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Sometimes I want to interview a band but there are roadblocks. There are things that come up that get in the way of doing an interview with a band. Usually these roadblocks are just about misunderstandings, gaps in communication, things like that. I have had trouble tracking down a band, trouble getting them to commit to meeting up or sitting down to answer a lengthy email discussion or phone call. But there are other roadblocks, and some of them are challenging because they are self-created.
In the winter of 2010, I had just started writing and blogging for The Big Takeover that summer and I wanted to write a feature piece on this old Boston band Dangerous Birds. Thalia is one of my favorite female guitar players ever. I obsessively worship her old bands: Uzi, Live Skull and Dangerous Birds. I had wanted to write an article about her for years and finally gotten down ten or twelve pages of questions and ideas. Thanks to using a fantastic new internet website called The Facebook, I was able to find a few band members and emailed them.
I went into the back catalog of Dangerous Birds and it took several months to assemble all of their recorded output. I poured through vinyl record auctions for their obscure compilation appearances, digging deep into both tape trading and Soulseek until I had it all. Dangerous Birds recorded four songs in the early 1980s – those four songs are their entire recorded output. Although there are rumors of an entire LP being recorded and never released, which remain unsubstantiated. There is something very special about this band; they play this lo-fi dreamy punk that has real backbone. The band was four girls – Thalia Zedek on vocals and guitar, Lori Green on keyboards, guitar and vocals, Margery Meadow on bass and Karen Grickas on drums.
Thalia grew up in Washington DC in the midst of their burgeoning punk/art collision. She moved to Boston in 1979 and got involved with the same kind of people. People who were inspired by local bands like Mission Of Burma and Bound and Gagged. Her first step in the new town was joining a band, a short-lived outfit called White Women. I don’t know much about White Women and I’ve only heard one of their songs, this jam called “Midge” on a Boston art rock cassette compilation in 1981 that was put out by Propeller Product Records. It’s a great compilation that also contains songs by Art Yard, People In Stores, Neats, Chinese Girlfriends, Wild Stares and more.
The Propeller Product compilation also has two solo songs from Lori Green, who played in Dangerous Birds. She recorded two songs for this comp including a Gene Pitney cover of “Town Without Pity” where she belts it out like no other. She also has another song, “Fall Into Your World” on the Moulty Records compilation called Boston Underground 1979-1982.
So when White Women folded, Thalia formed her own group, Dangerous Birds. At least that’s what I’ve assumed. I’m not sure of their story and I really wanted to know more – that was what was driving this interview forward.
A lot of people’s exposure to Dangerous Birds came from the Sub Pop 100 record, where “Smile On Your Face” appeared, myself included. When I heard these other songs, the reverb, and the presence – I was floored. I soaked up the fluid songwriting and simple rhythms of this early, unheard girl band and had so many questions. I studied their songs on guitar and on paper: “Catholic Boy” (from Propeller Cassette Comp, 1981), “Alpha Romeo” (from 7”, 1982), “Smile On Your Face” (from 7”, 1982) and “Emergency” (from Laughing At The Ground compilation 7”, 1982). Information on the band was in short supply, and that only drew me closer.
The first step in my interview was to find the members of the band. Which was the easy part. I looked up one of the names on the back of the old records and sure enough found someone that looked and appeared to be a band member. It was dumb luck really – they happened to have a name that is unique enough that it came up instantly. I checked and double-checked the identity of this person before emailing them. She looked like the same girl all right – had the same color hair and the same exact cheekbones.
I contacted her and tried to be nice. I asked if she was a member of Dangerous Birds and let her know I was writing a feature article on the band. I mentioned that I wanted an interview. In fact I asked nicely for an interview.
Dangerous Birds released one single that was produced by a member of Mission of Burma named Martin Swope. I tried contacting him but couldn’t secure a working email. Sometimes that happens. I looked online for more info and discovered a paragraph tucked into the history of Matador Records that kept me up all night.
Dangerous Birds 7” and compilation tracks 1982
On the website for Matador Records, it said that three members of Dangerous Birds had died in the 1983 Korean Airliner disaster. I read and reread the paragraph in disbelief.
“Perhaps following the lead of one-time lover Rick Springfield in 1982, Thalia Zedek made the successful transition from daytime television to rock ‘n’ roll superstardom. Leaving the role of Audra on The Guiding Light to front the overnight pop sensation Dangerous Birds Uzi, whose debut release outsold the Go Go’s that year. Thalia was on top of the world — that is, until tragedy struck in 1983: the Dangerous Birds flew a final time when all its members save Thalia were struck down in the ill-fated Korean Airline disaster. The vocalist/guitarist sought refuge in New York’s shadowy underground, lesbianism and drugs. “It was the darkest point of my life,” she now says of the period during which she hijacked Andy Warhol’s brainchild, Live Skull, and developed her signature sneer and angry bluesy pipes.”
