Sandy Duncan's Eye
(originally published in Fiz magazine #6, March 1993)
Sandy Duncan's Eye are making a point.
The band just played a big West Hollywood show, for which they were offered a less-than-magnificent one hundred dollars. They refused the money. Were they offended? Didn't they need the money?
"That's not the issue" patiently explains Roberto, bass player and singer and currently unemployed. "As a band, we just don't want to go through all the trouble of dragging out our gear on weeknight to just go down to some sleazy Hollywood dive for the standard Hollywood hundred bucks. That kind of money, really, is nothing to a band--certainly not to this band. We can go out of town and get a lot more than that and probably have more fun besides. So if we're going to play in town here, we want to achieve something more than just a few bucks apiece."
So they turned down the money. But what, then, did Sandy Duncan's Eye get in return for playing for free?
"We had requested that a few conditions be met" says the soft-spoken drummer Campbell. "We made it an all-ages show, which is unusual in Hollywood. But we've built up a considerable following with the under-21 crowd, and they always have a certain energy that the audience will lack if they are excluded. We also wanted it to be a cheap door price, like only half the usual $10 cover. That way a lot of people who cannot really afford those high cover charges can get in. And finally, we wanted to pick the other bands on the bill--good bands, new bands, that have something in common with Sandy Duncan's Eye and with our fans. Oiler and Beekeeper are just that. Normally, it is almost impossible in this town for new bands like them to get on a bill like this one."
So how did it go? "I think we were successful," continued Campbell. "A lot of people showed up and saw a show that was better, overall, than you would normally expect in a club like that--a lot of people who are normally excluded from such places because they aren't old enough or haven't the money. I think we got something of far more value that night than just another hundred bucks." There was clearly a hint of pride in that statement.
Maybe since such commercial selflessness is the stock in trade of Fugazi this may not seem like anything new. But this is Hollywood. With its zillions of bands willing to sell out anything for that bit of the spotlight, even a hint of altruism is too often seen and set upon as nothing but weakness. And then in this depressed local economy, the notion that an out-of-work bassist would turn down a hundred dollars of good smoking money seems, on the surface, to be downright nuts. After all, Sandy Duncan's Eye are hardly rock stars. In fact, after seven years of slogging through the underground they are just now beginning to acquire a solid local cult following. With a pair of Flipside CDs under their tightly pulled belts and a SubPop single-of-the-month due soon [actually--only one of the CDs was released], any kind of exposure to the "alternative" audience must be welcome.
"Not necessarily" says Campbell. A hint of a sigh gives away his frustration with a question that seems to him to have so obvious an answer. "We are very serious about playing only the kind of shows that we comfortable playing. We haven't been Sandy Duncan's Eye all these years just to throw our values out the window when the chance to play at some fancy club with some hot 'alternative' (he spits the word) band arises."
Recently they played a gig midway up the bill at a very well known Sunset Strip establishment, opening for one of Seattle's better known punk bands. "There we were drinking beer out in our van," says Campbell, "and it was raining like crazy and we were thinking that if we weren't playing and didn't have to be there, would we as individuals have gone to a show like this?"
Roberto explains. "Look--the parking sucked. The cover was way too high and the beer way too expensive. None of us really cared all that much for the other bands on the bill. And it was just pouring out. We all agreed then and there that none of us would have gone to that show. So we don't want to do that again. We're determined that we will not play shows unless we feel we are achieving something important, besides making money, by playing. That's not why we have gone through all the hassles of being in Sandy Duncan's Eye in the first place."
One wonders just what it is that has kept them going all these years, toiling in obscurity, an obscurity they have grown to appreciate so much that they go to unusual lengths, it seems, to nurture it. After all, their heavy-crashing-industrial-damage-punk-catharsis-whatever is suddenly verging on the commercially acceptable. Not that they have altered it at all--anyone who has seen them over the years has to admit that though their playing is better, the dynamics richer, the sound perfected, it is still just Sandy Duncan's Eye. Roberto hunkers low over his long-strapped bass, his voice resonates with that flat, sort of hollow Everyman style popularized by D. Boon long ago. Campbell's drumming is pre-hardcore, loose and basic, touched with primitive jazz inflections. Bill Sanke's guitar fills are harsh, full and fluid at the same time--all three musicians come together in a great mess of art clashing with punk, some of the most damaged feedback-drenched, cymbal-crashing, riff splatterings around. As a whole, it defies easy categorization and just begs the question--how do you describe your sound?
