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How Watching '90210' for Six Hours a Day Shaped Harvey Milk Bassist Stephen Tanner's Solo Project, Music Blues

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By Brad Cohan

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Photo credit: John Fell

Let’s all calm down about the much ballyhooed forthcoming collaboration between Sunn O))) and Scott Walker because the pulverizing-as-fuck, ear-bleeding, sledgehammer-decapitating and deliciously slow-assed torture Harvey Milk bassist Stephen Tanner has whipped up in his Music Blues guise is something to behold. 

Fittingly and awesomely titled, Things Haven’t Gone Well was birthed in 2010 as the mangy-bearded, culinary wizard and Harvey Milk bassist’s life crumbled to pieces (cut from the womb prematurely, a split with his lady, job woes and drummer Jerry Fuchs’ tragic death). Having to get the hell out of Brooklyn dodge, Tanner found himself crashing at HM band-mate Creston Spiers’ pad in Athens, Georgia. That’s where Tanner hit rock fuckin’ bottom.

Nestled on Spiers’ couch for three months, depressed out of his mind with guitar in hand and his beloved Beverly Hills 90210 shows on repeat, Tanner managed to flesh out the massively noisy and monumentally downer riffers that fill Things Haven’t Gone Well. Cooking up a lethally bleak combo of Lysol-era Melvins raw sludge crawl, the drone-fuckery of Sunn O))) and Thrones’ massive licks, complete with song titles to match the doom (sample: “Trying and Giving Up,” Hopelessness and Worthlessness,” Tremendous Misery Sets In,” “Great Depression,” et al.), Tanner’s Things Haven’t Gone Well is the definitive soundtrack for blowing your brains out.

Suicidal hyperbole notwithstanding, we met up with the rather jovial, tequila-downing Tanner at Williamsburg hub The Commodore in Brooklyn, where the ascending chef is notorious for his magical fried chicken cuisine. Clad in John Bonham tee and gym shorts, Tanner dove into the Athens music scene he was bred on, Music Blues’ trajectory, and most importantly, his love for 90210 and his massive crush on Tiffani Amber-Thiessen.

Here, Noisey is proud to premiere Music Blues’ “91771” below. That happens to be Tanner’s birthday, and needless to say, it wasn’t a good day so don’t wish the dude “Happy Birthday.”

Noisey: Things Haven’t Gone Well is some heavy shit, man.
Stephen Tanner: I think it’s good background music. It’s definitely not something to listen to... I actually have no idea.

Unlike Harvey Milk, Music Blues is all instrumental. Why’s that?
I don’t know how to sing; I’ve never wrote a lyric in my life. Plus I don’t like singing unless it’s Freddie Mercury or something. I guess there are lots of good singers.

Which other singers are you into besides Freddie?
Singers? Oh, dear. All the greats: Paul Stanley, Bon Scott and Brian Johnson. Pete Townshend. I always liked Pete Townshend’s voice more than Roger’s. I don’t like Robert Plant’s voice. I wish the new Zeppelin remasters/reissues—if they would have made a handful of them without vocals, I would have been the first in line. Or maybe there’s some sort of trick on the computer where you can erase the vocals (laughing). It’s not only his voice but the lyrics are so shitty.

You rather hear Zeppelin instrumental?
Yes!

Sounds like you are a classic rock dude.
Well, I like everything except jazz and fusion, probably. I was born in ’71 so all that stuff is killer. But I also like all the pop music. All the disco hits, the Top 40 back then, I like it. Not just classic rock. I imagine KISS would definitely have to be the top; as far as becoming interested in music, it would have to be KISS. Being young, I didn’t know who they were and you didn’t know anything then because there’s not a lot of information. I slept over at a friend’s house when I was in second grade and I was like “What the fuck”—well, I didn’t say “What the fuck”—but I was like “What is that?” I didn’t know what it was. They weren’t holding guitars or anything. I just became obsessed with it, bought all their records, and bought any magazine with KISS in it.

Did you seem them live?
I saw Kiss in the 80’s and then I saw them when they first reunited with Ace Frehley and Peter Criss and it was fun. I grew up a really small town. They didn’t have concerts or anything like that. And punk rock? Forget about it. You couldn’t get anything like that down there.

Where did you grow up?
Albany, Georgia.

Did you have any access to cool shit, like punk, living in such a small town?
Probably the most punk kind of music I had access to was the earliest version of what people refer to as black metal—and not what black metal is today. There was a store that had metal imports and that’s where I got Mercyful Fate records, Venom, The Rods, Celtic Frost and all kinds of shit like that. My taste in music is basically the same as it was then except for some (newer) things that I’ve been exposed to. I pretty much listen to the same stuff I listened to when I was 12. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

When did you move to Athens?
I moved the Athens when I was 18.

