By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
And then they lost it. In early 1996, Sleeper quit.
"At the time I was working at Underdog, going to junior college, and I felt if I stayed [in OC] this is what I'd be doing for the rest of my life," he says. "We'd basically been playing the same set for three years. Things happened. And I just didn't want to be doing it anymore."
This is the start of the unhappy years, when a band gets past the point where they're supposed to call it quits and just keeps going. It'd be a cliché to blame it on the drugs, but, well, part of it was the drugs. And the drinking. And underneath that, the impulses that manifested as the drugs and drinking, the raw personality that came through so powerfully in the band. Without Sleeper, the band went into a tailspin that, says Lohrman, in some ways they're still feeling. The upward trajectory the band had been on, the success they'd won completely on their own terms, bent and collapsed. Everything that had made the Stitches the Stitches was now trying to kill them.
"All of us were being pulled in different directions by craziness," says Craig "Skibs" Barker, who joined on drums after Sleeper left. "Mike's craziness is like drunken, drugged-out speaking-in-tongues freak. Pete is like quiet, deviant behavior; he doesn't talk much so you don't really know what's going on in there. And Johnny is just like crazy drunken fistfighter guy."
"It was kind of a mess," says Lohrman. "Almost a regression. If we did keep it together, it was just that—just keeping it together. We weren't writing songs, we weren't doing anything. We were just trying to keep alive."
The Stitches disappeared for seven months after Sleeper left. Even now, Witmer and Archer argue amiably about whether it was a breakup or a hiatus. They got a European tour in 1997, thanks to a tiny German fanzine that somehow procured a tour bus, and left for Europe with Barker as the first replacement drummer. Barker, a lifelong HB-er whose sister's boyfriend played bass in one of OC's first punk bands, was an old friend of Lohrman's who had seen the Stitches play a hundred times but didn't own a single record. He gave himself headaches trying to learn Sleeper's drum parts.
"At that point," he says, "it was a little bit try and catch up and a little bit try and get ahead."
But on their first night on the continent, staying with friends in the French band the No-Talents, Witmer—drunk—stepped on a kitten and killed it. You couldn't possibly misread the omen. Rough going, says Lohrman. The band was unraveling. After Sleeper's departure, Witmer was the youngest member of the band, as well as the only one not from OC. Patient, worried and determined, he took over.
"Do you want me to do anything?" Lohrman says Witmer asked him.
"Fuck, man," said Lohrman, "I want you to do everything."
The Stitches had always been a Mike Lohrman production. But now it became the Mike and Johnny show. Witmer's the one who sets up interviews, sets up shows, even got the band into the LA Weekly Music Awards, despite everyone but him living and working in OC. And that's a big reason the band kept moving.
"Johnny?" Lohrman says. "He's a rock."
After they came back from Europe, Barker was out of the band after a bitter onstage fight at the Clipper bar in Long Beach: Witmer wanted to play "Second Chance," but Lohrman and Barker refused. So Witmer hoisted up a mic stand and threw it at Barker, who rapidly began packing up his drum set. That was Barker's last show. Then some skinhead climbed on stage and grabbed the mic: "The Stitches are pussies!" Witmer punched him. It was that sort of night. The Stitches would need another new drummer, this time someone who'd learn not just Sleeper's parts, but the new songs Skibs had recorded.
Ed Gaxiola, an old friend of Lohrman's, joined the band after moving from Maui back to California in 1998. For his audition, they watched him play three songs and made it official. They needed a drummer right away. "And they needed a full-length album," Gaxiola says. "The band was kind of falling apart."
They'd been slowly falling apart for years. The Stitches were on drummer number three and album number zero. The frustration must have been immense. Even Sleeper complained about the stagnation he was sensing before he quit.
"We don't try and plan anything out," Witmer says, "Shit just happens. We've been through a lot of shit, so we don't break down, don't cry about shit. But we could have done a lot more."
So now it's 2003, and the Stitches will be playing somewhere this weekend: Friday at a bar called Fitzgerald's in Huntington Beach and Saturday at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. Nobody has died. Craig Barker is back in the band, after Gaxiola left on good terms to take care of his family. And after you see the Stitches play, you can buy their first album, 12 Imaginary Inches, released at the end of last year on indie label TKO. Spin magazine even named them one of the country's best current punk bands, even if it was two years ago. Lohrman is sober and it's sticking. Now you can hear all the words.