interview: suburban lawns’ frankie ennui

 

 
Suburban Lawns

John Gleur, Su Tissue, Frankie Ennui, Vex Billingsgate and Chuck Roast

 

A lot of us missed Suburban Lawns while they were together (including myself), because they were only successful in California, and such a short-lived band. They made just one full-length album, which must make them one of the best one-album bands of their time. Within seconds of first hearing them I thought “They sound like Talking Heads,” and almost immediately after, “and Devo, and the B52s too.” Suburban Lawns were obviously hugely influenced by those bands. They were a new wave/art punk band par-exellence

 

Flying Saucer Safari

 

California Institute of the Arts students William Ranson aka Vex Billingsgate (bass, vocals) and Sue McLane aka Su Tissue (vocals, keyboards) formed Suburban Lawns in 1978, and teamed up with Rick Whitney aka Frankie Ennui (guitars, vocals), John McBurney aka John Gleur (lead guitars, vocals) and Charles Rodriguez aka Chuck Roast (drums), releasing their brilliant debut single, Gidget Goes to Hell, in ’79 on their own Suburban Industrial label. Regular airplay by Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ assured the band a deal with IRS Records, and Frontier Booking International, which got them support slots for bands like the Weirdos and Black Flag

Su Tissue by Mark Vallen, published as a Slash Magazine Cover, 1979

vallen

 

Although Su was the most frequent lead singer, all the band members, except drummer Chuck, took their turn at the mike. It is Su, however, that was the most compelling. Rob Zabrecky nailed it when he said she “managed to pull off of a remarkable mix of Little House on the Prairie meets the Manson Girls beautifully”

Suburban Lawns was released in ’81, and featured KROQ favorite Janitor (so she is saying “genitals”… I thought it was just my gutter mind). EJ Emmons, who produced the band’s first single Gidget Goes to Hell, played percussion, synthesizer, string arrangements on the album. It is just under half an hour of joyous ‘intellectual rock’. The LA Times called it ”Weird, exhilaratingly rushed, funny and scary… frenetic and menacing”

Their follow-up, Baby (the intended second album that ended up as an EP), sunk without making many ripples, and that was it for Suburban Lawns
Frankie Ennui continued for a while with The Lawns, but says without Su and Vex it wasn’t the same

 
Like a lot of people, I suspect, I heard Talking Heads and Devo in your sound instantly. Is that the sort of thing you were listening to at the time?

Absolutely. I think several band members went and saw one of Devo’s earliest, if not their earliest, L.A. performance and came back raving about it. I am still the proud possessor of Devo’s first single, in the very cool cover it came in, Mongoloid backed with Jocko Homo. All of us were fans of the Talking Heads too, of course. Eno, Iggy Pop, Television, Richard Hell, and lots of other new wavers or punk rockers were also on my personal play list at the time

 

(Ed: I had that same Devo single too)
 
Which clubs did you play, and with which bands?

Well, we played all over the place here in the L.A. area. The Masque, The Whiskey a Go Go, The Hong Kong Cafe, Madame Wong’s (both of them), The Roxy, The Country Club, Club 88, the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc. A lot of our early shows were thrown at our own studio in Long Beach. We’d charge $1 for each band that was playing and usually had two guests bands. The ones I remember off hand were The Plugz, The Minutemen, The Brainiacs, The Alley Cats and The Suburbs (friends of Su’s from Minneapolis)

I think we played the Masque couple of times, with groups like The Bags. The first such gig might have been under the band name Art Attack or Fabulons (which we later changed to Suburban Lawns). On one of those occasions, The Ramones were in attendance and later that night we went and saw The Ramones at the Whiskey

We played with nearly all of the local groups in those early days. Beyond the groups already mentioned, we played with The Dickies, X, The Germs, Black Flag, Geza X, Human Hands, The Reactionaries, Fear, The Vandals and a ton of other local great bands

We played quite a few opening gigs for Oingo Boingo (including a show at the Whiskey when they were still the Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo). Danny Elfman was a big fan of Su Tissue. We also opened for Oingo Boingo at the John Anson Ford Theater and the Universal Studios Amphitheater and did at least a couple Halloween gigs with them at Cal Arts

Later, when we were with IRS Records, we opened for U2 at the Santa Monica Civic, opened for the Clash at the Sacramento Auditorium and played with other fairly big names like Siouxsie and the Banshees, 999 and Bow Wow Wow

What a unique vibe. All the bands were great. I think Vex (Billy) had some connection with Tex and her Horseheads for a while there. The OC scene was happening too, but the details, these many years later, escape me

 

And you played Magic Mountain..

