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Interview: Siren

Posted by Gabe Meline on Jun 22, 2011 | Comments (4)

 

Brian: "This band was entirely my life. I was addicted to the band."

This week’s Bohemian column is on Siren, the band that virtually defined the Sonoma County punk scene for three years before imploding in a collapse of rumors, drugs, and, as you’ll read below, being incurably broke. Before their heavily anticipated reunion show this Saturday, I caught up with them at a smelly practice space in Santa Rosa where they’ve been rehearsing songs like “Die Cast Mottos” and “Buy Our Fall” for the first time since the Clinton era. Brian drank a beer. Adam arrived with a bread-bag tie for a guitar pick. Kevin got stuck in traffic. Joe brought candy.

The idea of a Siren reunion has been brought up before, but it took a good cause to actually make it happen. Nicole McCracken, Kevin’s wife, has been diagnosed with breast cancer. You can follow her story here. There’s an idea to evolve this show into an annual benefit for women with cancer, which is an appropriate endeavor for a band who always embraced direct action.

The show is this Saturday, June 25. Tickets are available here. Our interview starts below.

When was the last Siren show?

Adam: Richmond, Virginia. 1997.

In short, what have you all been doing for the last 14 years?

Adam: I graduated from Sonoma State, and have been working. I print for a company down in Petaluma, but I also own my own letterpress—like fine stationery, fine wedding printing. I’m happily married, and have a beautiful three-year-old son.

Brian: Has it been 14 years? Well, the last eight years I’ve spent in the Czech Republic. Before that, I was living here, just being quiet, not being in bands. I had a small language school in Prague, which is currently on hiatus. I still don’t know if I’m gonna stay here or not.

Joe: I have a son and he is amazing, and unique, and an adventure that’s been a pleasure to be a part of. I met and married the smartest, funniest, most beautiful woman to ever give a lucky slob like myself the time of day. I live in a beautiful town full of beautiful awesome and interesting folks. I have the greatest friends, the awesomest family, live in the best town, the most beautiful dream house, a perfect child and the most adorable wife…I live the dream!

Kevin: I have been living in San Francisco, and also working in the print industry, like Adam. I own my own business, which does everything—printing apparel, offset, which we sometimes contract to Adam, and promotional products. And working in nonprofits and stuff like that. Playing a little music. I have a 2 1/2 year-old daughter.

The reason we’re getting back together is because my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer this last November. Medical bills, even with good insurance, are really expensive, and when you’re a commie like me and you don’t pay yourself any more than your employees, it’s hard to pay those bills when your wife isn’t making 20 grand a year anymore.

Now, the idea of Siren reforming has come up before, and the story that I’ve heard is that you, Adam, were the holdout. What was stopping you from doing it?

A: I don’t know, I just thought it was a little silly for all of us to get back together. ‘Cause see, Brian and I hadn’t worked out all the stuff we needed to work out, so it probably would have been an uncomfortable thing. I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do it.

There was some personal friction.

A: Yeah. But we talked, through Kevin.

Now, when I think of Siren, I can’t help but think of Engage, which Siren was formed right on the heels of. Engage was a very direct-action kind of band, with you two sometimes literally lecturing from the stage. When Siren came along two years later, there was still that concept of positive change, but it was a little more vague, and less in-your-face. How has the urge for positive change diluted further—or gotten sharper—in each of you over the last 14 years?

A: For me, doing this again . . . what I always loved about this band, what this band always meant to me, was being able to do positive things with it, and to benefit others. That’s why, with this opportunity, I love the idea of doing this show, because we’re able to help Kevin and his wife out. When we were talking about that other reunion show, it just seemed silly to me. If it were saving the Phoenix or something, I think I would have jumped at it.

K: My hope for this is making this a yearly thing. Not necessarily with Siren, but with bands that want to play a show for someone, specifically a woman, who’s going through some issues, specifically cancer, who can’t afford the treatment. ‘Cause it’s gonna happen more and more. It’s just a fact. It seems like every time I mention it to somebody, they’re like, oh, my wife, or my sister, or my brother’s wife, or my aunt, or my grandma, or my mom has gone through breast cancer treatment, and either they’re a survivor, or they didn’t make it. I think that’s part of it.

And actually, it’s funny—some of the songs we’re playing at this show I never played on, ‘cause they were recorded after I left the band. And I got kind of excited about the lyrics to those songs, I was like, “These are really good!” I had heard the record, but because of my own ill feelings, I never really listened to it.

