If you followed underground music at all seriously in the early to mid-1990s, you’ve at least heard of Trumans Water. How much you remember about them probably depends on your age and level of pop-culture obsessiveness. If you were of college age, you probably saw them live, either in some smallish, dank, and possibly moldy venue as headliners, or in posher spaces, as openers for bigger alternative acts – Beck, say, or Fugazi.
I was in eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana on the radio, so my experience of Trumans Water is a little more limited. I remember only what managed to leak through to semi-mainstream press, in this case, Spin Magazine, which began covering the band around 1993, and which I read religiously.
In those pages, Trumans was described as a massively weird, ultra-chaotic group from California, kings of a movement with the vague yet enticing name “squiggle-core.” Comparisons were made to bands I’d heard of (if not actually heard): Sonic Youth, The Boredoms, Pavement, The Fall, Captain Beefheart. This, along with the fact that a DJ named John Peel, whoever that was, counted as a fan was enough to intrigue me – a budding contrarian, and a bit of a snob even at that tender age.
I was never able to hear a Trumans album in its natural state. Benefiting from the anything-goes nature of the record industry immediately following Nirvana’s breakout, the group remained too obscure and willfully odd for the few record stores in my small town. The local college station occasionally played a track or two, but a total absence of hooks combined with the frantic, caterwauling nature of the music made their songs difficult to lodge in the mind – Trumans Water resists casual listening.
Nonetheless, I managed to cobble together some details: the band was formed in San Diego by two brothers, Kevin and Kirk Branstetter. A singer, Glen Galloway, was recruited, and the band’s best-known album, Spasm Smash XXXOXOX Ox & Ass (Homestead, 1993), contained a strident diss of music critic Gina Arnold, who the band pegged as the real-life version of Ben Stiller’s character in Reality Bites (if this reference mystifies you, you may be in over your head when it comes to Trumans Water: just a warning).
Over the years, the band lingered in my mind, and I would sporadically make efforts to keep tabs on them. Major magazines gradually lost interest as it became clear the band had no interest in making it big or playing along with the increasingly stratified underground/alternative scene. Albums were released on a bewildering array of labels: Homestead, Drunken Fish, Emperor Jones. They cut back on touring. The singer left. One of the brothers moved to France. Their moment, whatever and whenever it may have been, had clearly passed.
At the beginning of last year, even the most devoted trainspotter had probably given up on Trumans Water. Their last record, You are in the Line of Fire and they are Shooting at You, came out in 2003 through a label called Homesleep, about which little was known. Reviews were scarce, the band’s presence on the Internet almost comically sparse. This could spell doom for even the hardiest band.
Yet, somehow, Trumans Water has unaccountably reemerged with a new album on the Asthmatic Kitty label, which seems eager to put its sizable muscle behind the band (they’ve also reissued six of the band’s earlier LPs). It’s now possible to follow the band’s tangled history and extensive output on various websites, and one can even download sample tracks and watch a European tour documentary. All this is something like watching an animal long thought extinct clamber out of the forest and begin scavenging for curbside scraps.
In the midst of all this change, some aspects of Trumans’ approach remain consistent. Except for slightly crisper production, the new album, O Zeta Zunis (Asthamtic Kitty, 2010), sounds like something out of a bygone age – loud, urgent, and messy, a welter of squalling guitars and scuffed, blundering rhythm. It exudes a hellbent exuberance with no patience for fussy love of detail or curatorial obsessions overriding modern independent rock.
Comparisons once made to early Pavement or Sonic Youth are still apt, but where those bands were always interested in something beyond the immediate joys of clanking guitars and shouted, off-kilter vocals, Trumans Water limit their goals along with their palette. Melodies cohere suddenly, accidentally, before sputtering out in a mess of feedback or turgid dissonance. Despite these abstract tools, there’s nothing conceptual going on—Trumans Water’s music lives in nerves and glands. It’s a careless experiment performed with no thought for outcome. To say the return of Trumans Water is a breath of fresh air would be an understatement, besides a cliché. O Zeta Zunis is a time capsule of a sort. Created in the present, it’s still a product of a different world, one of stapled fanzines, mail-order catalogs, and four-track tape.
After a recent European tour, Kevin and Kirk Branstetter found some time to collaboratively answer e-mail questions about the analog 1990s, their new home in the digital world, and what’s kept them going over the long decades.
Skyscraper: I saw author Sam Lipsyte speak recently. He said one of the big differences between people roughly our age and younger generations is our view of mainstream culture. We thought it was corrupt bullshit, but also secretly kind of wanted to be noticed by it. Today, younger people view the mainstream as just one tool among many to get their message out there.
Trumans Water (Kevin & Kirk): Zoinks! We always thought of the mainstream (in our context: major labels) as a complete waste of time. We never wrote music for the masses. We channel what comes out of us. It’s a Zen exercise, not a corporate lickspittle contest. Honestly we’ve never really cared how the world at large viewed us, or if they could even see us at all. We know our music’s hard to listen to and we’re not gonna ram it down peoples’ throats. If kids like it, cool. If not, we’ll still keep on doing it.
Skyscraper: I was reading some 1990s-era magazine coverage of you guys, and came across something dubbing you “kings of squigglecore.”
