Music Writing by Carson Arnold


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Only a slight sliver of music outta the 80's cymbal would fit the tarantula of hand. The ellipsis of Russ Tolman is one of 'em. A singer/songwriter guitarist for the reclusive band that could've possibly altered rock music for chords to come given if they had just found that extra rash of success- True West- where his presence there inner-scoped a gnawing wildfire of wickedness and patron to their channeling wings of indie ruckus invincible to both the 60's orb and the post-punk-onion- an ever popular style during the time's humid Paisley Underground experience. With such albums like Drifters, True West relayed an aurora of bungle-rock- charmingly clad- but like many bands, under no accordance of pretension beside the pure adrenaline and dream that drove them either into or away. These bands were rational, utterly intelligent, but just careless enough to be dangerously sweet. After savagely touring with the band until '86, releasing assorted pop-raunching albums to a growing reception world-wide, Tolman dashed away, and on amuck, cut forth a sawing magnum of delinquent, alternative gris-songs, lumped from a neo-Stooges retrospect, that would be known as his simmering debut, Totem Poles and Glory Holes. The album would be a somewhat final omega of renegade songwriting, romping into the delta of west-coast garage-rock and dude-punk, limbering off with a bashing flurry of freedom that cools like encountering a rabid, vicious mad-dog oddly pissing away at the side of a dirt road; too vulnerable to attack, but just enough to bark, and thus, scare. In Tolman's case, 'twas music, for as that short era itself dwindled up into one or two ample bands we'd forever wake to throughout the vast lottery of music- thus the genesis of bloom and youth feathered out- Tolman's marrow dimmed, but into the cracks of a hardening kayo, dishing out almost annual amounts of records for the future years to roll. "Riot The Gourmet! Riot The Gourmet!", Tolman seemed to kindly growl throughout the gauge of such later works like Down In Earthquake Town. Crayola of his first steam in True West would be pushed farther back into the books, revived from eager fans- Tolman himself- a desperado wandering the fault-line of for and ever, wanted by every guitar left out in the rain.



RT: Hi, this is Russ.


CA: Hey, Russ, this is Carson Arnold.


RT: Hey, Carson.


CA: How ya' doin?


RT: I'm doing good.


CA: I tried calling your other number, but I just got your email so...


RT: Yeah, that's actually my old number when I use to live in San Fransisco about three years ago so...


CA: Oh, all right. I thought you were in San Fransisco so I was doing the uh...


RT: Well, I...actually live in Richmond and work in Berkeley.


CA: Okay. Yeah, I was judging by the time difference. So I guess I'm all right.


RT: Where are you? East coast?


CA: Yeah, east coast. Vermont.


RT: Oh...Out in the piny woods.


CA: Yep. Been to Vermont?


RT: You know, I've been to almost every state, but I've never been in Vermont, and I've never been to North or South Dakota or Alaska or Hawaii. But I've managed all the rest of them.


CA: Er, well, good deal.


RT: For some reason I never had a gig in Vermont and...that's the number one reason why I never was in any of those states. Touring...


CA: Yeah, I guess so.


RT: I played in Maine, played in New Hampshire.


CA: What was Maine like?


RT: It was kind of weird. That's when I was in True West back in the 80's and we played at "Colby College".


CA: Oh yeah, Colby that's...where is that? I know the college...


RT: Yeah, it's sort of liberal arts private school.


CA: Were people into it? True West?


RT: Yeah, they were, but it was weird. There was a bunch of guys from the town that showed up and thought we were California faggots and wanted to beat us up and...We were actually staying on the campus and they tried to break in where we were staying- it was a very weird scene. Finally, we made pals with them and they were pretty drunk, and pretty soon they started crying about acid rain  and how, you know, Maine was being ruined...It was a very strange night.


CA: Rednecks, huh. You know, I really have no questions prepared 'cuz I only have two of your albums. Totem Poles {And Glory Holes} and uh, True West's Drifters. So I thought you could catch us up with it.


