Throw It All Away
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 clich 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.
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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.
"I can't tell you how miserable it is for someone to come up and place one of your prized possessions on the counter with a $12 sticker on it," he says. "I got into the whole separation-anxiety problem."
But Underdog was something people instinctively gravitated toward, a focus for all that unfocused energy. It was a good place to hang out that summer. Kids started making and selling zines that shit-talked Laguna cops. Laguna cops dutifully paid Lohrman 50 cents to buy the zines in which they were being shit-talked. And then a drummer from Idaho named Johnny Sleeper put up a flyer: SINGER WANTED. CLASH DAMNED GENERATION X.
"People would call up and say, 'You really want to do that? Like a Sex Pistols cover band? Well . . . good luck," Sleeper says now. "They thought it was a joke. But for me, that was authentic. The Clash were talented musicians who had something to say and were really smart about it."
Sleeper talks a lot about authenticity when he talks about the Stitches. You can still feel a hint of the frustration he must have felt after moving from a boring nowhere Idaho town to OC at 18 and finding . . . Mayberry by the Sea. He's one of those idealistic guys who really would have crossed the street to talk to a stranger with a Clash shirt, just for the camaraderie. The goof bands in OC disgusted him; the political bands didn't feel honest (and judging from the number of ex-straightedgers in AA now, he might have been on to something).
"People," he says, "didn't really have anything to call their own. I was 18, and there was no place for me to go at all."
But he needed a band, and so he put one together. Sort of. The proto-Stitches played one show with no singer and no name at the Doll Hut (Linda's Doll Hut at the time): Mike Shote on bass, Ted Turnbull on guitar, and Sleeper playing drums and ad-libbing lyrics into a mic. Around the same time, Lohrman had introduced Duane Peters to the rest of a band that would become the Exploding Fuck Dolls; now Lohrman was watching his friend's band take off.
"That made him want to get up there and do a real band," says Vinyl Solution's Darren O'Connor, one of Lohrman's best friends. "The first time we saw [the Exploding Fuck Dolls] play, he told me, 'Man, we gotta make them a record.' And then he said that gave him a burning desire to start a band."
"Duane's band had no one to play with," says Lohrman. "So I answered the ad up in my store. One guy worked in my record store and played guitar, some new-wave surfer dude played bass, and Johnny Sleeper played drums. They had 12 songs. I ad-libbed three, canned the others, and told them the deal: 'I'll sing for you guys, but if I sing, I'm boss.'"
They agreed; Lohrman squeezed out the bass player. He had no time for a shitty garage band, Lohrman told them. This band would go as far as it could. The new lineup (with new bassist Retarded Ron and a second guitarist named Logan) played their first show at Club Mesa in August 1993, decked out like it was 1976. They picked the name Stitches off a list of band names Lohrman had been keeping in his store for months, just in case (they were almost the Nubiles). The headlining band didn't show up, so the Stitches headlined their first show. Sleeper saw it as a good omen.
"[Mike] asked me what I thought, and I thought they needed practice," says O'Connor, who'd been watching the band pull together all summer. "It took me quite a few years to realize how good they were."
But the Stitches were about to get better. Way up the 5 in Sacramento, a 21-year-old Cleveland kid named Johnny Witmer was flat on his back, gluing PVC plumbing into the bottom of Airstream trailers in the worst job he'd ever have, and not so far up the 5 in Anaheim, 24-year-old Pete Archer was switching from guitar to bass for a band called Corrupted Ideals. Lohrman knew Witmer from the dirtball skate tours he and his buddies would take back East. Lohrman knew Witmer played guitar. He lured him down from Sacramento. Sleeper remembers Witmer carrying equipment, not saying much, sitting by the side of the stage watching the band play. By November he was in on guitar.
"I thought everyone out here was pussies," says Witmer now, completely—as usual—straight-faced. "I was pretty much able to kick everyone's ass right away. There were a lot of songs when I came in the band that weren't written by me . . . so we quickly discardedall those."
It's tough talk. Witmer's a tough guy, but even when he's smashing someone with his guitar, he looks very measured and composed. ("I don't come to their construction site and take the hammer out of their hand or unplug their saw.") The younger son of a blue-collar family in Cleveland, he played the snare drum in elementary school and turned on to Devo when he was six. His arrival was the start of the Stitches of today—but in 1993, Witmer was the new guy and Lohrman was in charge.
"We bumped up a notch every night," Lohrman says. "We'd go to my house, get all lit up on speed—I wouldn't let anybody drink before shows. And every night a big turnout of friends—junkies, degenerates, drunks, faggots—would just go fucking crazy. A whole army. The first six shows were ambulances, cops in riot gear, fire trucks. Finally, some excitement!"
This lineup recorded in Chula Vista, but the tapes were unusable—ambient static shredded the vocals. A minor setback. They kept moving, to a live recording at the long-gone Butt Cave in Santa Ana. Halfway through the set, the power cuts, but Sleeper keeps playing, certain that the venue is kicking them out. The kids go crazy, screaming and shrieking in the dark.
Their first release was just one song on a comp—"I Just Wanna Fuck," to support their first mini-tour. Witmer and Lohrman and Sleeper were ready to go; Logan and Retarded Ron weren't. So Logan and Retarded Ron were out and a guy named Pete Archer—who'd been seeing the Stitches since they started, and whose band Corrupted Ideals wasn't going so well since he started dating the singer's wife—was happy to join.
"I thought they were the best band I'd ever seen," says Archer. Born on Whitby Island in Washington state, Archer moved to Anaheim and spent his childhood there. Of his four closest friends who used to play in the dried-up Santa Ana riverbed with him, three committed suicide and one became a tranny. He says, "I'm the only one who never ate the morning glory [that grows there], that's my theory."