The Athens music scene was killer. Were you into all that shit?
I love R.E.M. love Pylon, Bar-B-Q Killers and Porn Orchard. Still to this day, Pylon is so goddamn good. Ted Hafer (a friend of mine who passed away) played in a band that had a big effect on me called Porn Orchard—very Black Flag in style. Those guys were good but older than me and were very nice. I would see them around town and be like “I like your band!” They were nice to me, they’d invite me over and take me out of town with them when they would go play. Eventually, I played music with the bass player/vocalist in separate groups and that was really awesome to play with these guys who were really big heroes to me. Laura Carter (who also passed away) sang with the Barb-Q Killers who were ridiculously great. She was Creston and Stephen’s roommate. That’s Laura on the front of Athens, Georgia: Inside Out. They made one full-length record that was awesome.

What about R.E.M.?
R.E.M. I love. I started losing interest, no pun intended, around “Losing My Religion.” They stopped having a “sound.” Their first five, six records, there was a “sound” and you couldn’t really place it with the bands they were influenced by… be it The Byrds or whatever. They had the Rickenbackers and the VOX AC30’s and stuff like that. They had a sound and I love those records. I saw them live and met most of them. They’re all real nice.

My old band Harvey Milk did a show on April Fools, in maybe ’93 or something, and we played Reckoning by R.E.M. from top to bottom.

Whoa. That’s cool.
And we played it very faithfully. There was no humor to it. We all love that band. The singer from R.E.M. was at the show and he was really blown away—not because we are a great band. Someone that we know who knows him was like “You should go to the 40 Watt tonight.” He probably thought maybe it would be a goof or something but (after) he pulled me aside and, I don’t want to say he was moved, but he was impressed. He’s very nice and good to people in that (Athens) community. I worked at a couple of restaurants where technically he owned them.

I remember talking to him (Michael Stipe) about that album (Reckoning). I was telling him about how that song “Camera” would always really affect me. He told me the whole backstory of it and, man, it was heavy shit. He told me there was a girl who was very close with him, and I think she’s a friend of everyone in that band. They had known each other for a while and she was driving from Athens to Atlanta—probably to visit her parents or something for the holidays—and she was killed in a car accident. And that’s what that song’s about. It was pretty heavy. Growing up and really lovin’ R.E.M. and then meetin’ those guys and having that conversation, it was like “Wow, man.”

That is heavy.
I have another weird R.E.M. story that’s pretty fuckin’ cool. Well, this is going back to the 90’s when R.E.M. first got nominated for a Grammy. Kirk Hammett from Metallica approached Peter Buck, the guitar player from R.E.M., backstage at that thing. This was, I guess, a few years after Cliff Burton died, and he told Peter Buck—and I’m paraphrasing” “I just want to tell you (that) our bass player passed away and the last couple of tours we did before he died, every night before we played, he’d sit in a room by himself and listen to “Flowers of Guatemala,” which is an R.E.M. song off Lifes Rich Pageant. I think that just blew Peter Buck’s mind. It’s kind of beautiful, it’s sad. When my buddy told me that story, I got it, it made sense, it’s really a great song. Just because someone is a head banger or whatever, I just had this image of Cliff Burton getting psyched to play “Master of Puppets” or whatever and listening to “Flowers of Guatemala.” It’s a really pretty song. That kind of stuff is really neat to me. I feel fortunate I got to hear a story like that. I do know people who are “I’m this and fuck everything else” and that’s just a silly way to be.

Yeah, nothing wrong with fuckin’ Cliff Burton being into R.E.M.
I’ve hated that concept of a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t make any sense. I’ve had people ask me “What’s your guilty pleasure?” and I’m like “I don’t have any. Why would you feel guilty about anything that you like? Unless it somethin’ illegal.


Photo credit: John Fell

People may say you being into disco and The Bee Gees is a guilty pleasure.
Well, I’m a sucker for a really good pop song. I haven’t heard a good one in a while. I remember in 2000, there were two pop songs that I was just obsessed with. One was “Get The Party Started” by Pink and “Who We Be” by DMX. Those were the two fuckin’ jams, man. I love those songs.

Those were your jams? Like “This is Tanner’s jam?”
I thought they were great songs. Then a few years later, Christina Aguilera came out with “Ain’t No Other Man,” which the whole drums and music is taken from some old record that I know is on the jukebox here but I like that one a lot.