RT: Oh, well, there's a lot of other stuff, you know. Drifters was the second True West record and...I like it, although I think the first one was better received at the time because it was a little rawer sounding and stuff, and Drifters was a little nicer recorded.


CA: Is it on PVC, the first one as well?


RT: The first one actually came out as an EP that we put out ourselves and then it got re-released in France on the New Rose label as a full lp. We put some more tracks on it and it came out as a full lp. Then...they called it Hollywood Holiday , it was just a self-titled EP when we put it out...Then PVC, when they put out Drifters they also re-released the French version, Hollywood Holiday.


CA: All the same original members?


RT: Yeah. Well, we changed drummers a lot. I mean-


CA: Doesn't every band-


RT: I think during the recording period of True West we had two or three different drummers. Some before then, maybe a bass player or two. But yeah, the basic line-up. Richard McGrath, the guitarist, and myself, and Gavin {Blair}, the singer, stayed the same for the two albums and a few years and then...And then they got sick of me, and the band broke up and they kind of reformed without me and we kind of had a legal battle over who owned the name. They did one more album after I was gone. They made one in '86, I forget what it's called but...It was called Hand Of Fate, that they made. And that was about the time that Totem Poles came out.


CA: Are you still in touch with them?


RT: Yeah, I'm kinda back in touch with them. Back in touch with Gavin and Richard over the last couple of years...In Portland, Jim Huey, who has band called Girls Say Yes on a label called Paisley Pop, he and I have been doing some stuff together and he had also been in touch with Gavin and Richard...I think- I'm not sure if I was in touch with them- 'cuz we put out a live thing called True West Live At The Milestone. So yeah, I think I was probably back in touch with them before Jim came into the picture. But, you know, 'cuz of Jim, I've kind of been in touch with them more. Jim recently just got married a few months back so I saw Gavin and Richard at the wedding. Yeah.


CA: Why did you think they got sick of you? What was the reason?


RT: Well you know, it's a thing when we're young and kinda got close to. You know, in those days, we wanted a big record deal. And we got close a couple of times and kinda fell apart and...You know, I was sort of a little bit of a ego-maniac. There's a lot of things if I could do differently now I would have, you know- now with just a little more maturity and hein-sight...And also they were both song writers and I was tending to get most of the attention as far as songwriting and stuff- so, you know, they kinda wanted their-


CA: Were you the main songwriter?


RT: I was the main songwriter.


CA: And Gavin would-


RT: Yeah...Like on the first record a lot of the songs were written by myself and Gavin. Some with myself and Richard, once by myself. I dunno...Also, I was sort of the ring leader and the person who tended to do the interviews and stuff, so I kind of singled out and got more attention then the other guys, so you know.


CA: And you had been planning Totem Poles for a long time?


RT: Some of those songs were songs that were supposed to be on the next True West album but, you know, it didn't happen.


CA: You wanted to make it more grittier.


RT: Ah yeah, for sure. 'Cuz Drifters, we kind of got reviews saying "ah, well, this too clean and too nice". I kind of wanted to make a big ball of noise, and...that's how it turned out. For sure.


CA: See...What was the intentions of True West, as far as musically?


RT: I dunno, we kind of liked the two-guitar thing. We were big Television fans so...


CA: What did Tom Verlaine have to do. Did he help out with Drifters?


RT: Uh, no, he didn't. He produced some demos for us before then...EMI put up some money and we went off to Bearsville Studio in upstate New York and did some recording and...EMI ended up passing on us and we asked Tom if he wanted- when we got the deal with Jim at PVC- we decided to give Tom a call. Tom had never done an indie record before and he had no idea- and we had $25,000 budget which was about ten times as much of what the first record had cost. He didn't have any concept of being able to make a record under $50,000, so we said "okay, Tom. You live in your world, we'll live in ours" {laughing}. So...We did it in the same studio where The Dream Syndicated had just done Medicine Show. Same engineer. I co-produced it with him...It is what it is.


