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Even before Sub Pop struck gazillions gold when punk rock broke in 1991 with Nevermind, the Seattle label was abiding by and stamping its merch with its tongue-in-cheek, yet notorious (and now complete) “World Domination” credo. But back in their cash-strapped early days, that domination only extended to its Pacific Northwest throng of miscreants. That is until label heads Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman looked east and scooped up slowcore godfathers Codeine, who were the aesthetic antithesis of Sub Poppers like beer-swilling, skuzzo-punk goofballs Mudhoney and woods-dwelling grunge kings TAD—their music was majestically glacial, and their look was clean-cut and studious.
In 1991, Sub Pop unleashed Codeine’s monumental slowcore movement life-changer Frigid Stars alongside TAD’s gargantuan grunge sprawl 8-Way Santa and Mudhoney’s shredding garage-rock classic Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. The trio—bassist/vocalist Stephen Immerwahr, guitarist John Engle and drummer Chris Brokaw—operating at a snail-like, yet exhilarating crawl, wove a maelstrom of shoegaze glistening, hammerhead propulsions aided by Immerwahr’s crippled voice on dragging, gorgeous anthems like “Pickup Song” and “D.” An EP (’93’s Barely Real) followed shortly thereafter, and Brokaw left the band by the time ’94’s finale The White Birch was released.
Immerwahr and Engle completely dropped out of music, taking jobs at the Department of Health and in market research. (Brokaw continued to make music with Come and solo.) This year, though, archival label Numero Group reissued the entire Codeine output in a box set complete with liner notes by the band, Poneman and experimental guitar hero Alan Licht. With something to rally for in the form of the box set, the members of Codeine decided it was apropos to play some shows.
Sound of the City talked to the surprisingly jovial trio to ask where the hell they’ve been, what it’s like to sit on a throne atop the slowcore movement, and what it’s been like to play again after eighteen years of dormancy.
Chris, the Voice interviewed you last year at the time of the Come reunion. Is it surreal to revisit both Come and Codeine in each of the last two years?
Brokaw: I think with both of the reunions, the only thing that I expected was that it would be weird and in both cases it hasn’t been weird at all.
Why did Codeine break up in the first place?
Engle: Uh-huh. Steve?
Immerwahr: [Laughing] Uh… yeah. The main reason why I think the band stopped is because it stopped going and there stopped being, like, new songs. For whatever reason, the muse comes and goes. For some people it’s around for a long time, and different projects are around for a long time. I think that was what we had and we had some interpersonal stuff too that was, you know, playing rock music as a way to make a living sucked. Chris could probably tell you more about that. But I went legit. I think those two things: we had a really long European tour after The White Birch came out and not having new songs, or having barely any new songs, really just takes a toll on your spirit. So it’s actually kind of a nice thing about playing now—there’s not this pressure of like “We have to have new songs,” or “We need new songs to keep going instead of celebrating the songs we have done.”
Engle: I think the scope of Codeine was very narrow. We didn’t really ever envision—we said so in the box set—Codeine as a band that just kept on turning out material. So we had somewhat narrow parameters, let’s say. There was a time when [The White Birch] was done where we were thinking like “Well, all we have to do is come up with eight or nine new songs and there could be a new record.” But that seemed really a stretch—not just in terms of, you know, Steve finding his muse—but I think maybe your muse only has so much if you’re focused on this one particular way and style. I know that in the liner notes, the introduction to Barely Real in the box set, Alan Licht talks about the Ramones… and… Steve, I don’t really remember. Was he quoting you? Or was he just talking in his own opinion, saying, like, “Why did the Ramones ever do anything beyond the first three records, because at that point they had made their point?” [To Steve] Do you think it took us three records to make our point?
Immerwahr: Uh… two and a half.
