‘Where Did This Come From?’: A Conversation With John Harper Of The Micronotz
The Micronotz formed in Lawrence, Kansas in 1980 but the band’s first real spark of life happened in Wichita. John Harper, a founding Mirconotz member, was already enthusiastic about punk rock when his uncle, Jack Kellogg, brought him to The Embarrassment’s rehearsal space to watch the band. Kellogg was friendly with many musicians in Wichita and knew that his nephew, who’d already purchased his first guitar, would probably appreciate an audience with what was then the Air Capital’s biggest musical act.
Harper had brought his axe with him and so someone in the group asked him what his intentions for the instrument were. He said he was going to hang on to it, keep playing it, maybe even form his own band. Then someone suggested that if Harper could put some guys together and come up with some tunes, they could open for The Embarrassment on an upcoming Lawrence date.
Harper said it sounded like a good idea and so, on or about December 12, 1980, he and his friends took to the stage for a four-song set at The Off the Wall Hall, located where the venerable Lawrence venue The Bottleneck is today. The set was mainly comprised of three covers: One from the Ramones, one from The Monkees (“Steppin’ Stone”) and one from The Stooges (“Search and Destroy”). There was an original, too, in the form of “Shopping Spree.”
“It was a stupid song,” says Harper, speaking from his law office in Topeka. “I got out my rhyming dictionary to write it. Pretty bad.” The song may (or may not) have been stupid, but the crowd that night seemed to enjoy what they heard. Harper estimates that there were roughly 30 people at the club that night. “There were lots of guys who’d driven up with The Embarrassment,” he says. “They’d all been drinking. They started throwing chairs around and moshing. It was a pretty enthusiastic response. I think they were just impressed with the novelty of it. And too much beer.”
Before long, word got out about The Micronotz. Another Lawrence band, Get Smart!, took the teenagers under their wing. “They had a lot of friends and would talk us up,” remembers Harper. The groups shared a practice space and a couple of bills. One night they dropped in at a local venue and met journalist and budding label boss Bill Rich. Rich was determined to boost interest in local and regional bands and was about to launch his Fresh Sounds label.
He was taken with The Micronotz (also known as The Mortal Micronotz) and invited them to appear on the first Fresh Sounds compilation with pals Get Smart!, Kansas City’s The Yard Apes and The Embarrassment. Soon after the group was tracking a full-length album that would include a batch of high energy songs that included “Shopping Spree” and “Old Lady Sloan.” The latter featured lyrics written by William S. Burroughs who’d only recently adopted Lawrence as his new home. Born in St. Louis, the author finally settled in Kansas in 1981. From then until his death in 1997, he was a fixture in the city. Locals mostly respected his privacy and touring bands would seek him out for an afternoon of conversation or target practice. The Micronotz knew who Burroughs was but they were no more friends with him than he was with them.
Rich knew Burroughs’ personal manager, James Grauerholz, very well and through a series of sometimes unclear events Burroughs penned the lyrics to “Old Lady Sloan.” A 90-second blast about an Irish mother who ate her own child during the Great Famine, the song remains a favorite among Micronotz fans. The relationship between Burroughs and the boys essentially began and ended there.
“People ask me all the time what it was like to be around Burroughs,” he says, “it was kind of like being around your grandpa. He was several decades older than us. He was nice, we had dinner at his place a few times and mowed his lawn. That was about it. But we knew who he was. Lawrence had good schools. We were aware of his legacy.”
Burroughs would appear on a 1995 tribute to The Micronotz and perform the song with The Eudoras, though that rendition, appropriately enough, lacks the youthful zeal of the original. It’s a good song, but the best material from The Micronotz (Mortal or otherwise) still lay ahead of them.
Two EPs followed the 1982 debut and then, in 1985, the group issued the masterful The Beast That Devoured Itself. Listeners could hear traces of Captain Beefheart and even small doses of The Replacements and swaths of the blues By then Harper and his bandmates, vocalist Dean Lubensky, bassist David Dale and drummer Steve Eddy, were drawing on a wider range of influences and much more accomplished on their instruments.
“When we first got together we could barely play. The only reason that that first record came out was because practiced it over and over and over again before we ever set foot in the studio,” he recalls. “But before we’d heard punk rock we listened to a lot of the The Beatles and Aerosmith and AC/DC.”
Lubensky was impressed by the music of James Brown while Eddy’s time in marching bands found its way into The Micronotz landscape. “He was the most accomplished musician in the group and had been in other bands before,” Harper recalls.
