INTERVIEW: Eric Stoess talks Hula Hoop, the Louisville Scene, and John Peel!

I remember a more enthusiastic version of myself that would walk into a record store and buy something unfamiliar for the sole purpose of discovery – preferably something local. It was during one of those shopping trips that I picked up Hula Hoop’s Winter Farming 7”.  It had a fuzzy pop quality that was not like the loud and angry music that I preferred at that time; but it satisfied my desire to connect with sounds outside the norm. I casually kept up with the band’s progress throughout High School and purchased some of their subsequent releases (which kept getting better) and I watched them play a few times in front of much smaller audiences than the band deserved.

Sometime around 2002 I went to see Second Story Man and Boyracer at the Rudyard Kipling and I met Eric Stoess, who was one of the singer/guitarist/songwriters for Hula Hoop. I told Stoess about how much I enjoyed his music and that my copy of Hula Hoop’s My Sweet Amputee was no longer functioning. He offered to restock for me. A few days later, I received a call giving me directions to pickup a box of music sitting on his front porch. The box contained a giant stack of LPs, tapes, cd’s, compilations, 7” records – releases by Hula Hoop, Hula Boy (a collaboration between Stoess and Stewart Anderson of Boyracer) and Lemonade Hayride (Hula Hoop’s predecessor which shared common DNA). Stoess refused any compensation and this generosity is consistent with all my future interactions.

I’ve reconnected with Stoess every few years over lunch meetings, emails and texts and absorbed pieces of his story, which goes far beyond that of a guy who’s made a bunch of songs. I told Syd about all this and we decided it should be a Never Nervous feature. Please read below about a fellow whom is probably the most humble (and in the running for most prolific) alumnus of Louisville music, someone who lives a good life in more ways than I will disclose out of respect for his privacy. Louisville is a place that seems to award its highest honors to those who have a footprint that can be followed far beyond its own confines, and even if that were not the case, few people deserve as much honor for their contributions as Eric Stoess. Once you’ve read this, I challenge you all to seek out and listen to as much as you can of the 55-60 releases he’s been a part of because it’s all really good stuff!



———

Never Nervous: You clearly like writing and playing songs and you’re good at it. How old were you when you started making up your own music? Do you remember what made you want to?

Eric Stoess: Well thanks! I think the earliest “songs” were cut and paste edits (soundscapes?) that contained snippets of a radio show hosted by E.G. Marshall called CBS Radio Mystery Theatre along with cassette tape recordings of Peanuts specials, Warner Bros. cartoons, really anything I was into that I could record on my GE portable cassette player. I’d go to sleep listening to this every night when I was 8 or 9. Just snippets of dialogue & incidental soundtracks from these shows. I started writing & recording xmas songs with guitar & whatever instrument I could sneak out of my brother’s room when I was 12 or 13. I would multitrack by using my RCA portable tape deck & the cassette deck on my stereo. I’d record the first track, then play or sing live along with it while it played on the portable tape player, & record THAT on the stereo. Repeat. I could get 6 or 7 layers before the first couple of tracks became indistinguishable. All recorded with a late ’50’s Shure mic I stole from LaGrange Elementary School gym in 3rd grade. I just loved the process of creating melody & noise, making something tangible with layers.

NN: Your first band (that I know of), Lemonade Hayride, made a solid pop record and some of you guys went on to form Hula Hoop. Tell us about Lemonade Hayride and how it captured the attention of a label across the pond?

ES: Just because I probably won’t have another venue ever again to list the bands I was in, here’s a quick run down: The A-Regions (high school band that learned a total of 6 covers by Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Devo, and The Dickies; The Memphis Bluetick Club (post-high school, heavy Gun Club vibe); Bo (basically Lemonade Hayride before Rachel joined- our covers ranged from The Gun Club to The Everly Brothers to The Steve Miller Band); The Bulls (members of Your Food and Babylon Dance Band I played bass for them while playing in Bo. I quit in an embarrassing and bullshit way that I still don’t like to think about. They were great.); Teeny Pee Pee (Galaxie 500 & Mazzy Star covers, noisy pop originals making fun of various Louisville people); then Lemonade Hayride and Hula Hoop.

