The former Tar Babies guitarist discusses his current project, which has two shows coming up in August.
As the guitarist and vocalist for Madison band Tar Babies, Bucky Pope helped to make an under-appreciated, funk- and psych-smeared contribution to the annals of 1980s hardcore. Their releases for SST Records, especially 1987’s Fried Milk, exemplify how punk could be a breeding ground for eccentricity as much as it was an avenue for raw expression: As drummer Dan Bitney (now a member of Tortoise) and bassist Robin Davies laid down jagged but swinging grooves, Pope used brightly warped chord voicings and slippery melodic runs to shape songs like “Clenched Fist” and “On The Phone (W/Pepsodent).”
The Tar Babies broke up in the early 1990s, and since then Pope has had a fitful relationship with music. He moved to San Francisco and formed a band called the Cold Cock Trio, which broke up in 1995 or ’96. After moving back to Madison, he would occasionally play shows (including with Davies, as The Bar Tabbies), but by his own accounting he didn’t write very much new music for almost 20 years, instead focusing on going back to school and working for a while as a substitute teacher. But in 2013 he began playing new material with pianist Dave Adler (who’s best known as a member of The Gomers but also has played in a plethora of jazz and funk collaborations, including with Hanah Jon Taylor and Clyde Stubblefield) and bassist Calvin Thorne. This project eventually grew into his current band, Negative Example.
On two releases, last year’s album Negative Examples and this year’s Double Negative EP, Pope lays out his new approach to songwriting: Still plenty of tangled chords (born of Pope’s eccentric guitar style and fleshed out through Adler’s insanely deep grasp of music theory), structures that veer between mid-tempo funk and pop and disjointed spoken-word, and lyrics filled with spite and dysfunction. On Negative Examples‘ “I Did This To You?,” Pope’s guitar and Adler’s piano swing between two queasy, dissonant chords as Pope unloads a litany of interpersonal complaints on an unspecified target: “You say I did this all to you? These blisters on my patience are your creation.” The three songs on Double Negative feel a bit more cohesive and straightforward, but have much the same bruising personality: “I made my point, come on, let’s dig in / I made my point, you win! / I made my point, come on, just dig in,” he sings on opening track “Denied.”
Negative Example is playing two shows at the High Noon Saloon in August: An opening slot for Faun Fables on August 3, and a free patio show on August 18. Ahead of that, Pope spoke with me about being reviewed by The New York Times, feeling he should have a bigger audience, and the creative rationale behind all those, well, negative lyrics.
Tone Madison: How do you think Negative Example has evolved since you started?
Bucky Pope: I really refine my ideas over months. I’ll have a lyric that I’m working on and I’ll carry it with me everywhere, and I’ll add lines to it every couple days. And the music, too—I would like to see if, unlike so many musicians that I love, if I can continue to peak, even though I’m, like, 50 years old. I think of what the Stones we’re doing what they were doing when they were 50, and it’s really pretty pale compared to the stuff that they were doing 25 years before that. [Negative Example] started with me and an upright bass player, and then we added [Dave Adler]. We were doing it as a three-piece, and we were all interested in the space between chords and notes and impact, but people convinced us that if you want people to engage with you, you might want to get a drummer. And we had a perfect drummer for the material…. Honestly, I think that I feel entitled to more of an audience than we’ve been able to garner.
Tone Madison: Why is that, though? Doesn’t any band have to build up a following first?
Bucky Pope: Yes, yes, yes. We opened up for Bob Mould at the Majestic [in April] and I think we had the floor behind us. I think the people were responding really well to the music, and we had an audience. But we can’t seem to get beyond just playing front of our friends, and our girlfriends, and their friends from work. I’d love to be able to do that. In the past, with the Tar Babies, we had a modicum of success here, and so, you know, it’s the way of all local bands. Unless you can start generating something. But playing to the same people all the time is, um [long pause]—well, you’re grateful for that. But back to the entitled part, I just kind of feel like, man, we’re doing something that is pretty original but is not so abstract that you can’t relate to it at all, and there’s a lot of experience or dues that have been paid behind the musicians that are in Negative Example. I’d just like to see it going somewhere, but, you know, I’m not the best with Facebook and all the digital means that people use to promote themselves. Yeah, when you say “entitled,” I understand that word in itself means that you’re probably over-estimating yourself. [Both laugh.]
