Published on August 29th, 2014 | by Filthy Pedro0
Lach talks antifolk history & boozing with parents
Lach, one of the founders and legends of the antifolk movement, talks about the beginnings of the scene and his recollections of artists like Kirk Kelly, Billy Nova, Roger Manning, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Michelle Shocked, Beck, Paleface and the Moldy Peaches.
Filthy Pedro: Can you tell me about the very beginning of the antifolk movement?
Lach: Well, I first came onto the folk scene in the early 80s.
Filthy Pedro: Was it around 1984? I’ve heard ’84 mooted as the year antifolk got going.
Lach: Well, ‘84 is when I opened up The Fort, but the scene and the crowd were gathering before that.
I came to Folk City (New York) in the early ‘80s after reading a (Anthony Scaduto’s) book on Bob Dylan. Ground zero for me was the Clash and the Pistols and British Punk, but then I started getting into Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.
I saw that Dylan got started at this place called Folk City, and I read in the Village Voice that there was still a Folk City and then I saw they had an open mic. So I showed up at the open mic, and played the way I play, and at the time I was playing electric piano – I hadn’t been playing guitar yet.
Well, I was banging on the piano like it was the Ramones, and a couple of people were like, “that’s really cool”’, but a lot of people were like, “what the hell was that?” The next people would come up and play something like a Woody Guthrie song or whatever they were calling folk at the time; bland, white boy, college educated and boring.
Over the next year or so I’d eventually picked up guitar and moved to the West (Greenwich) Village. A club opened up called The Speakeasy that promised a different approach. The Speakeasy was going to be a communal rebellion to Folk City – they were going to do it differently. There wasn’t going to be the caste system and favouritism of Folk City. Everyone was going to work together and get to play the type of thing they wanted. Now have you ever seen that work? (Laughter).
So I hung about a bit, but the same thing ended up happening there. I quickly became persona non grata.
Then one day I met Kirk Kelly at The Speakeasy – now Kirk was early antifolk. He came to me and said “Are you Lach?” I said “Yeah”, and then he goes “They say if I talk to you, I won’t get a gig here. Let me buy you a beer”. So we became immediate and great friends.
Filthy Pedro: Is Kirk Kelly still around?
Lach: Yeah, he’s still alive. He’s a super mario world great songwriter. He plays occasionally. He’s involved in (trade) union organising very much. He’s a big union guy.
So we started hanging out, and there were others around that time doing a similar thing, people like Billy Nova, and we would hang around in the alley behind Folk City and The Speakeasy. There was this alley called the Black Cat, Minetta Lane I think it was, next to the old Black Cat. We used to hang out there, with our 40 oz. beers, our joints and our guitars. We would play there. Eventually, we had 20 people in the alley with us. Instead of going into the club, we would hang out in the alley every Monday night.
So I finally moved to the Lower East Side. I moved onto a street called Rivington Street, which was very, very dangerous to live in back then. The Daily News did an article on the most dangerous places in New York, and my block was number one. That was a point of pride.
So I had a loft space there that I gutted out and salt dough handprint I turned it into a venue. I put a stage in and I’d sleep on the stage in the day and I’d open up the venue at night. I originally named it the Hidden Fortress, after the Akira Kurosawa film. That was one of my favourite movies from one of my favourite directors.
It felt like a fortress. When you got in, you felt safe. It was getting there and back that was the problem. So eventually it became shortened to ‘The Fort’.
My memory of it is that the salt dough ornaments week we opened up they had the New York Folk Festival in the West Village. I didn’t consider anyone on that bill to be an actual folk artist. To me folk music is traditional music, old Irish, Japanese, Jewish music, you know. But this was all white guys and good looking white chicks, playing acoustic guitars singing their diary entries over 3 or 4 chords. Nobody was making any waves.
If they were going to call that ‘folk music’, we were going to call what we were doing ‘antifolk music’. So then I held an antifolk night at The Fort, we had the first Antifolk Festival.
Filthy Pedro: Was that the origin of the term ‘antifolk’?
Lach: I have this dreamlike memory of walking down the street with some of the crowd, it seemed like it was a dusty road in an old western ghost town, and we were kicking the dirt saying we’ve got no place to play. The word antifolk was born.
There was this girl in the scene, Cindy Lee Berryhill. She was going out with Kirk Kelly at the time, one of the first antifolk couples. I read in an interview with Cindy that she feels that she had told me and Kirk about a club in LA called ‘The Anti-Club’, and hence she suggested the name ‘Antifolk’. I don’t know if I remember her doing that, but it seems like something that could have happened. It’s hard to remember; this is 30 years ago.
