The Chicago-via-Kansas trio made their mark in the 1980’s college-rock scene and now they’re back with a “new-old” record and shows
One of the best albums of 2021 was actually recorded way back in 1987.
Never before released in any format but caught on tape during those annals of alternative rock, Oh Yeah No, methodically bashed out by Chicago-via-Lawrence, Kansas arty post-punk trio Get Smart!, finally saw the light of day this year after sitting on the shelf for well over three decades. It’s a crucial snapshot of the era when “get in the van” touring, the advent of college-rock radio and staying true to the DIY and punk rock ethos ruled the day.
Get Smart!—made up of guitarist and vocalist Marcus Koch, bassist and singer Lisa Wertman Crowe and drummer Frank B Loose—formed forty-some years ago at the University of Kansas, having been schooled on a steady diet of the Ramones, Talking Heads, Gang of Four and more who blazed the punk trails. As part of a burgeoning hometown scene in Kansas that included the Embarrassment (from Wichita) and Lawrence’s the Micronotz (a/k/a the Mortal Micronotz), Get Smart! secured a devoted following via tons of local gigs and a nonstop touring schedule that kept them busy throughout the eighties. Their two full-lengths, 1984’s Action Reaction and ‘86’s Swimming with Sharks plus the Words Move EP (1981) and the Talk Talk flexidisc (featuring the songs “Ankle Deep in Mud” and “Number and Colours”) are post-punk essentials, however criminally overlooked. Jagged, jittery and danceable, Get Smart! were the Midwest’s answer to Pylon.
After calling it quits in 1990 amid lineup shifts, the original trio of Koch, Wertman Crowe and Loose have brought Get Smart! back from the proverbial dead. They not only have reunited (their triumphant first show back was a homecoming show at The Bottleneck on November 6th) but have unearthed Oh Yeah No from the vaults. Recorded by the late great producer and audio engineer Iain Burgess and newly mixed by Steve Albini, the six huge rippers that make up the EP shows this powerhouse and dialed-in trio in all of its hooks-filled, infectiously melodious and angular groove glory. As if they just OD’d on caffeine, Oh Yeah No is a speedball of catchy-as-heck buzzsaw riffage, boy/girl harmonies to die for and an in your face rhythm section that’ll spark both dance party and mosh-pit.
The Globe caught up with Get Smart! on Zoom to talk getting the band back together, the Lawrence and Chicago scenes, working with Albini on releasing Oh Yeah No and more. Hopefully, remastered reissues of their entire catalog isn’t too far behind.
Get Smart! plays Liar’s Club in Chicago this Saturday, December 11th. Grab tickets here.
When was the last time you were in the same room together?
Lisa Wertman Crowe: We’ve been getting together almost monthly to practice so we were just together mid- September. But the first time we’d all been together in a very long time was September, 2020….
Frank B Loose: …which was when we hit the mixes with Steve Albini and then we practiced a little bit while we’re there in Chicago.
But in the subsequent thirty years or so that Get Smart! was broken up, did you keep in touch?
Wertman Crowe: Oh, yeah. I don’t remember when the time before September 2020 that we’d all been in the same room together.
Loose: Yeah, boy, that would have been probably 1988 maybe, or something like that. It was a loooooong time (laughing).
What was it that sparked the three of you to finally put out Oh Yeah No, these recordings you did back in 1987, and then officially get back together?
Marcus Koch: For many years, I believed that those recordings that we had shelled were worthy of release and I’d talked to Lisa occasionally and then Frank on a couple of occasions about a possible reunion show and it just didn’t come together over the years. So, two Decembers ago, I was at The Bottleneck to see my son’s band play. I took a screenshot of the band and I shot Lisa a text and said, “You know, it’s pretty awesome that these many years later, here’s my son on the stage in the same building where literally we started.” I followed that with, “Reunion show?” and Lisa said, “I’m in.”
It was basically up to Frank at that point in time, and much to our delight, when I called him he was into it. That generated a number of other conversations including, what are we going to do with this set of recordings that we had in the can now for thirty years. I always felt like at some point in time, we needed to release those songs no matter what happened. It just happened to all come together with the idea of a reunion show, i.e. an anniversary show, along with what was really, really fun to do was explore all of the old photos, posters, recordings and a lot of recordings that we got at shows live to kind of work on putting those out making those available, along with the idea of releasing these six songs.
