Thursday, April 02, 2009

Interview: Tom Huckabee of the Huns

Austin, TX's first-wave punk wunderkinds the Huns were all pissy vinegar -- probably the most pointlessly incendiary band of their scene. For fleeting moments, their playful malevolence was galvanized as much by an odd pop-art sensibility as it was the bratty desire to anger & alienate & etc. See: "Busy Kids."

First and foremost, though, they were shit disturbers, troublemakers, loonies. Their path of destruction is well documented here. Can you imagine the riot that would've ensued after some young ne'er do well kissed an arresting officer in late-'70s Texas? I can't.

Contributor Theresa Smith recently accompanied drummer/instigator Tom Huckabee for a limp down Memory Ln., both whistling "Eat Death Scum" as they tiptoed through the tulips.

Theresa Smith/Attacking the Beat: I’ve heard it said that the first wave of Austin punk bands often seemed to be performing with a “sidelong glance” at London and New York. Did that ring true for The Huns?

Tom Huckabee: I agree with that. Reading magazines like New York Rocker, Punk, and NME, seeing clips of the bands and attending shows in NYC and London, and of course listening to records and studying record jackets. That’s how we learned the basics, the rules, i.e. fast, loud and short. Torn clothes. Spiked hair. Safety pins. Skinny ties. The pogo. At the same time, Devo, Pere Ubu and Iggy Pop were huge influences. The Midwest DIY aesthetic.

ATB: That scenario seems to apply pretty universally to punk scenes in smaller towns: looking towards the epicenters of new wave and punk, but at the same time being aware of the distance, real and ideological, between themselves and the music being made in larger cities. In cities like Austin (Bloomington and the Jersey shore as well), this distance fosters a special kind of detachment and critical stance that gives rise to a breed of music, sonically distinct from New York or London punk, that looks askance at the “seriousness” of these scenes and answers the call to produce something revolutionary with three chords and a smirk. The Huns are a prime example of this tendency, as are the Dicks, Big Boys, Stains, etc.

TH: It was in songwriting and performance that we couldn’t help but be different than our influences. We were never a cover band. We weren’t good enough to musicians. But even if we had been, we would have concentrated on original material. Being “different” was extremely important. Before the Huns ever had an official practice session, when we were still a poster band, we were intent on standing out amongst the local bands and for that matter internationally. We were very ambitious, both creatively and careerwise.

When I first started writing songs for the Huns, at least for myself, most of my ideas came from poems I had written when I was a teenager in the early seventies, lyrics that had been influenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, horror films, acid, religion, school, family dysfunction, politics, sexual identity, Texas identity.

ATB: When the Texas punk “scene” began to solidify in the late '70s, many of the bands either identified punk with performance art - influenced by what was coming out of New York - or with social commentary, influenced by UK ‘77 stuff. Some bands, like AK-47, embraced politics and eschewed image. Bands like the Dicks combined both spectacle and substance. The Huns' take on punk seemed to be one of pure spectacle and planned antagonism. What influenced this approach, and to what extent do you think it defined the Huns?

TH: I think there was substance to the Huns, especially in the beginning, before we replaced guitarist Manny Rossario with John Burton, but it got overshadowed by spectacle. Many of our songs were quite provocative on different levels. I’m thinking of “Legalize Crime,” “Murder in Texas,” “I'm Glad He’s Dead,” “Busy Kids,” “Forgotten Graves,” “Beautiful Black Men,” “Police State,” “Violence,” “Kill All Men,” “The Universe is Full of Noise,” etc.

ATB: As much as punk espoused iconoclasm (at least on its surface), the scene was more than willing to venerate its own. Would you say that the Huns’ music and performances were in any way a reaction against this tendency?

TH: We were aware of this. We encouraged it and mocked it at the same time with songs like “Busy Kids,” “The Huns are God,” “We’re Not the Huns,” and “Kill All Men” which contained the line “Kill the Huns.” Before our first live show, we decided to dress, not as “punks,” but as “frats,” slicking our hair down, wearing Izods and slacks. We prepared a super slow song, as well as a parody of local punk heroes, The Skunks. We believed to be truly “punk,” we would have to insult our friends and ourselves as much as outsiders. Since, our crowd was largely made up of college students studying semiotics, a lot of them understood what we were up to and encouraged us.

ATB: I assume the Red Krayola were a big influence on the next wave of Austin punk - all that cacophonous experimentation had to count for something, after all. Were the people involved in punk bands actually listening to any of that sixties TX stuff - Red Krayola, the Elevators, the International Artists roster?

