The former Tar Babies guitarist talks rigid hardcore, political lyrics, and why his old band was nothing like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
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Over the last three decades, Bucky Pope has conquered the transient nature of life in Madison to witness the rise and fall of hundreds of local bands and the venues that carried them, the beginnings of hardcore punk in Wisconsin, and the heyday of the legendary Smart Studios. The vocalist-guitarist did this while carving out his own legacy in the Tar Babies, crafting wall-riding, funk-infused punk tunes loaded with messy, jagged guitar chops and the melodic vocal-wailing to match. Much like Milwaukee’s Die Kreuzen, Tar Babies crashed through the wall of hardcore in 1982 with the classic Face The Music; kept driving into grittier, more melodic territory with 1985’s Respect Your Nightmares; finally slowing down and settling into the sonic mending of punk and groove on 1987’s Fried Milk. In advance of Pope’s solo set at Mickey’s Tavern on Jan. 22, he sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the rigidness of early hardcore, stumbling into political lyrics, and why Tar Babies were nothing like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The A.V. Club: What initially drew you to hardcore punk in the early ’80s?
Bucky Pope: Well, when I was 15, 16, I started getting exposed to punk. It was a pretty novel idea to a lot of people to actually write their own songs. Most of the bands that I saw in Pittsburgh, before I moved to Madison at age 14, where I moved from—punk enabled the idea of starting a band and actually writing my own tunes. I was part of punk’s second generation, so, not the first wave of ’70s punk, but the American hardcore scene. I had a really strong love for music prior to that, but punk created a new template.
AVC: What was it like to be part of the early hardcore scene in Madison?
BP: The early hardcore movement was ironically quite rigid for a while. I don’t know what it would be like for a kid who is coming up in 1990 or 2000, what kind of model they use. It seemed like, in the early ’80s, there was just a moment where there was suddenly no specific notion of what a rock band could be or what a song could be. A lot of crappy music resulted in the filters coming off, but it was also a very influential time, an amazingly creative period. For a while, a lot of punk rock shows were pretty dismal. It seemed like anyone could have more fun than we were, sitting at Club De Wash, watching The Clitboys or some other generic hardcore band. It felt like there was no opportunity to do something new in an environment where doing something unexpected was supposed to be expected.
AVC: Who were your favorite Wisconsin bands to watch during this period?
BP: Appliances-SFB from Madison and Die Kreuzen from Milwaukee were just bands that had what I wanted to get. They were tight, powerful, and really had a vibe around them. It wasn’t just four guys walking up onstage. They had a personality and mood that they set with their presence.
AVC: In the space between 1982’s Face The Music and 1985’s Respect Your Nightmares, Tar Babies took a massive creative leap from the hardcore plateau to slower tempos and a more jagged, funky sound.
BP: In the songs we wrote in ’83 and ’84, you can really chart a pattern of change or growth. After a year, I started wanting to inject more colorful chord phrasings from the music I actually grew up on, which was Hendrix, Rolling Stones, and stuff like that. I was also inspired by the Minutemen, which carried a very unconventional role for guitar. It sounds a little cliché, but I wanted to capture some of the feelings or sounds that I heard when I listened to music that actually took me places. As great as Minor Threat was, it was pretty one-dimensional. I didn’t go directly from hardcore to funk. The main reason we became identifiably “funky-sounding” is that our bass player used a lot of slap-bass technique. It seemed like every review we got after Respect Your Nightmares compared us to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. All respect to the Chili Peppers—who were an amazing live band with tons of anthems—but we didn’t have that same charisma. Our shows were not fist-pumping affairs. We did get a lot of credit for being more challenging, but at that time we were also slammed into the “punk-funk” sub-genre. Some people would say we were early practitioners. Respect Your Nightmares actually predated the Chili Peppers, but our music wasn’t as accessible. In the late ’80s, every record we made was distinctly different from the one before it. We actually became formidable musicians. We weren’t frat-boy rock. I didn’t want Tar Babies to be a B-list, white-funk band. When Fried Milk came out in ’87, it put us up to date, because we wrote it in an interim period. Our final record went back to a more rock center. [With] the one before that, Honey Bubble, we invited comparisons to the Chili Peppers and bands of that ilk. You could almost dance to that record.
AVC: How did Tar Babies end up working with SST?
BP: A lot of the bands I loved, I didn’t know where they came from or where they were going. Many of these bands were on SST, so we were thrilled. We were signed after a show we played in New York City with Dinosaur, Gone, and Sonic Youth. We actually played after Sonic Youth at 3 a.m. [Laughs.] I mean, we got to see the whole progression of punk music in the ’80s.
AVC: You’re a tough lyricist to nail down, often scaling a broad range of topics from political to whimsical. Where do you tend to draw from for lyrical inspiration?
BP: I generally write music first and then hum out the vocal. Sometimes I’ll take a phrase that I use as a placeholder and just write around that. When I’m finished, it means something, but it doesn’t mean anything until it was finished. [Laughs.] I think I took a few stabs at writing socially conscious lyrics. I had never intended to write a song about the Gulf War, but when I wrote “Before You Hit The Floor,” I didn’t know what the hell was going on in the world. I could only see what I saw on CBS. That inspired me to write a lyric, but not from the outset. As Keith Richards said in his book, sometimes the difference between a consonant and a vowel in a lyric is the difference between a hit or a flop.
AVC: What can we expect from your solo set at Mickey’s this Saturday?
BP: I’m playing a duet with Wendy Schneider. I’m playing 12-string acoustic, she’s playing electric, and we’re going to do a handful of tunes—Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros, Melanie, David Bowie—you know, we’re doing some covers. I’m going to play some stuff solo. “Porcupine Pie” and “Before You Hit The Floor” are a couple of Tar Babies tunes that translate pretty well into a solo guitar-vocal thing. Wendy will also do some tunes solo.
AVC: What’s next for Bucky Pope?
BP: Everything I’m doing musically is for its own sake right now. I’m recording at my house, trying really hard to write songs with a four-track tape recorder. I went through a long period where I wasn’t really playing much, but now I’m jamming with Biff Blumfumgagnge from The Gomers at his house every week, and I’m jamming with Wendy now. I’m trying to play guitar every day. I think I have a gift, and I’ve not been nurturing it for a long time. So I’m trying to pick it back up.