Here is the interview I did with Alberto Diaz for Ruta66, Spain’s Premier Rock Magazine. It just appeared in the December 2011 print issue, and this is the first post of it in the United States. I hope you enjoy it, and please leave a comment here — Skafish
“DISGRACING THE FAMILY NAME SINCE 1976”
SKAFISH INTERVIEW — By Alberto Díaz (Ruta 66 Magazine, December 2011-Spain)
When Chicago was still drowsing with good old blues, a youngster of impossible face and irreverent spirit took the microphone to express his disagreement and difference. Another punk-rock stray bullet to remember.
Once there was a man stuck to a nose, a guy burdened from childhood by fear and rage, hate and pain; a mistreated boy, stigmatized as “different” that focused all his negativity into a unique and inimitable art. Half eccentric genius, half circus freak, Jim Skafish turned Chicago’s scene upside down in the middle 70s, crowning himself –and his band- as artisans of the most uneasy and belligerent art-punk-rock. His intermittent story is a sequence of falls and knocks, will-power limping with wounded knees through a road full of pot holes and barbed wire; a blurred legend that few people seem to remember and others preferred to forget. That is not the case. From these pages (Ruta 66 magazine, December 2011 issue), we celebrate the thirty-five years of existence of this extraordinary entity talking with this main protagonist.
*Shocking, ambiguous, unpredictable, eclectic… Who (or What) is Skafish?
It seems that everyone has a different idea of who Skafish is. To some, I’m the snotty jerk who sang a song like “Joan Fan Club.” To others, especially other artists, I’m considered a musical genius. More mainstream fans and critics don’t often know who I am, or sometimes they view me as a weird, quirky, oddball character.
(And who’s right? All of them, kind of, as…)
Skafish is a seriously trained musician. I began piano lessons at age six, then I studied organ, then learned music theory, and voice. Because of my intense training in classical and jazz, musically I’m literally able to play anything, from Chopin to Art Tatum to Little Richard to Scott Joplin. Also, I can compose music in any style.
Skafish is also a person who has been a social misfit and outcast. My 12 years of Catholic school was a brutal experience for me, and I have continued to be treated as a social outcast throughout much of my life. Part of that deals with the way that I look: my huge hook nose, the appearance of breasts, my odd dress, and sometimes wearing makeup.
The human emotional intensity I’ve experienced from all I’ve been through helps to fuel and facilitate Skafish music, lyrics, visuals, and performance style. Skafish lyrics often have an edgy and controversial quality to them.
Skafish is also a spiritual person. I’ve studied metaphysics, psychic ability, astrology, reincarnation, and spirit meduimship since I was a teenager. Using my psychic abilities is an important part of who I am in my daily life and also in my music.
*35 years ago, you turned Chicago scene upside now, becoming the city’s first punk rocker. How do you remember those days?
First, let me put it into historical context, because nowadays, people take for granted that there was always punk, and indie rock, but at that time, there was NO such scene at all in Chicago. My first show in Chicago in February of 1976 started it all. I had no idea that I was starting what some people have now referred to as the beginning of Chicago’s modern rock era
People were utterly shocked by what I was doing. Audiences were sometimes violent, especially when I stripped down to an old fashioned old ladies one piece bathing suit and applied lipstick to my face. Then, after I stripped, I performed “Sign of the Cross,” while sprinkling the audience with authentic blessed Catholic holy water while swinging burning church incense as well.
*Why did you decided to adopt such an androgynous –and brave- look ?First, my appearance was not calculated at all, as in the way many performers create an image, a stage persona, or a gimmick. As shocking as it all was, I was just being me. I was always considered “weird” from the day I walked into kindergarten, and I had been persecuted virtually every day of my upbringing for the way I looked, dressed, and for who I was. I had a huge hook nose, the appearance of breasts, big feet, dressed oddly, was strange, and didn’t fit in at all.
The way I presented myself on stage was an extension of the way I looked in daily life, on the streets, and it just evolved step-by-step.
It really shocked and turned off many people, because it was so real, deliberately unattractive, and non-glamorous. It was anti-pretty-boy-rock star long before that became in vogue. And yes, there were many violent reactions from audiences.
*Fortunately, you got good friends there that protected you when things got ugly. Cheap Trick were one of them..,
Cheap Trick started coming to my shows back in November of 1976, and things just evolved from there. We both hung out at La Mere Vipere, Chicago’s first punk dance club in 1977-1978, and they tried to spread the word about what I was doing.
