Ever-evolving Claremont group continues to stay original
Wckr Spgt is not a band.
Well, not just a band anyway. Since the group’s nascent beginnings—at a 1982 house party right here in Claremont—it’s been more of an ever-evolving conceptual art project that has veered off on innumerable tangents, each sharing the common theme of being completely engrossing and wholly original.
They’ve never been anywhere near conventional, and this is not by design: Wckr Spgt came into existence outside the mainstream, and there they’ve remained, happily, for close to four decades.
“We weren’t really approaching it as a live rock band,” said founding member and guitarist Mark Givens. “We played music but we had other interests all along. Most of the time it was more about the concept and the idea of making music and being in a band, and, ‘What does that mean?’ and, ‘What do we want to say?’ From the very beginning it was about experimenting with different sounds and concepts of what a band is. This was just the way we were finding expression and finding an outlet for our ideas and our art.”
Wckr Spgt includes founders Mr. Givens (guitar), Joel Huschle (vocals), Dave Carpenter (bass), and drummer Kyle Brodie, who joined in 1991. The band had their first gigs when they were still teenagers, and will perform a free show at 10 p.m. tonight at The Press, 129 Harvard Ave., Claremont.
The group has always eschewed rock conventions onstage, and in its products and songwriting. A glimpse at the band’s astonishingly immense catalog —44 official Wckr Spgt releases, with contributions to compilations and numerous side projects bumping that number up to around 100—reveals the mundane (“Gravel”), profane (“F**k Tequilla”) and topical (the 1991 Spgt classic “Francis Mitterrand”). But the sometimes silly sounding titles bely primary lyricist Mr. Huschle’s often cheeky, but always bristling, intelligent writing.
“A lot of our early projects were based around releases,” Mr. Huschle said. “We started up Anthropology Records, which was a cassette label. Our slogan was, ‘If it’s on Anthropology, it’s really good.’ We would try to make our releases interesting.”
Take for example Wckr Spgt’s 1984 record “Greatest Hits Volume Two.” It was released in an ammunition container, presumably from the military surplus store, on which they stenciled the tape’s info. Early releases contained the occasional cigarette, tiny plastic monkey or melted army men figurines.
I joked that the group were low budget subversives. “More like no budget subversives,” Mr. Givens said. “Starting off with something called ‘Greatest Hits Volume Two’ was really funny in our eyes. Lots of these things were just exploring the concept and the perceptions of what a release means. And we’re still doing the same thing.”
The band is currently in the midst of an art project called “The Great Wckr Spgt Buy-In.” It’s an extended performance piece that explores the conceptual nature of "joining" or "buying-in." It began in 2015, and includes live performances, individual workshops, musical releases, merchandise and other high-concept components. The Buy-In will culminate in “The Great Wckr Spgt Sell-Out of 2020.”
The next portion of the project is tonight’s performance at The Press, which will be followed early next year with the release of a new single, "Light Activated Snow Fox.” The tune will be available only on a limited number of individual greeting card sound modules placed in CD and cassette cases. The song will play when the case is opened, just like with the expensive greeting cards at Target. In true freethinking Spgt fashion, the song will be a stand-alone item, and won’t be available for digital download. This puzzling but fascinating dichotomy may be the most apt personification yet of Wckr Spgt’s playful inventiveness.
“That’s what we aim to do, is just explore ideas and have some fun with it,” Mr. Givens said.
There are also practical considerations to limited run, specialized releases. “Instead of ending up with a garage full of records, which we have, by the way,” Mr. Huschle said. “We can do a release of 15 or 20 or something, and those people who get it have something truly unique, and that frees us up to move on to the next hairbrained idea.”
The group is forever tapping new ways of delivering their art. In 2017 they released a 20-song 10” vinyl record of improvised music, “Dense Pack,” at a time when 10” records were all but extinct. Spgt hosted a “sitting series” a couple years back at the dA Gallery in Pomona where artists were invited to render the band as they sat, as if they were paid subjects a college-level figure drawing class.