Lemonade Hayride recorded a 4 song EP with Mitch Easter the fall before I went to the United Kingdom on an University exchange program. My main objective wasn’t school, it was to visit the offices of my favorite record labels and meet the people that ran them. I took along the demo to hand out, just in case Alan Horne was in town. 53rd & 3rd Street Records in Glasgow was my favorite label at the time. Stephen Pastel wasn’t there the day I visited, but there were several other record labels who had rooms in the same building, so I hung out and met those people.

One of them was Nightshift Records run by Brian Guthrie. He was the only person that contacted me after I got back home that wanted to put out an album. It was pretty funny dealing with this guy. He lived with his mom and several times when I called to discuss something with him, his older brother Robin and Liz from the Cocteau Twins would be there for Sunday dinner. I was a huge Cocteau Twins fan and kind of tongue-tied when Robin would answer the phone and take that opportunity to tell me his brother was in some sort of Scottish criminal organization & we’d never get an album out of him. It did take a while and there where lots of excuses (like the ship sinking with the test pressings after sailing from France), but he came through & it eventually came out.

“I was a huge Cocteau Twins fan and kind of tongue-tied when Robin would answer the phone and take that opportunity to tell me his brother was in some sort of Scottish criminal organization and we’d never get an album out of him.”

NN: How did Lemonade Hayride end and Hula Hoop begin?

ES: My memory is fuzzy on this, but I think Foster and Lance were ready to move on with their adult lives. Foster was pretty serious with his girlfriend/future wife and wasn’t writing lyrics as much as he had been. I think Lance may have been attending UK or just going. And I was pushing hard for a tour of the Midwest. I did a lot of work trying to set it up, so in my mind it was a go. All of us in Bo/LH had been friends since 1st grade and lived in a little bubble of our own making out in LaGrange when it was still an authentic semi-rural community and not the soulless Wal-Mart of Louisville it is today.

I think it was easier to cultivate and blur the lines between fantasy and reality from that safe nest, so the idea of us actually going on a tour was an obvious and realistic step in my mind. In hindsight, it was a ridiculous idea and the other guys were right to offer mild reservations. It was just seemed the band had run its course for all of us. I was working at Lily’s at the time and Chukka Geisler worked there as well and claimed to play guitar like Pan played the flute. I had no idea what this meant, but we got together and played through songs we both had laying around. It was kismet from the start and he brought in his friend Stephen Jones to play drums and I brought in my friend Rachel Grimes to play bass. Thus the regrettably-named Hula Hoop was formed. Should have gone with Chukka’s suggestion of Goat Barge.

“All of us in Bo/LH had been friends since 1st grade & lived in a little bubble of our own making out in LaGrange when it was still an authentic semi-rural community & not the soulless Wal-Mart of Louisville it is today.”

NN: When people bring up the late 80s early 90s music scene in Louisville, the conversation is usually about bands like Slint or Crain or Rodan. Hula Hoop offered something just as artistic but drastically different in terms of aesthetic. How did you guys fit into that environment?

ES: Again, this band, like Lemonade Hayride, was working from a safe bubble/nest predicated on very strong bonds of friendship and a club-like atmosphere that we cultivated amongst ourselves. There wasn’t a dick or lunatic to put up with, it was a lot of fun to hang out together, and we were playing/writing music that made us happy and proud. Jones, our drummer, was a solid hard rock fan and probably suffered the most as he had to play some real poppy shit now and then. But he made it work. So how we were perceived or how many people showed up at shows, or how we’re remembered in Louisville’s echelon, was never on the radar.

We never had a huge fan base, and the influences we were culling from weren’t pervasively popular here to begin with, particularly with Louisvillians into a harder sound. I feel like we were looking toward New Zealand & Scotland rather than Chicago or DC, musically and aesthetically. We weren’t on a well known label, nor did we have a pedigree traceable to earlier purveyors of Louisville Rock. We were pulling from all sorts of influences, most with a distinct pop sensibility, and none particularly relevant to what other bands were doing or what the kids were into.