Brokaw: Yeah, right. OK. [Laughing] When we first started the band, Steve said to me at one point “Ya know, I don’t really see this band lasting more than like a year and a half or maybe two years,” which I thought was really interesting. I hadn’t really worked in any sort of creative process where it’s sort of like an end goal to this, or a perfect thing we’re gonna try and accomplish. The band ended up lasting four or five years instead of that, but—Steve, I’m going to fawn over you a little bit [laughing] in a very fascinated way—my first exposure to a lot of Steve’s songwriting was on this compilation tape he made which was like six or seven bands, all of which were basically Steve’s under some different guises. There were a few different styles and one of those guises was basically a pre-version of Codeine, kind of an outline toward the template of Codeine. My sense was that Steve had several different ideas of a kind of music to explore and that Codeine was one of those styles to explore. But then like, you know, you would explore it and see what it was and see what you could do with it and once we’re done with that, you could move on.
How weird was it for you guys to be playing the slow type of music you were and being on a label like Sub Pop?
Immerwahr: Yeah, it was totally weird. I think we and Beat Happening were sort of the first non-grunge bands to get signed to that label, and I was actually kind of relieved that Beat Happening got signed around the same time that we did because it made me feel like…
Engle: …like someone we could beat up…
Immerwahr: …or someone that we could at least like, you know, if the grunge army decided to come down and kick our asses, Calvin could help, ya know, fight.
Engle: I’d put my money on Heather. [Laughing]
Immerwahr: I supposed Heather coulda kicked ass better than either of those guys. But the thing was those guys were Northwest guys and we were East coast guys. It was a very weird thing for us to get signed to Sub Pop.
Brokaw: We did a show not long after we got signed to Sub Pop, opening for the Jesus Lizard in Boston, and those guys were just kinda looking at us, like, “How did you get signed to Sub Pop?”
Immerwahr: When Sub Pop first considered signing us, they actually suggested—or put out it out on the table—that we might go out to Seattle and record some additional fuzzed-out, grunged-out guitar with Jack Endino. It was a good friction with Sub Pop because in some ways we were anti-grunge and in some ways we were like slowed-down grunge and certainly a lot our aesthetic was against the kind of, what I felt like, overblown, overdramatic rock and roll. It was great for us to be on Sub Pop; they had great distribution and a lot of, at that time, a lot of label loyalty and I think probably still do. They were interested in us pretty much right away, and yeah, that was cool.
Engle: Anyway, I thought our album rocked. [Laughing]
Immerwahr: We told them, “You could put out the record as it is. Or not.” And they said, “OK.”
Were the three Codeine records just reissued out of print all these years until now?
Immerwahr: The CDs have remained in print on Sub Pop in the U.S. but even more crucially, they’ve remained in stores. One of the things we did when we signed with Sub Pop was—and this was a term we didn’t fully understand—we signed these records so that Sub Pop owns them “in perpetuity.” Those two words meant to me like “They own those records forever,” and I remember at a certain point being like “Man, that was really stupid of us to do.” But as the years have gone by, I think it’s actually been a good thing because they’ve kept it in print and in the stores.
Chris has stayed active in the music scene post-Codeine for all these years. Stephen and John, what did you two do musically since Codeine ended?
Immerwahr: I just felt like there was nothing that was going to follow Codeine. I think making Codeine was the perfect outfit for me, because I pretty much only had played some slow guitar and that was it. I’d either played once or twice for a few seconds with assorted people but that was all and I was like “Wow. Are we supposed to jam out or something?” So, I have not played music since then.
Engle: My guitar had dust on it when I took it back out.
That said, how have the few reunion shows you’ve played thus far gone, like the All Tomorrow’s Parties gig? What went into the preparation?
Engle: Really extensive, comprehensive rehearsals. When I told my cousin that Codeine was getting back together she said “Oh, well, it’s a good thing you guys play that music because you won’t really need to practice” [Laughing]. I had to tell her how difficult it is to play that slow, slow music and keep some sort of slow, slow momentum throughout. And it did take us quite a while, maybe the first seven or eight practices that we had, nothing was happening. I guess it’s a good thing, better than if we had just like walked in after eighteen years and been like “No problem, this is easy.” It did take a while to find the feel.
Where did the super-slow Codeine thing come from? Were you mellow dudes?
