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Peter Cortner (Part 3)

3 February 2009

Continued from part 2

In this segment, Peter talks about how he came to join Dag Nasty and their initial breakup and last recordings after the Can I Say tour, along with asides on the reunion albums Four on the Floor and Minority of One along with observations about the ’80s DC scene and the influence of bands like THE DAMNED, WIRE and EMPIRE on its sound. Read on!

So how did you end up joining Dag Nasty? I know that you were in a band before that. Did you know any of them before that? Did you go to their shows before?

PETER CORTNER: I had met Brian very briefly when I was working at Tower Records.

Which one?

PETER CORTNER: In Foggy Bottom, where George Washington University is. I was working there and I was playing bass, very poorly, in a band called PROTEM (?), which is either one or two words and I’d seen Dag Nasty with SHAWN BROWN and loved them.

I won’t ask you the real reason why they kicked him out unless you’re willing to tell me, of course.

PETER CORTNER: I think the reason was…

I’m glad they kicked him out because it ended up producing SWIZ as well as the subsequent Dag Nasty records, so I think it was a smart move in hindsight.

PETER CORTNER: Well there you go. I don’t know if it’s individuals in the band or the band as a whole (other than Shawn, obviously), but Dave Smalley was roadie-ing for the band while Shawn was in the band. I think that Dave, being the phenomenal singer that he is, they got it in their heads that…

I think you’re a much better singer actually. I mean I like the Dave Smalley version of the band just fine, too, though.

PETER CORTNER: What did you think of Minority of One?

I like it and I like Four on the Floor as well. I was gonna ask you about those records later, actually. I don’t think they’re even one-tenth as good as Can I Say, which is fair because it’s not a full-time project but they’re still good records. I revisited Four on the Floor this morning and thought “hey this record is better than I thought”.

PETER CORTNER: Well, I can say a lot about those two records. I like them both quite a bit.

I’m probably being too harsh.

PETER CORTNER: Since you brought it up, I find it interesting that some of the criticism that I’ve heard of Minority of One

I should also say that my editor thinks that Minority of One is the best Dag Nasty album. At least he did at the time of its release. I think I sent him a questioning e-mail the next day after I read that review saying “really”?

PETER CORTNER: I think that, if nothing else, Minority of One is a record that very nicely says “the band is the band it was on Can I Say and it is completely true to that record and the overall spirit of that record, which I think is fantastic.

It’s more inspired than Four on the Floor.

PETER CORTNER: I think that some of the songs on Four on the Floor are fantastic, but I think that the best songs on Minority of One and the overall feel are light years better. I’ll say that Can I Say is the better record of the two because it was so good and for anyone who likes Dag Nasty and especially anyone who heard that record within the first 5 years it came out, it holds something special.

I’m one of those people.

PETER CORTNER: There you go. I loved those songs before they were even re-recorded with Dave. So those songs have some really power to me. With that said, one of the criticisms I’ve heard of Minority of One is that as far as Dave goes, it sounds too much like DOWN BY LAW and as far as Brian goes, it sounds too much like BAD RELIGION.

I think it sounds more like a Bad Religion record than a Down By Law record. I think that Four on the Floor sounded more like a Down By Law record. As for Brian, though, he’d been in Bad Religion for almost 10 years at that point, so I don’t really blame him.

PETER CORTNER: I have given Down by Law probably, a cursory listen. I’ve probably listened even less to Bad Religion.

Even the ‘80s stuff?

PETER CORTNER: Yeah.

I’m a big fan of Bad Religion. With Down by Law, I saw them a few times in the early ‘90s. They were OK, but I just never got into them.

PETER CORTNER: I’ve got nothing against Bad Religion, but it’s just not anything I’ve ever had that much of an interest in. I think that if someone were to give me a record or put together a compilation of songs where you know that Brian is involved, I would probably be very interested in that.

I think he’s been incredibly underutilized in that band, actually.

PETER CORTNER: And that’s the thing I love about Minority of One. I think that Brian has written, with the exception of the songs on Can I Say, the best songs he ever wrote and he’s explored some things he’s always loved that he just never did anywhere else. The song “White Flag” is Brian’s (The) Damned song from beginning to end.

I hear a lot of The Damned in Dag Nasty and other DC bands from that time period.

PETER CORTNER: I really wish it was there. I’ve just never heard it.

Well not an obvious thing where it’s like “this song sounds like such and such song by The Damned” but more just that the sound was shaped by it. I would also credit EMPIRE as well, but more in Embrace.

PETER CORTNER: Definitely in Embrace. But “White Flag” is Brian’s Damned song.

I think that if you play a song by The Damned called “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause”, you’ll hear what I mean.

PETER CORTNER: Sure.

I was playing that song once while making a Christmas compilation and it just hit me. I think GOVERNMENT ISSUE especially owes a lot to The Damned.

