Memphian Alicja Trout is committed to rock’n’roll. Over the past fifteen years, she has run a label and mailorder (Contaminated), played in some great bands (Lost Sounds, Clears, River City Tanlines), created cover art for records (The Clears’ self-titled LP), recorded groups (The Reigning Sound) and booked shows (Electric Rat).
But it’s Alicja’s quality control that makes her output so impressive. Alicja seemingly has the Midas touch coupled with a Billy Childish-like work ethic. With an indefatigable spirit and belief in herself—two attributes necessary for creating music on the margins—Alicja continues to impress and inspire. Now a mother, Trout appears to be as busy as ever. (We had to move our interview up a day because she had to record a band on the originally scheduled date.) Alicja’s currently finishing up a River City Tanlines record and working on solo material for her Alicja-Pop and Black Sunday projects.
(Note: The following is comprised of unused excerpts from an Alicja Trout interview scheduled to run in issue #50 of Roctober.)
Hear two songs from the upcoming River City Tanlines full- length:
Ryan: The first Lost Sounds single came out on an Italian label (Solid Sex Lovie Doll). Back in the early 2000s, a lot of European labels were releasing records by Memphis bands before their American counterparts picked up on them.
Alicja: Yeah. I think a lot of it had to do with what Eric (Friedl) was doing with Goner Records. He got an international thing going. Eric released a Guitar Wolf LP (1993’s Wolf Rock!), which might have been the label’s first full-length release. He released some Oblivians singles right around the same time. There was something about Eric—maybe being on the phone or writing letters—he was making contacts with people where they hadn’t been made before.
Ryan: With all the Goner Fests and the label’s releases and storefront, Goner has become such a focal point for bands and fans of punk and garage rock.
Alicja: Right. Goner probably brought the interest of the more obscure countries and record labels to Memphis and its music scene.
Ryan: In the late ‘90s you were playing in Mouserocket and had started The Lost Sounds. Can you work out that timeline for me?
Alicja: The Clears (Alicja’s first band) lasted about a year. We were around in ‘97 and ‘98. I liked the music we were playing. Others did too. But it really wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I was into the more rock’n’roll bands.
Ryan: Less Kraftwerk.
Alicja: I wasn’t into Kraftwerk. I only found out about that stuff (krautrock) because everyone kept referencing our band to it. The look that we came up with for The Clears was really us being silly and dressing up robotic. We’d go into the hootchie momma stores in the mall and buy shiny plastic clothes off the close-out racks. We really weren’t trying to imitate Kraftwerk or Devo. One of the guys in the band just happened to have a ton of analog keyboards. We were a pop band that made recordings on a 4-track recorder.
I met Jay (Reatard) when he started The Reatards. He was about fifteen or sixteen years old. He was out and about town. I’d catch The Reatards. Jay and I became acquaintances. I was ten years older than Jay; he was younger than everybody else. I can’t remember exactly how The Lost Sounds formed, but when we finally did (1999), Jay and I had become friends. Jay played briefly in a band I had with one girl called Ultracats (1997) and we added him and a bass player in ‘98.We were doing sort of what the Detroit Cobras were doing, without knowing who the Detroit Cobras were. [laughs] We covered old songs—kind of gave them The Ramones treatment.
Jay went on a European tour with The Reatards and came back with a sliced arm and all of these battle scars. I think he opened up for The Persuaders. It’s funny looking back on it. We kicked him out of Ultracats because he was being so pissy about everything. When I told him he was out, he said, “Well, I was going to quit The Reatards to play in Ultracats.” Somewhere along the way we decided we’d form our own band with our own sound. We had a really funny-sounding keyboard called a Roland Strings. It sounded like a really bad version of a church organ. We played that keyboard on our first 7”. The Lost Sounds started without us having any sort of plan. Jay was a little bit scared of not sounding safe and conventional. The Lost Sounds didn’t sound like garage rock or ‘70s punk rock. Eventually, Jay got into keyboards because he loved The Screamers. Ryan (Wong), his friend from Arizona, made him a tape of The Screamers and the Red Snerts stuff. Ryan got him into the raw-sounding, keyboard-driven bands. The Units and stuff like that. He became comfortable with the sound we’d eventually develop with The Lost Sounds through discovering those bands.