They told a great story in the liner notes to my record “What’s This? 1976-1979,” which really showed how protective they were of me. When Skafish was performing in Cheap Trick’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois in the fall of 1976, they came out to see the show. Of course, the audience was freaking out on my appearance and the performance. Then, the audience decided to take matters into their own hands. As they started to approach the stage like an angry mob, I was scared. But Rick Nielsen came to the rescue. He stood right at the front of the stage between me and the locals. He held a beer bottle over his head, ready to defend us. Luckily for us, the crowd did back down.
*Wow! What a guy, Rick Nielsen!
I love Cheap Trick. To me, they belong in the rock and roll hall of fame, and I hope that they can get there. A good memory I have of them is when they asked me to record with them, and I sang back up in the studio. I love their song “Surrender,” and I especially like the live version of “I want you to want me.” I also quite like their mid 1980’s comeback hit “The flame.” That was a great ballad, and I believe it went to number one in America.
*Which other artists inspired you?
I was quite inspired by everything, and I mean everything: Little Richard, Weather Report, Muddy Waters, David Bowie, Edgar Varese, The Beatles, Classic Blues, and especially Classical music, because the composing and structure was so fantastic.
*Let’s talk a little about your first album (to me, a wonderful and unknown classic!). The songs were catchy and full of melody, but also with a frantic and serious message… how would you define the spirit and music kept in this vinyl?
I would define my first album as a really diverse, complex, and multi-faceted mixture of music and message. The spirit was about rebellion, social commentary, being left out, rejection, sadness, alienation, being an outcast, spirituality, the world I grew up in, my family dysfunction, rage, getting even, persecution, emotional obsession, not fitting in anywhere, and a lack of sexual freedom in society.
Since I could do anything musically, the music was specifically designed to facilitate the message, which was largely defined by the concepts of the songs and the lyrics. For the album, I drew upon lots of styles to do that: punk, new wave, pop, rock, alternative, indie, metal, progressive jazz, avant-garde, Broadway, show tunes, blues, and electronic.
As with everything I’ve done, I wanted to make a record that was singularly Skafish, and create a spirit that was completely honest, real, explosive, and solely on my own terms. I had hoped at the time that the record would have connected with a lot of people.
*How much of autobiographical are the lyrics of Skafish (the album)? The songs talk about sexual humiliation, loneliness, rejection… not a happy collection of hymns, even though they’re sticky like a strange and sour bubblegum.
The answer to your question is simple. All of the lyrics on my first album are 100% autobiographical. Many of the lyrics just told the story of what happened to me, or things that I saw. It was the life I had led up to that point and the world as I saw it. It was painful, horrific, terrifying, and tortuous on many levels.
Because of the extremes that I had lived through by being considered a social outcast, I felt that I had a lot to say in my songs. Writing those songs gave me a terrific outlet. A lot of pain went into making that record, but I tried to make the songs catchy, so they would stick like glue to people.
*In your European tour you met a lot of important bands (Police, U2, XTC)… any anecdote you want to share?
There were a lot of magical moments, and some tough ones, too. That tour had so many legendary acts: The Police, XTC, English Beat, UB-40, Squeeze, and U-2, in Ireland. I was really so lucky to be included in such an incredible line-up. The Police were extremely kind and supportive to me. XTC listed Skafish as their favorite new group in their tour program, and I heard from someone that Bono referred to me as a genius, although I didn’t hear that first hand. It was incredible to be treated so warmly by artists who were so much more famous that I was at the time. It really meant a lot, because I was young, scared, and on foreign soil for the first time.
*And what about your concerts with Iggy Pop?
For me, it was a time of promise and hope, because that tour coincided with the release of our first record, the UK/European single, “Disgracing the Family Name,” B/W “Work Song.” We toured with Iggy Pop in November 1979 and we got on with him really well. It was rough in Detroit, because both Iggy and I were egged that night. When my band member Barbie Goodrich came on stage to start our show and she said, “Hi, I’m Barbie,” she got hit with an egg right in the face. That was a long night as I remember. It turned out to be a great double bill, because our styles complimented each other well. Iggy is one of my all-time favorites, because of how innovative he was.
*In the Urgh! movie, we had a chance to find your name amongst other great artist (from Pere Ubu to Devo, the Cramps, Gary Numan, etc)…this time, with one of your biggest classics, “Sign of the cross”… what does this song means to you?
I’m not sure that I could put into words just how important “Sign of the Cross” is to me. Besides being the first sacrilegious rock song ever written back in 1976, it represented twelve tortuous years of the abusive experience I got from attending Catholic schools. For instance, one of my grammar school teachers locked me in a tiny broom closet during class, and left me there. Another time, the high school band teacher choked me on a choral trip to Canada, while other teachers and students just stood there and watched.