Magic Mountain was probably our biggest (and best paying) headline gig. Great facility, loads of enthusiastic fans and we got to go to the front of any ride line that we liked

 

KROQ was a supporter of the band, and Rodney particularly, and you were on SNL. Did you think at that point you were going to have a career with SL?

Rodney and all the folks there at KROQ were great. Rodney loved Su too

Doing a video with director Jonathan Demme for Saturday Night Live was a real highlight. What a down to earth and nice guy Jonathan is. He later put one of my songs (with a band called Electric Sheep) in one of his movies, Something Wild (in which Su appeared)

Yeah, we had a recording contract on a label that had lots of top flight bands (the Go Gos, REM, etc.) and we were on T.V., we were making a little money and we were optimistic about the future but…

 

Janitor live on New Wave Theater


 

How did the band write?

Initially, I weaseled my way into the group that eventually (after Su came on board) became the Suburban Lawns by jamming with the other guys and offering up some lyrics for some of their music. At first, most of the music was written by Billy (Vex Billingsgate) Ranson, our bass player (and also a singer) and John McBurney, our lead guitar player, and I would contribute lyrics. So, at least initially, John and or Billy would come up with a riff or two and I would then try to write lyrics to match. That was how Gidget Goes To Hell was written: Billy wrote those great riffs and I added the words. Su added her unique vocal styling. Other songs, like Janitor, were created when John and Billy came up with the music, I wrote most of the lyrics and then Su added the infamous “Oh my genitals, I’m a janitor” tagline. Eventually, even Chuck “Roast” Rodriguez, our drummer, started contributing music, as in Mom and Dad and God, where he wrote the music and I added the words. By the time we did the Baby EP, however, we were collaborating less. The best stuff, in my opinion, was created by way of our collaboration

 

Do you have any favourites? I really like Protection. And Not Allowed and Mom and Dad and God..

My favorites are probably Green Eyes and My Boyfriend, but I love them all. Protection is a favorite of mine too

 

You wrote the lyrics to Janitor after some conversation you overheard between Su and a friend, is that right?

No. Although on Wikipedia (and elsewhere) it has been written that I overheard a conversation between Su Tissue and Brian Smith where the “Oh my genitals! I’m a janitor!” originated and that such conversation inspired me to write the lyrics, that story is somewhat backwards. The music and all of the lyrics except “Oh, my genitals! I’m a janitor!” were already written when Su Tissue added those lyrics (which lyrics really made the song, in my opinion). For good or bad, I’m generally pretty literal in my lyric writing (as opposed to poetical) and I’m not shy about using bad puns

Su was definitely more of a poet than I have ever dreamed of being. The lyrics, except for Su’s contribution, are pretty straightforward science-nerd stuff about all things explosive. Su’s addition, whatever the source (and I have no reason to doubt what Brian Smith has apparently written about how Su came up with that addition), gave the song a poetical spin that added the dimension it needed to make it interesting. That’s exactly why, in my opinion, our best songs were those that were written collaboratively

 

Was the Baby EP the last thing you recorded together?

Sadly, yes

 

After SL split, you formed the Lawns. Was that going to be a direct continuation of SL, with new band members, or was there a change in musical direction?

Actually, I think (despite what you may have read on the Internet) that Vex (Billy) was not part of that effort. I think it was Chuck, John, a great (now deceased) friend named Tom Corey (of The Fibonaccis) and yours truly that tried to keep things going. Su and Vex went their own way. But it wasn’t anywhere close to the same thing without them. That band, The Lawns, eventually fell apart and/or morphed into the Electric Sheep, where we had David Kendrick (from Sparks and later, Devo) drumming and a friend of mine named Gloria Dawson, singing. We were trying to get into more of a hybrid thing, mixing R&B with punk, but it didn’t catch on for us

 
(Ed: goddam internet)

Do you think perhaps you were a couple years too early, and with MTV a household name you might have been bigger?

Probably. MTV was around (barely) and we made at least one video (Janitor) other than the video that was on SNL (Gidget), but it was tough to get airplay in those days. We began a video for Mom and Dad and God but it was never completed.