TH: Yes, the Huns knew about Red Krayola and especially the Elevators. Roky was a big influence and I became his valet in 1979 for a few months, while he was sitting in with my other band, the Reversible Cords [Re*Cords]. Everybody had Roky’s EP with "Two Headed Dog" and Nuggets, Lenny Kaye’s compilation of garage rock of the sixties. Dan Puckett and Phil Tolstead were rock musicologists with esoteric tastes and wrote erudite reviews for Sluggo under nom de plumes. My own musical influences were less obscure, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, David Bowie, The Doors, even The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Patti Smith, Captain Beefheart and Cab Calloway were about as far as I ventured into the fringe, at least until right before joining the Huns when a tsunami of new music hit the college crowd, at which time I discovered the joys of the Velvet Underground, Iggy, Roxy Music, Ramones, Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Sex Pistols. X-Ray Spex, Television, Roky Erickson, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Modern Lovers, Dead Boys, etc. My avant-garde interests were more in the areas of fine art, performance art, written word and film: William Burroughs, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, etc.

ATB: The Huns were more or less college-age when you began playing shows. How old was the typical attendee at these shows? College-age? Older? When would you say there began to be a legitimate punk “community” in Austin as opposed to the loose network of people who played and attended punk shows?

TH: I was 23. Phil was 21, I think. Manny may have been 25. That was the range. Typical attendee was 18 – 30. I think the punk community you’re speaking of came to critical mass in 1981 – 1985, right after I left town, with the Dicks and the Big Boys as the main bands and boosters. This dovetailed with the Butthole Surfers moving to Austin, taking it to an international level. This was when the average skateboarder and disaffected teenager embraced punk. It no longer needed the transient and fickle intellectual college crowd to keep it afloat.

ATB: What were you listening to or playing before The Huns?

TH: Lots of Doors! Because I was making a film called “The Death of Jim Morrison.” Bob Marley. Captain Beefheart. Talking Heads and Television because I had a friend who worked for Sire Records. Blondie. Bowie. Patti Smith. Roxy Music.

ATB: How did you react to people who didn’t seem to understand the “theatrical” aspect of Huns shows or the tongue-in-cheek nature of the lyrical matter?

TH: I don’t remember many people not getting our theatrical side. Even my older brother, a bluegrass virtuoso and purist who disdained most electrified music, loved to come to our shows for the drama and spectacle. The harshest critiques of the Huns were about musical ability and lack of interest in improving. The first accusation was true, the second was not. Also, don’t forget about us being assholes. Otherwise, we were not underappreciated, as practically every performance was actually reviewed in the local papers, indeed we were treated to more press attention than the average touring act. There was, I’m sure, a rarefied group of Austin town burghers and puritans who were offended by our blasphemous, androgynous, anarchist gestures. Phil would have gotten off scoff-free at his trial had he not alienated the super liberal judge by spouting neo fascist, anti-hippie vitriol.

ATB: As liberal as Austin itself was and is, Texas is still a conservative stronghold, and even young people must have felt the pull of conservative influence.

TH: You’re talking about pre-Bush, pre-AIDS Austin, one of the most liberal towns in the country. One of the reasons that Phil and Dan affected faux-Nazi garb and lyrics, naming the band The Huns, writing “Glad He’s Dead,” copying the Pistols' "Belsen was a Gas" was to shock the liberal bourgeoisie. There was a large contingent of Frats who took anti punk stances, but nothing like the anti hippie aggression of the prior decade. Something that was discussed a lot in my circle was whether we had the same right to hate society that English kids did. Maybe that’s why Austin punk took such an ironic tone early on. We were terribly self aware of our posing and cultural theft… not to mention greedy for fame, fortune and sex, as well as an audience for our “art.”

ATB: Were you surprised that people seemed to follow in the Huns’ footsteps by forming their own bands in the wake of 1978?

TH: Certainly not surprised after our first show garnered front page news around Texas and got into Rolling Stone and NME. Your average college student, buried in a town of 40,000 students, longed for anyway to stand out. Cutting your hair and yelling at people from the stage seemed like quite a cheap lottery ticket for this.

Also, for any young musician, trying to score a decent gig in the locked-down Austin live scene, it was a Godsend. Excellent musicians who couldn’t stand punk, joined punk bands for that reason alone.

ATB: How much influence do you think the Huns had on bands like the Dicks or Big Boys, who also had an element of spectacle to their stage shows?

TH: I think we had a great deal of influence. Biscuit Turner was an acquaintance of mine prior to the punk scene who came to all of our early shows. I’m fairly sure we gave the Big Boys that debut opening for us. Biscuit had always been a very theatrical person, ever-present on the Austin Streets at Carnivale and Halloween. But he found a new and large audience at Huns gigs to show off his costuming and dancing ability. I remember well seeing all the members of the Dicks at just about all of our shows. Gary Floyd was a good friend to all of us. We did everything we could to encourage him to make the leap from “poster band” to “real band.” I don’t know if we gave them their debut. I hope we did.

Once again, Gary didn’t need much encouragement to be as provocative as possible on stage, but I’m sure he found great enjoyment and esprit de corps at our shows. The explicit homosexuality of his lyrics were an innovation in Austin punk, I think. We, the Huns, had flirted with sexual perversity in songs like “Beautiful Black Men,” but it was always along the lines of David Bowie, rather than Tom Robinson or Wayne County.


Shit disturbers disturbing shit; troublemakers making trouble: