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CHRIS PIERCE: Interview by Jim Testa

Christopher Gobo Pierce: Musician, songwriter, recording engineer, producer, husband, father, pal. I met him back in 1990 at ABC No Rio, as the sweaty, wild-haired drummer of The A.G.’s from Maine. He stayed behind the drumkit when the A.G.’s morphed into Sinkhole, at the same time moving to guitar and frontman in his own band, Boston’s Doc Hopper. In the mid-Nineties, he relocated to New Brunswick, where he started his Technical Ecstasy recording studio. Short stints in Deadguy and Drag The River followed. In recent years, he’s produced records by the Ergs, For Science, Hunchback, The Measure (SA), and plenty of other local bands, as well as returning to the stage as the frontman of the Groucho Marxists. People who know him (and Chris knows everybody in punk rock, it seems) love him for his constant smile, his unending enthusiasm about music, and his endless energy. These days, Chris lives with his wife Liz and their new son Gibson in the suburbs, makes records with his friends in the basement, and rocks out with the band when he can.

We did this interview upstairs in the Court Tavern office several years ago when The Groucho Marxists released their first full-length CD. We're reposting this interview since the Groucho Marxists will be performing at Maxwell's on Thursday, February 23 with the Brooklyn What, Highway Gimps, and Wyldlife.

Q: If we talk about your whole life, we’ll be here for hours. So let’s start about the time you moved to New Brunswick. What year did Doc Hopper win The Rumble (the annual Boston battle-of-the-bands contest sponsored by WBCN?)

Chris: 1995.

Q: I remember it was basically right after Dookie hit it big. You were sort of the token punk band in Boston that year.

Chris: Ha ha, yeah. But it was 10 years after Gang Green (had won) so it was okay.

Q: And then after being named the best band in Boston, you left town.

Chris: It was a year later, 1996, when I moved down here. How that happened was... Doc Hopper came down to New Brunswick a lot to play shows. We were good friends with Deadguy so we always had a place to stay. And then I met Liz (now Mrs. Pierce). When I didn’t really have a place to live in Boston anymore and I really wasn’t doing much, I started to hang out in New Brunswick a lot. So I figured I might as well move here. What’s cool about New Brunswick it that it’s small, it’s almost like my hometown in Maine. Except with the entire music scene of Boston squished into it. Especially back then. You could just really tell that it had a tighter knit scene than Boston, and I just liked being able to walk everywhere.

Q: And back in ’95-’96, New Brunswick was still rockin’. Kids today probably don’t even know how many music venues the city had. Besides the Court, which is the only club still here, there was the Melody Bar, the Roxy, the Budapest Cafe, Plum Street Pub, the Bowl-O-Drome, Down Under…

Chris: Yeah. All the bars were still going. Right after I moved here, the Roxy closed down, but every other bar in town had bands. So that appealed to me, and then meeting my wife. That was a pretty strong draw. Without having a solid place to live in Boston, I just started coming down to New Brunswick to hang out with Liz. At first I was just crashing here, but by the end of the summer, I started to think, well, I’ve been here a month or two now, maybe I should just get a job or something and stay. Once I found a job, that was it: I guess I live in New Jersey now! By that point, all my stuff was at my parents’ house in Maine. When I was back in Boston, I was sleeping in our rehearsal space and that went on for like six months, and that stopped being fun pretty quick.

Chris in his Doc Hopper days


Q: When did Technical Ecstasy Studio start?

Chris: I think that was in April of ’97. I had been down here about a year, and then I started the studio.

Q: Had you done that kind of stuff in New England?

Chris: Nope. Not at all. The main goal at first was to start a recording studio. Then I was introduced to the concept of hourly rehearsals, because they don’t really have that in Boston. In Boston they have these huge buildings where bands rent monthly. So I saw this hourly thing, and I thought, that’s kind of easy. You just get a couple of sets of gear and people pay you per hour? Sweet! Jim from Deadguy had a rehearsal space in Red Bank and I’d practice there, so I thought that New Brunswick needed a place like that. It was a perfect opportunity. And then, with the rehearsal space came my instant clientele for the recording studio. All I wanted to do was make records with my friends. The rehearsal space thing meant I could actually pay the rent before the studio got going.

Q: How much training had you had?

