that conscious or more of a logical expression of the music?

I figured that if I couldn’t hit any notes I might as well express myself the best I could. I had to transcend on some level just to get my nerve up, but really it was mostly nervous energy.

Why did Child Abuse end?

I can’t remember. It wasn’t a big deal at the time.

Flier courtesy of Tom Headbanger.
Several people have mentioned that you were part of a very tight-knit scene, meaning the East High kids. When Child Abuse ended it seemed like you took a break until Brother Rat formed, were you waiting for the right moment to join another band.

Being in a band was always a hobby for me, so much fun writing lyrics and hanging out with the players. I was recently kicked-out of a band and Brother Rat came along. What a fun group! Steve Shiramizo is such a great person and great drummer. Tom Kennedy also, top-shelf, just so much fun to be around and play music with.

By the time I had my band going, one of our earlier shows was opening for Brother Rat at the Grove and I remember watching and thinking how together that band sounded. At the time I didn’t realize we were playing with a super-group of sorts, but it seemed like the band had its’ eye on trying to make it as band. Did you ever feel that way? I say that because of the band photos you took. The images spoke of trying to stretch beyond being a group of post-punk kids and move towards establishing something that might be considered a Denver sound.

I think we were trying to rock more. It seemed silly to play hardcore forever…oh shit, I hope Joey Shithead doesn’t read this!

Did you think Brother Rat and Acid Ranch was part of that early Denver sound? Do you think there was a Denver sound?

To me there’s a Denver sound, It’s Frantix, White Trash, Bum Kon. I wasn’t in those bands. Acid Ranch’s sound was developed by the musicians: Andy Monley, Chris Steele, and Jeff Ross (talk about all-stars). Brother Rat was also developed before I entered the picture but the two were very different.

In an interview you stated that music is basically anything? What do you mean by that?

I don’t recall that, maybe it referred to industrial music or perhaps I was high.

Was the Denver scene unique?

I really don’t have anything to compare it to. It was very special for sure. There was this electricity in the air; we were all discovering so much great music and so many new ideas. I learned so much about art and life in the early eighties. Thanks Nancy!

So the scene was special when you first became involved? 

It was so exciting, like a first kiss.

In retrospect do you wish you better documented the bands that you played in?

Just Child Abuse-that would be really great to hear again. Tom Kennedy and I came up with some great lyrics and Jason Smith was a little beast behind the kit.

I always remember you from working at Wax Trax and having a very open mind about the music you listened to, was that how you found yourself getting into punk?

Punk saved my adolescents, By the time I was 14 I was getting so bored with rock and roll. How many Stones records can you listen to until you just want to throw up? Something had to give.

Did you feel that were some prejudices in the scene if you had an open mind and listened to anything beyond punk?

In the crowd I ran with we just listened to music so I didn’t really feel that.

What sort of changes did you witness in the scene as it developed? What did you like and didn’t like?

It was all really great except the violence.

At some point you moved from Denver, why?

There was nothing left for me to do there, I was burnt out and doing way too many substances. I needed to challenge myself. I’m so glad I did, it took a while, but San Francisco is really good right now.
Johnny Meggitt. Photograph Kristian Baehre. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina).
Duane Davis wished me luck in contacting you for an interview, what do you think he meant by that?

Ha, he still knows me pretty well! I’m a private person these days, married with cats. I rarely even do social media. I have a small group of friends here and I work and I paint. I never correspond with anyone from the old days. I’m doing a pop-up show with my wife and Bob McDonald and his wife. I do mostly stripped down landscapes and subjects that I collage in paint.

What does punk mean to you?  

Fuck the politically minded, here's something I want to say,
About the state of nation, the way it treats us today.
At school they give you shit, drop you in the pit,
You try, you try, you try to get out, but you can't because they've fucked you about.
Then you're a prime example of how they must not be,
This is just a sample of what they've done to you and me.

Do they owe us a living?
Of course they do, of course they do.
Owe us a living?
Of course they do, of course they do.
Owe us a living?
Of course they fucking do!

Brother Rat. Photograph by Nancy Kennedy. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina).

1 comment:

  1. Great memories. I grew up with Johnny, Tom, Jason, Mike and Chris. Was even in Child Abuse briefly, but chickened out just before the first show. Spent the next couple years as a roadie for their bands.