PETER CORTNER: Definitely.

I think it’s especially true on the later stuff like the self-titled record with JOHN STABB’s vocals.

PETER CORTNER: And You sounds very much like The Damned as well and I think why not? What’s wrong with sounding like The Damned?

I’m one of those people who think that it doesn’t get better than the trilogy of Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album and Strawberries.

PETER CORTNER: It’s fantastic. I love their 1st 2 albums, too.

I like the first one. The second one, not so much.

PETER CORTNER: The production is a little weird.

I just always wondered what it would’ve sounded like had they gotten SYD BARRETT to produce it like they originally wanted. Maybe it could’ve sounded like Chairs Missing (Wire). It’s weird that for years my favorite Wire album was 154 but more recently it’s been Chairs Missing. I don’t know what it is.

PETER CORTNER: All good stuff, though I haven’t heard those records that JOHN LISA’s been going on about like It’s Beginning to and Back Again.

I haven’t heard all of those records, either.

PETER CORTNER: I’ve thought to myself that I should give those records a listen at some point. I trust John. (laughing)

PETER CORTNER: Actually that’s not true. I don’t trust John (more laughter).

I think we have one of those records here. I should tell you that when I first moved here from New York, I merged my collection with that of my wife. We got rid of a lot duplicate CDs and we gave away many to family and friends. Anyway I never bought those ‘80s Wire records myself. I just had the 1st 3 albums in multiple formats as well as Document and Eyewitness.

PETER CORTNER: You’ve got The A-List, though, right?

Yeah. I also bought the 2nd Read and Burn EP when I saw them play in New York (at Irving Plaza September 2002). So all of the other Wire records we have are from Anne’s collection. I’ve listened to some of them.

PETER CORTNER: When I was a teenager and when I was in my 20s and essentially just refusing to grow up, I could give music its due. I could listen, really listen, and it’s so hard to do that now.

Yeah, listening to it at work, you’re not listening to it half-heartedly maybe, but half listening and half doing work.

PETER CORTNER: When you’re married for a while, you’ll find that other things start to take up time.

I don’t have kids now.

PETER CORTNER: I don’t have kids. If you do, OK forget it. In fact some ways, the friends of mine who have kids, especially the guys, will volunteer to take the kids anywhere because that’s when listen to music. Listen to this and you turn it up really loud. Especially if you don’t have kids, what you find is that what you really need in your life and that you don’t have time for, because of working, is conversation. You need time to share with someone and there’s at least less intense introspection and more attending to someone else. And when you’re doing that, you’ll find perhaps that music gets turned off since it’s a distraction, TV gets turned off and you’ll do things together. I find now that all kinds of time I would spend listening to music is spent trying to listening to or trying to communicate with people. I got the point where when I get home and I could just listen to music, I might put something on in the background, but I’m writing to people instead. But then I’ll turn it off because I think that I don’t want it to just be background. So if I’m not gonna pay attention, I’m just gonna turn it off. A band like Wire, you need to pay attention to.

Especially anything after Pink Flag.

PETER CORTNER: Exactly. Some of the other stuff, you can have in the background and it’ll seep in. Even with that, I didn’t realize what a brilliant song “Mannequin” is until the last 2 weeks.

That’s because it’s positioned among 20 other brilliant songs on the same album.

PETER CORTNER: Exactly. How come I never said “let’s cover “Mannequin”, it’s great”. Or anything else where they’ll just take something very basic and have the most beautiful harmonies you ever heard. They’re so gorgeous.

You’re probably thinking about “Map Reference”.

PETER CORTNER: Of course. ”Outdoor Miner”.

Have you ever heard THE FEELIES do “Outdoor Miner”?

PETER CORTNER: No but The Feelies doing anything is worth hearing. Something I’ve looked for years for is them doing “Fame” or is it “Golden Years” by DAVID BOWIE. It was in the film Something Wild. They’re playing a band that is playing at a party. (Note I had to look this one up. It’s “Fame”.)

They’re in that movie as THE WILLIES.

PETER CORTNER: Someone played me their cover of a PATTI SMITH song.

“Dancing Barefoot”. It’s beautiful.

PETER CORTNER: I’d never even heard the Patti Smith one and then I thought Patti Smith is pretty good.

Indeed, especially her 1st 4 albums.

PETER CORTNER: Is LENNY KAYE involved with that?

Yeah he’s her guitar player and a main musical contributor as well.

PETER CORTNER: Well see I would love it then because he was the main contributor for music by JIM CARROLL (only on 1982’s Dry Dreams and 1983’s I Write Your Name). And that 1st Jim Carroll album ( Catholic Boy ) is something that in high school, I listened to it to death and I still listen to it. What Jim Carroll does on that record is something that I learned the word for the other day. It’s a German word and it describes BOB DYLAN’s approach which is to sing without really singing. Most of the time he’s speaking rhythmically but only a small amount of the time he’s trying to sing and that can be a really great approach if it works. In some ways, it’s out of the way of the music.

