Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987

The mid-1980s are generally perceived as bleak, barren years for the American underground, an era in which Michael Jackson, the Police and the Flashdance soundtrack ruled the radio, and the main thriving subculture was hardcore. Yet during this period, another type of music flourished, tuneful and guitar based. Across the country on college campuses and small towns, DIY bands were springing up in isolated enclaves, following the jangle-pop trail of R.E.M., the dBs and the Feelies. These bands took pretty folk melodies and plugged them into fuzzy amps, using the stripped down recording tools of punk rock to capture ear-wormy songs. These musicians rarely ventured off their home turf, and so mostly didn’t know each other. It was a scene only in retrospect.

Mike Sniper stumbled upon a cache of these recordings in the mid-1990s while thumbing through the bargain bins at Midnight Records on the Jersey Shore. He’d read about similar scenes in the U.K. and New Zealand in the music press, but no one had ever tipped him to the glories of their American cousins, the Reverbs, the Windbreakers, the Bangtails among many others. Sniper went on to found Captured Tracks, an indie label shaped by lo-fi pop scenes around the globe, and when it came time to launch Excavations, a compilation series illuminating the music that inspired his label’s aesthetic, this 1980s underground subculture seemed like a fitting subject.

Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983 – 1987 gathers 28 gemlike tracks from bands that are mostly now forgotten. Some of the artists went on to commercial success—Barbara Manning to World of Pooh, Ric Menck to Velvet Crush and Matthew Sweet’s band, Archer Prewitt to the Sea and Cake—but that was clearly never the goal. We spoke to Sniper about how he found this music, what it means to him and why the world needs more bands, even now in the age of isolation and self-recording. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Tell me a little bit about your history with this kind of music. How was it formative for you?

Mike Sniper: Well, actually when this kind of music was coming out, I was between the ages of six and ten.

AD: You missed it the first time around?

Mike Sniper: Basically, I was into the pop music. I did have cooler older cousins, so by the age of 10 or 11 I had been introduced to your basics – the Smiths and the Ramones and all that kind of stuff. Nothing truly underground. By the time I’d gotten to be 13, entering middle school, I found myself drawn way more towards music that was from this era than the music that was coming out at the time. I did like a lot of 1990s indie as it was coming out.

I grew up on the Jersey shore. Hardcore was very popular at the time. I liked punk a lot. I liked early hardcore quite a bit, but the hardcore of the early 1990s was too bro for me. Or there was like, screamo, which was everybody crying at the show. So, I just went backwards. I was lucky to grow up near a bunch of secondhand music shops. I started hitting the dollar bin and buying records that were interesting to me. I just found this to be the kind of music that I really wound up liking.

First of all, I went to the British and Australian and European and New Zealand bands. Those were the bands that you’d kind of heard of if you read about music. And, of course, I was familiar with R.E.M., too.

The vast majority of these bands, though, I found out about later, like in college and after. I used to work at this place called Midnight Records, which had been a label that put out Absolute Grey and distributed some of the other records that ended up on the compilation. It was kind of like a weird, dead stop store. The guy stopped operating in maybe 1991 as a label and as a distributor, but all these records were still around, even though we’re talking now about 1995 or 1996 when I started working there. I was a pick and pack guy. I was the lowest on the totem pole. I’d be sitting there with stacks of mail orders, and I’d have to pack them off. Put out custom forms and all that.

Then I kept on after college. I mostly worked in record stores all the way up to when I had the label. And I’d always find these curious little nuggets, these overlooked records. People were coming in and asking about Monochrome Set and Felt and stuff on Sarah Records but not these records. The only reason I could figure out was because they weren’t American. They didn’t have that stamp of approval that made them cool. And I was like, why is this $2? Why is this $3? It can’t be good if it’s $3 and I’ve never heard of it. A lot of people who are into records are prejudiced like that. Oh, if I haven’t heard it must be bad.

AD: But a lot of stuff in the $2 bin really is pretty awful.