Ryan: You mentioned a lot of Memphis bands dying on the vine because they never leave the city or get the proper exposure they deserve. With that in mind, one of the short-lived groups you were in was the CC Riders (along with James Arthur, Jay Reatard and Jeffrey Evans).
Alicja: That was Jeffrey Evans’ band. I can’t remember how CC Riders formed. I was the drummer. There were three guitar players. I don’t even know how good we sounded. Being the drummer, I had a different job than everyone else. Jeffrey Evans is such a great bandleader. He’d always switch things up on us. We’d need to do new things on the spot. He’d change the timing or where the chorus came in. It was a really fun experience. We practiced once a week for a year with CC Riders and then Jeffrey decided to go to Europe without us. We all felt like, “Why are we doing this band with you if you’re taking off for Europe without us?” Our feelings were a little bit hurt, but Jay and I recorded about eight or nine good CC Riders songs. The songs were recorded on an 8-track recorder.
Ryan: That’s right. You put them out through Contaminated on a limited one hundred CD-R release.
Alicja: I keep meaning to get those tracks to Bruce (Watson) over at Big Legal Mess.
Ryan: On Contaminated’s site, you mention getting caught up in the Lumberjack Mordam mess. Were you able to get your titles back?
Alicja: I wasn’t really dealing with Mordam. I was dealing with tiny labels where I’d buy ten or fifteen records at a time. I’d work with them directly. That’s probably why Contaminated worked. The only big distributor I would sell to was Revolver. Lumberjack did have some Lost Sounds titles I didn’t release, which were likely destroyed. We tried to get them back. That was what the post on Contaminated’s site was about.
Ryan: I’m really glad to hear that. A lot of labels were hit hard by Lumberjack Mordam going out (The Lumberjack Mordam debacle was written about extensively in Razorcake #53 http://www.razorcake.org/store/razorcake-53 and #54 http://www.razorcake.org/store/razorcake-54. As of this article, they have not been released digitally).
Alicja: No. Contaminated winding down had nothing to do with that. I just couldn’t keep it going once I had a kid and wasn’t on tour. With Contaminated, my main thing was finding a band and getting their first 7”, which was likely released on some small label with a limited pressing. I’d take a risk on titles. Not going through a distributor was a cheaper way to do business. I wasn’t paying a middleman.
Ryan: That’s admirable that you were running Contaminated like that, Alicja. It seems like the overseas labels are more willing to take risks on newer domestic bands.
Alicja: It wouldn’t have worked had I carried the same titles other stores did. Being on tour, I’d buy records off of bands right as they were coming out. I’d often get them way before a distributor would.
Ryan: My favorite Reigning Sound record is Too Much Guitar. You and Jay mastered and engineered that one, correct?
Ryan: You did a great job. It was rougher-sounding than the previous Reigning Sound records. It went back to Greg’s Oblivian’s roots. Too Much Guitar has some of Greg’s best songs on it too.
Alicja: Sort of the reason Too Much Guitar sounds the way it does is because Jay and I had just gotten a new digital recorder. Too Much Guitar was the first real thing we had recorded on it. We really didn’t know how to use it well then. It was a 24-track recorder. It was a little confusing going from analog to digital. With analog, you go from having things as close to the top as possible. With digital you wonder, “Where is the top? The green? The yellow? The red?”
Ryan: That’s awesome! So you can chalk up some of the sound of Too Much Guitar to user error?
Alicja: Yeah. But we made several mixes and those were still the ones Greg wanted. I don’t think Greg worried much about how we recorded it, but he was really involved in the mixing and overdub process. I don’t think he was unhappy with it sounding as brutal as it does. It wouldn’t have sounded that way had we known how to work the machine better.
Ryan: You mentioned earlier that when you were in The Clears you wanted to do a more straight-ahead rock band. Certainly River City Tanlines is it.