CA: Tell me about your other solo albums. Totem Poles was your debut.


RT: Yeah, that came out in '86 in England and here in '87. I did another one called Down In Earthquake Town which came out in...'89?...Something like that, I dunno.That was after I had moved down to LA. I didn't have a regular band at that point, but I had access to this kind of cool studio, nicely priced, and the engineer there, Bret Gurwitz, who's now the...head-motherfucker up at Epitaph, he was the engineer. Bad Religion was on a hiatus and he hadn't done anything with them, he was just engineering and so Bret and I became good buddies. I did that record there, and I did the next one Goodbye Joe, and another one called Road Movie...and another one called Sweet Spot. Bret had something to do with just about all of them except Sweet Spot, either engineering or co-producing...Those are more sort version of post-punk, LA singer/songwriter guy, you know. Sort of the 70's Laurel Canyon thing except for having already been through the punk rock thing.


CA: Who would be the musicians playing in these session?


RT: Kind of the same group on a lot of them. David Provost playing bass on a lot of 'em. He was in The Dream Syndicate and Textones and...Phil Phil Seymour's band. Dave, you know, he's been around for a zillion years and been in a zillion bands. Great bass player. Then another guy named Dave Drury- a drummer who played on most of all the records...Some guitar players. John Clayjus, who was in The Individuals in New York and also played in the Richard Lloyd band back in the 80's.


CA: 'Twas all pretty much laid back, huh.


RT: Yeah, well...I dunno. Some other guitarists who worked for me a lot on a couple of the records is Curt Swan, he's toured with me quite a bit. He was in Dumptruck...Steve Wynn {Dream Syndicate}...And Robert Lloyd who plays pretty regularly with John Wesley Harding and has also toured with Mr. Wind. He started off touring with me. Great mandolin, accordion, and keyboard player.


CA: Elvis Costello have something or other to do with Totem Poles?


RT: Well it was on Demon Records which Elvis is a partner with Jeke Riverra- original owners of Demon. All their albums came out on their label F-beat, licensed to Columbia.


CA: Was True West well received or were they more kind of a popular European thing, you know?


RT: Here, we toured around the US. My solo albums I have to say have gone much better over in Europe than they have here. But True West, you know, we did ok in Europe but we had much more of an audience here. We toured pretty heavy from '83 through '85, I mean, I think we were pretty much constantly on the road. Now, looking back, if I do something musical once every year or two it's like "oh, I'm pretty busy!", but back then if we didn't have a bunch stuff lined up every month I felt our career was over.


CA: So you don't tour?


RT: I don't tour much...Once in the 90's, I was pretty regularly going over to Europe, 'bout every year or a couple times a year. But the last time I did that was '98, I went to Europe for two tours. Then in 2000, I made a new record called Quadraphonic Highway, and I went over and did some solo shows in Germany. That's the last of my touring...Got married, just bought a house, you know.


CA: And you've had to go back and get a day-job...


RT: Uh, you know, I've always pretty much had a day-job. I've never really been able to live off music. Different periods where I've been close to it...Even in the 90's where I was going to Europe pretty regularly and playing, you know, I was always back in LA working at one job or another. Epitaph records for a while. Started on what it is now their anti-album, where Tom Waits is on, where new Nick Cave records come out. Anyhow, I helped Bret start that label in '95 or something. Then we kind of parted ways, I moved up here.


CA: So the True West thing has sort of died down.


RT: ...We definitely had our moment in the 80's. I think there is a whole sort of revival and interest in what would have been known as the Paisley Underground bands here. You know, a couple years back Magnet did a nice big feature on it and I guess Ryko's putting together a three-cd box-set of it.


CA: All out of print.


RT: Yeah, lot of that stuff is. I mean, all the True West stuff definitely is....I have a label hear in the Bay area called Innerstate, my daytime job is Runt, which is an import distributor. My partner and I started Innerstate in '98 and also started doing a lot of import stuff. I sold that part of the business to Runt and both my partner and I at Innerstate work for Runt...