My obsessions about specific labels like Flying Nun, Postcard, Bus Stop, and Creation and personalities like Edwyn Collins and Mark E. Smith definitely informed my input during this period. My idea of punk was doing it yourself & doing what you wanted; it wasn’t relegated to a time signature or haircut. And I certainly thought of us as punk rock. So we were comfortable playing with everyone from Crain, Rodan, Come to Tiger Trap, Yo La Tengo, and King Kong.

I think our focus was really grounded in the loft in the building at 2nd and Main where we practiced, recorded, and hung out at all hours. Having an idyllic & haunted clubhouse like that didn’t lend itself to consider where we stood within the community of Louisville music. But we did connect and engage with people who were into what we were doing, and that was always cool. The scene was pretty tribal. Some bands transcended the cliques because of popularity or destined greatness and many floated because they didn’t have a dedicated tribe. There were party tribes & rock tribes and straightedge tribes and… you get the idea. I think we kind of floated and connected with a decent amount of random people, but not necessarily based on anything to do with being part of a specific Louisville scene or sound.

As for bands from that period making it into current conversations about Louisville rock, I don’t keep up with it. I have my favorite bands (Evergreen, King Kong, and Mr. Big would make my short list) and I have no idea, nor do I care, how often any of them, including my own, are name checked in a conversation about Louisville Rock. They’re special to me & require no further validation than that. The amount of chatter about any band, then or now, is not a qualitative measure. Note: Slint is an anomaly IMO. They were so groundbreaking & influential they deserve a separate conversation entirely.

“My idea of punk was doing it yourself & doing what you wanted; it wasn’t relegated to a time signature or haircut. And I certainly thought of us as punk rock.”

NN: Do you have a favorite show you’ve ever played? Did you have a least favorite show you’ve ever played?

ES: It’s hard to pinpoint a favorite. My favorite shows are memorable for all the little details surrounding them, not necessarily the show, the size of the audience or how we played. Like the fantastic meal we had with the people who put on our show in a small town in the French Alps, playing at a little club out in the countryside to sheep farmers and hipster kids.

Clipping a pedestrian with the van’s side mirror as I drove us through insane Parisian traffic to play at the Gibbous Club with the fantastic mural of Motorhead on the wall and the amazing historical rock graffiti in the dressing room. Warhol’s Factory-inspired psychedelic party/“show” we had in our practice loft one Halloween with freaks and friends wandering in and out amidst an amazing light show, projected films, & somewhat improvised set of pure feedback because I couldn’t get my snake fingers to work.

CBGB s. Even if it was a meat grinder filled with suits, it was CBGB’s. The worst show I remember, among many, was opening for New Bomb Turks at The Empty Bottle in Chicago. We were recording with Bob Weston and he got us on the bill at the last minute just to make a little money before heading home. My god their crowd hated us. There were bottles of beer and cups of Coke flying at the stage. I think we actually finished the set though. The NBT’s singer was very cordial afterwards- he apologized for the crowd & compared us to Television.

NN: You’ve earned several merit badges in the music-making universe and you continue to be a prolific force of creativity. Of your more notable exploits, you recorded two sessions with BBC legend, John Peel. Please talk about how that came about and what it was like working with John Peel?

ES: The Lemonade Hayride album came out on the Scottish label Nightshift and these guys in the bands Boyracer & Hood bought it, liked it, and wrote to me saying as much. We became friends & I kept them up to date on musical doings, exchanging tapes of our bands and such, so they knew Hula Hoop. Meanwhile, Jon Cook put out our first 7” and Peel (or whoever bought music for him) bought a copy at a London record store. Peel liked it and played both sides on his show and my friends in the English bands heard the show then excitedly told me it had been played.

I called the BBC to see if I could get a copy of the show and I was put through to the man himself to answer that question. He asked if we would be touring in the UK anytime in the near future. Of course I lied and said yes, later in the year as a matter of fact. He then said he’d like to have us do a session while we’re there, so that started the ball rolling.