So when I think about the idea of Siren… to be honest, I had my own struggles that people in Sonoma County are well aware of, that are pretty well-documented not just in the scene but in Maximum Rocknroll and other areas, and I’ve been real honest about it. So the idea of doing something as far as positive change goes, I mean, that’s what my business is, too. I joke about being a commie, but the fact of the matter is I purposely set up my business in a way so I can help other people. I can’t live with myself when I’m just doing “a job.” I’m bored, I’m irritated, I’m kind of a nasty bastard, I’m not a good dad, I’m not a good husband, I don’t want to do anything. Had I not facilitated other things in my life in the last 12 years, I wouldn’t have even been interested in this. And Matthew Izen from the Velvet Teen was the one who really pushed this, ‘cause he’s had relatives who’ve died of cancer. I’m pretty excited about it, I like being around these guys, and I feel like I missed out on a huge part of their lives just through my own selfishness. So this has been nice for me.

Kevin: "I don't make any excuses for what I did. None. Not for any of the people I fucked with, or stole from."

I wanna ask you guys, and I didn’t wanna bring it up, but Kevin just did—he went through a rough patch, and the short version is, Kevin, you were on heroin and wound up taking a lot of money from the Independent Arts Coalition, I don’t know how much it was, and the figures I’ve heard have varied, and you probably don’t know…

K: I do. It was about $1,200.

It must have been tough for you guys to hear about that.

A: I didn’t know about him taking the money until he brought it up at practice here. I didn’t hear about all that. I was wondering why he was saying that his relationship with people who might be at the show was kind of iffy because of that, and it was like, I didn’t even know that it had happened.

B: Well, let’s be honest here. Kevin was doing heroin at a time when everybody was doing it here. And there’s a problem with people who are part of the counterculture thinking that heroin is a chi-chi thing that they have to experiment with. If you look at the history of heroin, it’s always coming and going according to things going on in the political world. This stuff is coming from Asia, it’s coming from Afghanistan, it always runs with the political current. And quite honestly, it just happens to be that we were playing music in a community that’s sometimes vulnerable to these chi-chi ideas—William S. Burroughs, all these people, you’ve gotta do heroin to be cool—I just think Kevin was caught up in the flow a little bit. Because everybody was doing it—everybody was! And one of the tragic things about the band was that we were an alternative to that. We were trying to put something forward that was actually positive and productive, and quite honestly, I don’t think we could really fight against that. It was actually a stronger influence, and maybe that’s part of the message. Kevin wasn’t alone in that, no way. Lots and lots of people were doing heroin here. Lots.

Did you guys ever try to reach out to Kevin?

Joe: I did. I went to school in Oakland, and I’d park the van and get on my mountain bike, and just kinda go down 16th and Mission, in places where I knew folks were hanging out. I’d ask, and all that. At the time, I was pretty naïve to what the life’s like; I’m much more educated first-hand now to know that people are gonna quit when they wanna quit. When I found out what Kevin had done, it was on the tail end of losing one of my best friends. You know, hearing things about folks that I would have never thought in a million years would take a dime from anyone, or steal from anyone, and you hear all these kinds of things that are obviously completely out of character for these folks. But under the influence, that’s what happens. I can tell you first-hand, it has a hold on you. It will take your soul. It will squeeze you dry.

So you know, $1,200, it seems like a lot. Especially our main problem in our band was that we never had a dime. We never had money to buy a van, we never had money for shit.

K: Actually, I was the one that was buying stuff for the band. Putting on shows in Santa Rosa, renting things at my expense, putting deposits down for the Sebastopol Community Center. Not to make excuses either, but I think it’s kind of interesting that it’s come up a few times with different people, and no one really talks about what happened to the other two-thirds of the money. From what I hear, it went to a keg party at somebody’s house in Petaluma. That’s the rumor I heard—I don’t know, I wasn’t here. And I think it’s interesting that, you know, the third of the money I had in a bank account disappeared, and to be honest, I was doing dope at that time with a bunch of people from the scene in Santa Rosa.

I want to make this really clear, because this is the most important point: I don’t make any excuses for what I did. None. Not for any of the people I fucked with, or stole from. And I’ve made serious reparations for that.

B: The question asked was also about intervention, and to be honest with you, for me, this band was entirely my life. I was addicted to the band. I really believe that by nature, human beings, we’re missing something. As creatures, we need something to fill a hole in ourselves. And this band, for me, was my addiction. When Kevin left the band, we—Adam and I—were going through hell. Like, our only alternative was to go to Europe. Both of us were just completely sunk. Because all we wanted to do was play music. For years and years, that was the only thing. Still, to this day, honestly, the only thing in life that gives me pleasure is performing. Absolutely. I’m addicted to that. I don’t need drugs, I don’t need whatever. I can just perform and that’s fine for me. That’s what I hoped that Siren could be—an addictive force, a cathartic force that would be strong enough to pull Kevin along.