Alicja: I started River City Tanlines while The Lost Sounds was still a band. Mouserocket was always a great balancing-out band. My quieter songs went there and the guys were easygoing. But I wanted a band that was loud and aggressive and easier. With River City Tanlines, I wouldn’t have to work out with a sound guy how to hook up keyboards. Lost Sounds was always a hard band. It was hard sounding and hard to present live. The results were really satisfying. We also had to work out how to switch between singers. I’ve always been a fan of switching off vocalists in a band. RiverCity Tanlines is the first band I’ve been in where that hasn’t happened.
Ryan: I imagine keeping up with Jay in The Lost Sounds must have taken a lot out of you. He was incredibly aggressive as a performer. I caught the last Lost Sounds tour and that aggressiveness is what sticks out in my mind.
Alicja: Yeah. For me, if there’s one person who’s uptight and upset, I’ll match their energy. I’d feel tense myself. There was nervous energy on top of anxiety in The Lost Sounds. Our only option was to scream our heads off! [laughs]
Ryan: Can you talk about the recent Lost Sounds collection Fat Possum released?
Alicja: Picking the songs was difficult. I didn’t select any of the tracks we recorded for In The Red because it’s still a functioning label. Big Neck is still around, but the record we recorded for them (Memphis Is Dead) is over ten years old. We selected titles that weren’t in digital form or were out of print.
Ryan: It seems as though you’re still as busy as ever. You’re still actively recording bands, too.
Alicja: That’s somewhat true. I’m a little lazier than I used to be. I spend days just messing around. When I want to play guitar, I just sit and play guitar. I’m not recording things like I used to. One of the reasons why Jay and I were so productive in the past was because we were always recording. We didn’t say, “Hey, let’s play music.” We said, “Hey, let’s record a song.” That goes back to what we were talking about earlier about Memphis being a vacuum (see the upcoming 50th issue of Roctober). A lot of people don’t go that extra mile to set up recording equipment. They sort of fall off before they get to the recording part. That recording side is time consuming and, obviously, important.
Ryan: That’s a really good point you bring up. You had to believe in yourselves to do the things that you did. You might not have had much of a game plan or knowledge of the way a mailorder or label works, but you started Contaminated. So often the guy or gal who records all the bands in a particular scene is simply the person who took the time to read the manual that came with the Tascam 4-track recorder.
Alicja: [laughs] Yeah! Or the person who’s famous for recording a certain genre, simply has the equipment, and doesn’t have a job. He’s willing to record a month’s worth of material for fifty bucks. Recording in the studio is much different than recording at home. You’re striving for something perfect when you record in the studio. You lose something in the process. A lot of people like the song “Robots on the Loose” (by Nervous Patterns) and I know why. It sounds nice but that was the result of just slopping out a recording. So many times, I’ll release my songs as Alicja-Pop or Black Sunday because when I bring a song to a band it often loses something. The very first recordings River City Tanlines did—the ones that are the 7”s that Dirtnap later put out on CD—we tried re-recording the songs because we had a new band and we weren’t really a fully-formed band when we made those early recordings. But we came to the conclusion that those terrible-sounding recordings were as good as it was going to get. [laughs]
Ryan: Is the new RiverCity Tanlines album going to come out on Dirtnap again?Alicja: It’s actually going to be on Big Legal Mess. It’s Bruce Watson’s (Fat Possum) small label. He has a studio about an hour and twenty minutes away in Mississippi, so we’ve been going down there to record when we have time. We have nine or ten songs, but they totaled only thirty-two minutes, so we have a couple more to add! The genres jump around a bit because we’re recording songs that were written over different periods. This album is going to be my Chinese Democracy! [laughs] We have songs that we worked really hard on and then other really simple songs that balance them out. I didn’t want just a boring, consistent sound.
Ryan: Any idea on when the new album will be out?
Alicja: We’re hoping February or March (2012). We haven’t started the final mixing yet.
(For more information on Alicja Trout, check out Miss Erika’s interview with Alicja in Razorcake #29 and Trout’s blog: http://alicjatrout.blogspot.com/)