Interview: Savage Republic’s Bruce Licher

Inspired by equal parts Los Angeles punk energy, visual artistic experimentation encouraged via study at UCLA and his own individual passions, Bruce Licher founded Independent Project Records (known as IPR for short) in 1980 as both a record label and a fine arts experiment, with his releases packaged in unique combinations of letterpress design and rough chipboard paper. As he said by phone earlier in June, “I started the label because I had liked the idea of making a record as an art piece and had just recently bought a guitar. While I was at UCLA as an art student, I just wanted to make some noise and put it out there in an interesting format, so once I had done one 7-inch single, I thought, ‘Wow, that was fun, I'll do another one!’ It just sort of went from there!”

Licher soon made just as strong a mark with the label’s flagship band Savage Republic, building off post-punk and industrial inspirations crossed with music from around the world to create one of Los Angeles’s most powerful, unique bands, with Licher’s guitar touching on everything from Dick Dale’s fiery surf/Middle Eastern fusions to Bernard Sumner’s reinventions of heavy metal riffing to create his own distinct musical voice.

Following a lengthy run where Independent Project became home to a variety of remarkable acts, including Human Hands, Fourwaycross, For Against, Alison’s Halo and perhaps most famously Camper Van Beethoven via their debut Telephone Free Landslide Victory, the label went into a generally dormant phase. Licher, relocating to Sedona, Arizona, concentrated on his increasingly famous art designs, including a variety of artistic commissions in the world of print as much as music. Having started a new music project, Scenic, after Savage Republic disbanded in the late ’80s, he sat out last decade’s reunion of the earlier band (still going strong, continuing through last year’s Varvakios), while Scenic itself quietly faded away.

Recently, however, Licher announced the full return of Independent Project as both label and printing concern, following a move back to California. The first release from the rejuvenated label covers another of their most well known acts, the Los Angeles-based psychedelic rock band Red Temple Spirits, whose two excellent late ’80s albums plus a bonus disc of demos received a typically striking, unique presentation. With further new and archival efforts to come, including new music from the man itself, it’s the perfect time to catch up with the affable Licher.

There have been occasional IPR-related reissues on other labels over recent years but now it seems like you’re thinking “Let’s get back into gear here.”

Well, it has been something that has been in the planning stages for a number of years. We actually started conceptualizing this Red Temple Spirits project before we left Sedona four years ago. For one reason or another, various aspects of the project didn’t come together until we ended up connecting with a French label called Infrastition who was interested in licensing the material and they wanted one of my packages for it. So it felt like it was a good time to dovetail those two things together and get it up and going.

Josh (Mills, IPR label publicist) and I have actually been discussing various aspects of getting the label going again for about two years now, and through various connections that he’s had and that I’ve had, we’d be talking to a number of different distributors and other labels that had various amounts of interest and being involved, but for one reason or another, one thing after another didn’t come together. Finally with this licensing with Infrastition, we were able to just pull it together to get this release going and then we got the distribution set up. We’re just planning to move forward, as we have other projects. Part of it is going to be reissuing and getting the back catalog, as much of it as I still have the rights to, out digitally, and then looking for other people to partner with to create physical releases as well.

Red Temple Spirits - rehearsal at Bizarreland Studio 1989

How did you encounter Red Temple Spirits originally back in the 1980s? They always seemed a little mysterious to me, in the best possible way.

It is interesting because back when I was in downtown Los Angeles and running the label in the late 1980s and doing the printing press, I had put the word out to my mailing list that I was looking for volunteers to come down and help with various aspects of what needed to be done. I guess nowadays you’d call them interns! As it turns out, one of those volunteers was Dino Paredes, who ended up being the bass player. He was actually volunteering at the record label in the print shop before they even started the band. He ended up connecting with the other band members and they pulled their project together and started recording.

They split up in 1991, maybe 1992, and at the point where they called it quits, the singer, William Faircloth, had also started working in the print shop for me. William had a cousin who lived in Sedona and he actually moved to Sedona about six months before we did. We didn’t move there because he had moved there, it just happened to be that we had both ended up in Sedona. So William ended up working for me in the print shop again for most of the time that we were in Sedona!

Shortly after he moved there, the guitarist, Dallas Taylor, also moved to Sedona, so they tried to get the band back together there and find a new rhythm section, which they had some difficulty with at various times. They did end up doing a few shows and then they formed another side project and actually recorded an album which is a bit more of an acid folk flavored version of Red Temple Spirits, which has not been officially released. They made up about thirty or forty cassette tapes that they printed a cover for and sold locally. William’s now living in Hawaii, very happy over there!

I was going to ask where they'd all ended up at! I gather everybody fully knows about the release.

It seemed like just about everybody that I ended up going into business with went out of business for one reason or another.

Oh yeah, I’ve been in touch with all four of them and they’re all very happy with how it’s turned out. When I first was talking to William about reissuing it, none of them had really been in touch with Dino or Thomas (Pierik, drummer) for a number of years, so it was just through the process of reissuing the release and the Internet – and how easy it is to find people nowadays! – that they were able to reconnect with everybody. Basically I worked out the details with William to do the licensing of it and his feeling was he didn’t want it to just get reissued again in some cheap package. He really wanted it to be an art package and I felt, particularly if I was coming back with the label, I needed to do something that was a little extra special to say, “Hey! Here's something to pay attention to.” That's why I started the label in the first place: I wanted to create beautiful art pieces with music that I loved.