So we might have been walking this dusty road of memory, Play Dough Recipe and she’s talking about The Anti-Club LA, and she’s saying why don’t we make it ‘Anti-Club New York’, and then it got turned into antifolk.
Filthy Pedro: It’s a great name, very provocative.
Lach: Yeah, it is.
Filthy Pedro: I remember the first I heard it was as a teenager, listening to Beck’s classic ‘Stereopathetic Soul Manure’ album. I loved the sound it had, and I read somewhere it was called antifolk. It was the first time I heard the word, and it stuck with me.
Lach: It’s a magic word. There’s always an opportunity to create, make art, to go poetic instead of pedantic. That’s what we were doing with that word.
So the antifolk nights started on Rivington Street. I would put my bed under the stage at night, and would open up at 7pm. The windows were all blacked out so no one knew how much time had passed and it would go until 7am, 8am, 9am the next morning.
Filthy Pedro: Was it very hedonistic?
Lach: Everything was going on, everything. The bars had to stop serving alcohol at 4am in the morning, so we had an influx of yuppies at 4am who were still coked out, looking for a place to go, and they heard through the grapevine they could come in.
We would charge them exuberant amounts to salt Dough Recipe get in and drink beer, and to the rest of us beer was a buck. We had a saying, “beers in the back for a buck in the bucket”. We had these really cheap beers called Blatz beers.
Filthy Pedro: That a nice charging system. It’s called ‘second degree price discrimination’ in economic theory.
Lach: Right, right, and it helped support us. It was cheap to live. It was a wild, woolly time. Keith Haring started doing his subway drawing. There was a lot of heroin on the street and there were gangs. We lasted there for a year and a half.
Filthy Pedro: Did you have a regular night off, or was it every single night?
Lach: I had nights off. I’ve forgotten how often it would happen. I think we probably had a weekly antihoot, and we had a show most nights as well.
Kirk (Kelly) would play regularly, Roger Manning, Cindy Lee (Berryhill), me of course, Billy Nova. So we lasted there for a year and a half, and Billy (Nova) put out the first antifolk compilation. That was during the first year of The Fort, and was called “Fortune’s 13”. Billy’s on it, Kirk’s on it, Roger’s (Manning) on it I think too. It was a cassette.
There was a bunch of other clubs on Rivington Street that opened up. One place called ‘ABC No Rio’ opened up across the road. It was run by a hardcore collective. This fella called Matthew Courtney ran an open mic there, so our block now had two places to go. Two blocks up, a place called ‘No Say No’ opened up, and there started to be a bit of change, which eventually led to the gentrification of the area. That’s how it always happens, the artists move in first, then the prices go up, then they moved to Williamsburg and so on.
Well, The Fort lasted a year and a half, that compilation came out and then Roger Manning got signed. He was signed to SST Records, Black Flag’s label.
We were like ‘wow’. Then Kirk (Kelly) got signed next, to SST, I think the album was called ‘Go Man Go’. We started getting a lot of attention, and then the police came by and said “You’re done here”. We were under police protection really for the first year and a half, because the first time the police came by, Kirk (Kelly) was on stage. They were Irish cops, and they were like “Nothing wrong here lads”. So for a year and a half we were cool, but then as the spotlight came, we couldn’t go on.
I didn’t really know what to do next, but then I walked into Sophie’s Bar, which is where the Sidewalk Cafe bar is now. The owner, she gave me her worst night, and I started running the Antihoot open mic. I then expanded to a second night, where I booked acts from the Antihoot, and then she moved around the corner to 5th Street. That’s when Michelle Shocked came on the scene, along with Brenda Kahn. Michelle then went over to the UK and released Campfire Tapes, and that got a lot of attention. Brenda got signed to Columbia, and antifolk started happening.
The Fort was a mobile club that would inhabit Sophie’s and would go on to inhabit other places like Tramps and Nightingales. Eventually, it was at the Chameleon Club, which is two doors down from where the Sidewalk is now. That’s when Beck and Paleface came on the scene.
A couple more antifolk compilations came out, Paleface got signed and I got signed to a label called Gold Castle Records, which was owned by a fella called Danny Goldberg. Danny was managing Nirvana at the time, and he had one other artist on his label named Joan Baez. I was like “OK guys, I’ve got to go away for a while, but I’m going big time now!” I recorded my album, and three months after my album came out his label went bankrupt. The album was called Contender.