So you were telling me how you joined and that you knew Brian briefly.

PETER CORTNER: So low and behold a little while after Dave had joined the band, and I saw them once with Dave, there was an ad in Washington City Paper saying Dag Nasty needs a singer. I got together with my band mates and MARK SHELHAUS (sp?), the drummer, said “you should do this”. You should addition. I’d tried singing for two bands before Protem and both of them were with Joe Lally and neither of them really got out of the basement. The main thrust of it was “you should this, not that you’d ever get it, but it would be kind of funny to go in there and try auditioning for Brian Baker”. And so I said yeah that would be funny, I’ll do it, and so Brian drove over to my house.

I guess that’s because even back then he was known as someone who was difficult to work with?

PETER CORTNER: (laughing sarcastically) Where have you heard that before? (laughter ensues) I don’t know where that comes from because even from that first get-together with Brian, he was fantastic. He came over and brought a copy of Can I Say. It hadn’t even been released yet and it was on beautiful vinyl. He left me a lyric book and said “why don’t you look through this and come over and try singing” so I did that and it was terrible. However, as Brian explained to me when he gave me the call and explained to me that they wanted me to be in the band, the band has this tour booked with THE DESCENDENTS. We have a record out that we have to promote. We have to go. He said the only reason we can do this tour, the only reason anyone’s gonna be interested in us is because I was in MINOR THREAT. So because no one’s heard the record, no one will care what you do. He said “you could jump around in a chicken suit” and no one will pay the least bit of attention. Apparently, I don’t know how many people auditioned. I don’t think it was too many, but I think that I was chosen because we all get along. That was it. I made it a point not to ask any questions about Minor Threat and I think that helped.

So even back then the legend had spread around? It certainly had by the time that I got into punk and hardcore in the early ‘90s. I just don’t know at what point it went from being them playing in front of 20-30 of their friends to this sensation, at least within the underground.

PETER CORTNER: Well that was how I got offered the job. Very shortly in the tour, Brian got all of us together and said “look this is the end of the band”. When the tour’s over, I’m leaving, Doug is leaving to join The Descendents and we’re forming a new band.

That was DOGGY STYLE, right?

PETER CORTNER: It ended up being Doggy Style, but that wasn’t the original intention. The original intention was something else. So we all went home, we did actually record what was gonna be the final Dag Nasty single, which had 4 songs on it and that was it. We called it a day.

And what songs were those?

PETER CORTNER: The 4 songs were “Fall,” “Safe,” “Roger” and an instrumental called “Mango”.

And where they the same versions as what ended up being on the records?

PETER CORTNER: I’m sorry it was five. We also recorded “All Ages Show”. They were completely different versions because they all had ROGER MARBURY playing bass, so of those versions, “Fall” and “All Ages Show” are the superior versions. The subsequent version of “Safe” and the subsequent version of “Trying” are much better. I think all of them have come out in some way. The remaster of Wig Out at Denko’s has 4 of them (the same ones released on Selfless back in the early ‘90s) and the Dischord box set has “All Ages Show”. I think the version of “All Ages Show” that ended up on the Field Day CD is not really worth listening to. The version that is on the Dischord box set is kind of a highlight of Dag Nasty. It’s a joyful song.

I’m less familiar with that version than the one on the Field Day disc. I’ve also heard it on the “You’re Mine” 7” as well.

PETER CORTNER: So the band came to an end. The band that Brian and Doug intended to start became DOGGY ROCK (later Doggy Style) and they recorded a record and for whatever reason, Brian and Doug decided that they’d rather not do that. They came to Washington from Los Angeles with a substantial number of songs already written and said “we’re gonna do Dag Nasty again”. And what was kinda cool was that despite the fact that I was singing, not very ably, Can I Say material, that one or two songs suggested to them that if they took a different tack that I would be a more appropriate singer, so they wrote material that was a little better suited to whatever my meager strengths were at the time. These were songs like “The Godfather,” “Exercise,” “Wig Out at Denko’s,” “Dag Nasty” and “Crucial Three”. The two of them wrote those songs before the band got back together and they came and presented those songs and we got the band back together. Based on that material, I guess we could’ve picked a new name because it really didn’t sound like Can I Say. I guess the name was there and we just decided to run with it.

With only 2 original members at that point.

PETER CORTNER: It’s interesting because in some contexts, it doesn’t mean so much. In DC, it seemed to be a really big deal. If you lose a single member, that’s it. The band is over.

That’s why so many DC bands are short-lived.

PETER CORTNER: If someone started in a band with a mohawk and they shaved their head, you gotta change the name of the band because it’s just not the same anymore.

Continues with Part 4.

 

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