- Courtesy the artist
- The Star Pimp lineup on Treasure Trail and Seraphim 280Z: drummer Jamie Spidle, bassist Tom Flynn, guitarist Eric Grotke, and singer Marcelle Poulos
If I’m talking to the right people, I can score some “I was there” points by bringing up the time in grad school—probably 1995 or early ’96—when I saw Bikini Kill at a roller rink in Springfield, Oregon. The bands played in one corner of the rink, and to get out there and watch them you had to put on skates. (Kathleen Hanna wore hers for Bikini Kill’s entire set.) Lots of people skated laps the whole time, so that they could only see the band when they were headed in the right direction. This was also an early show for the Thrones, the solo project founded in ’94 by former Melvins bassist Joe Preston; while the DJ played between sets, I spotted him doing the “YMCA” dance in rental skates and a blue gas-station jumpsuit.
Because I didn’t know that I’d never get another chance to see Bikini Kill (or that within five years I’d become a huge fan of the Thrones), I was most excited about the folks playing second on that three-act bill: a bizarre and infectious Bay Area sludge-rock outfit called Star Pimp. I tried to tell someone in the band (I can’t remember who it was) that I was there especially for them, which went over about as well as you’d expect. I meant well—I even had all their records—but I doubt they needed a reminder that they weren’t the draw that night.
In 1980, Star Pimp bassist Tom Flynn had cofounded notorious Berkeley hardcore band Fang, but at the time all I knew about them was that they’d broken up because their singer was in jail for killing his girlfriend. In the early and mid-90s, Flynn played in noise-rock “supergroup” Duh, whose 1991 debut, Blowhard, I’d bought in college; their lineup also included Mike Morasky of the inimitable Steel Pole Bath Tub and Chris Dodge of Stikky (and later Spazz). Not to get too deep in the weeds here, but Morasky went on to work for Valve, where he composed music for both Portal games and the Left 4 Dead series.
I doubt Star Pimp was anybody’s first rodeo, but if drummer Jamie Spidle, guitarist Eric Grotke, and singer Marcelle Poulos had played in bands before, I couldn’t find evidence of it. And the way they click together in Star Pimp makes it tough for me to imagine any of them in another context. Poulos can jump from mockingly coy to terrifyingly feral in a heartbeat, while Spidle’s bludgeoning drumming often sounds like a couch tumbling very precisely down a flight of stairs. Grotke’s slippery, corroded guitar lurches, slurs, and swoops like he’s trying to tear off its neck—and if I remember right, he got those effects purely by manhandling the strings, without the benefit of a whammy bar.
“We wrote all the songs together by improvising until something sounded good,” said Flynn in a 2001 interview. He’d replaced the band’s original bass player in ’91, about a year into their existence. “We’d have to endure a lot of endless awful meandering trying to find some music that worked. I’m talking practice after practice of just garbage, usually ending with someone walking out in disgust.” Star Pimp managed to wring three great records out of themselves this way before dissolving after a U.S. tour in 1997: the Treasure Trail EP (1992) and two full-length albums, Seraphim 280Z (1994) and Docudrama (1996). Flynn released the first two on his own label, Boner Records, and Docudrama came out on Kill Rock Stars.
The lead track on Treasure Trail, “Richie,” is about Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker” responsible for 13 killings in California in 1984 and ’85. I love how the verses restart with a snare crack like a gunshot, followed instantly by Poulos’s bloody-murder ululation. (You can select HD playback on this video, in case you care about that sort of thing.) The last line, “See you in Disneyland,” comes from something Ramirez said to reporters after his trial ended with 13 death sentences: “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”
“Greatest Hits of Love,” from Seraphim 280Z, is a grotty but strangely sweet cover of the Carpenters’ 1974 hit “I Won’t Last a Day Without You.” (Actually, “cover” might be too strong a word. It’s more like a completely new setting for the lyrics.) I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I put this on a mixtape for my college girlfriend. “When there’s no getting over that rainbow / And my smallest of dreams won’t come true / I can take all the madness that the world has to give / But I won’t last a day without you.”
After all these years, “Mighty and Superior,” along with the rest of Docudrama, is on Bandcamp—the full album costs seven bucks. (There’s something to be said for labels that continue to exist.) New drummer Ronnie Burns is if anything too precise a player for this unruly, monstrous tune, but his oddly dilated syncopations sound great. Poulos’s sirenlike wailing on the choruses (she revs up for the first time at 1:07) still makes the hair on my arms stand up.
According to Flynn, Docudrama sold about half as many copies as Seraphim 280Z, and he’s said that some of his worst memories of Star Pimp were “shows to indifferent or nonexistent audiences, especially on our last tour.” Even now, nearly 20 years later, it feels grossly unfair to me that a band I loved so much while they were active—a band I still listen to regularly today!—probably threw in the towel feeling like failures.
Since the breakup of Star Pimp, Grotke has played in a Smiths cover band called the Nguyens and started an oddball electronic project called the Shit Matrix (among other things). At the time of Flynn’s 2001 interview, he’d gotten into filmmaking, and Poulos was teaching third grade. Flynn has also performed live with the regrouped Fang at least once in the past few years.
All three of Star Pimp’s releases are available via iTunes and Amazon. And if you buy a couple, there’s a nonzero chance that a few bucks will make it to the band.