Mike Sniper: Exactly. A lot of this sub-genre of music that I put out is kind of awful. It’s just like any other sub-genre. You have your winners and your losers. It tended to be the bands that were going for a wider audience. I hate to pick on bands, but bands like the Hooters probably came out of this same scene, but clearly they had different ambitions. Like they wanted to open Live AID. Clearly none of the bands on the Strum & Thrum comp would ever be comfortable playing LIVE AID.

AD: Can you articulate what you were looking for? What was the sweet spot for you?

Mike Sniper: First of all, the bands had to be either on a very small label or DIY. The biggest labels on here are Homestead and DB records. They’re the precursors to indies like Matador. But even so, those are giants in comparison. Most of these were self-released. I was also looking for minimal overdubs. Basically, the same approach someone would have to making a punk record.

AD: But sweeter.

Mike Sniper: Exactly. That’s what I was looking for. I was looking for the Stax, not the Motown. I didn’t want tons of keyboards or string overdubs, although some of the songs do have keys if they fit. It’s kind of a dry mix. That’s basically it. It’s funny when people are like, why don’t you put this song on? But the fact that you’re telling me about it means that we probably shouldn’t put it on. This comp is meant to be for discovery.

AD: I was in college when this stuff was happening, and I was definitely listening to music, and I don’t remember any of these bands. Although a few of them have gone on to things that I do know about. How did people find these bands back in the 1980s?

Mike Sniper: Well, they didn’t.

AD: Some people must have.

Mike Sniper: These bands were so regionalized. Some of the bands did have some college success, like Salem 66. There are bands on here that did okay. That was on purpose because I thought they’d fit, too. Not that they’d been seen as in any way successful under the normal framework.

There were scenes in Boston and the Carolinas where these types of bands could get regional attention, but the vast majority of these bands had no means of getting any kind of traction. They’d send their records out in the hope of being reviewed. They send them to college radio stations in hopes of getting it played. They didn’t have a PR or marketing agents, and there was no infrastructure. I go into this a little bit in the liner notes. What hardcore had going for it in the 1980s was a deep infrastructure in North America. The bands knew who the bookers were in Vancouver and Chicago and so on, and they knew if they went there, there would be an audience. This scene did not have that kind of infrastructure. Probably because these bands were not road dogs.

AD: I remember talking to Glenn Mercer about how he felt about R.E.M. and he said really they created this circuit of college clubs that made it possible for bands like his to tour. But I guess if you weren’t willing to do that, you were kind of stuck.

Mike Sniper: Totally. You can use that as a reason as to why R.E.M. became successful. One of the main reasons was their willingness to tour. This is still a thing that happens to this day, though obviously not during COVID. If you’re just sitting there waiting for someone to ask you to tour, it’s not going to happen.

AD: This is a little different from a lot of comps in that it’s not focusing on a regional scene. It’s happening all over the country, and the people involved don’t know each other. What makes it one thing, rather than a bunch of a little things?

Mike Sniper: That’s interesting that you say that. Since it’s out and all the artists are receiving their copies, they’re saying, “Now that I’m listening to it, I realize we were part of something.” It was parallel evolution, I guess. All these bands were influenced by the same bands and coming up with similar stuff. You end up with a lot of bands that sound this way, despite the fact that almost all of them are disconnected. You’ll read that some of them actually played shows together. But the vast majority of them were in small towns. And they were just like we’re going to do this, and maybe we’ll put out a record. I guess that that’s it. There wasn’t a scene. The only string that connects them is the way it sounds. It really has no other string than that.

AD: In terms of timing, you’ve started in 1983, well after punk rock had died, and ended in 1987, just before MTV and alternative rock gets going. Can you talk about why you chose those two endpoints?

Mike Sniper: Certainly. I chose those endpoints because basically it’s a period that’s considered a black hole in American music where very few things of quality were happening. I wanted to change the narrative on that a little bit. I picked 1983 because that’s when post-punk is essentially over almost. And then you have this kind of neo-psychedelic, neo-garage things. These don’t quite fit into this compilation, though a lot of these songs might have a foot in those things. And then I see 1987 as around the time that America finds its quote-unquote indie rock. That’s sort of where you have this boom period, the beginnings of what are going to be K Records and Matador and you have Guided by Voices and Yo La Tengo. All that kind of stuff is happening, though it’s not to the pinnacle it’s going to get. The whole last chapter of the narrative is about that. By the time, America had its indie rock, these bands were gone. That’s sort of why I chose those dates. Also, it made me focus. There’s tons of stuff that I’d like to put on there from 1981 and 1982, but by limiting it, I got to focus.