My friend’s band Boyracer had just signed to Sarah Records and were doing quite well and offered to set up a UK tour with them. So we set up the tour & the Peel session for that November. The BBC money paid for our airfare and we did okay touring. He played the first session a couple of times over the course of the following year and I stayed in touch with him about our releases. He invited us back for a second session and we returned a year later.

We toured with Boyracer again in the UK & France. He wasn’t around in the studio when we recorded, he just came in for his show. He was really great to talk to though. I spoke to him a few times at his house & both he and his wife were really low key, easy going. It wasn’t long conversations off topic, but we did talk about The Cramps, The Fall and Orange Juice. The engineers for the session, on the other hand, regaled us with stories about sessions they had done with Zeppelin, Bowie, The Who, etc. We got to hear many of these at the pub down the street from the BBC studios when the electricity went out for awhile due to a storm during our 2nd session.

“He asked if we would be touring in the UK anytime in the near future. Of course I lied & said yes, later in the year as a matter of fact.”

NN: Rachel Grimes was a big part of Hula Hoop and her music is much loved by fans in Louisville and far beyond. Did the success of Rachel’s have a positive impact on Hula Hoop?

ES: Not really. She was doing both bands at the same time and it was becoming apparent she couldn’t keep the level of investment in each band. Obviously, what Jason and Christian were doing was much closer to what she was about creatively and otherwise, so she understandably left Hula Hoop to concentrate on Rachel’s. I think we were bummed that our club had lost a member. It was like losing a little sister to college and adulthood or something. And having played in bands with her for such a long time, it was a weird adjustment to continue without her, considering so much of the fun of being in the band was weighted towards hanging out.

But we continued as a 3-piece with Chukka moving to bass. It was pretty interesting switching to a 3 piece format. The songs were more streamlined and I’ve always liked power trios. We released new material, and we played some cool shows (Built To Spill in Cleveland was special), but it wasn’t the same without her & it kind of just petered out. Hula Hoop was/is a non-entity in her referenced oeuvre then and now, and I totally understand that. I don’t think her pop past (with a band that isn’t really noteworthy in their own hometown) is a footnote that enlightens anyone or brings anything to her musical table.

NN: You and Stewart Anderson of Boyracer fame have a long history including, but not limited to your amalgamation band, Hula Boy. How did the Boyracer/Hula Hoop friendship come to be?

ES: It started as a pen pal relationship based on the Lemonade Hayride record, then we toured there with Boyracer a couple of times. Our bands hit it off & the experience of a winter tour in a small van with no floorboard through the boondocks of Belgium, constantly breaking down, was a bonding experience. We were mutual fans of each other’s music, and we engaged in several recordings together. I became very close to Stew & his family & he remains one of my best friends.

NN: Speaking of Hula Boy, are you and Anderson still making records together? How does that process work being in separate geographic areas and how has it changed as technology has progressed?

ES: Yes, we still release music. He & his wife Jen started a new label called Emotional Response and the releases they’ve done are really impressive- Sleaford Mods, The Cannanes, The Safe Distance, etc. We always record when I go visit but I haven’t been out there lately. Otherwise, it’s through email. Whoever has the basic song sends it to the other with a click track. Stew does all drums, but otherwise it’s up for grabs who sings & does lyrics.

Basically, we have a mutual love for many of the same bands & try to rip them off whenever possible. We’ve done covers of Echo & The Bunnymen, The Fall, Young Marble Giants, Babylon Dance Band, just stuff we love. The Hula Boy stuff is very immediate, not a lot of takes, just having fun & entertaining ourselves. Very similar to the other bands I’ve been in. I don’t think we sell much at all, but it brings us joy to create it & that’s the pay-off. As far as technology helping, It’s a lot easier to sync our exchanged tracks on a digital recorder than the Tascam 488 we used to use.

“I don’t think we sell much at all, but it brings us joy to create it & that’s the pay-off.”

