Interview: Will Kreth of Stick Against Stone
(Los Angeles) Bands go through changes. It is a universal constant that only the Rolling Stones seem to be able to defy. Bands break up, reunite, change names, change styles, add people, lose people, change homes, band mates join other bands, band mates go solo, and some even leave music altogether. It is part of the ebb and flow of the creative process. Stick Against Stone has seen all of that over its 30-year lifetime, and with each new step in their evolution they have maintained what many critics feel is one of the most creative blends of Afro beats, punk, reggae, funk, jazz, dub, horns, and percussion in our time. The band started out writing music in a basement in Pittsburg, crisscrossed the country – often in a converted yellow school bus – played music and sometimes politics, always live, never recorded And now after 30 years, they have recorded an album of songs drawn from their long career. Will Kreth, percussionist, manager, and unofficial archivist for the band, stopped by to talk about where they have been, how far they have come, and why they decided to record now.
Patrick. Will, I am sure you are sick of answering the question: what took you so long to record an album. Instead, I will ask you why now? Why did you decide to record after three decades of success in live performances?
Will. That’s a good question. There were low-fi recordings made along the way – cassettes handed from person to person, but there was no proper album. There was one song that appeared on a compilation from a small record label in Pittsburgh called PMI, but that is hardly representative work for any group. It was pressed on vinyl in 1983 and disappeared into the ether. But the group moved around a lot and that may be part of why they never settled down and went into a studio. Plus in the 1980s, it was not easy to get the money and energy together to go into a studio and record and get a label to distribute it. There were some DIY punk records made on indie labels in SoCal, but that knowledge was not widely distributed.
Patrick. How is it that six people in Pittsburgh in 1981 knew they wanted to do fusion music with horns and Afro jazz reggae Latin beats? The top performers that year were Diana Ross, John Lennon, Kool and the Gang – not fusion in any sense. In that milieu what pointed them to Afropunk?
Will. The group started before I met them, but when I joined as the sound man in 1984 they had a set style. In 1981 they were rejecting guitars and punk rock and pop music and arena rock and hair metal and things like that. They grew up listening to a lot of eclectic music. They listened to the community radio station in Pittsburgh, WYEP, and to college stations that would bring music from England and Jamaica and Germany and Africa. They had all this great music, but they were in the Midwest – if you are going to be punk in the Midwest, you really have to be dedicated. So they wanted to reject formulas and go in a different direction and they had the skills.
Patrick. The band moved around a lot…New York, Oregon, the Midwest, and on the road. Did it pick up influences in each of those places, or did the music stay pretty much the same?
Will. Yes and no. The influences maybe were not necessarily local. They stood out wherever they were – they weren’t just rock or punk or jazzy. They had a little bit of all those things, but they still had their own sound. Songwriting-wise, they were more melodic than what came earlier in the New York “no wave” movement, which was more abrasive and confrontational. It was a blend of some pop songwriting, a lean toward melody but with elements of experimentation.
Patrick. The album INSTANT really showcases complex Afro beats and jazz horns. Is that just who the band is?
Will. Yes, that’s where they come from. Richard, the original drummer, was son of a jazz drummer. His dad owned a record store in central Pennsylvania and his dad let him take any record home and listen to it. So he grew up listening to the best Afrobeats and Jamaican beats and highlights and African pop and imports and he was deep into world rhythms and was up on the what was happening with progressive music in Europe and punk. There was a window between the very late 70’s and the early mid 80’s where you saw a lot of experimental and cross pollination. All those cultural things were up for grabs.
Patrick. The lyrics in the title song, “Instant,” are exceptional. “Rug from under goes and still you go on/ Face in the mirror and it’s you all alone.” Not only is that very clever writing – the reference to the saying about pulling the rug and to the Robert Graves poem “a face in the mirror” which was in the Doors’ 1967 song “When the Music Is Over.” So there is a lot going on here at many levels. The late Daniel Ramirez wrote those lyrics in 1984. Has it changed over the years? Have people in the band tweaked it, or are we hearing the final cut?
Will. You are hearing the final cut of that song. Daniel Ramirez, our rhythm and sometimes lead guitar player, passed away with cancer last November, the week the album came out. He was thrilled that the music was coming out. The song is kind of a heavy song – it is the tale of an abused woman. For a man to write and to get into the character of a woman on the run who doesn’t know who her friends are anymore and who is being abused is remarkable. That is interesting songwriting you don’t hear much in rock and pop.
Patrick. Your website has a link to the lyrics and the credits on all songs – which is rare. Why does the band take the trouble to do that, when so many don’t even publish their lyrics?
Will. I don’t know the full answer, but it has been a long time coming to get these words and this music out. I am kind of a data nerd and it is a lot of work. I try to pay attention to letting people have access. We have set lists going back 35 years on setlist.com and we are still trying to fill that in with the gigs they played in Pennsylvania, Oregon, California. Telling a story through what you have done takes work.
Patrick. In the song “Breaking Habits” the lyrics are very pointed. “If you mind your own affairs/ Cause nobody harm/ But you when you look – you look the other way /The trouble hits you double hard.” That is Sari Morninghawk singing – she also sang the original when it was written in 1983. Are those the original lyrics?
Will. Those are the original lyrics. She joined in 1983. There are several writers in the band and the shared experience of being in close quarters pushed them to write confessional lyrics, which are often the ones that resonate the most.
Patrick. Did Stick Against Stone realize that they were going to be this long-lived and this historic?
Will. Not at all. Many of us had given up at some point. We felt that as the years went by our time was not going to come. The reboot – what I call the re-hydration – of the group started in 2006 when I brought some of the original members together to record in North Carolina.
Patrick. So what now for Sticks and Stones?
Will. We are now in Brooklyn, living and playing music. Sari and sometimes myself and often guests who join us. We play in New York now and we would love to get back on the road, but it takes time. In the meantime, the album is available on Bandcamp and all the major places and key record stores around the country.
Patrick. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.
Will. Thank you.
Stick Against Stone http://www.stickagainststone.com/
INSTANT by Stick Against Stone and live recordings and special releases are available at Bandcamp at https://stickagainststone.bandcamp.com/ and other online platforms, Vinyl and CD’s are available at key record stores nationwide.