Chris: When I was in high school, I took a class at the local college. They had a weird little 8-track studio and I took a class then. And I had a four-track at home. Then right after high school, I went out to the Recording Workshop in Ohio and took a five-week program there. But there really weren’t any recording studios in Maine, so that next summer is when we moved to Boston. And then it was just a matter of hanging out with every one of my friends’ bands when they were in a studio. Besides Doc Hopper and Sinkhole, if anybody I knew was making a record, I was like, I’m going to the studio with you. Garden Variety came and did a record, Rorshach did a couple of records, and I was always that pest who had to be there in the studio watching everything. Then we found the studio where we recorded Ask Your Mom, and they would rent it out without making you pay for an engineer. They’d just give you the keys and say, okay, have fun. So Doc Hopper made a lot of records there and I got to do everything myself. So then it was like, okay, I guess I know enough to make a record now.

Q: So what was the first Technical Ecstasy production?

Chris: I had just set my shit up and recorded Deadguy doing Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral.” But Jim (Baglino) had already quit, so I was playing bass and guitar. And then the first paying thing I did was the first song that Nora did, a song called “Ugly.” It was a totally different lineup than the Nora most people got to know, but it was still Chris Ross and Mike Olender, and that record just sounded terrible. I remember Chris Ross saying, gee, that sounded kinda bad. And I was like, well, I just set the room up for you guys yesterday because you needed to get this done, but (laughs)… Yeah, it did sound kind of bad.

Q: Since you brought up the name Chris Ross, I want to talk a little about the fact that even back during the period when New Brunswick had several venues doing all-ages shows, kids were still doing basement shows. Chris Ross had a house at 67 Handy Street that had a lot of famous shows in the basement.

Chris: Yeah, Chris Ross originally booked Doc Hopper at the Court Tavern for an all-ages matinee, and then he would also have us play Handy Street. So we’d get to play twice in one weekend and it was awesome. Because playing in bars is fun, but playing at Handy Street was even more fun. That house was awesome.

What was cool about Handy Street is that, in Boston we’d play basement shows, but there wasn’t the same intensity. It was more like you were playing a party in Boston, not playing a show. Whereas down here, that’s the venue. Like, of course we’re going to see Doc Hopper in a basement, where else are we going to go? So the people who are going would actually be going for the show, not just to drink the keg beer and party. Whereas in Boston, we would play basement shows but it was always our B.U. friends getting drunk and being like, whoooo, let’s break stuff. Boston generally always had a more violent scene than New Jersey. Every time we played a Boston show, something would wind up getting broken or a fight would break out or something.

Q: It’s during this period when you wound up being recruited to fill the opening in Deadguy. Let’s talk about them a minute. That is a band that didn’t release a whole lot of records, but it seems like they had a huge impact on the hardcore scene.

Chris: Yeah, that’s very true. Deadguy wound up much better known than the other two bands I played in. Even today, there are still people around here who only know me as… "yeaaahhh, he was in Deadguy." When I work at the Guitar Center, hardcore thug kids will come in and point to me and tell their friends, “yeah, he’s from Deadguy.” What’s funny is that I was only in that band for like nine months. I join my favorite bands and then they break up. First Deadguy and then Drag The River (laughs)

Q: First time I saw Deadguy was at ABC No Rio, since Rorshach had played there all the time. They really were amazing.

Chris: ABC No Rio was such an amazing place. I’m really glad that Doc Hopper got to play there a bunch of times. The first time I played there was 1990 with The A.G.’s. They had just started doing the hardcore shows with Mike Bullshit, and everything was down in the basement, just really crappy and dirty and dark. No stage, no nothing. Then all the different eras: I remember going there with NoFX the next year and they had just built the stage, with the pole in the center of it, where you could barely move. Then the bigger stage, then everything moved upstairs where it was a little nicer and they got a better sound system. And I remember taking a shit in all the different bathrooms they had there. The first one was like a giant stone throne with a curtain around it. And you could see right through the floor into the basement.

It’s just amazing how much that neighborhood has changed too. Back in, like, 1990, the show would get done, you’d pack your van, and you’d get the fuck out of it. Because you didn’t want to get caught on Rivington Street after dark. That neighborhood was scary.

Q: I’m always telling people stories about the heroin dealers on the corners. That neighborhood is so gentrified now, it’s almost impossible to believe how scary it used to be.

Chris: We would come down there and we were just stupid kids from New England, we’d walk around and go, oh, this doesn’t seem that bad. And all our friends from New York would be like, ‘look, just get in your van and get out of here. You do not want to be here after dark.’ ‘Well, we think we lost our friend.’ ‘Fuck him, just leave, leave him behind, you do NOT want to be down here after dark.’