I feel like at numerous times over the period of the label that I’ve gotten away from that because I was trying to make a living doing it, and it’s never really lasted for very long because I’d get a distribution deal with one distributor and they couldn’t afford to pay for the letterpress printing so we’d do normal packaging for a few years. But it seemed like just about everybody that I ended up going into business with went out of business for one reason or another! At this point, I’m feeling like the way to move forward is just one project at a time as I have an opportunity to do something and do it special. I’ve actually just started discussing with a small record label about doing a vinyl reissue of Savage Republic’s first album Tragic Figures – that’s a project that may start being put into production before too much longer. There will be bonus tracks on that too, things that have never been released from rehearsal tapes and things like that.

Speaking of bonuses, there is also the early demo included with the set. Had you ever heard that yourself or was that something totally new to you?

Actually that was something that they gave me back when they first started the band. Dino had already been working for me and he gave me the tape and said, “Hey Bruce, this is what I’m working on,” and I ended up meeting William through that. I had it in my possession but my copy was a little damaged. Fortunately when I started talking to William about the reissue he discovered that he also had a copy but his copy had a different track order. We ended up mastering it from his cassette copy because his was the better of the two. It’s still a little shaky but the original tapes were lost – actually, no, I take that back! We ended up literally just before we released it, we managed to reconnect with the engineer who recorded that and he provided us with a transfer from his original tape that he had. Apparently there are two other demo tapes that he’s got copies of too – we were too far along in the project to be able to try and expand that and get those included.

Red Temple Spirits Greg Fasolino / Red Temple Spirits Facebook

You obviously had a chance to see Red Temple Spirits live, I saw they opened for Savage Republic at various points. What were they like out there on the stage?

There is a fan-based Facebook page as well as a MySpace page and I believe there are some live videos posted on both of them, so you might want to check those out! They were a powerful live band. Especially William – he got into the whole shaman mythology. There were a lot of times where he literally would just perform wearing only a loincloth and he had long dreadlocked hair. It was funny: he had those light wands that deep sea divers use to be able to see underwater and he would get those and cut them open. When they would play, he would be throwing them around so there would be all of these fluorescent light colors all over the stage. Of course, some of the other bands they opened for didn’t appreciate that on their equipment! They had a good time.

I’ve been looking at the various online IPR stores and sites you’ve set up – the store, the Etsy store and so forth, also focusing on your products through Independent Project Press. In terms of current designers, musicians who are designers or artists in general, do you find yourself seen as a bit of a forebear, or is it more of a universe you’re looking in at and engaging in your own way? Or is there any one way to sum this up?

Uh, probably not! It’s interesting because I’ve always approached this from a fine arts standpoint rather than a designer’s standpoint. My choice to use letterpress was just because I realized that it was a way to create something that felt like a piece of fine art that you could mass produce, and that there would be subtle differences between each version, particularly working with the chipboard and the various aesthetic aspects that that allows. The brown chipboard, being sort of a mid-range tone, means that you can put both light and dark colors on it and then you can play with the metallic inks and you can get some really interesting effects that you can’t get any other way. For me it’s always just been wanting to experiment and explore and create art.

It’s been kind of a weird thing to have been ahead of the curve but not necessarily been the most successful in terms of getting things out there to the public.

The greeting cards on Etsy, that’s something my wife and I started doing a year-and-a-half or two years ago. Just at the beginning of this year, we brought them to market and set up the Etsy store, and what we’ve realized is that in the last ten years or so is that letterpress has become this big thing. There are tons of letterpress printers who have started up who are sort of saturating the market, and then there are other presses out there that have definitely been influenced by the work that I’ve done marketing their work. I’ve gotten this even back in the ’90s from some of my releases. Like with my band Scenic: when I put a record out and there were other presses that were doing letterpress on chipboard by that time because they had seen my work and they really liked it. So I would put things out and get comments like “Oh, this new Scenic album looks like something that came from this other press!”

It’s been kind of a weird thing to have been ahead of the curve but not necessarily been the most successful in terms of getting things out there to the public. So there’s that aspect which has been an interesting thing to recognize. But also it keeps me trying to do something new, to create something that takes it a step beyond what everybody else is doing. That was one of the reasons that I thought about this new packaging concept for the Red Temple Spirits project, because I knew that we wanted to a several CD set and I wanted to do something bigger, I wanted to have more space to work with.

Scenic - Angelica

What’s next for the label?

The main next thing that will probably be happening with the label is as mentioned getting some of the back catalog available as digital downloads. Things like the early Savage Republic stuff, the ’80s stuff, has not been available on iTunes and some of the Scenic material has not as well. The goal will be to get that moving forward.

I’m also working and have been for the last few years on several solo recording projects, one of which I started after I moved here to Bishop. My wife and I ended up buying a portable solar power unit because she liked to go out and do plein-air paintings, so in order for me to go along, I thought “Well you know, I’d like to be able to do something while I’m out there with her.” We conceived of the idea that I could do some plein-air recording! I got a twelve-track hard disc recorder and when we’ve gone out and done this, I would bring the solar power unit that powers everything and the recorder and my guitars and effects boxes. I started creating this series of layered guitar and effects instrumental pieces which I’m calling Owens Valley Driving Music.

The goal is to record enough for a full album at various locations here in the Owens Valley, to create music that you can use to drive up and down Highway 395! I've got two pieces done now and the fellow who mastered the bonus disc for the Red Temple Spirits project is currently working on remixing those for me. I’ve also just recently started collaborating on some music with my wife, who also plays guitar; we’ve come up with a few new songs that we’re planning to record at some point. Then I have another solo album project that's been in the works for...I started coming up with the songs back when we were in Sedona, so I have demoed out an entire album’s worth of this material, which would be like the more melodic Savage Republic/Scenic instrumental stuff, my typical guitar sound. Good stuff! I’m looking forward to being able to actually get it done and get it out there at some point, but we’re still a little ways off on that.

By Ned Raggett on June 24, 2013

On a different note