Immerwahr: [Laughing] It was weird because what was totally separate from us was the whole kind of doom movement in metal, which we were totally unaware of. But bands like Winter from New York were playing like really, really slow metal and people were just totally bummed out about hearing [it]. At the time, some of my friends said “No one liked them; no one understood them.” But we didn’t really about that sort of thing. But, I don’t know. There’s a certain heaviness to stuff slowed down like a 45 at 33—something slowed down. I think once we started it and started trying, we didn’t really know how to do it. At first, I think we had to kind of repeat the idea of it but it really took starting to record some of those songs that we really [started] getting the idea and kinda worked it out. And that’s how we did [Frigid Stars].
Engle: As I recall, Steve did a couple of early 4-track demos. He did “Pickup Song” and “Old Things.”
Engle: And “Old Things” sounds like a great statement of resignation and lack of inertia just seemed to be part of the message. I think when Codeine, when we played our first show, we had some songs that were “Codeine songs” and others that were a little more upbeat. At some point, we were like, “Well, it’s the slow songs that are what we’re really about. We can’t have those other songs in there.” It’s not like we’re gonna have these slow, distant songs in there… then we’re gonna come up with something upbeat! This band is about the slow, distant-sounding ones.
Where was that first show? Here in New York?
Engle: No, that was in Boston in December of 1989 at the Middle East.
What do you recall about playing NYC back then? There weren’t many venues.
Immerwahr: There were a few. For an entry-level band like us, I think you had like three or four choices. There was one on Houston Street called The Spiral—really kind of a grim, sort of concrete basement bunker bar.
Brokaw: Then there was The Space at Chase.
Engle: And CB’s. That’s more or less it.
The Pyramid Club had some cool shows back then, too.
Brokaw: I saw Unsane there and that was just amazing.
And the Knitting Factory.
Engle: Oh, yeah, We played a couple of shows at the Knitting Factory, or at least one.
Being that Stephen and John left music completely after Codeine ended, did it strike you as weird that your band was being called the founders of the slowcore movement?
Immerwahr: It’s a good question…
Immerwahr: …one which we always have to face. I have to say: I really haven’t kept up that much. I would say there are a couple of other people who that might apply to them, as well, progenitors of a genre. I think we probably slowed the pace down a lot and I know a lot of bands that, if they weren’t disliking us, they thought, “Oh, that’s pretty cool. I’ll do a Codeine-type song.”
Brokaw: There’s a couple of bands out there—I’m friends with these people now—but when I first heard a couple of their songs, I was like “Man, that’s Codeine’s thing.
Immerwahr: Who’s that!?
Brokaw: I’m not gonna say!
Immerwahr: Oh, oh. OK. I thought you were gonna tell us. Sorry.
Brokaw: But we like Mogwai. I think I probably had the most exposure of the three of us just from continuing to play and being out playing clubs to meeting a lot of people who were really affected by Codeine. Especially in the last ten years, I’ve definitely had a sense of the growing interest in the band, younger people discovering the band and people asking me all the time “Whatever happened to John and Steve and is there any chance Codeine will play again?” All Tomorrow’s Parties started asking us to play several years ago, and each time they asked we just thought, “We don’t really see the point in doing anything.” But once we knew Numero Group was going to be doing the reissue then we said, “OK, we’ll do it.” Especially given the awesome job they’re doing with it, and presenting it in an elegant way, it makes sense for us to play some shows.
Are you taken aback that Codeine are being celebrated all these years later, especially given the fact that two of you left music completely?
Brokaw: It’s nice and great to hear people kind of chime in on the band. I feel like, especially with people like Alan [Licht] and Jonathan [Poneman], who contributed liner notes to the box set, I am just sorta thinking of, like, people I know who have been playing music and being involved in essentially indie rock music for the last 20 or 25 years and all of us that stuff is sort of available at our fingertips. If I run into somebody like Lyle Hysen or somebody in music, it’s really cool that there is a continuity and a community of people who have been doing this for a long time and who are continuing to do it. I also think that it’s great that everyone’s powers of recollection are so good. [laughing]
Codeine play The Bell House tonight and [le] Poisson Rouge on July 15.
Attributions to some of the quotes in this article have been corrected.