Surfing with Sharks: Inside SAVAGE REPUBLIC's Kaleidoscopic Cauldron of Sound
Three of the original Savage Republic members (Bruce Licher, Philip Drucker, Jeff Long) recently reconnected, after a long time, on the occasion of the expanded anniversary reissue of the band’s debut album Tragic Figures. This piece is the result of one of those conversations, old friends reminiscing about the early days of their musical and personal bond. It was completed on 16th July, just a few hours before news of Philip Drucker’s passing broke. It is dedicated to Phil’s memory.
No matter how economical you like your music descriptions to be,
Savage Republic are going to require a lot of words. These L.A. postpunk rockers truly inhabited a post-genre dimension. You either admit that the sound they were forging in the early 80s was undefinable, or have fun with a plethora of words and names. “Welcome to the world’s first (and only) post-punk-industrial-trance-psychedelic-surf album!”, Real Gone Music’s Gordon Anderson recently wrote introducing the 40th anniversary reissue of the band’s debut Tragic Figures, adding: "the fact that it took us so many adjectives to describe Tragic Figures lets you know just how unique of an album it is”.
SAVAGE REPUBLIC - Tragic Figures LP.
SAVAGE REPUBLIC - Tragic Figures expanded re-issue - Deluxe Edition LP.
By the time Tragic Figures was released in May of 1982, Savage Republic were a four piece made of young students: Bruce Licher, Philip Drucker and Jeff Long all switching between guitar, bass and wild metal percussions, and Mark Erskine on drums. They had started playing together merely a year before, yet their one-of-a-kind cocktail of sound was already fully sharpened. Playing in a time and place that seemed to make a must out of defineability and belonging - a hardcore way of living music that wasn’t too keen on nuances - Savage Republic had discovered and reclaimed that every sound was allowed. They were giving themselves permission to intertwine all the music they liked (and it was a lot, the more different the better) and let beloved genres, sub-genres and styles have their own, yet unexplored, sonic conversations.
Where did this band’s unusual wide tastes come from then?
An attraction towards the least fashionable corners of record stores, for starters. Bruce Licher remembers the days when he and Phil Drucker were art students at UCLA: “I was always going down to the Rhino Records store in Westwood, where I would scour the 99 cent bin. I’d take a stack of records into the listening booth, and I got really good at spending fifteen to twenty seconds on each, needle-dropping into several songs to get an idea of what the music was like, so that I could go through the whole pile. I found a lot of the Middle Eastern and Greek music really intriguing. I loved the scales and the sounds. A lot of that stuff was super cheap, so I was able to pick things up and get inspired”.
Some hauls were more fortunate than others; it was around this time that Licher found Mikis Theodorakis’ Z soundtrack, which led to Savage Republic later reworking the track O Andonis and thereby gaining a big following in Greece.
Phil Drucker (by then known as Jackson Del Rey) was the first band member to play something akin to a Middle Eastern scale on guitar (you can hear it in the intro to Procession). He, too, was a devout cratedigger, as he recalls: “I would head straight for the 49 cent bin - pretty much everything I always wanted to hear was there. I was a sight buyer, mostly interested in what the covers looked like. I remember buying an album that I believe was called How to Turn Your Man into a Sultan - it was just a belly dancing record, and I was so fascinated by it. I started to buy more and more, then finding out about classical Egyptian music. I became very fascinated by that as well, that big orchestral sound… One experience led to another”.
Albums released by Nonesuch, especially, made for meaningful experiences. The label’s compilations of music from the Indonesian gamelan tradition, in particular. Drucker’s family wasn’t exactly music-friendly, he reveals: “Until I was eight, I was an Orthodox Jew. We weren't allowed to listen to any music, except for temple music. My sister breaks the barrier a couple years later and buys Yellow Submarine: all hell breaks loose in the house! So I started playing my music, and what I had was this gamelan music - it’s court music, so it's very quiet. It’s very resonant, I just thought it was the greatest thing. My dad walks into my room and he says, that's the kind of music I think I’d hear if I was going to hell! All it did was make me want to buy more”.
When Licher was eight he took piano lessons. To put it mildly, he hated it. He quit after six months. Music wasn’t in his plans until he started seeing fellow college students on stage, having fun with their numerous bands. It looked cool, it was appetising. Yet he couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d be able to pull that off. He wasn’t a musician. Then one day he bought No New York, the 1978 No Wave compilation produced by Brian Eno. As experimental rockers D.N.A. were taking over the album’s second side, something clicked in his mind: “it’s so simple. There are simple interlocking parts that make this really fascinating sound. I went out and bought a guitar and an amp, that was how I started doing music. It was all about wanting to explore sounds and structure. It was like a construction project”.
Shortly after that, in early 1981, Licher noticed a flyer at the UCLA art building. The show it promoted was at CalArts in Valencia, one of the first West Coast performances by Glenn Branca. Licher had heard of him and his connection to the No Wave crowd. He decided to drive north and check it out. “It was so completely different from what I had ever experienced” he says. “He had all of these unison tuned and unusually tuned guitars that were creating these beautiful sounds that I couldn't imagine”. He spent the drive home thinking he’d do the same to his guitar, he’d put all B strings on it.