With Kevin, I didn’t know that he was addicted to heroin, but I knew something was wrong. I could see something was going on. It was only later that I found out about it, but by that point, Adam and I were in Europe. We were gone.

K: So was I. People did try to intervene. These guys were gone by the time it got really bad, but family friends, Davina, who I was with at the time, my brother, other people definitely did their best. But when you’re dealing with somebody as strongheaded as I am, and you add to it the power of heroin, it’s like, how are you going to stop that?

J: I think that the person Kevin is today is more valuable than whatever money was lost, or whatever time he went back and forth. He’s an inspiration to me personally, going through what I’m going through, by being honest with what he’s done and who he is.

I haven’t found anyone who still bears a grudge for the $1,200.

B: Not at all.

K: Jeff Ott was very encouraging in ways to make that amends. Because by the time I was ready to do that, that organization was gone. So he was very encouraging on ways that I could do it anonymously, and feel good about it. He really helped me do that. Because that particular thing was very disturbing to me, it really bothered me. It was one of the few things that I looked back on and went, “I really fucked up on that one. That was a really bad one.” Everything else seemed pretty easy to amend, and fix. That one really bothered me. He counseled me in a way that nobody else really could because of his own experience, and was like, “Look, there’s something you can do to fix this, but not make it into a broadcast.” And I’m gonna leave it at that.

J: There were some people, I’m gonna name him because he said it in such an open platform and in such a damning way—but Rob Sutter put out that zine, and it was very one-sided and there was no counter opinion. I mean, I loved Rob’s zine to begin with, because he was so open. But it was odd to have someone that we’d welcomed into our circle with open arms—we didn’t know this person from anyone else—and to have him be so damning in print, without even another point of view. It was kind of mean.

K: I’ll say this, at Nostalgia Fest a year and a half ago, Rob and I hugged and everything’s fine. Although I did offer to let him punch me in the face if he wanted.

Adam: "What this band always meant to me was being able to do positive things with it, and to benefit others."

In some ways, the accessibility of Siren had to be a knee-jerk reaction from Engage, because Engage was so quirky, heavy, technical, hard, heavy—geared toward a very specific audience.

B: Absolutely. And I had issues with that. When Adam and I created this band, we talked about that. Unlike Engage, our emphasis wasn’t really on channeling anger and defensiveness, our emphasis was on channeling, again, the positive.

K: I always felt this pressure in Engage to be super over-the-top with everything we said and did. I always felt like we were defending ourselves, not just because of the political statement, but because the music we were playing was so off from what everyone else was doing who was saying the same things. We certainly weren’t Nausea, we weren’t Crass, we weren’t Citizen Fish. We were the extreme polar opposite musically than any band that was doing anything political. We were saying stuff, and also were playing really nasty, technical, almost prog-rock metal.

B: Whereas Siren was trying to encourage kids to dance. And we were trying to not instigate a fight with people, but encourage conversation with what we were about. We always gave away free literature, always trying to be open with people. More didactic, and less preachy.

A: That was my focus, too. Especially working with Brian Zero, who we all knew from Engage, going on tangents about the world. In this band, we definitely had a focus of trying to scale that way down to get people to like us and listen to us. We definitely were not an in-your-face band, even though our lyrics were definitely a solid, in-your-face message.

K: I think you’ll notice, in Siren lyrics, there were no F-bombs.

B: We made that point. We weren’t trying to channel pissed-off rage. We were trying to channel a positive learning experience at its best. Especially considering that we were guys in our early 20s, and we had audience people who were 14-15 years old, we were trying to be positive mentors to people. Opening the door, rather than closing it.

Before I forget, are you going to wear a suit and tie at this show?

A: It’s a surprise.

Goober grape sandwiches after the show?

B: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while supplies last.

Something I’m wondering… you’re not headlining this show. I wonder if that indicates any kind of hesitation, or a lack of confidence in your old fans to be around anymore, or still care.

B: We never liked to headline. If you look back at our history, we never liked to headline shows. We liked to play second to last, which was always the best position. There was a little bit… can I say it? There was a little bit of strategy there. We wanted to be at the point we felt there was an energy peak from the audience, and not be the last band. We always played a short set, too. We actually were a very strategic band.

A: We were mindful, though, if a band was touring—we wouldn’t put them on the last slot, because everybody was gonna walk away.

