noted western massachusetts pedagogue and shakespearean scholar john warthen called them, "not a band, but an extended put-on." jsh boyer (aka the bitchboy) of seminal brooklyn noiserockers pithd said, after listening to one of the AFs’ ultrarare live bootlegs, "i think there’s only one thing on there that’s not worth listening to." scrubbing bubble #1, of the legendary w. mass underground rock duo the scrubbing bubbles said, "you guys actually have songs… it sounds like music."
but most importantly, at the live shows which live large to this day in the minds of the band and perhaps others, teenaged girls, hopped up on caffeine and pure acid-fishsticks-powered honk and roll, summed it all up when they said, "take it off! whoo! take it off! i have drunk and seen the spider!"
so how did the phenomenon known as the acid fishsticks come to be?
the acid fishsticks were first conceived of in 1989 in the sleepy
college town of amherst, massachusetts.
the name came from founder FISHSTICK, a
piano lessons veteran with access to a guitar and a stainless-steel
clarinet, whose rich baritone would lend the AF their power and whose
fingers would soon find their way around keyboards, the bass guitar,
the acoustic guitar, and percussion instruments including several
models of the mysterious gortonizer;
and BURNIN’ TURNIP, who knew a thing
or two about clarinets and could borrow a saxophone from his sister,
but soon proved as handy on percussion, vocals, keys, and a variety
of other instruments.
(F and BT were to be the primary developers of the AFs’ signature clarinet sound, often imitated but never truly equaled.)
the name under their belt, the two were quick to recruit brilliant polymath OCTER NOBBLE, classically trained and musically-minded, who was already experimenting with sequencers and keyboards, and whose programming provided the flesh for many of the AFs’ finest early works. ON took turns on keys, drums, winds, and other instruments before teaching himself to play the guitar and rising meteorically to become the acid fishsticks’ lead guitar player. also on board was EFFERVESCENT SPONGE BOY, a longtime friend of TURNIP. before becoming the principal bass player for the group, ESB came into the studio armed with an open mind, providing vocals and such musical contributions as a miniature electrified battleaxe in the percussion section, as well as winds and countless others. the five-piece was completed with the arrival of SKITCH VERP, who had lots of gear (an electric guitar, a bass, a dulcimer, a huge amplifier, and a four-track cassette recorder, along with other bits and pieces), could play a couple of chords, and whose alter ego had been getting sore throats for some months already as the lead hollerer and occasional guitarist in underage punk-blues sensation tweedman.
in 1990, during the AFs’ first basement jam/recording session at 828 main street in amherst, GOATEE BOY, known in another life as tweedman’s bassist and spiritual leader, provided bass guitar and musical direction on unreleased early versions of the AF hits plastic bag and candlewick. GB’s bass can be heard on problem, a recording from the 828 main session which made it on to the second AF album, and his trumpet is highlighted on dwn yr trout, the other surviving track from the 828 session to be featured on the second acid fishsticks release. the raw power, happenstance melodies and homeschooled disjunction of these early works epitomized the AF sound in the formative days, a sound which VERP and FISHSTICK would later dub, "music to make you wish you were born without eardrums."
recording and jam sessions continued in the weeks and months following 828, and the acid fishsticks gradually began to accumulate the tracks that would become down your trout, the second release by the group, and arguably the band’s masterpiece. they explored new dimensions, with ON’s sequences playing a more prominent role, and the group learning how to maximize the four-track experience for themselves and for their still largely unsuspecting, soon-to-be-amazed audiences. recordings from the period following 828, mostly realized at ON’s octorama studios, showcase the simultaneous evolution of the AFs’ sound and collaborative songwriting style. the songs are staggering in their diversity and in almost every other respect. the hard-whomping lament of pilgrim’s illness, the baptism of fire and ice that is ¡no o no! , and the tragic eastward-gazing saga of the misbegotten first time hitman all feature lush programming by NOBBLE, with VERP providing increasingly competent guitar accents, and FISHSTICK putting the baby grand piano at octorama to good use as well. as if this weren’t enough, naturally confident vocals came from F and EFFERVESCENT SPONGE BOY to further gild the lily. each of these three tunes features a different lyricist… diehard fans will be able to tell without consulting the album’s extensive liner notes which lyrics were penned by ESB, F, and BT.