Let’s get to Things Haven’t Gone Well. Did you really watch 90210 for six hours a day while working on the record?
It might have been more than six hours a day. Living up here (in New York) I don’t have cable TV and I’m not saying it like I’m above cable TV. I just don’t have it. So, when I went down to Athens to stay with Creston (Spiers)—the Harvey Milk guy—and he has every goddamn channel. He’s a schoolteacher, he has a daughter that was in school and his wife had a 9-5. They would get up early so I would get up with them but I wasn’t doin’ shit.

Why did you go live with Creston?
What happened was there were a few things that kind of rolled into each other (back in 2010) and it was just like “I gotta get the fuck out of here for a little while.” A guy that I had known for a long time, Jerry (Fuchs), passed away. But by no means is Jerry, the reason for making this record. I’m not using his death as like “I fuckin’ lost my goddamn mind or somethin.” I don’t’ want to use the tragedy like it sparked the album because it didn’t. It sparked me leaving New York for three months.

It was a lotta things…I knew Jerry when he was 17 or 18 years old—fuckin’ awesome dude. I was working at this place and was perfectly fine with it. I had a girlfriend and all that. The guy that owns this place (The Commodore) had approached me and said “I’m opening a place” and blah, blah, blah and “I want you to be the chef’ or whatever. I was like “Alright. When’s it gonna be ready?” and he said “Four months or somethin.” And I’m an idiot. I was leaving for a Harvey Milk tour that was six weeks long. So, I thought the fair thing to do to my boss at the time was to put in my notice. I came back (from tour) and that (new place) took another year and a half. So, I came back and during that, and blowing through whatever money I had under the mattress, me and my old lady split up. Then I was in the park one morning—and actually I got a call from Henry (Owings of Chunklet Magazine) about Jerry and then I ran into (Dan) Gorman, who’s in !!!, and he’s fuckin’ cryin and I was cryin’ and we just looked at each other. Then I was like “Fuck this, man.” And around late October, early November, I didn’t want to be here right now.

You and Jerry were tight?
We were friends but we were actually closer in Athens. Even though we both lived here, it was kind of awesome because Jerry was kind of shy and reserved or whatever in Athens. Jerry moved to New York way before I did. I would come up here with Harvey Milk and he was already living up here, playing music and he had gotten this new confidence and it was pretty fuckin’ awesome.

How did you ultimately wind up living at Creston’s house?
I talked to Fred (Weaver), who used to play with Jerry and they were real close. I talked to Fred at Jerry’s memorial up here. Me and my dog hopped into a car with Fred, we went to Fred’s mom’s in Pennsylvania and she was awesome. We had pizza and then we drove down to Athens. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have a job or a place to live but none of that matters anyway. Then, for some reason, I thought it was a good idea to go to Creston’s house.

What was it like there?
It turned out to be more depressing that anything I almost ever experienced. It was just a crummy time of year and their house is full of clutter. His wife collects Simpsons memorabilia, they never open the curtains and most of the food in their fridge is almost always potpies.

What about watching 90210?
I would get up when they would get up in the morning. At 10 or 11 in the morning, they would show two or three hours of 90210 and then at 3 o’clock in the afternoon they did it again but showing different seasons. I’ve always loved Steve Sanders and 90210.

Is Steve your favorite character?
Yes! I love him.

Do you identify with Steve Sanders somehow?
Nah, I just thought he really, as far as acting goes or whatever, I was the only one on there that could (act). He really nailed the dick face high school guy, like the guys who I went to high school with. I don’t know. I just love the character.

Did you have crushes on any of the chicks, like Brenda Walsh or Kelly Taylor?
Nah, I never liked blonde girls and Shannon Doherty I always thought was ugly. There was a girl Brandon used to date that turned him onto—whatever word they had for Ecstasy—it was called “Euphoria” or somethin.’ That girl I had a crush on…Valerie.

That was the later episodes but yes! Val was so hot.
Tiffani Amber-Thiessen with the giant tits. Jesus Christ! She’s the hottest thing on Earth. That is what I like in the ladies.

What about that that chick Brandon was dating who went into the mental institution? She was pretty cute.
Emily! I liked Emily and then Valerie was the best.

Dylan McKay was the coolest, man.
Oh, he was the best. When he was chasin’ the dragon…

Totally. And Jack, Dylan’s dad.
Oh, yeah. That was all great. And then when Dylan was datin’ a girl whose dad was a gangster and he was gonna kill Dylan but he ended up killing his own daughter. She was wearing Dylan’s raincoat. Toni Marchette or some shit.