TW: We liked to make up new terms whenever anyone asked us. The squigglecore scene was us. We were also the spazzcore scene and the voodoo-billy-love-punk scene. Being part of a scene seems like an odd idea. Who wants to hang out with a bunch of bands that sound alike? If we were ever a part of any scene, it was in the beginning in San Diego (SD). We always seemed to get shows with the same groups; Heavy Vegetable, Powerdresser, Three Mile Pilot, Custom Floor, and if we were lucky Drive Like Jehu, and Fishwife. None of us sounded alike, though.
Skyscraper: There’s been a lot of reassessment of the ‘90s going on recently, broad judgments being made, canons being formed. It’s weird for me as a listener. I was a teenager then, it’s when my musical tastes were formed. How did the ‘90s feel to you?
TW: Felt pretty good to us. But there’s always good stuff going on. You just have to get out and find it. Seems more like a media thing as opposed to quantifiable band skills. There were lots of good things going on in the SD scene back when someone decided it was the next Seattle. Then we had a bunch of A&R dweebs at all the shows filming and talking nice. Some bands got giddy like schoolgirls and tried to please them. Some bands from other cities would move to SD to get street cred. The first A&R person who came to film us was from Interscope. We all put on ridiculous costumes and played the weirdest show we had up to that point. She was chatting us up before the show like crazy and by the end of the set she was in her Mercedes halfway back to Los Angeles, hopefully, more than just a little wigged out. Mission accomplished.
Skyscraper: Do you have other stories of crazy major-label courtship? Did you ever think about taking the money and running, like, Royal Trux?
TW: Mark Caites from Geffen was really trying to sign us, supposedly, on Thurston Moore’s insistence. We let him take us out and get us drunk, but whenever he’d start talking about how happy we’d be at Geffen, we’d change the subject and order another beer. I think he finally got the point. I guess we could have taken the money, spent months in the studio recording an album Geffen would have never released, and then headed back to the indie scene gloating about how we screwed ’em good. But then we’d have needed a lawyer and had to start thinking seriously about music. That’s something we never wanted to do and still don’t.
Skyscraper: You were certainly one of the stranger, less commercial bands to receive mainstream attention. What was it like to go on tour with Beck, or face a huge crowd of dudes waiting for mosh riffs?
TW: The Beck tour was incredible, especially for the Midwest. He also brought Karp; it was an unbelievable line-up. At the time Beck had just released Mellow Gold (DGC, 1994), so kids basically sat through three sets to hear one song. Karp was so heavy and funny. In Chicago they had two gay-biker-go-go-dancers on stage. Kids were baffled. In Salt Lake City, the kids didn’t seem to notice anyone was playing until “Loser” started, then they all went crazy. Beck was even coming out and playing “Aroma of Gina Arnold” with us every night. Most people didn’t recognize him…
Someone broke their neck, unfortunately, when we opened up for Fugazi at the Palladium in L.A. We knew everyone wanted to mosh so we started with the least danceable, most meandering song we had. Somehow, the crowd managed to create this mosh-vortex in about ten seconds. It was one of the weirdest things we’ve ever scene from stage.
Skyscraper: Let’s talk about the new record. How’d you end up on Asthmatic Kitty?
TW: Sufjan Stevens, who we haven’t met him yet, is apparently a fan. He runs the label along with another guy, Michael Kaufmann, who we’ve met several times and who we would trust with our lives. In the beginning, we released stuff on labels just to get it out, knowing the label would most definitely screw us. But since then we’ve only tried to work with people we trust or have heard really good things about. With any luck we’ll be able to stick with Asthmatic Kitty for a while.
Skyscraper: I was listening to some of your older stuff, and it strikes me how consistent it is. You could easily put tracks from Spasm Smash next to Zeta and have a hard time telling which was which. Why do you think this is?
TW: I want to say it’s because we never really learned how to play our instruments, but I think we’ve learned a little over the years. We don’t think about it too much, actually. We just get together and jam. The most important thing is having fun. That’s always been the main focus of this band. As long as we keep having fun, we don’t think too much about what we’re producing. What comes out is a pretty pure expression of how we feel when we’re together. Happy. It may sound aggressive sometimes, but real good fun is always loud and raucous.
Skyscraper: How much of your stuff is improvised? How does it all fit together live?
TW: A good Trumans show will be half improv, half song – improvising into and out of each song, keeping dead time to a minimum. Most of our songs have improv bits written into them as well. That way, we always have to be on our toes, even if we’ve played the song a thousand times. If the improvisations are working, we just go with it until getting bored. If they aren’t working, we burst into a song.
Skyscraper: Why do you think your following in Europe is bigger than in the States? Is the European ear different from the American ear?
TW: The European ear had John Peel helping it out quite a bit. Without him being such a fan, I reckon we’d still be playing to 10 people at the Casbah in San Diego. Not to say that wouldn’t be great; Tim [Mays] always had a pint of Guinness ready for us when we walked in.
Skyscraper: How does Trumans Water fit into the context of your daily lives?
TW: Interesting question. Uh, not much, except for the fact that we all love to play. Playtime, in any form, is great whether it’s music, shootin’ hoops, chuckin’ a Frisbee, climbin’ up a rock, jumpin’ in a river, fishin’, or workin’ on a construction site. So, I guess, our playfulness is always there. But as far as our identities as musicians go, nobody cares.
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