not long after the octorama sessions, with the album nearly half-completed, the acid fishsticks decided that the world was ready to hear what they had to say. their first concert took place at a private gathering in woody leverett, mass, a town which was never the same. the nattily necktied acid fishsticks shocked, stunned, and delighted the assembled company, and educated them as well, teaching them the fishstick dance. scant seconds after SV and F gave them their education, the group had the crowd leaping and collapsing, elbows pointed skyward, armpits flashing, to the godzilla-fried-monster-disco of terror coil, a song conceived in part as an homage to the period’s manchester sound, but which proved to be far more lasting and powerful.
no one who was present at the event will soon, or perhaps ever, forget it. the fishsticks’ short set was immortalized both in their first live cassette, released in some places as henhouse hedgehog: the acid fishsticks live in leverett, and in a concert video, the acid fishsticks live in leverett, which mysteriously vanished after burning up the VCRs of some dozens of lucky viewers. some tracks from the historic concert resurfaced in autumn ‘92 on the seminal live compilation produced by ESB (who was fast becoming the band’s primary sound archivist – his collection of live recordings, out-takes, side projects, and experimental works is unrivalled, and much sought-after by collectors), the best of the LIVE acid fishsticks (see tapeography).
on new year's eve 1991-92 the band would further their implicit agenda of taking terror to the hill towns of the quiet pioneer valley with a concert which surpassed even the AFs' expectations of inspiring and horrifying an audience. since the first show in leverett, the acid fishsticks had accumulated a sizeable body of new tracks for the still-untitled album which they felt their fans deserved to be exposed to. and so, in the normally almost silent village of pelham, at FISHSTICK's fishstick sound recording studio and performance space, the smallest, most intimate venue in which the group had yet played live, the band performed a show which would become known forever as the way too loud concert.
the sound system at fishstick sound was designed for recording rather than live performance. for lack of an effective monitoring system, each member of the band feared being unable to hear their instruments over the shrieking of their now extremely dedicated, young female fans. acid fishsticks devotees, on the strength of the first live cassette and word of mouth, had multiplied since the first show. the group now played to an audience that outnumbered them perhaps as much as six times over. fueled by the ecstatic intensity of the group's first performance, the crowd was almost rabid, almost vicious in their enthusiasm for the acid fishsticks. to counter the onslaught of this youthful frenzy, the band stopped at least twice during their cursory sound check to raise the volume of their amplifiers. the results were positively ear-splitting, turning such classics as zero height man (this rendition of which allowed F, while singing backup, to develop the interpretive dance which would become synonymous with the song) and entrails (a song which had not yet been recorded, but would become one of the most beloved tracks on the group's second record), as well as new innovations like the pachelbel-inspired culture break, into deafening noise-fests which rattled neighboring windows and made the hardest-core punk rock show seem placid and flaccid in comparison. perhaps the most emblematic number performed at this gig was FISHSTICK and VERP's anarchic semi-improvisational explosion my house!!, the "tune" which closed the set. it began with SV's sinister dedication of the song to "those of you who don't think our amps are loud enough", and ended perhaps three minutes later with a smashed microphone, a clarinet reed chewed to splinters, and a houseful of wide, almost tearing eyes and ringing, almost ruptured eardrums. the acid fishsticks had ensured that no one who was there would welcome the new year in with proper hearing.
this and several other songs from the way too loud concert can be found on the best of the LIVE acid fishsticks, but the evil might of that live show is something which can never be adequately reproduced on tape. it is perhaps a testament to the group's inherent appeal, or perhaps to something else entirely, that almost everyone who was present at the brutalizing event would return to see the AF perform again.