AD: My feeling is that all kinds of music are going on all the time. It’s just that people focus on one or two at a time. It seems like there are trends, but it’s really just people choosing to emphasize certain things.

Mike Sniper: Oh yeah. Just within the sub-genres of rock and American rock at this period of time, there’s so much going on. At the same time this is happening, you have the beginnings of Wax Trax, you have industrial electronics, you have tape-trading culture, you have garage. This period of time, maybe through 1987 is when West Coast hardcore is basically dead, but it’s really when New York and Boston hardcore started picking up. There are so many things happening. And then beyond rock, you have early hip hop, house and techno. Everything is starting in this period as post-punk and disco kind of go away.

AD: Except neither one of those things has really gone away.

Mike Sniper: None of things has gone away. They come in and out of…

AD: Of focus. It’s like an Overton Window.

A lot of these historical comps, I love the music on them, but it’s like women don’t exist at all. This comp is different. There are a lot of women artists on it. I was wondering if you could talk about why this kind of music was receptive to women?

Mike Sniper: That’s a great question. The only time I got conscious about how many women were represented on the compilation was when we were doing the track order. And then I was like, oh it would be nice to split up the feminine and male voices. It would be cool to mix that up as much as we can. But then we have a lot of bands on here like One Plus Two, where the guitarist and the drummer are female and the front person is male.

I think one of the reasons why is because these are definitely people that are they’re far more on the liberal side than not. In industrial and hardcore, you get these fascist flirtations. That doesn’t exist in here. This is about, hey let’s start a band. We like this kind of music. Let’s play it. So I think it’s definitely more welcoming to the female player and audience as well.

People that are slightly older than me will say, yeah, I wanted to go to hardcore shows, but I didn’t want to get the shit kicked out of me. This was more of an open atmosphere. These were all people who a couple of years before they started recording, most of these people were all fans of bands like the Go Gos and the Raincoats and the Slits. I don’t think they thought it was novel to have a woman in the band. It was normal. I can’t speak on their behalf. And musically, there’s less testosterone going around here. I’m all for music with testosterone. I love Black Flag and AC/DC but there’s a time and a place. Not everyone has to have that anger. I think it was the Go Betweens who said, yeah, we’re just as aggressive as any of those bands. We just don’t play it that way. It’s a different kind of aggression, other than just sonic aggression.

AD: Some of these people became cult figures, a few of them formed better known bands, but most did not. Were they hard to find?

Mike Sniper: No, no! A lot of them were still in music, if not as performers in some capacity, like they still have a small label or they work in publishing. But you know, my means of tracking people down is like, okay, with the members of the band who’s got the most interesting name that we can google and find. And kind of proceed from there. And if you go and their Facebook page is dominated by Trump, it’s like, I don’t think this is the person. A lot of them tended to stay generally in their same geographic area. Like perhaps had moved to a more metropolitan city nearby. Tracking them down was not that difficult. I’m finding a lot more difficulty, probably for obvious reasons, with the international artists. Tracking them is difficult.

AD: How did you collect all those great quotes in the booklet? Were there a series of questions? Did you do interviews?

Mike Sniper: Eric Davidson and I sent out a questionnaire, and then Eric did some follow-up questions if something interesting turned up. And then we told them at the very end that if there was anything we missed, if there was anything really interesting or if there’s a great story we don’t have, then give us that. That was the most laborious part, editing it and making it make sense.

AD: It’s almost like an oral history of this period.

Mike Sniper: Yeah, I won’t be doing that again.