Filthy Pedro: Is that still available?
Lach: No, but I’m probably going to put it out in digital form or something, I just have to get around to it.
After all that I was very disenchanted with the music business and things in general. I moved out to San Francisco and lived there for a year and a half. I was running a little coffee house there, and we had a little antifolk scene going on. That’s where Lenny Molotov and Mister Scarecrow came on the scene.
I came back to New York and was hanging out at the Sidewalk, visiting a friend of mine who was bartending. She said “The owner here really wants to do something in the back room, maybe you could start The Fort up again?” I was like, “Nah”.
I talked to the owners and the next thing I knew, I started running the Antihoot in the back room and also running every night. For the first few years I did everything.
Filthy Pedro: Every night? Blimey, that must have been gruelling?
Lach: Yeah, well, you know.
Filthy Pedro: A music scene usually has a natural lifecycle and end. I remember telling Tom Mayne (David Cronenberg’s Wife) that I estimated about five years when the first wave of the British antifolk scene first started, which turned out to be about right. To keep a scene like that going longer, someone has to make a conscious effort and put in a lot of energy. It sounds like that’s what you were doing.
Lach: When I first opened up at the Sidewalk, I cast the ‘I Ching’, a Chinese book of prophesy. You cast coins that come out through a symbol. It’s supposed to filter into your consciousness and give you an answer to your question.
I asked “What should I do with this antifolk scene now I’m starting it up again at the Sidewalk?” The symbol that came out was the water well. I took it as a sign that in order to keep water from getting stagnant, you need to keep bringing in a fresh supply. The Antihoot was always about that, bringing in the new while respecting what was there.
The Antifolk scene did go in the cycles you were talking about, but it wasn’t a life or death cycle, more like a four years of school cycle.
Someone would come in from Illinois, and the first time they played the Antihoot they were like a freshman (first year). They were like, “Who are all these weird people? Why is that fella who runs it so sarcastic all the time?”
Some would go “Hey this is cool, this is what I’m looking for”. Others would get pissed off and leave and go and play the West Village. The ones that stayed became sophomores (second years), got their first gigs, learned how to make flyers, press releases, etc. You know, because we teach things.
Then they were playing Friday nights, they were juniors (third years) now. Some get record deals. Now they are the seniors (fourth/final years) and they’re going off into the world.
Some people never really graduate, they’re hanging out outside in the parking lot, picking up the freshmen (laughs).
So you get these waves of antifolk and each has its own sort of vibe and characteristics. The first wave was Cindy Lee, Kirk (Kelly) and Billy Nova – you know, those people.
In the second wave there were people like Billy Syndrome, Mike Rimbaud, Casey Scott, Michelle Shocked, Brenda Khan and it goes on like that. You have these layers.
Next there was Paleface and Beck. Someone would get signed or something and all of a sudden we’d go from 30 people in the club to a line out the door. That would last for four weeks, and we’d have models and debutants showing up because everyone is famous. But no one understood their poetry, and so they’d split, you know (laughs).
The thing about the Sidewalk was that its owner was very supportive. We had a great manager there called Ami, he’s passed away now. He came in to manage the Sidewalk restaurant, but became part of our scene. He was a brother to everybody. It was very sad when he passed away. I was at the Sidewalk for 15 years, running the Antihoot and booking the acts.
Filthy Pedro: Did you ever get fed up with music?
Lach: No, I never got fed up with music. You never know who is going to come in next. We had enough of a filter, the ‘antifolk’ acted as a filter, so that we got way more pearls than swine.
People met on the scene, got married on the scene, had kids and even died on the scene. It was a community, an artistic community that was also critical. We would call you on your shit. We would let you know if that really wasn’t a good rhyme, or really was a good rhyme. We really cared about this thing called songwriting. As people got better, and moved up the ranks, then they started helping the newcomers along. People like Joie Dead Blonde Girlfriend were great at helping newcomers.
When Kimya (Dawson) first came on the scene, she was rather messed up, and people like Joie in the scene kept an eye on her and helped her.
Filthy Pedro: What we’re Beck and Paleface like when they first arrived?
Lach: I’d describe them as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Paleface was Huck.
When he first came to the open mic, he wouldn’t have 6 strings on his guitar, maybe just 3, and he would have this talky, gruff presentation. The house was divided on him. Half would say, “Why are you letting this guy play?” the other half were saying, “Give him the prime slot on a Friday”. When you get that kind of reaction, you know you’re onto something.