the acid fishsticks’ approach to their music and the studio would be changed forever in the winter of 1991-92. rumors about the band’s existence had been spread throughout the small, normally tranquil community of amherst and its environs by those lucky enough to have experienced them live or through the preliminary masters from the still-to-be completed record (rapidly approaching sixty full minutes in length), which were already enjoying some surreptitious circulation. these rumors caught the ear of local theatre-company manager and high school teacher john warthen, with whom members of the band had studied shakespeare and acting, and he commissioned the group to compose a score for a planned production of a midsummer night’s dream. in one of warthen’s signature radical reinterpretations of the bard’s works, he also asked the AF to split the role of puck among the five of them, a theatrical innovation which garnered much praise from critics at the time but has never been attempted since.
the acid fishsticks did not consider themselves actors, and the band wondered how their wild and unpredictable musical stylings would translate into an instrumental,incidental-music format. in addition, it was clear that warthen wanted the band in his play not because he was a great admirer of their music, which he had never heard upon commissioning them, and later proved not to understand (on hearing some early mixes from the octorama sessions, he flatteringly if inexplicably likened their sound to that of lou reed), but because he was hoping to capitalize upon the acid fishsticks’ caché with a young and largely female audience. furthermore, the group was accustomed to total freedom in the studio, and for the first time in their career would be tailoring their music to the ear and deadlines of an outsider. the initial direction of the play required the group to accompany the action live from an orchestra pit, no small task, given the fishsticks’ propensity for switching instruments between and even during songs and the sheer mass of musical equipment involved. this idea was scrapped after an early rehearsal with the actors and the band dissolved into feedback and confusion on all sides. instead, the band holed up for several weeks in SV’s recently furbished serendipity sound laboratory, where the group streamlined their recording process and produced a soundtrack with almost blinding and deafening speed and efficiency. the results of their attic-bound efforts are remarkable to this day. the compositions come largely from the fertile mind of ON and feature instrumentation the group had not previously explored, including fine acoustic guitar work from NOBBLE, lovely recorder playing on the part of SPONGE BOY, and a mandolin provided by the previously mandolin-ignorant VERP which one audience member described as "andean-sounding." the group sold cassettes of the soundtrack in the lobby during the well-attended show’s performances, and supplies were rapidly sold out.
the influence of the soundtrack recording experience on the acid fishsticks' approach to the studio cannot be underestimated. while making midsummer, the group explored such novelties as assigning a single group member to a particular track for the entirety of a recording session, determining who would occupy each track sometimes before recording even began. the results were fantastic for the band's efficiency in producing recorded songs, and proved beneficial to the sound quality as well. songs such as the blood in the doorway, entrails, the re-recording of the seminal live staple candlewick (all three of which were actually recorded at serendipity during obligatory, frequent, and lengthy "tea-and-preezales" breaks in the soundtrack recording process), not to mention the final studio version of the venerable keith avery all display the new recording techniques the group had been encouraged to develop under warthen's iron thumb. (this newfound diligence later peaked in the completion of an unprecedented four songs in a single day at fishstick sound north, a.k.a. the stronghold.)
whatever misgivings he may have had about the band, warthen's hopes that they would be a powerful draw for amherst's young people were soon realized. it is difficult to tell now whether the acid fishsticks created the audience for a midsummer night's dream, or whether the play created the band's audience, but the show proved to be fantastic advertising, multiplying the number of listeners who would be exposed to the acid fishsticks' independent album which followed on the show's heels. in the late spring of 1992, not long after the play closed, the group completed the master of down your trout, a full hour of music the likes of which nobody, even those who had seen the group on stage in the theatre or owned the soundtrack, had ever experienced before. the cassette was over a year in the making, and thanks largely to the popularity of the group's theatrical debut, quickly became a best seller. down your trout climbed the local music charts to peak in a two-week residence at #2 in the valley advocate's prestigious rankings. it was bested only by an album by amherst world-folk duo vacca and moran, a group which was described to the fishsticks by one AF fan as, "much better than you guys."