CA: Seemed like all the True West stuff came out before the invent of the cd. I imagine there would be a difference in cast if you came out now.


RT: Well the True West stuff has been re-released on cd. In France, on the New Rose label, they put it out in like '91 or so. Then they came out here in the early 90's, both albums on one cd. You know, Totem Poles and Glory Holes and Down In Earthquake Town were both re-released on Demon on cd. Available for a while. There are about three album -which I think are probably my three best albums- that came out in Europe but haven't had any release here. Maybe someday they'll seep over here.


CA: Yea', my Dad found Totem Poles in a store and I've found most True West records at record sales, college radio. What was your work with Kendra Smith?


RT: Yeah, Steve Packenham, Kendra, and I, and Gavin, 'drummer in this band called Suspects- we were the first new-wave band in Davis, California, a university town, you know...We did that for a couple of years. Made a single. Actually, I recently got a two CDR set of somebody who had put together live recordings of Suspects and some demos that I hadn't heard in years. I realized we were a much better band than I thought we were.


CA: Yeah, the sound it had.


RT: Most of the songs were written by Steve, and Kendra was lead-singer. We were kind of really into Blondie and The Talking Heads when we first started. Then we broke up and then got back together and did a reunion show and by that period, Steve and Kendra were really into The Velvet Underground. We would open up the show with "All Tomorrow's Parties" with Kendra singing in German...You know, a fun new-wave pop band, and a lot better than I thought we were.


CA: She would do a great version of Nico I'm sure.


RT: Yeah, Kendra, when she get into her-


CA: You still in touch?


RT: No, I've haven't seen her. I mean, I know what she's up to and I know where she is, but we were never quite on the same wave-length, you know. I haven't seen her in probably ten or twelve years.


CA: Right. What was the concert like when you were touring back then?


RT: In '83, '84, around that time, the federal government put a bunch of pressure on the states to all raise their drinking age to twenty-one. There were a lot of states, you know, 18, 20.


CA: Affecting your audience.


RT: Yeah, it affected everybody touring. 'Cuz you go places like Ohio, 'cuz they'd have eighteen year-old drinking age, you know, you just get a lot more people out in the clubs and stuff. Hurt things a bit. But you know we toured pretty doggedly for a few years, so we just said, you know, "this how REM did it, so this is how we're going to do, we'll just play every town". And we did. And then we actually ended up doing a half nation wide tour with REM in '85, we were on their Fables Of The Reconstruction tour.


CA: Opening for them?


RT: Yeah, playing western US and western Canada with them.


CA: And they dug your stuff.


RT: Yeah-


CA: Now it was more college kids coming rather than highschoolers or whatever.


RT: Well sure. Actually at that point, REM was playing for some pretty good size places. We played like Greek Theater in LA and Berkeley, Paramount Theater in Portland, similar size theater in Seattle. Places ranging from twenty-five hundred seats to four to five thousand seats.


CA: And that should be it.


RT: Well, that was definitely a trip down memory lane. {laughs all around}


--Carson Arnold - June 30, 2003

copyright 2003 Carson Arnold

Other Interviews ~


AFTER THE REHEARSAL (A Scott Rosenberg Interview)

RAINBOW SPLASH (An Interview with Essra Mohawk)

Calling Dudley Laufman (An Interview)

Sunday At One-Thirty ~ An Interview with Peter Siegel

Monday High Noon - An Interview with Dredd Foole

MIDNIGHT ANGEL (An Interview With Joshua)


H(ear) Reviews and Essays


H(ear) is an online music column consisting of interviews, articles, and investigations written by Carson Arnold. As a freelance writer for various magazines and liner notes, living in the woods of Vermont with his family, Carson widely encourages one to submit their art, writing or any interesting piece of material that you would like to share. H(ear) is accepting both promos and demos for review or any other valuable music-related subjects. If you wish to make a comment or would like to receive H(ear) weekly by email please contact Carson at [email protected]

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