DIY before it existed: An interview with Smegma

Few bands manage to exist over the course of decades. Smegma started forty years ago in Pasadena, California, when a few friends decided they wanted to be involved in music but not become musicians. Without managers or record labels, they’ve played their experimental music while sharing musicians with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Four decades on, they still bring their music out on cassette. This fall, Smegma plays their first European tour.

“People would throw stuff at us in the ‘70s,” Eric Stewart says over the phone from Portland. His wife, Jackie Stewart, also a member of Smegma, is in the next room. “Nowadays, an audience will just ignore you if they don’t like your show, but back then, they would get almost dangerous.”

While Smegma’s mix of jazz, folk, rock music and noise didn’t always please their audiences, it certainly got the attention of trendsetters and music critics. In their early years, they had already collaborated with guest vocalist Wild Man Fischer from Frank Zappa’s band, and later they recorded with the Japanese noise pioneer Merzbow.

real art
For Smegma, music works when it catches someone’s attention. “I try to make songs that someone would like to listen to for almost twenty minutes,” Eric says. “Something that won’t beat up your ears, that makes you still excited about it halfway through. That’s the real art, to record or make a product that doesn’t wear you out.”

They aren’t an art project, like so many bands in the ’70s. But they do like to throw some experimentation into their music. They actively look for unexpected turns and a flow that doesn’t use the typical pop song structure. “You know that moment when a record player plays the same bit at the end of the record over and over, that annoying moment?” asks Jackie, who has been in Smegma since the late ‘70s. “I do it on purpose.”

Jackie met Eric and the other band members in Portland, just after the band moved there in 1975. “Actually, in the ‘70s, Portland was still pretty conservative,” she says. “It used to be a teeny little place. There was just a small group of creative people. When someone new came around, you noticed there was someone new, you know? But somehow it changed… I have seen the change. It was starting in the ‘90s, but by 2003, there was definitely a different atmosphere. People started discovering new things. Right now it is a lot like paradise. I think it’s great that there’s so much more variety now. And that of course helps us,” she laughs, “we can play many more places now.”

Though they had difficulties in getting gigs over the years, they opted to not get a manager. Years before punk music invented the idea of do-it-yourself music making, they were already doing it. “The do-it-yourself thing is being childlike, it is not seeing the barrier if you haven’t done something before,” Eric says. “You can ask yourself: shouldn’t you learn your profession and then perform? We think not. Performing music is a laboratorium, it’s a big experiment and we’re gonna perform anyway. Of course there are reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but that’s the silliness of youth, not thinking there’s a barrier there. You’ll find in many other areas of life that it’s very foolish to be that way. But why not in music? Nobody gets hurt. So, in art, you can be very brave.”

One of the most ‘foolish’ ways that Smegma still approaches their musical laboratorium? “We still use cassettes, and we like it,” Jackie says. “YES,” Eric says. “Like everybody else, there were a few times that I threw them away, thinking ‘I’m done with these’.”

“But they still sound so good!” Jackie says. “Recently, I put in a 1977 tape (Stiff Little Fingers on side A and some very, very early The Cure on side B) and it sounded just fine. And don’t forget you can still repair a cassette when it breaks.”

“It’s true,” Eric continues, “and if it wasn’t for the cassette, there was no Smegma. Before the cassette, there was no way for people to record themselves. Looking back, I realised that I was of the generation, when I was a kid in the ‘50s, that commercial tape recorders were cheap enough for people to buy for their kids; which is what my parents did. And I was so obsessed. It’s funny that nowadays people are still getting excited about cassette, just because it’s romantic. Today people have their mobile phones. Why would they use their phones so much for photos and less for sound? That’s the funny thing, the phone is not as romantic as tape. It’s foolish, haha. And cassettes will probably disappear for good, quite soon. But they were around at the right moment for us.”

Just like recording, playing a good show is a craft in its own right. Even though they’ve done it countless times, it hasn’t gotten any easier. And it shouldn’t, they think. Eric: “I’m always waiting for that moment that when you aren’t looking at the audience but you feel the concentration. You feel hyper-aware. There are people staring at you, willing you to make them feel something. It’s part of the craft to resist the moment of thinking ‘oh that’s neat’. Cause the moment you do that, you’ve ruined everything. You can’t be too self-aware, you just have to be there.”

Smegma plays at OCCII in Amsterdam on October 14th. See for more tour dates.