Austin Psych Fest: Rain Parade
Q&A with headliner/bandleader Matt Piucci
By Greg Beets, 10:47AM, Thu. Apr. 25
Between the Three O’Clock’s Coachella appearance earlier this month and Rain Parade’s Austin Psych Fest show tonight at Red 7 – 12:15am – it’s springtime all over again for the Paisley Underground.
Formed by onetime college roommates Matt Piucci and David Roback in 1981, Rain Parade were key figures in a loose confederation of L.A. bands that included the Three O’Clock, the Bangles, Green on Red, and Dream Syndicate.
It was Three O’Clock vocalist/guitarist Michael Quercio that inadvertently coined the “Paisley Underground” moniker. With Prince shoulders-deep in psychedelia and popular culture reliving the Sixties through The Big Chill and classic rock radio, Quercio’s descriptor was bound to stick.
While the Paisley Underground bands were influenced by Sixties music in one way or another, none embraced the vibrant, madcap warble of psychedelia more than Rain Parade. The quintet’s 1983 LP debut, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, summoned fresh underground angst from the ghost sounds of Pink Floyd’s UFO Club and the Byrds’ Sunset Strip.
David Roback left after the first album, going on to form Opal and later Mazzy Star. Rain Parade didn’t miss a beat with 1984’s Explosions in the Glass Palace EP, which featured the hypnotic, six-minute high-water mark, “No Easy Way Down.” After a brief stay on Island Records for 1985’s Crashing Dream, the band broke up in 1986.
Following Rain Parade’s demise, Piucci formed Gone Fishin’ with Tim Lee from Mississippi pop duo the Windbreakers. He even sat in with Crazy Horse for a spell.
Piucci reformed Rain Parade last year to help out Lee’s old Windbreakers bandmate Bobby Sutliff. Sutliff was seriously injured in a car accident last June, so friends decided to record a Windbreakers tribute album to help offset his medical expenses. That gave way to a January benefit show in Atlanta, which was preceded by a sold-out warm-up performance in San Francisco.
The current edition of Rain Parade features Piucci with bassist/guitarist/vocalist Steven Roback (David’s brother) and guitarist/keyboardist John Thoman from the classic line-up, along with keyboardist/guitarist Mark Hanley, renowned rock archivist Alec Palao on bass and keyboards, and ex-Game Theory drummer Gil Ray.
We spoke with Piucci by phone from his Bay Area home about the Rain Parade reunion, his unlikely fill-in stint with Crazy Horse, and what it felt like to be a part of the so-called Paisley Underground from the inside.
Austin Chronicle: How did you first get into psychedelic music?
Matt Piucci: Me personally? I saw the Byrds when I was 14.
AC: So this version of the Byrds would have been...
MP: ...it was 1972, the Clarence White era. The last version of the Byrds. Clarence White on guitar, Gene Parsons on drums, and Skip Battin was the bass player. But to me, it was all about [Roger] McGuinn and Clarence White. Holy smokes! What an amazing combination! For me, the only band from America that even comes close was maybe Television in terms of having two wicked guitar players in the band.
That’s why I’m glad my buddy John is in the band now. I like David. He’s a good guy and he’s a decent guitar player, but he’s not a virtuoso like John. So now we’ve got two pretty damn wicked guitar players in our band and I’m pretty happy about that.
As far as mind-expanding music, we all grew up, particularly Steven and I, with the Revolver, late-Sixties Byrds kind of trip. We loved that kind of music. We loved Indian music. We loved the way Indian music filtered into American popular music.
AC: How did Rain Parade get started?
MP: I moved to Los Angeles in ’81 to live with David and work on stuff. We knew we were going to have a band, but we didn’t know exactly what it was going to sound like.
We kind of sped through the Sixties really quickly. In about six months, we got from ’64 to the late Sixties. We found this sort of Byrds-y/Love kind of core really made sense to us.
Simultaneously, it was informed by punk music. I know people don’t think of Rain Parade as a punk band, but it terms of the lyrics and in terms of the idea that punk is doing your own thing, it was. In Los Angeles in 1981, what was called punk was somewhat fascist.
AC: What do you mean by that?
MP: When we started playing in Los Angeles, if you weren’t sweating like a pig in a ripped T-shirt and screaming at the top of your lungs, then you weren’t cool. It wasn’t valid. And we thought that was bullshit. We thought it was very punk of us to play waltz tempos slowly with acoustic guitars at punk clubs. We thought that was punk because nobody else was doing it.
AC: When you played out, were audiences ever antagonistic toward you?
MP: Probably more confused than anything! We didn’t experience any overt hostility, but I never really liked L.A. punk, to be honest with you. I always thought it was false, with the exception of X and maybe the Circle Jerks. The Circle Jerks were funny and X was sort of the Beatles of punk in a way. Most of that other shit, I just couldn’t get into it. It just seemed false to me.
AC: What did you think of the whole “Paisley Underground” thing?
MP: I honestly don’t think any of those other bands from the Eighties were really that psychedelic with the possible exception of the very first Green on Red album and the very first Salvation Army [Three O’Clock] album. The only other really psychedelic band I know of from that time is Plasticland and they’re from Milwaukee. I loved those guys. I’m not saying what those other bands were doing was illegitimate or anything, but as is often the case, when people try to categorize things, they often oversimplify.