 

@ The Hong Kong Cafe

Suburban Lawns
 

Green Eyes

 

 
The Tea Party. A fascinatingly ill-informed, emotionally-stunted and easily-led group of middle American folk. All supporting the very people who are destroying them. Talk about “asleep at the wheel.” Is America more divided now than you can ever remember?

Yes, unfortunately I think it is, although ironically it seems nearly certain that we are going to end up with two relatively moderate politicians running for the presidency in November, Obama and Romney. No thanks to the Tea Party, however. The “I’m willing to drive the country off a cliff unless I get my way on spending cuts, but don’t tax the rich” attitude of the Tea Party People is disturbing and especially so where the economy is already a mess. Not that the U.S. Government doesn’t waste a lot of money, however, because it does. Not sure how the U.S. became the world’s policeman and why war seems to be the answer to every international dispute, but I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with money. We need, at least to some extent, to get the money out of our politics, but our Supreme Court apparently differs with me on that one

What you said about supporting the people who are destroying them is, in my opinion, accurate. Why so many in the middle class support low taxes on the wealthy is difficult to understand. Maybe its an aspirational thing. Its puzzling and frustrating

 

What did you do after music?

I worked in computers for a while and then went to grad school to become a teacher. I taught history and social studies at a high school in Santa Ana for about a week and half before quitting and going to work for an attorney friend as a receptionist. Eventually, I went to law school and have been an attorney here in Newport Beach for about the past 20 years

But I have never stopped playing music and writing songs. After Electric Sheep broke up, I started playing with some old friends from junior high school and am still playing with those guys (John Bitterly, Mark Handley and, later, Rick McDermott) to this day. Our band is called Johnny Mark and the Ricks (for obvious reasons). We play all originals. Our theory is that if we keep writing songs, eventually we’ll come up with something good. One of our most recent songs is called “”T Party People” in which I attempt to channel James Brown and Sarah Palin at the same time. It’s not easy. We can be checked out at johnnymarkandthericks.com or on facebook, etc. Our next gig is on Cinco de Mayo, Saturday, May 5, 2012, at DiPiazza’s in Long Beach at 8:00 p.m. Any encouragement received will be appreciated, but not necessarily good for us

My good friend, Billy (Vex), has, in recent years, been playing with former Suburban Lawns, John and Chuck. More about Billy and the others can be learned at www.myspace.com/pulsatormusic. Enjoy!

 
You channel James Brown and Sarah Palin at the same time? Maybe something like: “You can see Russia, hit me nah!… From my hou..hou…house-ah! Good god, ain’t it funky nah! YAAAAAAY!!”
 
I can’t recommend the Suburban Lawns album highly enough; if you’re into art rock, and 80s New Wave, or if you like the B52s, Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich and/or the Flying Lizards, you’ll probably love Suburban Lawns too

Thanks Frankie
 

with Geza X and The Mommymen at La Vida Hot Springs

novy66

 
 

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Comments

  • Chris says:

    Great interview! It really provided some insight into the inner workings of the enigmatic and short-lived Suburban Lawns. I was particularly interested to learn that they played at Magic Mountain. I doubt that Magic Mountain today, surrounded by conservative suburbia, would allow an awesome band like the Suburban Lawns to perform. I live in the area, and music is dead here.

  • john says:

    what’s su tissue/sue mclane doing now? i think a lot of people are wondering considering what she did as singer then as a pianist. she’s like an intriguing enigma.

  • admin says:

    Yes John, maybe we should try to find out where she is and what she’s up to. An interview with Su would be really great.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • Spot says:

    This interview is so great! It’s very nearly the only thing of its kind that I could find on the Suburban Lawns. Glad I found your blog – it’s awesome ツ

  • Yes, what is Su Tissue doing now????

  • Ronnie Heaven says:

    My rhythm guitarist introduced me to these crazy cats and I love this shit! Excellent interview, who knew Frankie Ennui was so politically aware?

  • Eric Tor says:

    Mr. Whitney seems like a really cool and intelligent cat. Please see if you can interview Ms. McLane. That would be a complete coup. It would be awesome to read her thoughts about the era and catch up with her! Please!

    • admin says:

      I sure will Eric. I just don’t have the time I’d like to pursue these things. i’d love to know what her thoughts are too

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