It was really cool to do it. It’s the first volume in whatever the hell Excavations becomes in the future, whatever kinds of music we’re going to be working with. With this one, I thought it was important to create a context for why people would want it. No one has really focused on this kind of music in the past. I mean, I’m not going to say that there was zero existing on it, but not like comps where you have a built-in audience. I love Northern Soul and I love disco comps, I love Brazilian comps, but they don’t need to build a context. The audience is there, and here’s 20 more songs in this genre. Okay, I’m buying it. This one required a little bit more than that. And that’s also the reason why I did it as the first comp that I did. No disrespect to people who are making compilations of music that people are already collecting, but I specifically wanted to do something that’s like, okay, what’s something that fits into Captured Tracks that’s a compilation that really hasn’t been done in this way before. There have been compilations called college rock. They have who you think would be on them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This was more like I wanted to get really deep. What the collector, what to seek out, what kinds of things to seek out. Like the fun of record collecting is you start to see a pattern, what these sleeves look like and what the band members look like. I thought it’d be cool to jumpstart people possibly seeking out these kinds of singles and 12 inches.

AD: Do you have any favorites of the tracks that are on the comp?

Mike Sniper: You know, I spent forever on this, and everything I picked out are personal favorites for sure. I’m not trying to play the democratic card here, but at the same time, like, I really love the track by Start, “Where I Want to Be.” I like that song a lot.

AD: That’s a band that’s hard to google.

Mike Sniper: Yeah, right? It would not be allowed if they were signed to the label. I’d be like, you have to change your name. Add something. Start what?

AD: I really like that first track from the Reverbs, “Trusted Woods.” It sounds like maybe they heard R.E.M. at some point?

Mike Sniper: Haha.

AD: What can you tell me about that band? I know Rick Menck went on to some other things.

Mike Sniper: He’s everywhere Ric Menck. He’s currently a journalist writing for a bunch of magazines, including Ugly Things. I guess he’s best known for Velvet Crush, but he also played with Matthew Sweet in the touring band.

AD: The Girlfriend band?

Mike Sniper: Yeah.

AD: I love that record.

Mike Sniper: There are tons of other projects he’s done before and since. There’s a compilation called The Ballad of Ric Menck. It’s all the stuff he’s been involved with. But yeah, he’s just like a record collector geek. He and his friend created the Reverbs, and they got that crazy distro deal from Enigma. If I remember correctly, they broke up in a parking lot when they were supposed to do an opening gig for somebody crazy like the Clash or R.E.M., and then Ric went onto be in a bajillion bands.

AD: Then you’ve got that Windbreakers track. That was an early band for Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliffe. I had that Skrang compilation. He had a car accident and a bunch of people recorded covers of his songs to raise money. And it was great. What caught your attention about that song and that music?

Mike Sniper: That was another one that we had copies of at Midnight Records. At the end of the week, often my boss didn’t have enough cash to pay me, and he’d pay in records. I ended up grabbing the entire Windbreakers catalogue. And that song, first of all, I melodically love it, and the guitar figure is super cool. I love the fact that it’s a tapped-out drum machine. It’s not even a programmed drum machine. They’re sitting there, drumming on the machine. But the cool thing is you’d never know. That’s why it sounds so organic. I’d bet you they consciously did that because they wanted to sound as much like a natural drummer’s lazy rhythm as possible. I really wanted to put that track in, one because it’s my favorite Windbreakers’ track, but also because I thought it would be cool to have something a little bit more mid-tempo and sullen at that point in the record, where you’re in the middle of the first side. I’ve always loved that sound.

AD: Is the rest of Windbreakers as good as that?

Mike Sniper: Oh yeah, it’s fantastic really. I don’t think there’s a dud record in the catalogue.

AD: Now you’ve got this Bangtails song, which is where Archer Prewitt got started, though it really doesn’t sound much like the Sea and Cake.

Mike Sniper: Not at all.

AD: What do you know about that band?

Mike Sniper: I actually met Michael, the guy who was the songwriter. They were a college band from Colorado. And I think, what Archer said in the emails was “This was my favorite band I was ever in.” Cool, you know?

I think it’s a natural progression, right? A musician of Archer’s ability, you don’t want to be playing the same stuff forever. You probably evolve and evolve and evolve to the point where you’re making Sea and Cake music. It’s probably just natural curiosity.