Q: Of course New Brunswick has changed a lot over the years too. You moved here after the biggest of the Johnson & Johnson excavations. Pete Ventantonio has some good stories about when he first moved to New Brunswick and entire city blocks would get torn down and paved over to make room for J&J.

Chris: Yeah I saw some of it but a lot of it happened before I got here. There’s a great scene in the 7 Seconds movie “New Wind” where they come back to town on tour and there’s just this huge empty space where that whole strip of buildings used to be on Albany Street.

Q: What if anything has stayed the same since you’ve been here?

Chris: What’s stayed the same? Even when I first came to town in ’96, people were saying that t was the end of an era and things were dying out. Even then, it was a call to arms, people were saying, we have to fight city hall or they’ll destroy everything that’s cool and artistic about New Brunswick. Even then, people were trying to fly the flag of that. And now, the Court is the only place in town that does anything artistic anymore. All the clubs are gone, the bars don’t have bands anymore. It’s ironic, because people didn’t jump on that soon enough. And now the Court really is the only place left.

Q: But… it seems like nature abhors a vaccum. There are how many kids in town doing basement shows now?

Chris: There are many more now than there used to be. It always seemed like there were one or two spots, and there’d be shows there until the cops closed them down or the kid doing shows graduated and moved out. But now it seems like there are a bunch of spaces that are being used for shows and actually sticking around. Really good spaces that they’ve held on to. And that’s great, because it’s hard. I know it’s hard. It’s like a $500 fine for a noise summons, and you have to go to court, and it’s a huge pain in the nuts. So the kids who are doing the shows are really putting their ass on the line.

Q: It really seems to me like New Brunswick was awesome in the late Nineties, then it went through a fallow period when there wasn’t much going on, and now in the last few years, there are tons of great bands here again.

Vhris: Yeah, there’re definitely a lot of bands who have been rockin’ out down here.

Q: And you’ve played a role in that, having recorded many of them.

Chris: (smiling) Well, I try. Having been here and having known a lot of these people for ten years, it helps. I’ve recorded nearly every one of Fid’s bands.

Q: And all the For Science records. You even played in For Science in a while and they haven’t broken up yet.Chris: Give them time. (laughs) I’ve given them the Curse Of The A.G.’s. Now they’ll never get away from it.

Q: How did the Groucho Marxists come together? That’s almost a New Brunswick supergroup. You plucked your bass player out of retirement.

Chris: Yeah, sort of. I was recording the last Stuntcocks record, and that’s Austin and Brian. I had been hanging out with Austin for a while, and Doc Hopper played a few shows with his old band Boss Jim Gettys. And at one of those shows, Austin said, You know what, we should play together. And it was at the end of Doc Hopper, so I said, yeah, I kinda want to do a new band, so that would work out. He’s a fucking monster on drums so of course I wanted to play with him. And Brian and I had already been getting along really well, so I went with those guys. At first we had Justin from Mazeffect playing with us, but that only lasted a few months. And then Gary was working with Ray Kubian from True Love, and Ray told me, I work with this kid who plays bass, and he loves the Descendents. Well, that was all I needed to hear. I need a bassist and that’s the pre-requisite! So Ray hooked us up and Gary jammed with us once, and it was like, this is perfect, this kid is in our band.

Q: Gary told me that at that point, he hadn’t touched the bass in four years.

Chris: Yeah, he hadn’t played since the Selzers. So it was just perfect luck. These guys are all monsters.

Q: Gary hasn’t hooked you up with that Strokes tour yet though. (Gary’s ex-bandmate in the Selzers manages the Strokes.)

Chris: (laughs) Yeah, well…. That connection is kind of wacky.

Q: The thing about the Groucho Marxists is that you guys definitely work at your own pace. The new record took, what, three years?

Chris: (laughs) Uh, yeah, I’m a little slow.

Q: Well, you’re juggling a lot of things. You’ve got a wife, a job, the studio, now you’ve got a son...

Chris: I have a problem focusing. It’s hard to take out the little bit of time for all the stupid shit I want to do, with all this other stuff going on.

Q: Somebody not like us – you know, a normal person - might just say, well, why don’t you just give up the band?

