By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The first 16 seconds of "Sixteen" are everything you need to know about the Stitches. Mike Lohrman counts off, sounding oddly alone, the room echoing behind him. The song lurches: raw, ragged, as low and slow as a B-17 bomber. But before you can finish the thought, they've jumped a beat ahead. "Sixteen" revs up and then doubles over itself. It's all those months of speed and strangling boredom; it's a band fucked up on meth and booze—as they were every session, Lohrman says—just pushing everything out as fast and hard as they can because for all they know, it's going to disappear again into a black hole of white noise, just like the last time they tried to record. There isn't a shred of calculation or restraint in the entire song. It's nothing but instinct—soon to be a Stitches trademark. And when Lohrman counts off again—double time—he's got the entire band behind him, punching every syllable through the back wall. Johnny Sleeper's crash cymbals bleed into every other instrument. It's not like hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time. It's like hearing the Germs' "No God" for the first time. The same initial fake-out, the same lunge for the jugular, the same chaotic potential energy and the same subconscious implications—it makes everything else sound sluggish and obsolete.
That was 1994.
Now, it's 2003 and the Stitches will be playing somewhere this weekend, just as they have for too many weekends to count, and still no one knows what to expect, except—and they transcended the clichť by about 1997—the unexpected. Their first show was 10 years ago this month and all that's changed—besides a few waistlines, and not always in the direction you'd think—is the drummer. That, and the drugs, which had a lot of people worried—and not always for the reasons you think. But the core of the Stitches—singer Mike Lohrman, guitarist Johnny Witmer and bassist Pete Archer—remains immutable, one of the painfully few constants in Orange County music. Between them, they've seen clubs sprout and burn, bands implode or explode onto MTV, kids grow from punky larvae to fronting their own bands, bands that Mike Lohrman might have released records for on his own Vinyl Dog imprint. Beyond the Offspring, beyond even U.S. Bombs or the Hunns, the Stitches are Orange County punk rock, the last band since the Adolescents to so perfectly seize the spirit of a time and place.
But the Stitches' problem has always been that they do it too well. They're too real and that means they're too messy, too dangerous and too unpredictable. Everyone you talk to about them talks in terms of car wrecks to describe the band. And then with their next breath they say, "Best band I ever saw." The Stitches have taken 10 years to release about as many records as most bands make in three and they've done it all—except for a single here and there and their decade-in-the-making full-length—by themselves. Songs just seem to fall off them, raw and lean classics-to-be like "Nowhere" and "Sixteen" and "Automatic" in line to be "Bodies" and "Autonomy" and "Creatures" for kids who aren't even born yet. Still, you wonder what it's all for.
The Stitches should have been big but aren't, should have died but didn't, could have given up but haven't. So why are the Stitches still here? And why are they better than ever?
Ten years ago this summer, Laguna was ready to burn.
In a town some people call Mayberry by the Sea, the crime rate suddenly spiked, running counter to the countywide trend. The dry, dun-colored San Joaquin hills that ring the city had only a few months before burst into flames—what police called the "greatest single property crime" in city history. And methamphetamine was everywhere. Through 1994, law enforcement made bust after record-breaking multimillion-dollar bust. "TEENS IN OC ARE SAYING YES TO METH," screamed the Register in 1993. Ask anybody—I did—from cheerleaders to punk rockers, the whole county was on speed. Add to that the frustrated antsy energy, an influx of Nazis and thugs (who had their own cable access show, Race and Reason). It was the same recipe that made Altamont a disaster, except at Altamont there was at least some great music.
"It sucked so fucking bad," says Lohrman. "Bands were really bad. Like ridiculous. No style. No flair. No fucking excitement. No danger. Everything was super-super-safe."
He and future punk icon Duane Peters were buddies then, both still just sort-of anonymous front-toothless skate-punks. Every weekend, they'd get tossed out of any club they'd paid to enter. Orange County punk was either a self-conscious, nonthreatening juvenile joke—seeds of the ska explosion to come a few summers down the line—or dead-serious straightedge hardcore, like Irvine-bred Zach de La Rocha's band Inside Out.
"You'd think a couple people in the audience being drunk was the sign of a good time," Lohrman says. "[But] we got thrown out and arrested all the time."
These were frustrating times for Lohrman, then 25 years old and bored. He was fresh, resolutely bitter, newly off an aborted substitute-art-teaching gig at Silverado High, a continuation school in Mission Viejo. He'd lived in OC since he was six, growing up in a barren Aliso Viejo housing tract and feeding off the rock & roll records his friends' sisters used to give him. He saw the Circle Jerks and the Bags when he was 12 and cut his hair the next morning. His backup plan, inspired by Huntington's then-new punk rock record store Vinyl Solution, was Underdog Records, the store he opened on PCH in Laguna in 1992 with his own personal collection up for sale.