- Off-putting? Who? From left to right: Jon Williams, Peter Prescott and Jeff Weigand were Volcano Suns.
Jeff Weigand spent 12 years pursuing a doctorate in Freudian psychology at The Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. That's a world away from the small Vermont town on Lake Champlain where he now delivers the mail. Even further away, at least temporally, are the sweaty rock 'n' roll stages where he used to perform as bassist for Volcano Suns, a Boston trio of some renown that peaked during Ronald Reagan's second term.
If it seems a curious career arc, Weigand, now 44, doesn't seem mystified: He delved deep into the demimondes of indie rock and academia, found them both wanting, and moved to Vermont.
"Most of being in a band was pretty boring—studio, touring, driving," he says from his home. And academia? "Philosophy departments are probably one of the more depressing places you can find, weird intellectual clinics for people with odd nervous disorders. Doing it academically at that level for so long had pretty much killed the thing I loved, so I decided to do something else."
While speculating about Weigand's aptitude as a Freudian scholar is problematic, it's safe to say that had the communal spirit of Volcano Suns been willing and strong, Weigand might be more than an early footnote in indie rock. Formed by Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott after that more successful band broke up, Volcano Suns touched a limited number of people but left a powerful impression on those who heard it, like Superchunk's Mac McCaughan. But, along with guitarist Jon Williams, Weigand refused to take the band too seriously or to do the promotional things that might have pushed the Suns to that proverbial next level. In fact, McCaughan's label, Merge Records, one of the preeminent independent record labels in the world, re-released the Suns' first two albums in January. But Weigand hasn't changed his tune: He's neither basking in the renewed attention nor capitalizing on it by playing reunion concerts, even if he recognizes that the sounds Volcano Suns made 25 years ago are special.
"I think it takes a lot of work playing together again to get it sounding even in the right area," says Weigand. "There is no point watching three old guys get together who sat at home and jammed along to the records on their own."
He doesn't want anything to do with the kind of hype that typically accompanies re-released material by underappreciated bands, either: "So many of these reissue things come with huge booklets, practically books, explaining everything from what studio this or that track was done in to what the guitar player had for lunch that afternoon. A lot of the time there is some critic letting everyone know how important the band was and how they should have been huge."
So instead of self-aggrandizement, the reissues feature the same farcical liner notes that accompanied the original vinyl in 1985 and 1986. For instance, the notes to the debut, The Bright Orange Years, begin, "Volcano Suns are the world's greatest motorcycle daredevils." Weigand acknowledges that he and Williams embodied the major resistance to advancing the band's fortunes.
"Jon and I saw the band as a big chance to just fuck around with the order of stuff," Weigand remembers. "If some major label guy wanted to talk to us, we, of course, would do something to destroy that."
But the other Sun, founder/ drummer/ singer Peter Prescott, didn't share that view. An industry veteran, he was more willing to play the game than the others. When a still-young Spin magazine did a feature article on the band, Weigand says Prescott begged his bandmates to do it.
"It was not any big problem with Pete.... Pete had been in [Mission of] Burma and was used to the way things went," says Weigand. "I am not going to say Pete wanted to 'make it,' rather he had been through the bullshit and it was no big deal to him. Jon and I wanted to attack it. We saw it as some big Dada project."
- From left to right: Jon Williams, Peter Prescott and Jeff Weigand
Volcano Suns rose from the ashes of Mission of Burma. In fact, if you Google "Burma," "ashes" and "volcano," you'll find that this figure of speech, with its phoenix connotations, has become the de facto way of describing the Suns' origins. While "rising from the ashes of Burma" has its charms as a turn of phrase, its veracity as a metaphor is suspect: Phoenixes die a dramatic death. Mission of Burma broke up due to tinnitus and booze. Phoenixes are reborn. Volcano Suns was not the same animal as its alleged progenitor. And the phoenix is far too majestic an image to apply to a band whose musical legacy remains as wild, wooly and bumptious as that of the Suns.
Prescott's chief mandate in forming the Suns was to be as unlike Mission of Burma as possible. Instead of caustic, twitchy music that sounded like it emanated from a badly lit, low-ceilinged room, these songs offered a big roiling sound built around hard-charging tempos and gang vocals. The overall sense of abandon and the blown-stack guitar frequencies were not unlike Mission of Burma, but the Suns seemed far more light-hearted. Testosterone-fueled rave-ups featuring leather-lunged vocals and goofy but wry lyrics touched on consumerism, sexual politics and bucolic life. No Goering quotes for song titles here.
Nevertheless, recent reviews of the Merge reissues have compared the Suns to Mission of Burma, as well as Mudhoney, Blur, Sonic Youth and Throwing Muses. Weigand will concede a touch of the Burma sound on "Truth is Stranger Than Fishing," the slow-building instrumental from the debut LP, but to him, the band doesn't really sound like anyone but themselves.