Chris: Because I love it. It’s a total labor of love at this point. I have no delusions of grandeur of being plucked from obscurity and making millions from my band. But man, for that 30 minutes that I get to jump around on a stage, it’s just so much fun… It recharges me, and makes me feel alive, and as long as I can have someone else put my records out for me, that’s really all I want to do. I’m totally okay making a thousand CD’s and selling those. Just as long as I get to keep doing it.

Q: Is it performing, or recording, or just hanging out with the guys in the band…?

Chris: It’s all of it. If I wanted to, I could just make records on my own. I can play all the parts. I make demos like that all the time. But I love the façade of the band. I love the gang mentality, the ‘us against them’ that happens when you’re doing that. There’s something about it. That’s my ‘bowling team’… I’ve got my band. And it’s just such a labor of love. I don’t just sit down and try to pump out songs like I used to. When it happens, then that’s the pace we work at. We all have real jobs so we all have the same amount of time to spend on the band, so that works out well. There’s not one member who wants to do more, and it’s not that often that I’m trying to get those guys to do stuff that they don’t want to do. We all have the same commitment level. So we can keep going at this snail’s pace for as long as we need to. If I couldn’t do this, I’d go crazy. I’d be a real angry guy. Even if I haven’t played drums in a while, I’ll start to get the twitches and I’ll start tapping on things way too much. And Liz will say, is there something wrong with you? And I’ll say, I haven’t played drums in a while. I have drummer’s disease.

Q: Your wife Liz, by the way, probably should be nominated for sainthood.

Chris: She is quite a sport. She has put up with all of my bands, all of my friends that are in bands. All of the bands that come through the studio. She puts up with all of it. She is a wonderful, wonderful woman.

Q: Well, she knows who she fell in love with. And you wouldn’t be that guy if you weren’t doing music.

Chris: Probably not. That’s very true. And you know what? Liz has great taste in music. When I met her, she had the right records, she liked all the same bands in town that I liked. She wasn’t a big Deadguy fan and she hasn’t always like all the same crazy shit that I like, but she likes everything else. She likes Drag The River, so she didn’t mind when I was running off to Colorado to play some shows. She’s cool with it. I wouldn’t have been able to do everything I’ve done without her there.

Q: Is the studio back up and running? I know you had to take some time off for a while when Gibson was born.

Chris: Oh yeah. I do that nights and weekends. I can pick and choose what bands I want to work with, I don’t have to just take phone calls. I don’t even advertise or have a phone number for the studio anymore. If you can get in touch with me, usually it’s just through a friend of a friend. So I can be sort of elusive and elitist about that when I want to be. My goal has always been to make records with my friends, and that’s pretty much what I’m doing now. It’s funny because my first studio space was huge, it was 6,000 square feet. Then the second studio was a thousand square feet. And now, I like not having to pay an extra set of rent on it, and just having it downstairs. It means I can be really picky and just do what I want and nothing more or less.

Q: How much do you think the Ergs have had to do with the revival of the music scene in New Brunswick?

Chris: I think a lot. I knew the Ergs as those kids who came to see Doc Hopper in the basements, because that was the only place they could get into. And they were the kids who would sing along to Black Flag with us. They were those kids who wore glasses and knew all the Black Flag songs. But once they came to me as the Ergs, back around 2003 or so, and told me they wanted to record, instantly I was so excited. I was like, this is so fucking awesome. Their encyclopedic knowledge of SST Records was amazing. They had a great musical pedigree and I was excited from the first minute to work with them. And then they just fucking rocked. I was so reinvigorated just from working with them, and just working with a band that rocks so much. They knew their shit, they could play their instruments, they were just into it in a way I hadn’t seen in a while. And being around people like that, it can’t help but spark the same thing in other people. Bands definitely want to be better just seeing a band like the Ergs. The first time I saw them, I though, wow, I need to get my shit together, I can’t be slacking anymore with these kids around. There was one week where they were like, hey, you were in the AG’s and Sinkhole, you should be our drummer and Mikey will just sing. So we jammed one time, and after trying to play half of side one of DorkRock, I quit. I was like, I can’t play this fast, I will die and I will make your band suck. You guys are like one thinking entity, and no one can fuck with that. And hopefully they can keep that up. They really need a manager, but most managers suck. I wish I had the contacts so I could manage them. But if I managed them, they’d be cursed and break up and be fucked forever. (laughs) They need a good manager to teach them how to do things. They are good enough to be the next Green Day. I don’t see why not.

Find out more at the Groucho Marxists' Facebook page and here.




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