These are just two recent examples over decades of creative treats for their fans, most of which have longstanding ties to the band. That said, Spgt is still expanding its audience to second a generation of adventurous art consumers.
Spgt “superfan,” Matthew Riley, 28, from Chesapeake City, Maryland, made his way out to Claremont by Greyhound bus this week to catch tonight’s show at the Press. The recent college grad, a horticulture major, discovered the band about two years ago “Spgt just kind of hit me full force and I fell in love with it,” Mr. Riley said. “Mark and Joel are just the sweetest guys. Once we started talking on Twitter they would check in and say, ‘How is school going?’ I actually wrote Mark a little fan letter after I listened to [Spgt’s 1997 release] ‘Everybody’s Dead (Oh No),’ and said, ‘Here is my three dollars for the Wckr Spgt Buy-In logbook. Thank you, and your band is great!’”
With few exceptions, bands that don’t find a life-sustaining level of success don’t often stick around. But as been established, Spgt has never been just a band. In fact, its rock band component may be the most conventional aspect of what they do with their art. If Wckr Spgt was “just a band,” and was still as vital, it would be a minor miracle. But the group continues to push boundaries of what it means to be artists that make music, and is still doing it in innovative, often groundbreaking ways. Maybe that’s why they’re still a major force in the world of experimental underground music, 36 years in.
Things have certainly changed, but when the four of them get together, something happens to the air in the room. It’s not a time machine; We’re all aware these are middle aged guys—all in the 50s now—doing their thing, but the joy of creating something remains palpable for everyone lucky enough to catch a performance. And it’s not nostalgia. Yes, they’ll play some old favorites tonight, but the band’s curiosity and seemingly endless well of creativity won’t allow anything less than a forward looking perspective.
“It’s different than it was,” Mr. Huschle said. “It used to be we had all the time in the world it seemed to hang out, do particularly bad things to our minds and bodies, and write and record ad nauseum. And then all of these things: wives, careers, children, dogs, responsibilities [entered the picture], and also time changes as you get older. It gets chunkier. You have these little chunks of tasks instead of this flow of hanging out.”
“When you’re a younger person the music is very important, and the scene is very important,” Mr. Givens said. “And participating in all those things makes a big difference in your life. As you get older all those things start to recede and you start to see different friendships and relationships are important. So, the music continues, and one of the best reasons to continue doing Spgt is that it’s the time I get to see these guys, and that to me is more important than anything we’re doing. So I do see it as something that will continue, because I really want to see these guys again.”
“It’s important,” Mr. Huschle said. “But when it’s not, when we have pauses or whatever, I notice it. I miss it. And when it’s occurring, I feel better about things. It’s like vitamins.”
On the bill for tonight’s free 10 p.m. show at the Press will be Wckr Spgt, joined by sometimes band member Franklin Bruno of The Human Hearts on second guitar, with opening performances from both Mr. Givens’ and Mr. Huschle’s prolific side projects, Cash Nexus and Furniture Huschle, respectively.
More info on the band is at wckrspgt.com.
What more Wckr Spgt? Here are a few links that will get you started!
Website Link: http://www.wckrspgt.com
Facebook Link: https://www.facebook.com/WckrSpgtOfficial/
YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9YwL9wTUMANNNCiR0ThSWQ
For ephemera, the Spgt site is chock full of tidbits, etc: http://www.wckrspgt.com/spgt/who.html
Bandcamp Link: https://wckrspgt.bandcamp.com/
Reverbnation Link: http://www.reverbnation.com/wckrspgt
Twitter Link: https://twitter.com/wckr_spgt
CD Baby: http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/WckrSpgt
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/music/artist/Wckr_Spgt?id=Aipgakamm64upcbxgjezlycbfzy
Myspace Link: https://myspace.com/wckrspgt
Rate Your Music: https://rateyourmusic.com/artist/wckr_spgt
RiotAct Media: http://riotactmedia.com/roster/wckr-spgt/