NN: Ok, last Boyracer-related item, but Anderson’s father-in-law happens to be renown artist, James Turrell  I remember a correspondence from about 10 years ago when you were living in Arizona working with Turrell on his Skyspace projects. Please describe this experience?

ES: I wasn’t actually working on Rodin Crater itself, I was helping him on the ranch & at his airplane hangar. In order to own the amount of property that surrounds his installation, it has to be a functioning ranch. So Stew & Jen run the ranch & raise angus cattle. I worked on the ranch house & barn as well as helping him move & organize his airplane hangar. He has some amazing rare & old planes as well as an old Indian motorcycle with a sidecar, just a bunch of cool gear head stuff. One of the highlights was getting to tag along with him on a tour of Rodin Crater & listen to him explain the process & experience. I had been through it a couple of times before, Stew and Jen were married there, but hearing him explain aspects of it was amazing. The sun was setting as we toured it, & it was kind of mystical. But I missed my children so I moved back.

NN: Between all of your efforts, you’ve made a lot of records and appeared on a ridiculous amount of compilations. I know this because one of my record crates is at least half-filled with your music. Do you know how many records you’ve made (including comps you’ve appeared on) and EPs, 7”s, etc? Since you first recorded the Lemonade Hayride LP, what is the longest amount of time you’ve gone without recording a new song?

ES: I think around 55-60 actual releases? A few were digital only. There was a spell of a year or so I didn’t record anything.

NN: My favorite record the band made was your post-mortem, “Ghost of Last Summer” from a few years ago. Did you guys play any reunion shows and if so how did it go? If not, do you think you will ever reunite.

ES: Thanks! No reunion shows were played. We discussed the possibility of playing the songs on that last album when it came out, but we didn’t want to do it without Rachel. And then it seemed weird to play songs written & recorded after she left the band as a “reunion” show. And she was really busy at the time. So I think we talked about playing the older stuff at some point but we just let the idea go. Not to imply it wouldn’t be worth it to play for you & the dozen or so other people that would come out! But probably not going to happen.

NN: So enough of the past… It seems like you’re still pretty busy with creative projects – your pseudo-anonymous work with the Floating Caskets was awesome and it sounds like you might have a newer project in the works? Can you talk about the present and future of Eric Stoess?

ES: Thanks- I really enjoyed playing in that band. Sarah is an amazing guitarist & songwriter & Brent is a legend. Jim was inappropriate. I have a lot of new songs, no new projects to disclose at this point, but I’ll keep you posted. Depends on how well my 16-year-old acclimates to bass.

NN: What are you listening to these days?

ES: Thee Oh Sees, Fire Engines, The Black Angels, Gun Club, Bill Callahan dub, Sleaford Mods, UV Race, Figurines, Richard Papiercuts, Colleen, Follakzoid, Crazy Eyes, Scarves. I got the Go-Betweens Boxset Anthology & going through the unreleased stuff. Father John Misty, Cass McCombs, The Fall, Orange Juice, Verlaines, Liars. The Chills Peel Sessions record is great. Efterklang. Doing my annual summertime visit with Roland S. Howard & the first 2 Eno records. John Prine. Harry Nilsson. X. Wooden Shijps. Humongous. Blue Goat War vicariously through my son’s bedroom walls. The work day belongs to Sinatra & Hardcore History Podcast.

NN: We really want the world to know your story and I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. Anything else worth noting while you have the mic?

ES: It’s all surface & it’s been suitably scratched. Self-promotion makes my stomach curdle. But a collection of the Hula Hoop singles, Peel Sessions, & first album should be available online in the near future. Also, a project called Chong Marker that I did with my friend Amy Steiger singing & Stephen Jones on drums will be available again as well. It’s kind of Teenage Fanclub-ish.

NN: Is someone going to fill in the blanks for this Wikipedia placeholder or do I need to do it? 🙂

ES: On it.

Dennis Sheridan grew up in Louisville, KY and littered the music scene for many years with his nonsense before moving with his family to Southern California where he eats all the tacos and surfs all the waves.