K: The last show I played with Siren was with Avail at the Phoenix, and originally they were slated to headline. But there were so many Siren fans there, they came to me and said, “Can we play before you guys? We don’t want all these people to leave.” With the Velvet Teen, it’s also a tip of the hat to them for what they’ve done over the last decade here in Sonoma County. They’re a great local band, and they draw people to their show, and to be honest, I don’t want to play after Casey.

B: Play after who?

K: Casey. Their drummer is insane. As a side note, he’s my favorite drummer. I love watching him play.

Joe: "Our main problem in our band is that we never had a dime... we never had money for shit."

So what do you guys think? What kind of anticipation do you have for bona fide Siren fans turning out for this show?

B: To be honest, I never liked the word “fan.” It seemed kind of demeaning. This is just personally, I’m not speaking for everyone. But we always considered ourselves an audience band. Our best shows were the ones with the best audiences, even when we played mediocre, or we had bad performances. Our whole thing was about returning the energy. When I think of “fan,” it just sounds like, “Okay, we’re rock stars.” But in reality, we were all about the audience. All those audience members were a part of the band. So I wish we could come up with another word. But in terms of people who appreciate us, and appreciate what we were about? I actually think that there should be a lot of that. There should be a lot of positive energy.

And after this? Is this just a one-time deal?

B: Adam and I, we’re actually going to have a big boxing match.

A: You wanna know what killed the band? Brian and I have come to terms, over a beer, with what killed the band. It was money.

B: It was money.

A: If anything, it all does come back to that.

B: Honestly, we made choices that were to our detriment financially. For example, we had an offer at one point that we didn’t follow through with that would have given us money. And we didn’t do it—my mistake—for a minor reason. But honestly, we actually needed the funds.

Well, what was this offer that you turned down?

B: We were offered something from Lookout Records. And because I was very fussy about distribution through Caroline, we asked them if they could not do that.

And they said no and that was that?

K: Larry talked to me and basically said “That’s how we do business. It’s up to you. I like you guys. You could probably sell some records.” He was very honest, but he was also very practical, and he wasn’t gonna mess with work.

B: That was the thing. Maximum RocknRoll was able to distribute without Caroline. Some other people decided not to, with Mordam, and they were still able to get their stuff out there. That’s what we were trying to do. In retrospect, I had a personal issue on that one, and I’m not so sure it was the right thing. But what can you say?

A: When it comes down to it, that was it. Money.

B: Our road without money was very, very difficult. We were all working, and we were all struggling. And the money thing, that’s sad to say it though. I mean, isn’t it sad? Are we saying that money was stronger than the band?

A: Right, exactly. I just think it’s funny. “Money Changes Everything,” right? It was pretty fitting.

B: It was actually very, very hard.

 

Siren plays Saturday, June 25, 2011, at the Phoenix Theater (201 E. Washington St., Petaluma) with the Velvet Teen, Cropduster, Aim Low Kid, Stoner Dad, the 50/50s and Jeff Bretz. 7:30pm. $10. 707.762.3565.


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4 comments

  1. lacey graham
    June 22, 2011

    gabe, i always read your column, but this article meant so much to me. it connected to my coming of age. the gentlemen in siren were so honest and allowed themselves to be vulnerable and unafraid to repsond truthfully, i was crying at the very beginning. thank you for continuing to bring public interest stories to a public like myself. thank you to the members of siren, for keeping the dream alive.

    Reply
  2. Miriam Wilding
    June 23, 2011

    Thank you Gabe for your very thoughtful interview. You know, Brian’s Mom (my Mom, too) passed away in September, after a difficult battle with leukemia. She loved Siren, and wanted nothing more than to see the band succeed. SIREN took on a David vs. Goliath fight against the corporate take-over of independent music (production & distribution), which many of their peers also fell to. Saturday’s show is a tribute to heroic fights on many levels (cancer included).

    Reply
  3. Adam LaBelee
    June 24, 2011

    On the point of the rest o the I.A.C. money, the funds that were left after a couple other folks, who shall remain nameless, pilfered their bit, was distributed to organizations such as Food Not Bombs, The Phoenix Theatre, The Purple Berets and Section M magazine. These decisions were made by the last few remaining members of the I.A.C. after it folded. I just wanted to clear that up….Adam LaBelle…

    Reply
  4. Ian Miller
    April 21, 2013

    I was at Siren’s last show in RVA. I would love to reconnect with Brian. If anyone sees this, please help me get in touch with Brian by emailing me at ircone@yahoo.com.

    Reply

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