I think the Bangtails only played a handful of shows. They have some demo tapes that they’re trying to find. They found some of them. I don’t want to say it was planned obsolescence, but I don’t really think that they thought of themselves as a band that was going to keep releasing records. Probably if you dug deeper into talking to band members, a lot of them would say that.

AD: And then you’ve got this “28th Day,” which has a young Barbara Manning in it. Such a good song, “Pages Turning.” How did you find that?

Mike Sniper: I knew about 28th Day and Barbara Manning and World of Pooh. I’ve been buying all of her stuff for a while. 28th Day is one of the few records on this compilation that do sell when they come up used, probably because of Barbara Manning’s association with them. I want to say I was first drawn to the sleeve. It’s so cool looking with those painted birds. I just kind of dug into it that way. They also were, for whatever reason, associated with pre-recordings they were playing a lot more in a style of the Paisley Underground. They were associated with those bands. I was much more aware of the Paisley Undergrounds stuff before I was aware of the stuff on here. When you read your rock magazines, you hear a lot about Dream Syndicate.

AD: These are obviously parallel universes that are not that far apart, Paisley Underground and this stuff.

Mike Sniper: Oh yeah, this comp is sort of like in between Paisley Underground and your standard American indie rock. This is in between. This is the gateway for what’s coming next. It’s a got little bit more British influence than Paisley Underground, but it comes from the same Byrds worship and psychedelic leanings. And then I think that by the time you get to 1987, a lot of the Paisley Underground has faded out, and we’re on our way towards Yo La Tengo and the introduction of more noise. So yeah, I Paisley Underground is kind of where this stuff gels and then you have R.E.M. and the DBs and the Feelies as these bands from the other coast that are aware of Paisley Underground and inject a lot more tempo into it, basically. And I consider those three the bands that begat the compilation, other than British contemporaries.

AD: What will you be working on next, now that this is done?

Mike Sniper: I’m back to normal, regular label work. Contemporary artists, trying to sign them. Working up some reissues of artists.

We are also working on three different Excavations at the same time. It’s a really long process. This one took 18 months or more. From starting to getting the licenses to putting it together. I talked to some people who make compilations. They said, you shouldn’t be making them one at a time. You don’t know what’s going to hold one up, so it’s nice to have another one. When you work with 28 artists, there’s going to be a hiccup along the way. So now, we’re working on three different ones. I don’t want to cheat and give away anything, but there’s nothing that will be surprising. Part of Excavations is that there’s some kind of link to the Captured Tracks roster and past. I’m not going to make any crazy left turns. I love dub, but I’m not going to do a dub compilation. I could. People might like it.

AD: Never say never. It might happen.

Mike Sniper: I do have a separate reissue company called Manufactured, where I’ve released dub and spiritual jazz and gospel. I’m not trying to isolate that music from Captured Tracks. But people are snotty. They’ll be like, what does this indie label know about dub?

AD: I think people appreciate when a label has an aesthetic and a point of view.

Mike Sniper: Yeah, and I’m done fighting it.

AD: It’s a reason why when you get 100 downloads from different places, and you see one from a label you trust, you might choose that without even listening to it.

Mike Sniper: I guess…and this is partly why Excavation. I was trying to reinvigorate my love for indie rock and guitar rock. Not that it ever waned. I’ve always liked it and always will.

AD: It’s so unfashionable now.

Mike Sniper: It is. It’s really difficult right now to find a band to sign. There are so few bands. I tell that to people all the time. I’d really like a band. Are there any bands that we can listen to?

AD: You should go to Australia, I think.

Mike Sniper: I’ve been. I love Australia.

AD: Lots of bands there.

Mike Sniper: Right. School Damage and Terry, I love all those bands. Melbourne is what Brooklyn was in 2006 to 2007.

AD: Why do you think there aren’t bands? Do people think it’s not going to sell? I know with COVID you can’t have all those people in a room, but it’s not just that.

Mike Sniper: A lot of it has to do with the artists themselves. In this current climate, everyone’s doing homespun, one-person projects. I love the collaborative aspect of the band, even though a large portion of our early hits were one person. Wild Nothing is one guy, DIIV is one guy, Beach Fossils is one guy, Craft Spells is one guy, Mac DeMarco, obviously, one guy.