The next time Savage Republic (by then still calling themselves Africa Corps) reconvened at Licher’s one-room apartment on Pico Boulevard, there was something he wanted his bandmates to hear. He had recently picked up a copy of Faust IV: the opener, Krautrock, was incredibly tantalising. “Let’s do something”, he told the others once the twelve-minute track was over, armed with the newly unveiled "monotone guitar". Long started playing a repetitive bassline while Drucker and Erskine got busy hitting percussion. A little melody on the monotone guitar, and they had something. It reminded them of the Exodus theme song (they were huge fans of soundtrack albums). A year later, Exodus would close the first side of Tragic Figures. “I couldn't believe that guitar the first time I heard it”, Jeff Long enthuses. “You can't really get that sound through electronics and pedals - it's natural. I thought it was the coolest thing”. Depending on what sort of effects or amp they would put it through, it could sound like a horn, a synthesiser or a guitar. Or the combination of all three. “It brought this otherworldly feeling to the music, a truly unique sound”, Licher reflects. “That was what I always tried to do - make something that didn’t sound like anything else. And even though I was inspired by Glenn Branca to tune my guitar that way, we weren't going to do what he was doing, we were going to do our own thing: here’s one sound aesthetic we can play around with, let’s figure out how we can make it our own”.
Long was used to being in hardcore punk groups, and found himself inspired by the breadth of musical interests his new bandmates showed. “It just wasn't part of my world. Bruce and Phil were listening to all these other things that I had no idea about. And when they would play them it'd be like, oh, there are disparate things that could go together”. The very sound of the instruments they played stood out, too. “Phil had a Peavey amp with a really nice reverb that produced a super deep sound”, Long recalls. “It was like slipping into a warm bath, an otherworldly thing; at least in my world, nobody was using reverb at the time”.
Another thing that punk bands weren’t exactly fighting to bring back was surf rock. As for Savage Republic, they loved it. “When I was a teenager in high school I was a huge fan of the Ventures”, Licher explains. “I probably had fifty different Ventures albums. When we wrote Attempted Coup Madagascar. I was remembering a certain Ventures song and trying to replicate its ‘dun-dun’ sound on bass. Well, it didn't sound like the Ventures at all, but it was like, here's something I can pull from”.
The Ventures weren’t the only 60s inspiration for the then blossoming Savage Republic. Licher was also listening to early Pink Floyd a lot: “they had this really atmospheric ambient/guitar sound, I wanted to bring some of that feeling into what we were doing. The song Procession was going to be this sort of prog rock epic that would finish the record. I just couldn't get it to sound the way I heard it in my head and I've always felt like it could have been done better, but actually, in some ways it's also perfect just the way it is”.
The band came together at a time when psychedelic music was gearing up to enjoy a renaissance - moptops and Rickenbackers were ready to make a comeback. Too elusive to adhere to anything that had somehow been already codified in the past, Savage Republic wouldn’t call themselves a psychedelic rock band. Yet their all-is-possible, genre-defying way of seeing music might be the most truthful successor of what psychedelia, back in the 60s, had sonically implied. When he met Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine, Philip Drucker couldn’t help but ask the psychedelic hero what the word meant to him: “psychedelic, he said, had nothing to do with drugs at all. For him and his crowd, it was about seeing things differently”. If we take Rapp’s word for it (and who could possibly contradict Tom Rapp on the subject?), then Savage Republic can easily be called psychedelic. Psychedelic, yes, but with an edge.
“The lyrics”, Long points out, “took you to a place that was a little more dangerous than the word psychedelic would permit. They took you to a darker place. Even if we started with surf music, what we were surfing were waves with sharks”. He stops to consider two other words that have been frequently used when describing Savage Republic’s music, ‘industrial’ and ‘tribal’. They seem to work better when combined. “Industrial - a lot of Phil's percussion was metal on metal, could it get more industrial than that? The tribal part came again through the lyrics. ‘You have come to teach/we have come to eat’…it was tribal, pre-civilization if you will”.
It wasn’t just a wide unrelenting sonic appetite that made Savage Republic sound like nobody else.
Mixing multifarious influences could have easily turned into a catastrophic, cacophonous exercise in style. Thankfully, inexperience was also in the band’s kaleidoscopic cauldron. “Phil and Jeff both pretty much knew how to play their instruments”, says Licher, “while Mark and I were pretty much self-taught. There's an interesting dynamic there. I would want to play something that sounded like something else that I had heard and liked, but I didn’t have the ability to do that. And so I had to create something that I could do. Somehow the combination of all the different things that we were listening to came together in this big stew. And we were experimenting, always trying to do something different”.
Drucker offers a fitting definition: “Savage Republic was a Why-Not band. Why can’t you put these sounds together and form something new? We always had something familiar that people could hang on to, like a security blanket, so that they knew we weren't too crazy. At the same time, I like to think that we let people go where they wouldn’t have gone otherwise”. It also worked for band members themselves: “I was in a hardcore punk band at the time”, Long looks back. “It was a formula, I have to say. It didn't have the diversity of sound of Savage Republic. The influence of Bruce and Phil, of them being art students, it opened my eyes up to a wider view of music. Of the world. I didn't mean to be a punk rocker in Savage Republic, even though that was really coursing through my veins at the time”.
Savage Republic started with two ingredients that could have been at odds with each other, 80s L.A. punk and conceptual art.
From there, everything was permitted. As Drucker quips, “other than polka, can you think of something we didn't try?”