during the summer of 1992, after a concert in leverett which featured AF classics, reworkings of songs from midsummer, and some of the group's first covers, including a visionary medley of beatles tunes which can be found on the best of the LIVE acid fishsticks , the acid fishsticks would enter a new phase of their musical evolution, as all the group's members left amherst on journeys of self-improvement and discovery, dispersing themselves to cities and towns all over the u.s. but each individual fishstick took the time apart to develop as an artist, and periodic reunions for new creations and recording were a delightful inevitability. this period also witnessed some of the group's most celebrated side projects, such as figbash, who formed and recorded at BT's burnin' sound studios in leverett during a few prolific weeks in the summer of 1993, and whose finale came with a dramatic and well attended concert at a party on the studio's grounds late that summer. this group featured BT, who had spent the hiatus becoming a masterful drummer, on drums, ON on lead guitars, SV on rhythm guitar and vocals, and ESB on bass. figbash deliberately stepped into a more stripped-down, "rock and roll" sound and was much appreciated, although they never received the acclaim which the full lineup of the acid fishsticks earned during their heyday. the group made no secret of their debt to the AF, including in their repertoire a reworking of the masterful whole grain oats from down your trout. in fact, the street went both ways: the acid fishsticks would later make ocean, originally a figbash signature number inspired by the velvet underground, a prominent feature of many sets. recordings of both figbash and acid fishsticks versions of this tune can be found on the countless bootlegs currently in circulation among acid fishsticks devotees.
other notable side projects from after 1992 include some mind-expanding instrumentals from BT and ON, more than one addition to the already sizeable catalogue of the keepers of porridge (a largely-instrumental group featuring BT on drums, ON on guitar, ESB on bass, and F on keyboards, which formed during recordings for down your trout and is arguably more daring even than the full acid fishsticks), and recordings in the summer of 1995 by two lineups of los dregs, one made up of F on keyboards, vocals, drum machine, and samples, and SV on acoustic guitar and vocals, and the other of F, SV, ESB, and ON on keyboards, rhythm guitar, bass, and lead guitar,with the entire quartet providing vocals. tapes from the dregs duo were sadly lost in the mid-1990s, but the larger version of los dregs was responsible in the winter of 1996 for the longest song ever recorded by acid fishsticks members, the controversial, twelve+ minute, underground epic yo te, an edited remix of which can be heard along with later acid fishsticks recordings on 1999's lost tapes.
during the late 90s, in FISHSTICK's new headquarters in brooklyn, new york, members of the group continued to periodically meet and produce new music perhaps even more adventurous than that of the pioneer valley years. several incredible tunes were produced by a lineup featuring BT, ESB (both of whom spent time as denizens of brooklyn, before relocating to london, uk, and western massachusetts, respectively), F, and new collaborator BRIAN NEEDS AN AF NAME, on drums/accordion, bass, keyboards, and guitar. in a sort of homage to their infamous new year's concert, BT, ESB, F, and SV, along with avant-garde classical composer JACOB COULD ALSO USE A PSEUDONYM, NO? convened in brooklyn on new year's eve 1998-99. the group had originally planned to offer a concert, but, with no time to rehearse, and perhaps fearful of the mind-damaging effects of the way too loud gig, the show was aborted in its early minutes, leaving the band time to drink with their friends and wait for them to go look for a party elsewhere. when the tipsy but disappointed crowd, which included the filmmaker responsible for the legendary premiere concert video, along with other long-time AF enthusiasts, dispersed, the group settled down to an all-night, coffee-tea-and-beer-fueled jam and recording session. tracks from the digitally captured event, featuring a wealth of new and exciting material, as well as an almost unrecognizable turn-of-the-century rendition of terror coil, will soon be available on-line at the acid fishsticks' official website, ww.fishstick.org
the most recent gathering of an acid fishsticks subset took place
in august of 2000 in the easthampton,
mass (not far from the summer home of
both ESB and F)
recording and art studio belonging to margreth
nowinski, a long-time friend and occasional collaborator with
the group, better known as a painter and as the guitarist and lead
singer of asthampton rock band pazza ragazza.