"The bands I like all have that original sound," he says, "so in that sense I am proud of these records." Although some would disagree, Weigand hears no echoes of the Suns in any of today's music, either. "But that could be a good thing. A band should have their own sound. Beyond that, we never got big enough for anyone to really imitate us. Sell a lot of records and people will imitate your sound no matter how bad it is."
In fact, until a few weeks ago, none of the band's records was available on compact disc. Merge Records' co-founder McCaughan had been a fan of the Suns since he saw it play in New York in the '80s when he attended Columbia University. McCaughan heard that a prospective reissues deal with Taang Records had fallen through for the band, so he proposed doing the project on Merge. He signed on for 1985's The Bright Orange Years and 1986's All-Night Lotus Party.
The second incarnation of the Suns—Prescott, Weigand and Williams—made the records Merge reissued. That act formed after the original guitarist and bass player left to form Big Dipper (whose work was actually reissued by Merge last year) but broke up just as the band was starting to gain traction. "Jon and I left the band just because we had had it with touring, with record company folks," says Weigand, "with bullshit, really."
Prescott composed a third edition of the band with Bob Weston and Chuck Hahn, a lineup (one more followed) Prescott called definitive because it signed to SST Records, the ultimate indie record label of the time. Weigand politely demurs with this assertion. "That lineup was together the longest, and I think from talking to Pete those guys got along great without much tension. Personally, I was never a big fan of further Suns things. They are OK, but I think are missing something. I thought the songs became pretty formulaic," he says. "Maybe that was the point, I don't know what they were aiming for, but that is just my opinion. God knows, my opinion doesn't mean much as a listener. Commenting on later work by a band I used to be in, it's relative."
The fourth installment of the Suns called it quits in 1991 after the interestingly titled LP Career in Rock. Substantial success hadn't come. SST was unable to sustain the heights it had recently reached with bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., and the big grunge wave was years away. Inspired by encouragement from Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, the third version of the band—Prescott's "definitive" version—reunited for a few shows in 2005.
These dual reissues speak for themselves, though. Direct comparisons to other bands come up short, but those who cherish the messy squalls of The Fall and Sonic Youth, the jagged edges of Gang of Four, the heavy-bottomed primal riffs of the Stooges, and the sudden shifts and proclaiming vocals of the Minutemen will find something old that's new to love here. Remastered by Bob Weston (yes, Weigand's replacement in Volcano Suns and Shellac's current bassist), they pack much more of a wallop than the vinyl versions—recorded for $800 and $1,000 each—ever did.
So, with the music sounding better than it ever has, why not bite the bullet and play for old times' sake? Weigand again cites the difficulty of getting back into fighting form when all three band members are geographically distant from one another. Williams, whom Weigand occasionally still plays with, lives a few hours north in Vermont. Prescott, busy with Misson of Burma again, lives in Boston.
Moreover, beyond mere logistics, it's clear that the idea of reuniting to support these new releases holds little appeal for him or the other members. "This was a band that sold a few thousand records at the time. That the stuff is coming out 25 years later or so, with so much great stuff out there from others over the years, is really an honor. Somehow, we got through the net. [But] it sorta goes against our grain to reunite anyhow," he says. "The glory days, all of that."
Volcano Suns: The Merge Reissues
The Bright Orange Years (1985)
The Bright Orange Years starts with the mid-tempo "Jak," a terse putdown of a dilettante (apparently written about first Suns guitarist Steve Michener), then picks up momentum and speed, working toward multiple catharsis points over 12 terse tracks. Slowing down only briefly for the anguished, introspective "Balancing Act," the chorus of which ("It matters, it matters, it matters to me") is imbued with an unexpected poignancy, the record culminates in the anthemic "Silvertone." While eschewing production notes, lyric sheets, reproductions of old flyers and the like, these reissues don't skimp on substantive extras. B.O.Y. contains several must-have tracks, including "Sea Cruise" (written about the Fall's Mark E. Smith) and "Greasy Spine," both of which came out as a single in the wake of the second lineup's demise, and a beefy early version of "The Central." There's also a live take of the cathartic "Testify" and a goofy reading of Prince's "1999."
All-Night Lotus Party (1986)
All-Night Lotus Party begins with its most accessible song, "White Elephant," then burns through 10 tracks suffused with even more distortion and noise than its predecessor, encroaching on the realm of hardcore. Other than the broken ballad "Room With a View," A.N.L.P. (get it?) is a crazily high-energy affair that culminates in the frantic, room-shaking "Ride the Cog." The extras include kooky covers (e.g., Ted Nugent's first band, the Amboy Dukes; the Beatles' "Polythene Pam"), rough-and-ready live tracks, early versions of songs that appeared on 1987's Bumper Crop, and the Spinal Tap-inspired "Jazz Odyssey" (with co-writing credit going to the fictional Tap bassist, Derek Smalls), an instrumental that the band liked to unleash when playing before hundreds of impatient Suicidal Tendencies fans. —David Klein