Beck was a waif. He was this little guy. He started off with covers, or some of his own songs that sounded like covers. He was very influenced by Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan.
Paleface was getting more attention. Beck was frustrated, and we had this chat, where I told him he needed to write his own songs. Write about what’s going on, don’t write a song to get a good grade or a record deal. This is a core part of the antifolk philosophy – you write about what is actually going on. He started getting it.
Filthy Pedro: Didn’t they live together?
Lach: Yes, they were roommates. There was some fallout between them; I don’t know what it was. That was before they got signed.
I remember they loved Daniel Johnston though. I can remember listening to his tape and thinking “This guy is antifolk but he doesn’t even know it”.
One of the things about antifolk, there is always this feeling that in anybody’s local town, there is a group of people who are as talented and vibrant as anything being manufactured for you by the capitalist conveyer belt. By starting up an antifolk scene somewhere, you’re always going to bring out these pearls.
When you started things up in London, all of these musicians came out there. Wonderful things to listen to that are way better than anything at number 1 at the time.
Beck then went back to LA, put out ‘Loser’ and became a big star.
Filthy Pedro: Was he playing any of the songs he eventually released when he was at the Sidewalk?
Lach: I don’t remember. I don’t really remember his songs. He was this small, young guy. He was underage and had to ask people to get him beers.
He was like Paleface kid brother, Paleface had the presence in the room – you didn’t notice Beck.
Filthy Pedro: What were the Moldy Peaches like when they first started?
Lach: They were wonderful. They had costumes like Robin Hood, and rabbits and bears. There was a guy who wore a chicken mask. We loved them and they became part of the scene straight away. Jeffrey Lewis and Grey Revell came onto the scene about the same time, they were the new class.
Filthy Pedro: There is a perception that this wave of antifolk was a particularly good generation, possibly because the Antifolk Volume 1 compilation helped raise the profile of those artists.
Lach: What it does show is the pool of talent that was around at that time. Everyone who is on that record is great, like Rick Shapiro and Joie DBG, but there were another 30 or 40 people who could just as well have got on that album. Joe Bendik is the epitome of Antifolk, and he’s not on that album. Bands like The Humans, there were a lot who were just as worthy who didn’t get onto that compilation.
The Moldy Peaches tried to bring others in antifolk along with them. Beck would acknowledge it in interviews, and we were appreciative of that, but there were some acts that got signed from the scene but then denied all knowledge of it.
Lach’s farewell to the Sidewalk cafe before moving to Britain:
Filthy Pedro: So why have you moved to Britain? Why Edinburgh?
Lach: I was called to Edinburgh.
Filthy Pedro: By who?
Filthy Pedro: Which one?
I wanted to get out of New York. I have an antenna, and an invisible arm that pointed to Edinburgh.
I got signed to a label from there, the BBC wanted to do some work with me. First time I played there, it was with Hamell on Trial, and I felt like I‘d been there before in a dream. It happened again the second time I came – now I actually had been there before, but it still felt like a dream.
It always had that quality to me, and then I got invited over to do the Fringe festival and felt welcomed here. I thought “Why not Edinburgh?” We don’t know how long we’ll stay or where we’ll go next. I’m just following the liberated path, where you jump from stone to stone, with faith that the next stone will appear as you come down.
Filthy Pedro: Did you used to drink beers with your mom?
Lach: (Laughs) Oh man! Part of the reason I wrote that song is Tom Clark, this little known musician outside of New York City, but he is one of the best performers and songwriters, in my opinion, to come out of the East Village. I wrote ‘Drinking Beers With Mom’ to write a Tom Clark song. I wanted to write the kind of song Tom Clark would do.
Filthy: So the Moldy Peaches wrote ‘Downloading Porn With Davo’ to make a song like one of yours (‘Drinking Beers With Mom’), which in turn is based on the style of Tom Clark?
Are the people you mention in ‘Drinking Beers with Mom” real?
Lach: It’s kind of a composite of people I grew up with – not to be taken literally. Though the monologue in the song – a lot of that is stuff from my life.
Filthy Pedro: What do you have coming up in the next few months? Any more albums?
Lach: I have a book of poetry coming out in November called The Thin Book of Poems (Desert Hearts Publishing). Also in November is Season 2 of my BBC Radio 4 series The Lach Chronicles and I’ve begun work on my seventh studio album.
My living digital album Sundries has a new track deleted and another one added each week at www.lach.bandcamp.com. I can be followed on twitter @lachtoday and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Lachworld.