That The Micronotz had managed to make it beyond a first gig had been one high water mark, hitting the half decade mark was another. The band of teenagers had become a long-running entity, a group of seasoned pros with several recordings and tours behind them. “One of my friends said, ‘You guys are the veterans here,’ which was strange because we were so young,” Harper recalls. “But if you stick with it long enough, even if you’re not that good, people will eventually start to like you for some reason.”
There was a growing audience as well. “In the early days, most of the time we were playing, nobody would come see us,” Harper says. “And those that did would leave halfway through.” Even a gig at United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth had its problems. “You’d think, ‘Oh, captive audience. Ha ha ha.’ They packed the auditorium and there were five or six people left by the time we got done,” he recalls. “They weren’t into the punk rock.”
Harper is also aware that, for some acts, their reputation grows after they’ve split up. Although music lovers today carry romantic notions about legendary punk acts such as Black Flag or The Replacements packing rooms night after night, both bands played to their share of half empty rooms. “We had a night off in Minneapolis once and went to see Hüsker Dü and there was nobody there,” says Harper. “Local bands suck. That’s the rule, right? You gotta go out of town to get any attention. Until Nirvana broke, nobody liked that music. It was seriously a situation where it was a few kids in every town. It was pretty insular. And most people thought it was pretty worthless. We certainly didn’t get any airplay.”
Among the hallmarks of a local scene is a venue or series of venues that are closely tied to the scene, the kind of place where new acts debut and touring acts visit most frequently. For The Micronotz and the Lawrence scene in general the venue of choice was The Outhouse. Today, the building, located at 1837 N 1500 Road is an adult entertainment club. Its location now, as then, was critical because it was far away from the watchful eyes—and ears—of law enforcement.
“When we found it was some guy’s garage,” Harper remembers. “It was big enough to fit maybe 100 people in.” The band’s manager began renting it for shows and soon other promoters were renting it for gigs. The property owner carried out minimum maintenance on the building and the property in general. “Sometime around ’83 the police started cracking down on house parties in Lawrence,” Harper says. “That scene got shut down and Off The Wall Hall got closed down. Nobody else would let you play. We had to find somewhere. We found The Outhouse and it took off.”
The hall would eventually host shows by acts such as Flaming Lips, Helmut, Gwar, and Nirvana among many others. “It was impossible to wreck,” says Harper. “Pretty much bomb proof. And a lot of bombs went off in there.”
Harper adds that that that time in his life important in shaping the person he is today. “We were 16-years-old and had an album out. It was like, ‘Well, we can do whatever we want. Even if we are kids.’ We put together tours and drove off into the great American wilderness,” he says. “The attitude we had is one that can carry over after you stop playing music.”
The Micronotz were coming to an end in 1985 even if the band wasn’t fully aware of it at the time. There was one more album to record, Forty Fingers, released on the Homestead label, which ushered in a marked change in sound. “That was just a natural progression for us. Hüsker Dü was blowing up, The Replacements were really big and we played with them all the time,” Harper recalls. Jay Hauptli had come into the fold as vocalist by that time and brought a sense of maturity and an appreciation for hard rock to the fold. “His voice was so deep that it changed the way things sounded,” he continues.
By the following year the group was officially over. “I think we got confused and tired,” Harper says now. “Being in a band took over our lives a little bit.” Harper and a few of the other members were in college then. There were full and part-time jobs and commitments outside the band filling their lives. “It was Yoko Ono’s fault,” he jokes.
Bassist David Dale, who died in 1993, had some success in a band called Kelly Girls and, later, Joe Worker. Steve Eddy continues to gig to this day and Harper played in various groups, including Pedaljets.
The Micronotz played together in 2006, reuniting to open for The Embarrassment at Lawrence gig. “We thought it would be kind of fitting if we did the same thing the first time we played, which was slip in there, play four or five songs and get off the stage,” he says. The band brought along Pedaljets bassist Matt Kessler and continued for a few gigs afterward. “That was probably a mistake,” Harper says. “We should have left it at The Embarrassment show.”
Harper is aware that there’s a new fan base today and one that will likely grow with a new reissue campaign from Bar/None underway. That there are new fans of The Micronotz, he says, isn’t that much of a surprise.
“The big thing that happened was Nirvana,” Harper says. “All of a sudden, those sounds were OK. Even popular. I think that that had a lot to do with people finding us. It’s like anything else: When I first heard the Ramones, I started wondering, ‘Where did this come from?’ It was alien stuff. But you look into it, you find the Stooges and MC5, everything that influenced the Ramones. I’m sure that a lot of the interest in us that came later was from people listening to later music and wondering where it came from.”
The Micronotz catalogue is reissued now from Bar/None. http://www.bar-none.com/the-micronotz/