All of the emotional pain, rage, fear, torment, and the desire to tear down all of the negative aspects of organized religion went into the writing and performance of the song. When I wrote it, I wanted it to be like a wrecking ball that would destroy the hypocrisy of organized religion.
Now, I see it as a piece that was part of my spiritual awakening, because it opened the door for me to find my own spirituality, which of course is broader and more metaphysically based than the limits of any organized religion.
*Second album, Conversation. Underrated piece, different sound… what’s your opinion on this record after all these years?
I look it now as a record that was great, and is much better than I originally thought it was. It was a very difficult record to make, because the original second album I turned in was rejected for being too controversial. Then, we had to amend certain tracks, and record new ones to try to make a record that the company deemed acceptable.
Even though it was a tough process, I really appreciate a lot of things about “Conversation,” especially the songs, the sound of the record, my singing, and the support of my longtime partner Glinda Harrison. If we would have had time to develop those songs, they could have all been more “finished,” and the record might have done better commercially.
*After Conversation, you seemed to fade away… only releasing limited cassettes and hiding from the spotlight. What happened?
I didn’t intend to fade away, and I certainly wasn’t hiding from the spotlight. What actually happened was that I just became less well known than I had been, and that occurred in steps.
First, we lost momentum because there were three years and four months between the release of my first and second album. When the second album ended up being such a different type of record than the first, that hurt us commercially. Also, the record company didn’t do much at all to support the record. Then, when IRS Records dropped me in 1984, my band and I did a West Coast tour of California to try and get a new record deal. When no other record company was interested in signing Skafish, my band, I, and manager parted ways. From that point, I ended up being out there on my own.
I worked extremely hard around Chicago and Northwest Indiana, performing consistently from 1983 through October 1, 1994. Most of that was done as a solo show, and I briefly had two different bands, one in 1987, and the other in 1994. I was also in a cover band in South Chicago with Skafish keyboardist Javier Cruz. I wrote so many songs, and in 1983, I started making recordings, mostly on my own
I released a cassette project in 1988 called “Limited Series Cassette,” and another cassette only release in 1992 called “Best Kept Secrets.” Because this was long before the Internet, neither of them sold much at the time, because they were only available locally. I feel that there are some excellent songs on both of those projects. In fact, the drummer for several tracks was Jeff Ward, who went on to play for Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry. My backing singers, Nadima, went on to sing for Aretha Franklin.
*You were off the radar for some years… until the internet has (re)discovered your legacy and you came back. Now you got a blog, a compilation album (What’s This?) and a Jazz Christmas album… Why did it take so long to have you back in the saddle?
Although people may not have been aware of it, I have always been consistently involved in my musical career. Whether I was composing, recording, working on my voice, exercising, dancing, or trying to do business deals, everything finally came together to release the two records you’re speaking of.
When I was able to release “Tidings of Comfort and Joy – A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas,” in 2006, and “What’s This? 1976-1979,” in 2008, that gave me a larger degree of visibility. Because of the internet, that visibility has been international.
*After all these years, what have you learned about life?
There’s so much that I could say about all I’ve learned about life. That could be a very long book, lol! I will say that my life has unfolded in a radically different way than I ever thought it would when I was a teenager. My spiritual path has been crucial to this evolution, and I definitely have a more broad view of the world now. I understand the connectedness in everything, versus just being the outsider misfit teenager who wanted to boldly take over the world through my revolutionary art.
*And what have you learned about music business?
The music business is in rough shape right now. Thanks to social networking and the Internet, it is possible for an artist to be more in control of their own work than ever before. The “Conversation” album is a perfect example of what happens when an artist is not in control of their own art.
*Do you feel like a highly overlooked artist?
I’m still waiting for an accurate version of the history of Skafish to be written. I’ve mentioned this on my blog already.
The revisionist approach to musical history, especially in Chicago, has been extreme. I have been surprised that people who weren’t there back in the day could just come along and make things up, change the facts, put their own personal spin on it, present it as history, and that no one would challenge what they’re saying.
For me, I just tell the truth about what really has happened, and keep moving forward. I have been having this reoccurring dream for decades that I’m on the verge of graduating from high school, but somehow, I can’t, and then, I’m stuck in limbo without a diploma. It always feels existential and hopeless in the dream….
SKAFISH INTERVIEW by Alberto Díaz
Published December 2011 issue, Ruta 66 Magazine (Spain)