I have myself to blame I guess. But I didn’t know that these were one-man recording projects. And they’ve expanded now. All of these acts are full band acts.

One-person recording projects lends themselves more easily to electronic music than to straightforward rock. I kind of find it repetitive. People can record however they want. Everyone should be able to whatever they want. I’m just saying it would be nice to have bands. You know something’s a band when you can hear a little bit of change and differences in a song. Like oh, what if we do this here? You don’t really get that anymore. That’s why you get this building of melody on melody, and it’s dreamy and slow, and I’m kind of sick of dreamy and slow. I’m really sick of cozy, really sick of soft and ambient. I’m in my 40s, and I’m the one who’s saying I’m sick of it. I feel like there should be younger kids making some noise in their garages. It doesn’t have to be with guitars. You can do it with whatever the hell you want. It just seems so weird. Even before COVID to be making music in such an isolated way.

AD: But I think that’s the way the culture is going. We’re all more isolated all the time.

Mike Sniper: You would think that music would be an opportunity to collaborate. Even egos like John Cale and Lou Reed found ways to make music together. They hated each other. I think that’s a big piece of what’s missing. We just have Brian Wilsons now. We don’t have Rolling Stones anymore.

AD: The irritation of working with other people can stimulate creativity?

Mike Sniper: Yes, but also you have to have people who can tell you when you’re wrong. I come from an art school background where your job is immediately to pick apart what the person next to you did. And then they do that to you. You toughen up from that. This kind of stuff where you have no editor. You don’t have anyone to work off of. It’s even worse now because there’s not even a regional scene. Melbourne is a great example. Athens, Georgia is another. You have competition between bands. There’s competition within the band itself and then competition with other bands that play in a certain club or a certain city. If you get rid of all of that, you just throw up your music on Bandcamp and Spotify, you ignore all criticism and just listen to people praising you, you’re going to get some boring stuff.

AD: Yeah, that makes sense to me. Thanks for saying that. What do you think makes a great song a great song?

Mike Sniper: See the thing is it could be so many different things. I do like the songwriting construction of chord changes and choruses and middle eights, but at the same time, a two chord song or a one-chord song can be awesome. I think it’s easier to ruin a song than to make a good one. If you’re coming from a genuine point of view and you have a melody you like, a rhythm you like, or a bass line you like. if you just listen to any reggae song and see how it’s built up from a bass part and adding this melody and adding texture and space when there’s nothing. Even Joy Division. Are any of those songs more than two chords? I don’t know. But they’re definitely able to create a chorus with those two chords.

AD: It seems to me that it’s not anything that you put into a song. It’s not the chords and it’s not the instruments and it’s not how well you play or how well you sing. It’s kind of mysterious to me what makes one song better than another.

Mike Sniper: I know. But you know when it’s bad, right? That’s the thing. It’s always easier to tell what the dud is than what a killer track is. But there is a loss of consciousness when you’re making a really good song. It’s almost like with baseball when they say, “Oh he’s unconscious, he can’t strike out.” It’s kind of same thing. You have to lose—I’m not a songwriting teacher—but you have to lose that overthinking. You have to be in the moment. How can you be in the moment when you’re home recording? You can’t. If you’re in a band, somebody might fuck up and play in the wrong key, and suddenly the song changes. In Neil Young’s “Lotta Love,” the bass is in the wrong key the whole time, but Neil is like, no, no, we’re keeping it that way. Nicolette Larson made the cover song, and it became a #3 hit, and it still has the bass in the wrong key. These are the magical things that can happen with collaborative experiences.

AD: I’m all out of questions, unless there’s something else you want to talk about?

Mike Sniper: I’m just overjoyed with the reactions. It’s been really, really fulfilling, because I had no idea what the reception would be. I was more concerned with making a cool project that I would want. All of my reissue projects are that, more or less. It’s like, I want this, and therefore I will make it, and yeah, everybody worked really hard at the label. It took forever and we’re really happy with how it came out. Two pressings have sold out already.

AD: Fantastic.

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