Roberto squirms in his chair and looks over at Campbell who sighs, fishing for an answer. "I think that the most difficult question ever to come up in an interview," he begins, "is the one that asks us how we would describe our 'sound'. It's hard because we don't ever think in those terms. We don't really worry about any Sandy Duncan's Eye sound the way they do in fanzines. It's just not an important question for us." He thinks. "Hmmm. It's been said that we are a rock band, tough and loud--the kind of thing that is a physical thing for the body but aims at the intellect, too."
Roberto nods in agreement. Campbell relaxes--they had made it past the question. They had avoided once more the need of the underground press to precisely categorize every band into its appropriate genre, like books in a library. "It's funny," Roberto adds, "when we started playing this kind of stuff, there was no term for it, no defined genre to speak of."
You mean like industrial-noise-damage-grunge-whatever? "Yeah--we were just a loud, weird band. I'd like it to stay that way."
So how did this vaguely defined loud, weird, heavy combo start anyway? "Campbell and I were from Washington," says Roberto, rather pointedly avoiding the S-word [Seattle], "but Sandy Duncan's Eye began here in L.A. We played our early shows at the old Anti-Club. I wanted to get in on the big crowds Moist and Meaty [pre-Cheeseburger] were drawing. We were just a punk band, really; an angry fun band."
"That's how we got the name" adds Campbell, reminiscing. "We never expected this thing to go on much at all--certainly not the six or seven years its been. We just barely had any gear, and Roberto had the only usually running car. And those bills at the Anti-Club were so strange. The first band would be some sort of U2 thing, and they'd have all this great gear and beautiful girls in tow, and we'd just stare. The up next would be some lame metal band with even better gear and even more beautiful girls hanging around, and we were so broke and our equipment so shitty, and we attracted a few motley fans. I remember once after we'd taken our stuff off the stage and were just sitting around in the back there when Helen [the notoriously moody bar owner] came back and gave us a big pep talk, pumping her fist, telling us to keep trying and not give up. It was all so surreal."
"There wasn't really much going on in Seattle back then in the early-mid '80's. This was all before the 'SubPop Sound' happened" points out Roberto. "This was back in SST's heyday, and L.A. just seemed to be the place to come to. But our sound came about not as an attempt to sound like anybody or any style, but just out of what we liked and what we could play. It's still that way--we like lots of bands." Prompted, they rattle off a stream of the better known--Killdozer, Tad, Fugazi, Painteens, Cop Shoot Cop, et al--and a whole host of the unknown, discovered through friends, record shops and touring. "But then we don't try to consciously fit what they do into our sound. We're just Sandy Duncan's Eye."
One of them mentions Gas Huffer as a great Seattle band. But what of its predecessor, the U-Men? "Godhead" says Roberto, emphatically. Their records were brilliant and live they were even better." Why, then, their plunge into obscurity? "The U-Men had nothing to do with the grunge thing," explains Roberto. It was so different, so much weirder. There was a lot more to the music. When the SubPop thing happened in the late '80's it just passed them by. But they had a big influence on us."
With a little digging you can find the U-Men's classic Step On A Bug LP. The influence is unmistakeably there. Though the music on it is a little looser, a little bluesier, somewhat more intricate in its arrangements, maybe even kind of Trout Mask Replica sounding--still you can hear something of the musical and attitudinal roots of Sandy Duncan's Eye in its madness-- in that crazed, angular heavy grooving sharp-edged off-kilter vocalized weirdness that seems not to give a flying fuck about what anybody within hearing range thinks of it. Especially you.