Tone Madison: The main impression I get from your lyrics in this band is “Man, people are just constantly pissing this guy off.” You write a lot of songs about betrayal or somebody fucking you over. Where does that come from? And do you feel there’s some humor in the way that you’re processing that?
Bucky Pope: I think there’s some humor in the lyrics, but it’s more just the wordplay that you would be able to get that out of. But, yeah, honestly, lyrics have always been hard for me, but I think that with this time now that I’m doing this, I’m kind of settled into, I’m going to try to make writing less difficult by reaching right into where I am at. I mean frankly, there’s been alcoholism, mental illness, drug addiction, just heinous neuroses in my genetic, what I’ve been handed down, and in my environment. And choices I’ve made have steered me into the places that they have.
I mean, I wrote a song [“Alternate Universe”] about a person that I ended up [substitute teaching] for who was killed in an accident over Christmas break, and I ended up taking over for him for six, eight weeks at a middle school in Madison, and he was like the best guy ever. I mean, all the things he’d done leading up to this point in his life were righteous. The song’s really not about that. It’s about, like a sudden—you’re here, and then you’re on the other side.
I had another friend who was falsely convicted of a sexual assault. He had a record and he just got railroaded through eyewitness accounts that were, you know, switched each time they went into court. But it was this kind of thing where [people said], “Maybe he didn’t do it, but he did something.” So he went to prison for seven years, and then he got out, and eight months later he fired a gun into the ground on Williamson Street in front of the afternoon construction workers. So he got put in jail again. And then he got out and within months he OD’d in a car just down the street from where we were recording. So I wrote “Felon With a Gun,” and that was easy. That one came real well, because it was all about Woody. I knew that guy when I was in high school.
Tone Madison: So it’s not always about people doing things to you, but the negativity around you.
Bucky Pope: I do have a song called “Platitudes,” which is about somebody who, over the course of a couple years, continued to be, like, “Yeah bro, totally, let’s totally do that, call me, let’s get a beer!” And finally I actually threatened to write a song about it, and he was like, “Fuck you, that’s so childish!”
Tone Madison: And then you did it?
Bucky Pope: I mean, I was already writing the song before I told him I was going to write it. So again, yeah, that’s what I’m finding to butt against—I need a lyric, and I’m gonna write about things I’m pissed off about, and then it won’t be so hard.
Tone Madison: Does this person know the song about him exists and is out there now?
Bucky Pope: I don’t know if said person, if you actually put this in Tone Madison and they read this—I never, like, bandied it forward, like, “OK, I told you! This is goin’ down!” I kind of hope maybe they’ll figure it out someday. But that is a person that, I think, if we ever did get together for that beer…it all could be laughed about.
Tone Madison: I was going to ask you about the New York Times review, if only because the writer brought up a couple of really interesting reference points in describing your guitar playing. He compared you to James Blood Ulmer and Marc Ribot. Did that surprise you?
Bucky Pope: Tom Laskin was the singer of the Appliances-SFB, and he wrote for Isthmus, and he reviewed one of [Tar Babies’] records, and he cited James Blood Ulmer as a reference point for what we were doing, and I’d never heard him before.
Tone Madison: And this was back in the ’80s.
Bucky Pope: Yeah. And I kind of get it. I was listening to James Blood Ulmer just a couple days ago. I mean, it’s such strange guitar, but at the same time it just literally sounds like a chicken pecking at the floor—I can see you’re about to take exception to that.
Tone Madison: I get what you’re saying. I just still really like it.
Bucky Pope: I understand that. And Tom Laskin wasn’t the first person or the last person to compare the Tar Babies’ sound, or make connections, to James Blood Ulmer. That is purely incidental on my part, but I was, on the other hand, listening to Rain Dogs, and Marc Ribot stuff, and I never thought that I was imitating him, but at the same time, all those Tom Waits records and the guitar playing on them, I was in awe of. So I was really happy to see Marc Ribot thrown in with James Blood Ulmer. But my influences are, like, D. Boon and Keith Richards, and Hendrix, you know? And then trying to sort of stand out through just practice and stuff from there.