I leaned on my left hand and scrolled onto the bottom of the page. If everyone in the band had died in a plane crash except Thalia, when who was this woman on Facebook who looked exactly like the member and had the same exact name? It seemed unlikely and I wondered why the website would make up something some strange if it wasn’t true. It was time for some punk detective work.
I emailed the woman on Facebook in a hurry and probably didn’t make much sense. I tried to maintain some kind of journalistic integrity and I needed to know that this was not an imposter before I began poking around and asking questions. The idea that it could be true, that this band was destroyed by an act of terrorism also seemed compelling.
Lori Green “Town Without Pity” From the Propeller Product cassette compilation 1981
The next morning I had a late class at the university and as I parked my car I realized that I had about twenty minutes to spare. I wandered into the library and it was quiet enough to comfort my ever-doubting mind. On the gentle carpet I approached the reference librarian and said good morning.
“Say, I’ve got a weird question for you. I’m writing an article and I need some help finding information.” I said as I leaned on the counter.
The librarian was a slender woman who barely smiled back at me.
“Sure. I can help you. What kind of information are you looking for?” She said as she scooted her chair closer to me.
“Well I’m looking for details about the Korean Airline Disaster of 1983. I read about it on Wikipedia but couldn’t find enough details.” I said.
“Oh yeah I remember that. What kind of details were you looking for?” The librarian asked nicely as she stood up and pulled down her mauve skirt.
“Well to be super specific I’m looking for the list of victims – or a passenger list.” I said quickly.
“The flight manifesto perhaps?” She asked as her head tilted to one side.
“Anything that lists the passengers is fine. I’m writing this article and found out that maybe one of my interviewees might have been killed on the flight. Apparently there were some American musicians on board the flight and I just want to confirm that by seeing something in print.” I said as I folded my arms on the return.
The reference librarian began typing into her computer and smiled. “I can help you with that. I’m sure we can find a list of the people on board.” She said. I glanced around the library and was surprised to see it so empty at this time of day. A young skinny girl on crutches hobbled past the librarian’s desk and nodded at us.
The reference librarian stood up again.
“I’ll be right back.” She said quietly.
I stared at the clocks and checked over my notes again and again, trying to envision how I would write this article if all three of the other members were dead. Suddenly the librarian reappeared the large wooden desk and was holding a large photography book in her hand. The page was open to an 8 × 11 color photo of shoes. The right hand side of the page had one small caption at the bottom, it said: “Shoes recovered from the Korean Airline Disaster, 1983.”
She had handed me some oversized photo yearbook, and lo and behold towards the back of the book there was a treasure trove of information about flight 1093. I flipped the pages and read about the flight from New York City to Anchorage Alaska. It was grim. It said that on September 1st, 1983 a Soviet strategic bomber shot down the plane.
The librarian returned to her side of the desk and spun around the monitor of her computer while she pegged away at the keys. She adjusted the monitor one final time and showed me the screen. I glanced at the screen slowly and asked if we could print out the list. She nodded politely and turned to retrieve my pages out of her oversized HP printer.
I poured over the flight list and didn’t see any of their names. I checked again, this time using the country of origin as I scanned through the thin recycled pages. Nothing. Not even close. It hit me like a ton of bricks: I just got trolled from 1983. Someone deliberately lied on the biography of the band, either as a joke or as a way to keep people away. I thought for a moment about this deliberate rouse and how I had fell for it hook, line and sinker. Well, I thought, at least they have a sense of humor. I wondered how I could write the article after this incident and wondered how to broach the topic during my Facebook emails with the bass player. I imagined how that conversation might go.
“Hello. The internet says you’re dead. Are you dead?”
essential Propeller Product releases from the early 1980s
I went on to class and tried to forget about Dangerous Birds. Later that night I pulled out my laptop and starting writing a new email – this time directly to Matador Records. I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I wrote them a nice one:
My name is AJ and I write for The Big Takeover. A few years ago I was doing some research for a feature on Thalia Zedek and I came across Matador’s bio of the band Come.
At the bottom of the page a writer named Shannon Hamann talks about Come’s 11:11 LP. Obviously a lot of material in those 3 paragraphs is completely made up. I’m not sure if the writer was in on the joke or if Thalia and Chris were fucking with him. I know and appreciate Matador’s sense of humor (really I do), but in the interest of not spreading bullshit lies and rumors about your bands (and not looking like a complete asshole), I would like to know where this piece originally appeared. According to the Internet, Shannon passed away a few years ago, so I can’t ask him. The piece is dated Dec 1st, 1992 (if that helps).
During my initial research for my piece, I contacted two people from Dangerous Birds, both of them were shocked and surprised to hear that (according to your website) they perished in the Korean airline disaster in 1983. Perhaps now you see why I’m concerned. I know this is a long shot, but any help is appreciated.
Thanks for your time,
PS – the new Lee Ranaldo record is fucking boss.