Yet, irony of ironies, the noise that is "New Alternative" (SDE's term, properly spat) and the noise that is Sandy Duncan's Eye are on convergent paths. With the success of The Jesus Lizard, Hole, Babes In Toyland, Helmet, the Butthole Surfers and others, the glorious din of the band's Flipside releases has been catching ears at Big Labels. Is there a choice in the future--between staying with Flipside or going onto bigger, maybe much bigger things?
"We have been offered" Roberto offers cryptically, "and they were substantial offers. But the band has all talked about it, and we decided that it is just not the sort of thing we want to do at this time." Now, The Jesus Lizard have just gone public talking about the same thing, but they are much bigger than Sandy Duncan's Eye: bigger crowds, bigger sales, bigger everything. But Roberto does not care to elaborate. There are more of those principles at stake here, deeply felt philosophical beliefs that, to be honest, would not be understood by most musicians in this or any other "scene".
Roberto tries to explain. "If we got a big deal offered us--an advance, tour support, big recording budget--I don't know if we'd take it. That's not why we are in this business, that's not why we do this. We are happy with what Al and Flipside have done for us--we're getting lots of exposure, we don't necessarily have to fight for gigs now or get stuck on bills with bands that we feel we don't really fit with somehow, whether musically or philosophically. We can even talk the promoter into letting us book bands that, ordinarily, the rules of the game would never let us play with."
Earlier Campbell had described all the years Sandy Duncan's Eye had been stuck making their music surrounded by all these bands following the latest commercial gambit: the Guns 'n' Roses wannabes, then the Janes Addiction clones, now the Nirvana wannabes. "I'd really rather not have to deal with that," says Roberto. "I made a decision long ago that making a lot of money was going to be one of my life's goals. Being rich was not one of my life's goals." Campbell grins. "Well, he's certainly succeeded at that." Roberto laughs. "Yes--but I would have to say that what Sandy Duncan's Eye is doing now is what I've always wanted to do. Things are tough out there now. The clubs are fucked up. And it seems that everyone you talk to in Hollywood right now is business, business, business all the time." He shrugs. "But for me, I like the way we do things. It's not that things are all that great for us or that that we are fully satisfied with our position now. It's not that we are completely happy with the conditions in this city--after all, there are plenty of things to hate about L.A." says Roberto, pointing to their old Flipside spread that lambasted the city's great institutions of hipdom. "But we are an L.A. band. We like it here. And I'd like to continue doing things our way than be dictated to by a large record company." Campbell nods in agreement.
The topic shifts to Al Flipside. "He is so great for keeping Flipside the way it is" says Roberto. "He could be so much bigger if he really wanted. Much bigger. But he likes it small, just the way it is. We are very comfortable working with Al. We share his priorities."
Roberto takes the idea to another level. "The business mind has great difficulty understanding something done out of love. Doing something for the money is easy to grasp. There's a logic to it. But when one does something purely out of love for what he's doing, for what he is creating, then it is no longer measurable in monetary terms. It no longer makes sense to the business mind. There is a purity to it, and it becomes almost dangerous."
Unwittingly, Roberto has brought the theme back to that Standard Hollywood Hundred Bucks. But both Campbell and he seem quite reluctant to continue speaking in those same hallowed terms about themselves. Their discomfort is palpable, but the interviewer is relentless. So what, then, does your argument say about Sandy Duncan's Eye?
Roberto hesitates; Campbell sits mute, watching. The pull of the egoless punk of their roots is strong, almost overwhelming. Roberto thinks a moment and begins, picking his words gingerly.
"I believe people--some people at least, the right people--appreciate the purity of art that is done without regard for one's financial gain. Something that is done for and out of unselfish love. For that reason they respect Al and his creation, Flipside. I just hope that these same people can see that Sandy Duncan's Eye strive in our own way for that same thing. And I hope that that will respect us and our music for it."
Roberto relaxes, takes a breath and sits back. Campbell nods again in agreement. The interview is over. Sandy Duncan's Eye had made their point.