As a kid, he was obsessed with Kiss; he'd later trade jackets with scat-punk legend G.G. Allin, which, in punk terms, is like swapping hats with the pope. Archer doesn't talk much, but he'd been seeing the Stitches all summer and finally told Lohrman he wished he could be in the band. Lohrman asked him to join for the tour . . . with Corrupted Ideals as support act.
"That was a little uncomfortable," says Archer. He sat knee-to-knee in the back of Lohrman's truck with the band he'd just quit and the guy whose wife he'd just started dating, knee-to-knee, all the way to San Francisco. That was the start of the Stitches. And when they got back from tour, they recorded their first single, "Sixteen."
So this is the early days of the Stitches. Or, says Witmer, "The best days!" After "Sixteen," Lohrman's own Vinyl Dog Records would start the initial run of Stitches singles, ratty classics like "Vibrator Buzz" and "Talk Sick." And as OC punk, inspired by the snowballing Offspring, developed delusions of stardom, the Stitches dug in their heels and went underground.
"They changed the direction of OC punk," says Rick Bain, co-owner of Huntington's Hostage Records. "While everybody was busy chasing down the cash and making stale CDs, the Stitches came along, made some of the greatest music ever, and left it on vinyl. They made you sit down and listen. If you didn't have a turntable, you lose."
It was the same camaraderie Sleeper talked about, when he'd cross the street to talk to a stranger with a Clash shirt, except now they'd be wearing a Stitches shirt. The band had done everything the old-fashioned way, and they built an old-fashioned following.
Gabe Hart was in high school then, just starting a band called the Starvations. Lohrman told him to drop out of school. ("We were instant friends after that," he says.) To him, the Stitches charted a shadow history of Orange County music that had nothing to do with whatever was getting played on the radio. The Stitches had paranoia, a sense of danger, the hyperactivity and the confident, stubborn sense of identity.
"They captured the whole fucking seedy underbelly of OC that was actually going on at that time," Hart says. "At that time, if you were into punk rock, you'd still get called a faggot for looking weird. But at a Stitches show, you got to know people—they definitely brought people together. Like, 'Fuck, where have you been all my life?' And it was something everyone recognized as real. They stole punk back from all the jocks and snowboarders."
It wasn't supposed to last more than six months, says Archer now. He'd given away all his ultra-rare test pressings to his friends because he thought they didn't matter. But the Stitches blitzkrieg live shows and barbed-wire singles had tapped into something primal. You hear it again and again and again, from people who've been following the band for all 10 years: there was nothing, there was nothing, there was nothing and then there was the Stitches. The Offspring could have the radio—the Stitches would take the real world.
"We played this place they used to play," says Sleeper, "J.J.'s, in Orange, and at the time, the Offspring were totally on the radio. The whole floor was covered with shattered glass and at the time I played barefoot. The owner came out because we had to stop playing and he was trying to grab my hands, and I jumped over the drum set, was rolling around barefoot in shards of shattered glass, yelling at the guy, 'Don't touch me! DON'T TOUCH ME!' And I remember thinking, 'Yeah, the Offspring used to play here—but not like this.'"
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 clich 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.
How did this happen? Why are the Stitches still here?
"It's like a bad marriage with good sex," says Witmer. "The sex is so good you can't get a divorce."
The band itself is creeping toward a darker, more ambitious sound. The first song on the 8 x 12 EP was the confident anti-anthem "Nowhere," but the first song on 12 Imaginary Inches is a moody, prickly, unsettling song called "I Don't Know" that's got as much of art-damaged Cleveland band Pere Ubu in it as it does more traditional Stitches influences like the Pagans or La Peste.
Lohrman's sobriety, which was supposed to kill the band, has actually made them tighter, leaner, more focused.
"The first time Mike was gonna play sober, I was actually kind of worried," says Witmer. "But he's 100 times better. He actually sings now."
Personalities and circumstances have changed, but the unrehearsed, unplanned unpredictability of the Stitches—who are now cheerfully launching into a new stage of the unexpected by settling down into a new era of productivity—hasn't flagged a bit.
"I see other bands who've had people behind them, telling them what to do," says Witmer. "We've always done stuff ourselves, so we have no one but ourselves to blame."
The thing about being in a real punk rock band is that, eventually, just like the drinking and the drugs, it's going to kill you. Unless you're very lucky. And so you ask Witmer and Lohrman what kind of luck they've had.
"Good," says Lohrman. "A lot of my friends have called me the luckiest man alive for a long time. I have no idea why I've managed to make it."
"Bad," says Witmer. "Lucky we're still alive, but we have bad luck on everything else. Or not bad luck, just our stupidity of doing shit."
He remembers coming back from Seattle one time, doing 80 in the fast lane, towing a trailer packed full of amps and equipment. The trailer got away from them and whipped around the side of the truck, spinning the Stitches across four lanes of semi trucks and traffic. They ended up on the shoulder of the slow lane, unscathed. In July of this year, something similar happened to Portland band the Exploding Hearts. Three band members were killed.
"Me and Ed were in the back of the truck, and we started popping valiums and drinking Jack Daniels as fast as we could," says Archer. "We were so scared."
Did you ever worry that you were going to die?
"All the time," says Witmer.
The Stitches perform with Broken Bottles and Street Trash at Fitzgerald's, 19171 Magnolia St., #12, Huntington Beach, (714) 968-4523. 21+. Fri., 8 p.m. Call For Cover.