Los Angeles trio Acetone always worked with time, bending it to fit a singular sensibility. Formed in 1992 by guitarist Mark Lightcap, bassist Richie Lee, and drummer Steve Hadley after the dissolution of their band Spinout, Acetone was out of step with the alt-rock of its heyday, lingering instead in a zone that prized woozy country and R&B licks, wobbly rhythms borrowed from warped exotica records, and a sense of space that couldn’t have been dreamed up anywhere other than a pool house in California.
Recording for Vernon Yard Recordings and later Virgin and Neil Young’s Vapor Records, Acetone’s records never broke into the mainstream, but they have steadily, at their own pace, gained a fawning fanbase. In 2017, the band released the retrospective compilation Acetone 1992–2001 on Light in the Attic and that same year saw the release of Sam Sweet’s book, Hadley Lee Lightcap. And now, i’m still waiting, an 11-LP boxset featuring the band’s entire recorded discography, including studio lps Cindy (1993), If You Only Knew (1995), Acetone (1997), and York Blvd. (2000), and unreleased recordings and demos. Along with all that, come illuminating liner notes by J. Spaceman of Spiritualized and Spaceman 3 and Drew Daniel of Matmos and The Soft Pink Truth.
Aquarium Drunkard: I’m Still Waiting compiles Acetone’s entire career. What has the process of seeing it all come together felt like? Has it been an interesting project?
Mark Lightcap: It’s been really amazing. We’ve gotten a lot of calls over the years from people wanting to rerelease the early records, the Vernon Yard stuff. That stuff has been out of print for so long and just so deeply mired in the dregs of the Universal vault. So when New West hit us up, we were like “If you think you can succeed where so many others have failed then more power to you.” But Brady [Brock] was just the undeterred man. He was all in.
So it was really just inspiring in that way, to have the label that was excited about it and willing to go to the ends of the earth to make it happen. In a lot of ways, it was less emotionally taxing than dealing with the Light In The Attic compilation and previous to that, dealing with Sam Sweet writing his book. With that stuff, we were really having to relive all of the dark times. I felt like this time, having been through that experience, it was just so gratifying to have someone care that much about this stuff that we did and to really care about doing it right. It’s been long enough now that it’s easier for me to not just be completely up my own ass, wishing that I’d made different decisions. This time, looking at all of the records together as a group, as a body of work, it was just really gratifying and easier for me. It’s crazy, The outpouring of enthusiasm and love for the music.
AD: These days, music from that era attracts listeners from a whole different generation. I’m thinking about Duster and the massive wave of popularity they’ve experienced. Is that a strange feeling, seeing kids come around to the music after so many years as a “cult band?”
Mark Lightcap: It’s been really interesting. I guess it’s been validating. Like, we validated ourselves, but we certainly weren’t validated in the record buying marketplace. But I do think now, with the death of the record industry of the ’90s and the rise of streaming, for better and for worse, your average person on the street is exposed to a lot more variety of music now. Even if it’s just because the music coordinator on their favorite Netflix show is sneaking some crazy shit in there. Seriously, who would’ve thought we’d be living in a world full of Karen Dalton impersonators in 2023? I think with that in mind, that’s enabled people to come to our stuff not expecting, like, Third Eye Blind.
AD: Not that that Third Eye Blind doesn’t have a whole generation of kids who appreciate it. Listening to this collection, it strikes me how you did validate yourselves within your own sphere. I think what Sam’s book did so beautifully was sketch a portrait of a band as a little subculture. Acetone’s music plays with time—drawing it out, pulling at its corners. Was that pretty apparent to you guys as players when it was happening or do you see it more in retrospect?
Mark Lightcap: No, we were very aware of it at the time. If you listen to the practice and songwriting tapes from Richie’s little bedroom where we would rehearse in the later era, those sessions just go on for a long time. You can really hear us just luxuriating in that floating space where time is at our command. We’re just stirring this cauldron of musical information waiting for the flavor to congeal in a way that we like. There’s so much amazing music on those recordings but it’s all very abstract. I’ve been thinking of some way to put it together in some kind of collage that gives a sense of that stuff. But you can hear it on the prime-cut disc. There’s that version of “She Belongs to Me” where you can just hear that like rising out of the ether. I really like having that one on there because it really just gives you that feeling of being in that room.
AD: That stuff ends up being my favorite stuff. Because it’s so intimate and so concentrated. Your other group Dick Slessig Combo existed before Acetone, right? Do they feel semi-connected or conversational to you in terms of your own progression?
Mark Lightcap: Yeah, that came about because I was just burnt out from Spinout. Dick Slessig was the antidote from Spinout. Then Acetone sort of took shape shortly after. It was all part of the same process in a way. Drew [Daniel] talks about this in his essay. You can listen to “Endless Summer” that the Acetones did or the end of “Louise” where these long looping sections just repeat way too long. That’s a direct outgrowth of the Dick Slessig reality for sure.
AD: I disagree with you on how long it should be—I think they go on the right amount. [Laughs] Both J. Spacemen and Drew Daniel’s essays are very perceptive and thoughtful, unsurprisingly. In J. Spaceman’s, he discusses how the music that you guys really liked, the stuff you found in thrift stores, Hawaiian stuff, exotica, psych, Isaac Hayes, he talks about how that stuff made its way into Acetone’s music. But he writes that your sound was equally influenced by what you didn’t like. What was it that you guys didn’t like in those days?
