It’s been a while since I wrote about a band I got into decades ago that nobody else cares about now. I’ve done Gravitar, Star Pimp, Phleg Camp, Straitjacket Fits, and God Is My Co-Pilot, and today y’all get to hear about Steel Pole Bath Tub.
Formed in 1986 in Bozeman, Montana, by bassist Dale Flattum and guitarist Mike Morasky, this unruly noise-rock band soon relocated to Seattle, already a hotbed of such foolishness. There they picked up drummer Darren Mor-X before settling in San Francisco, back when that was a thing a noise-rock band could reasonably do without inherited wealth.
I fell in love with Steel Pole Bath Tub more than 30 years ago as a DJ at KTRU in Houston, Texas, when I encountered the record that combined their 1989 album Butterfly Love with their 1990 EP Lurch. I already liked plenty of grotty, unhinged guitar bands, but these guys had more than just nasty riffs going on. Morasky’s use of cassette loops and sly, sinister TV and movie samples, in combination with Mor-X’s fluid, busy drumming (ten bucks says he played in his high school’s jazz band), makes SPBT’s songs feel thrillingly disorienting, even divided against themselves. The seething rippers always seem just about to explosively unravel, like a ball of rubber bands nicked with a knife; the grinding dirges might collapse at any moment. I got to see the band play live a few times back in the day, and onstage they could create an almost overwhelming firehose of barely controlled volume and energy.
- I don’t have any way to check, but I was almost certainly at this show.
I also dug the complementary flavors of SPBT’s dueling songwriters: Morasky tends toward messy, pulpy noir, while Flattum indulges in what often sounds like gutter journaling. Taken together with the music, the lyrics suggest a titanic struggle to hold it together in the face of emotions that rip through human bodies the way hurricanes squeeze through wind socks. My feelings don’t necessarily work that way anymore—I’m pushing 50, after all—but in my early 20s I played the Butterfly Love tune “Tear It Apart” to close my radio shift every week for nearly a year. Its closing lines? “Tear it apart / Tear the phone off the wall / I’ve got nothin’ to say / Why’d you even call.”
- “Tear It Apart” might also win some sort of prize for Most Gratuitous Springsteen Reference.
After two more brilliant records, 1991’s Tulip and 1993’s The Miracle of Sound in Motion, Steel Pole Bath Tub signed to Slash (distributed by Warner and Reprise) during the post-Nirvana major-label feeding frenzy. That decision finished them off pretty promptly. They released Scars From Falling Down in 1995 (with almost no samples, at the legal department’s insistence) and then out-Melvinsed the Melvins by informing Slash that their next record would be a cover of the Cars’ first album in its entirety. The label declined to entertain this smart-assery, naturally, but the demos SPBT submitted included three Cars covers anyway, fucked up almost beyond recognition and retitled “What I Need,” “The Good Times,” and “My Best Friend’s a Girl.”
Label execs described the material as “unlistenable,” and that spelled the end of Steel Pole Bath Tub’s recording career. When the rights to the music reverted to the band in 2002, they were already all but defunct, but they released it as Unlistenable (of course). SPBT reunited briefly to support the album, then once more in 2008—and as far as I know, that was their last hurrah. Seattle reissue label Sinister Torch put out a new vinyl version of Tulip in 2015, but I haven’t seen anything since.
- If you forced me to pick a favorite song on Tulip, it might be “Pirate 5.”
Morasky and Flattum also appeared in 90s noise-rock “supergroup” Duh, alongside Star Pimp bassist Tom Flynn, who owned Boner Records—which put out seven Steel Pole Bath Tub records between 1989 and 1994. And all three members of SPBT played in the short-lived Tumor Circus with Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra (and Charles Tolnay of King Snake Roost).
Morasky now works as a music designer for Valve, where he’s composed for both Portal games and the Left 4 Dead series. Of the three, Flattum has stayed busiest with other bands, playing in Novex, the Nein, and most recently the Hand (with former Low bassist Zak Sally). He’s also been focusing more on his visual art.
The most interesting bit of trivia I’ve picked up as a Steel Pole Bath Tub fanboy (assuming any of this is interesting, I guess) begins with the cover of Lurch. It depicts a mechanized monster from the bonkers 1989 Frank Grow short film Red & Rosy—in the movie, that toothy, goggle-eyed beast is what remains of former drag-racing champ Richard “Big Red” Friedman. After losing his adrenal glands in a horrific crash, Red becomes addicted to the drug that replaces them, then builds a drag-racing simulator powered by adrenaline extracted from the blood of murdered job applicants at his wife’s scrap-metal business. As one does. What you’re looking at is the inexplicable climactic fusion of Red and his machine.
- My description of this short film couldn’t possibly do justice to its final two minutes.
Steel Pole Bath Tub clearly knew Frank Grow. In 1993 one of Morasky and Flattum’s other side projects, Milk Cult, put out an album of ominous junkyard beat-and-sample collages called Love God, which includes “The Original Soundtrack Recording of Frank Grow’s ‘Love God'”—and some of Grow’s storyboards from the still-in-development film appear in the liner notes.
The thing is, the movie Love God wouldn’t be finished until four years later, in 1997, and there isn’t any Milk Cult music in it. Though the group continued to release material till 2000, Grow’s soundtrack is packed instead with the likes of Lubricated Goat, Cows, Unsane, and Wesley Willis. I’ve seen Love God, and I implore all fans of lunatic trash to seek it out—its premise is so hilariously convoluted it makes Red & Rosy seem entirely plausible, and shit only gets weirder from there. The YouTube upload I found is gone, but as recently as three years ago Grow was replying to comments on his own channel by offering to send a download link or a DVD to anybody who asked via email@example.com.
Love God is 82 minutes long and paced like a 1990s music video nearly the whole way through. It’s lurid, exhausting, tasteless, and also (rather confoundingly) thoughtful, engaging, and solidly structured. In that sense it has a lot in common with Steel Pole Bath Tub. v
- Apple Music embeds are the best available way to share these albums, and I like both of them enough to tolerate the annoying interface.
The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.