A few days later I got a reply from the head of Matador Records.
The piece in question was a biography Shannon was commissioned to write by the label and by Come. Yes, there are long lists of things that are untrue in this biography, but the intent was to entertain rather than spread misinformation. The bio was circulated with advance copies of ‘11:11’.
And yes, Mr. Hamann (who also directed a video for another Matador band, The Shams) is sadly, no longer with us.
Glad you’re digging Lee’s new album
I felt relived that Gerard was so nice about the whole thing; after all, I had no business poking around in some dead lady’s record collection. I guess I felt better that he acknowledge it was a rouse, although part of me couldn’t help but wonder why. In the end, I felt like I had overreached even though I hadn’t. Everyone was still alive and I still could have reached out to them and continued to grovel for an interview, but after getting burned by at the library I decided to shelve the article. It became too much. I got too close to the fire or too far away from it. Something happened that turned off a switch in me.
Suddenly I didn’t want to bother Thalia Zedek. I wasn’t butt hurt; I guess I just was taken by surprise in a new way that surprised me. Music journalism hadn’t prepared me to be fooled, to be thwarted by my own naïve approach.
I stared at the photo of the shoes that the librarian had printed out for me, the real shoes of real dead people and I put it at the bottom of my inbox. It sat there for almost two years, it forbade me from giving up on loose ends. It reminded me that I don’t necessarily want to meet all of my musical heroes nor do I want to ruin their day by asking them personal questions.
But let’s be honest here – just because you ask somebody for an interview doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. Don’t think for a minute that I hold any clout or that any famous person wants to talk to me or you. Because they don’t. Seriously. Famous people (even semi-famous people) do not want to suffer fools (even minor fools). Interviewers, bloggers, internet geeks and critics seem to fall into this category too easily. Occasionally people are weird about interviews. For some bands the circumstances have to be perfect in order for them to talk with me. They need a platform that works for them, one that doesn’t make them hesitant or uncomfortable.
Asking someone for an interview can be an intimate thing, and depending on who that person is and how far in their career that they’ve reached – it’s very possible that they might not want to do any interviews at all. But who can blame them, really? A few months ago I saw a YouTube interview with Paul Westerberg that my friend emailed to me and we laughed hysterically about it. Paul looked embarrassed. The interviewer didn’t even know who Paul was. It was obvious from the reporters’ lack of relevant questions that they didn’t even care who he was.
I guess that’s to my point – the kind of person who has access to Paul Westerberg is not necessarily the kind of person who’s going to ask him any mind-blowing questions.
Sometimes you ask people for and interview and they say no. When people say no to our request or reject us, we are told not to take it personally, but it’s hard not to. But rejection is old news to me. When I was writing my own zines and playing in bands I had experienced all kinds of rejection at the hands of critics just as any creative person does when they are starting out. That’s part of the deal when you present your work to the public. I’ve been rejected by bands who don’t want to work with me and that’s fine. I try not to lose sleep over it because at some point you either get so butt hurt by criticism that you stop writing or you learn to ignore the personal side of those types of critiques. Critiques of your work are not critiques of your personal life and they shouldn’t be the measuring stick we use when we sit back and self-evaluate ourselves.
Plus, some musicians are just secretive dudes and ladies, and they don’t want their beans spilled out all over the place by some halfwit. Some bands can be really nice about declining an interview, although that is usually the exception to the rule. I have noticed that sorta-famous people, the ones walking that line between “recognized on the street” and “who is that guy” are the most delicate members of the group.
A lot of these people value their privacy over their career and simply resign to you under whatever persona they have crafted. It is my job as the interviewer to crack through this outer shell and see what leaks out. The process of interviewing can be extremely rewarding for the interviewee. Sometimes I wish I could find a way to tell them this, but it’s harder than it seems.
Unfortunately I’m not articulate enough to explain how or why but when you talk or write about your thoughts, something happens. Spelling it out makes you think about it in new ways. Putting it down changes it. Writing out your thoughts creates a permanent connection to them in a different storage area in your brain, one that (sometimes) helps you understand yourself better.
I’ve been turned down for interviews by Mogwai, Black Flag, Paul Westerberg and John Stabb and plenty of others. But that’s not all: I overslept through my Alice Bag interview at a book signing. I totally failed at my attempt to secure an interview with Avengers singer Penelope Houston at her spoken word at MCA Denver a few years ago.
So I never finished the interview with Dangerous Birds because I couldn’t get over the hurdle they had presented me. Like Kenny Rogers says, “You have to know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” The whole incident said something. It said “stay away” and so I did.
Meanwhile, the whole thing has become a learning experience in regards to believing things on the internet and double checking facts. I’m still learning how to be a better interviewer. I want to interview the people who are kind enough and open-minded enough to let me interview them. The ones who aren’t afraid of their own various shortcomings and failures, the ones who don’t have to invent their own history in third person.