AC: With that said, do you feel like Rain Parade was part of a critical mass movement in Los Angeles at the time? Was that actually happening or was that just a media creation?
MP: My personal experience of what other people ended up describing was just meeting some nice people who had similar influences. I moved from Minneapolis, where I’d been in another band, and that culture was a little bit more competitive. But when I got to L.A. with these guys, it was different. Our first show was with Green on Red. There was Dream Syndicate, of course. And the Roback brothers had known the Bangles since they were kids.
Will Glenn [former Rain Parade keyboardist], rest in peace, his college roommate was Sue’s brother. Sue and John Hoffs lived down the street from the Robacks. I saw the Bangles when they were the Colors or something like that. It was their first show. This is digression, but when I saw those guys, I thought, “Holy smokes, they’re going to be big!” And they were. They could play, they could sing. It was good stuff.
But I didn’t really feel like this was a movement per se. What I felt was kindness and kinship amongst the group of people playing similarly influenced music in a similar space and time. Nobody thought, “Oh wow, this is taking over the world!” or anything. I don’t know what the common thread is. Maybe it was an appreciation for more melodic songwriting than punk afforded. But people need labels. It probably helped, so I guess I shouldn’t bitch.
AC: It seems like nobody wants to be lumped in, I guess.
MP: Look at Barcelona in the early 20th century. You’ve got these four giants. I don’t know how much they influenced each other. I don’t know whether they even talked to each other, but you’ve got Gaudi, you’ve got Miró, you’ve got Dali, and you’ve got Picasso. That’s pretty strong. But I don’t know if they have anything in common beyond the proximity. I mean, yeah, they’re modern artists. They’re revolutionary in different ways. They weren’t realists. Not that I’m not comparing us to Barcelona [laughs], but if you said, “Hey, Picasso, you’re just like Dali,” you’d probably piss him off.
AC: Why did Rain Parade call it quits?
MP: It was natural, I think. We’d kind of run our course. I’m always amazed at the people who succeed, like R.E.M. There’s a certain amount of stupidity you gotta have. I’m not calling those guys stupid, but you’ve just gotta grind it, and those guys... they ground it. They played 150 shows a year. They toured constantly. And they did well.
The other thing is that we didn’t really ever have a good singer. That didn’t help us. If you look at the career paths of someone like David, you could say that Rain Parade was a better band. Personally I think it was. Others might have a different opinion, but at least he was smart in terms of the commercial thing. He hooked himself up with a singer who was marketable. That doesn’t mean I think Hope [Sandoval] isn’t talented – she is – but that was a conscious decision and that makes sense and that’s why those guys are so much bigger. It’s just natural that people are going to respond to a more charismatic singer. We really didn’t have that. I liked that about Rain Parade.
When you think of Pink Floyd, you don’t immediately think of a guy. Except Syd [Barrett], from way back in the day, of course, but when you think about the post-Syd Pink Floyd, which I also like, though maybe not as much, but one of the things I like about that band is that you don’t think of any one person [Ed. note: see the BBC documentary, Which One’s Pink?].
Part of it was our own shortcomings. Part of it was the weird timing. Rain Parade came at a time when nobody was doing that. If Rain Parade had come out 10 years earlier or 10 years later, maybe we would’ve done better. I don’t think anyone else was doing it when we were doing it, but then I see a lot of bands later who got more popular.
AC: Tell me about your time in Crazy Horse.
MP: That’s somewhat of a misnomer. Billy [Talbot] and Ralph [Molina] are very dear friends of mine. After I was done playing in Rain Parade, Billy was playing around and we had this mutual friend who was a big Rain Parade fan. He told Billy, “Billy, you’ve gotta see guitar player, man. This Matt Piucci guy can really play.”
I guess he pestered him enough, so Billy asked me to show up at some gig he was playing in the Valley. He was playing with another guy and they were doing a bunch of Crazy Horse songs. I brought my guitar and just plugged in. Billy was looking at me like, “What the fuck, man? How do you know this stuff?”
Anyway, we hit it off. I made a bunch of songs with those guys. Three records, actually. Not all of it came out. Some of it was even with Neil [Young], but I don’t know where the hell that is.
It was all songs that Billy had written. Well, actually, at first the songs were written by another guy in the band who was my age. His stuff was okay. He was a good guy, but it was nothing to write home about. But the Billy Talbot stuff, that was some pretty cool shit. And one of the projects from back in the day was some stuff that Neil ended up singing on, which is pretty cool. I met him a few times and he’s a good guy. But to say I played in Crazy Horse would be inaccurate. I mean, yes, I did appear on a stage and the bill said ‘Crazy Horse,’ but I ain’t Danny Whitten! It’s sort of like, “Come see the Beatles – Stu Sutcliffe and Billy Preston!”
While I played with Crazy Horse, I wouldn’t say I was in Crazy Horse. I was Neil-lite, or young Neil. I was, “Neil’s not around, so we’re going to use this guy.” If you would’ve told me that when I was a kid, I would’ve shit in my drawers. Life is weird, man. When you don’t care, that’s when things happen.
AC: Is there anything else you want to mention about the Rain Parade reunion?
MP: What has happened to us since this began has been phenomenal. The outpouring of love and appreciation is kind of blowing our minds. When we played the show in San Francisco in December, I’d never been in a room where that many people were so happy to see me – ever. It’s very satisfying to return to this stuff and have people still care about it.