Then the three of you then had to reconnect musically since it was decades since you last played together, right?
Koch: Number one, we had to start practicing so after we decided that we were going to reform and do at least a reunion show, we needed to practice—having not practiced together or play music together for all those years. It was necessary that we at least visited so Frank came last summer and he and I then played together for the first time since 1987. As that developed and whatnot, we talked about the recordings and then the three of us got together in Chicago and we’re able to practice together for the first time in thirty-three years.
Was it seamless and the three of you clicked immediately like it hadn’t really been decades since you last played?
Koch: I was quite pleased with the fact that it came together as quickly as it, because I hadn’t played our stuff. I’ve been playing music all along and I know Lisa has, too, but I hadn’t played Get Smart! stuff, basically, since we played it together. Obviously, we had some awkward moments where we had to figure out tempos—as we had put on some age. We had to figure out what certain tempos were going to be and, literally, how certain performance technique was lost after all that time. But it’s really coming together and I’m really excited about this whole thing.
Get Smart! songs have that start/stop time-signature change thing so it must not have been too easy a task.
Koch: Our music is, musically simple but it requires a certain amount of endurance to be able to play this stuff. The songs are short, relatively short, but the intensity is what we have always employed in our songwriting. And, yeah, that took a little while to get back into it.
Wertman Crowe: I would call our songs succinct (laughing).
Loose: How many songs do we have in our set that we’re gonna play?
Wertman Crowe: I think 27, something like that. It was fortunate for me because I’m in a Gang of Four tribute band in Chicago. That certainly helped get me warmed up for this. I also moonlight in a Buzzcocks tribute band as well. Still, it’s been quite a challenge to play loud and fast again but it’s fortunate that I had those warmups.
What about you Frank? Marcus and Lisa have been playing over these years but you stopped playing drums when you left Get Smart! and now you’ve picked it up again.
Loose: I love it. It took me maybe about four, five or six practices to be able to get the rhythm back. Then it was a matter of building up not only stamina but really being able to figure out what the hell I was playing. Even though I’m listening to it through my headphones, it was like, “What did what did I do there?” because I don’t play like a regular drummer. My setup is not with the snare between my legs; my snare over to the left side. So, to try and figure that out was weird because some stuff just, I just had to figure it out. Fortunately, there’s some pretty bad videos of us, technically bad, videos of us on YouTube so I can go back to those and suss out enough to figure out, like “Oh, that’s what I did there.” Marcus mentioned tempo before and just getting fast again and so for a while, it took me a little bit of time but now I can play I can play a lot faster than Marcus and Lisa (laughing).
Wertman Crowe: Sounds like a challenge! (laughing)
Koch: Now we’re working on dynamics, right, Frank? (laughing)
Loose: It’s always the drummer who’s the problem (laughing).
Did you have to revisit Oh Yeah No and your other records and relearn the songs essentially?
Koch: That’s what we were practicing with, basically, until the time we practiced together, was playing with the recordings.
Loose: That’s another interesting thing because previous to us getting back together, virtually none of our stuff was up on Spotify or Apple Music or anything like that. That’s been part of the process, to get that catalog back up there so people can listen to it. It’s been really interesting to see what songs are being listened to. I think the last four or five months “Eat, Sleep a Go-Go” has been the number one listened-to song on Apple Music and on Spotify it’s been “Because of Green” or “Just for the Moment” so it’s really interesting to see some of that stuff happen.
How did you hook up with Iain Burgess originally?
Koch: Because he had already been working with some of the Chicago bands, we ran into each other or were introduced. He had worked with The Effigies….
Loose: …he had connections with Al Jourgensen of Ministry and some of these earlier (Chicago) bands he was tied into. I think we had played a show and he came up to us afterwards…
Koch: …I think that’s right. We had recorded Action Reaction in Oklahoma City prior to moving to Chicago so we took those recordings, moved them with us to Chicago and we just weren’t happy with the final mixes. We struck up a conversation or we were referred to Iain and we went into the studio with him and he did a tremendous job of really finding our sound in those recordings. As that relationship built, it was a no-brainer that we were going to go in and record Swimming with Sharks with him. He has an instinct about music and how to capture a band’s essence on tape. He did a superb job with All Rise, Naked Raygun’s album. I also identified that he used some studio technology that I was also interested in. I think he heard it, he heard us and he knew how to put that on tape.