there, ESB (on bass), F
(in one of his first turns as drummer), ON
(on lead guitar), and SV (on acoustic
guitar and vocals) created some spontaneous and unusually quiet new
music for an as-of-yet-untitled EP which should be released this
winter. more information will be available shortly on the
official acid fishsticks website.
aspiring fans please note that all of these recordings were released by even cheaper music and that titles and lyrics are copyrighted by the mediocre press. most of the older albums are out of print, but interested parties may inquire about re-releases, and upcoming acid fishsticks recordings at this address: semper lo-fi recordings, 310 E. Mifflin Street, #3, madison, wisconsin 53703-2846
henhouse hedgehog: the acid fishsticks live in leverett. the first recording ever officially released by the acid fishsticks, the soundtrack to the film the acid fishsticks live in leverett. it contains several tracks found nowhere else in the AF catalog, and rare early versions of songs from their official debut. recorded live, XX/XX/XX, by the shores of echo lake in leverett, massachusetts. featuring: problem, pilgrim's illness, plastic bag, don't do it, no o no, keith avery, terror coil, candlewick, the acid fishsticks theme song, AND WHAT ELSE?
a midsummer night's dream, COVER IMAGE? released in april of 1992. a groundbreaking tape of incidental music, instrumental save for two tracks (over hill, over dale, and philomele) sung by a chorus of fairies. enthusiasts should note that a live version of philomele, in its original key and sung by SV, can be found on several bootlegs. this tape features: wedding march, over hill over dale, philomele, mechanicals theme, puck theme, oberon theme, bergomask, interlude, rock the ground, silent song, love juice theme and anything else?
down your trout, the record which was to be the AFs' debut and remains their most powerful collection. recorded in five or six studios in a period of more than a year, released in may 1992. a limited-edition tenth-anniversary CD rerelease, including outtakes, b-sides, and new material, is planned for spring 2002 OR AT LEAST I THINK IT SHOULD BE -- WE'VE GOT TWO YEARS TO GET OUR ASSES IN GEAR, WHICH SHOULD BE JUST ENOUGH TIME, SO LET'S DO IT. supplies will be limited. reserve your copy yesterday. contact semper lo-fi recordings UNLESS SOMEBODY ELSE WOULD LIKE TO BE THE CONTACT ADDRESS? (GCMcNW? CSW?) for more information. until the mid-1990s, a few copies of the original release of dyt could still be found in the local cassette bins of record stores in amherst and northampton, massachusetts. look if you feel lucky, but those days are probably long past now. tracks (feel free to fill in the holes and correct the order, fellows, as I left my copy of dyt in Thailand and am guessing from memory here): plastic bag, no o no, first time hitman, problem, keith avery, hardship, terror coil, egg in hand, lucio siniestro, dr. abel, the blood in the doorway, please please, dwn yr trout, zero height man, 85 mercedes, fortitude takes a beating, whole grain oats, entrails, bus to sweden, candlewick, pilgrim's illness, AND MAYBE SOME OTHER STUFF THAT I CAN'T RECALL, BUT I'M SURE THIS IS MOST OF 'EM.
the acid fishsticks are currently scattered throughout the united states and united kingdom, but continue to support one another's side and solo efforts, and to reconvene to boggle minds both live and on tape whenever they have a chance. if you've never heard them before, you may in the future. if you haven't heard them in years, they will be back.