Mark Lightcap: Well, we really didn’t like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. We were very anti a lot of the music that was popular at the time. We shared a practice space with the Stone Temple Pilots, for Christ’s sake. So we always felt like we were bound together with this hardcore iconoclastic streak where we’d look down our noses at all the other bands that were big around us. There was definitely a negative reaction to what was at the top of the pops at that point.
But it was also that we were just interested in what we were interested in and inspired by bands that are iconic now, like the Velvet Underground and Zeppelin. You know, with Zeppelin there are loud songs, there are quiet songs, there are fast songs, and slow songs. That whole phenomenon of everything having to exist on this narrow bandwidth that we had in the ’90s was just bullshit. So we rejected that in favor of what would’ve been a kind of normal paradigm in the ’60s or ’70s, where you could have both in the same band. You weren’t expected to have every song be a banger or every song be slow. It was vexing for people at the time for sure. But now that it’s being historicised, I think it’s easier for people to make sense of.
AD: The Acetone sound mutates and evolves over the years—there’s a core feel that stays, but it morphs.
Mark Lightcap: I don’t sit around listening to Acetone a lot in my spare time. But I would find myself listening to this stuff and being like “What the hell were we thinking?” I know what we were trying to do, but it’s just the way our influences evolved and the way our songwriting evolved, the way that we incorporated our influences over the course of those ten years. Like at a certain point, we became obsessed with Al Green and we were trying to incorporate some aspect of that playing and songwriting into our weird druggy white boy reality. It had mixed results, but looking at it now it does make sense.
AD: I think about when I first started working at a record store, hearing Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul and spending all my time listening to the VU, somehow in my head I could hear a connecting thread. Even if you’re halfway making that thread up, somehow it becomes real. What Al Green records were you playing?
Mark Light: All of that stuff. A lot of this would happen on tour. We would have a handful of cassettes that just got played over and over again. You brought a box of cassettes for the whole tour. But Richie and I would drive Steve insane in this way because we would just be like, “Nope, we’re gonna listen to this same Charlie Rich tape over and over and over again.” Very obsessive listening habits. The same with this Al Green mixtape that we had. Everything up through Full of Fire I really love. As he gets deeper and deeper into Jesus it gets a little more spotty.
AD: You’re somebody who will post these great little videos online of you working out parts and working on learning specific songs. Has that always been something for you: learning a piece top to bottom?
Mark Lightcap: Yeah, that’s a real important part of my musical self-care, as I’d refer to it.
AD: Did Acetone share that quality or was it a little bit different? Were you coming more from an improv zone?
Mark Lightcap: I think it worked both ways. Everyone did their homework in that band. I don’t know if Richie sat at home and played his bass the way that I’d work on my guitar stuff, but I think everyone was trying to very consciously stretch themselves out to the best of their abilities.
AD: You came to Los Angeles from Philadelphia. Did the mythic California landscape, whether that’s imaginal or cinematic or whatever else, have a marked impact on the music?
Mark Lightcap: Yeah, definitely. I moved out to go to CalArts and I just never moved back. I felt like kind of a fish out of water on the East Coast and when I got here I just felt like this is the place where I was meant to be. All of the mythology about California—it’s not all fantasy. Some of it’s a reaction to the mountains, the ocean, and the sunset. It’s something that manifests itself in a lot of cliches in popular culture, but then there’s also an element of reality to it as well.
AD: You talked about how working with Sam required you to revisit some pretty dark emotional territory and obviously, there’s an element of tragedy to the group with Riche’s death. You mentioned working with Sam on the book. Had you already processed that stuff before going down that road and then talking with him for the book reopened things? Or had it been in less of a settled place before embarking on that project?
Mark Lightcap: Yeah, I would say that it was very unsettled at the beginning of that project. That went on for a long time. The interview process was at least six years. It was almost some sort of weird therapy in a lot of ways. Sam is really good at what he does. He’s a really good listener and conversationalist. For me, it was a really great opportunity to work through that history and kind of come to terms with aspects of it that would’ve just sat there and impacted my emotional makeup. I think it was similar for Steve although he had some even darker stuff to relive, obviously.
AD: I feel like you guys do such a good job avoiding some of the uncomfortable mythology that suicide introduced into a rock & roll story.
Mark Lightcap: Yeah and I really love the way Drew handled it in his writing for the box set. He had just come up with his tome on suicide [Joy of the Worm: Suicide and Pleasure in Early Modern English Literature] so he had the wind at his back as far as that goes. But the way that he addresses the cliche of the rock & roll suicide and how easy it is to kind of fall into that looking at everything through that kind of lens in that situation. I really loved how he framed that whole issue. I’m very grateful for that.
AD: I really loved the Ecstasy of Gold album you and Steve made with other collaborators. Do you have more of that music sitting around?
Mark Lightcap: Oh we have tons and tons. We’re at least ten years into that and we were recording the whole time. So it’s a really interesting thing. We’ve never gone at it with any aim of doing it in public. The recordings were made just because that’s what we do. Everyone in the ensemble is writing all of the time. Everyone is a writing player. So there’s just tons and tons of pretty amazing stuff. With something like that I think streaming works really well. What are we gonna do: put out a 20-album box set? Putting it out as a stream reduces the inclination to overproduce it. It’s improvised live music so just a little editing or tightening up and then put it out and move on to the next thing. It’s also the same crew where if we go out and play an Acetone show, it’s the same band. We have a deep bond and a deep familiarity so if we decide to play Acetone songs they sound fucking great.