Loose: The thing about Iain that we were looking for that he was also really key about was the authenticity. We had a sound in our head that we knew that we sounded like live, especially with Action Reaction. When we were done with that we thought that the guy who did the recording, who was a very nice guy but who recorded us and made us something different. We wanted that rough and tumble live sound that brought us that authenticity and power. I wanted to feel that authenticity and not feel that it was cleaned up. Even the Ramones aren’t cleaned up. They can capture that power by doing certain techniques in the studio, layering the guitars on top of each other or whatever and Iain knew how to do that.
What about Albini? Did you know him from back in the day?
Koch: As an acquaintance, sure, from the music scene.
Loose: Coming from a place like Lawrence, which was everybody knew everybody else, we played together all the time, and things like that, to go into Chicago where it’s multiplied a hundred-fold by the number of bands. But because Steve knew Ian and we knew Steve, it was sort of one degree of separation. I would go to Big Black shows at Club 950 and he would see us play and things like that and we would have casual conversations. But, it’s hard to have those intimate relationships, I think, in a bigger city. We did know him, he knew of us. He was very complimentary when we got into the studio with him. He said, “You guys are one of the more sane bands in Chicago.” (laughing)
Koch: What was really neat about that whole experience was that we had the two-inch reel on the machine and when we walked into the studio, he said that he hadn’t even listened to it and he just wanted to start from scratch. He asked us what we were looking for. We had a specific idea, which was we wanted big, we wanted powerful. I think he also understood a way to capture what Ian had intended. It was really, really good working with us to capture our live sound but at the same time, really challenge us to perform well in the studio and then give us the sound that we had been looking for. I think it was a natural to pick Steve and the result was, I think, tremendous. It sounds huge.
Loose: One thing about the Oh Yeah No songs was getting back in touch with Steve Albini. Iain, who worked with The Effigies and Naked Raygun, was the sound engineer in Chicago and he would do come and do the sound at your live shows to record you at Chicago Recording Company or wherever. He basically kind of got Steve going and recording so we knew that Steve would know what Ian had intended when he was doing those recordings and we hadn’t had a chance to do final mixes with Ian. So, going into the studio with Steve was really kind of nice because he got that two-inch reel going and he literally, you could see him, deconstruct how probably Ian did mic placement and things like that to get a certain sound. It was really interesting to work with Steve on that.
So the three of you went to Electrical Audio to finish these songs that were started but never mixed in 1987?
Koch: Yeah. We contacted him, we told him what we wanted to do and what the project was. We booked studio time with him.
But you didn’t spruce the songs on Oh Yeah No at all? No new overdubs or anything?
Wertman Crowe: No, there’s no new recordings…
Koch: …and that’s why I always felt like these performances on these recordings were worthy of release. There was some talk about these songs being a part of what could have become a new album. Obviously, that didn’t happen but what was captured there I believe, and we agree, that it just needed to be mixed and then released, At times, we kind of kicked around some ideas, that maybe recording some other stuff and adding it to that or whatever. But I just felt like that was a time capsule and it really captured the band, I thought, at the point where we were probably at best live. We had been playing all of those songs live, touring with them and then also probably at the height of our songwriting, as well as a band. That’s why I think it was just a natural to release these songs in one collective of its own.
Why didn’t you release it back then when it was recorded? Did Frank leaving the band have to do with that decision in not finishing it and putting it out?
Wertman Crowe: It’s funny, I’m trying to go back to my 27-year-old-brain…
Koch: …it just never happened. Frank left the band and then we added another guitar player and had two different drummers before that second drummer left and then we were like an acoustic trio. What those recordings were the original band and that band didn’t exist anymore. Personally, I had thought that maybe a new incarnation of the band was going to continue which it really didn’t and then I made some personal choice and left the band and moved. As far as those recordings, I guess it just never it never came around to what we’re going to do with them until all these years later.