Right, Rebecca Gayheart!
She was actually convicted of manslaughter (in real life). I remember one of the first times I went to Los Angeles, I had a buddy out there who’s the funniest guys on Earth and he took me on a tour of Los Angeles and the tour was based around big dramatic scenes in 90210. It was killer. “This was where Dylan was chasing the dragon and then crashed his Corvette.”

That’s awesome. Do you have a fave 90210 episode?
I don’t know if I have a favorite episode but I remember the pilot episode, the one where the Meat Puppets were on.

Harvey Milk appearing on 90210 would have been killer. Would you do it?
In a heartbeat. Why not?

Flaming Lips were on there, too, way back when.
Fuck that band. That band’s a joke.

They were on there before they blew up, though. I think they played “She Don’t Use Jelly” at a party or something.
That band always seemed…I always got the impression they were just grabbing a bite of everything about The Butthole Surfers. There’s just something insincere about that band to me. And the music sucks. Except for that song (starts singing) “Do You Realize?” That one’s pretty. There’s just something about that band…I don’t buy it. “I still live in Oklahoma and work at Long Jon Silvers.”

Back toThings Haven’t Gone Well. Was it all written at Creston’s house while 90210 was on?
I always had a guitar in my lap. I basically wrote everything on that record, on that couch, depressed out of my mind, watching 90210.

Wow.
Those songs were supposed to be for a Harvey Milk record but then Creston’s parents both died. We never say we (Harvey Milk) are broken up or on hiatus; it’s never been that way. It’s just like, when that all happened, are you gonna call somebody and go “Hey, man. Do you wanna practice? Do you wanna go on tour? Do you wanna make a record?” No fuckin’ way. It might be next year or next month we’ll make a record. Who knows. But basically, I wrote all that stuff for Harvey Milk there.

It definitely has its similarities, aesthetically.
It sounds like a Harvey Milk record. Just not as good. How can it be as good? I did all the instruments. In Harvey Milk, there are three different guys who play their instruments well.


Photo credit: John Fell

So you played every instrument on the record? It seems like you layered a lot of stuff, lots of overdubs.
Yeah, but I think it’s kind of cheating to…I know plenty of people who can fuckin’ tear it up but I thought that was…cheating. But I didn’t set out to make one. I just started recording it at home. This was years after coming up with it in Georgia and four, five years later…I still remember these riffs and that’s the popular belief: if you remember it, it must be good. I’m not sayin’ it’s good but it all kind of flows.

Did you think there would be a label into putting it out, especially a big one like Thrill Jockey?
I never really thought about it. I don’t know Bettina that well but I got her hooked up with a friend of mine, Luke Roberts, a few years ago. I had somewhat of a relationship with Bettina and I approached her and said “I made this thing and I think it’s a record. I guess I would like it to come out. I’d send it to ya but my feelings won’t be hurt of you don’t wanna put it out.” I sent it to her and she was like “Oh, I’ll put it out.”

You fit in nicely on Thrill Jockey.
That’s what I always liked about the label: that there’s lots of different styles of music. Aside from being a big fan of Bettina, there are two bands on Thrill Jockey that I think are better than on any band on any Matador or Sub Pop and those two bands are Pontiak and Arbouretum. Fuckin’ fantastic. Great, great, great bands. That guy (Arbouretum’s Dave Heumann)is creative as fuck. Bettina as gonna give me that guy’s number. I hung out with him a few times. I’d love to do something with him. But he’s in Baltimore and…They’re incredible. They have songs that make me weep and there’s not a lot of bands that could do that. There’s a lot of bands that are playing in that same ballpark that stink, just stink, and they are packing venues, selling tons of records, playing on David Letterman and all that bullshit and Arbouretum can’t get ten people to go see’em in New York City. I don’t fuckin’ get it. It’s like being kicked in the fuckin’ nuts over and over again. You know, nice guys finish last, blah, blah, blah. If you’re really fuckin’ good, it almost always takes so much longer to get out there. If you’re’ fuckin’ middle of the road, bring it on. Wilco? It’s fuckin’ jive, man. People always want this shit, the crap and the real shit just kind of languishes. Same thing with Pontiak. I don’t get it. I don’t get it all.

Where did the name “Music Blues” come from?
Music Blues was a title I had for a Harvey Milk album I had for years and I just never got around to using it. We were gonna make a record called MGMT: My God, Music’s Terrible.

That’s amazing.
You know, the band MGMT?

Sure.
I know those dudes and they are all really cool. I don’t like MGMT but actually Creston loves that band.

 

Brad Cohan is 90210's number one fan.

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