Were you playing the songs on Oh Yeah No live after Frank left?
Wertman Crowe: We were. But they sound much better now—now that Frank’s back (laughing).
Koch: The band noticeably changed, the sound of the band changed. Naturally, that’s going to happen when you add another guitarist and a different drummer interpreting those songs. But these songs are Get Smart!
What is it about the three of you together that just clicks so well?
Loose: It’s weird. I can’t explain the chemistry between the three of us. I’m a year older than them and so when we all met at this dormitory at the University of Kansas and so my introduction to Marcus is I have the room next to him and the Sex Pistols were blasting through the wall it was like, “Yes, finally!” I had gone off through freshman year being out in Kansas and nobody listened to anything interesting that I knew. Then here’s this freaky guy from Chicago playing the Sex Pistols so that led to us being…
Koch: …I was just in the process of marking my own territory and pissing off my roommate. But, yeah, as the first side came to an end, I heard this pounding on the wall and somebody yelling, “Turn the record over!” I thought, “Holy cow. I gotta meet this person.”
How did Lisa enter into the friendship?
Wertman Crowe: They were on the eighth floor of the dormitory and I was on the fifth floor and we met. I was a theater student and I had grown up playing classical piano and showtunes and had never played bass guitar. I was acting in plays and stuff and did a little folk guitar and some singing, etc, etc. So Frank and I met and we started dating and then things just moved from there, going to see music.
At what point did you pick up the bass?
Wertman Crowe: Around 1980, when the band started. I played acoustic guitar and sang but hadn’t played bass.
Loose: We decided to join a band and I didn’t have even a drum set (laughing). Marcus went away for the summer and it was my job to buy a drum set and I bought this really beautiful…I wish I still had that drum set. It was a Red Sparkle Ludwig set. It’s a small jazz kit. I spent all summer listening to the Ramones and playing along to the Ramones and The Embarrassment single. At that point, they had the “Sex Drive and “Patio Set” single out. And maybe I played whatever else I had had, maybe Talking Heads or Elvis Costello or something like that, trying to play along. Of course, the Ramones were the easiest. I always said that I’m sort of this really weird combination of “if Maureen Tucker and Nick Knox had a baby and it was raised by Tommy Ramone.” (laughing)
Lisa, were you super into punk rock, too?
Wertman Crowe: Well, KJHK, the local radio station, they were playing everything cool that was going on back then. I started listening to KJHK in 1978 and, boy, things were really happening. They had great radio shows, they had the John Peel show. We had this great bookstore in town called Town Crier that got the New Musical Express so I used to reserve a copy and read it from cover to cover. I think it was a combination of the scene and then meeting Frank and Marcus and discovering music together and going to see shows. We just got really excited about it and wanted to do it ourselves.
Koch: I played in a band in 1979, my first band in Chicago and it was our goal to write original music. I took that same concept and applied it to Get Smart! Just prior to playing in Get Smart!, I played in a cover band with Chuck Mead. He was in BR549. He’s an awesome musician and whatnot but at the time he was is very comfortable playing cover songs, Beatles and The Who and The Kinks and all of that stuff. And I didn’t want to do that. I really felt like I wanted to write music and be original and play punk rock. So my friendship with these two people then created conversation and I was like, “Heck, let’s put our own band together and let’s write some songs.” It wasn’t very long after we were playing locally that we were then taking it out and traveling.
It seems like you did a lot as a band in a short amount of time.
Koch: I think people were just so eager for original music, and especially in smaller clubs and they could hear on the radio. College radio was very accessible and supportive of this whole movement, if you will, and we just followed it. We obviously made a lot of contacts with other local bands and they’d turn us on to their scenes and we’d invite them to Lawrence and before we knew it, we were in a network of people all over the country. It was pretty cool.
Wertman Crowe: In 1980, being an independent band was an act of rebellion against corporate rock. It was an amazing thing to do, it was a crazy thing to do because there was no money in it. Corporate rock hadn’t picked up on these bands and this sort of music and they weren’t funding it. So, it was it was a really crazy thing to do and a really fun thing to do.
AUDIO: Get Smart! “Under The Rug”